Process Philosophy and Trinitarian Theology

by Joseph A. Bracken, S.J.

Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., is Associate Professor of Theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 217-230, Vol. 3, Number 4, Winter, 1978. 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 brings together three unlikely German theologians whose notion of process is probably more Hegelian than Whiteheadian. Moltmann, Mühlen and Jüngel insist that three divine persons are intimately involved in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. In and through Jesus the divine life is fulfilled in creation, and creation (above all, human history) is taken up into the ongoing life of God.

Belief that God is tripersonal (i.e., that Father, Son, and Spirit, though three distinct persons, are nevertheless one God) is one of the oldest and most distinctive beliefs of the Christian religion. Yet for many centuries this article of faith, for a number of reasons not to be discussed here, has had relatively little impact on Christian life and worship. In recent years, however, certain West German theologians, notably Jürgen Moltmann, Heribert Mühlen, and Eberhard Jüngel, have "rediscovered" the doctrine of the Trinity as the basis for contemporary Christian belief and practice. Not surprisingly, they have reawakened interest in the Trinity only because they have dramatically altered the frame of reference within which to think out the relations of the three divine persons to one another. That is, they have set aside the traditional understanding of God as a unique spiritual substance in which all three persons somehow share and have moved to a more contemporary understanding of God as an interpersonal process or a community of three coequal persons.1 In effect, they have abandoned the Aristotelian world view in which individual substance was the first category of being and have accepted (even for the doctrine of God) a process understanding of reality. As I shall make clear later, there still remains some ambiguity as to the strict consistency of their process approach, but their efforts thus far nevertheless establish that a process interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity is quite feasible. Furthermore, as I likewise hope to show in this article, acceptance of the hypothesis that the three divine persons constitute an interpersonal process or community opens up new possibilities for Whiteheadian process thinkers to rethink some of the basic presuppositions of their own approach to reality.

The paper, accordingly, will be divided into two parts. In the first part I will lay out briefly the Trinitarian theology of Moltmann, Mühlen and Jüngel and then indicate my differences with them as to the strict consistency of their process understanding of the Trinity. In the second part of the paper I will offer some reflections on the unexpected value of a process interpretation of the Trinity for the enterprise of process philosophy as such. Some basic issues, e.g., whether "societies" exercise agency over and above the agency proper to their constituent actual entities, may thus be viewed in a new light.

I. God as Interpersonal Process

I begin with a brief summary of Jürgen Moltmann’s understanding of the Trinity, as presented in his recent book, The Crucified God. Noting the contemporary ambiguity even among dedicated Christians as to the deeper meaning of belief in God, Moltmann asks himself what the cross of Jesus means for our modern understanding of God. His conclusion is that the passion and resurrection of Jesus reveal to us the compassionate or suffering love of God for his creatures, his deep involvement in human history. Spelling this out in more detail, Moltmann argues that the Father grieves over the death of his Son on the cross: "The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son" (CG 243). In effect, Jesus on the cross experiences the agony of being temporarily forsaken by the Father, while the Father in the same moment experiences the anguish of being separated from his Son, hence of losing his own identity as Father. Yet, says Moltmann, in this surrender of their mutual identity as Father and Son for the sake of sinful human beings, Jesus and the Father experience a new unity with one another in the Spirit. The Spirit as the personification of self-giving love within the Godhead reestablishes the community between Father and Son at the very moment that they are prepared to renounce it. Furthermore, the Spirit is thereby set loose in the world to reconcile men and women with their God and to set up the conditions for a deeper and richer form of human life (CG 247-49).

