Home l Theological Anthropology Study l Theology Study l Integration Study l Paul Study l Christology Study l Wholeness Study l Spirituality Study l Essay on Spirituality l Discipleship Study l Worship Language Study l Theology of Worship l Contact Us
The Gospel of Transformation
Distinguishing the Discipleship & Ecclesiology Integral to Salvation
Section I God’s Relational Context and Process to Transformation
Chapter 3 The Irreducible Subject of the Word
I am he, the person who is speaking to you.
One of the ironic issues in recent theological and biblical studies is either the lack of clarity or even the absence of their primary subject matter. Much of the gap in subject matter reflects an earlier shift from theocentricity to anthropocentricity, which further reflects the influence of reductionism. This has led to an increasing focus on secondary areas aside from Scripture that have preoccupied theological and biblical studies. In his concern for contemporary NT studies, Markus Bockmuehl makes a plea for returning to its own object of study, the text of Scripture, yet to read the text in a further and deeper way.
Moreover, this fragmenting includes a disconnect between theological and biblical studies. What Paul critiqued in the Corinthian church—for example, “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13)—speaks to dividing theology from its determining source in Scripture—“Nothing beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). This interdependent and indispensable relationship has been separated, treated as distant or casual in significance, and its function between biblical and theological studies essentially absent. Markus Bockmuehl further observes today: “Much theological and biblical scholarship does not now pay even lip service to the once universal conviction that Christian theology is at its heart an exegetical discipline.… For its [early church] theologians, the study of Scripture was both source and destiny of their reason and wisdom.”
The major reason for this fragmentation is the pervasive influence of reductionism in human contextualization. Characteristic of reductionism, the shift to secondary matter gets us preoccupied (even with good intentions) with related secondary areas about the subject matter over the primary subject itself. This interpretive lens results, therefore, in paying less attention to or ignoring the Subject, thus respectively the lack of clarity or the absence of the primary subject matter. Not surprisingly, this happens even when God’s theological trajectory is identified because that theological trajectory is not conjoined with God’s relational path. This critical detachment puts God on a trajectory as just an Object that can entitle theological and biblical studies, and be identified and referred to in them; yet, the focus neither illuminates the subject matter nor has much, if any, significance to what/who is primary.
Until God’s theological trajectory is integrated with God’s relational path, God as Subject remains elusive or lost—the purpose of reductionism. Contrary to reductionism’s goal, the engagement of the Subject of the Word does not occur by reading the text of Scripture as mere object for study. This connection is the outcome that emerges only by relational involvement in the text as God’s communicative Word—that is, communicated by the Subject of the Word, which a mere Object does not enact. This certainly requires a pivotal shift away from a primary quantitative interpretive lens merely observing an Object to a qualitative hermeneutic having relational significance to God and able to understand God’s relational terms communicated in the Word by its Subject.
The necessary shift away from solely a quantitative framework must include a shift to a framework that is both qualitative and relational. This does not involve movement into subjectivism, for example, involving only a subjective hermeneutic pointing to mysticism or a form of Gnosticism—as Paul has been perceived to utilize by some—or even fideism. Such subjectivity includes a reader-oriented approach ‘in front of the text’, by which the reader defines meaning and determines understanding. In the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries, Friedrich Schleiermacher attempted a shift toward a qualitative-relational framework by reopening the relational door to the Other. However, he tended to shift too far toward subjectivity by giving more determination to the human consciousness of subject-reader in his “art of understanding”. Certainly a subjective hermeneutic must be adequately accounted for and given balance. Yet, the reality and fact of persons (notably Paul and God) involved in relationships still require more than a quantitative framework and rationalist hermeneutic. Contemporary readers as persons themselves need to go beyond functioning as observers of information in order to engage also the qualitative context and relational process irreducibly essential for deeper and more complete understanding. This does not require us to close down our mind but this shift necessitates to open up our whole person.
This two-fold epistemological focus on God thus necessitates both a chastened quantitative approach and a vulnerable qualitative engagement in an integrated perceptual-interpretive framework for a compatible hermeneutic. This is what Paul identified as qualitative wholeness of mind, a whole phronema (see Rom 8:6; 12:2). This whole phronema provides the necessary qualitative lens and mindset, phroneo (Rom 8:5), for inner-out ontology in order to integrate parts into the whole for understanding, a process rendered by the term synesis (Col 2:2)—that is, whole understanding of God, God’s relational response to the human condition, and thus the gospel (Eph 3:4-6). The process of synesis is not the coherence of merely referential information but is understanding the coherence of the relational dynamics of all Scripture—and as it unfolds here in the whole of Paul’s life and practice; therefore synesis conjoins Paul’s gospel of wholeness (cf. Eph 6:15) to the human relational condition enslaved in reduced human ontology and function.
This process of study for whole understanding (synesis) of God is therefore a relational epistemic process—a process that can neither be reduced to only the quantitative, nor function with assumptions of human ontology from outer in. Jens Zimmermann concludes also from his examination of our hermeneutical heritage:
In recent years, Kevin Vanhoozer, among others, has advocated theological interpretation for more coherent understanding from the convergence of biblical and theological studies. He defines such reading of Scripture simply as coming to hear God’s Word and to know God better. This process is rightly simple, yet to engage this process as relational is not the requisite involvement readily pursued, nor can that involvement be pursued readily. Such pursuit easily becomes misguided, particularly when assuming a reductionist ontology of the person. Nevertheless, these concerns are much-needed qualitative shifts for deeper understanding, which is further signified by the concern for wisdom in hermeneutics.
In a common concern by a group of biblical scholars and theologians for wisdom in the interpretation of Scripture, David Ford and Graham Stanton share their working view:
Kevin Vanhoozer takes us even further by defining wisdom as an understanding of the whole. He says contemporary epistemology needs to recover two notions that have been neglected: (1) understanding (a grasp of meaning) and (2) wisdom (an understanding of the whole).
Daniel Hardy points also to the primacy of the Scripture for a ‘density of meaning’ in which the texts open a new depth of meaning beyond other focuses in biblical interpretation. This density of meaning for Hardy conveys more than simply a quantitative ‘extensity of meanings’ found in the Scripture but suggests a qualitative ‘intensity of meaning’ in which “both God and humanity are joined, both heaven and history, not simply by way of assertions about them, but as dynamically interwoven and mutually operative.” For the intensity of meaning, Hardy recognizes the need for the academy to be freed from the constraints of a merely quantitative interpretive framework, as well as from the reductionism of both the text and in practices/projects which distract from the text.
Yet, the qualitative significance of understanding wisdom in Scripture needs to be distinctly addressed in the integrated relational context and epistemic process of God, which can only be engaged with epistemic humility without, for example, the primacy of reason. This is why Jesus jumped with joy when the Father’s self-revelation made relational connection with vulnerably engaged “children,” not with the detached or measured engagement of “the wise and intelligent” (Lk 10:21). We today are challenged by this same process. That is, Jesus points to the necessity of the “hermeneutic of a child” who is vulnerably engaged essentially in a relational epistemic process. This hermeneutic certainly does not eliminate reason but puts rational interpretation into its rightful whole created context of relationship; thus in doing so, it does not disembody the text (the revelation of the Other) from its subject matter (the communicator as Subject in relationship). Just as a child vulnerably engages this relational context by the relational process of trust (not to be confused with fideism), this relational involvement with epistemic humility opens up our whole person to outcomes of learning, understanding and experiencing whom/what we can know, count on, and be defined and determined by—as well as provides ongoing feedback of the significance of these aspects.
Rational interpretation alone tends to disembody the object of the text from its relational context and process, ironically, for example, by a quantitative framework embedded only in history that is unable to see the whole. This reduces the ontology of the person in the text to merely an object in effect by fragmenting the whole person into component parts without understanding the object-Other as communicator-Subject self-disclosed for relationship together. This not only disembodies but also de-relationalizes the Subject. However, engaging the Object of the text also as Subject is a function only of relationship, the relational involvement of which is irreducible and essential in order to grasp meaning and understand the whole. The fragmentation by rationalistic thinking signifies the human shaping or construction of the text, knowledge of God and understanding the whole, by efforts essentially of self-autonomy, self-determination and even self-justification. This is the hermeneutic of “the wise and intelligent” exposed by Jesus, which still challenges us today. Paul also addressed this reductionist function in wisdom and its perceptual-interpretive framework when he echoed Psalm 94:11 to counter reductionism in the early church (1 Cor 3:20) and its relational consequence (1 Cor 4:6; 8:1; 14:36).
This critique does not extend the existing issue between reason and faith but deepens the issue in order to address the underlying problem for both faith and reason. Nor is this an attempt to traverse Lessing’s “ugly, broad ditch” (the gap between reason and faith) but to deepen the ditch by defining faith only as the relational involvement of trust—just as Jesus did above—and thus also to redefine the gap with God indeed existing even for many professing mere faith.
This points to the limits, if not impasse, in the hermeneutical process that prevent the relational connection necessary for further flow to deeper outcomes beyond merely what we know, to more significantly whom we know. Understanding and wisdom involve more than acquiring knowledge (even as so-called truth and moral imperatives) and must involve a deeper epistemology to have a grasp of the meaning of God’s self-revelation, and thus an understanding of the whole, the whole of God and God’s created whole.
Knowing and understanding Subject-God as our subject matter remains elusive or lost as long as God’s theological trajectory is detached from God’s relational path. Also critical to this relational epistemic process, detaching this theological trajectory from the relational path vitally disconnects us from the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the Subject—even while observing the Object. This disconnect is a critical condition existing both in churches and the academy—with vital signs either unrecognized or left unattended.
The ancient poet sets the focus for us that puts God into perspective. This poet made the request of the LORD to utter: “say to my innermost, ‘I am your salvation’” (Ps 35:3). If the poet had been focused on his surrounding situations and circumstances, what he requested would have been a referential statement transmitting information merely about what God does—that is, deliver him from his negative situations and circumstances. Since his request was for the LORD to speak to his innermost (nephesh, the qualitative of God distinguished in the human person), he wanted only relational words from God, not referential. The relational response he wanted from God did not necessarily make his situations and circumstances unimportant but clearly secondary to the primacy of relationship together; therefore he was able to affirm God’s righteous involvement in their relationship in spite of his continued troubles (Ps 35:28).
This speaks to the significance of the whole gospel. What the ancient poet wants is the depth of God’s relational response from inner out, which a response just to his situations and circumstances would not satisfy. His feeling is the affect of eternity-substance in his heart (Ecc 3:11) pursuing God for more, not in quantitative terms but qualitative. Therefore, he impressed on God to communicate this relational message to his innermost, a message that would be insufficient as an “I am” statement in referential terms. Only the “I am” as relational words in relational language can communicate on the innermost level these vital relational messages that the poet wanted to receive: (1) who, what and how the whole of God is; (2) who and what God sees in our person and how he feels about us; and (3) what the relationship between us means to God and how the whole of God responds to us for our person and the relationship to be whole.
These relational messages integrally compose the heart (innermost) of the whole gospel, the depth of which is necessary to respond to the breadth of the human condition. And the gospel unfolds from the beginning with nothing less and no substitutes; otherwise our gospel is not whole, not a gospel at all, as Paul declared (Gal 1:7). Curiously then, this raises a question mark about the early disciples. As noted earlier, these disciples lacked knowing Jesus the person even as they engaged their discipleship with intense commitment (Jn 14:9). Obviously, the Word was embodied before them, yet not necessarily with them on his relational path. Any form of detachment (e.g. relational distance) from the Word’s relational path ensures disconnection from the Word as Subject, and thereby relates primarily to the Word as Object—in spite of their activity level together. This all-too-common relational consequence among Jesus’ followers occurs when the Word is transposed to a different language and terms (e.g. Mk 8:14-17).
God as Subject constitutes the Word in relational terms on an intrusive relational path, whereas God’s theological trajectory in referential terms only composes the Object of the Word. This distinction emerged initially in the primordial garden to refocus those human persons’ view of God, which is crucial for us to understand for our theology and practice today.
Basic to what emerged from this beginning to shape theological engagement was their lens: the interpretive lens refocused from the inner out to the outer in by a quantitative interpretive framework that reduces the epistemic field from God’s whole relational terms to fragmentary referential terms. Even if God did really say ‘that’, ‘what did God really mean by that’ became the issue. The shift to the latter refocused the theological task to pursue theological significance with a reduced lens. This lens from this quantitative interpretive framework emerged along with the construction of a new language in referential terms (i.e. referential language) that substitutes for God’s relational language. This replacement language—signified by “you will not die for God knows that when you…” (Gen 3:5-6)—(re)defines ‘what God really means by that’ and thereby determines what God says. In other words, referential language speaks for God rather than God speaking for God. How does this dynamic from referential language work?
It has become increasingly apparent to modern scientific research that the language we speak shapes the way we see the world and even the way we think (not necessarily producing thought). This points to the function of language not merely as a means of expression but also as a template imposing a constraint limiting what we see and the way we think. In his study of neuroscience, Iain McGilchrist states about language:
This modern awareness provides us with some understanding of the dynamic of referential language—how it works and what effect it has—that was set in motion from the primordial garden. The origination of referential language unfolded as God’s relational language is narrowed down and God’s command (sawah, Gen 2:16) is redefined from communication in God’s relational terms to the transmission of information in referential terms. Detaching the command from Subject-God (or de-relationalizing it) removes God’s words from their primary purpose only for relationship together. The command was clearly God’s communication for the wholeness of their relationship together, not the mere transmission of information (the purpose of referential language) for humans to know merely what to do (the focus of referential terms). This inaugural referentialization of God’s words (command) was extended later by the people of Israel whenever they transposed the commandments from God’s relational language to referential language, and consequently shaped the covenant in narrow referential terms—essentially de-relationalizing the covenant from ongoing relationship with Subject-God.
The shift to referential language opened the door to shape, redefine or reconstruct the so-called information transmitted by God to narrowed-down interpretation—what God really meant by that is that “your eyes will be opened”—that is, to reduced referential terms that implies speaking for God on our own terms (signified in “to make one wise”). When referential language is the prevailing interpretive framework for our perceptual-interpretive lens, then this shapes the way we see God’s revelation and the way we think about God’s words—as modern science is rediscovering about language. Conjointly and inseparably, referential language also puts a constraint on our lens, thereby restricting what we see of God’s revelation and limiting how we think about God’s words (“you will not…”). This dynamic from referential language obviously redefines the subject matter in the theological task, and certainly continues to constrain its theological engagement. Any explanations and conclusions that emerge from the theological task in referential terms merely reflect the theological reflections of referential language. Any such theological statements have no theological significance; they only attempt to speak for God—most prominently with the illusion or simulations from reductionism (“you will be like God”).
This pursuit of theological significance that was put into motion in the primordial garden needs to be accounted for. In referential language, theology’s subject matter is narrowed down to terms that are disembodied (derelationalized), fragmentary or elusive, without distinguishing the whole Subject, if theology has a distinct subject matter at all. This is the designed purpose of referential language, and its use in the theological task has unavoidable consequences epistemologically, hermeneutically, ontologically and relationally. This dynamic of referential language was illuminated by Jesus in a crucial interaction with those “who had believed in him” (Jn 8:31-45).
In this highly visible text—yet consistently seen with limited understanding—Jesus distinguished between those following him in relational terms and those believing him in referential terms. The defining issue for the latter group was exposed in Jesus’ question to these believers” “Why do you not understand my speech” (lalia, v.43), that is, “Why is my language not clear to you?” (NIV) The answer was not simply “because you cannot accept my word” (as rendered in NRSV). The underlying issue is the constraint of referential language restricting their ability “to hear my word in relational language.”
Jesus had just made definitive to them what distinguishes his followers in relational terms: “If you continue in the relational language of my word, you are truly my followers, involved with me in relationship together on my relational terms; and you will know the embodied truth [not derelationalized, generalized and propositionalized], and Subject-Truth will free you” (8:31-33). Redemption interpreted through the lens of referential language is fragmented to deliverance from situations, circumstances and sin—which these Jewish believers no longer saw their need for (v.33)—and also is refracted neither to see the sin of reductionism nor to include the relational significance of what we are redeemed for and thus saved to: to be freed to become permanent members of God’s family as his very own daughters and sons (vv.34-36). The restricting limits of referential language inescapably makes us unable to understand the Word’s relational language in the theological task (including personal Bible study), and this has far-reaching consequences epistemologically (not knowing the Truth), hermeneutically (unable to interpret his words to understand God’s revelation), ontologically (not to be free from reductionism and made whole) and relationally (not to experience whole relationship together in God’s family). And Jesus unmistakably connected this dynamic of referential language directly to its originating source in the primordial garden (8:44).
Accounting for the referentialization of the Word in the pursuit of theological significance is both needed today and problematic. Three other examples help us understand how this skewed pursuit has shaped all levels of the theological task and also exposes our need for redemptive change in any theological engagement, as illuminated above by Jesus.
The first example involved Jesus and a rich young ruler (Mk 10:16-22, par. Lk 18:18-23). After this man presumably saw the significance of Jesus’ blessing of the children, he pursued Jesus for eternal life, that is, for his own theological significance. He certainly went to the right source to validate his pursuit. However, when he wanted to have this theological significance, he focused on the task of ‘what to do’ to gain theological significance: “What must I do?” (v.17) Jesus answered him in relational language but the rich young ruler responded back in referential language according to the constraints of a theological anthropology defining him by what he did and had. The relational consequence was no theological significance based on ‘what to do’—a result commonly overlooked or misinterpreted in referential language that also leaves many of us searching for significance.
