Five Honest Questions for Process Theology

Five Honest Questions for Process Theology December 18, 2013

This post should be properly titled, “Five Questions for Process Theologians,” because you cannot actually ask a question of a theology, only of a theologian. The problem, as Tripp and Bo explained in their recent and controversial podcast, is that a lot of people whom I consider process theologians aren’t. Or they deny that they are. Phil Clayton is influenced by process, as is Bo. Tripp hedges on whether he’s a process theologian, or whether he’s an open-and-relational-baptist-who-has-proclivities-toward-process. Maybe John Cobb is the only truly process theologian.

The back-and-forth over process started with a rather hamfisted post by Roger Olson, in which he asserted that true process theologians aren’t Christian and, conversely, true Christians aren’t truly process theologians. When the pushback came his way, he responded by saying, “Hey, I’m writing for evangelicals exclusively. The rest of you can listen in, but this isn’t about you.” (He also unfortunately aired some of his personal dirty laundry in the comment section of the initial post.)

Tripp and Bo rightly took up Olson’s post, pointing out that it was both wrong at points and ungenerous in others. But I grew increasingly frustrated as I listened to the podcast because I thought that Tripp and Bo were taking potshots at more classical forms of theism. They even criticized other open and relational theologies as their temperatures rose. And, in so doing, I think they missed some of the more salient points of Olson’s criticisms.

If I had my druthers, I’d go over to Tripp’s garage, open a homebrew, light up a cigar, and talk this out with him in front of a live mic. Since that’s not geographically possible, I offer these five questions and ask those guys and others to respond by whatever medium they see fit. I am definitely a full-fledged member of the “open and relational theologies” camp, and I’m a hypertheist, so I offer these questions as a friend and teammate.

1) Process theology has a single progenitor, Alfred North Whitehead, an early-twentieth-century philosopher and mathematician. Other theological camps are conversant with many philosophers, but process comes exclusively from this one. And, in the pantheon of Western philosophers, Whitehead is a minor deity, at best. Does it ever worry you that your theology derives from one philosopher, and one who is not usually considered a giant in his field?

2) In Deacon Bill Walker’s excellent and critical post about the podcast, he asserted something very similar to what I’ve written in the past: when it comes to theological innovation, the consensus of the past gets the benefit of the doubt in the conversation. The conciliar, creedal past need not be hegemonic, but there is a certain threshold that must be reached for it to be reconsidered. Bo replied by writing that he doesn’t need to know Aquinas, for instance, any better — his job is to do today what Aquinas did in the 13th century. I think this is a tragic response, but that’s not my question. This is: By almost every measure, process theology is a radical rejection of what the church has believed for 1600 years, so what voice do you think the historic church and classical theism in our present situation?

3) In the podcast, Tripp read a quote from Whitehead (read it here on Brian’s McLaren’s blog). The way that Tripp used this quote — and the way that Whitehead seemed to intend it — was that the very early church got Jesus right, but the message was very quickly corrupted by imperial power. The omnipotence of God, for instance, was not part of Jesus’ life or message, but was superimposed on the gospel by Roman emperors. Do you seriously mean to imply that process theologians are the first people to get the gospel right since the first century?

4) The vast majority of Christians in the world — probably 99.9% of the 2.2 billion of us — think that God is ontologically distinct from the rest of creation. Process theology denies this. Process theology, it seems to me, is weak on God’s uniqueness. I hear them saying that God is part and parcel of creation, but God is a unique part of that creation. This strikes me as a kind of modalism of the godhead — God is unique because of what God does, not because of who God is. But, more to the point, how do you argue with the experience of billions of Christians that God is Other?

5) Finally, a question that is both simple and seasonal: What, if anything, is special about the incarnation?

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  • Craig

    Tony’s first question is the strongest. Questions 2-4 are subsidiary versions of it, and the assumptions behind each are each highly dubious. 5 could be interesting if these theologians assume “the incarnation” to be unique in some vital way. Do they? Should they?

