The Theological Use of Scripture in Process Hermeneutics

by David Kelsey

David Kelsey is Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. His article is based on his convocation address in 1996 inaugurating a new academic year in which YDS, under the leadership of its new dean, Richard Wood, set out to develop new curriculum and programs recommended by a review committee, which was chaired by Kelsey.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 181-188, Vol. 13, Number 3, Fall, 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Kelsey faces three questions in process hermeneutics: 1. How is the interpretation of the Bible an exercise in process hermeneutics? 2. Is it an equivocal notion naming quite different enterprises? 3. What guidance does process hermeneutics give to normative Biblical texts?

What follows are reflections on two marvelously rich and suggestive sets of essays, one dealing with “New Testament Interpretation from a Process Perspective’ (JAAR, March, 1979) and the other dealing with Old Testament Interpretation from the same perspective. It is important, I think, to set candidly into the record (what will be clearly enough revealed in what I say, anyway) that my standing in the process philosophy game is strictly amateur. Because of that, and of my rather more long-standing interest in how theologians argue in defense of their theological proposals, these reflections will deal far more with formal questions about the use of process categories and doctrines than with material questions about the cogency or truth of process theses. After reading these essays, I find myself with three major questions about “process hermeneutics.” I will state them briefly now, and then develop each of them in turn.

One: What makes interpretation of a Biblical text an exercise in process hermeneutics — that is, is it the application of process theory of interpretation, or that it involves the use of process categories?

Two: These essays seem ordered to at least two quite different ends. Is “process hermeneutics” an equivocal notion, naming quite different enterprises?

Three: If process hermeneutics is important to process theology in order to make clear its rootage in Scripture, is process hermeneutics able to provide any guidance to what is normative in Biblical texts?

It will be useful at the outset to distinguish two matters that the very title of this response tends confusingly to run together, viz., (1) “Hermeneutics,” in particular hermeneutics as shaped by commitments to the conceptuality and doctrines of process philosophy, and (2) the use of Scripture-as-interpreted in the course of doing theology. Questions about hermeneutics, I take it, are questions about what is involved in understanding, especially in understanding Biblical texts, questions often answered by developing a theory about understanding. Questions about the use of Scripture in theology are questions about how the texts, once they have been understood, are to be brought to bear on the making of (Christian) theological proposals. Answers to the first set of questions do not necessarily answer or entail answers to the second set; nor do answers to the second set answer or entail answers to the first. They seem to be logically separate sets of questions. With regard to what these essays say and do concerning hermeneutics, it will focus the discussion to ask two diagnostic questions: (a) What does a process perspective tend to lead one to concentrate on in the Biblical texts? What about the texts is taken to be of central importance? (b) What kind of logical force is ascribed to Biblical texts insofar as they are important for theology? Are they taken to have the force of descriptive reports, or the force of injunctions, the force of emotive expressions, or some other kind of force? And secondly, with regard to what these essays say and do concerning the bearing of Scripture thus construed on doing theology, it will focus the discussion to ask two further questions: (a) How are Biblical texts brought to bear on the making of theological proposals? (b) Why focus on the aspect of the Biblical texts that is focused on? What is it about Scripture-as-construed that makes it important to attend to in this way?

I. Hermeneutics from a Process Perspective

(a) What does a “process perspective” tend to lead one to concentrate on in the Biblical texts?

One of the claims made on behalf of a process hermeneutics is that it can invite and empower the interpreter to be equally attentive to all aspects of Biblical texts. That is, in contrast to various phenomenological hermeneutics (notably, in the Bultmannian tradition) which systematically constrain the interpreter to attend only to that in Scripture (“kerygmatic” statements) which can be shown to be an expression of certain modes of subjectivity (e.g., “faith”) and not to that in Scripture which seems to describe the cosmic context of human life (except insofar as such descriptions can be shown to be culturally conditioned, archaic and misleading expressions of modes of subjectivity), process hermeneutics leads one to attend to both. And in contrast to structural hermeneutics that constrain the interpreter to attend only to formal binary patterns in the text and not to the relation between the text and its author’s intent or to the relation between the text and its readers, process hermeneutics leads one to attend to any or all of the above. This inclusiveness is exhibited everywhere in these essays.

