James Dolezal – All That is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 162 + xiv pages.
James Dolezal has written an important book, a passionate and pastoral defense of a doctrine (divine simplicity and its implicates) which has fallen on hard times. In Professor Dolezal’s crosshairs are not just the names traditionally associated with revisionism in theology proper (Moltmann, Plantinga, Craig, etc). The bulk of his polemic is reserved for those closest to home– public doctors of religion in the Reformed (including Reformed Baptist) world.
Written in seven crisp and well-organized chapters, the first chapter (“Models of Theism”) begins, “Two distinctly different models of Christian theism are presently vying for the heart and mind of evangelical Christianity” (pg. 1). We discover that these are classical Christian theism and “theistic mutualism.” Classical Christian theism is the majority view of the catholic tradition, characterized by an emphasis on the simplicity of God’s essence, His unchangeable impassibility, and His ability to relate to creation without taking on the properties of that creation. In contrast to these is what Dolezal calls “theistic mutualism,” which he describes as a “more relatable” God. Prof. Dolezal further explains that, “theistic mutualists insist that God is involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures.” (pg. 1-2) He notes that there are “both hard and soft versions of theistic mutualism” (pg. 3), but “all hold to a divine ontology that allows for God to acquire and shed actuality of being.” (pg. 4)
The second chapter (“Unchanging God”) develops the classical claim that God does not change in any sense, even when He relates to creatures. Rather, in the Biblical witness:
God alters the revelation of Himself without altering Himself ontologically. He unchangingly wills changes in His ad extra dealings with creatures without willing or experiencing a corresponding change of agency in His own intrinsic actuality. The proper locus of all change is in the revelation of God – as it appears to us successively through various phenomenal instruments – and in the effects of His sovereign administration. (pg. 21)
Prof. Dolezal is particularly concerned with recent “theistic mutualists” (such as Bruce Ware and Rob Lister) who locate God’s unchangeability in His sovereign control over His give-and-take relationship with creatures. This implies the possibility of creatures altering God’s internal state, which causes Dolezal to offer the following reflection:
Pressing the implications of this new trajectory a bit further, we must ask: If God should be able to will a measure of mutability of Himself, then what other of His attributes, if any, would He be permitted to augment or negate? Eternity? Simplicity? Infinity? Invisibility? Immortality? Omniscience? Omnipotence? Omnipresence? In truth, a number of these other divine attributes have already been ‘reformulated’ – or, more accurately, abandoned – such as impassibility, timeless eternity, and simplicity. And what about the so-called moral attributes such as love, mercy, justice, and truth? Can these be voluntarily suspended in order to make God’s relationship to us more ‘personal’ and genuinely reciprocal? Theistic mutualism, when consistently developed, is like an acid that cannot but burn through a whole host of divine attributes traditionally confessed of God. When its work is done, the results looks rather unlike a variation or refinement of the classical model and much more like a demolition and wholesale replacement. (pg 34-5)
Chapters three (“Simple God”) and four (“Simple God Lost”) are concerned to explain and to defend the classical doctrine of divine simplicity. Prof. Dolezal explains:
The principal claim of divine simplicity is that God is not composed of parts. Whatever is composed of parts depends upon its parts in order to be as it is. A part is anything in a subject that is less than the whole and without which the subject would be really different than it is. In short, composite beings need their parts in order to exist as they do. Moreover, the parts in an integrated whole require a composer distinct from themselves to unify them, an extrinsic source of unity. If God should be composed of parts – of components that were prior to Him in being – He would be doubly dependent; first, on the parts, and second, on the composer of the parts. But God is absolute in being, alone the sufficient reason for Himself and all other things, and so cannot in any respect derive His being from another. Because God cannot depend on what is not God in order to God, theologians traditionally insist that all that is in God is God. (pg 40-1)
Dolezal does admit that there “is no single biblical proof text for this doctrine. It follow, rather, by way of good and necessary consequence from a number of other doctrines that are clearly taught in Scripture” (pg. 44). In his development, these turn out to be the doctrines of God’s independence, His infinity, and His status as creator of the world. After tracing the historical pedigree of the doctrine as well as its downfall in the modern period, Prof. Dolezal sets his sight on its recent critics or revisionists. He criticizes John Frame and Kevin Vanhoozer for arguing that God’s attributes are really distinct from one another. One cannot defend divine simplicity, argues Dolezal, simply by asserting that all the attributes modify or qualify one another. Criticizing Frame in particular, Dolezal writes that (for Frame) the “essence as a whole is evidently ontologically reducible to the particular, distinct attributes that comprise it. This is rather unlike a doctrine of divine simplicity” (pg. 74).
