God Is Not Static

God Is Not Static June 9, 2010

One thing that I do not understand about the hyper-Reformed is this contradiction in their theology.  One the one hand, they maintain that God is impassible — God does not change and, even more troubling to me, God does not grieve.  But on the other hand, they often proclaim that God’s wrath burns white hot at me because of my sin.

Well, I’m not the first to proclaim the very opposite, but I’ll reaffirm it here: God Is Not Unchanging.  And the corollary, God is not impassible.

The biblical narrative is clear that God changes God’s mind — in fact, it happens explicitly several times in the Hebrew Scriptures — and God indeed grieves.  But, most significantly, in Jesus, God took the initiative to change the entire dynamic in the divine-human relationship.  The Christ event was nothing less that a 180-degree change in God.  (Okay, maybe not 180 — maybe more like 94°.)

N.B., This post is part of a series exploring apophatic statements about God.

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  • Dustin

    While I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion here, I’m quite interested in why this is a problem for some people–i.e., those who form their theology without relying heavily on Aristotelean principles & who reject the notion of an inerrant scripture.

    It would seem that the god of scripture is simply a reflection of the human beings in whose image “he” was created. This is not to say that I’m denying the existence of the divine, or God for that matter, but rather that this conundrum in modern, especially Evangelical theology, ceases to carry much weight once one moves outside those rigid confines. One would need to look no further than process thought to see this movement in action.

    (Side note: I’m making this comment to address the principle you’re speaking to, and not against you per se–as you’ve obviously clearly rejected the idea anyway.)

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  • I have had a lot of discussions with several different kinds of folks about this very issue lately. One on facebook last night. Part of what I wrote was this:

    “The Cappdocian Fathers do some marvelous re-workings of Platonism in light of the Incarnation. For instance, in classic Neo-Platonism, God is static perfection, the highest “Form” in the dimension of “forms”, unchanging and unmoving…

    But for the Cappadocians, especially Gregory Nazianzus, God’s perfection is not static, but dynamic: An interpenetrating Dance of Love [perichoresis] shared between the separate-yet-entwined Persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. Three Personal Subjects sharing fully in the same Objective Reality of Godhood. This God creates out of the overflow of this shared Love, and invites all creation back into the shared Dance of Love, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit. It’s a truly brilliant, Hebraistic reworking of the Platonic-Origenistic tradition.

    Gregory Nyssa takes it in a little different direction and defines God’s perfection NOT as Platonic “unchanging completeness”, but instead as “infinite and uncircumscribable” (see his Life of Moses). This radically changes Nyssa’s view of ultimate salvation from “static passivity in God’s perfect presence” to the idea of “epektasis”: A sense of dynamic progress through all eternity, as all creation is drawn ever deeper into the infinite depths of God’s Love.”

    In general, I like the Emergent movement. But sometimes I do not think they go far enough back. They have quarrels with Reformed Theology, but often they do not go prior to Reformed theology, but they do not do much historical work to find out what made Reformed theology so deformed in the first place (i.e. an unthinking importation of Platonic ideas of perfection). Then they propose “new” solutions, when actually there are old, non-western solutions that work better (i.e. the Cappadocians in the 4th century).

    Instead of getting locked in the duality of “God does not change!”, “Yes God does change!!!”, why not avoid the duality altogether? Perhaps this solution is better: God does not change because God IS Change. The Triune God is the Dance that gives all things life and breath and change and dance. Life is a dynamic activity of becoming. God is the Life that makes us live.

  • Ben

    @emergent certainly does address the problem of platonism. I’ve read more that a few things about that topic from emergents. I think I was introduced to that discussion from emergent before I was at north park university.

    specifically about the cappadocian fathers… can’t remember if I have heard others talk about them, or if I have only learned about them in my eastern orthodoxy class (which I really enjoyed).

  • Rene

    @natebostian- would have loved to have been a listener to your FB discussion last night. Will be digging up more of Gregory Nyssa. Thanks!

  • This is a theological conversation where categories especially matter.

    A claim that God is unchanging is not one that can be sustained by looking at the witness of scripture viz. God’s interactions with us or creation. Indeed, I am not aware of any interactive system of any sort in which all parties to the interaction are not, at least in some contingent way, changed.

