Is God Immutable? Part I
For a number of reasons, Plato believed that something changes only to become better or to become worse (Rep. II). Since a perfect being can’t be improved or diminished, he argued, God must be completely unchanging, As this idea was developed over time, Plato’s followers concluded that not only must God’s character be unchanging, but even his experience must be without alteration. From this it followed that nothing can ever affect God, for it’s impossible to be affected by something without having at least your experience changed by it. Not only this, but these philosophers concluded that there can be no “before” or “after” for God, since “before” and “after” only have meaning when things change. They thus concluded that God must be “above” experiencing sequence. God experiences all of history as a single, timeless, “now.”
This view of God became very popular in the ancient world and was gradually adopted by a number of early Church fathers. It eventually became the Church’s official theological understanding of God’s immutability. Until recently, most of the Church’s major theologians (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther) taught that nothing ever really affects God and that God eternally experiences the whole of history in an unchanging timeless instant. Aquinas was simply being consistent with this idea when he declared that “the relationship between God and the world is real to the world, but not to God.” After all, if God can’t be affected by the world, how could his relationship to the world be real to him?
Despite its prestigious history, this understanding is far removed from the understanding of God that we find in the Bible and that we’d arrive at if we keep our eyes focused on Christ. Think about it. How could a God who never changes in any respect and who is locked outside of the temporal flow of history ever become a human? If God became a human, does this not mean God changed and that there was a time when God was not a human?
Not only this, but how are we to understand God suffering out of love for humanity on the cross if God can’t be affected by anything outside himself? In fact, how could such an unaffected and timeless God ever have a personal relationship with us, since a genuine relationship involves reciprocal influence? How could a God frozen in an “eternal now” ever respond to our prayers and intervene in our lives?
Even more fundamentally, where in the Bible do we find the slightest hint that God is unaffected by what takes place in our lives or that he is timeless? The entire biblical narrative rather reveals a God who dynamically interacts with his people. We are greatly affected by God, but God is also greatly affected by us. God sometimes rejoices over his people, but other times he’s saddened, angered and disappointed by them.
Along the same lines, the Bible consistently depicts God as moving with us in time. Of course, a day to God is a thousand years to us, and vice versa. God doesn’t experience and measure time the way we do. In this sense, God isn’t “bound” by time. But the Bible repeatedly depicts God as looking back at the past and looking forward in anticipation of the future while existing with us in the present moment. This is why God can personally respond and interact with us on a moment-by-moment basis. It’s evident that the biblical portrait of God is about as far removed from the unaffected and timeless God of Plato (and, unfortunately, much of the Church tradition) as we can imagine.
Tomorrow, we will look at what immutability looks like when we view it through the lens of the revelation of Jesus.