In a classic passage in his Psychology (I, 479 f.) William James lamented the existence and persistence of the universal and the structured in the thought of his day, and longed for a world-view that would focus attention upon particulars and concretes. Had he lived until our day, he would doubtless have been more than satisfied with the contemporary emphasis upon the particularistic, the individualistic, and more especially the relational.

Relationalism is without doubt a reaction to the depersonalization and the alienation of our time. But like most reactions, it tends to be extreme. Many feel that we are being caught up in a maze of irrational and irresponsible interpersonalism in which relation and interaction replace all forms of structured thought and behavior.

Many are accepting uncritically the so-called relational theology. One is tempted to wonder whether this acceptance is not too largely the result of reaction—a product of an age of sloganeering, of grasping at any formula that sounds plausible.

It seems to me that the so-called relational theology strikes squarely at the heart of important theological matters, and that its implications for these matters are not often articulated. Space does not permit a discussion of its implications for the biblical view of revelation. But there are also profound issues at stake in relationalism for the Christian understanding of man, the biblical understanding of Christ’s atoning work, and the biblical norm for ethical behavior.

There is constant and studied resistance in our time to any view of “human nature” as a fixed and constant thing. It is frequently asserted that the “image of God” as biblically understood involves nothing structured in man. Rejected is the view that there exists in man a traceable and identifiable pattern of qualities given by God and subsequently perverted and wrongly structured.

More acceptable, it seems, is the view that human evil is a result of a loss of one or more elements in the pattern of “vertical-horizontal” relationships. The identification of fixed elements in human nature is rejected in favor of, for example, Barth’s view that “human nature” consists primarily in the unique relation between God and man by virtue of creation.

In his Man in Revolt (pp. 102 ff.) Emil Brunner holds that the imago dei consists basically of being-in-relation. This cuts squarely across the Old Testament view of human frailty and human perversity—of man as a creature who cannot stand before God’s holiness. True, man does manifest a unique relation to God, one not shared by the rest of creation. But it seems clear that man continues to express a structured dispositional form, even when his relation to his Maker is fractured.

Some have argued that biblical descriptions of man are always functional, never metaphysical. Now it is true that the Christian Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, have a certain concreteness because of the non-analytical quality of Hebrew thought. But such passages as Jeremiah 17:9 seem to suggest clearly that sin and evil are actual distortions of a patterned humanity. Walther Eichrodt in his Theology of the Old Testament (II, 389, 396, 407) seems to express Christian realism at this point with persuasiveness.

It is to be expected that in grasping for self-understanding some should find it convenient to reject a view of human nature that sees evil as a persistent distortion of the human structure. But to do so in the name of Christian faith is to overlook a major strand in biblical teaching, beginning with the Hebrew assertion of the “evil inclination” or yetzer hara, continuing through the insights of the Prophets, and finding poignant expression in the New Testament, particularly the Pauline writings.

Article continues below

Neglect of the structured and fixed in human nature has led, of course, to views of redemption that vary widely from what historic Christianity has long understood to be God’s offer. If man’s entire moral and spiritual problem is simply one of relation, then what is needed is really a revision of man’s attitudes toward God, toward the self, and toward others.

Some will hold that this is what “having the mind of Christ” is all about, suggesting that this is a phenomenon that springs rather naturally from a change of attitude toward God. But Christian realism seems to suggest that the bent toward self-will and self-assertion is far too strong to permit this.

Implied in the sinful distortion of human nature is the need for something greatly more than a purely relational atonement. It is not surprising that with a rejection of substantiality in humanity there has come a spate of subjectivistic views of Christ’s atoning deed. Abelard’s “moral influence” theory has been revived in terms of “republication” and the “dramatic” theory.

Here the accent has fallen, not upon what our Lord has done in “being made sin for us” and in bearing the curse of sin, but upon Christ’s dying as an expression of what has always been true, that God is always disposed to accept man, to “forgive and forget.” Little is heard of Jesus Christ’s dying a substitutionary death, by which God might consistently be both “just, and the justifier.”

Granted that there are deep mysteries in the dying of our Lord. But it belongs to the very heart of the Evangel that God, in the cross, cleared a path to himself, removing thereby real and formidable obstacles to fellowship, obstacles that are rooted much more deeply than in the attitudes of sinful men and women. It seems much more in keeping with such a statement as “For our sake he [the Father] made him [the Son] to be sin who knew no sin” to say that Christ’s dying had for its purpose the removal of something that stood between men and God, an out-of-jointness in the moral structure of the universe.

Relationalism has permeated the understanding of the moral life of man. In place of strong confidence in the objective and intrinsic quality of the Christian moral imperative, relationalists tend to hold that acts are neither good nor evil in themselves but only in relation to the persons performing them. This means that moral values inhere, not in acts or things, but in the way persons evaluate them. This is, of course, a nominalist view that rejects structure and system. Even love is not regarded as having constant content.

The reductio ad absurdum of the relational “love ethic” expresses itself in the words of Joseph Fletcher in his Situation Ethics (pp. 60 ff.) to the effect that while God is love, the most that can be said concerning persons is that they do love.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that the relational fad in theology will soon run its course. But evangelicals will do well to take seriously the strong hints in Scripture that divinely set structures exist that need to be recognized by those who undertake to “do theology.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.