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Living Options in Protestant Theology by John B. Cobb, Jr.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1972. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Personal Conclusions


My assumption is that every system of thought has some starting point and some procedure for moving from that starting point to its conclusions. This does not mean, however, that most positions factually developed in this way. On the contrary, the systematic starting point and procedure are usually affirmed in large part to justify judgments that have arisen in the life history of the thinker largely independently of his argument for them.

For this reason, it is not surprising that a critic can often find inconsistencies between the avowed starting point and procedure and the actual performance. These inconsistencies do not invalidate the theological doctrines that are affirmed, but they do indicate inadequacies in the bases on which they are affirmed. Furthermore, since some of the most important theological doctrines are directly or indirectly doctrines about the character of the starting point and procedure, methodological criticism does have extensive implication for content.

Methodological criticism cannot in itself direct us to some one "correct" method for theological work. However, it is my belief that it can indicate that the number of living options is fewer than the bewildering array of contemporary theologies suggests. I believe that criticisms in the preceding chapters should have helped to distinguish real options from pseudo-options, and I want now to attempt to indicate my own conclusions based on this distinction.

First, I suggest that natural theology in its simplest and classical sense is a pseudo-option. That is, there is no satisfactory procedure whereby one can move from a universally given starting point to conclusions that are both theologically important and rationally probable or certain. Every natural theology begins with some vision of the world, some mode of perceiving the ultimate character of things and proceeds to conclusions that presuppose that starting point. Both Mascall and DeWolf recognize this fact to some degree, and I do not regard it as a serious criticism of their thought. However, unqualified acknowledgment on all sides of the impossibility of a purely neutral starting point would do much to clear the air in contemporary theological discussion.

Secondly, the impossibility of fulfilling the simple ideal of natural theology points to the real option of a Christian natural theology or a Christian philosophy. Given the necessity of starting with some vision of the nature of things, it may be assumed that those who have been deeply permeated by the Christian faith will, in fact, consciously or unconsciously, start with a vision that is to some degree distinctively Christian. To that degree to which it is Christian, carefully reasoned conclusions from this starting point will constitute a Christian philosophy. Since many who are not consciously committed to Christian faith may share in essential aspects of this starting point, those aspects of this philosophy relevant to specific Christian affirmations can constitute a Christian natural theology. I have argued in Part I that this is in fact what is occurring in the work of both Thomists and Personalists.

It must be stressed that I do not mean by Christian philosophy a kind of thinking that begins with specific Christian doctrines. For example, I do not mean that one might begin with the doctrine of bodily resurrection and then develop systematically the assumptions about nature, man, and supernature entailed in such a doctrine. I mean rather that one begins with what seems to him, quite apart from self-conscious acts of faith, most indisputably true. For example, Mascall begins with the finiteness of all the entities of experience; the Personalists begin with the conviction that reason properly demands an explanation of all phenomenal occurrences. Such starting points are not experienced as leaps of faith or even as distinctively Christian. It is only in our century that their historical conditionedness is clearly recognized, and there are many who still fail to see the decisiveness of the religious tradition in this conditioning process.

The men treated in Parts II and III were distinguished from those treated in Part I by their rejection of natural theology. But once we recognize that what is at issue is Christian natural theology, the distinction blurs in many cases. This is especially clear in the case of Brunner, who at one time specifically affirmed Christian natural theology. Later he shifted his terminology to speak of a Christian doctrine of creation, but no substantive alteration was involved.

It is true that Brunner speaks in opposition to any philosophical contribution to the formulation of a doctrine of God and that he apparently means that God cannot be discussed in his Christian natural theology. But we noted also considerable wavering and inconsistency on this point. There seems to be no systematic reason in Brunner that something cannot be said of God in the context of Christian natural theology. His objections seem to be based on his sensitivity to the tensions that have, in fact, existed between philosophical and Biblical thinking about God. If so, these objections might not apply to a more carefully formulated Christian philosophy. In any case, Brunner does not seem to afford a consistent option differing from this one.

With Tillich, again, the situation is not greatly different. Although he explicitly opposes natural theology, a philosophical ontology plays a role in his theological formulations. Although he stresses the autonomy of philosophy from specific religious faith, he knows that Western philosophies are affected by their Christian background and context. He seems to want to exempt some aspects of his ontology from this historical conditionedness, but in the face of the obvious possibility of alternative ontologies, this exemption appears unwarranted. If I am correct in these points, Tillich seems not to afford a genuine option to the use of a Christian philosophy and Christian natural theology.

The discussion of H. Richard Niebuhr focused on the systematic possibility that a confessional theology might be free of any kind of natural theology. However, the critical analysis suggested that this is not a genuine option. No less than in the case of Tillich, the reality of being-itself or a principle of being is presupposed by confessional theology. Furthermore, what is confessed about being-itself on the basis of existential encounter is held to be a real, if partial, truth about being-itself. If so, the total convictions of the believer must take account of this truth, however fragmentary he may acknowledge it to be. Although a variety of interpretations of this situation may be possible, the use of something like a Christian natural theology appears quite compatible with, if not demanded by, the confessional approach.

Reinhold Niebuhr avoids the use of a Christian natural theology by radically separating history from nature. His defense of Christian teaching by an objective analysis of history parallels and supplants the usual natural theology. I would suggest that the degree of its objectivity is also parallel to that of natural theology, that is, that ultimately its data, too, are conditioned by Christianity. Even so, it would seem to offer a live option to what I have been calling Christian philosophy and Christian natural theology.

However, if my criticisms of Reinhold Niebuhr are correct, his thought, too, needs the context of a view encompassing both history and nature. If an encompassing view is possible that does not distort history, then Niebuhr seems to offer no adequate objections to its employment. I have suggested that once again the philosophy of Whitehead, although undeveloped in this respect, affords the basis for such an inclusive view.

My own conclusion from this study is, therefore, that a Christian natural theology (and philosophy) is compatible with (or demanded by) the theologies of Brunner, Tillich, and the Niebuhrs as well as Thomists and Personalists. Hence, the widespread rejection of natural theology in our time is misleading if it is taken as a rejection of Christian natural theology. Contemporary theological discussion will make a major advance if, on the one hand, the ideal of a pure, neutral theology is universally and consistently abandoned and if, on the other hand, the widespread relevance of and need for a Christian natural theology is acknowledged.

There are two acute problems to which those who practice Christian natural theology should give extended attention. First, among competing claimants, what is in fact the Christian starting point? Second, is there any way of transcending to any degree the circularity and relativity that are involved in the recognition of the Christian condition of the starting point for natural theology?

In dealing with the first of these problems I suggest that we must beware of an either-or approach. For example, both the vision of the world as finite and the vision of the world as purposed (hence, requiring explanation) seem to have come into existence historically under the influence of Biblical faith. There seems to be no necessity of conflict in the conclusions drawn from these two visions. Since conflict in fact exists between Thomist and Personalist, we should examine very carefully the procedure by which each arrives at his conclusions. The key point of the conflict lies in the Thomist denial that there can be any change or passibility in God. I have tried to indicate in my analysis that this negative doctrine is not required by the essential starting point in the Thomist vision and that even within Thomism, it is a source of unresolved difficulties. If my analysis is correct, the two major ingredients in a Christian vision (finiteness and purposedness) are mutually compatible, and a Christian philosophy should begin with them both together. It is my conviction that the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead as interpreted and developed by Charles Hartshorne can be of inestimable aid in the formulation of an adequate Christian philosophy.

It is my earnest hope that what I am suggesting here is not an ad hoc syncretism. This is far from my intention. I share with H. Richard Niebuhr the conviction that men are usually right in their basic affirmative convictions but often wrong in their negations. I do not believe that the impassibility of God is really as such a central conviction of Thomists, although I recognize that its antiquity and its sanctioning by the church may have made it very precious. At least, I believe, the justification for claiming a distinctively Christian status for this doctrine is derived from its supposedly necessary connection with the doctrine of Godís necessary being. This vision of God and his world, central to Thomism, has spiritual and existential consequences neglected by Personalism but not flatly contradictory to its teaching. I am deeply convinced that genuine synthesis is possible.

I see no reason why the Christian natural theology formed by a synthesis of Thomism and Personalism should not provide a context in which the positive insights of Brunner, Tillich, and the Niebuhrs could be expressed. The point of greatest conflict would be Tillichís doctrine that God is Being in such a way that he is in no sense a being, even the Supreme Being. I would argue, however, that the radical uniqueness of Godís being, which is Tillichís major positive insight here, is preserved when the radical contrast of necessary and contingent being is maintained, whereas the latter distinction need not have the depersonalizing implications with respect to Godís being entailed in Tillichís doctrine.

My thesis is that if each of these theologians recognizes that part of his starting point should be found in the Christian vision of the world, the diversity of emphases within this vision can be reconciled and synthesized. The formulation of such a synthesis can never be completed once for all, but I am convinced that a much more satisfactory achievement is open to us than any now obtaining.

