Book Review: The Failure of Natural Theology

Johnson, Jeffrey D. The Failure of Natural Theology: A Critical Appraisal of the Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas. Conway, AR: Free Grace Press Academic, 2021. 264pp. Hardcover. ISBN: 9781952599378. $40.00.

1.    Introducing Johnson and His Project

Jeffrey D. Johnson’s latest release from his publishing arm is The Failure of Natural Theology. The book, as the title suggests, is controversial. While there has been a steady rise in appreciation for Thomistic theology, especially on the doctrine of God, Johnson seeks to end this growing movement. If you aren’t familiar with Johnson, he is the Pastor of preaching and teaching at Grace Bible Church and President of Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He has an M.Rel. in Biblical Studies and a D.Min. from Veritas Theological Seminary.[1] Johnson has published widely through his publishing house, Free Grace Press, on a variety of topics.

Before summarizing and interacting with Johnson’s work, I should answer two questions. First, what is my evaluation of his book (in other words, what is the “TL;DR” version)? I must confess that Johnson’s book is, to borrow his own phrase, fatally flawed. It’s flawed in its claims, its argumentation, and its rigor. If I were to critically engage all the flaws, this review would become a book of its own. So, I would warn you upfront not to purchase and read the book. It does not contribute to the ongoing debate about the validity and value of Thomism. It misunderstands natural theology, Thomas, and Classical Theism. But it also fails to make a serious and convincing case for Neo-Classical Theism (the view which I understand Johnson to actually be defending despite his verbal insistence on “Classical Theism,” as I will seek to demonstrate below). However, my intent in writing a review of Johnson is not mere macho tribal posturing that results in little more than beating one’s chest for their team, which leads to my second question: why have I chosen to critically review this book given my belief that it is neither serious scholarship nor persuasive in its claims? Johnson is not an expert in natural theology, Thomism, Philosophy of Religion, or the Doctrine of God. He has not published in this area in any peer-reviewed work. So, why give it attention? While I do think there is always a worry that if you review books that you find seriously problematic, you will inadvertently make them more popular and more widely read than they deserve, I think this book warrants attention for two reasons.

The first reason I find it important to review is that it’s written by a self-attesting confessor of the Second London Confession of Faith (2LCF), who is also the President of a seminary that is growing in popularity among those that outwardly seek to confess 2LCF. I find this very troubling. The reason being, as I will argue, Johnson denies 2LCF at crucial points in his book (This isn’t a worry for those not committed to confessing 2LCF or Classical Theism, so if that’s you, feel free to ignore this point). Moreover, I am a firm believer that we should be more critical of our own “tribe” and Johnson fits that label for me since I also confess 2LCF. I think we should reserve our strongest critiques for those who outwardly confess the same beliefs. As Proverbs reminds us, “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” This doesn’t mean my goal is to wound in the contemporary sense. I seek to build up faith, hope, and love in both Johnson and his readers. But these virtues compel me to provide a critical engagement in hope that bad arguments would be surrendered, false beliefs would be revised, and faith in our God would be nourished.

The second reason I find it worthwhile to review the book (and more relevant for those who find the rise in Thomistic allegiance troubling) is that critically engaging with primary and secondary sources, and showing how to properly evaluate evidence and arguments, is of great value and short supply. As Richard Cross has reminded us, “we learn from the mistakes of our forebears as much as from their successes.”[2] And many of us learn best from serious disagreement and debate. The kind of debate that focuses on arguments and asks the hard questions. And Johnson does ask some good questions. So, I hope to provide this sort of educational interaction within my critical engagement. This ought to remind us that people and books are not enemies to be conquered but (potential) friends to be persuaded. As I note later in my review, I find Johnson to be both earnest and genuine in his thinking. But I find his arguments seriously wanting. To his work I now turn.