This raises my first critical question: Is this inclusiveness of other methods of interpretation in the actual practice of interpreting text really rooted in a hermeneutics properly so called, or is this hospitality to any and all disciplined methods of interpretation simply an ad hoc collection of exegetical tools? That is, is the hermeneutical pluralism reflected in these essays rooted in a distinctive process theory of meaning or, perhaps, to put it less misleadingly, a process theory of interpretation that systematically synthesizes the central theses of alternative (and perhaps more one-sided) hermeneutics? The issue is not whether there is a process theory of interpretation. If nothing else, the fact that there are published efforts to lay out a process theory of meaning is evidence that there is such a thing. The question is whether the pluralism of methods of interpretation in these essays claiming to exhibit a process perspective is in fact rooted in such a theory. If it is, then these essays can fairly be said to exhibit that a process theory of interpretation can in fact be applied (and so is not so abstract or vague as to turn out to be vacuous when applied to cases) and that it is fruitful when it is applied. On the other hand, if the pluralism is simply an ad hoc collection of exegetical tools, then, for all their several excellencies, these essays do not show much of anything about whether there is a useable process hermeneutics. My uncertainty about how to answer this question can partly be brought out by turning to the second question.

(b) In these essays, what kind of logical force is ascribed to Biblical texts insofar as they are important for theology?

There seem to be two quite different kinds of answers given to this question in these essays.

One answer takes Biblical texts to function as “lures for feeling.” This is explained and warranted by Whitehead’s doctrine of “propositions.” In their theoretical essays in JAAR Beardslee and Woodbridge sketch the theory. The theory is relied on explicitly in Beardslee’s and Pregeant’s exegetical essays in the same volume, and it seems to me it is implicitly at work in Coats’s essay in the OT collection. As I understand it, the relevant features of a “proposition” are these: A “proposition” is a “concrete possibility ; it is abstracted from some objective event in the actual world; it is proposed as a possibility that an entity may want to consider for itself in a future moment in its process of self-creation; it is apprehended by the entity in “feeling” and so is preconceptual and largely preconsciously apprehended; it stands in a complex of relationships with other “propositions,” and the set of propositions presupposes a systematic universe; its “interest” (as “lure”) is more important than its “truth.” Given all this, one knows that every Biblical text expresses a proposition, indeed may express several propositions. That is, Biblical texts, even when they might plausibly be said straightforwardly to be describing some objective event or state of affairs, are to be construed as having he force of proposing deal possibilities. A conscious conceptual account of these possibilities would include an account of the actual objective “systematic universe” they presuppose. But that account of the actual universe would somehow be derived from the “possibilities” expressed by the text and not from the text directly — for even if the text seemed on the face of it to be offering a description of the universe, that description is not what is important or interesting about it; rather “propositions” or ideal possibilities it expresses is what is important about it.

In the essays by Beardslee, Pregeant, and Coats, the various exegetical methods employed do seem to be governed by a hermeneutical theory central to which is the process doctrine of “propositions.” Here there does seem to be evidence that there is a process theory of interpretation that can be fruitfully applied to the interpretation of texts. These same essays do go on to offer conscious conceptual accounts of some of the possibilities presented by the texts they study, construing the texts as expressions of “propositions.” The accounts are explicitly cast in terms of process categories. But note: What makes them exercises in applied process hermeneutics is not that they explicitly use process categories to describe the “propositions” expressed by the text and to describe the systematic universe presupposed by those propositions, but rather what makes them exegetical studies that exhibit the applicability and fruitfulness of process hermeneutics is that they more or less implicitly rely on a process theory about understanding, central to which is the doctrine of “propositions.”

