Process-Relational Christian Soteriology: A Response to Wheeler

by David Basinger

David Basinger teaches philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 114-117, Vol. 18, Number 2, Summer, 1989. 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 responds to David Wheeler’s “Toward a Process-Relational Christian Soteriology.” What Wheeler says about the relationship between evangelical thought and Whiteheadian process seems uncertain. There are greater differences between these approaches than Wheeler realizes.

David Wheeler presents us with an interesting, thought-provoking discussion on a topic of obvious importance to any Christian. His basic objective is to correlate the "revealed and experienced Christ of the evangelicals" with the process world view in such a fashion that the evangelical perspective "might illuminate" the process world view and the process world view "might provide an explanatory context" for the evangelical experience. More specifically, his goal is "to examine -- with a frank apologetic agenda near at hand -- the possibilities for envisioning the transformation of humanity through relationship with Christ, as per Biblical tradition and Christian experience, in a process-relational mode"

I find the manner in which Wheeler examines the soteriological positions of both evangelical and process thinkers quite intriguing. One seldom finds an equally sympathetic treatment of the views of proponents of these two, seemingly divergent, theological schools. Moreover, I believe he does a very fine job of making the rather abstract soteriological positions of various process thinkers accessible to even the previously uninitiated.

I must confess, though, that I am not certain exactly what Wheeler himself wants to say about the relationship between evangelical and process thought on the issue at hand. However, it seems to me that his discussion contains at least three distinct, although not mutually exclusive, theses.

1. It appears that Wheeler occasionally wants to demonstrate that the standard evangelical understanding of Christ’s transforming power can be fruitfully illuminated if considered in terms of process categories. For example, Wheeler grants that the "New Testament images and concepts of human transformation such as justification, reconciliation, redemption and sanctification" have a long, rich history of "evangelical" interpretation. But he believes that such images and concepts can acquire fresh meaning if considered in terms of the Whiteheadian understanding of Jesus as our model of what it means to overcome the common divergence that we as humans experience between that course of action which God presents to us and that course of action we find ourselves naturally wanting to follow (104).

This type of hermeneutical endeavor seems to me to be valid, although it is not new or overly controversial. In fact, process theists sometimes admit that their theological horizons are expanded by considering the traditional (classical) perspectives on various issues (PTE 95-110). But it may well be that many evangelicals need to be reminded of the value of occasionally viewing their beliefs through ‘different eyes’.

2. At other points, though, Wheeler seems to be making a stronger claim: that the basic soteriological beliefs of process thinkers and evangelicals are more similar than it might initially appear. This is not to say that Wheeler believes that such beliefs are similar, or even compatible, at every point. He points out, for example, that while strict Whiteheadian thought does not allow for any "true end (finis) or beginning the biblical witness, on the contrary, is pervaded throughout its length and breadth with the concept of a movement of God’s grace toward an end that is both teleos and finis" (111).

However, when discussing the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, Wheeler maintains that whether "Jesus Christ’s divine-human unity is the sole member of its class, as evangelical Christians would typically claim," or is "a paradigmatic member of a class with multiple members" as Whiteheadians contend, this crucial unity can be construed more fundamentally by those in both groups as an example of a systemic change of the God-world relationship happening once in the history of humanity globally (105).

When discussing Christ’s transforming effect upon humanity, Wheeler implies that, for both evangelicals and process theists, the essence of any such transformation "will not involve merely a perfecting of our intrinsic capabilities, but an overcoming of human hostility to God’s aims, a healing of human deformation consequent to that hostility, and a reuniting of humanity with the God from whom we are estranged." In other words, for those in both camps, as he sees it, "our fulfillment is always found . . . beyond our own personal resources" (105, 106). And at yet another point, we are told that, although evangelicals cannot accept all of what process theists mean when they say that the world is ‘God’s body’, there is a "striking parallel" between the process concept of "God’s self-embodiment in a redeemed world" and "the biblical image of the church as the ‘Body of Christ"’ (111).

