During my second semester at seminary, I took the required class ST102, otherwise known as “Trinitarianism.” In the course of my reading, I was led into the world of philosophical theology, and by the end of the semester was tinkering with the idea of transferring to a different seminary. Not because I didn’t like Dallas mind you, but because they had very little in the way of philosophical theology classes, much less a degree emphasis in it like the new location I was considering. In the end, I stayed at Dallas, but I had found a new research interest and my reading the rest of the time followed accordingly.
As John Piper once remarked, “Raking is easy, but all you’ll get is leaves. Digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.” James Dolezal’s God without Parts is definitely an exercise in digging, just like the other books on philosophical theology I’d reviewed here (God With Us, Paradox in Theology). As you can gather from the subtitle, the focus of Dolezal’s work is the attribute of divine simplicity, which he sees as “indispensable for the traditional understanding of doctrines such as God’s aseity, unity, infinity, immutability, and eternity” (67). What you cannot gather from the subtitle is that this work is heavily indebted to Thomas Aquinas, and Dolezal takes readers through a guided tour of his writings on the topic. In essence then, it is a kind of exercise in retrieval theology. That is, Dolezal takes us back to Aquinas in order to answer modern objections to a traditionally held understanding of the doctrine of God.
Chapter 1 charts the landscape of modern thought on the doctrine of divine simplicity. Dolezal wants the reader to understand the objections that have been raised before he begins his defense of the doctrine of divine simplicity (which gets abbreviated DDS). Chapter 2 then explains the philosophical nature of composition, that is, what it would mean to be composed of “parts.” This is done in order to contrast with the notion of simplicity. With this foundation laid, Dolezal can turn in chapter 3 to give the theological rationale for the DDS itself. It is here that Dolezal argues that DDS “supplies the strength of absoluteness” to the attributes of God I mentioned above. This thread of the argument continues into chapter 4 and 5, the former focusing on simplicity and aseity, and the latter on simplicity and the other attributes. The final two chapters discuss issues related to DDS and God’s absolute knowledge and DDS and divine freedom.
To give you a feel for Dolezal’s writing style as well as to sum up his argument, here is part of his conclusion:
It has been my contention throughout this study that unless God is identical with all that is in him, and it entirely devoid of all passive potency, one cannot designate him as “most absolute.” If he were composed of parts then whatever absoluteness he exhibited would have to be correlative to those parts and thus weakened by relativity, contingency, and dependence. What’s more, without an absolutely simple God who is identical with all that is in him, one can offer no account of God or for anything else. If God is not the ontological sufficient reason for himself and all other things then he is not God (213).
On the basis of Dolezal’s study, he believes then that “dispensing with the DDS is not advisable” (216). I would heartily agree.
A major strength of Dolezal’s work is his style of writing. As you might be able to tell from the extended quote above, he uses short sentences and writes clear, crisp prose. In reading through the book, I found his discussions on DDS much easier to follow than, for instance, Scott Oliphint’s God With Us. Given the dense philosophical nature of doctrines like divine simplicity (and the other connected attributes), it is a corner of the theological world that is usually accessible to only a few. While God without Parts is not going to be flying off the shelves at the local Lifeway Christian Stores, it is a very readable book given its subject matter.
Additionally, the book is a very strong contribution to the discussion of DDS. As Dolezal argues, and other theologians pre- and post- Aquinas have as well, this is an important doctrine and there is much at stake in choosing to abandon it. Dolezal mounts an impressive defense in a relatively short space (slightly over 200pgs) and I think his work merits interaction from any future thinkers who might question the efficacy of holding to DDS.
From my perspective at least, there is little to criticize in Dolezal’s work. Part of this is that I already agreed with his position before reading the book, but part of it is that I thought it was a well written book. The chapters were not too overwhelmingly long, and Dolezal did a fine job of summarizing in the appropriate places (beginnings and ends of chapters). My one complaint was the abundance of untranslated Latin, but it is hard to imagine the train of thought being able to move as smoothly without the Latin shorthand. It may make the book heavier lifting for some readers who would otherwise be interested, but repetitive lifting builds mental muscles, and the next thing you know you’ll be digging up diamonds.
- Author: James E. Dolezal
- Title: God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness
- Publisher: Pickwick (and imprint of Wipf & Stock, November 1, 2011)
- Paperback: 260pgs
- Reading Level: Seminary/Doctoral
- Audience Appeal: Prophets interested in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the attribute of God’s simplicity
- Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Wipf & Stock)