by Tyron Inbody

“Nothing happens that is not the will of God.”

This is not only the reassurance offered by many Christian pastors, counselors, and friends in times of horrible suffering. It is the logical conclusion of Christian classical theism.

A friend dies at age 45 of uterine cancer, a teen aged daughter is killed head on by a drunk driver, a housing bubble pops and you lose your house and retirement plan at age 55, a plane crashes at 35,000 feet because of a mechanical failure, a genocide is carried out in Syria—these are horrible events. But for many Christians they are not meaningless because God willed them. Therefore, if spiritually mature, we should submit to God’s will and give thanks for these moments.

Why? Because they are not genuinely evil; the evils are only apparent. They are part of God’s plan. They have their place in the perfectly good will of God and so are not genuine evils (our lives would not have been better off without these). If we saw everything from God’s perspective, we would recognize this.

As hard as this assurance is to accept emotionally at the moment of suffering, we are assured these awful happenings are not meaningless. This, I am convinced, is the most powerful appeal of this hard to accept teaching of classical theism. The deepest threat to human existence, I believe, is not death but meaninglessness.

The problem is this: although divine determinism may be logically possible with belief in our freedom, it is not plausible if we believe in genuine freedom. Freedom is not just the absence of some external coercion (a gun to my head). Freedom means we are active agents in what happens in our lives along with God’s agency.

Consequently, many Christians are left with a dilemma: either give thanks for what it feels wrong to give thanks for, or conclude there is no God which is compatible with human freedom. This is the most powerful argument of most atheism. I agree with the atheists at this point. Why believe in let alone worship such a God? Indeed, with such a God, who needs a Devil?

Thankfully, there is another concept of God which avoids this dilemma. It is is more biblical, more theologically convincing, and more compatible with our lives as we live them day by day. It is called relational theism, and the tragedy is that most Christians are not aware of this more plausible concept of God.

My argument is that Tom Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God and other concepts of relational theism are genuine alternatives to our instinctive outrage. More than an alternative to classical theism, it is a matter of life and death in the practice of pastors, counselors, and members of the Christian community. What we believe makes a difference in our lives emotionally, spiritually, and practically. I claim this superiority to classic theism for three reasons:

First, relational theism is more consistent with the intuitions, beliefs, and practices of the Christian life. What possible difference could prayer make if God is eternal, impassible and controlling power? What real relationship is present if all things are already “real” and “willed” and “fixed” in the eternal life of God? Furthermore, what could love mean apart from mutually “response-able” relationships between God and us? Love by definition means reciprocity, so an unfeeling, unmoved being cannot love. The love of God would be empty of any meaning.

Second, relational theism is more faithful to the whole of the biblical witness, especially the christological focus of scripture, than is classical theism. To be sure, there are verses and stories which seem plausibly to imply an omnipotent controller of history and each life. The dominant views of God in the Bible, however, are images of God as repentant (changing direction), broken-hearted, filled with pain and sorrow, and above all, reciprocating love and desiring human well being in a context where creation is not yet shalom.

Most prominently, the life of Jesus, the incarnation, and a trinitarian understanding of God all imply relationships within God and between God and creation where God gives himself in unconditional love. This is not a God who is eternal (timeless) but is everlasting in love and faithfulness, luring and responsive to creatures.

Third, relational theism is conceptually superior to classical theism. Given the distinction between possibility, plausibility, and certainty, I admit classical theism is logically possible, at least if you can baldly assert the compatibility between divine omnipotence and human freedom. I find this to be nonsense, however, if human freedom is not simply the mere absence of external coercion but effective creatural agency that can have as powerful of an impact on the future as God’s own agency.

Few Christians want to argue absolute certainty concerning our concept of God. In this world at least only God knows for sure. A better question is, what kind of theism is most plausible given human experience? Traditional theism is simply beyond my boggle point!

That God acts to promote the well being of the whole creation is clear in scripture and consistent with a good and loving God. That God wills, causes, permits, or allows all the suffering of the world, being the only power to do so, seems to me to be conceptual gobbledygook. I find it most plausible that God and we create the future together.

Any theology that does not enhance that co-creation in service of the well-being of life is incompatible with God as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. It matters what kind of theists we are! Relational theism is not a theology just for professional theologians like Sanders and Oord, but for every Christian pastor, counselor, and member of the Body of Christ who loves God and seeks the well being of the whole creation in the midst of genuine suffering and evil. It matters what kind of theism we advocate.

