Chapter 7: A Process Trinitarianism

The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism
by Lewis S. Ford

Chapter 7: A Process Trinitarianism

Trinitarian reflection has fallen on evil days. At one point in the history of the Christian faith it formed the cutting edge of theological speculation, responding to the need to clarify the relationship between its two central symbols, "Christ" and "God." Then under the threat of heresy and schism this reflection crystallized into dogma, becoming no longer the object and goal of reflection, but a bit of permanent cultural baggage whose continued presence had to be explained and rationalized. In recent times many have sought to justify trinitarian formulations by employing them for the articulation of God’s simultaneous transcendence of, and immanence in, the world. Increasingly, however, the artificiality of these attempts is being called into question, for it is by no means evident that this problem demands a triunity of principles for its resolution. Thus Cyril C. Richardson has criticized the classical formulations of the Trinity as imposing an arbitrary "threeness" upon our theological thinking, and proposes instead a basic twofold distinction between God as Absolute and God as Related.1 This is for Richardson a basic paradox, an apparent self-contradiction, for if we try to bring these aspects into relationship, we compromise God’s absoluteness.2 Charles Hartshorne accepts this same twofold distinction, but he removes the contradictory element by understanding it in terms of the abstract and concrete dimensions of God’s nature and experience.3

Classical theism sees only a single problem here, the question of God’s transcendence and immanence, for which a twofold solution is quite adequate. From the perspective of Whitehead’s theism, however, there is a double problem, the other aspect consisting in the world’s transcendence of, and immanence within, God. Only a trinitarian conception of God seems able to meet this problem. Trinitarian speculation may have spoken more wisely than it knew by providing the basic coordinates for a problem which did not even arise within the horizon of classical theism. Like conic sections, which had to wait nearly two thousand years for their first important application in Kepler’s description of the elliptical orbits of the planets, perhaps the trinitarian conceptuality, at least with regard to the problem of transcendence and immanence, first comes into its own in our situation. If God’s relation to the world necessarily entails a fundamental triunity, this triunity may provide the conceptual means for coordinating our contemporary understanding of the key biblical symbols.

Some conclusions about the Trinity and the workings of God have already emerged from earlier chapters. We have seen that God works by divine persuasion by providing those lures toward which we can aspire. Jesus proclaimed this reigning of God as the power of the future operative in the present. Insofar as we respond to actualize these aims, to that extent the good is achieved in creative advance. To that extent God is effective in our lives.

Divine persuasion is not limited, however, solely to human beings. It extends to the entire created order, and constitutes the means whereby God directs the evolutionary process, both here and on distant planets. It addresses both subhuman creatures and extraterrestrial intelligent species, each after its own kind.

Here we need a series of distinctions: The Logos is the totality of the divine aims, both large and small, relevant and irrelevant. Those aims capable of addressing an entire species by infusing in them a novel order bringing about the emergence of a more advanced species constitute that part of the Logos which we call the creative Word. That creative Word which is specifically addressed to humankind is the Christ. Christians find this creative Word most fully actualized in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as they participate in that body whose living mind they discern to be the risen Christ.

Too often these distinctions have been ignored with the result that the preexistent subjectivity of Jesus is identified with the second member of the Trinity. Surely this is the assumption of the Fourth Gospel (cf. John 17:1-5). But, as we have seen, there cannot be distinct subjectivities within the Godhead. On Whitehead’s principles, whatever has actual unity enjoys its own subjectivity, and vice versa. Thus a divine person enjoying his own subjectivity would be a separate actuality, thus leading to tritheism. Moreover, substance in the sense of a divine substratum in which three persons inhere is just that sort of vacuous actuality devoid of its own subjectivity that Whitehead rejects. For these reasons we cannot accept the traditional Latin interpretation of the time-honored formula, "one substance in three persons," and insist on a stricter reading more in accordance with the Greek fathers, "one actuality having three distinct aspects." Originally persona did not mean "person" in our sense but the mask through which an actor spoke, indicating the specific role he was performing. The three "personae" come from the three roles God plays. These roles are not arbitrary, however, but are rooted in the very being of God. In the language of Duns Scotus, these natures are formally distinct. They are not really distinct, for this would imply the possibility of separate existence, nor are they merely logically distinct.

