Paths to Open and Relational Theologies

May 13th, 2014 / 12 Comments

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.”

God’s Foreknowledge

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.

Your thoughts?


[1] 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.

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Keith Besherse

As part of your effort to not enter the debate on whether LDS is part of the Christian tradition but at the same time describe the varied paths people follow to reach a relational theology, it might be useful to add an LDS paragraph (what elements of Mormonism have lead some to a more open understanding of The Divine?).

Thomas Jay Oord

Good idea, Keith. Among those elements in LDS thought that are congenial to open and relational theologies I’d include the LDS emphasis upon free will and its emphasis upon divine relationality. Many Mormon theologians reject exhaustive divine foreknowledge too. There may be other elements. Given the way LDS theology is done, however, I think the statements from the prophets are considered ultimately authoritative. And I don’t know what the current leaders think about these issues.

Graeme Sharrock

The Adventist tradition, stemming from Wesleyan trunk, has taken relational theology a long way.  I would say that it has become the dominant discourse in area ministries (women’s, youth, health, foreign missions) and by and largely eclipsed forensic and purity metaphors in theology. All the church’s distinctive teachings (sabbath, second advent, sanctuary, health, trinity ) have been recast in relational terms, even if the formal theo-logy appears traditional.  Human freedom and divine foreknowledge have been balanced in the church’s eschatology and Judgment theology, so that coercion as a spiritual force is eliminated from the cosmos.

Bryan Overbaugh

Tom, I think you could also add that Pentecostals also have a very real sense of divine love. Amos Yong in his book Spirit of Love: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace, goes to great lengths to show that the Pentecostal emphasis on divine power often overshadows the role that divine love plays in the individuals transformation. In short, he posits that divine love is as the heart of the Pentecostal experience.


Hi Dr. Oord,
In the readings of theology this can be an interesting discussion. Open and classical theology. Perhaps, the 4 reasons listed may have led some to considering the open view. While quoting theological virtues, such as free will, the reconcile of faith and science, traditions of theology, and the biblical witness-it seems that these same themes can lead one to deliberate classical and traditional theology as well. Of course we can quote various theologians and philosophers of several Christian traditions, either in support, or in opposition to open theism. However, among the 4 reasons listed, why not allow theology motif (scripture-biblical witness) to commence?
“Psalm 139:4 Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.”
As an honest question, how does open theism describe this verse? It seems that the author of this verse insists that God “knows”- “before” human action takes place. Before he speaks “a word is on my tongue” ‘O Lord, you know it altogether’. Here, it seems that the future (before human action occurs) can be known by God.

Another example set forth in the bible is when Jesus forecasts his own death and resurrection (Matthew 20:17-19). He speaks of what humans in the future will do.

The LDS should not be considered for this theology hypothesis- The LDS Church is not Christian. From the very beginning, Mormon worldview condemned all Christian Churches and Christian theology:

“My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of the sects was right, that I might which to join…..…..I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong….all their creeds were an abomination…..those professors were all corrupt” –Joseph Smith Jr. (Joseph Smith- History 1:19)- (This is an LDS standard work).


Contrary to the nature of Christian theology (monotheism-(Isaiah 43:10)- (Protestant, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox)-LDS theology is polytheistic.

19 And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them—Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths—then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.

20 Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them. (D&C 132:19-20)

“Here, then, is eternal life-to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 346-347) Joseph Smith Jr. taught this as living Prophet of the LDS Church-he is also the founder of the LDS Church.

I will note that the LDS appear as good people. Having lived in Idaho for several years among LDS folks, it was enjoyable. They make great neighbors. However, their theology and worldview is not Christian.

Thomas Jay Oord


Thanks for your report on Adventism. I’ve been corresponding with Rick Rice on this subject, and he suggested I look into the work of Uriah Smith. After doing so, I added this paragraph to the ones above I will use in the book:

Influential Adventist scholar, Uriah Smith (1832-1903), could write commentaries on the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation and yet deny exhaustive foreknowledge. “God made [humans], as he must make all intelligences who are to serve him,” argued Smith, “a free moral agent, that such service may not be mechanical and constrained, but voluntary and free…” Smith says that humans “being free, God knew of course that [humans] might sin; but this would be a very different thing from saying he knew that [humans] would sin.”

Rocky Munoz

This doesn’t have much to do with church traditions, but it may be helpful for reconciling faith and science bit…

In his book, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion, theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, spends chapter two discussing quantum indeterminacy and what it might mean for how God relates to His creation.  He further explores this idea in chapter three of his book, Belief in God.  He also says, “for a defense of the idea that God may act causally within the openness of the created order, rather than in some ineffable way unique to deity, see J. C. Polkinghorne (ed.), The Work of Love, SPCK/Eerdmans, 2001, pp. 104-5.  For surveys of current ideas about divine action, see P. Clayton, God and Contemporary Science, Edinburgh University Press, 1997, chs 5-8; N. Saunders, Divine Action and Modern Science, Cambridge University Press, 2002; W. Wildman, ‘The Divine Action Project, 1988-2003’, Theology and Science, 2, pp. 33-75 (2004).”

Hope that helps.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!


Hi Ben. I would take the psalmist’s description of God’s knowledge more as a knowledge of personal initimacy than one of perscriptive foreknowledge of act and will.

