A brief outline of the biblical view of God may help to clarify the main departures of process-theology.

■ The God of the Bible is first and foremost known as the sovereign One, the Monarch of all. Unlike the gods of pagan polytheism, who struggled to survive in a battle against fate, the biblical God from the very first towers as Creator and Lord of all things by his own word and will. The objects of pagan worship—sun, moon, and stars, beasts and creeping things—in the Bible are mere creations of the God of the universe. He it was, the sovereign Lord of All, who assigned man to have dominion over the earth and its creatures in moral obedience to his spiritual purposes. Contemporary moralists tend to deny any necessary connection between divine command and human morality and destiny; no less than Alfred North Whitehead conceded, however, that Christian belief in the rational, inexhaustible Logos as the source of a creative and dependable order was an indispensable element in the rise of modern science. The one God, sole sovereign of the universe, is at the heart of biblical religion.

■ The God of the Bible is known as the sovereign Lord through the fact of his self-revelation: as personal mind and will, he makes himself known in thought, word, and deed. In this emphasis on personality in God, the Bible contrasts both with Greek philosophy and with Greek popular religion. The classic philosophers spiritualized the polytheistic god-figures. Using such general concepts as the Divine, cosmic reason, and abstract Being, they postulated the ultimately real in terms of impersonal principle. The religious poets not only espoused polytheism but also ascribed to their multiplied gods all features and actions of human existence. The Bible, to be sure, depicts God as personal, speaks of his relation to human beings in concrete personal terms, and uses metaphors of human relationships, including the intimate terminology of love. But, as Daniel Day Williams notes, a striking difference distinguishes the biblical from polytheistic religion: “Never are the erotic and the emotional satisfactions of human life asserted to be the key to the relationship of God and man. The Bible … never makes the ecstatic or emotional fulfillment of familial or sexual experience the key to the experience of God” (The Spirit and the Forms of Love, 1968, p. 20). From the very outset the Bible uses generic terms for deity in conjunction with proper names for God; Yahweh, as the distinctive Old Testament name for God, highlights the fact that the sovereign One has introduced himself by name and made his purposes known. By making man the unique bearer of the divine image for intelligible spiritual relationships, God manifests his personal being. In intelligible, purposive communication to his chosen prophets, in the covenant with Israel with its mighty promises, in his saving acts in behalf of his people, he reinforces his redemptive relationship to Israel, depicting it in terms of highest intimacy: “You only have I known of all the nations of the earth” (Amos 3:2); “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name” (Isa. 54:5). In and through incarnation he reveals finally the inner secret of his personal life; the Son assumes human nature to mirror his perfect fellowship with the Father, and to accomplish atonement for alienated mankind. The Spirit who is given, moreover, indwells and renews the community of faith in the divine image. What is already hinted at in the creation narratives, and now and again throughout the Old Testament revelation, is thus articulated in the New Testament revelation, namely, that there exists even in the personal life of the sovereign One a divine social relationship.

Article continues below

■ The God of the Bible is not only the one sovereign personal God: he is also the Living God, an assertion frequently made in the biblical revelation. As Paul Tillich pointed out, “few things about God are more emphasized in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, than the truth that God is a living God” (Systematic Theology, 1951, I, 268). By this truth of the Living God, the biblical writers do not mean simply that God is alive, in contrast to God-is-dead attitudes (“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God”—Ps. 14:1). Nor do they merely contrast him in this regard with the ultimately non-existent pagan divinities (Jer. 2:11; Isa. 6:3; 41:4; 42:8; 43:10 ff.; 45:3–6; 48:11), let alone suggest only that he is at least as much alive as animate creatures. No; for the biblical writers, God as God “has life in himself” and exists eternally; he is the “I AM” (Exod. 3:14). All being and structures therefore have their ground of being and existence in him who is subject to no determination but self-determination. He is the ground of the being of the universe, and the source of man’s creation-life, redemption-life, and resurrectionife.

