An Assessment of Jared Oliphint’s Thoughts on ‘All That Is in God’

Recently, a dear acquaintance of mine, Jared Oliphint, released an informal review article on Dr. James Dolezal’s book All That Is in God. There have been several reviews written on this very brief work, some very positive and some very negative. Oliphint is charitable as he seeks to develop his concerns related to Dolezal’s presentation.

That said, I feel the content of Oliphint’s article lacked the proper nuance and understanding required to interact meaningfully with not only the doctrine of simplicity but also with the discussion as a whole. I want to make a few observations that I hope will serve to move this discussion forward in a positive direction.

Assuming Aristotle

One of the concerns Oliphint has with Dolezal’s book is his assumption of Aristotelian categories. He writes:

Dolezal wastes no time alerting the reader that his methodology will be, at least in part, philosophical in nature (xv). He is in good company doing so, as historically theologians have used philosophical ideas to articulate how to think about God’s attributes. But he also wastes no time framing his discussion exclusively in Aristotelian terms, and gives no explanation for such a commitment, so it’s up to the reader to guess his reasons.

Oliphint’s observation is correct, but I’m just not sure how relevant his concern is. For an introductory work does not necessarily have to justify all of its assumptions. Moreover, Dolezal’s doctoral work was on this very topic and he clarifies much within a more lofty preceding work called God Without Parts. Oliphint goes on:

Here’s one guess: Aristotelian terms and ideas helped articulate the doctrines within theology proper in the medieval period on through the Reformation and into the period of Reformed orthodoxy. Dolezal likely just inherits and imports those terms and ideas as he seeks to articulate topics within the doctrine of God.

First, Aristotelian thought has helped both eastern and western theologians talk about God since the 1st and 2nd centuries. This kind of language did not start at Thomas Aquinas or even at the advent of the medieval period. Church history may testify to the usage of some of these categories. Athanasius writes, for example, in his De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (On the Incarnation of the Word):

And this was the wonderful thing that He was at once walking as man, and as the Word was quickening all things, and as the Son was dwelling with His Father. So that not even when the Virgin bore Him did He suffer any change, nor by being in the body was [His glory] dulled: but, on the contrary, He sanctified the body also. For not even by being in the universe does He share in its nature, but all things, on the contrary, are quickened and sustained by Him (emphasis added).

It is important to note that, even in terms of the incarnation, God did not become that which He was not before, and this is crucially relevant to Thomas’ formulation of simplicity. God did not add anything to Himself, nor did He submit Himself to the worldly elements, according to the divine nature. The assumption is that 1) God is not mutable, and 2) God is not composed of parts. All Thomas does is offer an organized, systematic exposition of the theology proper articulated by theologians before him and, indeed, revealed in Scripture itself.

Second, how original to Aristotle are Aristotle’s categories? Surely no one would say Aristotle is the inventor of formal logic, yet it was Aristotle who began systematizing the abstract laws of logic, which are just part of natural revelation, into argumentative formats. To question categories based on who discussed them or who organized them is a simple genetic fallacy. Moreover, it’s a false and unjustified dilemma to assume that because Aristotle articulated these things, these things cannot therefore be biblical.

Third, we all assume axioms or categories in our writing and speaking. That does not mean we have to justify every single one of them every time we make use of them.

Fourth, if I remember correctly, Dolezal does spend a great deal of time in his book showing how the proposals of “mutualists” simply cannot hold up under the close scrutiny of logic. In chapters 2-4, for instance, Dolezal talks about why simplicity is an important doctrine, what simplicity is, and how this doctrine has become lost under the shaky framework of contemporary evangelical thought.

The Job of Metaphysics & the Scope of Dolezal’s Book

Oliphint goes on to write:

He willingly puts philosophical expectations on himself. So it is surprising that there is no recognition of the subject of, let alone the vast literature of, mereology. None. Mereology — the study of the relation between a whole and its parts — has been a topic throughout the history of philosophy, and ironically was a significant topic in the medieval period, a period that acts as an essential load-bearing piece for much of Dolezal’s work in this book.

As we mentioned earlier, Dolezal’s book is an introductory work. So, it is not a surprise that he does not begin dissecting metaphysical categories such as mereology. On another note, it’s surprising to me that Oliphint even brings this up. Not only is this point beyond the intended scope of Dolezal’s book, but it’s one of the chief aims, or tasks, of metaphysics. The joy of Christian theology proper is that it shows the coherence of the one and the many in the God of the Bible. Simplicity is one of the doctrines used to talk about how this happens. In fact, without the simplicity articulated by Dolezal, there is no such coherence.

It’s logically impossible to have determinations, properties, attributes which accrue to the divine essence while also successfully recognizing the absolute coherence of the one and the many in God. God does not ultimately bring together unity and plurality in Himself if indeed there are things more basic than Himself making Him to be what He is, in any sense. There would need to be a concrete reality behind this god in order to do the work of mereology.

All of that to say: the historical position on simplicity, which I believe is articulated well in Dolezal’s work, allows for the coherence searched for in both secular and religious mereology. But, Dolezal was not under any obligation to talk about mereology because it wasn’t even nearly within the scope of that small, introductory work. Moreover, just because mereology was not explicitly mentioned, does not mean Dolezal’s dialogue does not make use of or even explain something of mereology. To restrict a discussion of mereology to the explicit use of the term is to commit the word/concept fallacy.

