Playdough Theology

I. Theological Challenge

Central to K. Scott Oliphint’s argument in his God with Us is the rejection of a (false) dichotomy between “theological docetism” (a Thomistic theology proper) and “free will theism” (Arminianism, Molinism). (Oliphint’s thesis is, in part, that a Christologically self-conscious theological method proceeds safely between the horns of this dilemma.) There is, I think, a singular way to characterize the methodological quirks which inform both alternatives and which lead to the particular problems each faces (and the other claims to avoid). I think that most efficient characterization is the platonizing of one thing or another.

One could offer reductio arguments to the effect that both “theological docetism” and free will theism entail conclusions no self-consciously Christian theology ought to put up with (thus the designation “docetism”). My aim here is not to make those arguments (I will briefly rehearse them) but to offer a kind of diagnosis: if such arguments hold, where exactly did things go wrong? I submit that the problem is a particular kind of platonizing entrenched in either system. Here, however, I will focus only on Thomism. Thus my aim in this post is to diagnose the methodological ills of a Thomistic theology proper.

II. Platonism

Platonism is the view that there are abstract objects such as numbers or properties or universals or propositions (or fictional entities like Superman or unicorns or politicians with integrity or a god common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and whatever else). Grade A, USDA approved platonism affirms that (1) such objects (any of the types mentioned) exist, and (2) they are non-spatiotemporal, or abstract.

For my purposes, I’ll take platonism to be the view that some entity or other exists independently of God. We’ll know we’re handling something platonic (existing independent of God) when the following condition is met: an entity is what it is without reference to God (as revealed in Scripture).

As I will attempt to demonstrate with regard to Thomism, the consequence of the incursion of a platonic something or other into one’s theological method is that one’s theology proper will be tailored to the independent existence of that entity. In other words, platonizing some entity in the course of theologizing happens when we say “so much the worse for God and his Word” rather than “so much the worse for this or that thing,” when we tweak our theology proper in deference to some entity with dubious biblical/theological credentials.

III. Theological Docetism

Oliphint uses the phrase “theological docetism” to describe the tendency of Thomism to qualify the historical activity of God. What we’ll see then is that Thomism adopts an interpretive stance relative to God’s historical activity—a hermeneutic, if you like—that is governed, ultimately, not by revelation but by a metaphysical abstraction that subsists (methodologically) independent of God.

The Thomist affirms (correctly, we think) that God is pure act, that God’s essence is identical to his existence, that God is metaphysically simple (and thereby metaphysically distinct, unique, uncreated, and so on). It is argued that this primary metaphysical affirmation itself implies a robust theism familiar in historical theology: that God is eternal, impassible, immutable, and so on (see Dolezal, God without Parts, ch.3).

But what then of God’s acts ad extra (with relation to created things), such as creation, self-revelation, and redemption—the very acts which constitute the core of true religion? Do not such acts imply susceptibility to the createdness—the metaphysical composition, passibility, mutability, etc.—of the objects of those acts? The Thomistic model is distinguished here by its denial: If God is simple, then God’s acts are identical to his essence, and so they too are also simple; there is no real distinction in God between God’s attributes. Therefore God’s acts, though revealed in history and apparently historical, are not historical in the created sense; they are simple, divine acts, eternal and unchanging. As God is simple, eternal, impassible, immutable, etc., so his acts, though they are revealed and perceived as historical, are simple, eternal, impassible, immutable—in sum, divine.

For example, God is not free in the creaturely sense, since creaturely freedom implies mutability and a distinction between actuality and potentiality (and multiple unrealized potentialities). As Dolezal says, “the modality of volitional freedom cannot be abstracted from the nature of the volitional agent and, thus, the modality of human freedom cannot be univocally attributed to God’s exercise of free will” (GwP, 201). So, “that God cannot alter his will is not a weakness in him as it would be in us” (202). Thomas distinguishes between the absolute necessity of God’s willing himself and the suppositional necessity of God’s willing created things. Notice both are necessary on the Thomistic model. Thus, God is eternally and necessarily the creator of this world; he does not become the creator of this world at any point ‘in time’ because nothing God does is in any familiar sense ‘in time’, nor are there unrealized possible worlds in God’s mind, and so on. God created the heavens and the earth “in the beginning” only from the creature’s point of view; while in fact God never underwent a transition from not-yet-creator to creator. His creating the heavens and the earth apparently at the beginning is, theologically speaking (or from God’s point of view), a simple, eternal, immutable act indistinguishable from the divine essence. Does Scripture require us to think this way?

