Reformed View of Immutability

While studying the book of Daniel, I came across an interesting statement by Richard Pratt. Pratt asserts, “When we speak of historical contingencies affecting the fulfillment of prophecies, we have in mind a concept of contingency that complies with the emphasis of traditional Reformed theology on the sovereignty of God. In the first place, this study affirms the doctrine of God’s sovereign immutability. Unfortunately, this doctrine is often misunderstood to teach that God is unchangeable in every way imaginable. But such an outlook denies the biblical portrait of God’s ability to have meaningful interaction with the creation (to judge, redeem, answer prayer, become flesh, etc.). It is for this reason that Reformed theologians have distinguished ways in which God is immutable from ways in which he is not. For example, Louis Berkhof puts the matter succinctly: ‘The Bible teaches us that God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were, lives their life with them. There is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purposes, His motives or actions, or His promises.’ We can summarize Berkhof by saying that Reformed theology has identified at least three ways in which God is unchanging: (1) God’s character does not change; he cannot become something other than what he is. (2) God’s covenant promises are immutable. He will not break his covenant oaths. (3) God is immutable in his eternal counsel or plan for all of history. God has an unchangeable plan, and this plan governs every detail of history.” (Richard L. Pratt, Jr., “Hyper-Preterism and Unfolding Biblical Eschatology,” in When Shall These Things Be? ed. Keith A. Mathison (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), 124.). Notwithstanding Pratt’s views on eschatology, I do not subscribe to his view on immutability, and in fact Pratt’s view does not conform either to the traditional Reformed view of immutability nor to the current Reformed view. Francis Turretin, a 17th century Reformed theologian, for example, states, “Immutability is an incommunicable attribute of God by which is denied of Him not only all change, but also all possibility of change, as much with respect to existence as to will” (“Immutabilitas est attributum Dei incommunicabile, quo negatur de Deo non tantum omnis mutatio, fed etiam possibilitas mutationis, tam quoad existentiam, quam quoad voluntatem.” Francisco Turrettino, Institutio Theologiæ Elencticæ (Amstelodami: Ant. Schouten, & Th. Appels., 1696), Third Topic, Q. XI.225.). Thomas Ridgley, an 18th century Reformed theologian, asserts that God is immutable not only in His essence but also in His will: “That God is unchangeable in his will: thus it is said of him, He is of one mind, and who can turn him? Job. xxiii. 13. this is agreeable to his infinite perfection, and therefore he does not propose to do a thing at one time, and determine not to do it at another.” (Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity: Wherein the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, are Explained and Defended (Glasgow: John Bryce, 1770), 38.). John Dick, a 19th century Reformed Pastor and Theologian affirms the same view: “I proceed to speak of his immutability, by which we understand not only that his duration is permanent, but that his nature is fixed, immoveable, unaffected by external causes; in every respect the same from eternity to eternity.” (John Dick, Lectures on Theology (Oxford: David Christy, 1836), 102–3.). Herman Hoeksema, a 20th century Reformed Theologian avers the same position: “He does not grow older, does not increase or decrease in Being or power, is from eternity to eternity the same in essence and in all His virtues, in His mind and will. His love and life, the absolute fulness and Self-sufficient God. When in the Scriptures we read that God repents, or when He speaks a word which at a later moment is changed into the very opposite, as in the case of Hezekiah’s sickness, or of Jonah’s commission concerning the destruction of Nineveh, these instances may never be explained as presupposing a change in God. Rather must we remember that the eternal and immutable God reveals Himself in time, and that what is thus revealed to us in a succession of moments is eternally and unchangeably in the mind of God.” (Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966), 76.). Even Pratt’s quote from Berkhof does not tell an accurate story. Although Pratt quotes from Berkhof, he fails to quote enough, so the reader gets a distorted view of Berkhof’s position. Berkhof goes on to assert, “And if Scripture speaks of His repenting, changing His intention, and altering His relation to sinners when they repent, we should remember that this is only an anthropopathic way of speaking. In reality the change is not in God, but in man and in man’s relation to God. It is important to maintain the immutability of God over against the Pelagian and Arminian doctrine that God is subject to change, not indeed in His Being, but in His knowledge and will, so that His decisions are to a great extent dependent on the actions of man;” (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 59.). Pratt’s view is not consistent either with the traditional Reformed view or with the current Reformed view. The contingencies he describes are perfectly consistent with the traditional view of immutability and do not require any sense in which God changes.

About Tom Howe

Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Southern Evangelical Seminary
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1 Response to Reformed View of Immutability

  1. humblesmith says:

    Good post, Doc. Can we expect more than one a year? 🙂

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