In the second example, a lawyer tested Jesus in theological engagement (Lk 10:25-29). He wanted to be distinguished in theological discourse so he asked Jesus a question similar to the rich young ruler. Jesus refocused him on the law but only in relational terms, not the referential terms of the lawyer’s tradition. Since the lawyer wanted to establish his significance (“justify himself,” v.29) in the theological conversation, he asked Jesus for more information, that is, for referential knowledge to use in his theological task. In other words, when the lawyer wanted to be theologically significant, his lens focused on having ‘knowledge’ to demonstrate his theological significance. Jesus’ response identified the existing gap between the convention of theological conversation (discourse) that depends on fragmentary knowledge, and the relational terms of his words that involve wholeness in both theology and practice (10:30-37). In the context of this commonly known text, Jesus illuminates for the theological task the theological significance of relational language that is clearly distinguished from the epistemological illusion of theological significance based on ‘knowledge’.
The third example involves a magician named Simon who converted to Christianity (Acts 8:9-19). After becoming a Christian, Simon saw the significance of Peter and John’s impact on the people by laying their hands on them to receive the Spirit. In spite of Simon’s past of amazing people with his magic, his action now to secure the means to impart the Spirit needs to be understood more broadly. Certainly, Simon wanted the significance of Peter and John. Whether or not it was for the primary purpose for others to receive the Spirit, Simon misguidedly pursued theological significance. Consequently, he focused on technique/method (“lay my hands”) to have this theological significance. As Simon learned in his theological effort, with the narrow lens determining any theological task there is no theological significance based on ‘methodology’.
These three examples summarize what has traditionally constituted the theological task: (1) based on ‘what to do’, (2) based on ‘knowledge’, and (3) based on ‘methodology’. In one way or another, separately or jointly, these all reflect a variation of what emerged in the primordial garden. The influence and workings of reductionism (including its counter-relational activity) put into motion—prominently in the dynamic of referential language—consistently raise two critical, undeniable and inescapable issues needing ongoing accountability in the theological task:
In the midst of the referentialization of the Word that was put into motion in the primordial garden was Subject-God’s voice in relational language pursuing those persons for the sake of theological significance: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9) God’s voice continues to resound today, pursuing us for theological significance, yet communicating only in relational language. Our response must not by nature be in referential terms that follows the relational distance found in the primordial garden, with its weak view of sin without reductionism and fragmented view of the person from outer in. Those who do not vulnerably account for where we are in the theological task—where in relational terms, not the referential terms of what we do, our knowledge and methodology—will continue in the contrary flow set in motion from the primordial garden, on a different theological trajectory and relational path than the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God.
Where we are as a person is the key to how we engage in relationships; and the integrity of both person and relationships have been compromised by social media today, which should chasten our use of the Internet. Consider further, when we focus on listening to the words in language, we may or may not be focused on communication from another. Words in referential language are commonly what we use to transmit information to talk about something and to express how well we can talk about it, notably to explain it. It can also be about someone, such as God, in our discourse. Yet that other being remains impersonal if the focus is not on communication; the focus on words in referential language becomes an I/we-it relation rather than the I/we-you relationship involving communication. In referential language the other is just an object while in relational language the other is always a subject. This distinction is critical for determining the message unfolding in the words in and from the beginning.
“In the beginning” (re'siyt, Gen 1:1; arche, Jn 1:1) are words that can denote ‘first’ as to time, place, order or in terms of leadership; the starting point or cause of something commencing. Are these just words in referential language to transmit information, or is this communication from the Other outside the universe—perhaps both? The primacy of the latter can include secondary aspects of the former. Primacy given to the former, however, is incompatible with the latter and thus does not lead to the primacy of communication in relationship; moreover, it remains fragmentary—whatever its assumed precision, consistency and certainty—unable to be whole.
There are two major ways to understand “in the beginning”: (1) in the context of time and space, is ‘the beginning of time’; and, (2), within but not limited to the time-space context, is ‘the starting point of relationship’. These views are not mutually exclusive, yet how they overlap can redefine the message in these words. Traditionally, the first interpretation tends not to include the full significance of the second, even though creation may be affirmed and the Creator acknowledged. “In the beginning,” however, “was the Word” in person just to communicate as Subject, not words in referential language to transmit information as Object. A traditional interpretation is theologically distorted because, first, it reduces the qualitative whole (including the cosmos and all things in the universe) constituted by the Creator to only quantitative terms, and secondly, as a result, diminishes the relational significance of what the Creator created. Rather, in these words with the Word, God communicated a definitive statement of God’s communicative action as Subject—in contrast to merely transmitting information as Object observed—that can only be fully understood as relational work, that which synthesizes the creative work. This relational work does not render the physical universe (or material) as bad or diminish its significance but provides the whole understanding and meaning for what holds it together in its innermost.
What is the nature of the message God communicated with the Word? The definitive nature of the message unfolding with the Subject of the Word in and from the beginning is (1) cosmological, (2) relational, and (3) whole:
As John’s Gospel records (Jn 1:1-4) and Paul affirms (Col 1:16-17), the source of the Word was conjointly from outside the universe and the source of the universe’s creation (Jn 1:10,18; 3:19). This cosmology is integral to the full identity of the Word and the quality and depth of the creative action communicated by the Word—whose dynamic context and process are unfolding from this source (notably recorded in the Gospel of Jn 1:4-5, 10-11,14,18; 3:19). Neither the identity of the Word can be reduced nor can the Word be detached from this source and still compose the Subject of the Word. This beginning is vital for understanding what unfolds.
Given the source, the Word cannot be reduced to be defined or determined in any manner by anything in the universe. If it were, this would result in the following: The Word is part of the universe itself; or diminished to some aspect (e.g. category, order, species) of creation, even created itself; or otherwise anthropomorphized in human terms. The parameters of the universe can only narrow the perception of reality outside the universe (if perceived at all), which would constrain God in a box of human shaping and construction. Any of these reductions is consequential for the unfolding of the Word, reducing the qualitative depth and relational significance of the message that we call the gospel. Moreover, given the source, it is only the Word in the beginning that defines and determines the universe and all in it, that is, only on God’s terms and not on human terms. The cosmological nature of this message unfolding with the Word necessitates our epistemic humility and requires our ontological deference.
Therefore, only on this basis does the message of what unfolds and why become definitive. What the Creator created and why are understood not by the mere transmission of information by the Word in the beginning but only as the cosmological source of the message in integrated communicative-creative action as Subject for the primacy of relationship together. This integrated dynamic integrally constitutes the relational nature of the message unfolding with the Word—and if detached, no longer relational, if reduced, no longer whole.
What the Creator created and why emerged in the beginning only as ‘the starting point of relationship’; therefore the what and why are inseparable from the communicative action that unfolds with the Word. The relational nature of the Word ongoingly engages in communicative action, not in the transmission of information. In further and deeper unfolding of this relational dynamic, the Word embodied this relational communication in the vulnerable self-disclosures of the whole of God (Jn 17:4, 6-8; Col 1:19; 2:9). In his crucial prayer-communication to the Father, what the Son completed (teleioo) in revealing God was not to merely exhibit God as Object for observation in order to have some information or knowledge about God; that quantitative revelation is signified by the word apokalypto, which only refers to the object revealed. The Son, however, vulnerably phaneroo the Father, that is, more deeply “disclosed you to those whom you gave me”—referring specifically to those to whom the revelation is made in this relational context and process. Phaneroo signifies the further and deeper unfolding of the Word as Subject for the sole purpose of relationship together. Therefore, the nature of the message unfolding with the Word is always relational: “who came from the Father…” (Jn 1:14, NIV), “who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18), “God so loved…gave his Son…send the Son” (Jn 3:16-17), “I am…to the Father” (Jn 14:6), “…they may know you…” (Jn 17:3), “I have made your name known to them…so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26), “…what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), “Let the word of Christ dwell in you” (Col 3:16), “Listen! I am standing at the door of your heart, knocking; if you hear my voice and respond to me, I will come in to you for reciprocal relationship together” (Rev 3:20).
Our understanding of the message unfolding with the Word from the beginning does not emerge from the textual words in referential language. This is not merely having referential knowledge and information about God but critically involves the distinguished process of whole-ly knowing God as Subject, which is only the relational outcome of deep involvement in relationship together as Jesus’ prayer above makes definitive (notably of eternal life, Jn 17:3). Therefore, communication from the Word is composed by the primacy of relational language and only secondarily by referential language. The significance of relational language defines, on the one hand, the qualitative ontology, relational nature and vulnerable function of the Word (signifying his glory, Jn 1:14) and, on the other, defines what was created and why. To define these secondarily by only referential language immediately diminishes what was created and minimalizes why, along with fragmenting the Word as Subject who created in the image and likeness of the whole of God. That is to say, referential language essentially disembodies and de-relationalizes the Word unfolding from the ontological Source in the beginning and the relational nature from the beginning, thereby fragmenting the Word, for example, to teachings and then further disembodied (dismembered parts) into doctrines. Though the teaching and doctrine are about the Word, their referential language no longer embodies the whole Subject of the Word for the primacy of relationship together. The implication is that the secondary becomes primary, which in actual practice favors human terms more than God’s relational terms. The relational consequence is relational distance that diminishes, prevents or even precludes the involvement necessary for qualitative relationship—the relational distance demonstrated in epistemic, exegetical, theological and discipleship activities both in church and academy.
The reality is compelling, despite not prevailing: we cannot substitute referential language for relational language and have the relational outcome of intimate relationship together. We need to transform to the language of the Word as Subject. Even neuroscience recognizes the limits and consequences of referential language with the development of prose, in contrast to qualitative communication expressed in poetry, singing and music—all of which predate prose in the development of communication. Does this speak to the prominence of poetic style in significant portions of Scripture?
Basic to this relational language—implied in all communication, verbal and nonverbal, even during transmission by humans using referential language—is imparting three relational messages implicit to what is communicated by sounds, gestures or words. These relational messages need to be distinguished for deeper understanding of the message communicated. All communication has not only a content aspect but also a relational aspect that helps us understand the significance of the content of communication. In these relational messages—which are usually implied, for example, in tone of voice, facial gestures, choice of words—a person conveys to others one or all of the following messages:
These relational messages are vital to distinguish because they qualify the content aspect of all communication—even quality the content humans transmit with referential language. The content alone of the words “follow me” easily become redefined by our terms, as demonstrated by prevailing inadequate interpretations for discipleship. Words by themselves, apart from the context of relational messages (e.g. distinct voice intonation, the look on one’s face, whether face to face or looking away), have less meaning, perhaps no meaning, or may even mean the opposite.
As these relational messages are received and understood from the person communicating, there is a deeper basis for knowing that person and a fuller understanding of how to respond back. The significance of this relational language is found no more conclusively than in the Word’s likely most compelling communication to us: “Follow me.” And this study can be defined essentially as the unfolding of these relational words, which Paul hears not in referential content but in the distinguished relational messages from the Word—thereby transforming in the Word’s relational language.
The relational language of the Word is deeply composed of these three relational messages that integrally qualify the self-disclosures of the whole of God and help bring to light the needed understanding of God’s whole thematic relational response to the human condition unfolding with the Word. Besides within the surrounding context, the deeper significance of the Word’s words emerges in the relational context of understanding what the Subject of the Word says of himself, or about other(s) or the relationship together, implied in his communication. The relational nature of the language and the messages from the whole Word are irreducible and nonnegotiable for the relational outcome constituted by the Word, in and from the beginning, of the relationships together necessary to be whole, God’s relational whole only on God’s relational terms. This relational dynamic from outside the universe is vulnerably present and relationally involved with the unfolding of the Word to define and determine the whole nature of his message in the gospel—the whole of Who and which Paul (as Mary embodied earlier) hears from inner out, relationally receives and vulnerably responds to.
When physicist Stephen Hawking gave up his quest to discover a grand unifying theory (GUT), he correctly concluded that this was not possible with the limited framework of science, and that human shaping and construction can only be self-referencing, and therefore inconsistent and incomplete. Only a view from outside the universe could speak of the whole both of the cosmos and in the innermost. This would appear to provide those who affirm God’s revelation the view necessary for the whole in order to be whole and live whole. Yet, this wholeness is neither the theology of the Word and related theological anthropology, nor their correlated practice that prevails in the church and academy today. This absence or lack continues to demonstrate the pervasive influence of reductionism and its counter-relational work in understanding the unfolding of the Word in the beginning and his relational work from the beginning. In other words, this is an absence or lack to listen to the message of the whole gospel, which exposes the presence of gospel substitutes from our human shaping and construction (cf. Paul’s situation and claim, Gal 1:6-7, 11-12).
The relational dynamic from outside the universe does not emerge with referential language but only in the relational language of the Word for ‘the starting point of relationship’. The unfolding of this relational dynamic embodied nothing less than the whole of the Word, whom Paul later made definitive theologically as ‘the pleroma (fullness, complete, whole) of God’ vulnerably self-disclosed (Col 1:19; 2:9). Nothing less than the whole of God emerged from outside the universe and was embodied in the Word as Subject to be vulnerably present and relationally involved with us, without any substitute for his wholeness. The Word as Object cannot compose this. ‘Nothing less and no substitutes’ is critical for understanding the whole of God emerging from outside the universe in the beginning and this whole embodied in the person of Jesus. Any fragmentation of the whole of God and Jesus—for example, by referential language transmitting only information (notably parts) about God—not only reduces the ontology and function of God but also redefines what creator God created and why. This is critically consequential for both an incomplete theology of God (particularly Christology) and for an insufficient theological anthropology; such theology essentially becomes self-referencing and thus inconsistent and incomplete, that is fragmentary and consequently unable to be whole much less live whole. What defines our ontology and determines our function either emerge from the whole ontology and function of God, or are defined and determined by human shaping and construction, even with theological certainty and the ontological simulation and epistemological illusion advanced by it.
The whole nature of the message unfolding with the Word is indispensable for our understanding of what we receive, believe and proclaim to be the gospel. Yet, this gospel is also fragmentary if it begins belatedly with the incarnation of the Word—rendered to an incomplete Christology and truncated soteriology in contrast to Jesus and in conflict with Paul, including an immature pneumatology and a renegotiated ecclesiology in contrast to Paul and in conflict with Jesus. This points ahead in our study to Paul’s ongoing engagement in his conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against reductionism of it.
Definitively what was created and why are contingent on the whole ontology and function of God, and therefore of the Word in the beginning, in whose image human being is created to be whole and in whose likeness all human ontology and function are created to live whole—to be and live whole together in relationship with the whole of God and God’s creation (Gen 2:18,25). The whole was not a product of some dialectic or abstract process; it was the relational outcome in the beginning of the whole of God’s communicative-creative action. The whole emerged only with the Whole from outside the universe to constitute the whole of the universe and all in it in the innermost. Moreover, the Whole does not become the universe (pantheism), nor is the universe all there is of the Whole (panentheism). The whole of God remains distinguished outside the universe and in the Whole’s likeness distinguishes the universe in the innermost to be whole. Though this wholeness was the reality in the beginning, reductionism fragmented the whole of human ontology and function and creation (Gen 3:7,10,17; cf. Rom 8:19-21). The good news, however, is the deeper unfolding of the Subject of the Word to give the light to the innermost necessary to be whole.
Intruding from outside the universe, the whole gospel emerges from the beginning. ‘In the beginning’ put into motion the relational dynamic of the thematic relational action of the whole of God, whose relational response of grace unfolds from this ‘starting point of relationship’. To fast forward, the whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace was enacted ongoingly throughout the OT to converge in the embodying of the Word as Subject in order to be fully disclosed and fulfilled. The integral relational work of the Word of God that unfolded in the incarnation must be contextualized from the beginning to fully understand the whole of God’s (thus Jesus’) relational work composing the gospel.
The relational dynamic to bring change and establish whole relationship together was vulnerably embodied by Jesus, the Word unfolding, to intimately disclose (phaneroo, not merely apokalypto) the whole of God to completely fulfill God’s thematic relational response from ‘the starting point of relationship’. This is light unfolding in the Word (Ps 119:130; Jn 1:4): in the beginning, being the whole of God (Col 1:19; 2:9); relationally fulfilling “the light of the whole gospel” from the beginning and vulnerably embodying the whole of “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4-6); who has “turned his face to you” to live whole in the world and make whole the human condition (Jn 14:27; 16:33; Col 1:20; 2:10; 3:15; Eph 2:14; 6:15)—just as the gospel of wholeness was definitively enacted from the beginning (Num 6:26).
This is the whole gospel composed by the Subject of the Word in the qualitative significance of relational language. And the gospel of wholeness, unfolded with the Word by its cosmological nature in the beginning and by its relational nature from the beginning, emerges whole only in this relational language. Based on this relational source, nothing less and no substitute can be definitive of the relational message that the whole of God communicated with the Word. Referential language, and its reliance on quantitative words to transmit information, is incapable of communicating the relational language of the Word and is deficient in accounting for the Word’s relational work. Furthermore, referential language is rendered impotent for the qualitative-relational significance necessarily involved in the whole of God’s definitive blessing to bring change and establish the new relationship together of wholeness; perhaps these referential words serve a benedictory function but without relational significance.
To help locate where we are and need to be in the theological task in terms of relational language, we can establish a working definition of theology. With the convergence of the various words, statements and declarations from God highlighted throughout our discussion up to now, the definition of theology has been unfolding. Not to be confused with ‘process theology’, the composition of theology emerges with the following:
If this is the integrating basis for the subject matter of theology, then the theological task by necessity requires the relational context and process of the Subject, not the mere information about the Object. Therefore, the task of making definitive the coherence of God’s revelations in relational language involves conjointly the ongoing congruence with God’s improbable theological trajectory and compatibility with God’s intrusive relational path.
The initial task of theology is to clearly define its own subject matter without the influence from human contextualization to fragment (or distract it from) its subject matter, and without the shaping from human contextualization to obscure its subject matter. Integral to distinguishing its subject matter, the theological task necessitates engaging the definitive (not conventional) epistemic process made accessible by the Subject that will have the relational outcome of knowing and understanding the Subject (not merely the Object) of its subject matter. This epistemology is indispensable for the theological task and essential for theology and its related practice. Basic to this (and any) epistemology is our qualitative interpretive framework and the relational hermeneutic used to engage God’s relational epistemic process only on God’s relational terms, in contrast to (and even conflict with) a limited epistemic process with a narrowed epistemic field in referential terms. For too long, the dynamic of referential language has fragmented or obscured the subject matter of theology, and consequently relocated many in the theological task to a different theological trajectory and relational path than the whole of God.
