What Does “God is Relational” Mean?

August 28th, 2017 / 2 Comments

If you read many theology books, you’ve likely come across many theologians who say God is relational. But it’s not always clear what being “relational” means. I believe God is relational, and here’s what I mean…

In the past, theologians used various words as or near synonyms with “relational.” The most common was “passible.” And many ancient theologians rejected the idea that God is passible or relational.

Creatures Exert Influence on God

The fundamental claim of God being relational is causal: creatures influence God. To put it another way, creation makes an impact upon God’s experience. Consequently, a relational God is affected by what creatures do. That’s the basic idea of relational theology.

God sometimes feels emotions when influenced, at least according to some accounts. God feels compassion in response to suffering, for instance. God feels compassion, because creatures cause God to experience pity, sympathy, or empathy.

Sometimes God is said to be pleased, which implies divine emotion. Believers sometimes even describe God as jealous. References to God’s “wrath” are usually coupled with statements about divine anger, which is another of God’s emotions. In sum, most references to divine emotions assume God engages in giving-and-receiving relationships with creation.

I’ll address in later blogs the obstacles to thinking God has emotions.  At present, I want to stress that questions about God’s relationality are primarily causal questions and secondarily about emotions. Relational theology says creation make an actual difference to God.

The Bible Supports a Relational God

Why do so many Christians like me think its obvious creation influences God? I suspect most do because they believe the Bible tells them something true about who God is. In fact, like me, many have been reading and hearing the Bible since childhood. Scripture is a primary source of revelation, and biblical writers describe God as relational.[1]

Listing every biblical passage depicting God as engaged in give-and-receive relations or expressing emotions would require a book – as big as a Bible! But let me offer a small sample of such verses:

  • God “sees” that the created world and in which creatures “bring forth” creatures is a “good” world, even saying some are “very good” (Gen. 1).
  • God first considers the animals as possible companions for Adam but finds them unsuitable. So God decides to create another human (Gen. 2).
  • The Lord “regrets” that he made humans, and “his heart was deeply troubled” (Gen. 6:6).
  • God “hears” the cries of Israel and is “concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7).
  • God “hears the groaning of the sons of Israel” and remembers the covenant (Ex. 6:5).
  • God self-identifies as a “jealous God” and “unswervingly loyal” (Ex. 20:5, 6).
  • God encounters “a stiff-necked people,” has anger that “burns,” but “relents” and does not bring disaster ( 32:9-14).
  • Being “a compassionate God,” God will “not forget the covenant with your fathers” (Dt. 4:31).
  • The Lord foretells Hezekiah’s imminent death; Hezekiah prays and asks for more time; the Lord responds by adding years to Hezekiah’s life (2 Kings 20:1-7).
  • God “remembers his covenant” and “relents according to the greatness of his lovingkindness” (Ps. 106:45).
  • “My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken,” says the Lord of compassion (Is. 54:10).
  • God feels sorrow about the disaster brought on Judah (Jer. 42:10).
  • God is “jealous” and “takes pity” on the people (Joel 2:18).
  • God “has compassion” for Israel (Hosea 11:8-9).
  • God takes “great delight” and “rejoices” (Zeph. 3:17).
  • God gets “extremely angry” when the nations make disasters worse (Zech. 1:15).
  • Mary says God helps “in remembrance of His mercy” (Lk. 1:54).
  • The apostle Paul warns his readers: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30), which implies that creaturely action can sadden God.
  • James says, “The Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (5:11).

I could list many biblical passages that point to a God whom creatures affect. Even most theologians who reject the idea that God is relational admit that biblical authors describe God as related to creation and expressing emotion.

Other Biblical Passages Describing a Relational God?

There’s much more to say about God’s relationality. But before going further, I’d like to ask a favor. If there is a passage of scripture that especially speaks of God as relational, would you mention it in a response below. I realize that there are MANY in the Bible I haven’t mentioned. So listing one or two especially good ones would suffice.

 

[1] A large number of Old Testament scholars argue in favor of divine relationality. For instance, see Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), Terence Fretheim, God and the World in the Old TestamentThe Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Michael J. Chan and Brent A Strawn, eds. (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2015); John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993); Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1962). I’m also grateful to John Daniel Holloway for his work on Jeremiah and passibility in his unpublished essay, “The Man Whom Suffering Made His Friend: Jeremiah and the Weeping God.”

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Comments

Todd Holden

Part of the trouble with a relational God is that it is sometimes thought we need to dispense with the idea that God doesn’t change. I think we can retain the idea that God can be relied upon to not change God’s nature. What I mean is that in every circumstance we can rely that God is and will forever continue to be loving. In this God does not change, which is the way I believe biblical writers intend for us to understand when it’s written that God does not change. Which then should invite our thinking about more of all the ways God is relational.


Norm Rice

My all time favorite is Abraham negotiating with the Lord to save Sodom in Genesis 18:16-33 and then 2nd Peter 3:9 He is being patient not wanting anyone to be lost.


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