Paths to Open and Relational Theologies
As part of the book I’m currently writing, I’m suggesting four paths people take on their way to embracing open and relational theology. I’m looking for help in developing my discussion of one of those paths: Christian traditions.
The four paths to open and relational theology I identify are these: 1. following the biblical witness, 2. following themes in some Christian theological traditions, 3. following the philosophy of free will, and 4. following the path of reconciling faith and science.
In this blog essay, I address some Christian theological traditions through which some people have come on their way to embracing open and relational theologies. I am hoping to add resources, ideas, bibliographical references, or figures to this essay (and the book). So please respond in the comments section with your thoughts and suggestions.
Christian Theological Themes
A number of theological traditions – or at least themes dominant in those traditions – have encouraged some people to embrace open and relational theologies. Most of these traditions reside in Christianity, and they include Adventist, Arminian, Lutheran, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Restorationist, and Wesleyan. (Some might add Latter-Day Saint [Mormon] theology to this list, but scholars debate whether the Latter-Day Saint movement is rightly considered part of the Christian tradition. I will not weigh in on this debate here.)
This does not mean, of course, everyone who identifies with or works from these Christian traditions embraces open and relational theology. Rather, particular themes in these traditions have inspired some to embrace open and relational theologies.
For example, some contemporary Lutherans have been influenced by Martin Luther’s theology of the cross – especially his emphasis upon the weakness and suffering of God. Consequently, they have rejected classic views of omnipotence and nonrelationality and embraced open and relational notions of God’s power and relationships.
Some contemporary Anabaptists draw from Menno Simons’s emphasis upon pacificism, freedom, and peace. These Anabaptists find these themes congruent with the emphasis upon noncoercion God’s persuasive activity as emphasized in open and relational theologies.
Some contemporary Baptists extrapolate from their view that believers must freely choose to be baptized. This extrapolation leads them to embrace open and relational theology, because of it emphasis upon genuine creaturely freedom.
Some Pentecostals believe we must cooperate with God when exercising the gifts of the Spirit. This concursus or synergy of God and creaturely activity fits well with cooperation themes in open and relational theologies.
The Stone-Campbell Restorationist movement emphasizes Christian freedom and freedom in the Spirit. This emphasis fits well with the emphasis upon freedom found in most open and relational theologies.
And, of course, many attracted to Jacob Arminius’s theology, especially his denial of predestination and his emphasis upon creaturely cooperation for salvation, often find themselves drawn to open and relational theologies. While Arminius retained a more traditional view of God’s omniscience, many of his other themes are identical to themes typical of open and relational theologies.
Theologies of Love
Perhaps the strongest reason some Christians embrace open and relational theologies is their belief in the centrality of love for Christian thinking and living. In their own ways, many Christian traditions say God’s primary attribute is love and God lovingly gives to and receives from creatures. Many say we must cooperate with God by living lives of love if we are to find full salvation.
The Wesleyan tradition is a good example of a Christian tradition whose themes fit well with open and relational theologies. Wesleyans typically follow John Wesley’s efforts to understand divine sovereignty in light of God’s love. Wesley preached that God “strongly and sweetly influenc[es] all, and yet without destroying the liberty of his rational creatures.” He understood God’s power, says Randy Maddox, “fundamentally in terms of empowerment, rather than control or overpowerment.” This means, says Maddox, that Wesleyans believe “God’s grace works powerfully, but not irresistibly, in matters of human life and salvation.”
Many contemporary Wesleyan theologians follow John Wesley’s lead in emphasizing love as the center of Christian theology. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, for instance, wrote her book, A Theology of Love, as an attempt to understand holiness through the lens of God’s relational love. “When each doctrine of the Christian faith is identified and defined by [Wesley],” argued Wynkoop, “the basic meaning invariably comes out ‘love.’”
Using an analogy, Wynkoop says, “Wesley’s thought is like a great rotunda with archway entrances all around it. No matter which one is entered, it always leads to the central Hall of Love…” Love “creates freedom and achievement,” she argues. And love “serves to link every doctrine together into one dynamic architectonic and to show the theological stature and integrity of John Wesley.”
