Does God Change?

Introduction
In Reformed theology, the doctrine of God is at the headwaters. What we say about God touches every locus of theology. It shapes our theology, piety, and practice. When we say that humans are created in the image of God, we cannot understand that until we know something about God. When we speak of sin and redemption, we can only understand that in light of what we say about God’s justice and mercy. When we speak of Christ as true God and true man, we do so in light of our doctrine of God.

Theology is not purely theoretical. There are always practical consequences to our theology. For example, when I first began studying Reformed orthodoxy 20 years ago one of the things that struck me right away was the way that Reformed writers would teach the doctrine of God and then move to worship. That is how I began to see the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), i.e., our principle of worship that says that we worship God only in the way he has commanded (either explicitly or by good and necessary inference). One essential component of our understanding of the second commandment is our understanding of who and what God is to us. The God who regulates and authorizes our worship is he who is holy, righteous, infinite, eternal, spiritual, simple, immense, and immutable. We approach him in worship with reverence and awe because he alone is God. The church’s authority is not original. It is derivative. This is why we confess sola Scriptura. We begin with God’s Word as the unique, sole norm of the Christian faith and the Christian life. This is why we say Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory), because he is sovereign and we but creatures. He is infinite and we are finite.

One aspect of the biblical and historic Christian doctrine of God that has come under criticism from various quarters is the teaching that God is immutable, i.e., that God does not change. In modern theology (as distinct from confessional Reformed theology that is done in the modern period) it is considered axiomatic that everything changes and that, in some way, God is also in process. It is widely thought by modernist theologians that God is, in some way, becoming, that he is in some way contingent upon us. Some evangelicals have attempted mediating positions between these views and the traditional or “classical” doctrine of God. Recently, some influential Reformed writers from within the confessional (NAPARC) world have also sought to modify the classical view.
In view of these developments, I offer a brief two-part survey of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the immutability of God.

Biblical Proofs
Systematic theology works both from the explicit teaching of Scripture and from good and necessary inferences.

James 1:17 (ESV):

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

In its original context, this declaration comes after James has reminded his hearers (and now us, his readers) that God is not like us. We ought to persevere but we do not. We are fickle, we change but God does not. We are double minded but God is not. According to 1:11, flowers fade but God does not. We are tempted, we sin but God is not and does not (v. 14). We must not be deceived (v 16). All good gifts come from our utterly faithful and immutable God. He is reliable because he does not change. In his sovereign providence, he controls all things but is not controlled by them. He is the Creator (v. 18) not the creature.
Hebrews 13:8 (ESV): “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

The pastor writing to Jewish Christians who were tempted to turn back to the Old Covenant and to turn away from Christ reminds them that though they are tempted to be faithless to him who died, who was raised, he is not so. He does not change. He is the “I AM” and he who said to Moses (Exod 3) “I am that I am.” He is worthy of their trust because he is immutable.
Hebrews 6:17–18 (ESV):

So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things (δυο πραγματων αμεταθετων), in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.

Christians may rest safely in God’s promises because he is faithful not only in his intentions but in his nature. By nature he unchangeable. God swore by himself. He is immutable. Therefore his oath/promise is immutable and therefore reliable.

God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)

This is substantially the same teaching we see in James chapter 1 and in the other passages but expressed rhetorically, i.e., in rhetorical questions. The expected answer is, no, God is not a man. Therefore, in contrast to humans, who do change and lie, God, who is not human, who does not have “parts or passions” (i.e., he is simple and he doesn’t suffer change) is not mutable and therefore he does not lie.

The first proof text to which Thomas Aquinas appealed in his Summa Theologiae (1a 9.1) under this heading, “immutability,” is Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”

We will return to this passage later but suffice it to say for now that the most basic premise of the passage is that humans change but God does not. That is why is threats and promises are reliable.

From passages such as these Louis Berkhof concluded that the doctrine of immutability is

…a necessary concomitant of his aseity. It is that perfection of God by which he is devoid of all change, not only in his Being, but also in his perfections, and in his purposes and promises.

The biblical God is neither identified with history nor subject to it. This is not to say that he is cold or remote from our needs, he is after all our heavenly Father from whom we ask and receive our daily bread and forgiveness of sins. That is why we confess in Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 26:

26. What do you believe when you say: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that in them is, who likewise upholds and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father, in whom I so trust, as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this vale of tears, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.

The God whom we trust is eternal. He is our Father for the sake of Christ alone, his eternally begotten Son, in whom, by his grace alone, through faith alone, we who believe are adopted sons. That same God upholds and governs. If he is mutable, even in the slightest—there is no such thing as a little mutability. If God changes at all, even in the slightest, he changes completely. It’s binary matter—then he is of no help. We trust him because he is reliable and he is reliable because he does not change. The God who is immutable, is sovereign. He determines all things and his sovereign providence is such that we may even speak of him sending “evil” upon us. He is so powerful and powerfully involved that he actively turns that evil to our good, to our benefit and we can trust that he does so because he is sovereignly immutable.

History Of The Doctrine
The early Fathers articulated Christian theology, i.e., their understanding of the teaching of Scripture in a context that was dominated by paganism. The gods of the pagans are nothing if not mutable. Read the classical myths. Against the pagans they asserted the immutability of God. Over against the dualism of Manichaeans (i.e., the notion that there are two great competing principles, good and evil), the fathers asserted the utter uniqueness, simplicity, and immutability of God. Against the Gnostics they asserted that God does not become more or less than he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was, is, and shall be what he is. Augustine reflects on God’s immutability repeatedly in his Confessions (c. 397–98). One of the prima facie problems with the thesis that Christianity was unduly affected with “Greek thought” (whatever that is) in its doctrine of divine immutability—which is the basis for the charge that the historic Christian doctrine makes God “static”—is that it fails to account for the antithesis between Christianity and the surrounding paganism of the period. The irony of teaching that God is mutable is that it tends to make God, were it possible, into one of the Greco-Roman pagan deities.

The Catholic (Universal) Creeds
In the Nicene-Constantinopolian Creed (325; 381 AD) we confess that God is “almighty” (παντοκράτορα). He is Creator of all things. He is uncreated. It never entered the minds of the Nicene fathers (et seq) that when they said, “almighty” they meant “almighty but mutable). They intended us to think exactly the opposite. When the Definition of Chalcedon (451) declares that our Lord Jesus Christ is “perfect” (τέλειον) in Godhead and perfect in manhood” and “the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence” it assumes that we understand what it means to say, deity and humanity. Jesus is one person with two natures. His deity is immutable and his humanity mutable. Jesus was beaten. He did suffer but we cannot say that God suffered (Dei passionism) but we can say that the one person of Jesus suffered. What we say about either of the natures of Christ we can say about the person but not the reverse.