The book’s fifth (“Eternal Creator’) and sixth (“One God, Three Persons”) chapters discuss the two main objections to a classical doctrine of God, namely: 1. If God is purely actual and is not changed by the world, does this mean that creation and all His actions in it are “necessary?” 2. If God is simple, how can he be three Persons?
Addressing the former question, Prof. Dolezal defends the doctrine of divine atemporality by noting that time would involve change. He interprets the biblical passages concerning God’s acts “in time” as referring not to something that obtains in God Himself, but as anthropomorphisms in the revelation of God which are suited to creatures who cannot finally imagine what it is like to be outside of time. The dogmatic motivations for the doctrine are said to be God’s infinity, immutability, and simplicity. Dolezal then criticizes recent attempts (Rob Lister, John Frame, K. Scott Oliphint) to articulate God’s relationship to time in a “theistic mutualist” framework. Lister and Frame assert that for God to relate meaningfully to creatures and for us to interpret the biblical data accurately, we have to posit God’s “entering time” (in addition to His timeless atemporality) to relate to creatures. What sets Prof. Oliphint’s proposal apart is that, “given his incarnational explanatory template, he seems to conceive of God’s assumed temporal properties as creaturely properties rather than new divine properties” (pg. 95). The common assumption of their proposals, argues Dolezal, is that “God cannot create or bring about temporal effects without ontologically participating in the temporality of His creation” (pg. 96). Or, “Negatively expressed, the basic conviction is that God cannot be present to time in His eternity” (ibid). Prof. Dolezal retorts that “if God should require the acquisition of new properties in order to mediate His activity toward and in the world, then he could not act in the world as divine, as God” (pg. 98). Alternatively, Dolezal asserts that God’s name as “Creator” is a relative name denoting an absolute reality. Creation is an “eternal act” inasmuch as “He does not need to supplement His eternal act of will to create with a distinct and subsequent act of creation” (pg. 100). God’s will and act are united in Him and as purely actual, the temporal creation is suspended in God’s divine eternity. Indeed, “if God should act in the world as the Creator who He has come to be, then we would not adore Him as divine when we worship Him as Creator. No less than true religion is at stake in the contest between theistic mutualism and classical Christian theism” (pg. 104).
In his treatment of the Trinity, Prof. Dolezal spends a significant portion of his time defending the relationship between monotheism and the notion of God’s “unity” as a “unity of simplicity” (i.e. non-composition). He is critical of the attempt to use the doctrine of perichoresis to creation a surrogate for the classical account of God’s unity. Not only does this violate its historical pedigree, “it is not clear why a doctrine of perichoresis untethered from the demands of divine simplicity and substantial unity could not just be an exotic form of tritheism” (pg. 107). But this leaves us, obviously, with a need to account for the real difference between the divine Persons. This is the most technical discussion in the book, and Dolezal makes use of Aquinas’ doctrine of the divine Persons as entirely exhausted by the notion of “subsistent relations.” That is, the Persons are their relations to one another and each are all that God is (the whole of the divine essence), relatively speaking. Prof. Dolezal also criticizes several recent trends in Trinitarian theology which attempt to detail the unity of the persons apart from the classical notion (those which tend toward social Trinitarianism). He notes one particular irony here, “by relocating all ‘personal’ traits such as knowing, willing, and loving to the persons, it yields the very God-behind-God it claims to dislike in the older doctrine of substantial unity…it appears that God as one is no longer a personal being – at least not any more personal than a class or corporation might be” (pg. 128).
