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.

Luther:Man between God and the Devil, by Heiko A. Oberman

LutherThis is a book to be read with careful attention. It is not ordered strictly chronologically. Rather, it is structured around certain strands of the story Oberman wishes to emphasize. The main events of Luther’s life have several layers, and by treating individually, Oberman can give a greater sense of the complexity of the whole. The result is a deeper take on a familiar figure.

If you look at the table of contents you will see three parts. The first explains the events in which Luther figured as German, Medieval and elemental. For example, the reformation as a German event is a look at the politics of the situation. The reformation as a Medieval event is a look at the continuities with the past–that from which this new thing arose. In the second section Oberman goes into Luther’s influences more, and shows how his thought changed over time. The third section deals with the problems facing Luther once the break was made and there was no return. He still deals with individual issues diachronically, such as Luther and marriage, a most interesting chapter. And in the end he evaluates the reformer.

It is hard to think how any biography of Luther can be more readable (a good English translation), more intelligently ordered to provide the facts a maximum of meaning, or, curiously enough, better illustrated. Rather than include a section of glossy paintings and woodcuts in the center of the book, the illustrations are lavishly scattered at the point of the text with which they have to do. It dampens the effect of some of the paintings, but since most of the illustrations are woodcuts and frontispieces, it works.

Still Spinning

Evangelical biblical scholar Denny Burk signals that as a result of the Trinity Debate his church is now reciting more of the Apostle’s Creed than formerly (and than there is, actually). If this can be construed as a move, then this is a move in the right direction. Perhaps one day they’ll even give the Nicene Creed a try.

“If last summer’s trinity debate did anything, it raised awareness among evangelicals about the primary importance of eternal generation in distinguishing the persons of the trinity.” I’d like to object to that statement. But I find that I can’t object to that statement because that is probably all it actually did among evangelicals.

So that’s the big take-away from all the Trinity Debate after all the dust and acrimony, all the hand-wringing about tone, all the solemn meetings, protestations, unctuous bluster and epiphanies. How about reciting the Ten Commandments, Denny Burk? Can’t get more Biblical than the Ten Commandments. The first couple and maybe also the ninth might be useful in connection with the Trinity Debate.

Guides to Aquinas

I find that I need to be oriented to an author before I can really make intelligent use of primary texts. It will help you to understand Aquinas if you get a sense of when he lived, what people were doing, what he was trying to do, what he did and did not have access to, and what in general he accomplished. Here are seven guides.

Chesterton, G. K. St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’. Someone somewhere says that it is remarkable how right Chesterton is on Aquinas while being so inaccurate. Chesterton is good for making you interested in Aquinas, rather than being someone you consult for getting details straight or understanding something difficult.

Pieper, Josef. Guide to Thomas Aquinas. I’m not even sure that I’ve read this, but I’ve read enough of Pieper to know he will be good on Aquinas. I read The Silence of St. Thomas most recently. If it is in the Guide that Pieper makes the wondrous suggestion that in the end Aquinas turned from Aristotle to Plato, then I’ve read it. Pieper is concise, easy to read, clear, and the most platonic of all the Thomists I’ve encountered.

Copleston, F. C. Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker. Copleston’s is not the most recent or the most thorough, but it is reliable and shorter than those who are more detailed and more thorough. You may wish to start with one who is more simple. People still swear by his multivolume history of philosophy. This is a very decent book you might easily find used.

Davies, Brian. The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. If you were only to get one, this one may be it. If your criterion is detail, scope, and not the loveliness of the font or the niceness of the binding, if, in short, substance over style is your thing, Davies is the man. Aquinas was a thinker, and this gives you access to his thinking.

Kenny, Anthony John Patrick. Aquinas. Kenny is the odd atheist who appreciates Aquinas, to a point. It is quite short, it is not altogether always helpful, but it exists.

Shields, Christopher John, and Robert Pasnau. The Philosophy of Aquinas. Second Edition. This can function as a reference work. Need to look something up that is accurate and recent? This is topical.

Turner, Denys. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. If I only got one of these books and I cared about having an enjoyable book, this would be the one. It is not as detailed as Davies, it is not as consultable as Shields & Pasnau, but it is elegant in font and binding, reads like a novel, is amazingly substantial, and explains why it distorts. His aim is a caricature, but it is a useful, sympathetic, illuminating caricature. I’d say it was the best book on Aquinas I’ve read.

Getting Around in Aquinas

If you are going to use Aquinas, you should know your way around what he wrote. Here is a page where you can find most of what you need in English translation.

Here is how I’d describe it.

His Summa Theologiae is considered his main work. It is not the most detailed, but it is the most extensive. He quit before completing it, but he didn’t have a long way to go. It was finished by his pals. In some ways, the ST can be considered the main source on Aquinas: it is his most famous work. But if you want to get to the details, to write careful papers and figure something out better, you need to move beyond it.

The Summa Theologiae is laid out in a particular way. It has a first part, the first part of the second part, the second part of the second part, and a third part. So you have to understand that layout. You also have to understand that in each part there are sections that can be called whole treatises and can be consulted independently. He has a section on Christ and his work, a section on law, and so on, and each of these can be used as individual treatises.

