As a blogger I get sent a lot of books. Sorry to say, I throw away some of them, shelve most of them, and read only a few of them. Most of the books actually look halfway decent, but there just isn’t time to read everything that comes my way. So when Reformation Heritage Books asked me this summer if I wanted an advance copy of James Dolezal’s All That Is In God, I said “sure,” not expecting much to come of it.
Turns out this is a really important book. Although the text is less than 150 pages, the content is sharp, dense, and bound to generate some controversy. Dolezal, a Reformed Baptist who teaches theology in the School of Divinity at Cairn University (Langhorne, PA), has done the church a favor in raising such crucial issues in such a short book, one that is philosophically technical but still readable for the pastor or seminary student. It’s for good reason the book comes with glowing blurbs from Richard Muller, Paul Helm, and Scott Swain.
So what is this book about? Let me try to give a brief summary and then an offer a brief evaluation.
The Challenge of Classical Christian Theism
“The chief problem I address in this work,” writes Dolezal, “is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being” (xiii). The simplicity of God means God is not made up of his attributes. He does not consist of goodness, mercy, justice, and power. He is goodness, mercy, justice, and power. Every attribute of God is identical with his essence, which also means that although the attributes of God are revealed to us as varied, they are (on the God-side of knowing) identical with one another.
God is whatever he has. He is not the composite of his attributes, some in greater and some in lesser amounts. God is a simple being without parts or pieces. As Bavinck puts it: “If God is composed of parts, like a body, or composed of genus (class) and differentiae (attributes of different species belonging to the same genus), substance and accidents, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, essence and existence, then his perfection, oneness, independence, and immutability cannot be maintained” (Reformed Dogmatics 2:176). In other words, if you tug at the thread of simplicity, a lot of classical Christian theism is going to unravel.
Dolezal’s concern is to defend the immutability of God. Because God is simple and always active (and never passive), “God is not capable of receiving new determinations or features of being—not even if He sovereignly chooses to. Any change in God, even a nonessential one, would introduce new being or actuality into Him” (xiv). The line “even if He sovereignly chooses to” is key to the polemical purpose of the book. Dolezal is concerned that “evangelical mutualists,” among them conservative Reformed theologians we respect, want to portray God as immutable and mutable, impassible and passible, simple and complex, timeless and temporal (7). Not wanting to make the same mistake open theists do—dialing down divine omniscience and divine sovereignty—Calvinistic theistic mutualists argue that God can undergo relational and emotive changes because God himself wills these changes (29). Any changes in God are nonessential changes because they are changes freely chosen.
Dolezal objects to this popular retelling of immutability and impassibility. With the doctrine of simplicity, classical Christian theists have maintained that there is no such thing as a nonessential change in God (i.e., a change that does not touch the essence of God). Every state of being is an ontological state, such that any change in God, even one freely chosen, implies an essential change. Divinity is, by definition, unable to grow, to develop, to move from one state to another, because anything less than pure actuality means God needs someone or something else in order to be fully God. “Because God cannot depend on what is not God in order to be God, theologians traditionally insist that all that is in God is God” (41).
[T]his strategy of denying essential change while admitting nonessential change in God is not available to those who claim to hold to a classical conception of immutability or divine simplicity. This is because according to the simplicity doctrine there is nothing in God that falls outside of His essence or is really distinct from it. When theologians in the classical tradition deny essential change in God, they mean to deny all change in God whatsoever—because there is nothing in Him that is not identical with His essence. Modern evangelicals who offer a model of God as both essentially immutable and nonessentially mutable have effectively abandoned the doctrine of God’s simplicity. They presume that there is some accidental actuality in God that exists alongside His essence. (97)
This mutualist understanding of God is not a minor tweak on classic theism or another way of saying the same thing. Instead, Dolezal maintains that the two views have very different ways of relating God to time, of relating God to his creatures, and of understanding the relations (not relationships) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are not small disagreements. However much we may want to champion God’s relatability and intimate compassion, deviating from classical theism is not the way to do it.
The short version of my evaluation goes something like this: I agree with Dolezal and applaud his defense of divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility, which is why I assigned All That Is In God for my Systematic Theology class this fall.
To expand on that evaluation just a bit, let me make three other points.
1. Dolezal could have helped his case by describing the men he wishes to critique with more nuance. As John Frame points out, Dolezal names a lot of impressive names, including James Oliver Buswell, Bruce Ware, Alvin Plantinga, John Feinberg, J. I. Packer, Kevin Vanhoozer, and, yes, John Frame. While there is nothing wrong with mentioning specific men, even men we like and respect, at times it seemed like anyone who has ever been soft on impassibility or simplicity got lumped in as a theistic mutualist. Dolezal has written a polemical book, and perhaps the issue calls for some polemics, but I’m not sure the combativeness was warranted in every instance.
2. This is a work of systematic, philosophical, and historical theology. To be sure, there is interaction with Scripture at key points. Dolezal is certainly concerned to be biblical. And yet, I think it’s fair to say this is not a piece of exegetical theology. That doesn’t make it wrong by any means, but it does mean some readers will walk away saying, “Yeah, but what all those verses that seem to describe God’s emotional life or his in-time dynamic relationship with his creatures?” This is one of the points Joseph Minich makes in his largely positive review. Dolezal’s response is that Scripture speaks of God anthropomorphically and anthropathically. Dolezal rejects a univocist approach to theology in which we presume that our language about God—in it’s propositional claims and in its forms and modes—literally describes God’s intrinsic act of being (as opposed to the view that says our language about God is true but must not be understood in the same way we might use the same language with reference to human beings). This response is right and salutary, so long as we don’t flatten the contours of Scripture and grow uncomfortable talking about God the way the Bible talks about God.
3. The strength of Dolezal’s work is in recovering the traditional, orthodox convictions which underlie classical Christian theism. As much as I have appreciated many of Frame’s books over the years, his vigorously critical review not only assumes the worst about Dolezal’s motives and conclusions, it pigeonholes the book as nothing but “scholasticism for evangelicals.” Frame chides Dolezal for going against the contemporary consensus of so many fine evangelical scholars. Fair enough, but Augustine, the Cappadocians, the Medieval Schoolmen, and the entire tradition of Reformed Orthodoxy from Turretin to á Brackel to Bavinck is squarely on Dolezal’s side. As Mark Jones puts it, “Not only Aquinas, but patristic, medieval, Reformation, and Post-Reformation Reformed theologians are basically with Dolezal and not the very recent group of authors that Frame calls a ‘consensus.’ The men who wrote the Westminster Confession would certainly join with Dolezal over the revisionist theology that seems somewhat popular in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. After all, they were all Reformed scholastics.” Besides, if Richard Muller has taught us anything, it’s that “scholasticism” speaks of method more than of content. The terms, delineations, and distinctions stretch over many centuries. The convictions about simplicity and pure actuality did not begin or end with Aquinas.
I hope pastors, seminary students, and professional theologians will read All That Is In God and carry on the important discussion Dolezal has raised so effectively. It’s cliche to talk about the “conversation,” but when done well we really can learn from the push and pull that comes from rigorous, yet irenic, theological debate. If nothing else, we should all agree that the doctrine of God is not an insignificant matter in Christian discipleship. If something has been amiss in recent evangelical theologizing about God, we would do well to know what that is.