Friday, May 18, 2018

Immutability in One Verse

6 “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. (Mal. 3:6)
There you have it in a nutshell. A clear declaration of immutability, and clear instruction as to our primary takeaway from this divine attribute: the sons of Jacob (the elect, as we reformed like to call them) are not consumed and will never be consumed. Immutability is the principal reason why we can have assurance and affirmation of the P in TULIP. God will not be less loving, less merciful, less wise, less truthful, less promise-keeping, etc. in the future than He was at any time in the past.

Immutability is a meta-attribute. It is an attribute about attributes. It states that those attributes will not change.

Over the last year I have struggled through a private study of the doctrine of Divine Impassibility and have come to embrace it. It took a while, because it tends to be presented to noobs in a much too trivial (and incorrect) way, something like:
  1. God is immutable
  2. Therefore: God does not change
  3. Therefore: God's disposition does not change
  4. Therefore: God cannot actually be pleased at some time and angry at another
  5. Therefore: the myriad of such descriptions in the bible are all (very misleading) anthropomorphisms
  6. Ergo: the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility
This is not a straw man. This is a fair representation of the how the doctrine of Divine Impassibility is  often presented.

I believed, intuitively, that this chain was wrong. So at first I foolishly jettisoned the conclusion: Impassibility. After study and over time I realized the obvious: the conclusion can be (and is) correct, in spite of the argument being wrong.

I was not alone. I don't always agree with R. C. Sproul  (probably around 97% of the time I do), but on this occasion I was especially  glad to see we had the same gut reaction against the argument as given above, while both affirming the conclusion:
When we speak of God’s will of disposition, we are quickly confronted with questions raised by the classic doctrine of the impassibility of God. Sometimes the impassibility of God is expressed philosophically in such a way as to describe God as being utterly incapable of feeling. In a desire to protect the immutability of God and to free Him from all passions that would be dependent upon the actions of the creature and to insure the constant and abiding state of pure and total felicity in God, the accent falls on His being feeling-less. This robs God of His personal character and reduces Him to an impersonal force or blob of cosmic energy. 
This kind of impassibility makes a mockery of the Biblical revelation of the character of God. It is one thing to insure that God is not subject to mood swings by which His beatific state is disturbed or destroyed or that His passions cause perturbations in His character. However, we must not let a speculative form of impassibility strip God of His personal attributes, especially His attribute of love. We do not need to embrace either the Patripassion heresy (whereby the Father suffers in the death of Christ), or the theopaschatist heresy (whereby the divine nature of Christ suffers and dies on the cross) in order to affirm the reality of affection in God. If there is no feeling in God, there can be no affection in Him. If He has no capacity for affection, He has no capacity for love. 
The Bible is filled with references to the feelings of God. Though they may represent anthropomorphic ideas and employ the language of analogy, they are certainly not meaningless.  (R. C. Sproul, Loved by God,Word Publishing, 2001, 132–134, emphasis added.)
Bingo. If you read this carefully you can infer the same chain as I presented above. In particular, you see that an incorrect view of impassibility results from an incorrect view of immutability, which Sproul expresses as "a desire to protect the immutability."

The verse from Malachi at the top of this post (and the rest of scripture) provides us with the proper understanding of immutability:

  • God is eternal
  • God is perfect and unchanging in His attributes
  • God is sovereign and His sovereign plan cannot be thwarted
  • God will never break a promise or violate a covenant

That is as far as we can go,  and and as far as we need to go on immutability. To go farther is to conflate philosophy with theology, which can be fruitful but it can also be risky. This purely scripture-based understanding of immutability leaves room for God's disposition to change in response to the action of his creatures, yet in a way that is never out of His control i.e. in an non-impassioned way or, synonymously, "without passions." It allows us to affirm that God is simple and without parts and without passions while at the same time not reducing God to, as Sproul so eloquently put it,  an "impersonal force or blob of cosmic energy". While it may be that such changes in disposition are an illusion or artifact based on our being within time while God is outside of time, in any case from our perspective God's disposition toward us can and does change, but as part of God's eternal plan for us, not in tension with that plan. He can, at times, be pleased or angry with me, even though pleased and angry may be quite different than the often impassioned human varieties (but with some similarities, lest we assert that the Holy Spirit is really inept at inspiring scripture.) The bottom line is this: whatever pleased and angry mean when attributed (in scripture) to God, it is certain that they mean something different, and we'd unanimously prefer God to be pleased with us rather than angry.

Really, nothing is more obvious. Before I was justified, God's disposition toward me was as to one who is unrighteous. After I was justified it is as to one who is righteous, albeit an alien righteousness.

The Doctrine of Divine Impassibility should not be presented as it often is, with an argument that shoe-horns it using a non-biblical, never-stated, overly simplistic and overly restrictive doctrine of immutability. Divine Impassibility does not need or deserve such a weak scaffolding.

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