Theistic Personalism and the Erosion of Classical Christian Theism

Readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy know that Calvinism is, to put it mildly, “beyond my sympathies” (to use a phrase that Tolkien liked). But there are Calvinist theologians out there from which we can learn a great deal. Dr James Dolezal is one of them. He is a vigorous defender of what is called today “classical theism.” In these two lectures he articulates the classical understanding of divine immutability and simplicity and warns us of the dangers of what he describes as theistic personalism. I do not, of course, have any problems with emphasizing the personal nature of God—one cannot remain faithful to the Scriptures and do otherwise—nor do I have any problems with speaking of God as person, as many modern Orthodox theologians like to do, though this raises interesting questions regarding the Trinity. There are ways to speak in these ways without compromising the orthodox understanding of divinity. But when this comes at the cost of the formal features of divinity (immutability, simplicity, atemporality, infinity), then real problems arise—specifically, God becomes a being, albeit the maximally greatest being around. I commend these lectures to you.

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10 Responses to Theistic Personalism and the Erosion of Classical Christian Theism

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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  2. I’ve watched these many times. Dolezal was the first thinker that exposed me to the doctrine of Simplicity. One of the finest young Calvinist scholars out there. The real sticking point though, is that once I thought through the implications of God as self-identical, I had to move toward Barth because the classical Calvinist doctrine of election falls apart if, it turns out, God doesn’t have parts. In many ways I have Dolezal to thank for inspiring my first steps on a path toward Universalism, classical theism definitely lends itself toward this.

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  3. Both of Dolezal’s titles – God Without Parts and All That Is in God are both superb. Here’s his Amazon page:
    https://www.amazon.com/James-E.-Dolezal/e/B006SY11KU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1538783287&sr=8-1

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  4. Mark Olivero says:

    Actually, Divine Simplicity does not leave room for Universalism since God’s holiness cannot be set aside in favor of something else in him that would allow Universalism. John Owen addressed this in his treatise On Divine Justice.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mark, do you believe that Christian advocates of the greater hope believe that transformation in Christ is unnecessary to eternal life in Christ? I assure you they most certainly do not. For an outstanding example of what I’m referring to, see George MacDonald’s homily “The Consuming Fire.”

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    • malcolmsnotes says:

      What? How again does divine simplicity conflict with universalism? And it’s MacDonald. Not McDonald. I can guess you will refer me to some article. But I’d like to hear your reasoning, if you don’t mind.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      If God’s love conflicts with his justice or holiness, then, by your argument, divine simplicity means God who is pure holiness cannot love at all. The more I read about Calvinism, the more it appears to me that this is precisely the conclusion that it comes to.

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      • Ian, there is a minority report among Calvinists that argues that Universalism is compatible with both Augustinian (traditional, confessional) and Barthian Calvinism. Several essays in Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism deal with both actual and hypothetical universalism in the Calvinistic theological schema. I’m not a big fan of Crisp’s analytical theology in general, but in this case it serves his arguments well. I am still working on a piece that argues universalism from a Calvinist framework (blending the Barthian synthesis on election, and features from classical Calvinism) that I hope to share soon. I’ve been buried in other projects and work at the moment, but I think there is a cogent argument to be made that the Calvinism either must entail Universalism, or attribute evil to God, or concede to systemic collapse. I’m sure it will be a turd in the proverbial punch-bowl to my Presbyterian and Reformed brethren, but I think there is sufficient grounds to be both Reformed and a Universalist. More on that later. Here’s the link to Crisp’s book:

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    • Mark, sorry for the delayed response. I think that, when dealing with the question of Simplicity, that it is somewhat of a category error that God is setting aside anything in extending the Simple plenitude of his perfections into creation. His love is identical with his justice. When it comes to exegetical matters surrounding the wrath that is attributed to God in Scripture, I think it is important to note that any time that Scripture is attributing something like a human emotion or response to God, it is doing so analogically via improper attribution. The same runs true for other more concrete anthropomorpisms like ‘the hand of the Lord’, while this is a true attribution speaking analogically to the manner in which God acts in history, it is, nonetheless improper to attribute ‘hand’ to Divinity. I would argue that while we can properly attribute love, justice, infinitude, immutability, et.al. to God, we can only speak analogically and improperly about certain attributes – none of which can ultimately conflict with what can properly be attributed to God in his simple perfection. So, whatever we make of God’s wrath against sin and all forms of unrighteousness, this cannot be distinct from his love.

      I’m not saying that those who have or do hold to Simplicity are universalists, but the logic of universalism within simplicity cannot be easily dismissed. There are also exegetical cases to be made against the eternality of hell in Scripture (here I would refer you to David Bentley Hart’s New Testament as a starting place), Fr. Kimel has many excellent resources on this blog that address these issues as well. My first exposure to Divine Simplicity and Impassibility were through Dr. Dolezal, and he is doing great work in Calvinist circles at recovering these doctrines. However, as I began grappling with these matters, I came to see that they run against some cardinal dogmas in confessional Reformed soteriology. I wound up with views that drew off of Barth and TF Torrance’s syntheses on election and strands within 16th-17th Century Reformed Scholasticism during the High Orthodox period to come to the conclusion that while Calvinism offers many vital theological insights, it must either end up dealing with the question of universalism or face some frightening systemic problems. These debates were vital even in the late 19th Century with figures like John Williamson Nevin and Phillip Schaff (of Mercersburg Seminary) against Charles Hodge of Princeton, and with BB Warfield and some prominent Scottish theologians like William Patterson on the cusp of the 20th Century. These debates are flaring up again at the margins of Calvinism, and I believe will continue to move into the mainstream, because no adequate argument can be offered that preserves both Divine goodness and justice if any number of reprobate are elected to perdition. It’s hard to square the goodness of God’s original creation and the notion that some or any of this creation is consigned by decree to eternal destruction (which is not good) without entertaining the possibility that they were not created good in the first place.

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