The existing gap between the convention of theological discourse in referential language and theological engagement in relational language is insurmountable. That is, the whole of God from beyond the universe is not distinguished by the limitation of terms within the universe. Even though physicist Stephen Hawking ostensibly has given up his search for a grand unifying theory due to the limits of self-referencing, efforts in the theological task continue in referential language—further prompting God’s question “What are you doing here?”
Since the emergence of referential language, the dynamic of its influence and workings has permeated even human development (including the brain) along with its primary purpose to construct substitute developments in theology. As discussed, referential language is fragmentary and disembodies the Word into parts (e.g. teachings, doctrine), which it attempts to aggregate into some unity or so-called whole (e.g. in a systematic or biblical theology). This fragmentation and disembodiment are noticeably evident in textual criticism (historical, form, literary), which embeds us in the secondary without understanding the primary (as defined by God). For George Steiner, this secondary critical reflection is the interpretive crisis that results in the loss of God’s presence—a condition he identifies as ‘a Secondary City’. More critically, the use of referential language in the quest for certainty (e.g. in foundationalism and philosophical theology), which presumably would more accurately describe and represent the Word (e.g. in propositionalism and criticism), cannot be more than self-referencing, inconsistent and incomplete; that is, this is the consequence once it disembodies and derelationalizes the Word as Subject and hence disengages from the Word’s relational context and process vulnerably disclosing the whole of God—the detachment of God’s theological trajectory from the relational path, which results in disconnecting from God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement.
A qualifying note is necessary for the further distinction between referential language and relational language. The depth of relational language also includes propositions in the communication of vulnerable self-disclosure. Such propositions, however, are only for the qualitative significance of relationship together, not for mere quantitative knowledge and information. Therefore, in contrast to their use with referential language, these propositions must not by their nature in communication be reduced from this primary relational context and process, fragmented from the communication in relationship, and disembodied from the communicator, the Word only as Subject, and therefore sustain disconnection from the Truth embodied for relationship. The primacy of relational language that qualifies the presence of propositions in communication clearly is heard in Jesus’ “I am” statements (e.g. Jn 6:35; 8:12; 10:7,11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1), which Paul heard, received and responded to only in relational terms (Acts 9:5).
Essentially, it can be said that referential language was not “designed” for the further development of qualitative communication in relationship but in reality went in the opposite direction that takes us away from qualitative relational connection. Historically, the referential language of prose evolved after poetry, and early poetry was sung, the qualitative significance of which was basic to communication in relationship and not the mere transmission of information. This speaks further to the significance that many portions of the canonical Word are poetry; communication is the key, not transmitting information, which in the Bible singing and music also constitute in the innermost (e.g. Judg 5:3; Ps 27:6; 30:12; 108:1; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). This raises the issue of the effectiveness of prose in theological discourse. Perhaps contrary to Steiner’s own use of prosaic language, he states the following conviction:
While Steiner rightly identifies poetry and music as a qualitative link to the other beyond our being, he only appears to make discourse about this being without the relational connection constituted by communication. McGilchrist further identifies this difference in the qualitative use of words with music and poetry only for communication, which he locates in the function of the right brain hemisphere. This qualitative function of the right hemisphere, and its related view of the world, is in contrast to the quantitative reduction of words to the referential language of prose by the left hemisphere for its function not of communication in relationship but to merely make discourse about something. This critical difference between discourse about the Word (or from the Word) of God to transmit information, and the qualitative communication by the Word as Subject in relationship is not the gap of Lessing’s ‘ugly broad ditch’ but rather the relational distance Jesus made definitive in Luke 10:21 for the presence or absence of the communicative God in relationship. The dynamic difference distinguishes the involved Subject from an unconnectable Object.
The hermeneutic of a child that Jesus makes definitive for the theological task is a challenge, and likely threat, to most in theological engagement. Yet, this necessary hermeneutic for relational language does not eliminate reason but rather puts rational thought into its rightful created context of relationship; for example, not disembodying (derelationalizing) the words about Object-God from the relational words from Subject-God. The prevailing dichotomy between reason and faith is a construction from referential language, whose distinction-making in referential terms has narrowed the lens giving definition to both reason and faith. Lessing’s ‘ugly ditch’ reflects this dichotomy.
As a child engages the rightful created relational context with the relational process of trust (not blind faith or fideism), that is with vulnerable relational involvement, this person engages a heuristic epistemic process to learn, understand and experience whom he or she can count on in reciprocal relationship to extend that trust (cf. Ps 119:130). The hermeneutic lens of this person ongoingly counts on who, what and how God says of himself to be in relationship (as in righteousness), nothing less and no substitutes, thus removing the need for speculation about God. In addition, this hermeneutic also rightly holds God accountable to be God in relationship together (e.g. in the relational epistemic process), to be whole-ly with certainty. In the dynamic of the hermeneutic of faith, the epistemic field and process are openly engaged in reciprocal relationship; on these relational terms, neither God does all the work nor do we in the theological task. Therefore, it is vital to understand that accountability in the theological task is by necessity both ways. As God pursues us for theological significance with ‘Where are you?’ and ‘what are you doing here?’ there are times in the relational epistemic process when we need to ask God ‘where are You?’
As we address these interrelated issues in our theological task, our subject matter will be unmistakable and the purpose of our theological task will become congruent with God’s incomparable theological trajectory and compatible with his distinguished relational path. The relational outcome will be knowing and understanding the whole of God for the composition of whole theology and practice—clearly in contrast to and in conflict with any other definition and determination in the theological task. This relational outcome, however, only unfolds in relational terms. Therefore, for the Subject to have clarity and not be obscured in our theology and practice, God’s theological trajectory cannot be detached, fragmented or otherwise reduced from the whole of God’s relational path. Accordingly, if this relational path indeed involves the whole of God, the relational path can only be intrusive—intrusive not only in the human context but intruding vulnerably in our ongoing lives and intimately with our person from inner out and with our relationships.
The nature of being a subject is to be who, what and how that person is. To be a whole subject is to be the whole of who, what and how the person is both from inner out and in relationships with others. The Word as Subject cannot be reduced or else the Word no longer composes the Subject in the whole ontology and function of this person. The most that would remain in a reduced Word is the Object. The Word as Object is neither composed for relationship with others, nor can others have reciprocal relationship together with a mere Object of reduced ontology and function. There is no relational connection, ongoing relationship and reciprocal involvement together without the Subject. This reduced condition is all transformed by the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the irreducible Subject of the Word, who constitutes the whole gospel and its whole relational outcome.
This may or may not be received as good news. The whole of God as Subject cannot just be observed from a relational distance, or merely be quantified in referential terms, because the nature of the whole Subject is intrusive—and intrusive both to persons defined from outer in and unavoidably in their relationships. Without this intrusive relational path, the Subject no longer has clarity and becomes elusive, even though the Object may have focus in our theology and practice. However, as the Subject intrudes in our lives, persons and relationships, the heart of our theology and practice is composed—that is, when received and responded to as the Subject in reciprocal relationship together.
Good news may be based on its composition. Good news for the human condition, however, can be based only on the depth of its significance to compose the fulfillment of the human condition. Our beliefs or notions about the gospel tend either to make major assumptions about it so as to render the good news merely, for example, to a headline composed with only a sidebar and obituary in the news, and consequently a gospel without full significance for the human condition. Or we take liberties with the gospel in autonomous efforts to shape the gospel for our (individual and collective) determination and justification so as to render the good news merely, for example, to another op-ed article in the newspaper, and, as a result, not really a gospel for the human condition. The former composition reduces the gospel and the latter renegotiates it, both of which perceive the gospel in referential terms through a myopic lens—the prevailing interpretive framework and perceptual lens. The result commonly existing is a pervasive gospel of a popularized Jesus.
In relational words and language, the gospel is a relational dynamic beyond the proclamation of a static proposition; and it is simply irreducible to referential terms or else the significance of its relational response is fragmented and its wholeness is lost. When this happens, the distinguished Face does not turn and shine to bring new relationship in wholeness but becomes an ambiguous or elusive Face needing human shaping. Moreover, then, the whole gospel is a relational dynamic solely on God’s relational terms, which are nonnegotiable to human terms, or else its relational response is no longer to make whole the human condition but becomes determined by the human-shaping influence of the human condition. From the beginning, the gospel distinguishes the unmistakable Face’s relational outworking and fulfillment of siym (i.e. the transformation) and shalom (i.e. to wholeness, Num 6:24-26) by the embodied Word as Subject, who is irreducible to nothing less and no substitutes. And for this gospel to be fulfilled in whole required the unmistakable Face in deepest profile to be vulnerably involved in the intrusive relational path of the embodied Subject of the Word. If the depth of this relational path cannot be fulfilled in referential terms by an Object, then what kind of gospel do we have without the ongoing intrusive involvement of the Subject?
In the highlight of Israel’s history (liberation from Egypt), Moses affirmed that the LORD “has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2). In a low point in his personal history, the ancient poet wanted the distinguished Face to turn to his innermost to experience the same affirmation: “say to my innermost, ‘I am your salvation’” (Ps 35:3). Both of them expressed their feelings in the most qualitative form (and the earliest) of human communication: song and poetry. Referential words in referential language (a later development in human communication) were inadequate to express the depth not only of their hearts but the qualitative-relational depth of God’s salvation. Moses’ song was a prelude to the communication in their relationship together in which God spoke directly to Moses, Face to face (Num 12:6-8). Their direct relational involvement together was a precursor of what God saves to conjointly with saves from. These early experiences capture the initial relational significance, if not always the qualitative significance, of the dynamics of God’s thematic relational response signifying the gospel. The dynamic that unfolds from these experiences, along with others like Abraham’s, has even further and deeper qualitative-relational significance that distinguishes the gospel unmistakably in wholeness (the shalom of God’s definitive blessing), and thus inseparably from the whole, God’s relational whole. As we fast-forward, the distinguished Face’s relational outworking and fulfillment of siym and shalom intensify.
While the identity of the Face was always clear, he clarity of God’s face and involvement fully became unmistakable when the Face intruded as the Subject of the Word. What the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel are was unclear until the incarnation. Yet, understanding both its qualitative significance and relational significance remained an issue throughout the incarnation and Paul’s time, and remains an issue for us today. This lack of understanding remains until a compatible shift occurs integrally with the gospel.
After the aborted effort to pursue eternal life by the rich young man, the disciples were somewhat shocked at Jesus’ account of the difficulty to enter the kingdom of God. Due to a lack of their own understanding, they raised the question: “Then who can be saved?” (Mt 19:25; Mk 10:26) Jesus’ short answer must not be reduced to referential terms about what is possible for God and impossible for human persons; his answer must be understood in the context of the account he just gave in relational terms. Whether for the rich young man or any other persons defined by what they have and do, these persons are engaged unavoidably in varied efforts of self-determination. Until such persons shift from these reduced terms of what defines and determines them (i.e. reduced ontology and function), they are incompatible with the gospel to be saved to more—no matter how sincere, devoted and successful they are in the religious context, as demonstrated by the successful young man. The shift of the gospel is clearly both bad news for those who have not shifted from their self-definition and determination, as well as the good news for those who make a compatible shift (as seen in Levi, Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman, discussed below).
The gospel unfolds in the incarnation with three major shifts: strategic, tactical and functional. As these shifts are enacted, the gospel Jesus embodied in whole as Subject is made conclusive for what God saves to.
Moses’ experience of God’s direct involvement with him in Face-to-face relationship was a precursor to the strategic shift of the gospel. This strategic shift clearly emerged with the Samaritan woman (initially discussed with the whole model of the gospel in the Reintroduction, Jn 4:4-26). In the shift from a place (like the mountain, tabernacle, or Jerusalem), and from situations and circumstances, the whole of God becomes vulnerably and relationally accessible for ongoing involvement in direct relationship Face to face. This makes the transcendent God accessible to all peoples and persons regardless of their human distinctions from outer in, on the one hand, which certainly opened up a unique opportunity for this woman, viewed as a person of despicable race-ethnicity, debased gender and likely denigrated character. On the other hand, however, this was unique access only for the relationship-specific involvement from inner out in the primacy together of God’s family, for which this woman would have to shift from outer in to be compatible. This then makes the holy God accessible for relationship only to those who respond in the innermost of Jesus’ relational context and process—in other words, relationship only on God’s terms (cf. Jn 8:31-42). Was this good news or bad news for this woman?
The relational significance of God’s strategic shift is magnified in this highly improbable interaction. For a Jewish rabbi to engage a Samaritan woman one-on-one in public required an act of redemptive reconciliation—that is, to be freed from constraints of the old (and what defined them), and thus opened to vulnerably engage each other in the relationship of the new. Jesus tore down the constraint of “double jeopardy” (double discrimination based here on ethnicity and gender, without even considering her apparent social ostracism) for her and gave her direct access to a highly improbable, though ultimately unique, opportunity: unrestricted connection and intimate relationship with the whole of God.
As the interaction unfolds, it becomes increasingly vulnerable face to face. When her emerging person began to understand (theoreo) a deeper significance of the person engaging her (v.19), she turned the focus to God and the existing structure of religious practice (v.20). Yet, her focus should not be limited to the issue of worship but necessarily involved the accessibility of God. Perhaps she had doubts about accessing God if she had to participate in the prevailing practice. Any ambivalence at this point would be understandable, given her social standing in the community.
In relational language, Jesus vulnerably engaged her to reveal that the old (prevailing religious tradition and way to see things) was going to be changed (Jn 4:21-22), and that the new “is now here” (4:23-24). The strategic shift in the holy and transcendent God’s presence was embodied vulnerably with her in a highly improbable encounter—improbable both in God’s action and in human thinking. As Jesus disclosed the qualitative and relational significance of his whole person in his pivotal “I am” relational message to her (v.26), the whole of God’s ontology and function became vulnerably accessible for ongoing involvement in direct relationship Face to face. The same relational dynamic was also extended improbably to Paul on the Damascus road, which raised similar issues for Paul in his religious tradition, as for the woman in hers, but with further implications and consequences. This shift to the new relational context and process, however, necessitated (and still necessitates today) terms significant for compatibility in order to distinguish relationship together from prevailing human terms, self-definition and determination. In the strategic shift of the gospel, there is no relational progression with the whole-ly accessible God without these ongoing relational terms: “in spirit and truth” (4:23-24).
These familiar terms cannot be limited to worship in traditional terms because Jesus takes worship beyond its traditional context (v.21). Worship is not location-specific but relationship-specific in its primacy. While the latter was always intended by God to constitute the worship signified in the tabernacle or temple, the location had become the primacy to constitute worship that only secondarily signified relationship with God. The relational distance or lack of relational involvement with God emerges unmistakably in worship when perceived from inner out (cf. Mk 7:6-8). This practice engaged in relationship without the heart, the innermost of the person that Jesus made definitive in relational language by the term “spirit,” (cf. the poet’s nephesh, Ps 35:3).
Jesus made clear that worship of (and all relational involvement with) the whole of God must be on these terms. These are neither optional nor ideal terms but “must” (v.24); not opheilo, out of personal obligation, duty or moral compulsion but dei, unavoidable, necessary by the nature of things, that is, by the nature of God and this relationship. Since Jesus disclosed the whole of “God is spirit,” this raised the issue again of access to the transcendent God. How do these terms functionally bridge the gap of transcendence to access God? If Jesus were not speaking, we could suspect anthropomorphism. The Samaritan woman then expressed her confidence (oida) that someday the Messiah “will explain everything to us” (anangello, to disclose freely, openly, v.25). Jesus responded even deeper by vulnerably disclosing his whole person to her: “I am he, the person who is speaking to you” (v.26). And what Jesus made clear were the terms “in spirit and in truth.”
This process may appear somewhat circular without resolving in function the issue of access to the transcendent God. It will remain without functional significance if the focus is only on the content of Jesus’ words. When Jesus said “I who speak to you,” the term for “speak” (laleo) is contrasted with a synonym term lego (“to say,” discourse involving the intellectual part of the person). Laleo does not emphasize the content of the speech but rather focuses on the reality of communication taking place (as opposed to no communication, cf. Heb 1:1-2). This focus on the factual act of communication makes the function of relationship primary, which is neither to discount what Jesus said nor to disregard the terms (“in spirit and truth”) disclosed as necessary. The significance of this is to account for and pay attention to the relational context and process, the nature of which are necessary for these terms. In other words, “I am he, the God is spirit who is speaking to you” was vulnerably disclosing both the relational context “out of” (ek) the holy and transcendent God for direct access, and then the relational process “back to” the whole of God for intimate relationship together—the “out of-back to” relational dynamic constituting the whole of Jesus’ person, who composes this relational connection.
The functional significance of “in spirit and in truth” can only be understood in the relational significance of the holy and transcendent God’s thematic action fulfilled in the incarnation of Jesus’ whole person (cf. Ps 33:11b). Though the Samaritan woman expressed no understanding of these words in his speech, she was experiencing their functional significance in their involvement together.
This raises two important questions. What if Jesus’ person were something less or some substitute of God, or what if the person Jesus presented in his life and practice were anything less or any substitute of his whole person, even as God? The former has been an ongoing theological issue, which Jesus’ first century adversaries tried to establish about him. Any revisionism of Jesus makes discourse about an accessible God insignificant, if not irrelevant. The latter question is a functional issue that essentially has been ignored. Yet, its critical importance has theological implications about the reliability of our Christology, and more importantly creates a functional problem of integrity for the relational involvement of trust. How reliable is your knowledge of someone if the person presented to you is anything less or any substitute of the who, what and how of that person? Moreover, how can you trust someone in a relationship if you can’t count on that person’s involvement to be beyond anything less or any substitute of the whole person?
