Posted by: mattcolvin | January 17, 2020

“God Repented” vs Greek Ontology


Above: An approximation of Parmenides’ “what is.”


There is an ongoing conflict between Biblical studies and philosophical theology. N.T. Wright sums it up this way in his essay “Historical Paul and Systematic Theology”:

“In a famous conversation between Paul Tillich and C. H. Dodd at Union Seminary in New York, Tillich basically said that there was no point twiddling his thumbs waiting for some nugget of useful exegesis to emerge from the lexical and text-critical work going on down the hall. This negative comment has frequently been reciprocated, as biblical scholars see theologians who not only claim to be ‘biblical’ but write books about the authority of scripture making more or less no use of the Bible itself in their deliberations. In some quarters, biblical scholars explicitly reject ‘theological’ proposals, as though they were bound to corrupt the pure historical study of the text. If there is supposed to be a marriage of biblical studies and theology, then as Paul says about marriage in Ephesians 5 – but in a different sense – it is a great mystery.”

Alastair Roberts gives a similar assessment in his contribution to a recent book on classical theism:

“A preoccupation with God as He is in Himself, when proceeding in detachment from the revelation and action of God in history, is always in danger of distorting the character of Christian faith, replacing the intensely historical and relational realities of the scriptural text with doctrinal abstractions… [Dogmatic theology] faces the insistent temptation to reduce the Scripture to the handmaiden of its own authority, or the raw material for its own conceptual edifices. The dogmatician is in danger of approaching Scripture as if it were a mirror for his theological self-regard, within which to seek the confirming reflection of his doctrine (a posture most commonly seen in proof-texting approaches)…” – Alastair Roberts1

I find myself in the middle of this debate. As a scholar of languages and antiquity who cut his teeth on the puzzling Greek of the Presocratics, I am often frustrated by what passes for exegesis among Christian theologians. On the other hand, as a minister in a church committed to classical Anglicanism, and subscribing to the 39 Articles of Religion, I assent to the statement that God is “without body, parts, or passions” (Article I.1) – but then I find myself compelled to hedge and qualify this statement in order to remain faithful to the Biblical text.2 I count myself among the heirs of John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and the English Reformers, who all held to classical theism. I have no desire to overthrow this system. At the same time, I find the exegetical foundation for the doctrines of classical theism terribly lacking. My interactions with writers for the Davenant Institute have shown that they are aware of the problem.2.1 They feel the need for a solid exegetical grounding for the doctrines of classical theism of which they are some of the most prominent defenders. So this essay is an attempt from a sympathetic, but critical, onlooker to state the ways in which the current exegetical defences of some of the more contentious doctrines of classical theism fall short.

In a recent volume of essays devoted to promoting the doctrine of divine simplicity (hereinafter, DDS), James Duguid takes up the burden of exegesis. Before criticizing anything in his essay, I must acknowledge the excellent work he has done in adducing ANE parallels. We could do with more such scholarship bringing the light of Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts to bear on the Hebrew Bible. But Duguid is not content with this background, and for obvious reasons: neither the Egyptians nor the Mesopotamians developed a philosophical concept of “being” such as undergirds medieval and modern “Classical Theist” articulations of DDS. Accordingly, Duguid attempts to find these doctrines in the Old Testament itself. He argues that the Bible’s statements about the oneness and unchangeableness of Israel’s God should not be taken as mere poetic expressions derived from Egyptian and Mesopotamian religious texts and meaning essentially the same thing that they do in those (polytheistic or henotheistic) sources. He wants, rather, to show that these texts express a “robustly philosophical interpretation” of God’s oneness; and, defensively, he wishes to refute the charge that he and his fellow advocates of a strong philosophical DDS are “reading into the text later philosophical categories derived from the Greeks.”3

While I am committed to the 39 Articles’ teaching that God is “without body, parts, or passions,”4 I am not enamoured of Duguid’s “robustly philosophical” DDS or the hermeneutical approach that he employs in pursuit of post-facto exegetical warrant. As a matter of history, this philosophical DDS was not derived from the Hebrew Bible. Some less philosophical doctrine of simplicity may well be compatible with Scripture, but that is not where it came from. The historical DDS of the medieval church and the Reformers was grafted onto the Biblical faith from Greek philosophy. This is a question of historical influence, not of retrofitting exegetical warrant. The patristic and medieval articulations of the doctrine bear telltale marks and argument forms that reveal its origins in Greek metaphysics.


