The Gospel of Transformation
Distinguishing the Discipleship & Ecclesiology Integral to Salvation
Section I God’s Relational Context and Process to Transformation
The Theological Trajectory and Relational Path
to Whole Theology and Practice
The Lord bless you…turn his face to you
and give you the gospel of peace as wholeness.
Numbers 6:24-26, NIV
You show me the path of life, in your presence is fullness of joy.
The gospel did not emerge with the incarnation; the incarnation embodied the good news that had already emerged. As noted in the Reintroduction, the gospel emerged with the formation of covenant relationship together with Abraham to constitute the relational terms for God’s family (Gen 17:1). Yet, even then, this good news was already initiated before creation, as Paul later clarified in relational terms (Eph 1:3-6) that have been obscured or distorted by referential doctrine.
Our view of God commonly reflects a critical knowledge and understanding shaped by referential doctrine (notably deism or theism). This knowledge and understanding is critical because it both shapes our view of God’s activity since creation and forms the basis for the gospel. The main issue involved here is knowing and understanding God’s theological trajectory and relational path from the beginning. For deism, of course, God is distant, detached or no longer involved. The issue for theism varies with its re-forms, some of which in theology (notably in referential terms) and actual practice may similarly see God as distant, detached or no longer involved. Such theistic views also then need some epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction in order to get past human shaping and go beyond those limits of our knowledge and understanding.
What is critical for the gospel and its outcome is knowing and understanding the whole of God’s theological trajectory and relational path. This is irreplaceable for whole theology and practice. To know and understand God’s theological trajectory and relational path, however, requires us to return to God’s relational context and process and to engage the primacy of that context and process on God’s relational terms. The value of the good news is contingent on its defining context; and this news and outcome have depreciated in church history and the global church today due to primacy given to human contextualization and culture. The tension between God’s relational context and human context having primary determination is an ongoing conflict, which must be addressed ongoingly in the conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against its reduction. The dynamic of reductionism is inseparable from the human context and by necessity must be addressed nonnegotiably in order for the gospel to be distinguished whole and thereby for the human condition to be redeemed—that is, for the gospel’s relational outcome transforming persons and relationship to wholeness.
This study engages the primacy of God’s relational context and thus unfolds in ongoing conflict with reductionism; and this likely may also challenge, create tension or be in conflict with prevailing theology and practice. What unfolds then throughout this study must be on the basis of God’s relational terms so as to be distinguished from the primary shaping of human terms-contextualization.
When the focus is knowing and understanding God’s activity since creation, the source used for this focus is crucial for perceiving God’s actions. From the beginning this source has been problematic, as evident in the primordial garden when the epistemic field was narrowed down from God’s terms to human terms. This narrowed epistemic field put limits on what can be known and understood of God’s actions. Furthermore, the narrow field constrained the perceptual-interpretive lens from seeing the whole of God’s presence and involvement, and, at best, limited it to only fragmentary parts of God’s actions to perceive. As a result, this limited theological trajectory certainly affected the issue of the knowability of God, which in philosophical theology has reduced God to a negative theology—that is, perceiving God only in terms of what God is not or cannot be. In this reduced interpretive framework, any affirmations of God remain beyond human limits to know and understand. When the legitimate concern, however, is knowing and understanding the whole of God, there is only one valid source beyond our epistemic field that can have this reliable outcome beyond the limits of our existing knowledge and understanding.
Theology by definition should “take us” beyond human contextualization and its limits. Yet, the theological task often has been rendered to mere human contextualization, either by design (e.g. natural theology, liberalism) or by default (e.g. much of evangelicalism). Our perception of God and any related God-talk depend foremost on their primary source. Furthermore, our interpretation of the source must emerge from an interpretive framework compatible with that source in order for our knowledge and understanding of God to be congruent with this primary source. Of course, if our primary source remains from human contextualization, our interpretive framework will vary with the human context, thereby allowing for a wide range of interpretations and theologies similar to multiculturalism or even pluralism. How we do theology determines if indeed our theology is beyond human contextualization. The wording “takes us” can be misleading or confusing for theology. If our theology is the outcome formulated from human ideas, methodology and/or even experiences “taking us” to God, then our theology emerges (even unintentionally and unknowingly) primarily from human contextualization determining our interpretive framework—and what we pay attention to and ignore—that subsequently shapes our theological reflections and conclusions.
Theism, for example, has a theological trajectory of God distinct from that of deism. Yet, the source defining theism’s trajectory could essentially be the same as deism’s source—that is, human contextualization and its limits—but with different assumptions about what God is doing, can or will do. In other words, what our theological trajectory for God is may or may not be compatible with God’s revelation, much less distinguish the whole of God’s presence and involvement since creation.
If our source has been established from beyond human contextualization, then the following critical issue becomes unavoidable for compatibility of our interpretive framework and congruence of our knowledge and understanding: On what basis and terms did the primary source beyond human contextualization emerge in the human context? Two main responses to this critical issue have, knowingly or unknowingly, occupied theology, one prevailing and the other elusive: the prevailing, (1) God emerged in human context primarily on a quantitative basis in referential terms to dispense information about God and life; and the elusive, (2) God emerged distinctly on a quantitative basis yet is distinguished primarily on a qualitative level in relational terms for Face-to-face communication in order for us to know the whole of God in the primacy of intimate relationship together.
The first response prevails because the biblical text as interpreted in referential language is the common interpretive framework from human contextualization; and this reflects the influence of reductionism that has narrowed down the epistemic field for the sake of certainty, if not convenience. The referentialization of the Word specifically narrows down the embodied Word to referential knowledge and information about what God does (e.g. delivers, works miracles, teaches, serves) and has (e.g. attributes, truth, power and other resources), and likely aggregates these parts of God in a narrow unity for greater explanation and certainty of that information about God (e.g. in systematic theologies or explanatory theories).
Theological reflections and conclusions emerging from the limits of a common or prevailing interpretive framework do not and cannot distinguish the qualitative whole of God (cf. Lk 10:21; Mt 21:24-26). For the God beyond human contextualization to enter and connect with the human context required an ‘improbable theological trajectory’ that is irreducible to anything less and any substitutes from human shaping and construction. Most notably in God’s revelation, God’s improbable theological trajectory is signified in God’s definitive blessing that is illuminated by the face of God (Num 6:24-26). This was the trajectory of God who communicated directly with Moses in face-to-face relationship together (Ex 33:11; Num 12:6-8), and who engaged Jacob intimately (Gen 32:26-30). This was the face whom the ancient poets sought, called on and illuminated (Ps 4:6; 27:8; 31:16; 44:3; 51:9; 67:1; 80:3,7,19; 105:4; 119:135). This is the irreducible face of God that illuminates unmistakably the now distinguished theological trajectory of God’s ongoing presence and involvement for relationship together.
