All That Is In Godby James Dolezal
Length: Approximately 5 hours.
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Dolezal insists that God’s unchanging nature is vital to his faithfulness and our assurance. But he sees a growing tendency to favour a ‘mutualistic’ God open to change under the influence of his creatures, over the unchanging, eternal, ‘simple’ God of classical theology.
He urges us: don’t allow your God to become less than he is.
Who should read this?
1. Any Christian looking to deepen their understanding of the Classical doctrine of God, particularly immutability, impassibility and simplicity.
2. Any pastor faced with the pastoral effects (issuing in anxiety and lack of assurance) of a view of God which maintains our potential to cause God pain, sadness or disappointment.
‘All that is in God’ is a remarkably concise book (at just under 140 pages) given that it also provides a robust defence of Classical Theism and forms a thorough polemic against what Dolezal sees as significant errors in the doctrine of God expounded by large swathes of current evangelicalism, including modern Calvinism. Little wonder that it has produced waves since its publication in 2017!
Although Dolezal’s language is inescapably and necessarily technical at times, his tone and style is certainly accessible. In fact, although not many technical works on theology could quite be described as ‘page-turners’ this is one that comes close! I was helped by Dolezal’s efforts to define terms as he developed his arguments, and also found myself drawn to his footnotes more often than in other similar books, where I regularly found further information and helpful clarifications.
In the end though a reader would probably benefit from at least some prior familiarity with some of the concepts at play, such as simplicity, aseity, immutability and the concept of ‘being’.
The major purpose of this book is to take aim at the increasing trend in evangelical circles to maintain that through creation and salvation history God enters a ‘give and take’ relationship with us as his creatures. In short, Dolezal sees within much of contemporary evangelicalism the teaching that human creatures are able to cause change in God. This, he argues, is a denial of Classical Theism (CT), and potentially catastrophic for our understanding of who God is.
Since Dolezal writes in its defence, it is helps to know what CT is. Doctrinally, CT emphasises God’s eternality, unchanging nature and utter transcendence. The major ‘plank’ in CT is therefore the Creator’s absolute qualitative distinction from his creation. Historically, CT is associated with theologians across the centuries, from church Fathers to the Reformers and beyond to figures such as Herman Bavinck. CT in its fullest expression though is perhaps most associated with medieval theologians such as Aquinas and Anselm.
In All that is in God Dolezal focuses particularly on the doctrines of immutability (Ch 2; that God does not, indeed cannot change), simplicity (Ch 3-4; that God is a ‘simple’ being—not that he is simplistic but that he is simple in the theological use of the term, i.e. that he is neither a sum of parts, nor dependent on any composition or prior reality—in other words, “All that is in God, is God”), eternality (Ch 5; not that God is eternal in the sense that he extends into eternity history and future, but that he is entirely outside of the bounds of time itself and does not ‘experience’ in a successive way as time-bound creatures do), and the Trinity (Ch 6).
Accordingly, his polemic has two targets. Inevitably, Dolezal will argue strongly against any form of Process Theology and its understanding that God is a self-actualising being, experiencing time and history along with his creation, and being influenced by both creation’s response to him and his response to creation. This is not his primary target however.
Far more pressing for Dolezal, and far more urgent for the evangelicals likely to read him, is his concern that a large part of the evangelical world teaches various forms of ‘Theistic Mutualism’ (his term), loosening the connections between early 21st century evangelical theology and CT as well as arriving at positions far closer to Process Theology than these teachers would be comfortable with or admit. Dolezal certainly doesn’t hold back in his criticism of such arguments.
He is robust, and not afraid to bring an astonishing number of well-respected evangelical theologians into his cross-hairs, including William Lane Craig, Bruce Ware, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, D. A. Carson, Rob Lister, John Frame and Kevin Vanhoozer.
The major charge with which the book leads is that many Calvinist evangelicals are attempting to have their cake and eat it. While strongly denying any suggestion that God changes in his ‘essential being’ many simultaneously allow that God undergoes change in some ‘non-essential’ manner of being. Indeed, it is thought that such changes in God are required if he is to enter genuine and meaningful relationships with creatures.
The argument goes that since I must be open to allowing others to influence me, particularly in my emotional life, in order to have a genuine relationship with them, so this must also be true of God. Dolezal convincingly maintains that this is a flawed argument when speaking of God, illegitimately applying features of creature to Creator.
Further, he points out that Calvinist evangelicals often argue this to be a situation which God sovereignly allows himself to enter into, that is, God wills that he come under the influence of his creatures, in a way which affects only his non-essential being.
Dolezal’s main counter-argument is that this is an impossibility. Simply put, there cannot be ‘non-essential’ being in God because ‘All that is in God, is God’. This means that there cannot be any ‘part’ of God which is in some way disconnected from God’s very being as God. For God to be in such a relationship with his creatures (even one which he has sovereignly willed) makes some features of God’s being dependent on those creatures. The Creator-creature distinction fades.
Having laid this ground-work, Dolezal circles around this central feature of ‘Theistic Mutualism’ throughout the book, asking what further effects it may have on the doctrines of CT. Divine simplicity and eternality are both at risk where genuine relationship with God is thought to be dependent on God himself crossing the Creator-creature distinction in some way that relates to his own divine essence.
