Tasty Theology Tapas—A Review of Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction

Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (hereafter RT) is a collection of very brief essays written by a large group of diverse scholars on a wide variety of subjects related to “Relational Theology.” As Thomas Jay Oord, one of the book’s editors, explains in the introduction, “Relational Theology” is an umbrella term that covers a broad spectrum of theologies that are all related to one another by their common values of relationship, freedom, and love. Examples of Relational theologies include, but are not limited to, missional theologies, feminist and/or womanist theologies, Pentecostal and/or charismatic theologies, liberation and/or postcolonial theologies, Wesleyan theology, process theology, open theology, Arminian and/or holiness theologies, and trinitarian theologies. I must admit, in addition to the table of contents, this list made me very excited to begin reading this book. Much of the most courageous Christian scholarship being produced today falls into one or more of these categories.

Several books in Christian scholarship today have taken an approach similar to RT‘s, giving space to many voices in order to create a fuller sound. The popular Counterpoints series by Zondervan is one such example. However, I am unfamiliar with any book that has included as many different voices in one volume of such brevity as RT. With no fewer than 30 contributors, RT is only 115 pages total! Reading RT reminds me of a tapas restaurant. Each chapter stands on its own as a concise and poignant essay on an interesting topic. Like tapas, the individual portions are small, but experienced together, they form a satisfying meal. With its very accessible writing style, I imagine it can be easily read by most Christians in a single sitting.

It was important for this book to do a least two things and I think it does the first very well, and the second adequately. First, this book needed to demonstrate the similarity and commonality that theologies as disparate as feminist, postcolonial, and Pentecostal have to each other and to Relational Theology as a whole. In this effort, I think RT succeeds beautifully. Each essay ties the particular theological topic being explored back to the overarching theme of Relational Theology. After reading all the essays, it isn’t difficult to discern the common thread running throughout the book: God is relational, and has created humanity in God’s image to be related to one another, to God, and to God’s relational creation.

Second, this book needed to distinguish Relational Theology from non-relational theologies. To this end, I found the book adequate but not deeply compelling. In only a few essays was a clear contrast between the two camps delineated. The first essay that contrasts the two is Barry Callen’s “John Wesley and Relational Theology.” Callen highlights the “Reformed or Calvinistic” tradition as an example of non-relational theology because it entails a “static” view of the God-creature relationship. This is an important distinction that could have been featured more prominently in this work. The second essay which pinpoints Relational Theology’s alternative is Thomas Jay Oord’s “Relational Love.” In this essay, Oord draws readers’ attention to the doctrine of impassability, derived from Aristotelian philosophy, as a root point of divergence between Relational Theology and non-relational theology. The Aristotelian teaching was latter adopted by Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. Oord writes,

Because Augustine consider God not in reciprocal relationship with creatures, for instance, he could not imagine how God loves creatures. He believe God only loves himself. Thomas Aquinas called God ‘pure act’ with no real give-and-receive relationship with creatures. (p. 25)

Brint Montgomery’s essay, “The Freedom Inherent in Relational Theology,” however, is perhaps the most important piece of the book, since it alone establishes the key distinction between Relational and non-relational theologies: Libertarian Free Will. Montgomery succinctly writes, “A relational account of theology works well only if one can affirm a libertarian view of free will.” (p. 33) This admission is critical to establishing the Relational coalition of theologies. Each theology shares this view of free will, and deems it necessary to speak meaningfully about either relationship or love.

Personally, I would have liked to have read more essays devoted to debunking non-relational theology and further contrasting it with Relational theology. However, I think the approach this book takes by presenting the positive case for Relational theology from a multiplicity of viewpoints will go a long way with readers to establish the truth of its claims. For example, I found both of Karen Strand Winslow’s essays, “Cooperative Covenant Partners in the Bible” and “Initial Creation and Relational Theology” to be compelling biblical presentations.

Other noteworthy essays to me were Amos Yong’s presentation of Pentecostal theology as Relational theology, Derek Flood’s “Relational Understand of Atonement,” Libby Tedder’s “Prayer and our Relationship with God,” and Gabriel Salguero’s presentation of postcolonial theology as Relational theology. Each was concise and very well written. For example, Tedder beautifully writes, “When prayer is habituated, the world is oxygenated with God’s love.”

In a day when so much of the evangelical mindshare in the US is dominated by New Calvinism, the potential of Relational Theology is genuinely exciting. This coalition of theologies has an opportunity to shift the balance and bring to the front many more theological perspectives that have heretofore been marginalized. I look forward to the day when we don’t discuss Womanist or Postcolonial theologies as if they are outside perspectives, but instead as part of the historic and broad tradition of theology which views God as relational. And that is why RT is an important book that needs to be read by anyone and everyone interested in the future of theology in the US.