For my previous posts arguing that God is not temporal: I: Metaphysics, II: Special Relativity, and III: General Relativity.
In the next few posts, we'll examine the Scriptural arguments for this position. While I don't think it's illegitimate to use arguments from Natural Theology in situations where the Bible is ambiguous, in the Bible we have revelation from God himself. Since God knows who he is far better than we ourselves know it, we have reason to trust this source the most.
On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the Bible often speaks of God in metaphorical language. All Theology involves some metaphors, necessarily so given that much of it is speaking about invisible realities which no one has seen. But unlike academic theology, the Bible generally tends to use more "earthly" or "poetic" metaphors, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, the Bible often speaks of God as if he had human bodily parts. Let me digress on this topic for a while, since it illustrates some of the relevant principles when interpreting the Bible.
Now as Christians we know that (apart from the Incarnation), God has no body. To say God does have a bodily form is a heresy (i.e. a misunderstanding of the faith capable of doing spiritual damage), going by the name of Anthropomorphism. Now Anthropomorphism is obviously false at a philosophical level—how could the creator of all physical things have had a human shaped body? We may be in the image of God, but to think that God is in our image is a pagan crudity, as though God were on the same level as the all-too-human immortal creatures described by Homer.
Although Anthropomorphism is philosophically absurd, it can also be seen to be false from a purely scriptural analysis. That is, there are clues in the text that this kind of metaphor isn't supposed to be taken literally.
For example, several passages say that God delivered Israel from Egypt "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" (Deut. 5:15) [Click on the link and scroll down to see the cross-references in the right margin]. That this is intended as a metaphor is clear from the fact that the narrative portions of the Torah explain in detail the process of how the Exodus occurred, and none of the mighty miracles that dispersed Israel involved God literally smacking things around, or pointing, with a giant arm. It is a metaphor for strength and command. (To say that the ancient Hebrews didn't understand it was a metaphor is absurd. If they didn't understand metaphors, they wouldn't have been able to consistently come up with good ones! It's Modern Americans who seem to have trouble understanding metaphors.)
Or, instead of saying that God is omniscient, they might say that "the eyes of the Lord roam throughout the earth" (2 Chronicles 2:9 + cross-references). If you think this means that the Hebrew prophets thought God was literally shaped like a human being, go to Zechariah 4:10 and you may learn something surprising about just how many eyes God has. And don't forget his wings! (Psalm 91:4 + cross-references).
Or they might say that God spoke to Moses "face to face, as a man speaks to his friends" (Exodus 33:11), yet this is clearly not meant literally, since later in the same chapter God tells him that "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20).
(So instead God covers him with his "hand" and he sees his "back". But if the face is nonliteral, these obviously cannot be literal either. One of the numerous pastors in my ancestry used to say that this meant that God showed him, not his essence, but what he had done since creation, in which God's glory is reflected as through a darkened mirror.)
While God might occasionally show the likeness of a bodily form in temporary visions of God (known as theophanies), for example in Exodus 24:1-11 or Daniel 7 or Luke 3:21-23, this does not prove that God is actually literally looks like a really old man (or like a dove). It only means that God chose to represent himself like that temporarily, accommodating himself to our weakness and limited understanding, in order to make a limited point.
In addition to pointing out that these passages make little sense on a literal interpretation, one may also point to broader Scriptural principles. Most notably, even the earliest Hebrew Scriptures express an absolute abhorrence of idolatry, of any attempt to portray the divine in the image of any created thing:
You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are. (Deut. 4:15-20)
While Solomon tells us that "The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27). God cannot have a shape unless there is some kind of space that he can be enclosed inside of, but no such space exists.
In the New Testament, Jesus says that (except for the Son) "no one has ever seen God" (John 1:18). And St. Paul speaks of "God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see" (1 Tim 6:15-16). These passages also indicate that the theophanies in the Old Testament cannot be taken as a literal depiction of God's likeness.
