The Immutable God Who Cares. Part 1

James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” [παρ ᾧ οὐκ ἔνι παραλλαγὴ ἢ τροπῆς ἀποσκίασμα, par hō ouk eni parallagē ē tropēs aposkiasma]

During my younger days, I used to dabble in linguistic philosophy (obviously in an amateurish way) and German historical criticism of the Bible. However, the forays into these avant garde trends left me with a sense of spiritual desiccation. It was in the midst of theological ennui that I stumbled on Abraham Heschel’s seminal work, The Prophets. I was swept by the spiritual and fervent vitality that flows through Heschel’s powerful and passionate prose.

However, Heschel’s exposition of the prophet’s teaching of the pathos of God both excited and troubled me. It is exhilarating to realize that God has a stake in the human situation. This is a stunning contrast to the god of the Greeks. For example, Aristotle taught that God is entirely self-centred. “It would be out of question for men to attempt personal intercourse with Him…those are wrong who think that there can be a friendship towards God. For (a) God could not return our love, and (b) we could not in any case be said to love God…He does not know this world and no Divine plan is fulfilled in this world. [Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy. Vol.1 pt.2 Greece and Rome (Double Day Image Book, 1962), pp. 59-61]

In contrast, the pathos of the God of the biblical prophet assures us that God intimately and passionately cares about human welfare. This assurance will certainly generate hope for believers who find themselves feeling hopeless as they are psychologically crushed in the midst of dire situations. It was this discovery that led me to explore further the theology of the suffering God in contemporary theology. Eventually, I wrote a thesis on Karl Barth soteriology and on Moltmann on the “theology of hope and the crucified God.” However, I concluded that Moltmann’s theology of the suffering God is untenable in the light of biblical exegesis and philosophical theology.

It is evident that the Bible describes a God who not only reveals himself in history; he is also intimately involved with their welfare. Abraham Heschel’s poignant description of the pathos of God toward his creatures is unparalleled. [See his book, The Prophets. Harper & Row, 1962, reprint ed. 2001]

 God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in Him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world in detachment. He reacts in an intimate and subjective manner, and thus determines the value of events…This notion that God can be intimately affected, that He possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God. [pp. 288-289]

The God of the philosophers is like the Greek ananke, unknown and indifferent to man; He thinks, but does not speak; He is conscious of Himself, but oblivious of the world; while the God of Israel is a
God Who loves, a God Who is known to, and concerned with, man. He not only rules the world in the majesty of His might and wisdom, but reacts intimately to the events of history. He does not judge men’s deeds impassively and with aloofness; His judgment is imbued with the attitude of One to Whom those actions are of the most intimate and profound concern. God does not stand outside the range of human suffering and sorrow. He is personally involved in, even stirred by, the conduct and fate of man…Pathos denotes, not an idea of goodness, but a living care; not an immutable example, but an outgoing challenge, a dynamic relation between God and man; not mere feeling or passive affection, but an act or attitude composed of various spiritual elements; no mere contemplative survey of the world, but a passionate summons. [p. 289]

 Pathos, then, is not an attitude taken arbitrarily. Its inner law is the moral law; ethos is inherent in pathos. God is concerned about the world, and shares in its fate. Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature: His willingness to be intimately involved in the history of man. [p. 291. See also pp. 277 ff]

The basic features emerging from the above analysis indicate that the divine pathos is not conceived of as an essential attribute of God, as something objective, as a finality with which man is confronted, but as an expression of God’s will; it is a functional rather than a substantial reality; not an attribute, not an unchangeable quality, not an absolute content of divine Being, but rather a situation or the personal implication in His acts. It is not a passion, an unreasoned emotion, but an act formed with intention, rooted in decision and determination; not an attitude taken arbitrarily, but one charged with ethos; not a reflexive, but a transitive act. To repeat, its essential meaning is not to be seen in its psychological denotation, as standing for a state of the soul, but in its theological connotation, signifying God as involved in history, as intimately affected by events in history, as living care. Pathos means: God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil. He is always partial to justice. It is not a name for a human experience, but the name for an object of human experience. It is something the prophets meet with, something eventful, current, present in history as well as in nature. [pp. 297-298]

Heschel recognizes that the pathos of God raises the question whether God experiences change in himself when he allows himself to be passionately involved with fallen humanity. His cautious answer is that the pathos  of God describes the relations created by God with his creatures rather than  one of the essential attributes of God.

