Characteristics of Evangelical Open and Relational Theology

February 2nd, 2010 / 24 Comments

In a previous blog entry, I noted many of the theological beliefs that open and relational theologians affirm. I now identify three characteristics of Evangelically-oriented open and relational thinkers.

I find these three tendencies among open and relational scholars in the Evangelical tradition:

Scripture First

Open theists appreciate and draw from reason, experience, and the Christian tradition. But open and relational theologians place primary importance on the Bible for things related to God, salvation, and the big questions of life. Scripture is principally authoritative.

Open and relational theists are typically not committed, however, to affirming everything the Bible says about science, history, or culture. Most open theologians are not biblical inerrantists, if biblical inerrancy is defined as the notion that the Bible is without any error whatsoever. This rejection of what I call “absolute inerrancy” distinguishes open and relational theology from Fundamentalism.

Yet the typical open and relational Evangelical theologian also rejects the label “liberal theologian” as a way to identify their views. The primacy of the Bible steers them away from more liberal theologian traditions

 Evangelical Community Influence

While open and relational theologians may reside in just about any Christian denomination or subculture, a good number identify with the Evangelical Christian tradition. Virtually all of the major figures who adopt the label “Open theist” either teach at an Evangelically-oriented institution or attend a congregation whose members consider themselves Evangelicals.

The community with which we locate ourselves affects the way we do theology. Of course, the fact that Evangelical open and relational theists do theology in the broad Evangelical context does not also mean that they affirm all of the political and social issues normally associated with Evangelicals. In fact, Open theology sometimes draws advocates toward positions on political and social issues that do not fit either the typical conservative or liberal labels.

Humble Realists

Most open and relational theologians want to talk about how things really are or might be. This not only includes talking about the world, it also means talking about God in a realistic way.

In terms of epistemology, open and relational theists tend to be realists or critical realists. They realize that language about God and the world has limitations. But they affirm that some language better identifies what is true about God and the world than other language.

These three factors, in themselves, position open and relational theology differently than other theological alternatives. They provide fruitful avenues for engaging the sciences, for instance. They provide ways of engaging Postmodernism in constructive ways that avoids extreme relativism. And they draw upon and support the Evangelical witness and passion to the good news revealed in Jesus Christ and lived out within the Church.

Of course, open and relational theologies have critics.  But I believe the ideas and theological proposals in this way of thinking are potentially more helpful today than any of the alternatives.

Add comment


Paul Willis

I am very interested in how open and relational thought can be practically integrated into missional ecclesiologies; specifically within the context of a missional church planting community (or communitas) such as ours. How does open and relational thought influence postmodern missional growth, doxology and doctrine?

Michael Coldham-Fussell

Thank God for systems of classification. It certainly helps the saints of the narrow way in identifying the birds of a feather who flock together and migrate to new theological colonies.

The winds of doctrine never cease to blow and new waves of teaching continue to toss about, but in all this the word of God is still quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart and
neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:12 – 13)

Todd Holden

You assert that, “open and relational theologians place primary importance on the Bible for things related to God, salvation, and the big questions of life. Scripture is principally authoritative.”

Could you explain more in depth of how scripture is primary for open and relational theologians?


It helps that there are different ways of classification, yet it can also make things more complicated. The 33 years that Jesus lived on this earth was not just to show how awesome God is. I believe that God got sick of watching people screw up all the time so God finally sent Jesus so that we would see for ourselves and figure it out. The stories in the Bible about Jesus are so critical. The way He lived should be the number one example with how we should live. Granted, we cannot perform miracles like we read about in the Bible so we do also have to take into account the different time we live in. I agree with you that looking at that way of thinking would be helpful to understand God better.

Mark Russell

Nice. I like and can identify with this. Mark

Paul Whiteford

Thanks for your aticle.  Who would you say are the leading exponents of the evangelical open theology perspective?  What are the best reads available right now that unpack this theologically?

Jeff Keuss

@ Paul – to your question about how open and relational theologies work in concert with missional thinking, I have a chapter in my book “Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads” which discusses that question in depth.  With particular attention to Pinnock, I draw out a theme of ‘missional openness’ as a missional frame for relational theologies that provide missional communities a bridge with a robust doctrine of theological anthropology and christology.

Greg Crofford

Tom, Al Truesdale has spoken of the “sufficiency of Scripture” as opposed to the “inerrancy of Scripture.” This is a good model for approaching the issue, and avoids getting caught up in the “Battle for the Bible” conceptual framework that has proven so fruitless.

I’m beginning to read Boyd’s “God of the Possible.” It’s stretching me—we’ll see.

John Zumwalt

show me where to put my John Hancock.


Whenever I hear someone explain a taxonomy or school of thought in regard to theology I am reminded of William Hordern’s statement, “all labels are liables.”  I tend to eschew titles and labels but this may be, in part, due to my continuing affiliation with the Stone-Campbell Movement which has proclaimed such ideas as “no creed but Christ, no name but Christian, no book but the Bible.”

There is also the dubious history I have had with Evangelicals. While I have had many wonderful and loving encounters with those who proudly wear the title “Evangelical,” I have also had venomous accusations and verbal attacks made against me by those who also proudly wear that same title. My experiences with those in the Mainline church have not been as acidic. Sure, the Maininers still have their own brand of fundamentalism but they tend to be, in my experience, less dogmatic about who is “in” and who is “out.”

Tom, you have given a very wide definition of evangelical. I wonder if the Carl Hendrys and the Millard Ericksons would be willing to use your understanding of Evangelical. But then again, reform may be part of your agenda.

In the end, I still avoid adjectives to the name Christian.

Arielle Askren

I appreciate how you define terms and ideas that exist yet sometimes do not have a lay definition. I agree with the fact that the community that we associate with effects our theology, however, I also believe that our theology should affect the community that we associate with. For those who do believe this it way, it is their responsibility to take their beliefs and live it out within their own faith community, instead of finding a community that only serves their personal needs.

Brandon Gipson

I believe this article of yours is the first one I have almost fully agreed with. The only part where I differ is that I like to reason, experience, and Christian tradition on a more even field with scripture itself. Not to say they are necessarily equal as I believe each one is best in different areas. All that said, I am still young and inexperience in .theology and thus prone to misunderstanding

Troy Watters

I agree that these three characteristics help provide an avenue of discovery in many other areas of study. And when we apply these to our understanding we are able to come to a better unbiased position I think.

Katie Thompson

I appreciate the receptive manner in which both open and relational theologians conduct themselves. According to your analysis it seems that there is a mutual allowance for times of discussion and debate. As you said it is important to avoid extreme relativism, and I believe these groups do so through a Christ like model.

David D. Shelton

I have just discovered who I might be in theological terms. Theology for me, has to make sense. This is why I always had trouble with the whole subjective idea of Entire Sanctification and Dispensationalism. Relational theology began with me after discovering Wynkoop’s “A Theology of Love” many years ago. So maybe, I’m an open evangelical relational in Theology.


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