It's the gzillion dollar theological question that Dr Ian Elmer tackles today in his lead commentary: Can God change? The simple answer might be "of course he can, God can do anything, he is 'all powerful'". In a more nuanced scriptural or theological perspective though we stop and think a little more. If we believe God is in relationship with Creation, and responds to our prayers and cries, this implies he can change. But we also have this deep theological understanding of the immutability of God. He doesn't change, he is the "unchanging foundation" of everything. This commentary provides rich material for contemplation and reflection not only about God but about ourselves and how we are invited to think about, and live out, our lives.
Can God Change?
Over the last two weeks we have been exploring the Book of Genesis and, in particular, one of its earliest stories, that of the man and woman in the garden (Gen 2:4b-3:24). In reflecting on this story we might be struck by the way it presents God — in very anthropomorphic terms, as a God who is subject to the vastitudes of his own creation. Humans behave in ways that seem to confound the divine being and, at a later point in the Genesis stories, YHWH even "regrets making humankind" and "grieves" for the mistake (Gen 7:6).
This image of God seems a far cry from what we might perceive as the normative view of God as an utterly transcendent being, omnipotent and omniscient. But the image of God presented in such stories is one of a divine being who is involved in the world, even involved emotionally. Is this nothing but poetic licence on the part the authors; or simply the vestigial remain of a more primitive view of divine beings?
In more recent times, we have seen the advent of Process Theology, which would propose a divine being who is subject to the same forces of change that affect creation. The God of process theology is one who evolves through time and, much as we, does not possess foreknowledge of events yet to come.
This is an age-old problem that is evident even in our earliest biblical texts. We are caught between the two poles of viewing God as a transcendent being separate from creation and a God who is immanent and always available to and within his creation. Of course, in saying that God is immanent, we are not saying that he subject to the same evolutionary forces that drive developments in the cosmos. Such a claim would radically undermine the notion of God's perfection or immutability. Indeed, even suggesting that transcendence and immanence are mutually exclusive characteristics is tantamount to setting up a false dichotomy.
The Immutability of the Divine Being...
In the Bible, the significance of God's immanent activity amongst the chosen people is predicated in explicit proportion to God's transcendence. It is precisely because God transcends the whole created order of time and history that God's immanent actions within time and history acquire singular significance. The one who is in the midst of the "chosen" people is "The Lord [who] is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, His understanding is unsearchable" (Isaiah 40:28, see also the whole of chapters 40-45).
As we noted in the introduction, however, it would seem that the Bible does note times when God is said to undergo emotional changes of state or even to change the divine mind — "regretting" and "grieving" his mistake in making humankind (Gen 7:6). Indeed, in the Bible God seems to do quite bit of regretting and changing his mind.
Not only does the author of Genesis tell us that God regrets creating human beings (Gen 6:6-7), but the authors of Exodus, Samuel, and Jonah picture God: regretting his appointment of the weak king Saul (1 Sam 15:11,35); relenting on the divine decision to punish of the Ninevites (Jon 4:2) in much the same way he did for the Israelites after their apostasy in the desert (Ex 32:14).
While such declarations appear incredible — can God be said to "grieve" or get angry — they are not meant to be understood as literally true. Such reactions or changes predicated of God actually express a deeper truth — that of God's unchanging and unalterable love and justice as the transcendent other. It is not God who changes so much as human beings who "fashion wickedness on earth" (Gen 7:5), or Saul who sins (1 Sam 15:11), or both the Israelites and the Ninevites who repent (Ex 32:14; Jon 4:2). It is God's constancy in justice, compassion and mercy that are on show.
In the story of Israel's apostasy, God does grieve over sin and is angry with Israel. But the repentance brings forth forgiveness and, hence, the apparent change in God's emotional state is predicated not upon a change in God but upon a change within Israel. YHWH remains true to the covenant; it is Israel who fails to be constant. The authors of the Torah and the prophets consistently make the point strongly that "God is not a human being, that the divine being should lie, or a mortal, that YHWH should change the divine mind" (Num 23:9; cf. Pss 110:4, 132:11; Ezek 24:14).
The very language used, such as compassion, sorrow, suffering, anger, forgiveness, and relenting, seeks to articulate God's unwavering and immutable transcendent nature as the One All Holy God who is Saviour and Creator.
The predication of various emotional changes of state within God are not literal statements of divine mutability, but exemplify and confirm the literal truth that the transcendent divine being, far from being inconsistent as humans are, is unalterably, within all unpredictable circumstance, all-loving, all-good, and all-holy. What are being compared is unchanging justice of God and the ambivalent morality of humans — which brings us back to the question of "sin" as it is found in the biblical narrative.
The Nature of Divine Being and the Nature of the Moral life...
