All That Is In God

Warning – Scholastic Theological Material Ahead… it could easily make your brain hurt. It is posted in order to reference the current discussion taking place.

James E. Dolezal is Assistant Professor of Theology in the School of Divinity at Cairn University, Langhorne, Pennsylvania. He has written a new book entitled: All That Is in God (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

Product Description – Unknown to many, increasing numbers of conservative evangelicals are denying basic tenets of classical Christian teaching about God, with departures occurring even among those of the Calvinistic persuasion. James E. Dolezal’s All That Is in God provides an exposition of the historic Christian position while engaging with these contemporary deviations. His convincing critique of the newer position he styles “theistic mutualism” is philosophically robust, systematically nuanced, and biblically based. It demonstrates the need to maintain the traditional viewpoint, particularly on divine simplicity, and spotlights the unfortunate implications for other important Christian doctrines—such as divine eternality and the Trinity—if it were to be abandoned. Arguing carefully and cogently that “all that is in God is God Himself,” the work is sure to stimulate debate on the issue in years to come.

John Frame has objected strenuously to many of the things written in this book:

Scholasticism for Evangelicals: Thoughts on All That Is In God by James Dolezal

Frame’s article here needs to be read for the rest of this to make any sense.

Others are now writing, and it seems clear that Frame is not on the side of orthodoxy.

Mark Jones:

Mike Riccardi (on facebook) writes:

So, I’ve been writing out a long response, which, as I was tending to the screaming kids, my phone ate. I’ll do my best to reproduce it.

1. It’s an extremely serious, as well as facile and naive, charge to say that anyone who holds to the historic Christian doctrine of divine simplicity is either (a) uncritically imbibing Aquinas, or, since there is a host of theologians and thinkers who embraced divine simplicity before Aquinas, (b) are uncritically imbibing Aristotle. Before you continue to parrot the objection that simplicity is simply Thomistic or Aristotelian, I would challenge you to demonstrate that Augustine, Athanasius, and the Cappadocian Fathers (all of whom were significant formulators and defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and who explicitly employed the traditional doctrine of simplicity to maintain and defend Trinitarianism from heretical opposition) — I would challenge you to demonstrate that those men were either literarily or philosphically *dependent* on Aristotle for their thinking. That case simply can’t be made. They may have used categories that overlapped with certain of Aristotle’s (or other philosopher’s) ideas, but that doesn’t make the Trinity Aristotelian!

2. What bugs me about the contemporary evangelical / theistic mutualist/mutablist hunt for the Scholastic boogeyman (that is, to suppose that identifying an idea as “scholastic” or “Thomistic” or “Aristotelian” is sufficient refutation of that idea; it’s not; just because Thomas or Aristotle taught something doesn’t make it automatically unbiblical) is that we all stand on the shoulders of the so-called “scholastics” any time we use language like “person” and “essence” or “nature” to speak about the Trinity — or, to use an example that is more close to home for you, Scott, any time we use language like efficient or proximate cause to describe biblical compatibilism. The fathers didn’t wholesale imbibe the metaphysics of Greek philosophy, but they certainly spoke in those categories — ousia, phusis, hupostasis (and persona, substantia, essentia in the Latin fathers), etc. Again, there was significant revision of those metaphysical categories to reflect biblical truth (even using nonbiblical words like homoousios!), but there wasn’t this fear that to even use the same categories that the philosophers used would be a necessary subjugation of biblical authority to philosophy. Similarly, whenever we use the formula of proximate and efficient causation, we could be legitimately charged with employing an “Aristotelian” theory of causation. But simply because Aristotle might have helpfully observed that there are different kinds of causes and different levels of causation, it doesn’t mean that those categories are off limits when we see those concepts emerging from Scripture as well (e.g., in Acts 2:23). That brings me to #3.

3. In God’s mercy, certain men, created in the image of God, and endowed by His common grace with intelligence, are able to see truths about God from the light of nature, because God is clearly revealed therein (cf. Rom 1). Now, that’s not an argument for the wholesale imbibing of so-called “natural theology;” it’s just an acknowledgement that sometimes even unbelieving philosophers can reason to true conclusions about God, or think in categories that accurately describe the reality we live in. Their conclusions aren’t to be accepted on the basis that they said them, but on the basis that, in the mercy of God, *some* of them overlap with biblical truth. So, “That’s Scholastic,” or “That’s Thomistic,” or “That’s Aristotelian,” is not an argument — no more than when someone dismisses the doctrine of the representative headship of Adam or the active obedience of Christ because, well, “That’s covenantalism.”

