God & Change Pt. 1 – September 1999

Question: “I have often been asked by the fundamentalist Christians where the Bible explains God as being a changing God. My response has been: ‘the whole bible shows a God changing.’ This is not a sufficient answer for those seeking a proof text. My premise and the fundamentalist premises are different, so I am not sure how to respond.”

Publication Month: September 1999

Dr. Cobb’s Response

That the whole Bible shows a changing God is certainly the most important answer. It does so by taking time seriously, on the one side, and showing that God interacts with the creatures on the other. What we do matters to God.

Nevertheless, the question of particular texts is a valid one, and there are many of them. Every time God is said to speak to someone or to appear to someone, this is a change, since God is not always speaking or acting in just that way. If there is a problem, it is that in some cases these texts sometimes present such anthropomorphic depictions of God that process theologians are as eager as the tradition not to take them literally.

For example, in Genesis 3:8, God is heard walking in the garden. Surely God does not always walk in the garden; so this is a change if we take the story literally. But even Fundamentalists are likely to qualify this story in some way.

More important are the many texts in the King James version that describe God as “repenting.” We associate repenting so much with the confession of sin, that these texts seem quite strange, and newer translation typically avoid the term. But repentance does not always entail acknowledgment of sin. It does require a change of direction or intention. 

The King James version of Genesis 6:6 reads: “It repented the Lord that he made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” The New Revised Standard Version says: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” Whatever translation one uses, this certainly depicts a change in God from the time when God, on completing the creation, saw that it was very good.

Exodus 32:14 is another example. In the King James version it reads “Then the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” The New Revised Version again avoids the word “repented” and simply reads: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people.”

This passage is of particular interest because the change of mind is the result of Moses pleading with God. Clearly there is interaction between God and human beings. God acts upon and within human beings, human beings address God, God is affected by what they have to say. Such interactions are not uncommon in the Jewish scriptures.

Another example is found in Amos, Chapter 7. Here the King James translation twice states that God repented as a result of Amos pleading that destruction not come on Israel. The New Revised Standard Version states that God “relented.” 

Of the dozens of other examples that could be cited, I select a longer passage from the Psalms, which speaks in quite typical ways of the interaction of God and God’s people. (Psalm 106: 43-45) The King James version is as follows: “Many times did he deliver them; but they provoked him with their counsel, and were brught low for their iniquity, nevertheless, he regarded their affliction, when he heard their cry: and he remembered for them his covenant, and repented according to the multitude of his mercies.” The Revised Standard Version reads: “Many times he delivered them, but they were rebellious in their purposes, and were brought low through their iniquity, nevertheless, he regarded their distress when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”

It is really rather surprising that Fundamentalists should doubt that God changes. Many of them believe strongly in the efficacy of prayer. The Jewish scriptures are describing the efficacy of the prayers of Moses and Amos and of the cry of the people. They unabashedly state that God acted differently because of these prayers. Do Fundamentalists wish to deny this with respect either to the Biblical accounts or the present world?

Resistance to the idea that God changes on the part of Fundamentalists comes from the tradition, not the Bible. The tradition was deeply affected by the Greek view that it is better not to be moved or influenced by anything external to oneself. The Stoic and Epicurean ideals were of men who were indifferent to what took place externally. Aristotle’s God contemplated only Godself. If it is bad to be interacting with others, then God must surely not do so! Thus the church reasoned officially. Christians could not change the Bible; so they interpreted it. The real truth, they declared, was that God was eternal, wholly beyond time and change and unaffected by them. Time is real for us but not for God. 

Fundamentalists in theory align themselves with the Bible rather than with Greek philosophy. But the power of the tradition is so great that they often resist acknowledging the difference. Once they have acknowleded it, in consistency they must attribute to God a good deal more changefulness than do process theologians!

For example, Moses is depicted as reminding God of things God has forgotten in the passage leading up to the Exodus quote above. The attribution to God of forgetfulness of the past cannot be taken straightforwardly by process theologians who share with the tradition the affirmation of God’s omniscience. Also the dramatic shifts from the intention to destroy a whole people to forgiveness based on a single conversation with one leader do not fit the process understanding of God’s unfailing love.

Process theology emphasizes not only that God is genuinely responsive to what the creatures do, but also that people have matured in their understanding of God. As the tradition recognized, there is much in the Bible that cannot be taken as literal truth about God. Our criticism of the tradition is not that it recognized the need to question the literal factuality of Biblical stories. It is that in the process it substituted for the Biblical understanding of the interaction between God and creatures in a real history the Greek notion of a timeless eternity. It replaced a God of loving vulnerability with a God who could not be affected by the
suffering of the creatures or by their prayers.

For this reason the questioner is right to appeal to the Bible as a whole rather than to individual texts. The growth of Israel’s thought was away from the crude anthropomorphism of some of the earlier writings, but it was not away from the conviction that God cares deeply for every creature and interacts with all creatures. The move of traditional philosophical theology away from that vision is the one that process theology protests.