Let me be clear that this is not a matter of “poisoning the well”; nor of trading in stereotyped “Greek thought” and “Hebrew thought.” As Paul Gavrilyuk has noted at length, not all Greeks subscribed to ideas about God that were taken up by Thomas Aquinas.5 Our quarrrel is not with Greek thinkers because they are Greek. We are concerned with the specific tradition of Eleatic metaphysical arguments that exercised influence on Plato, Aristotle, and the major schools of Hellenistic philosophy. This tradition begins with Parmenides, whom Jonathan Barnes calls “the serpent” who ruins the “Eden” of the Milesian physicists until Anaxagoras and the Atomists are able to bring about “Paradise Regained.”5.1 Parmenides began a centuries-long conversation about the philosophy of Being, which came into the post-apostolic Church from Greek philosophy as part of the Hellenic synthesis of the church fathers. As Heidegger put it, “Christianity, from early on, following the path of Judaeo-Hellenic teachings, has in its own way seized upon the philosophy of Plato, and has seen to it that from then until now the Platonic philosophy, held out as the high point of Greek philosophy, should appear in the light of Christian faith.”6 This is really not a controversial point, but if it were in need of proof, Kevin Corrigan and Jean Reynard have documented various arguments which the Cappadocian fathers and Athanasius derived from the Eleatic and Platonic tradition, and especially from Plato’s Parmenides.7

For many philosophical theologians attempting to find exegetical warrant for their doctrines, it is enough to find “a principled way to harmonize the texts and to work out their implications in rigorous ontological terms.”8 But this assumes (1) the correctness of a certain (realist) strand of Western ontology, and (2) the legitimacy of reading the Biblical texts “in a metaphysically serious way.” Neither of these positions has any prima facie claim on our acceptance. Western realism is a culturally contingent strand of philosophical theses not shared by other cultures either geographically or temporally removed from the Greco-Roman-Medieval tradition. The history of the “philosophy of being” has been rife with antinomies and paradoxes, from Zeno to Aquinas. Plato subjected his own ontology to searching critique in the Parmenides and Theaetetus.9 Are there such things as Forms of hair and dirt (Parmenides 130c-d)? How can we escape the Third Man argument? Aristotle’s own quest for “being” ended in puzzlement when, having removed all attributes from matter in a search for the underlying substance, he concluded that “nothing remaining appears.” (Metaphysics Z, 1029a10) We could multiply examples of the shipwrecks of Greek philosophers on the reefs of ontology. At their best, the Greek philosophers raised puzzles that reveal fascinating and counter-intuitive facts about parts and wholes, the unity of organic beings, and the problems with models of matter as continuum, monad, or quanta: think of the ship of Theseus, the Dion and Theon problem, the Sorites, and the cone of Democritus. But as fascinating as this entire enterprise is, it cannot be allowed to dictate our understanding of the God of the Bible. For the concerns and argument-shapes of Greek ontology are not to be found in the Hebrew Bible or ANE literature more generally. Worse, Hellenic philosophical monotheists (Xenophanes, Aristotle, etc) have tended to adopt a critical or even antagonistic stance toward anthropomorphic imagery: Xenophanes famously criticizes the Homeric-Hesiodic pantheon for doing “all things which among mortals are shameful and blameworthy: telling lies, committing adultery, and deceiving one another.” (DK 22B11) He also argues that anthropomorphic depictions of gods are not true, but are culturally determined, so that lions and horses would make leonine and equine deities if they only had the ability to sculpt or draw. (DK 22B15-16) Plato likewise has Socrates expurgate Homer (Republic 387A-B) and banish poets from his kallipolis (398A-B) because they tells stories of “terrible and impious deeds” done by heroes and gods. The Stoics, too, supported their monotheism by writing allegorical commentaries on Homer and Hesiod, in which they explained away all the embarrassing and unworthy behaviour of the epic pantheon, allegorizing the gods into natural and cosmic processes (e.g. thunder) and reducing them all into modal aspects of a singular god who “pervades all things.”10

Xenophanes’ monotheism bears unmistakable logical similarities to the ontological monism of Parmenides of Elea: where Xenophanes said there was only one god who has no parts and does not move or change, Parmenides attributed the same attributes to “what-is.”11 He claims that “the same thing is for thinking and for being” (τωὐτὸν δ’ ἐστὶ νοεῖν τε καὶ οὕνεκέν ἐστι νόημα, DK 28B8.34) and makes human reasoning legislative for what can exist: “What can be spoken of and thought of must be, for it is possible for it to be, but impossible for nothing to be.” (DK 28B6)

This was a daring maneuver. The results were striking – strikingly absurd: there is only one thing that exists, and (according to the majority of interpreters of Parmenides) it is atemporal (DK 28B8.5), ungenerated (28B8.6-12, 18-21), indestructible (28B8.20-21), simple, not composed of parts (28B8.22-25), immovable (28B8.26-30), and unchanging (28B8.41). Parmenides’ “what is” bears, in sum, most of the negative attributes that classical theists ascribe to the Christian God. Note that the arguments by which Parmenides arrived at these attributes take their beginning not from any datum in the observable world, nor from any revelation (though they are put in the mouth of the “goddess”), but from the philosopher’s own reasoning, his λόγος (DK 28B7).

Parmenides’ metaphysical monism was defended by his followers. The paradoxes of Parmenides’ pupil Zeno of Elea are designed to show that the existence of “many things” is even more impossible than the existence of only one thing; thus, Achilles cannot catch the tortoise, an arrow in mid-flight cannot move, and so on. The Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope is said to have considered the Eleatic arguments about motion undeserving of refutation: he simply arose and walked away (solvitur ambulando – “it is solved by walking”). This highlights a recurring problem with philosophical ontology: its arguments butt up against reality, and when they do, too bad for its arguments.


