Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Oord’


A Review of “Relational Theology,”

Eds. Brint Montgomery, Thomas Oord, Karen Winslow

(Oregon: Wipf and Sotck Publishers, 2012)


“Relational Theology,” which is edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Oord, and Karen Winslow, introduces the relational thought between God and the world throughout the diverse realms of theology. Thirty theologians or pastors contribute to this book. This book consists of four parts: “Doctrines of Theology in Relational Perspective”; “Biblical Witness in Relational Perspective”; “The Christian Life in Relational Perspective”; “Ethics and Justice in Relational Perspective.”

Definition of Relational Theology

Barry Callen’s short definition of relationship is much powerful: “A relational God has created relational people in a relational world” (8). Thomas Oord describes two core ideas of relational theology:

  1. God affects creatures in various ways. Instead of being aloof and detached, God is active and involved in relationship with others. God relates to us, and that makes an essential difference.

  2. Creatures affect God in various ways. While God’s nature is unchanging, creatures influence the loving and living Creator of the universe. We relate to God, and creation makes a difference to God” (2).

Relational Being

Human beings are relational beings both in relation to God and in creatures.

    First, in relation to God: relation means “participation in God,” which Charles Conniry, Jr. explains entails two important theological terms such as panentheism (“all is in God”) and theosis (“becoming divine” in 2 Peter 1:3, 4; Genesis 1:26). Panentheism means that God is with us and we are all in God. Theosis “calls us to imitate God now with the hope of sharing in God’s glory in the future”[1] (21-23). In the relation, God makes partnership with us for the common good of the world (36). Karen Winslow introduces a concept, i.e., “cooperative covenant partners” between God and human beings. Jesus was God’s unique covenant partner (not my will but your will). (49) In the partnership between God and human beings, according to Dean Blevins, human beings can enter into God by the means of grace such as “Lord’s Supper, praying, fasting, reading scripture, and gathering in community… reading devotional text, meeting in small group, and ministry to the poor” (71).[2]

    Second, in relation to human beings: In China and Korea, we say human being as “인간” (in-gan) in Korean and “人間”  in Chinese. 人” (in) means “human beings,” “間” (gan) means “between,” and the shape of 人 (in) seems to lean against each other. In fact, insofar as human beings live between and among others, they are thus “between-beings.” That is, a human being is already by nature a relational being. If so, ‘we’ is a more appropriate term to the relational conception. ‘We’ is neither arbitrarily united ‘I’ to ‘You’ nor destroyed nor reduced in its individual character to other. ‘We’ means each other. Whereas if I remain in I, I cannot go beyond I, myself; if I go beyond myself, I should be in ‘We.’ Since relationship does not reduce each individual one to other, ‘we’ presupposes the individual being, so that ‘we’ is neither total one nor monarchy one.[3]

Relation and Love

We need to learn how to love in this world. It is Jesus the Christ who teaches how to live and how to love. R. Shelton argues that Jesus is “the live-giving air of the Spirit of God, the Giver of Life” (14). Jesus talks about two kinds of love: love your God and love your neighbor. First is the love between God and human beings. K. McCormick emphasizes that when God is in the world by the “self-giving, self-emptying way,” God makes space for us to dwell in God, which McCormick calls “the space-making ‘way’ of Triune Love,” so that we can become partakers of God’s constant giving and receiving “Triune love.” McCormick explains metaphor of Triune love in relation to the heart of God: “This way of God’s constant giving and receiving opens a window into the very heart of God. It reveals to all creation that the name and nature of God is love. The heart of God is not unlike the human heart that continuously contracts and expands. As our hearts beat, they contract to pump in (diastole) life-giving blood and oxygen. And they expand to pump out (systole) the same life-giving blood and oxygen. Similarly, with every heartbeat of God, God is constantly contracting and expanding, emptying and filling, indwelling and overflowing, giving and receiving.” (11-12)

    Second is the love among human beings. Love does not have any limitation. Oord says, “Christians are commanded to love believers and unbelievers, friends and enemies, the near and dear as well as the stranger” (1). It reminds me of a significant principle of Christian life St. Paul gives us: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). 

    In this sense, we need to reflect on Oord’s definition of love: “To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being” (26). In this definition, we need to focus on “intentionally.” Love in a sense requires intention, because without intention, I think, it could be that only “with words or tongue” but not “with actions and in truth” (1 John 4:18).

    Although we love God, it cannot be comparable to God’s perfect and full-orbed love, because God knows everything about us. Nevertheless, we need to imitate God’s love in our concrete context (24, 27).  

