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Does God "Repent" or Change His Mind?
(W. A. Maier III)

Author's Bias: Interpretation: conservative
Seminary: Concordia Theological Seminary

A question that has frequently arisen in the minds of those studying the Bible, both laity and clergy, is: Does God repent, or change his mind? Such an inquiry is the result of the translation of passages in Scripture that describe God's thinking with the words "repented," "regretted," or "changed his mind."

This question is part of the general subject of God's foreknowledge. That subject has been the focus of much discussion the past several years by the members of a (relatively) conservative theological organization, the Evangelical Theological Society. (1) The discussion was prompted by the fact that some members of the society had adopted the position known as "Open Theism," which in essence asserts that God does not know everything that will take place in the future. (2)

SpecificalIy with regard to the question mentioned above, if God "repents" or "regrets," that seems to imply that God at an earlier point in time engaged in an activity with one result in mind. However, another result, which God did not anticipate and does not like, is the reality, and thus God is sorry that he came out that earlier activity. If God "changes his mind," the average Bible reader could understand this to mean that God's final decision on an issue was unknown even to God himself; that God initially had one plan in mind, but then adopted another. Both the translations "repent" or "regret," and "change the mind," can lead to the same conclusion: God does not know everything that will take place in the future. That is exactly the conclusion reached by open theists.

This article will give a brief overview of Open Theism, followed by a short summary of the orthodox position, and then present considerations concerning translation and interpretation of biblical passages. In particular, two key passages will be examined in greater depth: Genesis 6:6 and Exodus 32:14.

1. Open Theism

Gregory A. Boyd has given an articulate presentation of this theological position in his book God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God. (3) In the introduction he mentions questions that led him eventually to embrace this view.

The most serious questions about the classical view of [God's] foreknowledge... relate to the Bible. If the future is indeed exhaustively settled in God's mind, as the classical view holds, why does the Bible repeatedly describe God changing his mind? Why does the Bible say that God frequently alters his plans, cancels prophecies in the light of changing circumstances, and speaks about the future as a "maybe," a "perhaps," or a "possibility"? Why does it describe God as expressing uncertainty about the future, being disappointed in the way things turn out, and even occasionally regretting the outcome of his own decisions? If the Bible is always true-and I, for one, assume that it is - how can we reconcile this way of talking about God... with the notion that the future is exhaustively settled in his mind? (4)

As a result, Boyd writes: "I came to believe that the future was, indeed, partly determined [or "settled"] and foreknown by God, but also partly open and known by God as such. In short, I embraced what has come to be labeled the 'open view' of God." (5)

Boyd goes on to explain further the "open view of God," or to use the phrase he prefers, the "open view of the future." To some extent, he believes God know the future as "definitely this way and definitely not that way." On the other hand, to some extent God knows the future as "possibly this way and possibly not that way." Boyd moreover writes that this open view

... does not hold that the future is wide open. Much of it, open theists concede, is settled ahead of time, either by God's predestining will or by existing earthly causes, but it is not exhaustively settled ahead of time. To whatever degree the future is yet open to be decided by free agents, it is unsettled. To this extent, God knows it as a realm of possibilities, not certainties. (6)

Boyd vigorously protests the accusation that he, and other open theists, are denying God's omniscience. However, in attempting to refute this charge, Boyd engages in semantic shifts and a subtle reworking of the definition of "omniscience." Notice how he moves from the idea of total knowledge to "perfect" knowledge: "Open theists affirm God's omniscience as emphatically as anybody does. The issue is not whether God's knowledge is perfect. It is. The issue is about the nature of the reality that God perfectly knows." With their understanding of reality, Boyd and other open theists hold that God's "perfect" knowledge means that he knows "the future as consisting of both unsettled possibilities and settled certainties."' (7)

Boyd does move back to the concept of God's complete foreknowledge, but against the background, again, of a new definition of omniscience. He writes: "If God does not foreknow future free actions, it is not because his knowledge of the future is in any sense incomplete. It's because there is, in this view, nothing definite there for God to know!" According to Boyd, "free actions do not exist to be known until free agents create them." (8)

Despite what Boyd and other open theists claim, in the final analysis they indeed believe that God's knowledge of the future is incomplete. In their view, God does not know everything that will take place, or everything that will be done or said by people. By implication, God does not even know everything that he will do or say in the future.

