Process Theology and the Old Testament

THESIS

            Process theology can be used to provide an important contemporary perspective on biblical doctrine.  While the nature of this process was intended as a philosophy not as a theology, key elements of process theology can contribute important insights and understanding of the Bible and Christian doctrine.  This work will present the application of process theology to the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament.

INTRODUCTION

            This work will be presented in several parts.  First an examination of the nature of process theology will be presented.  Its history and key developers will be described. The ways that process theologians interpret the Old Testament will be presented.  The value of Old Testament theology developed by process theology will be examined.  A conclusion and summary will then be presented.        

THE NATURE OF PROCESS THEOLOGY

            Process theology is using the “philosophical concepts” of Alfred Whitehead’s process philosophy to explain and express Christian theology.[1] The point of view of Robert Gnuse in his book The Old Testament and Process Theology proposed the merging of the work of Whitehead with the doctrinal teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament to reach the best possible biblical understanding.  Gnuse’s premise is that process theology has contemporary application using this method.  He proposes using the steps and logic of process theology without all of its characteristics and disregarding much of its nature.  To evaluate that idea, an understanding of the nature of process theology is re  quired.

            Process theology is regarded as liberalism by many scholars.  It is the side of theology viewing God as working “within and through nature.”[2]  God creates a process and then directs the steps that obtain the goal.  He does not interfere, just observes.  More conservative or fundamental theologians have a different view.  They emphasize the supernatural nature of God and his work, proposing that he is constantly involved in the affairs of nature and man. God is consistent in all things, including his own behavior.

            To those in the fundamental camp, God is forever unchanging.  As noted in Psalm 102, “They will perish but you remain.”  In Malachi 3:6 it states “I the Lord do not change.”  The doctrine of the unchanging God has “several aspects.”[3] He cannot increase or decrease in anything.  He never changes his mind.   Since he is not human, his actions are not only unchanging but unchangeable.  His plans are always consistent.  And finally, his will never changes.

            Challenging the concept of the unchanging God is the movement called process theology.  All things are forever in-process, or forever changing.  God’s will changes as he observes the events or processes that occur in our world.  All things are in relationship to all other things.  All things are interdependent.  This includes God.  God is “related to the world and involved with it.”[4] While God’s primary attributes, such as the nature of his love, do not change, he does express a “sympathetic response to those he loves” by changing his will or actions depending on the actions of individual men.  He is changing and unchanging, all at the same time.  To best understand this possibility, a summary of the history of process theology is now presented.

            Process theology “does not approach its study about Go from a biblical perspective but from a philosophical one.”[5]  The universe is not yet completed and ever changing.  Reality is best defined as movement that is constant.  The universe is “never final, static, unchanging perfections.”[6]  This school of thought began with Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher and mathematics.   His concepts of God came from his study of math.  Like math, according to Whitehead, God is a combination of constant, eternal characteristics and actions and activities that are ever changing.  Whitehead saw God as impersonal and a being with no passion.  He also denied the omnipotent nature of God, that he shares the shaping of the future with man.  Whitehead was followed on the theological timeline of process theology by Charles Hartshorne.  He saw God as a heavenly director, working in cooperation with man in the events of the world.  He differed from Whitehead in that he did not believe in never-changing, eternal characteristics of God but saw all of God as changing or dynamic.  He denied any supernatural power or actions by God.

            Nelson Pike was also part of the process theology timeline.  He aligned with Whitehead’s beliefs that much of God was unchanging, based on the Thomas Aquinas’s system of God’s timelessness.[7]  God does not act in our time or the time of any human generation but only in eternity.  He proposed the idea that God would change his mind about things based on events on Earth.  Schubert Ogden also helped develop process theology.  He believed that man is responsible and in charge of his own life and body.  God is responsible for the world but each man for his own body.  God participates in the world through “sympathetic participation,” reacting to world events.[8]  He is eternal but within the world in which we live, he is changeable and ever changing.            

            The process theology of Norman Pittenger brings us to modern process theology.  He believes in the deity of God.  God is also “active in the world” and all the actions of man are part of God’s incarnation in the world.  The summary of the history of process theology presented here is a doctrine based on biblical references or support but on the human logic of mathematics and science.  God is only a force in the world that changes with world events.  “Creation becomes evolution, redemption becomes relationship and resurrection becomes renewal.  The supernatural is abandoned, miracles vanish and the living God of the Bible is submerged in immanent motifs.” [9]

            The nature of process theology is based on logic and the idea of a human-centered universe.  Man’s actions determine the fate of the world and the universe.  God adapts based on world events, and while he may have never-changing, eternal characteristics such as his love for us, he can and will change in all other ways.  It is in fact a process for philosophy, not theology.  Whitehead intended it to be a way of thinking, but not necessarily a way of life, doctrine or theology. 

            Many of his followers agree.  Pittenger, the most noted modern process theologian, “observes that one cannot use process philosophy in its pure form for theology.”[10] For the purposes of theology, key elements may be used.  Pittenger notes that any method of theology must always be “subordinate to Christian ideas.”[11]   The presuppositions and analytical methods may be used to better understand biblical doctrine.  At the same time the process must be secondary to the primary Christian beliefs which are biblically based.       

