by Craig A. Carter & Lawrence Weiler
The following essay was done by one of my students, Lawrence Weiler, in a course on “The Doctrine of God” at Tyndale University College. The assignment was simple: to summarize the main argument of the book by James E. Dolezal, All That is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Reformation Heritage Press, 2017) and then to evaluate it in the light of the material learned during the course. In the course, we read Edward Feser’s, Five Proofs for the Existence of God (Ignatius Press, 2017) and a book by Andreas Kostenberger and Scott Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (IVP, 2008). We also read essays on the Trinity and the attributes of God by John Webster, Scott Swain and Michael Allen. We also read a chapter of Brian Davies’s book, Philosophy of Religion (3rd ed., OUP, 2004) and the Introduction to John Cooper’s book, Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers, (Baker Academic, 2006). Throughout the course we discussed the core issue of the relationship between the biblical doctrine of God and the doctrine of classical theism that has formed the content of the confession of the mainstream Christian Church for the past 1600 years.
In the introduction to this course, I pointed out that ever since the emergence of the pro-Nicene consensus on the doctrine of God enshrined in the Niceno-Constantinapolitan Creed of 381 AD, all branches of the Church in the East and West and both Roman Catholic and Protestant have confessed that God is simple, immutable and perfect, as well as loving, gracious and merciful. God is both the Unmoved Mover of classical theism and also the one who speaks through the prophets, answers prayer and does miracles. The orthodox, Christian doctrine of God is the classical theism of general revelation as confirmed, supplemented and corrected by contemplating the special revelation contained in Scripture. For the sake of clarity on this point, I prefer to call the traditional, orthodox doctrine of God “Trinitarian classical theism.”
However, in the Nineteenth century, voices began to be raised in opposition to Trinitarian classical theism and in the Twentieth century Trinitarian classical theism was placed on the defensive. Suddenly, the idea of an immutable, simple, eternal God who is able to speak and act in history began to seem problematic. The God who speaks and acts was increasingly portrayed as the biblical God, while the God of classical theism was increasingly portrayed as “the God of the philosophers,” a kind of Greek, philosophical imposition on the personal, relational God of the Bible. Theological trends like process theology (Whitehead and Cobb) and dynamic panentheism (Moltmann) suddenly became popular. The idea that God is in history or evolving along with history was embraced by major theologians. Various forms of what I call “relational theisms” and what Dolezal calls “theistic mutualism” began to present themselves as alternatives to Trinitarian classical theism.
Conservative, reformed and evangelical theology was not immune to these trends. But rather than embracing something as radical as process theology, evangelicals tended to nibble around the edges of Trinitarian classical theism without throwing it overboard completely. Brian Davies describes the embrace by several evangelical philosophers and theologians of “theistic personalism,” a view of God that sees God as a person, a being among beings, sort of like a vast mind with infinite knowledge. Dolezal speaks of evangelicals who embrace social Trinitarianism. Some evangelicals are trying to speak of God as changing but not changing at the same time, trying to incorporate some kind of change into God under the impression that if God does not change in response to his creation he is not really personal.
Dolezal’s book is of great importance because it confronts such trends head on and describes the choices facing evangelical and conservative Protestant theologians as we evaluate the modern trends toward relational theisms of various kinds. His book is clearly written, calm and irenic, but one cannot read it without coming away with a sense of foreboding about the future of evangelical theology. The foreword by Richard Muller calls it “a clear, constructive argument for the superiority of classical Christian theism” (xi). Weiler’s essay is a good introduction to Dolezal’s important book and I hope those who read it will go on to engage with Dolezal’s arguments carefully and with an openness to the possibility that just maybe the tradition is wiser than we are on this point.
“All That is in God” A Review
In All That Is in God, James Dolezal seeks to convince readers that the fundamental claims of classical Christian theism are nothing less than the truth of God as He has disclosed Himself in creation and Scripture. He also challenges modern theological views that have chosen to abandon God’s simplicity and the infinite pure actuality of His being, showing how those views simply cannot stand in light of what God has revealed about Himself. He particularly emphasizes the importance of the doctrine of divine simplicity as a core tenant upon which much of classical theism stands or falls and as a guard against heretical reconstructions of God’s triune nature. This essay will summarize Dolezal’s argument and evaluate it using knowledge gained throughout this course.
