Christology Reconsidered: John Cobb’s ‘Christ in a Pluralistic Age’

by Schubert M. Ogden

Dr. Ogden is professor of theology and director of the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. His most recent book is Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Abingdon, 1979.)

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 116-122, Vol. 6, Number 2, Summer, 1976. 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.


The author writes that Cobb’s Christology describes a Jesus who is a mere possibility, not the actuality it purports to describe. Thus, it is at best a wholly speculative interpretation in no way grounded in the Jesus of history it professes to interpret.

Readers familiar with John Cobb’s many theological writings will know that he has already contributed a number of essays on the subject of Christology. Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975) significantly adds to this number, not by being, as he explains, a full-fledged Christology," but by expressing the results of a "series of forays into interrelated topics" (p. 23). Thus, by his own estimation, the book is "more a progress report than a finished Christology," and his description of it as consisting in "essays" is apt (pp. 14,23).

The title, also, is well chosen, given the main argument of the book. Its thesis, Cobb says, "is that faithfulness to Christ requires immersion in the secular and pluralistic consciousness and that it is precisely there that Christ now works, impeded by our failures to recognize him and by our continuing association of faith with past, particularized expressions of Christ" (p. 187). Cobb argues for this thesis by seeking to show that the very process that has produced and is at work in the secular and pluralistic consciousness is the process of "creative transformation" that is properly named "Christ." Thus, so far from allowing that Christ excludes secularity and pluralism, or is excluded by them, Cobb proposes to reestablish Christian faith by holding that Christ, in reality, is their own "basis" or "positive principle" (pp. 51, 187). Although the objective study of religion breaks "the correlation of faith and the sacred" and relativizes all absolutized particulars, the Christian not only can accept these consequences but should also affirm them. For "the remaining absolute" necessarily presupposed by objective study itself is "creative transformation as such," and the Christian should recognize that just that is the present working of Christ (p. 42).

Actually, most of the burden of this main argument is borne by the first of the book’s three parts, entitled "Christ as the Logos," in which Cobb seeks to discern the reality of Christ in the present as creative transformation, which he interprets in broadly Whiteheadian terms as "the universal presence of the transcendent Logos" (p. 24). In part two, then, he turns from the present to the past, to consider "Christ as Jesus," and attempts to ground the process of creative transformation historically in "Jesus and his influence" (p. 18). His conclusion there is that "both encounter with the words of Jesus and incorporation into the field of his influence effect creative transformation in the hearer," the reason for this being that the Logos which is universally present as creative transformation "was distinctively embodied in Jesus," who was its "full incarnation" (p. 24). Finally, in part three, "Christ as Hope," Cobb considers Christ in relation to the future and there argues that the distinctive structure of existence that was embodied in Jesus unifies four contemporary images of hope into "one immanent/transcendent, personal/communal, human/cosmic hope" (p. 256).

Even so cursory a summary is enough to indicate that Cobb explores a wide range of topics, indeed, and that he is amply justified in regarding this book as more than the mere "Jesusology" that he confesses to having hardly gone beyond while writing some of his earlier essays (p.13). Although here, too, the focus of his interest is a constructive answer to the question of how God can be affirmed to have been fully incarnate in Jesus (and this, I take it, is what he means by a "Jesusology"), the scope of his interest, and thus also of the book, takes in most, if not all, of the issues that a constructive christology today must perforce consider. This alone, I judge, should commend his book to all who are concerned with the contemporary christological problem. For no christological reflection having a narrower scope of interest can be adequate to the task that now confronts the theological community.

Of course, there are difficulties with the book, and, what with the scope it covers, they are not few. Apart from those pertaining to the focus of its interest, which I want presently to discuss in some detail, I am myself most troubled by the incidence of confusing, if not confused, formulations, which in some cases seem to reflect real inconsistencies in thought. Thus, for instance, Cobb can say toward the end of the book, "Jesus is Christ, because he is the incarnation of the Logos" (p. 281), even though, by his own account, the Logos is universally incarnate (at least in all living beings and human persons), and Jesus is the Christ because he is the "full" or "fullest" incarnation of the Logos (p. 142). (Cobb also speaks of Jesus as the "perfect" and "normative" incarnation, as well as "the paradigm" thereof.) Or, again, and more seriously, Cobb can assume in one place that "the study of the many faith stances correlated with the many forms of the sacred has permanently eroded them all" and yet propose in another that the Christian faith stance can now "reestablish itself" as "the basis for the objective study that breaks the correlation of faith and the sacred" (pp. 53, 51). Evidently, the same faith stance cannot both be "permanently eroded" by, and also "reestablish itself" as the "basis" for, the objective study of religions. And yet these are not untypical of Cobb’s formulations, which in general are confusing as to whether the theological change now called for is simply to endorse the secular struggle to become free from the sacred (pp. 19f) or, rather, to relocate the sacred, and thus effect a "transference of commitment" from "every form in which Christ has previously been known" to the process of creative transformation that is the reality of Christ itself (p. 63).