Eleatic monism as a thesis about the world has not found adherents among Christians, but as a thesis about God, it lives on. Scholastics argue for God’s ontological simplicity, immutability, etc., using appeals to metaphysical necessity in the same manner as the Eleatics. But Eleatic ontology is absurd and impossible. This ought to give us pause about applying the same arguments to the God of the Bible.

The first appearance in ancient Greece of the idea that God is unchanging is probably Xenophanes’ fragment 21B26 (Diels-Kranz):

αἰεὶ δ’ ἐν ταὐτῶι μίμνει, κινούμενος οὐδέν
οὐδὲ μετέρχεσθαί μιν ἐπιτρέπει ἄλλοτε ἄλληι.

He remains always in the same place, moving not at all;
Nor is it fitting for him to wander now here, now there. (DK 21B26)

We may wonder why immobility should be thought superior to great speed; possibly Xenophanes has in mind the regal session of a king upon his throne, exercising his power effortlessly. That certainly is the thought of another fragment:

ἀλλ’ ἀπάνευθε πόνοιο νόου φρενὶ πάντα κραδαίνει.
But without any toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind. (DK 21B25)

We may trace a direct line from this fragment to the unmoved mover in Aristotle’s Metaphysics Λ.7 and Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles I.13. And the same is true of the doctrine of simplicity, the idea that God is non-composite. The church historian Eusebius approvingly reports the teaching of Xenophanes, as though he were describing the God of the Bible:

ἀκούειν δὲ καὶ ὁρᾶν καθόλου καὶ μὴ κατὰ μέρος.
[Xenophanes says that] he [sc. god] hears and sees as a whole, and not part-wise. (Praeparatio Euangelica 1.8.4)

The denial of parts with separate functions is part of Xenophanes’ conception of his god as simple or non-composite. Most scholars have traced this argument one step further back to Xenophanes’ predecessor, the Milesian philosopher Anaximander, the first Greek philosopher from whom we have any extant written words at all:

φασιν αὐτὴν μένειν, ὥσπερ τῶν ἀρχαίων Ἀναξίμανδρος· μᾶλλον μὲν γὰρ οὐθὲν ἄνω ἢ κάτω ἢ εἰς τὰ πλάγια φέρεσθαι προσήκει τὸ ἐπὶ τοῦ μέσου ἱδρυμένον καὶ ὁμοίως πρὸς τὰ ἔσχατα ἔχον.

“They say that it [the earth] stands still, as Anaximander among the ancients also says: ‘For it is no more fitting for what is located in the centre and similarly related to all the extremes to be carried upward rather than downward or sideways.’”  (Aristotle, De Caelo 295b10)

Anaximander’s argument appeals to two things. The first is the principle of sufficient reason. If the earth moves in some direction, there must be a reason for it to move in that way; there is no sufficient reason for it to move in any direction rather than another, so it does not move. Second, Anaximander employs the idea of what is fitting or meet or appropriate by using the verb προσήκει, very similar in meaning to Xenophanes’ verb ἐπιτρέπει, “it is fitting.” (DK 21B26, above)  Both philosophers are operating with a preconceived idea of what is possible and appropriate for the world or for a god. Both the principle of sufficient reason and the appeal to fittingness will continue to play a major role in later Greek philosophers’ arguments for Parmenidean predicates for their deities. They are at work in Aristotle’s discussion of his god (Metaphysics XII.9, 1074B34), who turns out to be “thought thinking about thought” (νόησις νοήσεως), and who is, like Xenophanes’ god, incapable of personal relationship. Ultimately, the end of this sort of reasoning is the deistic god posited by Epicurus:

Τὸ μακάριον καὶ ἄφθαρτον οὔτε αὐτὸ πράγματα ἔχει οὔτε ἄλλῳ παρέχει, ὥστε οὔτε ὀργαῖς οὔτε χάρισι συνέχεται· ἐν ἀσθενεῖ γὰρ πᾶν τὸ τοιοῦτον.
“That which is blessed and incorruptible neither has any trouble itself nor gives any to anyone else, and so is subject neither to fits of wrath nor kindnesses (lit. graces); for all such things involve weakness.” (Diogenes Laertius X.139)

It seems to me that the Christian faith is wholly opposed to the idea that wrath and grace involve weakness on the part of God. But for the tradition of Greek ontology, this assumption is part of the idea of what is “fitting” for the divine. The twin appeals to the principle of sufficient reason and false notions of fittingness are ascribed also to Xenophanes in the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise On Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias (MXG):

“But being one, [God] must be similar in every direction (ὅμοιον εἶναι πάντῃ), both having power to see and to hear and all the other senses in every direction (αἰσθήσεις ἔχοντα πάντῃ). For otherwise different parts of God (τὰ μέρη θεοῦ) would control and be controlled by each other; which is impossible. Again, Xenophanes says that being alike in all directions He must be spherical; for He cannot be of such a kind in one direction and not in another, but must be of that kind in every direction. But being eternal, and one, and spherical, He must be neither limited nor unlimited.” (MXG 977a38-977b4)