In short, Wheeler does seem to want to convince us that the rather esoteric terminology used by both process theists and evangelicals at times masks basic soteriological agreement.

To some extent, this may be true. Both process theists and evangelicals do believe, for instance, that our fulfillment is found beyond our own personal resources and that Jesus brought about a systemic change in the God-world relationship. And perhaps terminological differences have kept some from realizing this fact. But I do not believe that terminological differences normally, or even frequently, mask basic agreement (as some might read Wheeler as saying). In fact, it seems to me that just the opposite is true. It seems to me that similar terminology often masks the actual extent to which process thinkers (especially of the Whiteheadian variety) and evangelicals differ on soteriological issues.

The evangelical world view is fundamentally supernaturalistic. That is, evangelicals do not believe only that God can unilaterally intervene in earthly affairs; they believe that God has often done so. The Whiteheadian world view, on the other hand, is radically antisupernaturalistic in this sense. For such process theists, it is not simply that God has chosen not to intervene unilaterally in earthly affairs (as even some classical theists maintain); God cannot do so. All reality is cocreative. Every person (and every other entity) is at every moment free to reject God’s aims.

Accordingly, although both Whiteheadians and evangelicals can talk with sincerity about the desire for humanity to be transformed and the important, unique role that Jesus Christ plays in this process, exactly what this means differs radically. For the Whiteheadian, it can be said that Jesus understood and acted in accordance with God’s aims to a higher degree than any other human. And it can be said that Jesus was (and continues to be) ‘the Christ’ in his role of opening others to creative transformation. But Jesus was fully human. He was not an exception to the metaphysical model. Specifically, Jesus was not God to any greater degree than any other human.

However, for most evangelicals, Jesus Christ not only is both fully God and fully human; he must be. This is a foundational metaphysical tenet in the evangelical understanding of soteriology. Thus, while process thinkers and evangelicals may both be able to claim with integrity that, through Jesus Christ, we can overcome our human "hostility to God’s aims" and be "reunited with God," for evangelicals this is true only because God became human, died and rose again -- that is, because God unilaterally intervened in the most direct manner possible in earthly affairs. In short, with respect to the divinity of Jesus, evangelicals must categorically affirm what Whiteheadians must categorically deny (PT 43-54).

Moreover, the manner in which a person comes to conform her aims to those of God differs substantively in these two schools of thought. For evangelicals, the empowering work of the Holy Spirit is essential. That is, the potential for human transformation that God, the ‘Father’, unilaterally made available through Jesus Christ, the ‘Son’, cannot become a reality without the continuous energizing activity of this distinct, equally divine, third person of the Trinity. However, leading Whiteheadians such as John B. Cobb and David Griffin consider the traditional evangelical understanding of the Trinity to be "a source of distortion" and "an artificial game (PTE 110). For such process theists, there is only one ‘divine entity’ and the key to transformation is our willingness to respond to the creative-response love of this entity -- to respond to the ideal options of which God continuously makes us aware.

Finally, the eschatological differences between Whiteheadian process thought and evangelical thought are much more profound and substantive than Wheeler indicates. It is not just that the Whiteheadian believes there is no unilaterally imposed beginning or end. More importantly, the Whiteheadian cannot be nearly as anthropocentric as is the evangelical. For evangelicals, humanity is believed to be the most significant aspect of creation. Hence, the work of Jesus Christ in reconciling humans with God is usually viewed as the ultimate act of divine love.

But for Whiteheadian process theists, God’s primary creative purpose has always been (and will always be) to bring about the "maximum attainment of intensity compatible with harmony that is possible under the circumstances of the actual situation" (PP 295). Accordingly, while it may be true that humanity is, to date, the supreme work of God on this earth," humanity cannot be viewed within this school of process thought as the fulfillment of God’s primary creative purpose. That is, humanity cannot be viewed as having any sort of privileged status in the ultimate scheme of things (GW 95). In fact, "it is quite possible," in the words of Lewis Ford, "that in time [the evolutionary process] might bypass man and the entire class of mammals to favor some very different species capable of greater complexity than man can achieve" (PP 290).

