Posted by: mattcolvin | November 29, 2017

The Exegesis of Immutability


Partial-solar-eclipse

So, I’m paging through James Dolezal’s little book All That is in God. I’m looking for exegetical evidence for the doctrines of Classical Theism. Here we go:

“Numerous biblical passages witness to God’s unchangeableness. In Numbers 23:19, God does not repent”

A mere glance at Numbers 23 shows that it is covenantal only. The entire context concerns Balaam’s attempt to curse Israel contrary to God’s covenantal love and election of them. There is nothing here about God’s being. Worse, Dolezal offers no exegesis of the passage. Apparently, “does not repent” is supposed to be all the proof we need.

But of course, there are numerous passages that say that God does repent. The same verb (nâcham) is used in Exodus 32:14: “And YHWH repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Similarly, 1 Sa 15:35 (“YHWH repented that he had made Saul king over Israel”), 2 Sa 24:16 (“YHWH repented him of the evil [the plague]”), and other passages.

With what face will Dolezal tell us that these passages are metaphorical anthropopathisms, while the one with a negative is to be taken au pied de la lettre?

In Malachi 3:6, God says, “For I am the LORD, I do not change”

Again, this is clearly covenantal. God appeals to the “Sons of Jacob” who “from the days of our fathers have gone away from my ordinances.” One wonders whether Dolezal even looked at the context at all, for in the very next line, YHWH urges:

“Return to me, and I will return to you.”

Shuvu ēlî we’ašuvâ elêkem



In light of Malachi’s symmetrical use of the same verb, shuv, for both Israel’s and God’s act of “returning,” it is a singularly terrible text to use as a proof of Israel’s relationship with an immutable God.

Next is James 1:17, where God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”

Dolezal offers no comment on this verse, apparently believing that its prima facie meaning is sufficient support for his position. But once again, the context shows that the author is speaking of God’s unchanging faithfulness and goodness, not of ontological immutability. The metaphor is from astronomy: the heavenly bodies are variable in their luminosity. The sun gives bright light at noon, dim light at dusk; the moon, likewise, changes in its phases according to the time of month. But God, designated here as the “Father of lights”, is not like the Sun and Moon. His light does not wax and wane; there is no παραλλαγή.

James’ image is the same as that used in Revelation, speaking of the New Jerusalem: “The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light… Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there).” (Rev. 21:23-25) James’ phrase “shadow of turning” (τροπῆς ἀποσκίασμα) is also an astronomical image. The word τροπή can denote the solstices (Dt. 33:14) and equinoxes. It can also be used for other circular motions of the heavenly bodies (Job 38:33), or – probably the best parallel for James’ usage – “a point on the horizon, probably in the West, or place where the sun sets” (LSJ). Thus, the point is not “God doesn’t change whatsoever” but “God’s goodness to us, unlike the light of the sun, never diminishes.” A moment’s thought about this imagery shows that it concerns, not God in Himself, but God in His relation to His redeemed people: not the Sun considered as a fiery ball of gas, but as shedding its rays upon the earth. It is covenantal, not ontological language.

Dolezal continues:

Hebrews 6:13–18 even indicates that God swears by Himself in giving the promise to Abraham and that the surety of this promise is based on the fact that He is unchangeable (Heb. 6:18, Greek, ἀμεταθέτων). This clearly indicates that immutability signifies more than simply God’s covenant faithfulness since the assurance of His covenant faithfulness is itself staked on His unchangeable being.

Really? What mention is there of God’s unchangeable being here?

The verb ἐπιδεῖξαι (“thus God, determining to show more abundantly…”) is a technical, forensic word, “to afford proof of”.  What does he show? “…the immutability of His counsel,” not of his being. How does he show it? Not by appealing to his being, but by swearing an oath. Thus, Hebrews says, God has assured his heirs of his will by (1) the promise and (2) the oath. These are the “two unchangeable things.” These are the matters “in which it is impossible that God should lie.” And both of these are covenantal, not ontological.

If faithfulness itself should be that which constitutes God’s immutability, then why offer an oath staked on His own self/life in order to strengthen the assurance that His promise will remain constant? The plain sense appears to be that God’s unwavering covenant faithfulness is worthy of our hope precisely because it is rooted in His unwavering and unchangeable being.”

This argument proves too much. If God were immutable, there would be no need for an oath at all. Nor, for that matter, would an appeal to one’s own immutability count as an oath: that is simply not what an oath is.

Most oaths in the Bible are either implicitly or explicitly self-maledictory (e.g. “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I do not kill Jonathan…”). And that is the usual force of swearing by oneself, as also of the ceremony of dividing animals by which YHWH confirms his oath in Genesis 15. It has nothing to do with appealing to one’s own being or to ontological immutability.
We can take God at his word because he has always kept his promises. That is enough. Attempting to penetrate beyond this to an analysis of the being of God, and claiming that that being has been proven to be immutable is unnecessary. It is also, as we have seen in these four examples, a great way to misinterpret passages of the Bible in an effort to make them answer a question which their authors were not addressing.

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Responses

  1. […] The Exegesis of Immutability by Matt Colvin (November 29, 2017). Colvin, an ordained presbyter in the Reformed Episcopal Church and ACNA with a PhD in Greek literature, chides Dolezal for his superficial proof-texting. He argues that the biblical texts that speak of God’s unchanging character are more about covenant faithfulness than metaphysics per se. […]

  2. […] really enjoyed John Frame’s lengthy critique and Matt Colvin’s briefer exegetical notes on Dolezal’s classical theism […]

  3. Thanks for the helpful analysis

  4. […] The Exegesis of Immutability by Matt Colvin (November 29, 2017). […]


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