By Rev. James Petigru Boyce
THE IMMUTABILITY OF GOD.
By the immutability of God is meant that he is incapable of change, either in duration of life, or in nature, character, will or happiness. In none of these, nor in any other respect is there any possibility of change.
1. This is implied in his absolute perfection. Perfection permits neither increase as though he lacks, nor decrease as though he can lose. Change must be for the worse or for the better, but God cannot become worse or better.
2. It arises in like manner from the pure simplicity of his nature. That which is not and cannot be compounded cannot be changed.
3. It is expressly taught by the Scriptures in the following as well as in other particulars. A few passages out of many are referred to in support of each.
(a) They declare him to be unchangeable in duration and life: Gen. 21:33; Deut. 32:39, 40; Ps. 9:7; 55:19; 90:2; 102:12; Hab. 1:12; Rom. 16:26; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16.
(b) They affirm the unchangeableness of his nature: Ps. 104:31; Mal. 3:6; Rom. 1:23; James 1:17.
(c) They also assert that his will is without change: Job 23:13; Ps. 33:11; Prov. 19:21.
(d) His character is also said to be immutable, as for example his justice: Gen. 18:25; Job 8:3; Rom. 2:2; his mercy: Ex. 34:7; Deut. 4:31; Ps. 107:1; Lam. 3:22, 23; Mal. 3:6; his truth: Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Mic. 7:20; Rom. 3:3; 11:2, 29; 2 Tim. 2:13; Titus 1:2; his holiness: Job 34:10; Hab. 1:13; James 1:13; and his knowledge: Isa. 40:13, 14, 27, 28.
The immutability thus set forth in the Scriptures and implied in the simplicity and absolute perfection of God is not, however, to be so understood as to deny in him some real ground for the Scripture statements of emotional feeling in the exercise of love, pity, longsuffering and mercy, or of anger, wrath and avenging justice. We could as well deny some real ground for the attributes of love, justice and truth which are at the basis of these emotions. We must never forget that we know but little, if anything, of the mode of operation of the divine mind. We are sure that we have to think and speak of it erroneously when our thoughts or words involve successive emotions in God or such as have beginning or end. And yet the only way in which change in him in such emotional acts could occur would involve both beginning, and end, and succession. Wherefore, we know that whatever possibility of change in God appears is due only to our own imperfection of knowledge and in-capacity to form true conceptions.
It is also true that the unchangeableness of God is not incompatible with such outward activity and relations as exist in connection with Creation, Providence and Redemption. But as this has not been so readily admitted, it may be well to consider more particularly the objections which have been made.
I. It is objected that a change must have taken place in God in the creation of the universe. It is claimed that he must then have formed a new purpose, and must have passed from a state of rest to one of activity.
(a) But this objection is based upon a forgetfulness of the fact, that in him there is no succession, and no change of time from one moment to another. The creation of the universe is no less an outward act than is the time in which it has existence. It appears in time and with time. But with God there is no time and no relation of time, exclusive of time itself. There was not before its creation. There will not be when there shall be no more time in creation. We may not be able to understand how this is, but we know that the fact must be so.
It is on this account that the purpose of God to create was not a new one, formed at one time and not at another. On the contrary, that purpose, and, indeed, his whole will is eternal. Whatever may have given rise to that purpose, does not exclude this fact.
(b) There was nothing outside to influence him. He was moved entirely by his own will. Whether that will was altogether voluntary, or arose from some necessity in his nature, we need not now consider. If it was either the one or the other, in either event it was eternal, for if his nature be eternal, then any necessity of his nature is an eternal necessity, and any purpose he forms, whether of necessity, or voluntarily, must be eternal volition. So much for the objection, based upon a supposed new purpose.
That from a transition from rest to labour is equally baseless. It supposes labour and toil in God. But the Scripture account of creation, as well as the dictates of reason, forbid this. There was no laborious work of God. There never is; there never can be. His infinite power compasses his infinite will, in the mere wishing. Neither in the creation nor in the sustentation of the universe is there in God any of that busy, careful thought, and protracted weary effort by which man maintains government or sustains the lives of those dependent on him.