■ The God of the Bible is not only the one sovereign personal, living God: he is also supernatural Creator and transcendent judge, the metaphysical ground of the Good and the True, the foundation of rationality and morality and order, the ultimate source of all the forms and structures of existence, and of the coherence of experience and life. He is, moreover, the immanent preserver of men and things who works out his comprehensive purposes in history and nature, to be consummated in a new heaven and earth. He is independent of the universe, however; man and the world are in no sense necessary to his being or perfection, for he is not subject to variation, to increase or diminution of being or perfection. The supernatural Creator is transcendent ontologically, ethically, and epistemologically. The Good is what God wills, the Truth is what God thinks and says. The Greek gods were strangers to such independence of the cosmos, since they presupposed no doctrine of creation and were circumscribed in their activities by a cosmos that included them as well as all other beings. The pagan gods were not other-wordly, and hence could sustain no comprehensive relationship to the world.

Article continues below

■ The God of the Bible is the God of election-love, known as such in his self-revelation as the sovereign eternal Spirit, the God of holy love, who works out his redemptive purpose in a created and fallen world. As Norman Snaith put it: “Either we must accept this idea of choice on the part of God with its necessary accompaniment of exclusiveness, or we have to hold a doctrine of the love of God other than that which is biblical” (The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, 1944, p. 139). God is the God of holy love. Himself fulfilling all the claims of righteousness, he provides free redemption for sinners unable to rescue themselves from the entrapments of sin. By the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection of the Logos, he lifts the lost to everlasting life. In brief, God reveals his love especially in his saving action and prophetic word in behalf of Israel, and in the gift of his promised Son to provide redemption and reconciliation for repentant sinners.

Over against this background, how does process-theology alter the biblical doctrine of God?

□ Process-metaphysicians compromise the sovereignty of God. God, says Whitehead, is “Co-creator of the universe” (a phrase attributed by Lucien Price in Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 1956, p. 297). God’s creation is said to be a continuing evolutionary process, a co-existence of order and freedom in which man takes part in determining the future. The divine-human relationship is viewed solely in terms of divine persuasion. Williams notes “large coercive aspects in the divine governance of the world” (in Process and Divinity, E. Freeman, ed., 1964, p. 177), and Charles Hartshorne remarks that God’s influence may approach compulsion during our unconscious experiences of him (The Divine Relativity, 1948, p. 141). Divine love is defined in such a way, however, as to require the rejection of any concept of a sovereign Monarch who predetermines the course of events. To be sure, Peter Hamilton remarks that “process philosophy requires the existence of the living God, who supplies to every entity its ‘initial conceptual aim’ ” (The Living God and the Modern World, 1967, p. 250). The reference is, of course, to Whitehead’s statement that “each temporal entity … derives from God its basic conceptual aim, relevant to its actual world, yet with indeterminations awaiting its own decisions” (Process and Reality, 1929, p. 317); this idea, Hamilton asserts, “closely corresponds to the Christian doctrine of the ‘prevenience’ of God” (op. cit., pp. 159f.). W. A. Christian holds that “the concept of God in Whitehead’s philosophy is categorically contingent, systematically necessary, and existentially contingent” (in Process and Divinity, p. 195). In any event, can one possibly reconcile God’s prevenience, as biblically stated, with Whitehead’s notion that “God and the world interact upon and affect each other; the initial aim which God offers to successive entities is continually adjusted to allow for environmental changes, so as to aim for maximum intensity of experience according to the circumstance of the moment” (Dialogues, p. 160)? One may be tempted to read the biblical view of God’s purpose in creation and redemption into Whitehead’s assertion: “Apart from the intervention of God, there could be nothing new in the world, and no order in the world. The course of creation would be a dead level of ineffectiveness with all balance and intensity progressively excluded by the cross currents of incompatibility.” But if one follows the thought to its conclusion one soon discovers the central thrust: “The novel hybrid feelings derived from God … are the foundations of progress” (ibid., p. 349). Accordingly, Hamilton is only too happy to discard the physical resurrection of Christ; an empty tomb followed by corporeal appearances would have constituted divine compulsion overwhelming “the disciples’ free will,” whereas in Hamilton’s view “neither human free will nor the normal processes of nature are subjected to, or interrupted by, divine compulsion” (op. cit., p. 226). Williams’s systematic exposition of process-theology contains no section on eschatology; he merely asserts that God “never refuses to love” (The Spirit and the Forms of Love, p. 127) and suggests that the doctrine of universal salvation be probed (p. 97).

