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Dolezal, Muller, Oliphint and Recent Public Theological Discourse

One of our readers recently posted a comment. I thought it better to write a full post than tuck my response away in a thread. Steve Prost writes,

Curious as to why the debate is kind of left just hanging there on Aquinas/Dolezal/Muller (e.g. Reformation21 blog) v. Frame/Oliphint as promoted at Reformed Forum esp. in the past year. Your policy not to comment on ongoing prominent Reformed debates? Awaiting a known imminent rejoinder by Frame/Oliphint, just not wanting to wade in?… The lack of response seems a bit odd.

In general, we have chosen not to make Reformed Forum into a venue for hot takes and zingers. Careful theological discourse takes time, and the blog and podcast formats don’t always accommodate that well—at least with some of these topics. I am looking forward to longer, written responses from some of the people involved before we complicate the public debate while the people involved have not had an opportunity to formulate a proper response. Nevertheless, it may be wise to say a few words now.

I was looking forward to interviewing my friend, James Dolezal, regarding his book, All That Is in God. We scheduled him, but he had to cancel. Together, we made several attempts to reschedule but it hasn’t worked out thus far. I hope we can still speak in the future. I greatly enjoyed reading Dr. Dolezal’s book as an extension of the many long nights we shared speaking about these issues as students at Westminster. There is much I agree with in his book, and I’m glad he is calling contemporary theologians to greater fidelity to confessional orthodoxy, though there are some things I’d like to follow up with. To be brief, I’d like to have further discourse on the doctrine of the Trinity and the equal ultimacy of the one and the three, the essence and three hypostases.

I also appreciate that Dr. Muller took the time to write a three-part review of Dr. Oliphint’s book on Thomas Aquinas. I hold Dr. Muller in high esteem, and while he offers several important criticisms, I am not yet persuaded he has correctly identified Van Til’s assessment of Thomas and his theological methodology. Dr. Oliphint builds his own criticism upon this assessment, so I believe it’s important to get that right in order to understand what Dr. Oliphint is doing. Granted, Van Til didn’t necessarily do himself any favors in the way he presents his case. He often draws out implications and necessary entailments of a person’s theology or philosophy that his interlocutor does not himself recognize. That can give the appearance that Van Til is criticizing features of a person’s theology that person doesn’t affirm, which would be terribly uncharitable. But Van Til is often writing against where he sees a theology or philosophy ending up. Determining whether or not that is the case with the areas Dr. Muller identifies requires much more consideration than I have given to the matter thus far. I would like to see further discussion on that issue from all involved.

We of course love Dr. Oliphint. He has been our teacher and advisor for many years. He has spoken twice at our annual conference and joined us perhaps dozens of times on the podcast. And so it may seem strangest that we haven’t spoken much about the public criticisms he has received. That could use an explanation.

Dr. Oliphint has been revising his book, God With Us, to address some of the criticisms of the first edition. This is admirable, and I pray it does much to clarify the issues and move the theological discourse forward. This is largely the reason we haven’t discussed the issues explicitly on Reformed Forum. I would prefer to see the second edition released so that we can speak about something objective, public, and current. Still, some people may feel that we’ve left them hanging, and I’ve been conflicted about that. Reformed Forum are not the theological gatekeepers. We shouldn’t be puffed up about our usefulness or role within the Reformed community, but I do feel some measure of fiduciary responsibility to our regular listeners.

For that reason, I will speak for myself in sharing a few comments. My primary criticisms of Dr. Oliphint’s first edition pertain to the application of incarnational categories to theology proper. In my judgment it is neither theologically appropriate nor tenable to speak of God assuming properties unless we’re speaking about the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person of the Son. In my view, such would lead to a two-nature theology proper or some form of dialecticism. I think it’s better to speak of divine simplicity, immutability, and the older terminology of relative attributes or perhaps even new modes of relation that God sustains by virtue of his free will. In short, covenantal condescension is relational/covenantal, not ontological. I think we’re forced to make unnecessary theological formulations if we affirm the latter.

I’m looking forward to Dr. Oliphint’s revisions and hope we may all gain greater clarity on these deep and glorious issues.

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