This is another illustration of how the doctrine of God reverberates throughout the rest of our theology. In this case, Christology. Any revision of one’s doctrine of God entails a revision of Christology, anthropology, and soteriology. A new doctrine of God means a new religion.

The Athanasian Creed (7th century) means to teach us the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology but it necessarily begins with and assumes certain predicates or attributes of God. We say “but of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit there is one divinity: equal in glory and co-eternal in majesty” (Sed Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti una est divinitas: æqualis gloria, coæterna majestas). The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are uncreated (increatus). The Trinitarian persons have no beginning, no point (as it were) at which they were not. They just are, as they are, and what they are to each and to us. When we confess “co-equal in majesty” and “co-eternal” the clear implication is that majesty and eternal glory is immutable. We say that God is “immense,” i.e., as Louis Berkhof has it, “that perfection of the Divine Being by which he transcends all spatial limitations, and yet is present in every point of space with his whole being.” God cannot be immense and mutable. He is immutable immense and thus incomprehensible, which is the traditional translation of the Latin text of the Athanasian (Immensus Pater: immensus filius: immensus [et] Spiritus Sanctus). Finally, for our purposes here, we note that the Athanasian says that God is “omnipotent” (Similiter omnipotens Pater: omnipotens Filius: omnipotens [et] Spiritus Sanctus). If he is mutable, if he is more or less or something other than what he is, then he is not omnipotent. In the catholic creeds any theory of divine mutability runs into a serious obstacle.

Reformed Orthodoxy
Richard Muller writes,

The conception of divine immutability is certainly a mark of continuity between the Reformers and the Protestant orthodox—indeed, it is a mark of continuity in the thought of the church from the time of the fathers through the seventeenth century. For Augustine, immutability was a necessary corollary of the divine self-existence declared in Exodus 3:14: “That which is called ‘IS’ and not only is called such, but also is so, is unchangeable: it remains forever, it cannot be changed, it is in no part corruptible.” This intimate relationship between the divine self-existence and the assumption of immutability, moreover, remained at the heart of the doctrine in both the era of the Reformation and the era of orthodoxy (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3.271).

As his survey of the sources suggests, as anyone who has read them knows, the Reformed orthodox affirmed divine immutability clearly and unequivocally. E.g., regarding Petrus van Mastricht, Muller writes,

In Mastricht’s order, the first three of these attributes, spirituality, simplicity, and immutability, together with the divine aseity, belong to a “primary class” of divine attributes and answer the basic question, Quid sit Deus? Spirituality is treated first on the understanding that the other terms follow from the biblical truth that “God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24)—the text that provides Mastricht with his exegetical foundation for the discussion. Indeed, simplicity follows among the consectaria of spirituality, stated as a second theorem of the locus with no new exegetical point of departure. (Immutability follows, in clear logical relation, but with a new exegetical foundation, namely, James 1:17). (ibid., 3.272).

My thesis is that Open Theism or any other theory that posits change in God constitutes nothing less than a radical revision of the Biblical doctrine of God and a rejection of catholic doctrine held by most Fathers, Medieval theologians, Reformers and the Orthodox theologians of the 17th century.

Insofar as the evangelical theology turned in the 18th century away from the objective to the subjective, to our experience, It is not entirely surprising that contemporary (neo) evangelicals would lose interest in an immutable God. Cornelius van Til (1895–1987) warned us 70 years ago that the evangelicals would default. We Reformed, Van Til said, begin with the triune God, with divine revelation and the objective work of Christ for sinners. The evangelicals, he warned, begin with religious experience.

It is surprising, however, that Reformed theologians would play with such fire. Immutability is not a purely Reformed concern. It was The Lutheran orthodox theologian Johann Gerhard (1582–1637), whom you will not confuse for a Reformed theologian, who said,

…Deity is incapable of suffering, or of change, and interchange; therefore suffering cannot be ascribed to it. Deity pertains to the entire Trinity;…but if, therefore, Deity in itself were said to have suffered, the entire Trinity would have suffered, and the error of the Sabellians and Patripassians would be reproduced in the Church.

Further, both the Lutherans and the Reformed affirm the doctrine of immutability, which is of the essence of the doctrine of impassability, in nearly identical terms. The Solid Declaration (of the Formula of Concord) speaks repeatedly of the “eternal, immutable righteousness of God” and an “eternal, immutable order” and God’s “immutable will.”

In fact all of our great theologians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, have taught the doctrines of impassability (i.e., God does not suffer) and immutability (i.e., God does not change).

The Scriptures and our theology teaches that there is no potential in God (God is actus purus). He is fully realized. He is not in therapy, he is not finding himself. The God of the Bible and the Christian faith knows everything (omniscience), is in charge of everything (omnipotent), eternal and triune.

Mutability, Immutability, And Hermeneutics
The historic Christian doctrine of God is in stark contrast to the view proposed by proponents so-called Open Theism (e.g., Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd). They claim to have constructed a doctrine of God which is more biblical than the historic Christian doctrine.

Upon examination, however, it seems rather that they have adopted a Socinian, biblicist hermeneutic (a way of interpreting Scripture) that has more to do with Socinus than Athanasius and they’ve constructed a doctrine of God that leads to a therapeutic, incompetent, Marcionite god. According to the proponents of Open Theism, God actually repents, halters and changes. The future is genuinely open to God. He is contingent upon us. In this approach, omniscience is redefined to mean that God knows only what can be known. The future (e.g., the free choices of humans), they argue, cannot be known, therefore God cannot know it. He cannot control the future, for that would jeopardize the autonomy and dignity of human persons.

The hermeneutical question is this: If the clearer passages interpret the less clear, which are the clearer and which are the less clear? Traditionally we’ve used didactic passages to interpret narratives. Open Theism reverses this order. They use narratives to norm didactic discourse. Thus, in this view, when the narrative in Genesis 6:6 says that God “repented” that he had made man, they understand that God actually thought one thing, and then, in a successive moment, thought better of it and changed his mind.

In the case of immutability there are two sets of passages. Those who deny the classical Christian doctrine of immutability argue that we must take literally the passages that suggest that God changes and take figuratively those passages that appear to teach immutability.

