Just finished All That Is In God by James Dolezal, and it’s one of those books that makes things in your head creak (in good ways). It’s heavy and thick in certain respects, and yet at the same time, given the material, it’s relatively accessible and clearly the sort of topic someone could spend a few Saturdays on. So given that, I found it to be a bracing shot of theological whisky.
First off, I’m grateful for the book because it convinced me of the goodness and necessity of the doctrine of God’s simplicity. I also came away convinced that a great deal of modern theologizing, particularly on the doctrines of covenant and Trinity, has not been nearly as careful as it should have been. Clearly the Bible puts an enormous emphasis on monotheism: the oneness, the simplicity of God’s Godness. The basic point to grasp here is the idea that perfection implies simplicity. There are no parts or passions or changes in God. There is no progression of any sort in God whether spatially or temporally or emotionally or in any other way of being. God’s being is absolute perfection in every way, leaving no room for improvement. Any change or progression or movement would imply previous imperfection, previous lack, previous potential. Perfection simply means absolute best possible version in every possible way. Any sort of composition of parts in God would imply imperfection since it renders a part of God dependent on another part or parts. Lots more to say, but that’s the basic idea.
The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner famously complained that you’d scarcely know there was a Trinity from many classical Christian theologians until you’d gotten to the second or third volume of their text, but we should not be so easily dismayed when God Himself barely let on to the Trinity for four thousand years and 39 books of inspired Scripture. The most important thing for Israel to know was Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One. This is the starting point for sound theology. And Dolezal does us a favor to remind us not only to begin there, but to continually circle back, double-checking that our theologizing does not leave those first principles behind.
Second, Dolezal convinced me that a warning is warranted for the way modern Reformed theologians have sometimes played with divine simplicity (sometimes consciously, perhaps sometimes unintentionally) when it comes to speaking about how God relates to His creation. He raises this warning with regard to how some describe God’s relationship to time and events in time, as well as those seeking to describe God’s “interactions” with men as real or genuine. If God does not change in any way, some wonder, how can it be genuine to describe God interacting with creation, or speaking with someone, or responding to some state or event? Does God enter into time in some way? Does He have a timeless being but a temporal way of interacting with time? Well, since God is not composed of parts, Dolezal explains that we don’t want to end up with part of God being eternal and some other part of Him being temporal. Would God be less than God apart from His temporal acts? It would seem so, implying God is in some way dependent on His creation for complete perfection, rendering God imperfect since He needs something outside Himself to be fully God. Likewise, since God’s perfection implies that He does not change, it would not be proper to speak of any sort of sequencing in God. So, even if there was some way of positing God “in time” to then speak of God doing one thing and then the other is once again to imply imperfection since complete perfection would mean eternality and omnipresence. All that is in God is always, eternally present. He fills all in all.
But the obvious challenges this presents are how to speak about God being Creator or Redeemer. How can we speak of God being Creator or Redeemer and not speak of historic acts or sequential acts in some sense? Did God begin to be a Creator at the beginning of creation? The answer must be no — God did not begin to be a Creator because God is eternal, without any beginning or end. The word “begin” implies a sequence, a before and after, but God’s eternity means that His will to create is actually simultaneous in eternity with the decision to create, which in turn is simultaneous and essentially the same as His act of creation. God was not thinking about creating for a long time and then decided to execute the plan one sunny Sunday morning. No, all of God’s plans are always in full execution. God’s fullness fills all that He is, and all that He is, He does. There is no potential in God, only fullness of being, absolute, infinite abundance, in every way, which incidentally, is a profoundly doxological point.
If you read something like this and don’t pause every few pages for what my friend Chocolate Knox calls a “praise break,” you’re doing theology all wrong. It’s thick and profound, but it’s also glorious to make a big deal about God’s transcendence, His otherness, His infinity, which is the very ground of His salvation, His nearness, His love. To gesture wildly in the direction of God’s infinite existence is to highlight our very small finite existence. And this is to make the jaw of your heart drop wide open. What is man that you are mindful of him? The son of man that you care for him? O Lord our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth.
Ok, back from the praise break:
So what we ought to say is that God is eternally the Creator, but what He created was a temporal universe which of necessity had a beginning. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, the Eternal Creator God did not begin to create the world, but the world He created had a very discreet beginning. This gives a whole new momentous significance to “In the beginning…” Though Dolezal does not go into it, the very same language would presumably properly apply to the Incarnation. God did not begin to be incarnate. Properly speaking He is eternally the Redeemer and Incarnate One, but the Incarnation, from an historical point of view most certainly did begin at a very discrete moment in time in the womb of a virgin.
Dolezel helpfully cites various attempts of trying to connect God with time in ways that may seem on the surface to sound a bit more personal or historical or natural at first, but which he argues persuasively actually leave us with more questions about God’s simplicity and/or immutability. The glory of God is magnified by the preservation of the distance between God and man, Creator and creature — the distance that only God can overcome by virtue of being God. At the same time, one may be tempted at points to worry that Dolezel is allowing philosophy or dogmatic theology to trump Scriptural language. Doesn’t the Bible speak of God acting in creation, making covenant, bringing judgment, speaking to men, etc? But there are at least two mitigating factors for this concern: first, the Bible itself speaks this way and at other times speaks very differently, and we should not pit the Bible against itself. The Bible speaks of God having no shadow of turning. God does not change. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And so this language must be held together with language of interaction, response, or conversation. It won’t do to have a predisposition to say one set of language is metaphorical or anthropomorphic but the other set of language is literal. No, we must be content with the truth and humility of Scripture. It is absolutely true, and it is not misleading us, but we are talking about the infinite God who is not completely like anything we know. He is like and unlike everything we know such that what we see now is in a glass darkly.