Note the metaphysical “must” and “cannot” and contrafactual “would” throughout the passage: once again, abstract thought is legislating reality. We may be amused at the idea of a spherical god, but the mental procedure is not different in kind from the reasoning used by Thomistic theologians to urge that God is ontologically simple. It can be difficult to specify the flaw in such Eleatic arguments; modern scholars of Greek philosophy continue to wrangle about just what is wrong with them. (Parmenides was, after all, a genius.) Nonetheless, almost no one today believes that Eleatic monism is actually true. As for the Bible, Eleatic monism and the Greeks’ assumptions about what is “fitting” are no part of the mental furniture of its human authors. When we find the God of the Bible described in the most dynamic terms, acting in the Biblical narratives, smiting and rescuing and striving and grieving; when we see him designated by the plural Elohim; when we see him entering into covenant with human beings; when we worship Him for taking on human flesh and dying on a cross – when we read all these things, we are in an entirely different metaphysical and narrative world from Xenophanes and Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle. It is not only that these images and actions do not comport well with the deliverances of Eleatic and later Greek metaphysics. The bigger problem – for classical theists urging a “strongly philosophical” doctrine of divine simplicity  – is that these sorts of descriptions would not be used by authors who believed in the metaphysical doctrine of DDS.11.1 Belief in a “strongly philosophical” DDS leads to descriptions of god or God in terms of philosophical metaphysics, and a preference for this metaphysical description over the “poetic” language of the Bible – though classical theists are capable of raptures of enthusiasm about their Parmenidean deity. But whether adorned with purple prose or not, metaphysical description becomes the primary truth about what God is, and the Biblical language is called “anthropomorphism” and “metaphor” and “accomodation” to pre-philosophical understandings. This is similar to what the Stoics did with Homer and Hesiod: embarrassed by the actions, attributes, and attitudes ascribed to the gods by the poets of an earlier theology, they adopted various methods to interpret those embarrassments away.

“But wait,” a classical theist may remonstrate, “doesn’t the Hebrew Bible adapt imagery and language from pagan Canaanite polytheism to extol the God of Israel without thereby endorsing polytheism? Could not all this imagery that fits poorly with the doctrines of simplicity and immutability be like that – a concession to culturally relevant ways of speaking, but in the service of a God who actually does not fit those ways of speaking? After all, we don’t think God literally has an arm or a hand, do we? So why should we suppose that he really ‘changes his mind’?” But the language of vestigial polytheism – e.g. the chaoskampf imagery of Psalm 29:3-4,10-11 or 104:6-9; traces of dragon-slaying cosmogony in Job 40:25-32; or the possible wholesale adaptation of a Canaanite or Phoenician hymn by the poet of Psalm 29 – this language was available in the cultural environs of the ANE surrounding ancient Israel; it is therefore easy to see that it is being adapted in the service of an Israelite monotheism that, stricto sensu, contradicts it. By contrast, the tenets of Greek metaphysical theology had not been deduced yet, and were unavailable. It is no surprise, then, that such considerations do not in the least restrain the embarrassingly anthropomorphic and personal language with which the Hebrew Bible describes YHWH: they were simply not in anybody’s mind at the time.12 I am open to the possibility that Xenophanes and Parmenides derived their arguments from Ancient Near Eastern sources, but those sources have not yet been identified. The deductive and dichotomizing argumentation of Parmenides does not resemble anything in the Great Hymn to Marduk or other Mesopotamian literature. Abraham was called out of Ur of the Chaldees in 1800 BC. Until some Assyriologist discovers an Akkadian Ur-Parmenides (!) among the mud-brick tablets of the British Museum, we have little choice but to respect the millennium-long gap that separates the beginnings of Israelite monotheism from the start of Greek philosophizing about “being.” Most of the Old Testament was written before Xenophanes was born (570 BC). Before positing a tension between Biblical anthropomorphism and “strong philosophical” doctrines of ontological immutability and simplicity, classical theists must first show that the latter ideas are at work in the text of the Bible at all. So far, their attempts to do this are not convincing.


