Its rejection of structure leaves no room for fixed doctrines.
For better or worse, today’s theological climate is similar to that of a generation ago. Unsettled by the increasingly evident bankruptcy of theological liberalism, young theologians of the 1930s found in dialectical theology—popularly called neoorthodoxy—a source of relief and a challenge for new hope. Similarly, process theology seems to offer contemporary thinkers a “way out” of the antimetaphysical morass in which the thought world in general and the world of theology in particular have been entrapped since midcentury.
Process theology takes on great charm and becomes a major challenge to many disillusioned twentieth-century theologians. But no evangelical ought to be fooled into thinking we have gained an ally in our witness to biblical faith. Is process theology compatible with classical Christianity? Are its basic principles, centering in the alleged primacy of process, capable of being harmonized with the biblical understanding of God, man, and the external world?
No thinking person today can deny that process or change is pervasive in both nature and human existence. What is questionable is whether change is ultimate, and as a result, whether structure is merely “read into” our world. At its roots, process theology rests upon the philosophical system of Alfred North Whitehead, articulated in his 1927–28 Gifford Lectures (Process and Reality [Free Press, 1978]; see also Delwin Brown, ed., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought [Dobbs-Merrill, 1971]).
Central to Whitehead’s system is the view that the visible universe consists not of an ordered structure of real and enduring objects and living organisms reflecting createdness, but of a series of “events.” These are regarded as “concrescences,” or fleeting growings together of elements called “occasions.” They are brought together by a “luring” or drawing influence of a “God” who is neither the source of their ultimate origination nor in complete charge of their destiny.
This view is based upon speculation, not actual experience, and it has wide implications for Christian theology. It denies the biblical understanding of Creation, and strips God of his sovereignty, his providential control over his creation, and even his true personality.
In place of the historic Christian understanding of God’s transcendence—his over and aboveness—of the world, process theology holds that the Deity, however defined, is in all that is. It has coined the word panentheism for this view. This term appears frequently to be a formula for a charade or word game, whose very use is expected to silence objections and validate the most harebrained theological opinions. At this point process theology is not just different from historic Christianity, it stands radically opposed to it. There are three points at which this appears most clearly.
With respect to understanding the being and nature of God, the advocates of process theology deny sovereignty over his created universe. Nor is God regarded immutable, “in whom is no variableness nor shadow cast by turning.” Process theologians see God as being himself subject to deep personal modifications of character as the sweep of universal process moves onward by a dynamic largely or wholly independent of him.
With respect to the person of Jesus Christ, the leading proponents of process theology reject out of hand his essential deity. One responsible advocate observes that “the Personification of the Logos belongs not to history but to mythology” (Peter W. Hamilton, Process Theology and Christian Thought, p. 367). His view is not based on the record of the historic fact of the Incarnation but on the impact of “that power of God which men sensed in Jesus.” This evasion of the biblical records is scarcely new among scholars who find unacceptable the view of the Person of our Lord in historic Christian thought.
The same author rejects the view that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” This expression also “belongs to mythology.” These denials are directly traced by their author to the thought of Whitehead as interpreted by Charles Hartshorne, widely recognized to be his chief exponent. Process theologians thus insist that God is so limited as to make him deficient in most or all of the qualities classical Christian theology regards as essential. These negative ascriptions stem from no merely incidental features of the “process mentality,” but from the metaphysics of the system itself.
Similarly, the process theologians’ rejection of the historic Christian understanding of incarnation and redemption is not a mere surface phenomenon. Such denials are inherent in their system, and stem from their persistent rejection of structure in the world. This leaves no place for the finality inherent in the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement.
Process theology also strikes devastatingly at the central presupposition concerning the structure of reality implicit in classical Christianity. Its radical and dogmatic interpretation of the priority of “events” or “moments” rules out any distinction between natural and supernatural. It thus represents a radical (“root”) hostility to belief in special revelation.
It seems clear that no basis exists for the suitability of process theology as a mere analytical tool that can be utilized without any necessary acceptance of its theological conclusions. Let evangelicals tempted by this expediency remember a parallel attempt by liberation theologians who hoped to utilize Marxism as a structural model and found that its oppression and violence are inescapable, for they are an essential part of the system.
Marxism and process theology have at least one element in common—that the medium is the message—and each has a certain internal consistency. If taken at all, process theology must be taken as a whole. Like Marxism, its whole is diametrically contradictory to biblical Christianity.
HAROLD B. KUHN
Dr. Kuhn is professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.
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