Now, I doubt any of my readers are tempted to think that God literally has a body (unless there are some Mormons lurking!) So why am I going on and on about this? Because I think the same situation applies, more or less, to the question of whether God is in Time.
"Open Theist" theologians, who believe God doesn't know the future perfectly, and that his knowledge and relationships change with time, will typically argue like this: the Bible teaches that there exists a personal, relatable God, but then later it was quickly contaminated by Greek philosophical ideas from Platonism, which portrayed God as being some timeless, impassible abstraction, so we need to reject all that and get back to the inspired Scriptures in order to get back to the real conception of God. In other words, all the Christian theologians got it wrong from the 2nd to the 19th century, and we are only now getting it right.
One problem with this, is that the supposed "corruption" of theology by Platonism had already happened to parts of Judaism before the New Testament was being written, and some biblical texts already show signs of trying to explain Jesus in terms of these Greek ideas. For example, the concept of λογος (God's word/reason holding the universe together) was borrowed by St. John straight from Platonic and Stoic philosophers, even if he uses it in a new way to talk about the Son's role in the universe even before the Incarnation. So if we go all Platonism = bad and try to remove it entirely from Christian theology, we'll have to remove some parts of the Bible too!
Anyway, the God of Classical Theism, according to Christians, is a personal, relatable God. He just had to take some extraordinary measures, such as the Incarnation of the Son and the Indwelling of the Holy Ghost, in order to be related to us in the way which he wanted.
OK, let's analyze the Scriptures now, starting with the ones which pose the greatest difficulty for my position, namely:
1. God changes his mind
So I agree that there are a bunch of biblical passages in which God talks as if he were temporal and could change. For example, there are the passages in which God says he "regrets" having done certain things, for example, creating humans (in the account of the Flood) or choosing Eli's family for the High Priesthood, or making Saul king. That is because they disobeyed him and became wicked. And God reserves the right to adjust his plan accordingly:
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
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, 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. (Jeremiah 18:1-10)
Does this mean that God's promises are always tentative, and that everything could be revoked if we all become sufficiently bad? No. Why not? Because about some things, God has promised that he will never change his mind, no matter what we do or how wicked people become! In addition to his promise to eventually restore the nation of Israel, there are also his covenants with Noah, with David, and also with Levi. (This last passage presents a bit of a theological problem if taken too literally, since the New Testament is quite clear that sacrifices are no longer called for, in light of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. These promises are ultimately fulfilled in the New Covenant, through our faithful High Priest who cannot die or have his office revoked.) This seems to be God's modus operendi in the Old Testament: a trial period followed by an everlasting covenant.
A second Scriptural theme is God changing his mind in response to intercession. In typical examples, God threatens people with some kind of punishment, and then one of his saints or prophets pleads with him—or a priest makes atonement by offering sacrifice—and he relents from what he was planning to do.
The most famous example here is St. Abraham pleading on behalf of the Sodomites; I guess this wasn't exactly successful since in fact there weren't ten righteous men in the city, so God destroyed it after all. But it's a proof of concept, since if there had been a sufficient number of righteous people, God would certainly have spared the city. (And don't tell me that Abraham was asking for the impossible since "no one is righteous, not even one". That's true, but if God can condescend to use our language and grant our requests, he also knows who is righteous by ordinary human standards.) Also, Lot and his two daughters were rescued, which was presumably part of what Abraham was hoping for.
Another dramatic example is St. Moses' intercession on behalf of his people. Not once but twice, God tells Moses that he is going to destroy the entire nation of Israel for their sins, and start over with him! But Moses refuses to accept this plan, he pleads with God for the idolatrous and ungrateful people, even for those who wanted to kill him, and the Lord listened to him.
The Torah contains many other examples of punishments which are remitted in response to intercession. In one particularly dramatic example, the people rise up against Sts. Moses and Aaron and the Lord tells him to "Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once." Moses' response?
