Understanding and applying God’s immutability

February 17, 2006 | 30 comments
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“God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” This was an argument I used often (and with relatively high success) as a missionary. God spoke to prophets in the past; God is unchanging; therefore, God speaks to prophets now. Is it really that simple? It’s an argument that missionaries love to use, when discussing a subject like prophets or temples. However, it raises serious questions.

We’ll start with the obvious question. If God is unchanging, then why have the rules within the LDS church changed when it comes to subjects like polygamy, Blacks and the priesthood, women’s roles, the Word of Wisdom, and a whole host of other things? Is God really unchanging? And if God is unchanging, can we take that immutability and derive any sorts of normative guidance from it?

I suspect that the stock answer is along these lines — “God is unchanging in His attributes and Godliness; but some of the details with His interaction with humankind will change, as required by the circumstances.” This sort of formulation allows for a God who is unchanging, but also a God who allows for rule changes on issues like polygamy (as well as ad hoc needs like Noah’s ark). In other words, God is immutable, but not all of our God-derived rules need be immutable.

This exception threatens to swallow the rule, however. If God can really change the rules relating to polygamy, alcohol, priesthood, and so on, they why can He not change the rules regarding prophets, the existence of temples, and such? Is there a principled way to distinguish between which of our God-derived rules are immutable and tied back to the nature of God, and which of our God-derived rules are subject to change without notice? What exactly are we supposed to do with the idea that God is unchanging?

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30 Responses to Understanding and applying God’s immutability

  1. Aaron Brown on February 17, 2006 at 5:35 pm

    “Is there a principled way to distinguish between which of our God-derived rules are immutable and tied back to the nature of God, and which of our God-derived rules are subject to change without notice?”

    No.

    Aaron B

  2. Aaron Brown on February 17, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    A related question I often discuss with people: “Is there a principled way to define the term “doctrine” such that the claim “The doctrines of the Church never change” can be demonstrated to be true historically?” Again, I think the answer is “no.” Hindsight is 20-20, and we can always look back at what we know happened and draw all sorts of careful distinctions to explain, after the fact, why such-and-such was or wasn’t a “doctrine.” Similarly, we can try to concoct some standard as to which God-dervied rules are and are not immutable, based on some set of criteria (to use your example). But in the end, I suspect we’re just playing games.

    Lots more to say, but now I head out of town for 3 days with no internet access. Too bad.

    Aaron B

  3. Starfoxy on February 17, 2006 at 5:57 pm

    Good questions, but I think your stock answer is flawed. You say “God is unchanging in His attributes and Godliness; but some of the details with His interaction with humankind will change, as required by the circumstances.” I don’t think His interaction with humankind changes, I think the ability and needs of humans to follow His guidelines changes, and His requirements for us adjust accordingly. What does remain unchanged is the pattern that he has set up for giving us those guidelines. He will never stop being a loving God that provides revelation (both personal and through prophets) to give his children guidance. I think God could change the rules with regard to anything (to include existsence of Temples, church structure and other things that we consider immutable, but He will never stop providing prophets, or answering prayers. His consistency in that pattern of providing revelation is what makes the idea that God is unchanging important and useful.
    The best example I can think of is feeding my son. Right now, all I expect him to do is open his mouth and swallow what I put in it. In a few months, I’ll cut his food into bite-sized pieces and expect him to put the food in his mouth by himself. In a few years he will be in charge of cutting it up himself. Finally when he’s old enough I’ll teach him how to get, and prepare his own food. During that time, my expectations and rules for his eating behavior change drastically based on his abilities, but the pattern of me providing food for him doesn’t change. My son can feel safe knowing that I will always provide food for him when he needs it (or at least until I kick him out of the house ;) )

  4. Sara R on February 17, 2006 at 10:35 pm

    “He will never stop providing prophets”–what was the Great Apostasy then? I suppose it’s possible that *no one* “asked of God” a la Joseph Smith during that time, but unlikely. For some reason God decided that the priesthood wouldn’t be on the earth for a time, and thus it was.

    We can try to explain these things, but IMO it ultimately boils down to “God’s ways are not our ways.”

