Process & Openness – March 2005

Question: “What are the similarities and differences between process theology and openness theology?”

Publication Month: March 2005

Dr. Cobb’s Response

1. Some Agreements

The similarities are more impressive than the differences. Openness theology has emerged among those who are committed to some form of biblical inerrancy. Most process theologians take for granted the context brought about by all sorts of critical study of the Bible. These two communities of thought and discourse out of which openness and process theologies have emerged have been strongly differentiated for a long time, and many have believed that their mutual opposition is irreconcilable. Yet these two forms of theology have come to remarkably similar conclusions.

Also, in broad terms, these two theological movements understand their task in a similar way. Whereas much conservative theology repeats and defends traditional formulations, openness theology joins process theology in the task of revision. Whereas much liberal theology has followed the linguistic turn and abandoned the effort to speak of God and the world as having their own reality independently of how we think of them, process theology joins openness theology in continuing the traditional task of using language to describe a reality that is far more than language. Both process theology and openness theology, further, look to the Bible as the chief source for the knowledge of God’s nature and relation to the world. And they find in the Bible much the same teaching.

Central to that teaching is that God is love and that other characteristics or attributes of God should be rethought in relation to that one. This means, for example, that the idea of God’s immutability should be rethought. There are certainly ways in which God does not change. For example, God always loves the creatures. But the one who loves another is affected by what happens to the one who is loved. To deny that, in favor of the abstract idea of immutability, is to reject the biblical revelation.

Similarly, the God we meet in the Bible knows what is going on in the world. Indeed, God knows everything that is going on in the world and in every human heart. Further, God’s knowledge is not so much a propositional knowledge about the world but an immediate sharing of all creaturely experience. No one and nothing can be concealed from God. This means that God, far from being impassible, as the tradition has taught, is ideally affected by all that goes on in the world.

This also means that God is truly omniscient. But from the abstract idea of omniscience, which is not in the Bible, many in the tradition have concluded that God must know everything about the future in just as full detail as God knows the past and present. That theory leads to strange results. It means that when God calls one to act in a particular way, God knows in advance how one will respond. That seems to mean that one’s response is predetermined. This predetermination conflicts with the idea that we have responsibility for our actions.

The Bible certainly depicts God as knowing some things about the future. Often the knowledge is conditional, for example, about what will happen if people do not repent. But sometimes it seems to be unconditional. Certainly, God knows a great deal more about the future than we do. But process and openness theologians agree that it is wrong to draw from this truth the idea that God knows every detail about the future.

On the contrary, God is depicted in the Bible as interacting with free creatures. God acts, creatures respond freely to that act, and God responds to their response. God has the resources to respond to us whatever we do, but God does not know in advance just what we will. God knows everything about the future that is now settled. God knows how God will respond to all sorts of creaturely acts. But God does not know, until we decide, just which of those acts will take place.

This means also that God does not cause or control all of our actions. When we act contrary to God’s will, it is not God who causes us to do that. We are the agents of our own sins. God does not keep all the power. Creatures also exercise power. In that sense, process theologians and openness theologians agree that God does not act omnipotently.

2. Some Disagreements

Despite the similarity of the way process theologians and openness theologians understand the way God works with creatures, there is a major theoretical difference here. Openness theologians argue that God can control everything in every detail. It is God’s choice to allow freedom to creatures. Thus they affirm that God is omnipotent even though God does not in fact exercise this power. The power of creatures is the result of the self-limitation of God, and God can at any moment revoke that self-limitation and exercise total control.

Process theologians disagree. For us, to be at all is to have power. God cannot create a powerless creature. If there are beings other than God then God does not have all the power.

Some process theologians think it best to continue to use the term “omnipotence” while redefining it. We do this in the case of omniscience. We call God “omniscient” because has all the knowledge that it is possible to have. With respect to the future, much is not now determined. God knows it is not determined. But that means God does not know how it will be determined. This is not a limitation on God’s knowledge. It is a limitation as to what there is to be known.

In a similar way, some process theologians assert that it makes no sense to assert that God has all the power. Power is a relational idea. Power is the ability to cause things to happen. But if there is very little resistance, very little power is expressed in causing something to happen. One may lift a feather with very little exertion of power. It is lifting a heavy weight that demonstrates real power. If God has all the power, so that creatures have none at all, then making creatures act as God chooses does not require any power. God might then be said to have all the power, but that would still be a very insignificant amount of power.

