A Response to James Dolezal’s Critique of ‘Theistic Personalism’ juxtaposed with Classical Theism

I just watched a video featuring a talk given by Dr. James Dolezal, Assistant Professor of Theology at Cairn University, entitled Theistic Personalism and the Erosion of Classical Christian Theism (click title to watch video). Dolezal is a graduate of The Master’s College, The Master’s Seminary (B.A., M.A., MDiv. – John MacArthur schools), and then Westminster Theological Seminary (ThM, PhD). I had listened to him before over at Reformed Forum’s podcast Christ the Center, but was just referred to him in light of the current eternal functional subordination debate aquinas1(EFS). In his presentation, in the video I just watched, he offers a classic view on the classical theistic understanding of God. In other words, he argues for God’s aseity, impassibility, immutability, and simplicity; he uses this foundation to critique what he is calling ‘theistic personalism,’ or the idea, as he frames it, that God is mutable, to one degree or another. What is pertinent for the current EFS debate, currently underway, is that Dolezal critiques Bruce Ware, a key proponent of so called EFS. I am one with Dolezal in the need for critique of the social trinitarianism, and even tri-theism we find present, even if in inchoate ways, in Ware’s theology proper. But unfortunately, Dolezal, and this makes sense and is consistent with his theological training and background, offers a doctrine of God (a certain form of the “classical theist” conception) that is, unacceptable, if we are going to be committed to a conception of God where God’s Self-revelation and explication is regulated by Jesus Christ himself.

In order to introduce the conception of God that Dolezal sketches for his audience, I thought I would refer to a description of English Puritan, William Perkin’s classical theistic conception of God as illustrative of a conception of God that Dolezal, in his talk, argues for. The following is taken from my former historical theology professor and mentor, Ron Frost’s PhD dissertation; watch as he describes Perkin’s understanding of God as impassible and immutable, it is corollary with Dolezal’s view of God:

Love and the will. In speaking of God, apart from any one of the triad of persons, Perkins identified a primary essence which is “void and free from all passion” [Perkins, “Golden Chaine,” 1. 25]. Love, if seen as essentially affective, would include an element of contingency, namely, God’s desire that his creation respond to his love as the complement to his own love. If, however, love is a component of the will, God merely requires such a response . In the Golden Chaine, then, love is striking in its absence as a motivation in God; this despite the primacy of love in biblical descriptions of God. As illustrated in the chart of the Chaine [which Frost provides on the previous page], love appears only after the mediatorial work of Christ.

Perkins also believed that if God’s love is perceived as an inherent motivation (that is, as an affection), it would imply the prospect of universal salvation. He raised an “objection” in the Golden Chaine to make the point, a point which illustrates Perkins’ position that love is defined by God’s arbitrary determinations:

Object. Election is nothing else but dilection or love; but this we know, that God loves all his creatures. Therefore he elects all his creatures.Answer. I. I deny that to elect is to love, but to ordain and appoint to love.II. God does love all his creatures, yet not all equally, but every one in their place [Perkins, “Golden Chaine,” 1. 109, Cited by Frost, 62].

This reflected Perkins’ synthetic definition of God’s love. In his Treatise of God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will, Perkins posed the question “whether there be such an affection of love in God, as is in man and beast.”

I answer that affections of the creature are not properly incident unto God, because they make many changes, and God is without change. And therefore all affections, and the love that is in man and beast is ascribed to God by figure [Perkins, “God’s Free Grace, 1.723, cited by Frost].

Thus, God must be understood to express his immutable will in a manner that accomplishes “the same things that love makes the creature do”. God, then, lacks any inherent affections but he still chooses to do the actions of love or hatred, and uses anthropomorphic language, while working out his eternal purposes: “Because his will is his essence or Godhead indeed.” [Perkins, “God’s Free Grace,” 1.703, cited by Frost][1]

Dolezal contends that a God like Perkins’, as described by Frost, is the only plausible conception available of God that does not impugn God’s character as God. Dolezal essentially argues the same way as we see sketched for us in the Perkinsonian conception of God; that love in God is only a ‘figure’ or an anthropomorphism. That God cannot receive in reciprocal fashion any form of love back from creatures, because that would challenge God’s impassibility/immutability; it would cause God to “move” towards creation and receive something that he ostensibly didn’t have from his creatures, and we can’t have an Unmoved mover God move because that would violate what it means for God to be God according to the classical theistic model that Dolezal, Perkins, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (among other confessions like the London Baptist, and Savoy Declaration) propound.

This God, the one that Dolezal et al. articulate, works well if we are committed to an Aristotelian Monadic understanding of God; it works well if we are committed to a Platonic Pure or Actual Being conception of God. But what if we want to be reliant on a conception of God that depends upon and is shaped by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ? What if, like Athanasius, we want to first think of God as Father of the Son before we think of him as a philosophical monad or pure being? As Athanasius famously communicates, “It would be more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Interestingly, Dolezal ties his style of classical theism (which is medieval and Thomist in orientation) into the classical theism of Athanasius and other Patristics; as if there is a consensual classical theism without any nuance along a continuum of belief (i.e. argument of the beard — a formal logical fallacy).

