Whenever one talks about God, one struggles with the understanding of what God’s eternal purposes are. Human knowledge about God and His eternal plans is limited so that the human soul wrestles with that.
Fundamental to the purpose of God it is the doctrine of the immutability of God: that God, his character, his promises, his covenant, and his eternal purposes are unchangeable and immutable. The Reformed Standards reflect this position when discussing election and the providence of God. For the Standards, the eternal counsel of God cannot be changed. When God elected those who would be saved in Christ, God then made an unchangeable decree. The Article 11, Section I, of the Cannons of Dort affirm, “Just as God is most wise, unchangeable, all-knowing, and almighty, so the election made by God can neither be suspended nor altered, revoked, or annulled; neither can God’s chosen ones be cast off, nor their number reduced.” Thus, God’s eternal election and the salvific plan are unchangeable. God’s will is not only immutable but also his eternal plans with humanity.
Other examples where one appreciates the doctrine of the immutability of God in the Reformed Standards are the merit of Christ, the sealing of the Holy Spirit, and God’s providence. Now there’s a huge debate around the immutability of God. Probably, most of the Christian traditions would affirm that God’s character is unchangeable. But what about God’s purposes? I will briefly analyze four theologians in this paper regarding their theological position on this topic. Once finished with this exposition, I will then discuss my own position considering the Reformed view.
First View: Evangelical Open Theism
The first work is God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict by Gregory Boyd. For him, God’s purposes should be understood under a warfare worldview, that everything that happens in this life, good or bad, is the result of the conflict between the good and the evil (p. 13). He emphasizes the strength of the evil powers to destroy and cause harm. He affirms that the classical point of view where Christians think that everything is under God’s control is relative. The person who suffers might not see that God is under control in that situation, despite people around them may or may not be able to see it. Boyd gives us the example of a child who has been attacked by the Nazis. While the child is suffering in pain, the evil persons are laughing, and the church is singing hymns and trusting God that everything will fit together at the end. Thus, for Boyd, the traditional understanding of God’s providence must be changed and be understood according to the cosmic warfare framework (p.58). Analyzing the child’s case, Boyd states that the oppression could be the result of human evil intentions or a prince of Germany, but never an ordained event of God (p. 141). This line of reasoning makes Boyd conclude that “we unambiguously affirm that angels and humans have significant power to thwart God’s will” (p. 142).
In other words, God’s purposes might be changed, challenged, or frustrated by evil forces (or the Powers,) even by us, human beings. This would be one conclusion of Boyd’s theological framework that he offers us in his book. For him, God’s plans and purposes might be altered so that the future seems to be open to a series of possibilities. It is clear he totally opposes to the classical doctrine of God’s providence as understood by the classic Reformed tradition, especially Calvin. Finally, Boyd claims that prayer changes the way things are (p. 204), so that we may deduct that we may pray to change even God’s will. He does not say this implication openly, but we may deduct it from their reasoning. Hence, God’s purposes may be changed (at least in some way) by human beings or frustrated by the Powers.
Second View: Conservative Protestantism
The second view is promoted by N.T. Wright’s book Evil and the Justice of God. For him, the Scripture does not give us a lot of information about the nature of evil and how it started. Instead, it focuses on God’s actions. For Wright then, we should be careful when discussing the problem of evil by personalizing evil since he sees evil as quasi-personal entities. Then we should discuss the problem of evil considering God’s restoration of the created order. Although evil opposes against God and his eternal plans, it will never be at the same position of God and his power.
From this, we may deduct that for Wright God’s purposes cannot be changed or modified because evil has been defeated on the cross of Jesus Christ (p. 114). This, however, does not mean that the evil forces do not oppose to God’s work in the world. But Christ has exhausted the Powers. The fact that Wright affirms God’s work is risky as he restores the blessing in the world (p.47) suggests us that Wright considers God’s eternal purposes unchangeable and irrevocable: God is working in order that his eternal purposes may be fulfilled. It does not have any sense that God works in something that at the end it would be nullified or canceled. Thus, as Christians, we are called to live out a life of prayer “to bring God’s wise healing order into the world now, in implementation of the victory of the cross and anticipation of the final redemption” (p.119).
Third View: Progressive Christianity
The third view is defended by Walter Wink’s work The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. In his book, Wink offers us a creative way of interpreting the role of the Powers in the world by identifying them with ex-angels who lose their calling. For Wink, the Powers may be the source of evil, but they are still needed in the world since they are useful. Though not said it explicitly, if they are useful for the world, they might be also used for the fulfillment of God’s purposes too. Since the Powers are also a source of great oppression, they need to be confronted and the church’s role is to unmask the idolatry of those Powers and institutions that have become demonic (p. 29), so that when those Powers are confronted, their structure may be changed or transformed (p. 31). According to Wink’s reasoning, we may say that for God’s eternal purposes there is the purpose of redeeming the Powers. By doing God so, the church will be able to promote a non-violent account of the God’s redemptive work in the world. Thus, the church does not only have responsibility to change people but also the fallen institutions and bring them on the right path again (p. 35). Also, for Wink, overcoming the evil with violence is a myth and forms part of the fallen structure’s system. The church then should pray for the Powers and acknowledge them in order they may be transformed from inside out. In that way, we may stop blaming the evil caused by those fallen structures. From we may deduct from Wink’s position is that God needs a human agency to redeem the Powers and make them useful again.
Fourth View: Jewish
The fourth and last view is appreciated in the book Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence by Jon D. Levenson. He addresses the problem of evil using as a framework the Jewish understanding of such topic, that is, under a theology of omnipotence that deals with the reasons why God let good people suffer or why God’s sovereignty and providence do not overcome the problem of evil in the world. For Levenson, we should the Scripture in relational terms and the relationship of God with his people rather than in philosophical terms.
