A Delayed Take on Dolezal’s “All That Is In God”

I don’t intend for this to be a book review in the traditional sense. For a couple other takes on James Dolezal’s recent book, All That Is In God, see Matthew Emerson’s Themelios review and Ryan Mullins’ JBTS review. What follows here is sort of an informal commentary, written in a context months after the book’s release where several other reviews have already come and gone. My primary intent is to demonstrate why I am less celebratory of the book than others.

Dolezal wastes no time alerting the reader that his methodology will be, at least in part, philosophical in nature (xv). He is in good company doing so, as historically theologians have used philosophical ideas to articulate how to think about God’s attributes. But he also wastes no time framing his discussion exclusively in Aristotelian terms, and gives no explanation for such a commitment, so it’s up to the reader to guess his reasons. Here’s one guess: Aristotelian terms and ideas helped articulate the doctrines within theology proper in the medieval period on through the Reformation and into the period of Reformed orthodoxy. Dolezal likely just inherits and imports those terms and ideas as he seeks to articulate topics within the doctrine of God. He says at the opening of the preface that “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” (xiv) Much of Dolezal’s categories will rely on the actuality/potentiality distinction and a notion of being vs. becoming. To give one more example, “Any change in God, even a nonessential one, would introduce new being or actuality in him.” (xiv) This book defends against such change in God against what Dolezal calls “theistic mutualism,” which is a (somewhat awkward) neologism of Dolezal’s creation. Within mutualism, there is a hard version, like open theism, and a soft version, like evangelical social trinitarianism. The diagnosis he gives is that mutualists

have lost sight of what ‘being’ means. They mistakenly assume that ‘being’ indicates merely ‘nature’ or ‘essence.’ Rather, it denotes any actuality or ‘is-ness’ whatsoever, that is, any participation in the act of existing. (7)

So according to Dolezal, if mutualists just had a proper understanding of what being is, as we should assume Dolezal does, they would be back on track. This diagnosis would apply to Alvin Plantinga, since Plantinga falls under the mutualist umbrella. I personally wish Plantinga affirmed simplicity, but I would hesitate to state his problem as not understanding being as well as Dolezal. I’ll link to this article by Plantinga and to Plantinga’s book The Nature of Necessity — in which he gives precise and complex answers regarding nature, essence, and actuality — as just one example among dozens I could mention that might challenge Dolezal’s assessment.

If this was a book that self-identified only as theological and not as philosophical as well, I would far fewer criticisms about Dolezal’s treatment of immutability, simplicity, and of time and eternity. But by his own admission, Dolezal utilizes philosophy because 1) historically most other theologians have done so, and 2) philosophy, he says, adds precision (see p. xiv). He willingly puts philosophical expectations on himself. So it is surprising that there is no recognition of the subject of, let alone the vast literature of, mereology. None. Mereology — the study of the relation between a whole and its parts — has been a topic throughout the history of philosophy, and ironically was a significant topic in the medieval period, a period that acts as an essential load-bearing piece for much of Dolezal’s work in this book. If I was writing a book on God without parts, and I sought to anchor my ideas with philosophical concepts, I would do quite a bit of research on what others have said on the part-whole relationship more broadly. Even a quick word search at the SEP would have given him a choice between Medieval Mereology or more contemporary studies of Mereology. Or he could have taken a look at L.A. Paul’s significant work in metaphysics where she proposes an ontology of logical parts. I could go on. I believe it is important to defend simplicity, but Dolezal’s polemics fail to address fundamental issues while positioning his account as the metaphysical picture for simplicity broadly conceived.

