Process Theology

Process Theism

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Process Theology is a contemporary movement of theologians who teach that God is dipolar, or has two natures, and that he is integrally involved in the endless process of the world. God has a "primordial" or transcendent nature, his timeless perfection of character, and he has a "consequent" or immanent nature by which he is part of the cosmic process itself. This process is "epochal," i.e., not according to the motion of atoms or changeless substances but by events or units of creative experience which influence one another in temporal sequence.

The method of process theology is more philosophically than biblically or confessionally based, though many of its proponents use process thought as a contemporary way of expressing traditional Christian teachings or seek to relate biblical themes to process concepts. Also the method emphasizes the importance of the sciences in theological formulation. Thus process theology generally stands in the tradition of natural theology, and in particular is associated with the empirical theology tradition in America (Shailer Mathews, D. C. Macintosh, Henry Nelson Wieman) which championed the inductive, scientific approach in liberal theology. Also process theology has some philosophical kinship with the evolutionary thinking of H. Bergson, S. Alexander, C. Lloyd Morgan, and P. Teilhard de Chardin. But its true fountainhead is Whiteheadian philosophy.

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The Influence of Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the famed mathematician-philosopher, sought a set of metaphysical concepts that would be able to explain all individual beings, from God to the most insignificant thing. Through philosophical speculation in interaction with science he developed his notable model of the basic unit of reality, which he called the "actual occasion" or "actual entity." All things can be explained as processes of actual occasions, interrelated and varying in degree of complexity. Each actual occasion is a momentary event which is partially self-created and partially influenced by other actual occasions.

Every actual occasion or entity is dipolar, having both physical and mental functions. With its physical pole the actual entity feels or "prehends" the physical reality of other actual entities, and with the mental pole it prehends the "eternal objects" by which actual entities have conceptual definiteness. The eternal objects are the abstract possibilities of the universe, and actual entities are distinct from each other according to the way they realize or actualize these possibilities.

Whitehead uses the term "prehend" to refer to a feeling or grasping of the physical and conceptual data of actual entities. By prehending each other actual entities are internally related (instead of externally related, as in materialistic or mechanistic philosophies). This means that the entities are not isolated or independent beings but are present in other actual entities as interrelated moments of an ongoing process. This characteristic of prehension or feeling is not a conscious or intelligent act except with higher forms of life, but the dipolar structure and the prehensive function are there to some degree in every actual entity, however elementary or complex its level of existence.

Creativity is another of Whitehead's universal concepts; every actual entity has a measure of freedom which is expressed in an individual "subjective aim." The self-creative process by which an actual entity realizes its subjective aim includes unifying its many prehensions of the past and adding to them something new which is the entity's own creative contribution to the cosmic process. When the actual entity has realized its subjective aim, it attains "satisfaction," and thereafter ceases to exist as an experiencing subject, becoming instead the object or datum of the prehensions of subsequent actual entities. Thus the "life" of an actual entity is completed in the moment, and process in the world must be seen as a succession of organically related occasions or momentary experiences.

Hence what traditional philosophy would call an enduring substance, Whitehead calls a succession or "route" of actual occasions with a common characteristic. Change is explained by the creative contribution of each occasion in the series, and endurance is explained by common qualities which are inherited from antecedent occasions. The flux and stability of all things are explained in this way, whether they be electrons, rocks, plants, mammals, or men. Man is an extremely complex route or "nexus" of occasions with memory, imagination, and heightened conceptual feelings.

God is the supreme actual entity, and as such he perfectly exhibits all the functions of the actual entity. Whitehead contends that metaphysical coherence cannot be had by seeing God as an exception to the rules; on the contrary, he is the chief exemplification of the metaphysical principles by which all things are to be explained. Thus God perfectly prehends all entities in the universe and is prehended in part by them. He also has the supreme influence on all actual entities, setting the limits of their creativity and influencing their subjective aims by supplying each one with an ideal "initial aim." God does this by virtue of his mental pole or "primordial nature" in which he envisions all the eternal objects and their graded values relevant to the actual world.

In arguing for the existence of God, Whitehead contends that without the eternal objects there would be no definite rational possibilities or values to be actualized, and yet only that which is actual is able to affect actual entities. Therefore there must be some actual entity which grasps and valuates all of the eternal objects and can act as the universal agent and transcendent source of order and value in the world. For Whitehead, then, without God the cosmic process would not be an orderly, creative process, but only a chaos. God, by his primordial nature, acts as the "principle of limitation" or "concretion," enabling the world to become concretely determinate by aiming at certain values within divinely given limits of freedom.

