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The Mutable Things of God
by George Sidney Hurd
While God is immutable in His essential nature and attributes and therefore is unchangeable in those fundamental aspects, He nevertheless interacts with us in our time/space world. While He inhabits eternity and transcends His creation, He is nevertheless not far from any one of us (Acts 17:27-28; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3; Ps 139:7-8).
Since God exists outside of time and He always IS before time began, the ages from beginning to end have ever been in His view and always will be (temporally speaking). Since He is omniscient, it is impossible that He should not always know all things from beginning to end. Since He is all-wise love, it is impossible that He should not have an all-comprehensive plan for the ages whose culmination is better and greater that its beginning (Eph 1:11).
As we saw in the last blog, God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and predetermined plan for the ages, which also encompasses every detail of our lives individually, is in no way incompatible with our volitional choices. While He guides and oversees our decisions as any good father would, He does not dictate them. While He works in us to will and to do His good pleasure, He normally does not force His will upon us.
A few notable exceptions in history are the flood, the confounding of the languages at Babel, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. These interventions have taken place at a predetermined time, at a moment when a further delay of divine intervention would have led to humanity’s self-destruction. In the case of the flood, things had degenerated to the point that only Noah’s family had not utterly corrupted themselves. In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, there were not even ten righteous remaining. As to Christ’s intervention at His Second Coming, Jesus said that if those days were not cut short then no flesh would be saved (Matt 24:22).
It would go counter to God’s purpose in creating us to dictate our every decision. What is God’s purpose in creation? While it isn’t specifically stated, we can surmise God’s overall purpose by looking at creation’s final outcome. In the consummation of the ages all will have been reunited in Christ and then God will not only be in all, but He will be “all in all.” (Eph 1:10; 1Cor 15:22,28; Rom 11:36) In the beginning all things came out of God as to source of origin (2Cor 5:18 <ek theos>). In the consummation all will have been restored into Him – not only that which is in heaven and on earth but all who are under the earth (Acts 3:21; Php 2:10 cf. Rev 5:13).
In the beginning God created man in His own image and likeness. However, that was only the beginning. Adam and Eve were innocent but not perfect in their development. It would require the fall and God’s redemption and finally the restoration of all mankind unto Himself for them to be perfected in their experiential knowledge of Him in all His glory. Without the fall we would have never known God’s love as grace, mercy and longsuffering. We would have never known the futility of living independently of Him, according to the will of the flesh rather than the will of God.
The knowledge of the glory of His grace will result in a depth of adoration and worship never possible before the fall (Rev 5:13). While such a glorious consummation would not be possible according to the Traditional model of eternal torment for the majority, it is clearly the way in which God’s glorious plan for the ages comes to perfection. If the latter end of God’s creation story wasn’t going to be greater than its beginning He would have never created. What God begins He perfects.
So, while God knows every decision we will ever make, they are nevertheless our decisions. He masterfully weaves them into His masterplan in order that we might learn life’s lessons, finally coming to experientially know God, living according to His will and not according to the desires of the flesh.
God answers Prayer
Open Theists argue that if God had an exhaustive predetermined plan which includes all future events, then He would not really be answering our prayers. However, that is a strawman argument, since only a few hyper-Calvinists hold to such a rigid determinism that it would rule out all free human volitional choices. We have already seen that, although God has a determinative plan, it is not incompatible with human interaction. On the contrary, we see that our interaction is an essential part of that plan.
It is true that our prayers must be according to God’s will, since He will never act in a way contrary to His own will (1John 5:14). Also, in order to pray according to His will, it is necessary that we abide in Christ, walking in obedience and praying in the Spirit rather than praying according to our natural understanding (John 15:7;1John 3:22; Rom 8:26-27; Eph 6:18). We must pray believing that He is and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him (James 1:5-6; Heb 11:6). We must also pray unselfishly and not for self-gratification (James 4:3).
However, our participation is an integral part of His eternal plan, since our spiritual growth and conformity to the image of Christ is central to it (Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4-6). While He knows each and every move we will make before we make it, it is a misconception to see us as merely pawns in His hands. Rather, He as our Father is child-training us, either granting our petitions or denying them according to His goodwill for us (Gr. paidíos, “chasten, discipline, child-train” Heb 12:6,11). Our Father knows what we need even before we ask Him (Matt 6:8). Nevertheless, it is essential that we come to live a life of dependence upon Him, and prayer is an expression of our faith and dependence.