Dolezal’s account of time and eternity is also lacking any awareness of the broader literature on the topic, despite how central those ideas are to his main theses. Again, I believe God’s atemporal character should be defended, but in a way that is demonstrably philosophically informed if it claims to be philosophical at all. He rightly takes on evangelical views like John Frame’s in which Frame says that “God himself changes” (93). But Dolezal simply assumes an Aristotelian/Thomistic view of time without alerting the reader that he has committed to a specific, reductionist view of time; a view that has a history, with pros and cons relative to other views of time. Instead he pretends the definition and character of time he briefly describes is the view of time. As is the case for almost every one of his philosophical commitments, he gives no justification for committing to a particular view among others at various choice points. It’s like if someone tried to claim that the discipline of logic could be characterized by an Aristotelian syllogism!

But, in fact, that’s exactly what Dolezal does. In characterizing his own efforts under the contemplative approach to theology proper, he says of his approach that “It proceeds in a logical way from major premises through minor premises to conclusions.” (xv) No, it doesn’t. This “logical” way Dolezal describes suffers from two major problems. First, no one argues syllogistically. One of the most well-known examples of a syllogism is

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Not only will you not find historical theological sources making extended arguments using this logical form, Dolezal (thankfully) doesn’t do so in this book either. Second, characterizing “logical” thinking in this way betrays a revealing ignorance of logic and its history. With the developments of Frege, Russell, Kripke, and many others starting in the early to mid-20th century, the discipline of logic exploded and became exponentially more complex and more powerful, and ideas like implication and logical consequence have become fields in themselves. While the history of logic certainly owes a great debt to Aristotle, that historical point is unrelated to what it means to “proceed in a logical way.” It’s like if someone tried to claim that even science as a discipline should get back to an Aristotelian methodology!

But, in fact, that’s exactly what Dolezal does. In one of the most perplexing sections in the book, Dolezal offers his explanation for the erosion of the doctrine of simplicity that began in the eighteenth century. The problem, he thinks, is that Enlightenment-era physics became too mechanistic, disregarding formal and final causation. Post-Enlightenment science, according to his theory, was restricted to efficient causality, and this notion of causality caused a negative impact on how theologians understood causation and its relation to God. Causation as an idea went from robust, under Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, to simplistic, according to Dolezal. And after Hume and Kant’s work, the Aristotelian fourfold notion of causality was dropped within the field of science, replaced by a denial, skeptical, and/or subjective notion of causation. Dolezal says,

The medieval scholastic theologians, as well as the seventeenth-century Protestant scholastics who followed them, had articulated the doctrine of simplicity in terms of an elaborate scheme of denials in which the four causes known through Aristotelian metaphysics (final, formal, efficient, and material) were carefully denied of God. But one would need to presuppose the basic accuracy of Aristotelian metaphysics (or at least that version of it as modified by Aquinas and others) for such elaborate denials to continue to make sense. After Hume and Kant’s attack on the perennial Aristotelian philosophy, many a Christian theologian opted to abandon, rather than defend, the metaphysical structure (regarding being, becoming, and causation) in terms of which simplicity had been so meticulously developed. (63)

Maybe this historical picture is accurate in some ways, and maybe it isn’t. But I’m not sure where Dolezal’s philosophy of science comes from. To suggest that Aristotelian scientific methodology is the fine-grained, robust theory, while post-Enlightenment philosophies of science are mechanistic and simplistic, shows a massive ignorance of the history of philosophy of science and the topics under it. Again, regarding the topic of causation itself in the contemporary context, one would only need to peruse a basic summary at the SEP under “The Metaphysics of Causation”:

Questions about the causal relata include the questions of whether they are in spacetime (immanence), how fine-grained they are (individuation), and how many there are (adicity). Questions about the causal relation include the questions of how causally related and causally unrelated sequences differ (connection), how sequences related as cause to effect differ from those related as effect to cause or as joint effects of a common cause (direction), and how if at all sequences involving causes differ from those involving mere background conditions (selection).

The reader may judge whether the ideas in this summary piece square with Dolezal’s history and diagnosis of the philosophy of science.

