How Is Process Theology Theological?

by Joseph M. Hallman

Joseph M. Hallman (Ph.D., Fordham University, 1970) is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Wheeling College, Wheeling, West Virginia.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 112-117, Vol. 17, Number 2, Summer, 1988. 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.


Most, if not all, process theologians are basically philosophical theologians rather than systematic theologians who interiorize the understandings within the Christian Church community. This calls into question, for example, whether the eucharist is essential, whether scripture is normative, and whether the resurrection is optional. Process theologians need to distinguish between the requirements and objectives of philosophical and systematic theology.

In the past twenty years, several books and articles have been written which are critical of process theology. This literature contains some stimulating intellectual responses as well as several ad hominem pieces which are more concerned with rhetorical flourish and pietisms than critical reflection.1 There are some who want to rid the church of process theology because it is too philosophical, hence unappreciative of things which are distinctively religious. We are all familiar with the Athens and Jerusalem problem. This raises an important issue for all to whom the term "process theologian" either strictly or loosely applies: how is process theology theological? Must its scope of reflection be restricted to the concerns of natural, philosophical, or fundamental theology, or is it capable of recovering and interpreting aspects of Christian tradition and experience which are uniquely and specifically Christian? In other words, can there be or is there any meaning to the phrase "process systematics"?

It has been the habit of process thinkers to construct philosophical or natural theology, whether it is developed via Whitehead, Hartshorne, Wieman, Meland, Loomer, Cobb, or Ogden. The work of Whiteheadian philosophical theology according to Lewis Ford, "has hardly been begun" (A 340). Nonetheless, it has certainly occupied the center of attention in this school of thought. If systematic theology, however, has a different sense of its experience and public than philosophical theology, and if process thought is to be useful here, it may need to proceed differently than it has thus far. It will attend more exactly to data which are uniquely and specifically Christian.

According to David Tracy, the public which the systematic theologian interiorizes is primarily the Christian Church. The major concern of systematics is "the representation, the reinterpretation of what is assumed to be the ever-present disclosive and transformative power of the particular religious tradition to which the theologian belongs." It has an ethical stance of "loyalty or creative and critical fidelity" to its tradition; it assumes "personal involvement and commitment to a particular religion" which in this case is Christianity. It is also "principally hermeneutics in character. . . ." (Anim 57-58).2

By way of contrast, fundamental, or philosophical, theology’s public is the secular academy. It "will be concerned principally to provide arguments that all reasonable persons, whether religiously involved or not, can recognize as reasonable" Its ethical stance is that of "honest, critical inquiry proper to Its academic setting." Unlike systematics, it abstracts itself from faith commitment, and is "principally concerned to show the adequacy or inadequacy of the truth-claims, usually the cognitive claims, of a particular religious tradition" (AnIm 57-58). Systematics is primarily concerned with meaning.

I believe that most, if not all, process theologians are basically philosophical theologians. Although there are various articles and books showing what I have called systematic theological concerns, philosophical criteria are used, usually exclusively, when dealing with questions of meaning and truth, criteria which are respectable in the academy.3 Process Christology, for example, usually follows Schleiermacher, and tends as a result to be embarrassed by strong exclusivist claims. When traditional particularistic claims are interpreted they are usually weakened.4

Although some attempts have been made to interpret the Christian doctrines of Trinity, Church and sacraments, sin, grace, redemption, atonement, and eschatology, these ideas are far less developed in process thought than the philosophical aspects of theism.5 I do not believe that this underdevelopment of process systematics is caused by poor philosophical resources. Even though specific Christian beliefs were unknown in Athens, Christian thinkers used resources which were far less internally consistent than process thought to express religious meanings, defend practices, doctrines, and so forth. By continually striving to be faithful to its message, and to mediate it adequately, systematic theology evolved as the philosophical appropriation of that message, especially in the Middle Ages.

Several special features of Christian belief should be stated, such as the coming of God’s kingdom in the life, preaching, miracles, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, and the redemption from sin which is part of that coming. Christianity includes a sense of sin and grace, of Trinity, of sacrament, of hope, of piety, and of the ascent to God. The unique Christian participation in God’s kingdom is grasped in theology by creative and critical understanding of Christian tradition, and by creative and critical growth in the Christian ways of life. I would argue that good systematics originates in prayer and in the praxis from which knowledge comes, and not in second order philosophical argumentation.6

This is not to deny that systematics must be responsible and responsive to the criteria of meaning and truth available in philosophical discussion. It must be responsible and open to discussions about praxis as well, and process thinkers have recently shown themselves to be very open to these questions as they have been raised in liberation theology. Methodologically speaking, however, systematics is a dialogue with a different public than those of philosophical and practical theology, theirs being the academy on the one hand, and society at large on the other. Systematics is not more or less true or meaningful than the two other types of theology. It has a properly confessional and hermeneutical stance before its ecclesial public, and it would be helpful if process theologians saw it more clearly as a distinctive endeavor, which is neither philosophical nor practical theology. Two good examples of the confusion of philosophical and systematic concerns occur in a recent issue of Process Studies in articles by John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Lull. The first article suggests that the Eucharist is nonessential (PPE 218-231) the latter that Scripture is not normative (WPH 189-201). A third example I will use is the process understanding of resurrection.

The Eucharist as Nonessential

Cobb’s Whiteheadian theorizing about the possibility of past events, such as the death of Jesus and the Last Supper, becoming present in the Eucharist, is clear and appropriately hermeneutical in character. By means of his theological understanding he is able to reject doctrines of the Eucharist which are guilty of "psychologizing" it as merely a memory of a past event on the one hand, and "magical tendencies of some traditional doctrines" on the other (PPE 229). At the last, however, Cobb does not state the essential importance of the Eucharist in Christian life, because some Christians reject the necessity of sacraments.

Although the sacrament has been central to most of Christianity, the main agency of mediating Jesus’ causal presence and making it real, it is not essential to Christian existence. This is both because Jesus’ presence can be realized in other ways, and because Christian existence can occur where Jesus’ presence is not realized. (PPE 230)7

Even if one does grant the validity of both reasons for thinking that the Eucharist is nonessential to Christian existence, one need not grant the conclusion. The three presences of Christ to which Cobb refers seem to be of equal moment, since they are all presences. But such is not tradition’s judgment. Various elements of tradition seem nonessential, such as male celibate priesthood and biblical cosmology. Other elements are deeply suspect, such as racism, sexism, and authoritarianism. The Eucharist, however, is scarcely among any of these. If Cobb is arguing as a philosophical theologian about the possibility of Eucharistic presence of Jesus’ death and the Last Supper, he need make no commitment as to the reality of such a presence, or whether such a presence is essential. If he is arguing as a systematic theologian, with a sense of both Scripture and tradition, he should have no doubt that the reality and the essential importance of Eucharistic presence is central to Christianity even though each and every Christian might not agree. Some sense of Eucharist is deeply embedded in the grammar of Christianity.

I do not wish to make a case against Cobb’s theology, which is clearly an original contribution both to the contemporary church and academy, based on my reading of one article. I do think, however, that he provides a recent example of the lack of clear distinction between philosophical and systematic theology in process thought. The ability to make such a distinction could be of real advantage to process theology, making its case more clear to friends and foes alike.

Three objections could be made to my criticism: first, that theologians tend to move from philosophical to systematic theology at will and without apology, and that such movement is legitimate; second, that Tracy’s distinctions between the two types of theology are artificial; third, that one’s view of the importance of the Eucharist depends upon how one views tradition itself as authoritative, and how one develops a hierarchy of Christian truths and practices. A close study of the development of theology would probably remove the second and third objection.8 As to the first, I believe my criticism at least raises an important question of method, and how two different types of theological conclusions ought to be drawn.

Scripture as Non-Normative

In the same issue of Process Studies, David Kelsey raises the question as to whether and how the Scriptures are normative for Christian theology, as seen in process hermeneutics (187). David Lull responds initially by arguing from Cobb that the idea of creative transformation is a material norm for theology, and that the word "transformation" is a rational statement of the more symbolic terms "creation, redemption, justification, emancipation, or sanctification" (WPH 194). The role of Scripture in theology, however, becomes relativized. He writes: "Scripture is not necessary, however important it is, in and for Christian faith and life" (WPH 197). Although Christian theology ought to have roots in Scripture which are "clear and strong" (WPH 198), such roots are not necessary. Lull proposes this judgment from a philosophical analysis in which an unconscious sense of identity with the events of the emergence of Christianity is enough for Christian theology to be Christian.

