Wesley the Process Theologian

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

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

This is one of a series of five lectures delivered at Point Loma University, San Diego, February 2,000. Published by permission of the author.


Cobb holds that Wesley was a process theologian in the sense that Wesley sees God as working with each human being through the course of our lives — a process. Wesley pays close attention to the actual changes that occur: the emergence of faith, growth in love, falling back into sin. A large part of his preaching and theology deal with the stages of this process and how God works in them. None of this is decided from all eternity. It is worked out in a real process of interaction between the individual and God.

You may understandably think that this title is the most anachronistic of all. If a process theologian is one who has been influenced by philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, then obviously you are right. Historical influence does not work backwards in time.

But my argument is that in a general sense process thought has been around for a long time. In philosophy in the West, we trace it back to Heraclitus. In India it was richly developed by Gautama Buddha. In general, if we consider the two main sources of Christian theology as the Bible and Greek philosophy, we can say that process thought is more characteristic of the Bible than substance thought of the Greeks. Given this broad use of the term, it is not anachronistic to claim that Wesley came down much more on the side of process.

Let me explain my use of the terms "substance" and "process." If I ask you give me examples of substantial things, I suspect you will point to rocks and sticks, plants and animal bodies, perhaps also atoms and heavenly bodies. Most Greek philosophy, except for Heraclitus, took its cue from reflection about things like this. Most modern science did so as well.

Now if I ask you to identify some processes, you might find that a bit less clear. It might be better for me to ask you to identify some events. That you can do easily. A lecture is an event, and so is an election. A wedding is an event, and so is a war. Birth and death are events. I could then explain that by a process I refer to a sequence of events. A person’s life from birth to death is a process. So is the history of Israel.

It should now be easy to understand the sense in which I claim that the Bible is more about processes than substances. There is very little reflection about objects and their attributes. There is a great deal of story telling and history.

In the formation of Christian theology, the Greek influence was very great. Whereas most Biblical talk of God locates God as an actor in a story, the theology forged in the early centuries is deeply influenced by Greek reflection about substances. The resulting picture of God is in severe tension with the actor in the story. We are told that God cannot be affected by anything that happens. God cannot act differently at different times.

The understanding of Jesus is also affected. Instead of thinking primarily about the story of Jesus in the gospels and how God is involved in that story, we are offered reflections about how the divine substance and the human substance can be united in one person. The resultant doctrine led many to suppose that Jesus was not really affected by interactions with others. He was so far removed from ordinary human experience that Christians needed an intermediary in order to relate to him. Mary served that purpose for many.

The Reformation was in part a protest against the dominance of Greek substance categories over biblical historical and personal ones. But the former were never systematically excised from official doctrine, and Aristotle quickly recaptured a leading place in Lutheran theological education. To a surprising extent, conservative Protestant philosophers of religion continue to follow the guidance of Thomas Aquinas, the great Aristotelian theologian.

Calvin belonged to the nominalist or voluntarist theological tradition. Instead of focusing with Thomas on the being of God, he focused on God’s will. This could be a more biblical, event-oriented, approach. But Calvin emphasized the immutability of God as much as the earlier substance-oriented theologians had done. The logical implication is that everything is determined from the outset by God’s one, unchanging act of will. The narrative history told in the Bible is, then, simply the outworking in time of that eternal act.

Now there is much in Calvin and in subsequent Calvinists that is far more fully influenced by the biblical account. There is much process in Calvin. Nevertheless, his most fundamental pronouncements work against this, and to a considerable extent he was willing to draw the logical conclusions. Some of his followers went even farther in doing so.

At this point you will understand why I claim Wesley for the process side of this long debate. Wesley sees God as working with each human being through the course of our lives. He pays close attention to the actual changes that occur: the emergence of faith, growth in love, falling back into sin. A large part of his preaching and theology deal with the stages of this process and how God works in them. None of this is decided from all eternity. It is worked out in a real process of interaction between the individual and God.

