Scott Paeth Responds to the Process Theologians

Scott left a lengthy comment defending himself. I am hereby promoting it to a post:

Well, this is what I get for opening my big mouth! Having read through the thread there’s no way I could possibly do justice to all of the insights that Tony’s other readers are offering here. Let me offer a few off the cuff remarks to put some of what I wrote on my blog in a bit more context.

1. First of all, I should clarify that I do appreciate a lot about process theology. I think that its emphasis on the divine immanence can be an important corrective to theology that overly accentuate the divine transcendence, and to that degree, it serves an important theological role that I in no way want to deny. It’s also among the most fresh and creative approaches to theology to emerge from the 20th century and I appreciate it if for no other reason than simply that it’s interesting.

2. My own position could probably be best described as “panentheistic” in the Moltmannian sense of the term, which, at least as I read him, depends on the idea which is rooted in Anselm’s ontological argument that God’s being does not depend on the contingency of the world, but that God chooses to enter into the contingency of creation as an act of divine self-emptying for the sake of creation. What this approach offers is a way of understanding divine immanence that does not rely on a necessary God/world connection as does the God of process theology. God is, as one commentator noted, both within creation and transcendent, and God’s being is not in that sense reliant on creation, but God in love chooses to descend within creation, ultimately even unto death.

3. That said, I want to make clear that it’s entirely possible that process theology has some compelling responses to this, and Scot offers some insights that are certainly worth considering. However, I have yet to find an argument that I’ve found compelling to convince me that process thought does not, by virtue of taking away crucial elements of the divine omnipotence, seriously vacate the notion of divine providence. If the universe is free to act either in accord with or against God’s plan then it is possible that, contrary to God’s desires or intentions, the universe could propel itself, not toward God’s salvific purposes, but into a cosmic death spiral. Only if God’s intentions for the universe are understood to be implied by divine transcendence, and unalterable in principle except by God, is the idea of soteriology in any cosmic sense possible. This does require, as J.J. suggests, an eschatological reference point for salvation, though I would disagree that this is either untenable or immoral.

4. Again, I make no claims to comprehensive knowledge of all of the arguments made by process theologians, but I have mostly been interested in the approach offered by Charles Hartshorne (if I had gone a different way at PTS, I might have done my dissertation on him!). As philosophical theologians with a process orientation go, I think he’s fascinating, but again, as I read his interpretation of the subject, ultimately God is, quite explicitly not the Ground of Being or a transcendent entity, but simply the greatest possible being within the universe. Now, other process theologians may have taken a different tack, and attempted to preserve a greater degree of divine sovereignty, and maybe some of them have solved the problems that I’ve suggested, but no process thinker that I’ve read has quite overcome these problems to my satisfaction.

5. On a positive note, I think that one of the contributions of process theology has been in the theology of science, insofar as it has given theologians of science a way of understanding divine agency in a scientifically understood world in a new and interesting way, but in the end, I think the approach to divine agency in the material world is better described by the view of someone like Austin Farrer than by John Polkinghorne or Ian Barbour (both of whom I love, but both of whom I wish leaned less heavily on elements of process thought.

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  • Thanks for the post (and the post of the comment, tony) Scott. Been following this form afar with great interest. I share your affinities of and concerns with process theology.

    – HMI

  • Scot Miller

    Well, Scott obviously knows more about process theism than I thought he did… And I have to say that I’m a fan of Hartshorne, too.

    I think the issue is how to understand the concept of providence and salvation. If it’s important that God gets to wrap everything up in the eschaton, and that salvation is about delivering us from sin and temporality and that salvation entails that we enjoy eternal bliss with God, then process theism won’t be very appealing. I have no problem with saying that the future is radically open and undefined, and that the universe can go on its merry way contrary to God’s will. The power of God is the power of love, the power of persuasion and not the power of coercion. It’s God’s business to eternally attempt to redeem recalcitrant and sinful entities. As long as there is one free entity that can reject God’s eternal aims, then God’s task of redemption is unfinished. (And while I doubt that human beings can survive death in a self-conscious way, if we do survive and retain our freedom, then our post-mortem existence will be as potentially sinful as our current state.)

    • ME

      do you know the traditional answer for how it is in resurrection we can retain free will and at the same time be free from sin? Or am I just way off base and the traditional theology is that we can sin in resurrection?

      • Tripp Fuller

        I think the classical answer in the West is that when we are truely free – as in free from Sin, Law, and Death – then we are free to do eternally that which we were created to do, namely love God. ‘Freedom’ in Christian theology is significantly different than we think of freedom as creatures of the Enlughtenment. If we have a God given via creation telos (goal) as a species to know and enjoy God forever then when that which sepeartes and inhibits us from doing so is eliminated we are free to it. I couldn’t find the quote but Augustine said something to this effect in a prayer “God who has broken the chains of sin through Christ, may you emancimate my soul so that I may have the choice to truely love you.”

      • Scot Miller

        In addition to what Tripp said, I think Thomas Aquinas would say that in this life, our wills often turn to lesser goods, relative goods, but not always the Eternal Good. (Apparently Aquinas thinks the human will always turns to what it thinks is good, even though it may be a lesser good. And when the will turns away from God, it sins.) In the afterlife, our souls will have a direct beatific vision of God, the Ultimate Good, and so the will will be compelled not to sin. I think that’s how Thomas gets around the possibility of our sinning in the afterlife. I’m not convinced that this is an adequate understanding of human freedom.

      • ME

        thanks for the responses. very informative.

  • That said there has always been a minority stream in Christian theology which posited that after God reconciles all things there could indeed be another fall. This would initate another epoch in which God would reconcile all the world again. Origen was really into this.

  • Susan

    If God is able to “set us free with true freedom” (as postulated by Augustine & Aquinas), why did he not do that in the first place when He was in direct communication with mankind in the Garden of Eden? Why introduce the two-tree temptation scenario and go through the costly fall of man and redemption process? I have never understood the logic of that.

  • In laymen’s terms, wouldn’t you say that “God can be contingent on the universe s/he has created, but only by choosing to be so, to make the universe run smoothly as intended?” If God wanted to take over every word and thought, eliminate freedom, and annihilate his/her own patterns and laws in the process, God could do that. It’s not a matter of power. It’s a matter of choice. The universe is the way it is. God wants it that way. It doesn’t mean that God’s power is lessened, just that God abstains from using power in that manner. Most un-human to have POWER and not USE IT !

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