It is my contention that the ‘change’ passages make the most sense when interpreted against the background of the ‘changeless’ passages since revealed ‘changes’ in God are predicated on his ‘changelessness’ (e.g., Mal 3:6,7)

Immutabilty Passages
Most recognize that there are passages that unequivocally teach that God is immutable.

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Numbers 23:19)

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath (Hebrews 6:17).

Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and forever (Hebrews 13:8 ; See also Mal 3.6,7)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17 ).

Mutability Passages
There are also those passages which seem to suggest that God does change, that he experiences sorrow, joy etc. Genesis 6:6 is a good test.

And Yahweh repented (וַיִּנָּחֶם) that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart (revised from the ESV).

Those who are opposed to the traditional understanding of Scripture say that God literally, actually thought one thing (i.e., the creation of humanity was a good thing) and then, at another moment, he thought something else (i.e., the creation of humanity was not a good thing).

Nacham (to repent; נחם) in Scripture
The verb Nacham has a range of meanings. According to Holladay in the Niph. it signals the range “to regret” (e.g., Gen 6:6.–7; 1 Sam 15:29) but in the Piel and Hithpiel it means “to comfort/console,” (e.g., Gen 5:29; 2 Sam 12:24). Gen 6:6—7 “Yahweh repented (נחם – Niph waw conseq 3s ) that he had made man on the earth…”

Exodus 32:14. “Then Yahweh repented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”
1 Samuel 15:11 Then the word of Yahweh came to Samuel: 11 “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.”…. (See also 1 Sam 15:35)

2 Samuel 24:15–16. So Yahweh sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died.  When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, Yahweh was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of Yahweh was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (see also 1 Chron 21:15).

Psalm 110:4 Yahweh has sworn and will not repent….

Jeremiah 26:13 “Now reform your ways and your actions and obey Yahweh your God. Then Yahweh will relent (Nacham) and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.” (see also 26:19)

Ezekiel 5:13 “Then my anger will cease and my wrath against them will subside, and I will be avenged (Nacham).”

Ezek 24:14 “`I am Yahweh. I have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent (Nacham). You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares Adonai Yahweh.’ ”

Joel 2.13-14 “Return to Yahweh your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity…Who knows? He may turn and have pity (Nacham) and leave behind a blessing–

Amos 7:3,6 “So Yahweh repented/relented.”

Jonah 4:2 “He prayed to Yahweh, “O Yahweh, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. ”

These passages do not intend for us to think that God actually thought one thing and then, in response to human choices, thought something else any more than we are intended to think that God is actually pacific one moment and then, upon seeing Israel commit sin, flies into a rage only to be pacified again by Moses.

Yes, Scripture does use this sort of imagery of God. That is not in dispute. What is at issue is how we should understand such language. The historic Christian way of understanding such imagery is to use the didactic passages to help us understand the narrative passages. The didactic passages give us the baseline, as it were. The narrative passages should be read in light of the didactic. As we read the narrative passages we are expected to remember certain basic truths. God created ex nihilo. He is not actually contingent (either by nature or by choice) upon his image bearers, whom he formed from the dust and into whose nostrils he blew the breath of life.

God does enter into a vital, genuine, dynamic covenant relationship with his people but that covenant does not change his attributes. He knows everything (for us past, present, future) in a single, eternal, act. He is not surprised by our uncoerced choices. They are all part of his eternal, providential decree. He reveals himself as passionate and repenting (turning away in disgust) of us and the like as a way to communicate his eternal, constant, utterly righteous indignation at our sin. We are not to imagine that God was actually surprised. If so, when did he lose his omniscience? When did he become subject to animated dust stamped with his image?

Final Thoughts
Consider the the prima facie difficulty of positing change in God. When did he change? Was it when he said to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Rom 9:17; ESV). According to Paul, Pharaoh was not an autonomous actor upon whom God waited. He was an instrument for God’s glory. Indeed, if we compare this verse with Exodus 9, it seems that the Apostle actually intensifies the problem of evil. In Exodus 9 Scripture says that Yahweh demonstrated to Pharaoh his power. Paul makes Pharaoh not the recipient of the demonstration but an instrument of the demonstration. This is not the way someone writes who thinks that God is contingent upon autonomous, free human actors.

In case Paul’s view isn’t abundantly clear, he continues:

So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—(Romans 9:18–23; ESV)

Who can resist his will indeed? The God described in Exodus 9 and Romans 9 is hardly the incompetent demigod of the Open Theists or of any view that posits change in God. In Paul’s view God is the sovereign, immutable, impassible actor throwing pots on wheels, discarding and keeping as seems right to him. Our recourse is but to adore him. This is not a demigod who is surprised by the free choices of his creatures or who, in himself, feels one thing one moment and feels another thing in the next.

In order to make their case more plausible, the advocates of Open Theism have caricatured the traditional view by giving the impression that it teaches that God is “static,” “immobile,” “impersonal.” We should reply that, when they posit a god who changes, the Open Theists et al are really proposing a Manichaean dualism, in which our wills are one principle and God’s is another. Otherwise they are proposing a  polytheism. Neither alternative is Christian and both are the very sorts of worldviews that Moses intended to combat in Genesis 1–2. The God of Genesis speaks creation into being. He is not contingent upon it nor is he changed by it.

The best way to read these passages is by analogical realism, i.e., with the understanding that there is a genuine analogy between the way God reveals himself and what is true of God as he is in himself (in se), even though we cannot say exactly how the revelation corresponds to reality in God. If we knew exactly how the sign relates to the ultimate reality in God, we wouldn’t be mere humans would we? Our job, if you will, is to understand the intent of the figure, to understand the analogy but not to read the figure woodenly and thus construct another god. This is the historic Christian hermeneutic. Consider the language just two verses away from Genesis 6:6, v. 8. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (ESV).

Does Yahweh have actual, literal, physical eyes? No. That’s a figure for God’s awareness of the created world. It’s an anthropomorphism. One of the earliest Christian heresies was the doctrine that God is bodily. One of the grossest Mormon errors (which Clark Pinnock favored in Most Moved Mover) is the doctrine that God is bodily. Scripture teaches the exact opposite. God is not bodily. He is a Spirit and worshipped in the Son, and in the Spirit (John 4:24). Scripture attributes feet, a nose, and other anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms (human feelings) to God. All these are figures to help us understand our heavenly Father and the God of the covenants. These are homely, simple images. They were never meant to be taken literally, as if the God of the Bible is just like the pagan deities or the Greco-Roman pantheon.

