Immutability and Reformed Theology

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. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:11; Num. 11:1; Deut. 13:7; Exod. 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. 41:4; 43:10; Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 15:29; James 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 bring 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 true being. 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, it is because God is immutable—true being without any potential for nonbeing or for change—that 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 32:9-10 and 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 which 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” (ST 371).

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, etc.). 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.

And yet, in another sense, we must speak of God changing. In his atemporal or supratemporal existence (outside of time or beyond time), God is immutable. “But when God enters time, as theophany, incarnate Son, or merely as present in time, he looks at his creation from within and shares the perspectives of his creatures” (ST 376). As God is with us, then, he is able to look at events as past, present, and future. “He views the passing of time as we do, as a process” (ST 376).

This means that we should not write off all the “relenting” language as simply “anthropomorphic.” While there is “some truth in that description” as it describes things from an atemporal perspective, the anthropomorphic label is not helpful in describing God as an actor in history. Here God’s activity is closely analogous to human behavior. As an agent in history, God himself changes (ST 377). “God is not merely like an agent in time. He really is in time, changing as others change. And we should not say that his atemporal, changeless existence is more real than his changing existence in time, as the term anthropomorphic suggest. Both are real” (ST 377).

Key to Frame’s understanding of immutability is the difference between “God’s atemporal and historical existences” (ST 377). From the beginning of creation itself, God has acted in temporal sequence. He creates and names from one creation day to the next, acting and responding to his own act, changing his interests over time according to his unchanging plan (ST 377). While Frame acknowledges that his approach to immutability “bears a superficial resemblance to process theology, which also recognizes two modes of existence in God,” he excoriates process theology for having an impersonal God whose transcendence and omniscience are diminished beyond scriptural recognition.

Compare and Contrast

So what can we say about the doctrine of immutability in Bavinck and Frame?

There are a number of important similarities.

  1. Both handle the same biblical texts, recognizing that divine immutability is taught in a number of passages, while also recognizing that many verses speak of God’ relenting, repenting, or otherwise seeming to change.
  2. Both agree that God is unchanging in his essence, knowledge, and will. God’s attributes do not change. His understanding cannot grow or diminish. His eternal purposes will always stand and can never be thwarted.
  3. Both affirm that for God to be God he must be without change (in some sense). At the same time, we must allow (in another sense) that God participates in life with his creatures.

Much more could be said about the similarities. Their shared insistence on the importance of immutability should not be taken for granted.

And yet, the differences between Bavinck and Frame are not insignificant.

  1. Their rhetorical structures as almost exact opposites. Bavinck starts briefly with the problem of a relenting God, but then spends most of his discussion emphasizing the importance of immutability. Frame starts briefly with the reality of immutability, but then spends most of his discussion explaining how we must take seriously the relenting side of God. Even if many of their overall points are the same, the errors they feel burdened to combat are quite different.
  2. Frame does not employ scholastic terms like pursus actua, potentia, and causus sui.
  3. Bavinck has no place for affirming change in God himself. People and things change in relationship to God, but any description of God changing must be understood anthropomorphically. By contrast, Frame considers the anthropomorphic label too weak to describe how God relates to the world he has made. As an actor in history, God himself changes.
  4. This last point—which is a significant difference itself—underscores an even bigger difference between Bavinck and Frame. For Frame, God has two different modes of existence: an atemporal existence in which he does not change, and a temporal existence in which he does change. And both existences are real. “God is inside and outside of the temporal box, a box that can neither confine him nor keep him out” (ST 367). Consequently, Frame can affirm that while God does not change in his essence, knowledge, or will, as an actor in history God experiences changes just as we do (or something very close to it). As for Bavinck, he too is eager to make sure that God’s transcendence does not swallow up his immanence. God is not eternally static, he says, neither inert nor immobile. Indeed, God is present in every moment of time (RD 2:163). But this does not mean God has a temporal existence alongside an atemporal existence. Rather, it means “God pervades time and every moment of time with his eternity” (RD 2:164). God does not need a separate temporal existence in order to relate to temporal beings.  He cannot be subject to time, measure, or number and still be God. His eternity is an eternal present without past or future. In short, “He remains eternal and inhabits eternity, but uses time with a view to manifesting his eternal thoughts and perfections” (RD 2:164).

One can see how these differences in the doctrine of immutability quickly touch (and are touched by) a host of other attributes. Competing views of immutability are bound up with competing notions of infinity, impassibility, and simplicity. Take simplicity, for example. If God is whatever God has, as the traditional doctrine states—that is, if every attribute of God is identical with his essence—then it does not make sense to say that God can undergo a change of any kind (atemporal or temporal) that does not also imply a change in essence. There is no change that is accidental to God because divinity is, by definition, that true being which can admit no accidents. Likewise, if God takes on new qualities viz a viz his interaction with creation (i.e., if God begins to be Creator or begins to experience intrinsic time or begins anything he did not already have), it calls into question God’s infinite perfection.

But I’m getting into Dolezal’s argument when I said I would stay clear of evaluation. So, let me close this post as I did the last by reiterating that there are real differences here about key doctrines. If we can be clear about what those differences are, we can start to analyze whether the differences are insurmountable and how each position squares (or not) with the Reformed tradition and with the Bible.