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Ask Dr. Cobb

April 2006 Question

A central tenet of Christianity, it would seem, is redemption. I have searched for a process theology elaboration on that theme but not found it. Does that mean that for somebody to whom redemption is an indispensable as well as priceless part, one is left with orthodox Christian tenets (God is reconciling himself to mankind through Christ, who bears all sins)?

Dr. Cobb's Response

This question caught my attention because, if, indeed, process theology does not address the topic of redemption, broadly conceived, it is hardly a theology at all! To respond to this challenge, we must distinguish two questions. First, is the word “redemption” commonly used by process theologians? On this question, the problem of the questioner in finding sustained treatment strongly suggests that the answer is negative. I realize that I have not thematically treated it in my writings.

I have not done research to see where “redemption” is thematically discussed by process theologians. However, a quick check assures me that Marjorie Suchocki has used the word systematically. In The End of Evil, Chapter VI is entitled, “Finitude and Everlasting Redemption: Participation in God;” Chapter VII, “Freedom and Temporal Redemption;” and Chapter VIII, “The Metaphysics of the Redemptive God.”

More important is the question whether the Christian concerns to which the word “redemption” points are more widely pervasive of process theology. I think they are. Consider my Christ in a Pluralistic Age. Although the word appears rarely, and almost incidentally. I would claim that “redemption,” broadly understood, is central to the whole book. But this claim depends on the belief that “redemption” has multiple meanings that can be discussed under multiple headings.

The first part of the book deals chiefly with “creative transformation.” I take that to be fundamental to what Christ, as the incarnation of God, is doing in the world. Part Two deals with Jesus’ role in this process of creative transformation. Part Three is on what we can and should hope for, that is, in what way can we and the world of which we are a part, be creatively transformed? I could easily use the word redemption in formulate this question.

It would be unfortunate if it were felt that lack of commitment to the word “redemption” were a sign of departure from the New Testament. A quick check of a concordance indicates that its use there is only occasional. Since I have recently published with David Lull, a process New Testament scholar, a commentary on Romans, I will comment on Paul’s use of the word in that important letter. My concordance finds two uses: 3:24 and 8:23. Both are in passages with which we wrestled very seriously.

I find it interesting to see how we dealt with redemption in these two passages. In the second passage the redemption is of the body. For Paul this is the final stage of our hoped for resurrection. We described this as a transformation of the physical body into a spiritual body. This connects it to Paul’s account elsewhere of the resurrection of Jesus and what that leads us to anticipate (I Cor. 15:42-44).

When my questioner asks about redemption, he is probably influenced by the other passage in Romans where the word is used. This passage has been the basis for much thinking about how we are redeemed by Jesus’ sacrifice. Because of its great impact on the thinking of the church, we spent a good deal of time on Romans 23-25a. Lull developed a translation of the Greek text quite different from the Revised Standard Version, one that we believe is more literal. I will not spell out the reasons for all the changes here, but simply say that many of them are based on recent textual scholarship. Our translation is as follows.

“The reason why God’s righteousness is for all who are faithful is that there is no distinction among people. For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, so that all are justified by God’s grace as a gift through the liberation effected by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ Jesus as an act of conciliation through [and because of] Jesus’ faithfulness even to death. God did this to show God’s righteousness.”

You will notice that we did not use the English word “redemption” in this translation. The Greek word typically translated as “redemption” is used with respect to a payment made for the freeing of a slave. The focus here is on our being made free by Jesus faithfulness even to death. We thought this came through more clearly in the English with the word “liberation.” But as long as the reader hears in “redeem” the idea of making free, we are happy with the word “redemption.”

Our view is that Paul did not connect this sacrificial death of Jesus with the Jewish Day of Atonement. He does not show signs of having this model in mind anywhere else in his writings. It is this model that leads to the idea that God plays the role of the priest and Jesus the role of the animal that is sacrificed. Since we do not like the theology based on that image, that is, the idea of God sacrificing Jesus, we may be accused of reading our preferred ideas into the text. However, it is our genuine conviction, being as objective as we can, that our translation is closer to Paul’s meaning.

I have spent more time on this passage because for some Christians the idea of “redemption” is closely associated with that of an atonement effected by God by sacrificing Jesus. If someone is looking for this doctrine in process theology, she or he is likely to be disappointed. It does not fit with the process idea of God. We think it does not fit with the idea of God taught by Jesus or by Paul.

Lull and I have concluded that Paul’s central idea is that when we participate in the faithfulness of Jesus, sharing in his suffering and death, God views us in light of that participation and treats us as righteous despite our continuing sinfulness. In the end we will be glorified as Jesus was glorified in resurrection, and even our bodies will be transformed. If this is what one means by redemption, then redemption was certainly central for Paul, even though the word is not prominent in his writings.

Jesus’ central message was about the coming of God’s basileia. Preparing for that through repentance was his call. Already, there and then, those who heard him could follow him in living in terms of that new order rather than the expectations and requirements of the Roman Empire. Jesus did not speak of “redemption,” but in a broad sense that was certainly the meaning of his proclamation.

For neither Jesus nor Paul was there an idea of God sacrificing Jesus in order to atone for human sins or to ransom us from the devil’s power. But those ideas, too, have some foothold in the Bible. Process theologians in general prefer the theologies of Jesus and Paul.

I rehearse this so as to remind us that already in the New Testament the good news takes a variety of forms. In general the term “redemption” is not prominent either in the New Testament or in process theology. But if we use it in a broad way, as I think my questioner intends, to identify the promise of change that is announced in different ways by Jesus and by Paul, then it is indeed at the heart of Christian theology. Process theology is then about redemption.

Process theologians want to make the promise of change as real and as realistic as possible for twenty-first century people. Many theologians have highlighted “liberation” as the best name for this change today. Most process theologians have generally favored this language as well. Some of us think that “creative transformation” is a helpful and fruitful way to name what we receive from God and hope for in the future. We seek a creative transformation of personal lives, or social structures, and of the global situation. For some of us the salvation of humanity and other creatures from the self-destruction in which we are now engaged is the most important “redemption” of all. I consider that when I write about a new economic order I am discussing “redemption.”

Whitehead taught us to rejoice in the way that God creatively transforms all that we are, moment by moment, into a part of God’s own life. Through that transformation our lives become everlasting. For him this is what saves us from meaninglessness. Suchocki’s thinking about redemption deals mostly with what we become in God. Some of us are also interested in another transformation that may take place at death into a new ongoing life.

Some of us are also interested in another creative transformation, that which takes place with regard to the individual person at death. Others think it best not to introduce this topic into Christian theology. None of us want to encourage preoccupation with a future life in another sphere or dimension.

There is not, then, one doctrine of redemption that follows necessarily and universally for all process theologians. We have varied ideas and emphases, just as one finds variety also in the New Testament. For the most part our ideas are complementary rather than in contradiction with one another. But that does not mean that we all agree. We hope that the diversity of opinions about redemption will keep process theology moving and developing in a fruitful process.

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