    Perhaps a bit more debatable is whether the term can apply to what one understands as “personality.” At least given current understandings of personality from cognitive science and neuroscience, personality itself is the emergent property of multiple interactions, both “internal” (i.e., within the brain and the mind, where the mind is understood itself as an emergent property of the brain) and “external” (i.e., with other persons, things and systems). Given this set of understandings, it is similarly impossible for us to conceive of or describe the notion of personality apart from interactivity as well, and so also impossible to suggest that the “personality” of God (if we mean anything like the same thing for God as we do for us) does not change. Biblical witness of the “many moods” of God would seem to support this scientific perspective as well.

    So any claim that God is unchanging cannot be applied to interactions with others or even to whatever we call the “personality” of God. If it can be applied at all, it has to apply to something else. And indeed, in the course of Christian theology and philosophy over time, typically it has been applied to something else– to ontology, or the “Being” of God. An ontological claim about God not changing is not a claim about God’s personality or interactions with us, but rather a claim that God as a Being possesses a fundamental stability that is not altered over time and circumstances as we experience them.

    That last qualifier, “as we experience them” is important. For as soon as one talks about how God might “experience” them, we’re back into the realm of interactivity, and therefore change. So the most we can say, coherently, is that God possesses such fundamental stability over time and circumstances as we experience them.

    Now this is a very special kind of claim. By its nature, it is one that can only be made either from a great distance or timeframe (indeed one as ancient and broad ranging as the universe or God might be), or on the basis of some sort of revelation from God which we accept to be truthful. We have no access to the first, of course, and so can only rely on the second.

    And so we have done. We point to such statements recorded in scripture as “I am who I am” (which is about as ontological a statement as one can find anywhere), or Jesus’ claim in John’s Gospel (“Before Abraham was, I am”) or the phrase “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.” And a good number of others might be mentioned here as well. The Bible as we have it, then, does seem to have some interest in making such ontological claims about God as a fundamentally stable Being. And much classical theology, both Jewish and Christian (and in fact, Islamic and some forms of Hindu theologies) continue and seem to have some interest in continuing a similar claim.

    What I don’t know whether we are in a position to retrieve adequately is WHY this claim has been made, beyond, perhaps, an interest in establishing God as the ground of all being, which is where Tillich both ends up and then seeks to begin again (in his talk of God-beyond-God).

    To which my response is often, “So what?” There may be value in such a grounding of God as the basis of being within a philosophical or theological system in the abstract. But given that at least everything we can see or experience is actually in constant flux, including our own experience of things itself, and given that the only way we can actually experience God is precisely in the flow of such ever-changing experiences, and that if we DO experience God, that ends up being an interaction which therefore inescapably involves change of some sort in both us and God, as elegant as the notion of God’s Being having a fundamental stability might be for other reasons (such as a simpler means to obtain a measure of coherence in a system), it is not evident (at least to me– and I admit I may be missing something very big here) why that would have any actual impact on us.

    Why? Because, at least in terms of usual philosophical method, you can’t secure valid analogies from ontological categories to phenomenological categories. Asserting the ontological category of “unchanging” onto the phenomenological category of something like “salvation” or even “will” (which necessarily reflects an interactive sphere) represents a category mistake. Now, you can certainly say “Here’s a bit of revelation we have about God’s being” and “Here’s another bit of revelation we have about God’s interactions with us,” and you might even note “See how these two things seem to line up with each other.” You can do that and not commit a category mistake. But what you can’t do, methodologically, is say, “God is unchanging; THEREFORE in God’s interactions with us, X always obtains.”

    Nor is it evident to me that the Bible actually places a lot of weight on that notion, even though its witness does occasionally even strongly affirm it. The Bible is far more interested in the interactions of God and humans than in speculation or revelation of the Being of God– however that might be either abstracted as an absolute claim or developed as a contingent, if no less revelatory claim, from the character of the interactions the Bible records.

    But again, as soon as you start talking about interactions, the notion that God or any party to the interaction does not change becomes incoherent. For again, to apply the ontological descriptor “unchanging” to an interactive situation would be to commit, in philosophical terms, a category mistake.