Some classical theists are aware that the Christian tradition has not always been careful about this point. In a recent discussion of the metaphysical meaning of God’s statement to Moses, “I am that I am,” James Duguid cautions his readers against “filling this mysterious ‘I am’ revelation of God [sc. Exodus 3:14] with all the content of ‘Being’ on a Parmenidean or Platonist construal.” I concur; such a “filling” would be anachronistic. Despite this wise caveat, Duguid presses ahead with the claim that “nevertheless this construction does ascribe existence to God’s nature in some special way, unconditioned by any other predicate, and the idea that God is in some sense more really and truly existent than other things doesn’t seem too far off the mark here.”13 Well, no. The Lord’s self-disclosure to Moses is not a claim that God exists “more really and truly” than other things; nor does its silence about other predicates entail anything about God’s being “unconditioned” by those other predicates. If Exodus 3:14 or Deuteronomy 32:39 is congenial to Duguid’s purpose of finding a philosophical doctrine of simplicity in the Hebrew Bible, it is only because of what “I am that I am” does not say. The bareness of the assertion presents no inconvenient obstacles to the idea of ontological simplicity, but that does not mean that the passage is teaching or implying the doctrine. In its original narrative context, God’s “silence about other predicates” is best understood, not as a claim about a different and higher way of existing, but as His royal refusal to subject Himself to impertinent demands for His credentials. The context is the hypothetical question for which Moses asks God to equip him with a prepared answer: “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3:13) This is not a question about the metaphysics of God’s being. It is a question about His identity, about who He is, not about what He is. It is, of course, possible to answer that “who” question with a response about God’s being – much as my wife might respond to my question, “Who are you talking with on the phone?” with the surprising answer, “A robot playing muzak,” thereby correcting the terms of my question and telling me what she is listening to, not whom  – but if that is what YHWH is doing to Moses, there will need to be some signals that His answer is changing the terms of the discussion (e.g. from personal identity to metaphysical being). There are no such signals in Exodus 3:14. I conclude that Duguid is wrong: the words “I am that I am” do not “ascribe existence to God’s nature” at all. They do not even mention a “nature,” let alone claim that that nature has “existence.” The Torah is innocent of these terms of art from Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle. Duguid’s attempt to find metaphysical simplicity in God’s self-identifications in Exodus 3:14 and Deuteronomy 32:39 is eisegetical.

Moving on to one of the other divine attributes of classical theism, Duguid and Steven Duby are aware that one of the primary criticisms of a strong philosophical doctrine of divine immutability is that the Bible itself appears to contradict it by its statements that God “repented” or changed his mind – about making man on the earth (Gen. 6:6), about making Saul king (1 Sam. 15:11, 35), about bringing disaster on Israel or Jerusalem (Ex. 32:14, 2 Sam. 24:16, 1 Chr. 21:15, Ps. 106:45). Most of these verses use the Hebrew verb nâḥam in either the niphal or piel, often accompanied by expressions of sadness (e.g. “it grieved him at his heart,” wayyit‘aṣṣev ’el-livvô, Gen. 6:6). The same verb nâḥam is found in Numbers 23:19, where Balaam tells the Moabite king Balak,

God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent (weyitneḥām).
Has He said, and will He not do?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?

Both Duby and Duguid discuss this verse, which is one of their primary texts for philosophical divine simplicity. Duby takes it as a statement grounding God’s covenant faithfulness on his metaphysical being: “…inasmuch as the Creator can never be translated onto the place of creaturely existence, this suggests that God not only does not repent, but also cannot repent.”14 This is an unwarranted claim. What is at issue in Ex. 3:14 is not God’s being in se, but his character manifested in his relations to human beings. The context of the verse is Balaam’s failed attempt to curse Israel contrary to God’s covenantal love and election of them. The argument in the mouth of Balaam here is that God will not renege on His covenant with Israel because He is not a sinful and fickle human. It is an appeal to God’s opera ad extra, much the same as the Apostle Paul’s “let God be true, and every man a liar.” (Rom. 3:4) But Duby attempts to get beyond this to read the verse as an appeal to “God’s immutable purpose and (implicitly) to His immutable nature as well.” The passage, however, says nothing about God’s “immutable nature.” It says that He is not a human. The thought is the same as Psalm 50:21: “You thought that I was altogether like you; but I will rebuke you…” The argument is not an appeal to metaphysical immutability; it is simply a disanalogy: human beings are fickle and unfaithful in their relationships; God is not. It might be possible to ground God’s unswerving faithfulness on His “unchangeable being,” but Numbers 23:19 is not making that argument. Duby has brought it to the text, not derived it from it.


Attempts to make the Biblical text serve the aims of systematic theology both exacerbate the contradictions in 1 Samuel 15:11-35, and vitiate the proposed solutions. The passage is bookended by two statements of God’s regret:

“It repenteth me (niḥamtî) that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me.” (1 Sam. 15:11)

“…and the Lord repented (niḥām) that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Sam. 15:35)

Against these two statements – the first in God’s own mouth, the second in the narrator’s – the passage sets the words of the prophet Samuel to Saul:

“The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.” (1 Sam. 15:29)

Robert Alter puts it nicely: “We in fact have been told that God repented that He made Saul king. What Samuel says here is that God will not change His mind about changing His mind.”15 But Duguid disagrees with Alter’s statement of the contradiction: “The Bible does not simply say God relents in one place and that He does not relent in another, leaving it to theologians to figure out which is true or how both can be true.”16 Duguid believes that the Bible itself is concerned with the contradiction, and that it offers a solution: “If we are committed to reading Scripture as a unity, we must take God’s words in 1 Samuel 15 seriously as a lens through which to understand this theme. Samuel’s warning that we not think that God is like a man who relents is his prophetic interpretation of history, and we should take that interpretation seriously.”17 By “take it seriously,” Duguid apparently means that we ought to take v. 29 as the final verdict on the matter, and to treat vv. 11 and 35 as anthropopathisms. This approach to the passage is similar to that of Nahum Sarna, who claims that the use of nâḥam in Gen. 6:6 “is an anthropopathism” to be “corrected” by 1 Sam. 15:29, and that such accomodation and correction are necessitated by the need to balance God’s transcendence and immanence.”18 But Duguid goes beyond Sarna in rejecting that balancing act in favour of the claim that Samuel’s words are “his prophetic interpretation of history” and to be “taken seriously,” while the words from (ironically enough) YHWH’s own mouth (15:11), or those of the omniscient narrator (15:35), are something else. This is a sort of classical theist version of a “red-letter” approach to the Bible: verses amenable to strong philosophical doctrines of immutability, simplicity, etc. are taken in a sense that is alien to the original narrative context, while other verses that appear to contradict these doctrines are explained away as poetic anthropopathisms, metaphors, or otherwise not “taken seriously” – even when they occur within the same pericope, or within a few verses of the others.