In this presentation, Moltmann has moved away from the classical understanding of God as absolute and immutable toward a process concept of divinity in which God and the world stand in an ongoing, ever-changing reciprocal relationship. Yet problems remain, largely because Moltmann does not seem to have thought through carefully enough what is involved in this merger between traditional Trinitarian theology and process philosophy. He quotes Whitehead, for example, in support of the thesis that God participates actively in human life and that we human beings in turn contribute to the Trinitarian life of God (CG 255). Yet he does not make clear how the bipolar concept of Cod in Whitehead’s philosophy is compatible with belief in three divine persons. Similarly, Moltmann makes reference to Schubert Ogden when speaking of the transcendence of God to creation and his simultaneous immanence within it (CG 256, 287). But here, too, he merely affirms and does not really establish the basic compatibility between process thought and traditional Trinitarian theology. What seems to be lacking in his exposition is an explicit equation between process in God and community, such that the community life of the three divine persons is understood to be a process, partly identical with the process of human history but also partly distinct from it. Only thus, as I see it, can one be faithful to both traditional Trinitarian theology and to process thought (at least in an extended sense of the term). This latter point, however, I will develop in part two of the article.

The second theologian to be considered is Heribert Mühlen, a Roman Catholic who has published two works on the Trinity in recent years: Der heilige Geist als Person and Die Veränderlichkeit Gottes als Horizont einer zukünftigen Christologie. Only the second will be considered here. Taking note of the altered world-consciousness of human beings in this century, according to which Being is to be understood in strictly interpersonal terms, Mühlen suggests, first of all, that the classical expression homoousios, as applied to the Son’s relationship to the Father, does not necessarily mean that the Son is of the same substance as the Father but only that he is of equal being (gleichseiendlich) with the Father (VG 13). Accordingly, the way is now open to conceive the being of both the Father and the Son as the being or reality of a community. In fact, says Mühlen, Scripture itself implies that the union between Father and Son is not really a physical union within a single substance but rather a moral union within a community (e.g., John 10:30: "The Father and I are one"). Like Moltmann, Mühlen then presents the Spirit as the personified bond of love between the Father and the Son, who at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross is breathed forth upon the world to unite human beings with one another and with the triune God (VG 23-24, 33-36).

More pertinent to the point of this article, Mühlen suggests at the same time that the nature or essence of God is Weggabe des Eigensten, i.e., the giving away of one’s own (VG 31). By this I understand him to mean that the nature of God is a process of self-giving love in which all three persons share. Yet, as noted above, he likewise maintains that the Spirit is the personification of the love between the Father and the Son. It would be more consistent with a thoroughgoing process approach to say that the process of self-giving love is what binds all three persons to one another equally within the divine community and thus constitutes them as one God. To say, on the contrary, that the Spirit is the personification of the love between the Father and the Son is possibly to confuse the terms person and nature. Three separate persons are needed to constitute the divine nature, i.e., the process of self-giving love; but it is the nature, not one of the persons, that binds them together as a unique interpersonal process, hence as one God.

The last theologian to be mentioned here is Eberhard Jüngel, author of Gott als Geheimnis der Welt. Jüngel argues that genuine love is characterized by both selflessness and self-relatedness. In the act of loving, the self both gives itself away to the beloved and recovers its identity on another level as a free gift from the beloved (GGW 435). In true love, accordingly, there is involved a death to an older self in order to attain a new selfhood with the beloved; love is a dynamic unity of life and death for the sake of still richer and deeper life. Jüngel thus brings out quite well the idea that love is a processive reality. He refers to it as an ascendency (Steigerung) in one’s being (GGW 505). The more one gives of oneself, the more one grows in self-possession on another level. Applying this to the doctrine of the Trinity, Jüngel suggests that the Father, Son, and Spirit enhance their previously existing relationship to one another through the decision to give of themselves to their rational creatures: the Father through the gift of his Son to us, the Son through freely allowing himself to be given as such a gift, the Spirit in virtue of his activity as mediator, not just between the Father and the Son, but now likewise between the Father and his adopted sons and daughters (GGW 446-53, 505-14). Each has, so to speak, taken on a new "identity" because of his role in the economy of salvation, and this inevitably enhances their relationships to one another within the divine community. By way of criticism, I simply note that, despite his emphasis on the inner life of Cod as a process of self-giving love, Jüngel, like Moltmann and Mühlen, continues to look upon the Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son. Thereby he (like them) seems to confuse person and nature within the Godhead, with the result that the reality of God as (interpersonal) process remains in the dark.

