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The Relational Theology of James E. Loder

Encounter and Conviction


Kenneth E. Kovacs

The work of practical theologian James E. Loder, Jr. (1931-2001) deserves a wider audience. For more than forty years, he developed and exercised an interdisciplinary methodology that identified patterns of correlation in the fields of psychology, educational theory, phenomenology, epistemology, and physics, producing a compelling theological vision that centers on the person and work of the Holy Spirit engaging and transforming human life. At his untimely death in November 2001, Loder was the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Philosophy of Christian Education at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he lectured primarily in the areas of human development and the philosophy of education.
This book introduces and examines, explores and untangles the complexity of Loder’s thought in order to make it more accessible to a broader audience. At the core of Loder’s work is a relational phenomenological pneumatology of inestimable value to the theologian engaged in the ongoing renewal of the church. The Christian life is preeminently relational, distinguished by a relationship with God constituted by Jesus Christ, and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Relationality, Loder claims, takes place in and through the life of the Holy Spirit who operates within a complementary relationship with the human spirit, through an analogia spiritus: a profound, transformational interrelation of the Holy Spirit and the human spirit. The Holy Spirit, intimately connected to the person and work of Christ, takes up and extends the work begun in the incarnation by enfleshing the presence of Christ, thus transforming human life. Loder is distinctive for articulating a pneumatology that incorporates ‘how’ the self participates in the relationship and the way the self, through the relationship, comes to have a full knowledge of itself, the world, and God. It is precisely the logic of this Christomorphic dynamic that has extraordinary implications for the way we attempt to fathom the depths and convey the meaning of Christian experience. Loder’s relational phenomenological pneumatology contains rich and principally unrecognized resources for providing new frameworks for the Christian life.


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II. Personalist-Relationalism 37


C H A P T E R T W O Personalist-Relationalism It thus happens that…a Word of God proclaimed to all the world becomes a Word which encounters me, and that, in that it encounters me, converts me and recreates me. How the Word of God moves from a Word to me to a Word in me: that is the theme of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. —Emil Brunner Life, since it is always relation and relationship to the source of life (whether this relationship is consciously accepted or denied), depends on being rooted in a life which is lasting. —Hans Hofmann Before proceeding with a more thorough discussion of Loder’s convictional theology (chapter three), an excursus through the intellectual provenance of Hans Hofmann will allow us to place the emergence of Loder’s ideas within a wider theological context. While his indebtedness to Søren Kierkegaard is undeniable, neither can we underestimate the weight of Hofmann’s intellectual and personal influence. Loder mentions Hofmann only in passing, with a quotation in his doctoral dissertation and two footnotes in later works.1 This is remarkable, given Hofmann’s presence at a critical time in Loder’s early adulthood at Princeton and the manner in which their meeting set the course of Loder’s intellectual (as well as personal and spiritual) life. Reflecting back over his life, not long before his death, Loder said: I knew that transformation had occurred to me at my father’s death, and that it was not, could not be explained...

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