Process theology (with special reference to Terence Fretheim)

Process theology (with special reference to Terence Fretheim) August 13, 2011

Some time ago a visitor to this blog listed Lutheran Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim among process theologians.  I challenged him on that and he asked me to read Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Baker, 2010); he claimed it would convince me that Fretheim is a process theologian and not just a garden variety open theist.  (Fretheim was an open theist before that label existed; his work has inspired many open theists and they have used it to support their belief that the Bible portrays God as not knowing the future exhaustively and infallibly because the future is not yet fully settled.)

I have known Terry Fretheim casually for years.  He taught at Luther Theological Seminary when I taught at Bethel College (now Bethel University) and we rubbed elbows occasionally at various events.  I thought I knew his theology fairly well, so I suggested that IF the person claiming he is a process theologian would send me the book in question I would read it and respond here.  It has taken some time, but I have now read the book and here is my response.

First, we need to agree on what “process theology” means.  As with so many theological labels, it has sometimes been stretched far beyond its original meaning.  I’m confident my interlocutor here understood its true, historical meaning and was not confusing open theism with process theology.  However, I can’t count on everyone knowing the difference.

As many of you know, one of my worst pet peeves (i.e., that I most abhor) is the all-too-common tendency for meaningful theological terms to get stretched out of shape to the point they are virtually meaningless.  One example is “panentheism.”  For about a century it had a relatively clear and distinct meaning rooted in its use by the philosopher who coined it: Karl Friedrich Christian Krause (1781-1832).  Panentheism was not just any alternative to classical theism with its doctrines of divine simplicity, strong immutability, impassibility, etc.  No, panentheism was, until recently (!) only views that denied creatio ex nihilo and regarded God and the world as interdependent realities–NOT by God’s volition but necessarily.  The classical statement of panentheism was Hegel’s “Without the world, God is not God.”  Another was Whitehead’s “It is as true to say God creates the world as that the world creates God.”  In recent years “panentheism” has come to be used of almost ANY alternative to strong classical theism that emphasizes God’s aseity and impassibility.  (See for example the volume In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World (Eerdmans, 2004).

Back to process theology.  Unfortunately, some opponents of open theism have worked very hard to confuse open theism with process theology and too many people with very little knowledge of either one have bought into that false identification.  In order to see and understand the clear, stark differences read Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists (Eerdmans, 2000).  I know some silly people who have assumed that just because process theologians and open theists had a dialogue they must be at least close in their views of God.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  The “dialogue” turns into a debate and, in the end, these two views have almost nothing in common–below the surface.  For example, ALL the “free will theists” (open theists) affirm creatio ex nihilo and God’s omnipotence while ALL the process theologians deny them.

So how shall we get a handle on what process theology is?  That’s crucial to settling the question whether Fretheim is a process theologian, isn’t it?  (I’m tempted to say–just compare Fretheim’s theology with his former colleague Paul Sponheim’s theology!  Sponheim is a well known process theologian.  Anyone who can’t tell the difference between their ideas of God is not reading them carefully.)

So what do I know about process theology?  During my seminary education I took an external course (3 credit semester seminar) on it from a process theologian.  (He was not well known and now I’ve forgotten his name; he taught theology at Augustana College and for the Luther Seminary extension there called Shalom.)  We read a book of essays by leading process theologians (Process Philosophy and Christian Thought edited by Delwin Brown and others) and a couple books by John Cobb including God AND the World and Christ in a Pluralistic Age.  For my research paper for that course I read books by various process theologians including Daniel Day Williams, Norman Pittenger, David Griffin, Robert Mellert, Joe Bracken, et al.  Later I found THE brief, definitive volume explaining the basics of process theology in a way anyone can understand (and recommended it to students and anyone interested in process theology hundreds of times): Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition edited by John Cobb and David Griffin.  I consider it authoritative even if somewhat simple.  Of course, all these theologians interact with Whitehead and Hartshorne–some of whose writings I have read (e.g., The Divine Relativity and Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes).