This is a dubious conclusion if Lull reaches it in the context of systematic theology. It seems that he begins with the judgment that Scripture is not necessary, a judgment which is either philosophical or sociological, then gives justification for it. I believe one could begin with the opposite judgment, and give philosophical justification or explanation for it from the same Whiteheadian categories.9

It is difficult to see why a normative sense of either Scripture or the Eucharist cannot be expressed in process categories. Christian process theologians should be able to view Scripture and tradition as in some way normative without violating their philosophical consciences, and to use process categories to mediate Christian symbols faithfully, yet in a philosophically respectable manner. In this mediation, important particularistic or concrete elements of Christian tradition must be preserved.

I am not arguing for the normative authority of Scripture and tradition as deposits of faith in a static external sense, but for a more commonsense view that they are the major vehicles of Christian meaning through the centuries, and their importance cannot be ignored in systematic theology.

Resurrection as Optional

In his preface to A Process Christology, David Griffin states:

Christian faith . . . is possible apart from belief in Jesus’ resurrection in particular and life beyond bodily death in general, and because of the widespread skepticism regarding these traditional beliefs, they should be presented as optional. (PC 12)10

The judgment of Charles Hartshorne and Schubert Ogden is also negative on the question of any subjective immortality, and although some are more positive, resurrection of the body is seldom taken seriously by process theologians. They usually are content to demythologize it.11 Here again, if one makes the opposite judgment as a systematic theologian, based in Scripture and tradition, that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is not only necessary to Christian faith, but one of its most distinctive and important elements, one may find it possible to express that belief in Whitehead’s understanding of the person. A systematic theology which is schooled in Scripture and tradition presumes that Jesus is risen and celebrates that victory as one of its central affirmations. Whiteheadian categories may provide a uniquely suitable vehicle for expressing this belief rather than a foundation for a demythologizing rejection of its truth; at least there is that possibility (LG chs. 4-5).

The Principle of Positivity

One recent solution to the problem of particularism in theology is offered by Edward Farley. Tracy suggests, as we have seen above, that we distinguish between philosophical theology, with its universal concerns, and systematics, which is hermeneutical and particular. Farley’s answer is itself philosophical: one begins reflection with the particular, trying to capture the unique features of that to which one attends. This "principle of positivity" was formulated in various ways by Pascal, Schleiermacher, Husserl, and Duméry. Briefly stated, a position is developed which preserves both the provincial and the "generic," or general, features of religion. In provincial hermeneutics

the essential features and "truth" of the historical faith are identified with one of its specific historical expressions. They are not related, except by way of opposition, to other historical forms of that faith, or to other religious faiths, or to universal features of man and his world. (EM 58)

Generic hermeneutics "attends to universal structures such as the fundamental ontology of the human being or a general metaphysical scheme, and sees a specific historical faith as the exemplification of these generic (genus-related) structures and as translatable into them" (EM 58). Lindbeck’s recent book shows the same concern in proposing a cultural-linguistic model for understanding religious truth claims (see ND).

The key to the importance of the principle of positivity lies in the relation which Farley sees between the provincial and the general levels. The general levels are always transformed when they are incorporated into specific actualities. Hence knowing the general is knowing only that which is static and similar in religions. The actual concrete transformations of the general features of religions must be grasped in order to participate in a given religion in more than an abstract way. To know many religions is to know none, if such knowledge is independent of a single tradition with its own dynamic transformations of that which is common to others. There is a vast difference between knowing in a general way that religions have a sense of God or the Holy, and knowing the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the life of the Christian community.

When applied to theology, the principle of positivity highlights those features of Christian faith and existence which are determinate transformations of generic characteristics, rather than to those which are shared with humanism or other religions. Farley describes existence which is specifically Christian as a special form of co-intending called ecclesia, a redemptive co-intending which leads us away from idolatry and flight, to freedom from self-securing and to obligation and to obligation toward one other. Although his philosophical resource is primarily Husserl, Farley’s understanding of the principle of positivity can easily be seen as Whiteheadian. In his reversal of Plato’s theory of forms, Whitehead insisted on the superiority of the concretely temporal over the eternal potentialities. The reason for all thought, including theology, is to shed light on actual experience.