The theological trajectory of God was not distant, detached or simply uninvolved. As improbable as it was, God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement are illuminated in the human context but not by human contextualization and terms (even culturally). Nevertheless, throughout the history of God’s people, the vulnerable presence and relational involvement of God’s theological trajectory has been difficult to receive and respond to, much less to know and understand as the outcome of relationship together. Why so, when God has acted openly and directly?
There is a dynamic of creation that must be understood in relation to God’s theological trajectory. The human context created by God is not a closed context or system. This distinct context was created with the integrity to be whole, that is, open to the improbable and the whole of God, as well as with the freedom to receive other, even contrary, influences—namely from reductionism that narrows down the human context, closing the system and consequently separating from the improbable of God and being whole. This reduction and separation emerged distinctly in the primordial garden with the challenging question “Did God really say that?” (Gen 3:1, NIV)—an ongoing challenge in the theological task that remains basically uncontested. This critical and pivotal challenge narrowed the epistemic field and closed it to the improbable and God’s revelation, though this may not be apparent in referential terms. Up to that defining moment in human history, the Creator had not closed the human context to only God’s determination and control (an issue for predestination, election, etc.) but rather allowed the human context to have freedom to be reduced from wholeness and make reductionist choices. This fragmentation continues in the history of human choices vis-à-vis God’s revelation (cf. Jn 5:39-40; Lk 10:21)—notably emerging with rationalism, science and modernism. In each example, the human context was reduced essentially to a closed context/system, thereby narrowing the epistemic field for greater certainty of knowledge and explanation. The consequence was increasing separation from the improbable and God’s revelation, and not surprisingly further establishing the human person as the arbiter of knowledge, along with shaping the truth and God while constructing them on human terms—all of which were only intensified by the Enlightenment. This human shaping and construction have been ongoing issues in the theological task to one extent or another—the critical fragmentation from reductionism that has been ignored, not taken seriously or just not understood. These are variations all emerging from the uncontested challenge “Did God really say [reveal] that?”
If God’s theological trajectory never entered our universe and God never really said these words in the primordial garden, then the human context is free to shape its knowledge and be the primary determinant of its understanding of God, without accountability of itself to God. For example, as in “You will not die…your eyes will be opened…will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5). If God does speak, share and self-disclose—that is, communicate in relational terms, not referential—then theology, the theological task and all who engage in it must by its basic nature account for God’s communication in order to have the theological significance that distinguishes the whole of God, not the fragmentation of God from reductionism in human contextualization. The latter is the prevailing conclusion from the referentialization of the Word, that is, of God’s revelation that narrows down the epistemic field of God’s communication to generalized terms without its full relational significance.
The whole of God’s theological trajectory points to three major issues unavoidable for all practice: (1) the integrity of the person (or Self) presented to others, (2) the quality of that person’s communication to those others in that context, and interrelated, (3) the depth level of relationship this person engages with the others during the communication process. Theism is clearly distinguished from deism only to the extent that God’s theological trajectory (1) presents the whole of God and not mere parts or fragments of God, (2) communicates the whole of who, what and how God is and not merely referential information about God, and inseparably (3) engages the whole of God’s vulnerable presentation and relational communication in the depth of intimate relationship together—all enacted by the integral process of nothing less and no substitutes. If God is not distinguished by this theological trajectory, then our view of theism cannot have the significance necessary to be distinguished from seeing God as distant or uninvolved.
Since the primordial garden God’s theological trajectory has been illuminated by the face of God to “give you the gospel of peace as wholeness”—that is to say in God’s relational terms, “bring the change necessary for new relationship together in wholeness” (the siym and shalom of God’s definitive blessing, Num 6:24-26). This peace may appear incongruent with all the conflict generated by God in the OT. Rather than a personal and relational God, one’s view may perceive an authoritarian God, even a totalitarian God, who renders human persons into submission or annihilation. The assumption in this view, however, not only revises God’s theological trajectory constituting God’s covenant of love (Dt 7:7-9) but also distorts shalom by assuming only a ‘negative peace’ (the absence of conflict). Negative peace is not whole but, at best, is only fragmentary and easily becomes a reductionist substitute (e.g. epistemological illusion or ontological simulation)—as emerged from ancient Greek philosophy, and which can be found in many irenic practices today.
Shalom is determined only by wholeness, that is, the wholeness God created in the beginning and whose theological trajectory seeks to restore from the beginning. This wholeness can only be understood in relational terms (as siym defines), which unavoidably requires the necessary conflict with any and all reductionism in order for the relational outcome of wholeness. This is the conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against its reduction that Jesus enacted further with a sword (not for negative peace, Mt 10:34) and that Paul extended with the same sword (Eph 6:15-17).
Moreover, in this conflict process God’s theological trajectory reveals integrally who, what and how God is—that is, the righteousness (sedaqah) of God (cf. Ps 145:17). The righteous God from beyond the universe becomes vulnerably present and relationally involved in the human context to reveal the whole of who, what and how God is. Sedaqah is a legal term used in the context of relationships, thus signifying that the whole of God (as presented) can be counted on (as communicated) in relationship together (as intimately involved to complete the three issues for practice).
Righteousness needs to be understood as the relational dynamic that fulfills God’s relational terms for covenant relationship together (as Jesus illuminated, Mt 5:20ff). As made imperative to Abraham, “be relationally involved with me and be tāmiym” (Gen 17:1). ‘Blameless’ is the usual rendering of tāmiym, which is likely narrowed down to behavior without ethical and moral sin—as in ethical perfection and moral purity. On this limited basis, many consider Abraham to be blameless and thus misconstrue “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3, cf. Job 12:4; Phil 2:14-15). However, in God’s relational terms tāmiym is to be whole and is integral to righteousness to determine in practice the whole of who, what and how a person is (as presented and communicates to others), and therefore can be counted on in the full depth of relationship together to be nothing less and no substitutes for that person. Being righteous then is being accountable for one’s whole person in relationship together with God and with others—not about being perfect but being whole (cf. teleios in Mt 5:48). Therefore, righteousness is both integral to wholeness together and imperative for the three-fold practice of reciprocal relationship together. For the righteous God, this relational dynamic is who, what and how the whole of God’s theological trajectory is distinguished (as the psalmist declared, Ps 145:17). And new relationship together in wholeness (as blessed from the beginning) is the relational outcome of the righteous God’s theological trajectory. All this can only be constituted whole in the relational context and process of God’s relational response of grace by God’s relational terms, which also constitutes the whole gospel (the gospel of transformation to wholeness).
As the whole and righteous God’s theological trajectory was illuminated by the face of God only for face-to-face relationship together, the good news of God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement unfolded completely in the embodied face of Jesus (as Paul made definitive, 2 Cor 4:3-6). This face turned to us not only in an improbable trajectory but in a unique relational path.
The qualitative face of God illuminates God’s theological trajectory, and this reveals to many a personal and even relational God. A theistic view of a personal and relational God is certainly assuring of God’s presence and perhaps reassuring of God’s involvement. Yet, such a view is insufficient to distinguish the whole of God revealed to us, and thus inadequate for whole theology and practice. A personal and relational God of theism can be simply presented in referential terms, which then only transmits information about God to us. As useful as this information might be considered, it has been narrowed down to a transmission process without the qualitative communication unique to the whole of God, who is both presented to us whole-ly (not totally) and involved intimately in the depth of relationship with us. Without the whole of who is presented and without the depth of relational involvement engaged by God, any information thought to be received from God can only be limited (e.g. to natural revelation and theology) or will be different, distorted, in contrast or conflict with God’s whole revelation.
Therefore, to distinguish the whole of God revealed to us requires the integrated relational dynamic of God’s improbable theological trajectory with the whole of God’s relational path, which now further penetrates intrusively into our human contexts. This pivotal juncture is when God’s revelation not only takes us beyond the limits of our knowledge and understanding but also deeper than we may feel secure enough to go. To distinguish the whole of God cannot emerge from a referential outcome of transmitted information but, by the nature of God’s relational context and process, only emerges from the relational outcome of God’s improbable theological trajectory inseparably with God’s intrusive relational path. How compatible are our theology and practice to God’s theological trajectory and how congruent are they with the relational path of God?
The ancient poet highlights God’s revelation, not in referential terms but relational terms: “You show us the path of life, in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Ps 16:11)—relational words referred to as David’s when Peter proclaimed the gospel (Acts 2:25-28). That path of life was what and who emerged from the relational context and process of the whole of God’s theological trajectory in order to be vulnerably present and relationally involved. When these words are taken out of this relational context and process, they become just referential words—words with whatever distinction yet no longer composing the relational path of God’s presence and involvement. And this relational path penetrates beyond even David’s knowledge and understanding; that is to say, further than anyone expected (e.g. in messianic terms) and deeper than anyone could have imagined (e.g. as Peter previously desired on his terms). There is an irreplaceable distinction between the breadth and depth of God’s relational terms and the limits of referential terms.
If our theology and practice are the outcome of relational connection and involvement with God’s communicative action in self-disclosure—not merely from an authoritative Word or an inerrant Bible—then we are contextualized beyond human contextualization to the further and deeper contextualization in the now-accessible relational context and process of the whole of God. That is, this distinguished contextualization is the trinitarian relational context and process into which the whole of Jesus—the embodied communicative Word who vulnerably came to us to “take us” experientially to the whole of God—not only intimately contextualizes us but whole-ly constitutes us in relationship together. This relational dynamic involves us in the distinct integrating process of our human context converging with the primacy of God’s relational context and process (as Jesus distinguished for his disciples, Jn 17:13-17), which I define as reciprocating contextualization. The significance of this gospel cannot emerge whole in referential terms but only in the relational terms initiated by God’s improbable theological trajectory and determined by the embodied Word’s intrusive relational path. Anything less and any substitute for the whole gospel neither distinguishes God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path, nor has significance for the human condition in our need to be made whole.
This is the theology that “takes us” beyond human contextualization and the human shaping of the gospel to the irreducible truth (read whole) of the gospel. Such truth has been problematic not only to establish with significance (not the same as certainty) but also to understand without reduction. The gospel cannot be distinguished from human shaping if truth is perceived through a reductionist lens. This is when human reason becomes primary over God’s revelation. Biblical truth is distinguished whole as the embodied Truth (Jn 14:6) in qualitative relational terms, not referential terms; and the embodied Truth cannot be reduced both in form and in substance. For example, when the Truth takes on propositional form, it tends to be disembodied by reducing truth to something we possess, subscribe to and live by as foundational beliefs having certainty. Such truth becomes both disembodied and de-relationalized because it is functionally no longer about the Person who is vulnerably present and intimately involved with us—that is, with those who must by the nature of God’s embodied self-disclosure respond reciprocally in likeness for relationship together. The embodied Truth is only for relationship and thus also cannot be de-relationalized. The relational outcome is to be contextualized and constituted in the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love (as in Jn 8:31-36; 17:21-26). Anything less or any substitutes of this qualitative relational reality are reductionism of the Truth limited to human contextualization and shaping, consequently unable to “take us” beyond our limits epistemologically, theologically, ontologically and relationally.
The incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s communicative action. In relational terms, the incarnation does not consist of a series of events culminating at the cross. Moreover, the incarnation did not merely locate God in the human context. What unfolds in the incarnation is conjointly the qualitative and quantitative depth of the whole of God’s relational presence and involvement, which cannot be reduced merely to events and/or to mere propositional truths and doctrines (e.g. atonement). The relational context and process of God are distinguished in the whole life and practice of Jesus; his intrusive relational path established the relational context and process of the triune God in order to know and experience the whole of God in intimate relationship together—distinguished in Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26). Without this contextualization that Jesus composed in the human context, any other contextualization (e.g. in missiology and theology) would only be reductions epistemologically and ontologically of God’s self-disclosure. The absence of the distinct integrating dynamic of reciprocating contextualization (between God’s and human) results effectively in both disembodying the Word made flesh to referential terms and failing to grasp the whole qualitative-relational significance of the gospel, reflecting incomplete Christology. Any incomplete Christology is insufficient to account for Jesus’ whole person and thus the whole of God’s presence and involvement (cf. 2 Cor 4:6). This is an urgent issue in theology today that reflects the influence of reductionism of both God and the human person. And any gospel based on such a theology is not whole, at best proclaiming only a truncated soteriology that is inadequate to make the human condition whole—without the relational significance to warrant a claim of compelling good news. We therefore urgently need to address our assumptions of the incarnation that sustain our theology and practice.
Perhaps the summary text most widely used for the incarnation is “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14, NIV). The Word didn’t just appear and “lived among us” (NRSV) in the human context but “dwelled” (skenoo) with us for the sole purpose of relationship together (Jn 1:10-13). The latter half of this incarnation text has received neither the full significance nor the relational implications that must by necessity come with the incarnation. Merely referencing the incarnation’s historical reality has become sufficient in much theology and practice. Jesus, however, did not allow his life and practice to be narrowed down (Jn 1:4-5), and he jolted such a religious status quo to awaken from a reduced perception of the gospel. A reduced gospel is shrouded in theological fog that makes practice susceptible to epistemological illusion and ontological simulation. By penetrating this fog the relational path of the whole of Jesus intrudes to embody the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction needed for whole theology and practice (Jn 1:18). An incomplete Christology neither penetrates the theological fog nor engages an intrusive relational path.
The most likely summary text for the gospel has been John 3:16. Here again, referential terms have prevailed in our understanding of the whole of God’s depth of relational involvement (“so loved the world”) and of the nature of God’s relational response of grace (“he gave”), including the qualitative significance of our reciprocal relational response (“who believes in him”) and what distinguishes its relational outcome (“eternal life”) as made definitive by Jesus in clear relational terms (Jn 17:3). From the beginning, God’s grace always engaged God’s face (grace with face, as in Num 6:25; Ps 67:1), and God’s love always involved face to face engagement. The relational outcome of God’s face is face-to-face reciprocal relationship together, the whole of which involves knowing and understanding God face to face (eternal life). Anything less and any substitutes of both God and our person are reductionism, which devalues the gospel and fragments its outcome.
Whenever we do not pay attention to the competing influence of reductionism from human contextualization, we easily become subject to diminished ontology and function (as in reduced theological anthropology). With the lack or absence of a theological anthropology that is whole-ly compatible with Jesus’ ontology and function in reciprocal relationship together, our ontology and function cannot be distinguished from our human context and thus are subject to wide interpretation or determination. Such results would be compatible with postmodernism and its hermeneutic of suspicion but incompatible with the framework necessary to address a template imposing its narrow view epistemologically, hermeneutically, and theologically that constrains ontology and function. This would be insufficient for the hermeneutic of suspicion Jesus initiated to challenge our assumptions of theological anthropology (e.g. Lk 5:33-39). He continues to confront this condition in its need for redemptive change and also jolts the religious community in likely its most implicit condition limiting or precluding this change: the status quo and its underlying epistemological illusion of confidence or certainty and its interrelated ontological simulation of stability and permanence.
The above summary text for the gospel was added to the context of a pivotal interaction Jesus had that integrally jolted the religious status quo and embodied the intrusive relational path necessary to constitute the gospel of transformation—neither a gospel extended from tradition nor a gospel of re-formation. He confronted this status quo and challenged its interpretive lens. This was necessary because a gospel composed of anything less and any substitutes could not be compatible with God’s theological trajectory and congruent with the whole of God’s relational path. This pivotal interaction unfolded with Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-15).
Nicodemus represented his religious tradition and the effects of being embedded in the status quo of his religious community. Yet, Nicodemus apparently was dissatisfied with his knowledge and perhaps unsettled in his messianic expectations, such that he ventured out of this status quo to explore expanding his epistemic field to query Jesus (Jn 3:1-15). This epistemic process is critical to understand in this familiar encounter because it demonstrates the template imposed by the status quo to constrain any change beyond its conformity. No doubt Nicodemus knew that Jesus was a dissonant voice to the status quo, nevertheless he encountered much more than his lens, limited by the status quo, could understand epistemologically, hermeneutically and theologically. This implicit condition creates a hermeneutic impasse that makes it difficult to recognize the new, much less embrace it.
In order to establish this interaction’s larger context, it seems reasonable to assume some matters about Nicodemus. He came to Jesus that night for answers to questions which were framed by his Jewish identity, by his involvement as a ruling member (Sanhedrin) in Israel (v.1) and as one of her teachers (v.10); thus he came with the expectations associated with their Scripture, which were shaped likely by an interpretive framework from Second Temple Judaism and no doubt by a perceptual lens sociopolitically sensitized to Roman rule. While Nicodemus came to Jesus as an individual person, his query was as the collective identity of Israel and the corporate life and practice of a Pharisee’s (of whatever variation) Judaism.
Apparently stimulated by Jesus’ actions and perhaps stirred by the presence of “a teacher who has come from God” (v.2), he approached Jesus respectfully, if not with some humility. Yet, he very likely engaged Jesus with the framework and lens which Jesus critiqued elsewhere of “the wise and the intelligent” (Lk 10:21). This would be crucial for Nicodemus. Though his position represented the educated elite of Israel, his own posture was about to be humbled and changed.
Jesus understood Nicodemus’ query and anticipated his questions that certainly related to God’s promises for Israel’s deliverance (salvation), the Messiah and God’s kingship in the Mediterranean world. Therefore, Jesus immediately focused on “the kingdom of God” (v.3), the OT eschatological hope, about which Nicodemus was probably more concerned for the present than the future. Yet, the whole of God’s kingship and sovereign rule is integral to the OT, and thus a primary focus of Nicodemus’ query, however provincial. And he was concerned about it strongly enough (and perhaps inwardly conflicted) to make himself vulnerable to initiate this interaction with Jesus; his query appeared genuine and for more than referential information or didactic reasons. This suggests that Nicodemus stepped out of his probability box to pursue the more of ‘eternity substance’ in his heart.
The conversation that followed evidences a purpose in John’s Gospel to clearly distinguish and make definitive the whole of God’s thematic relational action of grace in response to the human condition—first, in continuation to Israel and then to the nations—that is, to unfold the history of God’s salvation. Yet, the language communicated in this conversation became an issue, and this proved to be revealing not only for Nicodemus but for all he represented—as well as for all who would follow, even through a postmodern period.
The notion of membership and participation in the kingdom of God being contingent on a concept “born again” was taken incredulously by this “wise and learned” leader, whose sophisticated reason was unable to process and explain in referential terms from a narrowed epistemic field. “How can” (dynamai, v.4) signifies the limits of the probable. Then to be told “you [pl] must by its nature” (dei, v.7, not opheilo’s obligation or compulsion), as if to address all Jews, was beyond the grasp of his reason. Dei points to the nature of the improbable. Even after Jesus made definitive (“I tell you the truth”) gennao anothen as “born from above,” that is “born of the Spirit” (ek, indicating the primary, direct source, vv.5,8), Nicodemus was still unable to process the words of Jesus; the status quo continued to prevail (“How can,” v.9). Why? This brings us back to the interpretive framework and perceptual lens of “the wise and the intelligent.” He was unable to understand Jesus’ language because the words were heard from an insufficient interpretive framework limited to the prevailing assumptions of his knowledge and an inadequate perceptual lens constrained in focus only on the secondary in referential terms.
Jesus exposed this as the conversation continued: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand the improbable and the primary?” (v.10). How is Jesus’ question connected to Nicodemus’ question since “born again” (or from above) is not in the Hebrew Scriptures? With this rhetorical question, Jesus implied that from a valid OT perspective (namely “the covenant of love,” Dt 7:7-9) the thematic relational action of God’s covenant relationship would be understood; moreover, the relational outworking of siym for shalom from the LORD’s definitive blessing would be expected and apparent. Jesus was vulnerably extending this covenant relationship of love in wholeness together directly to Nicodemus (and, by implication, to all Jews) by communicating openly what he, himself, knew intimately by witnessing as a participant (martyreo, not merely by observation, v.11) in the life of God (v.13, cf. Jn 1:18). His communication was not with ethereal (epouranios) language but discourse (lego) in the human context (epigeios, v.12), yet with relational language. It was the qualitative nature of this relational language that Nicodemus was unable to understand with his perceptual-interpretive framework (cf. Jn 8:43). Nicodemus remained incompatible for relational connection, unable to engage Jesus with his conventional epistemic process.
The movement of God’s thematic relational action in the covenant relationship of love had been consistently reduced to quantitative situations and circumstances throughout Israel’s history—despite the fact that “the Lord set his heart on you and chose you” was not on a quantitative basis (Dt 7:7). In functional similarity, Nicodemus paid attention to the quantitative limits of human biology in probability terms reducing the person while ignoring the qualitative primacy of whole human ontology. Thus he demonstrated the same framework focused on the quantitative situations and circumstances probable for the covenant, whereas Jesus focused on the ontology of the whole person and the qualitative relationship signifying the covenant of love and wholeness together. The establishment of nation and national identity formation were the prevailing quantitative expectations of any messianic hope in the kingdom, with which, most certainly, Nicodemus came to Jesus that night. In contrast and conflict, Jesus focused on the whole persons (from inner out) necessary in new covenant relationship in wholeness to constitute the kingdom in its innermost—nothing less and no substitutes, which then required transformation (“born from above”) and not re-formation (shaped from below).
The prevailing perceptual-interpretive framework that Nicodemus represented made some critical assumptions about the kingdom besides the quantitative situations and circumstances probable for the covenant. The two most critical assumptions were relational barriers to understanding Jesus’ relational language:
In this latter relational disclosure, would-be followers came to a similar conclusion as Nicodemus: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52) and “This improbable is difficult; who can accept it?” (6:60), compared with Nicodemus’ “How can this improbable be?” (3:9)—all of which reflected these assumptions in quantitative referential terms from outer in that limited both their knowledge to the probable and their learning of the improbable. This is the implicit condition of the status quo, even as exists today in modern science.
What Nicodemus and the others were predisposed to by their perceptual-interpretive framework, and were embedded in as their practice and expectation within the limits of the status quo, was essentially a salvation of the old—a quantitative outcome of reductionism. What Jesus vulnerably engaged them both in and with went beyond the status quo to the salvation of the new—the qualitative relational outcome of the whole of God’s relational response to not only Israel but to the human condition. God’s thematic relational work of grace embodied in Jesus for covenant relationship of love constituted the new covenant from inner out, the relationship of which was now directly and intimately involved together with the Trinity in the innermost to be the whole of God’s family (kingdom of those born of the Spirit, of the Father, of the Son). This is the whole gospel vulnerably disclosed by Jesus in relational language which jolted the status quo of the old represented in Nicodemus that night.
Nicodemus came to Jesus as “the wise and learned” in the old. He was now humbled by Jesus’ intrusion on his status quo condition with the improbable “born again or from above,” and by the necessary transition from old to new Jesus distinguished unmistakably in its relational language. Though that term itself is not in the OT, it is clearly evident that “a new heart” and the Spirit’s work for “a new covenant” and Israel’s kingdom (Eze 36:26-27, Jer 31:31-34) would not be unfamiliar to Nicodemus as Israel’s teacher. The meaning of Jesus’ relational message to Nicodemus (and the status quo) defined the needed transformation of human ontology for this new covenant relationship of love, which for Nicodemus functionally involved the transition from “the wise and learned of the old” to the qualitative framework and function of “the little children of the new” (cf. Mt 18:3-4)—undoubtedly a jolt to Nicodemus and the status quo. Yet, apparently, Nicodemus humbly transitioned to “a little child of the new”: first, to receive the whole of God’s self-disclosure embodied in whole by Jesus with a new perceptual-interpretive framework (Lk 10:21, cf. his vulnerability in Jn 7:50-52), then to relationally respond to God in qualitative involvement (cf. Lk 18:17, and his involvement in Jn 19:39-42).
John’s Gospel clearly illuminates the relational process of salvation from old to new in Nicodemus and what he is saved to. In this relational context, the evangelist almost seems to give a metaphorical sense to Nicodemus. Certainly, for all who follow, it is the whole relational context and process, necessary by the nature of salvation, to which to respond and by which to be involved in order to belong to the whole of God’s family. Unfortunately, we never hear if Nicodemus became one of the teachers of the old covenant and new, who relationally experienced following Jesus in the relational progression to the family (kingdom) of God, as Jesus defined for such teachers (Mt 13:52).
Jesus made it imperative for Nicodemus and the status quo that the redemptive change to be born from above was the only recourse available to be freed from the constraints imposed by any templates from tradition, the status quo and the old prevailing in human contextualization—that which constrains, shapes or conforms the new’s presence to the limits of the old, as Peter did (Acts 10:13-15, cf. Jn 15:18-20). This is where epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction are needed, both for Nicodemus as well as for us today. Jesus was not pointing to a new belief system requiring Nicodemus’ conversion. Nicodemus could not grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words because his quantitative lens (phroneo) focused on the person from outer in (“How can anyone be born after…?”), and because his reductionist interpretive framework (phronema) was unable to piece together (synesis) his own Scripture (e.g. “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart,” Dt 30:6). This evidenced that Nicodemus was too embedded in the status quo influenced by reductionism to understand—“How can these things be?”—even after Jesus said, “Do not be astonished…” which implied that a teacher of God’s Word would comprehend God’s whole if not fragmented by reductionism. Now the embodied Word from God (whom Nicodemus initially came to engage) made conclusive the epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction essential for Nicodemus, Peter, Paul, Jews or Gentiles, for all persons: be made whole from above or continue in reductionism. Accordingly, John 3:16 can only be the summary text for the gospel if it distinguishes the gospel of transformation to wholeness.
There is a vital distinction that needs to be made to distinguish the gospel emerging from Jesus’ relational path: the distinction between ‘transformation from above’ and ‘re-formation from below’. If this distinction cannot be clearly made, then neither can the gospel of transformation be distinguished, nor can our theology and practice be distinguished on Jesus’ intrusive relational path and thus from the religious status quo. In Paul’s fight for the whole gospel and against its reduction, he made this distinction imperative for the ongoing redemptive change necessary to turn from reductionism to wholeness (Rom 12:1-2). The issue involved in this distinction was, for example, either conforming to the re-forms of the religious status quo (i.e. outward change and practice), or be transformed as a whole person (i.e. change and practice from inner out). The whole gospel is only distinguished by the transformation to wholeness.
The face of God’s presence and involvement has intruded unmistakably. While we may avoid making our person vulnerable to the Word’s intrusive relational path, the Word still penetrates to the heart of the whole person from inner out (Lk 2:34-35; Heb 4:12). The presence of God’s intimate relational involvement is inescapable and must be accounted for in our theology and practice—and relationally accountable notably in our ontology and function as persons.
The incarnation embodied the whole of Jesus whose ‘who, what and how’ constituted the gospel of transformation to wholeness. The face of God illuminated the whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory and the face of Jesus penetrated the depths of the human context with God’s intrusive relational path. This face brought the change necessary (as in siym) for new relationship together in wholeness (as in shalom), just as the face of God blessed from the beginning (Num 6:24-26). This theological trajectory and relational path compose God’s relational context and process in response to our human condition. Thus, God’s trajectory and path are not subject to revision by the human context or to renegotiation in human terms. Any re-forms of the gospel of transformation, therefore, are not on the same theological trajectory as God, and any re-forms of its outcome to wholeness are not on the same relational path as Jesus.
This intrusive face also embodied Paul’s defining encounter with the gospel on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-6)—an encounter beyond both a Christophany and the referentialization of the gospel, which unfolded for Paul in ongoing face-to-face relationship together. As a Jew, Paul now received the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction necessary to perceive the whole of God’s blessing from the beginning. Integrally, this was Paul’s pivotal experience with the gospel that transformed him from inner out as a person and as still a Jew (not a converted Jew, Rom 2:28-29), and that he distinguished as the gospel of transformation clearly distinct from any reductions, human shaping and re-forms of the whole gospel (Gal 1:6-7, 11-12; 2 Cor 3:16-18; 4:2-6; Eph 4:20-24). Yet, the gospel of transformation to wholeness did not unfold with Paul until he emerged from the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of the assumptions defining his theology and determining his practice (e.g., Phil 3:4-6). Whole theology and practice did not emerge from Paul until he turned from reduced and convergence models of the gospel (Gal 1:11-14) to a whole model (Col 1:15-21; 2:9-10). In other words, in spite of the deep roots of Paul’s religious identity (Phil 3:4-6) and his passion to serve his monotheistic God (Acts 26:9-11), Paul was not on the same theological trajectory and relational path as the whole of God. Rather, Paul was incompatible with the theological trajectory of whole monotheism and incongruent with the relational path of the face of God.
Whole theology and practice, as distinguished by God alone, does not emerge from referential terms but involves engaging the relational context and process of God’s relational response of grace enacted just on God’s relational terms. In the beginning, God created human persons to be whole and “not good to be apart” (Gen 2:18) from this whole in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole and holy God (Gen 1:27). From the beginning, the whole of God (the Trinity in whole monotheism) has responded in the relational dynamic of grace to bring the change necessary (siym) to transform our human condition to new relationship together in wholeness (shalom). This relational outcome unfolds only to the extent that God’s relational response is integrally (1) received by us compatibly in God’s improbable theological trajectory and congruently in the Word’s intrusive relational path, and (2) reciprocally responded to by us whole-ly in God’s relational terms and not fragmentary referential terms (often confused as faith).
This seems reasonable enough to engage our response of faith—that is, as faith has been re-formed in referential terms—yet often appears as insufficient basis for our reason to be involved in the depth of relational terms. The tension reason creates for faith in the context of relationship should not be ignored—turning some to fideism. The resulting relational distance, impasse or barrier becomes a formidable issue of incompatibility and incongruence that is insurmountable if not addressed directly and openly in relationship—as witnessed by various persons with Jesus (noted previously and expanded on throughout this study).
For example, the Enlightenment signified the primacy of reason that has been both a threat and challenge for the church—a threat to old ways of thinking and a prevailing worldview (as Copernicus challenged Ptolemy thus threatening the church), and a challenge of new ideas and new worldview, though not always signifying ‘better’ (as in the shift from theocentrism to anthropocentrism). In the new age of reason, the shape of faith was narrowed down, notably by John Locke who believed that human reason should be the final determinant for what we believe (in religion, ethics and politics).
While Luther and Calvin earlier turned to the Bible for the primary authority and content of faith, their interpretive framework was primarily referential and thus limited in focus to referential terms of doctrine. In spite of the Protestant principle of the authority of Scripture alone, the Reformers and their followers interpreted God’s revelation apart from the relational terms composing the whole of God’s theological trajectory and relational path. Here again, the referentialization of the Word led to further fragmentation of beliefs among and even within churches. This was evidenced in the so-called Age of Confessionalism (late 16th century to late 17th century), when different groups became increasingly concerned with defining their own beliefs, or confessions, in contrast to everyone else’s—views/doctrines on baptism as a specific example. This narrowed-down process evolved into a hardening of orthodoxy (templates for conformity, if you wish) within churches, which also caused splits against what was defined as official doctrine (e.g. Arminius’ split with the Reformed Church over predestination). Pietism also raised suspicion of doctrinal orthodoxy, without necessarily returning to the whole of Jesus’ intrusive relational path to define the primacy of relationship with God and to determine its spiritual formation. Later, in the twentieth century, as fundamentalism resisted modernism, there emerged from the use of a modern lens by neoevangelicals (notably Carl Henry) an effort to establish the certainty of faith and its source (an inerrant Bible)—re-forms still shaping theology and practice today.
What we need to learn to recognize from this history are the illusion (not illuminated) and simulation (not substantive and real) that not unexpectedly emerge from human reason, just as were set into motion in the primordial garden. All doctrines would benefit from a hermeneutic of suspicion—not primarily to expose templates for conformity, though that may be necessary—in order to account for their compatibility with the theological trajectory of the whole of God (as Subject and not mere Object) and their congruence with the relational path of the face of God (both vulnerable and intimately involved). Where beliefs and related doctrines have veered off this distinguished trajectory and path, they need epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction—though not by human reason as (Locke’s) final arbiter but by God’s revelation communicated only in relational terms, and not transmitted in referential terms (even if inerrant).
The tension between the primacy of human reason and God’s revelation is ongoing. The position either assumes will determine our model of the gospel and the outcome we can expect for our theology and practice. As prevailed in the past and prevails today—notably from but not only since the Enlightenment—the need for certainty in our knowledge and conclusions is understandable, yet its pursuit must be understood as a need promoted by human contextualization in a narrowed epistemic field. On this basis, whoever speaks with authority warrants paying attention to—specifically the scholarship of “the wise and learned.” The matter of authority has been foundational in theology, yet what has emerged from the foundation of authority has not distinguished the whole of God and God’s whole for the human condition. This lack or gap in theology is not an authority issue. Though authority is a crucial issue, it is not the most critical for God’s revelation. Most critical is God’s relational grace, and the fact or not of God’s initiative, presence and involvement such that the whole of God can be known, understood and experienced in relationship together without human speculation, shaping or construction. This relational dynamic of grace is the functional difference between deism and theism, and the necessary basis and ongoing base for the theological task and theological education. Theology and its practice can only be a relational outcome of engagement in the relational epistemic process initiated by God’s grace; and this is the only engagement and outcome that have relational significance to God and, on this relational basis, that can be whole. Even spiritual disciplines and formation need deeper involvement in the dynamic of God’s relational grace in order for the relational connection to know, understand and experience God in relationship together—a depth precluding epistemological illusion and ontological simulation.
The critical necessity in the epistemic process and theological task is for God’s relational grace to prevail. For God’s grace to prevail, it must by its relational nature (dei, not by obligation, opheilo) be the ongoing experiential reality that defines and determines our person and relationships in all our “weakness” (cf. Paul, 2 Cor 12:9), situations and circumstances in the human context, thereby being responsive to and involved with God on God’s terms to experience, know and understand his vulnerable presence and intimate involvement—the relational context and process of God’s grace. This relational outcome emerges only from ongoing involvement with the Spirit in the relational dynamic of reciprocating contextualization—the interrelated interaction between God’s context and our human context (1 Cor 2:9-13). Anything less and any substitutes of this relational process shift it to our terms of human shaping and construction.
Contrary to common perception, grace is not action by God for unilateral relationship—an implied position of some Reformed perspectives. Grace only creates the opportunity for reciprocal relationship together, for which the recipients of relational grace are responsible and thus accountable; and this is why God has gotten angry and would “hide my face from them” (Dt 31:17), and why the face of Jesus wept (Lk 19:41; Mt 23:37) and the Spirit grieved (Eph 4:30). Faith in the transcendent and holy God is possible only by the relational grace of the righteous God, who is vulnerably present and intimately involved only for the purpose of whole relationship together. Faith is the relational response that must (dei not opheilo) be compatible with the transcendent and holy God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement in order for the relationship to be compatible (only on God’s terms) and whole (nothing less and no substitutes). This is the inseparable challenge and accountability for both theology and practice.
The whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition unfolds in a theological trajectory and along a relational path that converge in the narrow gate and road of the incarnation—not to be confused with a template of doctrine, yet that cannot be divided or fragmented to “widen” the gate and road, for example, by negotiation to human terms. By the narrow gate and road, the improbable embodied in whole by Jesus was vulnerably disclosed (beyond apokalypto) in the distinguished relational context and process (to phaneroo) that fulfilled God’s definitive blessing to his family to enact siym for shalom, that is, to bring the change necessary for new relationship together in wholeness (Num 6:24-26). The relational context and process distinguishing the Face of God involved the relational work of Face-to-face relationship that intruded on the probable (the common) and challenged them with the improbable (the Uncommon). For whole understanding—our indispensable and irreplaceable synesis (as Paul defined, Col 2:2-4)—it is necessary to follow this theological trajectory and relational path.
Crucial to understanding the theological trajectory of the distinguished Face of God now embodied in whole is understanding his relational language. For most persons, this initially requires a major shift away from referential language focused on quantitative information about God in order to receive Jesus’ relational language involved in communicating qualitative knowledge and understanding of God only in relationship—a significant difference for the epistemic process that needs to be accounted for. This shift is unavoidable if we are to follow the theological trajectory of the Face of God, because without shifting we would not be on the same trajectory.
Referential terms puts God on a different theological trajectory merely as the Object to be observed and for faith. The information gained and conclusions formed about God in this common epistemic process are shaped by the limits of what we know or can rationalize, that is, shaped by our self-understandings. In contrast and even in conflict, the relational terms of God’s face unfolds in the theological trajectory as Subject (beyond a mere Other) to be involved in reciprocal relationship together Face to face, whose Face cannot be defined and whose relationship cannot be determined by our face. What we know and understand of God is distinguished in the relational epistemic process emerging from our involvement in reciprocal relationship with Subject-Face—whom the early disciples had issues distinguishing without syniemi (putting the pieces together) in its necessary relational epistemic process (Mk 8:17-18). The difference in these trajectories may seem unnecessarily nuanced when in fact the difference is immeasurable if knowing and understanding the whole of God are primary and therefore is composed by the relational Word. As Subject, God speaks for himself, and theology is contingent on God’s communication in relationship. As Object, God’s voice is mute and God’s words are disembodied, de-relationalized, fragmented and otherwise subjected to human shaping in the theological task. As Subject, relationship with God is only on God’s whole terms. As Object, relationship and relating to God is negotiated by reduced human terms, shaped by the probable down to a fragmentary condition; this is how Christ becomes divided, as Paul exposed in the reductions by the fragmented church at Corinth (1 Cor 1:10-13). To follow Jesus’ theological trajectory as the distinguished Face, we must, by his nature as Subject, be involved with him along his relational path (cf. Jn 12:26). Yet, as seen consistently in Jesus’ interactions, the relational Jesus embodied as Subject is both improbable (uncommon) and whole, and that is problematic for the probable (common) and fragmentary—an unsettling intrusion on what prevails (the common, as ‘the wise and learned’ and would-be followers discovered) and a jolt to the status quo (distinguished from the uncommon, as Nicodemus learned, Jn 3:1-15).
The Creator (for science) and the whole of God (for theology) emerge only in reciprocating contextualization, engaged with respective epistemic and ontological humility. This theological task cannot be undertaken from the observation of a scientific approach or from the relational distance of the rationality of philosophy, both constraining the heuristic process leading to the whole knowledge and understanding of God’s self-disclosure (as Jesus declared, Jn 5:39-40). This outcome is only the relational outcome of reciprocating contextualization engaged in the relational epistemic process of Scripture with the Spirit. This relational process brings us face to Face with the distinguished whole of God from outside the universe to engage the improbable theological trajectory for direct involvement in the intrusive relational path of the embodied Word from and of God. Anything less and any substitutes put us on a different theological trajectory and relational path. If we maintain any relational distance to circumvent Jesus’ intrusive relational path, we will find ourselves on a different theological trajectory—even if our doctrine appears to have certainty.
Evangelicals traditionally have deferred to the Word and its embodiment in Christ. Yet, how the Word was embodied goes further and deeper than objective history—not to be confused with an esoteric or supra-history—to compose the relational context and process distinguishing the whole of God and God’s creative, communicative and salvific action. Unless the qualitative and relational how of the Word’s embodiment defines our theology and determines our theological engagement and outcomes, our theology and practice will be on a conflicting theological trajectory and deviant relational path (as were the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Lk 24:13-32).