  • I guess I’ll take a brief hiatus from my status as casual blog observer and ask a question…

    In your third question, you seem to move pretty quickly from ideas about God’s omnipotence to “the gospel.” For years I’ve had a really hard time understanding what most people actually mean by “the gospel,” but it seems that you are implying that some belief about “God” being “omnipotent” is necessary to your understanding of “the gospel.” Maybe this was your intent, but it seems to be a very similar move to Olson’s, essentially implying that those who don’t hold to a “traditional” view of omnipotence have a “false” (i.e. not true) gospel.

  • J.R. Houck

    My question is if proccess theology is true what’s the point then? What kind of eschatological hope does it infer? To me it doesn’t seem to give much hope for those who suffer injustice in this or previous ages.

  • Jesse

    I’m not a theologian, but I really like PT. So I’ll take an inadequate shot at your questions, Tony.

    1) Whitehead’s famous line that ‘all philosophy is just footnotes to Plato’ pretty much says it all, Tony. The idea that the universe is in flux goes back to Hericlitus, and Whitehead claims he got the idea of reality as “events” from Hume. Whitehead was definitely conversant. And don’t forget that Whitehead also had a Bible (as Tripp and Bo like to say) and was the son of a minister.

    2) This is weird coming from you Tony, arguing for the authority of tradition (maybe I’m reading you wrong). Sure, the “consensus of the past” or the “democracy of the dead” has it’s place for teaching and training in righteousness–those walking around today shouldn’t be the only ones who get to make decisions. But shouldn’t all the pieces of the authority structure play by the same rules? I wasn’t at the council of Nicea. My voice matters right? Maybe if I was there things would be different (but of course I’d most likely be “silenced”).

    3) I honestly just read that the same way your buddy Mr. McLaren probably does (who does seems to like Whitehead btw, same with Doug Pagitt). Namely, that paradigms inevitably shift, and one such paradigm shift may certainly have occurred when Christianity became the official Roman Imperial Religion.

    4) I think people have really been confusing panentheism with pantheism for some reason. But hey, I’m no PhD.

    5) This is a good one. One quick thing, from a process perspective, the classic obstacle that the ancients encountered–that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time–is completely irrelevant. No part of Jesus’ humanity was replaced by the Divine aspect. No paradox necessary 😉

    • Bill Walker

      Jesse, concerning #4, I do think there are ways for panentheism to preserve God’s transcendence. In response to your comment in #5 though, I’d say paradox is always necessary in theology, and no more so than in the incarnation: Power made weak, the infinite finite, holiness taking on sin, divinity facing death, etc. Therefore, I think orthodox process definitely fails the incarnation test. I’m more interested in neo-Whiteheadian renditions by those like Philip Clayton, Joseph Bracken and others, though I’m not fully persuaded by any of them. Also, I think Catherine Keller has a helpful way of talking about the mysteriousness and otherness of God, ontologically — though she’s too post-structuralist for me.

      • Jesse

        John Cobb’s take on incarnation is pretty great for me as well.

    • Ric Shewell

      On 3), I would say that your voice matters, but not to the same degree as Nicea or Chalcedon or the Ante-Nicean fathers. Since the majority of Christian considers the Christ event to be the climax of history, proximity to the event matters a great deal in the weightiness of the argument (in my opinion). The Ante-Nicean fathers, Nicea, and Chalcedon attempt to articulate the Christ event. That’s their starting point, since we hold that the Christ event is the primary revelation of God. I think that ought to be the starting point for Christian theology. Process starts from the nature of existence and God, then gets a little stand-offish when it comes to the incarnation because they really have to.

      • Jesse


        Three points.

        1) I’d disagree that those who are walking around today matter less than those ancient voices. Again, all the pieces of the authority structure (in my view) should play by the same rules. Those early church fathers can’t be negotiated with. Paul can’t be negotiated with. This is the same thing I say to fundamental evangelical protestants who want to use the Bible as their all in all authority weapon, or Roman Catholic people who say that one can’t have the Bible without embracing the church tradition along with their apostolic succession and doctrine. But hey, if proximity to the event matters so much to you, maybe you would find the arguments of the RC Church convincing. I do not. I’m too protestant I guess.

