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An Overview of Process Theology
By Gary F. Zeolla
Process Theology is a rather recent and very controversial movement. This article will explain and evaluate its beliefs. But first, a look at the background and history of Process Theology.
History of Process Theology
Process Theology (PT) has its roots in the Grecian, philosopher Heraclitus (c.504 BC). Heraclitus viewed reality in terms of "becoming" rather than "being." He believed, "...the basis of reality was change and flux" (Mellert, p.12).
This idea was in contrast to Parmenides, another philosopher of the time. Parmenides believed, "... underlying every change was some more fundamental reality that endured" (Mellert, p.12).
The thought of Parmenides has prevailed in the western world. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) revived the ideas of Heraclitus. Whitehead was a "mathematician turned philosopher" (Whitehead, p.63) He, "...constructed an idealistic philosophical system, akin to Platonism, known as the 'philosophy of organism"' (Moyer, p.432).
After a period of disinterest, the ideas of Whitehead were brought to the forefront by Charles Hartshorne (b.1897). He, "... developed the theological implications of Whitehead's thought and acted as the catalyst for the process theology movement ..." (Diehl, p.882).
Others who have developed the ideas of PT have been John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, Norman Pittenger, Bernard Meland, Jerry Korsmeyer, and Ewert Cousins. The writings of these men and other adherents of PT will be referred to throughout this article.
PT has moved away from the doctrines of historic Christianity regarding the nature of God and His relationship to the universe, the Person of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the after-life.
This shift away from orthodox Christianity has occurred mainly because of its adherents attitudes toward the Bible. They do not consider the Bible to be the Divine and final authority in matters of faith and practice.
Process theologians believe there is ongoing, special revelation anytime a person has an encounter with God.
Jerry Korsmeyer describes their attitude:
Insofar as each creature's final subjective aim is in accord with God's aim there is a resonance in which the effect of God's presence is maximized. This phenomenon, I suggest, may be consciously felt as God's initiative. When one responds to it, an interpersonal communion is formed, which we call revelation (Korsmeyer, quoted in Geisler, pp. 269,270).
Hence, to PT, the Bible is simply people expressing their experiences with God, not God objectively revealing Himself and His ways to His chosen people. Thus, anyone's experience, when articulated, can be added to the revelation in Scripture.
Ogden states, "We today must indeed recognize a higher theological authority than the canon of Scripture, and hence can no longer maintain that Scripture is in some sense the sole primary authority for Christian theology" (Ogden quoted in Geisler, p.262).
However, the Bible claims to be God's final Word to people (Heb 1:2,3; 2:2-4). The offices of prophet and apostle as givers of ongoing, special revelation are not seen as continuing throughout the Church age.
As Robert Bowman states:
The epistles of 2 Peter and Jude, among the last New Testament writings to be penned, exhort the readers to avoid false doctrines by recalling the teachings of the apostles (2Pet 1:12-15; 2:1; 3:2,14-16; Jude 3,4,17). Peter and Jude did not say "Listen to the apostles living today," but instead urged believers to "remember what the apostles said" (Bowman, p. 31).
Low View of Scripture
PT has moved away from a belief in the all-sufficiency of the Bible because it accepts the negative, higher criticism of liberal theology. Ogden states, "It is now commonly acknowledged that none of the New Testament writings in its present form, was authored by an apostle or one of his disciples" (quoted in Geisler, p.261).
He denies the claim, "what the Bible says, God says" because he agrees, "with the emergence of Protestant liberal theology and its commitment to the historical-critical method, as well as its insistence that Scripture neither is nor can be a sufficient authorization for the meaning and truth of theological assertions..." (quoted in Geisler, p. 260).
This attitude totally ignores the wealth of work and writing produced by conservative scholars which has effectively refuted the claims of higher criticism. The books by Archer, Guthrie, and McDowell in the suggested reading list at the end of this article fall into this category.
Despite this low view of Scripture, PT still tries to show that their beliefs cohere with the teachings of the Bible. Nash states, "Equally ironic is the effort process theologians expend trying to make it appear that their position is more consistent with the teaching of Holy Scripture than the position of the Thomist theist" (p. 22).