Jesus demonstrated to this woman that his involvement with her was nothing less and no substitutes of his whole person. This was congruent with his ongoing self-disclosure of the whole of God and, specific to her, opened access to the transcendent “God is spirit.” Something less or any substitutes would not have fulfilled this function for her, much less fulfilled the whole of God’s thematic action for all humanity. The implication is “I who speak am [here to openly disclose to you that spirit].”
The incarnation makes accessible the presence of the holy and transcendent God. The glory of God in Jesus’ whole person makes evident the heart of God’s being, the core of the whole of the triune God, functionally for relationship (cf. Jn 1:14). The vulnerable presence of the very heart of God is the truth of who and what God is, and the functional significance of nothing less and no substitutes; and the intimate involvement of the very core of the whole of the triune God is the truth of how God is, and the relational significance of nothing less and no substitutes. The heart (core) and truth of God in the Subject Jesus are not revelations (apokalypto) of mere information but vulnerable self-disclosures (phaneroo) only for the intimate involvement necessary in relationship together as family. Thus, the ontology of “God is spirit” is disclosed by Jesus to be in function both vulnerably present and intimately involved. And the Samaritan woman could count on the reliability of who was disclosed to her because nothing less than and no substitutes for the heart and truth of Jesus’ whole person fulfilled this function in the trinitarian relational process of family love. This was what she was experiencing from Jesus as the heart and truth of her own person opened to him. Those who respond back to God in this new relational context and process must by its nature function in likeness: “in spirit and in truth.”
This strategic shift is made functional foremost in worship, which is the what of Jesus (the Father said) to pay attention to necessary in “the kind of worshippers the Father seeks” (v.23). In function, worship practice is the prime indicator of our ongoing reciprocal relational involvement with God, which is the why of Jesus (the Father said) to pay attention to necessary for the kind of relationship the Father seeks to experience together.
On this relational basis, “in spirit and truth” are the compatible qualitative relational terms that shift human persons to converge with the strategic shift of the gospel; and the gospel’s relational dynamic in distinguished relational progression redefines their persons from outer in to inner out, transforms them from reductionism, and makes them whole in the primacy of relationship together in God’s family. Our theological reflections on the ontology and function of both God and the human person deepen as we understand the pivotal significance of the Samaritan woman’s experience with the improbable. The need to account for the whole person, God’s and ours, is critical to the relational dynamic of the gospel and its relational outcome in the primacy of intimate relationships together Face to face necessary to hold together God’s family in the innermost.
In other words, without reciprocal relational involvement our worship practice (or any practice) has no relational significance to Subject-God—no matter how demonstrative, vibrant or intense—though perhaps is related to the Object of worship (or faith and service). Without the qualitative function of our heart, our practice has no relational involvement with God—no matter how much activity, time and effort for God. The distance of our heart is always consequential to relationship with God—not to mention, to the qualitative significance of our practice. Life and practice in God’s likeness is only about relationship; whole life and practice must then by its nature be the function of relational involvement, thus of the heart. And the depth of relational involvement is always inversely proportional to the extent of distance our heart has. Moreover, the distance our heart keeps in a relationship is the primary indicator of the quality of our involvement in that relationship. The function of our heart thus becomes both integral and integrating for relational involvement, for what is necessary by nature to make relationships significant, and for what is basic to function in whole life and practice.
The heart (core) of the person is the “spirit” disclosed by Jesus that is necessary and intrinsic to “God is spirit” in order to be involved with the Father (Jn 4:23-24). By vulnerably disclosing the heart of God’s being, the core of the triune God, Jesus made evident the transcendent “God is spirit” (this self-existing spirit distinct from all his creatures, who alone has life within himself and is the life-giver) as the present and involved “God is heart” (cf. Ps 33:9,11, leb, heart). This does not redefine the ontology of God but clearly illuminates the strategic shift of God’s thematic relational action. Jesus is the hermeneutical key that opens this ontological door to the whole of God. Therefore, by the intrusion of Jesus’ whole ontology and function, the very heart of God’s being is the aspect of God’s glory made accessible to us, with whom we can intimately connect for relationship together by God’s relational nature.
In the strategic shift of the gospel, throughout the incarnation the distinguished presence of Jesus’ whole person vulnerably disclosed the transcendent “God is spirit” (as in v.24)—that is, the innermost of the whole of who, what and how God is. The good news for the Samaritan woman was that Jesus wasn’t engaging her in a theological task to merely inform her for further doctrine about which she could be dogmatic. The strategic shift of the gospel’s relational dynamic reveals the innermost of the whole of God completely for the primacy of whole relationship together, even for a Samaritan woman with a history of failed marriages and cohabitation without matrimony. The innermost of God’s ontology and function necessitates by its nature (dei, v.24)—not the personal obligation or moral compulsion of opheilo—the innermost of human ontology and function for relationship together to be compatible. A reduced ontology and function defined and determined from outer in is incompatible for relationship with the whole ontology and function of God. In addition, the innermost of God’s ontology and function is the truth of who, what and how God is because God is relationally righteous and faithfully involved with nothing less and no substitutes of the whole of God, as vulnerably embodied by Jesus throughout the incarnation. The improbable unfolded before her in order to be with her. Therefore, along with the innermost of human ontology and function is the inseparable need for the truth of who, what and how the person is, that is, being vulnerably open and honest with one’s whole person—weaknesses, failures, sins and all, nothing less and no substitutes (demonstrated by this woman, 4:17)—in order for compatible relationship together to be reciprocal and whole. These are the indispensable relational terms to involve our whole person in the depth of face to Face.
The relational reality illuminated in the unmistakable face of Jesus is this ontological shift: The heart of God’s being is the aspect of God’s glory made accessible to us with which we can functionally connect for relationship together by God’s relational nature. At the same time, this relational connection is possible (not improbable) also because of the ontology of the human person Jesus implied in “spirit,” which God seeks. That is, the God of heart, who was vulnerably disclosed to us, made us in the image of the whole of God. Simply stated, the God of heart made us persons of heart (cf. Ps 33:15, leb).
This defines why the “God is spirit” (heart) seeks those “in spirit” (heart), who by nature must function in likeness of heart to be involved. The strategic shift of God’s thematic action makes conclusive undeniably—though still avoidable by our heart—that the whole of God’s desires are to be directly involved with the whole person for intimate relationship together as family. Since the function of the heart constitutes the relational involvement of the whole person, God cannot count on the whole person for this relational progression until it involves the heart with nothing less and no substitutes. Accordingly, this includes the “truth” or honesty of the heart presented to God for it to fulfill the intimate connection of ‘hearts open to each other and coming together’.
Yet, the vulnerable honesty of our heart as the primary basis for function is rarely discussed, much less made necessary for our life and practice with God. This indicates subscribing to (perhaps unknowingly) a theological anthropology that composes persons and relationships in reduced ontology and function shaped by human contextualization. The implication of this discrepancy, both theologically and functionally, is that we don’t really “Listen to him!” The irony in this could easily become the following for all of us:
A further irony may involve maintaining God in transcendence in order, rightly, not to reduce God to human shaping, and in turn struggling functionally to access God, who has been constrained to be accessible and vulnerable by this predisposition or bias, thus in effect reducing the whole of God to functional deism. Whatever the irony, the relational consequence is that the whole of God grieves (Lk 19:41-42; Eph 4:30) over this sad reality until we are transformed to wholeness, by necessity as persons and persons together in relationships. The deeper implication for us in all this, for which we have to account, is reinforcing counter-relational work—the genius of reductionism—despite a theology to the contrary. We need to return to the heart of the matter—not in referential terms but in the relational terms of turning around and back to (also known as repentance) the Subject of the Word.
“In spirit and truth” are the compatible qualitative relational terms that shift human persons to converge with the strategic shift of the gospel. As hearts open and come together, the gospel’s relational dynamic in distinguished relational progression unfolds as follows: redefines their persons from outer in to inner out, transforms them from reductionism, and makes them whole in the primacy of relationship together in God’s family—all of which unfolds irreducibly and nonnegotiably in the gospel of transformation to wholeness. Therefore, our theological reflections on the ontology and function of both God and the human person deepen as we understand the pivotal significance of the Samaritan woman’s experience with the improbable. The need to account for the whole person, God’s and ours, is critical to the relational dynamic of the gospel and its relational outcome in the primacy of intimate relationships together Face to face necessary to hold together God’s family in the innermost.
The relational terms that only Subject Jesus made definitive are neither optional nor idealized terms, and certainly cannot be understood as referential terms. Jesus’ relational terms embody the whole of God’s thematic relational response in the gospel and constitute the only terms by what and how God does relationships for the gospel’s reciprocal relational outcome. Understanding the qualitative significance and relational significance of the gospel, however, does not stop with the strategic relational shift. Further shifts unfold in the relational dynamic of the gospel distinguished by the relational progression to deepen our understanding and to fulfill our experience for its relational outcome. And in a further shift by the irreducible Subject of the Word, this gospel will be characterized as more of the improbable, thus neither a common nor popular gospel.
From the moment the Subject of the Word established the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of God—“I am he, the person who is speaking to you”—the face of God was distinguished unmistakably for only new relationship together, never to be merely observed. The strategic shift opened direct access to Face-to-face relationship with the whole of God. The relational dynamic of the gospel also embodies the relational progression of relationship together to its complete (as in whole, not its conclusion) relational outcome. This relational progression unfolds in the gospel with the tactical shift, the further and deeper shift of the gospel integrated with the strategic relational shift.
Any news about Messiah would be good news, especially for those who experience discrimination and dispossession. It is not clear whether the Samaritan woman, and those following her, believed in Jesus merely as the expected prophet (Jn 4:28-29, 39-42, cf. Deut 18:15-19), or also responded from their innermost to Jesus as the whole of God’s very self-disclosure for relationship together. While the former outcome was expected and probable, or at least hoped for, the latter would be an improbable expectation, a paradoxical wish at best. This suggests the difficulty not only of explaining the holy and transcendent God’s presence and involvement but also understanding the significance of God’s strategic relational shift—a difficulty compounded if approached from thinking in referential terms.
Psalm 8 reflects on the involvement of the transcendent God and Creator with the human person and raises the question (paraphrase of v.4): What is the human person that this God is involved, how can this be? This question provides a transition from the strategic shift of God’s thematic relational action to God’s tactical shift within the incarnation.
A partial theological answer to the question perhaps could be that the human person is not only God’s creation but created in God’s image as the epitome of God in all creation; thus in support of imago Dei, God maintains this involvement and caring (cf. God’s providence). Yet, this is really the wrong question to be asking because it does not focus on the primary. Attempting to explain God’s action on the basis of what defines the human person is to conclude that human persons merit or warrant God’s action—which is essentially the underlying dynamic for identity maintenance in Judaism with its identity markers. Such an explanation cannot be justified as the basis for moving the transcendent God to action. The primary question then to ask focuses on the innermost of God: Who and what are you that this is how you are—present and involved?
While OT narrative and theology define no deistic God who is detached or distant, there is deeper understanding needed for the holy and transcendent God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement. Even the strength of covenant expectations of God’s action prevailing in the intertestimental period (Second Temple Judaism) cannot adequately account for the relational significance of God’s strategic relational shift. The only answer to this question that can be offered for the improbable is not a referential narrowed-down explanation (e.g. grace as a default explanation) but emerges from the qualitative-relational understanding of God’s innermost: the relational nature of the heart of God’s ontology and function vulnerably enacting the whole of God’s relational response of grace.
As the whole ontology and function of Subject-God’s relational work of grace made a strategic shift with the incarnation, Subject Jesus’ relational work of grace makes a tactical shift for further engagement in the relational progression. With this shift, only the whole ontology and function of Jesus makes evident the gospel further in the improbable.
The improbable is not only about the relational presence of the transcendent God but also about the vulnerable involvement of the holy God, who must by nature be separate and distinguished from what is common (cf. qadosh and hol, holy and common, respectively, Lev 10:10; 11:45). In the mystery of the holy God’s direct relational involvement, Jesus’ whole person demonstrated no relational separation from the common’s context (from micro level to macro) in his ongoing vulnerable involvement. Yet Jesus’ relational involvement illuminated the qualitative innermost distinguishing his relational work of grace from the common’s function. What distinguished the holy God from pervasive common function underlies both the tactical shift for the relational progression as well as the functional significance of the gospel.
Jesus emerged in the midst of a religious context pervasive with messianic and covenant expectations, with the surrounding context prevailing in cultural, economic and political stratification. He also encountered the interacting effects of these contextual pressures in his public ministry, yet these effects neither defined nor determined what emerges in the tactical shift of the gospel. The presence of these and other contextual influences, pressures and related problems, however, have importance in the life of Jesus, and accordingly for his followers, and are valuable in our understanding of the gospel, for the following purpose: (1) they help define the pervasive common function from which Jesus’ function was distinguished; and (2) they help identify the prevailing common function from which persons needed to be redeemed. This purpose is realized with the tactical shift. The relational dynamic enacted by Jesus in the tactical shift conjointly distinguished his relational involvement in progression with persons, and distinguished those persons in their relational response in relational progression.
We had our first exposure to Jesus’ tactical shift when he called Levi to be redefined, transformed and made whole (Mt 9:9-13). Reviewing Levi’s story, it was nothing less than the embodying of the gospel—that is, the gospel that is contingent on no substitutes for a complete Christology and a full soteriology. In calling Levi, Jesus demonstrated the new perceptual-interpretive framework distinguished from what prevailed in common function; and this new framework further needs to be distinguished from what prevails today.
Jesus’ whole person crossed social, cultural and religious boundaries to extend his relational work of grace to Levi, who crossed those same barriers (for him) to respond to Jesus in order to connect in relationship together Face to face. In this highly unlikely relationship (given Levi’s status), Jesus made evident his tactical shift for deeper involvement in the relational progression. This was initially demonstrated by the significance of their table fellowship together (including the presence of other tax collectors and sinners) after Levi’s response (Mt 9:10). Levi was not only redeemed from the old but freed to relationship together in the new; dinner together was not a routine activity for pragmatic reasons (as is the Western tendency today, especially in families) but a social communion signifying a depth of relationship together involving friendship, intimacy and belonging—that is, specifically in the primacy of whole relationship together in the relational progression to God’s family. This relationship would transform Levi and make him whole, which Levi would experience even further in relational progression.
Intrusively as Subject and vulnerably as person, Jesus’ tactical shift enacts the relational dynamic in this relational progression for persons like Levi to go from a disciple (and servant) of Jesus to his intimate friend (Jn 15:15), and then to be whole together as family (Jn 14:23; 17:21). Our discipleship must by this nature account for this intimate relationship together; and our ecclesiology must by this tactical shift account in our church practice for this new relationship together as family—not just friends but sisters and brothers in the primacy of God’s family. Anything less and any substitutes in our discipleship and ecclesiology deny the relational outcome of the intrusive Subject’s tactical shift and disconnect us from the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God’s strategic shift. Thus, the question of good news or bad news keeps emerging, which the Subject holds us accountable to answer.
This new relationship and gathering were not only improbable to observing Pharisees but unacceptable (Mt 9:11). Yet the holy Jesus in vulnerable presence and intimate involvement was not making evident a relational separation from the common’s context but the distinction of his relational work of grace from common function, even in religious practice. The most probable candidates to follow Jesus would be those with messianic expectations; others likely would be the economically poor. As a low-level tax collector Levi wouldn’t assume to be aligned to the former category, and he didn’t appear to be economically poor, though certainly not rich. These candidates represent, however, what is the expected from common function—those who warrant a response. Levi represents the qualitative distinction of Jesus’ relational work of grace from the common function of those who don’t warrant a response. This reflected the perception from a different lens of this new perceptual-interpretive framework.
While celebrating Levi’s commencement in the relational progression, Jesus disputed these religious reductionists by clarifying his vulnerable presence, purpose and function (vv.12-13). In the strategic shift of God’s thematic action, the incarnation was only for direct relationship together as the whole of God’s family. As God’s ultimate response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole, Jesus vulnerably functioned to call such persons to be made whole in the likeness of the Trinity. He made this evident by definitively declaring that these persons are qualitatively distinct (but not intrinsically distinguished) from the “the healthy” (ischyo, to be whole) and from “the righteous” (dikaios, congruence in actions to one’s constitutionally just, right character, which implies wholeness instead of disparity, vv.12-13). In other words, those who were not whole and who remained apart from the whole were the persons Jesus came to be vulnerably involved with in his relational work of grace in order to reconcile them back to the whole of God.
“The sick”-“sinners,” whom Jesus called, were not those perceived by common function—that is, those commonly perceived by a surrounding context—as sick or sinners. While Jesus certainly never ignored those defined as sick and sinners, he was involved further and deeper than merely with physical disease and moral/ethical failure. Levi was not suffering physical disease, though he likely was perceived as a sinner of moral/ethical failure, assuming the stereotype for tax collectors applied to him. Yet Jesus notably pursued Levi also for the “social illness” (distinguished from physical disease) he was suffering that made him part of “the sick” (kakos, v.12). The term kakos not only denotes to be physically ill but also to be lacking in value. This suggests social interpretation (not medical) that labeled persons to be lacking in value. The consequence of having this label was exclusion from participating in valued relationships of the “whole” (as in community), thus suffering the social illness of not belonging. This expands our understanding of Levi’s condition as a tax collector, which was kakos (to be lacking in value), not ischyo (to be whole) and dikaios (to function in wholeness). Though Levi didn’t belong to the prevailing whole of the common context, Jesus changed Levi’s condition to belong (as a function of relationship, not merely membership) in God’s whole.
This also deepens and broadens our understanding of sinners and the function of sin. In the trinitarian relational context and process vulnerably engaged by Jesus, sin is the functional opposite of being whole and sinners are in the ontological-relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole. When sin is understood beyond just moral and ethical failure displeasing to God, sin becomes the functional reduction of the whole of God, thus in conflict with God as well as with that which is and those who are whole. Sin as reductionism is pervasive; and such sinners, intentionally or unintentionally, reflect, promote or reinforce this counter-relational work, even in the practice of and service to church.