  5. Cameron Steinbusch on February 17, 2006 at 11:05 pm

    Generally speaking the scriptures that mention this phrase also talk about faith and miracles. God is someone we can have faith in to provide us with miracles, he did do miracles yestarday, today and tomorrow according to the faith of the children of men.

  6. a random John on February 18, 2006 at 12:28 am

    The nice thing about having a prophet is that he can pass along the message when the rules change. But, if God changes the rules about having prophets then who will be there to tell you that the rules about prophets (or any other rules) have changed?

  7. Jim F. on February 18, 2006 at 12:46 am

    Hebrews 13:8 says that Christ is the same forever, in the context of giving direction for right conduct:

    “(1) Let brotherly love continue. (2) Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (3) Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body. (4) Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge. (5) Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.(6) So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me. (7) Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. (8) Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.

    Does the phrase occur some place else in the Bible?

    We also find it in latter-day revelation: 1 Nephi 10:18, 2 Nephi 2:4, 2 Nephi 27:23, 2 Nephi 29:9, Alma 31:7, Mormon 9:9, Moroni 10:19, and D&C 20:12. In each of these cases, with one possible exception, the writer is writing about trusting God or about the gifts of God. 2 Nephi 29:9 stands out because it is, at first glance about neither of these, but it is about miracles: we must work by faith because the Lord continues to work through miracles. That seems to me to make it a scripture that uses the term in speaking of the fact that we can trust God.

    The phrase isn’t an unreasonable “translation” of Christian understanding of the attributes of God, but it seems to be an extra-scriptural phrase when it is used that way. I think we have to stretch that scriptural notion of God’s character to get to something abut the status of rules.

    I don’t buy the premise on which the “problem” is based.

  8. Katie on February 18, 2006 at 1:13 am

    What I have always found most puzzling about the “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” idea, is how can it be reconciled with the “God was a once a man” idea? If God was once a man, and is now a God, can he really be said to have been the same yesterday?

  9. Starfoxy on February 18, 2006 at 10:19 am

    I did wonder how the apostacy fits into that pattern, and decided that since the Prophets foretold the apostacy, and foretold that it would end, it still fits the pattern.

  10. greenfrog on February 18, 2006 at 10:25 am

    Jim F,

    Isn’t the trust that the latter-day scriptures you referenced seek to engender founded on constancy? Does your reading suggest that constancy is not a basis on which we should develop that trust?

  11. Bookslinger on February 18, 2006 at 10:44 am

    Katie, #8:
    I believe many scriptural or doctrinal pronouncements have a scope or limit attached to them. Some had a scope limited to the Law of Moses, so when that law was fulfilled, the “perpetual” sacrifices were over. Even the “perpetual” sabbath was changed to another day of the week. Pauls scriptural admonition for women to have their head covered (or to remain silent) in church was limited in scope to the culture of that day.

    Some things might be limited in scope to this planet, and may not apply to the other planets of Jehovah’s creation.

    Some things such as “no death before the fall” may only apply to the scope of this planet’s current creation cycle. Joseph Smith hinted that this ball of mud called Earth may have been used in a previous creation/world/earth/planet. So Jehovah may have used a recycled planet when he “organized” it (not “created out of nothing” as JS emphasized) for us. The “these materials” of Abraham 3:24 may have been a recycled planet, the remnant of a world upon which dinosaurs dwelt.

    Pulling our viewpoint back to encompass an even larger field of vision of time and space, maybe some scriptural pronouncements are limited in scope to this universe. If Elohim was a man on some planet who worked out his salvation like we are doing now (as per King Follette discourse) , and then went on to create/organize or inherit this universe, then he’s always been God in the scope of this universe.

    The scope of time and eternity is also hard for us to comprehend. How can we attach a scope of reference to “the eternities”? Why do the scriptures separate “time” from “eternity” ? Perhaps there is a limit to “time”. The Book of Revelation says “time will be no more.” So if time has an end, did it have a beginning from our reference point? If some thing existed, or some event ocurred, prior to our localized beginning point of time, and continues past the point where “time will be no more”, is it not then properly described to us as “eternal” and “from all eternity, and to all eternity” ?

