This paper, “The Repentance of God,” was written by Ming Zhang, one of my students in the course “OT 458 Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament.” This course was taught at Northern Baptist Seminary in the Spring quarter 2014.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I selected four papers to share with the readers of my blog. The reason for sharing these papers is because they deal with controversial aspects of the character of God and because they seek to present a better understanding of the God of the Old Testament.
The Repentance of God
When talking about the attributes of God, the characteristics of immutability and omniscience come to mind for most Christians. Even at a young age, the attributes of immutability and omniscience of God are drilled into the minds of children. In all of Christendom (Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants), the attributes of immutability and omniscience are widely accepted and seen as the foundational nature of God.
Donald Bloesch describes the church stance, “God’s perfection was envisaged in terms of his total unchangeability (immutabilitas), his invulnerability to suffering (impassibilitas), his completeness (actus purus), and his possession of all possible values (ens realissimum).”
The Bible affirms God’s truthfulness and constancy; however, there are more than 40 passages in the Old Testament where God changes his mind. Because church doctrines are so focused on the immutability and omniscience of God, these biblical texts about God repenting are often explained away, as if God did not really change his mind.
Fretheim comments, “the tendency will be to interpret texts within inherited, usually quite traditional theistic categories and perspectives; all too often this means that the God of the text is assumed to be in absolute control of the situation, see everything in advance, and is responsive only to God’s own will in the situation.”
Instead of accepting without question church doctrines that are centuries old, one must examine the biblical text critically and be willing to change one’s mind based on what the text actually says, not on what Church tradition and doctrines state.
When examining and studying the biblical text about the repentance of God, one meets a tender, compassionate, and suffering God who is willing to change his mind in his bi-directional relationship with the people that he created and loves. God is not a rigid, unresponsive all powerful being, existing beyond the reach of the people. Instead, God is willing to change directions based on the response of the people that he is in relationship with. The Bible not only talks about the immutability and omniscience of God, it also states that God does change his mind as he relates to people because God is loving, compassionate, and merciful.
Doctrine of the Immutability of God
Throughout church history, God’s transcendence and immutability have been accepted without question, but God’s immanence and repentance have not always been accepted by some Christians. The idea of God’s repentance contradicts the fundamental concept of God’s nature of omniscience, impassibility, and transcendence. In terms of omniscience, to say that God changes his mind does not make sense because God has foreknowledge of the future.
The Bible says that God grieves: “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Genesis 6:6 KJV). The Bible says that God changes his mind because he has compassion for people: “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10 KJV).
To some Christians, God grieving and God repenting does not make sense because they believe God cannot feel pain or suffer. If God changes his mind, the traditional view declares then that God is not all powerful and all knowing and that God has limitations just like fallible, weak human beings. Willis points out, “Aquinas contends that God is in essence eternal and immovable. Eternity encompasses the human past, present, and future without moving from one to the other.”
The battle for God’s transcendence and immutability versus immanence and repentance can be seen as early as the translation of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the Pentateuch of the Septuagint, the translator changed the biblical text to erase the concept that God changes his mind.
The King James’ translation of Genesis 6:6-7 is as follows: “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.” The Septuagint changes v. 6 to read as follows: “And God considered that he has made man.” The Septuagint changes the end of v. 7 to read as follows: “Because I have become angry that I made them.”
The translator of the Septuagint also changed Exodus 32:12, 14. In Exodus 32:12 the King James reads: “Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.” The Septuagint translate verse 12 as follows: “Cease from thy wrathful anger, and be merciful to the sin of thy people.”
In Exodus 32:14 the King James reads: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” The Septuagint translates Exodus 32:14 as follows: “And the Lord was prevailed upon to preserve his people.”
Kuyper comments on the changes made by the Septuagint: “Observe the change in thought of the LXX: Fist, ‘And be merciful concerning this evil.’ And then, ‘And the Lord was propitiated concerning the evil he said he would do to this people.’” In both passages, the translator believed that God cannot change his mind, so, he changed the text in order to convey his views.
In the Balaam’s oracle in Numbers 23:19, the Septuagint also changed the text. The King James reads: “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent.” The Septuagint reads the same text as follows: “God is not as man to waver, nor as the son of man to be threatened.” In this case, the translator did not want to give the impression that God repents. Kuyper comments about the translation, “Repentance or changeableness seemed to be at variance with the omniscience of God. In the concern to protect the honor of God and to revere him the word ‘repent’ was softened to something more fitting to be said about God.”
Throughout church history, church fathers supported the doctrine of the immutability of God. Philo, the first century Jewish philosopher, regarded God as above change. Kuyper observes, “Philo therefore diminishes the Hebrew sense of repentance and the Greek translation of anger as concepts not to be found in God, although the equally human trait of thinking and reflecting Philo freely ascribes to God.”
Augustine believed that God had arranged and fixed all things from the beginning and therefore the repentance of God would mean that God had arranged it before hand. “Augustine observes that when God is said to change, he changes his works or deeds, but he does not change his immutable will.”
According to Jerome, God is above change and is absolutely certain in all things, but man can exercise the freedom of choice to reject or accept God. Jerome questioned the ‘perhaps’ in Jeremiah 26:3. The Lord said: “Perhaps they will listen and turn back, each from his evil way, so that I may repent of the evil I have planned to inflict upon them for their evil deeds” (Jeremiah 26:3). Jerome believed that since God knows about the future, it is unacceptable to describe God as uncertain.
Calvin, like the other church fathers before him, also believed that repentance cannot happen to God because God has foreknowledge in all things. Repentance means that God detests sin and points out man’s wickedness in the hope to move man to repentance and grief. Repentance is an action of change in man, not in God. God cannot change because he is perfect. Repentance of God is a change of God’s outward conduct, not a change of his immutable will.
Kuyper summarizes, “anthropopathetic repentance is misleading since it easily conveys a concept of mutability in God instead of the intended concept of pardon which is to mitigate or withhold the pronounced punishment.” The church fathers viewed God as immutable, most wise, a God who foreknows all things, thus, neither grief nor repentance can be attributed to God.
Studies on the Repentance of God
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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1. Donald G. Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 91.
2. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 10 (1988): 48.
3. John T. Willis, “The ‘Repentance’ of God in the Books of Samuel, Jeremiah, and Jonah,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 16 (1994): 157.
4. Lester J. Kuyper, “The Repentance of God,” Reformed Review 18 (1965): 6.
6. Ibid., 7.
8. Ibid., 8.
9. Ibid., 9.
10. Ibid., 11.