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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Steve W Prost

7 months ago

Thank you for your modeling of how to continue respectful dialogue on contentious complex issues without timidly shrinking back from the conversation. Our church and its theology deserve that. Looking forward to hearing more from all sides.

Cynthia Gooch

7 months ago

Just saw this post – great timing! I am currently reading Dolezal’s ALL THAT IS IN GOD. So far, I’m appreciating what he’s saying…Will have to revisit the debate!

Earl Maier

7 months ago

Looking forward to the future and hopeful Dr. Oliphint makes the change in his book of what you said about the covenantal condescension is relational/covenantal, not ontological.

Timothy Joseph

7 months ago

Camden,
First, thanks for the update! Second, I applaud your restraint in waiting until all have completely weighed in. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to hear you and the parties mentioned address these issues! . I am glad that you are being patient and Biblical.

Dolezal’s book receives a hearty Amen as related to his articulation of God. I am less clear on the others positions since I have not read them in their own setting.
Tim

Michael Head

6 months ago

Thank you. We need more of this careful approach to theological debate/discussion/dialogue. “Charity in all things” seems a bit thin these days (to understate it).

Timothy Alleman

6 months ago

Thank you for your kind and humble approach to this theological issue. Your comment about not being a theological gatekeeper shows a healthy and mature attitude. I’ve read All that is in God. If you interview Dr. Dolezal (who I appreciate very much) could you ask him if and how he makes a distinction between eternal God and eternal creation in light of the assertion that God is pure actuality. Did God have to create and did he have to create this creation?

Matt Fortunato

6 months ago

// “new modes of relation that God sustains” // This is a good direction. GWU’s properties/characteristics “of God” are properly speaking “of new relations” he wills into existence.

Steve Prost

5 months ago

By the way, I think Gerald Bray’s “The Doctrine of God” (Contours of Christian Theology, IVP, 1993) is still I think the best readable summary treatment out there in its masterful sweep of historical NT-era theology on broad systemtatic issues (agree with him or not) and how Calvin and the Reformers made some fundamental important helpful breaks with Thomas and scholasticism on trinitarian thought which are still battled today and touch also on the issues you raise from “God With Us”, in this blog post. I think its well-balanced against extremes or overly doctrinaire positions where Scripture may leave room for things not fully revealed, and incisive in its critique of other alternatives from Barth to Rahner and process theological leanings. Wonder if you could think of a better summary than Bray for a primer, and what you think of his general theme of the needed corrective to Aquinas’ too-philosophical, too-essence-oriented rather than person-oriented ontology that continue to haunt Western orthodox trinitarian thought? Here are some quotes from that work that help support my own thoughts that in the end, it is those like Frame and Oliphant who “get” Aquinas, and “get” how the Reformers attempted to improve on biblical trinitarianism and distinctions of the trinitatrian persons and by consequence their true (rather than anthropomorphic) relations to us, much better than the admitted imposing scholars such as Muller and Dolezal.
Here is an important characteristic quote by Bray from “Doctrine of God”, pp:182-183
“…Aquinas has succumbed to a tendency towards philosophical abstraction which is very different from the spirit of the New Testament. The full effect can be seen in Thomas’ definition of the word ‘person’. As far as he was concerned, person was as aspect of a nature which signified what was distinct in that nature. Because distinction in God is only by relations of origin, a divine person is defined by Aquinas as a subsistent relation in the being of God. In other words, ‘person’ and ‘relation’ are synonomous, which means that one might easily dispose of the unphilosophical term ‘person’, and speak only of Aristotelean relations in God. The trinitarianism of Anselm and Aquinas can rightly be criticized for being too philosophical, too abstract, and even reactionary, in the sense that it is independent on the primacy of nature over person — almost inevitable in any philosophical theology, but directly counter to the spirit of Chalcedonian christology”
And on p. 211 of “Doctrine of God”…
“Although (Calvin’s) language and concepts have a familiar ring about them, we must not be misled into interpreting them in the traditional manner. For the scholastic synthesis of Aquinas had identified the distinguishing marks of the persons with their relations, to the point where Thomas could say that they were really one and the same thing. Calvin recoiled from that extreme, and followed instead the ancient tradition of the church, particularly strong in the East, which maintained that in God there is an absolute distinction of persons. …Calvin’s teaching that each person is autotheos means that their mutual relationship is one that had been freely agreed upon on the basis of mutual respect for the complementary properties of each person within the Godhead. By moving in that direction, Calvin made it possible to say that a divine person can have properties (attributes) which are not necessarily common to the essence of God. In that these properties are used to establish relations within the Godhead, the persons are seen to be in control of them and not, as in Scholasticism, determined by them.”

Again, hopefully the debate continues lively and openly at spaces such as this rather than solely in expensive tomes slow to publication and unsuitable to true back and forth iron-sharpening dialogue, or in hushed highbrow corners decidedly out of hearing from we unfit plebes and proles.

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