by John M. Frame
As we approach the new millennium, things seem to be changing faster and faster. New scientific discoveries, medicines, treatments, technologies appear almost daily. And the moral climate keeps changing too. Our society has passed in thirty years from (1) a belief that abortion was a scandalous crime, not fit for public discussion, to (2) the belief that it should be tolerated in extreme cases, (3) to the belief that it is guaranteed by the US Constitution, (4) to the belief that it is a fundamental human right, (5) to the belief that it should never be restricted even when it is indistinguishable from infanticide.
Similarly, homosexuality has moved from a position of (1) social scorn, to (2) toleration, to (3) special protection, to (4) persecution of its opponents. People whose attitudes toward homosexuality were the conventional wisdom of the 70s, now find themselves described as bigots, their views excluded from public discussion.
The role of Christianity in modern American society keeps changing. Fifty years ago it was not uncommon to hear people describe America as a fundamentally Christian country. In the 1960s, the ACLU and other organizations opposed that view and stressed the Jeffersonian image of the “wall of separation” between church and state, an image not found in the US Constitution, but placed there in effect by court decisions. So that the perception of Christianity has progressed from (1) the fundamental ideology of the US, to (2) one of many faiths within a pluralist society, to (3) a viewpoint that must be excluded from government-supported institutions, to (4) a viewpoint not fit to be taken seriously in the public square, to (5) the chief enemy of all learning and enlightenment. This movement parallels the general repaganization of modern society which my colleague Peter Jones, for example, has documented, and it points toward a possible era in which Christians of America, like those of many other nations, will suffer severe persecution for their faith.
The rapidity of change makes it hard for us to keep our balance. We are pushed one way, then another, without much time to reflect, or plan. We find ourselves “thrown,” as the existentialists used to say, into a world we find bewildering, in which we cannot find our way. Once we think we’ve gotten hold of something, things change again, and again we are off-balance. The new millennium does not necessarily mark any fundamental increase in the pace of change, but it does tend to symbolize that acceleration in many minds. Compare the 1990s with the 1890s: space shuttles with horses, buggies, and primitive autos; computers with mental calculation; a media-entertainment saturated environment vs. a workaday world with occasional breaks for entertainment. The new millennium summons us to think ahead another hundred years. If the changes, indeed the pace of change in the next century increases as much as in the past hundred years, the prospect for serenity is not good.
The problems associated with change, however, are not new, nor are they uniquely associated with centennial and millennial transitions. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who lived between 535 and 475 BC, observed that everything always changes. Even things that seem fairly solid and constant undergo slight changes from the forces of nature. Panta rei, he said, “Everything flows.” We also remember his saying, “you cannot step in the same river twice.” Put your toe in the Colorado River; take it out again; then put it back in. The second time, the water is different. Some of the old water has dried out in the Mexican desert; new water has come from the mountains. We continue to call it “Colorado River,” but the phrase refers, first to one quantity of water, then to another.
But if everything literally changes all the time, then we have a real problem. If the phrase “Colorado River” refers to one thing, then another, how can it have any meaning at all? Perhaps we can generalize and say that “Colorado River” refers to a certain channel, and to whatever water may be in that channel at a given time. But the channel keeps changing too, however subtly. Now if you have studied the modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps you are saying, “that’s why we should not equate the meaning of words with what they refer to; the meaning of a word is not its referents, but its use.” But Heraclitus would doubtless reply that our use of terms also undergoes change, and that is part of the problem. When a word like “Negro” or “handicapped,” changes from being an acceptable, even respectable and respectful, designation at one point of time to an offensive slur at another time, many of us find ourselves charged with bigotry simply because we are slow learners. Not to mention the use of male generic pronouns, which, for some reason, I still can’t get out of my system. Probably I’m not trying very hard.
