Creation, Incarnation, and the Immutability of God
The late professor John Murray captured the essence of the incarnation when he said, "The Son of God became in time what He eternally was not. He did not cease to be what He eternally was, but He began to be what He was not."1 On a prima facie reading of this statement, one might be tempted to draw the faulty conclusion that a change occurred in God when the second Person of the Godhead took to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet, the Scriptures are clear that God does not and cannot change (Malachi 3:6). If God added to Himself a human nature (something that did not exist prior to the incarnation) how was there not a change in God? Herman Bavinck gave the only suitable answer when he wrote: "Neither creation, nor revelation, nor incarnation (affects, etc.) brought about any change in God. No new plan ever arose in God. In God there was always one single immutable will"2 The immutability of God is in no way whatsoever affected by the incarnation on account of the fact that the incarnation was based on God's eternal will and decree.
God's word teaches, in no uncertain terms, that "the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever" (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 36). 40 days after the resurrection, the disciples watched as Jesus bodily ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:9-11). The Scriptures teach that a man sits on the throne of God in glory, both now and forever (Ezekiel 1:26; Dan. 7:13-14; Rev. 4:3). An indissoluble union of the Divine nature and human nature occurred in the fulness of time when Christ was conceived. The body of Jesus is forever united to the Divine nature. The God-Man, Jesus Christ, is even now seated on the throne of God in heaven. Derek Thomas employs a colloquial metaphor to capture the essence of this truth when he says, "The body of Jesus has a zip code." And yet, the incarnation in no way whatsoever brought about a change in God by adding anything to God's divine nature.
Of course, as we set out to consider the relationship between the incarnation and the immutability of God, we must necessarily also investigate the relationship between creation as a whole--as well as the response of God to the actions of His creatures--and the immutability of God.
Perhaps the greatest of all questions to trouble the minds of men is that which regards the creation of the world and the immutability of God. How can God have complete fulness in and of Himself, and yet bring into existence something that did not exist without adding something to Himself? How does the creation of the Universe not demand the conclusion that a change has occurred in God? John Gerstner once suggested that Jonathan Edwards fell dangerously close to pantheistic notions while grappling with this question. However, in the Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World, Edwards made the following statement:
"No notion of God's last end in the creation of the world is agreeable to reason, which would truly imply any indigence, insufficiency, and mutability in God; or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness. Because it is evident, by both scripture and reason, that God is infinitely, eternally, unchangeably, and independently glorious and happy: that he cannot be profited by, or receive any thing from the creature; or be the subject of any sufferings, or diminution of his glory and felicity from any other being. The notion of God creating the world, in order to receive any thing properly from the creature, is not only contrary to the nature of God, but inconsistent with the notion of creation; which implies a being receiving its existence, and all that belongs to it out of nothing. And this implies the most perfect, absolute, and universal derivation and dependence. Now, if the creature receives its all, from God, entirely and perfectly, how is it possible that it should have any thing to add to God, to make him in any respect more than he was before, and so the Creator become dependent on the creature?"3
The immutable will and eternal decree of God is what makes this derivation possible without in any way adding to the nature of God or effecting any change in God. It is all the more important that we are clear about this when come to the question about the personal interaction of the immutable God with His ever-changing creatures. After all, the Scriptures seem to intimate that change has occurred in God with regard to His actions toward men. Scripture says that God "rented from the harm that He said He would do to His people" (Ex. 32:14). How does this not imply change? How do we reconcile this seeming change with what we have already concluded? When he tackled this question in particular, Bavinck concluded:
"Scripture itself leads us in describing God in the most manifold relations to all his creatures. While immutable in himself, he nevertheless, as it were, lives the life of his creatures and participates in all their changing states. Scripture necessarily speaks of God in anthropomorphic language. Yet, however anthropomorphic its language, it at the same time prohibits us from positing any change in God himself. There is change around, about, and outside of [God], and there is change in people's relations to him, but there is no change in God himself...We should not picture God as putting himself in any relation to any creature of his as though it could even in any way exist without him. Rather, he himself puts all things in those relations to himself, which he eternally and immutably wills--precisely in the way in which and at the time at which these relations occur. There is absolutely no "before" or "after" in God; these words apply only to things that did not exist before, but do exist afterward. It is God's immutable being itself that calls into being and onto the stage before him the mutable beings who possess an order and law that is uniquely their own...Without losing himself, God can give himself, and, while absolutely maintaining his immutability, he can enter into an infinite number of relations to his creatures."4
God entered into an infinite number of relations to his creature in accord with the immutability of His eternal will and decree. When considered in this way, we can safely conclude that there is no change in the God who stands outside of time when He carries out His decree in accord with His divine attributes and the actions of His creatures in time. The immutability of God's eternal will and decree safegaurds against any notion of change in the immutable God in light of the creation, the action of His creatures and the incarnation.
Believers will spend eternity meditating the inexhaustible depths of the infinite and immutable God who created all things out of nothing without adding anything to Himself. We will forever be "lost in wonder, love and praise," as we contemplate the mystery of the incarnate Christ, who now sits on the throne of God as the head of the new creation--a redeemed people which the immutable God "purchased," as it were, "with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).
1. John Murray O Death, Where is Thy Sting? The Collected Sermons of John Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2017).
*This first appeared at Reformation21.