Secondly, as pertaining to Jesus’ prophecy of His death and resurrection I would understand this proclamation by the One who was fully acquainted (and fully informed) of His own divine mission. A redemptive mission that was sovereignly enacted before the decrees of creation were put in place. And inasmuch as this is true, than Jesus’ proclamation was one of forth-telling as much as it was one of fore-telling. Since God knows His own will He does so “proclaim and predict” with all rightness and authority. But as much as He decrees creation’s freewill by divine fiat, He will wait upon creation’s response even as He works out His own redemptive will in keeping with His eternal councils of grace and wisdom.

Thirdly, the LDS “church” does have elements within it that behaves towards open and relational theology whether a Christian faith or not. That was the point made and not one of debate of whether it is a Christian faith or not, sectarian or not, or even cultic or not. This is another matter for another day. For those Christians working intimately with the Mormon faith they see aspects of all of these outcomes within the diversity of this people group. Peace.


Hi Russ,

1.) The Psalmist seems quite clear. Nonetheless, I take your point, but, is there no exclusion of the intimacy of God in my critique of that verse. There seems to be an issue of hermeneutical difference. But, is there justification for your view on this? (I think I expounded on mine. -If the Psalmist says that God “knows” “before” he “acts”- this proves foreknowledge. This seems like a fairly simple exegesis. However, I am opening to hearing why you disagree, rather, than simply asserting.

2.) I would agree that he was informed of his divine mission. In terms of classical Orthodoxy, I would agree with most of what you say in this section. I believe that Jesus is God (John 1:1-14). And, that he knew what would take place in the future. And, that His mission was before the foundation of the world, as ours was (Ephesians 1:4). I would also mention that there are several variant hermeneutical fashions available. Nevertheless, indeed, Jesus knew his mission and enjoyed a spacious ontology and knowledge as God on earth.

3.) My statements made about Mormonism were not irrelevant (as you think they were).
A. Dr. Oord said:  “(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.)” I was only agreeing with Dr. Oord that they should not be considered in this debate, however, the difference is, I was more deductive and offered evidence as to why this is the case.
B. The reason that I mention this is for your exact presupposition. Mormonism cannot lead anyone to the divine. I quoted classic and authoritative Mormon worldview and biblical theology as well for a clearer avenue of ‘comparative theology’. In my own observation,  I think that one of the major defenses of open theology is its attempts at trying to convince skeptics of the open view that open theism does not deny orthodox theology. If open theist would make the attempt to usher in Mormonism as “another relational view”- (which does not happen among most open thinkers), they know that this would shoot them in the foot. Is Mormon theology open? It is open to male human becoming Gods, and denying the Christian faith altogether. Dr. Oord (although somewhat liberal from where I stand) is correct to exclude them from this hypothesis.
C. Those that work intimately with Mormons? I directed an outreach to the LDS for 6 years while residing in Idaho. I also worked at Ex-Mormons for Jesus in Southern California before moving to Idaho, and Jude 3 Missions. I can resonate with this.
Diversity in Mormonism? Is that what you mean? I wouldn’t mind discussing that sometime. I do not see any in Mormonism given their authoritative imprimatur. Can you comment on the LDS sources that I quoted? as to listing Mormonism as “open” in the Orthodox Christian context?

Thanks for the chat.

Chris Donato

Being trained at RTS-Orlando in the early 2000s, you’d think the only time we’d come across open and relational theologies would be when thinking through how to push back (iirc, my old Prof. Frame published his No Other God during that time).

But it was at RTS that the possibilities of incorporating an open and relational theology came about, particularly through the teaching of OT Prof. Richard Pratt, and particularly through his work on how best to read prophetic literature.

Strange and unclear how to mash historical contingencies and exhaustive foreknowledge together in that Reformed context? Yes. But there it is.


Let me focus a comment rather narrowly, albeit wordily, upon this business of the Mormons, and whether or not they are ‘Christians.’

If Mormons are not considered ‘Christians’ by other ‘Christians’ then they have nothing to offer in the instant discussion, would you not agree? That is what I obtain from your statement.

In my experience, very few ‘Christians’ have not until the last presidential election cycle considered Mormons to be ‘Christians’

When it became apparent that the only real choice against ‘the Muslim Pretender’ in the Oval was a Mormon, that left the ‘Christian’ Right in a serious quandary. They could not vote for the ‘Great Pretender’ but how, after generations of considering our Mormon brethren to be equally pretentious, could they vote for Romney? The ‘Christian’ Right cannot separate politics and religion, so this was a real problem.

It was solved when Billy Graham issued what was essentially the equivalent of a papal dispensation, ruling that Mormons really are our ‘Christian’ brethren, so it would be OK to vote for Romney. No one would burn in the fires of hell for so doing. Billy Graham says so.

Of course, that backfired a bit when an article apparently authored by Graham himself was found on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s website, referring to the Mormon’s as a cult. That article quickly disappeared, though you can still find others of the same ilk.

If the Grand Old Man of evangelical ‘Christianity’ can adapt, improvise, and overcome petty differences in theology in order to Rock the Vote … I would think it would be OK for you and others to add them to this discussion. OTOH, it is clearly an example of situational Christian-ness conferred by decree as a political expedient, so maybe not.

Sorry for the long-windedness and drift from the main topic. Perhaps this would have been better placed over on the recent post on youngsters fleeing the church, for the hypocrisy of Graham and the ‘Christian’ Right is certainly one more reason to walk out the church door and never look back. 

There is an historical footnote to add, while I’m on this roll … we can add Catholics to the evangelical Protestant list of cultic pretenders to ‘Christianity.’ Fortunately, however, I am old enough to remember John Kennedy’s great speech on that very matter, and just pass off the Protestant ramblings as their deep ignorance on such things.

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