Still other such difficulties will be particularly evident to students of Whitehead’s philosophy. Thus, at one point, Cobb appears to deny that the Logos is an "abstraction" (p. 170), and yet he himself says that "the Logos is an eternal aspect of deity" (p. 77; italics added), and he expressly identifies the Logos as "God in his Primordial Nature" (p. 71), which Whitehead explicitly speaks of precisely as an abstraction (PR 521f). Or, again, Cobb asserts that "the Logos itself [is] love" (p. 85), even though he himself says elsewhere that "the Logos in its transcendence is timeless and infinite" (p. 72), and Whitehead says that "God in the abstraction of a primordial actuality" is "deflected neither by love, nor by hatred, for what in fact comes to pass" (PR 522). Or, yet again, and more seriously, Cobb asserts that "the Logos as the principle of novelty is the only ground of order" (p.77; italics added), only to assert elsewhere that "the immanence of the transcendent Logos is but a special case [and hence precisely not the only case!] of causal efficacy in general" (p. 72). From Whitehead’s standpoint, certainly, one might indeed say that the Logos is the only ultimate or universal ground of order. But, since to be actual at all is to be causally efficacious in relation to all subsequent actualization, one would have to allow that not only the Logos but any actuality whatever is insofar forth a ground of order. (There is one passage, indeed, where Whitehead says that "the process of finite history is essential for the ordering of the basic vision, otherwise mere confusion" [ESP 126].) Finally, and most seriously, there is Cobb’s astonishingly anti-Whiteheadian claim that "in fact [our own achievements] are not our own achievements at all but achievements of the Logos in which we have actively participated" (p. 85). As it stands, this claim is implicitly self-contradictory; for either we have "actively participated" in the Logos’ achievements, in which case they are our own achievements as well as the Logos’, or else they are not our own achievements "at all," in which case we have not actively participated in them. In any case, if what Cobb wishes to claim is that our achievements are only apparently ours because they are really God’s, he must surely know that the whole weight of Whitehead’s philosophy, at least, stands against him.

But, as serious as some of these difficulties no doubt are, they are more than offset, for me, at least, by Cobb’s insightful treatment of many of the issues belonging to the larger problem of a contemporary christology. His basic proposal for reestablishing Christian faith in a pluralistic age strongly commends itself to me, and, even when I cannot wholly agree with him, I find what he says about the universal, if largely anonymous, working of Christ and about the meaning of Christian hope both illumining and provocative. Particularly significant, in my opinion, is his comparative discussion of the Christian and Buddhist structures of existence and of the present possibilities of each creatively transforming the other.

The most serious difficulties I have with the book pertain, rather, to the focus of Cobb’s interest -- namely, his constructive interpretation of what I call the constitutive christological assertion, "Jesus is the Christ." The deepest source of my difficulties is that Cobb entirely omits an analysis of the question to which this assertion functions as the answer. It is true that, at the very beginning of the book, he offers a "formal" definition of "Christ" that he might well have taken as the clue to such an analysis. In the formal sense, he says, Christ’ names what is experienced as supremely important when this is bound up with Jesus" (p. 17). From a parallel passage it becomes clear that "the divine reality" is "what is supremely important" and that being "bound up with Jesus" means being "present and manifest in Jesus" (p. 54). By implication, then, Cobb here identifies the question of Christ with the question of God, itself understood as the question of what is most important for human existence. But he himself nowhere follows up this clue by explicating the existentialist analysis of the christological question to which it points, and, for all the difference it makes to the book as a whole, he might just as well never have dropped it. As a consequence, his interpretation of the christological assertion commits what one could properly call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Forgetting the existential context that, in the New Testament, at least, is the concrete context of this assertion, Cobb assumes that it has to do with the distinctive possibility of existence that Jesus perfectly actualized, not with the distinctive possibility of existence that Jesus decisively represents. And so he interprets it as an assertion about the being of Jesus in himself in abstraction from the question of the meaning of Jesus for us.

In this, of course, he but follows the precedent of most other constructive christologies both past and present, traditional and revisionary. And so I am well aware that what I take to be the profoundest inadequacy of the book, when judged either by the witness of the New Testament or from the standpoint of Whiteheadian philosophy, is the very thing that other readers will judge to commend it. But it is extremely doubtful, I think, whether even those who share Cobb’s assumption about the function of the christological assertion will be able to approve his interpretation of it. For, even if one grants that assumption, his interpretation involves a number of difficulties -- all of them serious.

