Ask Dr. Cobb

July 2005 Question

If process theology rejects the idea of substance, what implications does that have for such doctrines as the Trinity?

Dr. Cobb's Response

This question calls attention to the fact that much of traditional Christian theology has been shaped by classical ideas of substance. When, as a process thinker, one denies that there are any substances, this clearly means that traditional formulations cannot be affirmed. What then happens to the doctrines?

In some instances, doctrines are so closely bound up with the metaphysics of the time that they disappear when that metaphysics is rejected. This seems to me the case with the doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation. The former affirms that although the bread and wine appear to be unchanged by their consecration, in fact they are metaphysically changed. Their substances cease to be those of bread and wine and become those of the body and blood of Jesus. Consubstantiation means that while the substance of bread and wine remain, these are supplemented by the substance of the body and blood of Jesus.

When the metaphysics of substance is abandoned, this whole kind of thinking has to be given up. This is not difficult for most American Protestants, since we inherit chiefly the Calvinist tradition, which from the outset rejected this metaphysical interpretation of the sacrament. This shows that giving up substance thinking does not prevent the formulation of a richly meaningful understanding of the Eucharist. The idea of the real presence of Christ can still be important, and process thought actually helps to clarify how Jesus is really present.

Substance metaphysics also shaped traditional Christology. In the early church Christians agreed that in Jesus God was truly present. There were two main intellectual centers where theology was creatively developed: Antioch and Alexander. In very general terms, in Antioch the theologians favored the understanding that God indwelt the fully human Jesus. This makes excellent sense for process theologians today. We can provide a metaphysical understanding of how God participated in constituting Jesus. Incarnation is, for us, a fully intelligible and richly meaningful concept.

However, this metaphysics was not available at the time. The metaphysics that was available affirmed substance as fundamental. In Alexandria this metaphysics was very influential. Accordingly, the question for the Alexandrian theologians was how in Jesus the substance of deity was present. In substance thought, one of the basic assumptions was that no two substances could occupy the same space at the same time. The extreme view was that since Jesus was divine, there was in Jesus only the divine substance. The humanity was an appearance for the sake of others.

For a variety of reasons, this was quickly rejected. The understanding of how Jesus saved us required his humanity. Nevertheless, the tendency in Alexandria was to qualify that humanity. The question was, what part of Jesus consisted in the divine substance and what part in the human. Was Jesus’ reason divine, or Jesus’ will?

The conciliar statements reflected some compromise between the emphases of these two groups of theologians. The Antiochene theologians successfully insisted that Jesus was fully human in a way that would not be the case if some faculty were simply divine. The Chalcedonian compromise was to say that Jesus’ had both a human and a divine substance which were not mixed with each other but were inseparable.

Sadly, years after the last of the Christological councils, the church began to say that, although Jesus had a fully human nature, complete with all human faculties, nevertheless, the “person” of Jesus was purely divine. Jesus’ humanity, unlike that of any other human being was “impersonal.” Until the nineteenth century historical consciousness began to work on the image of Jesus, his humanity was generally subordinated to his deity. Even today, many view as “orthodox” the declaration that Jesus is “God and Savior” with no reference to his humanity.

Process theologians can sympathize with this struggle and appreciate especially the effort to affirm the humanity of Jesus despite the extreme paradoxes to which the church was reduced. Nevertheless, we cannot affirm the creeds that are couched in substance terms and that have led to an outcome which, in fact, denies Jesus’ genuine humanity. For us, the constitutive presence of God in Jesus makes Jesus more fully human, not less. We see our task, not as translating the final results of the debates about divine and human substances into process language, but returning to the gospels and Paul and rethinking the relation of God and Jesus in nonsubstantialist ways based also on the role Jesus has in fact played in human history and especially for those who try to be his disciples.

The questioner is particularly interested in the doctrine of the Trinity. The development of this doctrine was even more distorted by substance thinking than that of Christology. Few suppose that the discussion arrived at any clear, intelligible outcome. Most of the early discussion was directly related to the Christological discussion. It centered on the relation of the Son to the Father. But even that was confused or ambiguous. Is the “Son” the human figures in whom, according to the prologue to John’s gospel the Word (Logos) was incarnate? Or is the “Son” the eternal Word who became incarnate in the fully human Jesus? To include the human Jesus in the eternal Trinity renders many of its formulations extremely odd. It is then, not the Word that is incarnate in Jesus but an eternally existent divine-human being who descends to earth. Many suppose this to be orthodox, but it makes no sense to a process theologian. If the Son refers to the Word of John’s gospel, as many of the formulations suggest, then we may well take seriously the question of the relation of what is incarnated in Jesus and the one whom Jesus called “Abba” and to whom he prayed. Here, formulations parallel to those of the ancient church may reasonably appear. Some distinctions can be made, but both are truly God. It is truly the one God who is incarnate as Word in Jesus. Once some clarification of the identity and difference is made here, it can be extended by a process theologian today, as it was in the ancient church, to the understanding of the Spirit.

