The Christian Doctrine of God (part 6)

This post is the sixth in a series written by Torrance scholar Thomas Noble summarizing Thomas F. Torrance's book The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons. For other posts in this series, click a number: 123, 4, 5.

Chapter 9: THE UNCHANGEABLENESS OF GOD

The unchangeableness of God is one of the major themes of the Old Testament. ‘I am who I am: I shall be who I shall be’: the self-existing, self-living, self-affirming God. This incomparable God  is not to be understood on the analogy of our finite creaturely human being with whom word, act and person are different from one another. He meets us, speaks to us, acts towards us as One whose Word and Act and Person are inseparable from one another. He is in Person identical with his Word, and his Word is itself his Act. Hence, God’s Being is neither mute nor inactive, bur inherently eloquent and active. His being is his Being in his Act and his Act is his Act in his being: his Word is his Word in his being and his being is his Being in his Word.

In the New Testament Scriptures this same living God has revealed himself through the consummation of his creating and saving acts in Jesus Christ, naming himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The name Yahweh, translated Kyrios, is applied to the Lord Jesus Christ who confronts us in the Gospel as Ego Eimi. It is in and through him that the dynamic constancy of the eternal self-living God is fully made known. This is properly understood in the light of God’s trinitarian self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What God is toward us in the Gospel as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he is antecedently, inherently and eternally in himself. How are we to understand this dynamic unchangeableness?

Let us think again of the creation as an utterly new event. God was always Father, but not always Creator. Nevertheless even in the new event of creating the world out of nothing God did not change. Yet as Duns Scotus pointed out, God revealed himself as completely free to bring new ideas and realities into existence without contradicting himself. Thus in fact God’s creation of the universe is to be regarded as the demonstration of his inexhaustible freedom as the mighty living God.

Consider again the Incarnation as an absolutely new event for God. Yet in this new event, God does not change but remains ever one and the same. It is in Jesus Christ that we really understand and think aright about God’s unchanging constancy. Along with the Incarnation we must take fully into consideration the death and resurrection of Jesus – the death and resurrection of God incarnate in space and time. What could be more astonishing and utterly new even for God that God crucified and risen again? What happened at Pentecost was not only new in the experience of mankind, but new in the life and activity of the eternal God.

Quite clearly the mighty living God of the Old Testament revelation and the Triune God of New Testament revelation is neither the ‘Unmoved Mover’ of Aristotelian scholastic theology nor the ‘Moved Unmover’ of Whiteheadian process theology. The former represents an inertial deity and the latter a panentheistic deity. Both there conceptions imply different forms of immobility or immutability. Neither involves the biblical conception of the freedom of God. The constancy of God does not limit his freedom. Indeed it is the constancy of God which provides the very ground for the infinite mobility, newness and variability of his activity. This God is immutably free for his freedom is the constancy of his self-living, self-affirming, and self-moving personal being.

The contrast between the immutability of the Unmoved Mover or of the Moved Unmover, and the immutability of the mighty living God could not be greater. F.W. Camfield wrote on Barth: ‘Paradoxically … the great affirmation of the permanence (or constancy) of God is made in the act in which in Jesus Christ he becomes one with the creature…  I himself becoming creature, God demonstrates in the most conclusive way that he is in no way ceasing to be what he was before…’

We may now turn to several aspects of God’s unchangeableness or immutability, rightly understood as the constancy of his self-living, self-moving, and self-affirming personal Being.

1) The Life of God [240]

God’s eternal life is not immobile but continually self-moving and continually new. The eternal life of God has direction. This is made clear to us by God’s act of creation in which he revealed that he does not want to live alone and will not be without us. This was an utterly new event for God. In the light of the Incarnation we may grasp something of the significance of his eternal purpose, its direction and its fulfilment for in Jesus Christ the Creator has become a creature. 

This means that we must think of the constancy of God which is his unchanging eternal Life as characterized by time. This is not our kind of time of finite created being with beginning and end, past, present and future, but God’s kind of time which is the time of this eternal Life without beginning and end. The time of God’s Life is defined by his everlasting uncreated Nature in which he transcends our temporality. We must think of our creaturely time as contingently grounded upon the eternal time of God. The time of our world is unceasingly sustained by him. So far from being some kind of timeless eternity or eternal now that devalues and negates time, the real time of God’s eternal Life gives reality and value to the created time of our life through coordinating its contingent temporality with its own movement and constancy. The nature of God’s time is not static but essentially dynamic and as such is the constant power upon which our contingent temporality rests.