9 thoughts on “Why Relational Theism Really Matters

  1. I personally dont see how human freedom is really incompatible with God’s sovereignty. Human freedom is not about choosing A or B; its about doing according with your will. If you could, truly choose between A or B, the choice would be meaningless to you as a person, it would not represent you. There is no dilemma, just a low worldview. Molinism is more consistent in that regard. http://www.brettyardley.com/fail-forward/luis-molina-molinism-an-alternative-to-calvinism-arminianism

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    • Thanks very much for your reply. It states very well a major criticism of a more relational theism and offers an alternative to the traditional extremes of Calvinism and Arminianism, viz., Molinism.
      Since there are so many themes I would like to discuss but space is so limited, I will reply by discussing only two issues your response introduces. First, sovereignty, and second, human freedom.
      First, I note you use the word “sovereignty” instead of omnipotence, and “foreknowledge” instead of omnipotence. I, too, believe in sovereignty, if by sovereignty you mean that no person, organization, government or any other force can stop God from executing his purpose. But the begged question is what is God’s purpose, and what notion of power that purpose presupposes. If God’s purpose is overall control, then sovereignty (or providence) means God ordains and is the cause of all things, at least the ultimate cause of all things, including genocides and holocausts as well as cancer and brain tumors. You choose to focus on foreknowledge instead of omnicausality (because it seems to leave room for some kind of freedom?). But foreknowledge, too, including the way Augustine, Arminius, Molina, Calvin, and contemporary evangelicals use the term means that all potentialities are already actuality from eternity. If God knows from eternity what we would choose, then the choice is already “actual” or “set” because of fate or the will of God or something (there is already something “actual” to now), and we do not in fact choose the outcome at all.
      This leads to the second point, then what is the meaning of human freedom in such a notion of foreknowledge? We simply use two different concepts of human freedom. Most of the tradition, from Augustine to your use of the term, simply means we actually will whatever we will, regardless of the “real cause” of what is the outcome between options, God or us or fate or whatever. That is, freedom is simply the absence of external coercion (no gun to my head), and I actually will it (to shoot up the club), but the ultimate cause or real cause made effective through secondary causes is God’s will. Thus I can be held guilty because I actually willed it, but God is the ultimate cause of making it actually happen. In my use of freedom, freedom means we are one of the many causes of any events that happen, causes which include first the divine agency (will but not sole causality), the power of the past, real options, and my agency in causing what is to be actual. So God may foreknow all the real possibilities, but cannot know what is actual until the agent indeed choose between real options. So there is genuine freedom. The omnipotence, if we must use that term, is the uncontrolling love of God, God’s faithfulness, God’s indestructible good will, God’s giving of Godself to and for us in Jesus Christ. That is the sovereignty of God, not God’s hidden and secret final cause of all that happens. In this view, of course, there is genuine evil, and it is not eliminated by making it God’s will and therefore good and not ultimately evil.
      I admire your effort to seek a middle ground between Calvinism and the usual meaning of Arminianism via Molina. But I think it won’t work in the end. In the end I think it is the divine love not omnipotence power that makes God’s worthy of our worship. I worship and serve God as Love, not as the omnipotence overlord of the creation.

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  2. Thanks very much for your reply. It states very well a major criticism of a more relational theism and offers an alternative to the traditional extremes of Calvinism and Arminianism, viz., Molinism.
    Since there are so many themes I would like to discuss but space is so limited, I will reply by discussing only two issues your response introduces. First, sovereignty, and second, human freedom.
    First, I note you use the word “sovereignty” instead of omnipotence, and “foreknowledge” instead of omnipotence. I, too, believe in sovereignty, if by sovereignty you mean that no person, organization, government or any other force can stop God from executing his purpose. But the begged question is what is God’s purpose, and what notion of power that purpose presupposes. If God’s purpose is overall control, then sovereignty (or providence) means God ordains and is the cause of all things, at least the ultimate cause of all things, including genocides and holocausts as well as cancer and brain tumors. You choose to focus on foreknowledge instead of omnicausality (because it seems to leave room for some kind of freedom?). But foreknowledge, too, including the way Augustine, Arminius, Molina, Calvin, and contemporary evangelicals use the term means that all potentialities are already actuality from eternity. If God knows from eternity what we would choose, then the choice is already “actual” or “set” because of fate or the will of God or something (there is already something “actual” to now), and we do not in fact choose the outcome at all.
    This leads to the second point, then what is the meaning of human freedom in such a notion of foreknowledge? We simply use two different concepts of human freedom. Most of the tradition, from Augustine to your use of the term, simply means we actually will whatever we will, regardless of the “real cause” of what is the outcome between options, God or us or fate or whatever. That is, freedom is simply the absence of external coercion (no gun to my head), and I actually will it (to shoot up the club), but the ultimate cause or real cause made effective through secondary causes is God’s will. Thus I can be held guilty because I actually willed it, but God is the ultimate cause of making it actually happen. In my use of freedom, freedom means we are one of the many causes of any events that happen, causes which include first the divine agency (will but not sole causality), the power of the past, real options, and my agency in causing what is to be actual. So God may foreknow all the real possibilities, but cannot know what is actual until the agent indeed choose between real options. So there is genuine freedom. The omnipotence, if we must use that term, is the uncontrolling love of God, God’s faithfulness, God’s indestructible good will, God’s giving of Godself to and for us in Jesus Christ. That is the sovereignty of God, not God’s hidden and secret final cause of all that happens. In this view, of course, there is genuine evil, and it is not eliminated by making it God’s will and therefore good and not ultimately evil.
    I admire your effort to seek a middle ground between Calvinism and the usual meaning of Arminianism via Molina. But I think it won’t work in the end. In the end I think it is the divine love not omnipotence power that makes God’s worthy of our worship. I worship and serve God as Love, not as the omnipotence overlord of the creation.