2.    Summarizing the “Failure” of Natural Theology

If the subtitle of the book wasn’t clear enough, Johnson sets out to critique Thomas Aquinas and his natural theology. In Johnson’s introduction, he explains that Thomas’s doctrine of God is wrong and “problematic for a proper view of classical theism” (4). He then provides his basic thesis:

When Thomas Aquinas introduced Aristotelian concepts into his theology proper, however, he not only departed from the theologians who went before him but he also altered the biblical teaching of God. As this book will seek to demonstrate, Thomas added to God’s simple and immutable nature an additional attribute not taught in the Scriptures: divine immobility (5).

In short, Johnson suggests that by integrating philosophical categories outside of Scripture, Thomas, and those like him, err.

Johnson structures his argument around this thesis, covering nine total chapters with two appendices. Each chapter begins with several biographical paragraphs about Thomas that are supposed to orient the reader to the topic of the chapter. The first two chapters focus on problems with “natural theology” and “philosophy.” Johnson argues that natural theology is a human project designed to understand God apart from divine revelation (10-11). He suggests that natural theology is distinct from natural revelation which starts and ends with God’s self-disclosure (11). He spans several pages attempting to show this distinction. Based on this, he waxes about the inability of natural theology to reconcile the transcendence and immanence of God. The following two chapters are dedicated to elucidating the natural theology of Aristotle and Pseudo-Dionysius. Johnson spends a significant amount of time summarizing Aristotle’s account of motion and his cosmological argument. He then focuses primarily on the mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius.

From this foundation he then provides two chapters examining Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical theology. He summarizes the various epistemological methods for knowing God, the role of philosophy, divine immobility, and more. He then suggests that contra Thomas and Aristotle, “both non-motion and motion” can exist in God as Trinity (116). Afterward, his seventh chapter focuses on the main problem within his thesis: a critique of “divine immobility.” He claims that Thomas added the attribute of “divine immobility” to God because of his commitment to Aristotelean metaphysics (136). The next chapter attempts to provide the “solution” to the problem: the Trinity. Herein, Johnson argues that “simplicity is not ultimate,” suggesting that Thomas forced all theological data to fit a strong version of divine simplicity at the expense of the Trinity (154). Finally, he closes with a chapter on analogical language. He worries that the Thomistic version of analogy forces God to be wholly other, on the other side of a “transcendental wall” that is impossible to cross (177).

3.    Three Serious Criticisms

Admittedly, this is a short summary. Much more could be said. But I think it gets the basic idea across and I think my critical interaction will further elucidate Johnson’s argument. There are three main areas I plan to critique, though there are numerous aspects I take issue with. The overarching problem that I think infects each is misunderstanding. I think Johnson misunderstands natural theology, he misunderstands Thomas and classical theism, and he misunderstands his own interlocutors. I will survey each of these areas in turn. As a note, it is important to point out that I think Johnson’s own flaw isn’t malicious. I genuinely believe he is seeking to be faithful to Christ, his church, and his Word. I believe he is doing his best to read Thomas and understand him. However, this does not absolve one from guilt, especially when that one publishes an entire book-length work based on misunderstanding. In the end, I found myself sympathizing with Johnson’s claim that “it is frustrating reading Aquinas because he leads his readers into a maze of irresolvable contradictions” (150). I sympathize because I found myself frustrated reading Johnson for the same reasons.

3.1 The Problem of Natural Theology

The first problem I focus on is this: What Johnson considers a “fatal flaw” for natural theology isn’t fatal. The reason it’s not fatal is because he misunderstands natural theology. He defines natural theology narrowly as a project that is completely divorced and insulated from divine revelation. For example, he says “natural theology is the philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of religion is limited to what can be known about God through reason or empirical senses” (11). He thinks natural theology must start somewhere other than God’s self-disclosure. He claims it “seeks to construct a knowledge of God through reason and sense experience” alone (11). He thinks “natural theology seeks to obtain a philosophical knowledge of God by suppressing the knowledge of God that comes through natural revelation” (22). But these claims are false. Not only are they false, some are potentially slanderous. Does he really think that those committed to retrieving Thomism (and all other philosophical theology) are actively “suppressing” that knowledge of God? It is one thing to say they suppress it passively by entailment (wrong as it may be). But to suggest they are actively doing so is serious defamation.

