Thesis Conclusion

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

Chapter 5

Conclusion

 

Reformed Orthodoxy and Divine Simplicity

The burden of this thesis was to demonstrate that John Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity does not cohere with the Reformed orthodox articulation of divine simplicity.  To that end, the thesis argued that the Reformed orthodox theologians situated the doctrine of divine simplicity inside a framework of mutually-reinforcing doctrines.  Divine perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, infinity, and the Trinity each establish and are simultaneously established by each other.  To argue for one of these doctrines is to argue for them all.  These doctrines are so interrelated that to reformulate or reject one is to reformulate or reject all in a correlative manner.  And this should not be a radical or surprising move, since, as James Dolezal argues, “each of [God’s] attributes is ontologically identical with his existence and with every other one of his attributes.  There is nothing in God that is not God.”[1]  One should expect that a reformulation or rejection of the doctrine of divine immutability, for example, will have a corresponding effect on the doctrine of divine infinity, if indeed these two attributes of God really are identical in God.  If the doctrine of divine simplicity as confessed by the Reformed orthodox is in fact correct, it comes as no surprise that a modification to God’s aseity correspondingly impacts God’s impassibility since God’s aseity and impassibility simply are essentially identical in God.

John Frame and Divine Simplicity

This thesis then considered John Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of God in order to establish a framework for understanding how divine simplicity fits within Frame’s theology.  The purpose of this was to ensure fair treatment of Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  The most important aspect of Frame’s doctrine of God is his exposition of the lordship attributes of God: control, authority, and presence.  As Lord, God is the one who controls all things, reigns in sovereign authority, and is covenantally present to his creation.  The lordship attributes control Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of God, and, of import for the present study, they impact how Frame conceives of the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Frame’s exposition of God’s absoluteness followed the discussion of the lordship attributes.  The Lord is the absolute one, the one from whom and through whom and to whom are all things (cf. Romans 11:36).  Frame draws heavily on the thought of Cornelius Van Til in his exposition of God as the absolute personality.  What sets God apart as God is his absolute personality, something which must be confessed to safeguard the uniqueness of God in his majestic glory.  Frame also maintains a robust doctrine of God’s aseity, his absolute self-existence.  This comes as no surprise, either, since God’s absoluteness is a corollary idea to his self-existence.  If God is indeed absolute, it must necessarily be the case that he exists a se, of himself.  The absolute God by nature cannot rely upon anything outside himself in order to be who he is.

The thesis then considered a few of the more nuanced aspects of Frame’s doctrine of God, namely, his articulation of divine immutability, impassibility, and eternity.  Frame’s argument that relenting is a fundamental part of God’s nature does not cohere with the Reformed orthodox understanding of immutability, which signals that Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity, to the extent that it is consistent with his doctrine of immutability, will also depart from the Reformed orthodox understanding.  This is the case because relenting, if it is applied to God in an absolute sense, signals a change in the very essence of God; to the extent that God relents, he receives new actuality of being which he did not previously possess.  Not only does this impact how one understands God’s eternity, but it fundamentally changes how one conceives of God’s unity of essence, laid forth in the doctrine of divine simplicity.  If God receives new actuality, that new actuality should be seen either as a part of God which is not fundamental to God’s essence, or as a part of God upon which God relies in order to be God.  Neither of these options coheres with the Reformed orthodox understanding of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  If God possesses aspects of his being which are not actually fundamental to that very being, then he would be composed of parts and therefore would not be simple.  God would be made up of at least two kinds of parts: essential and accidental.  Moreover, if God relies on his parts in order to be who he is, then those parts should be viewed as more fundamental than God’s own Godness.  If this is the case, one cannot confess that God is “most absolute” as in the Westminster Confession of Faith, for these parts of God would be more basic to God’s being than his Godness.

Because of this, the thesis argued that Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity does not cohere with the Reformed orthodox articulation of that doctrine.  In examining not only Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity per se but also his articulation of doctrines which surround and mutually-reinforce divine simplicity, the thesis provided a window to evaluate Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity.  Again, a reformulation or rejection of one of the incommunicable attributes mentioned previously leads to a corresponding reformulation or rejection of the other incommunicable attributes.  As Paul Helm has argued, “the data regarding the essence and nature of God, as revealed in Scripture have by and large an occasional and unsystematic character to them.  But because Scripture, as God’s word, is self-consistent, the varied data must be self-consistent.”[2]  The fact is, the Reformed orthodox theologians sought to develop a self-consistent understanding of God by employing the doctrines of divine simplicity, aseity, immutability, impassibility, and infinity.  In this way, the Reformed tradition sought to confess a unified and systematic doctrine of God rather than to maintain an unsystematic series of doctrines of God.