    So, is God unchanging? In ontological terms, as a matter of revelation about the fundamental stability of God, that seems to be a supportable description. But in any interactive terms– including categories relating to salvation, which is a terribly interactive process– talk of God not changing, at least in any absolute sense, would seem impossible to sustain.

  • Jim

    Tony, this isn’t really an apophatic statement at all. With English grammar, “God is not unchanging” becomes, “God is changing.” Unless, of course you immediately qualify it and say “God is neither changing nor unchanging,” which would be genuinely apophatic. Your third paragraph is entirely affirmative statements.

    What’s really happening here is that you are making an affirmative theological point and disguising it as apophatic statement through a double negative. I’m not sure why, except frustration with the “hyper-Reformed,” but wouldn’t it be better to actually interact with their arguments then simply assert the contrary? Discussion of Thomas Aquinas (though we can’t sling the hyper-Reformed label at him) could be useful.

    • Jim, I respectfully disagree. To say, “God is not unchanging” is not the same as saying, “God is changing.”

      In the end, I’m with Nate and the Eastern Fathers who seem to avoid the dualities altogether — both the “perfect” God of Plato and the self-enclosed God of Aristotle.

      Taylor, really good points. I’m going to stew on that for a while…

  • I totally agree. I think it is ludicrous when post-biblical theology (hyper-Reformed or otherwise) insist that God doesn’t change. Those that insist on this must not read the Bible.

    This, I think, is why the storytelling genre of most of the Bible is a better medium for theological reflection than philosophy or systematic theology.

  • amen tony! you may have been spending too much time with people from Claremont.

  • What if instead of looking at God a Impasible being we get the view of an inmutable one? God certainly changes in the interaction with us, but in the process he doesn’t change ontologically, and that’s what I mean by inmutable. He or She will continue to be God, while having all this interactions with his/her creatures.


  • I don’t know too many Reformed folk (guess it all depends on how you slice the pie) who still hold to impassibility. Most would assert that although God “changes His mind” (which is clear from Scripture), His nature, character, and to some degree, purpose/plan for creation are unchanging. Your question is best addressed to the issue of general vs. specific sovereignty/decree.

    A related issue I find interesting is what the Incarnation says about this question. Does God undergo any sort of change(s) in the Incarnation? Certainly! He goes from not physically present on earth to physically present on earth; from not embodied in human form to embodied in human form, from alive to dead to risen; from “earthly body” to “glorified body,” and so on. No honest, modestly intelligent person could deny these facts as being taught in Scripture, and I’ve never heard a Reformed person of any variety deny them.

    So, without doubt, God changes in some senses, but not in others. The question is in what senses, and not in what senses?

  • Patrick Marshall

    I agree with Matt. I believe there are certain things God is eternally committed to, such as love. God just changes the ways in which God is loving. So, in a sense, God does not change because God is ever and always loving, gracious, etc. While at the same time, God is constantly changing, because God is constantly finding new ways to express that love, grace, etc.

    I think that so much of this comes from that line in Hebrews about Jesus Christ being “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

  • Jim

    I’ll concede this, Tony. “God is not unchanging” is not quite the same thing as “God is changing.” In my defense, however, your whole third paragraph supports a “God is changing” notion, especially the “God changes” part. It doesn’t seem like you’re denying an inadequate human idea (which is what I’ve always assumed is central to apophatic fun) but embracing one, the changeability of God.
    On the other hand, I may be misunderstanding you. So please forgive me if I’m attributing motives to you that are not true.

    As far as I understand it, the Reformed position holds that all statements about God are analogical. God is not a father, but somehow he is like a father by analogy. So god does not grieve, or change his mind, but he does something, analogically, like it. So we have to reconcile how God does something like changing his mind, and then tells us he doesn’t change his mind (Num 23:19). The question of what parts of the human analogy still apply to God. We do this with every analogical statement, we know God is our Father, but we don’t think we have half his chromosomes, like an earthly father.
    So reformed people decide that the apophatic statement in this case, “God does not change his mind,” is closer to the “divine reality” (or whatever) than the kataphatic “God changed his mind,” while still affirming the latter in some analogical sense. Whether they’re right to do so I don’t know, but pointing out passages that say God repented is no more sufficient to rebut them then the way they prooftext the homosexuality passage at emergents.