God does not change. The corollary for this is that God does not suffer. This is what we mean when we confess that he is impassible. This doesn’t mean that God does not feel. The adjective “impassible” is the privative of the verb “to suffer” (patior, pati, passus sum). From it we get the noun passion. Our English word denotes a rise in feelings but in theological usage we mean to say that God does not suffer a change in feelings. We don’t mean to say that God has no feelings. Charles Hodge said about God:

[H]e is not a stagnant ocean, but an ever living, ever thinking, ever acting, and ever suiting his action to the exigencies of his creatures, and to the accomplishment of his infinitely wise designs. Whether we can harmonize these facts or not, is a matter of minor importance. We’re constantly called upon to believe the things that are, without being able to tell how they are, or even how they can be. Theologians, in their attempt to state, in philosophical language, the doctrine of the Bible on the unchangeableness of God, are apt to confound immutability with immobility. In denying that God can change, they seem to deny that he can act.

God is what he was, is, and shall be. He just is. He is never more or less than he is. If there is a real analogical relation between the way God reveals himself and what he is in himself, then we may say that God feels but we cannot say how he feels nor may we posit that his feelings change. He is what he is and he will never be anything other than what he is and he is what we need him to be for creation, providence, salvation, and glorification.

There is no such thing as a little bit of mutability in God. If he is a little mutable, then he’s mutable, full stop. The God of the Bible, who covenanted with Abraham to be a God to him and to his seed, who fulfilled that promise in the incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus doesn’t change in his nature, his purposes, or his will. He is immutably good, holy, righteous etc. Whatever he feels is consonant with those attributes.

To posit mutability is to destroy the Biblical doctrine of providence and prayer. God of the Bible speaks reality into existence. He sustains continuously, actively governing and concurring in all actions. If the Open Theists (or other advocates of divine mutability) were right,the world would spin into oblivion and prayer would become a futile exercise. To posit change by suffering in God is to make him into a demigod.

In his fundamental 1983 critique of Open Theism Richard Muller used Malachi 3:6–7 as a test case. Here we have both kinds of passages, so to speak, under one roof: proposition that God does not change and narrative suggesting he does. If the mutability theory cannot account for these passages, then it fails as a hermeneutic.

I Yahweh do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says Yahweh Sabbaoth….

    Yahweh does not change.

  • Israel has ‘changed’ (turned away from his decrees)
  • If Israel repents (changes)
  • God will “change”—i.e., in his relations to them.
  • God has not changed
  • Therefore Israel can rely upon God’s faithfulness to his promise

Israel’s change and God’s own (figurative) change is premised logically upon his actual immutability. If God is actually mutable, if he is actually contingent upon his creatures, then Israel has not basis for trusting his promise that he will respond favorably to Israel’s change.

Thanks to Rich Barcellos for his editorial help with this series. I’m grateful.

The Splendor of the Three-in-One God: The Necessity and Mystery of the Trinity

©1999 Modern Reformation All Rights Reserved. For permission to reprint or re-post contact Modern Reformation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” In contrast to the polytheistic religions of her neighbors, Israel was made deeply conscious of the fact that there is only one God (hence, the term, “monotheism”). The monotheistic doctrine of God is at the headwaters of the Christian faith, but it is the doctrine of the Trinity which makes our doctrine of God distinctively Christian. Islam, one of the world’s fastest growing religions, is monotheistic, but rejects entirely the doctrine of the Trinity as unreasonable. Jewish critics have long regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as polytheistic. Clearly the doctrine of the Trinity is a stumbling block to vast numbers of people, but without it we are no longer Christians. The Trinity is among those doctrines by which heresy (as distinguished from error) against the “catholic, undoubted Christian faith” is properly judged (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 22). Since the fourth century AD, the agreement among orthodox, catholic Christians on the essentials of the doctrine of the Trinity has greatly outdistanced agreement on many other doctrines (e.g., the doctrine of salvation). 1

Given the centrality to our faith of our teaching about the Trinity, it is profoundly ironic that for most believers this doctrine is practically disposable. In my experience, most North American evangelical Christians when asked to state the doctrine of the Trinity (if they can do it at all) will almost always give a heretical answer. The most common heresy among Western Christians has been “modalism,” which is the notion that God is not really one God in three persons, but rather only appears to be three persons. This is what we often teach in our Sunday Schools by way of the illustrations we use which imply that God wears a series of masks (first Father, then Son, then Spirit) or takes different forms under different conditions (e.g., water in solid, liquid, and gas forms). 2

The Christian view of God is, as the Athanasian Creed teaches, that:

…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

As this creed continues, “the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.” In biblical, creedal, and Christian teaching, God is one substance (Deut. 6:4). Whatever it is which makes the Father to be God, is that which makes the Son and the Spirit to be God: “Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost (Athanasian Creed).

At the same time, tri-personality is also essential to the Deity: “For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost” (Athanasian Creed). It is possible to conceive of a god who is unipersonal, but the history of theology shows that any such god would necessarily be impersonal and so transcendent as to be unknowable, which is practical atheism. 3 If we lose God’s tri-personality we forfeit our Christology. We believe that Jesus Christ is God the Son in the flesh, that he is of the same substance as God the Father and God the Spirit. We would also forfeit our Pneumatology (that is, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit) since we also believe that God the Spirit is of the same substance as the Father and the Son. If this is so (and without these truths one cannot be a Christian!), then God must be triune. As the Athanasian Creed puts it: “Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.”

How this can be is a mystery, but it is a necessary mystery. It is necessary because “we are compelled by the Christian verity” to confess this doctrine. It is necessary because: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” (Athanasian Creed). It is a necessary doctrine because our very destiny is at stake, not merely fine points of doctrine.

The Necessity of the Trinity

The way one reads the Bible is intimately related to the God one finds revealed there. Christians, being Trinitarian, read the Bible as a unity. That is, because God is one, the Scriptures are one. If God is revealed to be triune in the New Testament we should expect to find him so revealed in the Old Testament. God’s Word itself recommends this hermeneutic: 1 Peter 1:10-12 teaches us that the same Holy Spirit who inspired Moses and the prophets also inspired the apostles as they interpreted the Law and the Prophets for us.

It also means, as John 1:1 teaches us, that the Son has always been God’s Word. He did not become the Word only in the incarnation, but rather he was the Word “in the beginning.” More than that, he was “with” God the Father, which means that he has always been personally distinct from the Father. At the same time the Word “is God” which means that God the Son and God the Father are, as the Nicene Creed states, “of the same substance” (consubstantial). Thus, the Apostle John teaches us not to read the Son into the Old Testament, but to refuse to read him out of it.

