One of the challenges of the twenty-first century is its theological diversity. Right now within evangelicalism, a number of theologians affirm some form of divine change or passibility. But Christianity has seen such an affirmation as a Category One breach of orthodoxy.
How should we understand this? Answer: we should be slow to speak, quick to listen, and try to get behind the language of these theologians.
For example, one leading evangelical theologian affirms that God “is not a changeable being, but he really enters the changing world.” In some sense, God can change and so be passible. I respect and read this particular theologian, yet in this area, he seems to potentially transgress historic Christian thinking about God (i.e., orthodoxy).
For the sake of clarity, I think the above theologian is a Christian, and I would recommend him to people (with some caveats). I bring him up only to make the point that we need to do the work of understanding what someone means by the words a person uses.
What many evangelical theologians are now affirming (God’s nuanced immutability), at first blush, seem directly unorthodox. But if we step back for a moment, I do not think this is so obvious.
Sola Scriptura, Listening well, and Grace
In line with the principle of Sola Scriptura, evangelical theologians are simply trying to understand how God can seem to change in Scripture. The same evangelical theologian explains, “On Monday he judges; on Tuesday he blesses. I have called that a kind of ‘change,’ understanding the problems that creates with our general doctrine of God.”
Now this evangelical teacher knows that his view creates problems with earlier views of the doctrine of God. Canon I of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) affirms that God is “unchangeable” and “absolutely simple.” This council represents the consensus of orthodox Christian thinking. To say God changes means signifies that someone is outside the orthodox faith.
Yet despite our confession of orthodoxy, we also believe in Sola Scriptura and the principle of love (1 Cor 13). So we endeavour to listen carefully to those who claim to love Jesus as we do.
In my investigation, evangelical theologians who speak of God changing breach certain aspects of the historic and orthodox position of Christianity but not in a outrageous way. Even the theologian I quoted above still affirms that God “is an unchangeable being” but somehow changes and enters into time.
That phrase “unchangeable being” should lead those with traditional beliefs to give this theologian grace and to listen in carefully. He does not deny God’s immutability! He tries to redefine it according to Scripture. For this reason, I still read these evangelical theologians.
Evangelicals affirm that Scripture stands as our final authority. Yet tradition or confessions usefully purport to understand the Scripture rightly. Evangelicals who affirm nuanced mutability therefore rightly seek Scripture to understand theology, although they still must show that their view more clearly comes from Scripture and right reflection on Scripture than the traditional view of God does.
I do not think they have followed the self-separating and orthodoxy denying patterns of heretics. They are trying to understand God by what the Bible says. I disagree with their reading of Scripture. So despite their public teaching roles, they nevertheless differ from the biblical description of a heretic.
Penal Substitution and Passible Preaching
By accepting nuanced immutability, evangelical theology has allowed for some versions of God’s mutability to exist within its camp. But I would suggest that it’s more extensive than that.
The doctrine of Penal Substitution (PSA) has naturally been adopted by those open to the idea of God’s mutability since evangelicals affirm PSA. And many who hold to PSA also hold to a tacitly passible God. So when such persons preaching the cross, they emphasize God’s vicious hatred of Jesus, usually by highlighting our unspeakable sin and God’s outrageous anger at our sin.
Sometimes, this form of passible preaching suggests that God vents his emotional hate because he detests sin.
But the Reformed, Medieval, Patristic, and biblical theology redirect this passible preaching to a more precise understanding of God and the cross.
Edward Leigh, for example, wrote: “God’s anger is an excellency of his own essence by which it is so displeased with sin as it is inclined to punish the sinner; or a settled and unchangeable resolution to punish sinners according to their sins” (2.9, page 75; my update to modern English).”
And James Usher wrote:
“What must we understand by Anger in God?”
Not any passion, perturbation, or trouble of the mind, as it is in us: But this word anger, when it is attributed to God in the Scripture, signifies three things.
First, a most certain and just decree in God, to punish and avenge such injuries as are offered to himself, and to his church: and so it is understood, John 3. 26. Rom. 1.18.
