On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss classical Christian theism, a crisis in theology, and the word that gives R.C. Sproul goosebumps.
STEPHEN NICHOLS: Dr. Sproul, it’s good to see you again.
R.C. SPROUL: It’s nice to be with you, Steve.
NICHOLS: We’re in your library. Usually we pull out these great old books, or we pull out newer books about older people if we’re doing biographies. But we’ve got a brand new book. This is a 2017 book by James Dolezal and it’s called All That Is In God. And there’s an interesting phrase here in the subtitle, “classical Christian theism.” So, this book is about classical Christian theism.
SPROUL: Exactly, and the crisis we’re facing right as we speak, where there have been so many departures from classical theism. Not only from liberal theology and neo-orthodox theology, but even some of the leading voices for the Reformed faith have moved away from classical theism.
NICHOLS: So, we’re talking about the crisis. Some people probably aren’t even aware that there is a crisis.
SPROUL: No, they don’t. If you were to go back a few years and see the program and development of open theism, you would see that open theism was spurred initially by philosophical considerations of process thought where God was seen to have a polarity of being and non-being, good and evil, within Himself. And God Himself was undergoing an evolution and a development.
NICHOLS: He was becoming.
SPROUL: He was part of the process. And then out of that came this movement of hyper-Arminianism called “open theism” where God is limited in His knowledge; He doesn’t have full omniscience because He doesn’t know the future decisions of human – not only does He not know, He can’t know.
NICHOLS: Because these are real, free choices.
SPROUL: Exactly. So you had this whole big hullabaloo about open theism, which was normally thought to be a debate between classical Evangelicalism and this departure. This is a slightly different issue. It’s not just the issue of open theism, it’s over a shadow that has fallen over classical theology proper, of classical theism. One of the things that I’ve always said when I would teach theology proper in the seminary is, “If you look at the doctrine of God as it’s articulated in the Reformed confessions and look at it in the Lutheran confessions, Episcopalian confessions, whatever it is, when you talk about the very nature of God who is invisible and His simplicity, and His eternality, and immutability, and omnipresence, omniscience, all that,” I say, “You see the same descriptions of all them. There’s a catholicity of classical theism where everybody in different denominations, even Rome, would assert the same things.” I would say to my students at the beginning of my class, “There is absolutely nothing that is unique about the doctrine of God as we find it in historic Reformation thought.” And at the same time – I’m not becoming Neo-Orthodox or Dialectical- I would say, “The most important aspect of Reformed theology that sets it apart from every other doctrinal system is our doctrine of God.” Well, how can I say both at the same time out of my mouth? Well, on page one we have our doctrine of God. On page two we haven’t forgotten our doctrine of God. The Reformed doctrine of God stays there in our ecclesiology, in our Christology, in our hamartiology, and all the aspects of theology are defined by our fundamental assertion of the nature and character of God. What I’ve said since we started Ligonier forty-six years ago is that the biggest crisis that the church faces today is our understanding of the nature of God. And all of a sudden we have major teachers questioning the simplicity of God, the immutability of God, the eternality of God: all of these basic, fundamental, foundational truths and I’ve said that what they’ve introduced is some sophisticated concept of becoming into their Doctrine of God which, in my estimation, leads to idolatry.
NICHOLS: Because it’s not the God of the Bible.
SPROUL: If there’s one scintilla of becoming in the character of God, then God is no longer God. He is not pure being. He is not eternal. This author gets into the whole issue of analogical language: how we are able to speak meaningfully about God. And analogical language is distinguished from equivocal language and univocal language where words have a one-to-one correspondence. What these people are doing – the one’s he’s criticizing in this book-
NICHOLS: The ones who are moving away from more classical theism.
SPROUL: Yes, moving away from orthodox theism, they say, “Well, yes. When it says that God has arms and legs, obviously that’s anthropomorphic language, and we’re describing him in human terms.” And that’s okay if we’re describing God analogically: this is the way God is like this.
NICHOLS: Like this is His “right arm.”
SPROUL: That’s right. But then they go on and say that, on other elements where God is learning and God is relating to His creatures, expressing emotion, it’s not just analogical, it’s univocal. And that is a departure from classic orthodoxy.
SPROUL: Augustine made the comment, “anything that is attributed to God analogically, must be denied in its univocal sense.” Which is exactly what these opponents to Dolezal- and what he is doing is that he is criticizing this drift away from classical orthodoxy. I know most of these theologians he’s talking about, and I know that most of them don’t understand philosophy and they don’t even realize how much they’ve departed from orthodox Christianity.
NICHOLS: So, really we’re talking about the impassibility of God. We’re also talking about the aseity of God.
SPROUL: Now, that’s one of my favorite words. I get chill bumps. God is self-existent. He’s eternally self-existent. And His pure being- you know, I get more orthodoxy reading Plato than reading some of these guys here.
NICHOLS: Because they grasp that notion of pure being.
NICHOLS: This book was actually a gift to you from the author, and he signed it. This is what he signed, “For Dr. R.C. Sproul, with gratitude for your long and faithful proclamation of Christian orthodoxy.” And that’s what you have been, as you say, from the beginning of when you began Ligonier back in 1971.
SPROUL: I have read this book twice now already in just the last month, because I couldn’t get over it. I was starting to feel the Elijah syndrome: I was starting to think I alone am left. But wait, there are still seven-thousand that haven’t bowed the knee to Baal. And this fellow really knows his stuff. I was really very impressed.
NICHOLS: I’m glad you enjoyed this book. It’s good to see that not only have we these teachers that God has gifted us in the past, but that we have teachers God is gifting to the church now. And we do have folks who help us think well about theology and about God. Thank you, Dr. Sproul. Since you read it twice, you might want to read it a third time so I’m going to go ahead and give you back your book.
SPROUL: I appreciate it. I probably will read it a third time.
NICHOLS: Thank you for letting us visit your library again.