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Friday, March 24, 2006

The Mystery of Omniscient Repentance 

Scriptures that challenge one's mind need to be examined.

While reading a post in Emmaus Journey, I was motivated to look up Exodus 32:14. Here's how it reads in the King James Version:

Exodus 32:14 (King James Version)
King James Version (KJV)
Public Domain

14And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

The NIV words this verse as follows:

Exodus 32:14 (New International Version)
New International Version (NIV)
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

Either way, you have a picture of God changing his mind. Jesusmyth states the problem as follows:

The Bible presents an interesting picture of God, i.e., a god who never changes (Malachi 3:6) but actually does frequently change his mind and even regrets what he's done ('repents') - Genesis 6:6,7, Exodus 32:14, 1 Samuel 15:35, 2 Samuel 24:16, 1 Chronicles 21:l5, Jeremiah l8:8,10, 26:3,l3,l9, 42:l0, Ezekiel 24:14, Joel 2:13, Amos 7:3. Although it is to be noted that Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:2 say that God never repents.

Christian Apologetics Research Ministry says the following:

Different Bible's [sic] translate this verse differently. The NASB says, "the Lord changed His mind." The NIV and NKJV say "The Lord relented." The KJV, RSV, and the 1901 ASV say, "The Lord repented." The Hebrew word at issue here is for relent/repent is נָחַם (nacham). There are 108 occurrences in the Old Testament. The KJV translates it as “comfort” 57 times, “repent” 41 times, “comforter” nine times, and “ease” once.

The issue, of course, is whether or not God actually goes through a process of changing His mind due to learning something as the open theists would maintain. But, is God actually reacting to knew information or is He working on our level, in our reference, for our benefit?...

[I]t is apparent that Moses disobeyed God's instruction to leave God alone (v. 10). Instead of Moses listening to God, he pleads with God to spare Israel and God relents. Why? What is the significance of God allowing Himself to be swayed by the interceding work of Moses on behalf of Israel? Why did God not ignore Moses' request and go ahead and destroy the nation?

CARM's explanation: Jesus.

Jesus says that the Bible is about Him. Certainly, such an important figure of Moses must reflect Jesus in some way, and he does. As Moses interceded for his people, Jesus also intercedes for His. God listened to Moses, because God would listen to Jesus.

The Skeptic's Annotated Bible presents two lists - one containing examples of God NOT repenting, and the other containing examples of God repenting.

Christian Courier responds as follows:

Scripture teaches the concept of God’s immutability, i.e., the notion that his essence, character, and will are stable and perfect. Thus, while ordinary things undergo transformation, the changeless Creator does not....To suggest that God is whimsical – constantly changing his mind, as such fluctuations are characteristic of humanity – is to reflect upon the very nature of divine being.

The fact that God is omniscient also enters into this subject. The concept of omniscience suggests that the Lord knows everything there is to know – past, present, and future. He has never “learned” anything, nor has he “discovered” a new fact. He is never “surprised” by what men may do. He knows our thoughts....One of the dramatic differences between the true God, and those that are false, i.e., mere inventions of illusory minds, is Jehovah’s ability to see the future....In view of this amazing attribute, it is impossible to conclude that the Creator of the Universe vacillates back and forth, doing one thing now, then later changing his mind – in any literal sense of that expression.

It is a fact, however, that the Scriptures frequently employ figures of speech that seem to suggest that God alters his actions in response to man’s behavior. The passage in Exodus 32 is an excellent example of this sort of phraseology.

While Moses was upon the heights of Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, the children of Israel, in the region below, made an idol, a molten calf, and proclaimed it as their deliverer from Egypt. The corrupt act was wholly antagonistic to the will of God, and the Lord proclaimed his intention to “consume” them. Moses, as a mediator, interceded and pled with Jehovah to not destroy them....

The term “repented” reflects a figure of speech, common to many languages, known as anthropopathism (literally, man feelings). This is an idiom by which divine activity is described symbolically in terms of human emotion. It is rather similar to the kindred figure, anthropomorphism (man form) by which God is described as having physical parts (e.g., eyes, hands, etc.) even though he is not a physical being (Jn. 4:24; Lk. 24:39).

Anthropopathism, therefore, is a figure of speech by which human feelings or emotions are ascribed to God, in order to accommodate man’s ignorance of the unfathomable intentions and operations of deity (cf. Rom. 11:33-36).

It must be understood, therefore, that though certain biblical passages speak of the Lord being “changeless,” while others represent him as “changing” (in response to human conduct), that different senses are in view. In light of this fact, the “discrepancy” problem dissolves. But when one does not understand some of the common figures of speech utilized by the Bible writers, under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit, he most certainly will draw many faulty conclusions – sometimes very dangerous ones.

Human languages are punctuated with dramatic figures of speech. This phenomenon is no less true in the case of the Scriptures than it is with other literary productions. A failure to recognize this principle leads to numerous flawed ideas.

