An Unchanging God and a Changing World (2)
August 31, 2018
In the last article, I looked at how interactions with the so-called antinomians over important soteriological issues required Westminster divine Anthony Burgess to discuss the doctrine of God. The antinomians, at times, appealed to divine attributes, such as immutability and impassibility, in order to defend their particular positions on salvation, including justification before faith. In response, Burgess attempted to demonstrate the compatibility between the typical Reformed view of salvation and the traditional doctrine of God. I want to look briefly at how he did that in this article.
Burgess did not budge on the traditional doctrine of God. He firmly embraced the doctrine of divine simplicity, affirming that “we must not hold that there are any accidents in God; or that he can be a subject recipient of such, because of his most pure and simple Essence; so that whatsoever is in God is God.” He did the same with immutability, noting that “it must be readily granted, That God is unchangeable” because mutability or potential indetermination is an imperfection. Still further, Burgess acknowledged that God “can have no losse or injury, for he is always the same happy and immutable glorious God.” God is unchangeable and impassible.
Nonetheless, Burgess also maintained God’s meaningful interaction with the world. He noted that we must hold that “Scripture doth represent God doing and working such mercies and judgments as seemeth good to him.” God administers different degrees of punishments to people for the same sin. God loves then hates, and hates then loves. God related to Adam first as a child of favor, then after the fall as a child of wrath. God hated a believer before his conversion and then loved him when he was united to Christ. Our sin “is a reall offence and dishonor” to God and we can, by our sin, rob God of his honor and glory.
How do these two truths hold together? That is the question. The answer is found by making the right and necessary distinctions. One important distinction that Burgess made is between divine attributes and their effects. Take for example the attribute of justice. Burgess stated that there “is a great deal of difference between Justice, as it is an essentiall property in God, ad intra, and between the effects of it, ad extra.” God is unchangeably just in terms of his essential attribute of justice. He never becomes less just or more just. However, there is variation with respect to the outworking or effects of the attribute of justice in the world. Burgess wrote: “God’s essentiall justice doth not receive more or lesse, but the effects of his Justice may be more or lesse: If many men in the same sin, and God doth punish some of them with a remarkable temporall judgment, we may not say, God dealeth more justly with these then the other; yet we may say, the effects of his Justice are greater upon some then others.”
A similar distinction is that of immanent and transient acts. An immanent act, such as God’s decree, is an eternal act that exists in God and is identical with God. A transient act, such as creation, is the outworking of God’s immanent act in time and is equivalent to the effect of God’s decree. Transient acts not eternal or identical to the nature of God.
Consider creation as an example. God willed to create from all eternity. Creation as an immanent act is eternal. But that does not mean that creation itself is eternal. Immanent acts are distinct from any outward effects or positive changes. At the same time, when God brought the universe into existence he “did not then begin to have a will to create: but he had a will from all eternity, that the world should exist in time.” This latter point is important because some have argued for the eternality of all created things in order to maintain God’s immutability and simplicity. They argue that if something is done in time then there must be some new act or will in God, and that God is now something that he wasn’t before such as a creator. A new will or attribute would imply that God is mutable and that is rightly unacceptable. But then so is the conclusion that all is from eternity.
Transient acts, however, do not imply new divine acts of will or attributes. Everything that comes to pass in time is according to God’s eternal will that does not change. Thus, when events do come to pass they do “cause an extrinsecall denomination to be attributed to God, as now he is a Creatour, and was not before” but that is only in relation to the creature and “not because any new accident is in [God].” As Burgess says, “There is no change made in God, but the alteration is in the creature.” God’s immanent act doesn’t change. His will is immutable. But the effects of his will (transient acts) do produce change and involve many changes in the creature. God doesn’t change his will, but he does will many changes.
Burgess used this distinction to answer the antinomian argument for eternal justification and their consequent denial of a historical transition from wrath to grace in the life of the believer. Predestination is an immanent act, but the rest of God’s saving acts, such as regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification are transient acts. Justification, therefore, unlike predestination, is not eternal. The perpetual mistake of the antinomians is that they confound “God’s decree and purpose to justifie, with justification, God’s immanent action from all eternity, with that transient, which is done in time.”
The believer, therefore, does undergo a historical transition from wrath to grace. He moves a position of condemnation and wrath to a position of justification and sonship. Or in terms of love and hate, the believer transitions from a “state of hatred” to “a state of love and friendship.” As we saw in the example of creation, this doesn’t imply any change in God. God himself doesn’t increase and decrease in love or in any other attribute. God’s love is immutable and eternal. But the effects of God’s love change and change us. The “grosse mistake” that people make is to confound “the love of God, as an immanent act in him, with the effects of this love.”
God loved his elect before they believed with a love of election and a purpose to save them in time. He loved them from all eternity. But many of the effects of his love are not exhibited until his appointed time in history. In other words, the elect do not experience certain effects of God’s love until they are regenerated, believe and walk in holiness. Indeed, so long as they are only under the love of election they are said to be hated in the sense that they are under the wrath of God because for them “there is no actuall remission of sin, no acceptance or complacency in [their] person or duties.” God’s electing love, however, does produce the effects of love and that is what produces the historical transition from wrath to grace. Burgess writes:
“Here we are to conceive a love of God electing us from all eternity, which doth produce another love of God (not immanent in him, for so nothing is new in God, but transient in us) and that is justification; from this love floweth another effect of love, which is glorification…And whereas the Opponent saith, God loved us before we did believe; it is true, with a love of purpose; but many effects of his love are not exhibited till we doe believe. He loveth us and so worketh one effect of love in us, that that effect may be a qualification for a new and further effect of love. He loveth us, to make us his friends, and when he hath done that, he loveth us with a love of friendship. God loved us before he gave Christ, for out of that love he gave us Christ, that so when Christ is given us, he may bestow another love upon us. Now because it is ordinary with us to call the effect of love, love, as the fruit of grace is grace; Therefore we say, In such a time God loved not one, and afterwards we say, He doth love the same, not that herein is any change of God, but several effects of his love are exhibited.”
Another distinction that Burgess used in his interaction with the antinomians was between the internal attributes of God and the external good things that his creatures owe him. This distinction upholds divine impassibility. With respect to the internal attributes of God such as justice, wisdom, glory and happiness, God cannot suffer loss or injury. But with respect to what we owe God such as honor, praise and reverence, then we may take these away by our sin so that “God have lesse of this external Honour and Glory then he hath.” Burgess noted that depriving God of his external honor is no minor affair even though it does not “make to the internal Happiness of God” because God is pleased with it and threatens to punish those who refuse to give it. Besides, he further argued, the necessity of Christ’s death is proof that “sinne is a reall offence and dishonor to him.”
How does an unchanging God relate to a changing world? How can we maintain divine immutability, simplicity and impassibility on the one hand and God’s meaningful interaction with the world on the other hand? Anthony Burgess used three distinctions to answer these questions: attributes and their effects, immanent and transient acts, and internal and external attributes.