Relational Theology: Roger Olson

Relational Theology: Roger Olson April 17, 2013

Roger Olson, of Truett Theological Seminary, gave a talk at Missio Alliance on “relational theology,” and I clip a a few paragraphs to incite you to read his whole presentation:

The second view of God’s sovereignty, the one I plan to expound here, isrelational theism. Oord, one of the editors and authors of Relational Theology, defines it this way: “At its core, relational theology affirms two key ideas: 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.” (p. 2) Another author, Barry Callen, says of relational theism (or theology) that it focuses on “the interactivity or mutuality of the God-human relationship. God is understood to be truly personal, loving, and not manipulative. The interaction of the wills of Creator and creature are real.” (p. 7)

Relational theism or theology comes in many varieties, some of them quite incompatible at points. All share in common, however, belief that creatures can and do actually affect God. The relationship between creatures, especially human persons, and God is two-way. God is, as Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof said, the “defenseless superior power” within a genuine covenant relationship with us whose immutability is not impervious to influence but “changeable faithfulness.” According to relational theism, the God-human relationship is reciprocal, mutual, interactive. God is not Aristotle’s “Thought thinking Itself” or Aquinas’ “Pure Actuality” without potentiality. Rather, God is Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover”—the superior power who allows creatures to resist him and becomes vulnerable and open to harm as well as joy….

What I want to outline for you and recommend to you is a non-process, narrative-based, relational view of God’s sovereignty. It is not rooted in process theology which, while relational, detracts too much from God’s transcendence. Process theology is one form of relational theology, but not all relational theology is process. Process theology denies God’s omnipotence which is its main failing. From that flow other flaws such as its denial of any eschatological resolution to the struggles of history and eventual end to evil and innocent suffering. Process theology, in my opinion, sacrifices too much of the biblical portrait of God and, in the process, robs us of hope for the world. It is right in much of what it affirms but wrong in much of what it denies. It rightly affirms God’s vulnerability and the partial openness of the future; it wrongly denies God’s power to intervene in human affairs to rescue, heal and defeat evil….

Does this all mean that God needs us? Not at all. This God could have lived forever satisfied with the communal love shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but he chose to become vulnerable in relation to the world he created out of the overflowing of that love. Is that just a metaphysical compliment unnecessarily paid to God or a truth necessary to the biblical story of God with us? I would argue it is the latter. A God who literally needs the world is a pathetic God hardly worthy of worship….

The key insight for a non-process relational view of God’s sovereignty is thatGod is sovereign over his sovereignty. The missio dei is God’s choice to involve himself intimately with the world so as to be affected by it. That choice is rooted in God’s love and desire for reciprocal love freely offered by his human creatures. None of this detracts in any way from God’s sovereignty because God is sovereign over his sovereignty. To say that God can’t be vulnerable, can’t limit himself, can’t restrain his power to make room for other powers, is, ironically, to deny God’s sovereignty.

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  • Phil M

    Thanks for covering this Scot,

    That may very well be the single most important article I have read this year (or am likely to read).

  • Dean

    This is very interesting. I have considered myself very sympathetic to process theology or what I have understood process theology to posit but there are 2 points that are puzzling to me about Roger’s casting of it. First is the question of need. I suspect it was inevitable that God would create the world we have because the basic essence of God is love and love always results in new and expanding expressions. It isn’t a matter of needing but inevitability. The second is relating to eschatology and also relates to the newness aspect. The Scripture declares that God is making all things new. I don’t know if this ever “ends” as we consider resolution. I tend to think not. We live in time and tend to think in terms of resolution. Much of our soteriology is in bondage to that. In the life of God, that does not seem to be the case. Perhaps I have just misunderstood process theology but with those caveats I tend to believe that God is “moving forward” relationally with his creation and is intimately involved with and by it. Is God’s character muddied or weakened by that in any way. I do not believe that to be so. Is God “affected” by the relational responses we have with God and others. I suspect so.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks for highlighting this Scot. It is a very important statement and, at the very least, represents a direction in theology that should be seriously considered, as Olson asks folks to do. For any reasonable complementary efforts by science and theology, this approach to theology may well be essential. The biblical support for relational theology is also huge (see Sanders, Pinnock, Boyd, Oord etc.). Hardly any comments on Olson’s blog mentioned the reference and recommendation he gave to the new, multi-authored book on Relational Theology edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow. It is a fine, entry level, summary of the range of ideas brought to the table by relational theologists. As Olson points out, to move in this direction is definitely not the same thing as accepting process theology. That will be (is) the charge from some quarters, but it is bogus.

