A Review of
The God Who Trusts: A Relational Theology of Divine Faith, Hope, and Love
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
I grew up in a setting in which the words “personal relationship with God” were common parlance. Whenever I would ask what exactly this “relationship” should look like, or what it meant to have a relationship with the divine, other phrases were used, like “just have faith,” or “just believe,” or “just accept Jesus into your heart.” To an inquisitive mind, these phrases were more or less helpful at different times, but there is one striking theme across all of them: the focus on human response to God. We should trust God. We should demonstrate faith. Yes, God loves us, but in any other sense, the “relationship” seemed to be a one-way street. But what if God expressed more than a vague sense of “love” towards us? What if God actually believes things about humans? What if God engages us in a true relationship, in which there are risks and potential for heartbreak? What if, along the way, God actually takes the step of trusting us? Such is the thesis, one which will surely rankle classical theists and determinists, of Curtis Holtzen’s winsomely-argued book, The God Who Trusts .
Holtzen’s text fits squarely within the “open and relational” stream of evangelical theology, but is not primarily preoccupied with putting forward philosophical arguments regarding God’s relationship to time, or reacting to classical metaphysics regarding divine foreknowledge. Instead, wisely, Holtzen builds on the work of other open and relational theologians before him (many of whom have already engaged in the topics just mentioned) to emphasize God’s relational characteristics. If God is genuinely a being of love, and if part of loving is experiencing genuine relationship, as Holtzen argues, then what might God experience as part of such loving engagement with creation, and with humans in particular?
Holtzen seems to recognize the radical nature of these questions, and especially the claim that God may be genuinely vulnerable towards us. In laying a considered foundation for his overall argument in the opening chapter, Holtzen puts forward four theological issues that, in his view, necessitate a deeper consideration of God’s relational attributes: God’s purpose for creation, human free will, an open future, and divine passibility. These points are compellingly argued, but given brief treatment, and those who are not already convinced of the open and relational approach to theology will likely not be moved, but that is not Holtzen’s primary aim. Rather, this foundation serves as a springboard into the most compelling material in the book.
Holtzen devotes chapter-length material to four specific attributes of God’s relationality: love, belief, trust and hope. Love is foregrounded, not only because it is God’s primary characteristic, but because it provides the logical and philosophical basis from which the other attributes can be argued.
My main argument in what follows is this: because God loves, because God is love, God has faith. To love but not trust your beloved, or minimally, not aim, work, and hope toward building trust and making those you love trustworthy, suggests that what is being called love is something other, something less. . . Love, intimate self-sharing love, means giving yourself and desiring the other give himself or herself in return. (64)
The reader of Holtzen’s work, even if they are not ultimately convinced by the metaphysical argument he puts forward, will be rewarded with deep and nuanced considerations of what it might mean for God to believe in the capability of humans to respond to God’s loving call, and for God to even have a hopeful orientation towards us and the future itself. Even a convinced determinist should be emotionally stirred by the notion that God desires genuine relationship with us, and believes in our capacity for such relationship to the extent that God’s own self is made vulnerable to our response. “This is vulnerability, to love without guarantee of love in return, to give power to those who may abuse it, to empathize and feel what the other feels.” (73) But this work of God is not without purpose, for it is in the process of being brought into God’s love, united with God’s suffering, sharing in the joy’s of God’s being, that we “become what God desires us to be.” (138) It is a powerful portrait of a God who not only has grand plans for humanity and creation as a whole, but is intimately involved with the progress of those plans, even at cost to God’s own self, profoundly so in the experience of Jesus.
The strongest chapter in “God Who Trusts” is the final one, in which Holtzen brings a strong Christological frame to what preceded. While many reflections on Gethsemane and the cross understandably focus on the experience of Jesus as he went through divine abandonment, Holtzen flips the usual script and meditates on what the experience of the Father may have been. It is here where God’s trust – the theme of the book – finds its strongest and clearest expression.
God’s faith in Jesus is demonstrated, ironically, by his willingness to abandon and forsake Jesus. The unwillingness to remove Jesus’ cup of suffering is a sign of, among other things, God’s faith in Jesus. . . The fact that Jesus experienced agony, suffering, and God-forsakenness and not a supernatural sense of power and vision reveals God trusted Jesus to drink the cup given. (207, emphasis added)
Those who already find value in open and relational theology will find a wonderful addition to the ongoing conversation in Holtzen’s The God Who Trusts . He pushes the field into deeper reflection on the implications of understanding God in primarily relational terms, and at times writes with very moving prose. Classical theists and divine determinists may not be convinced to change their metaphysical paradigm, but anyone who wants to take seriously the simple ontological claim that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) should give Holtzen’s work serious consideration.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com