Hence, when we consider the fundamental Israelite confession about God, “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deut. 6:4), we understand that this unity not only permits but entails tri-personality. Indeed, read from the perspective of the New Testament–how else can a Christian read Scripture?–the Old Testament is rich with Trinitarian revelation. The New Testament turns to several places in the Old Testament for its doctrine of the Trinity. Psalm 110 is cited more than any other Old Testament passage (see Matt. 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; Luke 20:42-43; 22:69; Acts 2:34-35; Heb. 1:13; 5:6, 10; 7:17, 21). The psalm speaks of the accession and rule of a Davidic Priest-King. The New Testament, however, focuses consistently on the doctrinal teaching of the psalm and, therefore, regards it as a promise of the ascension and inter-adventual reign of Christ. In that case, the primary reference of the psalm is not (as Peter reminds us in Acts 2:34-35) to David, but to the intra-Trinitarian relations between the Father and the Son and the outworking of those relations in redemptive history.

A second strand of Trinitarian revelation in the Old Testament is the revelation of the Son in the history of redemption in the person of the Angel of the Lord (Malak Yahweh). When the Angel of the Lord appeared he was treated not as a mere heavenly representative of God, but as God himself; he did not reject worship, but accepted it as only God can. (Typically it is only after one has had an encounter with the Angel of the Lord that one realizes that, in fact, it was no mere angel but God himself; see Gen. 16:9-13; 22:11-18; 32:28-30; Ex. 3:2-6; Judges 6:11-14, 22; 13:22.) Both Augustine and Calvin interpreted these manifestations as wonderfully cryptic revelations of God the Son in a pre-incarnate state. 4

John 1:1-3 teaches that when Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we should understand that creation occurred through the agency of God the Son and that his work was essential to the act of creation because the Creator God is triune.

The work of redemption was also a Trinitarian work. Think, for instance, of the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt. On the principle that the God who revealed himself to Israel is triune, and that the Son has always been the Word (God’s authoritative self-revelation), we should consider that it was God the Son who met Moses in the burning bush, and at the top of Mount Sinai: “No one has ever seen God; God the only begotten who is in the bosom of the Father, this one has revealed him” (John 1:18). Jesus declared, “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The writer to the Hebrews teaches that Christ is not only the “radiance of the glory” but the “exact manifestation” of the “divine being” (hypostasis), “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3).

Hebrews 12:18-24 contrasts Mount Sinai with that mountain to which we have come. In so doing, however, it also tells us how we should think about the God who revealed his “hindmost quarters” to Moses. The mountain to which Moses came was covered in darkness, fire, gloom, and storm. In the New Covenant believers have come, however, to thousands of angels, to “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:23-24). Notice how the writer to the Hebrews uses a series of parallel expressions to drive home the same point: “church of the firstborn” (i.e., the risen Christ), “God, the judge of all men” who is “Jesus the mediator of a better covenant.” It was the Son who was revealed awesomely at the top of Sinai, who met with the elders, before whom they ate and drank, whom they “saw and did not die” (Ex. 24:9-11), and it is the Son with whom we have to do today.

There is significant evidence that God the Spirit was also active in creation. The New International Version is right to spell Spirit with the capital “S” in Genesis 1:2. The “Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” That such work is proper to the Spirit is suggested in 1 Peter 4:14 which uses the same image to describe the Spirit’s relations to the New Covenant temple people. By the analogy of Scripture we understand that it was God the Spirit who guided us through the wilderness. The pillar of divine presence, surrounds and protects God’s people, hovering over his creation and new creation, indwelling and sanctifying, as he ever has. 5

God the Father was also active in creation, speaking the Word, present in the redemption of Israel in the person of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. Who else could have passed over Israel for the sake of the blood of the lamb, but God the Father? One has only to think of how the Father provided earthly manna for his people and how he gave that ultimate manna which gives eternal life to all who eat by faith (John 6:31-33). Certainly one sees wonderful evidence of his providence throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. At each turn the Father was meeting our needs, with drink from the rock and food from heaven (Num. 20:11, 1 Cor 10:1-4). All this establishes not only that God revealed personal distinctions in the Old Testament, but that he revealed himself as tri-personal.

The New Covenant Scriptures make explicit what was implicit in the Old Covenant. We may begin with our Lord, himself a Trinitarian theologian. His conception of himself and of his relations to the Father and the Spirit was unreservedly Trinitarian. This is not surprising given that he was himself a member of the triune Godhead, God the co-eternal, eternally begotten Son incarnate. We have already reviewed Jesus’ revelation of the personal distinction between himself and the Father. He also made clear that God the Spirit has his proper work drawing sinners to the Son; “the Spirit blows where he will” and without the work of the Spirit no one is able to see the Kingdom of God (John 3:8).

Christ’s Trinitarian consciousness is clearly evident in his command to baptize in the triune name of God. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matt. 28:19). Notice that Jesus said, “in the name.² This is a most significant expression in Scripture. Out of the burning bush God the Son revealed the divine name to Moses: I AM. God’s name is who he is in himself, and also who he is in relation to us, the self-existent one. Thus, Herman Bavinck was right to say that, in this passage, Jesus drew together all the Trinitarian revelation of God in Scripture. 6

Paul was equally explicit about God’s tri-personality in the benediction contained in 2 Corinthians 13:14 in which he named each of the Trinitarian persons: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.² (This expression is doubtless linked to the Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:24-26.) This was Paul’s consistent language about God. Frequently he used the noun “God” to refer to the Father (e.g., Rom. 1:1, 7, 8; 8:14-17; 15:5-6; 1 Cor 1:3; 8:6; 11:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2, 17; 4:6; 5:20). He refers to the Son as “Christ” and to the third triune person as the “Spirit.” Read this way, his epistles are replete with allusions to the Trinity.

It is no wonder then that the earliest Fathers of the Christian church developed the biblical Trinitarianism almost immediately. This teaching was crystallized in the great ecumenical creeds: The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed (325 AD), the Athanasian Creed (381-421 AD) and the Chalcedonian Definition (451 AD). 7

Against the Arians, Athanasius (c. 293-373), an Alexandrian archdeacon, defended stoutly the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. When Scripture says “only begotten God,” it means that the Son has always been begotten of the Father (see John 1:18). There has never been a point (remember we’re speaking of eternity) when the Son was not. The Son has always been the Son and the Father has always been his Father. This eternal begottenness of the Son does not mean, however, that the Son is a creature. Because he is the same substance (homoousios) as the Father and the Spirit, he was also uncreated.

