All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, by James E. Dolezal

James Dolezal is a Baptist theologian who has already published a book on the difficult subject of Divine simplicity. This is his second book. His subject is a contemporary theological phenomenon he calls theistic mutualism. The book is a kind of sequel to the book on simplicity. “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” Dolezal’s object is to define theistic mutualism, show how it is different from the doctrine of God confessed throughout the ages by the church, how it is actually opposed to said doctrine, and why, therefore, it ought to be rejected.

Theistic mutualism is related to process theology and open theism. Unlike these, it affirms that God is simple, unchanging, eternal and one in substance. What theistic mutualism then does, however, is affirm that while God remains unchanged by external causes, he can nevertheless will change in himself in relation to his creatures. Theistic mutualists believe there is a mutuality between the creation and the Creator, a back and forth—hence the designation Dolezal coins. They want to have the changing, responsive God of process thought without the theological problems. What Dolezal does is show that this is substandard theology. “Unfortunately this sort of confusion with respect to the language of being abounds in the God-talk of many modern evangelicals,” he says on page 66 and note 7. I suspect he uses the hideous term “God-talk” advisedly.

What modern evangelicals? John Feinberg, Kevin Vanhoozer, D.A. Carson, John Frame, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, Donald Macleod, Scott K. Oliphint, Wayne Grudem and of course B.Ware. (That’s a lot! The remaining evangelical scholars are used to support his argument by being quoted positively, so the book is balanced in that aspect. All joking aside, it is worth saying that his support is catholic in the best sense of the term, not just evangelical.) Ware gets the most attention, and Eternal Functional Subordination makes it into the book, but only at the end. Dolezal mostly steers clear of that controversy with canny citations of material published prior to the debate, but this argument is the next logical step in that confrontation. Dolezal is far more concerned with Ware’s polemics against open theism. These, he argues, concede too much to the open theists, confirming the old warning about how we can become like our enemies.

The most interesting chapter is the one in which Dolezal inquires how this came about. He suggests that theistic mutualism arose in the 18th century when the full range of Aristotelian causality became uninteresting or implausible due to the philosophical climate of opinion. David Hume + Immanuel Kant = Enlightenment = Junk Philosophy = Junk Theology (Dolezal manages it more grandly than I; he’s more of a historian than systematic theologians tend to be). If final and formal causality are no longer considered useful, who needs an unmoved mover? He then traces the erosion of classic theism through some very interesting places. It runs through Charles Hodge and R.L. Dabney. The question is, how did we get to a point where so many orthodox theologians can do such bad theology? The answer Dolezal sketches out is that it happened gradually over the last 300 years.

Dolezal, as I have already indicated, defines and defends the classic formulations of the doctrine of Divine simplicity, eternity, immutability, and the unity of the Godhead. He argues that these need no change and ought not to be changed. He is good at getting to the heart of difficult matters such as these are and making the point clear. The book is worth it just for the lucid (and catholically supported) explanations of these doctrines. Theistic mutualists, he demonstrates, end up denying outright or misunderstanding and therefore jeopardizing these crucial doctrines. The result of the misunderstanding is that they do not use them for their intended purposes, and instead of denying, affirm, or instead of affirming, deny. The result, in short, is denying the God that the church has always confessed. The statement theistic mutualism cannot get around is his title: All that is in God is God. If you believe that statement is true and your theological gurus have been mentioned above, read this book. If you don’t know what that statement means, consider reading this book.

Dolezal’s aim is to show how alarming the ignorance of correct doctrinal formulation in contemporary evangelicalism now is. It needs to be exposed, it needs to be considered carefully, and it needs to be rejected. This book is a calm, reasoned, researched, readable and in no ways acrimonious statement of a problem that cannot be left alone anymore. If you don’t want to take my work for it, take Richard Muller’s. It’s the foreword.

Complaint: I heartily wish Dolezal was less given to using the inane phrase “the reason is because.” So much does he enjoy it that he actually finds a translation of Turretin where the great theologian is reduced to that turn of phrase. Dolezal sometimes uses borderline archaisms such as “suffice it to say” in his prose. One can’t complain about that, however. Suffice it to say, he actually talks that way. To what could this be owing? I think he is monotonously steeped in theological discourse to the exclusion of any other. And for what he’s doing, he needs to be.