This can be shown by taking a closer look at his procedure. By his own account, he first undertakes to develop the "theoretical possibility" of a distinctive structure of existence (p. 141). On his view, the Logos "is incarnate in all things," although "the mode and function of that incarnation vary" (p. 138). This is particularly so with respect to its incarnation in human beings; for "there is little common human nature other than the uniquely human capacity to be shaped in history into a wide variety of structures of existence" (p. 136). Thus "human beings embody many structures of existence," which "are correlated with different roles of the Logos" (pp. 170f, 138). "In all but one of those structures," however, "they constitute themselves around a center that is distinct from God’s presence in them" (p. 171). Nevertheless, one structure of existence is at least possible, whether or not it has ever been embodied, in which "the presence of the Logos would share in constituting selfhood" (p. 139). "The ‘I’ in each moment [would be] constituted as much in the subjective reception of the lure to self-actualization that is the call and presence of the Logos as it [would be] in continuity with the personal past. This structure of existence would be the incarnation of the Logos in the fullest meaningful sense" (p. 140).

Having thus established its theoretical possibility, Cobb then proceeds to argue that this distinctive structure of existence was actually embodied in Jesus. This he does, not by the usual reductio from faith in Jesus’ saving efficacy to this structure of existence as the necessary condition of its possibility, but by what purports to be an argument from "the evidence of history" -- specifically, from the consensus of historians who have engaged in the quest of the historical Jesus that "at the heart of [Jesus’] message is an astonishing presumption of his own importance and authority" (pp. 24, 133). Cobb dissociates his argument at this point from that for "the liberal Jesus," because the bridge from historical knowledge to strong statements about Jesus’ "wisdom, piety, freedom, obedience, and love" is "a fragile one" (p. 165). Consequently, in its logical structure, his own argument, also, is a kind of reductive argument -- namely, from the alleged historical "datum" of "Jesus’ implicit claim to authority" to his having embodied in fact the unique structure of existence that has been shown to be at least a possibility (pp. 137f, 135). Accordingly, the major premise of Cobb’s conclusion implies that, if Jesus spoke and acted with the kind of authority that reliable historical knowledge confirms he implicitly claimed, then he must have embodied this distinctive structure of existence, which alone can explain such a claim.

But now consider the difficulties involved in this procedure. First of all, Cobb’s whole argument evidently takes for granted that we can know enough about "the real Jesus" to assert that he himself claimed a unique authority for his personal word and implicitly identified his actions as "directly expressive of God’s purposes" (pp. 132, 138). Yet how warranted is this assumption? Cobb seems assured that "we do not have to accept extreme skeptical conclusions; for by working back to older layers of tradition we can arrive at reliable information about Jesus" (p. 101). But, surely, that is just the question, considering that, no matter how far back we work through the layers of tradition, the only thing given we can ever arrive at is itself always only a layer of tradition, which shows every sign of being more concerned with bearing faithful witness to Jesus than with giving reliable information about him. That Jesus’ implicit claim to authority is a more or less probable inference from our sources I, at least, am willing to allow. But to speak of it as a "datum" seems to me to claim far more than our sources warrant -- and certainly more than Cobb himself gives any reason for claiming.

Yet, even if one grants Cobb’s assumption concerning what we can reliably know about Jesus -- and most of his readers will no doubt be prepared to grant it -- there is the further difficulty that no merely historical evidence could possibly yield the conclusion for which he argues. That Jesus actually implied an astonishing claim for his word and actions logically could be established by appealing solely to the evidence of history. But what Cobb’s conclusion requires him to establish is not merely that Jesus implied such a claim but also that it is a true or valid claim -- and that historical evidence alone logically could not be appealed to to establish. Consequently, Cobb must be confronted with the choice of either settling for a merely hypothetical conclusion logically different from the categorical conclusion for which he argues, or else abandoning the pretense that the only evidence his argument requires is the evidence of history.