This view of God's creation accords with reason. It alone is worthy of an all-wise, all-powerful, independent and self-existent God.
It is established by Scripture. Heb. 11:3. "By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which do appear."
The whole account of the creation in Genesis, Chap. 1:1, to chap. 2:3, is full of this truth. In every case it is simply, "And God said," &c.
Psalm 33:9. "For he spake, and it was done; he commanded and it stood fast."
When it is said that he rested on the seventh day, no more is implied than that he ceased as to further creation; for the sustentation of the universe requires constantly the same exercise of power and will as its creation.
II. It is again objected, that the Scriptures represent change in God, when they speak of him as "repenting" of the acts which he had done.
Gen. 6:6. "And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart."
1 Sam. 15:35. "And the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel."
Ps. 106:45. "And he remembered for them his covenant, and repented according to the multitudes of his mercies."
Amos 7:3. "The Lord repented concerning this: It shall not be saith the Lord."
Jonah 3:10. "And God repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them."
In reply to this objection, it may be stated that these are merely anthropopathic expressions, intended simply to impress upon men his great anger at sin, and his warm approval of the repentance of those who had sinned against him. The change of conduct, in men, not in God, had changed the relation between them and God. Sin had made them liable to his just displeasure. Repentance had brought them within the possibilities of his mercy. Had he not treated them differently then there would have been change in him. His very unchangeableness makes it necessary that he shall treat differently those who are innocent and those who are guilty, those who harden themselves against him and those who turn toward him for mercy, with repentant hearts. So far as the first of these passages is concerned, it is simply a protest against the great wickedness into which the race of man has fallen. The Scriptures show that God has had a purpose with reference to such sin, which, from the beginning, contemplated the fall of man and the different stages of wickedness by which in various ages that fall has been accompanied. These statements differ widely from those which declare love, pity, or anger, for there is no emotion in God correspondent with the outward declaration.
III. Again it has been objected that God must be changeable or he could not answer prayer. It is said if his purposes stand forever and he changes not his will, then there is no place for prayer.
It is unquestionably true that God promises to answer prayer. It is also true that prayers have been answered, and that the course of human events has thus been different from what it would have been had there been no prayer and no answer to it.
But the mistake arises from supposing that there has been change in God's purpose or action from what he always contemplated.
The difficulty is not one that affects prayer only; it arises as well in connection with labour, or with any other act, by which, through man, a new force is introduced into the universe.
It proceeds from the fact that man, being a voluntary agent, may act according to choice at any moment of his life. That choice puts his action outside of the mere mechanical movements of the universe. Over these it is admitted that God has absolute control, and that his purpose relative to them has no change. But it is thought, that if man can choose one thing, or another, or can do, or not do, any special act he pleases, then so much of the future being dependent upon and resultant from his act or volition, God must change his purpose to correspond with that act or volition.
To this it may be replied that, even without explanation, we know that such cannot be the case, for this would take away the independence of God. It would make his volitions dependent upon those of man. If it be therefore true, that man cannot be a free agent, without such mechanical action, on his part, as would leave God free, we know that free agency does not belong to him. But we are so fully conscious of our free agency, that that consciousness becomes to us the highest revelation from God that it has real existence. If prayer then be offered, the only doubt about it, as a power and force, the effect of which does not change, is whether God answers it. And, in his word he has so plainly taught this, as to leave no room for doubt.