Dolezal begins by introducing the two main models of theism he intends to explore and contrast. The first model is classical Christian theism which, in keeping with the views of the Church Fathers, holds to the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassability, simplicity, eternity and the unity of the Trinity. The second model is theistic mutualism, sometimes known as “theistic personalism.” In seeking to make God more relatable, adherents to this view insist that God is involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures. Though there are harder and softer strains, they all have in common the idea that God is ontologically open to being changed by His creatures, whether this is initiated by the creatures or sovereignly by God Himself. The concern of theistic mutualists is that divine immutability would make it impossible for God to have an authentic loving relationship with the world, since this requires being open to human action and influence upon Himself. The concern of classical theists is that by insisting God be changeable, theistic mutualists have undermined His perfection and fullness of being and made Him composite and interdependent with the world, potentially falling into idolatry. In light of this concern, Dolezal argues that the mutualist conception of God must be challenged in order to stay true to Scripture and its faithful explication.
Dolezal focuses his second chapter on the doctrinal claim of God’s immutability from the perspectives of the two models of theism already introduced. According to classical theism, God is wholly uncaused and self-sufficient in His being and cannot be moved to further actuality, since that would imply imperfection or absence of being in Him. His self-sufficiency is maintained by His aseity, which refers to the fact that God just is who He is from eternity to eternity, always being, but never becoming more or other than He is in any way, even through His relations with creation. This entails that God is purely actual in being, unable to undergo change of any kind, making Him immutable . Even though Scripture is filled with mutabilist language that seemingly implies God’s changeableness, classical theists understand this to be a figurative accommodation by God in order to proclaim truth about Himself to human beings. Theistic mutualists, on the other hand, believe that divine aseity and immutability actually serve to diminish God’s relations with the world, because if He cannot be moved by us, how can He genuinely relate to, care for, and delight in us? For this reason, they argue that the language of Scripture should be taken as it stands, showing God to be a personal being in a real give-and-take relationship with His creatures. Bruce Ware, while still insisting on the unchangeableness of God’s nature, contends that God’s relationship with creation involves both parties assuming new states of being. To maintain God’s absoluteness, Calvinist theologians put forward that God only undergoes changes that He has sovereignly willed for Himself. According to Dolezal, however, this view fails on account of some objections. First, it is incoherent to say God is ontologically immutable, but deny His absolute immutability, because every state of being, essential or non-essential, is an ontological state. Second, even if God sovereignly wills and controls changes in Himself, He would still become something other than what He was before, gaining something He lacked so as to increase in perfection.
Dolezal believes every current heresy can be at least partially attributed to the misunderstanding, ignorance, or abandonment of divine simplicity, so in chapter 3 he reintroduces his readers to this fundamental doctrine of classical Christian orthodoxy. Divine simplicity states that God is not composed of parts of any kind, since that would make Him dependent on those parts to be as He is and also on a composer in order to combine those parts. Therefore, since God must be the sole sufficient reason for Himself and all other things, He must be simple and non-composite. This has some implications, the first of which being that God’s essence and existence cannot be separate components in Him, as they are in all creatures, but rather God must be identical with His essence and existence and they must be identical with each other. The second implication follows that each of His attributes and properties must also be identical with His essence and with each other. Though this sounds peculiar, it is necessary, because God cannot be dependent on anything that is not fully Himself in order to be Himself. Divine simplicity follows necessarily from a number of other doctrines clearly taught in scripture. Scripture makes it clear that God is independent and does not derive anything from outside Himself, which requires that He must be simple. He is shown to be infinite and so cannot be a composite of parts which are necessarily finite. Also, since He creates all things ex nihilo (without any pre-existing matter), He cannot be composed of parts that would necessarily precede Him in being if not also in time. Outside the Bible, this doctrine has been affirmed and developed by theologians throughout history. The Church Fathers recognized the importance of this doctrine for maintaining God’s absoluteness and so utilized it to defend a proper understanding of God as creator and the unity of the Trinity. In the medieval period, the doctrine was arguably expressed at its most sophisticated by Aquinas who further nuanced it with Aristotle’s metaphysics. Aquinas’ expression was then echoed by many during the reformation period all the way to the present day, so it is clear that the doctrine of divine simplicity is central to historical Christian thought.
However, as Dolezal points out in chapter 4, some modern theologians cannot accept the counter-intuitive implications of this doctrine, especially with regards to our language about God. Modern dissenters take one of three approaches to divine simplicity: disregard, denial, or distortion. Disregard of the doctrine began with the emergence of mechanist physics which undervalues the importance of formal (essence) and final (purpose) causes. This was then followed up by Hume and Kant who were skeptical of classical metaphysics to provide real knowledge of the world or its causes, leading many theologians to abandon the metaphysics on which divine simplicity had been developed. More recently, men like Bruce Ware have disregarded God’s simplicity and existential absoluteness by suggesting that some (but not all) of God’s attributes are acquired through His relation to creatures and are thus possessed by Him in addition to His unchanging essence. Other theologians, however, intentionally deny divine simplicity, such as Ronald Nash, who says that in order to be accessible in a direct way with the multipart syntax of our language God must be composite. Otherwise, we would have no true conception of God or a false one like the conception of God as a property. Joseph Feinberg adds that a plain reading of scriptural language seems to affirm the opposite of divine simplicity. Dolezal responds to their charges and says that their assumption that language about God can only be truthful if used univocally as with creatures is not supported by Scripture, because God repeatedly accommodates the true revelation of His being through finite human language There are also theologians who distort the doctrine of divine simplicity by claiming that God’s essence is actually a composite set of attributes. Dolezal argues that this is no different than claiming God has attributes separate from His essence, since it still means He is dependent on parts or principles which are not technically identical with Himself for Him to be what He is. Ultimately, whether through disregard, denial, or distortion of divine simplicity, theistic mutualists have begun to erode the very divine absoluteness they profess.