BWV 229

Komm, Jesu, komm,
mein Leib ist müde.
Die Kraft verschwindt je mehr und mehr,
ich sehne mich
nach deinem Friede;
der saure Weg wird mir zu schwer!
Komm, ich will
mich dir ergeben;
du bist der rechte Weg,
die Wahrheit und das Leben.

Drum schliess ich mich in deine Hände
und sage, Welt, zu guter Nacht!
Eilt gleich mein Lebenslauf zu
ist doch der Geist wohl angebracht.
Er soll bei seinem Schöpfer schweben,
weil Jesus ist und bleibt
der wahre Weg zum Leben.

Come, Jesus, come,
my body is weary,
my strength deserts me more and more,
I yearn
for thy peace;
life’s bitter path is too much for me!
Come, come, I will surrender myself to thee,
thou art the right Way,
the Truth and the Life.

And so I place myself in thy hands
and bid thee, world, farewell!
Though the sands of my life are running out,
the spirit is ready.
It shall hover before its maker,
for Jesus is and remains
the true way to life.

There is no rest in this life. It is a pilgrimage. The consolation is that rest is coming, once life is over. For now we have the promises of God, but we long to possess that which has been promised.

Here is a little more, from BWV 57.

Ah, Jesus, were I already with Thee!
Ah, were the wind
already wafting over my tomb and grave,
I could conquer every affliction.
How blest are they who lie in their coffins
and hope to hear the sound of angels!

That is good religion from 1725. If you are not going to church for that, what are you going for?

The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist, by Robert R. Reilly

The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern IslamistThis book sets out to answer the question: what happened to Islam to make it such an enormous problem today? The author’s strategy is to explain what happened so that we can go on to make a correct diagnosis. Islam has been voided of reason (dehellenized) and as a result turned into an ideology: Islamism. “Islamism is grounded in a spiritual pathology based upon a theological deformation that has produced a dysfunctional culture. Therefore the problem must be addressed at the level at which it exists.”

Roger Scruton says in the Foreword: “In his celebrated treatise The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali set out to show that reason, as enshrined in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and their followers, leads to nothing save darkness and contradiction, and that the only light that shines in the mind of man is the light of revelation.” The result was incoherence. If you drive out good philosophy, your only alternative is bad philosophy. If you decide that God is not on the side of reason, then you have to be irrational.

The spiritual pathology is to ratchet up a high view of God by degrading man excessively. No man can think. Man is not made to think, but to obey. Man must submit to God even by refusing to reason. The theological deformation is Voluntarism and philosophical occasionalism. There is no such thing as cause and effect: things follow because God arbitrarily wills them at every moment. We cannot know him, we cannot understand him, we can only submit. The dysfunctional culture is one in which power and authority are one, all inquiry into anything is discouraged, and the resulting degradation of life is resented. It can’t be blamed on God, it must be blamed on incomplete submission.

To me, al-Ghazali sounds like presuppositionalism, which is why I read the book. It is far more interesting than reading stuff by presuppositionalists.

Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, by Charles W. Ferguson

So much serious writing is merely adequate. Seldom does it excel. Ferguson excels: in description, in expression, in structuring his narrative, in everything. Because of this, there is added enjoyment to this excellent biography, even if sometimes there is excess. You will learn about the importance of the wool trade for England in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. You will learn about the political situation, not only in England, but in the Holy Roman Empire and France. You will learn about the buildings Wolsey built, and how and why. Of course, the main thing you will learn is about the cardinal himself.

Thomas Cardinal Wolsey is a tragic figure, fascinating for his weaknesses, rather than his considerable abilities. He rose from a very low condition to the highest eminence, with power, riches, honor, a concubine, and even a bastard son. Wolsey was till the end of his life a very worldly man, and in his last days he was pathetically religious—he was a man who would do anything to gain and retain temporal eminence. He desired to be the Pope, and would have thrived in Rome, the Rome that so disgusted Martin Luther in 1510. These were the days of the wool-trade in England, of encroaching sheep and continual pestilence, and the days after the chaos of the wars of the Roses. Henry VII laid the foundations for organizing the country again, and after him Wolsey, product of the advantages of a university, labored most diligently. Unfortunately for him, because his ambition was not limited to ecclesiastical, but mostly to political eminence, and because he only favored those beneath him, groveled to those above him, and competed with those equal to him, his successful career depended in the end too much on the capricious Henry VIII. His demise came when he failed to secure the annulment which was at that point in time the one thing Henry VIII had his heart set on. Of all the things Wolsey dared to do, this was the one thing he had no stomach for. Wolsey was proud, ostentatious, addicted to pomp and ceremony, besides being shrewd about the importance and uses of such things, and because of this his ruin was calamitous. The story of his life is a cautionary tale.

