Christians have long believed that God is immutable, meaning he cannot change, and Christians have long believed that God is impassible, meaning he cannot suffer, empathize or feel in response to creation. If that is true then does God move when we pray?
As Christianity spread from a mostly Jewish context into a mostly Hellenized context, early Church theologians sought to translate the gospel into Greek thought forms to make the Jewish story more comprehensible. Early Christians reached back into the tool bag of antiquity and discovered several intellectual resources for reshaping the story of Israel into the structure of Hellenized Christian thought. The most frequently used tools were Plato and Aristotle.
Long before the incarnation, some Greeks believed in a singular supreme divine force. They thought of this divine force as the most perfect being, Aristotle’s Uncaused Cause. As the most perfect being, it had several logically necessary metaphysical characteristics: existence, immutability, impassibility, eternality, etc. The early Church picked up this concept of being, and they used it to describe the God of Israel to a Hellenized culture. This translation project helped the Greeks understand God in their own language and thought form, and, as a result, the Christian concept of God shifted from being the God of Israel’s story to the God that was immutable and impassible. This is the God of classic Christian theism, so whether you are Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant this is the notion of God you inherit.
Therefore, since we believe that God is immutable and impassible, we must also believe that God does not change in his essence or nature and that he is not moved or affected by creation. For God to be the perfect being he must be fully actualized without any potentiality. To have potential is to be something less than what one can become, requiring change in order to become. A being with potential is less than a perfect being, so God must be fully actualized and not subject to change (immutable) in order to be God.
Also, for God to be the most perfect being, he must be unmoved, unaffected and unable to suffer in relation to creation. In order for God to feel, suffer or have empathy with creation he must be surprised, at some level, by a response in creation that alters his emotional state. To suffer or have empathy with creation would suggest that his being is in some fashion dependent upon creation, violating divine aseity. God, if he is the most perfect being, must not suffer, emote or empathize with creation (impassible).
In light of our Western tradition regarding the nature of God, the practical question is whether God responds, changes or empathizes with us in our prayers? Put another way, can we move God?
Our Christian piety impulsively demands that we answer the question, YES! Recall the way we talk about prayer and our experience of prayer. We often say, “God answered my prayer.” We often hear preachers suggest, “God always answers our prayer with yes, no or not yet.”
Moreover, many stories from scripture seem to suggest God is affected by creation, and he changes in response to our prayers. In Genesis God regrets creating humankind. He seems willing to alter his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorra as he bargains with Abraham. In Exodus he accommodates his plan for Moses when Moses demands that Aaron accompany him before Pharaoh. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of examples of what appear to be God’s mutability and passibility.
So then, must we reject impassibility and immutability based upon our experience and scripture?
Are the characteristics immutability and impassibility merely barnacles from Greek culture sticking to the underbelly of the ship of faith?
Is God moved by our pleas, or does he alter course and take action based upon our prayers?