Immutability and Reformed Theology

In an effort to promote more light than heat, I thought it might be helpful to compare two different approaches to the doctrine of immutability: one from Herman Bavinck and one from John Frame.

I am working with these two authors because Bavinck (of older theologians) is especially detailed when it comes to immutability, and because Frame (of more recent theologians) is so widely read and respected. He has also taken considerable interest in Dolezal’s book. While my sympathies lie with Bavinck, I’m going to refrain from arguing one view over another. Instead I hope to fairly represent both theologians, noting where they agree and disagree.

 

I wrote last week about James Dolezal’s important book All That Is In God. The book continues to generate spirited discussion, with a growing number of blog posts populating the internet.

In an effort to promote more light than heat, I thought it might be helpful to compare two different approaches to the doctrine of immutability: one from Herman Bavinck and one from John Frame. I am working with these two authors because Bavinck (of older theologians) is especially detailed when it comes to immutability, and because Frame (of more recent theologians) is so widely read and respected. He has also taken considerable interest in Dolezal’s book. While my sympathies lie with Bavinck, I’m going to refrain from arguing one view over another. Instead I hope to fairly represent both theologians, noting where they agree and disagree.

Bavinck on Immutability

Bavinck recognizes that at first blush immutability seems to have little support in Scripture (Reformed Dogmatics 2:153). Does not God, in the first chapter of the Bible, move from not creating to creating? Is he not a coparticipant in the life of the world? Bavinck cites dozens of Bible verses to show that God repents, changes his plans, becomes angry, sets aside his anger, and shows himself to be friend or foe depending on the attitude of his creatures (cf, Gen. 6:61 Sam. 15:11Num. 11:1Deut. 13:7Exod. 32:10-14). Moreover, God became human in Christ and dwells among us through the Holy Spirit, both examples seeming to suggest change in God.

Amid all this alteration, however, Bavinck insists that the God of the Bible is and remains the same. Here again, Bavinck cites dozens of passages showing that God is who he is, remains the same, has no variation or shadow due to change, does not change his mind, and always does what he says he will do (cf. Isa. 41:443:10Deut. 32:391 Sam. 15:29James 1:17). In short, God does not change (Mal. 3:6).

For Bavinck, immutability is what it means for God to be God. He is eternal, necessary, free from all composition, and devoid of potentiality; he is pure act, pure form, unadulterated essence. “If God were not immutable, he would not be God” (RD 2:154). As the God who is, he cannot change, for any kind of change would diminish his being. “All that changes ceases to be what it was. But true being belongs to him who does not change” (RD 2:154). Importantly, Bavinck makes clear that neither creation, nor revelation, nor the incarnation brings about any change in God.

This doctrine, Bavinck maintains, has been taught “in the scholastics and Roman Catholic theologians as well as in the works of Lutheran and Reformed theologians” (RD 2:154-55). By contrast, those who oppose immutability include deists, pantheists, Pelagians, Socinians, Remonstrants, and rationalists. Orthodox theologians have held that God is unchanging in essence, knowledge, and will.

Furthermore, Bavinck argues that we must not soften immutability by locating it in ethical realm only, or by insisting that God is his own cause (causa sui) of actualization (RD 2:156-57). Every change is foreign to God, whether in time, in location, or in essence. God is pure actuality (pursus actua), a perfect and absolute being without any capability (potentia) for nonbeing or being different than he is (RD 2:157).

The very idea of God implies immutability. “The difference between the Creator and the creatures hinges on the contrast between being and becoming” (RD 2:156). Divinity, by definition, cannot change for better or for worse. God is not just a kind of being; he is truebeing. And as such, there can be no becoming in God, no form of change in time or space. “Those who predicate any change whatsoever of God, whether with respect to his essence, knowledge, or will, diminish all his attributes: independence, simplicity, eternity, omniscience, and omnipotence. This robs God of his divine nature, and religion of its firm foundation and assured comfort” (RD 2:158).

Of course, Bavinck reminds us, this immutability must not be confused with rigid immobility. “While immutable in himself, he nevertheless, as it were, lives the life of his creatures and participates in all their changing states” (RD 2:158). The phrase “as it were” is key for Bavinck. He does not believe God actually changes, but he fully appreciates how Scripture describes God’s relational life in anthropomorphic language. “There is change around, about, and outside of him, and there is change in people’s relations to him, but there is no change in God himself” (RD 2:158). In fact, because God is immutable—true being without any potential for nonbeing or for change—he can call mutable creatures into being. Though eternal in himself, with no before or after, God engages the temporal world, condescending as transcendent God to dwell immanently in all created beings (RD 2:159).

Frame on Immutability

Frame begins with an overview of the main scriptural references to God’s unchangeability (Systematic Theology 367). He cites many of the same passages as Bavinck, from Psalm 102:25-27 to Malachi 3:6 to James 1:17. Frame reaffirms that God’s decretive counsel stands firm and his purposes always come to pass.

Following this brief synopsis, Frame enters in to a lengthy discussion about the “problems that arise in discussions of God’s unchangeability” (ST 368). Citing texts like Exodus 32:9-10and 1 Samuel 15:35 and Joel 2:13-14, Frame concludes that “relenting is part of his very nature as the Lord. He is the Lord who relents” (ST 368-69). But this does not mean there is change in God’s divine nature. Frame recognizes there are also passages that deny that God relents (1 Sam. 15:29). God may relate to his creatures as a relenting God. And yet, this does not undermine his sovereignty, because while God’s decretive will may be disobeyed, his eternal purposes always stand. In fact, God’s eternal plan means to use human actions and prayers. In other words, there is a way for God to remain unchanging in his essence and will while still sharing a “give-and-take” with human beings “in his temporal immanence” (ST371).

With this discussion in the background, Frame argues that the attribute of “unchanging” needs careful definition, since “Scripture attributes to God some kinds of changes, even changes of mind” (ST 373). Some of these changes are mere “Cambridge changes,” a change that is not a real change but a perceived change based upon all that has changed in relation to that which is unchanged (i.e., the weather gets hotter not because the sun grows but due to the rotation of the earth, the revolution around the sun, the dissipation of clouds, and so on). Frame admits some divine change language in the Bible can be understood this way, but certainly not all (ST 373).

So what about God is unchanging? Frame lists four things: his essential attributes, his decretive will, his covenant faithfulness, and the truth of his revelation (ST 374-76). In these four ways, God always remains the same. Creatures change, but God does not. He does not increase in knowledge or power. He is supremely perfect in all his attributes and utterly trustworthy in all that he promises.

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