All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. By James E. Dolezal. Reformation Heritage Books, 2017. 162 pp.
God without Parts
Theology, at its heart, is concerned with the knowledge of God. That being the case, when our teaching about God goes astray, so does our teaching about everything else. In other words, if our doctrine of God is in error, it will adversely affect everything we believe and confess about every other doctrine of the Christian faith. Adopting process theology, open theism, or deism, for example, affects one’s doctrine of creation, man, sin, salvation, and everything else. The early church knew this and thus vociferously opposed heresies such as Gnosticism, Sabellianism, and Eunomianism. Even minor errors or distortions in our doctrine of God can have major unforeseen effects on other essential doctrines. This is one of the reasons why Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries formulated precise statements on the doctrine of the Trinity. They realized that slight distortions could have major implications.
In our day, many theologians are introducing revisions into the classical doctrine of God. This revisionist work is occurring not only among mainline theologians but among evangelical and even Reformed theologians as well. One aspect of the classical Christian doctrine of God that is undergoing revision is the doctrine of divine simplicity. We see this doctrine stated in its most concise form in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states that the one true God is “without . . . parts.” Since the early centuries of the church, this doctrine has been understood to be indispensable to a proper understanding of the biblical revelation concerning God. Yet today, denials and redefinitions of divine simplicity are becoming more and more common in the writings of evangelical theologians. This is causing the same theologians to reject and redefine other divine attributes such as immutability, impassibility, and eternity.
For these reasons and more, James Dolezal’s All That Is in God is a timely book. Dolezal revisits the foundational doctrines of classical theism, examines the contemporary criticisms, explains why such criticisms fail, and expounds upon why the classical doctrine of God must be maintained by those who want to remain faithful to Scripture. This is not Dolezal’s first foray into this arena. His 2011 book God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness is an outstanding technical discussion of the attribute of simplicity. It should be required reading in every evangelical seminary.
But what about the rest of us? That is where All That Is in God comes in. This book is written for nonspecialists. This is not to say that it is an easy read. The very nature of the topics and arguments discussed in the book are demanding and require thoughtful reflection, but given the importance of the subject matter, the effort is well worth it. The effort is made easier by Dolezal’s engaging writing style. He is a theologian who can capably write for the people in the pew as well as for those in the academy.
All That Is in God is divided into six chapters, with a brief conclusion. In chapter 1, Dolezal defines the two models of theism that evangelical theologians are currently debating: classical Christian theism and what he terms “theistic mutualism.” Classical Christian theism is the doctrine found in the writings of theologians such as Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, and in the major Protestant confessions of faith. Classical Christian theists maintain the traditional understanding of divine attributes such as aseity, simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and eternity. As Dolezal explains, “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). Theistic mutualism, on the other hand, believes that the traditional doctrine of God’s attributes results in a God who cannot genuinely relate to His creation. Theologians in this camp argue that God has a “genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures” that requires redefinition or rejection of the traditional understanding of God’s attributes (p. 2). In agreement (in varying degrees) with open theism and process theology, the argument is that God “is capable of being moved by His creatures” (p. 3).
In chapter 2, Dolezal examines the doctrines of divine immutability, aseity, and impassibility. According to classical Christian theism, God is absolutely perfect. He does not derive His being from anything outside of Himself, and He is not caused to be. He is self-sufficient. He does not change because He does not lack any perfection. Classical theism has consistently argued that God is being. He is not becoming. He has no non-actualized potentialities. In short, He is perfect. If He changes, then He is moving to a state of “greater” perfection or to a state of “lesser” perfection. If He moves to a state of “greater” perfection, He was not perfect to begin with, and if He moves to a state of “lesser” perfection, then He is no longer perfect. Evangelical theistic mutualists disagree. In order to allow for some kind of change in God, they have begun to adopt a view akin to process theology in which there is both an absolute unchanging aspect of God’s being as well as a relative and changing aspect. Other evangelicals argue that there is no problem with mutability within the being of God as long as God alone is the One who is in control of any changes in His essence. Dolezal helpfully demonstrates the incoherence of these views as well as their unbiblical character.
