This is the third of my discussions of issues relating to James Dolezal’s All That Is in God. I said in the second paper that I would not address the issue again. Forgive me, please, for saying that; I should never say never. But people who know my work will understand how difficult it is for me to resist a third installment. Still, it is my present intention not to write on these matters again; and this time I really mean it.
In “Scholasticism for Evangelicals,” I focused on Dolezal’s book. In “Biblical Personalism,” I discussed some of the philosophical issues surrounding these topics. In the present essay, I will focus on some of the central conceptual issues as I understand them. These cluster around the doctrine of creation.
Dolezal says, “God’s glory is not actually increased when we glorify Him” (14). He explains,
Human actions are simply the occasions for the unfolding of God’s ad extra display of these unchanging and unacquired virtues…. God simply is that act of existence by which He is. This means that even His relation to the world as its Creator and Sustainer does not produce any new actuality in Him. (15)
I do not disagree with these statements, but I do think they raise a problem that Dolezal does not discuss: what is the status of God’s “relation to the world as its Creator and Sustainer?” Is that relation within him? One might argue that it is, because it certainly is a fact about God that he is related to the world. But on Dolezal’s view, if this relation is within God, then it is identical with his essence. That implies that God would not be God unless he were related to the world. And on that basis, the world itself is God’s essence. But to say that the world is God’s essence is pantheism.
That would not have been a problem for Parmenides, for whom all relations exist as aspects of a distinctionless “Being.” Parmenides was a consistent pantheist, as were his Greek philosophical predecessors. But in a Christian theology, pantheism destroys the creator-creature distinction, which of course is quite central to the biblical world view.
But consider this alternative: Perhaps the relation between God and the world is not his essence, but something entirely outside him. To assert that would allow us to renounce pantheism. And since on any plausible analysis this relation is a changing one, it could not be, on Dolezal’s account, identified with God’s essence. But for Dolezal, God cannot be present in a changing environment. He says, “God does not experience successive states of being” (82). Elsewhere, he elaborates:
As an aside, I find the whole notion that God has “experiences” to be wrongheaded. An experiencer must be acted upon and so receive a determination of being from another. Experience requires that something “happens to” the individual going through the experience. But nothing “happens to” or befalls God since he is pure act. (31, n49)
So God does not experience the world of change. He exists somehow above it, beyond it. Scripture does, of course, teach (for example in Ps. 139) that God is wherever we are, and that he knows our changing plans. But Dolezal regards that language as nonliteral, as anthropomorphism, as I indicated in my earlier paper. In my earlier discussion I remarked at how bold this argument was, for the whole Bible is about God’s involvement with the temporal world and with human beings. For Dolezal to say that all of this is nonliteral is somewhat jaw-dropping. It is as if the whole biblical story were just an image of a metaphysical scheme.1 It is as if we have to abandon everything Scripture says, in the interest of scholastic metaphysics. And if the earlier alternative I discussed amounts to pantheism, this one amounts to deism. On this view, God is not really “with us.”
The pantheistic alternative comes from Parmenides, the deist alternative from Aristotle, who excluded from his Prime Mover meaningful relationships between the god and the creation. Greek philosophy was never able to affirm the biblical relationship between creator and creature, because they didn’t conceive of God in a truly personal way. To them, God was either part of a vague, impersonal Being (Parmenides), or he/it was an impersonal cause of a world it was indifferent to (Aristotle). In either case, he/it was an impersonal principle.
In my second paper, I suggested an alternative which I called Biblical personalism. In Scripture, God is not an impersonal Being who either includes within himself (Parmenides) or excludes from his knowledge (Aristotle) other kinds of being. Rather, he is a person called the Lord. Lordship includes his rule over the world he has made, but it also enables him to enter the changing world and to become part of the historical narrative. He is both transcendent and immanent.
What shall we say, then, about the divine attributes Dolezal discusses, namely immutability, simplicity, eternity, and triunity? Dolezal is right to say that these are the common property of the church and are enshrined in the church’s confessions, Protestant, Catholic, and Ecumenical. But there are different ways of understanding these attributes, and the scholastic is only one. Here is how I affirm them, as a believer in biblical personalism:
God is immutable in that his nature, eternal purpose, and promises never change. But in my judgment Scripture never says that his immutability is imperiled by engaging in relationships with changing people in history. That it is imperiled is an Aristotelian assumption, not a biblical one. In Scripture, God really enters the historical process, and, as Berkouwer said against Barth, there is real “transition from wrath to grace in history.” His Lordship means that he cannot be threatened by changes in the world.
God is simple in that everything he does, he does as a whole being, not by the influence of independent parts or constituents within him. But he is also complex: he has in his mind a vast amount of knowledge. Ps. 139:17 says, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” His works and words are manifold.
God as eternal transcends time. He is the creator of time, and he rules time as its Lord. His knows every moment of creation’s history with equal vividness. And as the Lord of time, he is able to enter time and participate in the ongoing temporal drama. The Bible has no Aristotelian squeamishness about the danger that the temporal world might bring to God. Because of God’s lordship, nothing can keep him out of the world he has made. The world has no power to change his nature or to threaten his sovereignty. And indeed he is everywhere—in and outside the world.
And God is Triune. I don’t have a very good understanding of how that can be, and I don’t think the church in general understands it very well either. Both testaments insist that God is One, but they also teach that three persons are equally God. The church has determined some terminology to express this: God is one “substance,” “essence,” “being,” and he is three “persons.” But nobody has definitively analyzed what the difference is between being a substance and being a person. Dolezal and the scholastic tradition have tried to analyze “person” into “subsistent relation,” but as I indicated in my first paper that analysis makes no sense to me. Better to regard this doctrine as a mystery (as Dolezal advises in other contexts) and worship the one God in three persons. It is significant that the doctrine of the Trinity underscores what I have called biblical personalism. God is not only personal, he is tri-personal. He is not only the model of individual personal existence, but also of social personal existence. As such, we are his image,2 and redemption restores us in that image, in Christ.
- I can’t help recalling that this was what Hegel thought the Bible was. And of course for him the metaphysical scheme in question was his own. ↩︎
- I would be curious to know how Dolezal deals with the doctrine of humanity in the image of God, which seems to me now to propose some challenges to his system. ↩︎