Relational Theology Yes; Panentheism No

Relational Theology Yes; Panentheism No September 26, 2022

Relational Theology Yes; Panentheism No

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”Relational theology” is a relatively new term for any (mostly Christian) theology that emphasizes God’s vulnerability and openness to being affected by what happens in creation, especially in relation to humanity. It’s a very broad category including almost everything (mostly in Christian theology) that excludes traditional theism’s Greek-inspired ideas of God as “perfect being,” incapable of change or suffering (“aseity”).

Many 19th and 20th century Christian thinkers have contributed to relational theology including (among others) Georg Hegel, Horace Bushnell, I. A. Dorner, Emil Brunner, K. Kitamori, Juergen Moltmann, and Robert Jenson. Open theism is a type of relational theology and was promoted especially by Clark Pinnock, John Sanders and Greg Boyd (among others). Among Christian philosophers it (relational theology) has been embraced Keith Ward, William Hasker, Nicholas Wolterstorff and others.

Most recently, American theologian Thomas Jay Oord has worked on his own version of relational theology that seems to stand somewhere between open theism and process theology.

Process theology is a liberal type of relational theology that embraces panentheism.

What is “panentheism?” The word has recently been stretched to include most, if not all, relational theism. But I think that is a mistake. I like to keep words to their original meanings. Panentheism is a term coined by a German philosopher in the early 19th century to describe a view of the God-world relationship that falls between classical theism with its emphasis on God’s immutability, aseity, self-sufficiency, and impassibility, and pantheism. Originally, and for a long time, panentheism meant any view of the God-world relationship in which God and the world (creation) are interdependent, but not because of any voluntary self-limitation of God’s.

Hegel and Alfred North Whitehead are two of the main philosophical panentheism. Hegel said that “Without a world God is not God.” Whitehead said that “It is as true to say that God creates the world as that the world creates God.” Typically and for the most part panentheism has been inspired either by Hegel or by Whitehead.

Relational theology ought to be distinguished into two forms. In one form God’s interdependence with the world is a voluntary choice God made; in the other form it is essential to God’s very being. According to Hegel and his followers, God actualizes himself in and through the world. According to Whitehead and his followers God is enriched or impoverished by what happens in the world. In both cases, God has no being apart from some world.

The other form, based on belief in God’s voluntary self-limitation, believes that what happens in the world influences God, but God could have been himself forever without any world. This form also appears in variations. This is not panentheism, although in recent years some of these relational theologians have called their view of relational theology “panentheism.” I think that is a mistake.

The problem with panentheism, extremely popular among progressive Christians and almost universally embraced by liberal Christians, is that it makes grace not gratuitous, in other words, not really free grace, sheer gift. In creating and redeeming the world, God is actualizing and/or enriching himself. Then creation and redemption are not sheer gifts.

I am a relational theologian but not a panentheist. The God of panentheism is not the God of the Bible. Fortunately, many especially young Christian panentheists are simply confused. They do not understand the consequences of panentheism for God or us. Panentheism is not mere relational theology; it is a step beyond mere relational theology into heterodox territory.

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