All That Is In God

A Review of James Dolezal, “All That Is In God” (Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

The thesis of Dolezal’s book is that several key tenets of ‘Classical Christian Theism’ have been neglected, distorted or even denied by many contemporary evangelical and Calvinist theologians.  He argues that ‘Theistic Mutualism’ has become more prevalent among leading evangelical theologians (including Bruce Ware, John Frame, K. Scott Oliphint and Kevin Vanhoozer, among others) and that this innovation in the doctrine of God “consistently undermines numerous features of the biblically and classically orthodox Christian doctrine of God.”[1]  Whilst this debate may at first seem abstract and esoteric, as we shall see, holding to classical Christian Theism is essential not only for systematic theologians, but for those in pastoral ministry too.

In chapter one Dolezal surveys two different models of Christian theism: ‘Classical Christian Theism’ (CCT) and ‘Theistic Mutualism’ (TM).  He views CCT as being consistent with the historic Protestant confessions such as the Belgic Confession, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the Westminster Confession of Faith, as well as closely reflecting the theology of patristic and medieval theologians such as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas.[2]  This model, according to Dolezal, is committed to the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, simplicity, eternity, and the substantial unity of the divine persons.[3] In contrast, TM in Dolezal’s view represents a distinct departure from Christian orthodoxy and is characterised by an effort to depict God as more relatable and “involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures.”[4]

In chapter two, Dolezal argues that the reformulation of the doctrine of immutability by Theistic Mutualists is not merely a minor change, but a seismic shift in the orthodox Christian understanding of God. He asks a deeply uncomfortable question to proponents of TM: “If God should be able to will a measure of mutability for Himself, then what other of His attributes, if any, would He be permitted to augment or negate? Eternity? Simplicity? Infinity? Invisibility? Immortality? Omniscience?”[5] In the third and fourth chapters, Dolezal sets out his arguments for the importance of divine simplicity, and critiques what he sees as deviations from this classic Christian doctrine by several leading contemporary evangelical theologians, most notably Bruce Ware.  In chapters five and six, he challenges the doctrines of God’s eternity and the Trinity as they are understood by adherents of the TM position, before concluding in chapter seven that “Theistic Mutualism is not a promising way forward” and that “the traditional doctrines do not need to be replaced or supplemented by more dynamic and lively notions of God.”[6]

Overall, Dolezal presents a persuasive, well-supported argument for the importance of CCT in historic orthodox Christianity (specifically, the classical doctrines of divine immutability, simplicity, eternality and the Trinity), and offers a powerful and sustained critique against Theistic Mutualism. All That Is In God addresses questions of huge significance. Indeed, nothing could be more fundamental than the doctrine of God. Even if you don’t agree with all of Dolezal’s conclusions, he has undoubtedly brought theology proper back onto the radar of contemporary evangelical theology.  His desire to speak rightly of God and to re-direct evangelical theologians back to the correct ‘grammar’ of theology, in line with classical orthodox Christianity, has much to be admired.

Moreover, Dolezal draws upon a wide range of orthodox Christian theologians throughout history to make his case. In his response to All That Is In God, John Frame argues that Dolezal has relied much too heavily upon the scholasticism of Aquinas and that he believes that “Aquinas and his scholastic successors were infallible.”[7]  This criticism would carry more weight if Dolezal had relied solely or even largely upon Aquinas for his critique of TM.  Yet Frame’s response is weak as Dolezal clearly demonstrates that CCT is not an invention of medieval scholasticism, but rather is in line with historic, orthodox Christianity going back to the patristic period.  Furthermore, it has received support not only from Athanasius and Augustine, but Anselm, the Reformers, and many others as well.  Appealing to historical theology alone may not make an argument conclusive, but when combined with his philosophical argumentation and biblical evidence, Dolezal presents a powerful and persuasive case for the inadequacies of ‘Theistic Mutualism’ and how it has deviated from classical Christian Theism.

There are, however, several limitations in Dolezal’s work.  Firstly, Dolezal perhaps too hastily divides theologians into ‘either/or’ categories (CCT or TM), when in reality the boundaries between the two may not be as clearly defined as he suggests.  In his critique of Kevin Vanhoozer, for example, he categorises his theology as ‘Theistic Mutualism’ without a great degree of evidence.  Dolezal concedes that Vanhoozer, on the surface at least, subscribes to the classical doctrine of divine simplicity.[8]  He correctly highlights Vanhoozer’s distinction between divine ‘being’ as simple and ‘essence’ as complex is inadequate.  And yet Dolezal runs the risk of overreaching in his analysis to suggest that Vanhoozer therefore necessarily holds to a ‘Theistic Mutualist’ view. Without further development, it is not at all clear that Vanhoozer (to take one example) views God as being in a ‘give-and-take relationship’ or that he is necessarily influenced by open and/or process theology.[9] However, when we consider the brevity of Dolezal’s work (under 160 pages) this limitation should come as little surprise.  His intent is polemical, rather than to provide a comprehensive overview of CCT or the inadequacies of TM. As such, his tone is certainly not irenic. And yet given the importance of the subject matter, and the dangerous implications of distorting or ignoring CCT, this is not necessarily a negative feature of the book.

Moreover, whilst Dolezal’s argument is consistently based upon Scripture, at times this part of his analysis seems thin-on-the-ground.  But again, in a book of this limited size, this is probably inevitable. It would take a much longer work to provide a fuller exposition of Scripture in his arguments for CCT.

I believe Dolezal is correct that CCT is biblically and theologically vital for the health of our seminaries and churches. All That Is In God is not only for those in the ‘ivory tower’ but it addresses issues which are crucial for those in pastoral ministry too. For example, when counselling someone who is going through a period of doubt or intense suffering, we can state the biblical view that God is unchanging and always keeps his promises (Numbers 23:19). A correct understanding of the doctrine of immutability is essential for this.  This book ought to be recommended reading for pastors, elders, and other church leaders – in fact anyone who wants to take the doctrine of God seriously – because it will inevitably affect all aspects of our theology, ministry, and devotional lives.

References:

[1] J. Dolezal, All That Is In God, 136.

[2] J. Dolezal, All That Is In God, 1.

[3] J. Dolezal, All That Is In God, 1.

[4] J. Dolezal, All That Is In God, 2.

[5] J. Dolezal, All That Is In God, 34.

[6] J. Dolezal, All That Is In God, 136.

[7] John Frame, https://frame-poythress.org/scholasticism-for-evangelicals-thoughts-on-all-that-is-in-god-by-james-dolezal/

[8] J. Dolezal, All That Is In God, 72.

[9] This may also be true of other theologians critiqued by Dolezal, such as John Frame, K. Scott Oliphint, and Rob Lister.

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