Chapter 6: A Christian Natural Theology? by Schubert M. Ogden

Process Philosophy and Christian Thought
by Delwin Brown, Ralph James, Gene Reeves (eds.)

Chapter 6: A Christian Natural Theology? by Schubert M. Ogden

From "A Review of John H. Cobb’s New Book: A Christian Natural Theology, in the Christian Advocate, IX, 18 (September 23, 1965), 11f. Copyright © 1965 by The Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission of the publisher and Schubert M. Ogden. Schubert M. Ogden attended the University of Chicago. Formerly Professor of Theology at Perkins School of Theology, he now teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He has written Christ Without Myth.


Nothing more characterized the new movement in Protestant theology of the last generation than its exaggerated reaction against so-called "natural theology." Indeed, Karl Barth, whose genius dominated the whole period, claimed that "even if we only lend our little finger to natural theology, there necessarily follows the denial of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ."1

Of course, part of the reason Barth’s judgment was so extreme was the role "natural theology" played in the church’s struggle against Nazism in the thirties. It is clear, for example, that the sharpness of his famous Nein! to Emil Brunner (by which writing, incidentally, Americans still know him best) reflected his sense for the possible effect of Brunner’s speaking of nature and grace" on the outcome of that struggle. Still it would be wrong to suppose that Barth’s opposition to all natural theology was due entirely or even primarily to the perverse efforts of "German Christians" to give theological sanction to their Nazi ideology. Its real basis was a new vision of Protestant Christianity, which saw, as Barth put it in 1933, that "many roads lead back to Rome" and that Protestantism will fulfill its calling only when it at last "bids farewell to each and every form of natural theology."2

In America, as in the English-speaking world generally, this vision never succeeded in fascinating very many Protestant theologians. Liberals (and that includes most "neo-orthodox" theologians as well) were too committed to a broadly empirical and critical approach to religious problems to accept a "theology of revelation" without demurrer. Conservatives, on the other hand, while showing an increasing interest in Barth, were not inclined to share his complete repudiation of natural theology. It was probably inevitable, then, that the eclipse of natural theology during the thirties and forties should prove temporary and that it should once again find its English-speaking champions.

Less certain was that the revival, when it came, would be more than an effort to return to business as usual. Its first signs, as they appeared in Britain in the fifties, were hardly encouraging. Although these "new essays in philosophical theology" displayed a certain refinement of analytical tools, the synthesis they were used to build (or to destroy) was by and large the same old natural theology that Barth had repudiated. Lately, however, there have been other signs that the cause of natural theology may have a future as well as a past. The latest of such signs — and the one which so far gives the greatest ground for hope — is the appearance of John Cobb’s book, A Christian Natural Theology3.

As was clear already from his earlier study, Living Options in Protestant Theology,4 Cobb holds that some form of natural theology is unavoidable and that this is evident even from the work of theologians who repudiate it, including Barth himself. No theological statement can be made without certain assumptions, and these assumptions are in most cases legitimately subject to examination from a philosophical standpoint outside the theological circle. Hence, as Cobb shows, the issue can never be whether natural theology, but only what natural theology — and how exactly we are to conceive its nature and set about deciding between its different forms. I think Cobb would agree that the only alternative to this position leads to a lack of self-consciousness about one’s philosophical assumptions and thus induces a false security as to the adequacy of one’s theological formulations.

Cobb’s deep conviction, which he defends at length in his new book, is that the fortunes of natural theology today depend on Christian theologians appropriating the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Rightly recognizing that the great natural theologies of the past, whether Augustinian or Thomistic, were creative adaptations of independent philosophical systems, Cobb undertakes just such an adaptation of the system of Whitehead. This is not to say that he, any more than his great predecessors, seeks some "hybrid of philosophy and Christian convictions." His intention, at any rate, is to develop a comprehensive vision of man and God which is "philosophically responsible throughout." I do mean to say, however, that Cobb approaches Whitehead’s philosophy with his own questions as a Christian theologian and then reads it in such a way as to get answers to those questions. For this reason, the subtitle of his book is exactly right: he offers us a natural theology "based on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead."