The biblical and Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a necessary mystery to the faith so that without it, there would be no faith. It is necessary primarily because the Scriptures teach it. Because it is a biblical doctrine, the creeds teach it and for the same reasons our theologians have taught it. Despite all the attempts by students to investigate it and despite all the attempts by critics to level it, the doctrine of the Trinity remains a glorious mystery.

The Mystery of the Trinity

“So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God” (Athanasian Creed). How can God be truly one and also three distinct, co-eternal, subsistences or persons is a mystery; and yet we are bound to say that he is. To confess these truths is to commit oneself to a great and glorious mystery–that is, something which is necessarily true but which transcends our ability to explain fully. 8

In this case, then, we must repudiate the root of the Arian heresy: rationalism, the notion that one should believe only that which one can comprehend entirely. With Athanasius, we know that if “there was when the Son was not,” the Son could never be a Savior. He also knew that we can confess Jesus to be “very God of very God” only if God is triune; otherwise we are polytheists. “So we are forbidden by the catholic religion, to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords” (Athanasian Creed).

As trinitarians we also acknowledge that it is possible to apprehend revealed truths about God and to develop them, but it is not possible to comprehend him in our formulae. Therefore, it is impossible to remove mystery from the Trinity and remain Christian. At the same time, it is also evident that Christianity is a theological religion. That is to say, it is not sufficient to quote Scripture in the face of heresy, but rather we are morally obligated not only to read Scripture carefully, but also to assemble its truths, to make good and necessary deductions from scriptural truth to edify God’s people, and to array those truths against unbelief.

For example, our Trinitarianism separates us utterly from unbelief. There is no other article of the Christian faith which so alienates unbelievers as our claim that there is one God in three persons. When we come to the doctrine of the Trinity, we Christians realize that we are completely dependent upon God’s Word for saving knowledge of God. Since the patristic-creedal period, perhaps no theologian has meditated on the Trinity more profitably than John Calvin (1509-64). 9 With the breakup of the medieval Church, the sixteenth century was littered with sects including anti-trinitarians. Calvin responded to the Unitarians by defending both God’s essential simplicity (God is one) and his tri-personality or tri-subsistence (Institutes 1.13.2, 6).

He used the term subsistence to distinguish between the divine essence and his tri-personality. These sorts of considerations are sometimes developed under the heading ontological Trinity, i.e., the Trinity regarding God’s being. He reminded us that there are certain attributes which belong to each Trinitarian person which are not shared among the persons of the Trinity. Recognizing these distinctions is part of not “confounding the persons” (Athanasian Creed). These properties unique to each person distinguish (not separate) each person from the others. For example, only the Father is unbegotten. “The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten” (Athanasian Creed). The Son, because he is such, is eternally begotten. “The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten” (Athanasian Creed). Only the Spirit is able to proceed from the Father and the Son. “The Holy Ghost is of the Father and Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding” (Athanasian Creed). Considered distinctly, however, each divine person can be said to be God “of himself,” i.e., the Father, Son and Spirit subsist of themselves. “And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another” (Athanasian Creed).

At the same time, Calvin also reminds us of another heading in the doctrine of the Trinity, the economic Trinity. This relates to the outworking of creation and redemption. For example, it belongs to the Son to become incarnate. It belongs to the Father to elect people to faith in Christ. It belongs to the Spirit to draw sinners to Christ and to sanctify them through the Word. Under this heading, we can think of the Father primarily as the Creator. The first articles of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds both encourage this sort of thinking. The Son can be said to have voluntarily subordinated himself to the Father, for the sake of redeeming his people, and the Spirit voluntarily subordinates himself to the Father and the Son for the sake of sanctifying his people, as the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds both teach.

Thinking in these categories does not imply, however, that either the Son or the Spirit became less than they were, otherwise we would be “dividing the persons” (Athanasian Creed). Rather, these distinctions are a part of the administration of salvation, not changes in the divine being.

Both the personal distinctions within the Trinity and the Trinitarian character of God’s works of creation and redemption witness to the fundamental unity in the divine being. They also witness to the eternal fellowship and love which exists within the Trinity. The Greek Fathers spoke of God’s perichoresis or what Francis Turretin called the “mutual intertwining” of the persons of the Deity.10 In this case, we know that the Trinity we worship is no static deity, but rather that there are dynamic relations among the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. It is out of that dynamic, loving fellowship that both creation and redemption have issued.

Conclusion

The doctrine of the Trinity is of the essence of our religion. We cannot and should not think of creation or redemption as anything but Trinitarian operations. This is a duty of the Christian faith. Christianity is more than duty, however. Being drawn to greater wonder and awe before the face of God is one his best gifts. The Trinity reminds one that the Christian religion is not about us, but about God and his glorious grace. The Father to whom we pray is the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, and the Spirit in whose power we pray is of the same substance as the Father and the Son and he is their gift to us to draw us by Christ to the Father.

Since the Trinity is such a necessary mystery, though woefully misunderstood or forgotten in our churches, how can we recover this truth? Three sources have helped me. First, God’s Word is thoroughly Trinitarian and it is the fundamental source of all Christian teaching. Second, it was through meditating on the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds that I began to read Scripture with renewed Trinitarian eyes. Third, the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds also alerted me to the fact that Reformed theology is unreservedly Trinitarian. 11 It structures our theology. Calvin’s Institutes (1559) were laid out along the lines of the Creed. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is in three parts, each roughly corresponding to the work of the economic Trinity.

The benefits of reading the Bible in the communion of the saints (e.g., Athanasius, Basil, Calvin) have been revolutionary. Recovering the doctrine of the Trinity has delivered me from a warped conception of God. I have learned again that there is no other God than the God who is one substance in three subsistences (persons); that the Christian is not entitled to think of God in any other way than he has revealed himself (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 25, 96); that with Calvin and before him Gregory of Nazianzus (330-89) we must say, “I cannot think on the one without quickly being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightaway carried back to the one.” 12 For Gregory, for Calvin, and for us, to think of God as triune is not a second blessing, reserved for the illuminati. Rather, it is how anyone must think of God, for any other god is an idol to be rejected. 13

Notes:

1 For example, semi-Pelagianism, whether in its Roman or Arminian form is a grave error, but it is not heresy, at least not in the same way as anti-Trinitarianism. It is true, however, that certain modern developments in Roman dogma (e.g., the alleged assumption of the Virgin Mary) threaten seriously the catholicity of their doctrine of God.