4. It’s disingenuous (or, at the least, woefully uninformed) to insist that Frame, Feinberg, et al. *do* believe in simplicity, immutability, etc.; they just do so differently than “Thomism” does. That fundamentally misunderstands what simplicity, immutability, etc. *are.* You can’t say, “God is simple, but He is the kind of simple that affords Him multiple existences and the ability to alternate between states of being.” Or “God is immutable, but the kind of immutable that affords Him the ability to make some minor changes.” That’s not a different version of simplicity/immutability; it’s negating those concepts while still wanting to use the terminology — presumably to attempt to remain orthodox, or at least to retain the language of orthodoxy. That’s very similar to saying, “Oh, I believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, I just don’t believe Christ’s obedience is the righteousness imputed.” It equivocates on what anyone who has employed those categories has ever meant by “righteousness” and “obedience.” Or, to use another example (from NPP), it’s similar to saying, “I believe in justification by faith alone, I just don’t believe that the righteousness conferred in justification has anything to do with one’s standing before the law. That would be legalistic.” No! The biblical terms for “righteousness” and “justify” simply cannot be evacuated of their legal character (i.e., conformity to the standard of a law) and still be the biblical concept of righteousness/justification. So again I say, it’s disingenuous (or at least woefully uninformed) to say one can deviate from the core historical definition of a doctrine while still believing in that doctrine. The contention is that modifying simplicity/immutability/etc. in the way, e.g., Feinberg does in “No One Like Him,” isn’t to modify them at all, but to reject them, propose an alternative, and call it by the same name.

5a. To me, the biblical case for simplicity is fairly straightforward. God *is* love. He *is* Light (i.e., holiness). He doesn’t merely *have* love and holiness as properties external to Him which He instantiates/personalizes, but He *is* those things. From there, we have to ask, “Does Scripture mean to exalt love and holiness above God’s other attributes, so that, whereas He *is* love and holiness, He only *has* power and unchangeableness, etc.?” I don’t believe so, especially when one does consider statements in Scripture concerning God’s independence (e.g., Acts 17:25; Rom 11:35) and aseity (e.g., Exod 3:14). I find that the claims of the classical doctrine of divine simplicity validly follow from those statements — i.e., that God is not composed of parts, that He doesn’t move from one state of being to the next based upon the creature, etc. And I’d also say that the biblical case for simplicity is made any time Scripture speaks of God’s oneness (e.g., Deut 6:4) — His tri-UNITY. Because models of God’s oneness that deny His simplicity simply cannot account for why that oneness is a genuine oneness of *essence* fully possessed by all three Persons of the Trinity, and not merely a social oneness, similar to how my wife and I are genuinely *one* (even see Matt 19:6!) while not sharing an identity of essence. If your doctrine of divine oneness can’t account for why that oneness isn’t the kind of oneness that can also be shared by separate beings, you can’t account for why tritheism isn’t a viable doctrine of God. “Well, because God is one!” you say. Yes, but you’ve already equivocated on your definition of “one” by denying simplicity, and thus allow for a oneness that is something other than identity of essence. Far from undermining or failing to explain the threeness of God, the classical doctrine of simplicity is necessary to maintain the genuine oneness of God. In fact, I’d contend that anyone who thinks simplicity undermines Trinitarianism has an implicitly partialist view of the Trinity, where each person does not fully possess the undivided divine essence, but is rather a one-third part of the divine.

5b. And many of those who have denied simplicity (certainly not all, but a troubling enough number) have gone precisely there. As Dolezal shows, J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig say each of the three persons are “distinct centers of consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will,” and say (in strikingly similar language to Frame’s review), that “on no reasonable understanding of ‘person’ can a person be equated with a relation. Relations do not cause things, know truths, or love people in the way the Bible says God does.” What’s the conclusion? “It is the Trinity as a whole that is properly God. … the Trinity alone is God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while divine, are not Gods. … We could think of the persons of the Trinity as divine because they are parts of the Trinity, that is, parts of God. It seems undeniable that there is some part-whole relation obtaining between the persons of the Trinity and the entire Godhead” (cited in Dolezal, 125-26). Yes, once you jettison simplicity, conceiving of the Father as “part” of God is undeniable. It’s also heretical. Not just angry-social-media-rant heretical, but *actual* heresy. Similarly, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. says, “…it will be appropriate to use the designator ‘God’ to refer to the whole Trinity, where the Trinity is understood to be one thing, even if it is a complex thing consisting of persons, *essences*, and relations” (cited in Dolezal, 126-27). There you have it. Deny simplicity, remain internally consistent, and you will be constrained to confess that the Trinity consists of multiple essences, entirely in contrast to Nicene (325 *and* 381) orthodoxy. Once again, this is actual heresy. And while, of course, those like Frame, Feinberg, etc., do not take their denial of the classical doctrine of simplicity to those heretical conclusions, they only stop short of them inconsistently.

Further interchange from Mike Riccardi:

//I am not trying to be combative. I long for orthodoxy as much as you or anyone else in this discussion.//

I hear you, brother. No combativeness perceived. And I don’t doubt your longing for orthodoxy in the least. Much love.

//The attempt of Dolezal’s brand of classical theism . . . . I am simply baffled by Dolezal’s attempts to solve this sort of dilemma.//

I need to quibble with this, because it’s not Dolezal that’s proposing something novel here. It is not his brand. His position literally *is* the Christian tradition, even though it might be newer to you and me (and it is newer to me, and my ignorance of it is my responsibility as a Trinitarian monotheist).