The doctrine of divine eternity is commonly confessed, says Dolezal, but immensely difficult to understand, since it is impossible for us to speak of God without using time-bound terminology. The doctrine is ultimately incomprehensible, but it is clear, at the very least, that God’s relation to time cannot involve undergoing change. The basic claim of this doctrine is that God does not experience successive states of being, thus having no future or past. This is because, in His perfection and infinity, God cannot lose or gain any moment of His existence, but rather possesses the entire content of His life in a single indivisible present. Even though Scripture uses temporal language to describe God’s eternity, classical theists once again argue that it does so to accommodate the revelation of God’s true nature to humanity. Divine eternity also follows necessarily from the doctrines of divine infinity, immutability, and simplicity, since God cannot successively add to His perfection, cannot change in time, and cannot derive His being from separate moments in time.
All of this obviously conflicts with the claims of theistic mutualists, leading them to argue that God must be temporal in some sense in order to become the Creator of and subsequently relate to the temporal creation. Some, such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, simply deny the doctrine and insist that God’s eternity means that He perpetually passes through an endless succession of moments. Others, such as William Lane Craig, agree that God currently exists and interacts with creation temporally, but argue that God existed timelessly before time and creation began. After the moment of creation, it is believed that God entered into a new state of temporality in order to have real relations with the world. There is yet another group of theologians who mostly agree with the timeless-turned-temporal approach, except for denying that God actually gives up His timeless eternality when He creates the world. Instead, they advocate that God gains various divine attributes, including temporality of action, as a supplement to His essential timelessness in order to create and interact with creation. The common assumption in all of these approaches is that “God cannot create or bring about temporal effects without ontologically participating in the temporality of His creation”. Dolezal argues that this model of an essentially immutable but non-essentially mutable God necessarily abandons divine simplicity despite the insistence to the contrary of theistic mutualists. Furthermore, he argues that nothing which begins to exist can be regarded as divine, so if God becomes Creator temporally, this would make His creatorhood a creaturely, rather than a divine property. Even though our knowledge of God as Creator is revealed temporally with temporal language, eternalists argue this language analogically denotes the absolute reality that He is the eternal Creator. They also argue that God does in fact produce temporal effects from His eternal act of creation, since His will to create and the act of creation are the same within Himself. This means that God creates a temporal creation without being temporally affected Himself.
Dolezal argues in chapter 6 that abandoning divine simplicity also makes the doctrine of the Trinity irrelevant, since it would make any compositional model of divine unity sufficient to explain God’s existence as three distinct persons. Most do not really question that God is one or that the Trinity is a divine unity, but without divine simplicity there is no reason why the Trinity cannot be reimagined as a compositional tritheistic unity, and this is exactly the direction that theistic mutualism has been moving toward. Unfortunately, because the historical orthodox position has rightly defended real distinctions among the divine persons while also maintaining their full divinity, a number of naturalistic theologians have developed composite accounts of the divine unity. The biblical account itself, however, shows a strong conviction to exclusive monotheism while also affirming each person of the Trinity to equally be the one true God. Each of the divine persons is possessed of the same nature, but more than that, divine simplicity requires them to be the exact same God, since there cannot be separate instances of the divine nature for God to be divine. On the other hand, Dolezal argues that the divine persons are also objectively different from one another, being distinct relational properties that are not really distinct from the divine substance. In other words, the Trinity exists as three persons (hypostases) sharing one being (homoousios).
Though motives differ, most modern theistic mutualists reinterpret the Trinity into some model of composite unity, the widest supported model being social trinitarianism. This model states that the divine persons are distinct centers of consciousness, will, and intellect that relate to one another and only collectively constitute the single divine Trinity. Dolezal argues that this univocal identification of the Father, Son, and Spirit as persons removes any safeguards against tritheism. Even appealing to a perichoretic, inter-penetrational unity of the divine persons will not suffice unless it necessarily follows from divine simplicity and unity of substance. Though these various compositional accounts are not necessarily tritheistic, they allow for tritheism as a possibility and it is only the doctrine of divine simplicity that can protect against any possible tritheistic construal of the biblical data.