The fact that I am emphasizing such fundamental differences between Whiteheadian and evangelical thought does not mean that proponents of the two camps do not, for example, have much in common with respect to the social, political and economic challenges before us and, thus, cannot work together to bring about a more just world -- a world in which Jesus’ life becomes a model to be emulated. But I see little basis for claiming that these two schools of thought actually have much in common on the basic soteriological issues which Wheeler raises. On such issues, let me repeat again, I believe that the differences between Whiteheadian and evangelical thought are far more basic and profound than the differing terminology they employ might indicate.

But what of those non-Whiteheadian strands of process thought which do not necessarily deny that God can unilaterally intervene in earthly affairs? What, for instance, of the ‘classical’ process system envisioned by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? Cannot it at least be said that the soteriological beliefs of process thinkers in this category are much closer to the beliefs held by evangelicals than many realize?

Wheeler seems to think so, and this may well be true. But if so, then it is also true that the soteriological beliefs of such process theists are much less similar to those of Whiteheadian process theists than most realize. And this points the way to my only substantive disagreement with Wheeler’s general project. As I implied before, I believe that those who differ on the question of whether God can unilaterally bring about any state of affairs have fundamentally different metaphysical foundations for their soteriological positions. Thus, the fact that those whom Wheeler considers process theists appear to differ on this question indicates to me that there does not exist one general process soteriological perspective with which the evangelical perspective can be compared. There are at least two strands of process soteriological thought to be considered, strands of thought which are much more divergent that Wheeler acknowledges.

3. Finally, it sometimes appears that Wheeler’s primary goal is not to demonstrate that Whiteheadian and evangelical thought are actually similar on soteriological issues but rather to demonstrate that it is possible to produce a coherent synthesis of the two, a synthesis which incorporates what is most illuminating in each. For example, after noting the obvious incompatibility between the Whiteheadian belief that the world is an endless process and the evangelical belief that this world has both a definite beginning and an end, Wheeler presents, with seeming approval, a position which claims to "mediate at this point between biblical eschatology and process-relational cosmology." This compromise, proposed by a "process thinker" in the Teilhardian mold, allows for the completion of God’s will for this cosmic epic (an evangelical tenet), but does not rule out the possibility that there is "life beyond" this cosmic epic (a Whiteheadian belief [112]).

Likewise, when Wheeler notes the apparent contradiction between "the preeminent emphasis on individual salvation so characteristic of . . . American evangelical Christianity, in particular," and the process emphasis on the transformation (salvation) of the world as a whole," he appears again to favor a compromise (110). God, we are told, does call for "individual decision," as evangelicals emphasize, but does so "in the context of the ultimate state of affairs that God [is] bringing about," as process theists stress (110).

This type of dialectic seems to me both valid and useful. As I have repeatedly emphasized, Whiteheadian process thinkers and evangelicals are at odds over the fundamental role that God plays in the soteriological process. Whiteheadians deny that God can unilaterally transform any person or thing while evangelicals believe that human transformation is possible only because some form of unilateral intervention has occurred, and continues to occur. But there may well be many Christians who are uneasy with the antisupernaturalistic Whiteheadian model of transformation, and yet are not committed to the strongly supernaturalistic and individualistic model of transformation found in evangelical thought. For such individuals, a coherent synthesis of the two -- perhaps in some quasi-Teilhardian form -- becomes an attractive option. Read in this light, I believe Wheeler’s discussion offers us some exciting possibilities.



GW -- John B. Cobb, Jr. God and the World. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.

PP -- Lewis Ford. "Divine Persuasion and the Triumph of Good." In Process Philosophy and Christian Thought. D. Brown, R. James, and O. Reeves, eds. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971.

PT -- Donald G. Bloesch. "Process Theology and Reformed Theology." In Process Theology, ed. Ronald N. Nash. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987.

PTE -- David R. Griffin and John B. Cobb, Jr. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976.