This claim of PT needs to be tested against the standard of the Bible. The previously mentioned, doctrinal areas will be looked at.
Doctrine of God
Cobb explains PT's beliefs about the universe and God's relationship to it:
in a sense, we are all parts of God. But we are not parts of God in the sense that God is simply the sum total of the parts or that the parts are lacking in independence and self-determination.... the world does not exist outside God or apart from God, but the world is not God or simply part of God (Cousins, pp. 164-165).
Elsewhere, Cobb states, "The building blocks of the universe, the things of which everything else is composed, are energy events ...." And further, "...God can be conceived as a very special kind of energy event" (Cousins, p. 157).
These statements are somewhat confusing. The best that can be determined is PT promotes panentheism. Panentheism is the belief that the universe is a part of God but that God is more than just the sum total of it. This idea differs from pantheism in that the latter teaches that the universe comprises God.
In other words, the panentheist's God is larger than the universe but the universe is still a part of God. The pantheist's God is simply the universe. Both of these beliefs differs from Christian theism. Theism is the belief that the universe was created by God. He is greater than and distinct from it.
The important point is, in panentheism (and pantheism) there is no intrinsic difference between God and the universe. He is simply a larger collection of energy events than any apparent, individual part of the universe (including humans).
Even further, PT denies the idea of God creating the universe ex-nihilo (out of nothing). William Craig writes, "According to Hartshorne, God formed the present universe out of an earlier universe ..." (Nash, p.147).
Thus, PT teaches the universe is in some way eternal; it has always existed in some form. If this concept is true, then an interdependency exists between God and the universe.
Cobb states, "The character of the world is influenced by God, but it is not determined by him and the world in its turn contributes novelty and richness to the divine experience" (Cousins, p.165).
Consequently, God is in some sense dependent on the universe to be complete. Whitehead wrote, "... his (God's) derivative nature is consequent upon the creative advance of the world" (Whitehead, p.66).
In other words, according to this belief system, GOD IS IN PROCESS hence the name of the movement. He is not immutable (not able to change). Also, His change and development is contingent on the development of the universe.
Whitehead further explains, "God is to be conceived as originated by conceptual experience with his PROCESS of completion motivated by consequent, physical experience initially derived from the temporal world" (Whitehead, p.67).
Is God in Process?
Is this "God in process" the God of the Bible? First, it must be asked if matter is eternal. The first verse of the Bible states, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen 1.1).
Psalm 33:6 declares, "By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth." In these and other verses that could be quoted, there is no indication that God used pre-existent "stuff" to create with (see also John 1:3; Col 1:16-17) .
Moreover, Psalm 102:25-27 contrasts the unchanging, eternal being of God with the changing, non-eternal nature of the universe. The idea of an eternal universe also conflicts with the findings of science
Isaac Asimov states:
...the scientific statement that the earth and heaven had a beginning is compelling .... The weight of the scientific evidence is that Earth, and the solar system generally came into being in approximately their present form about 4.6 billion years ago. The universe generally, came into being, it would seem, about fifteen billion years ago (Asimov, p.9).
The important point here is not how old the universe is but the fact that it did begin sometime. In addition, science teaches that our universe is dying, "Eventually, all the matter in the dark, cold, ever expanding universe will be reduced to an ultrathin gas of elementary particles and radiation" (William Craig in Nash, p.170). If the universe were eternal, it would have already reached this state of "heat death."
The point is, if God is eternal and the universe is not, then God existed eternally without the universe. Thus, He cannot be dependent on it (Ps 90:2).
Given all these facts, God is NOT in process. He is in no way contingent on the universe. However, we are dependent on Him. Paul proclaimed, "But by the grace of God I am what I am..." (1Cor 15:10). We need God but He does not need us! (see also 2Chr 29:14; Acts 14:26,7; Rom 12:3; 1Cor 3:5-11; 4:6,7; 2Cor 3:5,6; Heb 13:20,21).
Doctrines about Jesus Christ
Next to be studied is PT's attitude toward of the Person of Jesus Christ. Again, to PT there is no intrinsic difference between Jesus and people in general.