Now, it is true, that there is a branch of natural theology that is preoccupied with various arguments for the existence of God apart from Scripture in many cases, which is the scope of natural theology I think Johnson is usually targeting (though it’s not always clear). But even these arguments are constructed within the context of faith seeking understanding and never divorced from God’s revelation. Take Anselm as a chief example. He admittedly seeks to construct an argument apart from divine revelation, but not in contradiction to it nor in ignorance of it. There is a massive difference between conceiving of something apart from Y and in contradiction to Y. One does not entail the other. More importantly, natural theology as an entire project is not identical to these sorts of ventures. I have written elsewhere about the nature of natural theology, and I follow Herman Bavinck who defines it as theology that is “through” the natural order compared to supernatural theology (like Scripture) that is “from beyond” the natural order. This is the same way Francis Junius thinks about natural theology. What differs is the efficient cause of the theology–in this case, the natural light of our understanding.[3] The task of natural theology is to utilize natural means via our renewed reason in service of theological construction under the authority of Scripture and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Natural theology is not some hyper-speculative enterprise designed to insulate oneself from God’s divine revelation in Scripture. Thus, I think Johnson fundamentally misunderstands the theological task which leads him to his faulty conclusion.

I think much of the underlying reason for Johnson’s failure to understand this is due to a naïve biblicism. For example, Johnson critiques Thomas because his “doctrine of God is not rooted in revelation alone.” He claims this ends up being “an inadvertent attack on the sufficiency of divine revelation” (48). This misunderstanding of Scripture’s sufficiency is a problem that is surfacing in more than discussions on the doctrine of God, so it is good to think about what sufficiency means. 2LCF 1.1 confesses the following: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…” Notice what Scripture is sufficient for. Is it everything? No. It is not sufficient for changing the oil on my truck. It is not sufficient for installing a new hard drive in my computer. It is sufficient for saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. Everything necessary for the Christian life is found in the Bible. But not every detail of the faith is there. And utilizing philosophy (such as “good and necessary consequence”) does not jeopardize Scripture’s sufficiency. It does not move the foundation from divine revelation to human reasoning. The theological task is not to merely parrot the words of Scripture but to “think God’s thoughts after him and to trace their unity” as Bavinck has said.[4] The church catholic has understood this—including the vast number of Reformed theologians—and even Thomas himself. For example, Thomas argues that “This science [theology] can take something from the philosophical disciplines not because it necessarily needs their help, but rather in order to achieve greater clarity regarding its own proper subject matter.”[5] Elsewhere, again, Thomas says, “whatever is found in other sciences that is inconsistent with the truth of this science is to be condemned as utterly false”[6] Neither Thomas, nor the Reformed, thought philosophy was superior to Scripture. But both found it necessary to come to a clearer understanding of it. To be clear: This does not mean we need things outside of Scripture for “saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…” But if we want to both know and enjoy God to the maximum degree, we ought to utilize all the means God has given us in his good creation.

But there is a further problem with Johnson’s understanding of natural theology. At times, he seems to think philosophy is interchangeable with natural theology. He even argues that “Philosophy, as it turns out, is a detractor rather than a handmaiden to theology” (191). To be frank, I’m not sure what to do with this claim. His entire book is an exercise in philosophical theology. Making arguments is part of what philosophy is. So, either Johnson’s claim is entirely self-defeating or he is incredibly unclear and means to say that something like Aristotelian or Thomistic philosophy is a detractor rather than handmaiden.

3.2 The Problem of Thomism and Classical Theism

The second major error that Johnson commits is a fundamental misunderstanding of both Thomas and Classical Theism. Both errors are intertwined to some extent, but I will try to show his mistakes related to each separately.