There is, however, no one process interpretation of Trinity. Process theologians do no derive their convictions from process philosophy alone. They belong to diverse theological traditions. Some of the variety among us is represented in a book edited by Joseph Bracken and Marjorie Suchocki, entitled “Trinity in Process: a Relational Theology of God.” Very broadly speaking, there have been two traditions of Trinitarian thought, one dominant in the East and the other in the West, and process theologians can be found in both.

The Eastern tradition emphasized the three persons. To Western ears it has often sounded tri-theistic. The East worked against tri-theism by emphasizing how each of the persons is constituted by the incorporation of the other two. This would have been impossible if they had been thought of as having or being separate substances, but since they were said to be of one substance, their relations could be thought of in this way. In Whitehead’s view, this was a major metaphysical advance, one that his philosophy generalizes. Today many in the West are gaining a new appreciation of this sense that even the God who preexists all creatures is to be understood as a community of beings rather than a self-contained monarch who is unaffected by relations. This communal God appeals to some process theologians, who can show that Whitehead’s philosophy can clarify the mutual constitution of the three persons even more fully than was done by the Alexandrians and can thus display their unity without appealing to a common substance.

Until recently, however, most Western formulations of the Trinity followed Augustine in emphasizing the oneness of God. Augustine showed that we can find in a single, unified human mind, multiple factors or aspects. And he used this model to propose how we should think of God as Trinity. The Augustinian Trinity is more accurately understood in modern terms as one person with three faculties or aspects. It can build on the Latin understanding of “persons” or “persona,” where a single actor could play several “persons” in a single performance. Most process theologians, being part of the Western tradition, develop their theories in this way. They believe that Whitehead overcomes the problems of a monarchical view of God by emphasizing God’s radical relationality to a creaturely sphere that has no temporal beginning. Introducing community into God is not religiously needed, and it involves unnecessary, and somewhat artificial, philosophical and theological problems.

I belong generally to this second group. Since Whitehead himself distinguished three natures in God and showed their different relations to the world, there is no problem in affirming such diversity within the one God and also diversity with respect to God’s relations with the world. Indeed, this is much easier and more intelligible with a Whiteheadian conceptuality than in the classical tradition, which affirmed both Trinitarianism and divine simplicity.

I have tried to make clear that the rejection of substance thinking does not have to change Trinitarian doctrine radically. Process thought in many ways can make more sense of the idea of Three-in-One than can substance thought. Nevertheless, my personal view is that it is better in this case, as with Christology, to go back to the New Testament and basic Christian experience and ask what we should say about the relation of the diverse terms used about God in these contexts. There we find not only Abba, Son, Word (Logos), and Spirit, but also other terms, including Wisdom. Why did Wisdom, so important to Paul, disappear from Christological and Trinitarian discussion? Could it be because of male prejudice? Do we continue to side with this prejudice against Paul?

Or again, is the identification of Word and Son correct? I have noted the confusion that it introduced into the creeds. Is it supported by the New Testament texts? Is the formulation in the baptismal formula a sufficient reason to subsume all talk of God and God’s work in the world under three names? Are the decisions made about these matters in the early church rigorously binding on all future generations, or are we allowed to return to scripture and Christian experience with a different conceptuality and to develop fresh formulations in our time?

My answer to the last question, as a process theologian, is that we are not only allowed, but should be encouraged, to think afresh about the internal life of God and its external manifestations in the world. Our conclusions may support much in the traditional formulae, but if they differ, there is nothing wrong with that. There has been no historical correlation between acceptance of the “orthodox” doctrine of the Trinity and genuine faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Indeed, willingness to affirm what one does not understand is far more a sign of acceptance of church authority than of faith in God.      

What is wrong is to take a paradoxical and ambiguous formula, developed under the influence of an outdated metaphysics, and demand its acceptance by all who would be followers of Jesus, regardless of how they interpret it or what practical consequences they derive from it. The identification of the acceptance of the Trinitarian formula with the essence of Christianity has done untold harm throughout the centuries, and it continues to be damaging today. It has contributed to a view of Christian faith as acceptance of dubious ideas on authority and on pain of punishment. It has driven from the community of faith many who would otherwise continue within it but who find their personal integrity violated by the demand that they believe what is meaningless to them. For a process theologian all this is wholly unacceptable.  

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