This concludes my overview of the Trinitarian theology of Moltmann, Mühlen, and Jüngel. From what has already been said, it should be clear that all three have moved away from the classical doctrine of the Trinity based on Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics to a more process- and community-oriented approach. It is, however, also evident from my critique of their respective positions that their endorsement of process categories for the interpretation of the Trinity is still somewhat hesitant and guarded. Above all in their common interpretation of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son, they appear reluctant simply to say that the nature of God is to be an interpersonal process and that the divine persons exist by reason of their common participation in the process.

The understanding of process which I have been using in the foregoing critique is not quite the same as that used by many process theologians and perhaps by Whitehead himself. It is, however, basically compatible with a Whiteheadian world view, in my judgment, provided that one accepts a key point on which I differ, if not from Whitehead, at least from some Whiteheadians. That key point is that communities (or, in Whiteheadian language, structured societies of a particular complexity) exercise an agency which is not simply reducible to the agency of their constituent actual entities. The whole, in other words, is more than the sum of its parts, so that the whole exercises an agency which transcends the specific interaction of individual parts with one another. To explain this point in greater detail, and to make clear why Whiteheadians should be open to this extension of Whitehead’s basic vision, will be the burden of the second part of this article.

II. Communities and Corporate Agency

One of the relatively few Whiteheadians to attempt a process interpretation of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity is Lewis Ford.2 In an article for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, which was subsequently revised and published as a chapter in his recent book The Lure of God Ford claims, first of all, that "God’s relationship to the world necessarily entails a fundamental triunity" (LG 100). He then proceeds to show that this triunity consists of three principles within God: the primordial envisagement or the nontemporal activity of divine self-creation, the primordial nature or atemporal objectification of this nontemporal act, and the consequent nature of God’s intimate response to the temporal world (JAAR 200). Furthermore, these three principles can be roughly correlated with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of traditional Trinitarian belief. But, warns Ford, "this triunity of principles . . . cannot be interpreted as implying a plurality of subjects in personal interaction within the Godhead, even though these principles are formally distinct from one another" (JAAR 207). Three persons would imply three distinct subjectivities within the Godhead, hence three gods.

In terms of Whitehead’s explicit statements in Process and Reality and elsewhere, Ford would seem to be correct here. For Whitehead, every subjectivity (i.e., every actual entity in process of concrescence) is a distinct actuality. Hence "any doctrine suggesting three subjectivities within the Godhead automatically degenerates into tritheism" (LG 94). On the other hand, Whitehead also allows for the combination of actual entities into societies or enduring objects, all of whose members possess a common element of form" (PR 50-51). Would it be possible to use Whitehead’s notion of society (or, better, of a structured society) to describe the Trinity as a community of coequal persons who are themselves in process, hence who are subordinate personally ordered societies within the "democratic" structured society which is the community as such? The initial answer would seem to be no. According to the more common interpretation of Whitehead, a society does not itself exercise agency; all agency is vested in the actual entities which are its constituent parts or members. Hence the democratically organized structured society of three divine persons would be reductively three gods acting in close cooperation, not one God in three persons, as tradition maintains. Only if a Whiteheadian society can be said to exercise agency proper to itself could one use the more specialized category of structured society to describe the interrelation of three divine persons within the Godhead.

Quite apart from the application to the Trinity, this issue, whether societies exercise agency which is in some sense distinct from the agency of their constituent actual entities remains a matter of debate among Whiteheadians. Ivor Leclerc, for example, in his book The Nature of Physical Existence assumes that Whitehead, like Leibniz before him, is basically an atomist, hence that in Whitehead’s view all structured societies (or compound substances) are reductively aggregates of actual entities which alone exercise agency in the strict sense (NPE 297-313). He himself, however, is convinced that complex physical organisms exercise levels of existence and activity which are not simply reducible to the interaction of their component parts. Hence in opposition to Whitehead, at least as he understands him, Leclerc advocates a modified Aristotelianism, according to which the subordinate entities within a physical organism "act on each other reciprocally, and are thus each modified, in some respect, by the relationship, that is, by their acting" (NPE 309). This reciprocal acting constitutes a tie or bond between them, which Leclerc identifies with the substantial form of classical Aristotelianism. Hence, although there are potentially many separate substances within a physical organism, in act here and now there is only one substance unified by a single substantial form (NPE 310-13).