He calls upon His people to pray and seek His face, promising that He will respond if they seek Him with all their heart (2Chron 7:14-15). As James says: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16) However, it is not that God is changing His eternal plan when He responds to our prayers, but rather He allows circumstances in the temporal realm which cause us to turn and seek Him. He tests our hearts because it is our hearts He wants. Although He is the One who tests us, the testing changes us – not Him or His eternal plan. The changes in His relationship towards us in the temporal realm in response to our prayers is part of His eternal plan rather than them being in conflict with it.
In the Old Testament the Lord is often said to “repent.” The Hebrew word often translated as “to repent, to relent or change one’s mind” is nacham. Nacham is used 30 times in reference to the Lord. It often means to feel regret or sorrow. Regret or sorrow refers to emotion rather than a change of mind. While it would be impossible for God to literally change His mind since that would require a change in His eternal immutable plan, the Scriptures nowhere imply that God is without emotion.
A number of theologians throughout Church history, apparently influenced by Aristotle’s concept of God as the “unmoved Mover,” have insisted that God is impassible. The term impassible is from the Latin, in-, “not,” and passibilis, “able to suffer or experience emotion.” However, only an ivory tower theologian or philosopher could ever conjure up such a stoic concept of God.
While it is true that God is immutable as to His essential nature and attributes, these attributes are immutable in that they always remain constant – not that they are inert or non-existent. For example, His love is immutable in that it is infinite and never diminishes or increases. Nevertheless, His love is manifested to creation in manifold ways. To say that God only condescendingly gives the appearance of acting in love, when in reality He feels no emotion nor pain, is a logical absurdity.
According to this line of reasoning, when we tell someone that God loves them, we must say it tongue-in-cheek if in reality God is emotionally immovable. It would mean that the Father giving His only begotten Son was of no cost to Him since He feels no emotion and knows no pain. How can such reasoning be reconciled with the multiple descriptions of God’s love and tender mercies throughout the Scriptures? For example:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… 19 We love Him because He first loved us. (1John 4:7-11,19)
To me, the doctrine of impassibility finds no support in the Scriptures but rather it is the sterile lofty and vain speculations of stoic philosophers such as Aristotle who never had a genuine encounter with the God of love presented to us in the Scriptures. It is a doctrine of men who never experienced the love of God being poured out in their hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5).
While it is difficult for us to comprehend, the God who inhabits eternity has always had the whole panorama of the ages in His view and He is actively and personally involved with His creation, rather than being distant and removed, as the Deists taught. He somehow experiences emotional pain or grief in the realm of time on account of our sin and rebellion (Gen 6:6; Eph 4:30). Because God is love, He is angered by our persistent sin (Ps 7:11; Rom 1:18; 2:5-6). Because He is love, He is compassionate and longsuffering (Ps 86:15; 1Cor 13:4). It is a logical contradiction to say that God is impassible and at the same time compassionate, or to say that He suffers long without feeling pain. God is also said to rejoice over us (Isa 62:5).
There are literally thousands of passages of Scripture which present God as emotionally identifying with us and suffering as a result of our unfaithfulness and sin. James tells us that the Spirit jealously yearns for us when we commit spiritual adultery, loving the world more than God (James 4:4-5). How can one read Hosea and still believe that God is the “unmoved Mover” who is unaffected by our sin and idolatry? Reading Hosea one can feel what God feels over the unfaithfulness of His people Israel:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboiim? My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred. 9 I will not execute the fierceness of My anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst; and I will not come with terror.” (Hos 11:8-9)
Returning to the subject of God’s repentance, we see that the word “repentance” has two distinct uses: one in the emotional sense of feeling sorrow or regret, and the other in the sense of one actually changing their mind – something that Scripture indicates He cannot do any more than He can lie since His knowledge is perfect.