3.2.1 Thomas Vindicated     

I intend to focus first on one of Johnson’s most egregious errors when handling Thomas since I have already interacted with his misunderstanding of natural theology. The error I want to expose here is related to Johnson’s “fatal flaw” for Thomas—what he calls the additional attribute of “divine immobility.” It is this “divine attribute” that Johnson suggests Thomas adds to the divine nature and signals his unorthodoxy (5). Johnson builds his case against divine immobility by summarizing Aristotle’s cosmological argument for an unmoved mover. Here is how he sets it up in his own words:

According to Aristotle, since all things in motion have an external cause, there must be something without motion that is the first cause, and this static, stationary, and immobile first cause Aristotle defined as actus purus (55).

So, since Thomas sought to “baptize Aristotle,” he follows Aristotle in this argument, which means that God as first cause must be “static, stationary, and immobile.” Even in God’s action to create he “remains completely passive and unaware that he is exciting objects to move after him” (64). So, Johnson’s basic argument against Thomas is as follows: “If everything in motion has a cause, and if God is first cause, then God must be immobile” (97). Let me attempt to spell that out a little clearer:

  1. Everything in motion has a cause
  2. If everything has a cause, there would be an infinite regress of causes
  3. Therefore, there must be a first cause that isn’t in motion (from 1 and 2)
  4. God is the first cause
  5. An object that isn’t in motion is immobile (i.e. static and stationary)
  6. Therefore, God isn’t in motion and is immobile (from 4 and 5)

There are a few curious things about this argument. First, Johnson’s own solution to this argument is to deny 1 and 3. His reason for denying 1 appears to be that physics doesn’t map onto metaphysics. What is true for this cosmos is not true for the divine. So, not every motion has a cause (133). His reason for denying 3 is a little stranger. He says: “Who is to say both non-motion and motion couldn’t exist in the Trinity?” (116). Who is to say? Well, classical logic is to say that A can’t be non-A and be true. That’s like saying 2+2=5. Maybe Johnson would want to make use of sub-classical logic, but I doubt he is aware of the ongoings of such a niche and complicated subject. But maybe this was a slip of the tongue and what he really meant to say was that in God there is self-motion. Thus, God isn’t caused from anything external to move but is moved by his own good pleasure. But even if this is Johnson’s argument, it doesn’t invalidate the Thomistic proof for God’s immobility. This is because Johnson is not attentive to the debates regarding what Thomas means in the first way (e.g. the cosmological argument for an unmoved mover). There is debate over whether motion is intransitive or passive. For example, does Thomas mean that anything that is in motion is moved by another or that anything that is passively moved by something else is moved by another? There is a strong Thomistic consensus that the passive sense is the proper meaning, which then excludes self-motion from the proof.[7] In which case, Johnson’s argument is invalid from the start.

However, these aren’t the only problems. Johnson’s understanding of what immobility means is wrong. He thinks immobility means being static or stationary. He claims that an unmoved mover couldn’t do anything—it would be frozen (66).[8] But this is the exact critique Karl Barth suggested over a half century ago: “The pure immobile is death. If, then, the pure immobile is God, death is God.”[9] It reminds me of Charles Hartshorne as well who is preoccupied with the nastiness of “immobility.” But it should be obvious that Thomas doesn’t argue that God is immobile in the sense of being passive, unaware, and static. Rather, it’s part of what actus purus means for God to be the most active being with the most life. Therefore, God is not immobile in the sense of a lifeless rock but immobile in the sense of possessing so much life in pure perfection that he cannot possibly be moved to receive further life. Thomas sums up his understanding of motion and mobility in fairly clear terms:

Augustine is speaking here according to the manner in which Plato said that the first mover moves itself, referring to every activity as a motion; on this usage, even to know, to will, and to love are described as some kind of motion. Hence because God knows and loves himself, they accordingly said that God moves himself; but this is not the motion or change of what exists in potentiality, which is the sort of motion we are talking about in this discussion.”[10]

James Dolezal echoes Thomas: “God is unmoved not because he lacks life and action, but because he is identical with his life and actuality and therefore cannot be determined to any further actuality of life than he already has.”[11] To claim that immobility is identical to inactivity is a fundamental misunderstanding and devastating to Johnson’s case.

