Tagtheology

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 4)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

Over the last few weeks I’ve been considering the question of whether God changes his mind. Here’s what we’ve looked at so far:

 

  • In the first post in this series I observed that many passages of Scripture say that God does change his mind, while others say that he does not.
  • In the second post, I argued that because God has infinite presence and knowledge, he doesn’t change his mind.
  • In the third post, I suggested that given the infinite nature of God, the passages that speak of God as changing his mind should be interpreted as accommodative language, language that says something about God in terms that are sort of like but not exactly like what such language would mean about human beings.

Let me say a bit more about this matter of accommodative language. Accommodative language helps us to understand profound truths in concepts that we can grasp. When the weather person talks about “sunrise” and “sunset”, she is describing something that is really true – our position relative to the sun is changing – but in language that accommodates how things appear to us rather than what is technically or scientifically the case (the sun isn’t moving – the earth is). In the same way, when the Bible speaks of God changing his mind or regretting a decision, it is describing something that is really true – someone’s relationship with God is changing – but in language that accommodates how things appear to us rather than what is technically or theologically the case (God isn’t changing – people are).

But can we have a genuine relationship with God if he doesn’t change?  For instance, if God doesn’t change his mind, why should we even pray to him? To some people, the notion of an unchanging God means that God is static and unresponsive. But I would like to suggest that the fact that God is unchanging doesn’t make God less relational – it makes him far more relational than we can imagine.

The only reason we would think that God’s unchanging nature makes him unable to relate to us is by assuming that God must relate to us in the same way that we relate to each other. In human relationships, we don’t possess infinite presence or knowledge. We are bound by time and space. I can’t be two places at one, and I can only do one thing at a time (“multi-tasking” is really doing a bunch of different things switching back and forth one at a time). And while we can sometimes predict what will happen and plan accordingly, that ability is limited and imperfect since we are locked into the flow of time.

But these same limitations do not hold true for God. He can be two places at once (actually, all places at once!). And he can do more than one thing at a time (he’s not limited by time at all!). God is not locked into the flow of time, but transcends time in his eternity. So if we are imagining that God can only respond like human beings respond – in time and space – we are severely truncating the limitless nature of God.

For God to be truly responsive, what must be the case is that our choices really matter to God. But this doesn’t mean that he must be restrained by time and space like we are. All that is necessary for God to be responsive is that if we did not make certain choices, God would not make certain decisions. But the fact that our choices are made in time and space whereas God’s decisions are made in eternity doesn’t diminish the reality of the relationship. To be responsive is to act because of something, not necessarily after something.

In God’s eternity, all of the moments that are past/present/future to us are like “now” to him. And so, what is sequential and episodic to us is present all at once to him. It is sort of like what we experience when we look at a diarama, like this Cyclorama in Atlanta. It portrays various events in the Battle of Atlanta. These events took place at different times and in different locations, but we can see them all at once. God’s view of all time and space is like this, only infinitely greater.

With this in mind, consider the story of Jonah. Did God have to wait to see what Jonah would do, step by step, in order to respond to him? Not at all. In his eternity, God sends Jonah. He sees that Jonah runs. Because Jonah runs, God sends the storm. Because of the storm, Jonah is thrown off the ship. Because Jonah is thrown off the ship, God sends the great fish. Because Jonah is in the fish, he prays. Because God sees and hears Jonah’s prayer, he saves him.  In Jonah’s world of space and time, these events happen sequentially, one after the other in time. But in God’s eternity, he sees this all at once. But this eternal perspective doesn’t eliminate the genuine choices Jonah makes in time, and it doesn’t eliminate the genuine responsiveness of God. God acts because of Jonah’s free choices, but not after his free choices. In God’s eternal nature there is no “after” but there is responsiveness.

In fact, there is far greater responsiveness than we can imagine. We are limited by time and space in the way that we respond to each other. I’m often frustrated by my lack of time, resources, and availability to help other people. But almighty God is not so limited. In fact, because my future is swallowed up unto his eternal “now,” God already knows what I need, and is already at work providing answers to prayers that are yet future to me in time but present to God in eternity.

