When is simple too simple? Relational theology and love

relational_theologyThe word “relationship” is part-and-parcel of evangelical jargon. A tract left on a public bench may ask in bold letters:

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

And it is through the prism of relationship that some Christian theologians are formulating their views. A recent example is Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow, eds., Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (Point Loma Press, 2012), a collection of essays written by 31 authors contributing insights from the relational paradigm to a spectrum of theological and philosophical issues.

Structure and target audience

Relational Theology is structured around four categories:

1. Doctrines of theology in relational perspective;

2. Biblical witness in relational perspective;

3. The Christian life in relational perspective;

4. Ethics and justice in relational perspective.

Nested under these headings are intriguing subjects, including (among others) sin, free will and determinism, the means of grace, how humans relate to the creation, social justice, and feminist theology. True to its sub-title, “A Contemporary Introduction,” each of the essays is short, presenting a fly-over view at 30,000 feet of the ground beneath. Footnoting is very limited, which frees the text of heavy documentation, making the read more user friendly, especially for the novice. On the the other hand, since the book is geared toward the non-specialist, it is puzzling why the editors chose not to include questions for group discussion at the end of each chapter. This would have made for better learning as well as improved marketing of the book to small church groups, Sunday School classes or other venues.

Those who clicked on the Amazon.com link above will notice that the book is listed as “out of print.” Strangely, Point Loma Press (the publisher) also does not list the book on its website. It is hoped that these glitches can soon be corrected so that Relational Theology will be easily available to readers.

Can a single term capture what relational theology is all about?

If there is one golden thread that weaves together the majority of the book’s essays, it is love. Thomas Jay Oord defines love in its verbal sense (p. 26):

To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.

The definition is echoed in other essays, including those by Douglas Hardy (on spiritual formation), Brent Petersen (on worship), Jeren Rowell (on pastoral care) and others. The two Great Commandments, to love God and neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40), are repeatedly referenced as crucial when considering aspects of a relational theology. This is consistent with Mildred Wynkoop’s interpretation of John Wesley’s theology, a theology of holiness that Wynkoop described as a “theology of love.” Michael Lodahl’s chapter entitled “Sin in Relational Perspective” (pp. 37-39) proceeds along the same lines, defining “sin” as “any falling short of God’s ideal for us: a life of love” (p. 37).

Many times while reading the book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. After all, since Jesus himself sums up the law and the prophets as love of God and neighbor, one is in good company! There is no question that God’s desire to be in loving relationship with humanity and for us to model that self-giving love in relationship with others is a key motif in Scripture. Yet upon finishing Relational Theology, I came away with the thought that something was missing, that I had glimpsed only part of the picture of what being in relationship with God is all about. For all its profundity, I wondered:

Can love by itself capture the entirety of the relational character of God?

For sure, to be in relation with the Creator God includes an understanding of divine love, yet the story of God in Scripture is written on a much broader relational parchment. Absent in Relational Theology are other bright stars in the relational constellation that merit study, concepts like “wrath,” “discipline,” “providence” and “fear.” To change the metaphor, these are parallel ideas that provide shades and hues to our portrait of God and how in return we are called upon to relate to the divine. The sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments present not only a God who loves, but also one who can hate. What does it mean for a Christian to be in loving relationship with a God who says he despises idolatry and worthless feasts (Amos 5:21)? What does it mean to “fear the LORD” (Prov. 9:10) as the beginning of wisdom, and how is that relevant to relationship?

By its very nature, “love” is a term of immanence, of the God who is near, whom we call “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). Yet this relationship is also one that must take into account divine transcendence, that God at times appears absent, that God is exalted and lifted up, “Yahweh Sabaoth”, the LORD of armies (Isaiah 29:6) before whom God’s enemies are like grasshoppers. Any account of relationship between God and humanity must also consider the angels who pour out God’s wrath upon the earth like water from bowls (Rev. 16:1-21). We are in relationship with an awesome God whom Scripture paints in ways both compassionate and intrepid.

