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 (451 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 not 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.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


8 comments

  1. My understanding is that you are defining Biblicism as attempting to understand the Scripture within the Bible alone and by oneself and then link it to a from a rationalism. (Hope I’ve got that right.)

    It seems to me that Biblicism essentially ignores the necessity of grace, or the activity of the Holy Spirit, for all types illumination. So, I understand my Greek NT through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit’s work in the historical church, and the common grace work among the non-Christian editors of BDAG.

    The idea that I can understand the meaning and import of a hapax legomena without the Spirit, the Spirit’s work in the church, and the Spirit’s work among pagan authors is both practically and theoretically untenable. We must interpret the Bible in the world by the Spirit. So Bible’s authority is not diluted, but it must be properly ordered.

    And this leads me to two thoughts; the first is the influence of Thomas who jettisoned the Augustinian consensus on the universal need for illumination to come to truth. Rationalism is most prevalent when either practically or dogmatically Christians assume capacity beyond what God allows. So Arminianism tends towards rationalism as does Thomas’ system.

    My hope is someone like John Frame continues to adhere to total depravity, but his ahistorical theology tends to suggest at least a practical disregard for the doctrine of total depravity. We—meaning moderns—have insights into Scripture that others lacked, and so we can modify cardinal doctrines at will.

    The same occurs with those that want to jettison the eternal generation of the Son. Only begotten was declared a bad translation from people who learned their Greek from BDAG and not from their mothers or the church. Modern understanding must be superior.

    And it’s here that I come to a question: “we”—those attempting to function within the Reformed tradition—seem to be forced to say that our doctrinal statements are not correctable. Our opponents are making modernity too authoritative, but are we making historical documents too authoritative? So for instance “the Pope is the antichrist.”

    I am happy to say the Pope is an antichrist, and I am suspicious that the pope is the antichrist, but this isn’t something I will know until Christ returns. Perhaps, Rome will collapse under her own weight prior to the end.

    So what I am asking is how do we strike the balance between what the Bible teaches and the historical limitations of the documents? For instance, on the issue of church and state. Are we going to request that President Trump (a nominal Presbyterian) fulfil his obligations under Westminster?

    • Shane,

      I addressed this at some length in the book. I can’t reproduce all that here so I hope you will read it for a fuller account.

      Scripture is the final, irreformable norm. It is the norm without norms but it must be read somewhere. That somewhere is a context. The divinely appointed context for reading the un-normed norm is the church. The church reads Scripture together and confesses an understanding of it on the key points of the Christian faith and the Christian life.

      That confession is always reformable. There’s a process in the church order by which one can bring a proposed correction to the confession to the attention of the church. The confession is not a mere doctrinal statement nor is it a mere historical document. It is the confession of the church as to what the Word says about the essential of the Christian faith and life but the church has erred. It must be corrected by the Scripture.

      Indeed, if you’ll read the book you’ll see that the church has revised its confession. The American P&R churches have largely abandoned the doctrine of the state-church. The Presbyterians did it in the 18th century and the Dutch Reformed did it in the earlier 20th century. Thus, when I subscribed the Belgic I took on no obligation to call on the president to enforce religious orthodoxy.

      Here’s a 2-part explanation of how the Belgic was revised:

      https://heidelblog.net/2013/05/the-revision-of-belgic-confession-article-36-on-church-and-state-1/

  2. Thank you, Dr. Clark. Your patient statement clears up a lot for me. I had not realized you’ve been speaking of modified standards. And I will take a look at your book.

Comments are closed.