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. (Num 16:46-48)
So what does this mean? Is God less merciful than Moses was? No, but he wanted Moses to acquire a Christlike character, in which Moses internalized God's love for his people, and was willing to stand up even to God on their behalf.
Shocking as it seems, God encourages this. He really does think it is worthwhile to conform his own actions to our limited, human sense of justice. And it isn't just Moses, it can be you too! If you have a real relationship with God, seeking his will and his ways, then simply by asking you might be able to stand in the gap to spare those whom God would otherwise punish, and save those who would otherwise be lost. It is an astonishing privilege which we could never have presumed to expect from the Lord of the Universe! But everything in the Bible encourages us to view our relationship with God and other people in these terms. The difference is, Abraham prayed that God would spare the city for the sake of ten righteous people in Sodom, but I am more presumptuous still, and pray that God would save even a tenth of a righteous person, among those he has given me to care about.
Here are some other notable examples of God "changing his mind" in the Old Testament. (In the Gospels and Acts, the examples of individuals obtaining grace and mercy through interceding before Christ are too numerous to mention. There are also some striking promises concerning intercessory prayer in the New Testament.)
Thus we conclude that there is a sense in which God is capable of changing his response to human beings, based on what those human beings in fact do.
2. Yet God does not change
But side by side with this, we find passages which indicate that God does not change his mind. One particularly striking example of this comes in 1 Samuel 15. In the very same chapter (!) where God says that “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions,” St. Samuel also says that
He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind. (15:29)
which is in turn an allusion to Numbers 23:19 in the Torah, a passage in which king Balak tries to hire the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel; but in vain, since God had determined to bless them.
In other words, Saul (or Balak) should not think that God changes his mind in the same way that human beings do. God's purposes are certain and secure; he cannot be wheedled or manipulated. His decisions are final, unless he himself, in his eternal counsels, allows men to intercede. (Here we see, as often happens, that the Bible includes both sides of a paradox, while limited human theologies often attempt to include only one or the other.)
Some more passages about God not changing:
"I, YHWH, do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (Malachi 3:6)
Some might suggest that this passages only means that God's purposes do not change, but that other aspects of God may be capable of change. But the literal meaning of the passage refers specifically to the Lord; the statement about Jacob's descendents are an additional implication. In other words, God's purposes follow from his nature. If this is fixed, the purposes are also fixed. Similarly, in the New Testament St. James informs us that:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (James 1:17)
This beautiful passage is noteworthy for its strong denial that even the "shadow" of change can affect God. There is not even a hint of inconstancy or variation in the divine being, and this is why his gifts are good and perfect.
Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 102:25-27 and applies it to Jesus. Speaking about his eternal divine nature, it says that
“In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.”
and later, it adds that
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Taken together, these passages can reasonably be taken to imply that God is immutable, that is incapable of change. This implies that he is also impassible (incapable of suffering "passion"). It may be helpful to note that "passion" is one of those words whose meaning has changed subtly with time—it originally meant being acted upon passively by feelings, thus God has no "moods" or impulsive "reactions", so that he isn't carried away by emotions in the same way that we are.
(One time, I heard someone—she was normally the children's pastor, but she was "filling in" that day—preach that since God is personal, we should ask him how his day has been, and find out whether he is in a good or a bad mood before petitioning him for what we need. I was astonished by the crudity of this conception of the divine nature.)
The traditional theology of "impassibility" has often been questioned, in light of the fact that the Bible also portrays a "living" God who is capable of being both pleased and grieved by what happens in the world. And, however literally we take the biblical statements about God's changelessness, no Christian has ever denied that God is omniscient—that he knows everything taking place in the world, including contingent facts, even though this is itself a bit difficult to reconcile with his immutability. (For example, here you can see St. Thomas Aquinas with his hands full trying to explain how God can know everything in the world simply as a side effect of knowing his own unchanging nature.)
