Does God change over the course of the Bible?

What you make of the argument that God is not a stable or consistent character in the Bible, that He is shown to change and grow over time?

I guess the question is really twofold:

1) Does your reading of the books of the Bible see any inconsistency in the way God is presented over time?

2) If yes, does that inconsistency show a change in God, a change in our understanding of God, a gradual revelation of who God is (culminating in Jesus), or something else?

If we’re talking about God as a character who features in each book in the biblical collection, and if we’re thinking of that collection as organized by an overall story, then I’d say yes, God as a character definitely does change over the course of the Bible.

For example, in the early accounts in Genesis, God doesn’t seem to be omniscient or omnipresent.  God has to come down to the earth to investigate what the builders of the Tower of Babel are doing.  God doesn’t realize that Adam and Eve have sinned until he takes his customary evening walk in the Garden of Eden and he can’t find them–because they’re hiding among the trees.

Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden of Eden

Later in the Bible, God is portrayed as aware of what people on earth are doing, but as relying on the help of various agents to accomplish his purposes.  For example, God knows that wicked King Ahab is contemplating attacking Ramoth Gilead and that he’s likely to get killed if he does.  So God asks the heavenly hosts around him who will go and entice Ahab to do this.  The Bible says that “one suggested this, and another that,” and “finally a spirit came forward” and offered a plan. God felt it would succeed, and so sent the spirit on its way.

By the time of the New Testament, God comes to be portrayed with all of the attributes we usually associate with him, such as omniscience and omnipresence.  Peter says on the day of Pentecost that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were events accomplished by “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.”  Paul tells the Greeks in Athens that God “is not far from any one of us.”

So how do we explain this change in God as a character?  I think it’s the last two things you suggested:  a change in our understanding of God, as collective human knowledge develops; and a greater revelation of who God is, culminating in Jesus, as God continues to relate to humanity through the covenants that shape his redemptive-historical work.  As a result, the early anthropomorphic (that is, God-as-human) portrayals are recognized to belong to an immature phase of the human understanding of God—but fascinatingly, they’re allowed to remain in the Bible.  We still hear the various parts of the story as they were first told by those who experienced them.

But to say that God as a character changes over the course of the Bible is not to say that the character of God changes.  From the start we see that God is consistent in his character qualities:  creative, loving, generous, merciful even in judgment, and so forth.

But these qualities do seem to get expressed in different ways as the divine-human relationship unfolds over the course of the Bible.  It’s fascinating for me to consider whether God himself actually changes in terms of how much relational experience he has with humans.

For example, when humans turn out to be so wicked, God regrets making them and destroys almost all of them through the flood.  But afterwards, recognizing that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood,” he resolves never to destroy them all again.  Is this just another anthropomorphic portrayal?  Or has God actually learned something about how to relate to humans that could only come from experience, as that portrayal suggests?

All of us learn and grow in the context of our relationships.  That’s how relationships work.  So has this happened to God, too?

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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