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What Is Process Theology? by Robert B. Mellert


Dr. Mellert is an assistant professor in the department of theological studies at the University of Dayton. Published by Paulist Press, New York, Paramus, Toronto, 1975. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 7: Jesus


A recent survey revealed that among clergymen today the most perplexing theological question is: "What can we say about Jesus Christ?" It is an old question, one that dates back to Jesusí own interrogation of his disciples. Curiously, it is being reasked by Christian clergymen at a time when so many others are unhesitatingly becoming part of the Jesus movement or returning to fundamentalist churches. Interest in the person of Jesus has perhaps never been greater, and the spectrum of opinion as to who he is and what he means to modern man has never been wider.

For the clergyman, the question of Jesus is not generally a crisis of faith or a skepticism about the world of Christianity or its message. It is rather the result of coming to grips with much new scholarship regarding both the biblical origins of the faith and new interpretations of tradition. From biblical scholarship alone, for example, we probably know more today about the life and times of Jesus than was known at any period since the second generation of Christians. Archeological explorations of the Holy Land and surrounding areas have given some important insights about the people of that period and their ways of thinking and writing. New insights into the language used by Jesus and the languages in which the Gospels were originally written have also added to a better understanding of the Christian message. In addition, advances in secular philosophy and literary criticism have enabled scholars to be much more accurate in the way in which they interpret the Gospels and other religious writings. Hermeneutics has become an important science in its own right.

At the same time there has been at the other extreme almost an unquestioning and uncritical acceptance of Jesus by many other Christians, especially among large groups of young people without any formal church affiliation. They accept Jesus literally as their personal Lord and Savior and do not in practice make a distinction between him and God. The Bible, the prayer meetings, and the witness of their fellow believers provide them with the support and direction they need in their lives. In some cases the commitment is so intense as to include an abandoning of their former life-style. For most of them, biblical scholarship and hermeneutics are not important. Jesus reveals his will to them through the readings of the Scriptures and in prayer, and doing his will is all that really matters. Intellectual distinctions and interpretations of doctrine are merely a curiosity of the rationalist, and not usually conducive to witnessing the faith. This neo-fundamentalism has been on the increase in recent years despite -- or perhaps because of -- all the new and complex scholarly information now available about the historical person of Jesus. It has created an ever-widening chasm between the new believer and the careful student of the Bible, among whom are many so-called "liberal" or "relevant" clergymen.

The problem is to reconcile the Jesus of the scholars with the Jesus of the believers in a way that genuinely profits from contemporary scholarship without compromising the credibility of Jesus as Lord and Savior. In other words, what can we say about Jesus that is faithful both to the historical Jesus and to the belief of his followers? It is fundamentally a question of finding a language suitable for describing the person of Jesus and his significance for today.

The problem of finding suitable language is not a new one in the history of Christianity. It first emerged shortly after the foundations of Christianity itself in a form very similar to todayís. The problem at that time was how to reconcile the humanity of Jesus with his followersí profession of his divinity. It was not an easy problem to resolve, and it was immensely complicated by the fact that when the disciples of Jesus began preaching his message, they took the message westward, where they immediately encountered Greek philosophical thought. Thus, even before Christianity had a chance to define itself in terms of its own Hebrew origins, it was already being called upon to deal with an alien culture which had a level of philosophical sophistication higher than its own. The primitive faith in Jesus therefore had to be expressed accurately within the thought patterns of a second culture before it had the opportunity to mature adequately in its original culture.

The Hebrew understanding of Jesus is best represented by the Gospels and the non-Pauline epistles. It is filled with concrete images, models and stories, all characteristic of Hebrew literature. The title "Son of God" is an example. When we consider that the creedal formulation of the Trinity had probably not yet been conceived, we become aware that this title had quite a different connotation to the early Hebrew Christian, for whom it meant "privileged creature of God," than it had to the later Greek Christian, who transposed it to the form "God the Son," meaning the second person of the Trinity. The pre-Hellenic language about Jesus was not a denial of the divinity in him, but the use of a different, more mythical literary form. It was intended to affirm that the Hebrew believers did experience God at work in Jesus, and that in him they experienced the revelation of Godís own love. In this way it was quite different from Greek language which preferred a more philosophical literary form to interpret Jesusí relation to God. Thus the Greek implication of metaphysical plurality in God as a result of the divinity of Jesus was a foreign idea to the Jews because of their strict monotheistic heritage.