In what aspect, then, are we to regard prayer? Evidently in this simple way; that it is a secondary cause, which has a place, like all other secondary causes, which, like other such, is necessary to produce the result, to which God has given means of efficient entrance into the working of the universe, the existence of which has been as fully known and purposed as any other secondary cause, and the presence of which can in no way take God by surprise, nor render any new purpose or action on his part necessary. So far then from changing his purpose when he answers prayer, God is in reality only carrying out that purpose. But even if we he not able to explain how any will or act of ours can be at the same time as fixed and certain with God, as if it were a decree about some mechanical action of the universe, or were his own personal purpose, and at the same time he perfectly voluntary with man, so that man can either will or not will, do or not do, as he may himself choose, we are perfectly sure that it must he so, from our consciousness of ourselves, and our certainty of what is the nature of God.
IV. It is further objected, that there was change in God, in the act of the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity.
The objection is met here, because this is the most suitable place in our course to do so, though the explanation may not be fully comprehended, until we have discussed the Trinity, and the relations of the persons of the Godhead in it.
It is based upon a misconception of the scripture doctrine of the incarnation.
1. It was not the divine nature, which became incarnate, but simply one of the persons subsisting in it.
2. No change took place in the divine nature. The human and divine natures of the Son of God were so related to his person and to each other, that while he was truly God and truly man, possessing every characteristic of each, the two natures remained entirely distinct, each with its own peculiarities and properties. The divine nature was in no degree affected. The Son of God, therefore, was as truly divine after, as before the incarnation.
3., So distinct were these natures, that in becoming man, the Son took not simply a human body, but also a human soul. These were united with the personality with which he subsists in the divine nature, but not with the divine nature itself. Christ lacked nothing to make him as separate from God in his human nature as any other man, except separate human personality. He united his human nature to himself by subsisting in it in the same personality with which he subsists in the divine nature.
4. The Son has not divine nature separate from the Father and the Spirit, so that we can say his divine nature in the exclusive sense, in which we speak of the human nature of Paul and Peter. Human nature is distributed among individual men, so that each one has his own, and in no wise partakes with another. But the one divine nature is common to the three persons.
These statements will show why God has not been changed in the act of incarnation.
(1.) There would have been change, had the human nature been so united to the divine, as to add to it such qualities, properties and conditions as do not belong to God. These may be possessed by a divine person in the human nature he has assumed, for thus is there no change in his nature as God, but they cannot be transferred to the divine nature without making it finite as well as infinite, material as well as spiritual, fallible as well as infallible, mortal as well as immortal. These contradictory states may exist in the one person, but cannot in any such compounded nature.
(2.) There would have been change, had the divine nature become the soul of the human nature. This would have made that nature subject to human passions and appetites, to human frailties and imperfections, and liable to pain, suffering, and temptation, and to limitation in goodness, knowledge, power and wisdom.
The knowledge therefore of the true doctrine of the incarnation shows conclusively, that in it there has been no change in God.
V. It is alleged that God cannot be without change, because he suffered during the incarnation of Christ.
The argument is that the declarations about Christ's suffering are made, not simply of the human nature, but of both natures combined, and that thus we are taught, that it was not merely man, but God also that suffered. This position is assumed by some who maintain that Christ had a complete human, as well as divine nature, not a mere human body, but also a rational soul. It is necessarily also the position of those who claim that he had no human soul, but that his divine nature took the place of a rational soul.
The reply to this argument is that the Scripture statements do not teach that the divine nature suffered. This is nowhere said. They teach that the second person of the Trinity, who became man, suffered. But they plainly refer that suffering to his human nature only. They teach us, that in the relations of his natures to his person, he preserved unchanged the properties and qualities which belonged to them separately, and that this was especially true of the divine nature. There were, indeed, some communications from the divine nature to the human, but none from the human to the divine. But while thus distinct, they were united together in a single personality, and by such a union, that whatever might be said to be true of or to be done or to be suffered by either of the natures, might in like manner be affirmed of the person in whom they were united. It is because of this that Christ, the Son of God, is said to have suffered. He did this in his human, though not in his divine nature. The scripture declarations that Christ suffered, are no proof that God suffered, or that God can change in this respect.