At Levi’s house Jesus responded to the sin of reductionism in religious practice, both to expose its participants and to redeem his disciples for the relational progression. This involved his tactical shift, which was not about sacrifice and serving, that is, in the common function of the religious community (or a reductionist reading of Mt 20:28). Only Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus quoting “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13), which would not be unfamiliar to Jewish listeners and readers (quoted from Hos 6:6). The fact that Matthew has Jesus repeating this later, when his disciples were accused of unlawful practice on the Sabbath (Mt 12:7), is significant. The code of practice for Judaism was redefined by reductionism, thus these Pharisees did not understand the meaning of the quotation from Hosea. Jesus made it imperative to “Go and learn what this means.”
Sacrifice (and related practice) was a defining term for Jews, and also has been defining for some Christians (e.g., by misunderstanding Lk 14:33, Mk 10:21). Yet God’s strategic shift to the incarnation was not about Jesus becoming a mere sacrifice on the cross. Moreover, Jesus’ tactical shift within the incarnation was not about a change from Messiah to servant. By referring back to Hosea, Jesus made two issues clear about the practice of sacrifice, not only for Jews but for all his followers: (1) sacrifice does not define the whole person, only a part of what a person may do, thus should never be used to define that person, just as what Jesus did on the cross should not define his whole person (or it becomes an incomplete Christology); and (2) the practice of sacrifice neither has priority over the primacy of relationship nor has significance to God apart from relationship, thus its engagement must not reduce the priority and function of relational involvement.
These two important issues apply equally to service, and the term sacrifice can be replaced by service in the above for the same application. This relational clarity and relational significance are crucial to understand for both of them—particularly for the gospel of Jesus the Christ and his followers’ life and practice. Moreover, a reduction of this relational priority and function prevents us from composing a complete Christology, which embraces the whole ontology and function of the Subject Jesus. This whole Christology embraces the whole of Jesus’ person functioning in whole life and practice as the intrinsic qualitative distinction from common function (as prevails in culture).
Forms of sacrifice (particularly in Judaism) and forms of service (particularly among Jesus’ followers) without the relational involvement of the whole person both represent the common function of a religious community influenced by reductionism. Jesus’ vulnerable presence and intimate relational involvement were the qualitative distinction from this prevailing function of the common, necessary by nature to disclose access to the whole of God for the experiential truth of relationship together.
In his relational work of grace, Jesus made clearly evident the importance of Levi’s whole person and his need to be reconciled to the primary relationships necessary to be whole, thereby functionally signifying his tactical shift for further engagement in the relational progression. For his followers to go beyond sacrifice and service “and learn [manthano, understand as a disciple] what this means [eimi, to be, used as a verb of existence, ‘what this/he is’],” they need to understand the heart of Jesus’ person, not merely the meaning of these words in Hosea. That is, this is not the conventional process of learning as a common rabbinic student but the relational epistemic process characteristic of Jesus’ disciples. This then must by nature be the understanding experienced directly in relationship with Jesus the Subject, aside from any other titles and distinctions ascribed to him.
Such relational involvement is what the full quote from Hosea expands on: “I desire mercy [hesed, love], not sacrifice, and knowledge [da’at, understanding] of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6). This is not about knowing information about God, which was why those Pharisees never understood the significance of Hosea’s quote. God wants (“desire,” haphes, denotes a strong positive attraction for) the relational involvement of love in the intimate relationship together necessary to understand the whole of God. In other words, this is God’s deepest desire and priority over anything else done for God. Sacrifice and service never supersede relationship (cf. Jn 12:26). For his followers to get reduced in life and practice to sacrifice or service is to stop following Jesus in the relational progression to the whole of God, and therefore to be on a different relational path than Subject Jesus. Such reductionism needs to be redeemed for the relationship to progress.
The relational progression is further distinguished with Zacchaeus. What unfolds from Levi to Zacchaeus is certainly more improbable in contextual terms (Lk 19:1-10). The significance of this was the design of Jesus’ tactical shift, which further illuminated his qualitative innermost distinguished from common function prevailing in human context. Yet, it is not the situation that is most significant but the relational messages, connection and outcome composed by the Subject of the Word—functions that cannot emerge from an Object.
To become rich in this ancient community required power to accumulate wealth at the expense of others. Chief tax collectors (Levi’s boss) in particular became rich often by their greedy management of a system that depended on imposing unjust taxes and tolls for greater profit. Low-level tax collectors like Levi merely did their dirty work. As a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus not only bore this social stigma but clearly appeared to abuse his power to extort others by his own admission (19:8). He was a sinner in the eyes of all (not just the Pharisees, v.7), who apparently warranted no honor and respect despite his wealth—implied in not given front-row access to Jesus by the crowd, which he could have even paid for but had to climb a tree with dishonor instead (vv.3-4). The image of a short rich sinner in a tree and the Messiah coming together was a highly unlikely scenario.
In this common context, Jesus said: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must [dei] stay [meno, dwell] at your house today” (v.5). Jesus further made evident in the common’s context the intrinsic qualitative distinction of his relational work of grace from common function. This was not about hospitality necessary on his way to Jerusalem to establish a messianic kingdom. This even went beyond the table fellowship of shared community or friendship. This relational shift of God’s thematic action was only for deeper involvement in the relational progression, which Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to constitute in the new creation of God’s family.
Given Jesus’ practice of observing purity as prescribed by the law, he was not ignoring covenant practice in this interaction. Yet he functioned in clear distinction from the prevailing function of covenant practices, which had become a reduction to a code of behavior for self-definition (individual and corporate) rather than the relational function necessary by the nature of the covenant with God. A system defining human ontology and identity based on what persons do inevitably engages a comparative process that groups persons on a human totem pole or ladder. This explicit or implicit stratification reduces the importance of the whole person and fragments the primary relationships necessary to be whole. The consequence, even unintentionally among God’s people, is reinforcing the human condition “to be apart” from God’s whole.
Though Zacchaeus certainly was not lacking economically, he lacked by any other measurement. Most importantly, he lacked the wholeness of belonging to the whole of God. This was the only issue Jesus paid attention to—in demonstration of his perceptual-interpretive framework. By this qualitative lens, he didn’t see a short rich sinner up in a tree but Zacchaeus’ whole person needing to be redefined, transformed and made whole. Zacchaeus also becomes a metaphor for all such persons, whom Jesus must (dei) intrusively pursue in their innermost by the nature of God’s thematic action; this is how Jesus also pursued the rich young ruler in his innermost, without the same relational outcome as Zacchaeus. This metaphor for such persons, whom Jesus must “dwell with” (meno) by intimate relational involvement together as family, also signifies the qualitative and relational significance necessary for the gospel—which his tactical shift composes. Yet these are persons who will not be paid attention to, and thus not understood, without this qualitative lens. This is a metaphor that will not be understood, and thus ignored, without the new perceptual-interpretive framework.
The reality of this new creation of God’s family is revealed conclusively in the experiential truth of the relational progression, which God’s thematic relational work of grace initiates, Jesus’ relational work of grace constitutes and the Spirit’s completes. This new relational condition was neither a response warranted by Zacchaeus nor an experience he could construct by self-determination. While Zacchaeus declared (in the Greek present tense) that he was already making restitution and helping to restore equity for consequences of his old relational condition (19:8), this could also indicate an intention he assumed already as a foregone reality. Thus it would be an error to conclude that this was the basis for Jesus’ responsive declaration: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (v.9). This was not the result of what Zacchaeus did, however honorable an act of repentant Zacchaeus. This was only the relational outcome of Jesus’ relational work of grace: “For [gar, because] the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (v.10). The tactical shift Jesus enacted as expressed in this verse determined the outcome in the previous verse.
We need to understand the process of soteriology here in order not to have a truncated soteriology, which strains the gospel for lack of theological and functional clarity. The term “salvation” (soteria) comes from “a savior” (soter), which comes from the function “to save” (sozo). “Today salvation [from Jesus as savior] has come [ginomai, begins to be, comes into existence] to this house [oikos, a family living in a house], because [kathoti, to the degree that] this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Doctrinal predispositions and biases of a truncated soteriology (involving only what we are saved from) and an incomplete Christology (e.g., reducing Jesus’ whole person to a role as savior) prevent us from perceiving the relational process involved here and understanding the relational progression inherent to salvation (and what we are saved to).
Jesus’ whole person was vulnerably present and intimately involved with Zacchaeus for the relationship necessary to be saved. Jesus didn’t come merely to bring salvation into existence but to engage Zacchaeus for the distinct relationship to be saved “to the degree that he is a son of Abraham.” If this “degree” meant to the extent that Zacchaeus demonstrated adherence to the code of Judaism, then this was salvation coming into existence based on what Zacchaeus did in order to be identified with the lineage of Abraham. If “degree” involved the extent to which Zacchaeus engaged Jesus in the relational progression necessary to be saved, then this was salvation based on Jesus’ relational work of grace, not Zacchaeus’ lineage with Abraham. Jesus needed by nature (dei) to dwell at Zacchaeus’ house only for the latter.
What does it mean to be saved and what is this salvation that is not truncated? Limiting our discussion to the term “to save,” sozo denotes to deliver, to make whole. In Jesus’ relational work “to save,” sozo includes both and thus necessarily involves a twofold process: first, to deliver from sin and its consequence of death, and secondly to make whole in the relationship necessary together with the whole of God. Salvation (soteria) is a function of sozo. Soteriology is truncated when it is only a function of the process “to deliver”—that is, only what we are saved from. Sadly, this truncated understanding is our prevailing view of salvation. A full soteriology, however, necessarily is a function of sozo’s twofold process, which then must by its nature also involve “to make whole”—that is, including by necessity (without being optional) what we are saved to. This second function of the process is the significance of Jesus sharing directly with Zacchaeus “I must be [dei] relationally involved [meno]…” (v.5). This dei and meno “to make whole” constitutes the relational significance of the gospel of transformation to wholeness, and thus also redefines the evangelism necessary to fulfill Jesus’ commission (to be discussed later).
What are we saved to and what is the relationship necessary together with the whole of God to make us whole? The answer directly involves Jesus’ tactical shift for further and deeper involvement in the relational progression. Levi and Zacchaeus had similar experiences of Jesus vulnerably pursuing them in their condition “to be apart” from the whole; and both directly experienced his intimate relational involvement for the purpose to be made whole. Yet each of these narratives emphasizes a different aspect of the relational progression; combining their experiences with Jesus into one relational process provides us a full view of the relational progression.
The relational progression began with the call to “Follow me”—the call to be redefined, transformed and made whole. Relationship with Jesus as a disciple (mathetes) was a function of an adherent, the terms of which were only determined by Jesus. This relationship went further than the common function of traditional rabbinic students as learners preparing for the role of teachers themselves eventually. Jesus’ disciples served others (diakoneo) in various ways, yet with the paradigm making relational involvement with him the primary priority, not the work of serving (Jn 12:26, cf. 21:15-22). Disciples functioned as servants, ministers, deacons (diakonos), which tended to be perceived as the role of servant. Disciples became servants (cf. Mt 20:26-28), though with no fixed distinction between these identities.
Servant (diakonos and the functional position of doulos, slave) did reflect movement in the relational progression, as Jesus implied (in Mt 20:26-27), but this does not define its relational completion. Unfortunately, our perceptions and practice of discipleship tend to be defined by a servant model, which may need redeeming (cf. Martha’s practice, Lk 10:38-42). Yet, Levi in particular did not give up his servant role to a chief tax collector merely for another form of servanthood. Table fellowship for Levi and Zacchaeus necessarily functioned to take disciples further and deeper in relationship together than as mere servants. Table fellowship demonstrated the relational progression to friendship, intimacy and belonging. Jesus clearly constituted this movement in the relational progression when he told his disciples: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15, NIV).
Friendship in the ancient world was not loosely defined, as we experience it in the modern West and globally on the Internet. Though there were different kinds of friends, the four main characteristics of friendship involved: (1) loyalty (commitment), (2) equality, (3) mutual sharing of all possessions, and (4) an intimacy together in which a friend could share anything or everything in confidence. A good servant (or slave) would experience (1). Good friends in the Western world today would certainly experience (2), hopefully (1), and less and less likely (4), but rarely (3). Modern perspectives tend to devalue (4) and magnify (1) and (2). Though his disciples never had (2) with Jesus, they experienced the others with him; Jesus demonstrated the first (Jn 15:13), the third (Jn 15:9,11; 16:14-15) and the fourth (Jn 15:15; 16:12-13), with (4) notably signifying the nature of their relationship as Jesus shared above. The disciples were inconsistent with (4) in their response, with Peter apparently the most open to share.
The movement from disciple and servant to friend in the relational progression, however, is only a function of relationship together in its primacy. It is not an outcome from sharing time and space, activity or work together, though it certainly involves these as secondary to the primacy of relationship. Table fellowship between Jesus and his disciples signified the function of intimate relationship together in which everything could be shared—notably demonstrated in their last table fellowship together. This was not about sharing merely personal information but sharing one’s whole person. This relational involvement cannot be reduced to an activity, or shared time and space. Without the vulnerable presence of the whole person and the intimate relational involvement, there was no relational significance to whatever they did—including proclaiming the gospel. Jesus did not want mere loyal disciples and servants but friends to share intimate relationship together; he was vulnerably present and intimately involved “to seek and to save” persons for this relational progression to the whole of God. This relational process necessitates the intimate relational function of friends, nothing less and no substitutes.
Yet, friends together is not what we are saved to. Though the function of friends is necessary in the relational progression, it is insufficient for the relationship necessary together to make us whole—the only outcome of what Jesus saves us to. The relational progression does not conclude in friendship with Jesus, which has become another contemporary misperception of Jesus shaped by the prevailing influence of reductionism to define our life and practice. In Jesus’ tactical shift demonstrated with Zacchaeus for his involvement in the relational progression, Jesus alluded to both: what we are saved to, and thus the relationship necessary to be whole.
Their relationship together went further than the friendship of table fellowship, and their relational involvement went deeper into the relational progression. Though Zacchaeus’ salvation was not “because” of ancestry with Abraham, there was essentially relational connection as “a son of Abraham,” as Jesus declared (Lk 19:9)—pointing to vital connection with Abraham’s wholeness in faith (as Paul’s will later emerge). That is, “to the degree that” (kathoti) Zacchaeus’ whole person from inner out—the shift Zacchaeus also made to be compatible with Jesus—was intimately involved with Jesus on the basis of God’s relational response of grace, Jesus redeemed him from the outer in of the old (of the common’s function) and transformed him in the innermost to the new as a son belonging in the family of God represented by Abraham. Therefore in their intimate involvement together Face to face, Zacchaeus was constituted in Jesus’ very own relational context, the whole of God’s relational context of family. In other words, the Son’s Father would also become Zacchaeus’ Father and they would effectively be brothers, as Jesus indicated after the resurrection (Jn 20:17, cf. Mt 12:50). This was what Zacchaeus was saved to, and this was the relationship necessary by nature to make him whole in the innermost together in God’s whole—the relational progression to the whole of God, the Trinity irreducibly as family.
The whole of God is constituted in the life of the Trinity. Yet the wholeness of the Trinity’s life is signified neither by the titles of the trinitarian persons nor by the roles they perform. While each trinitarian person has a unique function in the economy of the Trinity, that function neither defines their persons nor determines the basis for their relationship together—that is, how they relate to and are involved with each other. Their whole persons (not modes, nor tritheism) are neither ontologically apart from the others nor functionally independent, but always by the nature of God are relationally involved in intimate relationship together as One (perhaps in perichoresis) by the relational process of love, functional family love (Jn 10:38; 14:9-11,31; 15:26; 17:10-11, Mt 3:17; 17:5). This is the whole of God, the wholeness of the Trinity’s life, that Jesus vulnerably shared for his followers to belong to and experience in likeness of the Trinity in order to be whole; and that he prayed as the central focus to form his family for the world to witness (Jn 17:20-26).
Both Zacchaeus and Levi received and responded to the three vital relational messages (about God, them and their relationship) that the ancient poet asked to experience as his salvation (Ps 35:3). While the poet’s experience of what he was saved to was limited, he did receive these relational messages sufficiently to understand that God “delights in the shalom of his servant” (Ps 35:27). Shalom is the definitive relational outcome of siym (Num 6:26), the distinguished Face’s relational work to bring change for new relationship together in wholeness that Jesus fulfilled with nothing less and no substitutes but the gospel of transformation to wholeness.
Belonging to God’s family is both a position and a function. As a position, belonging cannot be experienced by a servant (or a slave, cf. rich young ruler’s error)—nor even by a disciple without full involvement in the relational progression—but only by a son or daughter as God’s very own. As a function, belonging cannot be fulfilled by a disciple (even as friend), no matter how dedicated to serving or devoted to Jesus. Disciple and servant in effect become roles to occupy that are fulfilled by role players, that is, when involvement in the relational progression is not fully engaged. Belonging is only a relational function of those in reciprocal relationship together with the Trinity in the position as God’s very own family. This is the relational outcome that intruded on the persons of Levi and Zacchaeus.
It is this relational function of family that the face of Jesus the Subject made unmistakable, irreducible and nonnegotiable by the trinitarian relational process of family love. This points to the functional shift of Jesus’ relational work of grace to constitute his followers whole-ly in the consummation of this relational progression distinguishing the gospel—the irreducible Subject composing nothing less than its relational outcome transforming to wholeness.