II. The Orthodox Position

With regard to the knowledge of God, Scripture teaches that God does know all things, whether in the past, present, or future. A few representative passages are: 1 John 3:20: "For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (NIV); 1 Samuel 15:29: "He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind" (NIV); and Isaiah 46:9-10, "I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come" (NIV). In Isaiah 41:22-23, Yahweh, by revealing what idols, cannot do, indicates what he can do: "Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what they were, that we may consider them, and know their outcome; or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods... Behold, you are of no account, and your work amounts to nothing ...." (NASB). Another passage would be Ephesians 2:10: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (NASB).

Scripture presents to us God's complete knowledge, including God's total foreknowledge. However, in revealing himself in Scripture, God at the same time is condescending to our human weakness, since our finite human reason cannot fully comprehend the infinite, majestic Deity. Because God employs our human language, with its limitations, he has also adopted our way of thinking and accommodated himself to the laws and ways of human thought processes. (9)

For example, Scripture speaks of God in a twofold manner: 1) in his majesty as being above time and space (e.g. Psalm 90:4: "A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday"); and 2) in accordance with our human views, as being in time and space. God is conforming to our mode of thinking in terms of time and space, cause and effect. Only in this manner is God comprehensible to us. In fact, when God ascribes foreknowledge to himself, as he does in Isaiah 46:10, he who is outside of time is adapting to the mode of thinking of his time-bound creatures. The Deity enters into time and space without becoming temporal or local in his essence. (10)

Likewise, God in his being is immutable. Yet we must so think of God, and Scripture portrays him, as varying from being angry to being merciful according to changes or variations in the object of his affection. That is how our minds and Scripture handle a God who in his essence remains immutable, but who is dealing with people who are mutable." (11) Luther comments:

God in his essence is altogether unknowable; nor is it possible to define or put into words what he is, though we burst in the effort. It is for this reason that God lowers himself to the level of our weak comprehension and presents himself to us in images, in coverings, as it were, in simplicity adapted to a child, that in some measure it may be possible for him to be known by us... (12)

Luther continues:

That Scripture thus assigns to God the form, voice, actions, emotions, etc., of a human being not only serves to show consideration for the uneducated and the weak; but we great and learned men, who are versed in the Scriptures, are also obliged to adopt these simple images, because God has presented them to us and has revealed himself to us through them. (13)

A discussion of God's accommodations in his word, then, in part involves Scripture's anthropomorphisms (ascribing human form or attributes to the Deity) and anthropopathisms (ascribing human feelings, emotions, or passions to God). The ascription of human actions to God can be included under both terms. Referring to both by the general use of the one term "anthropopathism," Tayler Lewis points out, "Why talk of anthropopathism as if there were some special absurdity covered by this sounding term, when any revelation conceivable must be anthropopathic?.. There is no escape from it. Whatever comes in this way to man must take the measure of man..." (14) John Lange, after noting the necessity of anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms, focuses on the latter, observing that if we do not accept them we will "have in the mind a total blank in respect to all those conceptions of God that most concern us as moral beings." (15) As he explains:

Talk as we will of impassibility, we must think of God as having παθη, affections, something connecting him with the human... We must either have in our thoughts [with regard to God] a blank intellectuality making only an intellectual difference between good and evil (if that can be called any difference at all), or we are compelled to bring in something emotional, and that, too, with a measure of intensity corresponding to other differences by which the divine exceeds the human. (16)

Lange concludes: "Without this, the highest form of scientific or philosophic theism has no more of religion than the blankest atheism. We could as well worship a system of mathematics as such a theistic indifference." (17) In other words, anthropopathisms, and anthropomorphisms, besides being the vehicles for communicating to us truths about the Deity, give life to the text. They are particularly appropriate in the Old Testament, where, Milton Terry writes, they are "the vivid concepts which impressed the emotional Hebrew mind, and are in perfect keeping with the spirit of the language." (18)