But Johnson’s reasoning for immobility defined as static has one more fault. He thinks that God as actus purus would mean that God cannot create because creation is an efficient cause and efficient causation requires movement (68). But, again, this shows a lack of careful attention to Thomas. Thomas explicitly calls God the first efficient cause.[12] And for Thomas, an efficient cause is “that which brings something into being or changes it in some way.”[13] There is no reason that God as efficient cause should require motion. To assume motion is required for efficient causation is to beg the question against Thomas. While Thomas could be wrong, it’s necessary to at least give him a fair hearing. For example, Thomas explains this very scenario in consecutive sections of his Summa Contra Gentiles:

All motion or change is the act of that which exists potentially, as such. But in the action which is creation, nothing potential pre-exists to receive the action, as we have just shown. Therefore, creation is not a motion or a change…. Again, in every change or motion there must be something existing in one way now and in a different way before, for the very word change shows this.[14]

For creation is not a change, but the very dependency of the created act of being upon the principle from which it is produced. And thus, creation is a kind of relation; so that nothing prevents its being in the creature as its subject.[15]

Both of these sections clearly offer a model of understanding how God can be pure act and can create without motion.

3.2.2 Classical Theism Vindicated

Johnson not only misunderstands Thomas but Classical Theism itself. There are five areas I want to focus on here. I count these as misunderstandings and not just bad arguments because he claims to confess 2LCF which confesses Classical Theism and because there are good arguments out there against Classical Theism. I don’t take those arguments to be persuasive, but they are compelling in their own ways.

First, Johnson rejects the traditional account of divine simplicity because he rejects that God’s attributes are identical with one another. For example, Johnson rejects that God’s knowledge is identical to his essence and rejects that God’s knowledge and will are identical (131, 140). He thinks that “if God can distinguish between particular things outside of himself, then he is no longer undifferentiated in his simplicity” (132). He says that God has “ontological complexity” (50). Furthermore, he thinks that the Thomistic account of simplicity requires creation to be necessary and eternal (119, 125). His argument’s main contention is a rudimentary version of R. T. Mullins, Simply Impossible: A Case Against Divine Simplicity. Now, I think Johnson does press on an important possible problem for the Thomistic account. However, his “solution” not only ignores the tradition’s answers but departs from the tradition itself. For example, Thomas addresses the problem of necessity. He seeks to circumvent the problem by positing two senses of necessity—one that is hypothetical and one that is absolute. It is only the hypothetical necessity that applies to creation and such a sense of necessity does not lead to an absolutely necessary or eternal creation.[16] But Johnson does not engage such possible rebuttals.

A second area of misunderstanding is the doctrine of immutability. Consider Johnson’s criticism of Thomas: “Aquinas taught that God is not just immutable in his character but also in his actions (i.e., immobile)” (120). This claim reveals that Johnson thinks of immutability as a changelessness of character and not action. Such a view is defensible, but it isn’t Classical Theism or 2LCF. For example, it is ubiquitous in the Reformed tradition to speak of God as being immutable in more than mere essence or character. God acts in one simple, timeless, and eternal moment, and thus doesn’t initiate new acts ad intra. Consider just a few examples. 2LCF 2.1 confesses that God is both immutable in essence and will and 2LCF 3.5 speaks of God’s immutable purpose. Francis Turretin explains that “immutability is an incommunicable attribute of God by which is denied of him not only all change, but also all possibility of change, as much with respect to existence as to will.”[17] Petrus van Mastricht similarly says that God is “entirely and in all ways immutable.”[18] Herman Bavinck follows them, claiming that “God is as immutable in his knowing, willing, and decreeing as he is in his being.”[19] Even Louis Berkhof agrees, saying that “The immutability of God is a necessary concomitant of His aseity. It is that perfection of God by which He is devoid of all change, not only in His Being, but also in His perfections, and in His purposes and promises.”[20]

A third area of misunderstanding is that Johnson sounds like a Social Trinitarian at times. Johnson says that there is “internal (ad intra) movement within the Godhead” (116). He also says that each of the Triune persons “have their own distinct self-awareness” (185). For my money, that’s just Social Trinitarianism. If Johnson doesn’t mean to affirm this (which is entirely possible), he is being sloppy with his language. Now, again, you who are reading this review might be a Social Trinitarian. That’s fine! I’m not here to argue about that. But I do think it’s fairly obvious that Social Trinitarianism is irreconcilable with 2LCF and Classical Theism.