Accordingly, omnipotence can only mean maximum or optimum power. It must mean the ability to affect or control powerful beings. Only if creatures have great power themselves can God’s power in relation to them be significant. God’s “omnipotence,” then, means, not that God has all the power but that God has power over all other powers.

Other process theologians, and I include myself, reject the term “omnipotence” to describe God’s power, even when it is explained in this way. It is so deeply connected with controlling others that it does not point well to the kind of power that Jesus embodied and revealed. The power that is connoted by “omnipotence” is one whose exercise limits and reduces the power of the one on whom it is exercised. The power revealed in Jesus empowers others. This is the kind of power that we should primarily attribute to God if we take seriously the idea that Jesus reveals God.

This point is so central to process theology that I come back to it again and again in responding to frequently asked questions. The more fully God acts in our lives, the more we are strengthened and enabled to act effectively. The more freely we act, the more we acknowledge God’s grace as that which gives us this freedom. If we could persuade people to understand that this supreme empowering, liberating, and enlivening power is what is meant by “omnipotence,” then we could use that word. But many of us think that, at least for the present, we must avoid it.

How great is the difference here between process theologians and openness theologians? I am not sure. Openness theologians are certainly open to understanding God’s primary work as empowering, liberating, and enlivening, but it seems to be important to them to say also that God can act also in all-determining coercive fashion. God may have decided not to interrupt the course of events with these kinds of interventions, but God could do so if God wished.

Openness theologians recognize that this idea that God voluntarily limits the exercise of divine power leads them into greater problems with the evil in the world than faced by process theologians. If God could have stopped the Nazis from exterminating Jews, why did God allow the genocide to continue? They also recognize that the strict doctrine of divine omnipotence is not present in the Bible. Nevertheless, they think that for the sake of continuity with the tradition, they must continue to affirm this.

3. Different Contexts and Foci

This reason for holding to a doctrine of God’s omnipotence points to a larger difference. The conservative Christian community in which openness theology is rooted long appealed primarily to the Bible, even against later tradition. But as it found that the Bible does not clearly support some of the beliefs that are of greatest importance to it, it has increasingly emphasized the importance of continuity with the traditional interpretation of the Bible and the development of traditional doctrines. The openness theologians are calling for some revision of the tradition in light of the primary authority of the Bible, but they make these moves carefully and within limits. Some of them are paying a high personal price for having gone as far as they have in reformulating traditional doctrines.

Process theology has developed in the liberal wing of Protestantism. Many liberals have criticized various aspects of the tradition and declared their freedom from these. The critique of the tradition by process theologians is more respectful and moderate than that of many others. We pay little price for our reformulations. We have every reason to respect and appreciate the work that openness theologians are doing in a much less open context.

I do not want to imply, however, that openness theologians hold to particular doctrines, such as divine omnipotence, simply for political reasons. No doubt this rhetoric and some of the ideas it connotes are of personal importance to them. It is not just their context but also their personal convictions that are more traditional than those of most process theologians.

Process theologians live in a world in which many of their colleagues find any talk of God superfluous if not meaningless. Hence it is important to us to make clear that when we speak of God, we do not mean by that word much of what has alienated so many sensitive people in the past. Especially we are not speaking of a totalitarian ruler somewhere in the sky. We emphasize our break with what many people suppose to be the tradition, as well as with what we ourselves find in the tradition, in order to gain a hearing among those who have rejected God either as the enemy or simply as incredible. Hence the tone of our discourse is often quite different from that of openness theologians, far more different than our actual affirmations.

The role of philosophy in the two communities is also different. Process theology is a philosophical theology. In this respect it resembles the theologies of Origen, of Augustine, of Thomas, of Schleiermacher, and of Ritschl. None of these theologians thought that their philosophy led them into opposition to the Bible. On the contrary, it served to guide them in their exposition of the Bible and to develop the truths they found their. Process theology similarly seeks faithfulness to the Bible through the use of a philosophy that overcomes what we see as obstacles to biblical faith in the intellectual and cultural traditions of the West. We prize this philosophy also as enabling us to bring the Christian faith into effective relation with the sciences and with other religious traditions. Hence, as Christian believers, we highly prize process philosophy, especially in the forms given it by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Much that we do in this area is remote from the work of openness theologians.

Openness theology is, on the other hand, a biblical theology. That does not mean that it makes no use of philosophy, and even of process philosophy. But it uses particular insights and arguments as they assist it in the task of articulating the meaning of biblical texts. No one philosophy takes on for it the importance that Whitehead and Hartshorne have for process theologians.