David Griffin, on the other hand, agrees with Leclerc that complex physical organisms are more than simple aggregates of actual entities, but maintains at the same time that such a view is altogether consistent with Whitehead’s philosophy. In brief, he believes that the dominant or "regnant" society within a structured society enables that same structured society to exercise an agency proper to its own level of existence and activity. I quote from an article by Griffin in Mind in Nature:

Whitehead does not reduce the activity of complex beings to a mere function of the activity of the simplest parts. . . . The higher-level actualities are dependent upon the lower-level ones; but the higher-level ones are equally actual, and have their own efficacy. Hence the activity of the living cell is not totally a product of the inorganic constituents, but is partly due to the living occasions within the cell. The activity of the human being is not totally a product of the bodily cells, but is partly due to the central series of actual occasions which sometimes is conscious. (MN 133)

Griffin, of course, has in mind a structured society which is organized monarchically, i.e., in terms of a regnant society and various subordinate societies within the structured society as a whole. This notion is not applicable to the Trinity. If the Trinity is not organized democratically, it will be a quaternity, i.e., three personally ordered subordinate societies which correspond to the three persons of the Trinity, plus a fourth society, whether personally ordered or not, constituting their unity as one God.

In order to develop further this concept of a democratically organized structured society as a model for the Trinity within a Whiteheadian context, we should reexamine what Leclerc means by substantial form. By his own admission, Leclerc is not setting forth the traditional Aristotelian understanding of substantial form (NPE 307). According to Leclerc, the subordinate entities within a compound substance

act on each other reciprocally, and are thus modified, in some respect, by the relationship, that is, by their acting. This reciprocal acting constitutes a tie or bond between them, this bond being the relation -- which exists only in the acting, and not as some tertium quid. The word ‘relation’. . . connotes both the act, the relating, and what the act achieves. The ‘whatness’ is the form or character of the relation. (NPE 309f)

Leclerc then goes on to say that the unity thus achieved within the organism is the unity of a substance. He argues: "there is a weighty consensus, from Plato and Aristotle down the ages to Leibniz and Whitehead, that unity must be grounded in substance. This means that in the ultimate and primary sense unity is the unity of substance per se (NPE 310). But is this necessarily true? Within a processive world view, such as Leclerc himself espouses, would it not be more consistent to say that unity is grounded in process, not substance? Hence the unity of a complex physical organism should be the unity of a process, not the unity of a substance.

What is meant by the unity of a process, as opposed to the unity of a substance? Both the traditional understanding of substance and my understanding of process allow for functioning totalities greater than the sum of their constituent parts. Whereas a substance presumably reduces its parts to its own subsistent actuality, a process, however, is in one sense nothing more than its parts in dynamic interaction. Through their interaction with one another, to be sure, the parts of a process create something bigger than themselves as parts, namely, the process as a whole which exercises agency proper to itself. Yet the parts have to remain fully actual in order to constitute the process. Within a substance, on the other hand, the parts by definition are not fully actual; i.e., they are not substances in their own right as long as they remain parts of still another substance. The unity of a substance and the unity of a process differ significantly, therefore, in the matter of the ontological status of the parts.

Ervin Laszlo, in a book entitled The Systems View of the World, seems to confirm this same understanding of process. His key concept, to be sure, is not process, but "natural system," defined as "any system which does not owe its existence to conscious human planning and execution" (SVW 23). Thereby he includes suborganic entities such as atoms and molecules, organic bodies of all kinds, including human beings, and supraorganic entities such as communities. Important for our purposes, however, is the fact that Laszlo’s natural systems resemble processes, as I have described them above, on two key points.

First, a natural system for Laszlo is a whole or totality rather than a "heap"; that is, whereas a heap is simply the sum of its parts, the whole or totality possesses properties which are not reducible to the properties of the individual members or parts taken in isolation. He uses the example of group behavior among human beings:

Since people behave differently in small intimate groups than in large public ones, there are some things we can say about the behavior of people in groups that refer to the structure of the group rather than to the individuality of its members. . . . The group manifests characteristics in virtue of being a group of a certain sort, and may maintain these properties even if all its individual members are replaced. Hence one might as well deal with the group qua group. And this means dealing with it as with a whole endowed with irreducible properties. (SVW 29)

The second point of similarity is apparent in Laszlo’s insistence that the parts or members of a natural system exist as fully actual entities in their own right, even as they constitute by their interaction with one another the more comprehensive reality of the system. As he says, "the properties of the group are irreducible to the properties of its individual members although not, of course, to the properties of its members plus their relations with each other" (SVW 29). Unlike accidents within a substance, which by definition have no independent ontological reality of their own, the members of a natural system are themselves fully actual and yet at the same time parts of the broader actuality of the system. On these two points Laszlo’s notion of natural system and my understanding of process coincide exactly.

To sum up, Leclerc argues against Whitehead, as he understands him, that a complex physical organism exercises an agency proper to itself which is not simply reducible to the agency of its constituent actual entities. Leclerc attributes this agency to a substantial form, after the manner of Aristotle. His understanding of substantial form, however, is remarkably akin to what I mean by the unity of a process and what Laszlo means by the unity of a natural system. Hence, within a basically Whiteheadian frame of reference, there can presumably exist democratically organized structured societies which possess a unity and exercise an agency proper to themselves as actualities of a higher order than their constituent parts or members. Griffin, it will be remembered, affirmed this same possibility for monarchically organized structured societies within a Whiteheadian perspective; according to his way of thinking, the regnant society within that structured society enables the society as a whole to possess that higher unity and exercise that more comprehensive agency. What I am proposing is that such regnant societies may not be necessary in every instance, that the structured society itself, as a process of a higher order than its constituent parts or members, possesses its own unity and exercises its own agency, quite apart from whether it is organized monarchically or democratically. In that sense, the democratically organized structured society is more characteristic of structured societies as such; the monarchically organized structured society is more specialized, since, as noted above, it possesses its internal unity and exercises its specific agency through one of its parts or members.

Given this basic understanding of structured societies, the way seems clear to start thinking of the Trinity as a democratically organized structured society, with the three divine persons as personally ordered subordinate societies. To establish this proposal in more detail, I will now have recourse to the work of Josiah Royce -- a non-Whiteheadian process thinker -- in his book The Problem of Christianity. I shall not endorse Royce’s own conception of the Trinity in this book, since it is more Sabellian or modalistic than genuinely Trinitarian.3 Rather, my intention is first to summarize Royce’s understanding of human community, then to make clear how it corresponds to a democratically organized structured society within a Whiteheadian perspective, and finally to apply this understanding of community to the Trinity in order to clarify the notion of God as a community of divine persons.

Royce believes that "a true community is essentially the product of a time-process. A community has a past and will have a future. Its more or less conscious history, real or ideal, is a part of its very essence" (PC 243). The community-building process, says Royce, is constituted by human beings engaged in acts of "interpretation" with one another. That is, they are seeking the truth about themselves, their relations to one another, the world of nature, the history of the universe, etc., through ongoing dialogue, continuous exchange of views on these same subjects (PC 312-19). Thus each of the participants to the dialogue is in process, continuously growing in knowledge of self, other human beings, the world, etc., and the interaction of these persons in process as individual beings constitutes the broader process which is the community. In brief, then, a community is, in Whiteheadian terms, a democratically organized structured society which arises out of the continuous interaction of its person-members with one another.

Furthermore, Royce believes that communities as communal processes of interpretation enjoy a higher level of existence and activity than that of their members taken singly. As he says in The Problem of Christianity, "there are in the human world two profoundly different grades, or levels, of mental beings -- namely, the beings that we usually call human individuals, and the beings that we call communities" (PC 122). He elaborates on that same point thus:

A community is not a mere collection of individuals. It is a sort of live unity, that has organs, as the body of an individual has organs. A community grows or decays, is healthy or diseased, is young or aged, much as any individual member of the community possesses such characters. Each of the two, the community or the individual member, is as much a live creature as the other. (PC 80)

One detects here a tendency on Royce’s part to think and talk about communities as if they were supraindividual persons. In fact, in one place, he explicitly says that a community has a mind of its own, in some sense distinct from the minds of its individual members: "The social mind displays its psychological traits in its characteristic products, -- in languages, in customs, in religions, -- products which an individual mind, or even a collection of such minds, when they are not organized into a genuine community, cannot produce" (PC 80-81). This statement confuses the agency proper to an individual person and the agency appropriate for a community. Both the individual person and the community are ongoing processes of interpretation. But, whereas minds in the strict sense are needed for individuals to engage in acts of interpretation, only a mentality or set of shared presuppositions and feelings is needed for a community to act as agent in the creation of languages, customs, religions, etc. Yet this minor inconsistency in his description of the agency of a community should not blind us to Royce’s principal insight, namely, that a community is a democratically organized structured society which in some sense transcends the existence and activity of its person-members.

Applying Royce’s understanding of community to the doctrine of the Trinity, one could say that the three divine persons are one God by reason of their common participation in an ongoing process of interpretation which is their life in community. That is, they are constantly engaged in a shared interpretation of their past, present, and future. Their individual interpretations, however, do not differ sharply from one another, as sometimes happens in human communities, for two reasons. First, each of them has perfect self-knowledge and unlimited understanding of the other two persons; there are, accordingly, no points of disagreement between them as a result of ignorance or simple misunderstanding of one another’s intentions. Secondly, and more importantly, they realize fully what we human beings only sense obscurely, namely, that the intrinsic dynamism of mind and will within the individual person is toward transcendence, participation in the more comprehensive "mind" and "will" of a community. Hence the three divine persons experience no contradiction in always thinking and acting alike. Furthermore, precisely as a community (or, in Whiteheadian terms, a structured society), they possess a higher unity and greater actuality than would theoretically be possible for each of them as individual persons, i.e., as separate personally ordered societies. Hence, only in virtue of their relationship to one another within the structured society which is the divine community are the three divine persons truly God, i.e., the Supreme Being, than which nothing greater can be thought.4

Moltmann, Mühlen, and Jüngel, admittedly, do not speak of the inner life of God as an ongoing process of interpretation but rather as a process of self-giving love. To my way of thinking, however, this is a minor discrepancy. Perfect knowledge implies perfect love, and vice-versa. The only significant point of difference between my understanding of the Trinity and theirs is the one which I urged earlier in my critique of their respective theories: namely, that the role of the Spirit within the Trinity as the bond of love between the Father and the Son should not overshadow the fact that God is by nature community or interpersonal process. The Spirit, in other words, does not in his role as mediator create community between himself, the Father, and the Son as already existing, separate individuals. This would be reductively tritheism, belief in three gods. Rather, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are separate persons only because they are concomitantly members of the interpersonal process which is their common divine nature. Their plurality as separate persons is grounded in their simultaneous unity as a community. Only thus can God be genuinely triune, one in three.

Finally, a word should be said about the God-world relationship within this scheme of things. As I see it, a process understanding of the Trinity such as I propose could be an unexpected asset to Whiteheadian theologians in maintaining that God is both transcendent to and immanent within the world or the process of creation. For, if the three divine persons have a life of their own as members of the divine community and yet choose to share it through creation, above all, through the creation of human beings who can respond to themselves as (divine) persons, then there is little or no danger that God will be seen as a function, albeit a key function, within a processive world order. Nor is there any danger that, thus conceived, God will be absent from the world, as in classical theology. On the contrary, because the nature of God is here conceived processively, i.e., as an ongoing process of interpretation and/or self-giving love, the process of creation can be contained within the broader process which is the divine life. The process of creation, including all of human history, is then part of the subject matter for the never-ending dialogue or process of interpretation between the divine persons. Or, seen from the opposite perspective, creation (and with it all of human history) is a partial expression of the exchange of love between the three divine persons from all eternity. This seems to be what Moltmann, Mühlen and Jüngel are proposing when they insist that all three divine persons are intimately involved in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. In and through Jesus the divine life is fulfilled in creation, and creation (above all, human history) is taken up into the ongoing life of God.