2 Some other well-meant but errant illustrations: the egg, forms of gold, apple, the lover, beloved and love and the shamrock. On the dangers of such analogies, see John Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.18. L. Berkhof gives a more favorable view of some analogies. See idem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 90.

3 This is true of Islam. Strictly speaking Allah is not personal. Personal speech about him is mere convention. This is true of most other forms of Unitarianism.

4 See Peter Toon, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Wheaton: Victor, 1996), 82-85, 90-92. See also Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. W. Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955); and Hermann Witsius, The Apostles’ Creed, trans. D. Fraser, 2 vol. (Edinburgh, 1823; [reprint: den Dulk Foundation P&R Publishing, 1993]), especially vol. 1.

5 See Dennis E. Johnson, “Fire in God¹s House: Imagery from Malachi 3 in Peter’s Theology of Suffering (1 Pet. 4:12-19),” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 29 (1986), 285-94. See also M. G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980); Bavinck, 255-56, 271-74.

6 Bavinck, 264-66.

7 See Gerald L. Bray, “The Patristic Dogma,” in Peter Toon and James D. Spiceland, eds., One God in Trinity (Westchester: Cornerstone Books), 42-61; idem, “Explaining Christianity to Pagans: The Second Century Apologists,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age: Theological Essays on Culture and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). The Chalcedonian Definition was primarily a Christological statement, but it presupposed the creedal doctrine of the Trinity.

8 The great Reformed theologian Francis Turretin spoke of the “adorable mystery” of the Trinity. See F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vol., trans. by G. M. Giger, ed. by J. T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992-1997), 1:3:23.

9 See Calvin, Institutes, 1.13. Also see B. B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity, The Princeton Theological Review 7 (1909), 553-652, reprint in Calvin and Calvinism (New York, 1931). The latter edition is used here. See also R. S. Clark, “The Catholic-Calvinist Trinitarianism of Caspar Olevian (1536-87),” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 15-39.

10 Turretin, Institutes, 1:3:23:13.

11. On this point, see Clark, “The Catholic-Calvinist Trinitarianism”; Carl R. Trueman, The Claims of Truth: John Owen¹s Trinitarian Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998); idem and R. S. Clark, ed., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999).

12 On Holy Baptism, oration 40.41, cited in Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.17.

13 Witsius, ibid., 1:129, 135.

A Meditation on Divine Immensity

This meditation was originally given as a chapel talk in 2001.
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Introduction

One of the turning points of my early Christian life was reading J I Packer’s Knowing God. That book did what better books should do: it helped me understand Scripture and thereby to know God in a true and more profound way. Since then it has always been difficult to understand those who separate “knowing about God” from so-called head knowledge from so-called “heart knowledge.” The science of theology entails the art of making good distinctions, but the distinction between head and heart knowledge is not one of them.

All Christians confess “I believe in God.” Our faith, our life, our being, our salvation is found in, grounded in and sustained by our Triune God. The Bible and the Christian faith begin with God. If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then we must know him. It glorifies God when we know him more deeply and we can enjoy and serve him well only as far as we know him, but we cannot know him in our hearts without knowing him in our heads.

Divine Accommodation

Remember that Calvin described Scripture as God’s condescending speech to us. From the divine perspective, it is baby talk, i.e., divine speech to creatures is true, if not exhaustive (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.1). Thus as he reveals himself to us, God uses anthropomorphisims, that is, he attributes to himself qualities which we think of as human. The divine attributes are ‘the essential properties by which he makes himself known to us…by which he is distinguished from creatures’ (F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.3.1.5). That is, they are those things which make God who he is. To say that God has attributes also means that there is a real foundation in the divine essence for his attributes revealed Scripture. They are not just modes of revelation or illusions or ways of talking with no basis in reality.

The Limits and Truth of Human Language About God

At the same time, it is not as if our word immensity comprehends God’s immensity. As far as our understanding of it is true to God’s self-disclosure our word immensity is accurate. We want to say with Scripture that God really does “think,” “feel,” and “will.” These are not just modes of speaking. Yet, they are not identical to our experience of these faculties. Our experience is analogous but not identical to God’s.

Substance and Attributes

Charles Hodge said that the divine substance and attributes are inseparable. The one is known in the other. A substance without attributes is nothing, i.e., it has no real existence’ (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1.371). Nor is it true to say that God is the sum of his effects—this is no more true of God than it is of us.

Communicable and Incommunicable Attributes

Reformed theology has historically maintained that some attributes are communicable to humanity and others are not. In sanctification, God communicates to us his moral attributes (e.g., holiness and justice) as part of the process of renewal. To be sure, our experience of these moral attributes is markedly different.

Those attributes which can belong naturally to God alone, those unique ontological attributes, are incommunicable. Immensity is one of those incommunicable attributes.

I. Exegesis

Immensity is not a theologian’s playground. It is a theological category which arises from God’s self-disclosure in Scripture.

1 Kings 8:26–7

Solomon’s dedicatory prayer says in part,

And now, O God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

Standing before both Israel as Qoheleth (convener of the covenant assembly), Solomon invokes Yahweh, the sovereign creator and redeemer of his people.

As he prayed, he considered what it means for humans to build a building in which our infinite, spiritual and immense God can be said “to dwell” Solomon was saying, “Look here, we know that you are so transcend our experience and being, that building a box in which to meet and worship you is, in one sense, absurd, yet you have graciously ordained it.” That is the mystery of meeting God. He is everywhere and fills everything. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Special Presence

Nevertheless, he designates special places where he meets with us. The question is not exactly, “where is God” – we know the answer to that; he is everywhere and fills everything; but rather, the question is, “how is God with us”? What Solomon was suggesting is that God has a special covenantal presence with his visible assembled people. This is a remarkable thing. On the other hand,, there is a sort of ordinary (if we can use that word of God), universal experience of the presence of God, and then there is a special, unique presence of God, which he reveals and gives to the people who bear his name when they are assembled before his feet.

There is an intensity of God’s presence with us when we call on him in the name of Jesus, an intensity which is greater than his universal cosmic presence. This is because, as Vos taught us, heaven is pre-eminently the place of God’s special presence. We the people of God participate in that special blessedness of God’s presence to the degree that we also participate, by the Spirit, in that final reality.