Christ enjoys his own subjectivity, to be sure, but only in his resurrection, not in some preexistent state. The risen Christ is divine in the sense of being that transparent medium which most intensely communicates God’s aims to the Christian. But in himself the risen Christ is more transhuman than divine. As a possibility, Christ is that aspect of the creative Word addressed to man, and hence part of the Logos. But as actualized in the resurrection of Jesus that possibility becomes a temporally emergent subjectivity separate from God.

In order to address the trinitarian conceptuality directly, then, we need to consider the formal distinction between the Father and the Logos. As the totality of divine possibilities, the Logos may be interpreted as corresponding to the primordial nature of God. As Whitehead conceives it, the primordial nature embraces all eternal objects as the source from whence all initial aims for finite occasions are derived. This primordial nature is also the outcome of a single nontemporal concrescence. As such it corresponds to the Logos as identical with the Son who is "begotten of the Father before all worlds."

According to the Nicene Creed the Son is begotten, not made. This protective formula indicates that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. This does not merely mean that they share a common "material" substratum, as we have seen, but they are aspects of the selfsame actuality. Nevertheless, the second is produced from the first. We have a very close parallel in Whitehead’s general distinction between the two aspects of an actual entity. On the one hand, there is the act of becoming, that process of unification which is the concrescence or growing together of causal influences. On the other hand, there is the being constituted by this becoming, the unity produced by this unification, the concrete satisfaction, or what has been called the "concretum" of this concrescence.4 The concrescence "begets" the concretum in this metaphysical sense that it produces it as a formally distinct aspect of its own actuality.

Moreover, in the divine instance this concrescence is nontemporal, independent of the particular temporal passage of the world. "Before all worlds," as Augustine recognized, symbolically refers to an activity outside of time, whether or not the world had a temporal beginning. Time is part of the world, and there is no time "before" the world in which such begetting could take place. That which is nontemporally "begotten" is itself outside of the time, an atemporal Logos of the many eternal objects.5

Trinitarian thinking has always labored under a difficulty with respect to God as Father: on the one hand, according to the classical formula, God the Father can only constitute one person of the Trinity; on the other, the Father whom Jesus addressed is simply God, particularly God as revealed to Israel. Part of the difficulty stems from the temptation to believe that God in Christ constitutes a second divine subjectivity distinct from the Father’s, both of which must be united in the Trinity to preserve at least the semblance of monotheism. The rest results from the failure to develop a general theory of immanence whereby one actuality could be recognized as being present objectively within the experience of another without thereby destroying its integrity as a distinct individual actuality.6 In contrast to Aristotle’s dictum that one substance (i.e., actuality) cannot be in another, Whitehead’s philosophy is designed to show how this may be so. One actuality, as concretum, can be objectively present in the concrescence of another. The concrescence is the actuality in its transcendent hiddenness; as such it cannot be experienced by another; the concretum is its objective manifestation. The one nontemporal concrescence is God’s innermost subjectivity by which he radically transcends the world. In Plotinus’s terms, it is the unknowable "One" which is the source of the eternal generation. We can only know of it insofar as it is expressed in the primordial nature, for in itself it is God in his hiddenness, in the inexhaustible mystery of his being.

Perhaps, as John Cobb suggests, the mischief is wrought by conceiving of God the Father as a distinct persona in the Godhead. "The actual image was of the Son as God in one mode of his activity and the Spirit as God in another mode, whereas the Father was quite simply God." 7 The metaphysical distinction between that which is hidden in itself and that which is manifest for others is hardly enough to have caused any departure from the strict monotheism of the Old Testament heritage. Israel was acquainted with the manifestations of God as his Spirit, but this did not suggest that God in his inner being constituted one divine person distinct from the Spirit of the Lord. The trinitarian distinctions were called forth by the fact that the Christian community recognized two distinctive manifestations of God in the Logos, in part incarnated by Christ, and the all-pervasive Spirit. In early Christian art this Trinity could be portrayed as a man with two hands. In Whiteheadian terms, we may interpret God in his full unified actuality as a transcendent subjectivity, which is manifest in two natures, one primordial and the other consequent. There is no need to introduce a third distinct nature on a par with these two.8 "God the Father" is simply God, not another member within the Godhead.

