UNCHANGEABLE; UNCHANGEABLENESS [ISBE]
- un-chanj'-a-bl, un-chanj'-a-bl-nes:
I. UNCHANGEABLENESS OF GOD A TRUTH OF NATURAL THEOLOGY
II. SCRIPTURAL DOCTRINE OF THE UNCHANGEABLENESS OF GOD
1. Not Lifeless Immobility
2. As Contrasted with the Finite
3. God's Knowledge, Will and Purpose
4. In His Relation to the World
5. His Relations to Men
The unchangeablehess or immutability of God is that divine attribute which expresses the truth that in His nature and perfections, in His knowledge, will and purpose, He always remains the same in the fullness of His infinite and perfect Being; infinitely exalted above change, becoming and development, which are the specific characteristics of all finite existence. This is one of what theologians have called the incommunicable attributes of God, that is, one of those specific characteristics of the divine nature which make God to be God in distinction from all that is finite. These attributes have also been called negative attributes. By calling them negative, however, it is not meant that they express the nature of God in so far as He is unknowable and incomprehensible by the finite mind, while the positive attributes, such as love and righteousness, express God's nature as revealed and known. Both kinds of attributes can be known only in so far as God reveals Himself, and furthermore the so-called negative attributes involve a positive idea, while the positive ones in turn imply the negation of all finite limitations. Moreover, since the finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite God, back of all that God has revealed of Himself, back even of His absoluteness, eternity and unchangeability, lies the fullness of His infinite Being, unsearchable, unknowable, and incomprehensible alike in His nature and attributes (Ps 145:3; 147:5; Job 11:7-9; Isa 40:28).
It is these incommunicable attributes, including unchangeableness, which make God to be God, and mark the specific difference between Him and all finite existence. Unchangeableness is, therefore, the characteristic of God's entire nature and of all His attributes. It cannot be limited to His ethical nature or to His love, and, while it is true that these incommunicable attributes are revealed with especial richness in God's saving activity, they cannot be limited to marks of God's saving action or purpose. It is true that God is unchangeable in His love and grace and power to save, but that is only because it is the love and grace and power of the absolute, infinite and immutable God.
I. Unchangeableness of God a Truth of Natural Theology.
As the One infinitely perfect and absolute or self-existent Being, God is exalted far above the possibility of change, because He is independent, self-existent and unlimited by all the causes of change. As uncaused and self-existent, God cannot be changed from without; as infinitely perfect, He cannot suffer change from within; and as eternal and independent of time, which is the "form" of change and mutability, He cannot be subject to any change at all. God's unchangeablehess, therefore, follows from His self-existence and eternity.
II. Scriptural Doctrine of the Unchangeableness of God.
The Scripture doctrine of God reaffirms this truth. It conceives of God as a living Person in relation to the world and man, and at the same time as absolutely unlimited by the world and man, and as absolutely unchangeable. The God who has revealed Himself in the Old Testament and the New Testament is never identified with, or merged in, the processes of Nature. He is complete and perfect in Himself, and is not the result of any process of self-realization. He is so great that His relations to the created universe cannot begin to exhaust His Being, and yet He stands in the closest relations to man and the world as Creator, Preserver, Governor, and Saviour.
1. Not Lifeless Immobility:
On the one hand, then, the Bible never represents the unchangeableness of God as a dead immobility out of all relation to man and the world. This tendency of thought, fearing anthropomorphism, proceeds on the principle that to make any definite predications about God is to limit Him. The logical result of this is to conceive of God as abstract Being or Substance, so that the word "God" becomes only a name for the Unknowable. Over against this error, the Scripture represents God concretely as a Person in relation to the world and man. In the beginning He created the heavens and the earth, and from that time on He is the life of the world, especially of Israel, His chosen people. To bring out this truth anthropomorphisms are employed. God comes and goes, reveals Himself and hides Himself. He repents (Gen 6:6; 1 Sam 15:11; Am 7:3; Joel 2:13); He becomes angry (Nu 11:1; Ps 106:40); and lays aside His anger (Dt 13:17; Hos 14:4). He sustains a different relation to the godly and the wicked (Prov 11:20; 12:22). In the fullness of time He became incarnate through the Son, and He dwells in His people by His Spirit, their experience of His grace being greater at some times than at others.
