Can God Change?

God is unlike the Sun and Moon whose being causes shadows as they ‘turn’. (James 1.17)

But the God who does not change brings about changes. How can this be? Augustine, a greatly-gifted man, put his finger on the lines, if not of a solution, yet of a way of thinking of the one who is changeless brings about changes. ‘Willing a change is not changing a will’ occurs a number of times in his writings. That is, there is a difference between one will that creates changes outside itself, and many changing willings in a created person or some other agent, who changes. The first involves no change in the will, the other many changes, a changing will. The immutable God has an unchanging will which brings about the innumerable changes in his creation.

 

In this piece we shall consider   God’s immutability, and its consequences. But what is the nature of  his immutability? God is surrounded in mystery, and it is often prudent to stress the negative side of things, lest we think that we are involved in a detailed search for what God is like, or even worse, a search for what it is like to be God. Such endeavours involve a qualifying of the sharp distinction between the almightiness of God, his transcendence, and the creation of changes. God is unlike the Sun and Moon whose being causes shadows as they ‘turn’. (James 1.17)

But the God who does not change brings about changes. How can this be? Augustine, a greatly-gifted man, put his finger on the lines, if not of a solution, yet of a way of thinking of the one who is changeless brings about changes. ‘Willing a change is not changing a will’ occurs a number of times in his writings. That is, there is a difference between one will that creates changes outside itself, and many changing willings in a created person or some other agent, who changes. The first involves no change in the will, the other many changes, a changing will. The immutable God has an unchanging will which brings about the innumerable changes in his creation

Reformed theology gives a prominent place to the decree of God. In the Westminster Confession the decree or decrees have a separate chapter to themselves. Chapter III ‘Of God’s Eternal Decree’. If you have not consulted it regularly, then I say that it is worth a look over. No doubt the will of God has a prominence in other traditions, but not the place that the decrees of God have in the Reformed tradition.

Note that the Westminster Divines used the phrase ‘eternal’. God’s eternal decree. If we measure that decree by its effects, then we might say that there are uncountably many decrees. If the decree is counted by its origin, then one. It is the one eternal decree of Almighty God gives that gives rise  many happenings, each of them (of course) involving changes. In the letter of James, he cautions those who make  plans without regard to the will of God. God’s will covers what will happen tomorrow. He says ‘you do not know what tomorrow will bring’. This is not a reference to what fate may have in store, or Lady Luck, but to the will of God, but it can only be a reference to what the decree of God brings to pass. James counsels ‘You ought to say “If we Lord wills, we will live and do this or that”‘. Without that qualification, we boast, as if we were in charge of our futures. ‘All such boasting is evil’ (James 4.16)

It is that eternal decree that Paul referred to when he said that God works all things according to the counsel of his own will. (Eph. 1.17) This is not an example of cockiness in the Apostle, a kind of know-all religion. Paul refers in the same passage to the ‘mystery’ of God’s will. It gives rise to many puzzles and perplexities. It encompasses the number of the hairs of our heads, and the falling of the Tower of Siloam. But it ensures that at all points in our lives we are in the hands of God. This should be an unmovable feature of the piety of those who believe it.

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