This consequent nature of God is his receptive activity whereby he experiences the temporal occasions of the world. Here our interpretation is somewhat tentative, because we must recognize that any simple identification of the Spirit with this consequent nature will only produce confusion. In a very real sense the Spirit and the consequent nature are opposites, since the Spirit makes it possible for God to be immanent in the world (in the guise of ordinary divine aims), while the consequent nature makes it possible for the world to be immanent in God (through God’s ongoing experience of that temporal world). Neverthless, it is by means of our experience of successive divine aims provided by the Spirit that we have any evidence (howbeit indirect) for the existence of God’s consequent nature.

Before explaining this evidence, however, we need to be clear about the activity of the Spirit. Spirit and Logos both concern the provision of initial aims, since that is the only way God is manifest to us. Logos, however, concentrates upon what is so provided, particularly the great structuring principles of the world and of particular species. Spirit describes how these aims are given, and its activities are best seen in the little, ordinary aims we receive from day to day.

The Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life in providing those novel aims that organisms can actualize in living response to a dynamic environment. We humans are primarily aware of the aims of the Spirit in terms of ethical aspiration, so vividly present in the Hebrew prophets. Creative insight is also "inspired," for genuine discovery is directed toward a novel possibility hitherto unrealized in the world. Finally, it is by means of the Spirit that we can learn to respond consciously to God, since it is through the awareness of values first purposefully entertained by God that we are directed to seek out their divine source.

We cannot directly experience God’s experience of us, but the particular aims he supplies to our ongoing experience form his specific response to our past actions. Most of the time, preoccupied with practical affairs, we hardly notice the aims and values which guide our activities. Occasionally we may become sensitive to these values, but usually as directives for our own existence, as moral intuitions. Only rarely do we experience these values in terms of the dynamic source from which they spring. Such "religious intuitions" are the "somewhat exceptional elements of our conscious experience" that Whitehead seeks to elucidate as evidence for God’s consequent experience of the world.9 Only a living person experiencing a whole series of divine aims, sensitive to the way in which these shift, grow, and develop in response to our changing circumstances can become aware of their source as dynamic and personal, meeting our needs and concerns.10 Jesus, full of the Spirit, knew God personally in this intimate way, until these aims were taken from him in the hour of his deepest need, when he experienced being forsaken by God on the cross.

This awareness of God’s consequent experience is highly indirect, but this is equally true for our experience of any subjectivity other than our own. We can detect no subjectivity in inorganic societies, and little more in living societies such as plants or animal tissues. We only gain confidence in our sense of the presence of other feeling subjects when dealing with the focalized mental activity of the higher animals and human beings. Here all our experiential evidence is indirect, but reliable. We feel the presence of another person in his actions, for we experience those actions as living responses to ourselves and our actions. There can be an exchange of feeling, because I can experience his action as his responsive experience of me. So it is with the Spirit, which can bear witness to God’s responsive experience of his creatures.

Because of their distinct roles in the providing of initial aims, Logos and Spirit thus reflect the two distinct natures of God, the primordial and the consequent. But just as "person" in trinitarian language has caused confusion, so Whitehead’s use of a distinction of reason in referring to these two divine "natures" has led to misunderstanding. Few careful readers have supposed the primordial and consequent natures to be separate divine actualities,11 yet there has been a tendency to consider each nature as having its own distinctive functions, each operating with some degree of independence from the other.12 But this is ultimately not the case. The primordial nature is the source of all those possible ideals which can serve as the initial aims of occasions, while God’s consequent experience of the actual world forms the basis whereby God can specify which aims are relevant for which occasions, thereby serving as "the particular providence for particular occasions."13