The Hebrew word nacham is used to refer to both the emotion of regret or sorrow and also an actual change of mind about something. Its meaning depends upon the context in which the word appears. It is worthy of note the choice of words which the LXX translators made when translating nacham from the Hebrew to the Greek the four times it is used in 1Samuel 15. The LXX was translated by 72 Greek speaking Hebrew scholars in the 2nd century B.C. who had a better understanding of the nuances of the Hebrew than we do today. Of the four times the word nacham appears in 1Samuel 15, the first and last occurrences are translated with words which express the emotion of sorrow or regret:
“Now the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, 11 "I greatly regret ( Heb. nacham, LXX parakaleo “to regret”) that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” (1Sam 15:10-11)
“And Samuel went no more to see Saul until the day of his death. Nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul, and the Lord regretted (Heb. nacham, LXX metameleomai “to feel regret, to be sorry”) that He had made Saul king over Israel.” (1Sam 15:35)
In both of these references the LXX translators translated nacham into Greek using words which express emotion, not volition. However, when Samuel speaks of God’s declaration that the kingdom had been taken from Saul and given to another, the translators used two other words for nacham, both of which refer to God’s determinative will rather than His emotion of regret:
“And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent (Heb. nacham, LXX apostrepho “to relent or take back, to turn away”). For He is not a man, that He should relent (nacham LXX metanoéo “to repent, to change one’s mind”).” (1Sam 15:29)
Here in the first occurrence of nacham the translators rendered it as apostrepho in Greek which means “to relent or take back what one has said.” Samuel associates going back on one’s word with telling a lie. Just as it is impossible for God to lie, so it is impossible for God to repent in the sense of going back on His word (Heb 6:18). He may regret or feel sorry for having to take a certain course of action in history because He is not without empathy, but it is impossible for Him to act contrary to His eternally decreed will since He has a perfect knowledge of all things and works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11).
In the second occurrence of nacham in verse 29 the LXX translators rendered it metanoéo which literally means “to change one’s mind.” Open Theists must argue that God is continually changing His mind in order to accommodate man’s libertarian freewill, just as we often must do. However, Scripture tells us that God is not a man that He should change His mind since all things are known to Him from eternity (Acts 15:18). Therefore, any apparent change of mind on the part of God is merely an anthropomorphism – God speaking in human terms that even a child can understand.
Something which also needs to be taken into account are the conditional promises given while Israel was under the Old Covenant of the Law. Under the Law, most promises were not unconditional, as was the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Implicit in the promises under the legal system of the Old Covenant was “If you…then I will...” Due to the conditional nature of His promises under the Law there are instances where God said that He would do something, but then later says “because you did not…I will not…” However, these do not constitute God as being One who goes back on His word since they were conditional promises where man’s unfaithfulness constituted a breach of contract. This was expressly the case with Saul. Samuel said to Saul:
“You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” (1Sam 13:13-14)
Here we see that Saul’s continuance as the king of Israel was conditional and because he disobeyed the Lord’s command God rejected him as king of Israel. However, while God felt sorrow, He did not change His mind or go back on His word, since all His works are known by Him from eternity.
This is evidenced by the fact that Jacob by the Spirit had long before prophesied over Judah saying that the kingly line would not depart from his house (Gen 49:10). Therefore, God knew all along that Saul would disobey and be rejected, and that David from the tribe of Judah would be placed as king over His people Israel.
Another important point to emphasize is that, in an anthropomorphic sense, looking at it from our perspective, when man repents God relents. Due to God’s immutable nature, which is love, His mercy always goes out towards those who truly repent from their heart and He relents (so to speak) from the judgment which He pronounces against the unrepentant. This “change of mind” stems from His essential nature of love which reaches out in mercy towards the truly repentant:
“And rend your heart and not your garments. Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.” (Joel 2:13-14)
God’s mercy is an immutable attribute of His essential nature, which is love, and for this reason, when man repents, God in mercy relents in the temporal realm. However, it is not as though He doesn’t already know when one will repent. He who inhabits eternity has sworn that all will someday look to Him and be saved, bowing the knee in repentance, making an oath of allegiance to Him (Isa 45:22-24). He will ultimately convict all of their disobedience in order to have mercy on all (Rom 11:32).
This was something that Jonah understood about God, even before going to Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want to warn Nineveh since they were Israel’s worst enemy at the time, and he knew that God’s intention in announcing judgment upon them was to produce true repentance in the Ninevites so that He could spare them. When Jonah saw that Nineveh repented, he was very angry with God and said:
“Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)
It was also apparently something that the king of Nineveh intuitively knew about God’s nature. After hearing Jonah’s proclamation of God’s judgment against the city, the king said to the Ninevites:
“Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:9)
The king of Nineveh also somehow sensed that the God of Israel was a compassionate God who would relent of the calamity declared against the city if they would repent of their evil deeds. And when they repented, God relented of the judgment He had declared against them:
“Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10)
So, did God actually relent when He saw Nineveh’s repentance? I believe the answer is both yes and no. God is both immutable and transcendent as to His essential nature and is therefore unchangeable as to His nature and predetermined plan for the ages. Yet, at the same time He is also imminent in our time/space world and is continually interacting with us. In real time, when we repent, God relents (so to speak), even though there is no change in His eternal plan since such temporal interactions with us have always been foreknown and predetermined by Him from eternity.
Does God Learn?
