Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko

Conference paper, “Eastern Orthodox Theology and Process Thought,” Center for Process Studies, Claremont, CA, May 8-10, 1986.  It is a response to Thomas J. Hopko, God and the World: An Eastern Orthodox Response to Process Theology,” a paper also delivered at that conference, based on Hopko’s Ph.D. dissertation of the same title (Fordham Univer-sity, 1982).  Griffin’s parenthetical page numbers without symbols refer to the dissertation.  (A list of the papers delivered at this conference is given here.)  Protopresbyter Hopko is the Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Posted November 14, 2009


Process Theology and Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Response to Thomas Hopko

David Ray Griffin 

Process theology as it has developed thus far has primarily been in conversation with Western Christian theology, both traditional and modern, and with the worldview associated with modern science, which was to a large extent a product of Western theistic thinking.  Until now there had been little critical engagement with Eastern Christian thought.  We have for the most part been victims and perpetrators of the typical theological curriculum.  Typically, just as Judaism’s importance is limited to its contribution to Christianity, so that we lost interest in it after the first century C.E., Eastern Christianity’s importance is limited to its contribution to Western theology, so that we lost interest in it after the fifth or sixth century.  There has been little interest in looking at its fundamentally different way of understanding Christian faith and its consequent criticisms of Augustinian-based theology.  Process theologians for the most part have apparently shared this lack of interest, even while being aware that our own way of understanding Christian faith is in some respects more akin to that of Eastern Orthodoxy than it is to Western orthodoxy, and that Whitehead himself paid some Eastern theologians the (for him) highest possible compliment, saying that they had made a metaphysical improvement upon Plato (AI 215).  As far as I know, this ignorance by process theologians of Eastern Orthodoxy has generally been matched by an ignorance of process theology on the part of Orthodox theologians.

In this presentation, and in the dissertation on which this presentation was based, Thomas Hopko has performed the invaluable service of beginning the long-needed conversation between process the-ologians and representatives of Eastern Orthodoxy.  In the dissertation, Hopko initiates this conversation in four ways. 

(1)He mentions several respects in which he believes that process theologians have misunderstood Eastern Ortho-doxy. 

(2)He points to several differences be-tween the two theological positions, differences in regard to which he apparently holds Eastern Orthodoxy’s position to be non-revisable. 

(3)He points out some areas in which the two views agree on the inadequacies of classical Western theism, but in regard to which he believes that Orthodoxy provides a more adequate alternative. 

(4) In doing so, he suggests, in response to criticisms and affirmations by process theology, some ways in Eastern Ortho-doxy can be re-formulated, without be-ing substantially modified, so as to be more adequate to Christian faith and experience.

Hopko has naturally and properly initiated the conversation in terms of the way the relation between process and Orthodoxy appears from his Orthodox perspective.  Rather than giving a point-by-point reply to his response to process theology, I will respond to his initiative by first saying how the relation looks to me, from my process perspective, and why I think this conversation is important.  Then I will turn to some of those particular points on which Eastern Orthodoxy and process theology, as they have developed thus far, appear to be at odds.

At the top of my list of similarities between process and Orthodox theologies is an understanding of salvation.  Both traditions reject the juridical view of the Augustinian tradition according to which salvation primarily involves a judgment or declara-tion by God as transcendent.  Rather, salvation is understood as a process of transformation based on the immanence of God in the creature.  This issue is directly related to the point on which Whitehead saw Eastern theologians as having made an advance on Plato; as opposed to portraying the world as including merely the image of God and imitations of his ideas, they portrayed God and the ideas as directly immanent in the world (AI 215).

Process theology’s stand with Eastern Christianity on this point puts it not only in opposition with traditional Western theology but also with the modern Western worldview.  This worldview began in the seventeenth century with a radical dualism between nature and soul which denied that God could be immanent in nature.  As this dualism was increas-ingly rejected in favor of full-fledged materialism in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the immanence of God in the world was rejected altogether.  Modern theology has accordingly had difficulty speaking of incarnation, Holy Spirit, providence, and inspiration.  Process thought’s pan-experientialism, which rejects both materialism and dualism, provides a new basis for understanding the immanence of God in all creatures.  It is thereby an ally of Eastern Orthodoxy not only directly against an Augustinianism which exalts divine transcendence to the detriment of divine immanence, but also against the modern worldview which is an indirect product of this Augustinianism.

