Scholasticism for Evangelicals: Thoughts on “All That Is in God” by James Dolezal

Scholasticism for Evangelicals: Thoughts on “All That Is in God” by James Dolezal

I am grateful to God for giving to James Dolezal substantial gifts of theological knowledge and intelligence. But insofar as he desires to convict most of his colleagues of heresy, I cannot join him on the side of the prosecution. Rather, I am hoping that in time Dolezal will develop a more mature way of responding to his colleagues. What he has done has been to adopt scholasticism, one philosophical model of the relation of God to the world, and demand that his colleagues agree with this model in detail, if they are to maintain their orthodoxy. But there are all sorts of things wrong with this approach.

James Dolezal, All That Is in God (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

Scholasticism names a type of theology that matured in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. In the post-reformation period, both Protestant and Roman Catholic thinkers adopted many of the methods and conclusions of scholasticism, and some of these are even reflected in the Protestant confessions. In the “Enlightenment” of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many philosophers and theologians reacted strongly against scholasticism, so that in the nineteenth century scholastic and anti-scholastic agendas contended for supremacy in the theological academies.

I studied with Cornelius Van Til, who was in turn influenced by but critical of the Dutch neo-Calvinists such as Kuyper and Dooyeweerd. They accepted some doctrines characteristic of scholasticism—divine simplicity, aseity, supratemporal eternity—but in general they treated scholasticism as a theological blind alley. They were highly critical of Aquinas, saw him as a “synthesis” thinker, who tried to combine Christianity with Aristotelian and neoplatonic philosophy. When one neocalvinist referred to another as “scholastic,” that was a term of reproach. The general consensus was that those who do theology in the scholastic way were on a slippery slope that could end only in Roman Catholicism.

Besides extensive study in church history and the history of doctrine, I studied Aquinas in some depth, in a course with Van Til, later in a course with George Lindbeck at Yale Graduate School, and after that in my own research and writing. In the end, I emerged with great respect for Aquinas, one of the most brilliant and penetrating thinkers I have ever encountered, and certainly an impressive Christian man. But I also saw some truth in the neo-Calvinist critique of him. I trust that experience has given me something of an open mind when confronting scholasticisms of various kinds, such as that of Dolezal.

Dolezal’s book is a defense of some aspects of the doctrine of God that were stressed in the scholastic tradition. Among these, divine unchangeability, simplicity, eternity, and Trinity. He believes that the general rejection of scholastic method among evangelicals has led them to compromise these doctrines or to deny them altogether. As he sees it, the only remedy is to return to scholasticism, even to those aspects of scholasticism that make the least sense to modern thinkers.1

The most common evangelical alternative to scholastic metaphysics is what Dolezal calls “theistic mutualism” (1).

“Mutualism,” as I am using the term, denotes a symbiotic relationship in which both parties derive something from each other. In such a relation, it is requisite that each party be capable of being ontologically moved or acted upon and thus determined by the other.2

Dolezal thinks that “theistic mutualism” (TM) is very common among evangelical writers today and in the recent past. He cites as examples Donald MacLeod (21), James Oliver Buswell (23), Ronald Nash (23), Donald Carson (24), Bruce Ware (24), James I. Packer (31), Alvin Plantinga (68), John Feinberg, J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig (69), Kevin Vanhoozer (72), Rob Lister (92), Scott Oliphint (93), and, yes, John Frame (71-73, 92-95). Wayne Grudem joins the group later for his adherence to “eternal functional subordination” in the Trinity (132-33). This group brings together many of the most important thinkers in evangelicalism today, and I am honored to be included in it, though I do not agree with all of them on everything. Dolezal, I think, should be more respectful of this group than he is. Is it not even a little bit daunting to stand against such a consensus?

Dolezal thinks that TM is a departure from “traditional Christian orthodoxy.”3 He agrees with E. L. Mascall that if we accept TM “we may as well be content to do without a God at all” (6), and with Herbert McCabe that TM presents a “false and idolatrous picture of God” (6). David Bentley Hart also charges TM with idolatry. Plainly, on Dolezal’s view, TM is vile heresy.

Now, if Dolezal really thinks that all the men in the above list are heretics, he will need to spend quite a bit of time bringing charges against them in ecclesiastical courts. For my part, I shall defend only my own orthodoxy in this paper, for what difference that may make.4

Nevertheless, there are a number of points on which I agree with Dolezal and would even contend with him against some prevailing theological trends. When I began teaching theology at Westminster Seminary in 1968, my first elective course was “The Aseity of God.” Van Til, despite his disdain for scholasticism in general, was a strong advocate of divine aseity, what he called “the self-contained God.”5 In my course, I drew on Van Til, Bavinck, and the Reformed tradition. But I noted that despite the fact that many Reformed theologians considered divine aseity to be a central doctrine, few of them had developed any credible biblical basis for it. Given sola Scriptura, this seemed to me to be a serious lack, and so I spend much of the course trying to develop the doctrine from explicit biblical teaching. So I was pleased that Dolezal referred in his defense of aseity to 1 Kings 8:27, Acts 17:23-28, Rom. 11:35-36, passages I also stressed in my elective course. Like Van Til, I emphasized the creator/creature distinction and opposed any tendency toward “correlativism,” the notion that God and the universe (or something in the universe) are dependent on one another. I thought that issue had implications for epistemology as well as for metaphysics: God made human beings to think his thoughts after him, implying that all human thinking should be subordinate to divine revelation. That is the view called “presuppositionalism.” You can imagine how I recoil when someone accuses me of “theistic mutualism.” “Mutualism” seems to be the same as Van Til’s “correlativism,” and I’ve been fighting against that all my life.