III. Considerations Concerning Translation and Interpretation

Recognizing the accommodations in Scripture, specifically anthropomorphisms and -pathisms, one could argue that the translations that God "repented," "regretted," or "changed his mind are legitimate. In those verses and contexts, one could hold, this is what God seemed to do, from the human standpoint. Yet, at the very least, the translation that God "repented" must be understood in the sense of the other renderings, namely, that God "had regret" or "a change of mind." God never does wrong; all his thoughts and ways are thoroughly just, righteous, and holy; there is never any sin or error on the part of God. Also, God's "being sorry," or "having regret" about something, or his "changing his mind," must be understood within the framework of God's total knowledge, including his complete foreknowledge, and the related truth of his immutability.

Nevertheless, the position of this article is that other translations, based on the original language and context, are to be preferred. They are preferable because they will not mislead or confuse the modem reader of Scripture. For when the reader comes across the renderings that God "repented," or "regretted," or "was sorry," or "changed his mind," he could arrive at wrong notions concerning the Deity, as already discussed (and as exemplified by the open theists).

Two sample passages will be examined, which have been translated by some in just this manner, and which have figured into studies of God's knowledge, as well as his immutability. Both passages are from the Old Testament, and both involve the same Hebrew verb used of God: נדזנז nacham, in the niphal stem. The first is Genesis 6:6: "Yahweh nachamed that/because he had made man on the earth and he was pained to/in his heart." The second is Exodus 32:14, which occurs in the text after God threatened to devour the Israelites because of the golden calf incident, and after Moses' subsequent intercession on behalf of the Israelites. The verse reads, "And Yahweh nachamed concerning the harm/injury/disaster that he threatened to do/spoke of doing to his people."

The verb nacham occurs 108 times in the Old Testament, forty-eight times in the niphal stem, fifty-one times in the piel stem, twice in the pual stem, and seven times in the hithpael stem. (19) It has a range of meanings, especially in the niphal and hithpael. Heinz-Josef Simian-Yofre summarizes as follows:

The only element common to all meanings of nhm appears to be the attempt to influence a situation: by changing the course of events, rejecting an obligation, or refraining from an action, when the focus is on the present; by influencing a decision, when the focus is on the future; and by accepting the consequences of an act or helping another accept them or contrariwise dissociating oneself emotionally from them, when the focus is on the past." (20)

Simian-Yofre observes that the twin factors of decision and emotion are the rule in nacham: "they are indissolubly interwoven, even when in individual cases there may be greater emphasis on one element or the other." (21) Years earlier Lange had arrived at a similar conclusion, specifically for nacham in the niphal, when he noted that the verb relates the dual aspects of feeling and purpose. (22)

For the most part the Septuagint (LXX) uses παρακαλεω, parakaleo, "to summon, call upon, invite, urge, request, comfort," and possibly "try to console" or "conciliate," to translate the niphal, piel, pual, and hithpael of nacham. It uses μετανοεω, metanoeo, "to change one's mind," "repent," only for the niphal, several times in connection with Yahweh, sometimes with regard to Israel. The LXX uses ελεεω, eleeo, "to have mercy" or "pity," "be merciful," four times for the piel and once for the niphal. It uses πανω, pauo, "to stop, cause to stop, relieve" five times for the niphal. (23)

Interestingly, the LXX uses none of these Greek verbs for nacham, niphal, in Genesis 6:6 and Exodus 32:14. In Genesis 6:6 the LXX renders nacham with the verbal root ενθνμεομαι, enthumeomai, "to reflect (on), consider, think." In Exodus 32:14 appears the Greek verbal root ιλασκομαι, hilaskomai, "to propitiate, conciliate," passive "be propitiated, be merciful" or "gracious." Further, in the LXX Genesis 6:6,7 are the only verses where enthumeomai is used for nacham, and Exodus 32:14 the only place where hilaskomai appears for nacham. What this data from the LXX means is uncertain. Perhaps the translators wanted to avoid the impression in both passages that God regretted, was sorry, or changed his mind.

Genesis 6:6

Based on the translation of Gen. 6:6a, that Yahweh "was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth," (24) Boyd offers the following interpretation.