Closely related to this common stress on divine immanence is a common stress on a dual mode of divine existence.  In the Orthodox tradition, these two modes are referred to as the divine essence and the divine energies.  The former is the divine existence as transcendent, as in and for itself; the latter is the divine existence as immanent or manifest in the world.  The crucial point is that the divine energies are just as divine, just as uncreated, as is the divine essence.  Hopko refers to this distinction as the divine polarity, Eastern style, contrasting it with Whithead’s distinction between primordial and consequent natures, and Hartshorne’s distinction between abstract essence and concrete states.  Hopko is right to see that the Whiteheadian and Hartshornean doctrines of divine dipolarity are quite different from his own.  However, there is another distinction in process thought which comes much closer to the Orthodox distinction dubbed by Hopko a kind of divine dipolarity.  This is the distinction between God as subject (with primordial and consequent natures), and God as superject (which Whitehead once calls the “superjective nature” of God [PR 88])  God as superject is the whole God (primordial and consequent) as immanent in the creatures (PR 350-3).  This doctrine is most intelligible if God is understood not as a single everlasting actual entity, with Whitehead, but with Hartshorne as a “living person,” meaning a person-ally-ordered society of divine occasions of experi-ence.  On this view, God, like every other actual enti-ty, is first an experiencing subject, appropriating the feelings of prior occasions of experience, then a superject, whose feelings and aims are appropriated by subsequent occasions of experience.  Of course, the superjective mode of the divine existence differs from that of finite actual occasion by being equally present to every part of the creation.  The crucial point, in regard to Eastern Orthodoxy, is that the superjective mode is as essential to the divine existence as the subjective mode.  For Whitehead, every actuality is essentially a subject-superject (PR 12).  The superjective mode of existence follows from the subjective mode, but is not thereby any less essential.  In every occasion of experience, “the many become one” (PR 212); but the rest of the description is that they “are increased by one,” which implies that it is equally essential that the one become many.  God’s objective or superjective existence in the many actualities of the immediate and remote past are incorporated.  This idea parallels Hopko’s Orthodox position, that the divine energies follow causally from the divine essence and yet are equally divine (172, 175).  This distinction between the subjective and superjective modes of divine existence explains how creatures can be said to be “deified” without abrogating the categorical difference between the creatures and God.

Co-operation between God and the creatures is a third point on which process and Eastern Orthodox theologies stand together against the characteristic emphasis of Western theology.  Ever since Augustine’s anti-Pelagian tracts, the notion of divine-human “synergy,” or “co-operation,” has been suspect in the West.  In spite of the difficulties created thereby for freedom and theodicy, Western theologians have tended to equate monotheism with monism, lodging all power and energy in God, and speaking of “predestination,” and “sole efficacy of God.”  Those theologies, such as Thomism, which have even given the appearance of freedom vis-à-vis God, have been criticized as “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian.”  In Eastern Orthodoxy, by contrast, “synergy” and “co-operation” have been good words (see 339).  It has said all along what process theologians have said recently, that God does not effect our salvation unilaterally.  Becoming whole or deified is a co-operative process involving divine initiatives and human responses.

A fourth area of agreement is theological method.  Two aspects stand out.  First, process and Orthodox theologians reject the Thomistic two-level division of theology into natural and revealed.  The theological construal of the world is a unified whole, with revelation, experience, and reason being indivisibly involved, regardless of the feature of reality under discussion.  (Hopko has been misled by Hartshorne, who minimizes the influence of Christianity on his “natural theology” to a vanishing point, into thinking that John Cobb and most other process theologians think in terms of a distinction between “natural” and “revealed” theology.)  Second, experience is made central.  Hopko repeatedly emphasizes the priority of lived experience over any received philosophical system for Orthodoxy (6-8, 26, 91).  Process theolo-gians are fond of Whitehead’s statements that “The elucidation of immediate  experience is the sole justification for any thought” (PR 4), and that philo-sophy’s “ultimate appeal is to the general conscious-ness of what in practice we experience” (PR 17).

These broad and important agreements do not mean, however, that the process and Orthodox traditions, at least as they have developed thus far, agree on everything.  In fact as Hopko makes clear, there are some radical differences (9).  In the remainder of this essay, I will deal with some of the disagreements, explaining why I as a process theologian take the position I do and/or indicating why I do not find persuasive the reason Hopko gives for his position.

