Exodus 3:14 and God’s immutability
T.L. from the United States writes:
In Exodus 3:14, I read an article that says that the name of God here means “I will become whatsoever I please” or “I will become what I choose to become”. And it means that God will become anything He needs to be to fulfill His purpose. Does this contradict God’s nature as changeless? Since to “become” something would imply that He wasn’t THAT previously? Would God changing His mind about something contradict this? When the Bible says that God is changeless, I have always taken this to mean that everything that God says He is, He has always been. He didn’t BECOME loving, He was always loving. He didn’t BECOME just, He always was just. Whatever He says He is, He’s just always been that in His nature. So what exactly do we mean when we say God is immutable? Do we mean that He cannot and does not change in His nature and essence? Or do we mean something else? Because if so, then was Jesus a contradiction to God being immutable? Would Jesus be a change in God’s nature?
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for writing in.
First, take a step back and look at what God is doing in the surrounding verses. God appears to Moses in the burning bush. He tells Moses that He knows the struggles of His people in Egypt, and He’s sending Moses to Egypt to lead them out and to the land God promised to their forebears. Moses engages in a series of questions designed to avoid going back to Egypt. First, Moses says he’s unworthy for the task (3:11). God responds by telling Moses He will go with him (3:12). Moses asks: ‘who are you to the Israelites?’ (3:13). God gives His name to Moses, and tells him that it’s the name of the God of his ancestors, and He will do everything He promised to do (3:14–22). Moses asks: ‘what if they don’t believe you sent me?’ (4:1). God responds by giving Moses three miraculous signs by which he can show that he’s God’s emissary (4:2–9). Moses then says he can’t speak well (4:10). God retorts that He made man’s mouth, so this isn’t a problem (4:12–13). And then Moses finally drops the excuses and the pretence: “Lord, send someone else!” (4:14). God finally gets angry and says ‘Fine, Aaron will be your mouth’ (4:14–17). And then Moses finally departs to do his job.
What’s the common denominator all through this exchange? Moses is raising problems for the mission, and God is reassuring him that everything will be fine. God has it all in control. It’s all going to plan. God can and will do what He said He will do. This tells us what God’s name in 3:14 is supposed to indicate: He is trustworthy and sovereign. Nobody can thwart God, and He will keep His promises. So, whether it means ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be’ or whatever (the debates about the precise meaning of the term are endless), it’s clearly meant to reassure us that God is sovereign and trustworthy.
So, what can we infer, then, about notions of divine immutability from Exodus 3:14? Not as much as we might think. It’s clear enough that God’s character, plan, and competence are absolute, and nothing can change that. God is certainly immutable in those ways. After all, He made promises He intends to keep, He knows they will be fulfilled, and He can fulfil them. Nothing can thwart any of that. But does that push us into notions of absolute divine immutability? That God must be static in every conceivable way? I don’t think there’s anything in the text that forces us in that direction. Might issues such as omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection (which are plausibly implied in Exodus 3:14) push us toward absolute divine immutability? That’s not a question the text addresses. And I’m not aware of any biblical text that addresses such issues.
There are texts that say that God doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17). However, even those who hold to absolute divine immutability agree that they are referring to God’s character and competence, not absolute immutability.1 Thus, the notion of absolute divine immutability is underdetermined by the Bible. It plausibly doesn’t give us enough information to bind the conscience one way or another. The most it seems to affirm is that God is immutable in His existence, plan, character, and competence.
How does the Incarnation affect this? It doesn’t. Nothing of God’s existence, character, plan, or competence changed in the Incarnation. What God is didn’t change, nor could it. The Logos didn’t become ‘non-divine’ in the incarnation; He retained all the essential attributes of His divine nature (see The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?). Thus, God’s nature didn’t and couldn’t change in the Incarnation. This, however, doesn’t answer the question of whether the Incarnation is a problem for absolute divine immutability.
Does that mean absolute divine immutability is false? Not at all! It’s only to say that these questions take us beyond what the Scriptures clearly teach or logically imply. So, to uphold absolute divine immutability, I think will require a much more filled-out synthesis of God’s nature than what the Bible offers. That is the task of philosophical theology: to take what the Bible says and not merely systematize it but also fill out that systematic picture using reason as comprehensively, consistently, and cogently as we can. But if so, then it seems to be an area where Bible-believing Christians can disagree. See God and the beginning of the universe for more information.
Creation Ministries International
References and notes
- Starke, J., You Asked: Did God Change at the Incarnation? thegospelcoalition.org/article/you-asked-did-god-change-at-the-incarnation, 2 August 2011. Return to text.