Beyond that, each part is composed of questions, and each question is subdivided into articles (which are also questions—they are the larger question broken down into its component questions). Why does he ask questions? Because of his method. After you get the question addressed in the article, you then see this: various objections to the positive answer to the question, then a statement of the positive answer with some elaboration, which is the heart of the article, and then replies to the original objections.

So you get the title of the section which is the question—very important to read this if you are like me and usually skip titles. Then you have the objections leading off the article. These are the next-to-least important part, for all they come first. Then you have the heart of the matter, the answer to the question stated, then the explanation. Then you have the least important part last, the answers to the objections. All the parts can be useful, but you can make sense of what Aquinas is doing if you read the question first, then the response, then the explanation, then the objections, and then the answers to the specific objections. Or you can proceed in order, but I find it tedious and confusing to do so.

That is his method. Let me also say this about method. With method you get theology as science, and so you get systematic theology. Before Aquinas there was no systematic theology as such. If you look for method, you will not really find it; after him it becomes so foregrounded that eventually you get theological prolegomena, and beyond. When you start the ST, you will see him proceeding according to scientific method with two questions: (1) does it exist, and (2) what is it? Does God exist in order to be studied, and then, what is he. That is where he starts, and then proceeds to develop everything else from there. So much, then, for the ST.

His Summa Contra Gentiles is intended to provide theological answers to people dealing with unbelievers. It covers the same broad categories that the ST does, but it does so with a particular angle. Because it is not assumed that unbelievers will accept arguments based on Scripture’s authority, you will find arguments that avoid Scripture as much as possible. This is not because Aquinas thinks all doctrine can be rationally derived, it is because when you show up at a debate with an atheist or someone of another religion, you may not want to plan simply to preach a sermon.

The SCG is not laid out in the pattern of the ST. Instead, you just have the arguments for whatever he is affirming, and you don’t have the objections, response, and replies to objections. You can get straight to the issue, but in the ST you may get more detail. The SCG may, on the other hand, bring you into more detailed reasoning. And you can interpret one in light of another. If you click on one of the books that form the broad divisions of the SCG, you’ll get a list of the topics he deals with, and a sense of the order in which he proceeds. You can read his own statement of intention in the first book, and that is illuminating, and Scriptural.

An abbreviated version of both Summas is the Compendium Theologiae, which is classified in his Opuscula, his minor works. I think it is the place to start on any topic. This is the most concise statement of his theology, and from there you can move on to the broader statements in other works.

The opposite of the CT are his various Questiones Disputatae. In these disputed questions you have treatises which are the most detailed form of his theology, and if you want to deal with Aquinas seriously, you have to get into these. De spiritualibus creaturis, De Unione Verbi Incarnati, De veritate, De potentia – this is where it is at, the Aquinas of Aquinas, De anima, De malo, De virtutibus, Quodlibetales.

In all these works, keep clicking on the divisions until you get a list of propositions or questions, and this is what will give you a real sense of the scope of the work.

Aquinas of course commented Lombard’s Sentences. That is just how you started teaching theology in the 13th Century, and that work will illuminate his thinking in other works. Besides all these, you have the Opuscula, which include letters and sundry minor treatises, such as one on the eternity of the world. That one got him in trouble with the Platonists of the U. of Paris.

When doing systematic theology, you need several ingredients. You can find several of these ingredients unmixed in other of Aquinas’ works. One of the ingredients is obviously revelation. If you wonder how he arrives at some of his conclusions about particular texts, or are interested in a kind of glimpse of him doing his primary job (he was first of all a preacher, dedicated to preaching, and all his writing was intended to make the job of the preacher better), then you could look at his commentaries. He has commentaries on many of the books of the Bible.

Another crucial ingredient for Christian theology is philosophy. Good philosophy, that is. If you want to understand philosophy as Aquinas understood it, you can read his commentaries on Aristotle, which are numerous and weighty. This aspect of his thinking is crucial, of course, and anybody pretending to master Aquinas has to deal with his interaction with Aristotle. What is not so easy is that you have to understand the neoplatonic context in which this new appropriation of Aristotle arises. You’ll just have to study history for that.

You can find another useful translation of the ST here. It includes linked words you can click on to get definitions or even short treatises on, but not the parallel Latin. The layout of the various sections is stated in paragraphs, so it helps you also get a sense of the contents of each treatise within each division (1st, 1st of the 2nd, 2nd of the 2nd, and 3rd, remember).

You Should Know Thomas Aquinas

If you are a Christian of some theological understanding and you do not know your way around Thomas Aquinas, I can tell you something true about yourself: you are missing out.

Aquinas? Wasn’t he a catholic? Yes and no. I can tell you something from experience: in the USA, the Catholics who are enthusiastic about Thomas Aquinas are the good ones. You should get to know them. You will find there is a lot any religious conservative has in common with them in our days: they are supernaturalists, they are serious about their theology, they function comfortably with pre-modern philosophical categories, and many other such things. You do not, for example, have to explain nominalism to them. Of course, the whole thing is more complicated than I’m portraying it here; but it is in general true.

