Thesis Introduction

(The following is Chapter One of my Master’s thesis, lightly edited for formatting.)

Chapter 1

Introduction

 

Thesis Statement

It is the contention of this thesis that John Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity does not cohere with the Reformed orthodox articulation of divine simplicity.  The idea that God is without parts is a fundamental aspect of the doctrine of God in the Reformed tradition, as especially encapsulated by the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith.  Moreover, in the words of James Dolezal, “orthodox Christians are universally committed to the confession that God is absolute,” and “historically the doctrine of divine simplicity . . . has been regarded as indispensable for establishing the sufficient ontological condition for divine absoluteness.”[1]  That is to say, the doctrine of divine simplicity is not merely a fundamental feature of Reformed theology proper, but is indeed a fundamental feature of orthodox and catholic Christian thought.  Even so, this thesis focuses primarily upon the Reformed orthodox articulation of divine simplicity.

Given the importance of the doctrine of divine simplicity within an orthodox understanding of the doctrine of God, the burden of this thesis will be to demonstrate that John Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity does not cohere with the Reformed orthodox articulation of the same doctrine.  Having been a professor at various Reformed seminaries for over twenty years, including Westminster Seminary California and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, Frame’s work is of great importance to American Reformed theology and, more broadly, American evangelicalism.   To that end, an examination of his relationship to orthodox Reformed theology will be especially fruitful for contemporary scholarship.

The timing of this particular study can be attributed largely to the recent work of James Dolezal in both of his books on divine simplicity: God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness and All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism.  In his work, Dolezal argues briefly that Frame, just one among many other American Calvinists, reformulates the doctrine of divine simplicity in a way which the Reformed orthodox would not recognize as legitimate.  Thus, the burden of this study is to provide an extended analysis of Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity in order to ascertain whether Dolezal is correct in his argument that Frame has reformulated the doctrine.

John Frame and Divine Simplicity

One point of significance for this work is that it will provide a new angle of scholarship on John Frame.  Scholars have written at length about Frame, but an extensive examination of his articulation of divine simplicity has not yet taken place.  This new angle of approach will hopefully provide a deeper understanding of Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of God.  A comparison of Frame’s conception of divine simplicity to the Reformed orthodox conception will hopefully shed new light on Frame’s thought, especially in the area of the doctrine of God.

An examination of Frame’s theological relationship to the Reformed orthodox will also be important for evangelical scholarship for at least two reasons.  First, Douglas Sweeney argues that evangelicalism is “a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel.”[2]  Thus, according to Sweeney, an evangelical is one who adheres to the Christian “beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation.”[3]  This means that evangelicals derive their doctrine primarily from the Protestant Reformers.  Therefore, a study which considers the Reformed orthodox articulation of divine simplicity will be inevitably beneficial for evangelical scholarship, since evangelicalism as a movement has historically relied upon the Reformed orthodox, among other traditions, for its own theological statements.  In other words, evangelicals should be interested in the doctrine of divine simplicity because evangelical theology relies upon Reformed orthodox theology, and the doctrine of divine simplicity is a fundamental aspect of Reformed theology.  Thus, divine simplicity should also be a fundamental aspect of evangelical theology, at least to the extent that evangelicalism follows these historical theological forebears, namely, the orthodox Reformed theologians.

Second, if it is true that scholars such as Dolezal have misunderstood or inadvertently misrepresented Frame, it will be important to demonstrate that misunderstanding for what it is.  But if, on the other hand, Dolezal is correct in saying that Frame actually has reformulated the doctrine of divine simplicity in a way which the Reformed orthodox would not recognize as legitimate, the reasons for and implications of such a reformulation deserve to be explored at length.  The thesis concludes by considering what Frame’s possible reformulation might mean for contemporary Reformed theology and then suggests several paths for further research.

To that end, one of the fundamental convictions of this project is the importance of accurately stating what Frame actually believes regarding the doctrine of divine simplicity.  This task has been undertaken by way of a careful examination of all the relevant texts in Frame’s writings.  The intended result of this examination is the enhancement of the evangelical understanding of Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity.