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)

But why do we even bother to pray if God already knows what we will ask? Because prayer is about more than treating God like a heavenly ATM machine! It is about a relationship, a melding of our will with God’s. As John Chrysostom wrote sixteen centuries ago:

But if he already knows what we need, why do we pray? Not to inform God or instruct him but to beseech him closely, to be made intimate with him, by continuance in supplication; to be humbled; to be reminded of our sins. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 19.4).

Distinguishing God’s perspective in eternity from our perspective in time also helps us to understand various passages in which God says one thing will happen, but something else actually happens. In the story of Jonah, the LORD gives Jonah this message for the people of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). But after forty days, Nineveh was not destroyed. Who changed?

“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).

On the surface, it seems like God changed – just like it seems as if the sun rises and sets. But the deeper change was on the part of the people of Nineveh – they turned from their evil way. And since they turned from their evil way, they experienced the God of holy love in a much different way than had they persisted in their sin.

In his eternity, God knew that the Ninevites would repent. But as God related to the Ninevites in time, he addressed the situation on the ground as it was from their perspective. So long as they were in sin, they faced the wrath of his holy love. But when they repented, they encountered the mercy of his holy love. Since God relates to us in time, our choices are truly meaningful (see Jeremiah 18:7-10). He just isn’t limited to our time-bound frame of reference.

This discussion is a little mind-bending for sure. But what else would we expect when we creatures of the dust try to grapple with eternal God’s nature and power?! The most important point to take away from this look at God’s unchanging nature is that since he doesn’t change, we can always count on God. We often falter and fail; God does not. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). And the faithfulness of God assures us that whatever happens in this transient world, God is constant and dependable.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Abide With Me, Henry Francis Lyte (1847)

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 3)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

In the first post in this series I laid out two sets of passages, those that indicate that God doesn’t change his mind, and those that indicate that he does change his mind. In the second post, I made the case that since God is present to all points of time and space, he never encounters new information that requires him to change his mind. So, the short answer to the question of whether God changes his mind is NO.

But what about the passages that say otherwise? As a reminder, those include:

  • “And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6:6 ESV)
  • “So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” (Exodus 32:14 NASB)
  • “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me.” (1 Samuel 15:11 KJV)

What are we to make of these passages if in fact God does not change his mind?

Let’s remember the most basic fact of Scripture – God is the creator (Genesis 1:1). The gap between the Creator and the creation is infinite – unless God chooses to reach across that gap and communicate with us. But to do so, God must necessarily “stoop down” to our level to accommodate our limited and finite minds. Language about God is always going to be “sort of like” rather than “just like” what it would mean for us. For instance, God is the Father, and I have a father, and because of this common use of terms I can grasp something about who God is – so long as I bear in mind that God’s Fatherhood is infinitely greater than human fatherhood.

Sometimes the Bible speaks of God’s arm (Isaiah 30:30) and hand (Exodus 9:3) and eyes (2 Chronicles 16:9). Because I have an arm, a hand, and eyes, I can grasp some of what these passages are saying about God’s power, actions, and knowledge, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that God has a physical body like I do. When the Bible describes God, it does so in language that is “sort of like” but not “just like” the language we use as creatures.

Consequently, when the Bible portrays God as changing his mind, or repenting of an action, or regretting a decision, we must bear in mind that this language is not going to mean for God what it means for us. And given God’s infinite presence and perfect knowledge, such language could not be literally true of God. For this reason, commentators through the centuries have traditionally suggested that such passages should be understood accommodatively. Here are three examples from the fifth century:

Regarding Genesis 6:6, Salvian observed:

Rather, the Divine Word, to impart more fully to us a true understanding of the Scriptures, speaks “as if” in terms of human emotions. By using the term “repentant God,” it shows the force of God’s rejection. God’s anger is simply the punishment of the sinner. (Governance of God 1.7)

Regarding Exodus 32:14, Augustine commented:

Though we sometimes hear the expression “God changed his mind” or even read in the figurative language of Scripture that “God repented,” we interpret these sayings not in reference to the decisions determined on by almighty God but in reference to the expectations of man or to the order of natural causes. (City of God 14.11)