//That is why Frame’s notion of a simple yet complex God seems to make better sense of the data of Scripture.//

I need to plead with you to hear the inherent contradiction there. “Simple yet complex” is a fundamental violation of the law of non-contradiction. As is “immutable yet changeable,” or “impassible yet impassioned.” You say, “As is three yet one!” But no, that’s not the same thing, because we don’t claim that God is three in the *same sense* that we claim He is one. Where A and B seem to be exclusive to one another, saying “A is true and B is true, though not in the same sense, and we’re not entirely sure how they reconcile,” is different than saying A is not A. The former is the model of tri-unity, the latter is the model of “simple yet complex.” “Simple yet complex” is “Simple yet not simple.” But “Three yet one” is not “Three yet not three.”

//For example, Steve Hays has shown that Jewish and Muslim scholars have used the same classical theist model to support unitarianism and many have argued that it fails to make sense of the Trinitarian character of God.//

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Christian doctrine of divine simplicity is used by other monotheists to support monotheism. That they understand this linchpin for the oneness of God but cannot understand how it coheres with the threeness of God isn’t the doctrine of simplicity’s problem; it’s the problem of unitarian presuppositions. When I hear this objection, all I hear is: “God cannot be one *and* three.” But we can’t undermine God’s oneness to make room for His threeness simply because we don’t understand how the two cohere. That reminds me of how kenotic theology — birthed out of the same Enlightenment/Kantian rationalism and opposition to metaphysics as the denial of simplicity is — basically claims that Christ had to empty Himself of some aspect of His deity, at least some divine attributes, otherwise He couldn’t be genuinely human. But that’s nothing more than claiming that Christ can’t be God because He’s man. We don’t modify aspects of Christ’s deity in order to make room for His humanity. Neither ought we to modify God’s oneness in order make room (i.e., make room in our finite minds which cannot fully comprehend these things) for His threeness.

//How do we maintain the unified essence of God and yet maintain the distinctness of each of the persons of the Godhead?//

Well, this is precisely the question that occupied the church in the third and fourth centuries! And before answering that, I just want to observe that if we can’t answer that question by reporting how the Gregorys, Basil, Augustine, Athanasius, et al. actually answered it, we ought to be wary of dismissing core tenets of their argument. We need to do the work of refuting the pro-Nicenes before we decide to take an ax to the pillars of their theological argumentation.

//In the way that Dolezal argues (which is the most detailed version I’ve read), I am having trouble making sense of that distinction.//

Let me ask you this. Do you have trouble making sense of the claim that each person of the Trinity *fully* possesses the *undivided* divine essence from eternity? If not, what about simplicity seems to be saying/claiming something different than that? If so, are you prepared to reject orthodox Trinitarianism itself, seeing as how that’s basically a summary of the doctrine of the one-and-three?

I may risk giving an answer before I hear, here, but I’d be willing to bet that you don’t struggle too mightily with accepting that each person of the Trinity fully possesses the undivided divine essence from eternity, and that you wouldn’t think that confessing it is an instance of trying to unscrew the inscrutable. And that’s because it’s language we’ve both learned to accept even though we recognize we don’t fully understand it. It’s more “traditional” to us than the more-seemingly-philosophical statements that God’s being is not compounded, or that He’s pure act, etc. But what we’ve been willing to accept without fully understanding it (i.e., Trinitarianism) — because we trust the men have done the work to bequeath to us a biblical doctrine of God — has actually been the truth of simplicity (along with the truth of threeness) all along! We’ve been standing on that foundation, comfortable with confessing three in one, without recognizing that it’s simplicity (among other things) that keeps that foundation capable of supporting our theological weight.

So what’s the answer to your question? I believe it lies in the distinction between persons/subsistences and substance/essence/attributes. To think that the claim “God is not composed of parts,” is at odds with “God subsists eternally in three persons,” is implicitly to assume that Trinitarianism claims “God is composed of three persons.” That’s why I said that I think seeing simplicity and threeness to be at odds is essentially partialist. But partialism is not and has never been Trinitarianism. We must confess that God is not composed of parts, because Scripture’s testimony to monotheism, divine unity, aseity, and immutability demands us to. And we must confess that the one being of God eternally subsists in three co-equal and consubstantial persons, who do not each compose parts of the divine essence, but who each fully possess the undivided divine essence — because Scripture’s testimony to the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit, connected with the full deity of the Father, Son, and Spirit, demands us to. And if we’re left unsatisfied with those, I think *there* is where we must confess incomprehensibility. And I believe it is there that orthodox Trinitarianism always has.

For a full treatment of this issue, the following series is recommended:

Kevin DeYoung chimes in:

All That Is In God

Another helpful review by Keith A. Mathison:

Book Review: All That Is in God by James Dolezal

and further here:

now John Frame has responded here:

Biblical Personalism: Further Thoughts on Scholasticism and Scripture

and… finally again here:

Scholasticism and Creation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *