Relational theology over against Doctrinal theology – a breakthrough awareness for me

I came across a paper published online that was attempting to describe where the CRC began to go off track from being really and truly Reformed. It was written addressed to those of Reformed perspectives which I refer to as ‘preservative’ and ‘isolationist.’ It was interesting and it was disturbing and it clarified something for me as to some of the ways people are so challenged by my ways and views in this Southern Alberta context, which also tends more toward preservationist and isloationist than much of the rest of the CRC. The one line that caused flashbulbs to go off in my awareness is this one: “a relational Christianity was more important than doctrinal principles.”

You know by now that my main theological starting point is “God is about relationship.” God is a relational God. Within the Godhead there is already a balanced relationship of three persons, for example. Beyond that internal relationship God’s aim is relationship with creation, and with people above all, as shown in the fellowship of the “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen 3:8) and the oft-stated intention: “I will be your God and You will be my people” (Ex 6:7 ) and it’s variants (Gen 17:7; etc. see note at end of page). Over time I have come to recognize that my actual theology is centered on relational interpretations. So when I read that part of the CRC losing it’s moorings was that “relational Christianity” became more important than doctrinal principles I was piqued with intrigue. I just had to explore it.

To be fair, the paper says that some CRC folks left the denomination for more mainline churches because they preferred this relational Christianity. So it is not saying it was directly a key CRC problem. Still, when I read that phrase, suddenly some struggles I’ve been having trying to understand and sympathize with folks from this area who are not receiving my preaching and teaching easily became clearer. Much clearer. When they articulate their struggle and views to me a key theme seems to be that they miss me preaching doctrine. They miss hearing clear explanations of what things like Christ’s crucifixion mean doctrinaly. They are nonplussed when they do not hear that in my sermons. For them this is a touchstone moment in a sermon, when the pastor is expected to say “This is what it means that Christ died: xyz” which should be followed by statements like “the price was paid for our sin.” I believe and subscribe to those expected statements. But I also believe that a long standing Reformed congregation with a long solid history of catechism teaching and preaching and emphasis on doctrine already knows this information, this truth.

I was raised on and in that too. I was raised in isolation from “the world,” in a church that fiercely preserved traditional “ethnoreligious” practices, and which emphasized dogmatic information about God, shared through doctrinal statements and propositions concerning God, recorded in confessions and creeds. The problem I have is: that context gave me no inkling that God wants a relationship with me, only that Jesus paid a price for me, a sinner, and I better not forget it. I better be grateful.

So when I began — in my very late 20s and early 30’s — to find out God was a personal and personable entity who loved me and the possibility of being in relationship with me, and that the price was paid to open a way back into relationship, I found that new and exciting and deep and relevant.

As a result, I deal with feeling misled and lied to by my Reformed tradition that was so oriented to doctrine. I have to be careful with that. Sometimes my irritation and anger about that gets in the way of me preaching God’s grace. Especially in a context like the last church I served in Iowa and the current one, where I feel like I have stepped back in time 50 years to the church of my childhood. And I get very very afraid of being part of misleading the children today in the same way I felt I was misled. I cannot and will not be part of that.

Day by day the relationship with God grows, once you understand Relational theology and practice it. There are times when I break away from that relationship and it begins to die. So, it is better to say in general my experience once I realized God was about relationship is that it is growing more than it is shrinking. Having made a theology of relationship my central scriptural teaching, I am not aware of any of the doctrines we hold to that need to be jetisoned to honor the relationship theology. I see that theology in scripture, but do not find it understood or explained well in the creeds and confessions. It possibly was assumed as obvious by the original compilers, and has been forgotten. But now, for me, the standard doctrines or ideas about God are clearly down the hill in terms of importance. Discovering more about relationship with God and growing the relationship is primary. They serve a purpose in that, but they do not create the relationship simply by knowing them.

