Several months ago, a colleague from my seminary days drew my attention to Johann Gerhard’s discussion of divine immutability in Volume Two of his Loci theologici (Exegesis), freshly released in English (On the Nature of God and on the Trinity, trans. R.J. Dinda [St. Louis: CPH, 2007]). The context was the question of how we can speak of God’s immutability in a Biblically responsible and theologically faithful way. While I appreciated what my colleague had to say, I also found it deeply problematic and decided to write a response.
Your responses to our exchange are also more than welcome!
My colleague quoted the following passage by Gerhard:
“A rational nature can be changed in five ways. First, with respect to existence, such as if at some time it exists, at some time it does not exist. Second, with respect to place, if it is moved from one place to another. Third, with respect to accidents, if it is changed in quality or quantity. Fourth, with respect to understanding by the intellect, such as if one now considers true what he previously judged to be false. Fifth, with respect to the intent of the will, if one now decides to do something that he earlier had determined not to do” (§150).
My colleague then said that we should consider the consequences of denying these: “If you deny 1, you’re saying God could cease to exist, or at one time did not exist. And then He is not eternal. If you deny 2, you’re saying God is not omnipresent, and worse, that He is corporeal and can be pushed or blown around. And then He might not be present in all places to help and hear His people wherever they are. If you deny 3, you’re saying God could change the sort of God that He is – that He could get stronger or weaker, for example. And then He is not omnipotent. If you deny 4, you deny His omniscience, and have undermined the basis of His truthfulness, for one cannot be absolutely truthful if he can be surprised or learn something he previously was ignorant of. And if you deny 5? I think that would make God’s will fickle. Not only could He relent from destruction, He could also relent from mercy.”
My colleague asserted his personal belief in all the five ways, pointing out that they represented the position of not only Gerhard but also Augustine and Luther (though he was open to discussing this). He pointed out that Gerhard’s text includes Luther’s translation of Job 33:14: “When God once decides something, He does not afterward reconsider it,” together with Luther’s marginal note, “As a man after doing something ponders, regrets, and plans a change” (WA DB 10/1:71). This may be viewed as an affirmation of the fifth kind of immutability.
Finally, my colleague noted that this view of divine immutability neither bound one to a Calvinistic view of predestination, nor was it at odds with human free will. More importantly, my colleague wrote, immutability directly protected the doctrine of the Trinity, since it was an appreciation for divine immutability that had led the Council of Nicaea to affirm the eternal procession of the Son from the Father.
This was my response:
While I appreciate your bringing Gerhard into the discussion, I can only sigh at how rationalistic this contribution is and how confused in its mixture of human speculation and biblical revelation.
1. METHODOLOGICALLY SPEAKING: The point of departure for Gerhard’s definition of immutability is the human being and the mutable ways of human existence. Each and every one of his definitions begins with human changeability only to deny it and then project the result onto God. Now, whether this speculation is actually able to embrace God is another story. So what we end up with is a “god” made to man’s measure and expressing our own god-making flights of fancy.
How and by what right can we be sure that the immutability we’ve speculatively arrived at on the basis of our own mutability is God’s immutability, and not our own pious wishes? How can we be sure that God will even fit into the straightjacket of divinity we’ve prepared for him, ostensibly for the sake of safeguarding his divinity? This situation is hardly helped by supplying an already-made definition with an a-contextual sprinkling of biblical texts.
It is God himself who defines his immutability! He is the Lord even of his immutability – however unbefitting of the divine the latter may in the end seem to us!
2. A couple of remarks on how constraining these definitions of (im)mutability are:
– regarding EXISTENCE: how do we know that the character of God’s existence is conceptually derivative from our existence? I’m not so sure that God exists in the way we exist. I’m not even sure that rationally we ourselves can know what it means for us to exist, let alone for God, for even in the case of our existence it is not a question of a rational definition but one that involves the realities of nature and grace, sin and faith. Finally, how do we deal with God’s own death (the “Gott selbst ist tot” of a certain Lutheran chorale), once we’ve thrust him into this straightjacket of sublime existence (for which, by the way, the article of his Tri-unity is only an irrelevant afterthought)?
– regarding PRESENCE: how do we know that God’s omnipresence is simply a denial of our moving from one place to another? The biblical witness nowhere leads one to understand that God is simply uniformly present everywhere, as if he couldn’t help himself, but rather that he is free to be present in various ways in various created realities. Perhaps it would even be proper to say that God has the world present to himself, rather than being simply present in it, as if he occupied space (the way we do).
– regarding DISPOSITION: while remaining fundamentally faithful, fundamentally loving, fundamentally self-same, does God not – precisely on account of this ethical self-sameness – change in his relationship to the world: does he not repent and relent, listen to prayer, withhold his wrath, accept sacrifices; is he not pleased or displeased, jealous or propitiated? Does the cross have no impact on him? (contra Gerhard who says: “Therefore because of this simplicity of essence, He cannot receive the action of anything,” p. 157). The verbal and philosophical acrobatics that Gerhard engages in are pretty much tantamount to throwing the Bible out of the window, or at best regarding it as radically misleading in the way it speaks of God.
You quote Luther’s version of Job. 33:14: “When God once decides something, He does not afterward reconsider it.” In the margin [Gerhard] adds [following Luther]: “As a man after doing something ponders, regrets, and plans a change.” – One can wonder, more fundamentally, whether Gerhard’s “god” can even make decisions about anything ad extra at all. How fundamentally wrong Gerhard is is revealed by his statement: “because of this infinity nothing can act upon Him, because all things besides God are finite, which cannot act upon the infinite” (p. 157). I guess this is Gerhard’s own version of finitum infiniti non capax est. Yet it does not seem to occur to Gerhard that perhaps, precisely on account of his independence, more than that, on account of his love, God can allow himself to be affected by the finite, perhaps because on a level even more fundamental, which Gerhard does not explore, he remains who he is, faithful and loving. It is as significant, as it is unchristian, that Gerhard says God cannot be affected in his relationship to creation because of his simplicity and infinity. Sigh.
3. It is interesting that Gerhard’s definition includes the ethical only as an afterthought, privileging instead God’s ontological qualities: omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence (simplicity and infinity). But these might just as well be predicated of a total monster, there’s nothing inherently divine in them, especially when they are derived from our own speculative consideration of ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish in principle to deny these concepts in reference to God. I’m merely pointing out that by themselves they are a-trinitarian and a-biblical, and so do more harm than good. They need to be given a center, and that center is the loving relationship between the Father and the Son in the fellowship of the Spirit. Only as the omnipotence of God’s love does omnipotence make sense in a Christian and biblically responsible way (and we should allow ourselves to be surprised by it, as well as allowing our prior concepts of omnipotence to be thwarted by it); only as the omnipresence of God who in himself is loving self-relatedness does omnipresence make sense; only as the omniscience of a loving God does omniscience make sense as the omniscience of the One who knows us inside out and yet (!) loves us.
I find it astonishing that you think that by itself immutability (and its rationalistic corollaries, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence) can assure the integrity of the creed of Nicaea. I have always thought that the Triune nature of God is assured by the fact that he reveals himself not merely as loving but, from eternity to eternity, as Love, love between the Father and the Son through their Spirit.
In the end, I do not, of course, wish to deny divine immutability. Immutability, as a doctrine, was originally developed in the interest of soteriology, as a doctrine of the self-sameness of God’s love, and his faithfulness that none and nothing can undermine. Gerhard’s example shows how easy it is to lose sight of that and to get carried away. God may, in fact, be closer to us than the soaring of our “benumbed conceiving.”