The Jesus Argument for God’s Relationality

September 4th, 2017 / 2 Comments

Christians often say what they know best about God comes from the revelation of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God is specially incarnated (Jn. 14:9). Those of us who think God is relational believe Jesus reveals a relational God.

Jesus’ Compassion

Scripture tells us that Jesus himself had compassion for those in need (Mt. 9:36, 14:4, 15:32, 20:34; Mk. 1:41, 6:34, 8:2; Lk. 7:13, 10:33). Jesus was moved by suffering and lack, and he responded with help. He experienced the pain of others as if it were his own (Matt. 25:45; Acts 9:5).

Jesus also was affected in other ways. He showed anger in response to sin (Mk. 3:5), was “troubled in spirit” when betrayed (Jn. 13:21), and wept at the news of friend’s death (Jn. 11:35). The writer of Hebrews says in Jesus “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). In a variety of ways, Jesus was affected by others and expressed emotions in response. The Bible tells us that Jesus was relational.[1]

Jesus Reveals a Relational God

Jesus teaches that God is an Abba (Father) who responds to children, which is intimately relational activity (Mk 14:36). In a story about a wayward son, Jesus describes God as a forgiving father who “felt compassion” for a lost son; this father “ran and embraced [the son] and kissed him” (Lk. 15:20).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners to imitate this God of relational love: “be compassionate as God is compassionate” (Lk. 6:36). I could cite many more examples of Jesus describing God as relational. In sum, the God Jesus reveals is relational.

Perhaps more effectively than any theologian in the past half century, Jürgen Moltmann has argued that Jesus’ death on the cross points to God’s passibility. In Jesus, God identifies with the godless and godforsaken. The cross reveals that suffering is internal to Trinitarian life, says Moltmann. The crucified God shares in the suffering of the world, and thereby shows solidarity with those who suffer.[2] In short, Jesus’ suffering on the cross reveals that God suffers.

Is Relationality Only an Aspect of Jesus’ Humanness?

It could be argued, however, that the relationality of Jesus — whom many Christians call the “God-man” — describes only Jesus’ humanity. Perhaps his deity remained impassible.

This argument might prompt us to ask, Should we project onto God the relationality we see in Jesus? Are Christians engaging in anthropopathic projection when they say Jesus reveals God as passible and capable of expressing emotions?[3]

When answering these questions, we should begin by admitting that although Jesus represents God’s character (Heb. 1:3; 1 Jn. 3:16), he did not re-present every divine attribute. Jesus was neither omniscient nor omnipresent, for instance. And yet, Christians think God is like Jesus unless they have compelling reasons to think otherwise.

If Jesus was affected by others, expressed emotions, and yet remained steadfastly loving, there are Christological grounds for thinking God can do the same.

Instead of worrying that we might be engaging in anthropopathic projection of Jesus’ passible and emotion-laded attributes onto God, we should believe we are engaging in a theopathic exercise that projects God’s passibilty and emotions onto Jesus. The compassionate God, for instance, is revealed in the compassionate Jesus. And when we who are “conformed to the image of the Son” (Rm. 8:9) express positive relations and appropriate emotions, we imitate the passible and emotional God. Perhaps this is part of what it means to be made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26).


Christians have strong Christological arguments to support divine passibility. When Jesus relates with others, expresses emotions, feels compassion, and suffers on the cross, he is acting like God.


[1] Among the many books affirming Jesus and divine passibility, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994); Alan Torrance, “Does God Suffer? Incarnation and Impassibility,” in ed. Trevor A. Hart, Christ in Our Place: The Humanity of God in Christ for the Reconciliation of the World (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1989).

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (London: SCM, [1974] 2001).

[3] Marcel Sarot explores this in God, Passibility and Corporeality (Leuven: Peeters, 1992).

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I’m struck by this statement, “The cross reveals that suffering is internal to Trinitarian life, says Moltmann.” This suggests to me that there can be something “good” about suffering when it is in the context of love.

Todd Holden

Doug, perhaps what is being declared is that love always involves sacrifice.

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