Yes, he is a theologian a good Catholic can be enthusiastic about (and a bad one not so much). So there is that. But he lived in the 13th century, and you can’t just classify him according to events that took place 300 years after he lived. He was part of Western Christianity, which at that point only existed under the pope, was in continuity with the Christianity that came down from the Apostles themselves, and from which the concerns and impulses of the late middle ages, the renaissance, and the Reformers arose. There are whole books nowadays devoted to exploring exactly how much of Aquinas there was in, for example, a man such as John Owen. Books, not just a cloud of ephemeral journal articles.

What is so great about Thomas Aquinas? What is so great is how much he thought about, and thought about carefully and well. He thought about virtue, he thought about sin, he thought about pleasure and he thought about law. In all these areas, and more, if you consult him, you will be rewarded with worthwhile insights. He is the kind of person you can rely on at least to get started correctly on a problem. I have been studying his explanation of transubstantiation, and here are two things I learned. Even though I don’t believe in the transformation he describes, I understand his reasoning. His reasoning depends on certain distinctions one has to make, and these distinctions are real and useful, and now I understand these better. The second thing I learned was how it feels to get an argument about something whose premises you don’t accept, in this case premises resting on belief. Aquinas believes something about the Eucharist I do not, and so his reasoning on that basis is to me both ingenious and strange. I am the unbeliever in this instance, and now I have a better idea of what it is like to hear such things.

I intend more on Aquinas in future posts. But before I end, let me add one more incentive to interest in Aquinas. The things that we Protestants agree on with Aquinas outweigh the things that we do not. If I can learn in disagreement, as I did above, how much more in agreement?

Prayer and Theology

We are to come to the Lord with our requests—among other things—but we are to come to the Lord. That is, we do not approach one whom we do not know, are not trying to know better, and who is not worthy. In fact, decency requires that we endeavor to understand him whom we approach with these requests, and reverence demands that we do it to the best of our abilities.

The result ought to be that when we approach the Lord, we not only bring our requests but also our theology. Here can be found the dynamic element in prayer. We tend to think the dynamic element in prayer is found in God. But God never changes. This is not to say that God does not hear and respond to our prayer, but it is to point out that we ought to expect prayer to be dynamic not outside of ourselves only (in a change to a circumstance or situation we have in mind). We ought to expect prayer to change us.

God never changes. This is good theology: he is immutable. How does that influence our prayers? It points out that the one who needs to change is not God. Is God ill-disposed toward us? Is the circumstance we are undergoing unforeseen? Has he run out of ideas and is he looking for some suggestions from us about what to do? God has all the options, all the power, all the wisdom and insight, and he goes so far as to understand the end of the story of which that situation is merely a part. It cannot be said of us that any of this is true.

I have often thought of God as capricious, or intolerant, ill-tempered or irrational. All these are idols and a comment on the state of my heart more than a comment on anything external, let alone anything real. These attitudes and ideas do not reflect reality, and the only thing they affect is me. When God says he is a jealous God, we ought not to think that he is such a being as is affected by the passion of jealousy, that it suddenly overtakes him influencing his behavior so that better thing that he might otherwise have done are eclipsed. This is to approach God without good theology, as if he were a mutable God, or more precisely, a passible rather than an impassible God. This kind of theology discourages prayer.

It is counterintuitive to say the opposite: God’s impassibility encourages prayer. The truth is, however, that a God who does not change is a God who is not like us, and that, after all, is a compelling reason to pray to him. What would God change toward if he were subject to change? One who is omnipotent cannot become more powerful, the only direction of change would be toward less power. Praying with the expectation that God will diminish in power is not really prayer. One who is perfectly good could only become imperfectly good, and that is not what we ought to desire. We do not want to have a God who changes. Impassibility is a part of God’s immutability. God is not affected by things, he does not change his affections, which means he does not have emotions. He does not go from a state of happiness and good-will to one of anger and ill-temper. He is not subject to passions.

Were he to be subject to passions, he could be surprised. God’s omniscience excludes divine surprise. God cannot be surprised. God cannot be informed of our situation either. He cannot be reminded of how it is for us: he knows that already. And what is more, he cannot be persuaded by us to do something less than what he has purposed. What God has purposed is perfect. It is just, it is right, it is good: it is what should be done, and it is what we should want.

And there is that dynamic element: what we want. One of the things prayer does for us is to reconcile us to our situation. It does that if we come to the Lord with adoration, acknowledging that he is impassible and good and wise and that all things are done according to the council of his will. Prayer reconciles us to our situation when we come with thanks, thanking God for not being capricious, for never making a mistake, for always doing what is best, for having foreseen not just more than we can foresee, but for having foreseen because he has foreordained all things.  Prayer reconciles us to our situation when we confess our own faults, our idolatries and evil desires. When we come to God with our requests and our theology, we may find our requests modified, but what we can be sure never will be modified is God himself. And as we draw near to him, he draws near to us, and works in our hearts, and fits us for his plans, rather than fitting himself, or his plans to us. And that is the answer to the great request.