James Dolezal writes in the concluding words of All That Is in God,“It is difficult to overstate the contrast between the older outlook of classical Christian theism and the newer viewpoint of theistic mutualism” (135). I believe Dolezal is right on this point. All that Is in God says a lot for its short length (137 pages + 5-page preface). It succeeds in showing that there is a vast difference between the claims of contemporary Evangelicals and so-called “Classical Theism.” However, this is only half of Dolezal’s thesis. Not only does he write to “acquaint readers with some of the fundamental claims of classical Christian theism,” in doing so he endeavours “to challenge certain doctrinal errors about God that have taken hold within the world of evangelical theology and even within much of modern Calvinism” (xiii). He hopes to “commend these claims [of Classical Theism] as nothing less than the truth about God as He has disclosed Himself in creation and in Holy Scripture” (xiii).
To make his case, Dolezal first introduces competing models of theism which he calls “classical Christian theism” and “theistic mutualism” (Ch. 1). Of the latter, he identifies “hard” and “soft” versions. “Hard” mutualists are those such as Moltmann and Open Theists who regard “God as a person who allows other beings to function as first causes or absolute originators of actions, events, or objects and who Himself stands as an onlooker within creation, susceptible to an increase in knowledge” (3). In contrast, soft theistic mutualists tend “to hold that God does not create the world by dint of absolute necessity; neither does He need the world in any significant sense…. Nevertheless, they do allow for a measure of ontological becoming and process in God” (3-4). “This ontological openness to being changed by creatures, whether initiated by God or by creatures themselves, is the common denominator in all forms of theistic mutualism” (4). The 2nd chapter addresses the doctrine of immutability. In Chapters 3 – 4, Dozelal first explains simplicity and then argues that it has been lost in recent Evangelicalism. Chapter 5 considers Eternality, arguing that God is not only timelessly creator but he is also the “eternal creator.” In the final chapter, he briefly outlines the relations between the unity of God and the three persons, arguing that simplicity is not at odds with the Trinity but essential to its consistency.
Dolezal’s argument is strong as it concerns the claim that many contemporary Evangelicals have departed significantly from “classical Christian theism” and that many do not consciously acknowledge this fact. It is important to observe that his presentation of “classical Christian theism” is Thomistic theism, which is similar to but not identical with the Patristics on several important issues. There is more in common between the Fathers and Aquinas than between either and Evangelical “theistic mutualists”: on this point, Dolezal is right. However, by glossing over significant differences, he drastically overstates his case. He strongly dismisses any “generic” understanding of Trinitarian “oneness,” insisting on the solution of Divine simplicity, that the only diversity is found in “real relations” which are neither accidental nor merely conceptual (106-115). However, though “real relations” does capture the way significant Fathers such as Augustine, Basil, and Nyssa differentiated the persons of the Trinity, Dolezal ignores the strong use of the generic analogy in the latter two. For Basil, the unity of God is an analogy with the universal (humanity over against humans). For Nyssa, the universal analogy was put forth in stronger terms. In his letter That There Are Not Three God’s, Nyssa argues that God is one in the same way that humanity is one. However, instead of diminishing God’s unity, as would be the case in an Aristotelian or Thomistic metaphysic, Nyssa’s strong Platonism emerges at this point: it is “a common abuse of language” to speak of three humans as much as it is to speak of three gods. There are not three humans, John, Peter, and James, but one human (the Human Nature) instantiated as three. Moreover, Dolezal frequently insists that essence and existence must be kept separate (31, 41), but this is a late ontological development in Christian thought, occurring after Chalcedon (AD 451). These are minor points. I only raise them to illustrate that Dolezal’s construal of Classical Theism is very much Aquinas’ theism and relies on metaphysical assumptions not shared by many before him. The portrait of God “disclosed … in creation” is, therefore, not always as clear cut as Dolezal presents it.
More significantly, his argument fails in both its polemical dimension and its goal to commend classical theism. As a polemic, I do not think Dolezal deals fairly with his opponents. Page 23 represents the late Ronald Nash as far cosier with Process Theism than his Concept of God or other works suggest. Nash is not afraid to learn from his opponents and engage with them irenically, but he is firm in separating himself from them. Dolezal’s suggestion that Frame sees a one-to-one correspondence between language and the being of God (75), as well as his criticisms of Frame’s view of simplicity (71-72, 78), do not do justice to Frame’s argument in The Doctrine of God nor his related work in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (see Frame’s review of All That is In God here). Dolezal does not acknowledge that these two theologians, and many others about whom he writes, may raise genuine problems with Classical Theism and its metaphysical presuppositions. This brings us to the primary problem with the book’s argument.
