I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember the shock I felt when I first encountered the idea that God cannot change—as an idea I was supposed to believe as an evangelical Christian. It was probably sometime during seminary, but it may have been before in some college religion class. I’m almost certain I never heard it growing up in my evangelical church—except as an expression of God’s faithfulness to himself and to us (viz., that God cannot become someone other than he is).
I have remained faithful all these years as an evangelical Christian theologian to what I learned in Sunday School and from my pastor and other spiritual mentors of my youth: God is faithful to himself and to us and always keeps his promises and cannot be anything but good, but he is affected by what happens in our world and by our prayers.
I was shocked and dismayed to learn that evangelical theologians, by and large, rejected that simple biblical view of God and replaced it with what I have learned to call the “logic of perfection”—that a perfect being cannot change in any way or even be affected by anything that happens in his creation.
What I “saw” early on in my theological training, however, was that those evangelical theologians who strongly touted God’s “immutability” were not very consistent about it. At least that’s what I thought I noticed in their writings. On the one hand, I was told, a good evangelical believes God is impervious to any change including having new experiences. On the other hand, I was told, it was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, equal with the Father and Holy Spirit, who experienced the incarnation including hunger, thirst, temptation, sorrow, pain and even death. The explanation? That he experienced these things only “through the human nature he took on” through Mary.
In other words, these conservative evangelical theologians told me (through their writings), God-in-himself, God in his divinity, cannot experience anything new or suffer. But God-in-incarnation, the human nature of Jesus, can experience new things and suffer.
I’m not even going to go into all the problems this raises for Christology. I’ll just say I do believe in the hypostatic union, but not for that reason! Not to protect the deity of Christ from change and suffering.
I will also never forget the relief I felt when I first heard that Pascal said “The God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!” And when I read the evangelical theology of Donald Bloesch who rejected the philosophical logic of perfection in favor of what Emil Brunner called “biblical personalism”—that the God of the Bible is personal and therefore capable of experiencing what is outside of himself including new experiences including suffering. Bloesch and Bunner held onto the idea I was taught in Sunday School and church as a child and youth—that God is faithful in every way and that is God’s immutability. But they rejected the philosophical (Platonic and Aristotelian) idea of God as an uncarved, immovable, impervious block of stone.
I read conservative evangelical theologians who attempted to reconcile the “orthodox” idea of God’s immutability with God as living by referring to God’s activeness in relation to creation. That is, they said (and still say), that God’s immutability does not mean that God is immobile or passive. But I remember sitting in class and reading this and wondering how that is supposed to solve anything when the same theologians say God is “pure actuality” without any potential to experience anything new? Such a God may be active but cannot be fully personal in his relations with creatures. And he cannot be the God of the Bible who does not have wings (an anthropomorphism) but does have emotions provoked by creatures (not anthropomorphism).
How do I know this? Well, all one has to do is not ignore or explain away the entire book of Hosea (just one example). The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.
When I left America to study theology with Wolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich I took one theological tome with me: Hendrikus’ Berkhof’s Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith. (Of course I bought and borrowed other theological tomes while in Munich; this is the only one I had room for in my luggage!) I read it twice in Munich and found Berkhof a breath of fresh air (except his functional Christology). I especially like his description of God as our superior, faithful covenant partner who voluntarily allows himself to be affected deeply by us (“changeable faithfulness”).
What’s ironic about all this is that, when it comes to belief about God’s ability to change (or not) my view has not changed significantly since Sunday School and the church of my youth. “Changeable faithfulness” sums it up well. After four degrees in theology and thirty-two years teaching Christian theology in three universities, my belief about God’s immutability remains the same even if somewhat more sophisticated (by being supported by personalist theologians such as Bloesch, Brunner and Berkhof).
So, to put it in theological terms: God, I believe, could have remained fully God without lack or need, without any creation. However, creation out of love (the overflowing of the innertrinitarian love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the most understandable thing because of God’s great love. Just as a married couple want (not need) a child to share their “couple love” with, so God wanted (not needed) a creation and beings created in his own image and likeness with whom to share his/their love. But because God is personal love, the history of creation affects God inwardly and not only outwardly. God’s emotional life is affected by what creatures do because God is love. But through it all God remains who he is and always has been and always will be. God’s relation to creation does not take anything away from God’s being or character or add anything to it—ethically or ontologically. Emotionally, however, creation does affect God. And God experiences new things in relation to creation. But all this is by God’s free choice; not necessity.
I must admit that I tend to think any other view tends to elevate philosophy over the biblical revelation of God and therefore is, in the most important sense, unorthodox.