Some of the essays, however, seem to ascribe a quite different kind of logical force to the texts they examine. Certainly in Janzen’s essay, probably in Weeden’s (cf. pp. 114-17), and possibly in parts of Beardlee’s exegetical essay (cf. p. 68f.), the texts studied seem to be taken as having the force of straightforward descriptions, even ontological descriptions, of actualities (in contrast to ideal possibilities). Collins quite rightly points out (1.13) that Janzen’s exegesis presumes that Hosea 11 gives metaphysical information about God. Similarly, Weeden sometimes, and perhaps even Beardslee sometimes, seem to presume that NT texts give metaphysical information about the Kingdom of God. In these essays the exegetical methods are as plural as are those employed in other essays. But the judgment that the texts are to be construed to have the force of giving (metaphysical?) information does not itself seem to be warranted by any theory of interpretation, process or otherwise. The process perspective” comes into play at quite another point. It comes into play as process categories are used to provide an alternative, presumably more sophisticated and precise, statement of the “same” metaphysical descriptions. This second way of construing the force of Biblical texts, viz., as giving descriptions of actualities, seems part of a quite different enterprise than the first construal of the force of Biblical texts (viz., as expressing “propositions” that are “lures for feeling”). I suggest that it really is not “hermeneutics” at all, neither “process” hermeneutics nor any other, although it nonetheless is certainly a kind of theology, even a kind of “Biblical theology.” To exhibit that, it is necessary to turn from hermeneutics to the topic of the uses of Scripture in theology once the Scripture is interpreted.

II. Uses of Scripture in a “Process Perspective”

(a) In these essays how are Biblical texts brought to bear on the making of theological proposals? It seems to me that Biblical texts are put to two quite different uses in these texts. It is as though there are two quite different claims that are being defended.

  1. Some of the essays seem designed to argue in defense of some claim such as this: Such-and-such a theological tenet is a truly Biblical tenet, that is, is part of the doctrinal theology of a Biblical writing. Thus: (Beardslee)



Pages 184 to 185:

Text (Data) shows that Tenet in Biblical

Theology (Conclusion)

Gospel sayings about finding The theology of this text

and losing life construed includes a tenet in which

as expressing both a these two are held up

“proposition” re breaking up together in a framework

continuity of my existence of “rightness” or


“proposition” re a context creativity

giving meaning to my response

of breaking continuity

if: one can rely on the doctrine of “propositions as lures for warrant for the move, as backed by Whitehead’s entire theory of perception.

Or: (Coats)

Text (Data) shows that Tenet in Biblical

Theology (Conclusion)

Balaam story combines a Obedience is life-in-

legend re Balaam as saint blessing in which the

and a fable re Balaam as saint remains free to

sinner obey or not; disobedi-

ence is life-in-curse

in which the sinner

is (relatively) unfree

to obey.

if: one can rely on the doctrine of “God as lure” for warrant for the move as backed by Whitehead’s process cosmology. (So too, so far as formal matters go, in Pregeant’s essay on Romans 2:6;13).

In these arguments the move from data consisting of Biblical texts construed in a certain way to conclusions concerning what truly is a tenet in some Biblical theology is warranted by process hermeneutics, strictly understood, i.e., a process theory of understanding.

(2) Some of the essays seem designed to defend a quite different kind of claim. It is some such claim as this: Such-and-such a doctrine in process theology is truly in accord with tenets of some Biblical theology. Thus: (Janzen)

Process Doctrine (Data) shows that (Conclusion)

Without losing ontological Process doctrine of

identity, God undergoes God is compatible

growth in God’s knowledge and with a Biblical

therewith change in God’s description of God

“being.” undergoing “existen-

tial” development

via changing God’s mind.

if: one can rely on an interpretation of Hosea 11 as a description of God’s “growing” through asking Godself an existentially decisive question, backed by (Janzen’s) exegetical analyses and arguments.( P. 185.)

