Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Review of Relational Theology

I first heard of Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow when Jeren Rowell, one of the contributors, posted about it on a pastors' facebook group page.  Immediately I put it on my mental must-read list. I was thrilled (and surprised) when I received a request from Thomas Jay Oord to read and review the work in exchange for a free copy.

As the title suggests, the book is an introductory piece on relational theology - a particular way to understand and explain Christian theology as a whole. Oord explains in the introduction that the two foundational elements of relational theology are that God affects creation/creatures in various ways and creation affects God in various ways (2). The central theological premise is that the Triune God is relational by nature and, therefore, interacts with creation in relational (and thus, mutually affecting) ways.

I must admit now, having finished the book, that writing a review for the work is quite challenging. Because the book is an introduction to relational theology, it is hard to separate the text from the theological perspective. Relational theology is a broad lens that includes a wide variety of theological traditions. Some of relational theology is deeply interconnected with the theological tradition of Wesleyanism and the Church of the Nazarene, but other aspects do not mesh quite as well. This makes a review of the work challenging because it's likely that some of what I liked or disliked about the book are really what I like or dislike about relational theology as a whole (or vice versa, I suppose).

I began simply by reading the table of contents and list of contributors. As I read the names of well-respected Wesleyan thinkers, a handful of my former professors, some recognizable writers, and even a couple good friends I couldn't wait to dig into the content of the book. It seemed like a good mixture of theological and ministerial expertise.

I was a newbie to studies focused specifically on relational theology before reading this book. Now, having read the book, I feel like I have a strong understanding on what relational theology is (and is not). So, in that regard, the book fulfilled its purpose of being an introduction to relational theology. More specifically, the book is about "exploring the implications of relational theology" (Oord, 4). The first two sections of the book cover historic doctrines of the church in a relational perspective and the authority of Scripture respectively. The second two sections deal with issues of ministry and living out Christianity in light of the relational theological paradigm explained in the first two sections. The book accomplishes what Montgomery, Oord, and Winslow set out to do.

It was difficult to discern the ideal audience for the work. On the one hand, the book was very approachable. Chapters were only two to five pages long and the entire book is only 115 pages. Most writers stayed away from theological jargon and technical debates. On the other hand, since the chapters were so short, many of the writers weren't able to explain themselves in great detail and seemed reliant upon some theological knowledge from the reader. In fact, in a couple chapters in the beginning of the book it was a little difficult to ascertain what exactly was being expressed by the author. As a whole, however, I think a third or fourth year undergraduate theology student could read this book without much difficulty.

As I mentioned, the chapters were short. This was both a strength and weakness of the book. As a strength, it provided room to cover a wide breadth of issues related to the topic of relational theology. It was refreshing to have both the theoretical and practical together in the same work. The connection between lived-out relational theology (which, I suppose all relational theology must be lived out in order to be truly relational) and theoretical relational theology was clearly evident. As I finished the book, I didn't think to myself "wow, I wish they would have included a chapter on such-and-such." The editors filled in most of the gaps.

Many of the chapters stayed on the surface of the issue that they were addressing and did not answer some of the difficult questions. This, of course, was a weakness. It seemed that several contributors spent a disproportionate amount of time explaining what relational theology is not pertaining to their particular issue and did not spend enough time identifying exactly what relational theology is.

The book seemed particularly strong in the areas of pneumatology; free will; relational understandings of God, sin, and salvation; prayer and pastoral ministry. I would like to have read more on christology and sanctification from this perspective. The second section of the book made clear that relational theology and Fundamentalism are difficult to reconcile as to their understandings of Scripture, it (maybe intentionally) neglected to nail down a specific theological model for determining what is "orthodox" (right belief) from what is not.

As a whole, the particular language that is the norm in relational theology is a much needed shift from more static and rigid language that can be heard in many theology classes today. Speaking of God in terms of love and relationship is a much more understandable way to explain faith-things in today's cultural setting. Non-Christians can resonate deeply with the need for relationship. Relational theology has major implications for sharing the Gospel with unbelievers.

There are still some areas of relational theology that I am unsure about. Some of my lingering questions are likely due to the introductory nature of the book, while others may be constant tensions for me with some pieces of relational theology. These remaining questions make me hesitant to recommend the book in a small group setting for the local church. However, I believe this book could be a great supplementary text book for undergraduate theological courses. It's also a helpful text for theologians, professors, and pastors who want to reorient their lectures and ministries around the relational aspects of the Gospel.


  1. Thanks for the review, Keith! I hope you feel the urge to dive deeper into to richness of relational theology!



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