And regarding 1 Samuel 15:11, John Cassian argued:

Although, indeed, the foreknowledge of God could not be ignorant of his miserable end, he chose him from among many thousands of Israelites and anointed him king…And so after he became reprobate, God as it were repented of his choice and complained of him with, so to speak, human words and feelings, saying, “I repent that I set up Saul as king, because he has forsaken me and not carried out my words.” (Conferences 17.25)

So to summarize:

  1. There are passages that say God does change his mind, and there are passages that say he does not.
  2. Given what the Bible says about the omnipresence and omniscience of God, especially regarding the future, the notion that God changes his mind is incoherent.
  3. That means that the passages that claim that God does change his mind should be understood as accommodative language.

But this leaves us with a serious question – if God doesn’t change his mind, then does that mean God doesn’t respond to us? And if God is not genuinely responsive, then why should we bother praying to him? Or for that matter, why should we bother doing anything?

I hope to show in the final post that because God is unchanging in his omnipresence and omniscience, he is actually more responsive than we could ever imagine! But that’s for next week, Lord willing.

 

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 2)

(For the first post in this series, click here.)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

In this series of posts I am contemplating the question of whether God changes his mind. In the previous post I listed several passages that claim that he does, and several that just as firmly claim that he doesn’t. Some of these even occur in the very same chapter of the Bible, such as:

Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB).

And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:35, KJV).

While our English translations usually use two different words in these passages (“change His mind” and “repented”), in Hebrew the word is the same in each case – נָחַם (nāḥam). So, one passage says God changes his mind/repents, and in the same chapter, another passage says the opposite. What are we to make of this?

Whenever you encounter a puzzle like this, the best thing to do is to begin with what is clearly and unequivocally taught in Scripture and then work from there. So that’s how we will begin to tackle this question. What truths can we set down as clear guideposts on our journey toward an answer?

Creator of Space and Time

The place to begin is the beginning. The most fundamental fact in Scripture is stated in its very first verse – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God is the creator of the universe, and as such he exists prior to and outside of the world of time and space. And what this means is that God is not confined by time and space like we are. In this sense, God’s relationship to creation is sort of like Shakespeare’s relationship to one of his plays. Shakespeare is not merely one character in the play, confined to a scene or the flow of the plot. As the creator of the play, Shakespeare transcends the limits of the play. And as the creator of the universe, God transcends the limits of time and space.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)

We’ve all experienced the frustration of needing to be two places at once, or having limited time on our hands. We are space-bound and time-bound creatures. But since God exists far above time and space, he is present to all points of time and space-

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-28a)

This means that God’s “here” and God’s “now” are radically different from ours. My “here” is sitting in my office in our home in Plant City. My “now” is 12:00pm Eastern Daylight Savings time, March 14, 2018. God’s “here” and “now” are not like this. Let me illustrate. Here is a Google Map that shows my approximate location –

My location in space can be pinpointed. What about God’s “location,” though? Imagine making that red marker bigger and bigger, encompassing the entire state, the entire country, the entire planet, the entire solar system, the entire galaxy…you get the point. Since he is unbound by space, God is present everywhere. Imagine that one of the characters in Macbeth could talk to Shakespeare. The conversation might go something like this:

Shakespeare: Well, hello, Macduff! I’m Bill Shakespeare!

Macduff: (Looking around) Who’s talking? Shakespeare? Where are you?

Shakespeare: I’m right here!

Macduff: Where? I don’t see you!

Shakespeare: I’m right here!

Macduff: I’m scared! I’m going to hide from you in Macbeth’s castle! (begins running)

Shakespeare: Umm, that’s not going to make any difference.

Macduff: What do you mean? (running faster)

Shakespeare: I’m there as well.

Macduff: What?!? (frozen in place) I don’t understand!

Shakespeare: Well, you probably can’t fully get what I am saying, but I ‘m not just another character in the play like you are. I am the playwright, and so I am present to all scenes in the tragedy.

Macduff: Wait – tragedy? What do you mean by that?

Shakespeare: Well, it’s not going to be a tragedy for you.