Pittenger claims, "To speak of Jesus as if he were an intruder from some other sphere or realm, a divine visitor to this world, will be to make him supremely meaningless. It is precisely AS ONE OF US, as a man among men, that whatever further significance he may possess will be found."
What is the significance of Christ according to Pittenger? He was, "... the man for others and the man for God .... Precisely because he was so open to the Father's will, he was the personal agent in whom and through whom God could work" (Cousins, p. 210).
First off, historic, Christian theology includes the idea of Jesus being "one of us." The Chalcedon Definition states that Jesus is "actually human." But what about the early Church's claim that Jesus is also "actually God?" (Leith, p.35).
Pittenger remarks, "When Christians have spoken of God in Jesus, they have not intended to suggest that the divine is there by exclusion .... they have meant to say that in the totality of the human there was an activity of the divine."
Based on these ideas, Pittenger concludes, "...this suggests a Christology of divine and human activity, rather than a Christology of divine and human substance" (Cousins, pp. 210- 212).
Pittenger's discussion is simply a complex and sideways way of denying the Deity of Jesus Christ. Consequently, for PT "... he (Christ) must not be the object of worship" (Bruce Demarest in Nash, p.68).
As a result of their ideas, PT rejects the early, ecumenical creeds of the historic, Christian Church. Pittenger states, "...the definition of Chalcedon is no longer meaningful" (Cousins, p.208).
Likewise, "... process thinkers disavow the doctrine of Jesus' virgin birth as mythological and unhistorical" (Demarest in Nash, p.66).
But what does the Bible teach on these subjects? Is Jesus unique? John 3:16 proclaims Jesus to be the "only begotten Son." The footnote to this verse in the New American Standard Bible states, "or, Unique, only one of His kind."
John 5:18-26 clearly upholds Jesus' uniqueness. He is said to be "equal to God" (v.18) and to have "life in Himself" (v.26). Jesus is declared to have an unique relationship with the Father (w.19-24; cp. Matt. 11:27).
Further, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is taught explicitly and implicitly in the Bible (Gen 3:15; Isa 7:14; Matt 1:16-25; Luke 1:26-38; John 8:41; Gal 4:4).(1)
The Doctrine of the Trinity
With this denial of the Deity of Jesus, it would be expected that PT would deny the historic, doctrine of the Trinity.
First, Cobb seems to misunderstand the doctrine. He states, "Although the decisions at Nicaea and Constantinople said that all three 'persons' were equally divine, the feeling remained that God the Father was more ultimately God than the other two 'persons'" (Cobb, p. 110).
In fact, the Constantinople Creed proclaims Jesus to be, "true God from true God ... of the same essence as the Father." The Holy Spirit is, "worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son ..." (Leith, p. 33).
Cobb even admits, "Hence process theology is not interested in formulating distinctions within God for the sake of conforming with traditional Trinitarian notions" (Cobb, p. 110).
Process theologians even redefine the terms used in Christianity to indicate the distinctions within the Godhead. Cobb writes, "When 'person' is taken in its modern sense, God is one person. When 'person' is taken in its traditional sense, two persons can be distinguished, God as creative love and God as responsive love" (Cobb, p. 109).
Adherents to PT seem unable to grasp the historic definition of the Trinity. The doctrine states that God is three PERSONS in one ESSENCE. The early creeds are based on the testimony of Scripture. As such, they should not be rejected today.(2)
Process theologians have many differing views on life after death. However, they do agreed the traditional, Christian beliefs on, "... death, judgment, heaven and hell are ... too intertwined with ancient culture, tradition and myth to be literally credible" (Mellert, pp. 120f).
Mellert describes the belief of some Process theologians, "the series of actual occasions that constitutes the continuity of the self throughout one's personal history culminates in one final occasion in which history is synthesized .... In this way, each person is immortalized, in God ..." (Mellert, p.126).
A synthesis of God and humans is possible since, as mentioned earlier, in PT God is simply a larger bundle of "energy events" than humans beings are.
This viewpoint parallels the idea of absorption into the Godhead found in Eastern religions with the resultant lost of individual personality. However, the Bible teaches all people will retain individual, self-consciousness throughout eternity while remaining distinct from God (Rev 22:3-5).