Of course, Wesley did not think of this in terms of the distinction between substance and process. Hence he did not thematically work out the implications of choosing for process. He is not a process theologian in the sense of having chosen to build his theology in relation to a process philosophy instead of a substance one. He was far from ignorant of philosophy and he engaged philosophers in significant ways, but these philosophers did not themselves develop their thought in terms of this alternative. They were all substance philosophers, even though their work began the process of undercutting the concept of substance. Wesley was a process thinker, I believe, because he was immersed in the Bible and because he was radically open to what he actually experienced.

This far you may be able to accompany me even if you are not sympathetic with any of the forms of contemporary process theology. But I would like to persuade you that there are important features of Wesley’s thought that parallel closely with more technical doctrines arising out of recent process philosophy. In short, I believe that Wesley’s theology as some forms of contemporary process theology are more closely related than one would expect from their quite different social locations and histories.

The contemporary form of process thought to which I will limit my remarks is that of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers, among whom I count myself. Whereas Wesley came to his theology chiefly out of his study of the Bible and his personal experience, Whitehead was a mathematical physicist trying to make coherent sense of deep perplexities created by new discoveries in the early part of this century. On the other hand, this exaggerates their differences. Wesley was keenly interested in science and saw it as another basis for understanding God and the world. Whitehead was keenly interested in religious experience and believed that any adequate cosmology must learn from it and make sense of it. Incidentally both were products of vicarages of the Church of England.

In my opinion, the greatest theological contribution of Wesley was his way of affirming human responsibility for our ultimate destiny and daily life while strongly maintaining the primacy of faith. This provided a third way between Calvinism and deism. Calvinists thought that they must exclude any human contribution to salvation to avoid allowing Christians to believe that they were saved by their virtue. Deists thought that God gave us free will and that everything else is up to us. Wesley found both views deeply alien to the Bible. The problem was formulating a coherent alternative.

One possibility is to say that God urges all of us to accept the gift of salvation, and that some do and some don’t. This is a sense acknowledges the primacy of grace, but since the result depends on a human decision, the Calvinist fear is realized. Finally, believers can claim that they deserve salvation because they chose rightly. Wesley agreed that this possibility of boasting must be excluded.

To exclude boasting, one may say that God works faith in our hearts, but that this grace is not irresistible. We contribute nothing to the positive outcome, but by our resistance we may prevent it from happening. In this case, while we are rightly blamed for failing to be saved, we can take no credit for our salvation.

Wesley comes close to this view, but it does not quite express his understanding. This view is normally associated with a somewhat external view of God’s working and the notion that human nature is completely sinful. In this case there is a competition between the gracious work of God and the sinful resistance of human nature. But one wonders how there can be degrees of resistance on the part of a completely sinful nature. One wonders also whether it must not be God’s decision to overcome or not to overcome the resistance.

Wesley changed this picture by locating the working of God within the human being. He kept the view that human nature is entirely sinful, but he regarded human nature in this sense as an abstraction from real human beings. An actual human being, even a baby is already the union of God’s grace and human nature. Thus an actual human being makes choices that result from the particular way in which grace and nature are united in that person. This choice is constantly affecting the way in which grace can function in the next moment. It clearly affects the question of whether justification will occur and how far one will go on to perfection in love.

In this way Wesley gives a large role to actual human decisions. But these decisions are never made independently of grace. To the extent that they are oriented to the reception of more grace, they are already informed by the grace that has worked there before. Noone can boast of any achievement as if that were not dependent on the working of grace. One can only thank God for the great gifts bestowed on one and pray for continued strength to make the decisions for which one is responsible.

Theoretically, one can still press for more clarity about the respective contributions of human nature and grace. I am not sure that Wesley had the tools for a wholly satisfactory answer. But for the practical purposes of preaching and teaching, Wesley’s formulations offered a third way that won the hearts and minds of many. In earlier lectures I have bemoaned its loss in Methodism if not in the Wesleyan movement as a whole.

Now let us turn to Whitehead. He formulated his model of human experience for quite different purposes. But in surprising ways he supports and clarifies Wesley’s vision.

Whitehead saw every occasion of experience as a coming together of the whole world in that locus. Our personal past informs the present. Recent bodily events. including sensory awareness of the external world, also enter into that experience. Through these, the whole human past and even the whole cosmic past play some role. All of this is heavily laden with emotion.

If we suppose that this is an exhaustive account, however, we cannot understand either novelty or human freedom. The present would be simply the outcome of the past. In William James’ words, we would be living in a block universe. The all-determination of God’s will in Calvin would be replaced by an all-determination by nature.

Much scientific work is carried on as if this were an exhaustive picture. But Whitehead points out that the scientist who engages in this work acts as though he were a responsible person who chose to do this work. Whitehead insists that this practical assumption of all action, deepened in religious experience, must be accounted for in an adequate cosmology. This requires that there is something present in each occasion of experience that is not derived from the past.

This factor must introduce into the occasion of experience the possibility of responding to the inflowing world in more that one way. These ways include the appropriation of novelty. Of course, the possibilities are closely related to what has happened thus far, and in the great majority of cases, the range of possibilities in a single moment is quite limited. But cumulative decisions can still make a great deal of difference.

God calls this factor entering into every occasion of experience God. God is thus the source of freedom and responsibility. God is also the call to make the best choice among the possibilities. In this way God is the giver of life, the explanation of conscience, and the ground of hope.

Let us look at Wesley’s problem from this perspective. Apart from God’s presence in an occasion of experience, there is the total impact of the past world on the present moment. This has elements in it that are both good and bad. If we trace back the good elements, we will find that their goodness derives from God’s contribution to them. That contribution is so thoroughly intermixed in the whole that one cannot sort it out.

But without God’s fresh incursion, the present will simply reenact that past in some changed pattern generated by the respective strength of the many forces that impinge on it.

The fresh coming and calling of God in this moment changes that. Because of it, the present moment can and must make a decision. It can decide largely to ignore the new possibilities God offers and fall back into habit. It can decide to adopt the finest possibility, the one to which God calls in that moment. Or it can make an intermediate decision. That decision will influence the kinds of possibilities God can give in the next moment and how open the person will be to God in the next moment.

What determines the person’s choice? Here the answer is: Nothing determines it. The choice emerges out of the interaction of the whole past with the call of God in the present. It is, in a sense, causa sui. But whereas it is caused by nothing other than itself, it is influenced by everything, and especially by the decisions made in the past and by God’s persuasiveness. Those earlier decisions were also the self-determined outcome of the interaction of the pressures coming from the past and the fresh calling of God.

For my own part, I find this eminently congenial to Wesley’s thought, illuminating of my own experience, and conceptually satisfying. No doubt my own reading of Wesley has been influenced by what I have learned from Whitehead. I am sure also that the existential meanings I draw from Whitehead’s cosmology are deeply affected by the influence of Wesley on my life. All this, I think, is as it should be.

There is a second contribution that process thought can make to Wesleyan theology today. This is a critique of the dominant worldview. I will pick up from my discussion of how liberalism has been radically open to the sciences and to historical scholarship. I said that I thought Wesley would approve that. But I do not believe that Wesley would be happy with all the consequences of this openness. I believe that Wesley would have approved a counteroffensive against a good deal that we are asked to think and believe as people open to contemporary scholarship and science.

To take a rather obvious example, God has been excluded from the university. To affirm that God acts in the world is to violate the canons of science and scholarship as they operate in our world. When we bring standard historical scholarship to bear in the interpretation of the Bible, this means that a priori we exclude the activity of God as an explanation of any historical occurrence reported there.

The weight of the modern worldview goes further still. There are many extraordinary events recorded in the Bible. We call them miracles. In the eighteenth century believers in God divided between those who thought that God set up a law-abiding world and left matters to these laws and those who believed that God also intervened supernaturally from time to time. The latter lost out so far as the course of scholarship is concerned. That is probably inevitable, and even desirable, if these are our only choices. The result has been that scholars simply deny that any of these events actually occurred.

Process theology advocates another possibility. Since God is present and active in every event, the notion of supernatural intervention should be rejected in favor of a theistic naturalism. But in such a naturalism the activity of God is an explanatory factor to be reckoned with. Furthermore, the range of possible events is far wider in a process world than in a substance world. The evidence for parapsychology, so commonly excluded because it violates the dominant worldview can be sifted, and in large part appropriated. In this view, many strange and wonderful things have happened. We should not be simply credulous, since we know that imagination and literary license play a large role in reporting what has happened. But we should also not be dogmatically incredulous.

Process thought also provides a way that overcomes the tendency toward relativism resulting from openness to the wisdom of other religious traditions. Let us consider why that tendency is so widespread. It is typically thought that if two traditions hold different views of ultimate reality, they cannot both be correct. One may defend one against the other, or one may become skeptical of both. One may take the linguistic turn and deny that religious statements are about reality, interpreting them as expressions of value and ways of ordering life meaningfully. It seems that only those who defend the truth of one traditional affirmation against all the others are likely to maintain evangelical zeal! And to many, this seems narrow, rigid, and bigoted. Liberals often decide that there are many paths up the mountain of truth or salvation, and that one should not judge the beliefs accompanying one path better than those accompanying other paths.

There is another way of looking at matters. Process thought understands the totality of reality as being far richer and more complex than any individual or culture can ever appreciate or realize. Each culture highlights certain features of the whole and learns much about that. The features highlighted in cultures differ. What they come to know in their attention to these different features of the totality is, or can be, mutually complementary. To learn what another culture has discovered does not necessarily conflict with affirming the full truth of what one’s own culture has learned.

To make this a bit more concrete, consider the difference between the cultures from which Christianity comes and those of the East. In both a great deal is said about form, but what is said is quite different. Aristotle distinguished between form and matter and saw the imposition of form on matter as of primary importance. Mathematics and science developed through the study of form abstracted from matter. There is little attention to matter as such.

In the opening verses of Genesis we are told that when God began creating the Earth was a formless void. Thus the reality of the formless is acknowledged. But attention is directed entirely to God’s creation, which entailed the imposition of form on this void. There is little reflection about the void and formlessness. All value is associated with what is formed.

In contrast, any Westerner who studies Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoists texts is startled to find the fascination with the formless. Somehow the formless seems more real, more ultimate, than what has formed. To reach it one goes behind the forms. One comes to realize that at the deepest level one participates in this formlessness. The quest for release from the world of appearance is pursued through meditational practices that move beyond form.

Of course, this is a vast oversimplification. In the West we find mystics who seek the Formless. There are great differences among Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists with respect to their valuation of form and formlessness. Nevertheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that the East has been learning a great deal from the West about form, especially as that has been studied in mathematics and science. And a considerable number of Westerners have been seeking to learn about the Formless from Eastern teachers.

There are great differences between the ways of thinking, the valuations, and the orientations that arise out of these two foci of attention and concern. Many of the formulations developed by their practitioners are in conflict. But in principle and in general, it is possible for knowledge of form and of the formless to be complementary and to be unified into a larger whole. In that context it is possible to affirm both the Christian God and the Buddhist Nirvana. Learning about Nirvana and accepting the wisdom associated with it need not in any way weaken our convictions about God.

I will illustrate also in a more familiar example. Western medicine has been based on a well-established understanding of the human body. Eastern medicine, I will take the Chinese version as my example, has been based on a different understanding. The tendency of Western doctors has been to assume that their picture of the body is virtually exhaustive. It has no place for the kind of energy flows on which traditional Chinese medicine is based. On this basis, one may simply reject Chinese medicine a priori as superstition.

Fortunately, this has not happened. Enough Western doctors have observed the efficacy of acupuncture that they have recognized it as a valid approach to healing. Meanwhile the Chinese have recognized the great achievements of Western medicine. The two are complementary. There is still no fully articulated account of the human body that shows how the Western and Chinese maps are complementary, but that is implied by the fact that both systems work. To accept Chinese medicine in no way denies the efficacy of Western medicine.