Pof. Dolezal corrects to this way of thinking in stating, “the relatedness of the divine persons is what communicates divine unity, not what constitutes it.” (pg. 129) The divine essence subsists nowhere else than in the Persons – each of whom are essentially identical with the divine essence, and relatively distinguished from one another. Any other notion will tend toward tri-theism.
The seventh chapter offers a conclusion to the entire conversation, and it can be nicely summarized in this paragraph:
The traditional doctrines do not need to be replaced or supplemented by more dynamic and lively notions of God. In fact, the God of classical theism is infinitely more concerned with the welfare and conduct of His creature than the God of theistic mutualism could ever be. This is because on the classical account God’s concern and care do not come and go; they do not rise and fall. They are one and the same as His eternal act of creation and, for His elect, the same as His eternal decree to do them good through the salvation He provides in his Son. (pg. 136)
As I stated above, this is an important work. It is challenging, mind expanding, and indeed pastorally insightful at points. The soul is stirred as one’s imagination must expand to grasp the greatness of God and His difference from us– which grounds His very love for and involvement with us. What follows, nevertheless, are a few points of criticism or at least outlines of remaining questions. They are ordered from the least to the most important.
First, the section on the historical decline of classical theism leaves something to be desired. Certainly this was not the focus of the book, and it is possible that there are simply not many good materials on the question. But one could detect an idealist strain in the portrayal of the Humean and Kantian critiques of metaphysics as sufficient to the “whodunnit?” regarding the decline of classical theism. Surely its demise is not merely a matter of criticizing ideas, but of drastic shifts in concrete circumstances that complicated and changed the probability that (a) one view would remain the status quo and (b) that doctrine was as well-preserved among the clergy and in schools. Prof. Dolezal’s brief discussion does not strike one so much wrong as perhaps a bit lopsided.
Second, the “catch all” description of theistic mutualists (a category to which I will return) as largely attempting to make God more relatable comes off as rather patronizing. It is not that there is no-one who is driven by this motivation, but it’s surely simplistic to identify this as the main thing. To the contrary, a large portion of the motivation to revise the classical model stems from a desire to be faithful to the teaching of the Bible itself. True, this is often paired with a lack of understanding of the traditional categories, manifest by the fact that these authors often state the traditional position wrongly, and so there is still a criticism to be leveled here. But it should be a more focused criticism.
Third, along these lines, Prof. Dolezal does not always read his objects of criticism in the most charitable way. One aspect of this, would involve taking into account their own expertise vis a vis the scholastic categories with which he is working. For instance, an offending quote from John Frame is cited, “The multiple attributes refer to genuine complexities in his essence” (Dolezal, 72). But Prof. Fame, in the original source, goes on:
But it is important to see the unity within this complexity…What is God’s ‘goodness’? Is it something in him? It would be more accurate, I think, to say that ‘divine goodness,’ though it sounds like an abstract property, is really just a way of referring to everything God is. For everything God does is good, and everything He is is good…To praise God’s goodness is not to praise something other than God himself. It is not to praise something less than him, or a part of him, so to speak. It is to praise him. (The Doctrine of God, 229)
Now, the argument in this section could perhaps be stated better, but it is not obviously in tension with the classical tradition (which, admittedly, could aid in smoothing over remaining tensions). It seems to me that Prof. Dolezal often describes the whole of a person’s positions by referring to partial statements. Indeed, on page 72, he admits that John Frame and Kevin Vanhoozer make statements consistent with the classical doctrine. But then goes on to show statements they make which he takes to be in tension with it. It is unclear, however, why this automatically makes them “theistic mutualists” rather than “inconsistent classical theists.” Would it be better to label them “theistic mutualists” (at stake in which is true religion, as he says) or to follow the example of Priscilla and Aquila and “teach them the way of God more accurately.” The former seems more natural to academic debate, but latter may be more fitting for the Church.