Even current philosophers who are Aristotelian in some way don’t mechanically cut and paste Aristotle’s terms and categories into their broader philosophical system. To give an example, E.J. Lowe gives a neo-Aristotelian ontology in his piece, “A Neo-Aristotelian Substance Ontology: Neither Relational Nor Constituent.” But in doing so, he says the following:

while my version of the four-category ontology has its historical roots in Aristotle’s, this by no means implies that I should agree with every aspect of his version. Indeed, I have already made it plain that I rather dislike the ‘said of’ versus ‘in’ distinction, and much prefer the terminology of instantiation, characterization and exemplification.

Unlike Dolezal, who intentionally mimics Aristotle’s terminology and concepts, Lowe recognizes Aristotle’s work as a historical starting point, not as a philosophically infallible canon to be dropped into contemporary philosophical discussion. And for what it’s worth, Lowe takes a similar position with respect to Plato’s work; whether Plato would nod at Lowe’s particular interpretation of his work is an interesting historical question. Lowe is not concerned with doing historical work in his piece, but with an analysis of the ideas inspired by these figures from antiquity. Lowe understands the difference between historical work and systematic analysis in the discipline of philosophy; Dolezal mistakenly blurs and confuses those sub-disciplines not only within philosophy but within theology as well.

I am not arguing against using philosophy to aid theology. I’m not even arguing against using Aristotle to aid theology. What I am saying is that if one is to write a polemical work that ties itself to a specific philosopher and a specific metaphysic, one needs to do so on the other side of considering competing metaphysical theories and how those various theories may or may not aid the theological enterprise. Simply cutting and pasting Aristotelian terms and ideas onto theological terms and ideas because Thomas and/or the Reformed scholastics did so a few centuries ago is philosophically and theologically irresponsible. Ironically, it is also historically irresponsible. If the category of recent history exists at all, and if there have been significant philosophical developments and work on the topics addressed in a piece that claims to be philosophical, then the attempt to be historical will be incomplete and truncated at best, making it a far cry from representative of the various relevant philosophical options.

This book is less of a robust defense of classical attributes of God and more of an example of feebly applying aspects of Aristotle’s works to theology and other disciplines. Think of my main critique as a conditional: if Dolezal wants to tie his defense to a particular philosophical position, then certain things follow. The cause is noble; I consider myself aligned with Dolezal on the importance of defending God’s classical attributes, and the chapter on the Trinity is a nice summary and defense of the doctrine (apart from an odd footnote on p. 115 that would require extensive explanation on the type of hermeneutic proposed there), especially against social trinitarianism. If the classical attributes are the conclusion, I agree with the conclusion. But it’s the way he attempts to defend those attributes — using outdated philosophical ideas — that systemically undermines that otherwise shared cause. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Dolezal was more forthcoming about his Aristotelian commitment and went all in on Aristotle’s metaphysic. The questions I and others would have for him would be: which Aristotle? The metaphysical picture given in the Metaphysics? Or the Physics? Or the Categories? Are those works all metaphysically consistent with each other, and how so? Would Dolezal include secondary substances in this metaphysic (as he seems to do in a footnote on p. 117)? Because those eventually drop out in Aristotle’s thought. What about the account of priority and dependence relations — clearly important to ontology and theology — that seem to differ even among the various books even within the Metaphysics? The point is that Dolezal has willingly stepped into an almost 2,500-year history of Aristotelian studies that can be dizzying, while demonstrating no real awareness, let alone competence, of that history. That lack of scholarship may not be obvious to the book’s primary audience, but the lack will be glaring to others, significantly weakening the doctrines he attempts to defend.

I could say much more. You will see this dynamic play out in future discussions; many who are sympathetic to Dolezal’s cause will forgive all else for the sake of that cause, especially those who get automatically enthusiastic whenever patristic, medieval, or Reformed scholastic theologians are quoted for the sake of such a cause. But in the end I don’t think the costs in scholarship are worth whatever short-term gains might come from such a methodology.