Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Kurtz about the doctrine of God’s immutability.
Topics of conversation include:
Dr. Ronni Kurtz serves as assistant professor of Theology at Cedarville University. He previously pastored for several years in Kansas City, and taught theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Spurgeon College. Dr. Kurtz is the author of No Shadow of Turning: Divine Immutability and the Economy of Redemption (Mentor, 2022).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
If one thing is true about the gods of the ancient world, it was that they were capricious. That is, they changed their minds often. They were given over to humanesque passions. They essentially behaved like debauched children. Well the God of the Bible, however, is much different. He does not change. Scripture says, "God is not a human that he should lie; not a human being that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" And the New Testament, in the book of Hebrews, we read this about Jesus—"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever." Our God is not given over to whims. And the Bible tells us that it is because God does not change that we are not consumed. Sometimes doctrines like God's unchangeableness, or what we call divine immutability, make God seem distant and uncaring. But this is precisely opposite of how we should feel.
Brian Arnold (1:06):
The Bible tells us we should have great confidence and comfort in God because he is immutable. Well to help us understand divine immutability, we have with us Dr. Ronni Kurtz. Dr. Kurtz serves as assistant professor of Theology at Cedarville University, and previously taught theology at Midwestern Seminary and Spurgeon College in Kansas City, Missouri, where he also pastored for eight years. Dr. Kurtz's focus is scholarly work on the doctrine of God and the doctrine of salvation, and the fruit of that research most recently is his book, No Shadow of Turning: Divine Immutability and the Economy of Redemption, which is set to come out in November of this year. Dr. Kurtz, welcome to the podcast.
Ronni Kurtz (01:43):
Thanks for having me. I really appreciate you and appreciate what you're doing here with the show.
Brian Arnold (01:47):
So we always ask our guests one big question, and today the question is—does God change? So let's just begin with some definitions. Can you give us a brief definition of divine immutability?
Ronni Kurtz (01:59):
Absolutely. Yeah, to answer the question as plain as I can, the answer is no, God does not change. To give a little bit more of a robust definition, I think the best way to think about God's unchangingness is to say that we affirm divine immutability, which states that not only does God not change, but it is impossible for him to change. The reason it is impossible for God to change is because God is perfect. And so we negate any kind of change to his perfection. If he was to become "more perfect," if he was to change for the better, he wouldn't have been perfect. And if he was to change for the worse, he would no longer be perfect. So because God is perfect, he does not alter for the good or the bad. And I would add to that definition, that this is very good news to the Christian.
Brian Arnold (02:52):
Yeah. Even as I read in the introduction from Malachi, I mean, our hope that we are not burned up, consumed, obliterated, is the fact that God does not change. And if his character is good and loving towards his creatures, especially those in Christ, that gives us great confidence in who he is. And I'm sure we'll dive into that in a little bit. Maybe even set the stage for some of our listeners who can hear topics like this that sound really abstract to them—why is it so important for us as believers—and even believers who are not pursuing theology, they're not theology professors, they're not pastors—why is it important for them to understand and know doctrines like immutability?
Ronni Kurtz (03:29):
Yeah, absolutely. I love this question. It's at kind of the heart of where I want to spend my life, which is the intersection of doctrine and affections. And I think immutability—something like a truth that God doesn't change—really does have a strong impetus to stir the affections of Christians. And the reason is, is when we talk about theology, I think one of the best definitions of theology—and this comes from a long line of people, this is not original to me. But I think when we talk about theology, what we're after is the study of God, and all things in relation to God. And some people might argue that theology can be unpractical, or kind of stale, or cold, but I would maybe push back and say—well, Second Corinthians three says that we are transformed from one degree of glory to another by beholding him.
Ronni Kurtz (4:22):
And I think as we contemplate God, as we contemplate all things in relation to God, and we do that very important work of beholding him. As we turn our mind's eye Godward, and try to get a grand view of who God is and what God is doing, it will transform us. And so taking a sustained period of time to think about how miraculous it is that God is unchanging, I do think is a transformative exercise. Especially because what we see in doing that, is we recognize that it's not good news for a God to be unchanging if he is a bad God. But it is remarkably and eternally good news for God to be unchanging if he is a good God. And examining the unchanging essence of God, you examine the goodness of God.
Brian Arnold (05:17):
Well, I think that's a really firm and beautiful foundation to build this discussion of immutability on. And I love how you tie theology and affections together. If we are going to love this God, we need to know this God. So let's begin with kind of a threefold witness you talk about, as you engage the doctrine of divine immutability from history, and Scripture, and Christian reason. Why are those each necessary as we think about this topic?
