An Open and Relational God?

An Open and Relational God? July 14, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 1.14.30 PMHow does God engage in a meaningful relationship with humans and not change? And if God changes, are we to think of God in what is now called an “open and relational” theology?

In the last post on Thomas Jay Oord’s book  The Uncontrolling Love of God we sketched six or seven models of how God relates to the world, from God as omnicause or at least overpowering to God little more than impersonal force. And I quoted Tom as he summarized the kenotic view, which is his view, in these terms:

The model of God as essentially kenotic says God’s eternal nature is uncontrolling love. Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being. God also necessarily upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love. Randomness in the world and creaturely free will are genuine, and God is not a dictator mysteriously pulling the strings. God never controls others. But God sometimes acts miraculously, in noncoercive ways. God providentially guides and calls all creation toward love and beauty.

The model of God as voluntarily self-limited thinks self-limitation is a free divine choice… The model of providence as essentially kenotic, by contrast, portrays God’s self-limitation as involuntary: God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting Kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.

In another chp Oord opens the window onto this view with more clarity, and so I quote him so we get this right:

Open and relational theology embraces the reality of randomness and regularity, freedom and necessity, good and evil. It asserts that God exists and that God acts objectively and responsively in the world. This theology usually embraces at least these three ideas:

1. God and creatures relate to one another. God makes a real difference to creation, and creation makes a real difference to God. God is relational.

2. The future is not set because it has not yet been determined. Neither God nor creatures know with certainty all that will actually occur. The future is open.

3. Love is Gods chief attribute. Love is the primary lens through which we best understand God s relation with creatures and the relations creatures should have with God and others. Love matters most (107).

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 1.35.55 PMWhat do you think of “open and relational theology”? If God as omnicause, or meticulous in sovereignty, runs the risk of making God the cause of evil, what does “open and relational theology” run the risk of?

He finds four different paths to this view:


First. There are Bible verses used for an open and relational theory. Including the conditionality of passages like 2 Chronicles 7:14, 19-20, or that God regrets things (Genesis 6:5-6), or that God “learns something” (Genesis 22:12), or that God says one thing to Hezekiah, the man repents, so what God said did not come to pass (Isaiah 38:1-5), or that God changed his mind (Jonah 3:9-10).

Open and relational theology rejects that the Bible teaches that God controls all things (111). Which is to say, “History is open, and creatures join God in writing it” (111).

Second. Christian theologies, depending upon emphases, sometimes lead to open and relational theology. This approach is fairly recent in emphasis but it is not new, and Oord points to a number of theologians in this section.

These traditions include Adventist, Arminian, Lutheran, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Restorationist and Wesleyan. This does not mean everyone who identifies with or works from these traditions embraces open and relational theology. Rather, some members in these traditions follow the logic of particular themes on their way to embracing open and relational thought (113).

[E.g.,] Pentecostal theologian Joshua D. Reichard says, “God’s activity in the world is not primarily unilateral but relational.” God shares power with believers through concursus which means God cooperates with creatures to accomplish the divine will. Pentecostal-charismatic affirmations, such as contemporary spiritual gifts and the possibility of miracles, says Reichard, ‘have inherent compatibility with open and relational theology.'” (114)

. God does not foreknow the future exhaustively. They believe God experiences time in a way similar to the way creatures experience it. The future is full of possibilities, and, being omniscient, God knows them all. But God cannot foreknow with absolute certainty which possibilities will become actual (117).

Third. Philosophy at times leads this in this direction, and he focuses on William Hasker — who moved from simple foreknowledge, to middle knowledge, and then to open and relational theology.

Hasker and other open and relational thinkers believe God is omniscient. They believe God knows everything that can be known. God knows now what might occur in the future, but God cannot know now all events that will actually occur. To put it philosophically, God knows all possibilities and all actualities, but God cannot know which possibilities will become actual until they are actualized (123).

For free will to be genuine, the future must be open, not settled (124).

Fourth. Science, and here he looks at John Polkinghorne.

Polkinghorne came to believe the randomness in the world tells us something true about the openness of reality itself. This belief stems from his commitment to philosophical realism, which says our observations tell us something true about the world. “Affirming that what we know or cannot know should be treated as a reliable guide to what is the case,” he explains. Or to put it more philosophically, “intelligibility is the reliable guide to ontology” (128).

“If I can act in this way in a world of becoming that is open to its future,” [Polkinghorne] says, T see no reason to suppose that God, that worlds creator, cannot also act providentially in some analogous way within the course of its history” (129).

Oord knows open and relational theology is a big umbrella covering a variety of theorists and theories.

Open and relational scholars do not agree on all the specifics, of course. The details of their visions of providence, for instance, differ depending on their interests, expertise, inclinations and primary concerns. The open and relational umbrella is broad enough to include a diversity of ideas (130).

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  • “The future is not set because it has not yet been determined. Neither God nor creatures know with certainty all that will actually occur. The future is open.”

    Some caution is in order. Using God and creatures in the same sentence suggests an underlying premise that both God and creatures are similarly subject to time. I would very much appreciate clarification on my reading of this, as my opinion is that the premise is impossible to sustain, given modern cosmology.

    Time and space are created things which both initiated in the singularity of the Big Bang, and God cannot be subject to either.

  • scotmcknight

    Tom thinks God is in time.

  • Patrick Barton

    There is an example I think in II Chronicles where David asks God, “IF I do such and such, will my enemies do X”? God answers, “Yes, they will”. So, David avoids doing such and such.
    That’s an example of God knowing something will occur in the future that did not occur, but, He would have had no role in causing it even though He knew of it. Because it did not happen.
    That plays a role in this I think in that God can maintain total omniscience w/o limitations, manages His own “election” of groups and yet not be accused of being involved with evil like some accuse God of( some believers I mean).
    My view of God is He is in the past, He is in the present and He is in the future.
    Yes, time is created, but, the biblical narrative’s major emphasis is that our creator has entered time, come down to His creation on earth and acted forcefully several times and ways culminating in Christ to keep His integrity intact because He placed His character on the line when He made the promises in Genesis 3.
    God never has been estranged from His creation like some think, we have been estranged from God. He has always been anxious to deal kindly with all His creation when we allow it.

  • azbuckeye

    That does not clarify, at least not for me. What do you mean by “in”?

  • AmyK

    Greg Boyd (and friends) just released a book on this topic. It’s a unique style that may or may not be to your taste, but it seems like the main point is to grapple with what modern physics/science tells us about the universe and whether the idea of God as limiting himself or stepping into time with his creatures can be reconciled with our scientific knowledge. I haven’t read it, so this is not an endorsement, just a resource for you to check out if you’re interested. The book is called The Cosmic Dance.

  • AmyK

    The first thing that comes to mind in answer to your question is that “open and relational theology” runs the risk of diminishing God’s power. I’ll say at the outset that I’m probably closest to his view #3, the self-limiting view, so most of my thoughts are comparing those options. It seems like he’s saying that the ultimate foundation or truth of God’s character in the kenotic view is love, while the ultimate foundation in the self-limiting view is power. My immediate thought is, Why can’t it be both? He says, “Love is God’s chief attribute.” I ask, Why does God have to have one chief attribute? Why can’t it be just as loving to have the power to control others, but not use it?

    I definitely understand his point that it’s potentially problematic that God could intervene to limit evil, but chooses not to. I think the question of why God doesn’t intervene more if he has the ability to do so is a tough question. I don’t have a good answer. One thought is that maybe, along with power and love, he is fundamentally faithful. Maybe he made a covenant with himself at creation that he would never control any creature who did not want his help, so he is bound by his love and faithfulness to not intervene. I do agree with his first point that God and creatures relate to one another, and that somehow prayer and maybe community can invite God’s movement in the world.

    And finally, I have two questions about a particular statement. Oord says, “Because God’s nature is love, … God sustains the regularities of nature.”

    1. Why is this true?
    2. How then can He act miraculously? If His nature makes it impossible to compel and His nature necessarily upholds the regularities of nature, then how can He disrupt those regularities?

    Then, if it’s possible for God to act miraculously, why does He not do so more often? I don’t see how this solves the problem. I see it as limiting His power while still leaving the troubling question of permitting evil unanswered.

  • KGin

    Regardless of the God/time issue, caution is in order for another reason: the issues of divine determinism and divine foreknowledge are being run together.

    Here’s the quote again:

    “2. The future is not set because it has not yet been determined. Neither God nor creatures know with certainty all that will actually occur. The future is open.”

    A classical Arminian view is that God *does* have complete foreknowledge, even though God does *not* fully determine everything that occurs (since God enables us to have free will). So if you ask someone like Roger Olson, I would guess that he would agree with the first sentence of (2), but disagree with the second sentence of (2). The third sentence probably depends on what is meant by “is open”.

    I bring this up because — while there’s a lot that’s great about this chapter — Oord seems to bounce back and forth between these two issues throughout it. And this gives the impression that God can only show “uncontrolling love” if God’s foreknowledge is also limited. In other words, it plays into the Calvinist suspicion that Arminianism requires Open Theism.

  • AmyK

    KGin, thanks for these thoughts. What do you think are the practical consequences of an open view versus divine foreknowledge? I agree with what you’re saying about foreknowledge being different from determinism.

    But I know Roger also believes that God is “in time” with us. So given that he is also moving from a past that cannot be changed towards a future that depends on the free will of his creatures, are there any practical differences between the views? Does either view change how we view God or how we relate to Him?

