Love in Relational Theology
For some Christians, issues of love are of utmost importance. Accounting for the importance of love is just one reason many are turning to relational theology to make some sense of God and the world in which we live.
A book I’m co-editing with Brint Montgomery and Karen Winslow explores how relational theology influences our understanding of about thirty topics important to Christians. I’m writing an essay on relational theology and love.
Love issues are central to the Bible and to who God is revealed to be. “God is love,” says John (1 Jn. 4:8, 16) and Old Testament authors repeatedly say God’s love is everlastingly steadfast. Jesus says the first and second greatest commands are about love. Many people find relational theology helpful for considering the love of Christ, love in the Church, love for enemies and outsiders, love of self, and the love God has for all creation.
God gives and receives in relationship
Love without relationship is impossible. This is especially clear in reciprocal relationships between friends, spouses, parents and children, and within communities. But it’s true of other relations too. Relational theology says God lovingly relates to creatures and creatures relate to God.
Biblical authors often portray God as friend, husband, parent, judge, or leader/Lord/King. These descriptions and others arise from God’s relationality. God cannot be rightly called these names if not in relationship with others. In these descriptions and others, biblical writers explicitly or implicitly present God as in relationship with creation.
A relational God gives to but also receives from others. When creatures respond well to God’s calls, God is pleased. Creaturely love and obedience depends on God’s initial activity. John put it this way, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). When creatures fail to respond well to the call of love, God is grieved, angry, and forgives. God’s decisions about how to act in one moment depend in part upon how creatures responded in previous moments.
God’s relational love may seem eminently obvious. But not everyone has thought God relational. Aristotle famously rejected relational theology when he called God “the unmoved mover.” By this phrase, he meant God “moves” others, but others do not “move” God. Deity is unaffected, impassible, and aloof. According to Aristotle, God does nothing but think thoughts about Godself.
The idea that God is unmoved by creatures influenced Christian theologians throughout the centuries. Because Augustine considered God not in reciprocal relationship with creatures, he could not imagine how God loves creatures. God only loves himself. Thomas Aquinas called God “pure act” with no real relation to creatures.
In the 20th century, theologians as liberal as Paul Tillich and as conservative as Carl Henry said divine perfection meant creatures could not influence God. God was considered in all ways unchanging and unaffected by others.
Many Christians in the 20th and 21st centuries, however, believe God is better understood as relational. These believers think relational theology captures well the Bible’s witness to a loving God in relationship with others.
Some Christians point to the Trinity as the best example of God’s relational love. When Jesus says the Father is in him and he is in the Father (Jn. 14:11) and that the Father loves the Son (Jn. 5:20), Christians infer love relations exist witin Trinity. This intraTrinitarian love overflows to creation.
What is love?
To say the issues of love are central to relational theology should prompt us to describe what we mean by love. The word has many meanings. Love takes many forms and is expressed in a multitude of ways.
The confusion about love language is one reason many theologians do not take love as their central motif. This is regrettable, because love is central to Christian understandings of God, creation, salvation, ethics, ecclesiology, and host of other issues. Relational theology better accounts for many facets of love in Christian theology.
Although no definition is likely to capture fully what we mean by love, I propose this one as potentially better than others. I define love this way:
To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.
I have explained each phrase of this definition in other writings. I focus here on the second phrase — “in response to God and others” – for its importance for relational theology.
We know from our own experience that knowing another person well can be important for loving that person well. Well-informed relationships provide information for us when we consider how to be a blessing.
This principle applies to God’s love, and this is one reason God loves perfectly. God knows everything about us and the whole universe. God’s knowledge stems primarily from God’s presence with us. As omnipresent, God directly knows all that occurs.
Unfortunately, some think of God as an all-seeing eye floating above creation. “God is watching us from a distance,” to quote an old Bette Midler song. Rather than God being understood as relationally present to all creation, this view of reinforces nonrelational views of deity.
Imitating God’s love
The role of love in relational theology is not limited to God’s own love. Biblical passages say humans ought to love like God loves. The Apostle Paul puts it like this: “Imitate God, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love as Christ loved you…” (Eph. 5:1). Many Christians argue that Christ-like love is at the heart of living the holy life.
Love takes diverse forms, and we express love in various ways. Christians sometimes use ancient Greek words – agape, eros, and philia – to talk about the forms of love God calls them to express. Other times, Christians point to particularly important expressions of love, such as forgiveness, friendship, self-sacrifice, compassion, self-control, acts of justice, affection toward those in the church, and even sexual intercourse.
Jesus’ own acts of love took many of these forms and expressions. Rather than being one dimensional, his relational love was full-orbed. Jesus enjoyed fellowship and comraderie in love with disciples and others, for instance. He love children and helped those in need. Jesus gave his life for others. Jesus reveals that God’s love is full-orbed.
The relationality of love proves especially important in God’s call to love in particular ways. In moment-by-moment living, the loving thing often depends on the context. When others hurt us, for instance, God often calls us to express agape love that repays evil with good. When we find others suffering, God often calls us to express compassion. In these instances and others, the relations we have influence the kinds of love God call us to express.
It is little wonder Christians are attracted to relational theology. So long as they keep Scripture at the heart of how they understand God, the themes of love and the relations love require will continue to play primary a role in Christian life and doctrine.
I develop many of these arguments in my books and articles, including The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2010), Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love, with Michael Lodahl (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 2005), and Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010).