Influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, Alfred North Whitehead introduced the first systematic presentation of a panentheistic world view in 1929 (Geisler, 1971, p. 194; cf. Brown, 1974, pp. 424-425). Panentheism, also known as process theology, should not be misconstrued with pantheism. Pantheism suggests that God is the world, while panentheism argues that God is in the world as the soul is in the body. Hence, the world actually is the temporal manifestation of God.
Building on this God/world relationship, process theologians suggest that God has two poles: potential and actual. His potential pole is His unchanging, perfect, absolute nature, while the actual pole is that aspect of God which is reflected in the changing, imperfect, and incomplete creation. In this regard, the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution is evident. Though our world, according to the evolutionary scenario, is characterized by apparently purposeless meanderings, “the circuitous wanderings of cosmic evolution seem to mask a faint but persistent urge toward order” (Brown, 1974, p. 433). This “urge toward order” in process theology reflects God’s progress toward His potential pole—He is in the process of becoming all He can be. The theological implication of this position is that God not only has created the world, but is being created by the world (Edwards, 1972, pp. 198-202).
While panentheism has emphasized correctly God’s intimate connection to His creation, its concept of God does not correspond to the biblical portrait. Scripture presents God as the great “I AM”—the self-existing, self-sustaining Being Who created the physical Universe ex nihilo (Exodus 3:14; Genesis 1:1; Hebrews 1:2; 13:4). Thus, while God is intimately concerned with the creation, He is an eternal spirit Being Who is both superior and prior to the creation (cf. John 4:24; Luke 24:39). In panentheism, the creation (and thus God) is incomplete, and progressing toward its potential perfection. However, the Bible shows that the transcendent God completed His creative activity and pronounced it “very good” (Genesis 2:3; 1:31). As a corollary to this perspective, the Bible suggests that, unlike the optimistic world view of process theology, the creation is experiencing degenerative, not progressive, change. God, on the other hand, is unchanging in His nature (Hebrews 1:10-12). In the final analysis, panentheism is a bold, though failed, attempt to develop a theology that is consistent with the evolutionary world view.
[See related article: “Purpose, Goodness, and Evolution”]
Brown, Delwin (1974), “The World and God: A Process Perspective,” Philosophy of Religion: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Norbert O. Schedler (New York: Macmillan).
Edwards, Rem B. (1972), Reason and Religion: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).
Geisler, Norman L. (1976), Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
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