A fourth area of misunderstanding is the nature of “divine relations.” Johnson asks, “How can God know and love that with which he has no real relation?” (133). Johnson is referring to the classic Thomistic doctrine that God has no “real relation” with creation. But Johnson evidences a lack of understanding regarding what this “real” is supposed to mean. It doesn’t mean having an especially intimate relation with something. It has a technical meaning. There are two conditions that are required for something to be a “real relation” for Thomas:

  1. The relation must be between two really distinct extra-mental things
  2. The relation must have a real extra-mental foundation in the subjects.[21]

So, the reason God doesn’t have a real relation with creation isn’t about intimacy or love or anything else. It’s a metaphysical claim. It means that there isn’t a real extra-mental foundation in God for his relation to creation. He is really related to it in the sense that he loves and cares and provides in reality. But he isn’t related to it in a way that creation changes him intrinsically.

A fifth area of misunderstanding is concerning traditional language about God. Johnson thinks that if we understand language about God as “restricted to the use of earthly symbols and physical metaphors” then we lock the real God behind a “transcendental wall.” He thinks such an approach makes love, mercy, and compassion “merely anthropomorphic” (148). But this is just how the entire classical tradition has thought about language for God. Take two examples, though I could provide legion. First, John Chrysostom thinks that because God is ineffable he is “beyond our intelligence, invisible, incomprehensible” and “transcends the power of mortal words.”[22] Chrysostom takes this to mean that the only way for humans to understand God is if he condescends and accommodates himself. As Chrysostom explains:

God condescends whenever he is not seen as he is, but in the way one incapable of beholding him is able to look upon him. In this way God reveals himself by accommodating what he reveals to the weakness of vision of those who behold him.[23]

Chrysostom is saying that our language about God is bound to the created realm and ultimately lacks transcendent correspondence. Second, John Calvin emphasizes the nature of accommodated language so much that it might be the chief facet of his theology of revelation.[24] Calvin follows the logic of Chrysostom and claims that God reveals knowledge “tempered to our feeble comprehension.”[25] He explains in full:

For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us.[26]

So, for both Calvin and Chrysostom, our knowledge of God is accommodated knowledge. It is necessarily limited to the created realm. But our language being creaturely and imperfect doesn’t mean that we are trapped behind a transcendental wall.

Now, I want to summarize the overarching problem I am addressing in this section. It is not about the validity of Classical Theism per se. Rather, it is about Johnson’s implicit rejection of these classical doctrines found in traditional Reformed theology, including 2LCF. Johnson pays lip service to Reformed theology, Classical Theism, and 2LCF but his claims amount to what is called Neo-Classical Theism which is championed by thinkers ranging from William Lane Craig to Bruce Ware to John Frame. If you are reading this, you might be a Neo-Classical Theist, and that’s fine! There are numerous Neo-Classical Theist thinkers worthy of deep contemplation but I think it’s important to note that it is impossible to reconcile most forms of Neo-Classical Theism with 2LCF and I am skeptical that any version could be reconciled. And it is important to properly categorize Johnson. He claims to be defending Classical Theism, but he is really defending something else. If Johnson admitted his intention to revise Classical Theism and depart from 2LCF, my critique would be different.