The time of our human life is characterised by finite distinctions and limits between past, present and future, which do not characterize the eternal Life of God. And yet, as we have seen, there is a purpose of love and so a definite direction in God’s eternal Life, marked by distinct moments in it such that before and after the creation or before and after the incarnation. There is thus a direction and onward movement. God has a ‘history’ (Barth) in a unique sense. Our finite distinctions between past, present and future may not be projected on to God’s being and activity.

This must be thought out in the light of the happening of the incarnation when the eternal Word of God became historical event and the eternal became time. This tells us that his nature is characterised by both repose and movement and that his eternal Being is also a divine Becoming. This does not mean that God becomes other than he eternally is. Becoming expresses the dynamic nature of his Being. We must think of the constancy of the mighty living God as essentially dynamic and never as static for it is none other than the constancy of the self-living, self-moving God himself revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

2) The Faithfulness of God [242]

The self-affirming and self-determining God as ‘I am who I am – I will be who I will be’, together with the decisive once-for-all event of the incarnation, speak to us of the unswerving faithfulness of God – the irreversibility of God’s eternal time in its forward movement toward the complete fulfilment of his eternal purpose of love in creation and redemption. He is the God who keeps faith and truth with his creation and with the people he has created for fellowship with himself. His self-naming and self-affirming as Yahweh and as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ assure us that God is absolutely reliable. God does not and cannot go back on the sacrifice of his dear Son. He cannot deny himself of retract his promises to complete what he has already perfected in Jesus Christ. He is both Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. Let us consider what this means to us personally and to the universe in which God has planted us.

On the one hand, it means that there is a relation of complete fidelity between what God is in Jesus Christ and what he is eternally in his unchangeable Being. There is an unbroken relation of Being and Action between the Father and the Son. There is thus no God behind the back of Jesus Christ, no deus absconditus, no dark inscrutable God, no dark spots in God. There is perfect consistency and fidelity between what he reveals of the Father and what the Father is in his unchangeable reality. The constancy of God in time and eternity has to do with the fact that God really is like Jesus.

On the other hand, the irreversible event of the Incarnation means that God has decisively bound himself to the created universe and the created universe to himself. All that God has done, is, and will do, is bound up with Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever. That this created universe will one day be obliterated is as inconceivable as the obliteration of Jesus Christ. Thus it is in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that we may clearly discern the essentially dynamic nature if God’s unchangeableness or constancy.

3) The Eternal Love of God [244]

We return to the point that in his creative and redeeming acts God has revealed that he will not live alone without us. He had no need of others to be able to love and there is no reason for God’s love apart from his love. God loves us because he loves. What God did therefore in creating fellowship between himself and others he did in the sheer freedom of his overflowing love. In giving to us hi beloved Son, God gives us not something of this love but his very self. 

This reveals that what God is in that movement of his love he is in the ultimate reality of his inmost Being and so St John tells us that ‘God is love.’ God does not merely love. For he is Love and apart from his Love God is not at all. God’s living and loving are one and the same. God does not loved us because the atoning propitiation enacted in the sacrificial death of Christ. Rather does that propitiation flow from the consistent self-movement of the Love that God himself is. It is then in the incarnation and atonement that the unchangeableness or constancy of the love of God is fully demonstrated as the essential movement of God’s eternal Life and Being.

Since God is Love, his love can no more cease to be love that God can cease to be God. Like God himself his love is always consistently the same in every change. As such the love of God is characterized by a total freedom from rigid immutability or inflexibility and by an infinite range of variability and mobility in which its dynamic constancy as love is brought to bear consistently and yet differentially upon every and any state of affairs beyond itself. That is what we find in the biblical revelation when the notion of repentance is anthropomorphically applied to God. This is to be understood in terms of the intrinsic freedom and variability of divine love which precisely is its dynamic constancy and consistency as love. It is precisely because the love of God never repents of being love that it acts differentially and appropriately with different people or in different events.

The love of God revealed in Jesus Christ is his total unconditional self-giving to mankind and it is upon that love that our hope of redemption and resurrection is grounded. It is the love of the eternally self-affirming and self-giving God and so the love he pours out upon us through the Holy Spirit is love that affirms itself as love against all that is not love or resists his love. That is why the self-giving of the self-affirming God cannot but be the judgment of his love upon the sinner. He does not hold back his love from the sinner for he cannot cease to be the God who loves unconditionally. Is that not why St John in the Apocalypse could speak of the wrath of God as ‘the wrath of the Lamb’? And that is surely why St Paul could speak of his ministry of the Gospel as a savour to one of life unto life and to another as death unto death? In God there is no Yes and No, but only Yes. It is upon the Yes of God’s eternal love for us that our salvation rests, but that Yes is also the judgment of those who perish. Why people may want to reject the love of God is quite inexplicable, but whether they believe in Christ or not, the love of God remains unchangeably what it was and is and ever will be.