Ronni Kurtz (05:49):
Yeah, honestly, we could build a doctrine of God off of any one of those. Being a Protestant theologian myself, obviously Scripture has the final authority in the way that I think about theology. And so I want to make sure that all of my doctrine is grounded in Scripture. But these three, you know...if we think about it as a stool, these three legs of the stool really allow us to have a robust doctrine of immutability. Because the reality is—immutability can be difficult when we start really asking questions. We could talk about passages, like the ones you read in the intro, like Malachi, which says very plainly and simply, "I the Lord do not change." However, we could also think about passages where it seems at least God might change his mind, or discover something, or change his plan. He threatens to punish, and then because of repentance he doesn't. Or vice versa.
Brian Arnold (06:44):
Yeah, we'll dive into those here in a minute. Because I think those are really critical passages, I think, as we...
Ronni Kurtz (06:49):
Yeah, absolutely. And so I do think we need more than simply just saying, "Aha, I have this one proof text and now the case is settled." I think we need a more mature understanding of divine immutability than that. So I, in the book, as you mentioned, I kind of pursue an affirmative case of divine immutability using three kind of tools—a historical analysis, a biblical and exegetical analysis, and an analysis from systematic theology or Christian reasoning. And so I think there are tons of texts in the Scriptures—you quoted some of them—Hebrews is amazing, James one, 16 through 18, obviously, "God is the Father of lights and in him there's no shadow of turning." There's a multitude of texts that deal with immutability. And then throughout history, that historical lane—divine immutability, unlike many doctrines, really enjoyed a near-unanimous affirmation, regardless of credal position, regardless of denomination, regardless of era. It's not really until the modern era you start seeing people kind of tinkering with immutability. So there's a really strong historical element. It shows up in both creeds and confessors. And then finally, Christian reasoning. Even if immutability wasn't in the Scripture—which I think it is, explicitly—I think you would end up deducing something like God's changeless by virtue of his other attributes, by virtue of his perfection. And so from Scripture, from history, and from reasoning, I think we can arrive at this doctrine we call immutability.
Brian Arnold (08:24):
So let me dive in as a historian. I think you're right, that that has not been subject to discussion, really, in church history. This has been kind of a unanimous, everyone holds that we serve a God who does not change. But you did mention in the modern era some of that shifted. And even in the last 20 or 30 years we're seeing some unique challenges to this, that it's possible some of our listeners have been engaged with, without even recognizing it. So what are some of those most recent challenges you've seen to divine immutability?
Ronni Kurtz (08:57):
Yeah, this is an important question for us who happen to be doing theology in the modern era. You're right. Kind of turn of the Enlightenment, you start seeing some folks tinkering with, or at least revising—if not totally rejecting—the doctrine of divine immutability. Throughout my work I read as many sources as I could that disagree with immutability, and I tried to help the reader by giving somewhat of a taxonomy or just categorizing—why are people moving away from a more classical articulation of immutability? And in my categorization, I came up with five major reasons. And I labeled these reasons as "the problem of—". So these people say, "I can't affirm immutability because the problem of x." And here are the five problems. The first is the problem of relationship and soteriology. So basically, "How can I really have a meaningful relationship with a God who doesn't change?"
Ronni Kurtz (9:54):
The second one is the problem of the incarnation—is not the second Person of the Trinity taking on flesh a change in itself? So that's the second problem. The third problem is the problem of creation and divine action. At one point, God was not a creator, and then he "became a creator." Is that action in itself—and any action by God—not a change? That's the third. The fourth is the problem of volition and knowledge. So sometimes in Scripture, it seems like God wants to do one thing and then he changes his mind and does another. So is that volitional aspect not a change? And then fifth, the problem of divine freedom and contingency. If God wills something, and then has no ability to change his mind in doing that, does he not have freedom? And so those are...really, that's kind of a 30,000 foot flyover, but those are really the five major reasons you see people start to deviate or deny a classical articulation.
Brian Arnold (10:53):
Alright. So if we're flying at 30,000 feet, I want to dive bomb on a couple of these and get a little bit of a closer look. Because I even get these as a seminary professor as well, from students who are perfectly orthodox, but have these questions of like the incarnation. So here you have a God who's not changing, and in the incarnation—what we call the hypostatic union—Jesus Christ, fully God, takes on human flesh and becomes fully man, and exists with these two natures in one Person. So how can God not be changed? And especially as we've held historically—Christ is united to that body now forever. So how does that not admit some level of change in God? So how do you answer that question?
Ronni Kurtz (11:37):
Yeah, absolutely. So I don't...in the book, I don't actually give...because the purpose of the book is to explore why immutability matters for salvation, I don't go back and kind of answer each of the problems. But I'm happy to do so here, because I do affirm a classic articulation of divine immutability. And I think for this particular one, the problem of the incarnation—by the way, there are two really good books I would recommend here. One is called Does God Change? by Thomas Weinandy. And it should honestly be called Does God Change in the Incarnation? Because he basically handles this exact question at length in a full book. And the second is from a theologian you may have heard of, named Steven Duby—Jesus and the God of Classical Theism is an excellent book here.