3.3 The Problem of Source Citation

The final problem I want to expand on is Johnson’s interaction with source material. There are two related problems. The first is his handling of source material that he does cite. In short, by the end of the book, I found myself double-checking every major citation he made because I came to distrust his handling of source material. I found him frequently pulling quotes out of context to fit his argument or not understanding what the source was intending to say. I’ll give several examples to prove this. First, he quotes Robert Letham in support of his view on natural theology, but Letham’s context is about atheists attempting natural theology like Richard Dawkins and not Christians like Anselm, Augustine, or Thomas (22). Second, he says that Craig Carter denies “God’s relatability.” But Carter does no such thing. Carter is at pains to deny “Relational Theism.” That is a technical term designed to demarcate between various models of God and has nothing to do with God’s “relatability.” Johnson’s mistreatment here is more than attributing a false belief to Carter. It evidences a serious lack of understanding of the literature. Third, he cites Augustine, Bavinck, and Turretin as claiming God is “simple and manifold” and thus not simple in the Thomistic sense (158-159). Bavinck directly references Augustine with his claim. But familiarity with these authors and their context militates against understanding “multiplicity” as complex. For example, Bavinck follows Thomas by claiming that God is “pure essence without accidents” and “is everything he possesses.”[27] Turretin similarly says that God is “free from all composition and division.”[28] Finally, the quote from Augustine that Johnson relies on, if given its full context, clearly does not mean God is simple and complex. Examine for yourself: “for God it is the same thing to be as to be powerful or just or wise or anything else that can be said about his simple multiplicity or multiple simplicity to signify his substance.”[29] If nothing else, I think this proves that one ought to be very skeptical of his claims that any theologian “supports” his view.

The second problem related to source citation is his shocking lack of interaction with numerous important interlocutors. Certainly, he is aware of James Dolezal who is a popular Reformed Baptist and has published two books directly related to Johnson’s topic—a monograph on simplicity and a trade book on the classical attributes. Yet Dolezal doesn’t make an appearance. He must also know of Richard Barcellos’ work on Trinity and Creation. Barcellos provides a lucid defense of the classical understanding of God. I’m sure he is also aware of Steven Duby’s numerous books and articles that ask all the same questions that Johnson asks but provide answers in traditional rather than novel ways. His recent book on God in Himself is dedicated to defending exactly what Johnson seeks to destroy. He must also be familiar with Tyler Wittman’s work under John Webster, addressing this very problem of Thomas and the doctrine of creation. But none of these sources appear. Nor do most of the classic Thomistic resources. I even did a quick Google search on Faith & Philosophy and Religious Studies—two of the premier and most well-known journals that publish on topics that Johnson is addressing (and Faith & Philosophy is open-access! No library subscription needed). I simply searched “Aquinas Simplicity” and in under ten minutes had over twenty-five peer-reviewed articles from the top thinkers in the last 30 years interacting with these problems–none of whom Johnson interacts with. Take several examples that would be of great assistance: Katherin Rogers The Traditional Doctrine of Divine Simplicity, Rob Koons Divine Persons as Relational qua-objects, Joseph Lenow, Shoring Up Divine Simplicity Against Modal Collapse, William Mann Divine Simplicity, Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann Absolute Simplicity,  Timothy O’Connor Simplicity and Creation, Thomas Sullivan Omniscience, Immutability, and the Divine Mode of Knowing, and W. Matthews Grant Divine Simplicity, Contingent Truths, and Extrinsic Models of Divine Knowing. And this didn’t even include me searching for things like natural theology or immutability. Modern Theology even had an entire issue dedicated to divine simplicity in 2019.

4.    Honoring where Honor is Due

Now, despite these numerous concerns, I will commend Johnson for three things, though these do not overcome the problems with the book. First, he does put his finger on areas that need serious attention. It is not as if Johnson is asking bad questions. He simply comes to the wrong conclusions, provides bad argumentation, and is unaware of the vast literature on the topic. Second, I actually agree with some of his takes on analogical predication. I think he misunderstands a lot of what’s going on there, but his basic point that there must be some point of contact, some similarity, is right. Third, I think Johnson is exactly right when he claims that “classical theism is not Thomism” and that Thomas was viewed as an innovator in his day (4). Unfortunately, Johnson goes on to misunderstand and revise much of the tradition. I think there is a great need for a more generous Classical Theism, but the way forward is not to make bad arguments but to dive even deeper into the tradition.