Implications and Further Research

There are at least two questions which can be derived from this study that should be made explicit.  First, What does it mean to be “Reformed”?  There are three potential answers which should be explored here.

Potential answer one: What it means to be Reformed is that one subscribes to and confesses one of the historic Reformed confessions.  In the words of R. Scott Clark, the word “Reformed,” “denotes a confession, a theology, piety, and practice that are well known and well defined and summarized in ecclesiastically sanctioned and binding documents.”[3]  Basically, this answer presupposes that what it means to be Reformed is that one accepts and submits to the entire tradition, including the historic Reformed confessions, the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformed orthodox theologians, and contemporary Reformed theologians.  One of the difficulties for this potential answer is that the Reformed confessions and theologians, both historic and contemporary, do not agree in all matters.

Of import for the present study, then, comes the following question: What degree of Reformed theology, piety, or practice must one embrace in order to be considered genuinely Reformed?  To put it in the terms of the present study: Must one accept the strong form of the doctrine of divine simplicity, as confessed in the historic Reformed confessions and advocated by certain Reformed theologians, in order to be considered Reformed?  If what it means to be “Reformed” is that one necessarily embraces every jot and tittle of the Reformed confessions, then it is necessary to embrace the strong form of the doctrine of divine simplicity in order to be considered Reformed.  If it means that one embraces the majority report from the Reformed theologians, then this too means that one must embrace the doctrine of divine simplicity in order to be Reformed.  This means that if one rejects or reformulates the doctrine of divine simplicity, one cannot be legitimately considered Reformed.  So if this is the correct answer to the question (“What does it mean to be ‘Reformed’?”), Frame should not be considered a Reformed theologian, at least to the extent that he reformulates the doctrine of divine simplicity in terms which do not cohere with the meaning of the confession of divine simplicity found in the historic Reformed confessions and in the writings of the Reformed orthodox theologians.

Potential answer two: What it means to be Reformed is that one holds to the so-called “five points of Calvinism” without necessarily subscribing to one of the historic Reformed confessions.  While there may not be much academic literature on this topic, popular Christian literature is rife with examples of this kind of answer.  For example, Collin Hanen’s book Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists offers plenty of examples of American theologians who are technically called “Reformed” because they adhere to the five points of Calvinism, but who nevertheless do not belong to churches which confess one of the historic Reformed confessions.  Examples of these theologians include John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Al Mohler.  In fact, most of the Christians involved in the movement known as “The New Calvinism” would not confess one of the historic confessions but are nevertheless called “Reformed.”  This potential answer to the question means that Frame fits comfortably within what would be called the “Reformed” tradition.  Frame wholeheartedly upholds and adheres to the five points of Calvinism, even as he graciously engages with other Christians who do not.

Potential answer three: What it means to be Reformed is that one belongs, even if perhaps in a loose way, to a “Reformed” church but does not necessarily hold to the five points of Calvinism or subscribe to one of the historic Reformed confessions.  What makes this potential answer quite interesting is the conceivable possibility that one could be considered “Reformed” and yet be utterly opposed to the traditional theology held forth in the Reformed confessions and put forth by the historic Reformed orthodox theologians.  On the other hand, one could go so far as to believe and confess one of the historic Reformed confessions and hold to the five points of Calvinism yet not be considered “Reformed” simply because they do not belong to a local body of believers who call themselves “Reformed.”  Because of this, this should not be seriously considered as a viable answer to the question of what it means to be “Reformed.”

The second question which should be considered is: To what degree should Reformed seminaries require adherence to particular Reformed confessions?  As has been previously mentioned, Frame was a professor at various Reformed seminaries for over twenty years.  At Westminster Seminary California, he was required to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which, it should be noted, includes the confession that God is “without . . . parts” (2.2).  Thus, the question seeks to address to what extent should Reformed seminaries require their professor to adhere to Reformed confessions.  The reason that this question is of some importance for the present study concerns the fact that Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity does not cohere with the doctrine of simplicity as it is articulated in the major confessions and by most of the theologians in the Reformed tradition.  Therefore, one could legitimately ask whether Frame should be required to notify his students that his formulation of the doctrine is not consistent with the Reformed orthodox articulation.

