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Miroslav Volf expands on this concept by examining the Greek word perichoresis, which “connotes mutual interpenetration without any coalescence or commixture” (1998, 208–13, 19). Perichoresis (from peri, meaning “around,” and chorea, meaning “dance”) pictures the “divine dance” or union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which has gone on from the beginning and continues forever. This fellowship of three coequal persons perfectly embraced in love and harmony is the ultimate intimate union. This is affirmed in passages such as John 10:38, “so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father,” along with John 16:13–15, when Jesus refers to God’s glory as the Spirit reveals the truth that the Son is of the Father. Divine unity is expressed as the distinct persons mutually indwell the Godhead.

The trinitarian model reflects the nature of covenantal relationality (distinction and unity) and becomes a core ideal and a central theme of understanding family relationships. However, we acknowledge that, unlike God, we are not perfect, and therefore in applying these principles, we will have to struggle with our human imperfections. We must look to God for grace and strength to attain personal distinction in relationships. The relational process—be it the initial forming of the marital relationship, nurturing and guiding in the child-rearing years, building new family structures, or dealing with the end of life—involves the fundamental issues of forming unity while embracing each person’s distinctiveness. We use the biblical analogy in terms of how the members of the Godhead act in unity

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through distinctiveness with the themes of covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy.

God in Relationship The Old and New Testaments use familial language by way of analogy to describe the relationship between the creator God and the created ones, including God as parent relating to the children of Israel, Christ as groom in relation to the church as bride, and the Holy Spirit indwelling and empowering believers to be brothers and sisters in the Lord. God’s actions toward Israel are characterized by compassionate love, discipline, guidance, pursuit, generosity, nurture, respect, knowledge, and forgiveness. Jesus welcomes little children, women, the disenfranchised, and his disciples into close, intimate connection. The Spirit prays in and through us when we cannot find the words to speak. In other words, familial relationships are analogies for describing the covenant relationship between God and his people.

A covenant is a type of relationship, usually between a king or queen and vassals. The covenant intends to bind the lord to a particular group of people, where protection would be offered for loyalty. Covenants entail stipulations and consequences for violation of the terms by either side. Michael Horton (2006) describes covenants as containing six components: (1) a preamble describing the one great king making the treaty; (2) a historical prologue describing the events and reasons (and justification) for the covenant; (3) stipulations between the king and the vassal; (4) sanctions or consequences for failing to uphold the treaty; and the final two aspects of covenant making, are (5) depositing the covenant on tablets and (6) periodically celebrating or reviewing them publicly. Genesis 1 and 2 should be read with this formulation in mind. God announces his covenant with Adam and Eve. This covenant is based on the Creator’s word of power in establishing the universe, and it culminates with a blessing. In this way, Genesis 1:26–28, partially quoted above, describes the covenant representative being a differentiated humanity with covenant expectations— stewardship, fruitfulness, and multiplication (Gen. 1:28).

Ray Anderson (1982) uses the concept of cohumanity to build a theological anthropology. Beginning with the theological truth that “humanity is determined as existence in covenant relation with God” (37), Anderson

 

 

applies the concept of covenant to all human relationships. He considers covenantal relationships in the family as a “secondary order, made possible by the primary order of differentiation as male or female” (52). Differentiation achieves the godly purpose of interdependence and cooperative interaction between people. In other words, unity and uniqueness become the primary vehicles for embodying the image of God.

In applying covenant as a paradigm for the family, Anderson and Guernsey (1985) highlight the unconditional quality of covenant: “It is covenant love that provides the basis for family. For this reason, family means much more than consanguinity, where blood ties provide the only basis for belonging. Family is where you are loved unconditionally, and where you can count on that love even when you least deserve it” (40).

Similarly, Stuart McLean (1984, 4–32) suggests the following ways that covenant can be used as a metaphor for marriage and family relationships: (1) people are social and live in community; (2) the basic unit of family and of covenant is the dyad; (3) people living in community experience struggle and conflict as well as harmony; (4) people living in covenant must be willing to forgive and be forgiven by one another; (5) people living in covenant must accept their strong bond to one another; (6) people living in covenant accept law in the form of patterns and order in relationships; and (7) people living in covenant have a temporal awareness as they carry a memory of the past, live in the present, and anticipate the future.

Covenant forms the foundation of our theology of family relationships. Covenant results in image bearing, and image bearing entails fulfilling the covenant stipulations of dominion or stewardship—that is, ruling over the birds of the air and fish of the sea—and fecundity regarding offspring and culture development (Wolters 2005). Finally, image bearing results in blessings for fulfilling the covenant—provision and blessing from God.

Elements in a Theology of Family Relationships We propose a theology of family relationships that involves four dimensions or characteristics of Christian relating: covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. Covenant is the core or meta-virtue of relating which grounds and supports the others. We further suggest that family relationships will be either dynamic and maturing or stagnant and dying. Family relationships, and all relationships for that matter, are oriented toward God’s intended telos (or

 

 

goal) or away from that goal, and any trajectory away from God’s intended ideal is an outcome of sin (Wolters 2005). A model of this process of family relationships is presented in figure 1.

