Back in late 2017/early 2018, I wrote a couple of articles about theological debate. They were in response to a book recently published called “All that is in God” by James Dolezal where he took to task a number of notable theologians including John Frame, Don Carson and Wayne Grudem. I have managed to dig out one of those articles from the archives here. This article focuses on the debate between Frame and Dolezal about God’s attributes and whether or not God is impassible – i.e. does God have passions/emotions.
In general the dangers with holding theological debates are as follows.
- That we can become obsessed about an issue and build it up to be more important than it is to the point of serious division between genuine believers.
- That we can personalise the debate and pollute the conversation with intemperate language
- That the other side of the coin is that we can miss why something is important.
Personally, I didn’t think that the debate between Frame and Dolezal was helpful to the church, it seemed to generate more heat than light. I think that is a shame because:
- The Doctrine of God is wonderful, fascinating and enjoyable to study. It promotes a greater sense of awe, wonder, trust and worship
- The Doctrine of God is necessary because if we get it wrong then we are in serious trouble. We risk heresy and idolatry. Get the Doctrine of God wrong and you will get your doctrine of Salvation wrong too.
So, because there are things that matter about how we speak about God, I don’t want to leave the discussion behind just yet but would like to revisit a few points.
Regular readers of faithroots will recall that we have argued that you can either believer truth or lies about God. We have identified a number of Biblical beliefs that Christian thinkers have classically affirmed as essential. These include that God is Simple and that God is “A-Se.” Let’s have a look at these two in a little more detail.
God is Simple
He is not made up of component parts. His attributes are essential. An implication of this is you can’t separate God’s attributes (What he is like out from his substance (what he is).
Why is this important?
It is important because if we believe that God is complex and not simple then:
- Is he simply a powerful, infinite eternal being in terms of his essence? But then he either chooses to love, be angry, do justice, show mercy, be holy etc or worse still those are mere emotional responses to events around him.
- Are any of those characteristics optional, could God stop doing one of his attributes or gain a news one and still be God?
- God might one day stop being love and that means he might stop loving me
- God might change his mind and decide that things now considered good are actually bad and vice versa so what if God decided to condone theft, murder, adultery?
God is A-Se
This comes from when the Bible says that God has life within himself (John 5). It means that God is not dependent on anything external to himself. He does not need his creation for meaning, satisfaction or love. Remember that God is eternal love and that this love has eternally been true between the persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means that the fact he is Trinity is essential to him – or arises out of his Simplicity.
This is important because
- It means no-one can harm or defeat God he is dependable
- God is not dependent upon us. He chose to make us and chooses to love us. We can never do anything to earn his love it is given to us freely and unconditionally from the start .
These two doctrines are important because two other doctrines flow necessarily on from them. If God is Simple- not made up of parts and if God is A-Se not subject to anything outside of him, then God is
- Immutable, meaning he does not change he cannot acquire new characteristics or lose any. He is already perfect as he is. He will not change his mind because his decisions are already perfect. This is important because people think about God like human beings and when they hear he does not change, they think this means he is unresponsive, doesn’t listen to us and doesn’t care. They see an unchanging God as stubborn but in fact the point is that if God is already perfect and if God is good, wise and just so that he gets his decisions right first time, then why on earth would we want him to change?
- Impassible, simply meaning that God cannot be influenced or manipulated emotionally from the outside. This does not mean that God lacks affections such as love, happiness, compassion etc. It does mean as we saw above that because God is already perfect and good then he will not be swayed y outside influences. Again, this means in God we find someone who we can depend upon.
The point about all this is that the terms above matter. We may be using technical language but that language is used to precisely define things that matter about what God is like. This is the God who pours out love to us, who never leaves us or forsake us. This is the God who we need to be present in our darkest moments. This is the God who says we have been forgiven in Jesus Christ meaning that this is the very God we need to turn to in repentance when we sin.
These are not mere dry doctrines, not just philosophy for academics. These are lively truths that provide a great source of assurance, comfort and joy in life.
Nor, despite the attacks of some such as Open Theists, does this “classical” understanding of God make him remote, lifeless, cold. This describes the living God whose life comes from within him.
The current controversy
The Bible is clear that God does not change. However, also there are descriptions in Scripture of God engaging with us in time and this is a description of a God who listens and responds, a God who relents and repents
The classical way of handling this is to say that such descriptions are anthropomorphisms. They describe things in human terms. God does not change, we change but we experience what looks like change in God because we have changed in relation to him. For example, I experience God as acting in wrath and judgement to me and then in compassion and mercy because I have changed, I have moved from rebellion to repentance.
John Frame says this doesn’t go far enough. He argues that something is really happening with God. God is genuinely involved in time and somehow experiences it. He argues that there really is a distinction between God showing love and God showing anger, God expressing joy and God expressing sadness.
Frames solution is to suggest that God is changeless in terms of eternity but in a sense changes in terms of his temporal relationships.