    Though really, it’s probably just the nature of blogs and comments to prevent actual argumentation and discussion, so no one’s really at fault here, as long as we don’t mistake it for argumentation or discussion.

  • Guess God is a liar then… Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6.

    The profound error here is in thinking that God didn’t plan everything from the very beginning… but the Bible tells us He did. Before the foundation of the world, the names of the true believers were written in the Lamb’s book of life, a Lamb that had always intended to sacrifice Himself for His people. He doesn’t change because He doesn’t have to since He plans everything in advance.

  • I don’t know if I think that God IS changing so much as that God changes the way He relates to us as we change. Madeleine L’Engle says “God does not change; our understanding of God changes” and I would agree with that. When we could only handle a tribal sectarian God, that’s how He interacted with us. Although God relates to us in linear time, I don’t think that if He is truly omnipotent/omnipresent/omniscient and otherwise the maker and creator of all things and someone worth worshiping that He Himself can be considered linear or bound by time. Therefore He must be all things He ever was at all times and thus effectively unchanging. It’s us that change, and He meets us where we are.

  • Hey Tony,

    In light of your comments on the Old Testament’s descriptions of God, I’m wondering about your take on the nature of theological language. In particular, if there is one strand of biblical texts that emphasizes the constancy of God (e.g., 1 Sam. 15:29; Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17) and another strand that talks about divine grieving, divine relenting, etc. (even in some of the same passages that include the former strand of texts), which strand should be interpreted in light of the other and why? If you’ve had a chance to engage with the literature, I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts on Thomas Weinandy’s book Does God Suffer?, Paul Gavrilyuk’s book The Suffering of the Impassible God, or Kevin Vanhoozer’s new book Remythologizing Theology, all of which defend divine impassibility.

    Also, I’m curious about what you mean when you speak of a 180 degree or 94 degree change in the God-world relation wrought by the incarnation. Of course, the incarnation is a critical moment in redemptive history, but, as God was immanent, loving, involved, etc. before this, I’m wondering what the change that you envision might entail.

    I think your question about the coherence of divine impassibility and divine wrath is an important one. Whatever recent thinkers or writers might have to say (I’m not sure whom you have in mind here), in the works of theologians like Aquinas, Calvin, and Owen, divine wrath, like divine grief or repentance, is predicated metaphorically of God.


  • @nate: I disagree about emergents not going far enough back in their Church history. I’m convinced they do. I think emergents (or, more broadly, post-conservatives) get locked into a conversation with the hyper-Reformed because — at least in the West — the hyper-Reformed story is the pervasive Jesus-story-that-doesn’t-lead-to-life. But I rarely (if ever) hear the presumption that these theological questions are specific to Protestant-era Christianity. Luther and Calvin are rarely talking points, but Augustine and the infection of Neoplatonism into Christian theology is prevelant in a lot of the written works by people closely or distantly related to the emergent movement.

    It sounds like you have a solid understanding of Church history. When I’m worried about someone being harmed (or harming others) with the hyper-Reformed (i.e., Augustinian) version of the Jesus story, I don’t push them to become “emergent,” per se (I’m still not sure what that would entail…), but I ask them to develop a sense of history that is shaped by Judaism and the Early Church, not just Augustine and Western history thereafter.

    We all have a responsibility to figure out how truth has been preserved, perverted, or continued over the years. I think Tony shines light on a particular perversion (the shift from relationality and pathos to impassibility) in this post.

  • Turner

    All this heavy-laden theology does more for the brain than the soul, in the end, does it really matter? BTW, I heard a rumor that Tony believes people are born gay? Is this true Tony?

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  • Colleen Van Schubert- Woodcock

    if you believe God is a changing God then how can you believe any of his promises, for he could decide to just change them then? God is same today as yesterday. I don’t know maybe this conversation is over my head i’m not sure but were do you get the idea that God changes? How can he, he already knows the beginning to the end so why would he need to change anything he can’t he already knows it before it occurs.

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