The logical beginning point of any family relationship is a covenant commitment, which has unconditional love at its core. Unconditional love as the bedrock love of one’s relationship to the other creates responsiveness and accessibility to the other. Grace emerges from this covenantal foundation. Mercy and forgiveness, aspects of grace, are extended in relating with others—a result of the loving forgiveness received from God. In this atmosphere of grace, family members have the freedom to empower one another. Empowerment leads to the possibility of intimacy among family members. Grace, empowerment, and intimacy deepen as the foundation of covenant is solidified.

Covenants form the basis for grace, empowerment, and intimacy. As the three secondary relationship virtues are experienced, the covenant is increasingly solidified. For example, the relationship between a parent and an infant child begins as a unilateral (one-way) love commitment, but as the parent lives out that commitment, the relationship grows into a bilateral (mutual) love commitment. Grace, empowerment, and intimacy are expressed in this relationship. The covenant motivates the parents to offer grace to their offspring (food, housing, daily needs, interaction). Empowerment is expressed in the covenant as children learn the stipulations (household rules) that are embedded in the family. Finally, intimacy develops as partners learn more and more about one another. These three virtues feed back into the covenant, making it grow and bear fruit.

 

 

For such growth to take place in any relationship, there must be mutual involvement. Growth in family relationships can be blocked or hampered when one person in the relationship is unable or unwilling to reciprocate covenant love, grace, empowerment, or intimacy. Thus, growth in a relationship can come to a standstill at any point in this cycle. Because relationships are dynamic and ever changing, if a relationship does not move to deeper levels of commitment, grace, empowerment, and intimacy, it will stagnate and fixate on contract rather than covenant, law rather than grace, possessive power rather than empowerment, and distance rather than intimacy.

These theological relationship characteristics are derived from an examination of biblical writings that show how God enters into and sustains relationships (covenants) with humanity. The Bible teaches that God desires to be in relationship with humankind and also longs for humans to engage in a reciprocal relationship. We recognize, however, that although we are created in the image of God, we are fallen creatures who will fail in all aspects of relationship with God and others. In a sense, no person can ever make a covenant commitment in the way that God covenants with us, nor can anyone foster an atmosphere of grace in the same way God gives grace. Our empowerment attempts often resemble possessive power, and our attempts at intimacy pale in comparison to God’s knowing and caring. Yet we are hopeful because God has been revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ. He is our model and enabler as we live out our lives and relationships according to God’s purpose.

Covenant: To Love and Be Loved Covenant—God’s steadfast commitment to creation—forms the basis for the other relationship virtues. As the trunk of the proverbial tree, covenant is the core feature of relationship virtues from which grace, empowerment, and intimacy branch out. The central point of covenant is that it is an unconditional commitment, demonstrated supremely by God to the creation.

Although the concept of covenant has a rich heritage in Christian theology, the biblical meaning has been eroded by the modern notion that commitment is no more than a contract. Covenant is basic to the structure of the first two chapters of Genesis (Horton 2006), even though the first biblical mention of a covenant is found in Genesis 6:18, where God says to Noah, “But I will

 

 

establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark.” God tells Noah to take his wife and sons and daughters-in-law, along with all living creatures, and Noah does everything that God commands. In Genesis 9:9–10, God repeats this promise of covenant: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.” The covenant is even extended to nonhuman creatures. Next, God makes a covenant with Abram: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous” (Gen. 17:1–2). Upon hearing this, Abram falls down on his face. God continues in verse 7, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” Then in verse 9, the role of Abram (whose name is now changed to “Abraham”) in the covenant is specified: “God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.’”

What can we learn from these two accounts of God’s establishing a covenant with Noah and with Abraham? First, we see that God is not offering either of them any choice in the matter. That is, God is by no means saying, “Now I am going to commit myself to you if this is your desire.” Instead, the establishment of the covenant is based entirely on God’s action. Second, God’s offer is in no way contractual; that is, it is not based on Noah or Abraham keeping their end of the bargain. God’s commitment stands firm and solid (immutable would be the theological descriptor) no matter what their response. However, God desires and even commands a response—covenants come with expectations. Does this make God’s covenantal offer conditional? Is God free to retract the offer if it is not reciprocated? The answer is a resounding no! The covenant God offers is steadfast and true, “an everlasting covenant,” regardless of the response to it. Third, although the covenant itself is not conditional, the benefits or blessings are determined by the response. Both Noah and Abraham are given a choice to respond. If they are to benefit from the covenant, they need to make a freely determined response of obedience. Although the continuation of God’s love is not conditioned on their response, the blessings of the covenant are conditional. Now that they receive and respond to God’s covenant, they also receive the fulfillment of the promise. Fourth, we notice that God extends the covenant to their families from generation to generation. Neither Noah nor Abraham can anticipate

 

 

obedience on the part of their descendants, further evidence of the unconditional nature of the covenant. In the same way, the blessings of the covenant are conditional, depending on whether the descendants decide to respond to and follow God.

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