Constant change is an epistemological problem, a problem for human knowledge. If everything changes, how can we know what anything is? For then nothing really is; there is no being, only becoming. But becoming cannot be captured in words and concepts. Becoming won’t stand still long enough to be photographed by a human conceptual camera. Once we say that a has become b, then a has become not-a. So nothing can really be known or truly said. There can be no objective truth, for objective truth is a truth that stands still for a while, anyway, long enough for people to look at it and adjust their concepts to it.
And if a becomes not-a, or not-a becomes a, the mind is baffled in another way too. For how can a come from not-a? How can something appear, when it had no prior existence? How can something come from nothing? In a changing world, things are coming from nothing all the time. In this way, too, change seems to frustrate our attempts to understand it, indeed our attempts to understand anything.
Another Greek philosopher, Parmenides, faced with the choice between real change and objective truth, denied that there was such a thing as change. Change, to Parmenides, was an illusion. Ah, but whence comes the illusion of change? In a changeless world, like the world Parmenides thought to be real, there should not be any illusions yielding to reality. For one thing, there is change within the illusion, and for another thing, the transition from illusion to reality must be described as a change.
Heraclitus, too, was unsatisfied with the simple notion that everything was in constant change. If everything changes, how can we identify anything in words; and if we cannot identify anything in words, how can we know anything? Heraclitus’s solution is found in the Greek word logos. Logos means “word,” also rationality, rational structure, meaning. Heraclitus taught that although everything changes, it changes according to a rational pattern, congruent with the rational structure of the human mind. So the changes in the world are regular, predictable, understandable. Constant change, therefore, does not imperil rationality.
Is the logos, for Heraclitus, then, the one exception to the rule that everything constantly changes? Is the logos the one unchanging reality in the world, so that change proceeds according to an unchanging pattern? But Heraclitus’s philosophy, so far, has proceeded by way of generalization from observation. This changes, and that changes, and we can’t think of anything that wouldn’t change in the same way, so therefore everything must change. Why should the logos be an exception to this generalization? Is it not arbitrary to declare that rationality is the one exception to the universality of change? And if there is one exception, why might there not be others as well? In the end, the question remains open as to whether the logos is the savior of human rationality. We must at least consider the possibility that the logos too, the rational nature of the world and the human mind, may be part of the flux.
Indeed, that is the possibility that was taken up in ancient Greece by the Sophists, like Protagoras, and has been taken up in modern times by such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Kuhn, Alasdair MacIntyre, and of course postmodernists like Richard Rorty, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Mark Taylor: Perhaps rationality itself is not a constant thing, but something that varies from time to time and from culture to culture. Perhaps there is no “metanarrative” or objective truth which rightly demands the assent of all human beings. Perhaps the demand for such assent is oppressive, part of the dynamic by which the powerful keep the weak in their place. But, reply those like me who are pre-postmodern, or perhaps post-postmodern: if there is no objective truth, then postmodernism itself is not objectively true. And when postmodernists attempt to argue the truth of their position they are in effect oppressing the rest of us in order to maintain their academic and cultural power over us.
The one conclusion that emerges from this oversimplified history of thought on the subject is that human philosophy has not yet put to rest the horrors implicit in an all-changing world in which the rate of change constantly (?) accelerates. Change threatens not only our composure, but our very rationality. In both psychological and philosophical senses, it drives us crazy.
But the Bible has the answer! Aren’t you surprised to hear that, here at Westminster Seminary? Oh, dear. Somebody must have tipped you off.
In any system of thought, there must be something unchanging, something that serves as a vantage point, a place from which to view change, a standard by which to measure it, a changeless object in relation to which other things move. As we’ve seen, for Heraclitus it was the logos. But the logos was a rather ad hoc hypothesis, a Deus ex machina, brought in to solve the problem. It is born of the desperation that without a constant rationality, change will kill us. Rationality must be changeless, thought Heraclitus. But why?
In Scripture, what is unchanging is a person. “I am the Lord, I change not,” he says (Mal. 3:6). In Psm. 102:25-27, the Psalmist addresses God,
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
And the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
They will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.
But you remain the same
And your years will never end.