For example, the idea that Exodus 32:14 proves that God does not exist:

If God is omniscient, he should NEVER change his mind. Think about that carefully. How could someone who knows the future change his mind? Changing his mind means that he did not know what he was going to do or what was going to happen, and shows his uncertainty. But the bible is full of instances where God changes his mind. For example, first is Exodus 32:14. After the incident when God's Chosen People worshipped the Golden Calf, God decided that He would destroy them all, and raise up some other nation, but Moses begged and pleaded on their behalf, "and the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people." Now consider this for a moment. God knows all things, past and present, including His own future decisions. Therefore, did He really intend to destroy the Israelites? Or did He just bear false witness?

Dan Barker says:

PAUL SAID, "God is not the author of confusion," (I Corinthians 14:33), yet never has a book produced more confusion than the bible! There are hundreds of denominations and sects, all using the "inspired Scriptures" to prove their conflicting doctrines.

Why do trained theologians differ? Why do educated translators disagree over Greek and Hebrew meanings? Why all the confusion? Shouldn't a document that was "divinely inspired" by an omniscient and omnipotent deity be as clear as possible?

"If the trumpet give an uncertain sound," Paul wrote in I Corinthians 14:8, "who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air." Exactly! Paul should have practiced what he preached. For almost two millennia, the bible has been producing a most "uncertain sound."

The problem is not with human limitations, as some claim. The problem is the bible itself. People who are free of theological bias notice that the bible contains hundreds of discrepancies. Should it surprise us when such a literary and moral mish-mash, taken seriously, causes so much discord?

And where was this quoted? At submission.org, a site dedicated to Islam. And if Islamic law is always clear, then either CAIR or the Afghan clerics are sadly mistaken about whether or not Muslim apostates deserve death.

Back to Christianity. And as a reminder that no Christian is perfect, I'm now quoting from Pat Robertson's cbn.com. (If your religion is perfect, don't worry - Christ wasn't sent to the perfect people; he was sent to us.) Here's what Dr. J. Rodman Williams says:

How does God's unchanging nature and His repentance relate to each other?

God is One who does not change. The universe is constantly undergoing a transition from one stage to another and human existence is marked by continuing alteration. With God there is no such mutability. "For I the LORD do not change" (Malachi 3:6). Thus does God transcend everything in His creation.

God is the Rock. He does not fluctuate from one event to the next. There is constancy and stability in all that He is and does. Hence, he is not evolving from one stage to another. There is no movement from some "primordial" nature to a "consequent" nature in any aspect of His being. God is not a becoming God, a growing God. God does not change. He is "the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change [literally "with whom…change has no place"] (James 1:17). Likewise, the New Testament declares that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8). God, whether Father or Son or Spirit, is One who changes not.

In God there is dependability and constancy in His being, acts, and purposes. The Old Testament sometimes speaks of God as "repenting" or changing His mind (e.g., Exodus 32:14). From the overall picture, the outward "repentance" does not signify a change in God's activity, but only His dependable response to man's behavior. God invariably acts the same: when man is obedient, God blesses; when man disobeys, God punishes; when man confesses his sin, God forgives. He "repents"; that is, He turns in the other direction.

Hence, God's repentance is not really a change in God, but it is His bringing to bear on the human situation some other aspect of His being and nature. God remains the same throughout.

It is important not to view God changelessness as that of hard, impersonal immobility. God is not like a statue, fixed and cold, but, quite the contrary, He relates to people. He is not the "unmoved Mover" but constantly moves upon and among men and nations. The flux and flow of life are not far away and far beneath Him. Indeed, He freely involved Himself in the life of a fickle and inconstant people to work out His purpose, and in the Incarnation he plunged totally into the maelstrom of human events. God in His own changelessness has experienced all the vicissitudes of human existence. This is the God-far from immobile and distant-who does not change.

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)


Thanks for the very thorough summary of the issues involved with God and his changing/unchanging ways. I agree with the last few paragraphs. God changing his mind is not the same as God changing who he is. I know this thinking has a tendency to humanize God, but I think there is truth in it.

Personally, I am not an open theist, but I do wonder if we have gone to far with the idea that God knows the future. If the future does not exist than there is nothing to be known about it. Thus God still knows everything. I know this put God in time and not above it, but I am not sure that is an un-Biblical idea. I would look at it this way. God being all powerful can control the future and he sometimes chooses to do so. So he can still get the future he wants. This allows for the ideas of human free will and God to work well together.

I completely understand that some very well established theologians would say these ideas are wrong and some would call them heretical. I am not even sure if I believe them, but they are what keep me up at night.

The thing that keeps me up at night is the "God-ness" of Jesus between his birth and his crucifixion - or, even more starkly, between his birth and his baptism. Did the Triune presence (Father and Holy Spirit with the Son) at Jesus' baptism result in some type of change in Christ, or was it merely a public acknowledgement of something that had already been true? Jesus' statement at the age of 12 indicates the latter, at least to me.

The big mystery, which confounds the world, is that Christ's ministry shows that God is strong enough to be weak. This puzzles the Marilyn Mansons of the world, for whom the crucifixion is evidence of a huge failure, not a huge victory.
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