  12. Cameron Steinbusch on February 18, 2006 at 10:49 am

    In terms o God being the same and him being a man previously is two different matters. He has known us all of our lives in pre mortal and mortal life. He is the same God then, in pre mortality as he is here in mortality. he is somebody who knows us and we can trust. Before we ever came onto the scene, before we ever knew him and he knew us, he used to be a man according to the King Follet discourse. In terms of us and our experience he can be trusted.

  13. Blake on February 18, 2006 at 12:49 pm

    Kaimi: All that the scriptural statement will support is that God is always the same in that he works through miracles. Miracles don’t cease. But that can hardly mean that God doesn’t change the way he deals with us otherwise. The change from the Law of Moses to the law of love in Christ is about as radical as one can get. He can change the organization of the Church, the law that binds us, whether he chooses to strive with us as his people, and whether he will even continue to give revelation (and thus whether there are prophets). His attributes are immutable (otherwise they aren’t arrtibutes by definition) but God changes in many respects. So time to stop thinking like a 19 year old [grin].

  14. R Hammond on February 18, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    I too taught this on my mission with a very similar thought coming into my mind every now and then. I had a logical problem with the process of

    1. Amos 3:7 …surely God will have a prophet.
    2. …God is the same yesterday, today and forever.

    Putting these two principles together we conclude that God must have a prophet now, which was quite good as thats exactly what we were teaching Joseph was!

    But I guess the day before Jospeh was called to be a prophet – God had no prophet? So how does the above process apply the day BEFORE Joseph was called?

    It always felt a bit too much of a convenient argument, and didnt fit right with me so I’ll be watching this thread with interest.

  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 18, 2006 at 5:41 pm

    The change from the Law of Moses to the law of love in Christ is about as radical as one can get.

    Well said.

  16. Jim F. on February 18, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    Greenfrog (#10): You’re right that our trust is based on his constancy, but moral constancy is not the same as always living by the same rules or always giving the same rules. The morally constant person always does the right thing. That doesn’t require following a rule of some kind nor is it the same as rule-bound constancy.

  17. Cameron Steinbusch on February 18, 2006 at 9:02 pm

    Before Joseph’s day we know that they will be taught by prophets, apostles and the righteous dead who have gone before in the spirit world. The plan of Salvation is the same for them as for us.

  18. brad on February 19, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    God’s immutability is understood by me to mean that He gives men as much truth as they are willing to accept. We receive line upon line and precept upon precept, grace for grace until we receive a fulness. If we constantly hunger and thirst after righteousness, the light we receive grows brighter and brighter until the perfect day and we know the mysteries of godliness in full. However, if we harden our hearts then we forfeit the greater truth that has been revealed unto us. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away but that doesn’t mean He changes. One example that comes to mind is the fact that the Lord has instituted the law of tithing because members of the Church were/are unwilling to live by the law of consecration. Numerous other examples could be provided where God has revealed His will and subsequently recalled His words because people were unwilling to accept them.

  19. Wade on February 19, 2006 at 10:02 pm

    If God can really change the rules relating to polygamy, alcohol, priesthood, and so on, they why can He not change the rules regarding prophets, the existence of temples, and such?

    Because there is a fundamental difference between truth and what you are calling rules. Sure, some rules change over time but eternal verity in God never changes. The rules change because God deals with His children according to their condition, i.e. we can’t obey the higher laws (eluded to in this thread as consecration etc.).

    I don’t see how the failures of mankind calls God’s immutability into question?

  20. Roy Grant on February 20, 2006 at 10:22 am

    #18 This touches on my understanding of the question at hand. One way of putting it is “God does the best He can with what he has to work with”. Since he has declared individual agency as an inviolate principle, He will not/cannot force us to do anything. Moses had a different set of rules the first time down from the mount, but the people were not at a level to handle them, so they got “plan B” for a few thousand years until they were ready for the Gospel as Christ gave it. God is patient with us…He allowed time for the saints to make the changes required in the Word of Wisdom, He requires a period of at least 1 year living baptismal covenants before we are expected or even eligible to make and keep temple covenants, and there are as yet sealed portions of the scriptures which the Book of Mormon states we will not receive until we (collectively) as a church have proven ourselves sufficiently faithful in heeding the instruction we have already received.

