The Structure of Christian Existence
by John B. Cobb, Jr.


This book is an inquiry into what is distinctive in Christianity and into its claim to finality. Christianity is viewed primarily as one structure of existence among other such structures. The emergence of each structure is a historical phenomenon closely correlated in most instances with particular beliefs.

The outcome of this inquiry has sweeping implications for a number of questions. Some of its implications for the world mission of Christianity are apparent. Its implications for the self-understanding of the church and its ministry are important, although somewhat less clear. Equally important are the implications for understanding the relation between cognitive beliefs and the several structures of existence. If the conclusions of the study are accepted, the understanding of the nature and function of the theological enterprise as a whole will be affected. In these and other ways the book constitutes critical conversation with other current theologies.

However, it has seemed best to omit discussion of these implications. Brief treatment would add little, and adequate treatment would require great expansion of the book. Similarly, I have omitted polemics and have not even attempted to explain the similarities and differences of my position in comparison with those of other theologians. Such discussion also would have greatly complicated the exposition and expanded the size of the book. I hope in the future to have opportunities to develop some of the implications and to engage in discussion and debate on relevant points with my colleagues.

During most of the preparation of this book, it was my intention to include an explicit treatment of Christology. That the content is relevant to this doctrine will, I hope, be apparent. But, in addition to the historical work of Jesus, Christology must deal with his “person” in terms of the mode of God’s presence in him. This requires, on the one hand, the use of philosophical categories such as those I developed in A Christian Natural Theology and, on the other hand, reflection on the relation of the way God was present in Jesus to the way he is present elsewhere. It must deal also with the relation of claims about God’s efficacy in history to the work of the historian. Inclusion of such issues would have unduly extended the argument. Some indication of my views on these questions can be found in my essays on “The Finality of Christ in a Whiteheadian Perspective”( This was prepared as a lecture for the Third Oxford Institute on Methodist Theological Studies held in July, 1965. Dr. Dow Kirkpatrick, the leader of the American delegation, has edited a volume, The Finality of Christ [Abingdon Press, 1966] , containing all the lectures delivered at that conference. There is some overlapping of the discussion of finality in Chapter Twelve of this book with the content of the first section of that lecture. I am grateful for Abingdon’s permission to include in this book several paragraphs [see n. 25] that are almost identical with paragraphs in the earlier essay. In other respects my views on Christology have changed slightly since the time this lecture was given.) and “Ontology, History, and Christian Faith.” (Religion in Life, Spring, 1965.) A Christology along these lines is my next major project.

Methodologically, the content of the present book has much in common with Christian natural theology as that is characterized in my earlier book. That is, it bears the clear imprint of my Christian perspective in its perception, selection, and organization of the material. At the same time, it seeks to be faithful to the material and to avoid special pleading or any normative appeal to what Christians believe. Nevertheless, it would stretch the meaning of “natural theology” too far to include this kind of historical analysis within it. I conceive natural theology as the area of overlap between philosophy and theology, whereas this book deals chiefly with the area of overlap between history and theology. Natural theology, while it need not be naturalistic, looks for its primary data to nature — to what is universal, recurrent, or widespread — rather than to the specifics of history.

Despite the many limitations I have imposed on the book, the project remains an ambitious one, and I am painfully aware that my historical knowledge is not adequate to it. That I have decided, nevertheless, to pursue the task and to make public the judgments to which I have come is an expression of my conviction that this approach to the understanding of Christian faith is a needed supplement and corrective to those approaches that are currently dominant. It is my hope that the numerous inadequacies (and perhaps also inaccuracies) of the exposition will not prevent the book from contributing a useful perspective on some of the critical problems of Christian theology.

I have used very little documentation. This is because much of the material could be derived from many sources, whereas most of the concepts that have determined the way this material is used are my own. Where I have directly borrowed from one source, or am conscious of special indebtedness, I have given the reference. This kind of indebtedness applies especially to Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, and Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, on which I have leaned heavily for portions of Chapters Three and Six respectively. Also, the understanding of Gnosticism reflected in the Appendix is largely dependent on Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion.

I want to make acknowledgment of another sort to those books which have been landmarks in my thought on topics dealt with here, even when in the end their influence on what is said may be only indirect. The five books that now seem to me to have been most important in this way are Reinhold Niebuhr, The Self and the Dramas of History; Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return; Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness; Rudolf Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting; and Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History. I am conscious of a lesser indebtedness to Gilbert Murray, The Five Stages of Greek Religion; F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy; Lewis Mum-ford, The Transformations of Man; Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness; Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man; H. P. van Dusen, Spirit, Son and Father; Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros; Edward Bullough, Aesthetics; Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek; and additional books by Bultmann. Such a list could be indefinitely expanded but with diminishing significance. The influence of Whitehead’s philosophy is so pervasive on my thought that the book as a whole might be called a Whiteheadian doctrine of man. But Whitehead himself gave serious attention to but few of the topics discussed.

The questions with which this book chiefly deals first began to claim major attention from me through my participation in the Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University and especially in the seminars on classical Greece. I am indebted to several colleagues for stimulation, but I want to single out Prof. Robert Scranton, now of the University of Chicago, for special mention. Since coming to Claremont in 1958, I have had the opportunity to work out my ideas from time to time in courses on the nature of man. Actual work toward the book began in such a class in the Spring Semester of 1965. I am indebted to all the students who have encouraged me by their interest, but especially to those on whom I inflicted the reading of some of the early manuscript material.

During the year 1965 — 1966, much of this material was included in somewhat different form in my lectures as Fulbright Visiting Professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. In April and May I gave the first series of Jaspers Lectures at Ripon Hall, near Oxford, England. Portions of the material here offered were included in these lectures on “The Finality of Jesus and Jaspers’ Doctrine of the Axial Period.” Weekly during the summer session at Mainz, I met informally with a group of instructors and advanced students. Much of the content of this book was discussed at those sessions. I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to the Protestant theological faculty at Mainz, as well as to the Fulbright Commission and particularly to Prof. Wolfhart Pannenberg for making the year at Mainz both possible and enjoyable; to the Jaspers Lectureship Committee, the students at Ripon Hall, and especially to Principal W. G. Fallows for an experience I shall always remember with special pleasure; and to the members of the discussion group at Mainz and particularly its leader Dr. Traugott Koch for the sharp but always generous criticisms I received.

Among my colleagues, Professors Donald Rhoades, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Hans Dieter Betz have read the manuscript in a late stage of its writing. All have helped me to improve it and have also made me more clearly aware than ever how much more improvement is really needed. My student assistant, Mr. David Griffin, has been tireless and perceptive both in criticism of details and in calling attention to weaknesses in organization and lack of clarity in the argument. The Index is his work. Mr. Dalton Baldwin also made some helpful criticisms.

During the entire period in which I have been seriously reflecting on these questions, the greatest personal influence on my thought has been Prof. Thomas Altizer. The character of this influence is difficult to describe, since the great difference in our views as well as in our temperament will be apparent to even the casual reader. But again and again I have been jolted out of habits of mind too easily fallen into and have had new vistas opened before me by his criticisms, his suggestions, and his original work. Altizer also read the entire manuscript in a late version and made many penetrating and valuable comments. I have taken some of them into account and wish that I could have coped more adequately with others.

In conclusion I want to express my gratitude to Dr. E. C. “Pomp” Colwell, with whose work my professional life has been closely related for twenty years at Chicago, at Emory, and in Claremont. Wherever he goes, he creates a climate of mutual respect, freedom of thought, and encouragement of study and writing, from which I have benefited greatly. This book is dedicated to him.

School of Theology at Claremont

Claremont, California

J. B. C., JR.