The second question that must be frankly faced is the relativism or circularity that is made apparent in the expression "Christian natural theology." Natural theology had once been thought of as a positive basis on which to approach reasonable people of other faiths. But we are forced to recognize now that our natural theology is no less alien to the reason of men outside our tradition than are other affirmations of faith. Furthermore, these other traditions exist no longer only in other parts of the world. In the post-Christian West an ever increasing portion of the population is profoundly estranged from that vision of the world that Christian faith had long made the basis of our cultural common sense. Even among those who self-consciously cling to the Christian faith, many find that the basic vision is fading and that the beliefs associated with it are increasingly problematic.

In this situation, the existing relativism or circularity constitute an acute problem not only for evangelistic method but existentially for sensitive Christians. There is a profound need to believe that the vision to which we cling is warranted by something more than its fading existence. Such a need demands that we try in principle to transcend our cultural conditioning in order to justify it -- to break out of the circle in which we find ourselves and touch the bedrock of objective truth.

Such a demand must appear doomed to frustration, and if it were not so urgent it could simply be ridiculed and dismissed. If we enjoyed subjective certitude, a recognition of objective uncertainty would not be serious. But when subjective certitude crumbles, the question of objective warrant can no longer be pushed aside.

The task to which we are pointed cannot be a new natural theology in the classical sense. We cannot start somewhere else than in the circle in which we stand. But if we stand there, torn between belief and unbelief, we can imaginatively participate in other worlds than the world of faith. That is, in our new situation of self-conscious relativism we can objectify the visions that for centuries or milleniums have been the unsurpassable starting points for thought. Undoubtedly, there remains beyond all the starting points that we can objectify a more ultimate one of which we cannot become conscious, but since at this point the historical relativism is transcended, we need not be disturbed. Our problem is that we are newly conscious of a freedom to choose at a level that has through most of world history been closed to choice, and that lacking criteria for choosing, we also lack confidence in the vision into which we drift. Our fading Christian vision will not be restored until it regains our wholehearted confidence. Once the vision itself has entered consciousness as an object, confidence can be restored only at the level of conscious persuasion. That means, again, that we need criteria for choosing among visions.

The problems raised here are too difficult to be discussed in a few paragraphs of this concluding chapter. I am concerned here only to stress the urgency of the problem and the new form that it is assuming for our generation. I am convinced that both of the older solutions are rapidly becoming irrelevant. That is, we can neither appeal to neutral reason to support our faith nor show the independence of faith from all the conclusions of reason. We can neither deny the conditioned circularity of any point of view nor rest complacent in that circularity. Those who would support the Christian vision in our time must develop new approaches to meet a genuinely new situation fraught with profound peril to the human spirit but possibly offering also hope for reversing the long decline of faith.

In dealing with the two crucial problems faced by natural theology I have suggested that the first can be progressively solved by hard work with tools now at hand; but the second, in its radical implications, is so new for us that we have hardly conceived of a direction in which to look for a solution. The emerging self-consciousness about our starting point in diverse visions of the world is responsible alike for what I take to be the possibility of progress on the first problem and the acute heightening of the second problem.

We must turn now to the question: Given a starting point in Christian natural theology, how is a transition made to Christian theology proper?

Surveying those we have been considering, we see that Mascall appeals to participation in the life of the church that prepares for the acceptance of its authority; DeWolf and H. Richard Niebuhr appeal to the distinctive experience of the Hebrew-Christian community; Brunner appeals to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ; Tillich appeals to the existential experience of participation in the New Being. Reinhold Niebuhr has relatively little to say on this question since he hardly distinguishes Christian theology proper from what he defends on empirical or phenomenological grounds. In so far as he is to be treated here, he may be placed with DeWolf and H. Richard Niebuhr.

There is in fact little basic difference in these answers. No one supposes that one enters into faith by objective rational persuasion that faith is entailed in historical and philosophical beliefs. The individual experiences faith in the church as he enters into the peculiar mode of Christian existence. Differences emerge in the understanding of this existence and, hence, in the understanding of the content of Christian doctrine, and I would by no means belittle these differences. Adequate discussion of the problems involved would require several books.

The differences in the understanding of Christian existence, along with the accompanying differences in the whole range of Christian doctrine, have two major types of sources. First, there is a real diversity of human experience that entails a real diversity of understanding of the meaning and means of salvation. This diversity ought not in principle to lead to contradiction, but, in fact, it often seems to do so. Perhaps with great labor we might apply here, too, the principle that the central positive affirmations of serious Christians are usually sound, whereas negations are unreliable, and thereby move toward a more inclusive view. I have tried to clarify this problem in Varieties of Protestantism and can only mention it here in passing. Second, the diversity in understanding of Christian existence also reflects the diversity in understanding of Christian natural theology. No matter how much one of these theologians stresses that his understanding of God arises directly in his Christian experience, we will suspect also that that experience as he understands it is conditioned by his total understanding of himself and his world. Hence, I suggest that if the diversity of Christian natural theologies could be reduced, some reduction of the confusion with respect to Christian theology proper could also be effected.

