The Finite God Who Can't Change
This post will briefly explore a hotly debated topic within some branches of the Reformed world right now called immutability. Immutability is the biblical doctrine that God does not change. The question, however, is what does this actually mean? We will look at this from the perspective to God's relationship to time using mathematics as an illustration. Is God's essential nature temporal or atemporal (outside of time). I will not get into the details of what all either view entails in this post. The conclusion will be that the claim that a God who changes in any sense must himself be finite rests on an unspoken and quite unwitting presupposition which is that this god itself must already be finite. The finite god who can't change under any circumstances is itself already finite to begin with. The very thing it sets out to prove is impossible is the very thing the deity must possess in order for the "proof" to work, which makes it self-defeating. But this is being stated very specifically and deliberately, because I do not deny that God is himself mutable. Rather, I believe that only an infinite God can ever hope to embody all that this necessarily entails. And what it entails is itself a paradox.
A standard biblical expression is, “God does not change” (Ps 15:4; Mal 3:6; etc.). We will assume that this expression describes God’s nature. Since time is, by definition, some kind of change, then the idea is that God cannot be in any sense temporal. He must be "outside of time." Otherwise, he changes.
When we speak of “change,” we may do so in relation to either the finite or the infinite. These are not the same. We can use the language of mathematics to illustrate.
If we speak of change in relation to the finite, we can form it as a simple equation. 2 + 2 = 4. When we add 2 to our base of 2, we “change” 2. In this case, we change it to 4. As it relates to the finite then, any addition or subtraction is a change at the fundamental level. 2 is changed no matter what . We can express this in terms of time as well. Let’s consider each second we live is a new number: 1, 2, 3, etc. Each second we live, we keep adding to our age. Again, we change at the fundamental level. Eventually, we will die because of it. Our timeline runs out of numbers. All finite creatures change by definition therefore if they are in time.
On the other hand, we may speak of “change” in relation to the infinite, though as we will see, this is a paradox. This time, to create a mathematical formula for illustration, we must use infinity as our base “number” (even though, technically, it isn’t a number). Hopefully it goes without saying that this represents God. If we add 2 + ∞, what do we get? We get infinity. Infinity does not change no matter how many numbers we add to it. We can move this to time as well. Add all the seconds of a finite being's existence to infinity and you still have infinity. It remains the same—always.
Now, if there is a Being that has existed for eternity and always will, then it is an infinite being. What if that being decides to enter into time, such that it experiences a succession of seconds like we do. What happens to its divine nature? Nothing. Why? Because it is infinite. We can think rationally about adding numbers to infinity. In the same way, God may enter into time and not himself change at all.
Now we must ask an important question. When theologians say that if God experiences a succession of moments, he changes, and therefore conclude he cannot experience a succession of moments, they are talking about “change” in relation to God. The question is, what kind of a God are they presupposing? Is this God infinite or finite? They assume he is infinite. However, if he were infinite, then the argument would not follow, because as we have seen, we can add whatever number we want to infinity and it does nothing to “change” it. It remains exactly the same. The paradox is that finite change does absolutely nothing to the infinite. It remains exactly the same, even if it is added to itself/himself. Therefore, this kind of theological conclusion which is often leveled against those who believe that God can experience any kind of change whatsoever, actually presupposes that its god is already finite, which of course is exactly the opposite position they want to argue and actually believe. Nevertheless, a god that can experience a succession of moments (or emotions or any other kind of change) who then “changes” because of them is, by definition, a finite god. And if this is the god that theologian worships, then his god is, by definition, finite rather than infinite.
And this is not the God of the Bible.