The strategic and tactical shifts illuminated the face of only Subject-God, clearly distinguished from an Object. These shifts make evident the ontology of the Subject—the whole of who, what and how God is—which is inseparable from the Subject’s function. As accessed in these shifts, the Subject’s ontology and function are most notably distinguished in relationships, both within the whole of God and with others. The Trinity is not distinguished by each person’s title or role, which would create distinctions causing stratification and relational distance between them. Rather the whole of God is always distinguished by the ontology and function of the trinitarian persons inseparably being relationally involved in intimate relationship together as One, the Trinity as family (Jn 10:30; 17:21-23). Subject-God’s vulnerable self-disclosure constitutes the ontology and function in likeness that distinguishes his followers as whole and his followers in whole relationship together as family (his church). This relational outcome will fulfill Subject Jesus’ prayer above as his functional shift becomes an ontological and functional reality.
In God’s strategic and tactical shifts, the whole of God’s thematic relational action integrally converges within Jesus’ relational work of grace in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love. This coherence of relational action is completely fulfilled by Jesus’ whole person with his vulnerable relational involvement in distinguished love—the love that is further distinguished by this process of family love, of which Zacchaeus and Levi were initial recipients. With the qualitative significance and relational function of family love, Jesus (only as Subject) embodied in whole the gospel’s functional shift—the function necessary for the innermost involvement in the relational progression in order to bring it (and his followers) to relational consummation (not yet to full conclusion). What is this family love specific to the trinitarian relational process?
During their last table fellowship, Jesus intimately shared with his disciples-friends “I will not leave you orphaned” (Jn 14:18). While Jesus’ physical presence was soon to conclude, his intimate relational involvement with them would continue—namely through his relational replacement, the Spirit (14:16-17). This ongoing intimate relational involvement is clearly the dynamic function of the trinitarian relational process of family love, which directly involves all the trinitarian persons (Jn 14:16-18,23). Yet, the full qualitative significance (in relational terms not referential) of this dynamic of family love is not understood until we have whole understanding (synesis) of the relational significance of Jesus’ use of the term “orphan” and his related concern.
In their ancient social context orphans were powerless and had little or no recourse to provide for themselves, which was the reason God made specific provisions for them in the OT (Dt 14:29, Isa 1:17,23, cf. Jas 1:27). This might suggest that Jesus was simply assuring his disciples that they would be taken care of. This would address the contextual-situational condition of orphans but not likely the most important and primary issue: their relational condition. It is critical to understand that Jesus’ sole concern here is for the relational condition of all his followers, a concern that Jesus ongoingly pursued during the incarnation (e.g. Lk 10:41-42; Jn 14:9; 19:26-27), after the resurrection (e.g. Lk 24:25; Jn 21:15-22), and in post-ascension (e.g. Rev 2:4; 3:20). Moreover, to understand the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel is to have whole understanding of the gospel’s relational dynamic unfolding the depth of God’s relational response to the breadth of the relational condition of all humanity.
Orphans essentially lived relationally apart; that is, they were distant or separated from the relationships necessary to belong to the whole of family—further preventing them from being whole. Even orphans absorbed into their extended kinship network were not assured of the relational function of belonging in its qualitative relational significance. The relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole and to not experience the relational function of belonging to the whole of God’s family would be intrinsic to orphans. This relational condition, which is also innermost to the human condition, defines the relational significance of Jesus’ concern for his disciples not to be relational orphans but to relationally belong. What addresses an orphan’s relational condition is the process of adoption. Without adoption, distinguished in the primacy of whole relationship together as family, this relational condition remains unresolved, Therefore, Jesus’ relational work of grace by the trinitarian relational process of family love enacted the process of adoption, together with the Spirit, to consummate the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human relational condition (Jn 1:12-13, cf. Mt 12:48-50; Mk 10:29-30). Paul later provided the theological and functional clarity for God’s relational process of family love and its relational outcome of adoption into God’s family (Eph 1:4-5, 13-14; 5:1; Rom 8:15-16, Gal 4:4-7).
In referential terms, adoption either becomes doctrinal information about a salvific transaction God made, which we can have more-or-less certainty about. Or adoption could be merely a metaphor that may have spiritual value but no relational significance. Both views continue to lack understanding of the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel and further misre-present the gospel’s relational outcome in the innermost. The qualitative relational outcome from Jesus’ intimate involvement of family love constitutes his followers in relationship together with the whole of God as family, so that Jesus’ Father becomes their Father (Jn 14:23) and they become “siblings” (adelphoi, Jn 20:17, cf. Is 63:16; Rom 8:29). If the functional significance of adoption is diminished by or minimalized to referential terms—or simply by reductionism and its counter-relational work—the relational consequence for our life and practice is to function in effect as ‘relational orphans’. In the absence of his physical presence, Jesus’ only concern was for his followers to experience the ongoing intimate relational involvement of the whole of God in the primacy of whole relationship together as family—which the functional shift of his relational work of grace made permanent by adoption. This relational action established them conclusively in the relational progression as family together, never to be “let go from the Trinity as orphans” (aphiemi, as Jesus said).
Functional and relational orphans suffer in the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s relational whole, consequently they lack belonging in the innermost to be whole. While this is a pandemic relational condition, it can also become an undetected endemic functional condition among his followers and in church practice—even with strong association with Christ and extended identification with the church. It is an undetected condition when it is masked by the presence of ontological simulations and epistemological illusions from reductionist substitutes—for example, performing roles, fulfilling service, participation in church activities (most notably in the Eucharist) and membership (including baptism), yet without the qualitative function from inner out of the whole person and without the relational involvement together vulnerably in family love. When Christian life and practice is without this qualitative-relational significance, it lacks wholeness because it effectively functions in the relational condition of orphans, functional and relational orphans. This then suggests the likelihood that many churches today (particularly in the global North) function more like orphanages than family—that is, gatherings of members having organizational cohesion and a secondary identity belonging to an institution but without belonging in the primary relationship together distinguished only in the innermost of family. This exposes the need to be redeemed further from the influence of reductionism in the human relational condition, most commonly signified by the human shaping of relationships together, which the relational function of family love directly and ongoingly addresses for relationship together as family in likeness of the Trinity.
In its most innermost function, the trinitarian relational process of family love can be described as the following communicative and creative action by the whole of God:
This is the innermost depth of the Trinity’s family love, which vulnerably discloses both the relational significance of God’s relational work of grace and the qualitative significance clearly distinguishing Jesus’ relational involvement from common function, even as may prevail in church and academy.
By the relational nature of the Trinity, the trinitarian relational process of family love is a function always for relationship, the relationship of God’s family. These are the relationships functionally necessary to be whole in the innermost that constitutes God’s family. That is, distinguished family love is always constituting and maturing God’s family; therefore, family love always pursues the whole person, acts to redeem persons from their outer-in condition and to transform them from inner out, and addresses the involvement necessary in the primacy of relationships to be whole as family together in likeness of the Trinity. In only relational terms, family love functionally acts on and with the importance of the whole person to be vulnerably involved in the primacy of intimate relationships together of those belonging in God’s family. When the trinitarian relational process of family love is applied to the church and becomes functional in church practice, any church functioning as an orphanage can be redeemed from counter-relational work to function whole as God’s family together. Then its members will not only occupy a position within God’s family but also engage from inner out and experience the relational function necessarily involved in belonging in the innermost of God’s family that integrally holds them together—together not merely in unity but whole together as one in the very likeness of the Trinity, just as Jesus prayed for his church family (Jn 17:20-26).
In this functional shift enacted for the gospel, Jesus’ relational function of family love vulnerably engaged his followers for the innermost involvement in the relational progression to the whole of God’s family. This integrally, as well as intrusively, involved the following relational dynamic: being redefined (and redeemed) from outer in to inner out and being transformed (and reconciled) from reductionism and its counter-relational work, in order to be made whole together in the innermost as family in likeness of the Trinity. Theologically, redemption and reconciliation are inseparable; and the integral function of redemptive reconciliation is the relational outcome of being saved to the whole of God’s family with the veil removed to eliminate any relational separation or distance (as Paul clarified, Eph 2:14-22). The irreducible and nonnegotiable nature of this integral relational dynamic of family love must (dei) then by its nature be an experiential truth having qualitative-relational significance for this wholeness to be a reality of consummated belonging to God’s family. Family love also then necessarily involves clarifying what is not a function of God’s family, and correcting misguided ecclesiology and church practices, and even contending with what misrepresents God’s family. The integrity of God’s whole is an ongoing concern of family love. This was further illuminated by Jesus when his family love exposed the ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of family, along with its counter-relational work—exposed by his relational action centered on a familiar theme composed with relational words in relational language, not referential: “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-47).
Jesus made unmistakable that the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole is pandemic (and enslaves us all to sin as reductionism, 8:34), thus critically endemic to those who labor in ontological simulations and epistemological illusions of God’s family (8:35,39,42). What Jesus distinguished with his relational words in relational language was both in contrast to and conflict with what prevailed in human contexts (8:43)—the influence of which permeates even gatherings of God’s people. To be distinguished necessitates meeting the contingencies of Jesus’ familiar words above. His familiar words are an integral relational message first contingent on his inseparable relational words connected to them: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” In spite of this context, these familiar words are usually separated from their contingency on this integral structure of Jesus’ relational message. The contingency of discipleship, however, is not met by merely following his disembodied words or teaching, which also are derelationalized. It can only be fulfilled by following Jesus’ whole person, which Jesus made paradigmatic for discipleship (Jn 12:26) and the Father made relationally imperative (Mt 17:5). To “know the truth” is not a referential fragmentary truth but the whole of the embodied Truth as Subject in the primacy of relationship. Therefore, “make you free” further involves a contextual contingency communicated in Jesus’ complete relational message. In other words, there is no relational progression to belong in God’s family without redemption, and there is no redemption to be reconciled together as family without receiving and relationally responding to Jesus’ family love in his functional shift (Jn 8:35-36).
The relational progression does not and cannot stop at just being a disciple, or end with liberation as it did for many in Israel. The prevailing influences from the surrounding contexts—most notably present in the human relational condition shaping relationships together, yet existing even in gatherings of God’s people—either prevent further movement in the relational progression or diminish deeper involvement in its primacy of relationship. God’s salvific act of liberation is never an end in itself but an integral part of God’s creative action for new relationship together in wholeness—the distinguished Face’s relational work of siym and shalom. The embodied Truth in the trinitarian relational process of family love is the fulfillment of the whole of God’s thematic relational response, nothing less than the strategic shift of God’s relational work of grace. And God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement distinguished within the Truth as Subject are solely for the primacy of this relational outcome. From the beginning, liberation (redemption, peduyim, pedut, pedyom, Ps 111:9) was initially enacted by God for the Israelites in contingency with the Abrahamic covenant’s primacy of relationship together (the relational outcome of shakan, “dwell,” Ex 29:46). To be redeemed was never merely to be set free but freed to be involved in the relational progression together. Moreover, redemption is conclusively relationship-specific to the whole of God’s family together on just God’s relational terms, which are the relational context and process the Truth embodied. Jesus’ relational words must be understood in the whole context of God’s thematic relational action as well as in their immediate context. By the strategic, tactical and functional shifts of God’s relational work of grace, Jesus the Subject fulfilled God’s relational response to the human condition, thereby also defining the contextual contingency of the familiar words of his relational message. Jesus’ relational language is unequivocal: the embodied Truth is the only relational means available for his followers to be liberated from their enslavements to reductionism (or freed from a counter-relational condition, Jn 8:33-34), for the innermost relational purpose and outcome, so that they can be adopted as the Father’s own daughters and sons and, therefore, be distinguished as intimately belonging to his family permanently (meno, 8:34-36; cf. shakan above).
Additionally in contrast, the immediate context of Jesus’ relational words further defines a reduced servant (doulos) as one who is not free to experience God as Father and participate (meno, dwell) in his family as his own child (as Paul clarified theologically and functionally, Rom 8:15-16; Gal 4:6-7). Any mere servant, or mere disciple stalled in the relational progression, must be redeemed first, then must be adopted to belong in its innermost relational significance. This integrated context makes clear the contextual contingency in Jesus’ relational message declaring adoption as irreplaceable. Anything less and any substitutes for God’s people are reduced in function to ontological simulations and epistemological illusions. Whatever forms these simulations and illusions from reductionism may have in church practice today (including as an orphanage), these persons have no position of significance nor belong in the innermost with relational function in God’s family as long as the adoption process is not complete. Without the relational reality of adoption, a church functions in a reductionist substitute, at most, and engages in counter-relational work, at least (the implications of Jn 8:43-44 among God’s people). And without experiencing redemptive reconciliation in the primacy of intimate relationship with the embodied Truth who “will make you free” (v.32), there is no other relational means for the outcome of adoption. If we find ourselves (as person and church) in this critical condition, then what relational position does this put us with the whole of God, and what is the extent of the good news that we assume to claim?
The challenge of God’s face being present and involved has been fulfilled by the unmistakable face of Jesus in his deepest profile of whole ontology and function—the irreducible Subject of the Word. In the functional shift of Subject Jesus’ relational work of grace, his family love whole-ly constitutes his followers in their innermost—by the relational progression to the whole of God—in the relationships necessary to be whole together as the triune God’s very own family. This is the only relational outcome that is congruent with God’s thematic relational response to the human relational condition, that Jesus’ whole person vulnerably fulfilled with his strategic, tactical and functional shifts in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love. And anything less and any substitutes of Jesus’ ontology and function as Subject render him in an incomplete Christology. This is the only qualitative and relational significance the whole gospel of Jesus the Subject composes—nothing less and no substitutes. And without this qualitative-relational significance, the gospel is reduced to a truncated soteriology about only what we are saved from and to a fragmented soteriology without the whole (God’s relational whole) that holds us together in our innermost both as the person in God’s image and as persons together in the Trinity’s likeness.
As the Subject of the Word unfolds irreducibly, the Subject intrudes in our lives, persons and relationships to compose the heart of our theology and practice. That is, assuming both that we fulfill the challenge for our face (“in spirit and truth”) that can only be presented by the unmistakable Face fulfilling the challenge of God’s face. Without the Subject whole-ly establishing God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement, there is no relational connection, no ongoing relationship and no reciprocal involvement together. Therefore, this whole gospel and its whole outcome are contingent on the irreducible Subject’s complete Christology, for which we must give account in our theology and practice—that is, for us (both as person and church) to be transformed in his relational progression to wholeness.
When Jesus shared with his disciples that he must go to the cross, Peter strongly corrected him and said “No” (Mt 16:21-22). When Jesus wanted to be intimately involved with his disciples and wash their feet, Peter quickly replied “No” (Jn 13:8). Peter’s reactions to Jesus appear to be the exception, but they are in reality quite common (if not the rule) among Christians. How so?
Peter had difficulty adjusting to Jesus the Subject, whose whole ontology and function made it uncomfortable for Peter to deal with. That involved Peter having to go beyond the limits of both a narrowed-down epistemic field and his personal comfort zone. So, Peter had the choice: either to reduce Jesus to an object shaped by Peter’s terms, or to accept Jesus the Subject and thus change to the relational terms of Jesus’ whole ontology and function. This ongoing choice is simply stated in relational terms, though certainly not simply enacted or readily made; and we all face this choice ongoingly. Theologically speaking, the choice is between either maintaining an incomplete Christology or embracing a complete Christology. While the former choice may hold in focus the Object of the Word, however fragmentary, the latter choice embraces the irreducible Subject of the Word.
This choice is more complicated than appears since the distinction between Christologies is commonly blurred, thereby easily allowing an incomplete Christology to mistakenly represent a complete Christology or to simply substitute for it. Our interpretive lens underlies this blurred perspective and forms the basis for an incomplete Christology, reducing Jesus’ ontology and function, and transposing the Subject of the Word to an Object. All of this can be assumed by the ingenious alternative, method and means of the referentialization of the Word.
Along with our theology, the implication of this for all Christian practice is that the Jesus we think we are following could be on a different trajectory and path than the person distinguished irreducibly by the Subject of the Word. So, what choice have you been making about the Word?
The revelation of the Word emerged integrally from the improbability of God’s theological trajectory as well as the intrusiveness of the Face’s relational path. They are inseparable for God’s self-revelation to be complete. Merely focusing on one without the other does not distinguish the transcendent whole and holy God or God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement in the human context.
When Paul asked “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13), he pointed directly to the fragmented state of the church that resulted from a narrowly focused theological task, further resulting in a divided theology. How we perceive the improbable theological trajectory of the embodied Word and approach the intrusive path of Jesus’ whole person will determine how probable (as in certainty) or improbable (as in whole) our conclusions will be epistemologically, hermeneutically, ontologically and relationally. The critical issue of the distinction between probable and improbable, certainty and whole, involves how deeply our conclusions hold together and as a result how complete they are. The transcendent God beyond the universe is both holy and whole. Yet, we can only know this beyond our self-understanding by the improbable revelation of God’s trajectory from outside the universe that interposed the human context to vulnerably intrude in our personal space—intrude on us from inner out as the whole Subject. We cannot have the transcendent God without this relationally personal God, or the converse, and expect our conclusions about God to be other than fragmentary.
Many, of course, would not affirm the dividing of Christ. Yet, subscribing to the mere idea of a fragmented Christ is often evident upon examining our assumptions about Jesus; and this fragmentation emerges even as it is practiced knowingly or unintentionally in the theological task. The consequence is still that dividing Christ irreversibly results in divided theology, the fragmentary condition of which is evidenced in the elusiveness of whole theology, the absence of the whole gospel, and the lack of wholeness in persons and relationships together, noticeably practiced in both the church and academy. Peter’s confessions of faith certainly did not subscribe to dividing Christ. His theological formation, however, was a prime example of this fragmentary condition in his divided (hybrid) theology.
Even though Peter had multiple interactions directly with Jesus, the influence of human contextualization on Peter shaped his lens of Jesus down to the limits of a narrowed epistemic field in referential terms. Thus, for example, his messiah could not incur the improbability of the cross (Mt 16:21-22), and his Lord could not bear the indignity of footwashing (Jn 13:6-8) that intruded on the vulnerability of both Jesus’ person and Peter’s. The referentialization of the Word accomplishes two critical functions in the process of dividing Christ:
The dynamic of these two functions in the referentialization of the Word unfolded in Peter’s response to Jesus’ person—initially in his improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path—and to their relationship together during their interaction walking on water (Mt 14:22-23). Seeing Jesus in this context challenged Peter to expand his epistemic field to test the improbable. Various dynamics converge in this experiential (and perhaps experimental) moment.
