Volume 43 - Issue 1
All That is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theismby James E. Dolezal
Christians worship the Triune God—one God in three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We might assume that, if we hold that affirmation in common, we hold in common an entire doctrine of God. Not so, according to James Dolezal (assistant professor of theology, Cairn University). In his assessment, some contemporary evangelicals are abandoning what he calls the traditional doctrine of God, or classical Christian theism (CCT), in favor of a new trend in theology proper, what Dolezal refers to as theistic mutualism (TM). For Dolezal, this departure from the classic formulation of the doctrine of God, in which God is not moved and does not change, in favor of an account of God’s being that gives room for him to change in time in response to his creatures is a grave one. In Dolezal’s understanding, moving from CCT to TM brings with it quite a bit of theological baggage, baggage that is too heavy and has too many ill effects to continue being held by evangelical Christians.
Before moving on, it’s important to understand the definitions of and differences between CCT and TM. On the one hand, Dolezal defines classical Christian theism as “marked by a strong commitment to the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, simplicity, eternity, and the substantial unity of the divine persons. The underlying and inviolable conviction is that God does not derive any aspect of His being from outside Himself and is not in any way caused to be” (p. 1) On the other hand, “In an effort to portray God as more relatable, theistic mutualists insist that God is involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures” (pp. 1–2). In other words, CCT emphasizes God’s unchangeableness, whereas TM emphasizes that God changes, even if in a limited fashion that retains his divinity, in response to his creatures in time.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the terms Dolezal uses to describe CCT, “aseity” refers to “God’s self-sufficiency” (p. 11); that is, he does not need anything, including creation, to be caused or actualized in any way. “Immutability” and “impassibility” are terms that refer, respectively, to the fact that God does not change in his essence or character and that he cannot be caused to change by his creatures. “Simplicity” is a term used to describe the fact that “all that is in God is God” (p. 41); God is not composed of parts, he is not complex, and his attributes are identical to his essence and therefore to one another. The term “eternity” means that God is always who he is. He does not become Creator or Redeemer or Sustainer, but is always the same. He does not acquire or give up any of his attributes. (Obviously this confession has to be related to aseity, and it is in CCT through the distinction between necessary and contingent actions. On this see Dolezal’s remarks in chapter five.) Finally, God is substantially one. He is one God in three persons, not divided in substance, attributes, or volition (will).
The book’s organization is straightforward. After raising the initial point about theologians departing from CCT in favor of TM in the introductory chapter, Dolezal spends the remainder of the book discussing particular aspects of CCT and TM’s departure from it. Immutability is covered in chapter two, simplicity in chapters three and four, eternality in chapter five, and substantial unity in chapter six. The conclusion reiterates how TM departs from CCT in these areas and restates the theological implications of those departures. Each chapter contains a definition of the aspect of CCT under discussion, biblical warrant and historical support, the way(s) in which and reason(s) why TM departs from CCT in that area, and the theological implications for that departure. (Simplicity gets two chapters in this regard: chapter three contains the CCT definition, biblical warrant, and historical support, and chapter four compares CCT with TM and the explains the implications of TM’s departure from simplicity as defined by CCT.)
Dolezal’s common historical conversation partners are Aquinas, Wilhelm á Brakel, Herman Bavinck, and John Owen, while he frequently relies on Gilles Emery’s work on Aquinas and Steven Duby’s recent book on divine simplicity for contemporary support. He also typically makes appeal to a handful of biblical passages for each doctrine before spending the substantive part of the chapter engaging with TM. In that respect, he most often uses the euphemism “some evangelical Calvinists,” but he usually has in mind Bruce Ware (SBTS), and sometimes Ware’s former doctoral student Rob Lister (now at Biola). John Frame also receives a relatively large portion of Dolezal’s attention, and other contemporary philosophers and theologians such William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, K. Scott Oliphint, Wayne Grudem and John Feinberg are mentioned as representing a TM position with respect to various doctrines. Even Kevin Vanhoozer is mentioned, as Dolezal believes he is part of the group who has revised the doctrine of divine simplicity (p. 72).
I do not want to spend time working through whether or not Dolezal has, in every one of those instances, accurately portrayed and critiqued those writers’ positions. The book is by nature polemical, so there are going to be various reactions to the way certain persons’ positions are portrayed. Some of those mentioned have responded to the book (e.g., John Frame, “Scholasticism for Evangelicals: Thoughts on All That Is In God by James Dolezal,” https://tinyurl.com/yauj98jo). What I am willing to say is that I think Dolezal has accurately identified an area of theology—the doctrine of God—that is relatively neglected in evangelical life, that is being revised and rejected in various ways in evangelical circles, and that has massive implications for the rest of Christian dogmatics and for pastoral ministry.
In that regard I want to emphasize that this is an important book for pastors. We often assume a minimal doctrine of God (one God, three persons) and neglect the important aspects of who God is and the implications of those properties for preaching and shepherding. This was definitely true of me in seminary. The doctrine of God was merely a checkmark for me—I affirmed one God in three persons, and I knew the definitions of the various heresies and how to avoid them, at least minimally, in my preaching and teaching. But I didn’t care to study how or why Christians had affirmed God is immutable, simple, or eternal Creator. Honestly, I don’t know that those terms even registered with me until I was done with doctoral work and teaching at an institution of Christian higher education.