Shakespeare is “present” to all the scenes in his plays because he exists outside of his plays. Similarly, God is present to all points of the world because he exists outside of the world. God is omnipresent. Or, to put it another way, God’s “here” is everywhere.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7-12)

The same is true with God’s relationship to time. My existence is time-bound. (It is now 12:09 pm). In other words, my “now” is defined by a specific slice of time just like my “here” is defined by a specific slice of space. I exist on an ever- changing mark called “the present,” with the past behind me and the future ahead of me. So, my “now” looks like this –

But what about God’s “now”? Just like we expanded the red dot on the map to encompass all points in space for God’s “here,” we would have to do the same for God’s “now” – it would include all points of time, past/present/future. God is present to all points of space, and he is also present to all points of time.

God is omniscient. He knows everything – including the future – because what is future to us is part of God’s “now.” God’s eternal “now” includes our past and our future, which is why God can reveal what is going to happen before it occurs.

Remember this and stand firm,
    recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
    and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:8-10)

Because God is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, he unrestricted by time and knows what will take place in our world of time and space before it happens.

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
    and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
    besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
    Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
    Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.” (Isaiah 44:6-7)

Now let’s take these observations and direct them toward the question of God’s changing his mind.

God Is Not a Man That He Should Repent

Why do we change our minds? Right now I am working on my NCAA tourney predictions. I’ve looked at my bracket several times, and I still can’t make up my mind about a few games (like Kentucky vs Arizona in the second round!). The reason I keep changing my mind is because I am limited by time and space and have no idea what will happen in the second round out in Boise (or if UK will even make it to the second round). If I could see the future before it happened, I would be the greatest NCAA prognosticator ever. I certainly wouldn’t change my mind about my picks. I could make predictions flawlessly, since my “now” would include the future as well as the present. If I was omnipresent and omniscient, there would simply be no reason for me to change my mind.

By the same token, since God is omnipresent and omniscient, he doesn’t literally “change his mind.” I don’t know what will happen in Boise, Idaho on Saturday afternoon because I am limited by space and time. But what is true of my “here” and “now” is not true of God’s “here” and “now.” Boise, Idaho is just as present to God as Plant City, Florida is. And Saturday afternoon is just as present to God as Wednesday afternoon is. And since God’s “here” and “now” are radically different from humanity’s, he doesn’t change his mind.

Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind. (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB).

But if that is the case, what are we to make of the passages that say that he does? And if God doesn’t change his mind, why do we even bother to pray to him? Does anything that we do make a difference to God?

Those are great questions, and Lord willing we will take those up in the next post.

(Many thanks to my friend Dr. Eleonore Stump for the “red dot” illustration! Check out her explanation here).

 

 

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 1)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

This quarter I have been teaching a class on the nature of God. One of the questions we tackled this quarter is whether God changes his mind. Over the next few posts I want to share some thoughts on this question. And it is a really interesting question! It involves all sorts of intriguing puzzles, such as God’s relationship to time, the relationship of divine foreknowledge to human freedom, and the purpose and power of prayer.

To set the stage for the future posts, here are some relevant biblical texts.

First, some passages in the Bible seem to say that God does not change his mind, or change – period. Some examples (and various translations):

Numbers 23:19

  • ESV God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it
  • NASB95 God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
  • KJV God is not a man, that he should lie; Neither the son of man, that he should repent: Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

1 Samuel 15:29

  • ESV And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.
  • NASB95 Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.
  • KJV And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
  • NKJV And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.

Malachi 3:6

  • ESV For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.
  • NASB95 For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
  • NKJV For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.

James 1:17

  • ESV Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
  • NASB95 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
  • NIV Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

On the other hand, there are passages that seem to say that God does change his mind, such as:

Genesis 6:6

  • ESV And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
  • NASB95 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
  • KJV And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

Exodus 32:14

  • ESV And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
  • NASB95 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
  • KJV And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
1 Samuel 15:11
  • ESV “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the LORD all night.
  • KJV It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.
1 Samuel 15:35
  • ESV And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
  • KJV And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.

So, what do we make of these different perspectives (some of which, in the case of the passages in 1 Samuel 15, occur within just a few verses of one another!)? In the next post, I will take the first steps in offering my thoughts about this conundrum by looking more closely at the nature of God.