HOW PROCESS THEOLOGIANS INTERPRET OLD TESTAMENT

TEXTS AND THE APPLICATION OF PROCESS THEOLOGY

Now that the nature of process theology has been explored, an analysis of how process theologians interpret the Old Testament will now be presented.  Whitehead would have been amused that anyone would use his system for Old Testament study.  He had a very negative view of both the Old Testament and the doctrine of God as presented in those scriptures.[12] He saw the God of the Old Testament as a “ruthless moral ruler” who pushed the children of Israel from place to place.  This was a view common to philosophers of his day who casually read the scriptures.  Whitehead failed to see the “divine love in the initial election of Israel” as God’s chosen people.[13]

A key theme of process theology and how it can be applied to the Old Testament is Whitehead’s definition of “becoming” or how each moment in time comes into existence.[14]  Process theologians general see the past as being drawn into the present when we search for meaning in present situations.  This leads to the future drawing the present into itself.  This is a clear picture “about the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, who leads the people into the Promised Land and in the future with words of judgment and hope.”[15]  It is not a God of tyranny found in the Old Testament, but a God of love, developing and refining his people.

This process of becoming or “concrescence” as Whitehead described it is a common theme throughout all of the Old Testament.[16]  The moments of dynamic events or moments of “concrescent occasion” are weaved throughout almost the entire Hebrew story of Israel.  God brings the past to life in the events of the present, further defining and improving the children of Israel.  This is the image of Noah helping edit the population, Abraham moving his family to Palestine or Israel moving into the wilderness following Moses.  God constantly used the past as a foundation for the present and the future as well.  All of these events were clearly connected and interdependent, a foundational concept of process theology.  The Old Testament over and over expresses God not as who he is but as what he does and has done.  The history and development of Israel was just the “arena” in which God played out the birth, raising and maturity of his children.[17]  Each point in their development was based on a prior, past event.  God drew the past into the future, another foundational concept of process theology.    This salvation history or Heilsgeschichte was a vital part of the Old Testament story of Israel.[18]

This interconnectivity of the Old Testament is evident not only in the story of Israel but in the scriptures themselves.  The reform laws of Deuteronomy were developed in part on the concepts of the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21-23.[19]  Later the work of the classic prophets was based on earlier passages.  The wisdom of Job was based in part on the words of Proverbs.  In both individual books and in entire sections of the Old Testament we see the pattern of older ideas and passages evolving into newer and more contemporary passages for that time.  Process theologians give careful thought to how becoming or concrescence occurs in the context of everything around it.  Clearly that patter exists in Old Testament passages.

Some themes or passages lend themselves to more direct analysis by process theology than others.  Covenant imagery, the work of the prophets and the legal traditions of Israel are among those themes or passages that invite the most direct application.[20]  Also the overall theme of inspiration can be researched and better understood by process theology applications.  Each generation of Israel was built on the one prior, drawing the past into the present in their daily teachings and lives.

Process theology not has application to the better understand of the Old Testament passages but also to better understanding the God of the Old Testament.  As process theology teaches, all events are interrelated.  God was a part of the development of the world and shared the experiences.  God reacted to and was empathetic to the plight of mankind.  Through his son, he even suffered with humanity.  To the process theologian, God has two purposes or functions.[21]

Whitehead described two “bodies” of God.[22]  The primordial body of God provides options or choices for mankind.  He gave man free will and allowed free choice.  The consequent body of God remembered all that occurred, linking the past to the present and on to the future.  Process theology digs deep into “discussing the nature of God in relationship to this world and people.”[23] 

Process theology can aid in the understanding of the “lure of God,” the ability of God to create the future from the present.[24] In the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 for example, the events of Eve’s fall to the serpent led to the also-free will decision of Adam to sin.  Their decisions opened up a new and different world from the one God had originally envisioned for them.  God adapted and potentially changed his plan to accommodate their actions.  After they left the garden, they started on a journey of life that was not in God’s original master plan, as far as we know.  This course of events follows the process theology doctrine that all things are interrelated and God changes based on the actions of man in the world.  This does not conflict with the never-changing God of the Old Testament.  It confirms the nature of his love for us.

This “lure of God” as described by Whitehead is also known as the “persuasive aspect of the divine nature,” or the doctrine that God persuades us to move into a new or adapted future after he has changed his course based on the choices of our free will.[25]  It may be shown in the Old Testament as judgment or as hope.  The threat of judgment is common and often started in the Hebrew Old Testament.  The Torah or law was the last word on any subject.  Israel clearly knew they were subject to the judgment of God if they failed to follow his ways.  Their bad behavior and its resulting judgment could then become hope.  The end of Moses life was a great example of this doctrine.  His failure to obey by breaking the commandments resulted in his judgment of being stopped from entering the Promised Land.  This resulted in a new Hope for the Children if Israel, as they moved into a new land, a new life and a new hope for the future with a new leader.  This is another clear example of the doctrine of process theology played out in an Old Testament occurrence. 