For the Greeks, reconciling the divinity and the humanity in the single person of Jesus was not as impossible as it seemed for the Hebrews. Theirs was a polytheistic tradition, and plurality in God was not an insurmountable difficulty. What was essential to them, however, was to incorporate Jesus into the divinity in such a way as to raise him beyond the petty gods and goddesses of their tradition. Thus the affirmation of a single deity containing three persons, the second of whom was the eternal person of "God the Son," was a clear and consistent theological explanation of the divinity of Jesus in the framework of their philosophy. This explanation, which seemed to express adequately the experience of the early Christians, has continued ever since to function as the authentic expression of the faith.

This Hellenic formulation of the Trinity in the creeds and the definitions of the Christological dogmas at Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon became the normative statements of Christian belief about Jesus. In other words, the criteria for determining orthodoxy shifted from the original experience of Jesus to statements about what that experience meant. And these normative statements were formulated in a particular philosophical frame of reference, phrased in its terminology, illustrated by its distinctions, and encased in its limitations.

In view of the fact that our knowledge of Jesus and his times is superior even to the knowledge of those early councils or creedal authors, there is a growing dissatisfaction with continuing to employ the traditional statements as theological norms. This is in no way a denial of the fact that these norms did serve as adequate expressions of the Christian faith for centuries of believers. But with the knowledge presently available to theology and with the vast change of philosophical perspective that has occurred since the first centuries of Christendom, tentative new formulations of the original Christian experience that are not always literally contained within the traditional normative statements are now being proposed by theologians from a variety of philosophical perspectives. Process theologians are among those making such tentative formulations.

Truly this work is tenuous, insofar as it depends a great deal upon both the findings of biblical scholars and a creative understanding of the tradition that it seeks to interpret. Furthermore, it must be carried on in dialogue among the biblical exegete, the historical theologian, and the contemporary interpreter. Each must refine and enrich the perspective of the others. Such a task is obviously beyond the scope of any one person or book. In this introduction to process thought, we can only hope to sketch out a possible understanding of the person of Jesus and his significance to our contemporary world based upon a very general familiarity with advances being made in biblical and hermeneutical studies. What we are doing, however, is very similar to what the Christians of the first few centuries did. We are attempting to explain the primitive Christian experience of Jesus in the language of a philosophical perspective of God and man to suggest how that perspective might deal with the inter-relation of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus, who is called the Christ.

Essentially, the primitive Christian experience is that Jesus claimed a unique relationship with God, and that his disciples experienced God at work in and through him. Furthermore, they accepted his teachings as ultimately normative for their own lives and for the world. In other words, in the person of Jesus the first disciples experienced God manifested to them in a unique and decisive way. Process theology is one attempt to offer a new, tentative explanation in modem terminology of how God was uniquely present in the person of Jesus and how that presence is still decisive for us today.

As an historical person, Jesus was human in exactly the same way we are human. The description of the humanity of Jesus, therefore, is the same as it is for every man. He was composed of body and soul, that is, of nexus of low-grade occasions coordinated by an ordered series of high-grade occasions, which traced his personal identity through his own, life-history. Each moment of that personal history was its own unique occasion, arising out of the series with its own particular initial aim, prehending the past of that series and the relevant environment, and freely arriving at its own synthesis before ceding its reality to the new occasion emerging from it. This philosophical pattern is the basis for explaining how it is possible for one man, namely Jesus, to have enjoyed a unique relationship with God, and how the consequences of that relationship are still important to us.

There are two ways in which we can argue that Jesus was a unique person. The first concerns the sequence of initial aims in the soul of Jesus; the second deals with the manner in which he prehended. We must remember that the source of every initial aim for each actual occasion is God himself. The convergence of the past into a new locus in space and time can be realized as a new actual occasion only when God contributes an initial aim. Therefore, God contributed the initial aim to each successive moment of Jesusí life.

This alone might be sufficient theological basis for describing the divinity of Jesus. One can simply maintain that in Jesus the initial aim that God contributed was at each and every moment to be his Son, or, in more philosophical language, to realize the divinity at every occasion in the series. Jesus, responding to the promptings of these initial aims, freely chose to realize that divinity by directing the synthesis of each and every occasion of his life toward the fulfillment of that divine initiative. Every moment of his life was an acceptance and a reaffirmation of Godís special initiative on his behalf. In religious language, every moment was a moment of grace; he was like us in all things but sin.

