If God Doesn’t Give a Damn about Your Sin, Does God Care at All?

Jason Micheli —  May 7, 2014 — 9 Comments

image001In preaching on the satan this past weekend, I relied upon the ancient Christian doctrine of God’s immutability; that is, God doesn’t change, has never changed, will never change.

To hit the point hard, I quoted the late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe:

‘In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

That’s been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To unpack the idea of immutability, I thought it would be helpful to go back to the sources; namely to the most famous of the Dominicans: St Thomas Aquinas and his tome, the Summa Theologica, wherein Thomas reasons his way through the question. St Thomas Aquinas

It comes early in the Summa for Thomas believed almost everything we say about God relies upon that God not to be a being bound in time, a being that changes.

So in question 9 of the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas asks whether or not God is immutable; that is, does God change?

For Aquinas God’s immutability is logically connected with God’s eternity, a topic he tackles in the proceeding question.

Before Aquinas can establish that God is eternal, however, he must demonstrate that God is immutable for only if God is pure actuality- there is no potentiality in God- can God be considered eternal.

Aquinas begins as he does throughout the Summa by acknowledging the possible objections to his topic.

Aquinas recalls that scripture appears to talk in terms of God changing in some way. God is said to have emotions for Israel, for example. However, there are also contrary passages such as Malachi 3:6

“I am God, and I do not change.” 

Where Aquinas sees this as an essential description of God’s nature, he suggests we see the passages that speak of changing as metaphor.

Indeed, the implication of God’s immutability are a logical consequence of what Aquinas has already proved in Q’s 1-8:

God is pure actuality- all things are present and actual in God at all times.

God is the cause of all things and holds all things existence at every moment of existence.

God is not caused by any other being but is Being itself.

Anything that undergoes change is, by definition, moving from potentiality to actuality, for ‘change’ implies that is present now in something was previously missing or absent.

But no-thing can be missing or absent from God- in fact, God creates from no-thing.

Therefore:

God cannot undergo change.

As usual, Aquinas is not afraid of counter arguments. Rather than stopping with the logic above, he tackles another two contrary positions. Unknown

An object, Aquinas says, undergoing change only changes in respect of certain properties; but in order to retain its identity it must remain the same with respect to other properties. Therefore such the object must be a composite. However, we know that whatever we mean by the word ‘God’ it’s that God is not a composite in any way whatsoever, therefore God cannot undergo change.

Finally to change is to acquire something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new.

Therefore:

God cannot change.

Aquinas then moves on to wonder whether God is the only thing that is unchangeable, which he affirms. All members of creation are changeable in the sense that their continued existence depends upon God keeping them in existence. If God were to withdraw his support from a thing, that thing would go out of existence immediately. Therefore all created things can change in the sense of coming into and going out of existence and owing every moment of their existence upon God.

Incidentally, you can see here already how Aquinas allows us to dismiss most debates about ‘creationism vs evolution’ as stupid and a giant adventure in missing the point.

For to call God ‘Creator’ is not to say he ‘began’ something; it’s to say he holds all things in existence at all times.

In Summa

God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; God is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which God could change. Loving us, for instance, does not change God, make God more loving, because God is LOVE.

Love is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

I know how easy it is to hear this completely wrong.

You might argue, as many have and do, that if God were immutable then God must be static and impersonal; that God could not be the God that we love.

But to do this, Aquinas says, is to violate the very first commandment; it’s to make God in our image or at least insist upon a god in our image.

God must be like us so that we can love Him.

Such an approach fails to see that God’s immutability follows on from God’s perfection and is intimately connected with God being in eternity.

God’s perfection means every possibility, realized or not, is already present within God.

God doesn’t change because God literally and logically cannot love you any more than God already does love you.

ar from being static, He provides the very being of all that is dynamic in the created world. Far from being impersonal, by holding all things in existence at every moment of their existence, God is closer to each person than they are to themselves.

Jason Micheli

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9 responses to If God Doesn’t Give a Damn about Your Sin, Does God Care at All?

  1. Terbreugghen May 7, 2014 at 1:06 PM

    Not to be a pest. I very much agree with your transcendent vision of God and the philosophy behind it. The claim that God doesn’t care about our sin, however, appears to run counter to a number of new testament claims about everlasting fire, gehenna, and the like.
    I have my own ideas, but would be interested in yours.

    • Jason Micheli May 7, 2014 at 1:10 PM

      I don’t think God cares not in the sense of God being apathetic but of God not taking offense- what I take to be the grave error in penal substitution. I think God cares in the sense that sin keeps us from being fully alive and a huge part of being fully alive is being fully in love with God. Hell, as CS Lewis nailed, is our self-chosen exile.

  2. Jason, does it every concern you that you’re painting a portrait of God no one can relate to? Is there perhaps a reason why the Bible anthropomorphizes God? Might he have inspired the authors to describe God in ways which we can understand so that that we can love and relate to him? God, after all, is not a philosophy. If you could lay out your agenda (e.g., identifying the Father, assuring that he loves us, or releasing guilt, etc.), perhaps we could identify a pastoral hermeneutic to describe God that also affirms the authority of the word of God. Otherwise, you describe a remote, unapproachable deity, and at the same time imply (or outright say) that we should throw out the Bible because the authors didn’t know what they were talking about.

