Mechanical vs. Relational Theology

When our construction of theological principles treats the human crisis in cold, indifferent ways we have to ask whether our theology is relational or mechanical. As well we have to ask which one it should be.

A mechanical theology is one where the rules and the principles are precisely measured to extremely narrow tolerance and operate without any concern for exceptions or extenuating circumstances. A relational theology has flexibility to allow the principles to stretch and flex in order to accommodate the ultimate goal: reconciliation.

Mechanical theology is like a machine. All parts fit together but none of them deviate for any reason. If the object of salvation does not conform to the rigid parameters of the machine, it is discarded. If the parts deviate from their strict parameters, the machine breaks down or falls apart.

Relational theology is like a body. It grows and stretches and exerts and even sacrifices itself for the goal of reconciliation.The body exists for the sake of another. What does the machine exist for?

Mechanical theology makes the bible the syntax by which a binary language is encoded for robotic functions.

Whereas relational theology makes the bible not a programming language for a mindless computer, but a message from the heart of a divine Father.

Looking back in history, a clear example of mechanical theology is that of infant damnation. Augustine arrived at original sin based on a very strict reading of Paul. That reading said we are all guilty of Adams transgression at birth. Thus, babies must be baptized as soon as possible because if they die unbaptized, they must burn in the lake of fire for eternity. 

In Augustines mechanized theology, God was nothing more than a blind machine which makes no distinction between Adolf Hitler and your new born child or grandchild. Regardless of Augustines theological terrorism, babies who die unbaptized are welcomed into heaven. But can we imagine the hell their parents were plunged into who lived under this doctrine? To live one’s entire life knowing she had generated a life she fully intended to love and care for and even teach about Jesus, only to have the child snatched away in birth and dragged to the fiery hell to suffer unimaginable without ever having known her mother’s kiss, forever and ever and ever. Some went insane. Others became heretics by rejecting this notion and were burned at the stake. Such are the fruits of mechanical theology. Do we imagine these kinds of abuses to be what Paul or for that matter Paul’s Savior might have intended?

Fortunately we have grown beyond such cold and simplistic conclusions. But that is not to say we do not still suffer from mechanized faith. For we still cling to very mechanical ideas about the fate of mankind which seem incompatible with the living breathing Father in heaven. Think of the  idea that the second before death God would afford the full grace and forgiveness of Christ to the repentant, but one second after death retract all hope and love and forgiveness. 

This cold, mechanical theology is largely built on one single passage in Hebrews. “For it is appointed unto man to die once and then the judgement.”

The context of the passage was that of reinforcing Christs single sacrificial death being all sufficient for all time. Yet we have reengineered it to be the main component in a hopeless threat which leaves us discouraged and disillusioned about the fate of people who were as helpless as Augustines infants. 

We have a gospel machine and Hebrews 9:27 is a vital cog. It says decide while there is still a chance because when you die, it is too late. We might even attach this passage to give credence to such a cold message.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he may be near.” Isaiah 55:6

Clearly there is a time limit on salvation. That limit is the span of the beating of the human heart. God can only love the unsaved while they have a pulse. When the pulse stops, love is withdrawn and all hope is lost. The machine moves on to the others who still have potential and that which was once loved is abruptly cast aside as a bad part or rejected unit. Forget the fact that even in factories, bad parts are salvaged and reworked. Faulty units are set aside to  be refurbished. No, our theology is not that of a Father who doesn’t give up, but of a highly efficient and unrelenting system that does not make exceptions for anything malformed at the end of the assembly line. 

Somehow we are meant to accept that God might love us all from eternity past and then when we are born a terminal clock begins. For some the clock ends at 1 day. For others it ends at one month or one year or decade. For others the clock ends after an average human span or anywhere in between. 

But the mechanics of our theology says that the love that waited since eternity past for our existence can wait no longer than our 30, 60, or 80 year old heart. 

Mechanical theology seems to recognize the illogical absurdity of this dilemma and so it adapted some very innovative modifications to accommodate the problems. These are free will and limited atonement. 

Now keep in mind that those two innovations are of two entirely different machines in two entirely different factories. 

The Arminian factory says free will trumps Gods will. Free will is more powerful than God’s will. That seems satisfying if your looking merely for a machine that seems to run smoothly. But if your seeking reconciliation above all else as Christ did on the cross, free will is merely an excuse for a failed design. 

The Calvinist/Reformed factory sees the fault in the free will modification and instead insists that God’s will is sovereign over all other wills and in fact Jesus only died for who God willed to be saved in the first place. This is limited atonement. This new part is engineered quite well and seems to outperform free will in that it relies more on God than on man. Yet it would appear that reconciliation suffers even greater undesirable results. For now we have to explain many inexplicable things. Things such as how so many predestined believers seem to be cloistered to white European and North American regions. Or that if predestination is so sovereign, then that would allow people to die as elect without ever having come to the knowledge of the gospel. Consider the paradox. The saved were predestined, but only if they hear the message. 

As well we would have to wonder about the predestination of the millions of aborted children. Is God like Thanos of the Marvel mythos? Is it merely random predestination? If so then based on Jesus declaration of the many and the few, most aborted children are in hell now based on God’s foreknowledge of what they would have chosen had they had the chance to live. However, I’m sure more precisely engineered parts could further modify this machine to smooth out these dissonant vibrations. The problem is that no matter how complex and precise it becomes it is still and always will be mechanical theology without the heart of an all powerful, all loving father who is seeking reconciliation with his creation.

I want to circle back around to a crucial point. Earlier I mention the idea that one second before death sinners are wholly loved by God, but one second afterwards all hope is lost for the machine of salvation has shut down for that person. God pulls the plug because salvation is only possible for the living. 

I think about that in parallel to those we are horrified by in their advocacy of abortion up until day of birth. Now abortion advocates should not all be considered in this camp. Most believe in the standard of survivability outside the womb. But we know of and are sickened by those who inexplicably advocate that a woman could choose to abort a child up until time of delivery. 

It would seem that in these peoples mind that baby is not a person until she exits the mother. That at anytime until then it is a disposable mass of tissue. But only after leaving the womb do they afford rights to life. We consider this a  monstrous sacrifice of precious human life for the sake of selfish reproductive freedom. We cannot see the reason or logic in such a thing. How can a human life not be granted legitimacy except for some mechanical legal definition?

We know where God stands on the matter. God is a living, loving heavenly father who sees every sparrow that falls to the ground and counts every hair that falls from our head and loves every prodigal son with undying affection. 

That is of course until they die. 

Then He abides by a strict mechanical legal definition of who can be saved. Mechanical constitutionality aborts the lost child at any time before he leaves the womb. Mechanical theology aborts the child the moment after he enters the tomb. 

Relational theology would have us realize that the God who waits eagerly for every life to be born, having loved them since eternity past, is the same God whose love cannot die simply because the object of his love does. Relational theology would cause us to realize that a all powerful Father does not run out of options simply because evil and Satan seem to have gotten the upper hand in a final way. Everyone thought when Jesus died the Messianic hope was over. They were wrong, it was in fact fulfilled and just beginning. The problem was that for 3 days no one was able to see what was going on beyond the entrance of the tomb. We are just as blind. But we are not deaf. We should hear deep down in the grave the heartbeat of a Father who does not give up based on some mechanical requirements placed upon his love by our theology. If His mercy endures forever then that means His mercy is eternal. And that means it will endure from beyond all past to beyond all future. As such there is always hope in the heavenly father, long after our theological machines have turned to rust.

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