        2) The councils were about Christology, correct. But I’d be willing to bet that the early church fathers had a worldview/metaphysic/paradigm in place, i.e. an understanding of how the universe–and everything in it–worked. I mean, the creeds are full of classical substance thinking, for instance. I personally like the Operating System analogy that Bo Sanders likes to use, and I think we consistently need to be updating our OS (must be my scientific curiosity coming out–yes, I believe it is possible to constantly improve upon our theories while, at the same time, leave space open for further improvement down the line).

        3) No Christian process thinkers that I know are standoffish about the Incarnation. John Cobb’s Christology, to quote Austin Roberts, “is an attempt to take the creeds as seriously as possible in our contemporary world!”

        Ric, I suggest you read @austinroberts:disqus thoughtful response above. He’s way smarter than me and does a great job explaining process:


        • Ric Shewell

          Thanks for the response. While the early church fathers (and the New Testament authors) carried their worldview and language into their work, it was the Christ event that was their starting point. Their worldview and metaphysic was challenged by the Christ event. The Christ event didn’t “nicely fit” the hellenistic worldview anymore than it fits a modern positivist view. The Nicean Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity didn’t alleviate tension between the Christ event and hellenistic philosophy. It held it in tension, because the Christ event and the earliest confessions (God is One, Jesus is God) were the immovable positions.

          Maybe “stand-offish” wasn’t the right word. Austin used “relativize.” My systematics professor was a Clairemont guy, and we had to read plenty of process. I’m not as versed in it anymore. However, I know that their doctrine of God is the archimedean point on which their whole theology turns. Christology is dependent on the doctrine of God. I’ll still argue that the Christ event and Christology should be the starting point, then we should develop a doctrine of God.

          • Jesse


            Thanks for the discussion. I’m not quite following you, however.

            Disclosure: I consider myself to be a religious naturalist, and for me, “Reality” is a synonym for “God.”

            OK, you seem to agree with me that one will inevitably have a worldview/paradigm/way of viewing reality in place that colors their vision of said reality before starting their work. But then you say, ‘wait, the Church Fathers started with Christology, not God/Reality.’

            I think you can see where that comes off the tracks for me.

            Anyway, I believe Austin says in his post that some PT folks are eager to relativize the incarnation, but others are not, and he goes on to list a number of process influenced theologians who have very high Christologies. I’d venture to say that this is true for most Christian theological traditions–some folks emphasize different things. So, I wouldn’t worry yourself too much about the process Jesus, he’s in good shape, better than most I’d say.

      • Andrew Dowling

        By the time of Nicea the Church leaders were more schooled in Greek philosophy than the 1st century Judaism Jesus emerged from. I do think its fair to say that, with the accumulation of knowledge about 1st century Judea/historical Jesus studies that have promulgated the last several hundred years, we have the ability to better comprehend the teachings of Jesus than a Greek-born theologian in the year 400 AD. Not saying we always do, but the argument of proximity I think dissolves once you get to the latter half of the 2nd century.

        • Ric Shewell

          That’s fine, even so, take the ante-nicean father then. In any case, their central question is “what does Christ reveal about God?” They start with God revealed in Christ. I’ll say that that is what makes their work thoroughly Christian.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “They start with God revealed in Christ.”

            I’m not a PT expert but I wouldn’t think a lot of PT’ers would disagree with that. Seems to me that a huge reason why many are attracted to PT is because if God is exemplified by the love and mercy of Jesus, than theodicy renders the classical concept of the omnipotent God-Being incoherent.

  • austinroberts

    Here you go Tony. I did my best to respond to your questions on my blog. Really appreciate the conversation!