Probably the root difference is on the issue of creatio ex nihilo.  There are some strong senses in which process theologians can affirm this language.  (Each actual entity can be said to be created out of creativity, and creativity is no-thing.  Also, each actual entity is created out of possibilities, which are not “things” in the usual sense of the term.)  But we reject the notion that God created our world out of a situation in which there were no finite actualities whatsoever.  The ultimate metaphysical reality is creativity, which involves the many’s becoming one. There could not have been a time (or a “pre-temporal” situation) in which God existed all alone, as the sole embodiment of creativity.  Creativity requires a multiplicity of non-divine embodiments as well as divine embodiment.  Hence, our world, which evidently began some fifteen billion years ago, was not created out of absolute nothingness, but out of a multiplicity of finite actualities, which were probably in a relatively chaotic situation with very simple forms of order.  For process theologians, this hypo-thesis, besides following from the basic metaphysical intuition behind process thought, is also important for reconciling the power and goodness of the creator with the experienced evil of the world.  The fact that it does not allow for occasional interruptions of the causal powers of the creatures also seems to be consistent with what experience teaches about the nature of the world.

For Hopko, it is essential to Christian faith to affirm creatio ex nihilo in the strong sense; according to which the world is not necessary to God (232, 239, 242).  He even says that the very nature of theology involves the contemplation of God without a world (250).  He rejects the Whiteheadian distinction between creativity, as the ultimate metaphysical reality, and God as the primordial embodiment and characterization of creativity.  God must for Hopko be viewed as the ultimate metaphysical ground, so that the creativity of the creatures depends on God alone (180, 181).

Closely related in his re-affirmation of the Eastern view of the trinity, in which the analogy of three persons is used, and the Word and Spirit are considered acting subjects (207, 211f., 230f.).  This doctrine explains how God can be personal and loving without having a world to which to relate (183, 227, 336-38).

On what basis does Hopko defend this view of God’s essential independence of any realm of finitude?  His primary appeal is to experience.  He says that creatio ex nihilo is based on the direct experience of God, and that God shows himself to be a self-sufficient being, not requiring anything beyond himself to exist (242, 245).  I would like clarification on this point.  I believe in the appeal to direct experience.  But I do not see how this appeal can be used to support the hypothesis that God does not need any world whatsoever, and that our world was created out of nothing in the absolute sense.  Insofar as the appeal to direct experience can be said to support either of the competing hypotheses, it would seem to support that of process theologians, since in human experience new things are always created out of prior situations.  Also, the crucial feature of the theory of biological evolution is that our present species show signs of being created out of previous forms.

Hopko adds that although the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not based primarily on the Bible, it is more adequate to the Biblical revelation that is any alternative view (250).  But how so?  Neither the creation of Israel as a nation, or of Christianity as a new community, was out of nothing.  Nor is creatio ex nihilo in the strong sense affirmed unambiguously in the Bible, with the possible exception of a few passages.  However these passages are read, there are many more passages, including Genesis 1:1, which more clearly affirm creation out of something.

Finally, Hopko simply says that “the very heart of the Christian message . . . is that God can be known . . . without reference to the world of his creation” (250).  But this is a very debatable interpretation of the heart of the gospel.  And, some of us think it is an interpretation with unhealthy implications, seeming to suggest a form of Christian salvation that is ultimately indifferent to the fate of God’s creation.  In any case, I ask: What of religious importance hinges upon the affirmation that God is independent not only of our particular world, but of worldhood altogether? It is of obvious religious importance to affirm that God’s existence is not contingent.  This means that it cannot depend upon anything that could contingently fail to obtain.  But process theology’s assertion that God’s existence is always correlative with that of some world or other does not make God’s existence dependent upon something contingent, since the assertion is that some world or other exists necessarily.

There is also obvious religious significance in the assertion that God is the only individual who exists necessarily and eternally.  But this affirmation is not threatened by process theology.  Some set of finite actual occasions must exist at any time, but there is no finite individual, i.e., personally-ordered society, which exists necessarily and eternally.  God is the one and only individual who has always existed. What of religious importance is added by the affirmation that God can exist all alone, without any realm of finites at all?

One aspect of the Eastern position, as articulated by Hopko, that I fail to understand is how the doctrine that the world is unnecessary to God is consistent with the doctrine that the emanating energies of God are not accidental, but necessary and uncreated (176, 247).  The outgoing energies of God would seem to require some sort of world to go out to.  Hence, if the divine energies are not accidental to God, then the existence of some sort of world would seem not to be accidental.  If this is not the case, then the parallel I suggested above between Orthodoxy’s “divine energies” and “White-head’s “divine superjects” would have to be revised.

A second major point of difference raised by Hopko involves the question of divine impassibility in relation to divine responsiveness to the world.  This is the issue on which Hopko seems most interested in reformulating Orthodox theology in response to process theology (309, 322-23). 

