Does God change?
In a bible study I’m part of we have been going through the book of Hebrews. We’re on the last chapter, where we’ve been somewhat (and yet happily) stuck, and last week ended up covering a single verse (Hebrews 13:8): “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” It’s the same wording in virtually any major translation of the bible, which, as the leader rightfully noted, means there is no real dispute over what the Greek is saying, at least as we understand English. However, with regard to what it means, there could be multiple options for it. What does it mean to say “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”?
First and foremost (and, I think, somewhat unquestionably) this is a reference to the identity of Christ as God. The Old Testament speaks of the LORD (Yahweh) as the God who does not change. By saying that Jesus doesn’t change, especially in this changing world, the writer of Hebrews is saying Jesus is God (Yahweh).
Ok, so what does it mean to say that God doesn’t change?
Today I’m going to give you one of the older historical views, and next week I’ll talk about what it means for us today
Arriving at Divine Immutability
In viewing this verse, and those like it, many of the older (and as in more than a millennium ago) views took it to mean something that came to be called “divine immutability,” that is, the idea that absolutely nothing about or within God changes, ever. The idea is grounded, interestingly, not in any biblical text, but in Greek philosophy. One can read the bible and come up with a very different picture of God (i.e. one who, in certain respects, does change). Yet most (but by no means all) of the early theologians argued that we should read these passages in the same way we read passages about God having a hand, or a finger, that is to say they are anthropomorphisms: ways to talk about attributes of God by relating them to human elements. They don’t imply God actually has a finger, or a hand. It’s just a way to describe something that is otherwise indescribable (for instance, when you say/sing “he touched me” you don’t mean he physically touched you with a material hand, rather there is something indescribable that happened as a result of your intimate encounter with God, and the closest thing you have to describe it is “touch”).
The Greek philosophical grounding is largely platonic (or possibly “neo-platonic”) on the one hand or based in Aristotle on the
other. Regardless of the source, the reasoning went one of a few ways. The first was the idea that the more perfect something was, the simpler it was. Thus in order to be at the most simple (the most indivisible) something could not change, as that would imply more than one part or state. The interpretation of the idea of forms from Platonism gets at this. When you think of the form of something (such as, what makes a table a table) you think of it at its most basic. So when you think of the form of the good (the perfectly good) it must likewise be at its most simple. Another way to think of this is that if something is perfect, any change would necessarily eliminate that perfection. If it is a change for the better, the previous state was not perfect, and if it was a change for the worse, then perfection has been lost. Thus the perfect divine does not change.
Another way to arrive at the idea of divine immutability (that God doesn’t change) is the idea that if something is perfect it will also be more beautiful and elegant, which also entails simplicity and, therefore, a lack of change. Yet another source of this is, is the doctrine of “divine aseity” which means God has no dependence on anything else; that is, God is completely self-sufficient, to the point that he is not dependent on anything for his existence. When that is coupled with the idea of divine eternity, understood as timelessness, it is easy to see how impassibility might result. If God does change, it was argued, then God’s current nature is, in some sense, dependent on those prior changes, and thus God is not self-sufficient. Further, if God has no time, and time is change, then an eternal, self-sufficient God, cannot change.
This was the argument for centuries concerning God. I say ‘was‘ because, among contemporary theologians, there are very few advocates. Instead it has been considerably modified.
The Problem of Divine Impassibility
If God doesn’t change in any way shape or form, then that meant (and means) that God also does not feel anything. God would be
a numb God, without emotion. This is usually referred to as divine impassibility, the idea that God does not have emotional responses. The ancient theologians argued that God could still be characterized by love, if it means that love is a constant disposition toward people that is without change. Augustine was a big fan of this idea, and with him Martin Luther and John Calvin. God doesn’t emotionally react, and God’s disposition never changes.
However, this only works in certain theological schemes. In order for God’s disposition to be completely constant, then a divine election of specific individuals who are saved or not before the world is created (i.e. the disposition was present in God from the beginning) must be correct. No biggie, you might think, just be a Calvinist. Problem solved. Well… not quite (and not just because I’m not a Calvinist)
As I mentioned above, the passages that say God is “grieved” by sin, or by a person were/are taken by advocates to be somewhat metaphorical. However, the main problem with this view is found in the passion of Christ. If Jesus is not only fully a human, but also fully God (the argument of Hebrews), then how do we take his passion? Some of the older theologians would claim that when Jesus cries out “My God My God! Why have you forsaken me?” it is only to point to the passage in Psalm 22. He didn’t really feel abandoned. But to say that Jesus did not feel pain, did not collapse under exhaustion, did not feel rejected, and was completely unaffected by those events is to deny the humanity of Christ. If Jesus is God, then, God cannot be “impassible” (God cannot be without emotional response). Further, if God is love, then he cannot be unmoved by our sin or the death of his Son, which grieves him. Love means we have compassion: we suffer along with each other. God has true (not just metaphorical) compassion for us.
As Alvin Plantinga notes (in his self-Profile to the 1985 book about his work Alvin Plantinga):
As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son’s humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. So we don’t know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that He was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.
God changes, because he feels. His emotional response is what makes him God.
Does that mean, then, that we can salvage something from immutability? Can we claim that God is immutable (completely without change) in every respect except the emotional one? Possibly. Many people do. There’s just one problem with that, and it’s kind of a big one:
The Word became flesh
The incarnation destroys any sense of “immutability” because God, in the person of Jesus Christ, changed who he was. God was not incarnate as some kind of “everyman” where we can plug in whomever we want with whatever attributes we desire. Nor did he just seem to be human, while not really being a person, like the gods of Greek mythology (this is a heresy called “Docetism” from the Greek for “seems” or “appears”). The argument of the New Testament, and Hebrews especially, is the God became a real, genuine human being. Not only that, he became a very specific historical human being.
Think about that.
God had hair color
He got dust in his eyes.
He ate food.
He got tired.
His feet hurt.
He had to bathe.
He had to relieve himself.
Digging a hole in the dessert.
That seems like a pretty big step down from heaven.
And that’s exactly the point. At least that’s the point Paul makes in Philippians 2. God humiliated himself.
So much so, that he was beaten and marched to the point of exhaustion.
Then he was executed in the most public, embarrassing, painful fashion possible.
On a cross.
And people made fun of him for it.
And here’s the thing. After the crucifixion, and the resurrection, Jesus didn’t stop being a human being. He didn’t even stop being a particular historical human being. Yes his body was transformed, but he still had those scars, he could still be touched, he still ate food. He ascended to heaven as a human being, and the angels told those watching he would come back in the same way. The book of Hebrews takes great pains to tell us that Jesus was just like us, in every way. God, in the person of Jesus, changed who He was.
He had to.
Because He loves us that much.
So do I believe in immutability?
No. I believe in a thing called love, and, more than that, I believe in the One who loved me first. God Almighty: Father, Son and Spirit.
So what does Hebrews 13:8 mean, then? I’ll get there next week.