Thus two of the best chapters in the book are those in which he develops, often in a highly original way, what amounts to a Whiteheadian existentialist analysis or doctrine of man. Whitehead himself had very little to offer by way of a formal anthropology or a philosophical ethic. And this may well account for much of the neglect of his philosophy by Protestant theologians. But, as Cobb beautifully demonstrates, this neglect has been unfortunate, since the insights into man’s nature and action that abound in all of Whitehead’s writings can be made to yield as promising a set of answers as one can find to the theologian’s anthropological and ethical questions. As a matter of fact, Cobb goes a long way toward justifying the claim of Cohn Wilson "that Whitehead has created his own kind of existentialism; and that it is fuller and more adequate than that of any Continental thinker."5

There are many other points as well, in the conception of God and in the general theory of religion, where Cobb creatively elaborates — and, on occasion, corrects — the contributions of Whitehead toward an adequate natural theology. Without commenting further on these points (which, as might be expected, are often involved — and that despite Cobb’s always lucid style), I would say simply that this defense of Whitehead’s theological significance is throughout impressive and deserves to be taken with the greatest seriousness. This is no doubt the easier for me to say because I so fully share Cobb’s conviction about the importance of Whitehead’s thought. But Cobb has his own way of being "Whiteheadian," and it is this way that I should hope his fellow theologians will recognize and take seriously.

To be sure, there are several places where other students of Whitehead will want to quarrel with Cobb’s judgments. His claim, for example, that Whitehead associates God’s aim "exclusively with the primordial nature" (p. 183) ignores Whitehead’s statement that "the process of finite history is essential for the ordering of the basic vision, otherwise mere confusion."6 Then, too, Cobb sometimes seems to fail in his intention to avoid falsely theologizing Whitehead’s thought. Thus, when he holds that it would be "arbitrary" to deny to God the freedom to "take very particular and decisive initiative" in revealing himself (p. 237], the standard defining this denial as "arbitrary" is not, I believe, a philosophical standard — at least in Whitehead’s philosophy. Given the unique relation by which Whitehead conceives God to be related to all’ other actual entities, such "initiative" would seem to be neither necessary nor possible, and Whitehead himself, so far as I am aware, nowhere suggests anything different.

Yet these points and others that might be mentioned are at most minor failings in a remarkable achievement. Without question, Cobb has succeeded in brilliantly confirming what has long been clearly indicated by the work of Charles Hartshorne and others: that Whitehead’s vision of human existence is of the utmost relevance for Christian theology; that it, at last, offers a really serious challenge to the so-called philosophia perennis; and that the natural theology it makes possible is excelled by none of the forms now available in the adequacy of its conclusions.

The one place where I have major reservations is Cobb’s conception of the nature of natural theology and of how we arrive at a decision between its different forms. I am as unconvinced by his argument in this book as by that in Living Options in Protestant Theology, that we can properly speak of "a Christian natural theology." I realize, of course, that such speaking often has a legitimate motivation. It lies in the very nature of Christian faith to claim for itself — or for its Lord — the whole truth about man’s existence before God. Hence, from the standpoint of the theologian, whatever truth can be found in any natural or philosophical theology must somehow be of a piece with what is decisively represented in Jesus Christ. But this does not, I believe, justify our speaking (with the tradition) of "Christian philosophy" or (with Cobb) of "Christian natural theology" — although we may say (with Karl Rahner) that any philosophy which is true is to that extent "anonymously" Christian.

One must insist on this because, as Cobb himself recognizes, no philosophy is to be taken seriously as philosophy unless its warrants are those of our common human experience, rather than of the uncommon experience of some special religious tradition. Nor is this requirement altered by the observation, which Cobb seems to me to make rather more of than he should, that the philosopher, too, always stands in a special tradition which shapes his vision. Even if there is no "unhistorical reason," it does not follow, as Cobb sometimes infers, that none of the findings of reason can claim universal validity; nor can one say, as he does, that "the quest for total consensus is an illusion" (p. 266). (Actually, Cobb could be quoted on the other side of both issues — which leaves little doubt that his whole discussion of relativism is unsatisfactory.) The most that follows is the need for the philosopher or natural theologian to remember with Whitehead that "the accurate expression of the final generalities is the goal of discussion and not its origin." But this kind of caution is perfectly compatible with Whitehead’s own confidence that "there is no first principle which is in itself unknowable, not to be captured by a flash of insight."7

So, too, I cannot share Cobb’s judgment that there must be some other standard than its intrinsic philosophical excellence which enables us to decide for a certain form of natural theology. I agree that, if we are to be Christian theologians at all, we must seek the "right" philosophy and that one of the marks of its rightness will indeed be its essential congruence with the claims of Christian faith. But whether there is any such philosophy — and thus whether theology itself is really possible — is a philosophical question which must be decided on philosophical terms. The venture of faith as the theologian makes it is that the ‘right" philosophy is sure to be found. Yet his confidence is a venture which only a natural theology, valid by its own standard, is able to confirm.


1. Church Dogmatics, IL/1, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 173.

2. "Das erste Gehot als theologisches Axiom," Zwischen den Zeiten, XI (1933), 312f.

3. Phi1adelphia: Westminster, 1965.

4. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962.

5. Religion and the Rebel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 317.

6. Essays in Science and Philosophy 89f.

7. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 12, 6.