All That Is In God
ARTICLE BY MALCOLM YARNELL AUGUST 2017
James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017) 176pp., $13.50.
Typically, when handed a new theology text, within a few minutes I will determine to read it sooner, read it later, or read it not at all. Rarely will I browse a text then refuse to put it down. But James E. Dolezal, a Reformed Baptist professor at Cairn University’s School of Divinity, has crafted a captivating piece of philosophical theology regarding what have been called the metaphysical attributes of God, while drawing upon the related disciplines of biblical, historical, and systematic theology. His thesis is that the classical view of God is being lost through the conversion of evangelical theologians, even among his own family of Calvinists, toward recent mutualist understandings of God. He believes it is ultimately “impossible” to maintain the two views together (135), and the opposition requires resolution sooner than later. “No less than true religion is at stake in the contest between theistic mutualism and classical Christian theism” (104). Defining these two terms properly is the key to understanding Dolezal’s well-written argument.
First, what is “classical Christian theism”? Biblically, it has roots in those statements about God that refer to his unchanging nature, his eternality, and his ineffability (this latter term is mine, not Dolezal’s). Historically, classical theism was fostered by church fathers such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Augustine; furthered by medieval theologians like Boethius, Anselm, and Aquinas; encapsulated in Reformation confessions across denominational lines; and maintained by past evangelical luminaries like Francis Turretin, Stephen Charnock, and John Gill as well as, more recently, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, and Richard Muller. Classical theism is strongly advocated today by Paul Helm, Peter Sanlon, and Steven Duby.
Theologically, Dolezal defines classical theism over several chapters. In chapter two, he affirms divine aseity (that God is from himself), pure act (that God has no passive potentiality), and divine immutability (that God is unchanging), alongside divine impassibility (that God does not suffer). In chapter three, Dolezal advances his primary academic concern, the truthfulness of divine simplicity (that God is not composed of parts), which entails divine independence (that God does not require creatures), divine infinity (that God is without limit), and divine creation (that God is radically distinct from creatures). In chapter five, he addresses the difficult doctrine of divine eternality, rejecting all temporal definitions as improperly limiting God with creation. He also affirms God is “eternal Creator,” by which he means God willed creation eternally although he enacted its existence temporally. In chapter six, one of his longest, Dolezal advances the patristic habit of necessarily grounding the doctrine of the Trinity in divine simplicity before addressing perichoresis.
Second, what then is “theistic mutualism”? This new phenomenon, perhaps now ascendant in evangelicalism, is also called “theistic personalism.” It rejects classical theism, which it believes offers a “cold” God unable to relate to his creatures. There are two types of mutualism, a harder version advocated by process theologians and open theists, and a softer version that objects to the harder version yet allows for “some measure of ontological becoming and process in God” (4). Hermeneutically, the movement is based in a univocal reading of the biblical attributes and activities of God that on the surface picture change in God, change brought about with, in, or by creation.
Historically, Dolezal traces theistic mutualism to the Enlightenment skepticism of David Hume and the “critical” ideas of Immanuel Kant, then pins its advocacy among more orthodox readers on Isaak August Dorner, A.A. Hodge, and J. Oliver Buswell. Next, Dolezal sets his sights for a star-studded cast of contemporary evangelical theologians. This includes biblical theologians like Donald Carson and Wayne Grudem; systematic theologians like John Feinberg, John Frame, and J.I. Packer; and philosophers like William Lane Craig, Ronald Nash, and Alvin Plantinga. It was surprising to this author to see Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann, who have exercised outsize influence, relatively lightly treated, while more sustained treatment was given to the above and to Rob Lister, K. Scott Oliphint, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.
Even contemporary Evangelicalism’s star theologian, Kevin Vanhoozer, comes in for review, though Dolezal’s evidence here is woolly (72). However, his most extensive and strategic criticism is reserved for Bruce A. Ware, especially in his 1986 JETS article reformulating the doctrine of divine immutability to make room for a form of passibility, but also regarding his ruminations on the doctrines of the Trinity, the Son’s eternal generation, and Christ’s incarnation (24-28, 31, 65-67, 132-33). Other than the inevitable misreading or two, the author does not operate unfairly or grossly even as he surveys rapidly.
Dolezal generally provides nuanced and careful critiques and classifications, and he is willing to grant his opponents the benefit of perhaps being genuinely unaware of the truthfulness, capacity, and subtlety of the classical position (7, 35n). He even admits he also once toyed with a combination of the classical and mutualist views of God (xiii). However, Dolezal’s personal ignorance is now past, and he condemns theistic mutualism as incompatible with and destructive of the right view of God, carrying with it “idolatrous implications” (7, 35, 58).
Unlike the author of All That Is in God, I believe the jury is still out on whether soft theistic mutualism is entirely incompatible with classical theism. However, Dolezal is an able prosecuting attorney who has fashioned an apparently solid case against the novel theology. International evangelicalism will likely feel compelled to address the matter further.
Malcolm B. Yarnell III
Research Professor of Systematic Theology
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary