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The Disciples of Whole

 

Theology & Practice

 

 Following the Diversity of Reformation or

 the Wholeness of Transformation

 

 

Whole-ly   Discipleship  Study

 


 

T. Dave Matsuo

 

©2017 TDM All rights reserved

No part of this manuscript may be reprinted without permission from the author

Contact: tdavematsuo@4X12.org

 

 Chapter 1     The  Discipleship Manifesto

                    of the Gospel

 

Sections

  

The Identity of God

Undertaking the Hermeneutic (Interpretation) Challenge

Good News versus Fake News

The Epistemological, Hermeneutic and Ontological Work

       of the Holy Spirit

Distinguishing the Discipleship Manifesto Unfolding from

       the Gospel

 

Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Printable pdf
of entire study

●  Table of Contents

●  Appendix: Songs

●  Glossary of Key Terms

●  Scripture Index

●  Bibliography

 

 

Be still, and know that I am God!

                                                                                                    Psalm 46:10[1]

 

 

            As I begin this study, two historical moments emerge from my memory. These two pivotal moments, one from my personal history and the other from church history, continue to influence my life’s journey—in ways agreeable, and yet contrary, to the gospel of the Christian faith.

            The most pivotal point in my life occurred when I became a Christian at the age of twenty. This decision-point didn’t happen in a church context or among any other Christians but occurred decisively by myself while in the U.S. Air Force. Two matters stand out in my reflections that continue to be influential in my journey of faith. First, I wasn’t a Christian prior to then because I honestly felt my life had more significance than the Christians I saw and knew. Yet, in spite of my successful efforts and broad experiences, I was dissatisfied in my person, and thus asked God to show me—beyond what I saw in Christians—what he had to offer. This led to the second matter.

            In that initial period of my journey of faith, I didn’t have a regular church context or Christian fellowship. I turned to the Bible and listened to God speak, notably to me. In my naiveté I took God’s words at face value and believed literally what he said. For example, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13) was formative in my early Christian life, and I learned to trust him accordingly—that is, expecting God’s words to be fulfilled, even when situations appeared to the contrary. The key issue here was listening to God speak (communicate) instead of my speaking for God, and then trusting in the truth of his communication in our relationship. This deeply touched my heart in a way I had not previously experienced.

            Unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, my simple relational faith was increasingly distracted from this vital relational process of listening, thereby disrupting my intimate relational involvement with my God. This subtle shift happened as I became more involved in church and “learned” how a Christian should be. Furthermore, my relationally significant early faith became an established religious faith as I formally engaged in biblical and theological studies, not to mention my preoccupation with philosophy and apologetics. The Bible became more critical than essential, and its relational significance was commonly lost in translation as I subtly began speaking for God instead of listening. What resulted from this theology and practice was a doctrinally correct religious faith without the relational significance of the good news of God’s words communicating the full, complete, whole relational purpose and outcome of God’s offer—which I had originally requested beyond what commonly exists among Christians in all their diversity. Basically, I turned from the purpose I originally became a Christian in order to perform what Christians are supposed to do. What evolved was my priority focused on serving, which even with my good intentions made secondary my relationship with God and listening to his communication. Subtly, my serving and Christian reasoning developed at the expense of our relationship together. Sound familiar?

            Contrary to common belief, serving and studying the Word are not valid indicators of giving primacy to relationship with God—the primary reality composing the truth of the whole gospel. As we listen to Jesus, this will be apparent in the identity of disciples who truly “Follow me!”

            The second pivotal historical moment happened in church history, whose 500th anniversary is observed this year: the Reformation. While I didn’t participate in the original moment, along with most Christians I continue to experience the effects and their ongoing influence on Christian theology and practice. The diversity of these effects challenges the undiluted truth of the whole gospel and the integral words of God in the Bible (e.g. as Paul challenged, 2 Cor 2:17; 4:2). Consider these implications: If the primary (not total) context of God’s communication is Scripture, why and how does the Reformation principle of ‘Scripture alone’ (sola scriptura) result in such diversity? If the good news of God’s presence and involvement in the human context is determined solely by God’s grace (the Reformation principle of sola gratia), why and how is God’s involvement so diversely defined, with such diversity of results? If the human response to God’s grace can only be consummated by ‘faith alone’ (sola fide), why has this faith become a misnomer for diverse Christian practice that all Christians do not share? And how does the diversity of theology and practice that emerges from these solas witness to the world—much less to each other as Christians—the relational reality and experiential significance of a gospel that is worth claiming and proclaiming because of the following basis: (1) this gospel is constituted directly by the whole and uncommon (holy) God and not by any substitutes, and thus (2) its outcome is fulfilled beyond and above any alternative for life in the human context, and with nothing less?

            In other words, did the diversity of the Reformation evolve because God spoke and his followers acted on that relational basis; or does the diversity of the Reformation in fact displace God’s voice with the secondary words of their concerns, priorities and interests, thereby fragmenting both God’s relational purpose in the gospel and our response to God—ultimately fragmenting the Christian God of the gospel with subtle substitutes bearing the same name, who is less than whole? Therefore, in proclaiming the gospel, can we truly claim to have personally received all that God offered by grace, and nothing less or no substitutes? Moreover, as people who subscribe to the authority of Scripture, have we taken liberties with God’s Word—likely motivated by ‘the priesthood of all believers’—in order to establish our own identity, which intentionally or inadvertently makes distinctions with other Christians invariably in a comparative process of right-wrong, better-worse? Given the fragmentary condition of the global church, can we really presume to have the solution to the human condition when our own problems remain unresolved and our condition is without wholeness?

            This 500th year since the Reformation is a good opportunity for all Christians to examine our existing condition and reflect on these questions. The Reformation was the key stimulus that accelerated not only theological diversity but also its enactment in divisive practice. This fact should at the least chasten observances of the Reformation this year. Even more important, what has evolved from the Reformation is an unspoken commonly shared culture, the reality of which knowingly or unknowingly has justified existing conditions. On the one hand, this underlying culture ostensibly promotes engagement in and adheres to the presupposition of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ as a fundamental norm (validated by Peter’s words, 1 Pet 2:4-5,9). On the other hand, however, this culture’s defining composition is shaped by the fragmentary human condition of reductionism, whereby this culture’s unspoken values and norms are subtly determined by reductionism’s counter-relational workings. Moreover, the diverse practices of this culture cultivate their specific brands of values and norms in more homogeneous contexts dominated by people alike; this, of course, intentionally or inadvertently reinforces the counter-relational workings of reductionism and its fragmenting of persons and their relationships. As from the beginning, God’s ongoing challenge to us in this evolving condition is “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9).

            This underlying culture—which ironically amounts to a counter-Christian culture among God’s people—needs to be understood and addressed in order to change our existing condition to become disciples of whole theology and practice, those not following the diversity merely of reformation or its counterparts such as even renewal, but the wholeness of transformation composed in, with and by the gospel.

 

            The issues in the above two pivotal historical moments continue to have major influence in shaping the identity of our God and the gospel, as well as forming the identity of those who claim such a gospel and follow such a God. With ongoing concern for these and related issues, this study unapologetically defines the discipleship manifesto intrinsic to God’s response to humankind and thus essential to the whole gospel, in order to “make disciples” of persons who “follow me” in whole theology and practice—the Reformation and theological education notwithstanding.

 

 

The Identity of God

 

 

“Surely I spoke of things about God I did not understand, things too distinguished for me to know” (Job 42:3, NIV).

            Likely the least recognized and most consequential assumption (or presupposition) that Christians make is the identity of their God. In the global church today, this assumption is problematic because the Christian God may not have the same identity among the diversity composing the church—even though the same name is used by all. This should raise the urgent question whether all Christians worship the same God.[2] This is an assumption that logically would be legitimate to make, but under scrutiny has no valid basis in both global theology and practice.

            At this stage it may seem odd to be questioning the identity of God in a study on Christian discipleship. The ironic issue, and underlying problem here, is this: The identity of God in whom Christians put their faith and the Jesus they follow are often not congruent with the Word of God, in spite of the authority Christians give to the Bible. Measured by the undiluted truth of the whole gospel, the God many Christians have faith in is on a different theological trajectory than the God involved in the human context; and the Jesus many Christians follow is on a different relational path than the Jesus responding to the human condition. Therefore, it is imperative at the initial stage of this study to challenge, indeed even confront, the assumptions we have and continue to make about God’s identity.

            The identity of Christianity has an increasingly distinct global make-up, with the Western world no longer composing the majority identity of Christians—though the West still is the dominant influence that shapes Christian identity and the identity of God. Nevertheless, the unmistakable reality (at least to non-Christian observers) is that Christian identity is more diverse than the peoples and cultures of the world; and its variegation even increases with changing situations and circumstances, with over 40,000 Christian denominations today and counting.[3] The prominent formation of Christians identities (emphasizing pl.) evolved with the most diversity from the Reformation, yet Christian diversity is not due solely or even mainly from the Reformation itself. The Reformation really only amplified how Christians all along have defined themselves and determined their practice based primarily on these three basic questions:

1.     How do we know God, or even if God exists?

2.     How do we respond to this God to define our faith?

3.     How does this faith grow and develop?

            The issues central to these basic questions existed before the Reformation and go back to the early church and the time of Christ. They all converge in the pivotal history of Jesus, who embodied the Word communicated from God that disclosed the identity of not just God but the whole and holy/uncommon God distinguished beyond the common of the human context. The identity of God disclosed by the Word cannot be diversified by common human terms (even by Christians) without fragmenting the identity of God and rendering God no longer whole and uncommon. The resulting diversity involves a reductionist process of commonizing God on the basis of our human contexts (personal and/or collective); commonization and contextualization are intertwined, and they remain entangled in human terms and practice—in spite of even good intentions by Christians. This underlying cultural practice is a critical influence still determining much of the practice of contextualization (e.g. of the gospel) engaged by Christians today. The obvious consequence for Christians is claiming the identity of and practicing a faith in a different God than the whole and uncommon God vulnerably disclosed by the Word.

            This brings us back to the Bible. What valid source is available to us to answer basic question 1? If God in fact exists, what reliable means can we count on to know this God? The reality is that no valid and reliable source is accessible in the human context as the point of origin to know God; indications in physical creation certainly point to this God but are insufficient to know this God (as Paul clarified, Rom 1:20-23). Of course, we could put our faith in anything or anyone; that is the common nature that all human practice (including by scientists). For the experiential truth of God, however, to be a valid and reliable reality, God needs to disclose himself in the human context and communicate in relational terms for humans (including Christians) to know of the uncommon God, whereby they need to respond in relational compatibility in order to know the whole of God and put their faith in the whole and uncommon God.[4]

            Nothing less and no substitutes speak for God. Only God has the authority to define his identity and determine his presence and involvement in the human context. As part (neither solely nor blindly) of Christian faith, this integral source of knowledge (the primary epistemic source for Christians) is the authority we affirm that constitutes Scripture and that embodied the Word as the truth, the life and the way of the whole and uncommon God. Indeed, the Word directly from God communicates the good news that integrally answers these basic questions and fulfills the relational process necessary to experience their relational reality as the only disciples who “follow me” in wholeness. And this is the identity of God that challenges all Christians today, and the gospel that confronts all Christians to stop presuming and start listening to the Word more carefully (Mk 4:24)—to listen before we speak and then to speak on the basis of what we have carefully listened to from the Word. In order to listen carefully also involves to “pay attention to how you listen” (Lk 8:18), because merely implementing the mechanics of listening (i.e. just hearing the words the other person speaks) is insufficient and often results in misinterpretation.

            For all Christians to listen thoroughly to God speak in the gospel and to claim the whole and uncommon identity of God, our initial response must—not out of obligation but by the nature of this relational process—undertake the hermeneutic (interpretation) challenge: Listen before we interpret what God is saying, and do not make your assumptions the basis for any subsequent interpretations or you will end up speaking for God; this is the hermeneutic clarification and correction that Job experienced in his theological task (Job 38:1-3; 42:3-4). That is to say, “Be still” (raphah, to desist, quit, relax, Ps 46:10) by ceasing our initial human efforts to interpret and understand and thereby give God the opportunity to speak, so that we can “know that I am God”—the identity of whom only God can disclose. And the relational outcome will be not what we have “discovered” by our efforts and thus boast, but rather boasting (hālal, praising and celebrating) what we have received from God’s communication and therefore gained in knowing and understanding God (Jer 9:23-24).[5] Of encouraging significance for us today, this was the relational outcome that convicted Job of God’s whole identity in his theological task, when he responded to the hermeneutic challenge (Job 42:4-5).

            Any identity of God that does not unfold from the hermeneutic challenge of Scripture should be suspect—and rightfully encountered with a hermeneutic of suspicion—and challenged for clarification, if not confronted for correction. While the text of Scripture requires interpretation, the authority of Scripture is not subject to interpretation—particularly under the cloak of the priesthood of all believers. Authority is God’s domain and Christian faith only affirms the truth of this reality, so our faith does not compose this authority. This subtle distinction is critical to maintain in our faith. Moreover, while the practice of this faith may be variable among Christians, the affirmation of this truth is not dependent on faith alone and thus not subject to the diversity of Christian beliefs. Even though the relational response of the priesthood of all believers may reciprocally represent God, those who so respond do not speak for God.

      The simple truth is: God communicates, and only God speaks for himself, using human contexts, authors and language to express in relational terms the whole of who, what and how God is. All Christians are subject to the authority of God’s communication, which is not about conforming literally to the text of Scripture. The hermeneutic challenge is the relational process of involvement that responds directly—neither indirectly nor with the latitude of personal interests and biases—to God and submits to the authority of God’s communication. Beyond merely a step of faith, undertaking the hermeneutic challenge requires a valid basis and reliable process of interpreting Scripture that is crucial in order for all Christians to be able to trust what God says and reveals.

 

 

Undertaking the Hermeneutic (Interpretation) Challenge

 

            The above three basic questions are essential for the theology and practice of discipleship, which all disciples must answer with relational significance to truly be distinguished as followers of Jesus—that is, distinguished beyond what commonly exists among Christians. Most Christians presume in their practice to have the answers to basic questions 1 and 2, and on the basis of those assumptions (or presuppositions) they answer question 3. But the answer to question 3 can only be fully defined and determined by the depth of significance that question 2 is answered with. Further and integrally, question 2 unfolds (not evolves) defined and determined only by the depth of significance that fulfills question 1. Therefore, as we proceed in this study these three questions are basic to who and what are essential to our faith and vital for how we practice.

            Getting to the depth of significance of God’s communication in Scripture has been problematic for Christians down through history, to say the least, notably because only relational significance constitutes the depth of God’s communication. Relational significance is the difference that distinguishes Go’s relational language from the general use of referential language, which is commonly used even by Christians—especially in the academy to compose biblical and theological studies. That makes listening to God not only a priority but primary in the process of interpretation, making all other hermeneutic activity secondary (not unimportant)—perhaps at times even unnecessary, certainly if it distracts us from the primary or disconnects us from the primacy of relationship that the grace of God’s communication constitutes. Yet, that still leaves us with the text of Scripture, which is contained within human contexts and historical settings that render God’s communication more complex than literal expressions of simple truths.

            Since the communication of God’s Word is expressed by human authors, in historical contexts and through literary genres, these need to be accounted for in the interpretation process in order not to misunderstand God speaking. And where we need to start is from the beginning with “Did God say that?” (Gen 3:1)[6] As emerged from the beginning in the primordial garden, on the other hand, these characteristics of the biblical text are always secondary to what remains primary in God’s Word; thus they must neither distract nor take away from the primacy of the relational context, process and purpose of God speaking his relational terms to us. Indeed, “God does say that” and our challenge in the interpretive process is to receive God face to face (cf. Num 12:6-8; Job 42:3-5; 2 Cor 4:6), and not take liberties to speak for the Other—as commonly takes place in human interaction to prevent the relational connection for significant communication. In Other words, interpretation of Scripture is making relational connection with the heart of God—the God who vulnerably makes himself accessible whole-ly (i.e. whole and holy/uncommon) in relational response to us, who responds to our human context for the primacy of relationship together but not according to human terms (including our terms as Christians).

            Given the plurality assuming Christian identity and the diversity composing Christian theology and practice, who is making relational connection with the heart of God? What are non-Christian observers to conclude about the lack of coherence in Christian theology and practice, much less assess the fragmentation of Christian identity? Such diversity witnesses to the lack of significance (even to the insignificance) of both Christians and God; and the absence of their wholeness renders the gospel a false hope for the human condition—contrary to and in conflict with Jesus’ formative prayer for Christian identity in likeness of the whole of God (Jn 17:20-23).

            Jesus made a distinct hermeneutic process the relational imperative for all his followers, or there would be consequences in their theology and practice (Lk 8:18; Mk 4:23-25). Based on his imperative, the unmistakable reason for the existing diversity in Christian theology and practice is failing to meet Jesus’ hermeneutic challenge, leaving the interpretation of the Other (the Word and his gospel) to others in all their diversity—even those with good intentions, These others would include the magisterial Reformers and all others (notably evangelicals) who subscribe to sola scriptura and sola fide.[7] As a consequence predicted by Jesus’ paradigm—“the measure you give [or use] will be the measure you get” (Mk 4:24)—the common composition of orthodoxy has become a theological construction without the relational significance of God’s Word, therefore lacking the orthopraxy of the whole-ly Way, Truth and Life.

            In the hermeneutic challenge both of and by the Word, disciples must be able to distinguish in their theology and practice the relational response of following the person of Jesus in history from a belief (however convicted) in Jesus as a historical subject. The latter belief constrains the Word (even in sola scriptura) to a narrowed-down epistemic field (source of knowledge) of mere referential information of Jesus’ words, teachings, miracles, example, and the like, But, in explicit contrast and implicit conflict, the former relational response embraces the whole person in relationship based on the relational language communicated by the Word—listening to all his words without selecting only what we want to hear. For these disciples, what Jesus communicated in the Gospels (whether in narrative or metaphor) in different human situations and historical contexts has ongoing relational significance for all Christians (from past to present to future), the authority of which defines and determines all discipleship according to his terms without having the latitude to shape relationship together by our terms (i.e. to diversify the way, Mt 7:13-14, cf. Jn 10:7). Again, the latter’s belief essentially speaks for the Other with words (even as correct doctrine) that lack relational significance (cf. “every careless word,” argos, unprofitable, in Mt 12:33-36).

            Certainly interpretation is always occurring about what the Word communicates. The hermeneutic challenge doesn’t preclude our interpretation but always puts it in its primary context, whereby the Word speaks first and thus for himself—always Jesus’ relational imperative for the hermeneutic process. However—and this must be recognized and acknowledged—as long as the hermeneutic door remains wide open to “Did God say that?” others will increasingly speak for God, speaking contrary not to orthodoxy and orthopraxy but to whole theology and practice.[8] This then further raises the question: If Christians meet Jesus’ hermeneutic challenge, will there no longer be all this diversity in theology and practice? As just footnoted, opinions differ about the nature of existing Christian diversity and what is needed today. Just taking up Jesus’ hermeneutic challenge would likely not eliminate existing diversity, but it would greatly reduce it to the extent of our relational response of ongoing relational involvement in the hermeneutic process—the significant involvement of which is neither defined nor determined by the mere adjective ‘relational’. Only the depth of our relational involvement will meet the hermeneutic challenge that counteracts our divisive condition.

            At the same time, to discount illusions and simulations of unity, we need to ongoingly emphasize that the hermeneutic key to the reality of Christian unity is not conformity to and uniformity in theology and practice, but rather receiving the depth of the whole gospel and the wholeness of Jesus. The unavoidable challenge for all Christians is becoming disciples of whole theology and practice that unfolds from the gospel and is distinguished by its Word. For this relational outcome to unfold, however, integrally includes in the unavoidable challenge the ongoing fight against reductionism and its counter-relational work that subtly fragments the whole gospel and reinterprets the Word’s wholeness into parts not integrated together or simply missing. This challenge has not been well incorporated into the hermeneutic process, mainly because reductionism is either ignored or not understood (even by church leaders and those in the academy).

            Reductionism emerged distinctly in the primordial garden yet unfolded with ambiguity (Gen 3:1-5). The subtlety of reductionism’s workings created hermeneutic confusion and theological fog by first raising reasonable skepticism or the seeds of doubt with the seemingly harmless question “Did God say that?” Implied in this query of interpretation, which seems basic for all wanting to know what God said, is a hermeneutic shift of who has priority in the interpretive process: “If God did in fact say that, then what did God really mean by that?” This is when and how the hermeneutic door has opened wide for others to render their voice to speak for God’s intentions (e.g. “you will not die,” v.4). The consequence is a subtle fragmenting of God’s words apart from the wholeness of God’s communication and thus a shift into diverse theology (as in “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God,” v.5) and practice (on the assumption of “knowing good and evil”). Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it—after all, the main alternative is to be a biblical literalist or to fall into skepticism, perhaps solipsism, even despair. With the hope of knowing what God said since this beginning, however, the hermeneutic process has been developed with further sophistication and justification; yet it mainly still operates implicitly under the priority of the interpreter and thus covertly under the determining influence of reductionism.

            A reductionist mindset has prevailed in human history, shaping human perceptual-interpretive frameworks and lenses in underlying ways with a fragmentary focus. Today, the digital age of modern technology has imposed its parameters on our thinking and shaped our practice with a dominating binary perceptual framework and interpretive lens. Subtly, our knowledge has been reduced mainly to either-or quantitative terms, which lacks qualitative depth and relational significance—e.g. as gained from the Internet and experienced on social media. In no other context is this more true, though not prevailing overtly, than in the history of God’s people, with the modern Christian context the most evident. A cartoon demonstrates this condition. Moses is seen returning from Mt Sinai with the stone tablets of God’s commandments raised above his head, with this new declaration for God’s people: “Behold! Now both thinner and lighter.”[9] Ironically, and sadly, the historical reality for ancient Israel was their reduction of God’s relational terms for covenant relationship together down to “thinner and lighter” conforming to a code of behavior for religious-national identity, thereby losing the qualitative depth and relational significance of the covenant relationship of God’s love (as in Dt 7:7-9).

            Also, sadly, yet not surprisingly, to this day new “thinner and lighter” declarations are made to speak for “Did God say that?” and/or to give account for what God really meant by that. What does this say both about contextual influence in our interpretations and about the so-called authority of God’s communication in Scripture, which we supposedly affirm by our so-called faith? And directly related, what does this “thinner and lighter” say about the integrity of the gospel—is it really binary—and its so-called grace, which we presumably claim by our so-called faith?

            Christian identity today is thinner and lighter than it ever has been. Whether new followers in the global South will change the course of this condition or merely add to the diversity of theology and practice, remains an open question. Renewal today simply could be another version of reformation. However, if the hermeneutic door remains open, we can only expect an increasing diversity of discipleship, resulting in the truth of the whole gospel eluding those who presume to claim its good news. And this Christian condition will continue because it evidences the presence of the human condition that has yet to be redeemed as an experiential reality—even though the relational reality of redemption has been completed according to the gospel. The narrative of this human condition (our human condition) can be summarized with the following understanding, for which all Christians are accountable and need to be responsible:

 

From its beginning the human condition consists of reductionism; and this human condition persists with reductionism’s counter-relational workings against God’s wholeness; and these subtle practices resist (even unintentionally) the gospel of God’s relational response to make us whole; the relational consequence is for our human condition to subsist in diverse theology and practice (contrary to whole theology and practice), persisting in ever new thinner-and-lighter alternatives that consistently counter, fragment and reduce God’s whole theology and practice.

 

             Absent from this narrative is significant coherence in the interpretation of God’s Word, the coherence which distinguishes and thus understands the whole composing the Bible over merely parts (including their sum) of it. Christians need to be ongoingly aware that this whole of the Bible cannot be understood from just its parts; nor can it be distinguished by the quantity of parts, or the sum of those parts. God’s whole is disclosed in a process of synergism, in which God’s whole is always greater than the sum of multiple parts (including the diversity of interpretations). The primacy given to parts always emerges from reductionism and evolves with a fragmenting hermeneutic that is unable to integrate those parts into the whole—an inability evident of the human condition.

            In their manifesto for coherence in Christian interpretation, Craig Bartholomew and Heath Thomas identify the cause and results of interpreting only parts of the Bible: “a plurality in theological thought and work is a direct result of the human condition.” For them, it is critical to interpret the whole that is outlined in the Bible in order to understand how the voice of God expressed in Scripture is heard in relation to all of human life, starting with Christians.[10] For this outcome to unfold, our interpretation cannot be based on partial or selective words from God—not to mention be predisposed by familiar words—but only by allowing the whole of God and the whole gospel to communicate to us without reducing or fragmenting their words. Yet, what must also be understood in this hermeneutic challenge—particularly by those engaged in theological interpretation for biblical theology—is this: The interconnections made from the Bible in only referential language do not result in the whole of God’s communication expressed only in relational language. Biblical theology in referential language is still fragmentary and thus is always insufficient for whole theology and practice, at best only simulating the experiential truth and relational reality of God’s disclosures that compose the full relational significance of the Word.

            Jesus made imperative for his followers the hermeneutic challenge because he expects all of us (not just a resourceful few) to have integral understanding of God’s disclosures. This integral understanding (syniemi in NT) integrates the parts of God’s disclosures (not just adding them up) to distinguish the whole—similar to putting together the pieces of a puzzle to get the complete picture, which doesn’t result from merely studying the Scriptures (e.g. Jn 5:36-40, cf. Lk 10:21). Nor does this understanding result from committed serving; the early disciples failed to engage the hermeneutic process of syniemi with Jesus’ disclosures (notably in Mk 8:14-21), and this thus clouded their hermeneutic lens to minimize their relational connection with Jesus (as in Lk 9:44-45). Although Christians today may not respond to the relational imperative of Jesus’ hermeneutic challenge, it is inescapable for those who remain identified as his followers. Therefore, even the very gospel that followers claim does not escape scrutiny for this pivotal reason crucial to our theology and practice.

           

            The reality from the paradigm of Jesus’ hermeneutic challenge (Mk 4:24) is that ‘the measure of the gospel we use is the extent of discipleship we get!’ Discipleship is the direct outcome of the gospel we embrace. Another way we need to understand this correlation from Jesus’ paradigm, especially crucial in the existing condition of Christian diversity: The discipleship we practice signifies the type of gospel we claim, and the gospel we proclaim has significance only to the extent of the discipleship we practice. This unavoidably confronts all Christians with Jesus’ hermeneutic challenge and urgently holds us accountable to return to Scripture in order to receive our essential knowledge and integral understanding of the whole of who, what and how the Word is composing the gospel.

 

 

Good News versus Fake News

 

            Since, as Jesus implied, the gospel is defining for the discipleship we practice, it is immediately vital and ongoingly essential that all Christians have an accurate account of the Good News. In the recent U.S. context, a major highlight in the media has focused on fake news and alternative facts in defining scenarios. Spurred by President Trump, a climate of fake news and alternative facts has enveloped identity politics and deteriorated into intense divisiveness, making it problematic to distinguish truth from falsehood, fact from fiction; apparently, fact-checking no longer has significance. Analogous to these issues is the human drama evolving in the Christian context and the integrity of its gospel; this certainly raises legitimate questions about the sources for its theology and practice and how their credibility is determined. Within a global context of diversity and a variable climate of differences, Christian identity emerging from the gospel warrants scrutiny about whether it is based on the truth of good news. Or whether this condition evolved from representations of the gospel focused on secondary matters that have composed variations amounting to fake news. Using only one example, I consider the prosperity gospel as simply fake news, with its subtle variations selective about their facts to present a relative gospel of alternative news. Thus, it is critical to know the source for diverse theology and practice and the credibility of their nuances—whether this condition reflects truth or alternative facts.

            Similar to identity politics, Christian identity has fragmented not only into different parties—as noted earlier, into over 40,000 Christian denominations globally and new ones forming daily—but also into separate practices that share little in common beyond the Christian label. In spite of some Christian coalitions forming in response to different issues, plurality has evolved into new thinner and lighter meaning for the Rule of Faith. Perhaps for many Christians, biblical fact-checking has been replaced by proof-texting, in order to gain so-called credibility at the expense of biblical integrity.

            What is claimed and proclaimed today as the Christian gospel must be examined, clarified and corrected. The differences of Christian identity formation make evident that the Good News has undergone revision by substitute variations shaped essentially from subtle accounts of fake news; or Christian divisions have effectively reconstructed the gospel with alternative facts, convincingly supported by proof-texting instead of fact-checking. For example, do all Christians celebrate the truth and reality of the incarnation (as described in Lk 2:34-35) or its variation embedded in Christmas tradition?

            Directly or indirectly, specifically or generally, formally or informally, in one way or another Christians (individually and collectively) have conflated God’s communication and the Word with other words (e.g. “knowing good and evil,” Gen 3:5) to form diverse theology and practice. While most of these results appear to have justification—composed by the committed faith of Christians, sola fide, with the assumption “your eyes will be opened…like God”—the underlying reality is that the integrity of the truth of the whole gospel has been compromised. Here again, the subtlety of reductionism is at work to fragment God’s whole, which has not been recognized, understood or has simply been ignored—especially with concerns for special interests and self-determination (as in Gen 3:6).

            While the integrity of the Good News may not necessarily have been compromised with overt fake news or explicit alternative facts, there is a more subtle process compromising the gospel’s integrity that is commonly used among Christians: paltering. “Paltering” is the active use of a truthful statement to mislead someone. This process goes beyond merely omitting the whole truth, which may not be known or understood at that moment. Among Christians, paltering is a method of using God’s truth in a fragmentary (or selective) process that reduces the whole truth by selectively stating only fragments of truth yet representing that as the whole truth, thus basically misleading others. Nuances in diverse theology and practice also appear to have a solid foundation, and this condition makes paltering less obvious in its fragmentation. Intentionally or inadvertently, paltering is engaged for a favorable response—the use of which is most evident in declaring the gospel. For example, how many Christians declare the truth of the gospel with Simeon (defined in Lk 2:29-32,34-35) and embrace the whole gospel from Jesus (clarified in Mt 10:34-36)? What kind of response would such a gospel bring today? More importantly, how does this gospel define the disciples who “follow me?”

            What then would you call those proclaiming the gospel without fully informing potential followers of the response required of them and what must be ongoingly involved by them?

            The truth of the whole gospel distinguishes the good news of only God’s relational response of grace to the human condition; this is the only gospel that composes the significance of sola gratia, and thus cannot be diversified. Yet, the only way we can know of the gospel’s truth and understand its wholeness is by the distinguished disclosure of God’s communicative action—distinguished beyond commonization and human contextualization. The relational context and process of God’s communication are composed and expressed explicitly in Scripture. This distinguished composition makes primary the relational significance of sola scriptura—again, the authoritative truth of which we affirm by faith, without having the latitude to be selective or to palter by our faith.

            In what condition do you locate your gospel? And what does your discipleship indicate about your gospel?

            The importance of these issues was demonstrated among Jesus’ early followers. After Jesus fed the 5,000 (Jn 6), many observed this good news and on this basis determined to follow him (6:14-15, 24-25). We can imagine their thinking: “This good news proves that our Messiah has come for our benefit, so let’s follow him to gain these benefits”—which Jesus clarified (6:26) and then corrected (6:27-29), and thus they asked for more proof (6:30). Furthermore, Jesus also defined what composed the depth of the whole gospel (6:45-51, 53-58). The truth of the whole gospel was beyond what these followers wanted and were willing to accept in its full substance. Therefore, since many of his disciples could not validly revise this good news with alternative facts (6:28,30,42,52), they would not accept the integrity of this gospel and no longer followed Jesus (6:60,66). At least we have to appreciate their honesty and that they didn’t just simulate their faith.

            In contrast to these disciples, Peter declared his version of the good news: “You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:68-69, NIV). So, do you agree with Peter’s gospel? Yet, what are those “words of eternal life” and who is “the Holy One of God” composing the gospel? Peter had part of the correct doctrine that composed the gospel, but that part was insufficient to compose the depth of the whole gospel, and also inadequate to understand the relational significance, purpose and outcome of Jesus’ gospel and not Peter’s version. Later, Peter declared in response to Jesus’ query (“who do you say that I am?”) that “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” based on the Father’s revelation (Mt 16:15-17). Here also, Peter had the gospel partially correct; but that didn’t account for the fake news and alternative facts about the Messiah prominent in his context, which subtly influenced Peter’s perceptual-interpretive lens of Jesus and revised the gospel. In Peter’s version, even after Jesus vulnerably disclosed how the gospel would unfold, Peter sternly rebuked the Truth, the Way and the Life with the false news “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16:21-22, NIV). Though Peter obviously remained a disciple, how does what Peter followed differ from the disciples mentioned above?

            What unfolded in the early period of Peter’s discipleship demonstrated the paradigmatic reality of Jesus’ hermeneutic challenge: The gospel you use will determine the disciples you get and the discipleship you practice. At a pivotal interaction that was defining for their relationship together, Jesus made his whole person vulnerable to his disciples for intimate relationship together—without the relational barrier of titles (e.g. Lord) or the relational distance of roles (e.g. Teacher). His uncommon involvement was enacted to determine their discipleship by the relational significance of the gospel and its relational outcome of wholeness in the primacy of relationship together as family, not merely about serving, as he washed their feet. Peter once again strongly objected, “You will never wash my feet” (Jn 13:1-8). In Peter’s interpretation of the good news, his Lord could not engage in demeaning action; and Peter’s hermeneutic bias would not allow his own person to be vulnerable for such intimate relational connection with his Messiah, the Son of God, the Holy One with the words of eternal life. In other words—Peter’s own contrary words—the gospel he used determined the discipleship he practiced, not to mention the disciple he embodied whose feet were not available to Jesus.

            As the early church formed, its formation was not whole and its relationships were fragmented (e.g. Acts 6:1). Jesus clarified this condition for Peter and corrected his theology to make it whole (Acts 10:9ff). Peter had interjected alternative facts (10:12-14) to what he had heard Jesus clearly define previously (Mk 7:7-19); thus, Peter essentially revised “the words of eternal life” that he earlier affirmed about Jesus. Peter’s corrected gospel was later crucial for the Jerusalem church council to establish the church in whole theology and practice (Acts 15:7-11). While Peter’s theology was corrected by Jesus, his practice still remained inconsistent with the truth of the whole gospel. Therefore, Peter’s contrary discipleship (hypokrisis) had to be confronted and corrected further by Paul (Gal 2:11-14).

           

            Yes indeed, the gospel we use will define the disciples we are and the discipleship we practice. And even correct doctrine does not guarantee understanding the whole gospel and experiencing its relational outcome of disciples transformed to be whole, live whole and make whole. These are the followers of the good news distinguished only by the whole theology and practice disclosed by Jesus, together with the Father and the Spirit, who disclosed nothing less and no substitutes. The whole gospel is composed by the Trinity, so to follow Jesus’ whole person by necessity involves integrally following the Father (Jn 10:30,38) and the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17-18) or else we claim an incomplete gospel of fragmentary good news. Yet, as long as the hermeneutic door remains open to fake news, alternative facts and paltering, Christian diversity will be highlighted in reformation (and even in renewal) and prevent whole theology and practice. To the diverse condition of so-called good news—just as he kept reminding Peter of what is primary and thus imperative (Jn 21:19-22)—Jesus clarifies and corrects with the depth of relational significance composing “Follow the whole of me” that distinguishes only his disciples.

            Thankfully, Peter was open to feedback, so that he was clarified and corrected on his journey to be transformed to an uncommon (holy) disciple “by the sanctifying [make holy, uncommon] work of the Spirit” in order to follow whole theology and practice in “relational congruence to Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:2, NIV); and, therefore, who “spoke from God, not for God, with God’s words and not his own, according to the depth of his relational involvement with the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21, NIV). We today need to learn from Peter’s discipleship and receive the good news of the Spirit’s presence and involvement to help us also become disciples who follow the whole theology and practice of Jesus. This relational outcome requires a hermeneutic centered on the whole gospel, not parts of it or revisions of it.[11]

            Until this relational outcome becomes our experiential reality, perhaps we can empathize with Jesus’ relational sadness over segments of not just the Jewish community but over segments of all God’s people (including us), when he vulnerably shared: “How often have I desired to gather the children together in my family as a hen gathers her brood under her wings in wholeness, and you were not willing” (Lk 13:34). Moreover, hopefully we can reflect on the words Jesus told the disciples in the church in Sardis, and “listen to what the Spirit is saying”: “I know your discipleship; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead in reality. Wake up…for I have not found your discipleship complete [pleroo, i.e. to be whole] in the sight of my God” (Rev 3:1-2,6, NIV).

 

 

The Epistemological, Hermeneutic and Ontological Work of the Holy Spirit

 

            Some Christians advocate for a distinct hermeneutic of the Spirit (Spirit hermeneutics and Pentecostal hermeneutics) to meet the hermeneutic challenge of Scripture.[12] Any hermeneutics from the Spirit, however, may be incomplete and thus insufficient for the challenge; this would be true if the interpretive process is not undertaken in the Spirit’s full context.

            Down through church history since Pentecost, the good news of the Spirit’s presence and involvement has been revised with fake news, alternative facts and paltering, which would include fragmentary interpretations from diverse Pentecostal and charismatic practices.[13] Pentecost represented much more than the pivotal point in the history of God’s people in which the Spirit emerged. The fact is that the Spirit was always present from the beginning (Gen 1:2) and the Spirit’s person already involved (e.g. Isa 63:10). Simeon correctly interpreted the whole gospel because “the Holy Spirit rested on him…revealed to him by the Holy Spirit…guided by the Spirit” (Lk 2:25-27).

         Pentecost amplified the Spirit’s presence and intensified the Spirit’s involvement, and thereby signified the pivotal relational process that integrally distinguished the further presence and involvement of not merely God but the whole and uncommon (holy) God, and that brings to completion the Trinity’s relational response to make whole our human condition. The Spirit’s relational purpose and work is irreplaceable in the relational process to wholeness and, therefore, indispensable for this relational outcome to be our experiential reality, both in our whole person and in the whole church family. On this relational basis, Jesus makes it the relational imperative: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the diversity of churches” (Rev 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22).

            The Spirit is neither a mere theological attachment (pneumatology) to our theology nor merely a spiritual supplement to our practice. Seen and interpreted in that way renders our theology and practice fragmentary, without the knowledge, understanding and essential reality constituting whole theology and practice. The existing diversity of our theology and practice reflects the absence, neglect or misuse of the Spirit, whose person is involved only in relational terms and engaged in the primacy only of relational work. The relational terms and work of the Spirit’s person function in the triune God’s relational context and process. This is critical for our theology and crucial for our practice in two definitive ways: (1) Both the Spirit’s presence is not subject to be shaped and the Spirit’s involvement is not determined by human contextualization; and (2) the Trinity’s relational context and process requires our reciprocal relational involvement in order to have connection with the Spirit’s person and ongoingly experience the Spirit’s work. What is critical for us is not a theological concept but a relational context; nor is what is crucial for us a spiritual exercise but a relational process.

            The primacy of relationship over spirituality is essential to experience the relational work of the Spirit, who is the basic source for the following:

1.     The epistemological work needed to know God by expanding our source of knowledge (epistemic field) beyond human limits and constraints—as Jesus outlined (Jn 16:13-15) and Paul summarized (1Cor 2:9-16)—without which we are left to mere human assumptions and efforts.

 

2.     The hermeneutic work necessary to understand the whole of God by deepening our perception and clarifying, correcting and convicting (a tri-C process) our interpretations in order to integrate the various disclosures by God to have whole (not total) understanding (as in syniemi and synesis) of who, what and how God is —as Jesus promised (Jn 14:26; 15:26) and Paul experienced (1 Cor 2:12-16)—

without which we are left merely to our explanations and conclusions.

 

3.     The ontological work required to transform who, what and how we are into wholeness in the image and likeness of the Trinity, by consummating intimate relational connection with Jesus on the cross and completing the relational outcome of the resurrection together—as Jesus indicated (Jn 14:27) and Paul detailed (Rom 6:5-10; 2 Cor 3:16-18)—without the reality of which leaves us in our fragmented human condition.

            In the feedback Jesus gave to those disciples who found the Word of the gospel too hard to digest, Jesus clearly made evident the absence of the relational work of the Spirit in their effort to follow Jesus: “It is the Spirit who gives life [his ontological work]; human effort is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are distinguished by Spirit [his epistemological and hermeneutic work] and life” (Jn 6:60-63, ESV). This feedback continues to apply to all his followers today, even though the gospel has been declared and the Word is known—at least in referential language and terms. Nevertheless, the Spirit is present to lead us deeper into the truth embodied by Jesus the Word (Spirit’s epistemological work) and thus is involved to help us interpret Scripture according to the Word’s relational language and terms (Spirit’s hermeneutic work).

            The Spirit’s work, however, involves distinct relational work (1) to connect us in the relational context of God’s disclosures communicated only in relational language (epistemological work), and thereby (2) to help us be involved in God’s relational process (hermeneutic work)—both of which are distinguished from merely human contexts (and contextualization) and processes (and commonizing). The reciprocal nature of the Spirit’s relational work requires not only our attentive listening (as in Mk 4:24), but also the relational involvement (implied in Lk 8:18) that emerges only as the relational outcome of being transformed such that we can indeed be relationally involved with our whole person (Spirit’s ontological work) to know and understand God’s disclosures. Biblical and theological interpretation does not fully take place with the Spirit in reciprocal relationship without this ongoing transformation from our human condition in reductionism and its counter-relational workings. Anything less than and any substitutes for transformation can undertake only illusions and simulations of the Spirit in the interpretive process, which can at best only result in the fragmentary knowledge, interpretations and disciples composing Christian diversity today.

            The relational work of the Spirit’s person underlies this study and will unfold throughout its pages, without which renders all that will be said with no relational significance both to God as well as to all Christians. As we proceed on this relational basis, there are ongoing questions to keep in mind, whether explicitly stated or not: 

·       The epistemic question: Is God accessible for anyone to know, and on what basis?

·       The hermeneutic question: Is God able to be understood in terms significant to my, our, and all of life?

·       The ontological question: Can who, what and how God is be known and understood completely (as whole, not totally) or just partially?

·       The relational question: How can we experience this God directly and ongoingly?[14]

            Underlying these questions and related issues is the reciprocating relational process constituted by the Spirit. This uncommon reciprocating relational process—not subject to shaping by our human contexts, nor determined by our common terms—always necessitates our ongoing compatible (i.e. uncommon) relational involvement, in order to distinguish the whole theology and practice that integrally embodies the experiential truth answering these questions and the relational reality of their relational outcome. Emphatically stated, therefore again and again, the ongoing presence and reciprocal involvement of the Spirit’s person (not power, force or energy, even as love) is simply irreplaceable for our theology to be whole and indispensable for our practice to be whole—whole-ly (both whole and holy) in likeness of the whole-ly of God constituted by the whole-ly Trinity.

 

 

Distinguishing the Discipleship Manifesto Unfolding from the Gospel

 

            In a recent study on the current condition of discipleship in the U.S., Barna Group researched Christian adults, church leaders, exemplar discipleship ministries, and Christian educators. “The clearest insight from this study [on ‘What is discipleship?’] is that it’s unclear!”[15] Such a study makes evident both the variable involvement by Christians with the Spirit and the diverse understanding Christians have of the gospel, both of which have left us in a condition lacking a manifesto definitive for all disciples and discipleship. Either there isn’t such a manifesto signified by the gospel, or we are not paying close attention to what and who is disclosed by the Word.

            The gospel declares the good news of God’s unwarranted initiative to enact the unmerited relational response to the human condition, otherwise known as grace and too often oversimplified with notions of “grace alone” (cf. sola gratia associated with the Reformation). God’s good news, as is commonly assumed, neither began with the incarnation nor can be limited to it.

            While God certainly responded to save Noah from the human condition, this was situational and did not establish God’s full relational response. That good news of God’s full relational response emerged with the formation of the covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:1-11). The nature of God’s response is essential to understand for composing the truth of the gospel. The covenant God established was not based on an exchange framework that formed a contract of exchange between the parties involved (a quid pro quo); this would amount to fake news, not good news, though many still see covenant with God basically in exchange terms. Historically, the faith of God’s people in response to the covenant has often been reduced to such exchange terms, thereby essentially revising the gospel with alternative facts; and paltering has been used to evoke such responses to the gospel, which includes misrepresenting “by faith alone” (sola fide) and promoting diverse discipleship.

            God stipulated terms for the covenant, initially for Abraham and later expanded with Moses in the Torah. These nonnegotiable terms unfolding from the gospel devolved among God’s people as the relational terms were reduced to a behavioral code that served a covenant of exchange—for example, keeping the commandments to reap God’s benefits. Various scenarios renegotiated the covenant with alternative facts, essentially

under the assumption ‘do this and God will do that’; and this assumption basically continues today to define God’s terms unfolding from the gospel (e.g. with a consumer gospel), though Christians may not admit to ulterior motives for being obedient in the faith.

            God’s terms, however, are distinguished only as whole relational terms—even for the new covenant—all of which converge in God’s declaration to Abraham: “Walk before me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1); that is to say, “Be involved with me in relationship together and be tāmiym [complete, whole] in your person and involvement.” The nature of God’s response is the essence of relationship—the relationship constituted in who, what and how the Trinity is—therefore the covenant (including the new covenant) can only be distinguished with the truth of the gospel as the covenant relationship composed by the Trinity’s relational response of grace. Furthermore, God’s unwarranted, unmerited response constituted the covenant relationship only as the covenant of love (Dt 7:7-9). God’s love has always been good news, yet fake news and alternative facts have misrepresented this gospel distinguished by the depth of God’s relational involvement (the significance of love) and the covenant relationship of love that unfolds from the whole gospel.

            As an example, what is the main thought that comes to your mind about the book of Deuteronomy? Since Deuteronomy is part of the Torah, Deuteronomy is commonly perceived in our interpretations of the Pentateuch as the primary source of God’s commandments. However, when all the pieces of Deuteronomy are put together for the whole picture (as in syniemi), what emerges is not the “oughts of faith”—the alternative facts for a “rule of law” that substitutes implicitly for the Rule of Faith. In the truth of the facts, the big picture of God’s whole distinguishes Deuteronomy as ‘the book of love’ (integrate Dt 4:37; 7:8; 10:15; 23:5; 33:3). Rather than the mere limits of commandments, Deuteronomy composes the good news of God’s relational response of love and distinguishes God’s relational terms for the depth of relational involvement, which is necessary in the covenant of love in order to determine relationship together in wholeness (tāmiym, Dt 18:13).      

            From this beginning, the gospel of God’s relational involvement ongoingly unfolds in God’s definitive blessing (Num 6:24-26), and what is further disclosed is the face (paneh) of God. Paneh signifies the very front of the person’s presence, not an oblique, opaque or obscure view of the person, thus involving the vulnerable disclosure of the person. The good news of God’s definitive blessing is that the figurative face of God (who has no literal face) is vulnerably distinguished by God’s depth of involvement in face-to-face relationship together—as Moses experienced (Num 12:6-8):

“The LORD bless you…make his face to shine upon you in face-to-face relationship, and be gracious in relational response to you…lift up his face to you eye to eye and give you peace.”

This blessing is still good news today when heard in its relational terms. Yet, it is commonly repeated in a perfunctory way (as in a benedictory blessing) that has lost its relational significance, rendering the face of God to a still portrait for us to display and remember. Perhaps this is the extent of the good news that persons are comfortable possessing.

            If we indeed embrace the truth of the gospel disclosed in God’s definitive blessing, the reality is that the face of God is intrusive (face to face) and thus confronting (eye to eye)—in contrast to the norm in human interaction and in conflict with what dominates social media today. Therefore, what is distinguished unfolding from this gospel is intimate relationship together, both with God and each other; and, if we are honest with ourselves, in reality we are neither accustomed to such depth of relationship nor even willing or capable to be vulnerable for this intimacy together. God understands our condition better than we do; and on this basis what unfolds from this gospel must clearly be distinguished to constitute our faith and practice: “…and give you peace.”

            “Give” (siym) can be rendered and has been presumed in various ways—think again about a covenant of exchange. Siym in the good news of God’s face in relationship together unfolds in these relational terms: ‘to establish a new relationship’, which then requires a change from the old (notably our fragmentary relational condition), so that persons and relationship together will now be constituted in wholeness (the peace of shalôm). Nothing less than and no substitutes for this new relationship together in wholeness (siym with shalôm) distinguishes what unfolds from the good news of God’s face; and this is the truth of the whole gospel that cannot be revised by fake news or renegotiated with alternative facts. In other words, speaking for God’s relational terms, what does this say about our diverse interpretations and our diversity of practice that are presumed to flow from the gospel?

            The gospel of God’s face unfolds further to be disclosed face to face and eye to eye as never witnessed before. Now we come to the incarnation and the face of Jesus, who embodies the depth of the whole gospel and fulfills the whole of God’s relational response of love to our human condition (as Paul summarized, 2 Cor 4:4-6). At this pivotal point, we need to keep in mind the four questions (epistemological, hermeneutic, ontological, relational) stated above, and then ask relatedly: What is this new relationship from the face of God? And what is this wholeness of the covenant and how are we to understand this to define our faith and determine our practice?

            Parallel to the gospel, and often in open contrast to if not in subtle conflict with it, the diversity of Christianity has evolved since the early church, as Jesus exposed in his post-ascension critique of the church (Rev 2-3). Both within and outside the ancient Roman empire, diversity in theology and practice may in fact have been more the rule rather than the exception, at least more than often presumed.[16] So, the diversity that continues to exist today in Christian theology and practice indicates an insufficient or lack of connection with the gospel of God’s face—that is, relational connection, not doctrinal connection, as Jesus clarified and corrected for the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:2-4).

            If we are to distinguish the nature and significance of discipleship unfolding directly from the gospel, this gospel can be neither just any gospel nor even the truth of a gospel (portion of good news). But this gospel must by its nature be the truth of the whole gospel in order to compose the complete significance of “Follow me.” The other versions of the gospel yield the diversity existing from past to present. The foremost priority, therefore, for our identity, theology and practice as Jesus’ disciples (assuming we follow Jesus) must first be to understand the whole identity of Jesus and the effect his whole person had on other persons to make them his followers. Not only is this critical to fulfill his commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) but to fulfill in our own life what it means to be his disciple (Jn 12:26).

            The whole identity of Jesus (not fragmented by his teachings, miracles, example, etc.) is both at the heart of the gospel composed by God’s face and thus central to the text of Scripture. The relational terms of Scripture provide the text composing the narrative history and inspired testimony about Jesus remembered by his distinguished first followers, which ironically includes his identity as seen by his enemies.[17] How we interpret his identity from these accounts is antecedent to and defining for our identity as disciples and is determining for how we follow. Or, as made paradigmatic, the gospel we use will be the disciples/discipleship we get. Once again, then, with the diversity existing among Christians throughout church history—not solely but notably from the Reformation for us today—what does this say about our gospel? Besides related issues about the integrity of Scripture, what does this say about the identity of Jesus we follow and, unavoidably, about our interpretation of Scripture composing our theology and practice? Moreover, how is all this diversity compatible with the view of the authority we affirm for Scripture alone (sola scriptura) by our faith?         

            Our existing condition raises the questions of where we can find integrity in theology and practice and how it can be restored in who, what and how we are. For the only response able to fulfill this need we turn to the whole gospel embodied by Jesus’ whole person, from whom unfolds the whole theology and practice that distinguishes his disciples from the diversity in Christian theology and practice existing globally.

 

            This is the relational purpose of this study. And its relational outcome will unfold with the gospel of the whole and uncommon God’s face to distinguish an irreducible and nonnegotiable manifesto for all Christians that is not subject to any of our diverse theology and practice. As will be discussed later, this manifesto is outlined definitively by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (as in Mt 7:14,21-23) and summarized in the book of Hebrews (see Heb 5:11-6:1). Yet, the wholeness composing this manifesto does not mean and should not be confused with conformity to homogeneity and with precluding the God-given diversity of persons composing his family—those persons together in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the Trinity. At the same time, the gospel of God’s face is intrusive, and Jesus along with the Spirit may clarify, correct and convict more than you can anticipate or may want disclosed. Whoever is willing (cf. Lk 13:34), however, to “Be still and desist from human determination,” they will experience the relational reality of intimately knowing God in the new relationship together constituted by wholeness , and thereby converge in the church (not a or any) reconciled and intimately involved together as God’s new creation family.

            This study unfolds on this relational basis, therefore, be humbly still, listen deeply together with the Spirit, and respond according to only God’s whole relational terms!


 

[1] Unless indicated differently, all Scripture quoted are from the NRSV; any italics in the Scripture quoted throughout this study signify emphasis or further rendering of terms.

[2] For an expanded discussion of this question, see my study on the Trinity in The Face of the Trinity: The Trinitarian Essential for the Whole of God and Life (Trinity Study, 2016). Online at http://4X12.org.

[3] As counted by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, noted by Jennifer Powell McNutt in “Division is not necessarily Scandal,” Christianity Today, Jan/Feb, 2017, 43-45.

[4] In her history of American evangelicalism, Molly Worthen presents a crisis among those of the Book (composing the diversity of evangelicals), whose concerns were existential and epistemological and united around three questions: “how to reconcile faith and reason; how to know Jesus; and how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom.” Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 6.

[5] Hebrew and Greek word studies used in this study are taken from the following sources: Horst Balz, Gerhard Schreider, eds., Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990); Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975); R. Laid Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce Waitke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980); Ernst Jenni, Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Mark E. Biddle, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997); Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974); Harold K. Moulton, ed., The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978); W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1981); Spiros Zodhiates, ed., Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (Chattanooga: AMG Publ., 1996).

[6] See my study on the hermeneutic challenge from the beginning and its ongoing implications for our theological task. “Did God Really Say That?” Theology in the Age of Reductionism (Theology Study, 2013). Online at http://4X12.org.

[7] Kevin J. Vanhoozer examines Christian diversity in both-and terms that affirms a hermeneutic based on the solas, and thereby highlights the underlying unity existing in plurality of interpretation. See Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).

[8] Christian Smith describes this existing condition in Christianity with stronger either-or terms in The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011). Peter J. Leithart calls for the death of Protestantism in order for the unity in the church to be restored, in The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).

[9] From Parade Magazine, “Cartoon Parade,” 12/8/2015.

[10] Craig G. Bartholomew and Heath A. Thomas, eds., A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 20.

[11] Graeme Goldsworthy advocates for such a hermeneutic in Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).

[12] For example, see Craig S. Keener, Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

[13] Anthony C. Thiselton provides an important overview of this history and makes helpful insights in the hermeneutic process for theology and practice, in The Holy Spirit—In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries and Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

[14] In advocating for theological interpretation of Scripture in order to compose biblical theology for the church, Craig C. Bartholomew and Heath A. Thomas, eds., address similar questions and issues in A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

[15] Barna Group, The State of Discipleship (The Navigators, 2015), 19,24.

[16] For examples of the diversity that evolved in early Christianity, see William Tabbernee, ed., Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

[17] For a discussion of this identity of Jesus, see Chris Keith and Larry W. Hurtado, eds., Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Histo    H          His    HHisistorical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

 

©2017 T. Dave Matsuo

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