Love in Relational Theology

May 24th, 2011 / 10 Comments

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).

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Todd Holden

One of the very important pieces in thinking through relational theology is understanding the place of trust in the equation.

There is no relational theology without trust at the center along with love. Love and trust are inseparable.

Our God loves us so very much. He trusts us with what He lays in our hands. In relation to that, we also, as we love our God, trust Him in what we lay in His hands. Love implies relationship. Love is accompanied by trust. The two are inseparable.

When they are separated, we do not find love, but only a pale copy of love defined by those who do not know God. Which in my opinion is not love at all. I believe this is what the apostle John was after when he wrote, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (I John 4:8)

It is only in thinking through a lens of relational theology that we can understand love and thus know what it means to trust. A clear understanding of relational theology not only helps us understand our God, but helps us know what it is to lay all of our burdens on God, trusting that He is enough.

I believe as well that this then becomes a model for us in our relationships with each other, teaching us how we can trust and love each other. This gets at the heart of Jesus’ command for us to love each other, so that the world would know that we are His!


Tom, I’d love to hear details about the new book.  Is that a topic for a future blog?


Todd, you just described my dissertation!  grin

Bob Diehm

Tom…thanks for the introduction to the book. Many of your stated themes have been the fertile ground of conversation and wonder in my devotional time in God’s Presence lately. In the arch of scripture, it’s amazing how God shows His love for His people in so many ways. One of the areas that I’ve been pondering (carefully…) is in how He has seemed to tailor His love towards us in accordance with where we have been as a culture. While staying true to His unchanging character, He has related to our corporate belief systems on purpose, afterlife issues, scientific progressive knowledge, concepts on how we communicate with Him and how He communicates with us, etc. God has truly taken us where we have been, and purposed to join with us in relationship based on His love for us. Amazing! “Evolutionary Relational Theology of Love”. what do you think? smile thanks for the forum to explore and love each other on the journey, Tom!


So, all dogs really do go to heaven?

That might be considered a bit of flippancy, but if God lovingly relates to all creatures and creatures relate to God … where does that leave all those critters who – as I was certainly taught – don’t have souls, and therefore don’t count?

But wait! I have more … what’s a ‘creature?’ How does that term relate (so to speak) to ‘made in God’s image’, and possession of a soul? What about … aliens? A whackjob question? The fundamental church view -at least as I have heard it – has been that there can be no aliens, since God made man in his own image, so … that’s all there is that matters. Just us. So the expanding universe is devoid of life, or at least life that matters. Where does that leave Data? Or the Arcturus Five? Or Fido? But wait! There’s still more! Where does the standard church view leave us with regard to stewardship of the environment? How does that relate to Romans 1:20, as Leece points out here:

where she has a ‘Psalm 19 moment’, and if that ain’t relational theology, I don’t know what is.

I like the concept of ‘relational theology.’ It seems far more biblical to me than the crap I’ve been fed by the church.

Waydago, Doc.

Thomas Jay Oord


I’m in the midst of reading a great book called “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals.” The authors, a scientist and philosophers, argue that “animals exhibit a broad repertoire of moral behaviors, including fairness, empathy, trust, and reciprocity.” They even talk about animal compassion in the book.

I don’t know if all dogs go to heaven, but I do think we need to rethink common views of animals and ethics.



Looks interesting. Here’s an excerpt from one of the reviews:

* The fact that animals cooperate does not make them moral beings. There is evidence that some animals feel empathy and jealousy, but no evidence that they have other social emotions that are connected to human morality, especially guilt, shame, pride, disgust, or remorse.*

So is what we perceive as some level of ‘social emotion’ on the part of some critters real evidence of morality in that species? Good question, that. Inhumans … uh … in humans, we often see evidence of ‘social emotion’ where there is a complete absence of morality. Why do we think morality and ‘social emotion’ are connected?

Primates especially demonstrate on occasion what appears to be ‘social emotion’ and ‘morality.’ Sometimes. As do whales … dolphins. Is this evidence they have souls? A moral code? If they have moral code and demonstrate ‘social emotion,’ can they … sin? Can a being sin if it appears to have no knowledge of God? Is a knowledge of God in some form necessary to possess a moral code?

If some animals demonstrate ‘social emotion’ and ‘morality’ … can we presume that these together demonstrate a sense of right and wrong, a ‘moral code,’ and if so, at what point is an animal stupid enough, or unaware enough, that we can eat it without incurring the Wrath of God?

Is Saint Peter going to ask for an accounting of all those pork chops? How about all those dead dolphins in tuna seines?

All that aside, I really do think someone is going to pay a price for brutalizing God’s creation.

I like relational theology. It requires accountability. The standard approach regarding salvation is more of a “screw you, buddy, I got mine.”

I don’t like that, not a bit. It demonstrates neither stewardship of God’s creation, nor especially Christian love toward our fellow creatures, of whatever species.

Doc. How do you get away with writing this stuff? You gotta be driving the Christian Right nuts.

Joshua Farmer

Great blog, you bring up a lot of interesting point about love and relationships. One questions: you said, ”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.” Does this suggest that God’s decision to come to earth in human flesh and die on the cross to bring salvation to humanity was decided only after the fall of humanity? Or was Jesus Christ, who was in the beginning with God, always intending on dying on the cross for humanities sins?

Roger A. Sawtelle

I note that you have left the Third Person of the Trinity out of the discussion.

One idea that Augustine blessed us with was the concept that “God is Love” refers to the Holy Spirit. Love is not an addon to God but an integral part of Who God is, God’s relational character.

God is Creator, Logos, and Love, One in Three and Three in One.

God’s Creation is Interdependent.  Each depends for its well being on the well being of all.

Love in Action | Twirling Jen

[…] Thomas Jay Oord defines love this way. He says that “To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and […]

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