Note the difference: The first kind of argument mounted under the banner of process hermeneutics supports a claim that such-and-such a theological tenet is authentically a tenet of “Biblical theology” in the sense of being a statement of what the text in its present complexly layered and polysemous form says on a theological topic. It is a hermeneutical remark resting for its warrant and the warrant’s backing on a distinctively process doctrine of interpretation.

By contrast the second kind of argument mounted under the banner of process hermeneutics supports a claim that such-and-such a tenet of process theology is “Biblical theology” in the sense of being compatible with what some Biblical texts say on a theological topic. This is “Biblical theology” in quite a different sense of the term. It is not itself a hermeneutical remark, process or otherwise, about Biblical texts.

The way in which it might be part of “process hermeneutics” in a derivative sense of the term, can be shown by considering how these two sorts of argument might be related to each other. The second sort of argument, designed to show that certain process doctrines are compatible with certain Biblical texts, was warranted by interpretations of certain Biblical texts that were hacked by exegetical studies. It is always possible for someone to challenge the bearing of that backing (exegetical studies, say of Hosea 11) or the warrant it is alleged to back (a given overall interpretation of Hosea 11, say). In that case, a second argument would need to be mounted to show that the exegesis really supports the generalizations made about what the text says. But that is precisely what the first sort of argument does! The first sort of argument is designed to show that what functions as warrant in the second sort of argument is indeed the conclusion one should come to from certain data that function as backing for the warrant in the second sort of argument. In short, the first sort of argument is supportive of the second. If the first sort of argument itself is warranted by the doctrine of “propositions” backed by Whitehead’s theory of perception — if, that is, the first sort of argument itself is warranted by process hermeneutics, and then it in turn is used to support a second sort of argument about the compatibility of various process tenets with tenets of Biblical theology — then in a derivative sense of the term the second argument too is an exercise in “process hermeneutics.” But only, it must be stressed again, if it relies on a process theory of interpretation to show that its backing does indeed support its warrant (and that is precisely what our instance of this second sort of argument — Janzen’s discussion of Hosea 11 — does not do and does not seem to need to do; and perhaps so too Weeden’s argument).

Note how very modest is the achievement of this structure of argument. At most it demonstrates that certain process doctrines are compatible with certain alleged tenets of the theology of some Biblical writings. It does not tend to establish the truth of the process doctrines; Collins surely is correct in saying that their truth would have to be demonstrated on their own terms and not in this way. It does not show that process theological doctrines are somehow more compatible or more broadly compatible with some or all of the tenets of some or all identifiable Biblical theologies than are some alternative (and rival?) theological positions (say, Tillichian, Rahnerian, paleo-Thomistic—-to confine the list to positions couched in ontological conceptualities). Nor does it tend to demonstrate the superiority of a process hermeneutics, i.e., a process theory of interpretation. It merely shows that given process theological doctrines are indeed compatible with certain tenets in some Biblical theology.

The (in my view) modest outcome of all this labor prompts me to ask the final, and in some ways most troubling, question in this section: If one is concerned to interpret Biblical texts, why bother with process doctrines and conceptuality? Why should exegetical Davids encumber themselves with philosophical Sauls’ armor?

The obverse of that question needs to be asked too, of course. Why should process theologians concern themselves with the Bible? In their Introduction to the JAAR collection of essays, Cobb, Lull, and Woodbridge say that “Any form of systematic theology is fundamentally truncated where its rootage in Scripture is not clear and strong” (p. 25). Why so — from a process perspective? That leads into our fourth question.

(b) What is it about Scripture-as-interpreted that makes it important to attend to in this way? I am aware I am making some large assumptions here, but I venture the guess that the reason a systematic theology is truncated when its rootage in Scripture is not clear has something to do with the question of what is normative for a Christian theology. I use the term “normative” deliberately, to avoid the enormous conceptual confusions and red-herrings attendant to, say, “revelation.” So my question is: Is there a distinctively process doctrine about how and why Scripture is related to and normative for Christian theology that would explain why it is important to attend to Scripture in these ways?