    I don’t think God would have allowed the Great Apostacy if there were any way of avoiding it. If He had enough people of Enoch or Melchizedek caliber in his quiver (i.e., sufficiently powerful in their faith that they were capable of transmitting that faith and faithfullness to their entire community), perhaps the apostacy would not have happened. However, He seems to need to ration such scarce individuals through the various dispensations. I believe He will save as many of His children as He possibly can, and that the history of mankind up to this point really is the best He could manage with what (who) He had to work with.

  21. greenfrog on February 20, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    You’re right that our trust is based on his constancy, but moral constancy is not the same as always living by the same rules or always giving the same rules. The morally constant person always does the right thing. That doesn’t require following a rule of some kind nor is it the same as rule-bound constancy.

    If I understand this correctly, you read these various verses as saying, essentially, that God’s actions are always right? Definitionally, I don’t disagree with that, but to my mind, those verses seem specifically to support a particular kind of confidence and trust — and that confidence and trust is not the sort founded on “God is always right,” but rather that “God’s actions are internally consistent over time and, consequently, predictable.” If the verses only imply the first element of that (i.e., “God’s actions are internally consistent over time”), then they say nothing directly about what we can expect from that fact. My sense of those verses is that they are intended to convey what we can expect to perceive ourselves of God’s actions.

    If some level of predictability of divine action is not an intended element of those verses, then I think them misleading, though perhaps in a D&C 19 manner.

  22. Ben S. on February 25, 2006 at 1:52 pm

    “1. Amos 3:7 …surely God will have a prophet.
    2. …God is the same yesterday, today and forever.

    Putting these two principles together we conclude that God must have a prophet now, which was quite good as thats exactly what we were teaching Joseph was!

    But I guess the day before Jospeh was called to be a prophet – God had no prophet? So how does the above process apply the day BEFORE Joseph was called?”

    This kind of logic has found its way into this month’s Ensign, p. 16. “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so if He had called prophets anciently, why would he not call them today? This was something new to me.”

  23. Jim F. on February 25, 2006 at 6:15 pm

    Ben S. shows the futility of trying to turn scripture into a set of logical premises from which we can deduce conclusions.

    greenfrog: I am saying that God’s is trustworthy, and that’s what I think those verses say. We can trust him always to do right. However, we may not be able to reduce “what is right” to a set of rules that we can see God following or use for prediction. I don’t think that the verses imply that his actions are internally consistent over time. Rather, it seems to me that each of the verses that speaks of God as “the same yesterday, today, and forever” is hortatory: trust God because he is trustworthy. I don’t think we can easily convert hortatory statements into philosophical ones.

  24. greenfrog on February 27, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    …each of the verses that speaks of God as “the same yesterday, today, and foreverâ€? is hortatory: trust God because he is trustworthy. I don’t think we can easily convert hortatory statements into philosophical ones.

    Interesting. As I think about this, such a reflexive (i.e., without external indicia of accuracy) statement about God’s trustworthiness becomes an exercise in evaluating not the trustworthiness of God, but rather the credibility (and, hence, the trustworthiness) of the person making the statement: “you should believe that God is trustworthy because I say that God is trustworthy.”

  25. Jim F. on February 27, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    greenfrog: Hortatory statements don’t all reduce to appeals to authority, do they? If I encourage someone to do or believe something, I am not necessarily saying that they should so do because I do or because I say they should. Why a person should do or believe something is a different question from whether they should, but the hortatory is concerned almost exclusively with the latter.

  26. greenfrog on February 27, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    I’m not sure I understand what you perceive to be the utility of a hortatory statement that, as we are positing on this thread, carries with it no substantive reasons for acceptance. Initially, I understood those scriptures (“Trust God because God is unchanging.”) to mean that I should do X because of Y. As I understand your reading of those scriptures, you understand the statement as a kind of reflexive axiom: X=X (“Trust God because God is trustworthy.”).