4) The Impassibility of God [246]

The unqualified deity of Christ means that his incarnate life and his passion belong to the very Being of God and thus of God the Father and God the Spirit as well as God the Son. All that Jesus Christ has done has been taken up into God and is anchored in his unchangeable reality. Only if the Lord God himself were directly and immediately engaged in the vicarious passion of his incarnate Son could it be the vicarious means of redeeming and liberating creation.

‘God crucified’! That is the startling truth of the Gospel. Of course, only if God is a Trinity does this make sense, for it was not the Father or the Spirit who was crucified but the incarnate Son of God. The whole Trinity is involved in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. In an Easter Oration, Gregory of Nazianzus spoke of this, ‘God crucified’, as a downright miracle. Athanasius wrote in a letter to Epictetus: ‘Let them confess that the crucified was God.’ In the Nestorian controversy, Cyril of Alexandria wrote that because of the hypostatic union we cannot but think of the passion of Christ as taking place in his indivisible divine-human Person. ‘If the Word did not suffer for us humanly, he did not accomplish our redemption divinely; if he who suffered for us was mere man and but the organ of Deity, we are not in fact redeemed.’ It was God who suffered in Christ for no mere man is our Saviour. It was Christ as God and God as Christ who suffered for us.

It is within this perspective that we must consider the question of divine passibility and impassibility. God is certainly impassible in the sense that he is not subject to the passions that characterize our human and creaturely existence. He is intrinsically impassible for in his own divine nature he is not moved or swayed by anything other than himself. That is the sense of divine impassibility in which ancient and medieval theology often laid such stress. But it was otherwise when a powerful soteriological approach to the doctrine of God was dominant. That had the effect of setting aside static notions of God’s being and activity. In this approach God is not thought of as characterized by apathy (apatheia) or holding himself aloof from the pain and suffering of his creatures. His heart goes out to them in what Moltmann has called his ‘active suffering’ (The Crucified God, 230). With reference to Jesus’ pain and distress of soul, Athanasius writes, ‘One cannot say that these things are natural to Godhead, but they came to belong to God by nature when it pleased the Word to undergo human birth…’ 

What pains God above all is the sin and wickedness of his human creatures. His opposition to evil and his wrath with evildoers however are not just negative but arise out of the steadfastness and immutability of his holy love. That is the significance and message of the Cross. God does not obliterate evil by absolute irresistible power, but in his boundless mercy lays hold of it in the incarnate birth, life and death of his beloved Son and makes it serve the supreme purpose of his love for the world. It is then the mediatorial passion of Christ in life and death bearing the wrath of God upon the sin of the whole human race, the indescribable agony and sorrow that overwhelmed him in the garden and in the darkness of dereliction which he endured on the Cross, that unveil for us something of the infinite depth of the active suffering of God. What Christ felt, did and suffered was felt, done and suffered by God in his inmost Being for our sake.

We have to do with a paradoxical relation between passibility and impassibility in our understanding of God. Theologians as different as Cyril of Alexandria and Theodoret of Antioch gave expression to this in the statement, ‘He suffered impassibly.’ The emphasis tended to be laid sometimes on one side of the paradox and sometimes on the other. On the one hand, the notion of divine impassibility seemed to call in question the steadfastness or immutability of God. On the other hand, the notion of divine impassibility would evidently exclude any possibility of any real movement in God in loving and vicarious self-identification with us. On the one hand therefore, we cannot but hold that God is impassible in the sense that he remains eternally and changelessly the same. But on the other hand, we cannot but hold that God is passible in that what he is not by nature he in fact became in taking upon himself ’the form of a servant’. That is surely how we must think of the passibility and impassibility of God. Their conjunction is an incomprehensible as the mode of the union of God and man in Christ. In creation and incarnation, God acted in entirely new ways. He became man without ceasing to be God. So he became passible (pathētos) in one sense without ceasing to be impassible (apathēs) in another. We cannot approach the apparent contradiction or paradoxical relation in any logical way, but only in a dynamic way in terms of God’s active self-humiliation.