    • Jesse

      Love this response, Austin.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Forms of Christian pantheism or panentheism have been around for hundreds of years. I haven’t even read any theologians described as PT but the idea of solving the problem of theodicy via limiting or removing the idea of God as a distinct omnipotent Being is older than the 20th century. I think one can even make a solid argument Jesus’s Kingdom theology was close to a form of panentheism, although of course that is debatable.

    I don’t think either side should be too dogmatic, but I see PT or ideas that are similar as honest manifestations of approaching God amidst what we know about evolution, neuroscience, history of the Earth etc. I think many believe, and I find it hard to disagree, that many of the traditional paradigms really don’t hold up so well.

  • Scott Paeth

    You and Tripp should sit down and hash this out when you’re in Chicago! I want to participate in that conversation. I’m sure it would be great!

  • Bill Walker

    In response to #3 Tony, while I don’t think process is necessarily saying they’re the first to get the gospel right, they are saying they’re the first to get the doctrine of God right, and therefore, basically God’s character right, which is almost the same thing, and almost as arrogant. If the podcast gave the tradition the same appreciation that Austin Roberts does in his response linked below, I probably wouldn’t have felt the need to criticize.

    • austinroberts

      Bill, thanks again. but let me just say that I really don’t think
      process folks are the first to get the doctrine of god right either – as
      if one get ever get that mystery “right”! (; First, we are building on
      others like Plato, Eckhart, and Cusa who had very similar views. Some of us have thought it necessary to modify process as well. And even process folks can disagree amongst themselves. Second,
      asserting that process theism appears to us as more coherent and
      consistent philosophically and theologically, and therefore arguably a
      *better* option for us to make sense of divine mystery than many of the
      alternatives, does not amount to such exclusivist rhetoric – or at least
      it shouldn’t. It’s an argument for a certain worldview, so of course we are going to think it’s *better* than many others, but that doesn’t mean we think we’ve reached the top insight into God – God forbid! Forgive me if I’ve unintentionally been guilty of that
      kind of arrogance. I think there’s a lot of good ways to do theology.
      Process is one of those, but not the only one. I’ve heard Cobb, Keller,
      and Suchocki say just that.

      • Bill Walker

        You are right, Austin. What I said needed to be nuanced a lot more. And process is obviously not a monolithic enterprise. What I was thinking about and reacting to in the context of this conversation, but did not articulate at all, was the way Bo and Tripp in the podcast seemed to imply that all theologies maintaining a self-limiting view of God’s power are borderline Caesar-like, and have failed to grasp the nature of God’s character and power as revealed in Jesus. Because we’re power-hungry? Worried about going to heaven when we die? Want God to fix everything so we don’t have to? I’m not sure, but all of those interpretations could easily have been gleaned from some of their comments, and none of them describe me. Some, and I emphasize some, of their rhetoric risks kicking the ladder out from under the church in the present after we’ve used it to get to where we are. Or, as I’ve heard Tony say, risks running so far out ahead that your own side shoots you.

        Tripp paid some respect to open and relational theologies in general, and usually is very good about doing this. There’s nothing wrong with thinking a different worldview is better. You have not shown any arrogance, whereas I’m sure that I probably have. And I’m not even resolved about all of these questions, so far be it for me to draw lines around the “right” gospel, etc. I have all the respect in the world for Cobb, Keller, Suchocki et al. I appreciate the pushback and think it was entirely appropriate here.

    • Right on, Bill.

  • Y. A. Warren

    The first thing we modern humans have to understand is that humanity existed before theology did. To say that we shouldn’t argue with 1600-2000 years of theology, as if Genesis was written by an eye witness, is indicative of the absolute arrogance of Judeo-Christian theologians.

  • amylynn1022

    Sorry for the late response, but I do have a serious disagreement. Alfred North Whitehead founded process philosophy. Process theology is an application of process philosophy to theology, and Charles Hartshorne is the first person to do that, with John Cobb following fast on his heels.

    And I say that as someone who does consider herself a process theologian, if only on the level of a dilettante.