Now, if everything about world history were exhaustively settled and known by God as such before he created the world, God would have known with absolute certainty that humans would come to this wicked state, at just this time, before he created them. But how, then, could he authentically regret having made humankind? Doesn't the fact that God regretted the way things turned out-to the point of starting over suggest that it wasn't a foregone conclusion at the time God created human beings that they would fall into this state of wickedness? (25)

The orthodox exegete can respond by saying that in Genesis 6:6, nacham is an anthropopathic term describing God's reaction to the horrible wickedness and pervasive corruption of the human race. The rest of the verse is intensely anthropopathic and anthropomorphic: "He [God] was pained to his heart." Nacham communicates to the reader that the Deity is not remote, distant, and uninterested in mankind. Rather, he has a keen interest in, watches closely, and gets involved with, humanity. Nacham gives the reader the correct impression that God is not static, plastic, both indifferent to and unaffected by, the thoughts, words, and actions of his creatures. Rather, he is a dynamic, living Being, who has a personality, and who, to use more anthropopathic/-morphic language, is concerned with, affected by, and reacting to, how people live their lives.

Because of the preceding context, Genesis 6:l-5, and as a parallel to the second half of v. 6-"He was pained to his heart" -the suggestion is made here that nacham be translated as "He was grieved," or "He suffered grief." Such a rendering fits the context and avoids the pitfalls associated with the phrases "He repented," or "He regretted," or "He was sorry that." Other verses where nacham in the niphal, used with reference to God, can mean "He was grieved," or "He suffered grief," are 1 Samuel 15:11, where Yahweh says, "I am grieved that I made Saul king"; 1 Samuel 15:35, which reads essentially the same way; 2 Samuel 24:16, which relates how Yahweh was grieved concerning a pestilence he had sent upon Israel; 1 Chronicles 21:15, similar to the preceding verse; Jeremiah 42:10, where Yahweh suffers grief/is grieved concerning the disaster/harm that he has done; and Genesis 6:7, a partial parallel to verse 6. A related New Testament verse is Ephesians 4:30: "And do not grieve [λνπεω, lupeo, pres. act. impv., "to cause sorrow, to grieve"] the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption" (NIV). (26)

Intertwined in nacham in Genesis 6:6 are the dual aspects of feeling/emotion and purpose/decision. When God created the world, everything was very good. The fist human beings were holy, perfectly in the image of God. They were made personally by Yahweh (God's personal, covenant name appears in Genesis 2), to be in fellowship with him, and to love and serve him, and so it was. But then came the fall into sin, and eventually the spread of unbelief in the human race, which culminates with the scene portrayed in Genesis 6:5: "The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time" (NIV). This is the reality in Noah's day, compared to what could have been! Because he had made man, then, Yahweh, who had once been in intimate fellowship with man, suffers grief. His creatures, who had mutated in such a terrible way, cause him to feel not joy, but sadness.

Also due to the present reality, the holy God decides to wipe out the human race with a flood. He, who in his essence is immutable, is portrayed as altering in his feelings, due to the change in humanity, and thus changing in his actions. (27) That decision, in turn, brings him grief. He has to destroy the work of his hands, the people whom he loves, and with whom he longs to have fellowship.

Genesis 6:6 (and v. 7) is not to be interpreted, again, as saying that Yahweh "regretted" or "was sorry" that he had made people on the earth, in the sense that he did not foresee how awful the human race would become, and now wishes that he had never made man. There is no hint of Yahweh wanting to retract his previous act of creation, since he now regards it as a mistake. In addition to the matter of the foreknowledge of God, there are other relevant considerations. How can he regard the making of man a mistake, when he has, from eternity, before the foundation of the earth, predestined people for salvation, for everlasting life with him (e.g., Eph. 1:4, 1 Cor. 2:7-9)? He does not think of the existence of the human race as a regretful error on his part, because he has already (Genesis 3:15) promised to send the Savior to rescue fallen humanity. God loves people so much that he thinks they are worth saving, at the cost of the life of his own Son, who himself would become a man. There had been many godly people before the flood who lived to God's glory, as his true servants. In Genesis 6 Noah stands forth, with the believing members of his family, as a righteous man. He walked in close fellowship with his Creator, as had his ancestor Enoch, whom God took alive to heaven (Genesis 5:21-24). God, therefore, does not regret having made man.

