An intermural debate of recent vintage among mostly Calvinistic/Reformed theologians centers on the Godhead. On the one side sits classical theism, which James Dolezal, assistant professor of theology in the School of Divinity at Cairn University, champions. On the other side sits theistic mutualism, backed to various degrees by Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, John Frame, Al Plantinga, John Feinberg, Scott Oliphant, J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson and Cornelius Plantinga, among others. Dolezal makes a case that classical theism has been the historic view of the church and has been taught by everyone from Augustine to the Puritans to John Gill. At risk, the author believes, is the very nature and essence of God. The stakes could not be higher.
Classical theism teaches that God “does not derive any aspect of His being from outside Himself and is not in any way caused to be” (p. 1). Theistic mutualism would agree but promotes the idea that “God is involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures” (p. 2). As a result, on the basis of the incarnation, “God changes–taking on new attributes and changing in some respect in relation to creation or to human events without, however, being altered essentially” (p. x). Taken to extreme this can lead to Open Theism, but Dolezal targets a softer version held by numerous modern evangelicals of note (pp. 3-4). These evangelicals maintain that God can be ontologically and ethically immutable and at the same time be relationally mutable (p. x). Dolezal believes the mutualists have lost the understanding of God’s being (p. 34) and abandoned God’s simplicity and infinite pure actuality of being (p. xiii). The motivation behind mutualistic theism, as the author sees it, is “the belief that any meaningful relationship between God and man must involve God in a transaction wherein He receives some determination of being from His creatures” (p. 34). Some examples: D. A. Carson views God as a personal being who interacts with people (p. 24); Bruce Ware contends that God’s involvement with creation “includes innumerable changes both on the part of God and on the part of His creatures” (p. 24); K. Scott Oliphint states, “God freely determined to take on attributes, characteristics, and properties that he did not have, and would not have, without creation” (p.94). In order for God to relate to His creatures, He must, in some sense, experience time (pp. 81, 89-97).
Dolezal is not buying any of this and accuses the mutual theist of undermining the very nature of God and wrecking His immutability, impassibility and primarily His simplicity. In the process the very Trinity is in danger of being unraveled (pp. 119-134).
At the root of Dolezal’s concern is the largely ignored doctrine of simplicity. While seldom mentioned by most modern theologians Dolezal positions it as the lynchpin to our understanding about God, which is why he devotes chapter three to simplicity and references it throughout the book. A simple God means that He is without parts. Therefore, “His act of existence is not what He has, but what He is” (p. 41) and “if all that is in God is God, then each of His attributes is identical with His essence”—that is, there is no distinction between His essence and attributes (p. 42). The author believes that every current heresy begins by being wrong about simplicity (p. 40). His concerns run deep:
Without simplicity, God is open to the acquisition of being in addition to His essence and thus is not immutable. Without simplicity, it is not clear why God could not experience temporal change and thus fail to be timelessly eternal. Without simplicity, it is impossible that God be in every way infinite as there must be parts in Him, and parts by definition must be finite. Moreover, that which is built of parts cannot be infinite since the finite cannot aggregately yield the infinite (p. 136).
Dolezal believes the mutual theists, for any number of reasons, have lost simplicity and thus are in error about God. Simplicity has been disregarded by some who distinguish between attributes that belong to His essence, and those He acquires through relation with His creatures (pp. 61-67). Others deny divine simplicity by claiming it is not a biblical doctrine at all (pp. 67-71). Still others distort it (pp. 71-78). Much of our problem, as Dolezal admits, is that simplicity is not based on biblical proof texts but on reason, deduction and Aristotle’s metaphysical framework (pp. 44, 55). As many past philosophers and theologians abandoned the Aristotelian metaphysics, simplicity was minimized with it. “Indeed,” Dolezal complains, “many Christian theologians and ministers retreated from the field of metaphysics altogether and retrenched themselves in their Bibles, assuming that the Bible’s teaching could be successfully preserved without committing oneself to a particular understanding of being” (p. 63). It seems like a strange argument to admit that an attribute of God, in fact the most important aspect of His actuality, is not drawn from Scripture but from deductions based on Aristotelian metaphysics. It is hard to fault John Feinberg who “suggests that the lack of explicit biblical data for divine simplicity ‘should be disconcerting at the least, and a good argument against it at most’” (p. 69). Feinberg concludes that simplicity is not one of the divine attributes at all (p. 69). Dolezal retorts that Scripture teaches that God is incomprehensible in His being, an argument He uses often (pp. 38, 97, 102), and therefore it is not surprising that simplicity is hard to grasp. Another favorite argument used by the author is that of biblical language. When it comes to descriptions of God that seem to call into question simplicity, Dolezal turns to anthromorphism, analogies, and metaphors as his explanation (pp. 18-21, 84-87).
Without question, biblical language, when it comes to God, seeks to accommodate human understanding, but cataloging all description of the person and actions of God as anthropomorphisms and analogies can prove problematic. For example, the issue of God’s eternality is given much attention in All That Is In God. Classical theism teaches that God’s act of creating is eternal, even though what He created is temporal. “Strictly speaking, creation appears with time, not in time” (p. 101). As the mutual theists wrestle with God in relationship with time they have taken at least three approaches that do not align with Dolezal’s position. Some mutual theists deny the timelessness of God; others see the timeless God becoming a temporal God who enters the time He has created; still others view God as both timeless and temporal. That is, the timeless God takes on new attributes for the purpose of relating to His temporal creatures (pp. 89-97, 103). Some natural theists believe that God can sovereignly choose to change not His essence, but His accidents (those which are not essential to His being) in order to relate to creation. One such example given by Scott Oliphint in a different book is that, prior to creation, God was not merciful because nothing existed that needed mercy. With the entry of sin, God now takes on the attribute of mercy (as well as justice). Thus, God can change in this way according to His sovereign choice, and yet not change ontologically (The Battles Belongs to the Lord, p.114). But to Dolezal such change denies immutability and thus God would cease to be God (pp. xiv, 28, 81, 89, 95-97). To the mutual theist God became merciful upon His act of creation. To the classical theist these features have always been part of His essence (p. 99).
As can be seen, this theistic division over God is complicated. Yet Dolezal claims, “No less than true religion is at stake in the contest between theistic mutualism and classical Christian theism” (p. 104). Still the argument seems to be more about theological systems than biblical data—something Dolezal reluctantly admits (pp. 44, 63-69). It seems to me that something so important as to be foundational to true religion (Christianity) warrants clear teaching in Scripture and would not be left to deduction, reason and metaphysics. It is possible, even likely, that I am not smart enough to grasp the issues, but I cannot see how the mutualistic theism view threatens the nature and essence of the Godhead. But All That Is in God will certainly challenge and sharpen the reader’s understanding of God.
All That Is In God Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism by James E. Dolezal (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017) 162 pp. + xviii, paper $18.00
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher Southern View Chapel.