An Unchanging God and a Changing World (1)
July 24, 2018
How can God, who is simple (theologically speaking), unchanging and impassible, meaningfully interact with a world that is constantly changing? The Westminster divine Anthony Burgess had to face this issue in his interactions with the so-called antinomians in London during the middle of the 17th century. My goal in this present article is to give an overview of the discussion that led him to address this particular issue.
In repudiating the antinomian position on punishments and chastisements, Burgess took the time to look at how God’s interactions with the world comport with his unchanging character. More specifically, how can God be unchangeably just when he administers different degrees of punishments to people for the same sin or when he allows the wicked to prosper? We might be tempted to think that God is not just with the wicked, and that he is more just with the one who suffers more and less just with the one who suffers less. Yet since God is unchangeable, he can’t stop being just or become more or less just. How are we to explain this apparent discrepancy? That is the point Burgess addresses.
The doctrine of immutability also surfaced, along with impassibility, in an objection against the importance of repentance as advocated by the orthodox. Since God doesn’t change because of what we do (he isn’t hurt by our sins or made happier by our obedience), sin isn’t such a great offense against God. Therefore, repentance isn’t such a big deal. Here is the objection in Burgess’ own words:
Why should there be such pressing of mourning and repenting for sin, and that because it is such an offence to God. For seeing God is all-sufficient and happy enough in himself, our sins do not hurt him, or make him miserable, no more then our graces adde to his happinesse, but as he is above our graces, so he is also above our sins: seeing therefore God is incapable of any injury from man, why should sin be such an offence?
The attributes of God played a part in Burgess’ discussion of justification. Justification involves forgiveness. But what kind of act is God’s forgiveness? Is it an immanent act or a transient act? An immanent act “is that which abides in God, so that it works no reall effect without,” whereas a transient act “is when a positive change is made thereby in a creature.” For example, God’s decree is an immanent act and creation is a transient act. The antinomians, along with some prominent Reformed theologians, argued that forgiveness is an immanent act. In refuting this position, Burgess expounded upon the simplicity and immutability of God.
One of the arguments that the antinomians used to defend the doctrine of justification before faith involved the immutability of God. They argued that if we are not justified before faith then God hated us before he loved us in justification. That would mean that God changed and therefore “why should Arminians be blamed for saying, 'We may be the children of God today, and the children of the devil tomorrow?'” In other words, God’s immutability demands eternal justification. To answer this objection Burgess had to show how God’s immutability comports with a transition from wrath to grace. He faced a similar dilemma in discussing the love of God. How does the eternal and unchanging love God relate to the creation, fall and redemption of mankind?
Interactions with the antinomians over important soteriological issues required Burgess to discuss the doctrine of God. Throughout the discussion, Burgess attempted to show how God is able to relate to his mutable creatures, without compromising the traditional doctrine of God.
Lord willing, we will begin to look at how he did that in the next article.