203      “It can be judged how he regarded himself when one notes the playacting he did whenever he received a fresh legatine commission from the Pope. He would absent himself from court, and then, having passed around the stage and changed his costume, so to say, he would reappear and be received in state as though he were really an ambassador fresh from Rome. By such posturing of his soul he lived, wrapping his nakedness in rich symbols, masquerading among the lords towering above the clergy. If he could not be Pope in Rome he would be Pope at home.”

359      “This was the anomaly of Thomas Wolsey. As with so many men, including the King, his devotions had at many junctures of his life little bearing on his conduct. Yet he did not neglect those devotions, and the office which he said daily and the obeisance which he made to religion at least served to remind and accuse his soul.”

421      “The forces that were carrying the Cardinal to his fall in the reluctant spring of 1529 were political as well as moral, the result of reasoned policies undertaken in good faith as much as of personality and behavior offensive alike to the nobles and the commons. These policies, in which he steadfastly if wrongheadedly believed, had been ambushed by events which none had foreseen.”

424      “In this stately setting, surrounded by the costumes of history, my lord of York was to play out the last act of his career. It was appropriate that he should do so under these implausible circumstances. The rise and power of this talkative fellow, sitting here in judgment of the King and the Queen, had been incredible, and the court itself was sheer fantasy. The fact that it was actually held and that it continued in session for two months taxes human credulity, and its proceedings would be dismissed as legend if they were not a matter of explicit record.”

Getting it

Now I get the deal on the gluten Eucharist. If you understand gluten to be part of bread’s substance, then transubstantiation removes all the gluten. The Vatican has obviously decided gluten is an essential part of what makes bread bread.

That makes sense. Consider: if you do not tolerate gluten and you complain to your priest, he says: but there is no gluten. Since gluten is part of the substance of bread, and not an accidence such as its color or shape, then it gets transformed. For the believing catholic, no gluten remains when you eat the consecrated host.

Now I don’t believe in transubstantiation. But I am inclined to think that gluten-free bread is a bit like gay marriage. You pretend it is bread, just like now the government pretends it can redefine marriage. Both are really fakes.

But all the accidents are those of a regular loaf of bread, you might say. Ah, but there’s the Vatican’s issue: it isn’t the accidents that are transformed. Can it be that they believe gluten-free bread is actually insubstantial? Is it just a cleverly rigged collection of accidents? If you have nothing upon which to go, then what will you get as a result? A charade, is all. Might as well be a protestant!

More probably, you have a promise to transform certain substances, not just any substances. If you use different substances, will they still transform? The problem with transubstantiation is that the accidents all remain the same: you have no way to tell. So it may or may not be working. In fact, it is presumptuous to assume it would work. So that avenue is blocked, and you ban gluten-free.

But there is one more thing. What if you are gluten intolerant and you get a reaction from the consecrated wafer and can scientifically prove it? It then follows that transubstantiation may actually not be happening. The great thing about Catholicism is that they have an army of bright Thomists ready to explain that one Jesuits with an explanation.* Perhaps they will. But I think, because I do not believe in transubstantiation, that they are going to have to conclude that gluten, since it remains (right?), is an accidence of bread, and reverse the ban. Because if it doesn’t, then we are all going to have to accept transubstantiation.


*They can say that there are accidents from the gluten creating the reaction. An instance of this from 2013.


Transubstantiation is in the news. For reasons I have not investigated, the Vatican has decreed that you can’t transubstantiate gluten-free bread. Or that you ought not.

Maybe it is possible. It should be possible, actually, according to the theory, as I understand it.

If you believe in transubstantiation, then here is how you can explain it.