    I’m asking very honestly and earnestly and am open to your thoughts. I think a lot of these views have very practical consequences to how we see God and interact with Him. But this one is less clear to me.

  • And this is impossible. Before the Big Bang, there was no time for God to be in. For that matter the whole notion of “before” is a problem.

    My exposure to God as “open” is fairly recent so I have to be careful I actually understand what is being argued. Having said that, describing God as open strikes me as being reliant on concepts that have no meaning outside of the space-time box in which we are sealed.

    Which also speaks to the matter of foreknowledge. There can be no “time” in which God does not know and no “time” in which is that he does. God simply knows. And God not being in time also uncouples knowing what creatures perceive as the future from determining it.

    As a creature I have no way to wrap my head around the mechanics of that.

  • I grew up in a church that disintegrated along the Calvinist / Arminian fault line.

    I have long wondered if much of that divide arises from our viewing God as welded into time the same way that we are.

  • Dean

    I think the best argument for the open view of God is the fact that there is something rather than nothing. I’ve never understood how determinists can get their heads around the Creation account. It seems obvious to me from reading Genesis that God was doing something that he hadn’t done before and he created the universe because he wanted to do it. I’m not sure why our assumption would be that God hasn’t done anything else since, isn’t busy doing other things now and/or that we are the only thing he has ever been concerned about in his entire eternal existence. I can’t think of anything more “man-centered” than that idea. It is absolutely the most limiting view of God and his sovereignty that I can imagine. As for God not knowing precisely or determining with certainty everything that happens in the future, I honestly don’t understand how that diminishes God in any way or makes him less divine or sovereign. There are many ways to conceive of us being created in God’s “image”, but the most compelling one for me is that at the end of the creation account, we are charged with participating with God in his dynamic work of creation. Our ability to be creative, to innovate, to conceive of something that didn’t exist before and then bring it into reality is most fundamentally what it means to be human and that’s something that we share with God, it is as close to being divine we as mortals can be. This is certainly not a new idea and I don’t think it diminishes God to say that he has imparted to us this very special thing. There is nothing at all in the Bible that hints at God being some static, unchanging, impassable, immutable being, that is something that needs to be imported into the text. I just think it’s time that Christians stop worrying so much about entertaining “new and dangerous” ideas about what God might be like and be willing to challenge what folks 500 years ago told us about what God is like and how to read the Bible in much the same way that the Reformers did themselves.

    I’m not saying that the open view of God will solve all your theological conundrums or even the problem of evil, but it does give a more satisfying theodicy in my opinion and when I hear Calvinists talk themselves tongue tied trying to explain why they are a supralapsaraian or an infralapsarian in the name of defending the “integrity” of the Bible, I want to tell them you gain nothing if at the end of the day you lose your intellectual “integrity” by doing so.

  • KGin


    On “practical consequences” — that’s a really good question that I should probably keep thinking about.

    But as of now, I’m not convinced that there are any significant practical consequences to debates about God’s divine foreknowledge. Or that one’s views on foreknowledge change the way one relates to God. So I’m in the same boat as you here. Maybe others could point out some practical consequences that we’re missing.

    But that’s actually why I think it’s important to keep separate the issues of divine determinism and divine foreknowledge. From what I’ve read in Oord’s book — and I haven’t read the whole thing — he makes a very strong case for God’s “uncontrolling love” (i.e. that divine determinism is false, because of what the bible teaches about God’s nature, and how God relates to us). And I think this *does* have practical consequences. But I don’t think you need to be an Open Theist in order to hold these views about how God relates to us, or about the nature of God. And in fact, I don’t think that any of the five positions that Oord outlines requires one to accept a particular view on foreknowledge.

    So my comment above really has nothing to do with (what I take to be) the heart of Oord’s views. And Oord does present biblical and philosophical support for Open Theism in this chapter. But my worry is that some people might reject Oord’s views on God’s “uncontrolling love”, just because of the belief that accepting these views would require one to be an Open Theist.

  • KGin

    AmyK, I share the same worry as the one you mention at the end of your comment.

    The supposed advantage of the “essentially kenotic” view (#4) over the view of God as voluntarily self-limited (#3) is that Oord’s view is supposed to preserve God’s goodness. And Oord does a great job bringing out the tension in the voluntarily self-limited view: How can we say God is love, if God has the ability to stop evil but chooses not to?

    Oord’s view is creative — it solves this initial worry by saying that God’s inaction isn’t a voluntary choice. But I share your worry that the same problem might creep back up again. That’s because Oord’s view still leaves open the possibility that God could mitigate the *amount* of evil that we see (e.g. by acting miraculously). So you might ask why God doesn’t act miraculously more often… certainly a few more miraculous events to stop the worst cases wouldn’t undermine the regularities that support free will, would it?

    But these are difficult questions for everyone, not just for one particular view…