According to process theology, the idea that the universe is a co-operative enterprise, involving inter-action between God and the creatures, implies that there is a temporal as well as a non-temporal aspect to the divine actuality.  This is what divine dipolarity usually means.  The notion that the creatures genuinely exercise creativity means not only that the world is not totally determined by God, (so that predestination is rejected), but also that the future is not fully known by God.  God is omniscient, in the sense of knowing everything knowable, but omni-science does not include prescience or fore-knowledge, in the sense of infallibly knowing that which is future to us.  God as actual does not exist above or outside of time (only God’s abstract essence exists “eternally” in the sense of “outside of time”), so that God does not timelessly know that which is still future for us.  And God as presently actual does not know future actualities; since they do not exist, there is nothing to know.  Process theologians apply here the old doctrine that even God’s power does not extend to that which is intrinsically impossible.  If the creatures genuinely make a creative decision in the present, choosing among alternative possibilities, then prior to that decision’s being made there is simply nothing to be known.  Hence, to say that God has perfect know-ledge, knowing everything knowable, cannot imply that God knows the future.  God can know what is possible, and can know what is probable far better than we.  But if God could infallibly know what was to be actual, this would imply that our sense that we are making creative decisions is illusory.  At least this is how process theologians see it.

Hopko, as we have seen, affirms divine-human co-operation.  He also agrees with process theo-logy’s rejection of predestination (294).  And he agrees with process theologians that, to be faithful to the Biblical revelation, we need to talk of God as really receptive and responsive to the world, even suffering with it (284, 288, 320-22, 338).  However, Hopko also believes that it is necessary to say that God knows all things before they happen (277, 285, 287), or eternally from above time (291, 296, 298), and that God is absolutely unchanging, having no temporality or becoming (263, 342).  How is this un-changing knowledge of the temporal world made con-sistent with genuine responsiveness to the world? By the assertion that God is eternally responsive to the free actions of the creatures (288, 289, 309, 316). That is, how the creatures who are created will use their freedom is known to God, and responded to, prior to the actual creation of the world.  This eternal response by God to the creatures’ decisions con-tributed to God’s decision to bring about this particular world (which is the best of all possible [288]).  Hence,

creation itself is as it is not by divine determination alone, but by the inter-action of creaturely freedom and divine good will.  There is synergy between God and creatures even before creation.  What creatures think and do is known to God before the foundation of the world (284).

Hopko believes that this doctrine provides for more divine responsiveness to the world than one has in process theology by saying that the divine responsiveness is eternal, even pre-eternal (what-ever “pre-eternal” might mean) (289, 340).  But to me, the notion that God’s response to us is eternal, rather than moment-by-moment, seems not to aug-ment the divine responsiveness, but to empty it of all meaning.  A “response” made to my present deci-sions prior to the creation of this world I cannot un-derstand as a response at all.  And if this world at its inception included my present decisions, I cannot understand these as free decisions at all.  Indeed, after having rejected predestination, Hopko reverses himself, saying: “How things actually are, therefore, is truly decided by God, and there is such a thing as providence and even ‘predestination’” (295f.).  He adds the qualification that this is “what God and the world have determined together” (296).  But I cannot understand this to be a meaningful qualification.  The issue between us is compatibilism: Hopko thinks genuine freedom is compatible with infallible fore-knowledge (or timeless knowledge), process thinkers do not.

Hopko probably agrees that this doctrine of com-patibilism is not without difficulty.  But he evidently believes himself driven to affirm it because Christian faith seems to require the affirmation of divine foreknowledge as well as creaturely freedom.  He asserts that this affirmation of divine foreknowledge is based not on an argument about what God must be like to be worshipful (a Hartshorne, he says, wrongly assumes), but on spiritual experience, the fact that God “has demonstrated His foreknowledge” (292; cf. 297, 200).  Here we would evidently disagree em-pirically.  I know of no events that prove that God knows the future.  Certainly some people have said that God knows the future, but this does not by itself mean that it is true.  Certainly some people have had certain visions, sometimes called “prophetic,” some-times called “precognitive,” which closely corres-pond to what later came about.  But such events do not prove that these people, or God, had infallible knowledge in advance (or timelessly) of what would actually come about.  Other interpretations are possible, some of which seem to me more adequate.  In any case, I need clarification from Hopko on what he means by saying that God’s foreknowledge has been “demonstrated.”