I discussed this issue a bit in Does God Need a Brain, in which I argued that God knows things in a different way than we do, a way which does not actually require him to change. I would say that God is so living and complete that he doesn't need to change in order to respond to everything perfectly. God's being is so full that it is already a perfectly responsive answer to whatever the thing is. Whatever exists, exists in relation to God, and God by the very act of creating it is in relation to it, and knows it perfectly. Without changing, he nevertheless enters into relationship with each thing that exists.
Although he has no emotions in the literal sense, he nevertheless has something which is analogous to our emotions, namely his holy and active benevolent will, which is full of love for us, and therefore vehemently opposed to sin and whatever else is against our being the saints that he calls us to be.
But how then, do we reconcile this idea of God with the first set of Scriptures I mentioned? When faced with an apparent conflict between different biblical teachings, we have several tools for trying to interpret them.
For example, we can compare to other things we know from good science and philosophy (bearing in mind that these are incomplete). All truth is God's truth, and he speaks through Creation as well as through the Inspiration of the Scriptures. Thus, we should not interpret Genesis 1 in a way that is clearly incorrect given the fossil record, and we may take into account things like Relativity when asking about God and Time.
We may also ask the Holy Spirit will guide us in helping the Scriptures meet our spiritual needs. As a corollary to this, we should consider how the saints in the past (remember that they were guided by the Holy Spirit just as much as we are) interpreted those passages. As a Protestant, I don't believe that Christian tradition is infallible, but that doesn't mean it can't be helpful. Scripture can and must be used to critique tradition whenever it departs from the Gospel truths. But we also have to remember that a lot of what we call "tradition" is just the record of how people in the past processed the Scriptures. The Bible didn't just fall straight out of heaven into St. Gutenberg's press. The saints of old read the same Bible that we do, and they thought that what they read was consistent with asserting that God is impassible.
Thirdly, we should read each passage in the light of the whole Bible, in other words to "let Scripture interpret Scripture". This is a good and important technique, although it is abused quite often. One way to abuse it goes like this: whichever passages seem to agree with your theology, you call these "key verses" and "a central teaching" and "biblical doctrine". Then, when faced with a verse which seems to disagree with your theology, you call this an "obscure", "problematic", or "difficult" passage which therefore needs to be "put in context". This means comparing it to the verses you agree with, and noting that those verses are more powerful and important. Once the difficult passage is reinterpreted in a way which agrees with the "central message" of the Bible, you have successfully neutralized those verses. This gives you the right to disregard them (in any context other than explaining why they don't mean what they appear to) at which point they cease to play any positive role in constructing your theology.
For example, I have heard Protestant sermons on James 2:24, and read Catholic sermons on Matthew 23:9, in which the pastor very eloquently and persuasively criticized the "wrong" interpretation of the verse—the interpretation that contradicts their own theology—and then totally forgot their obligation to make the verse relevant to the lives and hearts of the congregation. Once the verse was defanged so that it could no longer be a weapon on the other side, it was useless to them. This is the sure sign that (contrary to their own protestations) the theology of these individuals was not based on the whole Bible, but only part of it.
(I read somewhere on a Christian blog, but I can't find it anymore, that getting your theology from the Bible is like trying to reassemble a disassembled watch. Some theologies are better than others—the watch is either ticking or it isn't—but if there are pieces left over when you're done, then you know that your understanding of the original design is incomplete!)
I don't want to do this to the passages which assert that God "repents" and "changes his mind". I think that they teach important spiritual truths about God, truths which we could not have obtained otherwise. We need to leave room for paradox in our biblical understanding of God. Unless we blasphemously claim to understand God as well as he understands himself, this is inevitable.
Nevertheless, I also think that we have excellent scriptural reasons to think that the passages about God repenting are anthropomorphisms, that they cannot be taken literally. But this will require discussing two other biblical attributes of God, his foreknowledge and his eternity.