Ask Pastor Dave: Does God Change His Mind?

q-aThis question is actually quite complex. It’s one that is hotly debated among theologians, and various answers have been proposed – some orthodox, some not. On the one hand the Scriptures teach that God does not change (Mal. 3:6; Numb. 23:19; Titus 1:2), yet the Bible also says that God regrets (Gen. 6:6), relents (Jer. 18:8-9; Jonah 3:9), and essentially changes His mind (Ex. 32:14). How, then, should we resolve this tension? In part the answer depends on several related ideas: the nature of change, the nature of God, the nature of God’s relationship to the world, the nature of the future, and the nature of the Scriptural language. I believe two possible answers do justice to the whole of Scripture and are within the bounds of orthodox Christian belief.

The first response seeks to clarify carefully the nature of Scriptural language. The Scriptures need to be understood in light of the Creator/creature distinction. Faithful Christian teachers and theologians across the centuries have understood the Bible to be accommodated language – that is analogical. God speaks to us in ways that make sense to us. So, then, the Scriptures are full of what we call anthropomorphisms and anthropoathisms. When we examine the Scriptural language we must wrestle with how language in the finite realm applies to the infinite God of the universe. When God calls himself a shepherd, or a rock what does He mean? We understand that God is speaking to us in ways that make sense to us, but which are not univocal. God intends to communicate truths about himself to us that lead us by the hand to who He is. They accommodate to our finitude. They are true, but not exhaustive, they are correct but not univocal. This can help us think critically and carefully about the language of God’s changing His mind.

The Bible is always to be read in light of the Bible. This is called the Principle or Rule of the Analogy of Faith. Scripture interprets Scripture. This means as we read passages that speak of God’s being surprised, or His relenting, or His changing mind, we have to make sense of their relationship to other characteristics of God, like His sovereignty and omniscience. Any interpretation of the texts that assert God’s changing must be understood in relation to these other characteristics of God. So, one answer to this question may assert that the language of God’s relenting or changing His mind, or being surprised are anthropopathisms, designed to communicate to us truths about God that are correct if not literal. They communicate deep truths of God in ways that we can understand but which are not univocal. So, God’s changing His mind is not exactly like our shifts in thinking. God is a rock, but not exactly a rock. God is powerful, but not exactly like we are powerful. Examining this question through the lens of analogical language can help us better understand the answer in a way that is consistent with orthodox belief about God.

A second possible answer looks at the nature of God’s relationship to the world. When we speak of the God of Scripture we recognize that He exists outside of time. He is not bound to time like we are, but lives above it. He is eternal. He knows the future, and sees the beginning and the end. He knows the number of our days and has even predetermined them. Yet, the Bible also reveals that God operates in time with us. He interacts in the world He has made. He is not a distant deity far off watching things unfold. No, he steps into time and speaks to His people, walks with Adam, brings down justice, and most notably incarnates Himself in Jesus. God interacts in time; He is an actor in history. God is unchanging, then, in His essence and nature, yet experiences change in time with us. So, John Frame explains:

History involves constant change, and so, as an agent in history, God himself changes. On Monday he wants a certain thing to happen, and on Tuesday he wants something else to happen. He is grieved one day and pleased the next. In my view, this is more than just anthropomorphic description. In these accounts, 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 might suggest. Both are real. Neither form of existence contradicts the other. God’s transcendence never compromises his immanence, nor do his control and authority compromise his covenant presence. (The Doctrine of God, 571)

We can see God’s changing in time when we consider His relationships to changing people. We are born children of wrath (Eph. 2:3), and God judges us and condemns us in such a state. Yet, when we profess faith in God, His relationship to us changes. We are not now children of wrath, but children of promise. He blesses us, in this relationship, with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). God has built into His relationships with humanity this possibility of relational change.

Another significant example is found in the writings of the prophets. God often establishes conditional prophecies. For example, we read in Jeremiah:

Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. (18:5-10)

Notice several things about this passage. It is set within the context of the Potter/Clay analogy, one of the strongest analogies for divine sovereignty in the Scriptures. God’s relenting is still within His sovereign control. Notice also that this prophecy is not a certain prediction, but rather a warning to Israel. As the relationships of people to God in real-time change, so God changes His interactions with them. Think of Nineveh. God’s nature and essence do not change, then, but God does change in his relationships.

There are, of course, other responses to God that are not orthodox. Responses that communicate God as always in process, or as undefinable, or as random. Such theologies are not consistent with the Scriptural picture. Answers that assert God’s inability to know and control the future, or which assert that God can make mistakes are out of step with the self-revelation of God in the Bible. The answers above, though different, assert possible solutions to this tension in Scripture. Either way we may conclude two great truths about the God of the Bible: (1) He is unchanging in His essence, and (2) He does genuinely interact with His people in real-time because He loves us.

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