Relation and Freedom

That love is in relation is, asserts Oord, that it is in “give-and-receive relationship.” Since God first loved us (1 John 4:19), if we love God, God is pleased, but if we fail to love God, “God is grieved, angry, and forgives.”[4] That is, as Brint Montgomery maintains, since human beings have “libertarian free will,” which is “not just doing what you want to do” (compatibilist free will), but “being able to have done otherwise than you did,” we are free to respond well or not to God, so that we are morally responsible. In this sense, we are not simply extension of God, because no self, no responsibility. (32-33). Furthermore, if we have real freedom to choose, we do not know fully the future. Likewise, as Wm. Curtis Holtzen argues, God does not completely know the future, because God faces an open future which does not exist yet. If the future is already known, we cannot say that we have real freedom. Because we have freedom, we may use freedom well or poorly. (36)

John Wesley and Relational Theology

According to Barry Callen, relational theology’s root is “in the Pietist, Arminian, Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions of Christianity.” Their basic common ground is mutual relationship between God and human beings (7).

    God’s character in John Wesley is “a living sovereignty of love.” God is not using unilateral or coercive power but bilateral one and requires human responsibility. Wesley’s two definitive, mutual directions are first, “without God’s grace, we cannot be saved,” second, “without our grace-empowered but uncoerced participation, God’s grace will not save. The first of these truths is Wesley’s Protestant emphasis (it is God alone) and the second might be called his Catholic emphasis (it is also human cooperation with divine activity).” That is, salvation is possible by both “prevenient” grace and responsible acceptance of the grace. In this sense, a common denominator between John Wesley and relational theologians is that “Christian spirituality is a cooperative enterprise. All praise to God who reigns above and responds below!” (8-9).

    Wesley’s explains our image of God in three ways: 1) God’s lordship (the political image); 2) rational beings with intellect and will (the natural image); 3) God’s holiness (the moral image) (28).   

Relation and Salvation (Atonement)

Salvation reminds most Christians of heaven after this world whence we need to be saved. However, Timothy Crutcher insists to remember that “God created this world to be good” (43). We should not underestimate this world God created. In the sense, we need to have new interpretation of salvation. Oord argues that because God is relational with creatures from the beginning, “sinful behavior makes God angry.” But our positive responses to God’s initial love and ongoing relationship with God “deepen the relational friendship” between God and the world (1). In the interpretation of sin, Michael Lodahl defines sin as “the intentional rejection on our part, at any given moment, of God’s calling upon us to live lives of love” and asserts solidarity[5] of sin: “no one exists ‘on one’s own.’ Therefore, no one sins ‘on one’s own.’” (38).

    Timothy Crutcher also maintains that “sin is really about broken relationships more than anything else. Salvation is salvation from sin. Salvation is really about God empowering us to repair those broken relationships. This brings us back into fellowship with God and enables us to live in right relationship with everyone else.” (44) Atonement is, as Derek Flood notes, “God’s invitation for reconciliation” or “a loving relationship with God.” That Christ died “for us” means that Christ died “for our sake.” However, “for us” does not mean substitution, “instead of us or in our place.” Rather, it means “our dying ‘with Christ,’” and then leads to our resurrection with Christ, so that we participate in Christ and are transformed into Christlike in union with him. (40-41)

    Furthermore, the scope of God’s salvation is not limited within the human beings, but extended to the cosmos. Considering the Spirit as the “relational connection” within the Trinitarian life and the “dynamic life force” in creation, Amos Yong notes that “God’s redeeming work consists of healing the estrangement of our hearts, reconciling human beings with one another, and restoring harmony between humanity and the cosmos” (19).

Relation and Suffering

In relation, just as we experience pain and brokenness in our lives, God willingly feels such suffering with us (36). Flood maintains that the cross means “the crucified God’s solidarity with us in our pain” (42). Shelton appropriately describes that “Christ acts to restore humanity’s divine image and covenant relationship with its Creator. In Christ, we find that salvation is restored friendship with God…. Christ took into his own soul and body the suffering, brokenness, and alienation of humanity. He fully participated in it to the point of taking its own death upon himself on the cross. Crucifixion is about asphyxiation—the body’s ability to breathe is disabled. Christ shared in this existential dying and alienation of all humanity” (15-16). God meets us in suffering unmasked (42). To be a pastor means, describes Jeren Rowell, following “humility (birth in a stable and life as a peasant), solidarity (identification with the poor and abused), compassion (acts of mercy and healing), integrity (no compromise with worldly systems of power), and sacrifice (laying down of one’s life in service to others)” (85).