The guiding thought here must be that of the reconciling exchange expressed by Paul in I Corinthians: ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he become poor…’ This was the great soteriological principle of sacrificial atoning exchange (antallagma), the unassumed is the unredeemed, expounded by the Greek Fathers. Since this exchange takes place within the incarnate constitution of the Mediator, it takes place with the very Life of God. We cannot but think of the saving passion of Christ as internal to the Person of God the Son become man. In the Lord Jesus Christ, God himself has penetrated into our suffering, our hurt, our violence, our sinful alienated humanity, our guilty condition under divine judgment and even into our dereliction: ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’ Behind that cry of Jesus on the Cross there is a mysterious movement in the divine Triunity, a counterpoint between the pathos in the crucified Jesus and the pathos in God. But it is followed by another cry: ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ The incarnate Son of God penetrated into our pathos in such a profoundly redemptive way that in the heart of it all, he brought his eternal serenity or apatheia to bear transformingly upon our passion. Thus we cannot but say that Christ both suffered and did not suffer. This is not to be understood logically but economically. It excludes altogether the thought that God is impassible in the Greek or Stoic sense or passible in the way human beings are. Rather the suffering of God is to be understood in terms of his boundless love and compassion. It is an aspect of the atoning exchange in Jesus Christ that through his sharing in our passion (pathos), he makes us share in this own peace and imperturbability (apatheia). 

In the perfect oneness of his human and divine nature it cannot be said that Christ suffered only in his humanity and not in his divinity. But how far and in what way may we read his suffering back into the ultimate Being of God? Certainly the kind of physical and emotional suffering Christ endured in his incarnate existence may not be attributed to God. But in him, if it may be said reverently, there is suffering of a deeper and more terrible kind, the pain of God the Father in giving up his beloved Son. The passion of Christ considered apart from the passion of the Father would be no more than the noblest martyrdom for it would be empty of ultimate divine validity. It is in his perfect oneness in being with God that the passion of Christ is saving.

Of fundamental importance here is the truth of the coinherent relations of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The whole undivided Trinity is involved in our salvation. The passion of the Lord Jesus Christ who offered himself on the Cross flows from the passion of the Father who did not spare his own Son. This is a passion in which the Holy Spirit shares equally. As the consubstantial Communion of the Father and the Son the Holy Spirit participates in the intercessory passion of the Son and resonates in our prayers the saving intercession of the Son. The Father and the Spirit suffer with the Son and no less than the Son but in their own distinctive ways. 

The ultimate ground is the eternal Love that God is. The Gospel does not rest simply on the fact that God loves us, but on the fact that he loves us with the very same Love which he is in the eternal Communion of Love which God is in his Triune Being. F.W. Camfield: ‘The doctrine of the Trinity alone ultimately safeguards the truth that God’s nature is love.’ Moreover since the whole Trinity is involved in our redemption the saving passion of Christ cannot be regarded as merely a passing event in history. It derives from and is grounded in the eternal Communion of Love which God is in his one indivisible Being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is crucial to the oneness between the passion of God the incarnate Son and the transcendent passion of God the Father. Everything stands or falls with the profound oneness between the evangelical or economic Trinity and the ontological or immanent Trinity. Our salvation is grounded immutably in the self-abnegating Love of God which flows freely to us from the eternal Communion of Love in his Triune Being.

The doctrine of the economic and ontological Trinity is thus of the greatest evangelical relevance to us in our daily life of faith. If God is utterly unchangeable and impassible and is not touched like Christ Jesus with the feeling of our infirmities, then there can be no place for human prayer. But if God himself has condescended out of sheer love at infinite cost to himself to come among us in our weakness and misery in order to make our cause his very own, then the situation is very different. Prayer is then something very real, for it is directed in the name of the beloved Son to the Father in the light of his immense compassion, his unlimited freedom, the infinite outreach of his grace and his boundless capacity for care and redemptive provision for us. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity gives supreme theological expression to the evangelical truth that through Christ Jesus and his Cross we have access by one Spirit to the Father.

The Resurrection of the Crucified Christ [254] 

From early times, Christians looked upon the suffering of Christ the crucified Son of God through the triumphant event of his resurrection. This is reflected in the homilies entitled Peri Pascha which took their cue from St Paul’s statement that ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.’ The Greek word Pascha came to be used of the Christian Passover or Lord’s Supper transformed into the Eucharist. The passion of Christ was understood from the perspective of the resurrection. The fact that in raising his beloved Son from the dead God the Father acknowledged him as his own beloved Son means that it was his own self-sacrifice that lay behind and empowered the atoning sacrifice of Christ. The fact that in his ascension Christ offered himself to the Father means that the whole undivided Trinity was involved in the atoning passion of Christ. In the fifth chapter of Revelation the Lamb alone had gained the power to open the scroll of human destiny. This surely means that the atoning passion of Christ must forever be allowed to govern our understanding of God in all his creative, providential and redemptive relations with us. That is why we cannot but think of passion and serenity, passibility and impassibility, as interpenetrating one another in the ultimate nature of God. The early liturgy of the Church was intrinsically Trinitarian so that it was out of its sacramental worship in Baptism and Eucharist that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, one God in Three Persons came into explicit formulation.