  • Rick

    “The key insight for a non-process relational view of God’s sovereignty is that God is sovereign over his sovereignty. The missio dei is God’s choice to involve himself intimately with the world so as to be affected by it. That choice is rooted in God’s love and desire for reciprocal love freely offered by his human creatures. None of this detracts in any way from God’s sovereignty because God is sovereign over his sovereignty. To say that God can’t be vulnerable, can’t limit himself, can’t restrain his power to make room for other powers, is, ironically, to deny God’s sovereignty.”

    Great way to say it.

  • Joe Canner

    I read Dr. Olson’s piece yesterday and ran across a great example of it last night while studying the book of Esther. In trying to convince Esther to plead with her husband on behalf of the Jews, Mordecai says:

    “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14-14)

    Mordecai assumed that God had a larger plan for the Jews that would not ultimately be thwarted by the likes of Haman (nor by Esther’s inaction). However, he also recognized that it was possible for he and Esther to collaborate with God to achieve God’s plan and to possibly spare his and Esther’s life in the process.

    I have long had problems with the idea that God has one single master plan that must be followed. I think what Dr. Olson is proposing allows for God to adjust his plan to account for the extent to which we choose to collaborate with him. No doubt God will get his way in the end (at least for matter of importance and/or eternal significance), but how that happens could vary significantly.

  • Rick

    Looks like Justin Taylor has some pushback to this, or just happened to post a counter message.

  • It is sad that so many reject the relational nature of God. We do not worship a stoic, heartless, decree-pronouncing head-on-a-stick deity who creates people in his image only for the purposes of manipulating their every word, thought and move. A relational God is not weak; rather it is the propositional “objective” god-in-a-box that some of our GC zealots and JT describe. Such a “god” is safe, not holy – vindictive, not just – manageable, not mysterious and unpredictable. He runs according to plan, and creates pre-fabbed follower-robots in his unresponsive image.

    Have they looked at Jesus? Is He just an anthropomorphic “still shot” in the black-and-white gallery of theological art? Or is He the passionate, loving, fierce, tender, risk-taking, bold-praying Son of God come into our intensely relational word to show us the Father? In the ‘ll take my chances with the latter. They can have their deity.

  • Bev Mitchell


    So true and well said. I think the basic error comes from missing the most basic point of the Christian faith. We first know God through the Incarnation, the fact that God became human and dwelt among us, the life of Christ, the self-sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, his ascension and the sending of the Spirit. From these revelations of a God who is highly relational we already know very much about him. These fundamental data should then shape all our other theological thinking, if it is to be truly Christian. Anything that does not line up with this fundamental incarnational/spiritual revelation must be questioned and revised.

    If we begin our theologizing from any other point (philosophy, Old Testament interpretations etc.) we may get a theology but it will be sub-Christian. We cannot get where we need to go without beginning with the Incarnation.

  • Dr. Olson

    Dr. Olson.

    The Bible tells us that God’s foreknowledge is closely linked to – even the basis of – predestination. You made this abundantly clear in your book Arminian Theology.

    Foreknowledge to my finite mind is a very very very large decision tree. Multiple results stem from the very first moment – way past our ability to count. These result stems don’t have to be from just human decisions. Every action has reaction(s). From before the foundation of the world, God knew the value of every pathway through time. This present reality is chosen because it maximizes God’s glory according to His evaluation.

    I’m not very familiar with process theology. But what little I know seems to fit with God’s foreknowledge of our prayers and decisions. Is it possible that the so-called heresy of process theology is quite explainable from the reference of God’s foreknowledge? Are you aware of any works on this subject? My first few tries at the internet brought up quite a list of descriptions about and quite of list of “heresy” articles. My first thoughts are that our relational God knew in advance – reacted in advance – and choose in advance to relate to us.
    It seems that God’s foreknowledge of all contingencies preserves His transcendence without any negatives of processes and immanence.
    Anxious to see what you say.
    Dr. Olson
    P.S. – – How is your outline coming?