Dolezal fails to commend classical theism to the reader. On the one hand, he assumes that the reader will accept his metaphysical premises, even though the average Westerner—let alone the philosophically aware reader—will not find them self-evident. The result is an unpersuasive argument, leaving the reader asking, why should I accept that? On the other hand, his argument employs the scholastic theological method that Cornelius Van Til and John Frame, among others, have persuasively criticized. That is, Dolezal does not permit Scripture to criticize and reform his philosophy: he derives philosophical thesis concerning what God must be like and then interprets Scripture accordingly. We can identify three problems with this method as employed in All That is In God: 1) it overestimates human reason, 2) it underestimates the scope of Scripture, and 3) it leads to the artificial demarcation of mystery.
First, Dolezal, through his dependence on Aquinas, assumes that Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists are reliable guides to knowing God. However, as Frame and Van Til have extensively argued, the Biblical teaching suggests that unbelievers’ knowledge of God is not true as far as it goes, needing only supplementation from Scripture. Unbelievers intentionally and unintentionally distort the truth in their unrighteousness. The philosophers may say genuine and true things about God, but we must measure not only their conclusions but their reasoning against the Biblical teaching. When this is done, the God of the Bible does not sound anything like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.”
Second, by beginning with rational arguments for God’s character based on thoroughly metaphysical premises (as we will see), Dolezal fails to acknowledge that the Bible may criticize and reform our metaphysics.
Third, it seems arbitrary to begin with reason (e.g. arguing that in a composite of parts, the parts explain the whole and thus determine its beings) and to then declare mystery when these initial conclusions are in apparent contradiction with Scripture. As I have argued extensively in my book Prevenient Grace, it is at this point that we should revisit our initial premises and ask if they were, in fact, wrong. For example, Dolezal recounts Aquinas’ doctrine of “real relations” to explain the Trinity (121-123). Aquinas assumes that God is simple, meaning that he possesses an essence but no accidents. Unable to differentiate the members of the Trinity on these grounds, Aquinas introduces an ad hoc ontological category, “real relations,” to explain how the persons can be differentiated without compromising simplicity. Dolezal acknowledges that there is no ontological reason for this category other than to fix the problems that emerge between the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of simplicity (in the essay, “Trinity, Simplicity and the Status of God’s Personal Relations”). It would seem that instead of invoking a new ontological category, it would be appropriate to revisit the original doctrine of simplicity and ask if it needs to be reconsidered in light of Biblical teaching. To illustrate the problems of Dolezal’s argument, consider several of his arguments and the various metaphysical premises he introduces without argument.
Dolezal begins his argument for immutability with reference to Scripture, quoting two sections from Job. In these passages, Job’s friends declare that God is neither profited by humans nor does He receive anything from their hands (Job 22:2-3; 35:6-7). Both passages do suggest that God could care less about Job’s sin or righteousness, that these do not benefit God in any way. This does not necessarily indicate that God isn’t affected by these things, but certainly suggests that God’s plans or pleasures are not thwarted by Job’s supposed sin nor are they affected by Job’s righteousness. However, it is a notorious issue to identify how much of the theology of Job’s friends is actually true: in this case, their point is true in the big picture, that God’s plans are not thwarted by Job and God does not owe Job anything. Yet, the conclusion of the Book of Job, as well as the rest of Scripture, would call into question the claim that God is unmoved by sin or by righteousness. God does answer Job, rebuking him for his impetuousness, rebuking his friend’s for “not speaking of me what is right” (42:7), and giving back to Job double what he lost. God claims to be hot with anger over their mistreatment of Job (42:7). On these points, Job’s friends appear to be wrong. So Dolezal’s use of Scripture fails to take the whole book and Biblical context into account. Even if this argument was cogent, it does not prove immutability in the absolute sense Dolezal seeks. For this, he turns to Aquinas.
