Thursday, August 8, 2013

Did God Repent?: Jonah 3:10 and the Immutability of God - Part 1

Does Jonah 3, particularly verse 10, call into question God's immutability? Survey the material regarding the debate over God's unchangableness and you will find a great deal of debate over the meaning and interpretation of Jonah 3:10. Compare how the King James Version and the New American Standard translate this verse:

KJV - And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.

NASB - When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.

The language suggest, even more sharply in the KJV, that God changed His mind. Taken at face value, and out of context, the author seems to be denying God's constancy. However, the theologian must not "proof text" his theological convictions, but must test them with proper exegesis.

In short, Scripture affirms God's immutability as multiple passages attest (Psalm 102:25-27; Malachi 3:6-7a; Romans 11:28; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17) and many of our basic assumptions & beliefs about God depend on it. When we speak of God's perfection we are speaking of a God who cannot, in nature, move away from (thus becoming imperfect) or to (thus becoming perfect) perfection. Perfection as an attribute implies immutability. For if God changes, then He ceases to be perfect. Likewise, when we speak of God being all-wise and all-knowing, we assume He does not change. For if God ever decreases (that is changes) in knowledge or wisdom, then He would cease to be perfect and all-knowing/wise. Furthermore, God is spoken of as eternal throughout Scripture. He is not bound by time, but is its Creator. Thus God's attributes are eternal. This, too, assumes immutability. For if God changes, not only is His eternity at risk, but so are His attributes. We take for granted that God is love, but if God changes, then are His benevolent attributes, like love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, etc., subject to change as well?

In short, divine immutability gives us the assurance of assurance. We know, for certain, that God is too holy to ignore injustice and evil. That will never change because He never changes. The opposite is true. We know, for certain, that God's love even for the worse of sinners is great - grace is greater than all of our sin. We know this because God never changes.

But what do we do with Jonah 3? The language of KJV is particularly unhelpful. The translators of the early 17th century used the word repent which carries with it a host of unhelpful connotations. First we must say, and the KJV translators would agree, that God does not repent, that is, turn from sin and evil. God is holy, good, perfect, and righteous and thus is not stained with sin. This is true with each member of the Trinity.

With that said, the language still suggests that God changed His mind regarding the Ninevites. The NASB (as well as the ESV and others) translates the word here regret which still carries dangerous baggage.

Regardless, I believe that Jonah 3, taken as a whole, affirms God's immutability and verse 10 proves it as I will argue in part 2.


For more:
"Christian Theology": Blogging Through Erickson - Theology Proper 3
"Christian Theology": Blogging Through Erickson - Theology Proper 4
"Christian Theology": Blogging Through Erickson - Theology Proper 5 
The Immutability of God:  Its Truth and Relevancy - Introduction (Part 1)
The Immutability of God:  Its Truth and Relevancy - Scriptural Foundation (Part 2)
The Immutability of God:  Its Truth and Relevancy - Scriptural Challenges (Part 3)
The Immutability of God:  Its Truth and Relevancy - Theological Challenges (Part 4)
The Immutability of God:  Its Truth and Relevancy - Practical Implications (Part 5) 
The Immutability of God:  Its Truth and Relevancy - Theological Applications (Part 6)
The Immutability of God:  Its Truth and Relevancy - Theodicy & God's Sovereignty (Part 7)
Does God Suffer?: Aquinas on Divine Impassibility
Repost | Will the Two Become One?: Emergents Turn to Process Theology
Jim Wallis & Open Theology 
"Process Theology"
Sermon Podcast - April 26, 2010 - The Immutability of God
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