Article continues below
Article continues below

□ Although process-theology depicts God as personal, it tends to reduce the Divine to a principial aspect of the whole of things. Paul Tillich had explicitly rejected divine personality; he used the term “personal” only symbolically of God, conceived impersonally as Being-itself (op. cit., I, 270 f.). But Whitehead viewed God as “an actual entity” or perhaps as a succession of entities with personal order, and Hartshorne went a step further by defining God as “living person.” This emphasis Hamilton develops to the point of justifying prayer to “the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands” (op. cit., pp. 240 ff.). No one was more aware than Hartshorne, however, that process-metaphysics shifts the case for divine personality to philosophical considerations of its own. “It may be said,” he wrote of Whitehead’s theory, “that this is one of the first philosophies which has any intellectual right to speak of divine personality.… We doubt if anyone can really, or other than verbally, mean by a ‘person’ more than what Whitehead means by a ‘personally ordered’ sequence of experiences within certain defining characteristics or personality traits” (in Philosophers Speak of God, Hartshorne and Reese, eds., 1953, p. 274). And Williams says that “process metaphysics proposes analogies in which the Creator-Redeemer God of the Bible is really conceived as creative being” (op. cit., p. 125, n. 14); he is quite aware that Whitehead’s imprecision about how God acts on the world jeopardizes the being of God as “a fully actual, effective subject.” This weakness Williams first proposed to overcome by stressing “the disclosure of the divine initiative in religious experience” (in The Relevance of Whitehead, I. Leclerc, ed., 1961, p. 370). But not even Williams’s later emphasis on love as the structure of reality guarantees the personality of God, whatever may be his intentions. This fact becomes fully evident in our subsequent discussion of the process-theory’s transformation of the concept of divine love. Here we note only that the loss of intelligible divine self-communication reduces the reality of God in fact to an unsure inference from experience, whereas the more God is postulated in personal categories, the more decisive becomes the question of his cognitive disclosure. Although process-theologians retain the vocabulary of revelation, they abandon its biblical sense. In the Bible, revelation is a mental concept, and involves God’s disclosure of truths about himself and his purposes; the God of the Bible does not wait for speculative philosophers to postulate his nature on the basis of analogies from human experience. The personal God of revealed religion speaks and acts for himself, and declares his purposes intelligibly.

Article continues below

□ Process-theologians take seriously the reality of a divine life and insist that the living God has an existence that must be differentiated from mere cosmic process. They disagree with Tillich’s assertion that “we must speak of God as living in symbolic terms” (op. cit., I, 268). Tillich earlier had held that God has actual being as the ground of all being, as Being-itself; God is the structure of all being, and these structural elements “make him a living God, a God who can be man’s concrete concern” (I, 264). In later statements Tillich considered merely symbolical even the assertion that God is the structure or ground of being (II, 10). The statement that God is what concerns man ultimately and unconditionally (I, 17) thus became detached from any objective cognitive reality whatever; those who insisted that atheism might equally well be one’s ultimate concern saw in Tillich’s view a transition to death-of-God speculation. But process-metaphysicians insist upon creative being as the objective reality of Tillich’s “ultimate concern”; emphasis on God as the ground and structure of all being they coordinate with a theory of God’s function in the world as an active being who enters into relationships, and who may thus be distinguished conceptually from the universe of which he is the depth, ground, or structure. Yet such coordination in fact hardly requires much advance over the view of Henry Nelson Wieman, who saw no need to carry Whiteheadean metaphysics beyond the emphasis that “deity” is the impersonal value-producing frontier of evolutionary process (The Source of Human Good, 1946); here the term God, when identified with creative good, seems merely complimentary. More than one critic of Whitehead’s theory has suggested that God is quite a dispensable appendage to his metaphysics and reflects more of cultural heritage than of integral logical necessity. The newer process-theologians seek to give their theory of God biblical overtones. Nonetheless creation becomes evolution, redemption becomes relationship, and resurrection becomes renewal; the supernatural is abandoned, miracles vanish, and the Living God of the Bible is submerged in immanental motifs.