In spite of the problem I have described, I believe that process systematics can be fruitfully developed and that to some extent this is occurring now. Systematics must seek rationality in the classical sense and process conceptuality is uniquely suited to this task. While systematics attends primarily to the Christian story, and recognizes its centrality, it also asks about the truth of its own propositions, and answers to the demand for logic, clarity, and inner coherence. Philosophical theology only demonstrates the possible meaning and truth of what systematics affirms, or demonstrates its impossibility. Systematics, on the other hand, must affirm its own meanings and truths and explain them by way of philosophical categories which become theological. In this process, hermeneutics, which initially pays attention to the provincially specific and the concrete, lastly feeds its craving for philosophical generality which is uniquely its own. Both philosophical and systematic theology need the best categories available for thought in the contemporary world. For many theologians today, process philosophy provides those categories. In order to move forward in both tasks, a clear distinction needs to be made between them, a distinction which process theologians seldom recognize.



A -- Lewis S. Ford. "Afterword." Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy. New York: Fordham, 1983.

AnIm -- David Tracy. The Analogical Imagination. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

EM -- Edward Farley. Ecclesial Man: A Social Phenomenology of Faith and Reality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975.

GPE -- David R. Griffin. God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

LG -- Lewis S. Ford. The Lure of God. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

ND -- George Lindbeck. The Nature of Doctrine. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

PC -- David R. Griffin. A Process Christology. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973.

PPE -- John B. Cobb, Jr. "The Presence of the Past and the Eucharist." Process Studies 13:3 (Fall 1983): 218-231.

WPH -- David J. Lull. "What is ‘Process Hermeneutics’?" Process Studies 13:3 (Fall 1983): 189-201.



1The best criticism of process thought, especially Whiteheadian, have come from Robert Neville. See especially his Creativity and God (New York: Crossroad, 1980) and "Whitehead on the One and the Many," in Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline (New York Fordham, 1983), Chapters 257-271.

2Chapters 1 and 2 are especially relevant to this discussion.

3A good example of systematic theology in the Whiteheadian mode is Lewis S. Ford, LG.

4 This claim cannot be adequately defended here. For a brief description of process Christology which demonstrates this, see, Gene Reeves and Delwin Brown, "The Development of Process Theology," in Process Philosophy and Christian Thought (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, l971) 58-61; John B. Cobb, Jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975); David R. Griffin, A Process Christology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973). Process thought points Christology in another direction entirely, I believe, because of its novel understanding of the person. Christology should begin with the Christian sense of the presence of the risen Christ in the church. See Lewis S. Ford, LO chs. 4-5; Joseph M. Hallman, "The Resurrection of the Human Jesus," Process Studies 8:4 (Winter 1978): 253-258.

5For examples of Trinitarian speculation, see Joseph A. Bracken, "Subsistent Relations: Mediating Concept for a New Synthesis?" Journal of Religion 64:2 (April 1984): 188204; Process Philosophy and Trinitarian Theology," Process Studies 8:4 (winter 1978): 217-230; and Process Philosophy and Trinitarian Theology -- II," Process Studies 11:2 (Summer 1981): 83-96. For church and sacraments see Bernard Lee, The Becoming of the Church (New York: Paulist, 1974).

6A recent formulation of the historical problem of the loss of this notion is Edward Farley’s Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Philadelphia: Fortress. 1983).

7One should compare the particularism of his early work The Structure of Christian Existence with his later Christ in a Pluralistic Age.

8 The overwhelming number of Christians through time have testified to the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian life; and some distinction between philosophical and systematic theology is recognized by most theologians today. To cite only two major examples besides Tracy, see Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder, 1972) and Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University Press. 1951), vol. 1.

9 One might argue that a conscious sense of identity is necessary to construct linguistic symbols which have a direct bearing on the Christian tradition. I do not believe that Christian theology can be unconsciously Christian in any important way, on Whiteheadian or any other grounds.

10Griffin repeats this opinion at the end of GPE, 312,

11 See Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection (La Salle: Open Court, 1962): 245-246, 253, 262; Philosophers Speak of God (Chicago: University Press, 1953): 479; A Natural Theology for Our Time (La Salle: Open Court, 1967): 107, 112; Schubert Ogden, "The Meaning of Christian Hope,’ Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 30 (l975): l61; "The Promise of Faith," in The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York: Harper, 1963): 224f; John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965): 63-70. For criticisms similar to mine see Leo J. O’Donovan, "The Pasch of Christ: Our Courage in Time," Theological Studies 42:3 (September 1981): 367-71.