Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Is God Immutable?

Immutability means never changing. I recently heard a minister declare during the Sunday morning preaching hour: “Our God will never change!” Is that true, do you suppose? As is the case with all things religious: it depends on whom you ask. The minister declared what he (and his congregation?) believed about God. Others, of course, may not share that view. The question, however, is interesting and it may yet be a question that will remain open in spite of the heat of opinion on both sides of the answers.

With respect to the Greek Gods who frequently changed their shapes to encounter human beings and hence appeared frequently in disguise, Plato argued the following:

God is altogether sincere and true in deed and word, and neither changes himself nor deceives others by visions or words or the sending of signs in waking or in dreams.1

His rationale is that God is perfect and has no need to change. Therefore “any change must be for the worse. For God’s Goodness is perfect.”2

In his Republic, Plato dismisses the idea found in Greek myth and poetry that the gods can change in any way. Rather, Plato argues, God is perfect and cannot and does not change. For if a god is already the best possible in these respects, a god cannot change for the better. But being perfect includes being immune to change for the worse — too powerful to have it imposed without permission and too good to permit it. Thus, a god cannot improve or deteriorate, making any change within God impossible. Following Plato, the idea that God is perfect and cannot change became widely accepted among philosophers. Aristotle also accepted the idea that God was perfect and unchanging and it became a central point of his philosophy, which would influence philosophers and theologians throughout the Middle Ages.3

The view that God (the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible) will never change is still popular today. There are a number of passages in the Bible that are usually cited as confirming the idea that God does not change. For example, Malachi, the prophet, quotes God (translated into KJV language) as saying: “For I the Lord do not change” (3:6).4

            As happens, however, so often, between texts written over hundreds of years apart, if one looks long enough one will find contradictory ideas. Here are a number of biblical texts that (surprisingly) depict God as changing.5

When God saw what they did how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it. (RSV Jonah 3:10)

The Lord God repented concerning this; “It shall not be, “said the Lord. (RSV Amos 7:3)

The Lord repented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God. (Amos 7:6)

And if it [a nation] does evil in my sight not listening to my voice, then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it. (Jer 18:10)

And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exod 32:14)

The word of the Lord came to Samuel: I repent that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments. (1 Sam 15:11, 35)6

Where should these passages leave us? Do we change our minds about God? Do we change our minds about the Bible, or do we try to explain them away in some way? For they clearly describe God as changing.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Plato, The Republic (P. Shorey, trans.; 2 vols; New York: Putnam, 1930), 1.2.382-83 (p. 197). My translation, in part. For another translation, see H. D. P. Lee, trans., Plato, The Republic (Penguin, 1955), p. 121.

2Shorey, p. 191; Lee, p. 119.


4Here are a few other passages cited in support of the idea that God does not change: Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, Ps 33:4, Ps 90:2, Ps 102:25-27, Ps 119:89-90, Isa 40:8, Isa 40:28, 2 Tim 2:13, Heb 13:8, Jas 1:17.

5F. Brown, S. R Driver, C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1968), p. 637. The Hebrew word used in these passages carries the English concept of “be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent, of one’s own doings,” in other words to change.

6Here are a few more passages reflecting the idea that God can and does change: Gen: 6:6-7; 2 Sam 24:16; Ps 106:40-46; Jer 18:8; Jer 26:3, 13, 19; Jer 42:10; Joel 2:13-14; Jonah 4:2; Zech 8:14.


Anonymous said...

Mutability can be a good thing. An immutable god of ancient literature certainly becomes an irrelevant god in a modern world. The gods of literature tend to be forever stuck in a particular time and culture. The idea that “God” doesn’t change in a changing world is probably a factor in the fear that fueled fundamentalism.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

My view is that a changing God is just another way of saying that deity is humanity writ large. The key question is, "What values are being supported in the change decisions?" We are currently riding a tide of change in which the highest value is the ever-greater development of artificial intelligence. Scary, real scary. But there's no way to stop it at some reasonable point. If something can be done it will be done - if there's a Mind behind human development that must be its core motive.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.