Theistic mutualists cannot deny God’s unchangeableness without also denying His divine simplicity. However, without divine simplicity, the features vital to upholding God’s absoluteness of being are necessarily undermined. In fact, says Dolezal, every model other than classical theism necessarily falls short of describing the infinite fullness of God’s being and so classical theism is not in need of replacement like theistic mutualists claim.
Dolezal begins his argument by defending the doctrines of divine aseity and immutability against theistic mutualists who discard or reinterpret these very doctrines in their quest to present God as more relatable to His creation. In explicating these doctrines, he rightly appeals to the pure actuality of God, stating that He has no potentiality to be actualized to make Him more than what He is and that He must, therefore, be purely actual, since He is the first cause of all things. He then states that since nothing can be added to a purely actual, self-sufficient God, it necessarily follows that He cannot undergo change of any kind. This is right in line with Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics, which Dolezal himself admits. Edward Feser presents the same logic in his articulation of the Aristotelian proof for God’s existence, saying that a purely actual actualizer, by its very nature of having no potential capable of actualization, is itself immutable or incapable of change. Dolezal, however, also makes sure to show how his philosophical claims are supported in numerous passages of Scripture such as Job 41:11, Acts 17:23-28, Malachi 3:6, and Hebrews 6:18, making it clear that these doctrines are not merely philosophically reasonable ideas, but the true revelation of who God is.
Dolezal’s defence of classical theism primarily rests upon the necessity of divine simplicity for upholding the absoluteness of God’s being. He develops his defence by showing both biblically and philosophically how this doctrine is inseparable from many of the divine attributes including aseity, immutability, infinity, and eternity. For example, if God’s aseity means He is completely self-sufficient and cannot derive any aspect of His being from another, it necessarily follows that He cannot be composed of parts, since He would then depend on them for His very being. Also, if God is truly infinite in His being, then it is not possible for Him to be composed of parts which are necessarily finite. In a way, Dolezal, by showing this interdependency of God’s attributes, powerfully illustrates the main implications of divine simplicity, which are that God’s existence must be identical with His essence and all of His attributes must then necessarily be identical with His essence and with each another. Theistic mutualists think they can just do away with or “adjust” one aspect of God’s ontology with no consequences, but Dolezal shows, on the contrary, that any attempt to do away with God’s essential simplicity is actually dangerously destructive to the divine absoluteness of His being.
In response to the insistence of theistic mutualists on using biblical language univocally, Dolezal says they are mistaken and makes it clear throughout his argument that any language used to describe God must be understood analogically. Human language is ultimately inadequate in its ability to fully explicate the absolute perfection of God’s being, but God has chosen to accommodate the revelation of His being in and through our finite language. This true idea is not unique to Dolezal, since Feser also affirms this in his neo-Platonic proof of God and in his discussion of the divine attributes, saying that the terms we use to describe God’s attributes should not be applied in the exact same way as with creatures, but rather analogically, which is to say that the two senses are related while also not being exactly the same. This affirmation by Feser makes Dolezal’s argument for the analogical interpretation of biblical language about God all the more convincing.
Dolezal also makes a strong case for how the doctrine of divine simplicity guards against accepting a tritheistic reconstrual of the Trinity. Social trinitarians may not claim to be tritheists, but by abandoning divine immutability, and by extension divine simplicity, they have opened the door for understanding the Trinity as a group of individuals, each with a distinct consciousness, intellect, and will. If the triune God is not simple, it is unclear why the three persons are not simply three gods. Divine simplicity requires that the Father, Son, and Spirit indivisibly share of the single divine essence, even while having distinct relations with one another, thus maintaining the integrity of the divine mystery of the Trinity. I do wish Dolezal would have spent another chapter or two wrestling further with the tension between the necessity of divine simplicity and the reality of the three divine persons, but I also realize that this is ultimately a mystery that must be accepted by faith.
In All That Is in God, Dolezal has presented an expertly crafted defence of classical theism and of the importance of divine simplicity in particular. He has shown that any attempt to discard this core divine attribute results in nothing less than denying the absolute and infinite majesty of God’s very being. Far from being outdated, classical theism with its core tenets constitutes the only possible model that can present a true picture of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture and in creation.
Craig A. Carter is professor of theology at Tyndale University College working in systematic theology, historical theology and Christian ethics. His latest book is Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (2018). He is also the Theologian-in-residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church.
Lawrence Weiler has almost completed his Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics (with a minor in Biblical Studies and Theology) at Tyndale University College. He plans to earn a Master’s Degree in Linguistics in the near future. His interests include theology, translating NT Greek and Masoretic Hebrew, video games, and collecting Transformers action figures.
Dolezal, James E. All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.
Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 2017.