EvangelicalReformedTheology & Spirituality

God, James Dolezal, and the boy who cried ‘Scholasticism!’

It’s finals season, which means for every procrastinating graduate student like myself, that it’s time to find other things to devote attention to other than studying for finals. Accordingly, instead of studying for my evidence exam I have found welcome distraction in the budding theological debate over the doctrine of God taking place in Reformed and evangelical circles. Ironically, this past spring when I should have been studying for my doctrine of God final I was engrossed in the Trinity Lutheran case then before the Supreme Court.

It is both fascinating and somewhat discomforting to me that debates surrounding the doctrine of God continue to rise to the surface in modern (orthodox) Christianity. Last year it was the eternal subordination of the Son. This year it’s divine immutability and impassibility. Both doctrines, at least in my apparently naive mind, were solidified early in the church’s history (the Nicene Creed [325] and the Caledonian Creed [451], respectively; and the Athanasian Creed on both fronts). Yet doctrinal controversy has historically served the church well as a catalyst for strengthening and specifying doctrine. Many of our ecumenical creeds were products of such, as were several of the Reformed confessions (e.g. The Canons of Dort, 1618-19). And, to paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, theological debate is just good fun. Whether the fun is also clean or not is the primary subject of this post.

I did end up studying for my doctrine of God final last spring, and so I can, for what it’s worth, state my position on the current debate as being firmly in the classical theism camp. I must also admit that I find it immensely gratuitous that a Reformed Baptist (James Dolezal) is the one correcting the Presbyterians and supposedly Reformed evangelicals (John Frame, Scott Oliphint, Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson) on behalf of historic orthodoxy. Ronald S. Baines and Richard Barcellos have been doing similar work in recent years. Given that I attend a Presbyterian seminary, this provides me with at a least a semester’s-worth of fun in debates in the lobby after class. This leads me to my main point.

I will not take the time to recount the debate in its entirety as it now stands. It has primarily taken place between John Frame (and to a lesser degree Scott Oliphint), and James Dolezal (and to a lesser degree Paul Helm). Analysists of superior intellect and ability, like Keith Mathison in his aptly titled response “Unlatched Theism,” more robust summary and comment than will be found here.

Dolezal first challenged some of Oliphint’s “covenantal properties thesis” back in 2014. The debate has heated up since, most notably after Dolezal’s publication of All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism, which is largely a repackaging of his God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness for a popular level audience.1  John Frame, former professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, entered the debate with a lengthy review of Dolezal’s book, dubbing it “Scholasticism for Evangelicals” (for Catholic readers, that is meant as a pejorative).

Debate Syllabus

As stated, others have summarized and analyzed the debate well already. But to put things in context, the basic positions are as follows.

Dolezal has accused Frame and others of what he calls “Theistic Mutualism,” a departure from classical theism. Classical Christian theism has historically championed the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, simplicity, eternality, and substantial unity of the divine persons, as well as the belief that God does not derive any aspect of His being from outside Himself and is not compelled or caused to act or be what he is by anything outside Himself.

Theistic mutualism, on the other hand, attempts to redefine or totally supplant many of these doctrines. Theologians of this persuasion are usually concerned with making God relatable and personable, and hence are willing to ascribe some change to his attributes inside the context of “a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures.”2 Dolezal states that “Theistic mutualism is committed to univocal thinking and speaking with regard to God and the world and thus conceives God as interacting with the world in some way like humans do, even if on a much grander scale.”3

Theistic mutualists see God as a real agent in history, and since history changes, God himself must change (and adapt?). In pursuit of what could be called Biblicism, or a pure biblical literalism sensus literalis, theistic mutualists wish to do away with anthropomorphic reading of scriptural descriptions of God’s actions and emotions, etc. Instead, when scripture describes God in language that implies a “change” or human likeness, then God really does change and really is human-like in that particular way. It is no longer God lisping to us in scripture, as Calvin said. It is a real representation of God’s changing attributes, character, and relations with His people. For most theistic mutualists, this applies to God as he relates to man and acts inside of time and history, though they want to preserve some sort of changeless eternal nature of God at the same time. Yet, both are equally and accurately expressions of God’s nature, thus expressing real change and real duality in God’s nature.

Frame states, “we should not say that his atemporal, changeless existence is more real than his changing existence in time, as the term anthropomorphic suggests. Both are real.”4 Paul Helm has also addressed this innovation by the mutualists (regarding Scott Oliphint’s writings). Mathison clarifies in his response, however, that while the theistic mutualists are distinct from process theologians, there are troubling (from the classical theist perspective) similarities.

