I recently read a pair of articles for work that concerned prayer and the immutability of God. Each undertook to answer the question: “If God is immutable, in what sense does he answer our prayers?” Reed Lessing (“Pastor, Does God Really Respond to My Prayers?”) opposes the doctrines of classical theism to open theism on the question of God’s immutability and inclines in favor of open theism. In his opinion, a dynamic God, a God who can be changed by our prayers, is greater than the static God of classical theism. Without abandoning completely classical conceptions of God, Lessing (citing Bruce Ware) proposes that we posit a relational mutability in God which will allow Him to be responsive to our prayers. “Constancy is, therefore, a better description for God as opposed to unbending immutability,” in his opinion.
William D. Barrick (“The Openness of God: Does Prayer Change God?”) takes the opposite approach, concluding that prayer actually changes the petitioner, not God. Anything which God appears to have done in response to human petition is merely something that He had predetermined to do all along. God’s supremacy positively forbids any suggestion that He might be mutable and thus susceptible to persuasion by our prayers. Barrick concludes, “Indeed, if man is capable of changing the mind of God, then it might be argued that man knows more about governing this world than God.”
So which author is correct? Neither. They are both wrong and not simply in the conclusions they draw (since both opinions appear to be solidly rooted in the biblical evidence that each marshaled to his defense). More importantly, they haven’t even asked the right question, so it should be expected that they cannot come to a conclusive answer. In those much beloved (at least by me) words of Hans van Campenhausen: “It is the wrong question to ask, and therefore, as one might expect, has no right answer.”
These men, and countless others before them, have artificially integrated the question of whether or not God answers prayers with the theological concept of immutability. In fact, God’s immutability can be accepted or (if one is so inclined) rejected completely apart from what one decides about God’s response to our prayers. In fact, I am of the opinion that God is both immutable and receptive to our prayers, a position which both men would undoubtedly consider self-refuting. But why?
God is immutable in that He does not change, and, defined that way, it is understandable that people should then extrapolate that God is immutable in that He does not change what He has predetermined to do. Unfortunately that confuses a change in what God will do with a change in who God is. God does not grow, does not learn, is never added to, or subtracted from, and in this sense He is unchanging. The immutability of God found critical use in the fourth century trinitarian controversies as a defense against the Arian belief that there was when the Son was not. If there was a time when there was no Son, then there was a time when God was not Father. He was lacking in that key attribute of his nature. Since God can never be said to have been lacking in anything, the Son must always have been with the Father.
Regardless of whether or not you accept that logic for the Son’s co-eternality, it assumes an understanding of immutability that is ultimately concerned with protecting God from any accusation of deficiency, or capability of acquiring deficiency. If God is said to grow, then there was a time when God was not yet fully formed. If God is said to learn, there was a time when God was in some respect ignorant. If God is said to be added to or subtracted from, then there was a time when God was deficient. Suggestions such as these were intolerable to early Christians (and to me for that matter), and thus immutability becomes an inviolable part of God’s character.
It would be an abuse of the above doctrine, it should be fairly obvious, to suggest that to give to humanity when He is asked is to somehow violate the immutability of God and require that He is changing. Just the opposite, the changes which are often seen in Scripture as a result of human petition are an affirmation of what we believe to be the consistent nature of God. In Amos 7, for example, each time God promises calamity for His people and relents of that decision at Amos’ pleading, those changes (and they are real changes in God’s activity) are not changes in who God is. They reveal who God is, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. No less, when He refuses to relent, that shows forth His just character in no way betraying His former “repentance.” That God is responsive to the human condition is an essential aspect of God’s character, one that thankfully cannot change. It is indispensable to the personal character of God (and we do believe that God is God-in-three-persons).
For my part, I see the position of “classical” theism (gross as that misnomer is) that rejects God’s receptiveness to human petition as a perverse form of deism. Instead of the world being a watch that the Watchmaker has set in motion and left to run, God is Himself a watch that He has set and allowed to run, totally unreceptive, totally unresponsive. God becomes no better than an impersonal object which we futilely hope will respond to our needs, like insane people trying to have a conversation with a rock.
The solution is not, however, to throw immutability out with the bathwater. The question of immutability simply has nothing to do with whether or not God answers our prayers. Tying the two together does little more than betray the manifest stupidity of the modern theologian, or at least the historical ignorance. As a concluding analogy – and certainly a flawed one, as all analogies drawn between God and the imagers of God are – let me pose this question: if I am driving home with my wife, and she asks me if we can stop at the grocery story instead of going straight home, do I cease to be me by changing our course? I submit that who I am includes receptivity to my wife’s needs, not just as an accident of my human mutability but as an essential expression of my character. Only when I am no longer in any way receptive to the desires of my wife have I truly and irrevocably changed.