There is. however, a certain difficulty that some process theologians find with the above explanation. It is the positing of an arbitrary initiative on the part of God that applied solely to the person of Jesus. Such an arbitrariness still makes Jesus a somewhat artificial insertion into history. This raises the impossible question: Why only in Jesus? If Godís initial aim is totally free and arbitrary, why does he not call all of us to such a divine relationship with him by virtue of his universal love? One can, of course, simply consign the inquiry to the realm of mystery, but the theologian by profession must remain unsatisfied until he can be assured that there is no better way of dealing with the problem.

Perhaps indeed God would offer to each occasion an initial aim to realize the divinity, but because of inherent limitations that even God cannot circumvent, such an aim can only be expressed partially in most occasions. For example, the nature of the sequence of occasions that characterizes a stone does not allow for consciousness, simply because that mode of prehending is not available to an occasion in that series. Godís initial aim for such an occasion is consequently limited by the kinds of prehensions available in that nexus. In other words, in giving an initial aim, God himself is limited to the kinds of determinants out of which that occasion is emerging.

When God contributes an initial aim to a high-grade occasion in a personal series, he is likewise limited by the prior environmental factors that have been shaping that series, especially by the past occasions in the series itself. There is always a call to fuller realization of the divinity in each occasion, but for most occasions that realization cannot achieve the unlimited fullness that it achieved in Jesus. Thus, due to cultural familial and other environmental conditions, God was able to initiate the possibility of a full relationship with the person of Jesus from the beginning, and at every moment of his life Jesus freely chose to affirm and maximize the initiative that was his.

This latter explanation is more involved than the former, but it has the advantage of avoiding any arbitrariness on the part of God. Thus, it escapes the mythological pitfalls that beset explanations in which some human events can be described only in terms of special and distinctive interventions of God. A theological system in which God acts exactly the same way toward every occasion avoids the necessity of justifying certain divine actions or explaining the absence of others.

There is a second element in process thought that provides a further possibility to describe the uniqueness of the person of Jesus. This is the theory of prehensions. Each actual occasion is the result of many prehensions that are synthesized into one coherent whole. These prehensions are the relations of the occasion to its own past and to its relevant environment. One such prehension is necessarily the prehension of the divinity. It can focus upon that prehension and make it a significant component in its synthesis, or it can render it trivial. On most occasions, the prehension of the divinity is not significant in the final synthesis, but on some occasions, such as moments of prayer or spiritual enlightenment, it can be the dominant element.

To say that Jesus prehended the divinity in an intense way would imply that he maintained a stronger relation with God than is common to most men. It would not in itself, however, make him unique, because the same kind of explanation would describe the prophet or mystic. Nor can we say that Jesus prehended only the divinity, because this would place his humanity into question. Rather, we might suggest that Jesus prehended God at every moment of his life in such a way that his relation to God partially displaced his experience of self, so that in fact Jesus could have experienced himself as both human and divine. That is to say, the series of actual occasions that defined the person of Jesus were marked by prehensions of the deity according to the same mode that marked his prehensions of his own human past. Therefore, the self that Jesus experienced throughout his life was a moment by moment integration of the human and divine in his own person.

This is, of course, the maximal statement a process theologian can make about Jesus. Translated back into the traditional terminology of two natures in one person, it seems to conform quite adequately to what was proclaimed at Ephesus and Chalcedon. It is a clear reaffirmation of the divinity of Jesus and a strong basis for acknowledging him as Lord and Master, as do the Jesus movement and other fundamentalist groups today. At the same time, for the so-called liberal Christians to whom this may seem too much like philosophical mythology, the explanation of Jesus as simply a holy man with intense prehensions of the deity provides the description of a fully human person who was related to God in a very special way.

Thus, Jesus is unique either in the unique composition that he experienced as his "self" or in the fact that no other person has ever achieved such a total relation with God. Either way, process theology can accommodate the Christian seeking a philosophical explanation of the person of Jesus. This is a distinct advantage, because it enables process theology to reduce the differences among Christians to the way in which prehensions of the divinity can be posited in the person of Jesus.

When we consider both the initial aim and the prehensions of God by Jesus as factors in resolving the question of reconciling the humanity and divinity in Jesus, we must understand that the basis of the process explanation is the theory of immanence, namely, the divine immanence in Jesus. God is immanent to every actual occasion both in giving it its initial aim and in that occasionís own prehensions of the deity. Jesus is unique because the immanence of God finds expression in him in a unique way. This is why his followers were amazed that he spoke with his own authority. With Godís immanence totally present to him at all times, Jesus did not need to appeal to the tradition or even to some private revelation. He spoke from the depths of the divinity that was in him, and in this way he persuaded his hearers both by what he was and by what he said.