Fourth, and related, Prof. Dolezal does not indicate any diversity in the classical tradition. Kevin Vanhoozer is therefore a “theistic mutualist” for claiming that all God’s properties are not identical with one another, but this is (in fact) a minority report within the classical view of God (See Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity). Dolezal is aware of this and admits it in his former work, God Without Parts (125, n.1), yet it seems to require no softening qualifications here. And while Prof. Frame never discusses it himself, it is equally unclear that he could not make certain accommodations using scholastic distinctions. For instance, in classically theology, the attributes are not “really” distinct, but are “formally” distinct from one another. Richard Muller explains, “These distinctions are not merely made on the part of the one doing the reasoning, but also on the basis of the properties of the thing, namely, God. God is one simple or uncompounded res in whom there can be no distinctions made realiter, yet the attributes are genuine distinct in God as rationes, and thus distinct in a conceptual or formal sense in God himself” (Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics III, 55-6). Prof. Muller says earlier that, “Attributes or perfections, thus, are truly in God, but their distinctions cannot be a real distinction, namely, the kind of distinction that subsists between things and other things; nor is it a purely rational distinction made only from our point of view for our comprehension – instead it is a distinction resulting from the human understanding of the object, a rational distinction cum fundamento in re” (ibid, 55). Dolezal is aware of this and is careful only to deny “real distinction” among the attributes, but it is unclear that those in his crosshairs could not be protected by the notion of “formal distinction,” which Dolezal does not discuss. Another scholastic category of which Prof. Dolezal is clearly aware but leaves undiscussed is the difference between “passive potency” (i.e. the ability of God to be moved) versus His “active potency” (i.e. God’s power to perform what He does not elect to perform), which would possibly be relevant to his chapter on eternal creation and God’s pure actuality (on which more below).
Fifth, and most substantially, while I do believe there is likely much to refine in the proposals of Profs. Oliphint and Frame (I am less clear about Vanhoozer, despite Dolezal’s former interaction with him in the pages of The Confessional Presbyterian), I am not sure that there aren’t ways of combining some of their hypotheses with those of classical theism in a way that compromises neither. For the moment, I will only attempt to argue for the possibility, not for the prudence, of this synthesis. Take, for instance, Prof. Oliphint’s parallel between the incarnation and what he terms God’s “covenantal properties.” Dolezal recognizes that Oliphint’s “covenantal properties” are “creaturely” rather than “divine” (as are the properties that constitute Jesus’ humanity). And yet He is concerned that this would mean that we could praise God for none of His acts “as God.” Yet, this is precisely what does not obtain in the hypostatic union. Precisely because there is a single agent of all of Christ’s acts (albeit two modes of agency), all of His acts are “acts of God” in virtue of which He is a fitting object of worship. We worship the Savior for resisting the devil in Matthew 4, precisely because God is resisting the devil on our behalf. That this occurs at the level of created ontology does not constitute idolatry precisely because of the purely actual and mysterious relationship between this particular act and its hypostatic union with the Person of Christ in such a way that it is “God’s act.” It is unclear why we could not say the same for God’s acts of historical revelation (though admittedly the act of creation ex nihilo as such would seem not to admit of the same regress). Now, it is extremely important to say that there is nothing that is “unexplained” by the classical model. This hypothesis does not address a metaphysical deficiency in Prof. Dolezal’s view. Nevertheless, it is possible that “more can be said” on top of it rather than in tension with it. Nothing less than the classical position is going on, but perhaps something more than it is going on.
There are some intriguing biblical cases which would cause us to ask this sort of question. We can agree with Prof. Dolezal that what changes is never God but God’s revelation, but we can also take note of some of that revelation’s most curious features. Sometimes God is manifest as a person on a throne (Isaiah 6). In rather traditional readings of the Old Testament, the second person of the Trinity often took on a pre-incarnate state that was nevertheless not the essential Logos. In my judgment, it is actually quite difficult to read the Gospel of John without reading something like this into its meaning. There is repeated emphasis on Jesus “coming” to earth and then “returning” to heaven, “giving up glory,” and then “getting back glory,” and then “sharing glory.” All of this seems rather odd if we are speaking of the hypostatic union alone. It is quite possible that this undergirds what has been identified by Michael Heiser as the thick theology of a “divine counsel” in the biblical narrative (see his book, The Unseen Realm). These sorts of considerations might seem odd to us, but they have been fairly standard readings of the Old Testament for most of Christian history.