A further point of significance has been alluded to briefly but will now be explicitly mentioned.  In the words of James Dolezal, “throughout most of church history, divine simplicity served as the indispensable centerpiece in the ‘grammar’ regulating theology proper.  It was presumed as a baseline that none dared transgress.”[4]  This sweeping analysis by Dolezal signals the importance of the present study on Frame’s conception of divine simplicity.  Nothing is more fundamental to the theological task than to set forth the absolute oneness of the God of Scripture.  This is confirmed by F.J. Sheed when he says, “a study of what is happening to theology in its higher reaches would almost certainly take as its starting point the attribute of simplicity, and show that every current heresy begins by being wrong on that.”[5]  Thus, the significance of this thesis is shown partly by demonstrating the significance of the doctrine of divine simplicity for its own sake.  Any study which seeks to elucidate the teaching that God is without parts will be inherently significant for the Christian church to the extent that it does actually illuminate that teaching.

James Dolezal’s Critique of John Frame

The present study, as has been already mentioned briefly, was conceived in large part due to the publication of James Dolezal’s All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism.  In this book, and in his doctoral dissertation entitled God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness, Dolezal seeks to demonstrate the biblical and theological significance of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  Therein, Dolezal argues that Frame, among many others, is guilty of reformulating the doctrine of divine simplicity in terms which the Reformed orthodox, and, at least in Dolezal’s mind, the vast majority of theologians throughout church history, would not recognize as a legitimate conception.[6]  In Dolezal’s own words, “Frame believes that conjunctions in our statements about God pick out real conjunctions of attributes and so real distinctions in the divine essence itself.  He is concerned to avoid the odd claim that the attributes of God are all synonymous.”[7]

Nevertheless this project is not merely an extended version of Dolezal’s argument against Frame.  Due to the nature of his work, Dolezal’s argument against Frame was limited mostly to Frame’s conception of divine eternity.  The present work, on the other hand, explores the larger edifice of Frame’s doctrine of God, considering such aspects of Frame’s theology of divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, eternity, infinity, and the Trinity.  Thus, while this project was conceived in large part due to Dolezal’s work, it is fundamentally different in that it examines Frame’s theology in a more comprehensive manner than did Dolezal.[8]

Delimitations

This thesis is primarily concerned with Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity in light of the Reformed orthodox articulation of that doctrine.  This means that Frame will be the primary focus of the study.  Furthermore, since the thesis is concerned with Frame’s doctrine of God, it will not analyze or examine Frame’s various articulations under such loci as theological prolegomena, anthropology, soteriology, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, or eschatology, except where those articulations provide illumination for Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Since this thesis seeks to demonstrate the theological relationship of Frame to the Reformed orthodox, it is not concerned with evaluating the legitimacy of the doctrine of divine simplicity itself.  In other words, this thesis does not argue that the doctrine of divine simplicity as the Reformed orthodox formulated it is in fact what the Bible teaches, nor does it argue the opposite.  The primary question this thesis seeks to answer is how Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity relates to the Reformed orthodox articulation.

Furthermore, since the Reformed orthodox are the primary conversation partner throughout the thesis, the work of Thomas Aquinas will not feature prominently.  Thomas developed a robust doctrine of divine simplicity, and Dolezal is indebted to him for his own articulation of the doctrine, but the present requirements for this thesis limit the extent to which Aquinas can be employed as a conversation partner with Frame.  In the same manner, Alvin Plantinga’s robust criticisms[9] of the doctrine of divine simplicity will not feature prominently either.  This is due to the fact that the present thesis is not concerned with evaluating the doctrine of divine simplicity per se, but is rather concerned to show how Frame’s conception relates to the Reformed orthodox conception.

Literature Review

John Frame’s primary work in the area of the doctrine of God is found in volume two of his Theology of Lordship series, The Doctrine of God.  Here we see his development and exposition of the “lordship attributes” of God: control, authority, and presence.  We also find his explicit statements regarding the simplicity of God.  The lordship attributes have much to say in Frame’s discussion of divine simplicity.  Furthermore, Frame’s Systematic Theology offers additional attention to his articulation of divine simplicity, further clarifying his position.  These works, along with his polemical work against open theism entitled No Other God, will be the primary sources from which to examine Frame’s thought.