So what has my years-long study of process theology yielded in terms of its necessary features and contours?  In spite of recent misuses of the term (and concept), historically process theology has ALWAYS meant belief that God and the world are necessarily ontologically interdependent (panentheism) and that this interdependence is NOT due to any voluntary self-limitation on God’s part.  God is essentially limited, not omnipotent and CANNOT act unilaterally coercively to cause events in a supernatural way.  (I could add that most process theologians are not classical trinitarians and do not believe in the classical hypostatic union or many other elements of traditional Christian orthodoxy.)

Now, can someone dig up a person who CALLS HIMSELF or HERSELF a “process theologian”

or who CLAIMS to hold to “process theology” and disagrees with those elements I have called essential to it?  Of course.  There are always exceptions–especially when a movement has no headquarters or magisterium which process theology certainly does not.  Some people have picked up certain elements of it and combined those with other things and come up with something they consider a hybrid.  But I would not consider that true process theology.  In fact, I would deny that any theology can be counted as process theology if it believes God’s relationship with the world, however intimate, is voluntary.  Falling into that category–theologians who believe God and the world are in some way interdependent BECAUSE GOD HAS CHOSEN IT TO BE THAT WAY (but didn’t have to) are Jurgen Moltmann, Paul Fiddes, I. A. Dorner (19th century mediating theologian), Wolfhart Pannenberg (about whose theology I wrote my dissertation and with whom I studied in Munich) and many, many others.

That’s the category Terence Fretheim CLEARLY falls into and a careful reading of Creation Untamed undeniably reveals it.  On page 26 and elsewhere he refers to God’s self-limitation as the reason for God’s interdependence with creation.  Sprinkled throughout the book are statements like “God makes God’s self vulnerable” (133)  and “God is a power-sharing God–for the sake of genuine relationship.” (32)

I do not see how anyone with correct knowledge of process theology can read Fretheim’s book and come away thinking it is process theology or he is a process theologian.  Nowhere does Fretheim imply or suggest (to say nothing of claim) that God is less than omnipotent or that God’s relationship with the world is reciprocal in any necessary ontological way.  Every limitation of God’s power is based on God’s free choice for the sake of genuine relatedness.

By the way, I agree entirely with Fretheim’s theology of God and the world in which he affirms the power of intercessory prayer (for example).  For him prayer does NOT merely change the person praying; it opens up real possibilities for God to act to change circumstances in the world.  Fretheim does not use the terms “supernatural” or “miracle,” but everything he says is consistent with them.

I thank whoever sent me the book; it was an inspiring read.  But it is not process theology.  It might be open theism, but, as I have argued over and over to anyone who will listen, they are not the same.

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  • Very enlightening, as usual!

    What process theologians need to worry about is divine due process. It may not be far off.


  • Bill McReynolds

    When studying at Perkins School of Theology, I and other first-year students were placed in front of Schubert Ogden our first semester. I always appreciated that he and SMU made Ogden so available to us, especially since many of us were more-or-less young and poorly read, and many would have described themselves as evangelical Methodists. That said, by the end of that semester, I began to understand why many referred to Perkins as Perkins School of Mythology!

    Thanks for the refresher on process theology. As one who thinks of my theological orientation as Reformed, I could not for the life of me understand how anyone could still espouse process philosophy/theology in 1990! Imagine my surprise that SMU/Perkins, as the giants like Ogden retired, managed to find young process theologians just starting out to replace them. Who’d have thought!

    • rogereolson

      During Ogden’s years teaching at Perkins I heard from many of his evangelical students that he browbeat and ridiculed them in class. I have no direct, first hand knowledge of that, however. I hope it’s not true.

      • Bill McReynolds

        Unfortunately, that was often the case. He had little tolerance for evangelical points of view. I can still vividly see his finger headed towards the chest of one student or another!

        • rogereolson

          This is about Schubert Ogden–in response to my comment that I have heard he frequently harassed his evangelical students at Perkins School of Theology.