With respect to simplicity, Dolezal’s concern is that a univocal approach to scripture (receiving God’s self-revelation as though is speaks directly of his divine essence) results in an understanding of God’s attributes as being actually diverse in his very being, so that God is constituted by the many features which we might see in him (his love, his power, his wisdom, his knowledge etc) as though these form parts of God.
Rather, says Dolezal, we must recognise the analogical language of Scripture, necessitated by the Creator-creature distinction. If God is to reveal himself to time-bound and complex created beings, the only language available is creaturely. God accommodates to such language so that we see God’s attributes in diverse ways (as wise, good, powerful, loving etc) however “the diversity of divine attributes lies on the side of God’s revelation to creatures, not in the being of God himself.”
Similarly, eternality is at risk as God is described as though he must enter into and be affected by time in order to act within it towards creation. Dolezal’s response is once again to uphold the teaching of CT that God, being simple and immutable, cannot be understood to experience states of being sequentially, as time-bound creatures must.
Ultimately, argues Dolezal, without the simple, immutable, eternal and distinct God of CT we risk obscuring or distorting the God of the Bible himself.
There are a couple of places in the book where I would have liked further expansion in this book. First, I would appreciate more regarding an argument which is implied more than explicitly drawn out.
Where Process Theologians, particularly in the Open-Theism camp teach a view of God’s attributes in which all divine attributes are understood to be subordinate to the primary attribute of love, I wonder if the Calvinist ‘mutualist’ approach tends very similarly towards a voluntarism, wherein God’s attributes (particularly his personal attributes and what might be seen as his ‘emotional life’) become subordinate to his will.
Second, Dolezal rightly (and understandably) majors on the implications of Theistic Mutualism for our understanding of God. Taking a lead from John Calvin, though, any distortion of our view of God will very likely carry effects through to our view of ourselves too. Dolezal touches on this once or twice, however it seems to me that this is another significant concern with a departure from some of the core tenets of CT.
Just before reading this book I encountered two situations in my pastoral ministry in which a mutualistic view of God was having serious effects on a person’s view of themselves. Basically, just as the mutualistic view of God seems to reduce the Creator-creature distinction by bringing him closer to us (in responding to us as we respond to one another for example) so it gives us too much power over him.
The effect may be to give the impression that although in Christ we are given forgiveness from God’s anger at our sin, his responsiveness to our actions in a give-and-take emotional way inevitably makes him the Father who is consistently disappointed with us.
We suddenly have the power to sadden him—to let him down in such a way that his happiness in himself and his rejoicing over us as his people may be obscured. This was certainly the case for my friends struggling with marked spiritual depression. It was heartening to me to see the pastoral power of CT here, which is so often derided as being unfeeling and overly philosophical.
There is one feature of this book though, which troubles me. In his preface Dolezal unashamedly describes his approach as that of ‘contemplative theology’. He is quick to point out that such an approach “need not be in conflict” with biblical theology, yet his tone then becomes somewhat dismissive of the latter.
“Biblical theology, with its unique focus on historical development and progress, is not best suited for theology proper” since “God is not a historical individual.” Further, “this places God beyond the proper focus of biblical theology” (pXV). Although I think I understand what Dolezal is driving at, I do not think this is helpful in the slightest.
One is tempted to ask what, then, the proper focus of biblical theology actually is, if not God and his self-revelation. Dolezal is keen from the beginning to assert God’s eternality in being beyond time, however there surely needs to be a closer engagement with the fact that God does reveal himself in a progressive manner to time-bound creatures.
I am concerned that such an approach at the beginning of the book will have two negative effects: First, large parts of the evangelical world to whom Dolezal addresses this work will be immediately repelled with the effect that Dolezal risks ‘preaching to the choir’. Second, I can understand why Dolezal has received the familiar accusation that contemplative approaches such this tend towards an elitist or even gnostic approach to scripture.
While the warning against a univocal approach is well taken, a response to the Bible’s descriptions of God’s emotional life needs to be more nuanced than saying ‘it may say that but it only appears to be so.’ We mustn’t allow an emphasis on all the rightness of CT to leave us uncomfortable to speak about God in the way he talks about himself in his word. For this reason I would have appreciated more engagement with biblical theologians and especially scripture itself.
Finally, all the talk of God relating to his creatures and the Creator-creature distinction suggests the need for one other vital theological perspective—that of the incarnation. It is of course, here that God does act in a way that does bridge the divide between Creator and creature. In Jesus we have a man who does experience human emotions, who does suffer, and in whom we can say that the Son of God suffers and dies as a man.
It may have doubled the length of the book, it may warrant another book, but I would love to hear how the some of the impulses driving ‘Theistic Mutualism’ as Dolezal describes it are found met in the wonder of the incarnation.
This really is quite the book. To cover so much ground so effectively in so little time is remarkable. There is so much to engage with here that All that is in God could very effectively function as an introduction to CT and the doctrines tackled therein.
Moreover, I firmly believe Dolezal has put his finger on something very important. He is right to note and challenge the evangelical tendency to re-formulate the doctrines of simplicity and immutability in a way which leaves us some distance from the teachings of CT, and at odds with large swathes of historical theology. We would do well to consider just who we find ourselves disagreeing with by insisting on mutualistic conceptions of God’s dealings with us as creatures.