Ronni Kurtz (12:22):
And I think Dr. Duby does a good job, as does Dr. Weinandy, of showing how Christology is so important here. And sadly, many of us evangelicals have had a hard time really developing a robust Christology, when doing so would help us answer this particular question. Because you already brought up the doctrine that matters—the hypostatic union. The union of these two hypostases: the divine and the human. And another doctrine...we don't want to get overly technical here, but another helpful doctrine is the communicatio idiomatum, or the communication of attributes. What is the communication between those two hypostases—the divine and the human? And what we're going to see is Jesus is a remarkable miracle in the incarnation, because what you end up having in the incarnation is almost the turning of every one of the divine perfections on its head.
Ronni Kurtz (13:18):
Here you have an unchanging God taking on flesh, and now changing every second. Every second of Jesus' earthly ministry, he's getting older. His hair is growing longer. He's...whatever it may be. He's experiencing change, moment by moment, even though his divine nature is utterly unchanging. So what we then would predicate, as orthodox Christians with our Christology, is that the divine nature of Jesus never changes. Period. But the human nature of Jesus changes all of the time. And then we would need to do the careful work of—how do those two hypostases communicate? And my particular theological tradition is going to say that they don't. There is not a communication of change between the human nature, the human hypostasis, and the divine.
Brian Arnold (14:06):
And I think it's really important that people hear that piece of—Jesus, in his divine nature, never changes. How is it that God never changes while even taking on the incarnation in the human flesh? The divine nature itself never changes. The second thing I'd want to point out, as the president of an institution, is Steve Duby is one of our professors. So you mentioned we may know him—absolutely. We're really proud of Steve and the work that he's doing in that realm of classical theism, and his new book Jesus and the God of Classical Theism is really helpful on these points. I want to dive into one more area, because I think people can get rattled a little bit as they're reading their Bible. And they begin with an assumption, a lot of times, that God doesn't change. I think that's kind of an innate Christian assumption, in many ways.
Brian Arnold (14:46):
And then they get to a place in Scripture where it looks like God changes his mind, or the text says God changes—right—his mind on some of these things. Maybe unhelpfully, in some of the translations, but the point is I think it can rattle people a little bit. You know, I started off talking about the capriciousness of the gods of maybe the ancient near east, or the Greco-Roman world. Is God similar to that in some of these Old Testament passages? Because if he is changing in those places, then—like you said, if he changes at all ever—then he is a God subject to change, and that has really disastrous consequences. So maybe highlight one of these texts and help walk us through it.
Ronni Kurtz (15:23):
Yeah. Man, there's so much we could say here. And I think this is such an important discussion, because it gets not only at predicating something like divine immutability, but it also gets at just how we read our Bibles. And that is so...you know, if we live not on bread alone, but we also live on the Word of God, how we treat the Word of God is so vital to the flourishing of our own soul and the forming of our person. And I love diving into kind of hermeneutics, as it relates to those kind of tricky passages. And there are a number of them. So you could think of, for example, when the Lord and Abraham are discussing Sodom and Gomorrah, and it seems to be a genuine back and forth about the number of faithful people that must be found for God not to punish the people. That seems to be a genuine give and take, back and forth kind of change. Or any kind of...anytime in the Old Testament in which God promises destruction, but then relents. Or even in a passage like Saul, where it says God regretted.
Ronni Kurtz (16:35):
These are really important passages. And we want to treat the Scripture with dignity and honor. We don't just want to gloss over them as if they're not important, because they're divinely inspired passages that we must take seriously. So I would say a few things to this discussion. First is—I think we have a couple of options. We can at least...because we have the existence of two kinds of passages—passages that seem to indicate God doesn't change, and passages which might seem to indicate God does change—I think we can do one of three things. One, we can conclude that the Bible is contradictory. And I don't want to do that. I don't think your readers should do that. The second thing we can do is conclude that the passages which say God doesn't change are literal, and the passages which say he does change are somewhat metaphorical.
Ronni Kurtz (17:27):
Or the third option is we can say that the passages that say God does change are literal, and the passages that say God doesn't change are somewhat metaphorical. I'm going to argue—and I argue in the book—that the best option is to affirm the route in which we affirm that God does not change is literal. And those passages which say he does change are metaphorical, in some way. Now the question should be—why? Why would the Bible use metaphorical language to describe God's changing or not changing? And I think the best answer there—and there's more to this, but to bring the conversation down as accessible as possible—is I think God is accommodating his divine nature. We do not understand, as the creatures who change constantly, we do not understand an unchanging essence. Who we are is changing all of the time.