Process theology can be used to not only analyze and better understand the doctrine and teachings of the Old Testament, but also to help better understand the “religious and intellectual development” of the Old Testament Children of Israel.[26]  It can provide not only a theological process or foundation for better understanding but a philosophical one as well.  Some theologians believe a philosophical foundation is also required for the best biblical understanding.  Ollenburger describes the positions of Muller and Brett, as well as the position of Gnuse, toward that point of view.[27]  The philosophy of interconnected, interrelated long term events is shown in the social and intellectual development of Israel.  Their culture slowly evolved from ancient Near Eastern beliefs.  The Hebrew Scripture accounts the story of how the Children of Israel slowly began to speak their own world views to the unbelieving world around them.  The people that preceded them and lived with them in the new Promised Land held many different religious beliefs and customs from Israel.[28]  The change process of their society, linking old to present to future, became their process for sharing their beliefs for those inhabitants of new lands that did not oppose Israel militarily, but chose to live with the newly arriving Children of Israel.

            A specific example of the process theology impact on the changing nature of Old Testament Israel is the biblical concept of covenant.  It appears all through the Old Testament and doctrine of Israel in conditional and unconditional forms.  It did not originate with Israel.  Ancient texts from the Hittite and Assyrian civilizations also show this concept.[29] It evolved in the belief system of Israel gradually, first with the original covenants with God, but later with the covenant agreements between themselves.  “Oaths are sworn to the Gods of both nations,” but all are punished if they are broken.[30]  Examples of the covenant concepts can be seen in the Ten Commandments and the entire book of Deuteronomy.  The concept came in part from societies and civilizations prior to Israel.  It was adapted and changed by God for their use.

            In summary, the concepts of process theology may be applied to the Old Testament in many ways.  It may be applied to Whitehead’s concept of becoming or concrescence as God brings the past into the present for Old Testament Israel.  It can be applied to the concept of salvation history or Heilsgeschichte, moving the present into the future.  It can be seen in the interrelation of biblical texts, from Exodus to Deuteronomy, from the Prophets to the life of Job.   It can be used to better understand the bodies and lure of God.  It can be used to better understand the intellectual and social development of Israel.  And it can be used to better understand the changing nature of the nation of Old Testament Israel.  It has many direct applications for the study of Hebrew Scriptures.

CONCLUSION

            This work has attempted to explain the nature of process theology, it potential application to the study of the Old Testament and give specific examples of that use.  There is certainly application for process theology in this regard.  The application is contemporary in that it is just as valid today as when it was first suggested by Whitehead.  It must however be used on balance.

            The process must not be confused with the objective.  The objective is a better biblical understanding to allow the believer to come closer to the Father studied in the Bible.   The steps to that objective are just that, steps on a journey.  One must not confuse the journey with the destination.  While process theology has clear application in the study of the Old Testament or any other biblical passages, its processes and steps must be changed or evolved by the student based on the subject studied.  This is, in effect, applying process theology to process theology.  The method is valid only as much as it helps the student reach their destination. 

            Potentially the best method for Old Testament or any other biblical study is a combination of methods, not just using one.  If we follow the earthly example of Jesus, and how he lived his life, we would embrace this approach of using different perspectives and experiences.  He spent his life with the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the healthy and the sick.  He didn’t stay in one environment or use one approach in his mission.  We should consider also using his varied approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology, Chicago, IL:  Moody Publishers, 2008.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic Press, 1998.

Gnuse, Robert K., The Old Testament and Process Theology, St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press,         2001.

Ollenburger, Ben C., Old Testament Theology, Flowering and Future, Winona Lake, IN:                            Eisenbrauns, 2004.



[1] Robert K. Gnuse, Process Theology and the Old Testament, (St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2001), p7.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Press, 1998), p501. 

[3] Ibid, p304.

[4] Ibid, p305.

[5] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, (Chicago, IL:  Moody Press, 2008), p619.

[6] Ibid, p619.

[7] Ibid, p620.

[8] Ibid, p620.

[9] Ibid, p621.

[10] Gnuse, Process Theology and the Old Testament, p10.

[11] Ibid, p10.

[12] Ibid, p55.

[13] Ibid, p56.

[14] Ibid, p57.

[15] Ibid, p57.

[16] Ibid, p58.

[17] Ibid, p58.

[18] Ibid, p60.

[19] Ibid, p62.

[20] Ibid, p64.

[21] Ibid, p65.

[22] Ibid, p65.

[23] Ibid, p65.

[24] Ibid, p66.

[25] Ibid, p66.

[26] Ibid, p171.

[27] Ben C. Ollenburger, Old Testament Theology, Flowering and Future, (Winona Lake, IN:  Eisenbrauns, 2004), p378.

[28] Gnuse, Process Theology and the Old Testament, p171.

[29] Ibid, p175.

[30] Ibid.

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