God, as dipolar, also has a physical pole, or "consequent nature," by which he feels the completed actuality of each occasion. (Remember that "physical" does not mean physical substance, as in materialism.) He actually takes the complete entities into his divine life as objects of his perfect prehension and gives them "objective immortality" in his consequent being by his valuation of their achievements. (No actual entity has subjective immortality except God; finite living beings continue subjectively only by virtue of a continuing succession of actual occasions.) Moreover, God "gives back" to the world the data of the objectified entities he has prehended so that the world process will continue and be enriched by the past.

Thus God, by prehending and being prehended, interacts with every being in the world, in every momentary event in the succession of occasions that constitute the "life" of that being. In this way God is radically immanent in the world process itself, leading it on toward greater value and aesthetic intensity, not by coercion but by sympathetic persuasion. And although God in his primordial nature transcends the world, he as actual entity includes the world consequently within himself, and suffers and grows along with it through the creativity which he and the world possess.

The Contributions of Hartshorne

Though Whitehead's philosophy had already reached maturity with the publication of Process and Reality in 1929, only a few used Whitehead as a source for theological thought before the 1950s. Most theologians in the intervening years were preoccupied with the rise of neo-orthodoxy, which tended to reject natural theology and compartmentalize theology and science. One notable exception was Charles Hartshorne (1897-), who developed the theological implications of Whitehead's thought and acted as the chief catalyst for the process theology movement of the 60s and 70s.

Like Whitehead, Hartshorne was interested in metaphysics as the study of those general principles by which all particulars of experience are to be explained. But Hartshorne was more rationalistic about this study. For him metaphysics deals with what is externally necessary, or with "a priori statements about existence," i.e., statements which are necessarily true of any state of affairs regardless of the circumstances.

Hartshorne took up Whitehead's metaphysical system and, with some modifications, defended it as the most coherent and viable alternative. He agreed with Whitehead on the primacy of becoming (which is inclusive of being, in contrast to classical philosophy), and he emphasized even more than Whitehead the category of feeling as a quality of every entity (panpsychism).

In accordance with the "law of polarity" Hartshorne developed his dipolar view of God, though somewhat differently from Whitehead. Rejecting Whitehead's notion of eternal objects, Hartshorne called the mental pole of God the "abstract nature" of God, which is simply the character through all the stretches of time. The consequent nature Hartshorne called God's "concrete nature," which is God in his actual existence in any given concrete state, with all the wealth of accumulated values of the world up to that present state. The attributes of God's abstract nature are those divine qualities that are eternally, necessarily true of God regardless of the circumstances; whereas the qualities of God's concrete nature are those particulars of God's being which he has gained by his interaction with the world in accordance with the circumstances. God in his concrete actuality is a "living person," in process; his life consists of an everlasting succession of divine events or occasions. (Here again Hartshorne differs from Whitehead, who viewed God as a single everlasting actual entity.)

The polar opposites in God, therefore, mean that God is necessary according to his abstract nature but contingent according to his concrete nature, and, again, that he is independent in his abstract nature but dependent in his concrete nature. God is independent in the sense that nothing can threaten his existence or cause him to cease acting according to his loving and righteous character, but God is dependent in that what the creatures do affects his response, his feelings, and the content of his divine life.

According to Hartshorne, God's perfection should not be seen exclusively in terms of absoluteness, necessity, independence, infinity, and immutability wholly in contrast to the relatively, contingency, dependence, finitude, and changeability of the creatures. For Hartshorne this is the great mistake of classical theism (of such theologians as Thomas Aquinas), resulting in all sorts of problems like the contradiction of God's necessary knowledge of a contingent world, or God's timeless act of creating and governing a world which is temporal, or God's love for man which supposedly involves God in history yet in no way makes him relative to or dependent on man. Hartshorne contends that if temporal process and creativity are ultimately real, then God himself must be in process in some sense and must be dependent upon the free decisions of the creatures.