Secondly, the threatening of these punishments and revenges: as in Psal. 6.1 Hos. 11:9.
Thirdly, the punishments themselves, which God does execute upon ungodly men: and thee are the effects of God’s anger, or of his decree to punish them. So it is taken in Rom. 1.5. Mat 3.7 Ephes 5.6” (Page 63; I updated the language to modern English).
God’s anger for the Reformed divines and the Reformers themselves was his retributive justice. The point here is that the language of anger idiomatically speaks of God’s application of justice in the form of punishment.
Even Jesus himself says, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life” (John 10:17). So we should not have such an unbiblical view so that we say God did not love Jesus at the cross and so was angry with him!
God’s Anger at the Cross
“…in Scriptural thought, to speak of the judgment, or punishment, or condemnation of God, is to speak of the wrath of God. If in Christ, “he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), so that there is now “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), it’s roughly theologically equivalent to saying, “he poured out his wrath in the flesh,” so now there is “no wrath for those in Christ Jesus.”
Rightly so. God did pour out his wrath on Jesus. But the Bible does not claim that God was angry with Jesus at the cross—if anger means a pure emotional detestation.
It claims, instead, that the just God will punish or condemn sin to manifest his retributive justice. God freely chose to do so because, in the economy of salvation, he has chosen this manner of redemption so that he would be just and the justifier of those who by faith receive Christ.
A common Critique against Penal Substitution
Recently, Paul Carter interviewed Bruxy Cavey to hear directly what Bruxy believed about various doctrine and practices. When it came to Penal Substitution, Bruxy was fast to claim: “To say God was angry at Jesus or “poured out the cup of his wrath upon Jesus” (a popular image in Evangelical preaching) goes too far beyond what is written.”
Since wrath manifests God’s retributive justice, he’s wrong. Yet my guess is that Bruxy has heard evangelical passible preaching on the hatred of God which gainsays traditional, biblical Christianity.
One might be tempted to wonder if Bruxy’s rejection of the P in PSA has more to do with his rejection of passible preaching of the cross than it does with denying God’s retributive justice.
For this reason, it seems at least possible that Bruxy could affirm Tom Schreiner’s definition of PSA (as Bruxy himself claims to do):
I define penal substitutionary as follows: The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested. (Quoted here.)
Schreiner rightly places the atonement within God’s justice, avoiding the language of hate and wrath. He may avoid this language because of recent challenges to biblical orthodoxy—i.e., the claim that God is
So how should we think of Christians who transgress historic orthodoxy?
Well, when it comes to leading theologians who do not affirm immutability, we should listen carefully and believe all things according to the dictate of love (1 Cor 13). We should seek out the Scriptures and God’s face by the Spirit to discern truth.
I am not persuaded by these nuanced definitions of God’s change. But I think these teachers affirm mostly the right things behind the language that they use.
And given that evangelicalism occasionally engages in passible preaching, I think we can at least admit that some people may reject the P in PSA because they have heard unorthodox preaching of the cross that admits passibility in God rather than the ordered retributive justice of God.
I am not sure why all people reject the P in PSA. To me, it seems to be the obvious teaching of Scripture. In the case of Bruxy, he at times appears to critique a version of P that does not find its grounding in historic Reformed theology (and so the Bible) but rather in contemporary passible preaching.
My hope is that Bruxy has simply misunderstood the P in PSA. My hope is that he will later affirm clearly the retributive justice of God at the cross.
Perhaps Paul Carter’s interview with Bruxy will be a first step to opening up the beauty of the biblical doctrine of PSA for him and for many others who understand that doctrine wrongly.
Besides all this, it seems odd to attack Bruxy while at the same time reading and affirming evangelical teachers who at least potentially transgress historic orthodoxy by claiming that God changes.
If we are going to hunt heresy, then we should at least start at home before venturing out into the wild.
For clarity, I think these evangelical teachers of God’s nuanced immutability are trying to know God by Scripture. So we should be quick to listen and very slow to condemn.
I love and appreciate these men. I am just trying to make the point that we find it easy to condemn outsiders for something that even insider evangelical teachers and preachers appear to do: teach something unorthodox.