Oliphint brands this “theological docetism,” and it’s easy to see why: God’s acts appear historical, or in history; but in fact they are not. And God appears to undergo change, to answer prayer, to respond to creaturely affairs, and so on; but in fact he does not. The obvious test case for any hermeneutic of God’s historical, responsive activity is the incarnation, and here the Thomistic metaphysic breaks down. In his excellent study of divine simplicity, Dolezal offers no discussion of either Christ or the incarnation. (Neither term appears in the index.) To be sure, the obvious test case for any theology at all is Christ, so is it not an indication that something is amiss if your theological method grinds to a halt before Christ, the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, in whom the fullness of God dwells?

IV. Response

Here is our reductio: the Thomistic methodology leads to the subtle but significant qualification that God’s acts ad extra do not bear the relational quality that they appear in Scripture to bear; God’s acts ad extra are not in fact as God has revealed them. In sum, the truth-value of God’s Word must be qualified. This should give us pause, certainly: It will entirely change the way we view the history of redemption and God’s revelation of that history. In a previous post I attempted to get at this problem from the point of view of hermeneutics (“Sets of Theological Predicates,” Dec. 2012). Here I wish to draw attention to the stubborn platonic subsistence of Thomistic metaphysics that lies at the root of this issue.

Here is the problem:

The Thomist affirms that God is pure act, that God’s essence is identical to his existence, that God is metaphysically simple (and thereby metaphysically distinct, unique, uncreated, and so on). It therefore follows that God’s acts are (1) identical to his nature, and (2) thus also simple, eternal, and so on. In other words,

God’s metaphysical simplicity entails the non-historicity of God’s acts ad extra.

On the Thomistic model, this entailment proceeds despite the fact that Scripture does not endorse it. Scripture in fact rejects this entailment forthrightly. And even if it is true that Scripture teaches divine simplicity (and I believe it does), Scripture is under no obligation to affirm the full range of either the metaphysical or the logical implications of metaphysical simplicity, and in fact it does not. Scripture itself, and special revelation more broadly, could be neither a redemptive response to sin nor a trustworthy witness to its divine author if this entailment held.

V. An Epistemological Issue vs. Sola Scriptura

Thus the real stickler for Thomism is not only that Scripture does not teach this entailment, but that this method of theological self-defense—arguing from Scripture—is now no longer available to the Thomist. Thomism argues that the very description that Scripture gives of God and his acts in history is epistemologically suspect; we’re not supposed to believe, for example, that God is slow to anger. And so this epistemological qualification undermines true knowledge of redemptive history, and it suggests that much of Scripture is reducible to metaphor or allegory. And, notice, we must include here, within the scope of this theologico-epistemological qualification, not only God’s acts in history but God’s revelation of those acts, not only what God has revealed but the very nature of that revelation. So there is a profound epistemological issue here which I think remains under-appreciated: If God’s acts ad extra are thus qualified, (theologically true) knowledge of the distinction between God’s acts ad intra and his relations and operations ad extra is precluded.

I affirm divine simplicity, but I affirm it within the context of that which is taught by the sufficient and authoritative Bible; divine simplicity is, by good and necessary consequence, theologically defensible. And because I affirm simplicity on the basis of its revelatory credentials, I am not beholden in my understanding of Scripture or in my theology to the way a purely philosophical notion of simplicity would otherwise behave. I am not obligated to say that because God is simple, “in the beginning” is a kind of condescended untruth. Scripture enjoins us to view simplicity as compatible with God’s acts in history, his reactions and responses to his creation in covenant history. Since I submit to the authority of Scripture over and above Aristotelian metaphysics, I can confess what Scripture teaches.

VI. Conclusion

My claim then is that the Thomistic conception of simplicity is a platonized metaphysical abstraction. It is not immediately evident that it is, because divine simplicity is theologically and biblically defensible. However, the independent (if conceptual) subsistence of this metaphysical notion is apparent from the fact that it is what it is apart from God as he has revealed himself in Scripture.

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4 Comments on “Playdough Theology”

  1. shotgunwildatheart says:

    I know someone who claims to have left the Reformed faith because of this issue.

    If God is identical with His acts, then …(fill in the blank).

    For those of us strapped for funds, yet remain curious, how can the (apparent) deductions from the doctrine of Simplicity be reconciled with a Reformed understanding of Scripture?