Dolezal goes on to critique a group of modern theistic personalists, including Ware, Barth, et al. who Dolezal maintains have compromised God’s being (ontology) because they have attempted, in one way or the other, to conceive of God outwith the parameters provided for by the style of classical theism that Dolezal maintains; a style, as we’ve noted, that he believes is actually the absolute and catholic conception of classical theism. Obviously, to throw Ware and Barth together does not work (as Bruce McCormack’s Kantzer lecture number one demonstrates in spades), but in a general way, I think folks like Dolezal&co. believe that anyone who does not fit into their or his conception of classical theism is either heterodox, a heretic, or both; and thus fit into the same category of outside the orthodox faith.

Dolezal, in this particular video does not provide an elaborate critique of Barth (in fact he only mentions his name in passing), but he does list Barth as a theistic personalist. He does see Barth, then as someone who compromises the ontology of God. For Dolezal Barth would do this by holding that God has movement in God’s being when God elects to not be God without us (human beings), but God with us in Jesus Christ. Dolezal, if I am reading him right, would maintain that because Barth holds that Christ is the decree makes God’s being contingent upon creation because God has “moved” and thus added something to His being that He once did not have.

In the final analysis, though, this would be a misunderstanding of Barth (and Torrance, and those of like conviction), and the misunderstanding would primarily be informed by inattention to disparate prolegomenon and hermeneutic between the direction Dolezal is coming from and the direction Barth is. It is a misreading of Barth because Dolezal’s critique would not pay proper attention to Barth’s theory of revelation in contradistinction to Dolezal’s inherited theory of revelation (and thus mode for knowing God).

I will follow this post up later, at some point, with further elaboration on Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and how they do not fit into Dolezal’s theistic personalist critique.

[1] Ron Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” (Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of London, King’s College, 1996), 61-2. [brackets mine]

[2] Athanasius, Contra Arianos, 1.34.

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12 comments

  1. Knowing James, I believe the reason he ties Ware and Barth together is that both of them deny God’s simplicity and impassibility. This is also related to why he claims Athanasius; namely that Athanasius affirms God’s impassibility and simplicity (according to Andrew Radde-Gallwitz Athanasius’ doctrine of simplicity is quite similar to Augustine’s).

    Anyway, you’re definitely going to object to Dolezal’s doctrine of God because he’s pretty much a straightforward Thomist and he is fairly explicit in the role that natural theology plays in his doctrine of God. (He talks about it in one of the lectures he gave at the SCRBPC conference but there are five or six lectures and I can’t recall which one he talks about natural theology in; it may be the one on divine simplicity.)

    Also, full disclosure, James is a friend of mine; he was finishing his dissertation at Westminster at the same time I was doing my M.A. His published dissertation, God without Parts, is a defense of divine simplicity, and it’s quite good, provided you like Thomist philosophical theology.

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  2. I’ve listened to him a couple of times before. I’ve interacted a lot with Jim Cassidy from WTS, like a lot. I know where Dolezal is coming from. But that is mistaken to read Barth that way, he doesn’t reject impassibility or simplicity at all; he simply reifies it in his Christ concentrated way. That’s what I’m going to discuss in the post on Barth/TFT. I don’t think most WTS guys read Barth properly, including Cassidy.

    Plus Dozelal came from the Master’s … oh boy.

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  3. You should keep in mind that Dolezal is not a typical WTS guy insofar as he is a Thomist and is not a Van Tillian (and he has been very critical of Oliphint’s doctrine of God). He is typical in his reading of Barth. He is also a Reformed Baptist with everything that comes with it.

    I can tell you from my time at WTS that Barth was read through Van Til and/or McCormack, which is to say he was read as a modern theologian primarily. So, for instance, I’ve read lots of McCormack and Jenson but virtually no Hunsinger or Molnar or Torrance (I know I should balance out my secondary sources but I haven’t yet).

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  4. I know how WTS guys read Barth because of Cassidy. It makes sense that McCormack is pressed because it makes Barth an easy target. I realize Dozelal is Baptist still, they chided him on Christ the Center for it. At least he’s critical of Oliphant ;-). And the lesser of evils Thomist is better ;-).

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  5. Hey, I consider myself to be Reformed Baptist! Careful! 🙂

    Bobby, you wrote: “Interestingly, Dolezal ties his style of classical theism (which is medieval and Thomist in orientation) into the classical theism of Athanasius and other Patristics; as if there is a consensual classical theism without any nuance along a continuum of belief (i.e. argument of the beard — a formal logical fallacy).” Since I am currently listening to McCormack’s Kantzer lectures, I’m wondering what you make of the narrative he constructs in lecture 2 regarding the early church’s approach to the doctrine of God as starting uniformly from metaphysics and only then moving to the Trinity. He seems to paint with a very broad brush in ways that would seem to mute any potential nuances (e.g. Athanasius). I realize that it is just a lecture, yet in the context of McCormack’s overall critique this particular reconstruction of the early church’s theology plays a fairly crucial role. I’m inclined to agree to a point, but I’m not sure the early church was as monolithic as McCormack describes. The point you make here regarding Dolezal seem pertinent here.

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  6. When I said James is a Reformed Baptist I was referring to his denominational and confessional affiliation and the culture that comes with it. And, like I said, James is a friend, even though he’s wrong on baptism. 🙂

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  7. Reformed Baptist of the John MacArthur ilk? I didn’t think so ;-).

    I’d have to re-listen to that. That period is so fluid it seems hard to nail things down too hard. But just the context itself, categorically, militates against the possibility of making too easy of claims of continuity between classical theisms. Just doing a simple comparison between Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas illustrates that pretty clearly I think.

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