Can God Change?

Moberly OT TheologyChapter 4 of Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture is, for many of us, a challenging read. This chapter addresses the title question of this post – does God change? More specifically, does God change his mind? God doesn’t change in the essence of his being, he doesn’t grow and mature like humans. But does he even react to human actions? This question, and Moberly’s wrestling with it, is worth a short series of posts – I anticipate about three. Today an introduction, next time a look at Jeremiah 18, and finally a look at Numbers 23:19 and 1 Sam 15 along with a summary of the chapter.

The Problem. John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 6:6 is interesting (link here) The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. NIV

6. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single considerations that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity.

John Calvin’s theology quite simply would not let him take the verse literally. The verse says that God repented, but God can’t repent. The verse says that he was troubled – but God cannot experience such emotions. He can hate sin, but he cannot be affected with grief. The question for us is clear, does this verse convey information about God or does it need to be “accommodated” into agreement with our theology?

István Kolossváry in The Fabric of Eternity (see last Thursday’s post) frames his argument about God, time, and providence the way he does because he is convinced that the idea that “our free will can change God’s divine will” is “fundamentally contrary to Christian belief.” (p. 10)

Moberly doesn’t quote Calvin. Instead he opens the chapter by quoting Jörg Jeremias. “There is hardly any other Old Testament statement about God which has appeared as offensive to thinkers of all times – philosophers as well as theologians – as the sentence that God felt regret [Reue] over something planned earlier or even already performed, and retracted it.” (p. 107) Of course Genesis 6:6 didn’t suddenly become a problem with the reformation. The Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria (25 BC to 50 AD) was troubled by the passage., arguing that God “knows no change of will, but ever holds fast to what He purposed from the first.” (p. 109)

Contradictions? Of course we can also find passages in the Old Testament that support the notion that God doesn’t change. For example: 1 Sam 15:29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind. These apparent contradictions are part of the problem. Moberly comments on the approaches too often taken by conservative and liberal scholars.

Negatively, the presence of contradictions is sometimes appealed to as a reason for greater or lesser dismissiveness toward the Old (and/or New) Testament: why should one bother to take a clatter of contradictory voices too seriously? Correspondingly, denials of contradictions usually are motivated by a desire to uphold the integrity and reliability of the text. There is, in fact, a tricky conceptual question as to what constitutes a genuine contradiction, as distinct from a difference a disagreement, a tension, or a paradox; but this question rarely receives much attention because the negative rhetorical freight of the word “contradiction” is usually allowed to predominate. (p. 111)

Moberly works through an example in the work of a respected mainstream Old Testament scholar Robert Carroll, who finds these contradictions a serious problem for orthodox biblical theology. We don’t need to go into the details of Carroll’s argument, but Moberly’s response is worth considering. Any attempt to separate YHWH of the Old Testament from the God of the New “strikes at a fundamental tenet of Christian faith.”

The nature of the relationship between the narrative portrayal of YHWH and Christian creedal affirmations about the one God is indeed a genuine issue (although recognized through the ages, and not a novel recognition), and the “equation” between the two needs to be made in ways that take seriously the issues of literary genre and of religious language. But without some such equation, historic Jewish and Christian faiths are evacuated of much of their content. (p. 113)

Opportunities for Growth. There are two distinctions Moberly finds useful:

One is the difference between contradiction and paradox. Christian theology regularly articulates paradoxes, that is, affirmation of apparent opposites – for example: God is transcendent, and God is immanent; God is sovereign, but humans have free will; God saves by grace alone, yet human actions matter for salvation – where both poles are necessary in order to do justice to the complexity of reality and of God. The other difference is between formal and material contradictions. (p. 114)

Moberly quotes John Goldingay on formal contradictions – when both sides are stated in the same passage (we will see this in 1 Sam 15 later) both are part of a “coherent analogical description of God’s involvement in the world, and each would be misleading without the other.” (p. 114) These contradictions are not problems, but invitations to dig deeper because there is a reality that is not easily conveyed in human language. (As a scientist I note that the wave particle duality of quantum theory is an example of such a contradiction. It is a formal contradiction at the level of words, but not at the level of substance. Electrons and photons are both wave and particle.)

Coming back to Robert Carroll, Moberly notes:

He portrays the task of theological interpretation as representing a wooden and naïf approach to the text. In effect he sets up an easy target for some sure hits. His approach demonstrates well the enduring downside of polemics, which is the temptation to gain a hearing and score points at the cost of misrepresenting the other position. (p. 114)

A great line! The enduring downside of polemics. This isn’t unique to Carroll, or a trait confined to one side of the argument. We’ve all heard more conservative preachers and teachers fall victim to the same temptation – to make points and gain a hearing at the expense of the reasoned pursuit of truth.

The apparent (or real) contradictions and paradoxes in the text should challenge our complacency and be “an incentive to harder and more searching engagement with the subject matter at hand.” This has been the classic Christian approach through the centuries.

Is there a difference between contradiction and paradox?

Are these apparently contradictory texts a problem for the authority of scripture?

Can God change his mind?

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