Even within the circle of thinkers who, I believe, point us toward the use of a Christian natural theology as well as a Christian theology proper, considerable differences of emphasis are possible. One may hold that Christian natural theology contains much of what is most important to believers and treat theology proper as a minor supplement. Another may hold that the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Christian natural theology does not imply its theological importance and may concentrate almost entirely on questions of theology proper. However, such differences of emphasis are relative to different purposes and situations. It is my personal judgment that in the situation into which we are now moving a great deal of attention must be devoted to Christian natural theology, but at the same time we must hope that many will give central and intensive attention to theology proper.

What I have called the Augustinian position offers still another variant here. Perhaps we should stress the homogeneity and continuity of Christian natural theology and theology proper in such a way that no line of distinction would be made. Christian theology and Christian philosophy would be understood as the one act of thinking under the guidance of divine grace. I see no serious objection to this course as long as it is a matter of emphasis rather than of principle.

However, there remains within the starting point given in faith a distinction between the fundamental vision of the world and the specifically Christian affirmations consciously referred to Godís revelation in Jesus Christ as their warrant. Some conclusions can be drawn from the starting point in the general vision. Others require avowed commitment and quite specific experience as their warrant. The two should prove coherent and mutually supportive, but their distinction is not unimportant.

We must turn now to consider the two men in the analysis of whose thought it seemed most likely that genuine alternatives to Christian natural theology might be found. These are Barth and Bultmann. In the criticism of both, I have indicated that even in their cases there seems to be no complete escape from natural theology, but in both cases the issues become so refined and so intricate that it will be better not to pass a negative judgment.

In the analysis of Bultmannís many-faceted thought, we traced interpretations of his meaning that would lead us into a Christian natural theology, but there seemed to remain one interpretation faithful to some of his major emphases that almost wholly escaped this end. That is, if we set aside radically all concern for what is credible or incredible in the modern world, we may take as our one Christian principle justification by faith alone. We may then understand the occurrence of faith in an individual as an event in full discontinuity with both physical and psychological events. Theology may then be understood as the account of the occurring of faith and of the existence that ensues. No beliefs about the nature of the world or history are entailed in such an account. It may be possible to say also that the event of faith in our lives gives itself to us as dependent on a once-for-all event in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that event must be understood as wholly beyond the sphere of general investigation and as irrelevant to that sphere.

Barthís success in freeing theology from all involvement in natural theology depends upon the possibility of seeing the Bible as a unity and of finding within it the governing principle that its one function is to witness to Jesus Christ as Godís presence to man. We have considered some of the internal difficulties involved in accepting Barthís view, but we cannot exclude the possibility that he is correct. If so, then, while Bultmann points to the possibility of a purely existential theology of Christian self-understanding, Barth points to a purely positive Biblical theology of testimony to Jesus Christ. Methodological criticism can deny to neither the claim to be living options in Protestant theology. The vast influence of both men suggests that these options are very vital indeed, even though they are usually impurely adopted.

We can see, then, that there are genuine alternatives to the acceptance of a Christian natural theology. These alternatives entail three major features. First, one must affirm a strictly supernatural occurrence as the basis for Christian existence. Christian existence must not be understood as a psychologically understandable modification of existence generally. Second, one must affirm nothing about the cause of Christian existence that either presupposes or implies anything about nature or history as they are visible from any other vantage point. Third, one must so formulate Christian faith that it has no implications that are in principle relevant to any perspective other than that of faith.

That theology is possible in these terms is an important fact. Once both its possibility and its inherent limitations are recognized, there is little more than can be said for or against it. If one has experienced the supernatural event in such a way that he can begin with it in his thinking, and if he further experiences his faith as in fact in total discontinuity with the world as seen from every other perspective, then he may be expected to reject Christian natural theology with full consistency and integrity. Since my own experience meets neither of these conditions, I must regard that which is systematically a living option as existentially closed to me. Further, I personally believe that the faith of which we read in the New Testament did not have the total discontinuity in question.