What is decisive in Jesus and what makes him significant for all subsequent history is that in his person God reveals himself to us as immanent in our world. He is not merely the prime mover of Greek philosophy or the God of the covenant in the Old Testament. He is, as Augustine so succinctly stated, more intimate than I am to myself. Godís immanent presence to every man is made known in his presence in Jesus. This is the significance of the incarnation. God is immanently present in Jesus and in our world. Conversely, the significance of the death and resurrection is that Jesus is immanently present in God. God has taken what is human and worldly into himself in a complete and positive way. Man and his world are not alien to God or insignificant to him. We are indeed, moment by moment, likewise being taken up into the divine nature and "resurrected" into objective immortality where we become part of the prehendable data for future occasions. Great, admirable men of history, such as Socrates, Buddha and St. Francis, are examples of persons whose lives and inspirations are continually being resurrected from the past for the edification of emerging moments of history. In Jesus this resurrection was uniquely striking, because it was experienced by his followers immediately after his death, and it has continued to be a part of the Christian faith experience ever since.

The purpose of Jesus in history, therefore, and his continued significance for us today, is his redemptive function. The term "redemption" is perhaps somewhat misleading in this context. Literally, it means "buying back." In the tradition of Irenaeus, Anselm and Thomas, this referred to Godís act in Jesus of buying us back from the consequences of original sin. Process theologians generally prefer the tradition of John Duns Scotus, which holds that God predestined the person of Jesus as the crowning of creation and as the total manifestation of his love, regardless of whether man sinned. In process theology Jesus is the primordial example of Godís immanence in the world and the worldís immanence in God. Redemption, consequently, states the fact that man need not slavishly move through life from occasion to occasion, merely creating each new synthesis from worldly data in pursuit of worldly satisfaction, but that he is freed to respond to the divine immanence within him and within the world, thus constantly striving, occasion by occasion, to maximize a realization of that divinity as best he can, within the limitations imposed by his history and his environment. In brief, redemption is the freedom to appeal to the immanent divinity in the self as a more perfect authority than the authority of history or environment alone.

We have not answered definitively the question of whether Jesus is an absolutely unique person and absolutely decisive for human history, or whether he is merely the primordial model of human existence. Is he different in kind, or only in quality? There are, as we have seen, ways in which process philosophy can be used to argue both positions. Christian tradition, until relatively recently, has been very careful to insist upon an absolute distinction between the person of Jesus and other human persons. Is this absolute a part of the original Christian experience, or is it rather the result of the Hellenic concept of God that underlay the Christological dogmas? To put the question in another way, is it necessary to hold Jesusí absolute distinctiveness as divine if oneís philosophy does not hold Godís absolute distinctiveness from the world? Is it not accurate to say that the divinity of Jesus is represented more by the way in which he was really related to God than by the way in which he was unrelated to the world? And if his relation to God constitutes the ideal relation for every man (even though it may be impossible to realize this ideal in every successive occasion the way it was realized in Jesus), can we not say that what best characterizes the divinity of Jesus is precisely that he was ideally human?

This line of reasoning can put aside the old notion that uniqueness requires an absolute distinction from all other reality. Instead, it suggests that uniqueness can be a relative term, and that Jesus is in fact unique because in his humanity he is a more perfect model of ideal humanity than has ever existed, or, we may believe, will ever exist in the future. Since man is most ideally human when he responds to the immanence of God in every occasion of his continuity, both by the realization of Godís initial aim and by his positively prehending God. Jesus is most divine when he is most ideally human. He is divine not because of an absolute difference from other men, but because of the realization of divinity within him. For divinity does not :1 require such a difference; indeed it denies such a difference, since the God who is immanent in Jesus is the God in whose consequent nature the world is immanent. The very nature of God in process theology rejects such an absolute distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity, except as an abstract mode of speaking.

Jesus is really related to God, and really related to man, just as God is really related to man. The mode of Jesusí relation to God, however, is such that God is experienced as uniquely present in him. This relation, which constitutes his divinity, in no way renders him different from us, but more an intimate part of us. He is divine because he is the primordial exemplification of Godís immanence in the world, and our ultimate immanence in God. In him we are freed to discover the divinity in each new occasion of life. Jesus is thus the primordial model of human life lived in freedom and love. In him man can find both his meaning and his Savior.

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