And James tells us that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. “
Specifically, God’s character doesn’t change: Psm. 136 tells us 26 times that “his love endures forever.” In Psm. 100, “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” How could it be otherwise? God does not merely show love, or have love as a character trait; he is love (1 John 4:8), as he is light (1 John 1:5) and Spirit (John 4:24). If God were to lose his love, or or goodness, or light, or spirituality, he would no longer be God.
Also, his eternal plan, his counsel, does not change. “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations” (Psm. 33:11). How could his plan change? He made everything, controls everything, knows everything past, present, and future, the end from the beginning.
And his Word, too, is unchanging. When he speaks, he will not take back what he says. The pagan prophet Balaam said under God’s inspiration, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot change it.” Note how the prophet has no control over the power of the word of God on his own lips.
As in Greek philosophy, God’s unchangeability has a lot to do with the fact that he is our fundamental standard of truth, the criterion of all value. He is our steady reference point, from which we can evaluate all the things and events in the flux of history. So God’s unchangeability is part of his Lordship. Things change, but the supreme standard, the supreme authority over human life, changes not.
There are some problems in formulating a doctrine of God’s unchangeability from the Bible. Think of Gen. 6:6, “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” It certainly sounds as though God started with one plan, to make man for his glory, and then when that didn’t work out, to destroy them and start again with Noah.
And there are times when God even seems revoke his word, to back off of something he has said. The reluctant prophet Jonah says to the pagan city of Ninevah, “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned.” That was the word of God. But it didn’t happen. Ninevah repented, and God didn’t keep his threat.
Why didn’t God keep his Word? It is interesting to note that Jonah actually expected him to retract his threat. Remember, Jonah wasn’t happy that God showed mercy. Ninevah was Israel’s enemy. Jonah didn’t want to preach to Ninevah, even to preach a message of judgment, without a bit of gospel. He said to God, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2). Jonah expected that the divine threat would fail, because he knew who God was. When he says that God is gracious and compassionate, he refers to Ex. 34:6, where God expounds his covenant name Yahweh to Moses. That’s the kind of person God is: merciful, slow to anger, and a God who relents. That’s also part of his nature, relenting.
In Jer. 18:7, God announces his general policy: “If at any time I announce that a nation is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation repents of its evil, then I will relent and no inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” And vice versa, for nations like Israel, whom God had promised to bless, but who rebel against his goodness. God’s promises of blessing and threats of judgment, evidently, are bracketed. They are conditional, even when they appear categorical. So God’s change of mind in Ninevah was, in one sense, not a change at all. It was simply the outworking in history of a constant divine policy, and, more ultimately, it was the outworking of God’s own character, his attribute of being a God who relents.
Of course, there will be a time when no more repentance is possible. For us, that moment comes at death; for the human race in general, it comes at the return of Christ to judge the heavens and the earth. But until those limiting times arrive, God’s action is surprisingly flexible.
But what of Gen. 6:6, where God repents (KJV) or is grieved (NIV) that he had made man? From the passages we have seen, it is clear that in Gen. 6 God is not changing his eternal plan. That plan “stands firm,” “to all generations.” But consider the following:
1. The Jeremiah principle has some bearing here: God announced blessing for man, but man rebelled, so God has a right to withdraw that promise.
2. This change and others like it isn’t so surprising when we remember that although God’s plan does not change, it is nevertheless a plan for change. God’s plan is not for a timeless universe, but a universe in time. God’s plan is a plan for a historical sequence, a story. He decrees one event for Monday, a different event for Tuesday. So it isn’t just occasionally that he appears to “repent” or change, it is always. For from our point of view, God is constantly changing his mind. What he wanted to occur five minutes ago is different from what he wants to occur now. If I pick up a piece of chalk, God decreed for me to do it. That decree is immutable. But God did not decree for me to do that five minutes ago. He decreed that five minutes ago the chalk would be lying still, and that five minutes later it would not be lying still. God’s plan is unchanging, but it is a plan for change.