In opposition to classical theism, then, Hartshorne develops his "neoclassical" theism in which perfection is understood to mean that God is unsurpassable in social relatedness. If God really is perfect love, then he perfectly feels or has total sympathetic understanding of every creature and responds appropriately to every creature in every event. Thus God is supremely absolute in his abstract nature but supremely relative in his concrete nature. No one can surpass him in the supremacy of his social relatedness to every creature. But God can surpass himself, i.e., he can and does "grow," not to become morally better or more perfect, but to grow in the joy and feeling of the world, in knowledge of actual events, and in the experience of the values created by the world. (Note that for Hartshorne, God cannot foreknow future contingent events, and so his knowledge, which is complete of what can be known, nevertheless continues to grow with the process of the world.) Thus God is the "self-surpassing surpasser of all."

God is more than just the world in its totality (contra pantheism) because he has his own transcedent self-identity; yet God includes the world within himself (contra classical theism) by his knowledge and love, which are simply his perfect prehension or taking in of the creative events of the world. Such a view of God is thus termed "panentheism" (all-in-God-ism).

With the panentheistic view of God, Hartshorne has become one of the chief protagonists in the twentieth century reassertion of the ontological argument. He says that the medieval Anselm really discovered something which was fundamental to the theistic proofs, namely the idea of "perfection" and its uniqueness among concepts. But Anselm's argument lacked cogency because it depended on a classical theistic view of perfection. The neoclassical view of perfection, Hartshorne contends, overcomes the objection of modern philosophers that perfection cannot be consistently defined. The thrust of Hartshorne's argument, then, is that perfection or "most perfect being" by definition either exists necessarily or is necessarily nonexistent, and since only the self-contradictory is necessarily nonexistent, perfect being, if it is self-consistent to speak of such, is in reality necessarily existent.

Most philosophers still hold that such an argument is defining God into existence by confusing logical necessity with existential necessity. But Hartshorne argues that the relation of logic to existence is unique in the case of perfection; i.e., perfection, if it really is perfection, exists necessarily as the logically required ground of all existence and thought.

Here one can see Hartshorne's aprioristic approach to metaphysics very much at work, and the philosophical debate on that issue continues. Nevertheless philosophers (e.g., even a nontheist like J. N. Findlay) admit that Hartshorne has made the concept of perfection rationally conceivable and has reopened the ontological argument which before seemed closed.

Christian Process Thought

After 1960, as the influence of neo-orthodoxy was waning, an increasing number of theologians turned to Whitehead and Hartshorne as new philosophical sources for a contemporary expression of Christian faith. Beginning with the doctrine of God, such theologians as John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, Daniel D. Williams, and Norman Pittenger sought to show that the process view of God is more in accord with the biblical view of God (as dynamically related to human history) than is the more traditional Christian view of classical theism. They argued that the monopolar conception of God as timeless, immutable, impassible, and in every sense independent was more hellenistic than biblical. Williams analyzed the biblical, Christian theme of love and argued that Whitehead's metaphysics helps the theologian to explain God's loving action in ways not possible with classical notions of God as being-itself or absolute predestinator.

Ogden argued that the "new theism" of process thought, with its world-affirming emphasis, expresses the relevance of Christian faith to secular man, who needs an ultimate ground for his "ineradicable confidence" in the final worth of human existence. Cobb showed how Whiteheadian philosophy can be the basis of a new Christian natural theology, a theology which by philosophical means demonstrates that the peculiar vision of the Christian community of faith illuminates the general experience of mankind.

Process theologians then began to concentrate on Christology, especially in the 70s, though Pittenger led the way by writing several works on the subject from a process view, the first in 1959. For Pittenger the uniqueness of Christ is seen in the way he actualized the divine aim for his life. Sin is "deviation of aim"; man in his subjective aim distorts or deviates from God's initial aim. In his subjective aims Christ actualized the ideal aim of God (as the cosmic Lover) with such intensity that Christ became the supreme human embodiment of "love-in-action." The deity of Jesus does not mean that he is an eternally preexistent person, but refers to God's act in and through the life of Jesus, who incarnated and transformed the whole of Israel's religion and became the eminent example of God's creative love which is at work universally.

David Griffin has spoken similarly, suggesting that Jesus actualized God's decisive revelation; i.e., the "vision of reality" shown in his words and actions was the supreme expression of God's eternal character and purpose.