Diagrammatically, this God-world relationship may be expressed as follows. Imagine three circles touching one another in the overall shape of a triangle: two at the base and one between and above the other two (cf. below). The circle at the base on the left-hand side may be designated as the Father; the circle on the right-hand side, the Son; and the circle above and between the other two, the Spirit. Within the circle proper to the Son exist three other concentric circles. The center-point of all these circles is Jesus who as the God-man is operationally one with the Second person of the Trinity.

Through union with Jesus, the Son is, moreover, both a member of and "regnant" within, first, the Church (the innermost circle), then the human community ( the intermediate circle, and finally, a creation as a whole (the outermost of the three circles).


Graphic circles Page 227


Whatever happens in any one of these progressively larger structured societies impacts directly and immediately upon the Son. But through the Son, it also affects the Father as the transcendent ground of all creation; likewise, it affects the Spirit as the mediator between the Father and the Son (and thus between the Father and creation). At the same time, as the symbolism of the three major circles touching one another makes clear, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit enjoy an interpersonal life with one another which is, to some extent at least, independent of what transpires within creation.5

I concede, in conclusion, that I have brought together some unlikely "bedfellows": German theologians whose notion of process is probably more Hegelian than Whiteheadian, Whitehead himself, and Josiah Royce, a predecessor of Whitehead in process philosophy. In spite of the imprecision and ambiguity which results from drawing such overarching connections, efforts of this kind can open up new lines of thought, new possibilities for research and reflection. One hopes that the present article has achieved that goal.



CG -- Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, translated by R. A. Wilson and John Bowden. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

GGW -- Eberhard Jüngel, Gott als Geheimnis der Welt. 2nd ed. Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1977.

JAAR -- Lewis S. Ford, "Process Trinitarianism," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 43 (1975), 199-213.

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

MN -- David Ray Griffin, "Whitehead’s Philosophy and Some General Notions of Physics and Biology," Mind in Nature: Essays on the Interface of Science and Philosophy, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1977, pp. 122-34.

NPE -- Ivor Leclerc, The Nature of Physical Existence. New York: Humanities Press, 1972.

PC -- Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

SVW -- Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World. New York: Braziller, 1972.

VC -- Heribert Mühlen, Die Veränderlichkeit Gottes als Horizont einer zukünftigen Christologie. Münster: Aschendorff, 1969.



I For a more extensive overview of this move in contemporary theology to a processive and communitarian understanding of the Trinity ,cf. my recent book What Are They Saying about the Trinity? (New York: Paulist, 1979).

2 Two others are Norman Pittenger in his book God in Process (London: S. C. M. Press, 1967), and Lionel Thornton, author of The Incarnate Lord (London: Longmans, Green, 1928). Whereas Pittenger simply refers to the Trinity as "The Three in One" without further elaboration on how this is possible within a process framework (p 49f). Thornton offers a social interpretation of the Trinity which is basically consistent with his process explanation of Creation and the Incarnation. He argues, for example, that God is Absolute Individuality (pp. 271-73). that individuality in creation is always the dynamic unity of a plurality of parts or members (pp. 40-46), hence that God too must be a dynamic unity in plurality, or in other words a Trinity, of coequal divine persons (p. 415). Thornton’s vision both of the Trinity and of the relation of the three divine persons to creation is closely akin to my own hypothesis, as will be evident later in this article, There are, however, significant points of difference between the two theories. Thornton, for example, does not envisage change or development in God, whereas I postulate that the three divine persons undergo change in their relationships to one another as a result of their involvement with their (rational) creatures. Likewise, it is not clear to me that Thornton endorses an understanding of the Trinity as a community. Rather, he seems to say all three persons participate equally but differently in the one Actuality or Individuality which is the Godhead. If he were to equate divine individuality with community or interpersonal process, then our differences on this point would be purely terminological.

3 In the only passage from The Problem of Christianity where the doctrine of the Trinity is discussed at length, Royce does not make clear whether he affirms an ontological triunity of persons within the Godhead or simply a distinction of divine persons within the religious experience of the believer (PC 135-39). In any case, he does not conceive the three divine persons as members of a community along the lines which I propose in this article.

