Friday, 16 October 2009
Question 189 - On God changing his mind
Regarding God’s changing his mind, I'm not at all convinced that we are attributing "lies" to God if we don't interpret those kinds of passages as a real change of mind on His part. Like the one in Exodus you bring up: 32: 10. I would read that as a threat to destroy rebellious Israel, not as an expression of a firm and definite intention to do so - an intention, therefore, that would have to be subsequently changed and revoked in order not to destroy them after all. A father may often threaten a child with a certain punishment even while knowing in his own mind he's not going to carry through on it. What the threat communicates to the child is that the father is thinking about this punishment, and that his father, for all he knows, is likely to inflict that punishment if he doesn't shape up, seek forgiveness, or whatever. So that threat is not a "lie" to the child, because what it communicates to him is the truth, although not the whole truth, of what his father is thinking. Even if a threat is cast grammatically as a simple prediction ("I shall destroy you"), it is not a "lie" just because the threatener really knows that in the end he is not going to destroy the miscreant after all.
R. Sungenis: Although I understand the analogy of the father and the child, I believe it is inadequate to help in this situation. In fact, I think in the end it actually works against you because you end up having to bring God down to the level of a human father, which is precisely the criticism I am given sometimes for making it appear that God gets angry and changes his mind – as a human father would do! In other words, your analogy can be made to support either hypothesis, depending on how one views the analogy. It doesn’t support or deny my thesis or yours. It only shows how complicated arriving at an answer may be to this thorny issue.
Still, I find it hard to accept that God’s threat of destroying Israel for their sin of worshiping the golden calf is not a threat that he intended on carrying out. Call it what you will (perhaps “lie” may be too much here), but the fact is, if the threat carried no potentiality of actually destroying Israel unless repentance or appeasement occurred, then we not only call into question any passages that illustrates appeasement and repentance to alter God’s potential judgment, but we call into question that whole basis for the Atonement of Christ. If God’s threat to send someone to hell does not carry the full potentiality that God would send them to hell if there is no appeasement and repentance, then why have Christ go through the appeasement process? Likewise, why have Moses go through the appeasement process in Exodus 32 if God never intended on carrying out his threat?
Once we bar ourselves from taking a face value perspective in these types of passages, it begins to create endless problems with trying to make sense out of the rest of Scripture. For example, in the next chapter, Exodus 33, God is still angry at the Jews for what they did in Exodus 32, so he tells Moses that he doesn’t want to go with the Jews through the desert. So Moses pleads with God once again, and then God changes his mind, but only does so because it is Moses who has appeased him. When we read further in the story we see why Moses had such appeal with God, for it tells us in verse 11 that God would speak to Moses face to face, as a friend speaks to a friend. Obviously, they had a very intimate relationship. In verse 14, after Moses appeased God, God changes his mind in verse 14 and decides to go with the Jews.
To read this passage and interpret it such that God, even though he threatened not to go with the Jews did not really intend not to go is, to me, simply to empty this passage of the very thing it is trying to teach us about God, that is, that a righteous person, namely, Moses, can appeal to God from his already established intimate relationship, and persuade him to relent of his wrath and forgive. If not, then we turn Moses appeasement and friendship into mere story-filler, theatrics that have no real meaning. But that is not the Christianity I know. The whole basis of Christianity is that we can appease a wrathful God with propitiatory sacrifice, because he is not an immovable abstract entity but a personal being who listens to the pleas of his creatures and moves because of those pleas.
I think you have to admit that, the only reason you have an objection to reading this passage at face value is because there is an overriding metaphysical issue that intrudes and says we cannot do so. But to me, Scripture takes precedence over metaphysics, especially when metaphysics begins to make Scripture contradict itself. To me it is plain that if God threatens and God cannot lie, then the threat MUST carry the potentiality of being exercised unless something equally important to God (i.e., appeasement) allows God to justifiably change the threat into forgiveness. If not, then as I said above, we disrupt the whole threat-appeasement-forgiveness economy of biblical history.
Brian F. Maybe we have to distinguish between a "literal sense" and a "slavishly literal sense" of a statement. According to the classical and patristic hermeneutic, as I understand it, the "literal sense" of a given biblical passage doesn't necessarily mean "taking it literally". For instance, when a metaphor is used, e.g., "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out!", the "literal sense" of Jesus' words here is not that we should physically mutilate ourselves by tearing out the organ of vision from our head. No, the "literal sense" means "the meaning of the words" (as distinct from the typological or allegorical sense of the things or events mentioned, especially in the OT looking foward to the New). And the meaning of Jesus' words is what he intended to communicate by them. So the "literal sense", thus understood, includes or 'takes in board' their metaphorical character. In the cited example, the true 'literal sense' of Our Lord's admonition is simply that we should remorselessly remove the occasions of sin in our lives - like the guy in the movie "Fireproof" who finally smashes up his computer with a sledge hammer as the only way to stop himself from watching Internet porn.
R. Sungenis: Yes, of course. I have no objection to this kind of exegesis. But this just begs the question of whether passages such as Exodus 32-33 are suggesting such a hermeneutic. There are passages of OT Scripture that speak of God having human body parts, but we don’t interpret these literally because, in the hierarch of truths in Scripture, Scripture tells us that God is a spirit and does not have human body parts. (Notice here, however, that we don’t have a metaphysical philosophy that is telling us such, but only the hierarchy of Scriptural truths, a very simple process of evaluation).