The prophets never identify God’s pathos with His essence, because for them the pathos is not something absolute, but a form of relation. Indeed, prophecy would be impossible were the divine pathos in its particular structure a necessary attribute of God. If the structure of the pathos were immutable and remained unchanged even after the people had “turned,” prophecy would lose its function, which is precisely so to influence man as to bring about a change in the divine pathos of rejection and affliction. [p. 298]

Heschel is echoing the dominant teaching of classical Christian theism which affirms the dynamism of the immutability of God.  Thomas Aquinas emphasizes that the immutability of God does not mean that he is static, or inactive, but precisely because he is act pure and simple (actus purus), he is so dynamic, so active that no change can make him more active. /1/

The immutable God who is ceaselessly engaged in activity also cares about his creation. G. L. Prestige observes that the Church Fathers taught that,

Just as God is supreme in power and wisdom, so is He morally supreme, incapable of being diverted or overborne by forces and passions such as commonly hold sway in the creation and among mankind. The word chosen to express this moral transcendence is ‘impassible (ἀπᾰθής)…Impassibility then implies perfect moral freedom, and is a supernatural endowment properly belonging to God alone…It is clear that impassibility means not that God is inactive or uninterested, not that He surveys existence with Epicurean impassivity from the shelter of a metaphysical insulation, but that His will is determined from within instead of being swayed from without. It safeguards the truth that the impulse alike in providential order and in redemption and sanctification comes from the will of God. If it were possible to admit that the impulse was wrung from Him either by the needs or by the claims of His creation, and that thus whether by pity or by justice His hand was forced, He could no longer be represented as absolute…there is no sign that divine impassibility was taught [by the early Church Fathers] with any view of minimising the interest of God in His creation or His care and concern for the world that He had made. In fact, any such theory is manifestly absurd. [G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (SPCK, 1952), pp. 6-7, 11]

J.K. Mozley agrees:

The divine substance, as simple and eternal, was necessarily impervious to the disintegrating tendencies of the passions. A change in it would be from the good to the less good…To suppose that Christian thinkers carelessly passed over all that seems to involved in our belief in God’s loving care, His fatherly providence, and moral purposefulness, would be the greatest injustice both to their word and to their thought. [J.K. Mozley, The Impassibility of God (Cambridge UP, 1926), p. 42]

Nevertheless, some contemporary theologians reject classical theism because they insist that God should not understood exclusively in terms of unchanging substance. Indeed, for these theologians, God himself is subject to change since he displays dynamic and personal qualities that allow him to enter into free and real interaction with the world. However, these theologians fail to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between the eternal being of God and his creative activity which is temporal since time is concomitant with creation. Likewise, God displays his wrath against men who sin and rebel against him, but he also extends his love and mercy toward those men who repent. In both situations, God remains consistent with his nature as holy-love.

To conclude, the immutability of God should not be reduced to static unchanging and uncaring, inert essence. The change in God’s temporal activity is not an indication of a change in the being or essence of God. It is an indication of change in the dynamic relationship between God and man. While God does not change or acquire new attributes, he does create or acquire new relationships in his interactions with the world.

Malachi 3:6: “For I, the LORD, do not change [לֹא שָׁנִיתִי, lō˒ s̊ānîṯî]; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”

/1/ Thomas Aquinas’ argument for the immutability of God may be summarized as follows: God being is self-existing (aseity). He is the ground of his own existence and has no need for an extrinsic cause for its being. There is no potency to be actualized in God, not because he has fully actualized all his potential, because he is actus purus. God is perfect not because he has reached some limit of perfectability, but he is perfection itself. Aquinas explains, “since God is infinite, comprehending in Himself all the plenitude of perfection of all being, He cannot acquire anything new.” [Summa Theologiae I.9.1] Thus God is immutable.


2 thoughts on “The Immutable God Who Cares. Part 1”

  1. Thank you, dear brother. You are striking head-on a critical doctrine for our time.

  2. Hi Phil,
    Just a small contribution to address a great gap in Christian theology today. In general, seminaries neglect the teaching of historical theology. The result is superficial understanding of the doctrine of God in church. Not surprisingly, church leaders & pastors find it difficult to counter faulty (to put it mildly) doctrines like open theism, incipient modalistic Trinitarianism and tri-theism, Hegelian inspired panentheism etc.

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