Back in February, a couple of readers challenged my column titled “O thou who changest not, abide with me!”
The biblical God, declared one, is scarcely "unchanging." Another supplied a list of changes through which, he said, Mormons must believe God to have passed, reminding me of what Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said — which, the reader implied, I’d forgotten — "As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be."
And, truly, the God depicted in the Bible seems to change frequently. After not creating the Earth, he does. He watches the wickedness of humanity and then sends a flood. He has no covenant people; then he calls Abraham. He allows his people to languish in Egyptian captivity, but then he calls Moses, giving him a set of 10 new commandments. He settles Israel in the Promised Land, but he later permits them to be driven from it. And then, in what Christians regard as his supreme mercy to humankind, he sends his son to Earth under Caesar Augustus.
Jesus is born as a human baby. As a boy, he interacts with Jewish scholars in the temple. He is baptized as an adult, then undergoes 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. He walks throughout Palestine. He sleeps and wakes. He suffers in Gethsemane, is crucified, dies, is buried, rises on the third day, and, 40 days later, ascends into heaven from the Mount of Olives.
Yet the author of Hebrews 13:8 affirms that Jesus is “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” And the Bible insists that God doesn’t change: “Thou art the same,” declares the Psalmist (at 102:27), “and thy years shall have no end.”
“I am the Lord,” God himself says at Malachi 3:6. “I change not.”
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,” testifies James 1:17, “and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”
Are biblical authors simply oblivious to their own glaring self-contradictions?
Here, I think it appropriate to invoke what has sometimes been termed the principle of charity in reading: Basically, this methodological rule advises readers that they should avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies or falsehoods to an author’s statements when a coherent, rational interpretation of those statements is possible — that is, unless there’s simply no alternative.
So is there a coherent, rational alternative here to considering the writers of the Bible flatly self-contradictory? I think there is, and that it’s to be found in the concept of “constancy” or “consistency.” Constant or consistent people aren’t literally unchanging — they move about, eat, sleep, age, work, rest, play and finally die — but they’re faithful and dependable. They are unchanging or unwavering in purpose, love and loyalty.
And believers in God are confident that he is more faithful, more reliable in his love, loyalty and purposes than even the most constant mortal human. He will fulfill his promises. His actions won’t be arbitrary, inconsistent or whimsical. His fixed determination is to save all who genuinely seek salvation.
How does this understanding fit the scriptures? I cannot explore the topic fully here, but it seems to me to fit them perfectly.
In Mormon 9:19, for example, God’s unchangeable character is illustrated by the fact that he granted miracles in ancient times and continues to do so still today. In Moroni 8:12 and 18, his constant nature or unchangeableness is demonstrated by the consistency and justice of his love for little children: He won’t save those privileged to receive baptism while damning those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to receive the ordinance. He is morally consistent.
At Doctrine and Covenants 20:11-12 and 17, his unchangeable character is represented by his revealing himself today just as he did anciently, showing the consistency of his interactions with us, his children.
A literally unchanging and totally immutable God would resemble a rock more than a person. A God who is utterly unresponsive to questions, requests and changing circumstances would be neither the Lord of the Bible nor the Lord of Joseph Smith and the Restoration, and would be of little use to either religious believers or struggling humans (see the columns “Reconsidering the emotions of God” from Jan. 30, 2014, and “Might as well pray to a rock” published on Feb. 10).
However, a morally constant God, whose will is unchanging, is essential to our hopes both on Earth and in heaven.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.