A Critique of Approach

The position of the theistic mutualists and Frame’s response to Dolezal present many problems. Mathison and others have addressed the theological components thoroughly. The three methodological issues relevant to this post are (1) Frame’s “confused and confusing” definition of scholasticism; (2) Frame’s shortsighted weighing of authorities for purposes of his position; and (3) Frame’s approach to Dolezal in general.

First, Frame’s discombobulated definition of “scholasticism,” which is summarized as cogently as possible by Mathison:

“He speaks of it initially as ‘a type of theology.’ He then speaks of ‘the methods and conclusions of scholasticism,’ ‘the doctrines characteristic of scholasticism,’ and ‘aspects of the doctrine of God that were stressed in the scholastic tradition.’ In a later section, Frame speaks of ‘classical Christian theism’ (i.e. the scholastic approach).’ In short, more often than not, scholasticism is equated with a particular doctrinal content, specifically classical Christian theism. Second, throughout the response the reader observes a not-so-subtle attempt to equate ‘scholasticism” with something bad or dangerous (e.g., ‘a slippery slope that could end only in Roman Catholicism’). In short, he seems to equate classical Christian theism with scholasticism while also implying that scholasticism is a dangerous slippery slope to Rome.”

In response to this, Mathison rightly specifies that “scholasticism has to do with method, not any particular theological content. It is a method that involves careful and precise definition, distinctions, and argumentation, and it doesn’t always take an identical form.” Furthermore, scholasticism has been employed by both Catholic and Protestant theologians for centuries, and has never been the sole method of practice for either camp. Thus, as Mathison notes, to equate the use of scholastic method or affirmation of conclusions made by scholastics with the crossing of the Tiber is misleading at best.

I initially found this mistake by Frame to be surprising, given that he is the author of a textbook called A History of Western Philosophy and Theology. But I subsequently found that his definition of both medieval and Protestant scholasticism therein suffers from the same issue. Tellingly, in A History, he first paints scholasticism as a sort of cosmopolitan, “school theology” in direct contrast to an allegedly more biblically rooted monastery theology. Scholasticism (in his definition) seems to be driven only by the need to rectify logical inconsistencies between all relevant authorities on a given theological issue.5 Frame traces these theological (rather than methodological) tendencies through Abelard, Lombard, culminating in Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Occam, all of whom were bound by a commitment to autonomous human reason according to Frame.6 Despite the theological contributions made by some of those figures, to Frame their names are sullied because of their inability to cast of the chains of non-Christian thought, instead weaving it into their theology.

Frame then finds scholasticism popping back up in post-Reformation Reformed scholarship (apparently is was wholly absent in the golden age of the Magisterial Reformers). Like the medievals, the theologians of this era were driven into scholasticism by a desire to make their beliefs academically respectable, which Frame cedes is not all bad.7 And while Frame notes that it has not been definitively proven that the post-Reformation theologians deviated from Luther and Calvin et al in any significant way, the quest for academic respectability (in Frame’s eyes) leads down a dangerous road, often compromising with non-Christian thought.8

But if Frame wants to find the real beginnings of “Christian thought” employing “non-Christian thought,” he would be forced to look back to figures as early as Clement of Alexandria. Adopting Frame’s definition of scholasticism, Clement would arguably be the first true scholastic. Frame ends the section leaving the reader to decide whether the descent into scholasticism and philosophy by Protestants is connected to the later declension of churches into theological liberalism.   

This narrative in Frame’s book corroborates his position in his Dolezal critique, meaning that it was no fluke, and exposes a fundamental misunderstanding of scholasticism. His use of the concept in his critique is an erroneous red herring.

Second, there is an issue with the weighing of authorities by Frame regarding the two sides of the debate. In his critique of Dolezal he says,

“Dolezal thinks that “theistic mutualism” (TM) is very common among evangelical writers today and in the recent past. He cites as examples Donald MacLeod (21), James Oliver Buswell (23), Ronald Nash (23), Donald Carson (24), Bruce Ware (24), James I. Packer (31), Alvin Plantinga (68), John Feinberg, J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig (69), Kevin Vanhoozer (72), Ryan Lister (92), Scott Oliphint (93), and, yes, John Frame (71-73, 92-95). Wayne Grudem joins the group later for his adherence to “eternal functional subordination” in the Trinity (132-33). This group brings together many of the most important thinkers in evangelicalism today, and I am honored to be included in it, though I do not agree with all of them on everything. Dolezal, I think, should be more respectful of this group than he is. Is it not even a little bit daunting to stand against such a consensus?”