So the difference between God’s general and special presence must be a difference of degrees. It must also be a difference in quality. When God the Spirit comes to us, he blesses us with salvation and with peace with God, it is the result of his special covenantal-saving presence with his people.

Most of the time when the Scripture speaks of God’s goodness, it is in the context of his covenantal presence with his people. His tabernacle-temple is throne and therefore his royal resting place.

1 Corinthians 11:10

Paul had both these truths (GodÂ’s immensity and covenantal presence) in mind when he said that, in corporate worship, women who stand to pray should do so with their heads covered, in part, “because of the angels.” Whenever God draws near to his people, in the Old Testament in smoke and fire, his holy angels are always attending him. Paul was saying, “Yahweh is present when you gather, be careful.

1 Corinthians 14:25

Likewise Paul’s hope was that, when an unbeliever comes into the worshiping assembly, Christ’s special-covenantal presence in the assembly would be so obvious and overwhelming that he would fall down and worship the living God.

Hebrews 12:18,22

The writer to the Hebrews agreed. As the people of God gather to call on God’s name, they should be aware acutely of God’s immensity—that there is no place where we can escape his presence, but especially of his dangerous, holy and powerful covenantal presence. If Sinai was dangerous, Mount Zion is so much more, since we have come to the true mountain, the city of the living God. Heaven thundered at Sinai, but now heaven is open, and we have entrance by faith, and we are before the angels and they are before his throne.

A Damning Immensity

By implication therefore, there is a special, presence of God by virtue of his immensity with the reprobate. He is not with them in grace and forgiveness, but in righteous and everlasting judgment such that, relative to grace, it can be considered a sort of withdrawal, of the sort envisioned by Scripture when God speaks of “hiding” his “face” from one in judgment.

II. Dogmatics

Negative Definition

God is not diffused throughout creation as though he is partly here and partly there, but rather he is completely here, and completely there at the same time and with no loss to himself (See L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 60–1).

Positive Definition

Immensity is a sub-set of God’s infinity relative to space. God Put positively, to say that God is “immense” is to say that he fills all that can be filled with all of himself all the time. Put, negatively, there is no place where he is not. Therefore God cannot be “contained.” There could not be any such things as space or location unless God is immense and in is actively filling all things sustains them. “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Necessarily So

Is God’s immensity the result of his free-will or is he necessarily so? In other words, could God not be immense? The Bible does not know a God who could be other than he is. Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” The God of the Bible is not becoming, he just is. That does not mean that God does not also will to be immense, he surely does, but it also means that it is not possible that he should will to be something else. Therefore our theologians, e.g., Amandus Polanus, were correct when they said that immensity is one of GodÂ’s “essential” properties meaning that God, to be God, must be immense and without it God is not (Partitiones, 1.1).

By Power, Knowledge and Essence

If God is necessarily immense and if immensity is an essential property, then God is with us not only by his power and operation, but also in his very being. For God to be present with us is for him to be present, personally and intimately because God is a tri-personal God (See Turretin, Institutes, 3.9.4).

III. Elenctics

Our View Not Philosophical

It also puzzles me to no end when leading neo-evangelical theologians such as Donald Bloesch dismiss this view as unbiblical, and driven by philosophy more than Scripture. Were one a philosopher one could devise a much simpler and easier to understand doctrine of God, a much more manageable God. After all, how “rationalist” is it to say that God is completely here and there, at the same time?

Contra Theology from Below

Some contemporary Reformed theologians simply ignore the doctrine of immensity and still others start with human experience and work out to God and therefore they reject the doctrine as counter to empirical evidence or rationality. So, given it not surprising that, given their starting points, that they have trouble with this doctrine.

Contra Anthropomorphites

Among Origen’s enemies were the “Anthropomophites,” i.e., those who taught that when Scripture attributes to God bodily parts and passions, that we’re to take Scripture to teach that he actually has these things. The anthropomorhpites were not just a problem in the ancient church. There are so-called evangelical theologians who are verging on the same error in our day. In his recent book, Most Moved Mover [(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 34–35] Clark Pinnock toys with Mormon anthropomorphite formulations. Pinnock notes repeatedly that his doctrine of God is closer to the popular evangelical view than ours. That is probably the case, but it is the first time that God’s people have been confronted by popular idolatry.

Contra Deism

Nor can the God of the Bible be locked up into heaven. Because he is immense, he fills heaven and earth with himself. Not that he spills over, but that he fills whatever there is to fill yet not by multiplication or identification with the world.

IV. Practica

Prayer

Have you ever thought about the practice of closing one’s eyes in prayer? Has it ever struck you as an odd thing to do? It sometimes strikes me as perverse. Its true that we make our children close their eyes so that will not be tempted to monkey about when they are meant to be praying, but when we close our eyes we do not thereby come any closer to God. Indeed, as a way of recognizing God’s constant presence with us, perhaps we adults should pray with our eyes open. It is a marvel that the God upon whom we call in prayer is completely present. We cannot see or touch him, yet here he is, completely present and because we are adopted Sons in Christ, he is specially present with us by the power of the resurrection, the Holy Spirit.

God’s immensity means that God is not only transcendent—”out there”if you will—but he is just here, with us. This is why Paul told the Athenian Philosophical Society, “though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).

Coram Deo

It is perhaps God’s immensity which is in view as much as any other attribute when we speak of living our lives Coram Deo, before God. This is the force of the last half of Jeremiah 23:24 which contains the rhetorical question, “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD. ” The answer is, “Yes, of course.” So our response is to live in the Spirit and to conduct our lives morally before the face of the God who is completely present with us.

Therefore there is nothing we do which is hidden from him. Calvin is probably right, Ps.139:7 (“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”) is not intended as a proof-text for this doctrine, but it immensity is a corollary it. For the Christian, one who is alive to the living God, the question is, where indeed?

Conclusion

Our God is a great God. He is not like the gods of the nations nor is he like the God of the evangelical process/openness theologians. Far from being made by hands, he cannot be captured by hands because he is immense and yet because he is immense, he does not need to be captured, because he is not going away from us. Indeed, quite the opposite. He has come to us and sought us out.

It is our immense, triune God who wonderfully and mysteriously took on humanity in addition to his immensity, as the greatest condescension to our weakness. He who by nature fills and upholds all things by his power, became a flesh and blood human being. Why? Because the height, depth and width of God’s love is as great as his immensity. God the Father loved us with all that he is and gave up his only and eternally begotten Son, so that we might know him.