This proposal differs from traditional trinitarian formulations in that the third principle indicated by Spirit does not have the primary function of unifying the other two. In part this role is unnecessary. In one sense this unity is provided by the first member, the aboriginal nontemporal act from which all aspects of God are generated. In another sense the unity lies in their mutual coherence; each is merely an aspect requiring the others to constitute the one divine individual actuality. The nontemporal activity must result in some sort of definite, atemporal unity, while the primordial nature must be the outcome of some sort of nontemporal activity. They are implicates of one another, as process and outcome, as act and expression, as dynamics and form. Moreover, God must be capable of experiencing the world if he is to exemplify the metaphysical principles contained in his primordial nature resulting from that nontemporal act. But beyond this, the consequent nature does not have unification as its primary function because it is needed for a different role, called forth by the problematic of transcendence and immanence.

To see why this is so, we must consider the particular meaning that Whitehead assigns to transcendence. It is a generic notion, not a specific notion applicable only to God. "The transcendence of God is not peculiar to him. Every actual entity, in virtue of its novelty, transcends its universe, God included." 14 "Every actual entity, including God, is something individual for its own sake; and thereby transcends the rest of actuality." 15 Each actuality goes beyond the world it inherits, for it is something more than the components from which it is constituted. It is the free creative unification of the many past actualities it experiences, thereby becoming something more than what has already existed, something individual for its own sake. Such transcendence is possible only because of the incessant creative urge transforming every multiplicity as it arises into an actual unity. "The creativity is not an external agency with its own ulterior purposes. All actual entities share with God this characteristic of transcending all other actual entities, including God. The universe is thus a creative advance into novelty."16 As an ongoing activity, creativity is not exhausted in the transcendence of any one actuality: "every actual entity, including God, is a creature transcended by the creativity which it qualifies."17

God, however, transcends and is transcended in ways peculiar to him. A finite actuality or occasion of experience exhausts its creativity (its only power of transcendence) in a momentary act of self-unification, to be superseded by others. God draws all actualities into an inexhaustible unity, since the inner aim informing divine creativity and impelling it forward is infinite, seeking the realization of every possibility, each in its own season. A finite occasion’s transcendence is relative, transcending its past but not its future. God’s transcendent creativity is absolute, transcending every actuality as it arises by incorporating it into his being. On the other hand, finite occasions are absolutely transcended by subsequent actualities, having no other being than that afforded by their objective status in the transcendent creativity. God is only partially transcended by actual occasions, for they can only prehend those aims of God relevant to their particular world, leaving untouched those infinite reservoirs of possibility which are not yet (or no longer) relevant to the creative advance.

Now it may be objected that this notion of transcendence does not do justice to God’s ultimacy. Here we must distinguish between metaphysical ai~d religious meanings for ultimacy. Whitehead had the first in mind when he wrote: ‘‘In all philosophic theory there is an ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents.... In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, nontemporal accident."18 God is an accident of creativity because the particular character of the primordial envisagement is not determined by the essential nature of creativity. Creativity only requires that the many become one, but how they become one is the decision of that actuality in process of self-creation. Creativity is metaphysically ultimate as the power of transcendence every actuality instantiates, including God. But this does not make it ultimate in the religious sense of being supremely worthy of worship.

Sheer creativity is utterly formless, essentially indifferent to all its instantiations, whether good or evil. Creativity acquires actuality only through these instantiations, which determine their own value. We should worship only that which is the ultimate source of human good, that one instance of creativity which orders all value. Borrowing Spinoza’s language, this divine creative act is natura naturans, God as creating, which issues forth as natura naturata, God as created, since he creates himself. The infinite ‘‘world’’ that God creates in creating himself is not, as Spinoza supposed, the world of determinate actuality, which is incurably finite, but the infinite wealth of structured possibility which constitutes God’s primordial nature.

Appreciating the ultimacy of creativity in its metaphysical sense, some have suggested a trinity composed of creativity as the divine ground of being, the primordial nature as the divine Logos, and the consequent nature as the unifying Spirit. Such a proposal bears striking resemblances to Tillich’s sketch of the trinitarian principles in terms of power, meaning, and their union.