I suspect that this experience is not unique among my fellow conservative evangelical pastors and vocational ministers. The doctrine of God, full as it is of obscure terms, philosophical issues, and the like, is a box I needed to check before moving on to what I considered to be more important during my seminary training—homiletics, pastoral ministry, and maybe a couple of classes in biblical languages or biblical theology to fill out my M.Div. electives. As Dolezal argues, though, there are important ways in which adopting CCT or TM impacts our understanding of Scripture and how we shepherd or minister to God’s flock. For instance, Dolezal ably demonstrates that God’s immutability, or unchangeableness, lies at the heart of our ability to trust in God’s promises. He doesn’t change in any way, which means when he promises something he won’t go back on it, he will bring it to completion, and so on. Surely this applies, for instance, to pastoral care; if a sister or brother in Christ comes to a pastor grieved over their seeming lack of sanctification, stuck in a rut in obedience, and the like, one of the reasons we can trust that “he who began a good work will bring it to completion in Christ Jesus” is because God is unchanging. He does not waver on his promises, promises that he makes precisely via appeal to his unchangeableness in his essence. It is not just that he is unchangeable in some respects, but in every respect. We can remind those under our care in God’s flock, then, that while they may not feel as though they are progressing in the Christian life, the God of the gospel of Jesus Christ has promised certain benefits that we inherit, namely that those whom he has justified he will also glorify. And the foundation of that promise is that the God who promised it doesn’t change; he is immutable, to use the classic terminology.
I want to stress that I am sympathetic to Dolezal’s project. By and large I do believe that evangelicals have ignored, and in some instances attempted to revise or reject, CCT. I also believe that the theological and pastoral implications of doing so are too great. To give one example, Luke Stamps and I at our blog “Biblical Reasoning” (https://secundumscripturas.com/) have repeatedly pointed to the dogmatic implications of moving away from the classic means of speaking about God’s substantial unity, especially with respect to the unity of the divine will and the equality of the three persons. I therefore cannot overemphasize how important it is for evangelicals, whether they be academics or pastors or lay persons, to read and engage with this book.
I do wonder, though, how much this book advances the conversation. Much of the rub for scholars like Bruce Ware and John Frame is that, in their opinion, CCT has not paid enough attention to biblical theology or advances in our understanding of biblical hermeneutics in the last one hundred and fifty years or so. And yet, Dolezal begins the book by essentially moving past these concerns, saying that biblical theology is not equipped to address the issues related to CCT. In one respect I agree wholeheartedly with him and with his critique of biblical theology at this point. If we rely exclusively on understanding God in a narratival fashion, that is, if we take the language in the Bible that speaks of his interactions with the world, particularly in his covenants, as necessarily implying that he changes in response to his creatures, is not always Creator, is composed of various attributes rather than simple, and is a colloquium, so to speak, of divine persons, then we have missed the point both of biblical theology and of Scripture. Dolezal is right to emphasize over and over throughout the book that revelation, including the inspired biblical revelation, is accommodating; that is, God condescends in using human speech to reveal himself. Human speech is, like anything human, limited and finite, and so our talk about the eternal and infinite God is necessarily analogical. In this respect I agree with Dolezal that “biblical theology, with its unique focus on historical development and progress, is not best suited for theology proper. The reason for this is because God is not a historical individual, and neither does His intrinsic activity undergo development or change” (p. xv).
I do not agree, however, with Dolezal’s next statement, that, “This places God beyond the proper focus of biblical theology” (p. xv). Biblical theology as a discipline is concerned, some might say supremely, with understanding the Bible’s narrative shape, and of understanding particular passages in light of that shape. If we take this to mean that biblical theology insists on understanding “God as one of the historical characters in the narrative of redemption” (p. xv), then yes, we have failed to understand the methodological limitations of biblical theology as a discipline. But if we take it that biblical theology insists on understanding particular passages in light of the biblical canon as a whole then certainly this applies to understanding passages about God. This is, unfortunately, something that Dolezal does not do in his limited attempts to deal with the biblical text. His citations rarely cite the canonical context of a passage, and rarely use concepts like inner biblical allusion to bolster his analysis. Interestingly, this is the same kind of methodological critique often made of TM—its proponents are frequently accused of proof-texting. It is unclear to me that Dolezal always avoids this methodological error. Further, if we believe that God stands outside of the theater of creation and redemption but willingly enters into it through the incarnation, then we are necessarily saying something about the biblical story—it is held up, so to speak, by the eternal, immutable, simple, one God who creates and redeems through his Word and by his Spirit.
I spend some time here at the end of this review because, again, I am afraid, given this lack of methodological nuance and attention to the particular hermeneutical reasons TMs have for departing from CCT, that All That Is in God speaks past at least part of its intended audience. (I should note here that Dolezal’s book is composed of a series of lectures he gave at the 2015 Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors’ Conference, and is also described as a sequel to his previous work, God Without Parts. It is possible that these pastoral and literary contexts for the book explain some of the neglect of methodological and exegetical conversations.) I think Dolezal is right that CCT is biblically, theologically, and philosophically necessary. I think he is right about the ramifications of departing from it in the various ways he notes by proponents of TM. And I believe CCT is vital for the life and health of Christ’s Church. I believe, therefore, that pastors, church staff, academics, and engaged lay persons need to read this book. In order to see a full swing back toward CCT, though, I think we will need some more methodological reflection, exegetical analysis, and biblical theological argumentation for CCT and against TM.
Matthew Y. Emerson
Matthew Y. Emerson
Oklahoma Baptist University
Shawnee, Oklahoma, USA
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