Relation and Prayer

Prayer is relation. When we see the beauty and suffering of creatures, face injustice and encounter the poor, and see and hear rumor of the war threatening the world peace, we need to pray “When prayer is habituated,” in our whole life, argues Libby Tedder, “the world is oxygenated with God’s love.” Prayer affects both God and us and really changes the world. (67-68). Tedder makes a list of reason to pray: “We pray, because Jesus taught us to relocate our awareness of who God is and who we are (Mt 6:9-14). We pray, because we need to experience the compassion of our heavenly parent. We pray, because it sharpens our intentions and makes us better listeners. We pray, because it heals us of blind unbelief and opens our eyes to God’s will on earth. We pray, because we are never actually alone in this world. We pray, because we remember our true dependence when naming our daily needs: bread, forgiveness, peace with neighbors, and protection from trial. We pray, because we need help to see where the leavening yeast of God’s grace is being kneaded into every nook and cranny of creation. We pray, so that when God’s redemption is baked into our lives and begins to rise throughout the world, we can share it with the hungry.” (68-69)

    Furthermore, Brent Peterson considers worship as “communal worship.” It goes beyond individual healing to “the oppressed, downcast, and marginalized” to rescue them (78-79).

    Douglas Hardy describes sanctification as “spiritual formation,” which usually can be expressed as “spiritual development,” “maturing in Christ,” or “growing in holiness.” Human beings are spiritual because God breathed spirit into us and because we respond to God. Then “formation” means that God formed us (gestation and birthing images). Thus spiritual formation is renewing and strengthening our spiritual identity in order that we can love God and our neighbor.

Relation and Ethics

“Love is at the heart of ethics.” Kevin Lowery argues that just as love is possible in relationship, so ethics has relationship. And ethics (love for neighbor) and spirituality (love for God) cannot be separated (Mt 25:40) (89, 90, 91). The cross shows this two sides of love. Our image of God requires “a moral demand.” Samuel Powell properly points out that “our relation to God is a relation not only of likeness but also of responsibility.” Because we are image of God, unjust killing of people and injustice must be forbidden. We need to be renewed to “the process of sanctification” and conformed to the complete image of God, Jesus[6] (28-29). Each of us is “a responsible actor” before God (39) for social justice toward ‘shalom’ such as, Brian Postlewait gives examples, “child protection, women’s suffrage,[7] prohibition, civil rights for African Americans, protection for the unborn, nuclear disarmament, and most recently, creation care” (99). Thus Gabriel Salguero maintains that we need to become “a servant with a basin and a towel.” (95)

Relation and Other Religious Traditions   

Mary Michelson and Mark Mann deal with the relationship to other religious traditions. Mann asserts the possibility of salvation to those who have not heard the name of Jesus. John 10:16-28 tells us about “‘other sheep that do not belong to this fold’ (the church) but who nevertheless ‘listen to his voice’ and who will have ‘eternal life.’” (109).

Relation and Nature

God and nature are in relation and cooperative. Through the creation stories, Karen Winslow says, we recognize God’s intimate relationship to nature and to us (112). In God-creatures relationship, Sharon Harvey explains, God does not force or control nature, but give them freedom in kenosis. In this sense, God is self-limiting God. (114)


Relation which is the theme of this book is participation. We need to participate in each other without violating or interrupting others’ sovereignty. If we live in the relationship and walk in Jesus’ way, we can become “minister of that reconciliation” (42).

This book could be much easier to approach ‘relational thought’ than process theology did ever before.

    [1] “There are both ‘now’ and ‘then’ aspects to theosis. In the present, we relate well with God when we behave in God-like ways. We are God’s image bearers, and we reflect more and more of God’s likeness in our day-to-day lives. In the life to come, we will realize the fullness of what it means to be co-heirs with Christ. As Jesus became like us in the incarnation, so in glory we will become like him (see Phil 3:20, 21).” 23.

    [2] “… [W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). 82.

    [3] Dong-Sik Park, “The God-World Relationship between Joseph Bracken, Philip Clayton, and the Open Theism” (2012). CGU Theses & Dissertation, Paper 43.

    [4] “God’s experience is affected by what creatures do. And God’s decisions about how to act in one moment depend in part upon how creatures responded in previous moments.” (24).

    [5] Michael Lodahl: “The power of the symbolism of the Hebrew term adam as ‘earthling’ is that it underscores our solidarity with all of humanity and with all other earthly creatures. It does not suggest that each of us is our own Adam, our own Eve. It is much more that we are all, throughout human history, Adam and Eve together. Our temptations, our choices, our moral fiber, our weakened sense of God are inseparably intertwined with all other human beings. We are intertwined not only with the millions who share our planet today, but with all who have preceded us and all who will follow us.” (38)

    [6] “When we look to Jesus, we learn (1) what it means to be a likeness of God and to be morally responsible to God, (2) how we should relate to our fellow humans who bear the image of God, (3) and how we should practice dominion and relate to other creatures” (30). 