Cobb emphasizes a Logos Christology. The Logos as the primordial nature of God is present (incarnate) in all things in the form of initial aims for creatures. But Jesus is the fullest incarnation of the Logos because in him there was no tension between the divine initial aim and his own self-purposes of the past. Jesus so prehended God that God's immanence was "coconstitutive" of Jesus' selfhood. Cobb thus suggests (as opposed to other process thinkers) that Jesus was different from others in his "structure of existence" not merely by degree but in kind.

Lewis Ford places emphasis on the resurrection as the basis for a Christology. According to him, what the first disciples experienced was neither a bodily appearance of Christ nor merely a hallucination, but a vision, or an encounter with a "nonperceptual reality" made perceptual by "hallucinatory means." Thus the resurrection is of a spiritual kind; it is a new emergent reality, the "body of Christ," in which mankind is transformed into a new organic unity by the living spirit of Christ. Ford also suggests a process view of the Trinity; the Father is the transcendent unity of God, who by a creative "nontemporal act" generates the Logos (the primordial nature) as the eternal expression of divine wisdom and valuation, and the Spirit is the consequent nature in the sense of the immanent being and providential power of God.

At present, process works continue to abound, dealing with various Christian concepts and concerns: sin and evil, a theodicy, the church, pastoral care, ecology, liberation, and the relation of theology to science, philosophy, and culture. Though process theology has not yet become a major force in the church pew, it is very influential in the intellectual world of the seminaries and graduate schools, and no doubts is the most viable form of neoliberal theology now in the United States.

Some other writers of Christian theology from a process perspective are Bernard Meland, Ian Barbour, Peter Hamilton, Eugene Peters, Delwin Brown, William Beardslee, Walter Stokes, Ewert Cousins, E. Baltazar, and Bernard Lee. Though process theology developed mainly within Protestantism, it now has influence also with Roman Catholic thinkers (as is evident from the last four names just mentioned). Catholic process thinkers have been coming to grips not only with Whitehead but also with Teilhard de Chardin, whose thought is historically separate from, but has some philosophical affinity with, the Whiteheadian tradition.


By philosophical or rational standards process theology has several commendable points. First, it emphasizes metaphysical coherence; i.e., it seeks to express a vision of God and the world by a coherent and clearly defined set of metaphysical concept. Second, it integrates science and theology, and vice versa; they are together in the same universal sphere of discourse, namely, process metaphysics. Consequently, and in the third place, process theology provides a tenable answer to the charge that theological language is meaningless.

The process theologian contends that if metaphysics describes those general concepts or principles by which all particulars are to be explained, and if God is the chief exemplification of those principles, then talk about God is eminently meaningful and basic to the meaningfulness of everything else. Fourth, process theology eloquently champions natural theology. Fifth, process theology gives clear and plausible form to a dynamic, personal view of God. Personal qualities such as self-consciousness, creatively, knowledge, and social relatedness are attributed to God in the most literal sense.

By rational standards process theology also has its weaknesses or questionable features. First, one may question whether the process model does justice to the self-identity of an individual person in process. Second, process theology has some problems concerning the finitude and temporality of God, e.g., the problem of relating God's infinite, nontemporal, primordial nature of God's finite, temporal, growing, and consequent nature, or the problem of seeing unity of experience in each moment of God's omnipresent existence in view of the teaching of relativity physics that there is no simultaneous present throughout the universe. Third, there is the question of the religious adequacy of panentheism. Is the most worthy object of worship of God who needs the world in order to be a complete personal being or a God who is a complete personal being prior to the world?

In addition to these philosophical problems, there are some characteristics of process theology which, from the viewpoint of evangelical theology, are contrary to Scripture. These include a nontripersonal view of the Trinity, a Nestorian or Ebionite tendency in Christology, a nonsupernaturalistic view of the Bible and of Christ's works, the denial of divine foreknowledge and predestination, and a weak view of human depravity.

D W Diehl

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J. B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology; L. S. Ford, The Lure of God; D. Griffin, A Process Christology; C. Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity, The Logic of Perfection, and Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method; S. Ogden, The Reality of God; N. Pittenger, Christology Reconsidered and Process Thought and Christian Faith; A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality; D. Brown, R. James, and G. Reeves, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought; W. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics; J. B. Cobb, Jr., and D. Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition; N. Geisler, "Process Theology," in Tensions in Contemporary Theology, ed. S. N. Gundry and A. F. Johnson.

Also, see:

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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