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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