Human intuition of the divine always has distinguished between the abyss of the divine (the element of power) and the fullness of its content (the element of meaning), between the divine depth and the divine logos. The first principle is the basis of Godhead, that which makes God God. It is the root of his majesty, the unapproachable intensity of his being, the inexhaustible ground of being in which everything has its origin. It is the power of being infinitely resisting nonbeing, giving the power of being to everything that is.19

This is certainly the role of creativity.

Whitehead, however, sees God in his transcendent role as that portion of creativity embodied within the divine creative act, reserving the rest of creativity for finite creative acts. Both thinkers begin with a dynamic, radically indeterminate source of being, called creativity or being-itself, but proceed according to different models of creation: Tillich adopts the traditional dichotomy between an uncreated creator and created creatures, and identifies creativity with this creator, while Whitehead envisages a multiplicity of self-created creatures, all instances of creativity, among whom God is chief. This second approach has two principal advantages: it protects the goodness of God, and insures the freedom of his fellow creatures.

If God were ultimately creativity or being-itself, he would be radically indeterminate, and no theory of symbolic predication can finally overcome this.20 As Tillich recognizes, "Without the second principle the first principle would be chaos, burning fire, but it would not be the creative ground." 21 Only as structured by the Logos can creativity become divine. Apart from the primordial envisagement, divine creativity is indistinguishable from creativity in general, and the tendency toward pantheism in which Brahma replaces Yahweh becomes inevitable. Apart from the envisagement of the forms, creativity is "chaos, burning fire," the divine-demonic power that the prophets of Israel struggled against in declaring Yahweh to be a God of justice. God cannot be sheer creativity, but only that creative act which supremely exemplifies the metaphysical principles.

Granted that creativity must to some extent be structured by the divine Logos, is it exhaustively or solely structured by it? If so, we end up with deterministic Spinozism. If creativity is not exhausted in producing the Logos, there can be creaturely freedom, but by the same token there can be no simple identification of divinity with creativity.

From Whitehead’s perspective, God’s creative act (in terms of its relevant aspects in the initial aim) can be objectively present within the finite occasion’s concrescence, for it is now the creaturely response which must synthesize the divine and mundane causes it receives into a determinate unity. To effect this synthesis the creature must enjoy its own intrinsic creativity distinct from the divine creativity it objectively receives. It is precisely this dissociation of creativity from God which renders finite transcendence possible, for it allows creativity to be conceived pluralistically rather than monistically, as underwriting every act of freedom, both finite and infinite. The creativity which is not God becomes the radical freedom of self-creation over against God.

If, then, there is creative activity which does not stem from God, how can God embrace it? This is the question which calls forth the role of the consequent nature. If effects produce themselves out of their causes, then it becomes more important that we conceive of God as the supreme effect than as the supreme cause. The whole world supplies the contingent, particular causes of which God is the supreme unification in his consequent experience. In creating he knows himself as the infinitude of all pure possibility, but he does not thereby know finite determinate temporal actuality. To that extent he is dependent upon contingent actuality for the content of his knowledge and experience, although the unity and final intelligibility of that divine experience derives from his own powers of unification. God’s knowledge of the world is finite, temporal, and contingent because the world is so, and this knowledge cannot be derived either from God’s nontemporal act or its atemporal outcome in the primordial nature. Another principle is required, and this is consequent nature which has the capacity to receive into itself the objective immanence of the world.

Classical theism in effect sees a single problem: it is as true to say that God transcends the world, as that God is immanent in the world. This problem may be adequately resolved by a twofold distinction, such as that proposed by Richardson and Hartshorne: God as Absolute and God as Related. But, as Whitehead saw, there is a double problem which he expressed in a pair of terse antitheses: "It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World. It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God." 22 Our twofold distinction explains how God transcends and yet is immanent within God.