Article continues below

□ Process-metaphysics, while affirming the transcendence of God, repudiates his supernaturalness and absolute transcendence. It rejects the pantheistic identification of God with the whole of reality, but insists that God is an aspect of all reality. Whitehead held that not God alone, but every actual entity, transcends the rest of actuality; “the transcendence of God is not peculiar to him” (op. tit., p. 130). Hartshorne formulates the process-doctrine of divine transcendence by saying: “God literally contains the universe.” Yet, he would add, God is both the cosmos and something independent of it (The Divine Relativity, p. 90). Because Hartshorne’s literal inclusion of creatures within God jeopardizes their independence, W. A. Christian argues that God neither is the cosmos nor includes the cosmos. While, he says, the cosmos does not determine God’s activity, it always conditions it (An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, 1959, p. 407). In either case, the world is necessary to God, and God’s absolute transcendence is therefore compromised both through his necessity for the world and through a reciprocity of influence.

□ Process-theology subverts the love of God into a principle of universal causality which it dignifies with personal categories. This is evident, first and foremost, from its dismissal of the biblical motif of preferential election-love. In the Old Testament the election-love of God focuses exclusively upon Israel, and in the New Testament upon called-out believers who constitute the Church. On the basis of the divine creation of mankind viewed as an act of love, Williams gratuitously extends God’s election-love for Israel to all nations, and universalizes God’s election-love in the New Testament by first concentrating it in Jesus Christ as the Elect Man and then extending it through him to all mankind. Williams concedes that “perhaps there is nothing in scripture which explicitly identifies God’s act of creation as an act of love” (op. cit., p. 27). The Old Testament passages which he thinks suggest “that God’s care for all nations is the same character as that for Israel” (ibid.)—particularly Amos 9:7; Ruth; Isaiah 19:19–25; 42:1–6; 49:6—surely cannot be read in terms of divine covenant with a chosen people. The underlying motivation for rejecting God’s preferential-love is clearly speculative: Williams contends that it is sinful to withhold love from some (p. 142) and not to bestow the same love on all (pp. 121 f.). The latter premise would turn human matrimony into a shambles, and both premises would discredit preferential divine love as immoral. Williams nowhere discusses the implications of his premise for the Father’s unique love for the Son. That the Son is uniquely the object of the Father’s love is a truth fundamental to New Testament Christology (cf. John 5:20). Are we to demand the divine extension of this love to all persons as the precondition of divine moral integrity? And if so, what becomes of divine grace? A second way in which process-theology tends to dilute the love of God, even when it expounds God as Divine Love, is by eroding the miraculous in the interest of evolutionary process and scientific uniformity. Despite the process emphasis on God as a social being, the matter of personal immortality is left in doubt through the eclipse of Christ’s bodily resurrection. Whitehead declared his theory “entirely neutral on the question of immortality” (Religion in the Making, 1926, p. 111); Hartshorne is disposed to reject the concept of personal immortality (Philosophers Speak of God, Hartshorne and Reese, eds., p. 285). Contemporary process-theologians, on the other hand, are somewhat more conditioned by biblical expectations. Williams treats Christ’s resurrection as incidental to the incarnation, rather than as an external physical miracle; he emphasizes “a new situation in human existence” (op. cit., p. 168), reconciliation involving our “hope for eternal communion with God” (p. 169; cf. p. 188). W. Norman Pittenger seems to consider man permanently valuable to God and perhaps indispensable; one is tempted to ask how God managed so well before man was created. Says Pittenger: “Precisely because God is love and precisely because the achievement of greater good, especially through the activity of such personalized occasions as man may be said to be, is in itself a good, may not the achieved good include the agency by which it was achieved?” (Process Thought and Christian Faith, 1968, p. 81). But he adds that “there never has been … any strict logical demonstration of what the Christian is talking about … when he declares his faith in ‘resurrection,’ ” a term Pittenger translates into “some sort of persistence of the creaturely agent” (pp. 81 f.). Hamilton settles for Whitehead’s view that what survives death is not our personality but God’s as inclusive of our concrete experiences (op. cit., p. 141).