    [7] See Diane Leclerc’s “Relational Dimensions of Feminist Theology” in this book for feminism.


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Thomas Oord argues that the theo-logic of love for Open theism is more important than God’s relation to the world or God’s dependence on the world, God’s openness to the future, and genuine freedom of creatures. The God’s omniscience which means the settled future and God’s omnipotence which controls everything and makes God the author of evil contradict love of God. However, Open theism, honest speaking, also cannot completely answer why a loving God does not prevent genuine evils. With regard to the problem of evil, whereas Open theism respects the process thought of God’s persuasion, it thinks that process thought makes God overly limited by creation and is contradictory with “biblical accounts, the resurrection of Jesus, and eschatology.”
With regard to the origination of Universe, holds Oord, “God is the original and ongoing creator.” Here Oord endorses Nancey Murphy and George Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe. Oord supports creaturely freedom and indeterminacy; rejects kenosis that they and Polkinghorne accept; creatio ex nihilo (instead accept alternative creation doctrine of Griffin and Keller); and concludes divine self-limitation (essential kenosis) which solves the problem of evil and affirms God’s persuasive creative activity at the beginning.
Through a universe finely-tuned theory Murphy and Ellis hold the “hot big bang theory of the origin of the universe.” Although scientists explain the origin of the universe through “the anthropic principle” whch states that since life “required very specific laws and conditions in the beginning of the univers,” if there had been slight changes in these laws and conditions, there would be no life. However, Murphy and Ellis are aware that since the antrhropic principel alone cannot answer the ultimate origin of the universe, it needs “a general theory of design” and fine-tuning theory. Furthermore, it needs “noncoercive, self-renouncing love,” namely, kenosis, that “God and at least some creatures are capable of loving self-giving,” suggesting that “the kenotic ethic reflects the moral character of God, and divine kenosis is the basis for creaturely kenosis.” God’s kenotic plan is already in the structures of universe itself, so that they claim that “while the fine-tuning does not logically require the assumption of a designer,” “the existence of a God provides a suitable explanation of fine-tuning.”
In order for the universe to make free and moral responses, the universe needs order. That is, “any moral response requires an ordered and predictable universe, as well as creatures with free will.” However, they do not explain “how freedom emerged from indeterminacy.” Oord relates this argument to Open theology in that when “creatures are not entirely determined at the micro-level” and “freedom is present among at least humans,” Open theism holds “the necessity of freedom for love.” Freedom is important in love, because love means intentional action, “in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.” Thus coercion is antithetical to love.
Ellis and Murphy claim about Christian theology: God’s action is “the revelation of God found best in Jesus,” that is, “the relevant feature of God’s action is its self-sacrificial and noncoercive character,” so that “Jesus was self-sacrificial and noncoercive.” They reject God’s intervention in the world, because God does not override creatures, but rather carefully planned system.
The problem of evil asks “why God does not occasionally intervene in the natural order by ‘overruling natural processes when greater good will come from the exception than from following the rule.’” They argue that God voluntarily limits divine power (noninterventionist) because of freedom of the creatures. Otherwise, “a free response to God’s action is not possible.” Although this entails divine risks, it is proper to Open theology in that God accepts these risks in order for creatures to cooperate to the divine activity. In this sense, evil occurs by human freedom. This noncoercive God’s action goes well with the freedom of the creatures for “God’s eighteen-billion-year project.”
Paul Davies suggests six main ideas for cosmology:
1. An absolute beginning to the universe and subsequent everlasting expansion; 2. An absolute beginning to the universe followed by the termination of the universe after a period of expansion; 3. An absolute beginning to the universe, expansion to a maximum state, and a return to a state identical to the absolute beginning; 4. An everlastingly cyclic universe, in which expansion and contraction is followed by a ‘big bounce’ into another cycle of expansion and contraction; 5. A steady state universe with no beginning or end but everlasting expansion; 6. An everylasting multiverse in which our universe is one among others.