Relational Theology does give some room to how divine transcendence impacts relationship. Libby Tedder’s essay on prayer (pp. 66-69) speaks of unanswered prayer and our God who sometimes seems distant, an implied acknowledgment of God’s transcendence. Still, this was a minor note in a book that otherwise through its nearly exclusive accent on love tilts the delicate transcendence/immanence balance in a decidedly immanent direction.

For Wesleyans, one important backdrop to relational theology is John Wesley’s thought. Summarizing Wesley’s position, instead of “love,” Kenneth Collins prefers the term “holy love” as a more accurate and comprehensive description of the divine nature. The word “holy” leaves room for the darker shades in the portrait of God. In The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007), Collins cites John Wesley’s writings, demonstrating this dual “holy love” emphasis, and so urges today’s Wesleyan theologians to maintain the more complex view. While “love” is simpler, in Collins’ view, it is incomplete. Understanding God’s nature in a more variegated way – as “holy love” rather than just “love” – may be a first step to incorporating in a Wesleyan relational theology some of the aspects mentioned above, concepts that find some expression in Wesley’s thought. These concepts – of wrath, fear of God, discipline, providence, and the like – are also profoundly relational. Importantly, they are at home not only in the 16th century Continental Reformation, but are present at least in some measure in Wesley’s theology as relationally interpreted. As such, they should be addressed, problematic though they may be.

Conclusion

Relational Theology is an excellent introduction to the topic. It effectively moves beyond the narrow issue of sanctification pioneered by Mildred Wynkoop and applies the insights of relational theology to a spectrum of contemporary issues. In this way, the book is a solid contribution. Thomas Oord mentions in the introduction to the book (p. 4) that not all relevant subjects could be covered. It is hoped that future volumes will add to the theme of love other vital biblical themes that together constitute a more complete understanding of what it means for God and creation to exist in relationship.

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Photo credit: Thomas Jay Oord’s personal weblog

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6 thoughts on “When is simple too simple? Relational theology and love

  1. Greg, I wonder if all the other attributes you use to describe the character of God don’t, in reality, eventually build the foundation for love. Ultimately, even fear, wrath, etc., could be expressed out of a goal to do the most loving thing. I just finished the work and found it to be a trumpet or amplification of what is at the heart of Wesleyan theology. It was refreshing. Thanks for the review.

    • Thanks, Jim and Tom, for the comments. What a fascinating topic!

      Last June, I studied in-depth Charles Wesley’s 1741/42 collection, Hymns on God’s Everlasting Love. It was fascinating how he cast love repeatedly in the light of categories more commonly thought of as Calvinistic. For example, he speaks in one hymn of “sufficient, sovereign, saving grace” and in another exhorts Methodists to “publish the decree of love.” The context of the publication of the hymnal was the first Calvinistic controversy between the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield over the topic of predestination.

      For me, it’s another example of the priority of love in Wesleyan theology. We are all agreed on that. It does, however, show the importance of relating that love to other categories that have some bearing upon what relationship means. In this instance, how does God “decreeing” anything or being “sovereign” relate to love? And this is what I was getting at in my review. There is some important synthetic work that remains on the agenda of relational theology, because it was part of the Wesley brothers’ agenda, too, and today is all the more relevant with the resurgence in North America of neo-Calvinism, including Piper, Driscoll, and others. In the same way that John and Charles engaged Whitefield, we must engage the current Reformed theological scene and resist the urge – as Tom Noble has put it – to remain in our “Wesleyan ghetto.”

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jim. It reminded me of a quote from Wynkoop’s book, A Theology of Love, in which she talks about love as central to Wesley’s view of Christian faith:

    “When each doctrine of the Christian faith is identified and defined by [John Wesley], the basic meaning invariably comes out ‘love.’ Wesley’s thought is like a great rotunda with archway entrances all around it. No matter which [archway] is entered, it always leads to the central Hall of Love…” — Mildred Bangs Wynkopp

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