Roundup on the Frame-Dolezal Dustup


First it was Eternal Subordination of the Son; now it’s Theistic Mutualism. It’s hard to keep up with all of these modern evangelical debates over the doctrine of God. For those just tuning in, the latest controversy centers on the recently published volume All That Is in God by Reformed Baptist theologian James Dolezal (Reformation Heritage Books, 2017). Dolezal’s goal is to recover the classical/scholastic view of God, over against a host of modern evangelical and Reformed scholars, whom he lumps together under the label “theistic mutualism.” Stated simply, this is the idea that, in some sense, God has a “give-and-take relationship with his creatures” that entails a real change in his being.

Among the scholars in Dolezal’s cross-hairs is John Frame, retired professor of Systematic Theology at RTS Orlando. Frame, who is known for his near-biblicist prioritization of exegetical theology over historical theology, has recently written a review critiquing Dolezal’s book (and scholasticism more generally) and defending his own position, which he prefers to call “biblical personalism” rather than “theistic mutualism.” His review has in turn set off a frenzy of responses over the past week.

My goal here is to catalog some of the posts reviewing All That Is in God and/or responding to Frame, as well as some posts that provide relevant background information, wrapping it all up with a short list of recommended readings on the subject. So here goes:

Reviews of Dolezal and Responses to Frame

  • A Review of James Dolezal’s All That Is in God by Joseph Minich, The Calvinist International (August 31, 2017). This was among the first reviews of Dolezal and is one of the most thoughtful and charitable. Minich goes beyond summary and analysis and constructively offers a possible path toward a rapprochement. While he sides with Dolezal’s overall metaphysic, he believes that Frame’s position might in some ways be harmonized with it, if change is predicated of God’s mode of revelation rather than of his essence. If you only have time to read one post on this topic, I would recommend going with this one.
  • All That Is in God by Malcolm Yarnell, Reformation21 (August 2017). Yarnell is professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Unlike Dolezal, he is not yet convinced that a “soft version” of theistic mutualism is entirely incompatible with classical Christian theism.
  • Scholasticism for Evangelicals: Thoughts on All That Is in God by James Dolezal by John Frame (November 25, 2017). Frame critiques Dolezal’s scholasticism in favor of a more thoroughgoing exegetical approach to the doctrine of God. Further, he believes that Dolezal’s position privileges a select few biblical texts while dismissing a vast swath of Scripture with an anthropomorphizing hand-waving.
  • Reviewing Frame’s Review of Dolezal by Mark Jones, The Calvinist International (November 27, 2017). Jones is a PCA pastor in Vancouver, British Columbia. Being trained in Puritan theology, Jones is clearly not much of a fan of Frame’s near-biblicist and largely anti-scholastic approach, and he faults Frame for adopting a method more akin to Socinianism than to Reformed orthodoxy.
  • Response to Frame’s Criticism of Dolezal on Theistic Mutualism by Jordan Cooper, Just and Sinner (November 28, 2017). Cooper is a confessional Lutheran pastor who sides with Dolezal, reaffirming many of the points made by Jones.
  • All That Is in God by Kevin DeYoung, The Gospel Coalition (November 29, 2017). DeYoung, a PCA pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, also sides mostly with Dolezal, though he observes that Dolezal’s combative tone may be a bit excessive.
  • Book Review: All That Is in God by James Dolezal by Keith Mathison, Tabletalk (November 2017). Mathison, professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida, gives a positive, thorough summary of Dolezal’s book, without directly engaging with Frame here.
  • The Exegesis of Immutability by Matt Colvin (November 29, 2017). Colvin, an ordained presbyter in the Reformed Episcopal Church and ACNA with a PhD in Greek literature, chides Dolezal for his superficial proof-texting. He argues that the biblical texts that speak of God’s unchanging character are more about covenant faithfulness than metaphysics per se.
  • Biblical Personalism: Further Thoughts on Scholasticism and Scripture by John Frame (November 30, 2017). Here Frame responds to his critics with a brief survey of Western thought. He defends his initial position and argues that Protestants must operate from fundamentally different premises than either pagans or Thomas Aquinas’s twofold mode of knowledge (reason and faith).
  • Unlatched Theism: An Examination of John Frame’s Response to All That Is in God by Keith Mathison, Tabletalk (November 30, 2017). In his most recent post, Mathison takes direct aim at Frame and restates many of the same criticisms as Jones and Cooper (scholasticism is about method rather than content, the consensus is actually on Dolezal’s side, etc.).
  • [Update 1:] Simplicity, Scholasticism, and the Triunity of God by Mike Riccardi, The Cripplegate (December 1, 2017). Riccardi, a pastor in Los Angeles, defends Dolezal and argues against using labels like “scholastic” or “Thomistic” to refute a position. He also faults Frame for using the language of “simplicity” while modifying its meaning.
  • [Update 2:] Scholasticism and Creation by John Frame (December 1, 2017). In his third post, Frame seeks to place Dolezal on the horns of a dilemma: if God’s “relation to the world as its Creator and Sustainer” is within his being, it makes God dependent upon creation, leading to Parmenidean pantheism. But if this relation is outside his being, it means that God cannot “experience” or be “present with” his creation, leading to Aristotelian deism. Frame further argues that only his account of biblical personalism can escape this dilemma.
  • [Update 3:] Immutability and Reformed Theology by Kevin DeYoung, The Gospel Coalition (December 7, 2017). DeYoung compares and contrasts the views of Bavinck and Frame on divine immutability, siding in favor of Bavinck (and thus Dolezal).
  • [Update 4:] Scholasticism and the Gospel by John Frame (December 16, 2017). In his brief fourth post, Frame distinguishes between a pagan/metaphysical view of redemption and a Christian/ethical view of redemption. He argues that the scholastic attempt to forge a synthesis of these two views is fundamentally wrongheaded.