Article continues below
Article continues below

In discussing God’s relation to man, the process-theologians so strip away the distinctive biblical manifestations of divine personality—intelligible revelation, election-love, promise and fulfillment, and miracle—and so completely assimilate it to experiential routines that one can only ask: Is this idea of a personal God in process-metaphysics merely an emotional overtone or a bit of religious coloring added to cosmic theory? If, as Hamilton states, “the existence of a transcendent God is not intellectually essential” (ibid., p. 166), the existence of a non-transcendent God would seem even more dispensable on process-presuppositions. Indeed, Whitehead himself acknowledged that he had never fully worked out his doctrine of God, and Dorothy Emmet, in the preface to the second edition of her work on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism (Macmillan, 1966), expressed uncertainty as to whether the reality of God is integral to Whitehead’s view of the world.

Let us assume, however, that process-theology does indeed seriously postulate divine personality on its own premises. We would still ask whether its view of God as a person is logically coherent. As I see it, process-theorists involve their God in a split personality. For all the criticism non-evangelical theologians level at Chalcedonian Christology, charging that the concept of two natures in one person destroys the integrity of the self, this problem is not only duplicated but escalated to the point of logical contradiction in the process-theory exposition of God. In brief, process-theology sacrifices God’s simplicity and unity as well as his supernaturalness.

What process-metaphysics emphasizes is that God in his nature is temporal and socially related; independent of the actual world in his abstract identity without being wholly external to it, he nonetheless includes the actual world in his concrete existence; at the same time the world is completely contingent and radically dependent upon him as its sole necessary ground.

When process-theologians depict the nature of God as at once eternal and unchanging and yet temporal and changing, as perfect and yet growing, their dialectical ambivalence becomes quite apparent. As Schubert Ogden puts it:

Article continues below
If God is the immanently temporal and changing One, to whose time and change there can be neither beginning nor end, then he must be just as surely the One who is also eternal and unchanging … the immutable ground of change as such both his own and all others.… That God is not utterly immaterial … but, on the contrary, is the eminently incarnate One establishes a qualitative difference between his being and everything else … His only environment is wholly internal, which means that he can never be localized in any particular space and time but is omnipresent. Hence just because God is the eminently relative One, there is also a sense in which he is strictly absolute … the absolute ground of any and all real relationships, whether his own, or those of his creatures [The Reality of God, London: SCM Press, 1967, pp. 59 f.].

To top it all off, Ogden assures us that a God who is growing is “infinitely more perfect” than a God who wholly actualizes all possibilities of being and value (p. 60, n. 97).

We might say, with tongue in cheek, that this theory is so intricate and complex that God would and could have disclosed himself only to twentieth-century metaphysicians to make his existence intelligible. What’s worse, however, is the theory’s questionable logical coherence. While Ogden insists that “it is clear at least in principle” that process-theology surpasses traditional Christian theism in “theoretical coherence” (ibid., p. 65), he offers no convincing demonstration. He condemns classical Christian theism for its so-called contradictory emphasis on the absolute and relative attributes of God. But then he proceeds to justify the dipolar nature of God in process-theology as expressing an authentically Protestant theology of “difference and identity” grounded in divine love (pp. 68 f.).

Far more is needed than verbal assurance to validate the statement that process-theory can “show how maximum temporality entails strict eternity; maximum capacity for change, unsurpassable immutability; and maximum passivity to the actions of others, the greatest possible activity in all their numberless processes of self-creation” (ibid., p. 65). One is tempted to call this a colossal fiction or to suspect that God has acquired a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ambivalence from his exposure to process-metaphysicians. At best, after the high promise of a coherent view, the process-theologians seem to offer us only a theology of squiggle. The dilemma of process-thought comes from trying both to maximize and to minimize the differences between the Superself and the human self, from trying to preserve and yet to prune such metaphysical attributes of God as eternity, immutability, and immateriality. Process-theology therefore not only loses the coherence of evangelical theism, but also substitutes for the biblical perfections of the self-revealed God merely abstract philosophical projections of the nature of deity.

Article continues below

Whatever else may be said about process-theology as a contemporary conceptuality of a theory of God, its deity is certainly not the God of the Bible, nor is the “new theism” demonstrably as coherent as evangelical Christianity. If the new conceptuality becomes an influential modern option, it will be only because contemporary man has taken to trading even his gods for periodically new models, or because those who know the true, abiding God have gone into hiding. If, at its crossroads of confusion, ecumenical theology now turns hopefully to process-metaphysics, it will finish the twentieth century no less disillusioned than when it tracked the trails of modernism, neo-orthodoxy, and existentialism.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.