To point out that a process worldview critiques assumptions that are almost universal in scholarly research and opens is significant only if people are open to issues of worldview. Many of our contemporaries have concluded that interest in such questions reflects a now outdated mindset. Since Kant, it is widely thought, the effort to hold scientific and moral questions together in a unified context has been shown to be misguided. As the sciences have developed, any effort to derive a unified coherent picture from them has also been abandoned. Even within physics there is not much interest in developing a coherent quantum theory or integrating relativity theory with it. Certainly the social sciences have quite separate assumptions and implications. Deconstructionists tell us that any effort to achieve a unified worldview aims at hegemony and is thus oppressive.

Many theologians rejoice in this abandonment of worldview interest. It means that they need not concern themselves to relate the articulation of faith to other arenas of thought. On the left, this often means that theology is a system of symbols that does not claim to describe any independent reality. On the right, it often means that one can describe reality as revealed without concern about other approaches to reality,.

Both find an advantage in the new autonomy of theology. If theology must adapt to new scholarly findings, it can never be settled or complete. It is always vulnerable to new discoveries by historians and scientists. To relate theology to a cosmological scheme such as Whitehead’s either leads to failure to recognize its provisionality or to an endless modification both of the cosmology and of theology as scholarship advances.

Process thinkers accept this condition. Whitehead’s cosmology seems to us the best we have. He himself certainly recognized that it is incomplete and provisional. He did not think that meant that it was likely to be totally overthrown by new developments, but it certainly means that it is endlessly subject to revision. Process theologians believe that the same is true of the affirmations of Christian faith. It is the human condition that we must live and think without finality or certainty. That does not mean that we cannot have considerable confidence in some of our assertions! It does not mean that we are unable to act decisively in terms of the best that we know.

Few would claim that Wesley thought in these post-Kantian ways. But I have argued on other matters that Wesley would have been open to new forms of scholarship and would have adapted his teaching to their implications. Hence both liberals and conservatives who reject the quest for a comprehensive overview could claim that given the course of intellectual life, Wesley would have followed the direction they have taken. In their view, his confidence in reason would have been replaced by a formulation of beliefs that was fully autonomous from other lines of inquiry.

I recognize that Wesley might have responded that way over time. I affirm, however, that this would have been a profound change that he would not have relished. The union of faith and reason in his theology was important to him. That he could appeal to scientists in support of his teaching gave him great satisfaction. The liberal replacement of statements about objective reality with the ordering of images and symbols appropriate to a community is quite foreign to his vision. It tends strongly to undercut the passion for evangelism, working much better in established communities of believers. The claim that revelation provides us with knowledge of objective reality would have been much more readily acceptable, but that this knowledge is disconnected from that gained from other sources would have been disturbing to Wesley.

My claim, then, is that Wesley would be sympathetic toward fresh efforts to develop an overview inclusive of both science and faith. That this overview supports some of his central beliefs would have added to his interest. That it also provides a basis for criticizing scholarly assumptions that undercut acceptance of much in the biblical stories would also register positively with him.

At the same time, I acknowledge that we cannot tell whether he would have been willing to side with a small intellectual minority against the dominant thinking of the time. Perhaps he would, after all, have felt that Christians must accept the predominant intellectual consensus and find some way to articulate their beliefs within it. In that case, the efforts of Wesleyan process theologians turns out not to be faithful to his spirit. Although I prefer to think that for the sake of affirming the unity of all God’s work, Wesley would have been willing to counter the dominant intellectual currents of our time, I know that I do not know.

Thus far I have been primarily making the case that process thought can be helpful to those who want to be faithful to Wesley. It is not parallel to evangelical, liberal, and liberationist forms of the Wesleyan movement. Whereas most practitioners of all three reject process thought, a few in each group appropriate it in part or in whole. It is obvious that I wish more would do so.