Walter A. Maier III was brought to faith in Christ when he was baptized as a baby. He received the M.Div. degree from Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN; the A.M. and Ph.D. (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. He has taught at Concordia University, River Forest, IL; served as a pastor at Concordia Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne; and is currently an Associate Professor at Concordia Theological Seminary. Dr. Maier has authored several articles for various publications, preaches on a regular basis, and is currently engaged in writing a commentary on 1 and 2 Kings.

"It is folly that, when someone who is more important than us is angry with us, we sleep in fear and sorrow, whereas we go to sleep untroubled by any thought of regret for the fact that we have provoked God all day long in our ingratitude for all his goodness."

John of Apamea (early 5th century), Syriac monk and writer

Footnotes

1. The basis for membership in the Evangelical Theological Society is agreeing with and subscribing to these statements: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an untreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory."

2. During its November, 2001 Annual Meeting the society voted, by a large majority, to reject "Open Theism." In November, 2002, challenges were brought to the membership credentials of certain society members who had written as advocates of Open Theism. Those challenges are being reviewed by the society's Executive Committee, which reported, and referred the case for action, to the society at the November, 2003, Annual Meeting. Discussion, debate, and reading of prepared statements followed. The final result was that neither of the men whose membership credentials were challenged were removed from membership, a two-thirds vote being required for dismissal. For more information, see James A. Borland, "Reports Relating to the Fifty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Society," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (2004):170-173.

3. Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000). Also see, for example, Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) and John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998).

4. Boyd, God of the Possible, 11.

5. Boyd, God of the Possible, 11. In all Boyd references, emphasis is in the original.

6. Boyd, God of the Possible, 15.

7. Boyd, God of the Possible, 16.

8. Boyd, God of the Possible, 16, 17. Thus Boyd can conclude that the "debate between the open and classical understandings of divine foreknowledge is completely a debate over the nature of the future: Is it exhaustively settled from all eternity, or is it partly open?" (17) This article is not so much concerned with the nature of the future, as with God's foreknowledge, and, precisely speaking, whether or not it can be said that God "repents" or "changes his mind."

9. Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950-1953), 1:428-429.

10. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 1:440, 451.

11. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 1:440-441.

12. Martin Luther, "Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14," vol. 2 of Luther's Works, trans. George Schick (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1960), John Calvin (Commentaries on The First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1, trans. John King [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966, 249) states: " ... since we cannot comprehend him [God] as he is, it is necessary that, for our sake, he should, in a certain sense, transform himself."

13. Luther, "Lectures on Genesis," 2-46.

14. Tayler Lewis, quoted by Milton Terry in Biblical Hermeneutics (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1964), 103, n.1.

15. John Lange, Genesis, or, The First Book of Moses, trans. Tayler Lewis and A. Gosrnan, 5th ed. rev. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), 288.

16. Lange, Genesis, 288. Italics in original.

17. Lange, Genesis, 288.

18. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 103.

19. Heinz-Josef Simian-Yohe, "נחם," Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 9, trans. David Green (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 342.

20. Simian-Yofre, "נחם,"342. He states that "most experts no longer accept an original semantic identification of Heb. nhm with Arab. nhm, 'breathe heavily,' both because of critical objections to deriving the meaning of a word from its etymology and because the concrete semantic field associated with nhm in the OT clearly differs from that associated with Arab. Nhm" (341).

21. Simian-Yofre, "נחם,"342.

22. Lange, Genesis, 288.

23. Simian-Yofre, "נחם,"355.

24. Boyd, God of the Possible, 55.

25. Boyd, God of the Possible, 55. Italics in original.

26. A possible translation of nacham, niphal, in Judges 21:6 and 15 is that the Israelites "were grieved" or "suffered grief" in regard to, or concerning, the tribe of Benjamin. Cf. H. Van Dyke Parunak, "A Semantic Survey of NHM," Biblica 56 (1975): 519,526-527.

27. Herbert Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942), 261; John Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Salem, Wisc.: Sheffield, 1975), 116; Lange, Genesis, 287.


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