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Ask Dr. Cobb

April 2011 Question

Is it possible to be a Wesleyan and a Process thinker? If so... How?

Dr. Cobb's Response

This question reflects a widespread concern that adopting a philosophy that emerged only in recent times cannot be easily united with acceptance of biblical authority. I will briefly address that broader question before dealing with the specifics of the relation of process thought to that of John Wesley.

Clearly there is a profound difference between the way the Bible presents ideas and the way ideas emerge in philosophy. The Bible chiefly tells stories, sings praises to God, and describes how God and creatures, mainly people, have interacted. In other words the Bible focuses on events, just as process thought encourages.

Now it is true that process philosophy reflects on the nature of these processes, and of processes in general, in ways that the Bible does not. But this critical reflection does not take away from their significance as processes.

The situation with Greek philosophy in the early church was more problematic, since Greek philosophy took substances to be the basic entities and reflected on them instead of processes. The conclusions it drew from this reflection did not fit well with the biblical sense of the primacy of particular events. Whereas process thought clarifies what the Bible treats as central, Greek thought refocused attention on individual, self-enclosed entities. Classical theology arose out of the synthesis of Greek substantialist thought and Biblical stories. To replace this with a synthesis of Biblical stories and a philosophy of events offers us a more natural and harmonious theology.

This is not to say that there are no tensions. Process theology takes seriously what we have learned from the sciences and it sides overall with historical criticism of the biblical stories. Whatever tension one feels between being Christian and being informed by science and by critical study of the Bible one will feel also with process theology.

Yet even here process theology tends to reduce rather than intensify the tension. Much scholarly criticism is influenced by the “modern” worldview which predetermines that “miracles” do not occur. Process thought is quite open, for example, to the occurrence of faith healing that the modern worldview has held to be impossible. This is because process thought allows for psychic events to affect physical entities and for action at a distance. This openness to parapsychological phenomena does not mean that every report of such events is accurate, but it does refuse a priori rejection.

There are many biblical passages that depict God in anthropomorphic ways. Process theology joins the majority of Christian theologians in refusing to take these literally. God did not literally walk in the garden in the cool of the day. On the other hand, process thought does not go as far as classical or modern thought in rejecting biblical accounts of God. Process thought supports the idea that God makes real and specific differences in the world and especially in human experience. It supports the idea of an interactive relationship between God and people. It thus is open to many Biblical accounts that are rejected a priori by other philosophical theologies.

The question, however, is not about theology in general and process philosophy. It is specifically about Wesley and process thought; so I turn now to Wesley. Although Wesley did not make extensive systematic use of philosophy, he did not reject it. If we think of “philosophy” as the fullest product of reason, then Wesley supported it strongly. He emphasized the equal importance that theology be biblical and that it be rational. He treated science as an ally. There was certainly for him no general resistance to synthesizing biblical and philosophical thinking.

Therefore, the question must be about the more specific issue of whether this particular philosophical doctrine is compatible with Wesley’s theology. If I have understood the question correctly, then I would reverse the question. Can one follow Wesley without finding process thought particularly congenial? To that question I answer No.

Wesley’s understanding of the Christian life including justification and sanctification is thoroughly processive. Furthermore, the way God and human beings jointly function in this process is just the way Whitehead’s philosophy depicts the working of God and creatures. Wesley sees God’s work in human beings as persuasive. Process thought joins him in rejecting the notion that God determines all that happens. The way we respond to God’s influence is crucial in determining what actually happens.

Now none of this means that someone who follows Whitehead could completely agree with everything Wesley wrote. Although Wesley in fact engaged in ways of interpreting the Bible that anticipate later forms of critical scholarship, this kind of scholarship did not exist in his day except quite fragmentarily. If statements of what someone would have done in different circumstances are allowed, I will say that Wesley would have accepted this kind of study and its results. In fact there was relatively little resistance to critical biblical study among Wesley’s followers. His teaching did not encourage what we call Fundamentalism.

Perhaps the questioner thinks there is some problem with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity. There is no one view of the Trinity among process theologians. None can affirm it in exactly the form in which it was developed in the early church, since this was couched in the vocabulary of substance. I am a process theologians who has further objections, not to Trinitarian thought broadly conceived, but to the specific idea of three co-equal persons, even if persons are not conceived in substance terms. Despite the many claims to the contrary, I do not find this doctrine of the Trinity compatible with the oneness of God. Here, I probably disagree with Wesley. But Wesley explicitly assures me that this disagreement is not important to Christian faith or to working as his follower.

As one who is enthusiastic about Wesley and a fully committed supporter of process thought, it is obvious that my answer to the question is an emphatic Yes. Questions like this deserve direct brief answers, and I have tried to offer that. However, I cannot resist mentioning that I have written a book on Wesley in which the rich connections between his theology and process philosophy become apparent.

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