An interesting quotation from Dr. Tom Boogart’s class lecture on the Persistence of Evil, says:
Modern people [thinks] that the evil originates in God and thus are driven to the painful conclusion that God is doing something evil. In fact, the evil originates in the actions of the people, and God is choosing to let the evil run its natural course. God is choosing to let the perpetrators of evil experience the consequences of their actions.” This point of view is a good reflection of the biblical thought of the people of Israel and Levenson’s cosmovision. Making a lot of emphasis on the power of the words, Levenson then has affirmed that the people of Israel understood God as a semi-otiose deity because, in their understanding, they needed to “wake up” God in order that he may act more in his creation. Here we notice a theology of God’s providence is not central at all, thus we may deduct that God’s purposes might be altered by the cry of the people in need (p.50).
For Levenson, “God’s rule will become complete only when the human heart, upon which it partly depends, will be enabled to embrace his commands with wholeness and integrity.” This suggests that human beings depend on God’s providence partly and not completely. This kind of co-operation between God and the human agency create we may have some uncertainty regarding God’s purposes and his plans for humanity.
Although every theologian studied here has good insights in their work; however, N.T. Wright’s position is closer to my own view. After reflecting on the God’s purposes, it is important to highlight that God is free to the way he relates to his creation. God is the one who needed to reveal himself to humanity first. And he did so in two ways: through general and special revelation. This general revelation makes know the human being that there is a God, and that this God has created them. Thus, throughout His works, God has revealed His existence and glory to all humanity. The other way God reveals to us is through special revelation in the Scriptures where we are told what the natural instinct cannot –that God in Christ has elected his people. This special revelation is intended only to God’s’ people. The knowledge about God is not then something human beings need to discover but to receive.
Opposite to the notion of God as a semi-otiose deity that needs to be awakened, here one notices that God’s providence is associated with God’s eternal plan of making himself known to humanity. That is, God, desires human beings know he is the provider and giver of the shalom in his creation and that everything that happens in the cosmos is under his control. As the Prophet tells us in Isaiah 54:10, “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”
The creation of the humankind is another process where one notices that God’s eternal counsel is fulfilled. God created the world by his wisdom and not arbitrarily. God did anything with a particular purpose: It was not only the universe but also humanity. And for this reason, theologian David H. Kelsey affirms that in Genesis’ creation story, “The Creator is pictured as immediately and intimately attentive to the well-being of creation (…) In addition, in Genesis the Creator blesses animal creatures.” (David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, Vol 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009., 163). This relationship of closeness that God had with his creation not only shows us the care, the wisdom, and the creativeness of God but also his unique purpose of doing such a thing. God has harmonically planned everything and issues a value judgment: “And God saw that it was good.” It is at that moment that everything God had created was according to his wisdom and will. That will, “God’s desire of having an intimate communion between him and humankind,” was later revealed in the New Testament when the Scriptures says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28, (NIV). Consequently, God’s creation of humankind was not a selfish act, but an act full of generosity. Thus, when the first human beings were created, God started the process of creating a close relationship with them, even that relationship would be later broken by sin. Sin corrupted that image of God that dwelt in us and broke the perfect harmony that existed when God created the universe. And it is because of the broken order that humanity suffers and not because God desires as Levenson seems to affirm.
In Christ later, God’s eternal purpose would be fulfilled. Here we see that despite what sin did to God’s creation, God did not abandon or change his divine eternal plans at all, but provided the solution needed and continued with his eternal plans, position that N.T. Wright seems to support. Interesting to highlight is what Proverbs 19:21b says: “It is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” So the evil could not destroy God’s eternal purposes with humanity and his creation, or make God be unable to respond, as Wink seems to suggest. On the contrary, God’s purposes will be carried out despite the strong opposition of the Powers, as the Scriptures affirm in Rom. 8:28 (NIV), “All things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Therefore, we may have the assurance that for God’s people all things will work together toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes.
God’s unchangeable purposes are also irrevocable. Jesus’s pray to the Father before going to cross in order that the Father might pass his cup is a good example of when God’s purposes are immutable and irrevocable. Jesus Christ was the Servant of the Lord who took our place and overcame the power of evil in order to proclaim the Good News to humanity. Therefore, it is important then to rescue the notion of the sacrifice that Jesus did on behalf of us on the cross according to God’s eternal plan. That is, his death was not something that humans did to Christ, but a gift he gave to us before the foundation of the world. One thing I have clear is that God despite his right to send us to hell, he instead sent Jesus to save his people and overcome the power of evil that enslaved humankind after the fall. So, the substitution of Jesus in our place was not the main purpose of the Incarnation, but the means in which Christ imparted his victory over the evil on behalf of the people of God.
We also learn here that prayer is not a means to change God’s purposes, but to ask God to work in us in order we may discover his will through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through prayer, God does not change, but us. In conclusion, the doctrine of the Immutability of God, especially God’s purposes and his counsel, plays a significant role in the theological development of the Reformed tradition. God’s unchangeable purposes give us hope God will not change his mind overnight about what he has promised. The mystery is that without forcing us, God completes his purposes in the world and in our lives. The Q&A 28 of the Heidelberg Catechism, discussing how God’s providence helps us, affirms that “we can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from his love.” As Christians, we have the security that if God was faithful with his people in the past, he will remain faithful in the future. God’s providence is not against the freedom that God has granted us, but a means where God’s grace is shown to us. Because of his providential care, we have the assurance that God’s eternal plans will be carried on because they are on God’s hands and not on our own. The God who created the universe by himself and for him has also the power to sustain it with no human agency.