Related Posts

  • What Motivates Oliphint’s Proposals? by Paul Helm (June 1, 2014). This is a review of K. Scott Oliphint’s book God With Us (Crossway, 2011—now out of print), in which Oliphint, professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, argues that God can assume to himself “covenantal properties” (a thesis rather similar to Frame’s).
    • Tolle Lege: A Brief Response to Paul Helm by K. Scott Oliphint, Reformation21 (June 2014). Oliphint challenges Helm to refute him on exegetical and theological grounds rather than merely philosophical grounds—or as Oliphint puts it, to demonstrate that the classical doctrine of divine simplicity is both a good (i.e. scriptural) and necessary consequence, rather than just a necessary consequence.
    • Modifying Classical Theism: Chalcedonian Theology Proper and Reformed ‘Tradition’ by Nate Shannon, Reformation21 (July 2014). Here Shannon defends Oliphint’s method, which he grounds in Geerhardus Vos’s redemptive-historical approach to theology, against Helm and Dolezal’s method grounded in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas.
      • Objections to K. Scott Oliphint’s Covenantal Properties by James Dolezal, Reformation21 (July 2014). Here Dolezal argues against Oliphint and Shannon on the grounds that “covenantal properties” are necessarily created properties, that Christ’s Incarnation does not contradict divine simplicity (since it was an assumption of a human nature rather than a change in the divine nature), and that covenantal condescension doesn’t entail ontological change.
  • What Is Protestant Scholasticism? (A Primer) by Mark Jones (August 8, 2017). Here Jones argues that scholasticism is more a matter of method than of content. This method has largely to do with making careful distinctions, such as between God’s absolute power and his ordained power, or between our right to salvation and our possession of salvation.

Recommended Readings

  • Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2 by Herman Bavinck (Baker, 2004), pp. 97-131, 153-159, 173-177. Bavinck of course is a favorite on this blog. He combines a knowledge and appreciation of the catholic tradition with fresh insight, balancing what I see as the best of scholasticism and neo-Calvinism. He argues that God’s immutability “should not be confused with monotonous sameness or rigid immobility. Scripture itself leads us in describing God in the most manifold relations to all his creatures. While immutable in himself, he nevertheless, as it were, lives the life of his creatures and participates in all their changing states” (158-159). I wonder if both Dolezal and Frame could agree with that statement.
  • The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock (Baker, 1979), pp. 310-362 (also available online at Monergism). Charnock (1628-1680) represents the height of Puritan thought on theology proper. His treatment of divine immutability begins with a meditation on Psalm 102, proceeding with a description of the doctrine in its classical form. He then seeks to prove God’s immutability from the very name of Jehovah, and then in scholastic fashion demonstrates how a denial of immutability compromises God’s perfection, simplicity, eternity, infinity, and omnipotence.
  • God and Time: Four Views edited by Gregory Ganssle (IVP, 2001). In this volume, Paul Helm defends the classical view of divine eternity, while William Lane Craig argues that God in some sense becomes temporal in the act of creation. What I find so interesting about Craig is that, although his method is essentially classical/scholastic, his conclusion is a kind of mutabilism similar to Oliphint’s and Frame’s.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

10 Responses to “Roundup on the Frame-Dolezal Dustup”

  1. Thanks for this helpful round up Kyle. I just tweeted this.

  2. Thank you so much for the summary. It helps me a lot to understand the debate.

  3. Kyle,
    Thanks for this compilation of reviews. This is extremely helpful. With your permission, I would like to repost this on my blog. I know many people that unaware of the debate on this issue. You’ll, of course, received full credit for your post.

  4. Once again a very helpful summary. It’s an area I have only lightly considered. Since I prefer a thorough going biblical support rather than the more philosophical I instinctively side with Frame. My question is how is divine immutability incompatible with how God reacts to situations. For me, immutability means immutability of character. Given this God’s character (including his sovereignty) controls his reactions to situations. Different situations call for different responses according to his wisdom and purposes but in every case his character remains the same. In this sense he is the Lord who does not change.

    I recognise that I’m probably being a bit naive about the scope of the argument.


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