Peter initially engages Jesus’ whole person (“if it is you…”) in Jesus’ relational context (“…command me to come to you”). The situation is only the secondary matter to pay attention to here whereas the relational process of their involvement together is primary. Peter is making his whole person vulnerable to Jesus on Jesus’ relational terms—though there is some element of “prove it” contingency to Peter’s faith, yet not in a passive sense without Peter’s full relational involvement. Unfortunately, Peter only pays attention to Jesus’ person and the relationship for a brief significant moment. His focus soon shifts to the situation, which then produces the fear causing a plea to Jesus only in the role to save him from his circumstances. The significance of this shift, in contrast to the beginning of this interaction, involves a critical dynamic: Jesus’ person is reduced to what he can do and the primacy of relationship is replaced by the secondary matter of the situation and circumstances. That is, as Peter’s focus shifted to the secondary, his epistemic field quickly narrowed back to the probable of his perceptual lens that defined the limits of his theology. Obviously, then, ‘certainty’ became an urgent matter for Peter, yet walking on water was not an issue until the secondary became primary. While the matter of Jesus’ self-disclosure on the water becomes obscured here, Peter’s theology—shaped by his function and not his earlier confession—can no longer account for the improbable. Based on a theology of the probable, Peter had no business walking on water; and his theology could only include being saved from trying to do so, in spite of the reality of Jesus’ self-disclosure on the water to signify what Peter is saved to: “to come to you…Come” in the primacy of relationship together. This reduced their relationship together and attempted to renegotiate it to Peter’s terms—evidence of an incomplete Christology. And the fragmenting process that Peter engages becomes the basis for his unfolding hybrid theology. Moreover, the above process also describes many who enter theological engagement relationally focused on God but then get distracted from the primary by the secondary in the theological task, with an equivalent result of formulating their own hybrid theology.
Any salvation that does not also save to, and make whole, in the relational outcome of the relational progression—that Jesus enacted in the strategic, tactical and functional shifts of the gospel—simply misrepresents the gospel. Any gospel that does not consummate in the innermost belonging in God’s family sadly misrepresents the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition. Such misre-presentations are crucial to understand and are necessary to challenge both in church and the academy. Belonging to God’s family, for example, may not be congruent with belonging to a church. The church signifies God’s family but a church may not compose God’s family in the primacy of whole relationships together. Any church life and function that is not constituted in the primacy of whole relationships together critically misrepresents God’s family, the new creation. The interrelated dynamic above is both inseparable and unavoidable, which Paul will clearly expose and make definitive in the discussion ahead.
Many issues thought to be supplemental to the gospel—for example, righteousness, sanctification, discipleship, church structure and composition—are primary to what the gospel is. Many issues thought to be primary for the gospel—for example, doctrinal certainty and purity, referential acts both missional and social—are secondary to what the gospel is. That is to say, when the gospel is reduced to fragmentary terms without the whole, there is misinformed definition of what the gospel is and misguided determining of how the gospel is, even though who the gospel represents may be referentially correct. What is primary or secondary involves the underlying issue of the whole gospel distinguished from a referential fragmentary gospel. Paul further provides the theological and functional clarity necessary for the gospel of transformation to wholeness; and complete Christology is integral to the whole of Paul and the whole in his theology—integrating both his ontology and function and his theology and practice.
The relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul is illuminated in Paul’s theology. How clearly this synthesis is illuminated for us depends on our perceptual-interpretive lens of various issues. While the synthesis of Paul and Jesus perhaps suggests a systematic theology—which I emphasize never concerned Paul—their synthesis involves a systemic framework that accounts for the relational dynamic of God’s thematic action from creation (and prior to) in response to the human condition. This was Paul’s integral concern and purpose to pleroo (make full, complete, whole, Col 1:25) the word of God for the further embodying of the theology and hermeneutic of the whole gospel. And he engaged this function to illuminate for us whole knowledge and understanding of God (synesis, Col 2:2-4), which includes more than some integration of parts of Jesus and Paul and more deeply involves the relational outcome of their synthesis.
In spite of the activity of the early apostles, Jesus curiously told Paul that he will “testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you” (Acts 26:16). Jesus and Paul converged on the Damascus road for the integration of the embodied Word with Paul’s witness to pleroo the word from God and of God, in order for God’s people together to be whole, God’s whole family on God’s qualitative relational terms. The apostles notwithstanding, Paul’s “witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15) would be integral to the experiential truth of the whole gospel distinguished by the Subject of the Word from outside the universe in the beginning. The Jesus of the so-called quest for the historical Jesus is not congruent with God’s self-disclosure in the incarnation, indeed not even compatible. Accordingly, if Jesus cannot be incompatible with God’s thematic relational response to the human condition, and thus must be congruent with God’s revelation, then our view of Paul would be incongruent with all of God’s communicative action (as in the canon) if Paul himself were not also completely compatible with the whole of Jesus, and thereby a complete witness of the Subject Jesus, God’s revelation and thematic response (cf. Paul’s implied position on the “canon,” i.e. “what is written,” kanon, 1 Cor 4:6; 2 Cor 10:13). The implication is, therefore, if we can’t get Jesus right, then we can’t get Paul right; and if we don’t have Paul right, then we haven’t gotten Jesus right.
Jesus and Paul can only be whole-ly integrated on the level of the whole of God’s relational context and process, in which the Subject Word (relational not referential) and his pleroo-witness emerge in relationship together to be whole, live whole and make whole. “Witness” (martys) is a term for a person who possesses knowledge of someone (or something) and thus can confirm that one (or thing). The epistemic process engaged by the witness determines the level of knowledge the witness possesses, and thereby the extent of confirmation that witness can make about someone. That is, a full witness of Jesus the Subject of “what you have seen and heard” has to, as Jesus made requisite earlier, “pay attention to [blepo, carefully examine and be aware of] how you listen” (Lk 8:18), and accordingly “listen to the words you hear” with the necessity of relational involvement based on the paradigm “to the extent you are involved, to that extent you will receive, and more will be given” (Mk 4:24). Carefully examining and ongoingly being aware of how one listens to the Word from God characterizes the development of Paul’s witness in this reciprocal relational epistemic process; and Paul was a witness deeply involved with Christ in relationship together. It is curious, then, why Jesus did not simply count on his first disciples to be the integral witnesses of “what you have seen and heard.” What, if anything, distinguished Paul’s witness from theirs?
A witness with only quantitative knowledge about Jesus from a conventional epistemology can only confirm limited information about the historical Jesus as Object-for-observation—information which could be referentially compatible with Jesus but also would be relationally incompatible with his person and hereby lack congruence. To witness to the whole of Jesus’ person also as Subject-for-relationship involves a deeper epistemology engaging the relational epistemic process with the relational outcome of whole knowledge, not merely quantitative knowledge about informational fragments. This requires a perceptual-interpretive lens that pays attention to the qualitative and relational significance of Jesus and engages him in relationship accordingly—with which the first disciples demonstrated having difficulty. A true and full witness of Jesus, therefore, must be vulnerably involved as a direct participant in whole relationship together with Jesus the Subject, not a mere observer, in order to confirm the whole of who, what and how Jesus is. Paul was this complete participant-witness of Jesus not by mere appointment but from his reciprocal relational involvement constituted by the whole of God’s vulnerable relational response of grace to him—the whole of whom he continued to experience further and deeper in relationship together “to know Christ” intimately without the veil (Phil 3:10-11). The relational outcome was that Paul’s whole knowledge of Jesus, the embodied Truth only for relationship, was the experiential truth of the whole gospel for whom he was a witness—the integral witness of the pleroma (fullness, complete, whole) of God and who pleroo (to fulfill, complete) the words of God.
Just for clarification, “the pleroma of God” was not a concept signifying some esoteric knowledge about or vague sphere of the mystery of God, as Valentinus misinterpreted from Paul to develop the Pleroma for Gnostics in the second century. Nor was “the pleroma of God” a conceptual-theological person. Rather this pleroma personally residing (katoikeo) in the embodied Jesus was the whole God person who functioned only to reconcile for relationship together in wholeness with God (Col 1:19-22). Nothing less and no substitutes than the relational ontology of the whole of God could constitute this pleroma, nor could anything less and any substitute constitute Jesus as “the image of God” (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:4) to disclose this relational function—which Marcion erred in doing by also misinterpreting Paul in the second century to support his docetic view that Jesus only appeared to be in bodily flesh. This was the One and Only who exegetes God (Jn 1:18) with his whole person in vulnerable face-to-face involvement in relationship: “God…who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). This was in continuity with God’s disclosure “face to face” with Moses (Num 12:6-8), yet now with complete self-disclosure of the whole of God vulnerably embodied in the face of Christ Jesus the Subject.
Both Jesus and Paul ongoingly challenge our theological and functional assumptions, just as the prophets did. Jesus challenges our assumptions of how we perceive and define his person, how we follow him, how we function in relationship with him, serve him and practice church—in other words, challenge our basic assumptions about the gospel. Paul extends these challenges and clearly illuminates pleroma theology, from which emerges the ecclesiology of the whole nonnegotiably based on the experiential truth of the whole gospel irreducibly composed by whole relationship together with the whole of Subject Jesus, the pleroma of God, in order to integrally embody the pleroma of Christ (the church, Eph 1:22-23)—not a divided Christ shaped into an Object.
Paul’s Christology initially emerges in his cosmology to establish Christ as the Creator (Col 1:16-17), defined as the immortal, invisible, mono God (1 Tim 1:17). From his transcendence, Christ enacted God’s complex relational dynamic from top down in the mysterious and improbable relational process of embodiment—the outcome of which made Christ vulnerable for intimate relationship with reduced persons, and the consequence of which made Christ vulnerable for the effects of the sin of reductionism—that Paul highlighted in a hymn most likely from the Jesus tradition (Phil 2:5-8).
In Paul’s Christology the incarnation set in motion the relational dynamic embodying the pleroma (fullness, complete, whole) of God (Col 1:19), the pleroma of the Godhead (Col 2:9), who is the image of God (Col 1:15) vulnerably revealing the whole of God’s glory (qualitative being and relational nature) in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6) only for relationship together as God’s family (Eph 1:5, 13-14; Col 1:20-22). God’s relational action ‘in Christ’ involves these complex theological dynamics, which often need the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of tamiym for their wholeness. Complex theological dynamics for Paul never involved the separation of theology from practice; by necessity Paul integrated his theology with practice in order for all our theology and practice to be whole.
For example, ‘in Christ’ is Paul’s major use of shorthand relational language for the complex theological dynamics continuing to unfold in his theological framework-forest. This is neither a motif for theological discourse merely about Christ’s death and its significance, nor a mere theological construct for the doctrine and events of Christ—both of which tend to perceive ‘in Christ’ with only a quantitative lens. For Paul, ‘in Christ’ is not a conceptual phrase without functional significance. Moreover, it is insufficient to shift to a qualitative perception of ‘in Christ’ as Paul’s mysticism devoid of his whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) of the mystery of Christ embodying God’s relational dynamic. At the same time, this language should not be spiritualized for application only to the individual and hereby reduce it from its relational function for relationship together in God’s family. In Paul’s shorthand, ‘in Christ’ is the relational action and outcome from God’s relational dynamic embodying the deepest desire of God’s purpose planned with the relational context and process necessary for whole relationship together in God’s qualitative image and relational likeness.
The image of God conjoined with the glory of God and integrated in the face of Christ has been interpreted, for example, in terms of epiphany in the OT and Jewish mysticism (Merkabah-vision in Eze 1). This lens perceives something qualitative with a hermeneutic taken from within the quantitative limits of terms defined or shaped by human contextualization, albeit primarily religious. Paul's Christology, however, is rooted beyond human contextualization and deeper than mysticism; and Paul's readers must keep in focus that his Christology was first his experiential truth of the incarnation relationally extended to him by the whole of Subject Jesus. In this relational contrast with both human contextualization and mysticism, the image, glory and face of God are deeply understood only in the relational context of God’s relational response of the definitive blessing of his people (i.e. Num 6:24-26)—the face of God illuminated on his children for wholeness in relationship together (cf. Ps 67:1-2). This is the distinguished Face that the face of Christ, as the image of God, whole-ly embodied in the incarnation to relationally disclose unmistakably the glory of the whole of God only for vulnerable involvement in relationship. Paul’s Christology signified the fulfillment of this definitive relational blessing in which the whole of God’s face intimately turned, shined and restored wholeness to all life and function, notably Paul’s own life and function.
In Paul’s theology, the complex theological dynamics of God’s relational response converge in the gospel of Christ; and in the reflexive dynamic of Paul’s theology, the whole gospel converges in the incarnation, the whole Subject of Jesus embodying the whole of God. Without converging and being contextualized in the incarnation of the Subject, any other gospel can only have a human shape that essentially misre-presents the gospel. That is, any gospel contextualized apart from ‘in Christ’ has reduced the relational significance of the whole of God’s thematic relational dynamic embodied by only Jesus the Subject in response to the human condition, and consequently has diminished, minimalized or precluded the wholeness of “the gospel of Christ” and substituted a gospel shaped or renegotiated by human terms (Gal 1:6-7; Col 2:4,8). Along with Jesus, Paul challenges the gospel we claim and holds us accountable for the gospel we proclaim.
Thus, a theology of Jesus has to be both compatible with the whole gospel and sufficient against any human shaping or construction from reductionism. These were accounted for in Paul’s Christology of the whole of Subject Jesus, who was neither reduced by bottom-up shaping nor renegotiated by human terms to an Object. His Christology then went further than the limits of the Jesus tradition (the existing Christian beliefs of the early church) and even deeper than the early perceptions of the other apostles (cf. Gal 2:6-9; 2 Pet 3:15-16). The developing depth of experiential truth with Christ and the Spirit illuminated the whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) to compose Paul’s Christology (cf. Eph 3:4; Col 1:25-27). This dynamic flow to his theology is signified in the following framework:
This is not only a linear flow but a reflexive dynamic, which signifies the involvement in relationship together necessary for the relational epistemic process both to know God and to make God known (cf. Col 2:2; Eph 1:17-19; 3:16-19). The whole of Paul’s witness was complete only because of experiencing Christ in whole relationship together and following Christ in this primacy, without which the whole in his theology has no basis and significance. We need to learn both from Paul’s whole theology and his whole practice.
Paul’s pleroma Christology does not elaborate on the incarnation as event (cf. Gal 4:4-5), but assumes that knowledge with the Jesus tradition. His theological discourse on Christ did not follow the footsteps of Jesus’ deeds and example; nor did it follow the footprints about Jesus’ teachings for an overly christocentric doctrine. Paul concentrates instead on the complex theological dynamics of God’s relational dynamic embodied ‘in Christ’. His discourse on Christ was the experiential truth of following the whole of Jesus’ person embodying the relational context and process of God’s relational dynamic. This, I emphasize, explains why Paul made little reference to Jesus’ sayings/teachings in his letters. Paul neither reduced Jesus to nor disembodied-derelationalized Jesus’ person from his teachings or example. Moreover, even though Paul gives major attention to Christ’s death and resurrection, he was not focused on this as event (the Christ-event), a focus which ironically reduces and disembodies the whole of Jesus from the cross—not referentially but relationally. Paul’s focus was illuminating the qualitative function of Subject Jesus’ whole person embodying from inner out God’s relational dynamic in whole response to the human condition—just as Jesus called Paul to illuminate and confirm (martys) “the qualitative things in which you have seen me from inner out and to those relational dynamics in which I will appear to you” (Acts 26:16). By the clear nature of the incarnation constituted in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, Paul’s discourse on Christ did not define Jesus by the reductionist terms of what he did (death), even in reality, and of what he had (teachings), even in truth. Therefore, the emergence of Paul’s theological discourse on Jesus Christ was nothing less and no substitutes indeed of pleroma (complete and whole) Christology.
What distinguishes pleroma Christology from an incomplete Christology of anything less or any substitutes? The short answer is wholeness: that is, the whole of God’s relational dynamic embodying the whole of God’s relational context and process in whole response to the human condition, in order to fulfill God’s whole desire and purpose to be made whole and thus live whole in relationship together as God’s whole family, nothing less and no substitutes. Incomplete Christologies may point to or address some aspect(s) of God’s relational dynamic, notably grace and love; yet they remain fragmentary and thus incomplete because God’s relational process or even relational context is not perceived with the qualitative lens necessary for the whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) to take in the irreducible and nonnegotiable experiential truth of this embodied wholeness of God’s whole. Paul’s pleroma Christology is inseparable from the experiential truth of the whole gospel, for which Paul relationally fought so lovingly in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes while conjointly fighting passionately against anything less and any substitutes from reductionism. It is within Paul’s functional purpose for the gospel that much of his theology in general and Christology in particular converge; on this basis they are expressed in inseparable functional terms, not in what has since become conventional theological discourse. ‘In Christ’ is the summary functional expression of Paul’s relational language that signifies definitive discourse of the pleroma Christology unfolding in his theological framework-forest—which is always integrated with practice and never separated from each other, or theology and practice are fragmented and unable to be whole.
Read from a quantitative interpretive framework, Paul’s Christology appears to be both fragmentary in its lack of direct reference to Jesus’ sayings/teachings, and incomplete or skewed due to his dominant focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yet, such a reduced framework using a quantitative lens (in contrast to phronema and phroneo by the Spirit, Rom 8:5-6) does not account for the whole of Paul’s witness to which Jesus called him; nor can it account for the whole in his theology for which he was given relational responsibility (oikonomia) to pleroo the word of God (Col 1:25). Paul’s focus was not on secondary areas defining Jesus but on the whole Subject of the Word composing the gospel of transformation to wholeness, and on the primacy of the relational outcome in new relationship together in wholeness. Not to understand this whole of and in Paul is not to understand the whole of God in the incarnation and thus ‘in Christ’, leaving in fact only an incomplete Christology that is fragmentary or distorted.