But there are no passages of Scripture that prohibit us from taking Exodus 32-33 at face value and saying that God gets angry and that God can change is mind. The passages that are often appealed to in order to give at least some prohibition to God changing his mind (such as Malachi 3:6) are simply not speaking about whether God can change his mind when faced with the free will repentance of man, but only that God, in his divine essence, cannot change who He is. He will always do what God does, because God cannot change. But I would add, if always doing what God does includes the fact that He will change his mind from threat to forgiveness when confronted with the free will repentance of man, then so be it, God hasn’t changed. For me to say otherwise is to force my ideas upon God and Scripture rather than the other way around.
Brian F. Also, you speak of God changing his mind (or emotions) while not changing "in his essence". I can't make any philosophical sense of that, because in God there is no distinction between His essence and His existence. God is pure act, with no potency at all. But change of any sort implies potency that is unrealized until it is actualized ("reduced to act" in classical terminology) when the change takes place. But in God there can be no unrealized potential at all. He is eternally all He ever could be. So I still can't see how the "changes" you want to attribute to God could be reconciled with his immutability, as that word has been understood for centuries by the Church. Maybe the Church has, as you say, never expressly defined something against what you're proposing; but Vatican I anathematizes any "reinterpretation" of a dogma - giving its words a different meaning from what they have hitherto been understood to mean. And it seems to me your projected thesis would be giving to the word "immutable" in Lateran IV and Vatican I a different sense or meaning from what the Fathers of those Councils had in mind. (We would identify what they had in mind by looking at the approved theologians of that time and seeing what they said about it.)
R. Sungenis: I beg to differ here. A “reinterpretation” can only refer to what the Church has dogmatically stated as the correct interpretation that someone is now attempting to change. For example, if the Church has said that the Eucharist can only be understood as a complete change from bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (as it did at Lateran IV), then any “reinterpretation” of that dogma into say, Schillebeeckx’s idea of “transignification,” is anathema.
But while saying this, the Church is not also saying that the only way to understand how the bread and wine can be changed into the body and blood of Christ must, with no exceptions, incorporate the metaphysics of Thomas that uses Aristotle’s accidens and substance paradigm. The Church would never force that paradigm on us, because it simply has no way of verifying that it is correct. The only thing the Church knows, de fide, is that the bread and wine change completely into the body and blood of Christ. How it happens, no one really knows.
As regards potency and act, again, the Church has not dogmatized any of this. I could just as easily say that, if one wants to use the parameters of potency and act, then we can say that when God changes his mind in a temporal situation (Exodus 32-33) it is just as pure an act as anything else God does, since God knew from all eternity that he would change his mind in that particular situation. Changing his mind, then, is not a potency. It is no more a potency than God becoming man in Jesus Christ. God is doing as God has planned from all eternity. Nothing escapes his knowledge. The problem for us, really, is not between act and potency, but in understanding who God is, and HOW he can be that way. I confess, I have not the slightest clue. To be honest with you, I’m still struggling with why God bothered to create us at all, considering that he knew most of the human race would end up in hell. All I know is that God is God and does not lie, and that Scripture is the inerrant revelation of God, and I want to protect that revelation as much as I possibly can, and hope that someday God will explain to me why He did what He did.
As regards Thomas himself, I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that we didn’t understand any of these issues until Thomas found the answer 1200 years after Christ, and did so by the likes of a pagan philosopher named Aristotle, and just because they happened to find Aristotle’s library only a century prior. Sometimes I wonder whether Thomas’ desire to throw out much of his teaching after he saw the vision from God has to do with his penchant to run to Aristotle to explain Christian doctrine. If you’ve ever studied Aristotle, he is full of contradictions. His whole notion of God is based on “non-movement.” Anything that moves is imperfect and thus cannot be God. But Aristotle had no concept of the Christian God, and therefore no concept of a God who is, indeed, “moved” by the propitiation of Christ and other humans, like Moses. Thomas had the unenviable task of trying to combine Aristotle’s non-moving God with the moving God of Christianity, and it ended up creating a lot of tension between metaphysics and Scripture that still hasn’t been solved to this day. I hope to unravel some of it in my dissertation.
The fact remains that, as much as Thomas is revered, he wasn’t quoted once in any Church dogma. Church dogma quotes Scripture because Scripture is inerrant and it is Scripture that the Church must defend, not necessarily Thomas. As far as I see Thomas, he’s good on some things, weak on others, as all the Fathers and medievals are. The only time we are commanded to uphold them as official revealers of truth is when they are in consensus. Prior to that, I think we need to be very careful forming a cult around Thomas, or even Augustine, for that matter. They were men as fallible as you and I, and neither of them had some special tap into divine revelation, barring Thomas’ vision which led him to question all his previous work.
Brian F. The fact that some early patristic writers may have had ideas similar to yours does not mean those ideas would still be acceptable today, now that God's immutability has been defined, in a historical context that shows it was understood at the time of definition in the sense of the philosophia perennis (Aristotelian-Thomistic), and so always has to be understod in that sense from that time on.
R. Sungenis: Again, I believe this is off the mark. The immutability of God was not “defined” by an appeal to Thomas or any other theologian. It was defined precisely WITHOUT specific appeal to Thomas or anyone else. The Church simply says that God doesn’t change, and rightly so. The Church did not get into any other specifics of that issue.
God be with you.