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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Can God Change?

The opportunity to explore
I am glad we live in an age where we are allowed to ask questions without having our heads cut off, or being excommunicated by the theological thought police. It's one of the many advantages of living in a post-modern world. (Don't get me wrong, there are more disadvantages than advantages).

In a bygone age, if you began to explore something (and every exploration begins by asking questions that can be misunderstood in and of themselves) you had to do it in secret lest you were branded a heretic and lost ye head before ye had a chance to reach a mature understanding. 

Did God change with the Incarnation?
The question I want to ask is Can God change? And in particular did he change with the Incarnation? Actually, it's a smaller question, I'm interested in. Can we say that God acquired experiential understanding and empathy with us humans by the Son of God being born as a man? I mean, while the God who knows all things, knew what we pass through as human beings before the Son of God came to earth, was that knowledge more theoretical before the incarnation and more experiential afterwards?

Can we say that since the incarnation, God understands our human plight in a way he did not before?

The reason some people might not like this is because it implies change in God, and God is, in the language of the theologians impassible (without passions [old word for emotions], without the ability to change. If he was to change, goes the argument, then he would be a different God after the change than before, and that's impossible. Why is it impossible? Two reasons, The first is Scriptural -Malachi 3:6 says "I the Lord do not change", The second is human logic, particularly from the Greeks, which states that God cannot change).

Why God is impassible, according to the theologians
The earliest theologians said God could not change for at least three reasons. (1) They were wanting to protect God from being likened to all the Greek and Roman gods who were just blown up human monsters. So God, they argued could not change as we change. They wanted to protect God from human sinful passions, and in that they were absolutely right. (2) The Scriptures make it clear that God does not change, "I the Lord do not change" (Malachi 3:6), but we need to explore what that means. Certainly God does not change in his character and promises, but that does not mean he cannot feel emotions. The Bibles says he is angry and that he laughs (Psalm 2). (3) Human logic. The Greeks thought that everything above the earth was perfect and unchangeable (for that reason they hindered astronomy for ages, the orbits of the planets are ellipses, not perfect circles for example), and there is a tendency to follow the Greeks (=follow human logic) and tie God up if you don't understand him. So, if the Bible says God cannot change and the Bible also says God can be angry (which surely implies a temporary change from non-anger to anger) it's safer to say "God cannot change" than to allow any ambiguity. We want to tie God down to our understanding. Dangerous?

Change can co-exist with no-change
But surely we can accommodate both change and no change.  No change in his character and promises, but change in the sense of angry/not angry. An illustration might help....

DC + AC?
There are two kinds of current, direct (dc)  and alternating (ac). And you can add them together. When you do, you always have the stable dc part there, never changing. But superimposed upon it is an alternating current which does change. Change and no change happily coexist.

God could be unchanging and changing at the same time. 

And surely the incarnation implies some kind of change in God. For before the incarnation God did not have a human nature, but afterwards the Son did. In the words of an old theologian, "He continued to be what he always was and became what he was not." That is somewhere in the "change" spectrum, surely.

So back to the question, Did God change with the Incarnation?
Does God understand us better now than he did before the incarnation?  I would argue "yes". Because we were made in the image of God, all the emotions we have are pale reflections of God's emotions, so God did not have to add an understanding of emotions to his experiential knowledge. But since Jesus came into a broken sinful painful world as a man, he experienced things such as physical temptations (turn those stones into bread) and physical pain, that God had never experienced before. And indeed that is exactly why he came into the world, to live our life, carry our sorrows, and ultimately to die our death.

Does it really matter if the Son of God coming to earth is 'change' or 'not change'? We can put it in the mystery category and simply rejoice that in heaven we now have a great high priest who is able to sympathize with us because he has been tempted as we are yet without sin. We can come to God's throne of grace with confidence knowing that our Great High Priest understands our plight and longs to pour out his grace and help.

In the end, as with so many of these 'debates' it is not really about head stuff, it's about simple heart stuff: because Jesus understands our sorrows we can go - even boldly! - to him in prayer.

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