Christian theology is distinguished when it understands the coherence of the triune God’s creative, communicative and salvific action, and therefore makes definitive the whole of God’s self-revelation vulnerably extended to us only for whole relationship together. Coherence in relational terms involves interrelating these pieces of the whole (syniemi, as Jesus defined and holds his disciples accountable for, Mk 8:17-19) for whole understanding (synesis, as Paul made definitive for the church, Col 2:2-3). The resulting whole theology is basically different from merely systematizing information in referential terms (characteristic of systematic theology). To understand God’s action—not fragmented or piecemeal but with coherence—is to know the whole of God from a qualitative-relational interpretive framework that vulnerably engages in the trinitarian relational context and process necessary for the relationship to whole-ly know God on God’s qualitative-relational terms—the relational outcome that eluded the early disciples (Jn 14:9). This relational outcome emerges, therefore, on the basis only of God’s grace (relational initiative) and not by human terms and effort (no matter how well-intentioned). Any determination by human effort (even in systematic theology) implies a shift away from the primacy of God’s grace for reciprocal relationship, consequently substituting human terms for God’s.
For example, the problem with depending on human reason in hermeneutics is that it minimizes the Other’s (Subject-God) horizon (i.e. God’s relational context and process) and thus gets into denying (and often masks) the Other’s terms by substituting one’s own terms. Not receiving Jesus on his own terms effectively disembodies him as Subject (perhaps not as Object) and removes him from the relational context and process he composed in relational terms, consequently reducing a hermeneutical circle to a vicious circle revolved around the human self, even inadvertently or unknowingly. God did not merely extend his revelation as an object (noted by only apokalypto) to be observed; if so, then this would warrant the scientific method as the best approach to the Bible. More importantly and significantly God communicated his self-revelations as Subject (distinguished by phaneroo, Jn 17:6) to be heard, received and responded back to in compatible relationship together congruent only on God’s terms.
This vital distinction between apokalypto and phaneroo will determine whether God’s revelation is separated from his given relational context and process, and consequently either disembodied by reductionism to mere propositional truths or concepts, principles and other abstractions, or de-relationalized from the primacy of relationship together by rationalizing in referential terms. In Luke 10:21, Jesus declared that the Father only apokalypto to children, yet God openly apokalypto to everyone and did not conceal from anyone. That is to say, Jesus is making the vital point that knowing and understanding God is not through human effort no matter the extent of God’s apokalypto; rather this relational outcome is experienced (1) only on the basis of God’s initiating grace in relationship, and (2) by our compatible relational response to his relational self-disclosure (phaneroo), which is symbolized in children. This epistemic relational process with the Spirit in reciprocating contextualization involves the hermeneutical cone (further and deeper than a circle) with God’s Word—oral, written and embodied—that must by its nature involve the reflexive relational process of reading, listening, interpreting as well as responding back relationally to Subject-God—neither to disembodied teachings, commands, propositions nor to merely observing a de-relationalized Object.
What we saw earlier unfolding in Peter—in contrast to what unfolded in Paul—is a pattern of his reshaping God’s self-disclosures on God’s whole terms, fragmenting the whole of Jesus and redefining his person in a narrowed-down epistemic field for a hybrid theology (cf. convergence model) based on the limits of Peter’s reduced terms. Hybrid theology not only divides theology but also separates theology from function, such that its practice can be neither congruent nor even compatible with its theology. The expected consequence reduces theology and practice to a fragmented condition, thus preventing whole theology and practice. This fragmented condition goes unrecognized as long as one remains within the limits of understanding from one’s knowledge or rationalizing. As Peter demonstrated, this fragmentation of theology may have doctrinal certainty and appear to be united, yet it is not whole. These are the results of epistemological illusion and ontological simulation from reductionism and its counter-relational work, which inevitably can only be in contrast and conflict with the whole of God (and God’s theological trajectory) and the whole ontology and function improbably embodied in Jesus (and his relational path).
The contrast, and even conflict, between Peter’s theology on his own terms and Paul’s theology transformed by God’s terms is no mere theological exercise. Theology today in the age of reductionism struggles to emerge definitively and, more important, flounders to be distinguished in its subject matter. Though Peter was in the ongoing presence of the face of Jesus, unlike Paul after the Damascus road, a veil still functioned between Peter and Jesus to make the whole of God’s Face elusive for Peter both to make face-to-Face connection and to distinguish from inner out—a consequence despite the reality that Jesus removed the veil for intimate relationship together (2 Cor 3:16-18). This qualitative perception of God’s Face and relational experience with God Face to face eludes many in theological engagement today, essentially for the same reasons as for Peter. While Peter was not one of the two Jesus found on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32), he was often on a conflicting theological trajectory and deviant relational path. Many Christians, both theologically and in the practice of faith, are also on this road to Emmaus, having lost the qualitative relational significance of the whole of God’s presence and involvement. Reductionism ongoingly obscures God’s Face and interferes with face-to-Face connection by diminishing the primacy of relationship together—all while promoting substitutes for epistemological illusion in theology and ontological simulation in practice.
This has become a crisis in theology distinguishing its subject matter and an identity crisis in practice having the significance in likeness of the whole of God. The underlying sin of reductionism has been consequential epistemologically, ontologically and relationally, such that nothing less than a turnaround from the road to Emmaus, a turn back to the whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory, and a return to the intrusive relational path of the embodied Word will provide the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction necessary for God’s whole (see shub in the psalmist’s relational plea, Ps 80:3,7,19; cf. Jer 31:18).
So, by what and whose terms have we been seeing God’s revelation? On what theological trajectory and path have we put God? These are not mere academic issues; we are all responsible for our theology and practice. Therefore, we have to account for this most defining issue: How compatible is our theology with the whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory and how congruent is our practice with the face of God’s intrusive relational path?
Whole theology and practice has no other trajectory or path, even though the alternative may have the distinction of being biblically based and doctrinally sound. The fruit from the Reformation, more often than not, has not yielded in theology and practice what Jesus distinguished intrusively as ‘the new wine’ (Lk 5:33-39). As is characteristic of much tradition (not all) and as saturates the status quo, the residual taste of old wine has pervaded our theology and old wineskins have prevailed over our practice.
Basically, does the shape of our theology and practice, its subject matter and faith, have a different face than the face of God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement? And are they constructed on a different theological trajectory and path than God’s, such that either face-to-face relationship together no longer has primacy or face-to-face relational connection is no longer primary?
 For an overview of this period of history and its impact on Christianity, see Jonathan Hill, Faith in the Age of Reason: The Enlightenment from Galileo to Kant, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
 An expanded discussion of theology in the age of reductionism, and its implications for the church and academy, takes place in my study “Did God Really Say That?” Theology in the Age of Reductionism (Theology Study, 2013). Online at http://4X12.org.
©2015 T. Dave Matsuo