The God of Reason and Scripture

Note: this is the conclusion of a series of posts on the existence of God. Here are the previous posts:

Proving God Exists

The Necessary Being

What Is the Necessary Being?

Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

One and Only One

The First Cause

“This All Men Speak of As God”

“Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Averroes” by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–97)

Over the last few weeks I have presented a case for the existence of God that moved from the contingent (dependent) nature of reality to some necessary (independent) explanation of that reality. In the process, I deduced that this necessary being must be the personal, eternal, immaterial, immutable, and unique sustaining source of all contingent existence. Well, I say, “I deduced.” Actually, what I did is simply summarize shamelessly parrot as concisely as I could the grand tradition of philosophical reasoning that is reflected in pagans like Aristotle, Jews like Maimonides, Christians like Aquinas, and Muslims like Ibn Sina. This is a rich legacy of thoughtful reflection on the rationality of faith, and sadly, a legacy concerning which many believers are unaware (including me until just a few years ago). If this series of posts has piqued your interest in learning more about this classical tradition, then I am a thrilled.

There is one other ancient thinker I should mention – the apostle Paul. What I have tried to do in these posts is really just follow his example of pointing to the natural order as a signpost to God’s existence and attributes. Whether speaking to pagans in Lystra (in Acts 14) or addressing philosophers in Athens (in Acts 17), this is precisely how Paul initiated the case for faith in the one true God. Later, in the letter to the church at Rome, Paul explained why this case is so powerful:

For what can be known about God is plain to them [pagans], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)

According to Paul, God’s eternal power and divine nature are perceptible – clearly perceptible – based on what we can discern from nature. And that is how the argument of the last few weeks unfolded, beginning with the concept of a necessary being, then building from that to deduce just what this being must be like.

In this post, I want to compare the conclusions we drew about God from the natural revelation of creation to the testimony concerning God found in Scripture. Many of you who are reading these posts are believers, and you may have wondered how the philosophical portrait of God (as necessary, eternal, immutable, etc) matches up with the biblical portrait of God. But first, please remember an important caveat from the previous post. As the Creator, God is completely unlike anything in our immediate experience as creatures.

To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike?…
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me (Isaiah 46:5, 9).

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

This means that when the Bible speaks of God as a “father,” for example, that it is conveying a truth about God that is something like our concept of fatherhood, only much greater. Keeping this important caveat in mind will help shield you from common misunderstandings of biblical descriptions of God.

With that disclaimer in mind, let’s look at what the Bible says about the God we have discovered through logical arguments.

God Is Necessary

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)

As the necessary being, God doesn’t rely on anything else to exist. He simply is existence itself, and that is what the divine name here in Exodus 3:14 means. Given the widespread acceptance of polytheism in the ancient world, this description of God in Exodus is remarkable. As one philosopher points out:

The author of the biblical text has managed to offer an expression of God that just happens to be in accord with some of the most profound metaphysical reasoning about the nature of God and His relation to the world in the history of Western Thought. (Gaven Kerr, Aquinas’s Way to God, p. 169).

God Is Eternal

Since God doesn’t depend on anything else to exist, he didn’t come to be and he cannot pass away. He is eternal.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2)

God’s timeless existence is the basis for this challenge to the false gods of the nations. Since he is not confined by time, God can tell the future but idols cannot:

Set forth your case, says the LORD;
bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.
Let them bring them, and tell us
what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,
that we may consider them,
that we may know their outcome;
or declare to us the things to come.
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
that we may be dismayed and terrified. (Isaiah 41:21-23; cf. 44:6-7)

God Is Immaterial

I argued that God is not composed of parts, otherwise he would depend on those parts to exist, as well as on someone or something to assemble them. Another way to state the point is that God wasn’t made by anything or anyone else. The pagan shrine makers in Ephesus perceived the stark difference between their conception of god versus Paul’s:

And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. (Acts 19:26)

Since God is immaterial, this is why Scripture presents idolatry as such a grave mistake. To worship something from the created material order as if it could represent God is an outrage  (see Deuteronomy 4:11-19).