These lists are not incomtible to the biblical notion that God is creator, although some are more compatible with big bang. Option one through three which have a common ground, “an absolute beginning to the universe,” coheres with creatio ex nihilo. Polkinghorne also argues that the world is “the consequence of a free act of divine decision,” since “the divine will alone is the source of created being.” Jon D. Levenson argues that main concern of creation theology is not creatio ex nihilo but the “establishement of a benevolent and life-sustaining order.” Levenson explains the essence of creation with the word, “mastery,” thereby “God is the victor in combat, but God’s foes continue to survive.”
Oord suggests an alternative with regard to creation, love, and evil. Oord denies creatio ex nihilo, because while it requires God’s power and sovereignty to create the world from nothing, it cannot explain genuine evil in the world. In order to explicate an adequate view of the origin of the universe, Oord needs “divine power that accounts both for the big bang and for why our loving God does not prevent the occurrence of genuine evil.” Oord finds a clue from Griffin and Catherine Keller. God loves perfectly and created the universe, asserts Griffin, not in the sense of creatio ex nihilo, because if God created the cosmos from nothing, God could also prevent any evil. However, because there is evil in the world, God does not have such a kind of power. And creatio ex nihilo denies the cosmos’ own power. Insofar as we insist creatio ex nihilo, we cannot explain the origin of evil.
Instead, Griffin suggests creation “from the relative chaos” (chaosmos) of a previous universe: from a chaotic state to very low-grade serially-ordered societies to more complex societies. With regard to divine power, God cannot unilaterially intervene the freedom and creativity of the creatures even in creation, because God is not coercive. Thus “God’s power is always and necessarily persuasive.” The necessity of God entails the necessity of a world.

Keller also denies creatio ex nihilo and suggests “a tehomic theology of creatio ex profundis,” that is, “the Genesis motif of God creating from the watery depths.” God is “an indeterminate creativity,” which is “never before or outside time and space,” but always relates to others including creaturely suffering. Creatio ex chaosmos does not mean that chaos is essentially evil, but instead, asserts Keller, that the chaosmic other relates to God and chaos is not prevenient, but is created. There is interaction between God and the tehom, which is called to be creatio cooperationis. Creativity is “the active potentiality for both good and evil.” Keller considers the Genesis 1 as “seven days of self-organization,” which is not creatio ex nihilo but “emergence as creation from the chaos of prevenient conditions.” However, self-organization needs divine influence or cooperation. Since this God is described as divine love, maintains Keller, “to love is to bear with the chaos.”
With regard to Davies’ lists above, while Griffin and Keller deny options one through three, “an absolute beginning to the universe,” their ideas are coherent option four, “an everlastingly cyclic universe,” since God always and necessarily relates to the universe. Oord relates this option four to Open theism’s claim that God is creator. However, it does not mean “a Nietzschean eternal repetition of the exact same” in a closed circle, but a model in which the most basic metaphysical characters are transmitted from one universe to a following one. This model entails “the emergence of genuine novelty while maintaing metaphysical continuity.” To that extent, then, Oord affirms a cyclic model which denies both “an absolute beginning from absolutely nothing” and Nietzschen eternal recurrence of the same, since a universe which repeats endlessly does not offer “purposive, proanthropic, and hopeful” transformation.
Attempting to solve the problem of evil with a doctrine of “essential kenosis,” Oord does not follow the concepts of divine power in process theology, since it makes God overly limited.
Essential kenosis affirms both that God is not coercive, with process theology, and that God is the most powerful being, against process theology. Oord indicates the notion of kenosis that Murphy, Ellis, and Polkinghorne suggest, since their kenosis means voluntarily self-limited God and thereby it makes God unable to prevent genuine evils. Thus a voluntarily self-limited God should logically become “un-self-limited, in the name of love, to prevent the suffering and pain.” It does not makes sense to insist God’s self-limitation from preventing evil in order to keep the freedom of the creatures, since insofar as there is evil in the world, a voluntarily self-limited God is culpable and not perfectly loving God.
Essential kenosis means God’s inability to stop the freedom of creatures not because of external conditions but because of “God’s essence of relational love,” so that this God of essential keneosis should not be criticized for failing to stop evil. Essential kenosis means God’s self-giving love. God has been providing freedom to creatures forever, since there was no beginning and will be no end. That is, God can love necessarily both within Trinity and the world. The God of essential kenosis is the almighty God who is expressed in resurrecting Jesus, in biblical miracles, and nonviolent eschatology. Thus Oord’s essential kenosis can be summarized as follows: 1) God does not depend upon creatures to exist; 2) God is not limited by external forces; 3) God’s essence as self-giving love makes God unable to stop evil.

Thomas Oord, “An Open Theology Doctrine of Creation,” in Creation Made Free, 28-52.

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1) “God’s primary characteristic is love”; 2) “Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does”; 3) “Creatures—at least humans—are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation”; 4) “God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others”; 5) “Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships”; 6) “God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging”; 7) “God created all nondivine things”; 8) “God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling”; 9) “Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place”; 10) “The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God”; 11) “God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions”; 12) “Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time” (Thomas Jay Oord, ed., “Creation Made Free,” 3-4).

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