James Dolezal thinks that this approach makes Frame a mutualist. Mutualists are those who believe that there is mutual give and take between creatures and God. Open Theism and Process Theology are examples of mutualism. Dolezal puts a deciding line between mutualists and classical theologians and Frame and the others in his sights fall on the mutualist side of the line. They belong with the open theists, their position may be more moderate and they may have their differences with each other but it is essentially a minor squabble between people who are on the same (wrong) side of the debate.
So, what is going on here?
- Remember that Frame has put the boundaries in place in terms of belief in God being simple, a-se and changeless. This does put him the classical side of the line. This is why I have been concerned at the tone of debate which seems more concerned with putting dividing lines in place than properly getting to the heart of the matter in terms of truth and pastoral significance .
- Frame wants to make sure that we define things biblically first and that we exercise care in the terms, definitions and descriptions we use. It means that when we talk about God in terms that correspond to the way that Greek philosophers do, we must remember that people like Aristotle and Plato did not have the Bible and therefore did not have a Christian world view. So don’t assume they mean the same thing . Aristotle described a deity who was an unmoved mover however, this remote and impersonal first cause should not be confused with the eternal God of the Bible.
- There is an issue with language. Once we say that something is anthropological we are admitting that we cannot speak univocallyabout God. We have to be careful that we don’t jump to the other extreme where we can only speak equivocally or cannot actually use language to describe God in any meaningful sense at all. If the latter is true then we cannot truly know him. This would reduce theology to anthropology as we would never be really speaking about God, just about us. This would be true if the Bible was just a human book where we try to make sense of things but it is divine revelation and God accommodates to us, stoops to our level and speaks in a way that means he discloses something about himself truly and accurately. So, we say the language is analogical. I think that this is where the debate is. Frame thinks that classical language goes too far towards the equivocal extreme and Dolezal thinks that Frame goes too far towards the univocal extreme.
- There are metaphysical questions about what it means to say that God is eternal and transcendent. How does this affect God’s immanence. If God is timeless, does that mean that time is forbidden territory to him? Has he created something he cannot enter into. Frame is concerned that we don’t fall into a Gnostic mindset here.
So it is important to recognise that Frame’s aim is to be Biblical and that he seeks to do that within a classical theist position. In other words, Frame is quite clear when he writes that be believes God is Simple, A-Se, eternal, sovereign, unchanging.
However, good motives and even sticking within the boundaries doesn’t mean that an argument or an explanation is helpful and whilst I don’t think Frame has stepped over the boundary into heresey, I am not convinced that his approach is helpful
My view is that talking about God experiencing change in one context and not in another is confusing even when talking analogically. It is likely to lead to muddled thinking and confusion.
In any case, I think that more helpful answers are available. In particular, a number of people have talked about God’s Eternal nature as meaning that he experiences all of time at once. This means that the God who created the World and time, because he is over and above, ruling over time is as much aware of what will happen tomorrow, next week and in 100 years’ time as he is aware of yesterday and now.
This means that those descriptions of affections including: love, joy sorrow are real but it is exactly because God is Eternal, simple and immutable that he is impassible because none of those affections become dominant and so none of them will overwhelm him.
Even within the boundaries of classical theology there is a risk of being misunderstood and causing confusion. Therefore, theologians need to be very careful and precise with the language the use. Frame does need to rethink the way he seeks to describe what is happening.
At the same time, when someone is working Biblically and within appropriate boundaries, then it is important that we listen carefully to what they are trying to say and why. Their language may be imperfect and their ideas may need refining but they may also be challenging us to spot holes in our thinking.
Whilst it is important to refute error, we must be careful that theology does not get turned into a polemic battle-ground with demarcation lines drawn between friends and enemies when they are in fact brothers in Christ. We should particularly be alert to the added danger caused when theological debate is conducted through the megaphone of the internet.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 571-572.
 See James Dolezal, All that is in God.
 See John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 46-47.
 Univocal means that a word describing God means exactly the same as when it is used to describe things in creation.
 This is where Ovey is useful. We need that Goldilocks Zone where we know and speak about God truthfully but not exhaustively. Analogical language falls within that Goldilocks Zone. See Christopher Green (ed), The Goldilocks Zone: The Collected Writings of Michael J Ovey, 34. See also Frame, History of Theology and philosophy Helpful to refer to Frames engagement with Aquinas on language. Aquinas was responsible for the univocal, equivocal and analogical scheme. Frame wants to affirm God’s ability to reveal himself to us and for us to be able to talk meaningfully about God. He believes that God gives us language exactly so we can do this. We are able to describe God’ accurately not just creation. For Frame this is important in terms of truthfulness too. We need to be able to say that when we say “God is love” and that God does not lie, we really mean it. See Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 152-154.
 Bavinck puts it this way “God’s eternity does not stand abstract and transcendent above time but is present and imminent in every moment of time.” He also says that his eternity “is identical with [His] being and hence with his fulness of being.” H Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 163.