by John Starke
We’re continuing our new feature, “You Asked,” where readers send us theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions that we pass along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share in this space. If you’d like to ask a question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your full name, city, and state.
We posed today’s question to Dr. James Anderson, Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.
Ralph D. from Cork, Ireland asks:
How do we hold together the idea that God doesn’t change with what happened at the incarnation and resurrection – where Jesus was united to a human nature and took on an earthly body and ultimately a resurrection body? It’s hard to understand that God taking on a human nature and all that he experienced in the flesh is not fundamental change for him.
Questions about the nature of time have perplexed philosophers for thousands of years. Questions about God’s relationship to time are no less thorny, and the mystery of the Incarnation adds a further layer of complication. So it’s with no little trepidation that I hazard an answer to this question! Still, armed with some important distinctions I believe we can at least tame the conundrum, if not banish it altogether.
The puzzle can be stated as follows:
- Classical theism holds that God does not change; indeed, God cannot change, because he transcends time altogether.
- Scripture likewise teaches that God does not change (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17).
- Scripture also teaches that God the Son “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14); butbecoming involves a change from one state (not being human) to another (being human).
- Scripture further teaches that God the Son died and rose again (Rom. 1:4); this also entails a change from one state (being dead) to another (being alive).
- So the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection seem to contradict the doctrines of divine immutability and timelessness.
We should note first of all that the biblical statements about God not changing needn’t be taken in a way that rules out change in any sense. The focus in these texts is on God’s character and his faithfulness to his promises. Unlike us, God isn’t fallible and fickle (Num. 23:19; cf. Heb. 6:16-18) and he cannot fail to fulfill his plans and his promises. So these texts arguably leave open the possibility of God changing in ways consistent with his perfect character, his eternal decree, and his covenantal commitments, and it’s plausible to think the Incarnation would fall into that category.