God’s Immutability: A Proof Text?
Malachi 3:6-7a 6 For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7 Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
One of the ongoing debates in Christian theology concerns how we talk about God. Should we continue to try to define God in the well established Greek-based categories and talk about the attributes of God in terms of the classic "omni-" doctrines (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence), as well as the classic divine negatives known as the via negativa (immutable, impassionate, ineffable, infinite, atemporal, ahistorical, etc)? Or should we try to develop new ways of talking about God that are more related to the biblical narratives and more relevant to the way we think in the modern world?
That is a much larger debate than I can address here (see God's Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Human Freedom). However, one aspect of this ongoing discussion is how the biblical tradition is used to serve the classic definition of God in terms of absolute attributes. Yet, it does not take too much closer examination to realize that most of the biblical tradition, especially the Old Testament, is not really addressing that kind of process of defining God.
Rather, the basic concern of most of Scripture is with the ongoing relationship between God and his people. Descriptions of God generally fall into that larger context governed by the basic metaphor of covenant, which is itself a metaphor of relationship: "I will be your God and you shall be my people" (for example, Ex 6:7, Jer 7:23, 11:4, 30:22, Eze 36:28). Even in the poetic descriptions of God in the Wisdom traditions or Psalms, the concern is not to define God in any absolute terms, but to communicate God in terms of relationship to the world and people, and the responsibility and accountability of both to God.
And yet, many biblical passages are assumed to address the concerns and questions of the later Church as it asked those absolute questions about God and sought to define God in human categories. A closer examination of the actual biblical passages, especially in the Old Testament, using different beginning assumptions reveals a different focus of the biblical text.
For example, Malachi 3:6a, "For I the LORD do not change," is often taken as biblical proof that God is immutable, that is, that He does not and cannot change in any way. Some would qualify this and talk about his essence not changing while still leaving God room to respond to prayer, for example. Still, the verse is assumed to be making an ontological statement about the essence of God, the attribute of immutability.
This is one of the most common mistakes in interpreting Scripture, taking an idea from one language and culture (ancient Hebrew) written for one purpose (to express covenant relationship) and assuming from another language and culture (modern English) a different meaning (categorical abstract definitions of God). It ignores both the context of the verse being used as well as the meaning of the words used in the text itself in favor of a larger logical construct.
The assumed meaning in applying this verse to the immutability of God is that the term "change" implies some ontological or absolute character trait or describes an attribute of God. That assumes a background in Greek philosophy, which indeed is the basis for many concepts in English through Latin derived from Greek.
However, closer examination of the verse, both in terms of the words used and its context, will not support this use. The word used in Hebrew here (shanah) implies a much more temporal kind of changing. It is used for changing clothes (Jer 52:33=2 Kings 25:39), expressions or visage (Eccl 8:1), emotions (Psa 77:10), speech (Prov 17:9), or behavior (1 Sam 21:14, Jer 2:36). It can even mean to change into a disguise, to pretend to change (1 Kings 14:2), or to change negatively in the sense of pervert (Prov 31:5, Lam 4:1).
A form of this word is the word for "year." It is the shanah part of Rosh Hashanah, "beginning of the year," Jewish New Year (Eze 40:1; in the phrase "changing of the days" in Prov 4:10). In other words, the word "change" has to do with temporal changes that occur with people or in nature. It never describes anything close to or in opposition to the concept of immutability or in describing the essence of something.
The book of Malachi in all four chapters is addressing the faithlessness of the people in the imagery of covenant, in which God has committed to this people as their God and called them to be His people. It begins with the metaphor of the contrast between Esau and Jacob, using the covenantal term of "love" (1:2-3; note Deut 7:7-8, 12-13). God had loved/covenanted with the people, and he expected a response of faithfulness, love, in return (Deut 6:5).
Chapter two uses the imagery of covenant, with the examples of the Levites and marriage, to address the failure of the people to live out that covenant relationship. The summary verse is 2:10:
2:10 Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?
Chapter three shifts to a more somber tone with the warning about a coming "messenger of the covenant" who will require accountability. The chapter concludes by contrasting those who serve God and those who do not. Chapter four concludes with the stereotypical language of coming judgment (see The Day of the Lord) that deals with accountability.
In this context, "I do not change" using this Hebrew term is not an ontological statement about the attributes of God as defined by Greek philosophy, nor does it relate to what God does or does not know, nor does it imply that God never changes his mind in response to human decision. It is simply not about immutability as a divine essence or attribute.
Rather, it is a statement of the faithfulness of God to his covenant (note Psa 89:34), his relationship with His people within human history. Even though the people have failed in that covenant relationship from the beginning, and continually, God has remained committed to this people in spite of themselves. God does not arbitrarily change in his dealing with His people like one changes clothes. He does not change according to the emotion of the moment. He does not even change like the seasons, blowing hot one time and cold another. There is a stability to God’s dealing with his people even though they have been fickle and inconsistent from the beginning.
Malachi 3:6-7 is a statement about the faithfulness and depth of God’s grace and his commitment to humanity not about whether or not he changes on some absolute level. From this we can conclude some things about God. But we must be careful not to make this single verse say more than it can say.