But on the other hand, the Scripture always asserts in unmistakable terms the unchangeableness of God. He is unchangeable in His nature. Although the name 'El Shadday, by which He made Himself known in the patriarchal period of revelation, denotes especially God's power, this name by no means exhausts the revelation of God in that period. His unchangeableness is involved in His eternity as made known to Abraham (Gen 21:33). This attribute finds its clearest expression in the name Yahweh as revealed to Moses, the significance of which is unfolded in the passage Ex 3:13-15. God here reveals Himself to His people as "I AM THAT I AM," using the future tense of the verb "to be," which, as the context shows, is given as the meaning of the name Yahweh. Some recent writers would derive these words from the Hiphil stem of the verb, and affirm that it signifies that God is the giver of life. The verb, however, is in the Qal stem, the tense denoting the changeless continuity of the life and nature of God. The idea expressed is not merely that of self-existence, but also of unchangeableness, and this unchangeableness, as the context clearly indicates (especially Ex 3:15), is here set forth not simply as belonging to the nature of God in Himself, but is brought into closest connection with His covenant relation to His people, so that the religious value of God's unchangeableness is most clearly implied in this fundamental assertion of the attribute. The same idea of God's immutability is reaffirmed in the prophecy of Isaiah. It is connected with the name Yahweh (Isa 41:4; compare also 48:12), where Yahweh affirms that He is the first and, with the last, the same God, thereby asserting not merely His eternity, but also that He is the same in His divine existence throughout all ages. This attribute, moreover, is claimed by Yahweh, and set forth as an especial mark of His Godhead in Isa 44:6. The unchangeableness of the divine nature is also asserted by the prophet Malachi in a difficult passage (3:6). This is a clear affirmation of the unchangeableness of God, the only question being whether it is set forth as the ground of Israel's confidence, or in contrast with their fickleness, a question which depends partly on that of the text.
In the New Testament the thought of the passage in Exodus 3 is reiterated in the Apocalypse where God is described as He who is and was and is to come (Rev 1:4). This is an expansion of the covenant name Yahweh in Ex 3:13-15, denoting not merely eternity but also immutability. The phrases "the Alpha and the Omega" (Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13); and "the first and the last" (Rev 1:17; 22:13); and "the beginning and the end" (Rev 21:6; 22:13) bring out the same idea, and are applied to Christ as well as to God, which is a clear indication of our Lord's Deity. The apostle Paul likewise asserts the incorruptibility, eternity and immortality of the divine nature, all of which ideas imply the unchangeableness of God (Rom 1:23; 1 Tim 1:17; 6:16).
2. As Contrasted with the Finite:
Not only is the unchangeableness of God's nature asserted in Scripture, and placed in relation to His dealings with men, but also it is declared to be the distinctive characteristic of God's nature as contrasted with the entire universe of finite being. While the heavens and the earth change and are passing away, God endures forever and forever the same God (Ps 102:26-28 (Hebrew versification, 27-29)). The application of the language of this psalm to Christ by the author of the Epistle to the Heb 1:10-12 involves the unchangeableness of Christ, which is again explicitly asserted in this Epistle (Heb 13:8), being another clear indication of the way in which the Deity of Jesus Christ pervades the New Testament. This idea of God's immutability, as contrasted with the mutability of finite existence which is His creation, is given expression in the New Testament by the apostle James. As Creator of the heavenly bodies, God is called the Father of lights. While their lights, however, are intermittent, God's light is subject to neither change nor obscuration (Jas 1:17).
In accordance with this idea of the unchangeableness of God's nature, the Scripture, in ascribing life and personality to Him, never regards God as subject to any process of becoming or self-realization, and the views which so conceive of God are unscriptural whether they proceed upon a unitarian or a trinitarian basis.
3. God's Knowledge, Will and Purpose:
God is also represented in Scripture as unchangeable in His knowledge, will and purpose. He is not a man that He should repent (1 Sam 15:29). His purposes, therefore, are unchangeable (Nu 23:19; Isa 46:11; Prov 19:21); and His decrees are accordingly likened to "mountains of brass" (Zec 6:1). His righteousness is as immutable as mountains (Ps 36:6 (Hebrew 7)); and His power also is unchangeable (Isa 26:4). Hence, while the Scripture represents God as sustaining living relations to His creatures, it does not conceive of Him as conditioned or determined in any way by men's acts, in either His knowledge, will, purpose or power. God knows eternally the changing course of events, and He acts differently upon different occasions, but all events, including human actions, are determined by God's unchangeable purpose, so that God's knowledge and actions are not contingent upon anything outside Himself.
Although, therefore, the idea of God as pure abstract Being, out of all relation to the world, is unscriptural, it is no less true that conception of God which represents a reaction from this, and which conceives of God anthropomorphically and as conditioned and determined by the world and man, is also quite contradictory to the Scripture conception of God. This latter tendency goes too far in the opposite direction, and falls into the error of conceiving God's knowledge, will, purpose and power too anthropomorphically, and as limited by the free acts of man. While the opposite tendency kept God out of all relation to the world, this one erects God's relation to the world into something which limits Him. This way of conceiving of God, which is the error of Rationalism, Socinianism and Arminianism, is as unscriptural as that which conceives of God as abstract Being, unknowable, and entirely out of relation to the world.