But there are those who do not receive the above statements as an exposition of the teachings of Scripture on this point They claim, as necessary, an interpretation which asserts suffering of the divine nature. Those, indeed, who hold that the divine nature is in the place of the human soul, are forced to maintain such an interpretation. It is in reply to both of these that the unchangeableness of the divine nature is presented as conclusive against any such interpretation. Against their position are adduced the numerous statements of scripture asserting that God does not change, and that he is immutable in his nature, and in his various perfections. There are also arguments from reason, by which the same error may be refuted. So incontestable are these statements and reasonings that the objectors readily admit that there is no power or being who can change God contrary to his will, and that the idea of enforced suffering is revolting. The possibility of change and suffering in God, they conceive, therefore, to result from his own will and his own voluntary choice.
This raises the question of the possibility of voluntary suffering on the part of God.
If this be possible, it must arise in one of two ways; either the nature of God is essentially such as to admit suffering, or the will of God is capable of so changing his nature for a time, as to enable it to suffer. In the first instance the essence of God itself is supposed to remain unchanged, but to be capable of existing in different states at the dictation of his will. In the other, the essence itself is changed by the will, and made capable of that, which otherwise it could not have.
In the first case God could suffer, because of the contingent conditions of his life liable to the action of his will, just as we can inflict suffering upon ourselves.
In the last case, the nature of God would be so dependent on his will that be could change it at pleasure.
This last view, however, is based upon an erroneous conception of the relation of the will of God to his nature. That relation is not causal. The will does not create the nature nor confer upon it its powers nor exercise a controlling influence upon it. It is the nature that influences the will. It is because he is holy, just, and good, that he wills holiness, justice, and goodness, and wills these in himself, because he alone is the infinitely holy, just, and good. His will, therefore, so far from causative, is only approbative and complacent, and his essence can in no degree be affected by it. If this were not so, the nature of God must be the effect of the will of God as a cause, and must be dependent upon that will. The foundation of all excellence, righteousness and holiness would he, not what God is, but what he happens to will at any one time, and would make him differ again and again should he so will. And such will would be capricious; for in making the will superior to the nature, there is taken away all reason for choice in God to good or ill, or in one direction or another, and he is left, without motive, to accidental or capricious volition only. Moreover, if God is capable of this kind of change in any respect, he is so in all others, for the power of the will to effect one modification in the divine nature, necessarily involves the power to effect any or all other such.
As the will, therefore, cannot change the essence of God, but is itself controlled by that essence, it is not possible that it can confer the power to suffer, which otherwise God would not have. If, therefore, this power of suffering be not inherent in the divine nature, it can have no existence.
But if this be inherent in the divine nature, it must be a quality necessarily and constantly belonging to the nature of God, and must, therefore, be destructive of the blessedness so fully and eminently ascribed to God in the Scriptures, or it must exist there after the manner of the contingent conditions of our life, because of which we can pass from a state of happiness into one of suffering, and back to happiness again; and its passage from one of these states to the other, most be the result of the exercise of a divine volition.
But with God there can be no such contingent conditions.
1. The very nature of his necessary existence forbids this.
2. The language of scripture "I, the Lord, change not," (Mal. 3:6), and "with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning," James 1:17, is expressly contrary to such a supposition.
3. The contrast drawn in the Bible between God and men in respect to change, is distinctly based upon that contingency in man, to which there is no similarity in God.
4. The truth and faithfulness of God are magnified in the Scriptures by the fact of their exercise where man would thus change, but where God does not, because he is fixed and constant. The passage, "I change not" is presented in a context, where the will of God might be presumed to induce change, and the assertion that this is his nature is made to show why that will would not so affect him.
5. In addition to all of this, such contingent conditions or states are incompatible with the nature of his eternity, which, as being without succession, excludes change; as well as with his simplicity which denies separation between his essence and his attributes, and therefore gives no room for change; while they are absolutely excluded by the perfection of God, which cannot be always asserted of him if the states or conditions of his being can be changed, unless in all these states he could be equally perfect in all respects, which surely cannot be affirmed of the two states of happiness and suffering.