Behind this view of YHWH as both transcendent and immanent lies a particular understanding of the nature of divine being predicated upon the human experience of God as the creator, which itself rests upon a very ancient model of creation as bringing order to chaos. Hence, in our Genesis stories, the creator God brings order to the chaos of the great watery abyss (Gen 1:2), separating water, sky and land, and delineating between domestic livestock and wild animals, between animals and humans, and between male and female. The divine being sets forth both the laws of nature and the laws of moral behaviour; but humans challenge and ultimately destroy that order.
With this view of God, the idea of moral behaviour and sin is predicated on the paradigm of order. In Genesis the moral life is shaped by a diversity of roles and functions within an organic society — everything and everyone has its, his or her place and duty. The fundamental moral question that governs human behaviour becomes: what is objectively, truly good according to the laws laid down by the creator God in the beginning?
In the story of the man and woman in the garden we have an example of what the Jewish scriptures call hatt't, which means "to miss the mark" — i.e. to fail to achieve a benchmark or hit a target set in terms of one's relationships with either God or other people. Such a failure can have long-term consequences however.
In the biblical view, sin is seen as character or personality disorder in which we live our lives out of sync with the Creator's plan. Hence, the "original sin" of the man and woman in the garden brought about, what science fiction buffs might call, an "alternative timeline" whereby creation ceased to follow god's plan. Creation became disordered and so too did humankind who now, as a result of that first sin, inherited an orientation or innate tendency to evil that we call "concupiscence".
In the bible this concupiscence is described by the term awon, which suggests a further sinful condition where one is twisted or distorted by an unwillingness to live according to acceptable standards within one's relationships. The word is often translated as "guilt", but the concept is far richer than this. The condition is seen in terms of permanent damage done to one's psyche by regularly acting inappropriately towards others. The constant failure to seek open and loving relationships perpetuates and increases one's self-centredness and selfishness. Evil begets evil; selfish choices ultimately lead to loneliness and self-hatred. Here the most obvious example is that of Cain whose hatred of his brother seethed within him leading to murder and exile.
Redemption requires a restoration of the original divinely-ordained order and, as a consequence, the restoration of all that humans possessed as their due at the beginning before the Fall ("original justice"). Human "sin" upset God's plans, and confounded the movement of creation towards its goal, which is union with the divine. The Incarnation restores the original created order and opens again the possibility of human sharing in the divine life.
Returning to our original question of the mutability of God, we should also note that the Biblical vision of God as a creator is not one that is predicated on a view of an impersonal divine being. On the contrary, the whole purpose of creation is as an expression of divine love. God is the lover who calls us into relationships with the divine being and with others.
A Trinitarian perspective...
The guiding vision is of a God as creator is of a transcendent being who chooses to be immanent to us so as to relate as person to person. This idea evokes images of God that speak of intimacy, friendship and compassion. Later Christian theology will understand such imagery in terms of a Divine Trinity, whose inner life stands as the origin of personal relationships. This development adds further refinement to our understanding of the moral life.
From a Trinitarian perspective, the moral life is conceived of in terms of authentic personal relationship. The language is, again, of personal relationships; and it is on this basis that "sin" is seen as both corporate and personal. We share responsibility as a community; but we also bear individual responsibility for our actions.
We see something of this dual responsibility in the passage with which we began our discussion today, Genesis 6:6, where YHWH regrets making humans because "every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts [is] evil all the time" (Gen 6:5). This condition is described in Jewish thought as peša', which means outright rebellion against God and against others.
This evil inclination is primarily seen in terms of interpersonal relationships where it designates the violation of the rights of others. It is a sin that can be committed by both individuals (as in the traditional prophetic condemnation of the ill treatment of widows, orphans and strangers) or communally (as in Israel's failure to live according to the demands of the Covenant). We are told in the story of the Flood that human sin had spread wickedness across all the world and as a result murder and mayhem had become rife and humans were now in open rebellion against God's standards.
It is no accident that the Genesis stories that we have been exploring focus specifically upon relationships (between God and humans, between humans and the environment, between men and women, and between nations). YHWH set forth both the laws of nature and the laws of human behaviour, and humans can determine the divine laws by asking one simple question: how does one enter into and sustain authentic personal relationships with God, the earth, and other people? And that is pretty much the whole meaning of the Genesis stories, if not the whole of Scripture.
As I have noted elsewhere, it is no accident that of the Ten Commandments, only the first three pertain to how one treats or worships God; the other seven tell us about how one should treat other human beings. Similarly Jesus, when challenged to name the "greatest commandment", rendered the entire moral message of the Jewish scriptures down to two commandments — Love God; Love your neighbour! (Matt 22:34-40).
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Ian Elmer