Thus far in this chapter I have made no mention of Wieman. I omitted him from the consideration of Christian natural theologies because I do not believe that the basic vision within which he operates is distinctively Christian. On the contrary, I regard it as definitely post-Christian. One may trace its gradual emergence through the decline of substance thinking, and some indication of this has been given in Chapter 1. However, philosophical reasons for the emergence of Wiemanís type of process philosophy must be given the most serious attention in the formulation of a Christian natural theology. If a Christian natural theology entails that kind of thinking about substances which was philosophically undermined in modern philosophy, it is in very serious difficulty indeed.

I am convinced, however, that another type of process philosophy is possible that does not dissolve persons into strands with less ontological reality than the events in which they participate. I refer again to the philosophy of Whitehead. In his thought there is a thorough acceptance of the legitimate aspects of Humeís critique of earlier modern philosophy without the acceptance of the conclusions that Wieman in common with much modern philosophy has drawn from them. If so, then there is no philosophical necessity of adopting Wiemanís basic ontology.

Here as elsewhere in this chapter, I have made dogmatic comments on highly disputable topics. A philosophy of events of the sort Wieman employs is often defended as more Biblical than the substance philosophy that is taken as its only alternative. The Bible, it is held, deals with occurrences rather than with entities. Within limits this is certainly true. However, I would argue that the Bible deals with selves acting, rather than with actions as such. Niebuhrís understanding of selves in dialogue seems much truer to the Bible than the modern view of a flow of phenomenal events. Indeed, in the latter, the depth dimension of existence, so essential to Biblical faith, is obscured if not lost.

Neither from Wiemanís point of view nor from mine is the rejection of his ontology a basic attack upon his positive contribution. This contribution consists in the remarkable analysis of the processes in which human growth occurs. This analysis, in Wiemanís view and in mine, is compatible with many different ontologies. Indeed, I argue that although these processes may be described within the modern post-Christian vision, they are not facilitated by that vision. On the contrary, it is the Christian vision of the world that has through the centuries provided the context within which these processes have had their fullest encouragement and support.

Once again, therefore, I believe that genuine synthesis is possible when we limit ourselves to that which is the central positive insight of a great thinker and do not try to incorporate also all his peripheral and negative judgments. There is no inconsistency between a synthesis of Thomism with Personalism in terms of their basic visions of the world and Wieman s careful description of the processes in which human good emerges. Indeed, a very large part of the theological task must consist in empirical and phenomenological accounts that, in so far as they attain their own ideal of objectivity, will conflict neither with each other nor with the Christian vision of the world.

For example, Reinhold Niebuhrís extensive and penetrating analyses of human existence and historical interrelationships are a solid permanent contribution to Christian thought. The same must be said with emphasis of Bultmannís brilliant account of Christian existence, which may be accepted quite independently of his attempted rejection of Christian natural theology. Tillich and H. Richard Niebuhr have also added invaluably to our understanding of our situation through phenomenological description.

We cannot, of course, simply add together all that these men have said on the basis of empirical and phenomenological work. The objectivity of these methods and their goals is ideal rather than actual. In the brief study of the thought of Husserl, Sartre, and Heidegger, we saw that these great philosophical practitioners of phenomenology had not succeeded in separating their phenomenological findings from the ontological positions they maintained. We may assume that the theologians likewise are affected in their phenomenological work by relativizing factors. Nevertheless, empirical and phenomenological research does afford us some possibility of transcending the pure relativity of personal opinion, and this possibility needs to be explored with increasing vigor and self-consciousness.

Where phenomenology is employed for the study of the structures of human existence, greater attention should be paid to the possibility that these structures themselves are partly historical. As one reads the phenomenological accounts of human existence in both Sartre and Heidegger, for example, one wonders whether the same structures are to be found in the same way among primitive peoples or in nonhistorical cultures. I believe that one of the major tasks that confronts our generation is the development of a phenomenological-existential history of manís emergence into various dimensions of consciousness and self-consciousness. To this end much material is already at hand, but the great work of synthesis has hardly been begun.

A further area for future exploration is that of the relation of the development of consciousness on the one hand to the emergence of diverse visions of the world on the other. It is my opinion that these operate in closest interconnection and that finally the level of consciousness that can be sustained by man is largely a function of his vision of the world. But the testing of such a hypothesis alone is more than one lifetimeís work.

The tasks that lie before us are vast, the laborers are few, and the confusion in our ranks is great. The spiritual and intellectual climate in which we work is changing rapidly, and for the most part our tools are still geared to the situation that prevailed thirty or forty years ago -- during the formative period in the lives of that great generation of theologians with whom this volume primarily deals. In our day we must run fast if we would stand still, and faster still if we would catch up. We can only hope that we will be granted both time and courage.

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