Open Theists point to God’s interaction with Abraham after having tested him, telling him to offer up his son Isaac, as evidence that God grows in knowledge. When Abraham was ready to plunge the knife in Isaac’s heart in obedience to the Lord’s command, the Lord intervened saying:
“Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Gen 22:12)
The Lord said, “now I know.” How are we to understand this? In the light of all we have already seen, is it possible that the Lord actually learned something new which was unknown to Him prior to Abraham’s testing? Was it mere coincidence that the ram was caught in the thicket, providing a sacrificial lamb in the place of Isaac at the very moment that the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand? No. The Great I AM inhabits eternity and therefore “nothing is hid from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Heb 4:13) When the Bible ascribes to God a finite human characteristic which Scripture elsewhere clearly teaches that He transcends, then it must be understood as an anthropomorphism.
When God tests us, it is to reveal our hearts to us, not to Him, since He already knows the hidden motives of the heart (Jer 17:10; John 2:24-25). Time and time again we see in the Scriptures that the Lord knows what we are going to say and do before we do it. Therefore, when finite human characteristics are attributed to God, such as remembering (Gen 8:1; 9:16; Ex 2:24), learning (Deut 8:2; 13:3), going down to see (Gen 11:7; 18:21) etc., we intuitively know that God is expressing Himself using anthropomorphisms so that we can more readily understand Him. Prior to the rise of Open Theism this has been generally understood by even the most simple believer reading the Scriptures.
A final example I would like to present which clearly illustrates the anthropomorphic nature of expressions used of God is when the Lord visited Abraham prior to Sodom’s destruction. Even Open Theists are agreed that God is omnipresent, and while they deny that God is omniscient as concerns the future, they would say that He knows all things past and present. Yet God expresses Himself to Abraham in a manner that, if taken literally rather than anthropomorphically, would indicate that He is neither omnipresent nor omniscient. The Lord said:
“Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know.” (Gen 18:20-21)
We know that God knows all and is everywhere all the time. Yet, He is here described as being far away in heaven where their outcry had to reach Him in order for Him to take notice. Then He is presented as coming to earth in bodily form where He first appears to Abraham. He then presents Himself as one who must first go down to the city in order to determine their true condition. He speaks as one who must investigate by going to a certain locality before knowing something. All of us know that God, being omnipresent and omniscient, was fully aware of the moral condition of the inhabitants of Sodom as well as the intervenient judgment He was going to have to carry out against them.
While there will always be limitations in our ability to comprehend the infinitely incomprehensible God and Creator of all, most of us know instinctively how to distinguish between the transcendental truths of God’s nature and attributes alluded to in Scripture and the condescending anthropomorphic terms He often employs in order to relate to us as finite mortals.
The Inevitable Implications of Open Theism
Many who are attracted to Open Theism have not adequately reflected upon what is being sacrificed. Open Theism was not built upon the firm foundation of sound biblical exegesis but rather upon the philosophical foundation of 19th century Liberal Process Theology. If indeed God does not have perfect knowledge and control of the future, then the Scriptures are not infallible – much less inherent.
If the future is not perfectly and exhaustively known and predetermined by God from eternity, then the fulfillment of all the declarations concerning future events in the Bible are dubious at best. They become nothing more than that which God hopes to bring to pass if the multiple libertarian choices man makes in the future do not frustrate His plans.
If Open Theism is true, then we are the masters of our own fate and our salvation ultimately is in our hands rather than God’s. Even though God has sworn that all will look to Him and be saved (Isa 45:22-24), according to Open Theists He is powerless to guarantee such an outcome since our libertarian freedom requires that we be the masters of our own fate. That is why some Open Theists like Gregory Boyd speculate that God will have no other option than to annihilate some (against their freewill), realizing that some will not have exercised their own freewill for their own salvation before the curtains fall at the end of the age.
In the turbulent times our generation will doubtlessly have to go through, we need more than ever to have the full assurance that God holds the future and that all things are working together according to the counsel of His will, predetermined from eternity. We need to be fully assured that the signs of the times given to us by Jesus in the Gospels, through the apostles and in the book of Revelation are an infallible roadmap of the future and that, no matter how severe the tribulations be that we must go through, God’s plan for the ages culminates in all being saved, regenerated and restored unto God.
Rather than exalting human reason as the final measure of truth we need to submit ourselves to God’s self-revelation in His inspired Word, recognizing the limitations of our ability to fully comprehend the depths of divinity using our own finite understanding. As Paul says:
“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?
Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?
For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things,
to whom be glory forever. Amen.”