4 Here one could counterargue that a divine community consisting of four or five persons would be "greater" than one containing only three persons, that a community of ten persons would be greater still, and so on ad infinitum, with the net result that the notion of God as a community of divine persons would be completely discredited. By way of response, I would suggest that, whereas two persons are obviously needed to constitute an interpersonal relationship, three (and only three) are needed to create a genuine community. In a pair of articles written some years ago ("The Holy Trinity as a Community of Divine Persons," Heythrop Journal 15 [1974], 166-82,257-70), I endorsed the argument of the medieval theologian, Richard of Saint Victor, to the effect that two persons in love with one another need a third person whom they mutually love, precisely in order to achieve the fullness of love for one another. Only then do they love each other so much that they are willing to share their love for one another with a third party (cf. p. 264f). In the intervening years, my appreciation for this insight of Richard of Saint Victor has only deepened. Not mutual love as such, but rather shared love, self-giving love, is the hallmark of true community. Moreover, as Richard also notes, only three persons are needed to constitute a community, provided that both of the original parties love the same third person. According to tradition, this is precisely the situation which prevails within the Trinity: the Father and the Son both love the same divine Spirit with an infinite love, Hence it seems safe to conclude that no further persons are needed to constitute the divine community. Finally, I simply note in passing th at for Royce the sdeal community of interpretation likewise consists of three persons: "the interpreter, the mind to which he addresses the interpretation, [and] the mind which he undertakes to interpret" (PC 314). Hence, from still another perspective, it seems legitimate to conclude that God is a community of three (and only three) divine persons.

5 The broader implications of this scheme for process philosophy are quite significant, in my judgment, and can be briefly summarized as follows. The key concept in Whitehead philosophy is unquestionably that of actual entity. Everything is either itself an actual entity or the result of a combination of actual entities, namely, a society of one kind or another. Not surprisingly, God too is an actual entity, in fact, the "chief exemplification" of an actual entity (PR 521). The process of concrescence which takes place in God is directly parallel to the process of concrescence in all the other actual entities in the world. Within the scheme which I have sketched above, God is likewise in process. But the process in question is not the concrescence of an actual entity, but rather an interpersonal process involving three divine persons. As such, it does not have an immediate counter art in all other forms of process to be found in the world. Yet the basic structure of the divine interpersonal process, as we have seen above, is that of a democratically organized structured society; even more generically, it could be described as a self-sustaining unity in totality of functioning parts or members. This generic structure, I propose, is characteristic, not only of the divine community, but likewise of all other societies, in the Whiteheadian sense of the term, within the world process. Furthermore, it can even be used to describe the structure of an actual entity. That is, an actual entity is also a self-sustaining unity in totality of functioning parts or members, provided that one understands by ‘parts’ physical and conceptual prehensions. Given the universal applicability of this structure to all possible forms of process within a Whiteheadian universe, one could, it seems to me, regard it instead of actual entity as the key operative concept in process philosophy. By this I do not mean that the term actual entity should be dropped in favor of self-sustaining unity in totality of functioning parts or of members. Rather, actual entities should be regarded as just one instance of the verification of this analogical structure; other instances would be societies of varying degrees of complexity, up to and including the divine community. There would, accordingly, be various units of process in the universe with the larger units generally incorporating the smaller units within themselves, But each unit, from the smallest (a given actual entity) to the largest (the divine community) would be structured the same way, i.e., as a self-sustaining unity in totality of functioning parts or members. The advantages of such an approach, in my judgment, would be twofold. First, it would be consistent with Whitehead’s own methodology, in this way to make God the chief exemplar for the understanding of process everywhere else in the world, Secondly, and more importantly, it might help to correct the unfortunate tendency even among Whiteheadians subconsciously to regard actual entities as atoms, minisubstances which are, so to speak, the building blocks of the world process. From this perspective, actual entities, no less than the societies into which they combine, would be genuinely processive realities. I leave to the reader, however, the final judgment on the cogency of these reflections for the enterprise of process philosophy.