He appeals to Aquinas’s argument that God is pure actuality (15-17). Several of the premisses of Aquinas argument are questionable. Aquinas presupposes Aristotle’s account of change and motion, such that all change is from potential (viewed as a negative state) to actuality and that such motion requires an external force. Moreover, potential is not merely a mental category but an ontological reality. Aristotle’s argument is not airtight, so this is not a great place to start; is it true that “potential” is negative and the actuality is, in every case, perfection? Is it true that “potential” is a metaphysical reality: it seems that potentiality describes the ability for something to move from one positive state to another or to be changed but in neither case is it clear that this is an extra-mental reality. Is it true that all motion requires external causation? These assumptions beg the question: if God were to change in certain ways, such as location, state of knowledge (from, “James will write a book review on April 25” to “James did write a book review on April 25”), then it would follow that change is not negative but may be neutral. If we accept that all change requires some sense of external causation, it is not clear that all such causation undermines God’s glory. If God were passible, in the sense that He responds to human behaviour, then it follows that human behaviour in this sense causes a change in God. However, this sense of causation is not evidently negative, as the doctrine of immutability would suppose. God’s anger was caused by the unrighteousness of Job’s friends, but this claim doesn’t appear to undermine God’s sovereignty or power declared in Job 37-41. Instead, God’s angry response to unrighteousness appears to be a perfection. These are just a few ways that immutability as presented by Dolezal, building on Aquinas, fails to take seriously the possibility that Scripture may reform our metaphysics.
Moreover, Dolezal arbitrarily draws the line of mystery at this point. He declares, “That which is pure act is dynamic and utterly full of being and life” (16). However, if immutability were true, it is not clear how any of these can be true in the sense he seems to intend them. “Blessedness,” “happiness,” and “self-satisfaction” (17) lose any connection with their human analogues: they are purely equivocation. Our only experience and knowledge of these mental states involve change and succession: we cannot fathom what subjectivity would be like without these. Even if an immutable being could have the subjective state of “blessedness,” it is not clear how such a being could be “dynamic” or “utterly full of life”: this defies all logic. Aristotle’s unmoved mover is completely unmoved: it has no connection with the world, neither acting towards it nor being acted upon. It is wholly self-focused without change or progression in thought. If we accept pure immutability, it is not clear how one can escape this conclusion. It is arbitrary to follow Aristotle’s logic nearly all the way and then to stop only at the point where it is theologically problematic.
Simplicity is the subject of Dolezal’s earlier monograph God Without Parts, so it lies at the heart of his argument in All That Is in God. Dolezal begins with several claims about the “parts” which simplicity denies: “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” (40). We can certainly envision cases where this is true, such as the cells that compose a body. However, it is not clear that anything that could be labelled “a part” fits these criteria and, therefore, would make God dependent upon it. For example, if God made Himself manifest in a physical or local form, as He apparently does at various times (e.g. Genesis 3:18; 18:1-29; 32:22-32; Ezekiel 1; Job 2:1-8; Revelation 4), He would possess parts, namely, Himself plus that through which He truly manifests Himself. It is not clear that God would be dependent on these “parts,” whatever that physical form is made of or even the physical form apart from God’s non-physical being. If the parts are creations of God’s word and sustained by God, then they are an avenue of God’s revelation and the manifestation of his presence, yet He is not dependent upon them. Such would, of course, contradict immutability, but it would also undermine the claims that God could never have parts if He is truly self-sufficient. Certain accidents are likewise compatible with God’s self-sufficiency/existence/dependence, but others are more complicated. If God responded to his creatures in time or experience passions in response to their behaviour, then these accidents would indeed be in some sense caused by his creatures. But it is not clear that this sense of “cause” would compromise God’s self-sufficiency in the Biblical sense of the teaching, that God is above and sovereign over all creation, the creator and sustainer of creation, etc. Once again, if the Scriptures present God as responding to His creation—as it certainly does—then we ought to adjust our philosophical ideas to match and not force Scripture into the mould of our philosophy. The biggest such problem (of philosophy being the mould for the Scriptural teaching) in Dolezal’s argument is his unquestioning assumption of an Essentialist metaphysic.
An essentialist metaphysic describes the belief that everything has a metaphysical quiddity or “whatness” that makes it what it is. The reason I am a “human” is because I partake of the essence “humanness.” In ancient Greek ontology and Patristic philosophy, essence also explained the existence of things. However, in response to Chalcedonian Christology, the cause of somethings existence was separated from essence. Thus, for Aquinas, only in God did essence and existence combine. Most essentialists would distinguish between essence and accidence, between what something is and the way it is. For example, I am not only a “human,” I am also 6 feet, 3 inches tall, married, father, thin, white, Caucasian, etc. For the Greeks and many Christian philosophers, accidents are extraneous to what something is and, ultimately, unimportant: we know something fully by knowing its essence. The problem with accidents is that they come and go: I remain “this human” even if I shrink, get a tan, and have another child.