I have also learned the power of scripture as narrative account of God’s mighty deeds. Deeds and actions taken in order to make room for humankind to stay in relationship or re-enter it. I no longer see scripture as a scientific source for proofs for ideas or propositions about God (see note about propositions below). I am just beginning to learn the subtle guidance and moving and nudging of the Spirit that come with relationship with God. It happens both through the power of story and through the power of ideas and more directly through impulses and feelings. These can only be sorted out if I begin to know God’s still small voice. That can only begin to be known through relationship directly with God. I see more than ever the importance of relationship with God and of godly, Christ-based relationships with others. As a result, I preach the connections (relationships) in scripture, not doctrine derived from them. I preach the narrative of scripture, not propositions that I conclude from it. And I preach how scripture’s teaching shapes life, how it offers the freedom to ‘come clean’ and not be afraid, and so much more.

But those who expect pure doctrine, who expect along with that affirmations of the trappings of isolationism and of ritualism and traditionalism and other preservationist things will not easily understand my preaching. Until they themselves come to know that relationship with God is first-and-foremost a matter of the ‘heart’ or inner being, the gut, the soul, whatever you want to call it being tied to God. It is not a matter of law, or rules, or slavish obedience. It is a matter of accepting a gift, a grace, that opens the door to relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Once they lose their setness and rigidity formed by their false comforts in the trappings I mentioned at the start of this paragraph, they will be free to be in relationship with the gracious Father depicted in the well-known parable, who ended up with a wayward son who thought he was coming back to become a slave but instead lived a grateful forgiven relational life as a once-lost son, and another enslaved son, who was in danger of being lost and of keeping the relationship broken with his hard heart.

Jer 24:7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.

Eze 11: 19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people,and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

I ask God daily that he keep renewing my heart and spirit to keep me actively in relationship to him, and I regularly pray the same for others as well.


Some further notes:

Note: This is an admittedly incomplete sample selection of passages which carry variations of the theme of God and relationship with the people: Lev 11:45; 22:33; 25:38; 26:12; Num 15:41; Deu 19:13; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 13:11; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1; 31:33; 32:38; Eze 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:23, 27; Zech 8:8; 2 Cor 6:16; Heb 8:10

Let there be no doubt that there are lots of them.

Note: if you wish to read the article that got me thinking about this, I’ll give you the link. Please understand that although it enlightened me, I do not think as the author does: http://www.swierenga.com/Africa_pap.html

Note: I also got the word “ethnoreligious”from the above article. Several other quotes from it that caught my eye:

An unstated goal of many is to preserve churches that resemble the ethnically homogeneous CRCNA of the 1950s, when the motto, “In isolation is our strength,” yet ruled the day. “The URC is in essence what the CRC used to be,” declared a minister in the URC in 1998

The massive post World War II immigration of orthodox Calvinists to North America added a cultural dimension to these intergenerational tensions. The newcomers primarily settled in Canada, because of U.S. quota restrictions, but ministers, called “field agents,” effectively marshaled them into the CRCNA. Between 1950 and 1960 the Canadian membership in the CRCNA grew by nearly 50,000. The immigrants renewed a flagging ethnoreligious identity among the second and third generation Reformed Dutch, although it was remarkably short-lived. In contrast to the slow assimilation of the nineteenth century immigrants, the postwar immigrants moved into the mainstream in one generation. These postwar Netherlanders had been changed by the war experience even more than the Americans. In church assemblies the Canadians in the last fifteen years have moved into the “driver’s seat” in both the conservative and progressive camps of the CRCNA.

Note: A propositional statement is a declaration of what is seen to be a truth. A propositional statement can be answered as true or false. But it itself does not give you the experience it describes. So, a propositional statement could be “The sun is hot” and it can be true, but it will not give you the experience of the sun’s heat unless you have a relationship with the sun. So too with the son and God. A propositional statement about Jesus that is true is “he forgives my sins.” But the statement does not give you the experience of feeling forgiven.

Note: because I have a healthy sense of humour and awareness of irony, I am well aware that I am creating doctrinal statements and propositional statements about relationship with God.

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