5.    Conclusion

As can be seen, I find Johnson’s book to be overwhelmingly problematic. Such a claim may be an understatement. I conclude this way not only because I disagree with his conclusions but because his overall method of argumentation and representation is dreadful. Thus, Johnson does not advance the conversation forward in any meaningful sense. While I often recommend books I disagree with because they open up new ways to think about old problems or ask great questions, Johnson’s book does not do this. There is nothing original that couldn’t be found in a better work elsewhere. It provides no new insights, it doesn’t ask new questions, it doesn’t provide interaction with new sources. So, I do not recommend that anyone read this book. I recommend that those uncomfortable with Classical Theism, looking for a more moderate approach, read other resources. And I recommend that those who are committed Classical Theists do the same.

Editors Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.

[1] I should note that I am not sure if Johnson holds a Th.D. or a D.Min. His church website indicates that he holds a Th.D. but his seminary website indicates that he holds a D.Min. His degree granting institution does not offer a Th.D. Thus, I have assumed his actual degree is a D.Min. As a note, I provided a copy of this review in draft form to Johnson that could have clarified this matter but did not receive a reply before publication. After publication it was clarified that his M.Rel. was not from Central Baptist College but also from Veritas, so this has been changed to match. Further note from 10/14/21: Based on further information from a comment on this review, it is not clear that Johnson received his Masters and Doctoral degrees from the institution linked above in this footnote. There are archived webpages that suggest he received these from another unaccredited institution in Arkansas that he served on faculty at. Given the lack of clarity, I am not sure what degrees beyond his BA he possesses.

[2] Richard Cross, The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), vii–viii.

[3] Jordan L. Steffaniak, “The God of All Creation: A Critique of Evangelical Biblicism and Recovery of Perfect Being Theology,” Journal of Reformed Theology 14, no. 4 (December 1, 2020): 360,; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:307; Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 145.

[4] Bavinck, RD, 1:44.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, The Treatise on the Divine Nature: Summa Theologiae I, 1-13, trans. Brian J. Shanley, The Hackett Aquinas (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), I 1.5 ad 2.

[6] Aquinas, I 1.6 ad 2.

[7] Timothy Pawl, “The Five Ways,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, ed. Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 116.

[8] It is worth noting that Johnson does admits that the Thomistic vision of God doesn’t mean he isn’t doing anything. Johnson says, “it just means that whatever God does, he is doing in an undifferentiated, single, necessary, timeless, and ever-present act” (119).

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. T. H. L. Parker, vol. II/1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), 494.

[10] Aquinas, The Treatise on the Divine Nature, I 9.1 ad 1.

[11] James E. Dolezal, God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), 86–87.

[12] Aquinas, The Treatise on the Divine Nature, I 3.8c.

[13] Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Editiones Scholasticae 39 (Heusenstamm: Ed. Scholasticae, 2014), 42.

[14] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles: Book Two: Creation, trans. James F. Anderson (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1975), 17.

[15] Aquinas, 18.

[16] See Tyler Wittman, God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 84–91.

[17] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 1:204.

[18] Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 2:155.

[19] Bavinck, RD, 1:154.

[20] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Louisville: GLH, 2017), 37.

[21] Mark Gerald Henninger, Relations: Medieval Theories, 1250-1325 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 7.

[22] John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, trans. Paul W. Harkins (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1984), III, 5.

[23] Chrysostom, III, 15.

[24] Michael Horton, “Knowing God: Calvin’s Understanding of Revelation,” in John Calvin and Evangelical Theology: Legacy and Prospect, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 1; Michael H. Kibbe, “Present and Accommodated For: Calvin’s God on Mount Sinai,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 7, no. 1 (2013): 116; Jordan L. Steffaniak, “Bound by the Word of God: John Calvin’s Religious Epistemology,” Puritan Reformed Journal 10, no. 2 (July 2018): 135–36; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 1.10.2; 2.11.13; 2.16.2; 3.2.14.

[25] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.3.

[26] Calvin, 1.13.1.

[27] Bavinck, RD, 2:174.

[28] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:191.

[29] Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2015), 209.


Connect With TLL

Podcast Channels