Paul’s theology of wholeness is the underlying dynamic of his pleroma Christology, which is necessary to distinguish it from an incomplete Christology. The irreducible and nonnegotiable dynamic of wholeness is what Jesus the Subject constituted in the incarnation of his own person and, likewise, constituted for human persons (both individually and collectively) by his incarnation in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes for all life and function (both for his person and human persons, Col 2:9-10). Therefore, Paul’s pleroma Christology further emerges to make definitive ‘in Christ’ the functions for epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction necessary for wholeness in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the pleroma of God. These functions ‘in Christ’ are the following:
These qualitative and relational functions ‘in Christ’, both for his person and human persons in relationship together, function always by the nature of wholeness in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes.
This is the pleroma Christology unfolding in Paul’s theological framework-forest, and that unfolded whole because of two critical engagements by Paul: (1) Paul’s Christology vulnerably followed Jesus on his intrusive relational path, not just his theological trajectory, and (2) Paul conjointly fought against any and all reductionism of the whole gospel and its whole relational outcome.
Beginning with his face-to-Face encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, Paul experienced directly this relational dynamic of Christ's face illuminating the image and glory of God (2 Cor 4:4,6)—which is now extended also to him. In this relational process with Jesus, God's relational function of grace and its outcome of intimate relational connection together (not mysticism) provided Paul with his ongoing experiential truth of the glory of God 'in Christ', the image of God. All this was to definitively establish for the church at Corinth "by the open statement of truth" (phanerosis from phaneroo, 4:2) that the relational dynamic is from God and not from human shaping (4:1). For Paul, the image of God was unmistakable in the relational dynamic of Christ’s illumination of God’s glory, which Paul simply integrates in “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (4:4b). This relational dynamic of the image and glory of God is essential for Paul’s pleroma Christology because it signifies the whole of Jesus' person vulnerably embodied, illuminated and involved for relationship together as Subject, fulfilling the three functions unique to the unmistakable face of Christ:
Without Jesus’ whole person and function throughout the incarnation, whole knowledge and understanding of the image and glory of God would neither be illuminated for vulnerable self-disclosure in experiential truth, nor be definitive for vulnerable human reciprocal response in the image and likeness necessary for whole relationship together (2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10).
In Paul’s pleroma Christology, the above three qualitative-relational functions are vital for the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction necessary to be whole; without these functions Christology is rendered incomplete. Jesus constituted this dynamic of wholeness in the incarnation of his own person as Subject, and thereby constituted this dynamic for wholeness by his incarnation for all human life and function (Col 2:9-10). Therefore, this dynamic in the face of Christ was irreducible and nonnegotiable by the very nature of the pleroma of God. Anything less and any substitutes are reductionism of the pleroma of God, the image of God, the glory of God in the face of Christ, consequently reductionism of the human person and function—shifting from the whole from top down to reductionism from bottom up, from the whole from inner out to reductionism from outer in. Paul’s church family responsibility to pleroo the word of God always fought jointly against this reductionism distorting, diluting it (doloo, 2 Cor 4:2) and for the whole gospel embodied by pleroma Christology.
The relational dynamic of the image and glory of God composes the heart of Paul’s pleroma Christology, which emerges only as the function of relationship and thus only in relational terms. Theological discourse in referential terms cannot compose this complete Christology without the irreducible Subject of the Word. From this integral function in the distinguished face of Christ unfold the remaining theological dynamics in Paul’s framework-forest, dynamics which always continue to be determined by God’s relational function of grace. For Paul, this relational dynamic in “the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4) also composed what is at the heart of the gospel: Christ’s whole face and function as the irreducible Subject. This is the indispensable gospel for the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction necessary in order for the whole of God to fully emerge, for whole human persons and function to reciprocally emerge, and for wholeness to emerge in relationship together as God’s church family.
This “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” is by its nature both irreducible and indispensable. Though clearly undimmed, it is not always seen by Paul’s readers (past and present), yet is at the heart of his pleroma Christology. It is not seen, understood, received or responded to because by its very nature these outcomes can take place only in God’s relational context and process. The relational context and process of God were the means by which God’s relational dynamic of grace was embodied by Subject Christ’s face and function. Paul himself was first contextualized beyond human contexts when God’s face from top down turned and shined on him, even beyond the context of Judaism’s definitive blessing (Num 6:24-26). On the Damascus road Paul was contextualized in the incarnation of Christ’s face and function, the whole person in relationship, to constitute Paul from inner out into the whole of God’s relational context and process. Only in God’s relational context and process did Paul see in Christ’s face and function the light of the gospel of the image and glory of Christ, and thereby relationally respond back (Acts 22:16) for the relationship together necessary to be whole.
This was the only gospel Paul knew and called his own. This was also his experiential truth of pleroma Christology, in which the whole of God’s (from Father to Son to Spirit) relational dynamic unfolds in fullness within only God’s relational context and process—the irreducible relational context and nonnegotiable relational process made vulnerable by the Subject Christ’s face and function for whole relationship together. Anything less and any substitutes are incomplete Christology, composed by the reduced ontology and function of an Object. Therefore, this gospel is contextualized by no fragmentary reductions of Christ’s relational context and process. It therefore cannot be shaped by any other context and process and still embody Christ’s whole face and function only as Subject, and still illuminate the whole of God’s qualitative being and relational nature, and still fulfill God’s thematic response to the human condition. Within the pleroma of God’s relational context and process, the relational dynamic of the integral face and function of Christ (as the image and glory of God) continues to deeply engage vulnerably and to be intimately involved in fulfilling the other theological dynamics of Paul’s framework-forest. Apart from God’s relational context and process, Christ’s embodiment does not have the abiding relational framework to complete these complex theological dynamics for the fulfillment of God’s thematic relational response of grace. This is how Christology becomes fragmentary and thus incomplete, and when soteriology is truncated without the qualitative and functional significance of whole relationship together as God’s new creation family—resulting in a gospel different from the image and glory of Christ. And whatever assumptions we make about God’s grace are insufficient to make up the difference.
While the theological community needs to pay serious attention to an incomplete Christology and a truncated soteriology, churches cannot ignore these issues because God holds us all accountable for the whole of Jesus’ self-disclosures—just as he did with the two on the road to Emmaus. What Christians follow and what churches practice are rooted in their Christology; and church mission is determined by their soteriology. Thus, churches need to examine their ecclesiology: what is it based on, what does it pay attention to and what does it ignore, and how compatible is its practice with the whole of God’s thematic action distinguished by the intrusive Subject of the Word?
Jesus openly asserted, “Blessed are those who hear the word of the Father and relationally respond” (Lk 11:28), “they are my family” (Mt 12:50). The Father vulnerably shared, “This is my Son, whom I love…Listen to him!” (Mt 17:5, NIV). The Son communicated the Father’s words (Jn 12:49-50) and functioned only for the Father (Jn 14:31) and his family (Jn 17:6-8); and the Father expressed his affection for his family and directed the attention to his Son for the purpose of their family. These vulnerable assertions by the trinitarian persons are conjoined in their mutual relational context and process for the same relational outcome. And their conjoint function was made evident by the relational significance of God’s thematic action in the incarnation of Jesus’ relational work of grace and his relational involvement in the relational progression (as complete Christology), which constitutes his followers in the relationships necessary to be the whole of God’s family (as full soteriology).
Moreover, as their communication signified throughout the incarnation, their assertions interacted together to establish the new perceptual-interpretive framework, providing the lens to determine what to pay attention to and ignore. For example, we cannot ignore the implications of Jesus saying “they are my family” because the Father says “listen to him, who communicates my words.” And we cannot pay attention to the Son disclosing the Father’s words (which is not just their content) and their functional implications while ignoring the Father and the relationships necessary to be whole together as his family, because Jesus functioned only for the Father and his family—which the Father said to pay attention to. This is the holy and transcendent whole of God vulnerably disclosed to us—as improbable as it appears. To pay attention to anything less and any substitute, or to ignore the relational significance of nothing less and no substitutes, demonstrates the lens from a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework, which reduces the Subject’s ontology and function of Jesus, the Father, and thus the whole of the Trinity.
The vital church as God’s family is the ongoing function of the Son’s and the Father’s assertions integrated in its own practice, thus integrally determining what the church pays attention to and what it ignores. The tension between the improbable of Jesus’ sanctified (both whole and holy) life and practice (cf. Jn 17:19) and the probable of common function—and its practical implications for church life and practice—is persistent and makes a church susceptible to reductionism. However, the ongoing involvement together in the relational progression “in spirit and truth” (with honesty of the heart) is the relational process necessary to redeem, to constitute whole and to mature a church as God’s family. This only is whom the Father seeks, the who, what and how of God Jesus vulnerably disclosed to the Samaritan woman for a compatible relational response, and why the Father makes it a relational imperative to pay attention to him.
Churches are under pressure in effect to renegotiate its involvement in the relational progression by reducing the relational imperatives of discipleship and reprioritizing the primacy of intimate relationships, yet their alternatives have no relational significance to God. Despite how some alternatives may currently fill up a church, the result is only an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of family—a collection of relational orphans who don’t truly belong to God’s family. Even the traditional servant model is inadequate to define Jesus’ whole person and to compose his followers in the relational progression to God’s family. These alternatives all stop at some point along the relational progression and disengage from its relational process. Yet, engaging the trinitarian relational process of family love can redeem, reconcile and mature a church as God’s family. This is how Jesus vulnerably functioned by family love to constitute his followers as who they truly are and whose they truly are, and why the Father is emphatic about paying attention to him.
While a church may still struggle or strain to make connection with the transcendent God, its most important struggle or challenge is to maintain a compatible connection with the holy God. The holy God, who is qualitatively distinct from common function, is the whole of God Jesus made vulnerably accessible. And this whole and holy God is not only vulnerably present but also intimately involved. However, since Jesus’ sanctified life and practice functioned in this qualitative distinction from common function, this made much of his life and practice distinct from what prevailed in the surrounding context—or improbable from what we’re accustomed to. This distinction is a functional issue for the church: the tension between the improbable face of Jesus and our desire (or even need) for more probable practices, that is, which are really about being compatible with our prevailing function. To be distinguished with Jesus and thus distinct from prevailing function has personal implications, not the least of which involves being redefined and thus different. Being different usually has a negative connotation that means being less.
Though he was in the common’s context, Jesus vulnerably disclosed the presence of the holy God only in the trinitarian context; and the whole of God is present and involved only by the trinitarian relational process. Relational connection with the whole and holy God must by nature be on terms distinct from common function and compatible with the holy God’s terms. In other words, the functional implication is that Jesus’ whole person reshaped the bell curve of probable practices. The experiential reality and truth is that to follow his person in the relational progression reshapes the curve of probable church practices. The functional issue (perhaps even theological) then becomes: do we allow Subject Jesus to reshape the curve to change our practices to the more improbable range, or do we reduce Jesus’ whole person by disembodying his presence and de-relationalizing his teachings to that of an Object, while selectively paying attention to them or even ignoring them, in order to maintain a probable range of practice?
Following Subject Jesus’ whole person in the relational progression to the whole of God as family together can never be a common function and will always remain in the improbable range of the curve—notably in what prevails in our human context and culture. This news cannot be rendered to a common gospel or popular gospel that will be valued by the majority, even within our churches.
Thus, the unavoidable issue facing all of us by the irreducible Subject of the Word: what are we going to do with his relational progression, individually and together as church? Any type of disengagement (in the form of revision, substitutes, resistance, omission, avoidance or any relational distance) from this relational progression by Jesus’ followers diminishes, makes elusive or loses the experiential reality and truth as revealed:
Whatever gospel is leftover, both to experience together and to share with others, strains for lack of theological and functional clarity and/or suffers from lack of relational significance, both of which cannot be resolved apart from the full relational progression with the Subject of the Word.
Any alternative to relational involvement with him in the relational progression becomes in effect counter-relational work reducing the relationships necessary to be whole. The functional opposite of being whole is sin as reductionism. For those unsettled by the improbable, it is a discomforting truth to both understand and embrace: sin is the functional reduction of the whole of God, therefore in conflict with God as well as with that which is whole and those who are whole. The church needs to pay attention to this sin, in particular in the practice of and service to church. The bad news shaping the gospel today is the function of sin as reductionism pervading our churches, including the academy where most of our church leaders are educated in referential terms.
These are unavoidable matters that either reflect change or require change from prevailing practice. This change can only be the outcome of redemptive change; that is, these matters (and their common function) need to be redeemed in order to be transformed to what we are saved to. Yet, even unavoidable matters must first be acknowledged for this redemptive process to happen. This is the importance of truth in relational terms and the honesty of our hearts—a necessary basis for vulnerable function beyond the probable in our life and practice with God, which the Father seeks. Whatever truth we claim and proclaim only has significance for this relationship, the relationship of the whole of God. Until we theologically and functionally understand (syniemi for synesis) the relational significance of the triune God vulnerably disclosed in the incarnation, and thus account for the innermost involvement of the whole person in the primacy of intimate relationships together necessary to be whole as God’s family, whatever truth we have will lack the experiential truth of by what and how the Trinity only does relationships as embodied by the Truth in the irreducible Subject of the Word.
“Listen to him” for the complete Christology. “Hear the word of the Father, and relationally respond” for the full soteriology. The gospel we claim and its relational outcome transformed to wholeness depend on nothing less and no substitutes. And any gospel we proclaim of anything less and any substitutes will have no significance of the Subject of the Word—unable to distinguish its subject from an object to believe—and thus its outcome will not be the relational outcome composed by Subject Jesus’ prayer transforming his family (Jn 17:15-26).
“I am he, the Subject who communicates with you.”
Any subject-person does not merely submit to being shaped by the surrounding context, as an object would conform to; this is an ongoing issue challenging every one of us as a person. Accordingly, the irreducible Subject of the Word (composing complete Christology) cannot be reduced or fragmented as an Object has been (composing incomplete Christology). “I am he”—indeed, defined by nothing less and determined by no substitutes. Furthermore, the irreducible Subject always holds us accountable both to embrace the whole of his person and to be involved in relationship together with the subject of our whole person. This is the ongoing challenge of his Face that makes unavoidable the challenge for our face in innermost profile. Yet, contending with the challenge of and for face is the prevailing influence of reductionism and its counter-relational work.
Even though nothing less and no substitutes distinguish the discipleship following this Subject, for many this is not good news and makes an Object more appealing. Having an Object in referential terms for one’s faith, as the basis for serving and even for the theological task, is always easier than having to deal with the Subject in relational terms—as Peter would testify. Moreover, an Object allows us to define the relationship on our terms, which is the basis for Subject Jesus not willing to “entrust himself to them” who “believed in his name” (Jn 2:23-24).
On this relational basis, the irreduced Subject in complete Christology—also called Jesus by name but not often known as Subject—this person magnified Mary’s whole person and her relational involvement of discipleship to distinguish the whole gospel and its whole relational outcome—especially for all of us to distinguish today from fragmentary theology and practice, reduced in ontology and function (Mk 14:9).
“I am he, the Subject who is involved with you…and who now holds you accountable for reciprocal relationship together.”
 Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006).
 Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word, 88.
 For a brief description of Schleiermacher’s position in modern hermeneutics, see Anthony C. Thiselton, “Biblical studies and theoretical hermeneutics” in John Barton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1998), 95-113.
 Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 131.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 19-25. For an overview of theory of interpretation and its history from which a proposal for the recovery of theological hermeneutics is made, see Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics.
 David F. Ford and Graham Stanton, eds., Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM Press, 2003), 2-3.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 340.
 Daniel W. Hardy, “Reason, Wisdom and the Interpretation of Scripture” in David F. Ford and Graham Stanton, eds., Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM Press, 2003), 72-76.
 Gotthold Lessing, Lessing’s Theological Writings, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1956), 55.
 Reported by Sharon Begley in “What’s in a Word?” Newsweek, July 20, 2009, 31.
 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, 110.
 Anyone, from old to young, who seeks to sort out their beliefs, gain their meaning, or put them into practice is engaged in the theological task.
 This was made explicit recently by Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), and by Jaren Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
 Decades ago, Helmut Thielicke tried to make the same point to his students: “The man who studies theology…might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather that in the second person.…Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, ‘Did God really say?’ (cf. Genesis 3:1). This fact ought to make us think.” A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 33-34.
 See McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, 94-132.
 The conceptual dynamics of human communication are discussed in a classic study by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Helmick Beavin, Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967).
 Discussed in Hans Kung, The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion, 15-24.
 George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
 See Oliver Sacks for a discussion on perfect pitch, tonal communication and protolanguage, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Vintage Books, 2008); see also Edward Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), 9.
 Steiner, Real Presences, 226-27.
 McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, 105.
 For further discussion of table fellowship by Jesus and the Mediterranean world, see S. Scott Bartchy, “The Historical Jesus and Honor Reversal at the Table” in Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina, Gerd Theissen, eds. The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 175-183.
 For a discussion on disease and illness in the Mediterranean, see John J. Pilch, “Healing” in John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina, eds. Handbook of Biblical Social Values (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 103-104.
 For a discussion on rich and poor in the Mediterranean context of the NT, see Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 97-100.
 For an in-depth study of mathetes, see Michael J. Wilkens, Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995).
 Craig S. Keener reports this information on friendship in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 302.
 This discussion is fully developed in my study Jesus into Paul: Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel (Integration Study, 2012). Online: http://4X12.org.
 For such a perspective of Paul’s position on mysticism ‘in Christ’, see James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 390-412.
 For an example of this interpretation, see Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 165-213.
©2015 T. Dave Matsuo