Demanding Dolezal’s work discuss metaphysics in such detail would be like me accusing John Calvin of not including a detailed system of civil government in Book IV of the Institutes. Though relevant, that discussion was simply beyond the scope of that part of his work. Oliphint continues:

In characterizing his own efforts under the contemplative approach to theology proper, he says of his approach that “It proceeds in a logical way from major premises through minor premises to conclusions.” (xv) No, it doesn’t. This “logical” way Dolezal describes suffers from two major problems. First, no one argues syllogistically. One of the most well-known examples of a syllogism is

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Not only will you not find historical theological sources making extended arguments using this logical form, Dolezal (thankfully) doesn’t do so in this book either.

This is truly astonishing. Is there no distinction between an explicit and implicit form of syllogizing? I could write a Socratic dialogue in which the discussion proceeds logically from (A) to (B) concluding at (C) without writing a formal syllogism. So, yes, everyone does argue syllogistically if they formulate any type of a posteriori argument. It may not be an explicit syllogism where modus tollens is just obvious, but it flows from one thought to the next, logically. I can’t help but see another word/concept fallacy here. If a formal syllogism is not present, it is thought, no one actually argues syllogistically––this is absurd, and I think Oliphint is grabbing for all he can at this point. He writes:

Second, characterizing “logical” thinking in this way betrays a revealing ignorance of logic and its history. With the developments of Frege, Russell, Kripke, and many others starting in the early to mid-20th century, the discipline of logic exploded and became exponentially more complex and more powerful, and ideas like implication and logical consequence have become fields in themselves. While the history of logic certainly owes a great debt to Aristotle, that historical point is unrelated to what it means to “proceed in a logical way.” It’s like if someone tried to claim that even science as a discipline should get back to an Aristotelian methodology!

Formal logic doesn’t evolve or develop.

We discover ways to talk or think about it, but it’s coextensive with creation, part of natural revelation. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. So, when Oliphint talks about logic like its ontology is coextensive with our language rather than with creation, I become baffled––the univocal supposition of men like Duns Scotus really becomes apparent here.

Metaphysical discussion after Kant is perhaps some of the worst metaphysical dialogue within the history of philosophy. This is actually an implicit concern in Dolezal’s book. With the recovery of simplicity, it is the hope that we’ll ditch what we’ve been handed by Kant and those following after him. In other words, no scholastic-minded Christian wants mid-20th century discussion on logic, because, frankly, it’s garbage in comparison to what we have in the Puritans, the Reformers, Aquinas and those before them. There is no need to poison the well with post-Enlightenment chaos.

We want confessional categories––categories which can be found all over the Reformed confessions. And yes, these are Thomistic categories; which are Aristotelian categories; which are simply the systematization of the nature of God’s creation.

As to his last sentence in the above quotation: “It’s like if someone tried to claim that even science as a discipline should get back to an Aristotelian methodology!” No, actually, it’s not, for a few reasons. One, the scientific method never changes. It’s how human naturally learn about the world around them and on that note––even Aristotle used the scientific method. Two, what does he mean “science as a discipline”? What kind of science? As far as I know, there is much Aristotelian thought inherent within our present scientific methodology. I mean, the scientific method is, itself, a logical reasoning process. If we ever changed the scientific method, we’d be irrational and lost; NASA would have to close its doors, and biologists would have to close their labs––goodbye cancer research!

He goes on:

Causation as an idea went from robust, under Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, to simplistic, according to Dolezal. And after Hume and Kant’s work, the Aristotelian fourfold notion of causality was dropped within the field of science, replaced by a denial, skeptical, and/or subjective notion of causation… Unlike Dolezal, who intentionally mimics Aristotle’s terminology and concepts, Lowe recognizes Aristotle’s work as a historical starting point, not as a philosophically infallible canon to be dropped into contemporary philosophical discussion.

Saying “skeptical notion of causation” is akin to saying absolutely nothing meaningful about causation. This is why contemporary metaphysics is in such bad shape, a point Dolezal made. It seems like Oliphint wants to suggest this is an inaccurate conception of the history of philosophy. But one cannot deny that with Hume came a skepticism of causality, and with Kant came an epistemological dilemma in which the metaphysic of causality could not be meaningfully discussed.

The church, largely, reacted to this in a fundamentally fideistic way. “Give us our Bibles,” they said, “that’s all we need.” Reason was out the window because nothing meaningful served as the object of human reason. For that was an impossibility according to the mainline doctrines of the Enlightenment. Deists were born, fundamentalists arose, the scholastics died out, and the west entered a long period of intellectual confusion and methodological ignorance. This is historically undeniable.

What is more, modern science is primally concerned with questions of causality and so post-Kantian philosophy ultimately harms rather than helps our philosophy of science. Change is also required for the scientific method to be implemented. Interestingly, change is what Aristotle thought was the defining feature of the world (just check the SEP, Oliphint would be proud). Science proceeds on these very assumptions: 1) effects have causes; and 2) change is a real feature of our world. I’m, therefore, left trying to figure out what’s so a-historical about Dolezal’s book.

Conclusion

I could say much, much more, but I would need time I do not have. In summary, it could be said that Oliphint doesn’t really offer any critique of content, but simply doesn’t like the scope of the book. I would encourage him to read Dolezal’s preceding work, God Without Parts if he would like a more expansive treatment.

Also, it would be helpful if Oliphint held to his own standard. He could start by mentioning how Dolezal is not the only one treating this subject at present, nor is he the only one coming at it from this perspective. In fact, Thomistic metaphysics and divine simplicity are explosive topics at present, which is good for the church. This means that others are writing about this. Dolezal draws much from Richard Muller and Edward Feser, and it would be helpful if Oliphint would have at least acknowledged this.

Leave a Reply