God Is Immutable

Because God is (as Aristotle described him) Pure Actuality, there isn’t anything that can be added to God to make him greater than he is, to change him. God is maximally perfect, and in that sense, immutable or unchanging.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)

This is part of what Paul was getting at when he explained to the Athenians that all of their idols and temples were pointless. They contribute nothing to the nature of the true God:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)

God Is Unique

We also explored the reasons why there can only be one such perfect being. The uniqueness of God was the foundational confession of ancient Israel:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

As that which is necessary, God’s status is truly exceptional:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.” (Isaiah 43:10)

God Is the Sustaining Cause of Existence

Another feature of God we discerned from the natural order is that God sustains it in existence moment by moment, like a musician making music. Alluding to a pagan description of God, Paul reminded the Athenians:

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

It is not entirely clear which ancient author Paul had mind, but as Ben Witherington observes, the point is clear:

The point is that God is the source of life and of power for activities, and so humans are radically dependent on this one God for their very being and all that they do. (The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary p. 529)

God Is Personal

While we recognize that to speak of God’s goodness, will, and intellect is to describe something vastly greater than human goodness, will, and intellect, the Bible is emphatic that God is personal.

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6).

God is not merely a being who happens to love.

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

The portrait of God we’ve drawn from logical reasoning and the portrait of God found in Scripture have a great deal in common. But philosophical reflection can only take us so far. After all, Jews, Muslims, and even some pagans have drawn many of these same conclusions. Why should the specific claims of Christianity be accepted?

That is the subject of a new series for next year, Lord willing.

Trinity Tuesdays – The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

The Shield of the Trinity From Wikimedia Commons

The foundational doctrine of the Bible is that there is one true and living God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This prayer, called the Shema (from the Hebrew word for “hear”), was the central confession of Israel.

But just as surely as the Bible teaches there is one God, it also teaches that there is a three-ness to God – that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit. Astonishingly, one of the primary proof texts for this claim is Israel’s ancient creed in Deuteronomy 6:4.   In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, the apostle Paul says:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

According to Paul, the “LORD our God” refers to the Father (“one God”) and also to Jesus Christ” (“one LORD”). This elaboration of the Shema is profound. It says that the one LORD who is God that Israel has always worshiped is the Father and the Son. Continue reading

Calvinism and the Two “Wills” of God

John Calvin, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543)

Those who hold to the Calvinistic concept of predestination believe that God predetermined everything that would happen before the foundation of the world in an eternal and unconditional decree. The Westminster Confession of Faith outlines this decree and its ramifications in this way:

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

In this view, God selected certain sinners to be regenerated and implanted with saving faith, but did not select other sinners for regeneration and faith. Continue reading

In Defense of Theology

I grew up hearing many sermons urging Christians to “speak where the Bible speaks.” And I have embraced that heritage. I’m a “Bible guy.” Almost all of the classes I teach are textual studies, and most of my sermons are expository messages, moving verse by verse through a passage of Scripture.

Thomas Aquinas, An altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy,
by Carlo Crivelli (15th century)

But I also went to a seminary to receive a graduate degree in theology. And for some people from the same background as me, theology is almost a dirty word. And seminaries? Why, they ought to be called cemeteries, because they bury the word of God!!!! More than once I have discussed my grad school experience with friends who have also had some seminary training, only to hear them say something like, “Well, I took as many textual courses as I could, but I stayed away from any of those theology courses” (italics cannot adequately capture the disdain in their voices!).

Why do so many people have this allergic response to theology? Continue reading

Paul vs James? Faith, Works, and Justification

Portrait of Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1529)

In his 1522 Preface to the New Testament Martin Luther expressed his reservations about the book of James, which he described as an “epistle of straw.” He had questions about the identity of its author, but he was even more troubled by its seeming contradiction with the teaching of Paul on justification. At one point Luther offered to give his doctor’s beret to any man who could reconcile the teaching of Paul and James. 

On the surface, it is easy to see why Luther was so perplexed. In Romans 3:29 Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Yet in James 2:24 we read, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” We have basically two options: either Paul and James contradict each other, or they are using the same terms to mean different things .

And I believe this latter approach is correct. Continue reading