There are three main schools of thought regarding the doctrine of the simplicity of God, at least in evangelical circles.  The first group, open theism, embodies the most extreme attempt to restructure the classical understanding of the simplicity of God.  Clark Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover provides the clearest example of a professing evangelical seeking to redefine the notion of an absolute, and therefore simple, God.  His work, as well as that of other open theists like Greg Boyd and John Sanders, provides a gallery of fully dissenting voices against the classical understanding of divine simplicity.  Yet while this gallery is important in its own right, the individual lines of argument the voices provide will not feature prominently herein.  This is due to the fact that this thesis, again, is not primarily concerned to evaluate the doctrine of divine simplicity, but merely to demonstrate how Frame’s doctrine relates to the Reformed orthodox doctrine.

The second school of thought is theistic mutualism.  This attempt at restructuring the classical articulation of the simplicity of God comes from those whom Dolezal calls “theistic mutualists.”  Theistic mutualism is the idea that God is involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with his creatures.  As Dolezal points out, some of these theologians are confessional Calvinists such as Bruce Ware, Rob Lister, and John Frame.  The theistic mutualists, among whom are also Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, apparently depart from the classical statement of the simplicity of God, even though they advocate a kind of mediating position between open theism and classical theism.

Finally, there are the classical theists.  James Dolezal, Paul Helm, and Scott Swain are the main representatives of this group, at least in Dolezal’s estimation, and their works will feature in the thesis since they are the main proponents of this position.  Dolezal’s God without Parts and All that Is in God will perhaps be the most important two works (outside of Frame’s) for the thesis because Dolezal claims that Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity departs from the Reformed articulation of divine simplicity.

With all of this in mind, the thesis turns now to consider how John Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity relates to the Reformed orthodox articulation of divine simplicity.  Chapter Two examines how the doctrine of divine simplicity functions within the larger framework of the Reformed orthodox doctrine of God.  The point in framing the discussion this way is to argue that the doctrine of divine simplicity functions within the Reformed orthodox doctrine of God as a mutually-reinforcing doctrine alongside the other incommunicable attributes: divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, and eternity.  Chapter Three, then, seeks to provide an introduction to Frame’s doctrine of God in order to establish a foundation from which to consider how the doctrine of divine simplicity functions within his own doctrine of God, which, consequently, is what Chapter Four considers.  This chapter incorporates the most robust criticisms of Frame’s doctrine by Dolezal, and it also explores Timothy Miller’s indirect defense of Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity.  Chapter Five concludes the thesis by restating the arguments and various conclusions reached throughout the work, and then by suggesting several implications and paths for further research.  Let us turn now to establish the claim that Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity does not cohere with the Reformed orthodox articulation.


[1] James E. Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers), xvii.

[2] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 23-24.

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4] James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2017), 38.

[5] F.J. Sheed, “The Modern Attitude to God,” in C. Lattey, ed., God: Papers Read at the Summer School of Catholic Studies, Held at Cambridge, July 26th—August 4th, 1930 (London: Sheed and Ward, 1931), 232.

[6] Note, for example, Dolezal’s argument that “the view of God as found in the works of patristic and medieval Christian theologians such as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas . . . is marked by a strong commitment to the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, simplicity, eternity, and the substantial unity of the divine persons.  The underlying and inviolable conviction is that God does not derive any aspect of His being from outside Himself and is not in any way caused to be,” Dolezal, All That Is in God, 1.

[7] Ibid., 72.

[8] This is not meant to be an evaluative claim regarding Dolezal’s work; rather, it is meant merely to indicate that Dolezal’s treatment of the issue of Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity was necessarily limited only to the relationship of Frame’s doctrines of divine simplicity and divine eternity.  This thesis, on the other hand, seeks to provide a much more extended and expansive analysis of Frame’s overall doctrine of God.

[9] The strongest of these criticisms can be found in Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature? (Marquette University Press, 1980).


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