When I wrote my Doctrine of God, mostly in the 1990s, My chief opponents were process theists and their evangelical cousins, the open theists. When I sent P&R the completed ms. of Doctrine of God, I suggested to them that I could take some of the material from that book, add to it some specific references to open theist writings and thereby develop a critique of that movement. They responded favorably, and in 2001 they published No Other God. They thought it best to release this smaller book a year ahead of the complete Doctrine of God, and I respected their judgment. Clearly it seemed to me that the process and openness thinkers were guilty of correlativism, and I opposed those notions from Scripture. In The Doctrine of God I defended the doctrines that Dolezal stresses in his current volume: divine aseity, simplicity, unchangeability, timeless eternity. I did not always use the scholastic arguments and definitions, and I used some arguments Dolezal doesn’t use.6 But many of my arguments were the same as Dolezal’s.

Nevertheless, it did seem to me that the process and openness theists had gotten hold of something in the biblical text—something orthodox theologians would have to deal with, without taking the path of correlativism. That something was that in Scripture God does enter into genuinely personal relationships with human beings. Indeed, Scripture emphasizes these relationships. Among them are covenants, which of course are central to biblical redemption. And the principal promise of the covenants between God and believers is “I will be with you,” the “Immanuel principle,” fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Christ came to be with us in space and time, to take to himself our sins, and to bring us new life in him. He came to be our covenant Lord. This is the Gospel, and I determined not to accept any metaphysical premise that compromised this covenantal relation between God and man.

God’s theophanies, as in the burning bush, the fire and cloud, and in the holiest place in the temple, prefigure the incarnation. And through the biblical story, God walks and talks with human beings that he chooses to be his covenant mediators. He is not a temporal being, but most certainly Scripture presents him as coming into time. He is the creator of time and space, and there is no principle that can keep him out. He is not a changeable being, but he really enters the changing world. In that world, he participates in the drama of redemption. On Monday he judges; on Tuesday he blesses. I have called that a kind of “change,” understanding the problems that creates with our general doctrine of God. Should we call that merely the appearance of change? That is a possible formulation we should consider, and it seems to be what Dolezal wants to say. But if we say that God only appears to change in these contexts, must we also say that God only appears to enter time, that the Son of God only appeared to become man (that is the textbook definition of Docetism), that he only appeared to die on the cross and rise again?

Dolezal understands that there is a problem here for those who advocate a changeless God. He admits that much biblical language is “mutabilist” (19). And he thinks the problem is adequately solved by saying that this language is nonliteral, accommodationist, anthropomorphic. He cites Bavinck’s statement that “Scripture does not contain a few scattered anthropomorphisms but is anthropomorphic through and through” (20). These convey “something true about God, though not under a form of modality proper to him” (20). The modality proper to God asserts that God does not change, even in the ways the accommodated biblical language suggests that he does. This doctrine actually contradicts the meaning of the accommodated language.

But Dolezal never seems to understand the consequences of this distinction. It implies that Jesus did not “literally” become man, suffer, and die for us. He was not literally born of a virgin. He did not work literal miracles. Of course Dolezal confesses that there is “something true” about these doctrines of the faith, but every heretic in the history of Christianity has been willing to say that much.

Another difficulty is that the problem he raises recurs on to his own view. Dolezal wants his readers to believe that the changelessness of God (and the other doctrines he defends) is derived from Scripture. But if Scripture is “anthropomorphic through and through,” why is it not anthropomorphic when it speaks of God’s changelessness? Why should we believe literally that God is changeless, but not that God literally became flesh in Jesus? Is it not possible that when God says “I change not” he is speaking nonliterally, anthropomorphically? That text may well be saying “something true about God,” but why should we take it as literal truth, while relegating “the Word became flesh” to a figure?

In fact, texts like “I change not” which yield metaphysical truth about God, are fairly rare in Scripture. Most of the statements about God in Scripture are “mutabilist.” One can argue that the metaphysical statements should take second place to the mutabilist ones in a legitimate hermeneutic. Why should we not say “the word became flesh” is literal, and “I change not” is figurative? Of course, frequency does not equal primacy. But shouldn’t there be some argument at least that the metaphysical statements are so fundamental that they reduce mutabilist statements to a lesser status? So far as I can tell, Dolezal does not supply us with such an argument.

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