4. In His Relation to the World:
Unchangeable in His nature and attributes, God is likewise unchangeable in His relation to the world, which relation the Scripture represents as creation and providence, and not as emanation. Hence while everything finite changes, God remains ever the same (Ps 102:26-28). Consequently, the pantheistic idea is also unscriptural, which idea, going farther than the anthropomorphic and dualistic conception which places the world over against God, completely merges God's Being in the world and its processes of change, affirming that God comes to self-realization in the evolution of the world and man. In its reaction from the denial of God's living relation to the world, this view does not stop with limiting God by reason of this relation, but merges Him completely in the world-development. The Scripture, on the contrary, always conceives of God as immutably free and sovereign in His relation to all the creation.
In accordance with this idea of the unchangeableness of God's nature and attributes, the Bible always maintains God's absoluteness and transcendence of Nature and her processes in all of the relations which He sustains to the finite universe. It came into being by His creative fiat, not by any process of emanation from His Being. He sustains it in existence, and governs it, not by any process of Self-realization in the series of second causes, but from without, by His sovereign will and power. And He intrudes into the series of finite causes miraculously, producing events in Nature which are due solely to His power. When for man's salvation the Son of God became incarnate, it was not by any change of His nature in laying aside some or all of the attributes of Deity, but by assuming a human nature into personal union with the divine nature. The Scripture passages which speak of the incarnation of our Lord clearly indicate that the Son retained His full Deity in "becoming flesh" (compare especially the prologue to John's Gospel and Phil 2:6-8). Moreover, the Old Testament doctrine of the Spirit of God as the source of life to the world is always at pains to avoid any mingling of the Spirit with the processes of Nature, and the same thing is true of the New Testament doctrine of the indwelling of the Spirit in the believer, always keeping the Spirit distinct from the spirit of man (Rom 8:16).
5. His Relations to Men:
Finally, God is unchangeable not only in relation to the universe, but in His relations to men and especially to His people. This follows from His unchangeable ethical nature. The Scripture often connects the unchangeableness of God with His goodness (Ps 100:5; Jas 1:17); with His truthfulness and mercy (Ps 100:5; 117:2); and with His covenant promises (Ex 3:13 ff). In connection with His covenant promises, God's unchangeableness gives the idea of His faithfulness which is emphasized in the Old Testament to awaken trust in God (Dt 7:9; Ps 36:5 (Hebrew 6); Ps 92:2 (Hebrew 3); Isa 11:5; Lam 3:23). This idea of God's unchangeableness in His covenant promises or His faithfulness is repeated and emphasized in the New Testament. His gifts or graces and election are without repentance (1 Thess 5:24; Rom 11:29); He is faithful toward men because unchangeably true to His own nature (2 Tim 2:13); His faithfulness abides in spite of men's lack of faith (Rom 3:5), and is in many places represented as the basis of our confidence in God who is true to His election and gracious promises (1 Cor 1:9; 10:13; 2 Thess 3:3; Heb 10:23; 11:11; 1 Pet 4:19; 1 Jn 1:9). See FAITHFULNESS. It is thus the religious significance and value of God's unchangeableness which is especially emphasized throughout the Scripture. Because He is unchangeably true to His promises, He is the secure object of religious faith and trust, upon whom alone we can rely in the midst of human change and decay. It is this idea to which expression is given by calling God a rock, the rock of our strength and of our salvation (Dt 32:15; Ps 18:2 (Hebrew 3); 42:9 (Hebrew 10); 71:3; Isa 17:10). God is even eternally a rock, the never-failing object of confidence and trust (Isa 26:4).
It appears, therefore, that the Scripture idea of the unchangeableness of God lays emphasis upon four points. First, it is not lifeless immobility, but the unchangeableness of a living Person. Second, it is, however, a real unchangeableness of God's nature, attributes and purpose. Third, this unchangeableness is set forth as one of the specific characteristics of Deity in distinction from all that is finite. Fourth, God's unchangeableness is not dealt with in an abstract or merely theoretic manner, but its religious value is invariably emphasized as constituting God the one true object of religious faith.
Besides the commentaries on appropriate passages, and the discussion of the divine attributes in the general works on systematic theology, see Dillmann, Handbuch der alttest. Theol., 1895, 215-20, 243-44; Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, English translation, 1883, 95, 100; Schultz, Alttest. Theol., 1896, 419; Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament, 1904, 45-58, 165. For a fuller discussion see Charhock, "The Immutability of God," Works, volume I, 374-419; Dorner, Ueber die richtige Fassung des dogmatischen Begrifts der Unverdnderlichkeit Gottea, u.s.w.; Article I, "Die neueren Laugnungen der Unveranderlichkeit des personlichen Gottes, u.s.w.," JDT, I, 201-77; II, "Die Geschichte der Lehre von der Unveranderlichkeit Gottea bis auf Schleiermacher," JDT, II, 440-500; III, "Dogmatische Erorterung der Lehre von der Unveranderlichkeit Gottes," JDT, III, 579-660; H. Cremer, Die christliche Lehre von den Eigenschaften Gottea, 1897, pub. in the Beitrage zur Forderung christlicher Theol., I, 7-111; see pp. 10 ff, and especially pp. 102-9.
Caspar Wistar Hodge