      • Michael Beggs +

        I am afraid it is true; less brow beat than explode if you asked a question that suggested that you may disagree with him, and then were not able to refute his writings chapter and verse.
        In my case, I was in a discussion group with him in the late 1980’s. I remember it like it was yesterday (also because it was taped and I reviewed the tape several times trying to figure out if I had warranted his treatment). He asked a question, rooted in in Mt. 25 and Jesus’ statement, “if you’ve done this to the least of these you’ve done it to me.” He asked, “What must be true of the God-world relationship for these words of Jesus to be true?” He was obviously fishing around for a biblical basis to blur the ontic line between created and uncreated.
        I responded with a methodological question:
        “Is it a usual way of proceeding to move from an axiological question/statement to an ontological truth.?” That was actually a question — not a challenge. His response: “well, I suppose you have a better way. Why don’t you share that with us. Why did you ask the question?” — the epistemic assumtion seeming to be that to ask a question means that you have a formulated alternative position/vision. After trying to articulate why it is that I would ask a question about the doctrine of God and theological methodology (it is rather important, after all), and receiving insults for my trouble, I withdrew the question so that the class could move on. That’s when Ogden really exploded. He claimed that if I was willing to withdraw the question, I “was not serious about asking the question and had wasted his and the classes’ time.” At which point, a good twenty minutes before it was time for the class to end, he stood, took his books and notes and exited the classroom. I guess what R.G. Collingwood said was true: “place your finger on a man’s metaphysical assumptions and he’ll blow up in your face.”

        • rogereolson

          It took me a long time to discern you were talking about Schubert Ogden and not Terence Fretheim (simply because Fretheim’s name is in the title of my blog to which you respond and you didn’t mention about whom you were speaking at first. I’m glad you finally revealed it is Ogden who did those things. Yes, I have heard many horror stories about how Ogden browbeat more conservative students and attempted to humiliate them. I hope they are exaggerated. But your testimony indicates otherwise.

  • Rob

    I don’t know much about Fretheim but it would be silly to call him a process theologian simply because he thinks God can voluntarily limit his power for the purpose of having communion with created beings.

    A thorny problem about the coherency of omnipotence arises with ANY act of an omnipotent being. Any act simply by virtue of being an act that has real effects limits an omnipotent being’s future acts. If any act of God limits his future acts, then omnipotence looks impossible.

    The atheist philosopher JL Mackie wrote extensively about this calling it “the paradox of omnipotence”. I submit that any satisfactory reply to Mackie that shows that omnipotence is coherent will in turn show Fretheim’s view is consistent with God being omnipotent.

    • rogereolson

      I understand omnipotence as ability to do anything that is logical and consistent with the character of God. I think that definition gets around Mackie’s argument against omnipotence.

  • Wow, thanks for this Roger. I’ve been getting my head around open theism and process theology over the last couple of months and I’ve been finding it difficult to separate the two, even though they have clear differences. As I suspected, the problem was looseness in definitions.

    Funnily enough, my initial introduction to process thought was in that book ‘In whom we live and love and have our being’ and I first heard of open theism in the interview you did for Homebrewed Christianity a few months ago. This post seems to be bringing a whole lot of threads back together again!

  • Russ

    Checking Wikipedia’s definitions of open theism, process theology and panentheism found them a bit “sloppy”. Thanks for the better, more specific, insights.

    Too, was your reference to Jurgen Moltmann, Paul Fiddes, I. A. Dorner and Wolfhart Pannenberg a reference to THEISTS who posit God’s volutary relation with the world but who are not necessarily OPEN Theists?


    • rogereolson

      I asked Moltmann if he is an open theist (first we discussed what it means) and he affirmed he is. He said “But of course! That is part of the kenosis of God!” (viz., that God does not know the future exhaustively). I don’t know Fiddes is an open theist. Surprisingly, Dorner might have been. Claude Welch, perhaps the leading Dorner scholar in America, described him that way in Protestant Thought in the 19th Century (volume 1). Pannenberg is most definitely not an open theist, but his aphorism “God does not yet exist” makes his theism anything but classical! (I wrote my dissertation on that Pannenbergian sentence!) None of these are process theologians. John Cobb once thought Pannenberg was a process thinker, but Pannenberg cleared that up decisively and their friendship suffered some because of Pannenberg’s distancing himself from process thought.

  • Russ

    ps – I took that panentheism is part of process theology, but that process theology goes “beyond” panentheism in its further explanation of God.

    • rogereolson

      The I would put it is that process theology is one type of panentheism. Hegel was a panentheist but not a process thinker. Same with John Macquarrie.