3. We should not forget the significance of God’s omnipresence. God says through Jeremiah, “Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? Declares the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” declares the Lord“ (Jer. 23:24). (Compare Psm. 139.) God not only transcends the world he has made, but he is also with it and in it. In him we live and move and have our being. He is not far from us, Paul tells the idolaters at Athens. Now we usually understand God’s omnipresence in terms of space (he is in every place). What we sometimes forget is that the omnipresence of God means he is also in every time. He is not only above time, but is in it. He is yesterday, today, and forever. God is above time, and therefore sees the end from the beginning. But he is also here on Monday, and on Tuesday. He knows, even experiences what is happening now. He is with us now, and as the God who is present now, he understands yesterday as past, and tomorrow as future.
As he executes his eternal decree in time, he is also in time, observing the changing results of the decree, evaluating the good and evil that it brings. He rejoiced in the praises Israel brought to him, but responded in sadness and anger when they sinned. In this way, we may say that his attitude changed. He responded rightly to the events of Monday, then to those of Tuesday. So we say his response changed.
So as the transcendent God, above all time, God does not change. But as God with us, God in our midst, yes, we can say that he changes, as the biblical writers do. God is so great that he views history not only from a transcendent divine perspective, but also from every possible creaturely perspective.
So I don’t think we get to the heart of the matter when we say that biblical references to divine change are “anthropomorphic.” Certainly they are; they are from a human viewpoint. But anthropomorphic language is based in the fact that God actually shares our human viewpoint. Our human viewpoint is a real and true perspective on the world, and God honors that perspective.
Similarly, Jesus Christ does not change, though he entered history and moved, and spoke, and suffered, and died. Those were changes, surely. Nevertheless, the writer to the Hebrews quotes the verses from Psm. 102 that speak of God’s unchangeability, and apply them to Jesus: Heb. 1:10-12. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). How can he be the same, even though he clearly underwent change? Because he too is both transcendent over time and present in time. He knew the end from the beginning, even as he walked the streets of Palestine, even as he died on the cross. But he also underwent profound change in his earthly experience as “God with us.”
This is profound biblical teaching. I have brought all of this up, however, mainly to defend God’s unchangeability against some objections that have been raised against that doctrine today. Yes, God experiences change, and as he enters into history he experiences changing feelings, attitudes, and actions. But all of this is the outworking of a divine plan that does not change. It is a plan for change, but it does not itself change.
So it is good to know that, whatever can be said about God’s relations to historical beings, he is still a changeless, and therefore completely reliable God. And therefore, we can fully trust his Word.
God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; cf. 2 Tim. 2:13, Heb. 6:18), nor can he be mistaken (Heb. 4:12-13). So his Word is completely true. It never has, and never can prove false. At the end of Paul’s lifetime, he wrote to his younger colleague Timothy, warning him about the dangers to come. Paul knew that he would not be around much longer. He also knew that the church would have to deal with grave challenges, especially an assault of false teachers (2 Tim. 3:1-9). How is the church of Timothy’s generation to deal with these? Paul says, “remember me” (verses 10-14): remember Paul’s teaching, and his way of life. But, of course, memories fade. After some years, generations will arise that don’t remember Paul. Where are they to turn? So Paul gives Timothy a second answer: “and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In 2 Pet. 1, you can find the same situation: an aging apostle, the danger of false teaching, exhortation to remember the apostle’s teaching, exhortation to turn to Scripture, that more sure word of prophecy.
Things change, Paul and Peter tell us, as if we didn’t know already. Satan raises up new challenges all the time. But there is one thing that doesn’t change, that can enable us to address every new situation as it arises. It is Scripture that enables us to be ready for everything and therefore enables us to be calm amid the frenzies of our changing times.