While claiming that the doctrine of divine fore-knowledge, or timeless knowledge, rests primarily on demonstration, not argument, Hopko does offer an argument for it.  He says that if the future were un-known to God, God could not “in any sense be the guar-dian and provider of the world’s processes in any way different from that of any participant in the process” (292).  That is surely extreme.  According to process theology, God differs decisively from other participants in the process in several ways relevant to the question of providence. 

(1) God knows the totality of the actual, whereas finite knowers know only a small portion of it. 

(2) God knows what has happened perfectly, directly and concretely, whereas most of the knowledge of finite knowers is imperfect, abstract, and based partially on inference. 

(3) God knows all the possibilities open to any situation, whereas finite beings know at most only some of them.

(4) God knows the probabilities in any situation far better than any finite knower can. 

(5) God knows which possibilities in any particular situation are most compatible with the probabilities elsewhere and with the over-all good of the world. 

So, the idea that the future is real for God does not seem to process theologians to rule out divine providence in a meaningful sense.  God is not reduced to merely one more participant in the process on the same level as others.

The concern behind Hopko’s argument is perhaps eschatological.  There is a widespread conviction, which he possibly shares, that a God who does not already know how the world will ultimately turn out cannot be trusted to bring it to a satisfactory end.  But that is not necessarily true.  My own statement of the “heart of the Christian message” would involve the conviction that perfect loving wisdom is the ultimate power of the universe, and that we can safely entrust our everlasting security to it.  To believe that God is love is to believe that love is ultimately more powerful than anything else and that it will ultimately be victorious.  Perfect love exercised with perfect wisdom can ultimately be victorious without knowing in advance the exact details of how the victory will be won.

Hopko’s affirmation of divine foreknowledge is based on the idea that it is “an indisputable biblical and patristic doctrine.” (285)  The word “indis-putable” here seems to carry a double meaning, viz., that it is indisputable that it is affirmed by biblical and patristic writers, and that it must (therefore) be con-sidered indisputably true by Christian theologians today.  This points us to what is surely one of the deepest differences between typical Orthodox and typical process theologians.  The former tend to believe in an infallible revelation in the Bible, and in a fairly irreformable formulation of that revelation in the biblical and patristic period.  Process theologians, by contrast, while perhaps in some sense affirming a “final” or “decisive” self-revelation of God in Jesus or the New Testament, do not accept any biblical or patristic formulation as final or irreformable.  The idea of such a final formulation would seem to go against the genuine creativity or freedom of human experience, and its conditionedness by the fallible ideas and inadequate conceptualities of any cultural epoch.

The difference on this point, and on the closely related point of human freedom and divine deter-mination, seems ultimately to go back to the issue  with which we began—the issue of creation ex nihilo, and of God’s relation to creaturely creativity. Because Hopko affirms that God is the world’s ulti-mate metaphysical ground, who created the world out of absolutely nothing, so that the creativity of all creatures depends on God alone (180-81), he can say that the creatures’ “action itself is in a real sense God’s action even when it is realized by free creatures in the full integrity of their own creaturely being” (341).  Hence, he can believe that at one particular place in the history of the world God produced a verbal formulation of the nature of reality that coincides rather exactly with the way things truly are.  Process theologians, by contrast, given our understanding of the relation between divine and human creativity, are more likely to think in terms of “continuing revelation,” or at least of continuing “reformulations” or “transformations” of inherited doctrines.

Hence, insofar as there are irresolvable differ-ences between process and orthodox theologians, at least at the present time, they involve both formal and substantive issues. Accordingly, any appeal by either side to some criterion on the basis of which to settle a dispute will involve circularity.  The Orthodox theologian’s appeal to scriptural or patristic evidence to settle questions of truth for today would presuppose a substantive view of the God-world relationship that process theologians reject. Like-wise, the views of process theologians on substan-tive doctrines both support and are supported by our views of scripture and tradition, which are not ac-cepted by Orthodox theologians.  Even my optimistic way of speaking of the irresolvable differences be-tween us, indicating that they may only be irre-solvable “at the present time,” reflects my process view that every tradition can be crea-tively trans-formed through interaction with other traditions while being faithful to its heritage.  Although contemporary process and Orthodox theologians may not overcome their present differences, those in the future who stand in historic continuity with one of these two traditions may find themselves much closer together. Indeed, there may be people who see themselves as inheriting from both traditions more or less equally.  Because of my great respect for the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I at least hope that that is the case



PR   Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, cor-rected edition (The Free Press, 1978).

AI  Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (Macmillan, 1933).

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