  • It might be worthwhile to mention that Terence Fretheim does not claim the label “open theist.” I have heard him say in a public forum in response to questions posed to him concerning open theism, “I am not an open theist.” I well understand that his theology falls into the stream of thought that is labeled “open theism” (and I am confident he is also aware of this). Nevertheless, he does not see himself engaging in systematic theology, and as such he does not adopt systematic labels for himself. He does consider himself “Lutheran,” but this is an ecclesial label indicative of the tradition within which he works, not a theological one. I think applying the label “open theist” to Fretheim assumes he operates under certain assumptions about the nature of the unity of Scripture that are actually foreign from his methodological assumptions. In this respect, it is inaccurate to speak of Fretheim as an open theist.

    • rogereolson

      That raises a host of questions about how labels should be used. What if someone says “I believe in TULIP but I’m not a Calvinist?” Okay, of course the person has a right to reject any label. But people discussing his theology also have a right to call him a Calvinist because that’s what makes someone a Calvinist. I do try to be fair about my use of labels and from now on I’ll do my best to mention that Terry does not accept the label “open theist.” (The same is true, by the way, of Dallas Willard who, in my judgment, holds a view identical to open theism but does not want to be labeled that.) Some time ago I talked to two leading Arminian theologians–Thomas Oden and I. Howard Marshall. Both rejected the label “Arminian.” But both are Methodists and their soteriologies are most definitely consistent with, if not identical to, Arminius’! What to make of this rejection of labels by some people? My late friend Stan Grenz was an Arminian, but when I told him so he said “I know, but don’t tell anybody.” Hmmmmm. Okay. I didn’t while he was still with us. But I just don’t understand this problem with labels.

      • Do you think the rejection of labels is due to the disputes between groups? For instance, Dallas Willard seems to affirm openness beliefs, yet denies the label open theism. Do you think is because there would be outrage if he (or anyone) were to come out and affirm “Open Theism?” If open theism was a label that was not attacked so harshly within evangelicalism, would they be more willing to adopt the label as their own? I think so. I think it may be more of a “saving face” to deny a label and avoid career backlash.

        • rogereolson

          I agree with you completely. That is exactly my analysis of the situation. And here’s one reason I’m pretty sure about it. Some years ago I pointed out to the editors of a major evangelical magazine that one of their favorites–Dallas Willard–holds beliefs identical with open theism and yet they publish him when they probably would not publish anything by someone who labels himself or herself “open theist.” The editors kindly and reasonably, I think, explained that Willard is not “out there” promoting open theism whereas most of those known as open theists are and there’s the difference. I think they were saying that IF they published something by a known open theist (someone who wears that label) there would be hell to pay whereas there’s no hell to pay so long as Willard is not publicly identified with open theism even if that’s the view he holds. I know quite a few evangelical professors (at evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries) who hold the open theist view but do not label themselves that way and suffer no harm. But every evangelical professor who has publicly accepted the label (who teaches at an evangelical school) has suffered much harassment for it–sometimes from regents and administrators but certainly from constituents.

  • Dustin Hite

    As someone who is inclined towards process thought, I appreciate the distinctions you’ve made in this essay. While there are some common themes running through both process theology & open theism, in the end their conceptualizations of God and God’s action in the world are radically different. And yet, regardless of those distinctions, I find them both refreshing attempts to understand and engage the Divine in ways I find are limited through classical understandings.

  • Jeff Mays

    As a new seminary student, I very much appreciate your concise explanations of the differences between process theology and open theism. I also appreciate the book recommendations you have provided. You have likely not only saved me numerous hours of researching a branch of theology I had mistakenly thought spoke to me, but have at the same time pointed me towards a new area of theology to further investigate. Thank you.

  • Mark S.

    Thanks for the thoughts—I had been asking myself about this while reading Fretheim on Exodus, due to some statements about God “growing” or receiving new information due to new action (on the part of Pharaoh, Moses, etc.). As an amateur, I had only read the Wikipedia definition (of process theology) which seemed to place it right next to open theology. Your article makes sense.

    Fretheim’s explanation of God in The Suffering of God has been very liberating and helpful for myself and many people that minister in my denomination.