Beyond these difficulties, however, just what Cobb wishes to claim with his argument is doubly confused, or, at any rate, confusing. It is confusing, in the first place, because, while he again and again asserts that Jesus was the "fullest" incarnation of the Logos, in that he embodied the unique structure of existence in which all tension between the self and the Logos is overcome, what Cobb affirms or assumes as historically true of Jesus’ life in no way entitles him to make such an assertion. "We may assume," he says, "that the distinctive structure of Jesus’ existence did not characterize his infancy or remain constant through sleeping and waking states. When it emerged and how steady it became are subjects on which we have little information" (p. 142). Moreover, even if "the stories of [Jesus’] temptation in the wilderness, his struggle in Gethsemane, and his forsakenness on the cross are not historically reliable," they nevertheless "witness to the belief on the part of his disciples that he was not continuously free from the tension between his ‘I’ and the Logos" (p. 142). Thus all that Cobb finally affirms as historically true is that ‘at least at important times in his life Jesus freely chose to constitute his own selfhood as one with [the] presence of God within him" (p.173). But, clearly, this highly qualified affirmation by no means entitles Cobb to assert that Jesus was in fact the fullest incarnation of the Logos. For, by his own definition, the possibility of such a perfect incarnation requires that "the ‘I’ in each moment" be free from all tension with the Logos, and this he not only does not affirm of Jesus’ life but, by implication, denies of it.

Among the other difficulties this entails is that the alleged distinctiveness of Jesus’ existence becomes blurred in relation to the "ordinary" Christian existence from which Cobb wishes to distinguish it (p. 137). Jesus’ "I," he says, "was co-constituted by the incarnate Logos. Thus God’s purpose for him was his purpose rather than being a threat to his purpose, as we often experience it" (p. 144). But, if what distinguishes us as ordinary Christians from Jesus is not that we always experience God’s purpose as a threat, but only that we "often" so experience it, then, clearly, Cobb can claim no more than that Jesus’ distinctiveness from us is relative, a matter of more rather than less, since he does not affirm, and by implication denies, that Jesus never experienced God’s purpose as a threat. Notwithstanding, Cobb insists that the incarnation in Jesus was not simply an intensification of the presence of the Logos in all people," and he contends that Jesus would not constitute an image of hope "if he only participated more fully in the distinctive structure that we know in ourselves as Christians" (pp. 256, 184).

But Cobb’s argument is confusing, in the second place, because, while the conclusion for which he argues entails the claim that his interpretation of Jesus’ existence is required by the evidence of history, the most he himself ever expressly claims for his interpretation is that it "fits" such evidence. At this absolutely crucial point, I must confess to being confident that Cobb’s argument is not only confusing but also confused. It is one thing to claim that an explanation fits certain facts, in that it can account for them and is not incompatible with them. But it is another and very different thing to claim that the facts in question require a certain explanation if they are really to be explained. There cannot be the least question that the conclusion for which Cobb argues logically requires him to make the second and much stronger of these two claims. For, if the fact of Jesus’ claim to speak and to act for God could be explained otherwise than by his being the fullest incarnation of the Logos, then the most that Cobb could conclude is not that Jesus was that incarnation but only that he might have been it. And yet, as I have said, the only claim that Cobb expressly makes for his interpretation, as distinct from the claim implied by his conclusion, is the first and much weaker claim that it fits the fact of Jesus’ implied presumption of his own importance and authority. Consequently, if one judges solely from Cobb’s express claim for it, his argument warrants a much weaker conclusion than the one for which he argues and evidently supposes he has established.

There is, to be sure, a very good reason for Cobb’s not making a stronger claim for his interpretation. A further and still more serious difficulty with his whole procedure is that he does not, in fact, provide the kind of argument that his conclusion logically requires. On the contrary, such argument as he provides at most establishes the appropriateness of his interpretation, or, in other words, is an argument for the converse of the major premise implied by his conclusion! Thus he typically argues, for instance, that "if Jesus existed in full unity with God’s present purposes for him, then even the rules that he acknowledged as embodying God’s past purposes could be freely set aside" (p. 141). But, true as this may be, what Cobb’s conclusion requires him to argue for -- but what he nowhere does argue for -- is the converse premise that, if Jesus could freely set aside the past rules of the law, then he existed in full unity with God’s present purposes for him. Only by establishing this kind of a major premise can the conclusion for which Cobb argues itself be established. But, since he not only does not claim to establish such a premise but also in fact fails to establish it, the most that his argument entitles him to conclude is not that, "so far as we know, Jesus is unique," but only that, so far as we know, Jesus might be unique (p. 142; italics added).

This, in my judgment, shows beyond question that Cobb’s proposed interpretation simply will not do. By his own account, any understanding of Christ must be grounded in the historical Jesus, and this is what he himself clearly claims to have done in providing his interpretation (cf. pp. 22f, 24, 177). But, as I have shown, this is just what such argument as he offers does not do at all and, significantly, does not even claim to do. For all Cobb succeeds in establishing, his christology describes a Jesus who is a mere possibility, not the actuality it purports to describe. Thus, it is at best a wholly speculative interpretation in no way grounded in the Jesus of history it professes to interpret.