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  3. Unfortunately, Inbody seems to incorrectly view divine determinism as “classical theism.” Classical theism affirms synergism, man’s free will in cooperation or hostile to God’s will as revealed in the writing of the early church fathers. Divine determinism started mainly with Augustine and, unless I am mistaken, it was rejected by the same council that rejected Pelagianism.

    Apparently, his whole argument seems to rest on this erroneous premise. No?

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    • Thanks very much for your reply to my article. You certainly do spot one of the key assumptions on which my article relies, and isolate two of the key terms around which the essay develops, viz., the meaning of classical theism and divine determinism. Your comment forces me to be a bit more expansive on what I mean by the terms and how I come to the conclusion that classical theism is deterministic. My basic argument is that classical theism is not synergistic, but that its argument is more subtle in its defense of determinism than is apparent on the surface.
      Frist, classical theism: there is not council statement defining theism, but I take it to mean the views of God presented by Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, and Schleiermacher, and Plantiga. We have two different understandings of the Council of Carthage, at least the Council of 418, in which Pelagius is denounced and the views of Augustine are affirmed in contrast to Pelagius. One of us may be mistaken on the outcome of the council, but I know of none which defended synergism in your and my meaning in determining our salvation or anything else.
      Now, let me be clear: none of these “classical theists” deny human freedom, not one as far as I understand when you see the larger framework of their theology. They mean “freedom,” but by no means synergism in the modern sense of “genuine freedom” There is the crux of my claim. Augustine and Calvin, my main antagonists, mean nothing more by human freedom than that we do actually choose what we choose. But the cause, that is, the final, determining cause, is the power and will of God. Nothing happens that is not the will of God. The choice could not have been other than it has been determined from all eternity. Since we actually will what we will, we are responsible and therefore guilty, but the cause, the ultimate determiner, is the will of God, working either directly or through secondary causes (including our will) to achieve what God knows is eternally good. The same logic applies to foreknowledge, or Molinism.
      I think the only way to save human freedom in classical theism is to simply assert that human freedom and divine determinism is compatible, “compatibalism.” But this is double-talk. Genuine freedom means we are one agent among other agencies, including God, in what happens to be actual. Any form of determinism, including hidden or final or ultimate determinism denies, logically and ultimately, genuine human freedom.
      You seem to want to defend some sort of synergism, but it seems to me this requires some idea of genuine freedom, not simply a denial of some kind of external coercion to be replaced by foreknowledge or the ultimate will of God. Synergism means that there is cooperation between the divine and the human, and this is not compatible with determinism, no matter how subtle or nuanced the claims of divine causality. Most Christians want to avoid God the divine puppeteer, and classical theism is certainly way more subtle than that, but in the end it does not work.
      There are good reasons to defend classical theism; many if not most Christians have had their reasons to defined it. But it is not compatible, in the end, with genuine human freedom. In the end the preferable option is the ontological freedom of process theology and Ord’s version of it, or the self-limitation argument, which many theists want to op for and follow out for a while, but in the end finally choose (I guess sort of) some form of divine determinism.

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  4. Thanks for responding. Since I’m not very internet savvy, and happen to just see this today.

    You stated, “But the cause, that is, the final, determining cause, is the power and will of God. Nothing happens that is not the will of God. The choice could not have been other than it has been determined from all eternity. Since we actually will what we will, we are responsible and therefore guilty, but the cause, the ultimate determiner, is the will of God, working either directly or through secondary causes (including our will) to achieve what God knows is eternally good.”

    I can agree with that if, with respect to committing sin, what is meant is genuine divine permission, “genuine” in the sense that God is not pulling the strings but we are making an independent choice and and acting upon our choice in our own strength given as created; that is, God is not “infusing” any strength outside of the normal strength we possess to do.

    In short, God determines what we will do but only by allowing us – what some I think call the “divine concurrence” – to do what we choose to do. But he has predetermined it only by allowing, not actually Himself intending and causing it to occur.

    Make sense?

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    • Thanks for the reply. I think your response is as strong as the case can be made for divine determinism. I think the real issue, in the end, is whether “divine concurrence” (meaning divine determinism in your sense) with any kind of creatural freedom. If determinism means anything, it means it could not have been any different, regardless of what the creature decides. If freedom means anything, it means it could have been otherwise. I simply do not see how these words are compatible, whether divine concurrence or compatibalism. I can see asserting they are in order to maintain two contradictory ideas, and there may be something to say for that. But conceptually in my view they simply are incompatible. There are secular versions of this same debate, viz., scientific determinism, in which everything if finally determined by external causes or brain patters, and so no objective knowledge of truth of any kind (it is a lll determined by other causes), but the scientist know that this view is objectively true on the basis of his own internal knowledge). In the end no one lives by any form of determinism, divine or secular. Freedom is real. Something could have been different. This is not to deny divine power at all, but simply to deny unilateral determining power.
      Thanks for your reply

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      • “In the end no one lives by any form of determinism, divine or secular. Freedom is real. Something could have been different. This is not to deny divine power at all, but simply to deny unilateral determining power.”

        I agree.

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