Process & Scripture – June 2002

Question: “What role does the Bible have in process-faith/theology?”

Publication Month: June 2002

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The questioner assures me that the issue is not how faithful process theology is to the Bible but rather, What does process thought say about the nature and authority of the Bible? Clearly a process thinker cannot affirm of the Bible inerrancy or literal historical accuracy. What does it affirm?

I believe I have dealt with this general topic before, but it is of such importance that I am happy to make another try. In doing so it is important to recognize that the answer to this question depends not only on the influence of process philosophy on one’s thinking but also on the Christian tradition that has shaped one. A Catholic will view this matter somewhat differently from a Calvinist, even if both are process theologians. I will give my own views as a Wesleyan process theologian.

For me, to be a Christian is to believe that the history of God with the Jewish people, culminating in Jesus, is of universal importance for humanity. This does not exclude the possibility that the history of the quest for enlightenment culminating in Buddha is also of universal importance. But to be a Christian is to stand in the tradition of Israel and to identify with the community that traces its self-understanding to ancient Israel through Jesus. For us, the record of the history that has formed us spiritually is of extreme importance. The Christian Bible is the church’s book, and the church is the continuation of the history of which we learn in the Bible. Without the centrality of the Bible, the church ceases to be the church.

It is in the context of this recognition of decisive importance that we ask the question of the nature and authority of the Bible. For process thought, there is a strong inclination to assert that inspiration has played a large role in the writing and formation of the Bible. But inspiration is not something supernatural. God works in all events. An element of inspiration is present in all creative thought. I believe there is a great deal more inspiration manifest in the Jewish scriptures than in the chronicles of Mesopotamian kings that have been uncovered. But if we compare the scriptures with Plato, the contrast is far less apparent. The degree of inspiration, while important, is not the main issue with respect to authority.

God was active in the events that are reported and interpreted in the Bible. This is the view of Biblical writers, and it is the view of process theologians. But again, God is active in all events whatsoever; so this does not distinguish Jewish history from that of other people. The Bible itself makes this clear. But the Bible is unusual, if not unique, in its sustained interpretation of human events in relation to God’s activity in the world. It invites us, as no other literature does, to understand the whole of human history in relation to God’s purposes and actions.

As we follow the Bible’s lead in this interpretation, we find much in the Bible with which we cannot fully agree. God is claimed to have authorized actions that are inconsistent with what we learn of God through the Hebrew prophets and through Jesus. God is said to have established laws that we believe are human, all-too-human. We have good reason to think that the events to which the Bible refers were not just as the Bible recounts them. Sometimes we sympathize with those the Bible vilifies. In faithfulness to the Bible, we criticize the Bible and argue with its authors.

Does this mean that we do not accept it as authoritative? Far from it. If we rejected its authority, we would simply ignore it. It is because we affirm its authority that we argue with it. What is important is that, as we argue with Biblical authors, we recognize that the basis of our argument comes from the Bible and the tradition it has generated. For Christians, it is often from the gospel accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus that we argue with authors of certain other biblical texts. But sometimes our criticism comes from what we have learned in more recent years from historians and scientists and is directed at the Gospels as well. Then it is important to affirm that our learning from later thinkers and scholars is itself faithful to the biblical tradition, which is informed by the wisdom of Babylon, Egypt, and Greece.

From the point of view of Fundamentalists, this understanding of the nature and authority of the Bible may be shocking. It is also disturbing to secularists. Why, they ask, engage so intensively with one ancient body of literature? Why not turn away from that and find guidance and direction in contemporary natural and social sciences, along with philosophical ethics and the insights of great poets and novelists? Why work with a literature that is so full of error and archaic moral and religious ideas?

I have tried to answer that question in part by the way I opened this discussion. Whether it is better to understand ourselves in continuity with ancient Israel or to drop that connection and simply root ourselves in the modern and postmodern world is a fair and open question. Of course, what we call the modern world is in fact deeply rooted in ancient Israel; so the contrast is not so great. But for contemporaries, it is possible to appropriate the wisdom of the Enlightenment without looking further back. Why not seek the truth with the best methods honed in modern times and these alone?

This is one way of putting the question, Why be a Christian? Obviously process thinkers do not have to be Christian. Certainly, we cannot appeal to the authority of the Bible as the reason to be Christian. Nevertheless, one can give reasons that are informed by process thought.

Modern thought in and of itself, that is, cut off from its deeper historical roots, moves away from judgments of value and moral norms. It finds these ultimately mysterious. The result has been to abandon, as a secular culture, all values and requirements other than profit-making in the market. Most people recognize that this is inadequate as a cultural norm.

Yet those within secular culture who affirm ethical principles, whether utilitarian or Kantian, are in fact ultimately indebted to the older religious history. Even so, principles of this kind when abstracted from cultural contexts lack efficacy. Self-criticism within modernity points to the fact that what really shape moral values and concerns are traditions and communities that live from them, not abstract principles. Certainly, Christianity is by no means the only such tradition and community, but it is the one that has been most important in shaping most of us in the West. To participate in the ongoing life of the Christian community is one way of contributing to the wider world.

Sadly, much of the way Christianity has informed our culture has been harmful. Christianity has contributed to making us a culturally arrogant, patriarchal, anti-sexual, ecologically insensitive people. In one respect and another, other traditions and communities seem to have teachings more suited to the real needs of our time. One healthy response is to join one of these communities. Another healthy response is to participate in the reformation, transformation, and renewal of the Christian tradition. This can be done best from within.

Of course, the choice is never as objectifying as this sounds. One remains in the Christian community, or joins it, because of some deep resonance and appeal. One participates in it because Christ seems worthy of ultimate devotion. But all of that is also affected by one’s judgment of how one’s life and work in the particular community affects the world as a whole. God loves the world, and from a Christian point of view, it is the well being of the whole world, not of the church in abstraction from the world, that should be the major concern.

All of this is to say that the authority one accords the Bible is a function of one’s commitment to participating in and transmitting the Christian tradition. I am one who has felt called to that kind of life. For me, therefore, the Bible has enormous authority.