Chapters 3 and 4 are focused on the doctrine of divine simplicity—the claim that God is not composed of parts. Obviously, if one believes that some aspects of God’s being are unchanging and other aspects change, as theistic mutualists do, then the doctrine of divine simplicity must be either rejected or radically redefined. The doctrine of divine simplicity rejects any such composition in the being of God. The contemporary evangelical rejection of divine simplicity is a drastic departure from historical Christian orthodoxy. As Dolezal explains, “Throughout most of church history, divine simplicity served as the indispensable center-piece in the ‘grammar’ regulating theology proper. It was presumed as a baseline that none dared transgress” (pp. 38–39). But why was it deemed so important? As Dolezal explains, the church has always understood that anything composed of parts depends on those parts for its being. The parts of a composite entity are ontologically prior to that which is composed of those parts. The bricks and mortar are prior to the wall. In addition, anything composed of parts requires something or someone to compose those parts. Thus, the composer would also be ontologically prior to that which is composed of the parts in question. The bricklayer is prior to the wall he builds. The doctrine of divine simplicity denied that God is composed of parts because there is nothing that is ontologically prior to God. Yet today, the doctrine of simplicity is either ignored, redefined, or completely rejected by prominent evangelical theologians with little to no understanding of the ramifications of this move. Of course, some of the implications of divine simplicity (e.g., “all that is in God is God”) are difficult to understand, and this difficulty is often part of the reason for the rejection of the doctrine, but Dolezal provides clear and helpful explanations that should be carefully considered before tossing this doctrine aside as so many have done.
In chapter 5, Dolezal turns his attention to the attribute of eternity, focusing on God’s relation to time. Again, with eternity, we are considering something that is ultimately beyond our complete comprehension. Because we are temporal beings, we can only speak of God in temporal language, but classical theism has understood such language to be analogous language. Although eternity is incomprehensible to finite beings, we can provide a working definition. Dolezal quotes the Reformed theologian Francis Turretin: “True eternity has been defined by the scholastics to be ‘the interminable possession of life—complete, perfect, and at once.’ Thus it excludes succession no less than end and ought to be conceived as a standing, but not a flowing, now. The reason is because nothing flows away with time from the life of God as from ours” (p. 83). Temporal succession involves change by its very nature. Thus, this concept of eternity is closely tied to the concept of immutability. Theistic mutualists argue that God Himself is in some sense a temporal being and thus, a being who changes. Much of this is based on their understanding of God’s relation to creation. If creation is not eternal (as evangelicals agree), God must have become the Creator according to theistic mutualists. Dolezal helpfully responds by explaining the classical theistic understanding of God, time, and creation. He emphasizes that God does not acquire some new property in the act of creation. He acts as the immutable and eternal God. Dolezal also provides a helpful explanation of the difference between our human manner of knowing and speaking about God on the one hand and God’s own manner of being or existing on the other.
In his final chapter, Dolezal discusses the classical Christian doctrine of the Trinity, noting how theistic mutualism has also adversely impacted this essential Christian doctrine. He explains why simplicity was considered by the early church fathers to be an absolutely essential element of the doctrine of the Trinity. It prevented the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, from being understood in a tritheistic sense. It also prevented the three persons from being understood as three “parts” of the one God. Dolezal observes that many evangelicals who have rejected divine simplicity have naturally moved toward social trinitarianism, an understanding of the Trinity undergirded by a compositional concept of unity (p. 106). This concept, in turn, has paved the way for the adoption of a doctrine known as the eternal functional subordination of the Son, in which the power and will of God are divided.
Thousands of theological books are published every year, and it can be difficult to know which among these books deserve our time and attention. Dolezal’s book is one of those books that deserves attention. It is an important work. The contemporary departures from classical Christian theism are no minor matter. These doctrines are influencing the next generation of pastors who will, in turn, fill the pulpits of the church. This is why it is important that those in the pews of these churches be aware of what is going on and be able to recognize departures from historical biblical orthodoxy when they see it. If one does not understand the biblical grounds for the classical doctrine, the arguments made by the revisionists can seem plausible and persuasive. Take the time to learn why these doctrines have been the heritage of the church for thousands of years. Take the time to see why they matter. Take the time to read All That Is in God. It is a good place to start.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on November 29, 2017.