This sort of interpretation is hermeneutically outrageous. Classical theists, however, seem not to recognize what they are doing. In a footnote, Steven Duby claims that  “taking divine repentance in [1 Sam.] 15:11, 35 as metaphorical does not entail denying that these verses ‘accurately depict God’; it entails taking them to do so in a certain manner.”19 Duby explains that these verses truly teach that “God is working a change in this situation” and thereby “doing what a rueful human normally does.” Now, regret or reversal of one’s plans is not at all necessary for “working a change in a situation”; people frequently cause changes in situations without such chagrin. More importantly, on Duby’s view, God does not actually “repent.” Metaphors work by comparing a thing with something else that it is not; that is what makes them metaphors. Taking the verb nâḥam in vv. 11 and 35 as metaphorical means equivocating from the meaning of the same verb in verse 29.

Duby also attempts to argue from God’s acts to God’s essence: “If one draws a logical distinction between God’s will and God’s essence, then this constancy of will presupposes a corresponding constancy or immutability of essence.”20 But the passage contains no reference to God’s essence at all, and Duby’s attempt to infer one is false as well: for instance, my wife has also demonstrated considerable constancy of will in remaining married to me over the course of twenty years; it does not follow that her “essence” – whatever that might be – has been unchanged during that time; still less that it is unchangeable.

Horacio Simian-Yofre and Heinz-Josef Fabry have a different solution:

“The explicit contrast stated in 2 Samuel 7:15, ‘I will not take my steadfast (!) love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you,’ accounts for the words of 1 Samuel 15:29, which appear to contradict vv. 11 and 35 (‘The Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind’; nḥm used absolutely twice). V. 29 is therefore not a theological correction of vv. 11 and 35 but a confirmation of v. 28.”21 (Emphasis mine.)

It is important to understand the difference between Simian-Yofre’s harmonization of 15:29 with 15:11 and 15:35, and that of Duby and Duguid: the latter propose that verse 29 should be understood as the real theological truth of the matter, while 11 and 35 “are describing God as if he were a man, although in fact He is not.”22 Simian-Yofre’s solution is entirely different: he says that YHWH’s regret is real – thus he respects the facial meaning of the Biblical text about God’s emotions – but that YHWH “does not change his plans radically and definitively…Note that while the affirmative use of nḥm is associated with a specific situation (regret at having created humankind or having made Saul king), its use in negation is absolute: ultimately, Yahweh does not change his mind.”23 This solution may be intolerable to advocates of a strong philosophical doctrine of divine immutability, since it grants the reality of YHWH’s “regret,” ascribes emotions to Him, and fails to ground His ultimately unchanged will on His ontological essence in the way classical theists desire. Simian-Yofre’s reading is superior, however, as an interpretation of the text. Unlike Duguid’s explanation, it confronts the real contradiction which the passage presents, a tension not between God’s metaphysical being and His actions in history, but between two covenantal acts: God’s choice of Saul and His rejection of Saul. This solution does not require inconsistent hermeneutics and it is confirmed by other passages of Scripture. While maintaining YHWH’s trustworthy divine sovereignty, it preserves the meaning of the text and does not arbitrarily reduce some of the verbs in the passage to metaphors or anthropopathisms24 while taking others au pied de la lettre in order to preserve a philosophical doctrine that has been brought to the text from outside it.

As corroboration for this sort of solution, consider Jeremiah 42:10, where YHWH declares to Israel,

“If ye will still abide in this land, then will I build you, and not pull you down, and I will plant you, and not pluck you up: for I repent me (niḥamtî) of the evil that I have done unto you.”

This is a prophesied change of plans: the destruction that God had determined and denounced upon Israel will not happen. The basis for the change in outcome is God’s “regret for the disaster.”25 It appears, then, that God’s repentance is included in His sovereign plans; far from putting the Lord at the mercy of contingent events in the creation, His changes of mind are themselves part of how He oversees His creation, and not least how He administers His covenant with Israel.