I will come back to the “respect” issue next, but first I wish to make the same point that Mathison does in his observations. Frame may have a deep roster of prominent evangelicals on his side, but Dolezal has Augustine, Aquinas, all the orthodox Reformed, and many more great saints of the faith throughout (most) of history. Mathison also notes the robust collection of Reformed confessions that support Dolezal. This includes both Frame’s and Dolezal’s own Reformed confessions, the Westminster Confession and the Second London Baptist Confession, respectfully.9

It remains unclear as to how Frame can argue that theological authority is so much behind him that Dolezal should capitulate under the sheer force of its weight.

Third, from Frame’s point of view, Dolezal is both immature and disrespectful of fellow theologians (his superiors?) for challenging their views and critiquing them on the basis of classical theism.

“… I am hoping that in time Dolezal will develop a more mature way of responding to his colleagues. What he has done has been to adopt scholasticism, one philosophical model of the relation of God to the world, and demand that his colleagues agree with this model in detail, if they are to maintain their orthodoxy.”

If Dolezal’s approach is all of the things Frame says it is then there is no room for debate of any kind inside academy, much less the church writ large. Frame’s critique could be viewed as capitulation to modern culture’s aversion to this kind of controversy; telling someone they are wrong is fundamentally a disrespectful attack on the receiver’s very person.

What is Frame’s suggested alternative? That Dolezal stifle his own convictions for the sake of his opponents’ feelings or harmony within evangelicalism? The situation recalls a passage in J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism in which Machen is reflecting on the splitting of Protestantism at the Marburg Colloquy (1529) over the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. He laments the outcome as a “great calamity,” but then states,

“[I]t would have been a far greater calamity if being wrong about the Supper [Luther] had represented the whole question as a trifling affair. Luther was wrong about the Supper, but not nearly so wrong as he would have been if, being wrong, he had said to his opponents: ‘Brethren, this matter is a trifle; and it makes really very little difference what a man thinks about the table of the Lord.’ Such indifferentism would have been far more deadly than all the divisions between the branches of the Church. A Luther who would have compromised with regard to the Lord’s Supper never would have said at the Diet of Worms, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, Amen.’ Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.”10

This is instructive for all Christians regarding theological controversy. Though in the present case Frame is clearly stating a position of his own; it is his position to which Dolezal was initially responding. Yet, one infers from Frame’s response that indifference, or at least the turning of a blind eye, is required on Dolezal’s part. According to Machen, Dolezal’s silence would be a far greater calamity than any feathers he might ruffle, or alleged disrespect he might project, with his stance. As Mathison adds, “If theistic mutualism is unbiblical (and I believe it is), it would be disrespectful to Christ and His church to remain quiet.”

Let’s Get Scholastic!

It seems to me that our theological institutions (and all Christians, for that matter) could do with a good dose of scholasticism. Maybe then we would learn how to debate well, accurately engage the position of our opponents, not fear adverse opinions, avoid ad hominem attacks, and value historical consistency in our dogma. For as Luther held, we are a religion of dogmatic assertions. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.  Most of the figures involved in the current doctrine of God debate, to some extent, are Reformed. I suggest that the best way these theologians can honor the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s invitation to debate on indulgences would be to debate well themselves.

In Luther’s day, being a great orator and debater was like being a professional athlete. Though there were periods of the famous debates he “competed” in that literally put attendees to sleep, there were many moments that exhibited true brilliance. Like a gladiator, Luther understood how to make his case well and win the crowd. He didn’t shy away from taking his opponents (even those in his own camp like Zwingli) head on and defending himself with strong, sometimes colorful arguments. But he almost always debated well. He had a firm grasp on the position of his opponents and did not purposely misrepresent them. In fact, he was most frustrated when his opponents failed to identify the true points of contention in the various debates, or understand his (Luther’s) positions accurately. He praised Erasmus in the Bondage of the Will for Erasmus’ singular ability to do so and strike at the root of the disagreement (i.e. the freedom of the will).

We can all learn a great deal from reading the records of Luther’s debates, as well as his written disputations (the Heidelberg Disputation is especially good). I’m sure of particular interest to John Frame is Luther’s critique of scholastic theology, published in September of 1517 to little or no fanfare. Though it should be noted that Luther remained a classical theist despite his distaste for the use of Aristotle in medieval theology (his real issue was not the scholastic method as such).

Even those who disagree with the conclusions of Luther can glean from him principles for disagreeing and debating well, something that has not been exhibited from one pole (which will remain nameless) of the present doctrine of God debate, whether intentionally or not. Debating well obeys the Biblical command to love one another and communicates to the audience that discourse on God (theos + logos = theology) matters and must be handled with all the charity, care, and conviction that can be mustered by our feeble minds and corrupt wills.  


View Sources
Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

Previous post

Waiting for Resurrection

Next post

Luther's Human Sides