Woodbridge points out that “Hermeneutics has been founded on the distinction between what the text meant and what it now means. All too often this temporal and epistemological distance has been viewed as a negative factor to be overcome” (p. 124). He goes onto note that the traditional way to “overcome” this negative factor was to try to establish what the text meant at or near the time of its composition and treat that as a kind of “essence” of the text’s meaning which thereafter is taken as the retrospective norm by which all proposals of what the text might mean now are to be assessed. This generates the assumption — which I take to be very misleading — that contemporary theological proposals ought somehow to be translations of the “meant” into contemporary idiom — translations that convey over the ugly ditch of long history the same self-identical “meaning.” That is objectionable on at least two grounds. It is demonstrably false historically: There is constant material change through the history of doctrine. Newer formulations change and do not simply “translate” the “old” meanings. And the old formulations, when used in later times and contexts, “mean” different things. And it is a view objectionable on religious grounds. It suppresses the freedom of the Spirit to bring new truth out of the texts: it forbids the religiously exciting possibility that what the text might come to mean could be more important than what it has meant.

In these essays process philosophy is employed to cope with this problem in two ways. In some of the essays, process philosophy seems to be commended on the grounds that its categories do better what the categories recommended by alternative hermeneutics (notably, Bultmann’s demythologizing by way of “existential interpretation”) do poorly. I submit that that is a very dangerous move for process hermeneuticians to make because it threatens self-contradiction. It seems to me that almost all of the alternative hermeneutics propose to do precisely what we have agreed cannot and ought not to be done: provide a conceptuality into which to translate what the texts originally meant in such a way as to preserve that self-same essence of meaning but render it more intelligible today. It would be self-contradictory to press process categories into service to do better a task that process hermeneutics itself sees is misguided from the outset!

In a few of the essays process philosophy is used to cope with the meant/ means problem in quite a different way. Cobb sketches a process theory about historical change and historical movement, grounded in Whitehead’s notion of “living historic routes.” He argues that this theory allows one to make all the points that can be made about theological changes through history by using Robinson s notion of “trajectories,” but without its postulation of some “essence” of meaning that perdures through the change. And Richards sketches an application of this theory in the interpretation of Lev. 27:1-8. This theory has clear systematic connections to the doctrine of propositions as “lures for feeling” which are linked with possibilities as “a line to creative emergence in the transcendent future.” That is, it clearly is integral to a process theory of interpretation, a process hermeneutics in the strict sense of the term. I find it a very suggestive and rich way to describe the process of historical change from “meant” to “means.”

My question is whether the theory about the process of historical change that seems to be ingredient in process hermeneutics can also serve as a theory about what is normative for Christian theology. I can only say that I do not yet grasp its normative import. The issue is crucial. For if a process theory of interpretation does not include a theoretical basis for judgments about what is normative (in this case for theology) in the texts being interpreted, then it is entirely unclear how a process hermeneutics is going to head off the truncation of theology whose roots in Scripture are not clear. For the roots cannot be simply genetic in the historical order; they need to be normative in the logical order.

To summarize: I find myself with three major questions after reading these two sets of essays.

One: What makes a mode of interpretation of texts an exercise in precisely process hermeneutics — that it is the application of some distinctively process theory of interpretation, or the use of a characteristically process conceptuality to formulate a proposal about the “meaning” of a text?

Two: It seems that these exercises in process hermeneutics are done as exercises in Biblical theology; but it is “Biblical theology” in two quite different senses of the term (although they could be interrelated).

Three: If these essays are written to deepen process theology as a mode of systematic theology on the supposition that a theology is truncated if its rootage in Scripture is not clear, then it is crucial to be clear — in ways in which these essays do not make it clear — how process hermeneutics warrants any judgments about what is normative for Christian theology.