Dolezal never argues for this concept of reality, nor does he acknowledge that it is seriously problematic. On the one hand, there is no good reason to accept the reality of essences; furthermore, there are many reasons to deny this analysis. For example, after Christology forced the Church to separate essence from existence, William of Ockham pointed out that you really did not need essence for anything: it could be explained via our mind’s interpretation of the world. Even after Christology brought about change in ontology, the incarnation still proved to be problematic on essentialist terms (explaining how Jesus could possess fully the nature of man and of God). The closest Dolezal gets to arguing for Essentialism is his claim that language maps on to reality (58-59). He assumes with the Greeks that our linguistic distinction between subject and predicate (e.g. “Albert is wise”; Albert = subject; wise = predicate) mirrors “real distinctions in the things about which we are speaking” (59). He suggests that Albert possesses “wisdom,” which makes the predication of “wise” true.
The issues involved in this analysis were already apparent in ancient times, as Plato’s dialogue Parmenides illustrates, but we can raise some issues here. First, the subject + predicate syntax is not universal: the Hebrew word טוֹב means “he is good,” saying with one word what English expresses with a subject + predicate. Moreover, no one would claim that in the sentence “the race was great,” greatness “inheres” in “the race.” Syntax clearly does not map reality in this case (indicating that “the race” is a metaphysical entity). Modern linguistics has helped us see that words such as “wisdom” do not have a single meaning but involve an intricate and diverse web of usage and sense, such that it is wrong to think of “wisdom” as something with extralinguistic existence. Instead, our words and syntax present the world in specific ways: they interpret it. The claim that our language mirrors reality is indefensible. Moreover, there are much simpler explanations of predication that don’t presuppose the ontological reality of predicates (such that “wisdom” exists independent of wise person or as a reality inherent in but distinct from said persons). If I were to say, “Albert is wise,” I mean that in my experience he acts in wise ways and can be trusted to do so in the future. “Wise” describes what we could call Albert’s character or his “self,” which is revealed to us in the myriad of actions that Albert undertakes. Greek philosophy is notoriously impoverished in its account of the “self,” for selfhood is a contingent reality (one that could be other than it is) and is not reducible to universal, necessary truths of reason. Yet if we posit the “self,” then we have no need to posit metaphysical essences. Moreover, humanity is in many ways “simple” as God is. We don’t have accidents inhering in our essence; instead, we are selves manifest to others through our activity in the world. Indeed, what the Greeks called accidents are essential for knowing the “self” and so are fundamentally important for knowledge.
The point I am trying to make is quite simple. Dolezal presupposes an extensive metaphysical apparatus and deduces certain doctrines about God from this apparatus. He then proceeds to interpret Scripture in light of this apparatus and these doctrines (Craig Carter admits this so much in his recent and related book, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition). These doctrines are neither explicit in Scripture nor deduced therefrom (as the Westminster confession would have it). For all their imperfections, John Frame, Ronald Nash, Bruce Ware, Rob Lister, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, etc. are pushing against this very methodology in their works. They are calling us to be more Biblical about our doctrine of God, which means being self-critical about our own metaphysical assumptions as well as the assumptions of our tradition. All That Is in God is helpful in showing that many figures in modern Evangelicalism have not given enough attention to the assumptions shaping their theology nor to those shaping classical theism, presuming more common ground than actually exists. What Dolezal fails to do is show us why we should return to the assumptions of Classical Theism.
If we marry our doctrine of God to any metaphysic without subjecting it to God’s revelation, we will invariably distort the Biblical teaching about God. This is true whether our metaphysic is Platonist or Modernist. We cannot accept the reigning metaphysical paradigm and adapt our doctrine of God to the spirit of our age, as too many have done. Instead, we need to be self-critical in bringing all our assumptions before the Holy Scriptures and presume that it is truly sufficient, not only that we might live rightly before God but also think rightly about Him and His world. This work is not easy, but I am convinced the work of Cornelius Van Til and John Frame is helpful in showing us that we are not slaves to our assumptions. We can experience genuine reformation as we read Scripture, finding our preconceptions adjusted as we self-consciously seek to submit to God in all things (see Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God).