    • Jason Micheli May 8, 2014 at 9:12 AM

      Jean, it may be a fault of clarity because it’s certainly not one of conviction. I definitely think the foundational beliefs Aquinas and the other Church Fathers lay out and lead to a God who is love (and lovable) a God whose ‘logic’ is find perfectly manifest in Christ. I tried to show this trajectory in an old sermon (I’m an Atheist Too). I believe scripture is authoritative in that it bears witness to the one Word of God, Christ. To say scripture is the testimony of believers experience of and relationship with God is not to jettison it but to recognize that it’s every bit as incarnational as Jesus. McCabe has the analogy of our words for God being like children’s clothes that we try to put onto a giant. It’s not that the words are wrong or that we shouldn’t use them- how else are to convey and conceive of God- it’s just that even our best speech about God is only partial. Properly understood, I think that leads to a humility that many Christians today could learn from.

  3. Jason, as I have posted in the past, I realize that I (not you) am arguing against the historic doctrine of the church. And, as I have written before, I acknowledge that there are verses of Scripture that point to immutability. But if you follow this through, your develop a god who is unlike the God told to us in so so many Bible stories. If one is immutable, you cannot respond. God just is. Yet, God interacts, within time, to creation. Simply be acting within creation you have a before and after. You can say that this does not change God but God simply looking down on creation and calling it good makes two different experiences (before the good thing that was done and after the good thing that was done). This does not make God transcendent, it makes God limited. God can never experience anything new.

    Take yourself for example. The immutability argument would say that whether you were or not doesn’t matter to God at all. God would not be any less or any more having a relationship with you. How is that love? If God just is, how could he respond to human sin by sending a Messiah? That requires planning. It means there was a point before sin entered into the equation, a point where it did and messed up people’s relationship with God, and a point where God decided to correct the human error by living among us.

    We who are Trinitarian say that Jesus is divine. Jesus showed himself to be very mutable – full of emotional responses. Jesus loved people. Jesus got angry with people. Jesus forgave people. Jesus healed people. At one point Jesus seems to see his mission as to save the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Jesus clearly point to the fact that God changed. Was Jesus any less divine before the crucifixion? I don’t think so. But there is a before and after for Jesus when everyone sees him and later when only believers see him (and touch him and eat with him). How can the Trinity be true if God is immutable?

    I could go on but you get my drift. In the end, I have to turn back to the Bible stories themselves which to me always supersede the work of theologians. And God in the Bible (especially Father and Son) seem to me to be in a dynamic relationship with us. God is not unmoved. God is very moved by the human condition and responds to us.

    All the best,

    Tom

  4. [Same post as before but this one fixed. You can delete the first one. Let me try this one more time because my typos detract from what I wrote.]

    Jason, as I have posted in the past, I realize that I (not you) am the one arguing against a doctrine of the church. And, as I have written before, I acknowledge that there are verses of Scripture that point to immutability. But if you follow immutability through, you develop a god who is unlike the God told to us in so so many Bible stories.

    If God is immutable how can God respond to events? God just is. Yet, in the Bible God interacts within time, over and over again. Any simple action by God within creation makes a before and after. You can say that this does not change God but (just to use one example) God simply looking down on creation and calling it good makes two different experiences (before the good thing that was done and after the good thing that was done). If God cannot have such an experience being immutable, it makes God limited, not transcendent. God can never experience anything new. I again go to “the Force” in Star Wars. How could David be a man after God’s own heart? (Sure metaphors abound as we know God doesn’t have a heart but I am not willing to go so far as to say God was not moved by David. What meaning could the saying have if God really isn’t moved by David at all?)

    Take yourself for example. The immutability argument would say that whether you existed or not doesn’t matter to God. God would not be any less or any more having a relationship with you. How is that love? It makes love just a word that is alien to anything we know or feel. If God just is, and is unchanging, how could God respond to human sin by sending a Messiah? That required planning. It meant that there was a point before sin entered into the equation, a point where it did and messed up people’s relationship with God, and a point where God decided to correct the human error by living among us.

    We who are Trinitarian say that Jesus is divine. Jesus showed himself to be very mutable – full of responses (positive and negative) as people interacted with him. Jesus loved people. Jesus got angry with people. Jesus forgave people. Jesus healed people. Jesus offered himself up for people. At one point Jesus seemed to have seen his mission as only to save “the lost sheep of Israel.” Later he sees his calling as larger than that. Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ clearly point to the fact that God changed. Was Jesus any less divine before the crucifixion? I don’t think so. But there is a before and after for Jesus when the crucifixion was concerned – before he died and after he was resurrected. Everyone saw him before and after only believers saw him (and touched him and ate with him). If the Trinity is true how is God is immutable?

    I could go on but you get my drift. In the end, I always turn back to the Bible stories themselves which to me always supersede the work of theologians. And there are many more verses that show God in dynamic relationship to us than not. God in the Bible (especially Father and Son) seem to me to be in a dynamic relationship with us. God is not unmoved. God is very moved by the human condition and responds in love to us.

    I do believe God is eternal. I do believe God always loves us. I do believe God somehow transcends time and yet can enter into it. In all these ways, God’s nature does not change. That’s what immutability is to me. But we are made in the image of God. And it is alien to us to be in relationship God or anyone who there is not a ‘before’ and ‘after’ to. It would be like asking what our relationship is water. It might be a need of ours but water has no plans for us. Water does not love us. Water does not have a plan for us. But Scripture tells us God does.

    All the best,

    Tom

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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