Dolezal’s case against theistic mutualism — a spectrum of attempts to bridge this distance, allowing for some measure of mutuality, or real change or temporality or sequencing in God, thus muddying His absolute simplicity — is convincing to me. I see what he’s getting at, and I’m strongly inclined to follow his exhortations. My only lingering question or perhaps slight pushback came as I finished out the book on the chapter on the Trinity. And my pushback or question isn’t so much in his articulation of the Trinity and the simplicity of God. That was all quite helpful. But my question basically comes down to whether Dolezal (and/or others working to recover the centrality of divine simplicity) sees a way forward based on the very articulation that Dolezal gives of classic trinitarianism — do you see a way forward for articulating a doctrine of the covenant and divine/human interaction based on the classical articulation of the Trinity? What I mean is this: Dolezal rejects various attempts of some prominent Reformed theologians to preserve God’s simplicity while trying to carve out a way of speaking of God’s true “interactions” with men in history and seems to relegate all of that way of speaking to revelation. But when it comes to the doctrines of creation and the Trinity, Dolezal traces an historic consensus that actually leans into an even more complex answer while avoiding the various heretical ditches. So for example, when it comes to the Trinity, Dolezal had done such a grand job rejecting any idea of composition or parts in God that one might have wondered how in the world he would pull Trinity out of his magician’s hat, but he does it. He cites Augustine and Owen and Bavinck, and traces the way the Trinity has been carefully articulated in terms of “relations” in God. What we call “persons” in the Godhead are not persons in the sense we use the word to describe people at all, but the simplicity and fullness of God’s being is so related and harmonious that it is rightly spoken of as three ways of relating or “persons,” Father, Son, and Spirit. The persons of the Trinity do not compose the oneness or unity of God, but rather, the oneness and unity of God is revealed or communicated in the relations of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Through a glass darkly!
But here’s my question again: it seems to me that Dolezal largely dismisses the attempts of John Frame or others trying to do justice to the covenantal language of scripture while preserving God’s simplicity. Yet, might not the very same template used historically with the persons of the Trinity be applied to our language of covenantal relationship? In other words, Dolezal has argued for a non-composite way of describing distinction and relation in the unchanging, simple being of God. Why couldn’t similar language be used for God’s relational presence toward man? On the one hand, Dolezal is quite right to push back against the implicit suggestion of some that for God’s interaction with man to be authentic and genuine it must in some measure mimic human interaction. But we are talking about the infinite and eternal God. Our interaction with this God would suggest vast divergences and any similarities would come as pleasant surprises. And yet, I still wonder if there is room for filling the picture out a bit more than simply dismissing sloppy or insufficient attempts.
I’m thinking of something like: God does not change. He is all that He is in all that He is. And this absolute simplicity includes the fact that He is the God of Covenant, the Covenant-making, Covenant-keeping God. He does not begin to make covenant or renew covenant, but in His infinite plenitude of being, He has created the universe in time. This infinite and eternal God is eternally and properly present and therefore necessarily active to every moment in time. He does not change, but in the sequence of created time, God’s changeless being can truly be said to act — not in the sense that He begins to do something He was not doing before, but rather in the sense that His absolute being is present and thereby perfectly active — exhaustively performing all that absolute perfection requires, since there is no distance between who God is and what He does. I wonder if something like this offers us a way to speak of the true activity of God in history while carefully guarding God’s glorious simplicity.
In other words, I would plead for a more conciliatory approach to those theologians who are endeavoring to preserve divine simplicity in good faith while trying (if haltingly) to articulate temporal or covenantal realities. To be clear, Dolezal is cordial throughout his work, but what I mean by conciliatory is an eagerness to offer theological language that might fill out what these theologians are trying to say. Dolezal does this with creation and Trinity, and I don’t see why it can’t be done with covenantal or temporal language. Can we not take the same template used to describe God as Creator and Trinity and apply it to God’s covenant action?
Finally, and related to this last point, I would suggest that something like this be made serviceable to those who (rightly in my view) see the necessity of grounding human relations in some sort of accounting of God’s being. Dolezal’s brief dismissal of univocalists who desire to ground human relations in the Trinity or else the Trinity is of no use at all was a momentary lapse in an otherwise thoughtful treatise. If we can speak of “distinction” in a non-composite way, and if we can speak of the “relations” as speaking of the oneness and unity of being, then surely we can speak of those relations having something to do with human relations. While I certainly agree with Dolezal that a certain sort of simplistic univocalism really isn’t very helpful, might one come back with a robust analogical accounting of human relations that harmonizes with the clear biblical invitation to look for and indeed find useful grounding of human relations in the nature and being of God? Eternal functional subordinationism does seem clunky, but Dolezal’s brief treatment did not convince me that there is nothing there to be discussed.