What Happened To Divine Immutability?


The biblical doctrine of God’s immutability says that God is always what he is. He is never any more or any less than he is. He is not becoming. He is not changing. He is utterly reliable. He is utterly perfect. He needs nothing. He wants nothing. He lacks nothing. The word immutable means unchangable. It means God cannot be anything other than what he is. God says, “For I Yahweh do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal 3:6). As Richard Muller explained decades ago to the Open Theists (those who deny that God is immutable, who claim that God not only does not know the future but also that he cannot know or control the future and is mutable with us), the second half of that verse only makes sense if the first half is literally true.

Last fall, at a conference, someone asked the following question: “On the doctrine of impassibility, the church is drifting from its Reformed roots. Did Luther speak to this or hold a position?”

Impassibility is the doctrine that God does not suffer. It is a subset of the doctrine of the larger doctrine of immutability, which I will address here. The Westminster Divines were getting at this in 2.1 when they confessed that God is “without parts or passions.” In other words, we confess that God is not a composition and he does not suffer.

I do not think I would say that “the church” is drifting from its Reformed roots. E.g., the United Reformed Churches in North America confess the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1619). These documents all clearly and unequivocally follow the biblical teaching that God is immutable, that he does not change. The ministers and elders all sign a form of subscription in which we promise to uphold, teach, and defend this doctrine. All the members agree in their profession of faith and in their membership vows that the Three Forms of Unity are biblical. We confess them because (quia) because they are biblical and any minister or elder found denying this truth would be subject to discipline. Any consistory (the assembly of elders and ministers) or classis (the regional gathering of elders and ministers) who refused to discipline an officer for denying these doctrines would themselves be subject to discipline.

Still, it is true that among evangelicals (e.g., Open Theists and the advocates of “Middle Knowledge”) there has been a serious drift on the doctrine of God and immutability. There are even some ministers and theologians in NAPARC churches (though none in the URCs of which I know) who are challenging the confessional formulation of immutability. They seem to be suggesting that, when we consider God’s covenant with his people, we may consider that he is mutable “covenantally” or something like that. Other writers have said, in response to Open Theism, essentially, “Well, God changes a little.” Of course, both these approaches are not only unhelpful but they are profoundly false.

As we learned with the Federal Vision controversy, invoking the category of “covenant” does not license one to say whatever one will about salvation or God. Just as there is no such thing as “covenantal” election (which, according to the FV theory, may be lost and must be kept by good works) so too there are not a set of “covenantal” divine attributes parallel to the actual divine attributes. The traditional Reformed way of speaking about the language in Scripture where God is said to “repent” (Gen 6) is to understand that language as figurative. We understand that God does not literally have eyes, ears, feet, hands, an arm, and so on. This is all figurative language. We understand that God “accommodates” himself to us in Scripture, that all revelation is an accommodation to our finitude and weakness and that part of that accommodation means that God uses what scholars call “anthropomorphic” and “anthropopathic” language about himself. In the latter he is said to experience emotions (e.g., anger) as we do. In the former he said to be or look like us. These are figures of speech that are meant to be taken as such.

There have been, however, in the history of the church, groups who have refused to do this. One the very earliest heresies in the history of the church was the anthropomorphite heresy. These were heretical Christians who said that God really is bodily. They anticipated what became Mormon doctrine, that God is bodily. This is flatly contrary to Scripture and silly. There arose, however, in the early modern period a movement known as Socinianism which proposed to read the bible as if no one had ever done before, to read the bible without the church and without the creeds, according to the dictates of reason. They were among the earliest biblicists. Modern evangelicals either ignorant of or suspicious about the Christian past or about the creeds and confessions have long been influenced by biblicism. We should not be surprised then to see them reaching such conclusions. There is more about biblicism in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

The re-emergence among some evangelicals and some P&R types of biblicism and the associated problems reminds us of the value of reading Scripture with the church. We do that when we read Scripture in light of the ecumenical creeds. In the Apostles’ Creed we say, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The regular recitation of this language or that of the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed (381 AD) would make claims about divine mutability less plausible. After all, in the Definition of Chalcedon (151 AD) we say that God is immutably (ἀτρέπτως) what he is. The Definition of Chalecedon was written long before Reformed scholasticism could ever have corrupted the faith with its alleged rationalism.

The Reformed confession about God’s immutability is unequivocal. Belgic Confession art. 1 says God is “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite…”. Canons of Dort 1.7 says that election is God’s “unchangeable purpose…”. Westminster Confession of Faith 2.1 says,

There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable…

Our entire doctrine of providence, our entire doctrine of salvation, the covenants of redemption and grace all depend upon divine immutability. As Muller noted in 1980, if God is not immutable then we are left with an incompetent Marcionite deity. Without immutability the Christian God is not materially different from the Greco-Roman pantheon, the outstanding quality of which is their fickleness. The Greco-Roman gods are not to be trusted. The God of Scripture, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is trustworthy because he does change. He is irrevocably for his elect in Christ.

Thus, Martin Luther repeatedly affirmed the doctrine of divine immutability against Erasmus, the great humanist. Because Erasmus was afflicted with rationalism (he put reason over Scripture) and because he did not distinguish between God hidden and God revealed, because he did not distinguish between law and gospel, profoundly misunderstood God’s self-revelation in Scripture. He quite misunderstood God’s sovereign decrees of election and reprobation. According to Luther (1525) the Christian needs to know that God is reliable, immutable in his electing love for us in Christ:

Here, then, is something fundamentally necessary and salutary for a Christian, to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that he foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will. Here is a thunderbolt by which free choice is completely prostrated and shattered, so that those who want free choice asserted must either deny or explain away this thunderbolt, or get rid of it by some other means. However, before I establish this point by my own argument and the authority of Scripture, I will first deal with it in your words.1

The good news is that, whatever the biblicists and rationalists of our day may say, the Father of Lights (James 1:117) does not change. We must and may trust him when he promises that we are really and truly justified and saved. We need not look to Socinians and Mormons to teach us how to read Scripture. It is clear enough and we have the whole church to help us to see the glorious truth of God’s immutability.

NOTES

1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 33: Career of the Reformer III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 33 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 37.



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