First you have to have matter and form. So far, so Platonic. The Aristotelian twist is that substance is not exclusively formal, but requires matter. So you have matter and form to make the substance of bread. But beyond that you have to have accidental and substantial forms. Accidents are not material, they also are formal. (Matter needs form to be encountered at all, actually.)

So, you can change the accidents on a thing without affecting what it essentially is. You can have barley bread, wheat bread, black or white bread, long or short bread, etc. It is all bread–bread is the basic substance. You can change the accidents, but not the substance: it is still bread. You can change, therefore, the accidental forms supplying that lump of matter with its peculiar characteristics. But if you change the substantial form you’ll get a different substance.

Matter and form account for change. What is the difference between a corpse and the body of a living human? In Aristotle’s irreverent, scientific philosophy, a change in substantial form. Matter is the same, but the form is different. Accidents remain: weight, quantity (one body), color and such. Accidental forms are not necessarily changed, though they’re mutable and may, but substantial form does change in this instance.

So you can change the accidents on a thing, you can switch out the form, but what does not naturally occurr is when both matter and form united (which is substance, as opposed to substantial form), when both matter and form, I say, change at the same time. That is transubstantiation.

Luther thought this was wrong because you lost the bread. He believed the body of Christ was present after consecration, but so was the substantial bread. I suppose he posited two substances in one place. Aquinas, on the other hand, explains that the only part of the bread remaining are accidents: weight, number, volume, color, smell. Another substance occupies that place. Since an effect cannot exceed its cause, the cause that brings about the change of matter and substantial form does not affect the accidental forms. It does not aim to change them, that would be horrible. So the accidents have no reason to change; all the contrary.

Gluten-free would be an accident. Can the body of our Lord cannot have such an accident? Is that what they’re thinking? Makes me wish I were still in class at Villanova. I’d probably learn it was a decision NOT left up to Thomists and therefore a bad, incompetent promulgation.

Practical and Speculative Theology

You don’t have to read very far into The Imitation of Christ before getting a contrast between speculative and practical theology.

“What will it avail thee to dispute profoundly of the Trinity, if thou be void of Humility, and art thereby displeasing to the Trinity? High Words surely make a Man neither holy nor just, but a virtuous Life maketh him dear to God.”

It has to be remembered that speculative theology exists for the sake of practical theology, without which speculative theology is glorious but unfruitful in its splendor, like the sun blazing down on a desert. On the other hand, it will not do to forget that there is no way to account for (to judge, to establish, to correct, to explain and therefore understand) practical theology without speculative theology. Without speculative theology you get a swamp, and everything grows there. You can’t let go of either.

It seems to me that in our idea of the Christian life we favor one or  the other, speculative or practical. Thomas à Kempis, for example, is a product of the Via Moderna. This was a medieval phenomenon, one of the by-products of Nominalism, consciously so, and therefore called modern: the modern way. The emphasis was on the use of theology, not its elaboration. Were the elaborations of speculative theology for him not as real? High Words, he said. So I manifest a reservation.

What is funny is that Erasmus, who’s excellent early schooling was with the Brethren of the Common Life (the Via Moderna’s lay manifestation), appreciated this attitude and at the same time embraced the Platonism of Humanism. Both of them, he found, were congenial for doctrinal minimalism. Erasmus was the admired scholar, the father of reasonable men, men of latitude, men of elegance, and men of selective scruples. Luther, a Nominalist by conviction, was the one who saw the profound individual, personal need for a clear articulation of forensic justification. The difference is integrity, and integrity rejoices in the truth, It even makes good use of bad philosophy, it seems.

You can do two things with à Kempis’s emphasis. You can use it to dismiss elaboration, to set aside speculative theology as relatively unimportant. I have not read à Kempis carefully enough recently enough to judge. As you probably can tell, being positive of the Via Moderna is not something I’m keen on. I do understand one must not dismiss all things, even Nominalism and its theological spawn Voluntarism have served good purposes . . . as the sons of Jacob did when they sold their brother to the Ishmaelites on the day of their greatest infamy. Platonism, as can be seen above—a kind of, at least—has served bad purposes. But you can use à Kempis’s emphasis to do a second thing: to make sure speculative theology is being applied.

What I am sure of is this: you cannot drive a wedge between speculative and practical theology. They must be related. They have to be coordinated. The complex relationship should be clear to us, explicit. And we should beware of those who do not value both.