Many members of these Christians traditions have wrestled with how to understand God’s knowledge. While most believe God doesn’t foreordain or predestine all things, many think God foreknows all things. For them, God knows with absolutely certainty what we will do tomorrow and yet we are free to do otherwise.
But some in these Christian traditions reject the traditional view of God’s foreknowledge. Because they start with God’s love and creaturely freedom, they believe God experiences time in a way similar to the way creatures experience it. And this means God cannot not foreknow with absolute certainty the future that will actually come to pass. Their understanding of God’s omniscience does not mean God foreknows all things.
A significant number of theologians in the 19th and early 20th centuries argued that God does not have exhaustive foreknowledge. For instance, Methodist theologian, Lorenzo D. McCabe (1817-1897), extensively defended the view that God’s omniscience doesn’t entail exhaustive foreknowledge. “In the divine omniscience,” said McCabe, “there must be an element of growth.”
Lutheran theologian, Isaak Dorner (1809-84), said that a consistent view of God working with us in history requires that God knows future free acts of creatures as possibilities, not actualities. “We cannot be satisfied with the assertion that for God there can be nothing past and nothing future as such,” argued Dorner. God’s knowledge “presupposes a movement, a change even in the knowing activity of God himself.”
Roman Catholic theologian, Jules Lequyer (1814-1862), followed what he believed the logic of free will should imply about God’s foreknowledge. “I believe that God has only a conjectural knowledge of the acts determined by human activity,” said Lequyer.
Stone-Campbell Restorationist thinker, T. W. Brents (1823-1905), believed God voluntarily chooses not to know some things. Brents says God “saw fit to avoid knowledge of everything incompatible with the freedom of the human will.”
Major Methodist theologians in the 19th and 20th centuries rejected exhaustive divine foreknowledge. One of the best known, Edgar S. Brightman (1884-1953), put it this way: “God cannot be said to have complete foreknowledge. Although a divine mind would know all that was knowable and worth knowing, including the consequences of all possible choices, it would not know what choices a free mind would make.” God cannot know, said Brightman, because God’s “consciousness is an eternal time movement, the soul of the ongoing of all reality.”
Some have followed process theology as their path to embracing open and relational theologies. Process theology is notoriously difficult to define, and scholars debate how best to describe the essence of process thought, if there even is one. But most Christian process theologians have affirmed the centrality of love, genuine creaturely freedom, chance and necessity, values, and the idea that God’s current knowledge does not include all future occurrences.
Many process theologians agree with Charles Hartshorne, for instance, who argues for “growth in God’s knowledge.” Hartshorne says that “the creative process produces new realities to know.” This means “God does not already or eternally know what we do to tomorrow, for, until we decide, there are no such entities as our tomorrow’s decisions.”
It’s important to emphasize that open and relational theologies come in many forms. Process theology is merely one form among others. Disagreements exist among those who self-identify with open and relational theology. But the various forms share enough in common to coalesce and promote a particular way of understanding God and the world God creates.
I could list other theological traditions and other theologians. Those who embrace open and relational theologies have taken different theological paths to their common affirmations. But my main goals here are two.
First, because of the ideas central to some Christian theologies, some of their members followed what they saw as the logic of those ideas and ended up embracing open and relational theology.
Second, although open and relational theology, as a general theological emaphasis, is a fairly recent phenomenon, one can find voices in the past championing even its the more controversial ideas. Some championed even the controversial idea that God’s omniscience does not include God currently knowing with certainly all that will occur in the future.
 I am grateful to friends and scholars on Facebook discussion groups for helping me think through ways the themes in some Christian traditions have been used by members to come to embrace open and relational theologies. In particular, I thank David Cole, Chris Fisher, James Goetz, Simon Hall, Randy Hardman, John D. Holloway, Curtis Holtzen, William Lance Huget, Jacob Matthew Hunt, Dave Huth, Richard Kidd, Richard Livingston, Jay McDaniel, T. C. Moore, Quinn Olinger, Bryan Overbaugh, Matt Perkins, David Saleeba, Neil Short, Rod Thomas.