Where classical theists prefer to ground God’s relational and personal quality of unswerving faithfulness to His promises and covenants upon the Parmenidean predicates of God’s ontological being, the Bible repeatedly takes a very different tack: God’s personal character, not his essence, is held forth as the basis for the permanence of other things. This includes His divine “repentance” or “changes of mind.” In Jonah 3:9, the king of Nineveh asks, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent (niḥam), and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?” As I have noted before, the force of the Hebrew mî-yôdēa‘ is almost the opposite of the English “who can tell?”: it encourages hope, not defeatism.26 And sure enough, in the next verse “God repented (niḥam) of the evil, that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did it not.” (3:10) Indeed, it looks very much as though Jonah 3:10 were offering a point-by-point response to Numbers 23:19:

God is not.. a son of man that He should repent
Has He said, and will He not do?
Or has He spoken, and will He not perform? (Num. 23:19)

And God relented (נחם, same verb)
from the evil that He had said He would bring upon them
and He did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)

In the following chapter, the prophet goes into a sulking snit over being made to look like a liar because the denunciation of destruction which God commanded him to deliver to Nineveh is not going to be fulfilled. One can almost imagine a Ninevite asking a classical theist Jonah, “Should we repent?” and Jonah replying with the out-of-context 1 Samuel 15:29: “No, there’s no point. God has already said he will destroy you, and ‘God is not a man, that He should change his mind!’”  The idea is ridiculous, of course. Jonah knows very well that God may not follow through with the threatened destruction of the city, and he isn’t happy about it. Jonah voices his complaint in words that recall God’s self-disclosure to Moses when He covered him with His hand in the cleft of the rock (Exodus 34:5-7). Against this original, the prophet’s bitter grousing about how merciful God is sounds like a laughably blasphemous parody:

“Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents (niḥam) from doing harm. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” (Jonah 4:2-3)

To the predicates of God enumerated in Exodus 34:5-7 (gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in ḥesed), Jonah has added a new one: “who relents from doing harm.” As an Israelite, a worshipper of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the prophet knew that YHWH’s character includes the sort of readiness to forgive that is held out also by Jeremiah 42:10.

Let us beware of adding to this revealed attribute of God the caveat “but not really,” as though we had to save God from showing such wishy-washy mercy. God himself, through the prophet Jonah, has told us that He relents and changes His mind so that we might trust in Him and avail ourselves of His mercy, even when He has told us that we face judgment and death. He wants us to be like King Hezekiah, who reacts to the announcement that God has decreed his death by turning his face to the wall and praying to the Lord (Isaiah 38) rather than saying, “God is immutable; He cannot change His mind, so there is no point in asking him to do so.”


The modern classical theism movement has good aims: to revive an awareness of the heritage of the magisterial Protestant tradition; to safeguard orthodoxy against modern errors such as Open Theism and process theology. How can classical theists do these things better? My number one recommendation is that defenders of a strong doctrine of divine ontological simplicity need to be more careful in their exegesis. They need to recognize how controversial Eleatic metaphysical arguments are, and that those arguments lead logically to gods that bear no resemblance to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It would be helpful for classical theists to point out the boundaries on the scholastic project of harmonizing Greek metaphysics with the Bible: where do Aristotle and Plato and Parmenides and Xenophanes go astray, in their view? Can the God of the Bible really be limned with the same arguments that were used by these philosophers? Classical theists need to recognize that this synthesis received an uncritical pass in the scholastic and Reformation eras, but that it is not persuasive to many today; accordingly, they cannot simply demand that their critics bow before the venerable Tradition, still less that we must all confess the tendentious and incomprehensible doctrines of Thomistic theism – God as actus purus, the persons of the Trinity as subsistent relations, etc. – or else find ourselves outside of orthodoxy. Finally, classical theists need to employ a consistent hermeneutic, and not allow their philosophical commitments to dictate how they handle the Scriptures. Selectively reading some verses as anachronistically metaphysical statements while interpreting others as poetical anthropopathisms is not a persuasive method of solving the (admittedly, very challenging) problems with which the Bible confronts us.


1. Alastair Roberts, “‘Arid Scholars’ vs. the Bible? A Theological and Exegetical Critique of the Eternal Subordination of the Son” in God of Our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), ch. 4.

2. See Alastair Roberts’s later interaction with Jeffrey Meyers and Peter Leithart of the Theopolis Institute at the 2019 Church of the Redeemer Pastors’ Conference, available online here.

2.1. I want to give some credit here to Joseph Minich, the editor of the volume that contains the two exegetical essays I critique in this post. His concluding irenic essay in the same volume provides much food for thought, and shows a productive way forward in the ongoing debate over classical theism. J. Minich, “Conclusion: Quo Vadis, Classical Theism?” in J. Minich and O. Kamel, edd. The Lord is One: Reclaiming Divine Simplicity (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Press, 2019, 244-279.

3. James Duguid, “Divine Simplicity, the Ancient Near East, and the Old Testament” in The Lord is One(Moscow, ID: The Davenant Press, 2019), 9.

4. That is, you will not find me claiming that God has a body, or parts, or that He can be acted on against His will by the creation. God’s being “without passions” should not be understood to rule out emotions, of which He displays many in the pages of Scripture.