One obstacle to its appropriation by evangelicals and liberationists is that the theological appropriation of Whitehead’s thought occurred initially among liberals. That means that process theology as it now exists has a strongly liberal caste. Liberationists initially took it as just one more instance of comfortable members of the white male establishment indulging their intellectual interests in a profoundly oppressive world. There was some justification for this critique. But on the whole process theologians have been open to learning from liberation theologians, and some liberation theologians have recognized their need for types of reflection with which process thought can help them. The lines are not as sharp as originally posed from the side of liberationists.

The strong support among process theologians for liberationist concerns has not always helped to bridge the gap toward evangelicals. Especially those evangelicals who maintain a strongly Calvinist tradition are understandably suspicious of process thought. Nevertheless, there is a large overlap of concerns between evangelicals and process thinkers.

Many evangelicals share with process thinkers resistance to the fragmentation of knowledge that characterizes the modern university and the world in general. Their believe that God created and rules all things leads to different conclusions. Sometimes their efforts to bring coherent lead to imposing answers on scientists in ways that do not seem responsible, but most of them prefer to find ways of dealing responsibly with science without allowing its implicit atheism to determine the outcome.

Most evangelicals also share with process theologians the commitment to be realists in their theological affirmations. In terms of the current use of language, this means that they remain metaphysical, refusing to think of "God" as only a symbol of the community’s faith. They share interest in God’s nature and actions with process theologians. In the case of the more Calvinist evangelicals, it is true, the resulting dialogue is likely to be polemical.

Many of the reasons for the hostility toward process thought by Calvinist evangelicals are similar to their reasons for suspicion of Wesley. Hence there is no need for Wesleyan evangelicals to share in this hostility. Those who continue Wesley’s emphasis on God’s love and on human responsibility find at least some congeniality with Whitehead’s philosophy. Accordingly, a number of Wesleyan evangelicals have allied themselves with process theology on many points. A much friendlier relation is possible here.

I need to close by noting differences between Wesley and process thought and the warnings we process theologians should expect from Wesley. The most obvious is that it is quite possible to become so enthusiastic about Whitehead’s cosmology that the primacy of devotion to Christ is lost. One can become a Whiteheadian instead of a Christian. This has happened. And of course one can become a Whiteheadian as a Jew or as Buddhist. In other words, a Whiteheadian Christian may end up serving two masters. A Wesleyan process theologian cannot follow this course.

This warning can also be formulated in terms of the role of the Bible in process theology. Many process writings in the field of theology approach biblical teaching from the outside, whereas Wesley approached all questions from a point of view that was immersed in scripture. This expresses the fact that most process theology to date has come out of the liberal camp. Two hundred years of biblical scholarship have led to a more external relation to scripture on the part of too many of us. This is a problem that can be corrected by those evangelical process theologians who are genuinely immersed in scripture rather than distinguishing themselves by their objective statements about biblical authority.

Wesley would also warn us about an intellectualism that turns attention away from the personal needs of ordinary individuals. To accept process philosophy does not need to have this effect. But excitement about the solution of intellectual problems can easily distract from effective dealing with deeply personal ones. Wesley organized believers so as to strengthen their faith and enable them to support the evangelism of others. Liberals have lost touch with that, especially the evangelistic dimension, and process theologians coming from the liberal tradition share this weakness. We are more likely to be evangelical about process thought than about the Christian gospel.

Obviously, I am not the best critic of process thought. I hope the previous paragraphs indicate that I have heard criticisms that I take seriously. I am personally clear that my deepest loyalty is to Christ. I came to Whitehead at a point in my life when my Christian beliefs seemed unsustainable in the light of what I was learning of the modern world. The encounter with Whitehead enabled me to remain a Christian and, indeed, to deepen, and I hope, purify my faith.

For me the task is so to understand Christ that the tension between my belief in him and my conviction of the fruitfulness of Whitehead’s philosophy is overcome. Today my faith in Christ is so informed by the worldview I have learned from Whitehead that I can hardly separate them. Perhaps Wesley would warn against that as well. But for myself, I find it an empowering basis to challenge the unchristian culture in which I live. I like to think that Wesley would approve this vocation.