Another term used by The Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic faith from Vatican I to describe the nature of God is that He is “completely simple and unchangeable.”
There are many Scriptures that teach us that God doesn’t change. One instance would be in the way God reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14. God says to Moses “I am who I am.” “I am” – always constant and the same, in the same eternal moment. We also see verses like:
Malachi 3:6 For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
Numbers 23:19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?
James 1:17 Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Hebrews 1:10-12 And, “Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands; 11 they will perish, but thou remainest; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But thou art the same, and thy years will never end.” (Psalm 102:26-27)
Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.
But we also see references in Scripture that seem to indicate that God changes his mind. Prior to the great flood, Scripture tells us that the Lord was sorry that he had made man (Genesis 6:5-6). 1 Samuel 15:11 tells us that God said “I repent that I have made Saul king.” And in the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32:9-14, Moses talks God out of destroying the Israelites, and Scripture tells us that the Lord “repented” of the evil which he had thought to do to his people.
The apparent contradiction between these verses is often used by non-believers to try to discredit our belief that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. How can God say that He does not change on one hand, and yet Scripture speaks of situations where He apparently changes His mind? How can we believe that God is perfect, yet Scripture speaks of actions where God regrets a past decision He made?
This dilemma highlights for Catholics the need to read and understand Scripture within the heart of the Church who received it. Later posts will cover the need for Sacred Tradition and where Scripture speaks of this important part of the Christian faith. For now I will just say that if I were to search among the body of Christianity for an explanation of the verses where God repents that He made Saul king, I would find a variety of answers. And not all the explanations could possibly be correct.
The post on “God is Spirit” covered the concept of anthropomorphism, which is a way to describe God in terms we can understand. That is why even though the Bible often speaks of God as having human body parts like eyes, mouth, hands, etc., in general Christians understand those to be anthropomorphic. They are not a revelation that God has a physical body. Scripture is simply using terms familiar to our life experience to teach us something about God.
But what about human emotions, like anger, wrath, jealousy, grief, suffering, and yes, even love? Are these to be read in a literalistic way, even though we view the reference to human body parts as being anthropomorphic? From the Catholic perspective, we consistently view both references to physical human characteristics and human emotions as anthropomorphic.
Does this mean that God doesn’t love? Of course not! But it does mean that His love is not simply a “bigger” version of human emotional love. The charity we receive by God infused into our soul is His very life, powerful enough to transform us and make us capable of loving perfectly as He loves. Insomuch as our human love can be refined and purified to truly be a reflection of the Source of God’s love, then yes they are the same. But much of what our culture views as love has nothing to do with this.
When we see emotions like anger, jealousy, wrath, etc. assigned to God in Scripture, we can have a tendency to view them as simply “bigger” versions of human emotions we are familiar with. Especially if we believe they are directed at someone else! But would this be accurate? More about this topic in my next post.