Classical theism sees no problem in the immanence of the world within God, primarily because it refuses to grant the world any transcendence from God. In terms of the traditional model, the creature derives all of his being and power from God, even his power of opposition and disobedience. Insofar as God knows by creating, the creature is already immanent within God. The creature can only transcend God if it can become something in and for itself independently of God, in the privacy of its own subjective becoming. The world transcends God on its own, but its subsequent immanence within God requires an additional element of receptive dependence within God. For God is dependent upon the independent, transcendent activity of the creature for knowledge and experience of it. The problem of God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence alone requires only a twofold distinction, but the additional problem of the world’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence calls forth an additional element, making a final threefold distinction necessary.

Thus in the final analysis we must assent to an ultimate triunity of principles defining the divine life: the divine creative act nontemporally generating the primordial nature, from which proceeds the consequent nature as implicated in the Whiteheadian "categoreal conditions" established by the primordial envisagement.



1. Cyril C. Richardson, The Doctrine of the Trinity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1958).

2. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

3. See Charles Hartshorne, ‘‘God as Absolute, Yet Related to All,’’ chapter 2 of The Divine Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948).

4. See George L. Kline, "Form, Concrescence, and Concretum," Southern Journal of Philosophy 7/4 (Winter 1969-70), 351-60.

5. Here see my essay on ‘‘The Non-Temporality of Whitehead’s God’’ International Philosophical Quarterly 13/3 (September 1973), 347-76.

6. As we saw in the first chapter, Whitehead argues that the Nicene fathers developed just such a theory of direct immanence, but then failed to generalize it, restricting it to the one instance of God’s immanence in Christ.

7. CPA, pp. 259-60.

8. To be sure, there is also a single, brief mention of "the ‘superjective’ nature of God" (PR, p. 135). Some have supposed this to refer to a third distinct nature, such that the proper Whiteheadian trinity consists of the primordial, consequent, and superjective natures. In context, however, the ‘superjective’ nature of God is formed on strict analogy with the superjective character of other actual entities, and refers to the objective immanence of the primordial nature in the initial aims of actual occasions.

The two natures appear under other guises in Whitehead’s later writings, but no further reference is ever made to any additional superjective nature. Thus in Adventures of Ideas he contrasts the divine "Eros" with "the Adventure in the Universe as One" (pp. 380-81), which in Modes of Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1938) he refers to as "the reservoir of potentiality and the coordination of achievement" (p. 128).

Whitehead announces that "the objective immortality of [God’s] consequent nature" is considered in part V of Process and Reality (p. 47), which appears to have reference to the fourth phase considered at the end of the book (p. 532). The reference is very brief, and seems fraught with difficulties. Only that which is complete, either as a completely definite primordial nature, or as a completely determinate actual occasion, can be objectified. But the consequent nature is never complete, since there are always new occasions for God to prehend. As we shall see, however, Spirit can fulfill the role assigned to this fourth phase of being ‘‘the particular providence for particular occasions" (PR, p. 532). In any case, there is no basis in the text for associating the "superjective’’ nature with the objectification of the consequent nature.

9. PR, p. 521.

10. For this reason Whitehead speaks of ‘‘the perishing occasions in the life of each temporal Creature’’ (PR, p. 533), referring to living persons and not simply to individual actual occasions. See also his comment that ‘‘this account of a living Personality requires completion by reference to its objectification in the consequent nature of God" (PR, p. 164, n. 17.)

11. Yet Oliver Martin has managed to do just that: ‘‘Whitehead’s Naturalism and God," Review of Religion 3 (1939), 149-60.

12. John W. Lansing cites several instances of this tendency, the most striking being: "The actual entity that is needed to order the possibilities is called the primordial nature of God." This statement is excerpted from Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), p. 101. See Lansing’s article. "The Natures’ of Whitehead’s God," Process Studies 3/3 (Fall 1973), 143-52.

13. PR, p. 532. See note 8 above.

14. Ibid., p. 143.

15. ibid., p. 135.

16. Ibid., pp. 339-40.

17. Ibid., p. 135; cf. pp. 130, 134, 339.

18. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

19. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 250-51.

20. I defend this claim in "Tillich and Thomas: The Analogy of Being," Journal of Religion 46/2 (April 1966), 229-45.

21. Tillich, Systematic Theology I, p. 251.

22 PR, p. 528.