Finally, there are at least four other paths for further research which can be suggested here.  First, the doctrine of divine aseity has been shown to be a mutually-reinforcing doctrine alongside divine simplicity within the Reformed orthodox doctrine of God.  Yet the doctrine of divine aseity has received little attention, either positive or negative, in recent years.  William Lane Craig’s God over All is the only notable and recent work on aseity put forth by an evangelical, and his work is primarily philosophical rather than theological.  If it is indeed the case that divine aseity and simplicity stand or fall together, then one would expect that an extensive consideration of the doctrine of divine aseity would prove fruitful in upholding the confession of God’s unity of simplicity.

Second, one of the unexpected findings of this thesis is the role that divine incomprehensibility plays in confessing the doctrine of divine simplicity.  Dolezal’s criticism of Frame rests squarely on the fact that Frame has adopted a univocal view of language, which in turn impacts how Frame conceives of God’s incomprehensibility.  But on the other hand, the motivation behind adopting such a view of language, in Frame’s mind, is surely to safeguard the fact that human beings can truly know God through God’s revelation of himself.  God is never hindered in his revelation by the inadequacy of human language to fully communicate what God intends; rather, God is able to use human language to reveal himself clearly.

The importance of the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility, then, is seen in that what one thinks about the incomprehensibility of God necessarily impacts whether one confesses God’s simplicity.  One of the primary motivations behind recent reformulations of the doctrine of divine simplicity appears to be that the doctrine simply is not logical or cannot be comprehended by the human mind.  This motivation is veiled underneath the use of univocal language to argue that God must be essentially identical to the language humans use to predicate of him, otherwise humans cannot have genuine knowledge of God.  But as Dolezal points out, “to insist that our language cannot convey to us the truth about God unless it refers to God in precisely the same manner as it refers to creatures does not appear to be the assumption of the Bible itself.”[4]  He continues, “Psalm 145:3 testifies that God’s greatness is unsearchable or unfathomable.  This is not merely a quantitative unsearchableness, but most especially a qualitative one.”[5]  The point to be recognized here is that an extensive academic study aimed at examining and retrieving the Reformed orthodox doctrine of divine incomprehensibility would provide a fruitful avenue of study and lens through which to consider the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Third, one of the most common objections to the doctrine of divine simplicity is that it does not cohere with the doctrine of the Trinity.  In his review of Dolezal’s God without Parts, James N. Anderson, Professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, remarks, “the problem is this: [the doctrine of divine simplicity] seems to rule out both real distinctions within God and the possession of properties by God . . .  I’m not suggesting that this problem cannot be resolved; I’m merely observing that Dolezal barely acknowledges it.”[6]  Dolezal rectified this problem to a great extent in his later work, All That Is in God, by including a chapter devoted to the issue of divine simplicity’s coherence with an orthodox articulation of the Trinity.  Notwithstanding, an extended academic inquiry into the matter should prove fruitful to both trinitarian scholarship specifically and to scholarship in theology proper more generally.  If it is true that the church has long confessed both the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of divine simplicity, a contemporary examination of the relationship between the two doctrines would certainly prove to be beneficial to the church catholic.

Finally, an academic inquiry into the relationship between the doctrine of divine simplicity and the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ warrants mention.  If it is true that “all that is in God is God,” what exactly happened at the Incarnation?  The orthodox Christian confession is that only the Son took on flesh, not the Father or the Spirit.  But if there are no real distinctions in the essence of God, only among the persons of God, how should Christians understand the reality of the Incarnation?  If there are no essential distinctions between Father and Son, is it the case that the humanity of Christ is somehow also united to the Father and the Spirit?  An extended consideration of the relationship of divine simplicity to the Incarnation would serve to answer, or at least mitigate, these perplexing questions as well as provide helpful categories to further understand both doctrines.


[1] Dolezal, God without Parts, 2.

[2] Paul Helm, “Foreword,” in Dolezal, God without Parts, xi.

[3] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 3.

[4] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 69.

[5] Ibid., 69-70.

[6] James N. Anderson, “Review: God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness.”  Web: http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/review/god-without-parts-divine-simplicity-and-the-metaphysics-of-gods-absolutenes#page=.  Accessed on October 14, 2018.


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