Others involved in PT believe, "... the series of actual occasions that constitutes the continuity of the self is not interrupted or terminated by death ... the serial reality of the self continues to experience and to change, but without any direct attachment to the material world" (Mellert, p. 126).
This second view appears to be similar to the historic, Christian viewpoint of conscious, personal existence after death (Luke 16:19-31). But PT differs here in that there is no mention of judgement. However, the writer to the Hebrews declares, "... it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (9:27).
Is God in Control?
PT denies the Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God. As a result, it cannot give absolute assurance that good will ultimately triumph over evil. Process theologians even admit their system cannot provide ultimate confidence.
Nash reports, "According to panentheism, no ultimate triumph over evil is possible for God. Evil can never be completely conquered or destroyed. Barnhart admits: no claim is made that God can guarantee that Christians or any other group will enjoy everlasting personal victory over all suffering and death" (p.20).
This lack of ability to provide assurance occurs because, according to PT, God is not sovereign. Cobb writes, "The obvious point is that, since GOD IS NOT IN COMPLETE CONTROL of the events of the world, the occurrence of genuine evil is not incompatible with God's beneficence toward all his creatures (p.53).
Reformed theologian Donald Bloesch asks, "Can a God limited in knowledge and deficient in power be depended upon in times of trial and distress? Is such a God even worthy of worship?"
To this writer, the obvious answer to both questions is "NO!" The god of PT is not worthy of worship since the god of PT is not the God of the Bible.
Much better is the Biblical view of God ... a view in which God is pictured not as the Unmoved Mover (Aristotle) nor as the creative process but as a being in act, the One who decisively enters into history irrevocably altering its course. Such a God changes only in His ways with humankind, not in His innermost being nor in His overriding will and purpose. He is therefore A GOD WHO CAN BE DEPENDED UPON (quoted in Nash, p.53).
The God of the Bible is in control (Dan 4:35). Only this kind of God can be trusted (Rom 8:28-39). Only this God can assure us that good will ultimately triumph over evil (Rev. 17-21). Only this God is worthy of worship (Exod 20:1-3; Rev 4:8-11).
Further Study on Process Theology
and Related Topics
Archer, Gleason. Survey of Old Testament Introduction.
Bridges, Jerry. Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts.
Clark, Gordon. Religion, Reason and Revelation (esp. chapter 5, "God and Evil").
Geisler, Norman and Ron Brooks. When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook of Christian Evidences.
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction.
McDowell, Josh. New Evidence That Demands a Verdict.
Morey, Robert. Battle of the Gods. Death and the Afterlife.
Packer, J.I. Knowing God.
Pink, Authur W. Sovereignty of God.
Schaeffer, Francis. The Francis A. Schaeffer. Includes: The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and He is Not Silent.
Sire, James. The Universe Next Store.
Sproul, R.C. One Holy Passion.
Asimov, Isaac. In The Beginning. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1981.
Bowman, Robert. "The Faulty Foundation of the Five-Fold Ministry." Christian Research Journal (Fall, 1987), p.31.
Cobb, John and David Griffin. Process Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.
Cousins, Ewert ed. Process Theology: Basic Writings. New York: Newman Press, 1971.
Diehl, D.A. "Process Theology" in Walter Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids Baker Book House, 1984.
Geisler, Norman. "Process Theology and Inerrancy" in Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest eds. Challenges to Inerrancy: A Theological Response. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.
Leith, John ed. Creeds of the Churches. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Mellert, Robert. What Is Process Theology? New York: Paulist Press, 1975.
Moyer, Elgin. The Wycliff Biographical Dictionary of the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982.
Nash, Ronald, ed. Process Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987.
New American Standard Bible. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1977.
Whitehead, A.N. "God and the World" in C. Brinton. The Fate of Man. New York: George Braziller, 1961.
Note: All emphases in the quotes have been added.
1) See "Born of the Virgin Mary" for an exposition of these verses.
2) See The Doctrine of the Trinity for articles which explain the above terms and the doctrine in general. The Scripture Studies listed on this page demonstrate the overwhelming Biblical support for the doctrine.
Overview of Process Theology. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article was originally written for a
class assignment at Denver Seminary in 1990.
It was revised and posted on this website in January 1998.
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