    I have Dolezal’s book, but honestly, it’s a little intimidating. Does he address this in chapter 6?

    • Nate Shannon says:

      Hey Shotgun,

      I have another thought. In my other comment (below), I spoke broadly about methodology. But I think something can be said specifically about simplicity and freedom (etc.), though I think this point has received very, very little attention in the literature.

      In his book, Dolezal argues that since God is “pure act” (there is no unfulfilled potential in God), even though God is immutable, and even though he is who he is eternally and unchangeably, God is full of life–indeed, he is the fullness of life. God’s immutability (unchange-ability) is not a static, inert immutability, as some people object.

      That’s kind of what Dolezal says (check the section on immutability), but he doesn’t really explain it. Seems to me that, in the end, if God is who he is eternally, and if he is immutable, then, well, that’s it. We can say that his unchangeability is vivacious and whatever–the fullness of life–but we can also say that the moon is made of cheeze; saying so doesn’t make it true.

      So here is a positive proposal: God a se is the triune, personal God. That God–the triune personal God–is simple. So divine simplicity is triune, personal simplicity. That means that from eternity, the simple God has included the procession of the spirit and the eternal generation of the son and the inter-penetration of the persons. THAT is the fullness of life. Eternal, unchanging, life and liveliness. If that is the kind of simplicity we’re dealing with (instead of the static, inert, abstract Thomistic version), then the entire theological picture begins to look richer–and more biblical.

      That’s just a start, but I think it is a good one.


  2. Nate Shannon says:


    You ask, how can the doctrine of simplicity be reconciled with a proper view of Scripture? Great question.

    First, listen to Scripture; be taught by Scripture; submit to Scripture. Scripture is authoritative and sufficient. It is the full foundation of true knowledge and the full scope of true religion. While we seek to systematize and to articulate what the Bible teaches about God, salvation, etc., we must remain childlike students of the Word of God.

    When we do our systematic theology, often Scripture will resist our systematizing ambitions. When it does, we must submit ourselves and our theological systems to Scripture. So we may find that this or that systematic formulation achieves a faithful synthesis of some of the data of the Bible in one regard or another (such as the metaphysical stuff we’re talking about). Often we will find that in other ways, the Bible resists those formulations. When that happens, the problem is with OUR FORMULATIONS, not with Scripture.

    I’d put it this way: if simplicity is biblical, there is no question that simplicity is consistent with the rest of what Scripture teaches. If it is biblical, it absolutely is consistent. Biblical truth is ultimately perfectly coherent in the triune God who is himself infinitely self-consistent. However, it may be very difficult FOR US, from the creaturely point of view, to figure out how all biblical truth coheres. But there again, the ‘problem’ is only our own; it is not a problem with biblical truth, but merely a problem for our understanding of it. In sum, if simplicity is biblical, it is consistent with a Reformed view of Scripture and redemptive history. HOW this consistency is demonstrable is not always clear; and it isn’t really a problem when it isn’t demonstrable. If the Bible says it, it’s true. Maybe we don’t get it–and we won’t aways get it–but that’s just fine. No reason to run from the Bible; no reason to panic; no reason to invent answers if none are given.

    So I think if all of this is settled in your thinking and if you remain a childlike servant of Scripture, it will be easy to see that the Thomistic metaphysic is a beautiful and elaborate philosophical creation that at times penetrates the deep structures of Christian, biblical theology proper, at other times bears only a superficial similarity to it, at other times it flatly contradicts what Scripture teaches.

    The principle problem with the Thomist system is the nature/grace dualism. It comes down to this: the N/G dualism grants a measure of autonomy to the sinner’s intellect: it says that, to a certain point, the sinful creature can think or reason or speak truthfully about the one true God WITHOUT Scripture. This is in consistent with Reformed doctrines of Scripture and sin (and more). In my view, a mixture of Thomistic methodology and sola scriptura is impossible. I think Dolezal’s attempt to wed these two is bound to fail, even though, as he demonstrates, the problem has been latent in much of the history of Reformed theology.

    Don’t worry about it being intimidating: it’s ‘shop talk’, vocabulary used only by specialists and insiders. Dolezal’s book is a fine study, but it is a PhD dissertation, so it isn’t really meant for the general readership.

    So, again, the way through this mess is simply to submit to Scripture.

    Thanks for your comments.

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