I read with some interest John Frame’s review of James Dolezal’s book, All That Is In God (RHB, 2017). I have respect for both men; I like both men. Frame has been kind to me and I have no interest in making him an enemy. Sure, Frame himself carries out some attacks that might be considered personal or “warrior-like”: Dolezal is not mature, perhaps idolatrous, and Docetic, among other things. But perhaps even worse, Dolezal is a…. scholastic!
But at least Frame didn’t accuse Dolezal of being FV, which would be kinda weird coming from someone sympathetic to Norman Shepherd…but I digress.
I also think theological debate among trained theologians is a good thing. It can be spirited and hard-hitting, so long as both men engage in good faith. I would like to add to that endeavor.
One of the most striking things to me in Frame’s review was an early comment he made. In response to Dolezal’s willingness to criticize names such as MacLeod, Carson, Ware, Plantinga, Lister, Grudem, and Frame, Frame writes: “Dolezal, I think, should be more respectful of this group than he is. Is it not even a little bit daunting to stand against such a consensus?”
But the overall consensus clearly belongs to Dolezal. Orthodoxy is on Dolezal’s side. Not only Aquinas, but patristic, medieval, Reformation, and Post-Reformation Reformed theologians are basically with Dolezal and not the very recent group of authors that Frame calls a “consensus.” The men who wrote the Westminster Confession would certainly join with Dolezal over the revisionist theology that seems somewhat popular in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. After all, they were all Reformed scholastics. No wonder that RTS professor, Scott Swain, says, in his commendation of Dolezal’s book, that it is a “compelling presentation of what, until recently, catholic Christians have believed and confessed regarding the being and perfection of the triune God.”
In another place, Frame says, “Dolezal, of course, wants to insist with the scholastic tradition that all of God’s attributes are identical with his essence and therefore identical with one another.” What I think Frame should rather say is that Dolezal wants to insist that the classically orthodox (and Reformed theological) tradition wants to insist that all of God’s attributes are identical with his essence…”
In other words – and I say this with the fatherly respect that Frame wishes and deserves to receive – is it not even a little daunting [for Frame et al] to stand against such a consensus? Could they not, from their graves (or heaven), say to these modern proponents of theistic mutabilism, “Where is the respect for your fathers?”
In reading Frame’s review I think the major problem I have with his analysis concerns his Christological reasoning. I may be missing something, but this by Frame makes no sense to me:
“But if we say that God only appears to change in these contexts, must we also say that God only appears to enter time, that the Son of God only appeared to become man (that is the textbook definition of Docetism), that he only appeared to die on the cross and rise again?” Frame also says, “Why should we believe literally that God is changeless, but not that God literally became flesh in Jesus?”
It seems Frame is putting Dolezal on the horns of a false dilemma. Why can we not, with pretty much every Reformed theologian in the 16th-18th centuries, say that both are true? God does not change in his essence and the Son literally did become flesh. There is essence-appropriate language and persons-appropriate language. These are not mutually exclusive positions, but actually prove that you can hold to divine immutability and also speak of “God” (i.e., the God-man, Jesus Christ) in ways that are truly/literally anthropomorphic.
Let me offer one example from John Owen: a Reformed scholastic, a Thomist, and a Puritan. In dwelling with the Old Testament church, the Son:
“constantly assumes unto himself human affections, to intimate that a season would come when he would immediately act in that nature. And, indeed, after the fall there is nothing spoken of God in the Old Testament, nothing of his institutions, nothing of the way and manner of dealing with the church, but what has respect unto the future incarnation of Christ” (Works, 1:350).
In other words, the parts and passions attributed to God are not only used by God to help us understand more clearly his purposes towards his people, but also to set the stage, so to speak, for the incarnation of the Son of God.
Owen then makes this important point: “it had been absurd to bring in God under perpetual anthropopathies, as grieving, repenting, being angry, well pleased, and the like, were it not but that the divine person intended was to take on him the nature wherein such affections do well” (Works, 1:350).
You see, Owen actually gives a Christological reason for the anthropomorphic language attributed to God in the Old Testament. We can speak of the Son of God dying (Acts 20:28) because, according to his human nature, he dies (and grieves, changes, etc.). This is literally true: God the Son dies on the cross (according to his human nature).
If Frame wanted, he could have his cake and eat it too, by adopting Owen’s position that enables Owen to remain fully orthodox on the doctrine of God, but also offer a compelling explanation for the anthropomorphic language attributed to God in the Old Testament.
My Owen Cards on the Table
There’s a whole lot more I could interact with in Frame’s review. I am still unclear on what he means by God “changing.” Quite what Frame means by this statement is beyond my intellectual powers: “I have gone out on a limb, slightly, saying that because God comes into time he has a temporal existence.” He doesn’t really explain what this means for God’s essence (and thus attributes). But Frame does say (in that same paragraph) that to deny God’s “temporal existence” is to deny the gospel, which is really bad news for theologians before the 20th century.
In addition, Frame speaks of God’s knowledge of the creature as if such knowledge were an instance of God being affected by or acted upon by the creature (which is TM). This seems to me to contradict WCF 2.2 (God’s knowledge is “independent upon the creature”). Speaking of the WCF, does Frame believe that the immutability confessed in WCF 2.1 entails that God is a non-dynamic “static block of wood”? One has to think so since he proposed an alternative mode of divine existence to preserve a dynamic God!
But, leaving Frame’s own theology, I am convinced that Dolezal has taken somewhat of a heroic stand today. While I am grateful for Frame and quite enjoyed his punchy style in the review, my own sympathies (for whatever it is worth) are decidedly with Dolezal.
Theology in the 20th century was, in my estimation, a dunghill upon which there are occasional diamonds peeking out of the manure. Liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy, and a bastardization of Reformed theology have brought us full circle to the problems that plagued the Reformers and their heirs hundreds of years ago.
More specifically, the recent ESS/ERAS doctrine is one offspring of this revisionist approach to the doctrine of God, and it is not only a doctrine of God and a Trinitarian error, but also a Christological error. Quite frankly, I don’t care about what consensus someone can build in favor of the ESS theology; it needs to be called out for what it is: a theological aberration where the tail (complementarian fancies) is clearly wagging the dog (the Trinity).
Theological mutabilism, as advanced by some, is closer to Socinianism than Reformed orthodoxy. It is hard not to be sympathetic to a large number of Dolezal’s critiques when you consider that many of the theologians he critiques adopt a Socinian method and approach to theology that masquerades under the guise of being biblical.
In the end, I am glad to see this debate happening. The Reformed Baptists are debating the doctrine of God; the OPC is debating Republicationism; and the PCA is debating the legitimacy of men dancing in tights during a worship service.1 Well done to all.