Perhaps, then, there is the possibility of speaking of such biblical language, not so much as “anthropocentric” or “accommodation” (even while these categories are enormously useful and fruitful), but also of God’s “revelation” of His presence in the Old Testament as doing more work than we might expect. We could add to this God’s “local” presence as a glory-cloud in the temple, whatever Moses saw on Sinai and was physically affected by– not to mention any physical manifestation of the Father that will obtain in the eschaton. Can we worship these? They are, necessarily, of created nature as pertains to the mode of revelation. But they are also united to a divine agent in such a way that this is how He communes with us.
Perhaps this is not more than what Dolezal has already said. What perhaps distinguishes the accounts of Profs. Frame and Oliphint from his own position is most specifically any notion of God’s “internal states” changing. Like Dolezal, I am extremely reticent about such language and am comfortable resorting to anthropomorphism instead.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of trying to think creatively through this, is this “in principle” a problem if we posit something like the above? If God can identify Himself with properties such as created clouds, human bodies, light, sound-waves (i.e. the voice of God), etc., is there some metaphysical limit to His ability to identify Himself with “hypostatic-like states” which obtain in creation but not in the divine essence, but with which He nevertheless identifies Himself as the divine agent? It would seem that something like this might obtain in the fairly commonplace identification of the Angel of the Lord or various other mysterious figures in the Old Testament with a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Logos. How this would apply to the Father and Spirit is a bit less clear, but it would perhaps help account for the apparent identification of the Father as located in a “realm” which can be entered and exited (as, for instance, in Job and John) as well as the very peculiar language of God’s “hand,” “back,” and “face” in Exodus 33. The Spirit, by contrast, tends to be depicted in more fluid and spatial images (cloud, fire, breath, wind, etc). In any case, this might move Dolezal’s model one step back as the metaphysical foundation (God’s pure actuality relating to these created modes of revelation), but it would not change the metaphysical picture as such. The question is really the following: Can the revelation of God involve created “internal states” (which are not the same as the divine “internal state”) with which God identifies Himself in history? This is perhaps speculative, but there is precedent for it (the incarnation), and it does not result in the problems Dolezal seems to think it might. As well, it might smooth over clear from unclear instances of anthropomorphisms and perhaps help us see why the Bible does not qualify itself on these matters as much as we might expect. (Once again, Heiser’s work on the divine counsel and the pre-incarnate Christ is helpful here).
It is, of course, not Prof. Dolezal’s duty to “save” all his opponents from the implications of their own projects, and not all of them will accept the help if offered. So their stated goals and scholarly precedent will have to be taken into account when considering the scope and necessity of proper criticisms. Some will, no doubt, fare better than others. Still, Prof. Dolezal might be helped by adding a little bit more scholasticism to his book on this point. At the same time, he could also benefit from adding certain interdisciplinary material concerning proto-Trinitarian theology in the Old Testament and other 2nd Temple literature.
Having said this, It might appear that I am more critical of the volume than I really am. To the contrary, I think it is essential reading on the doctrine of God. For whatever way we put all the biblical and philosophical material together, it remains my conviction that the metaphysical boundary which Prof. Dolezal paints is the correct one. As well, his application of the doctrine pastorally is spot on. My qualifications and challenges are offered in the spirit of iron sharpening iron as all Christians seek to “know the way of God more accurately.”
Most of all, Prof. Dolezal should be commended for highlighting the extent that the classical doctrine of God has been forgotten by theologians who would otherwise be deemed “conservative” or “traditional.” A few of these have actually, whether intentionally or not, threatened to undermine the classical doctrine, and so Prof. Dolezal has done a great service in pointing out the boundary lines and reinforcing the old defenses.