Ronni Kurtz (18:20):
And so, as God is self-communicating, as he is revealing his glorious essence, we would not be able to comprehend his glorious essence in all that it is. And therefore he accommodates himself. John Calvin called it...John Calvin said that "God baby talks to us." He brings it down to our level of comprehension. And so he communicates in ways that seem to be changing, even though his essence doesn't. And this is another reason why I think you need a theological method, or a Bible reading method, that's bigger, more mature, more wise than simply pointing out a "gotcha" verse. I think it's more robust than this.
Brian Arnold (19:02):
Well, and that's how heretics do it, right? They get the "gotcha" verse and exacerbate it, and, you know, make it into this bigger thing than it is. Because the rest of Scripture is very clear that God does not change. So we need to set those in the context of the greater revelation that is overwhelming—that God does not change. And then understand these passages in light of that. Well, I want to get really pastoral with you for a minute. You spent some time as a pastor, and doctrines like this are really important for Christians to really grapple with, because of things like suffering, things like loss, things like depression and anxiety. How do you, as a pastor, take a doctrine like divine immutability and encourage Christians with it?
Ronni Kurtz (19:50):
Mm. I love this question. There are so many ways to be encouraged by God's changelessness. So many ways. For example, just a couple off top of my head—because of the work of Jesus Christ, because of his active and passive obedience applied to you, listener, if you're a believer, by virtue of your union with him, you have been declared righteous. Not because of your merits, but because of the merits of your high priest, Jesus Christ. And you can go to sleep tonight, knowing that that declaration of your righteousness is going to be intact tomorrow when you wake up, because God is unchanging. He has declared it, and it will be. He has said it, and it will come to pass. You are, if you are in Christ, righteous. Not only will his declaration of your righteousness not change, but his righteousness will never change. If your salvation is predicated on your being clothed in his righteousness, you need a kind of righteousness, as the hymn says, that will never fade in its glorious hue.
Ronni Kurtz (20:58):
You need a kind of righteousness that will be unfading, that will be unchanging. And another way that this is really pastoral is—I think the flip side of divine immutability is the technical doctrine that we call pure act. God is purely act. God is not needing to react to things left and right. Unlike us, God is not living his life reactionary. Which this means that God, when he pursued the economy of redemption, this was his idea. This was not because he saw how pitiful and pathetic us creatures are and thought, "Ah, I better do something to rescue these people." No. Salvation was his idea. It wasn't a change in what he was going to do. It's not like he had another plan and thought, "I'm gonna scrap that plan and pursue these people." No, he came after us out of the fullness of himself. And so that is eternally glorious news. This is not God's plan B. It is his glorious essence in our direction. And we can be very confident in the sturdiness of our salvation, because we can be confident in the sturdiness of our Savior.
Brian Arnold (22:10):
There's a real beauty in that. I like how Scripture often talks to us as we're sons and daughters of the king. And just thinking about how a kid, for them, even though their parents are changing and things, there's something about a steady, stable parent that brings a lot of comfort to the child. And how much more infinitely so is the Heavenly Father. That as we get pushed around by circumstances and changes in life, he never changes. And that's a beautiful thing for the soul. Well, what are some resources, Ronni, you might point people to—in addition to your book, of course—that would help them explore this topic? Both maybe at an academic level, and at more of a practical, personal level.
Ronni Kurtz (22:49):
Yeah. On the academic level there's a few. I'm not just saying this because I'm talking to the president of Phoenix Seminary, but Duby has done great work here, both book form and essay form. In essay form he has a few pieces on what to do with those repentant passages you can find in the International Journal of Systematic Theology. And book form, he has not only Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, but God in Himself with IVP is an outstanding book. A couple of books from some Catholic writers that are really helpful here is the first one I mentioned—Does God Change? by Thomas Weinandy. Another one is The Unchanging God of Love: Thomas Aquinas and Contemporary Theology on Divine Immutability by Michael Dodds is an excellent book. None Greater by Matthew Barrett is more of an accessible treatment of the divine attributes, and he has a chapter on immutability there that's particularly helpful.
Ronni Kurtz (23:45):
If you read Knowing God and you come across that really striking Charles Spurgeon quote at the very beginning of Knowing God, when he talks about how "theology will make you feel but nothing." And that's actually from a sermon called Divine Immutability from Spurgeon. And so I would suggest reading that—that sermon—if you want your soul stirred for the Lord by virtue of this doctrine. And yeah, I think...I hope that my book can strike a little bit of a balance between academic and pastoral. But those are just a few off top of my head.
Brian Arnold (24:18):
Well, I appreciate those recommendations. All of them are fantastic. And I look forward to reading your book when it comes out. I think these doctrines are so critically important. The crisis of our day is that people don't know God. And if they knew God, if they could love him as God, their affections would be stirred. And one of those chief ways is understanding God is unchangeable. So thank you for kind of helping us understand this doctrine better and even placing it in it's kind of pastoral significance for people.
Ronni Kurtz (24:44):
Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.