5. P. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), ch. 1.

5.1. J. Barnes. The Presocratic Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1979).

6. Martin Heidegger, Parmenides (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), 93.

7. Kevin Corrigan, “The Importance of the Parmenides for Trinitarian Theology in the Third and Fourth Centuries C.E.” and Jean Reynard, “Plato’s Parmenides Among the Cappadocian Fathers” in John Turner and Kevin Corrigan, edd. Plato’s Parmenides and Its Heritage Volume 2: Reception in Patristic, Gnostic, and Christian Neoplatonic Texts (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2009), 237-242.

8. Duguid, 10.]

9. See M. Colvin, “Heraclitean Flux and Unity of Opposites in Plato’s Theaetetus and Cratylus” in The Classical Quarterly New Series, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Dec., 2007), 759-769.

10. Cf. Diogenes Laertius 7.147, SVF 2.1021. This procedure of “appropriation” (συνοικειώσις) is detailed in Philodemus’ On Piety, PHerc. 1428, col. vi, 16-26. Cf. Also Keimpe Algra, “Comments or Commentary? Zeno of Citium and Hesiod’s ‘Theogonia’” in Mnemosyne, fourth series, vol. 54, fasc. 5 (Oct 2011), 562-581; and Matthew Colvin, Interpretation of Heraclitus in Hellenistic Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2004).

11. As A.H. Coxon notes in the best edition of the fragments, “Parmenides’ argument for the stillness, invariability and completeness of Being is expressed in language which clearly derives from Xenophanes’ account of God…Parmenides’ awareness of Xenophanes’ theology and his radical revision of it [sc. to apply necessarily] can be documented from the surviving fragments.” Coxon, The Fragments of Parmenides(Parmenides Publishing, Las Vegas: 2009), 19.

11.1 Joseph Minich agrees with me on this point, it seems to me: “I realize, of course, that the classical tradition would claim to be consistent with such speech [sc. anthropomorphism, apparent change, etc], but it is nevertheless the case that such speech would never organically arise from it, and it seems to me that we have not quite captured the whole of reality if it remains the case that the ordinary language of Scripture be so relativized.” Minich, 272. (Emphasis mine.)

12. Thomas C. McEvilley suggests that the arguments of Xenophanes and Parmenides were influenced by Mesopotamian cosmology ultimately derived from India. T. McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (New York: Allworth Press, 2002). Cf. also M. West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971). West traces certain very specific Eastern influences on Greek philosophy via Pherecydes of Syros, but the ideas in question are still decidedly polytheistic, not monistic or monotheistic, and the doxographers ascribe to Pherecydes nothing approaching Eleatic arguments about Being.

13. Duguid, 11.

14. Steven J. Duby, “A Biblical and Theological Case for Divine Simplicity” in The Lord is One: Reclaiming Divine Simplicity (Moscow, ID: Davenant Press, 2019), 41-42. Duby engages in some debate with J.P. Fokkelman and Marcel Sarot, but I have no interest in defending either of these scholars. For further discussion of this passage as handled by another classical theist, James Dolezal see M. Colvin, “The Exegesis of Immutabilty,” electronic access here.

15. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, vol. II: The Prophets (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019), 238 n. 29.

16. Duguid, 19.

17. Duguid, 19-20.

18. “God’s transcendence requires formulation in abstract philosophical language that poses the danger of depriving Him of personality and relevance. God’s immanence must unavoidably be expressed in concrete, imaginative terms that entail the risk of compromising His invariability.” Nahum Sarna, Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew text with new JPS translation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 47.

19. Duby, 45n67.

20. Duby, 45.

21. Horacio Simian-Yofre and Heinz-Josef Fabry, nḥm in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. IX (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 343-344.

22. Duguid, 19.

23. Simian-Yofre and Fabry, 344.

24. Duby, 44-45: “Given that 15:29 teaches that repentance is not proper to the Creator but to the creature, it is fitting to take the divine repentance in 15:11, 35 as metaphorical or anthropopathic.”

25. Simian-Yofre and Fabry, 346.

26. See my remarks on Jonah 3:9 and the use of the same idiom in Esther 4:14 and 1 Corinthians 7:16.


  1. […] via “God Repented” vs Greek Ontology — Colvinism […]

  2. Brilliant essay.

    Part of the problem has always been this reification of “Classical Theism”. There’s some gulf between how, say, the Cappadocians utilized Hellenism and how Aquinas did. I think the former did a far better job, especially when you unpack secondary scholarship which shows their accomplishments. But it seems most Protestants are enamored with shiny trinkets, unable to tell the difference between gold and fool’s gold. But, most importantly, scripture and scriptural grammar should be in the driver’s seat, framing the terms of the matter.

  3. […] “A preoccupation with God as He is in Himself, when proceeding in detachment from the revelation and action of God in history, is always in danger of distorting the character of Christian faith, replacing the intensely historical and relational realities of the scriptural text with doctrinal abstractions… [Dogmatic theology] faces the insistent temptation to reduce the Scripture to the handmaiden of its own authority, or the raw material for its own conceptual edifices. The dogmatician is in danger of approaching Scripture as if it were a mirror for his theological self-regard, within which to seek the confirming reflection of his doctrine (a posture most commonly seen in proof-texting approaches)…” – Alastair Roberts1 […]

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