Commercial time: That is the fundamental purpose of Westminster Seminary. At Westminster, everything goes back to the Bible. Intensive teaching in the original languages of Scripture, teaching of Bible and theology courses with reference to those original languages. An apologetic method, sometimes called Van Tillian or presuppositional apologetics, that seeks above all to defend the faith in a biblical way and to call all people to make Scripture the absolute presupposition of all their thinking and living. A counseling method, nouthetic counseling, that seeks to bring every counselee face to face with God in the Bible, with his demands and promises in Christ. An emphasis on preaching which is really a preaching of Scripture, rather than what we would like the Bible to say.
John Murray, who taught systematic theology at WTS for 37 years, I believe, explicitly rejected the type of systematic theology which begins with historical controversies. He knew church history very well. But in his lectures on theology, he rarely referred to other theologians or to historic debates. Practically every lecture was a Bible study, trying to show that Reformed doctrine was truly grounded in Scripture. Because of that methodology, Murray’s theology was profoundly persuasive to Christian hearts. He was convinced that Scripture was not only authoritative and inerrant, but also sufficient, as 2 Tim. 3:17 indicates: Scripture is God-breathed, and therefore profitable… that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
If you’ve read some of my recent articles, you know I am somewhat troubled by the turning of many contemporary evangelicals to a kind of traditionalism. At its extreme, this traditionalism has led some into Eastern Orthodoxy, others into the Roman Catholic Church. In less extreme forms, it seems to be urging evangelicals to live according to traditions in worship, evangelism, and church life, without sufficiently weighing these traditions by Scripture. This traditionalism often appeals to the Reformation, indeed to the Reformation confessions, though most of their ideas on worship, for instance, are not actually found in the confessions. Evangelical traditionalists usually affirm the sufficiency of Scripture, sola Scriptura: after all, that is part of our tradition, one of the great principles of the Reformation. But the traditionalist lacks the passion to look critically at our traditions and reform them in the light of the Word of God.
Luther and Calvin were profoundly critical of the traditions of the church of their time, of popes and councils, of the received theology. In this way, they were only following the Lord Jesus, who brought against the traditionalist Pharisees this powerful word of the prophet Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matt. 15:8-9, cf. Isa. 29:13).
When you study theology, make sure that you make God’s word central in your preparation for ministry. Church history is important; you do need to know what God has done in the last 2000 years, and you do need to know the traditions of the church. But make it absolutely sure that your thinking will not be ruled by human tradition, or by church history, or by the sociological analysis of contemporary culture, or by this or that philosophical movement. Make sure that above all of these you draw your bearings from God’s Word, and your ultimate bearings from God’s Word alone.
Among the many benefits this kind of study will bring you is this: It will make you confident amid change. If your thinking is dominated by human historical and cultural analysis, you will be baffled when history changes rapidly and something quite new comes along. For example, if you study apologetics merely by mastering the philosophies of the past and present, what happens when a new philosophy comes along in ten years? You’ll have to learn your apologetics all over again. Now you should get a good bearing on historical and contemporary trends. But far more important is it for you to focus on what the Bible says about God’s wisdom and human thought, about the clarity of God’s revelation and how the sinner suppresses that revelation. Then you’ll see that all the non-Christian thinkers from Thales, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, down to Lyotard and Rorty, all share a common theme: man is the measure of all things, and God’s truth is to be resisted. Every philosopher, as Van Til taught, is both a rationalist, saying that he is the ultimate standard of truth, and an irrationalist, believing that there is no ultimate truth. Learn that, and you will not need to learn your apologetics over and over as movements change. Whatever new form of unbelief comes along, you will understand it. It will seek autonomy over against God; it will be rationalistic and irrationalistic at the same time; it will seek above all to suppress the truth of God.
Take your bearings from history and culture alone, and you will be confused and frustrated, more and more so as the pace of change increases. Take your bearings from the Word of God, and you will understand change. You will have that constant, steady (I almost said “static!”) point of reference that gives you a perspective on change. It is the Word of God, and the Word of God alone, that enables you to be confident in a world like the world of the new century is sure to be. The Word will make you calm, amid millennial frenzies.