    But if the statement is not “Do X because of Y”, what’s the source of the persuasive value that remains, absent appeals to reason or to authority?

    Am I misinterpreting the scripture — is it not intended to persuade? Or am I just not getting the point here?

  27. Jim F. on February 28, 2006 at 12:54 am

    greenfrog: It is intended to persuade, but not all persuasion is of the “you should do x because of y” type. In particular, I don’t think that scripture has that form. Surely there are places within scripture where we can see that kind of argument, but I don’t think that scripture has a whole is persuasive in that sense. Just as the scriptures aren’t sets of rules for behavior, they aren’t sets of arguments for propositions that we should believe or actions that we should take. They are testimonies of a way of life, within which certain rules and behaviors make sense.

    Consider each of the scriptures in which the phrase “the same yesterday, today, and for ever” occur.

    Hebrews 13:8: At the end of a series of admonitions, Paul adds an admonition to follow the faith of those who lead us in the Church, people whose faith is in Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There isn’t a lot there about trusting God because he is trustworthy or because he is unchanging. At most, Paul seems to be saying, “Imitate the faith of those who follow Christ, who [unlike them] is steadfast.”

    1 Nephi 10:17-18: Nephi says that he wanted to see, by the Holy Ghost, the things that his father saw. And he adds that the Holy Ghost is a gift of God given to all those who seek God, for God is the same yeterday, today, and forever. Again, this isn’t an argument that we ought to trust God because he is the same at all points in time. It says that he gives the Holy Ghost to those who seek him because he is the same.

    2 Nephi 2:4: Those who received the gospel before the coming of Christ are equally blessed as those to whom he ministers in the flesh because he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

    2 Nephi 27:23: God will show that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever by working through miracles according to our faith.

    2 Nephi 29:8-9: The testimony of two nations will come together to prove that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

    Alma 31:17: The Zoramites suggest that there can be no Christ and that they are predestined to salvation because God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. They don’t work out the argument, but it isn’t difficult to figure out what they might have meant. In any case, it doesn’t help us understand what the scriptures mean by the phrase.

    Mormon 9:9: Those who deny revelation and miracles do not understand what the scriptures teach, namely that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so he will continue to give revelation and work miracles.

    Moroni 10:19: Because God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the gifts that Moroni has written about in chapter 10 will never be done away with, except through the people’s unbelief.

    D&C 20:12: The revelation of the Book of Mormon proves that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

    At least as I read them, none of these scriptures makes the argument that we ought to trust God because he is the same through time. They bear witness that he is, that he manifests his unchanging character in various ways, particularly in miracles and revelation. They encourage us to come to Christ by testifying that he can be trusted to bless us with the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. Only the Hebrews departs from that theme, and it doesn’t do so to prove or argue anything, but to remind us of Christ’s character: “You can trust him because he is steadfast” does not mean the same as “You should trust him because he is steadfast.”

  28. Kaimi Wenger on February 28, 2006 at 1:35 am

    I really like the further explanation that you’re giving in this back and forth, Jim and greenfrog.

  29. Jim F. on February 28, 2006 at 7:24 pm

    greenfrog: such a reflexive (i.e., without external indicia of accuracy) statement about God’s trustworthiness becomes an exercise in evaluating not the trustworthiness of God, but rather the credibility (and, hence, the trustworthiness) of the person making the statement

    Here’s another stab at answering, something that came to me as I was trying to avoid other work today: I agree with the first part of what you say, that advice to trust God is not an exercise in evaluating God’s trustworthiness. However, I don’t think it is an exercise in testing the credibility of the person making the statement. Instead, I think it is a test of the person hearing the statement. Anyone can say “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” What matters is what I hear when I hear that and what hearing it leads to.

  30. greenfrog on February 28, 2006 at 11:35 pm

    What matters is what I hear when I hear that and what hearing it leads to.

    Yes, but the same is true of hearing silence. The fact of the words being spoken evidences that the speaker of the words intended something other than whatever meaning might be conveyed by silence.

    (Still thinking about your prior post with the various scriptures — had to teach YM tonight on cultural variations and expectations for future missionaries, so I haven’t had time to get through them all deliberately yet.)

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