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Jesus into Paul

Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel

Chapter  10

Paul's Pleroma Theology

Sections

 

Paul's Antecedents and His Continuity

Pleroma Christology

Pleroma Christology Completed

Pleroma Soteriology

Pleroma Soteriology Completed

Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Ch 8

Ch 9

Ch 10

Ch 11

Ch 12

Ch 13

Ch 14

Printable pdf of entire study

Table of contents

Scripture Index

Bibliography

 

For in him the whole fullness [pleroma] of deity dwells bodily,

and you have come to fullness in him.

 

Colossians 2:9-10

 

 

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.

Paul did not engage in the referentialization of the Word, the process which narrows down the embodied Word to referential knowledge and information about what God does (e.g. delivers, miracles, teaches, serves) and has (e.g. attributes, truth, power and other resources), and likely aggregates these parts of God in a narrowed unity for greater explanation and certainty of that information about God (e.g. in systematic theologies or explanatory theories). In contrast and even conflict with this narrowed epistemic field, Paul was involved in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit to pleroo the communicative word from God, most vulnerably communicated by the pleroma of God (Col 1:19), to complete the communication of whole knowledge and understanding of God in relationship. This distinguished Paul from many of his readers after hem (cf. Peter’s assessment of Paul, 2 Pet 3:16), including in Pauline scholarship today.

“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.

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 constituted by whole relationship together with the whole of Jesus, the pleroma of God, in order to integrally embody the pleroma of Christ (the church, Eph 1:22-23).

In this sense, Paul’s theology was polemic discourse composed as the definitive apologist for the whole gospel, fighting conjointly for the integrity of this gospel and against all reductionism of its wholeness (e.g. Eph 6:15). To understand the whole in Paul’s theology, therefore, is inseparable from understanding the integral witness of his whole person, not just as a Jew or a Christian. In Paul’s journey, what must emerge, by the nature of his human person and being, are the whole of Paul’s person and his witness as well as the whole in Paul and his theology. This wholeness is the primary identity that defined who and what Paul was and that determined how he functioned. The relational dynamic of this process both illuminated Paul’s experiential truth of relationship with the whole of God and challenges what is necessarily involved for any and all theological engagement. It is critical for Paul’s readers to pay attention to, and for theological and biblical studies not to ignore, this integral process Paul engaged theologically and functionally.

Colin Gunton’s view was that Irenaeus is a model for all systematic theologians: “Irenaeus is less concerned with systematic consistency, more with the integrity of the faith in the face of attack…he thought systematically in a broad sense.”[1] Perhaps Irenaeus learned the theological task from Paul, whose theological systemic framework to pleroo God’s word continues to challenge both any fragmentary theological engagement and any incomplete theological assumptions—particularly in the referentialization of the Word. However we may approach theology today, it is imperative for us essentially not to merely defend the gospel—notably referentially in modernist terms and with mere systematic doctrines—but indeed to justify its good news relationally, the experiential truth of which makes whole the human condition by resolving the human relational problem and fulfilling the human relational need. In the same sense as Paul, we are all apologists for the gospel, whether we accept the relational responsibility and engage in it or not—just as Jesus clarified the identity of his followers from the reductionists (Mt 5:13-16), extended this responsibility to them (Jn 15:16), and prayed for them to be whole together and thereby live and make whole in the world (Jn 17:21-23). Yet, unlike Paul, it would be insufficient to limit our fight just for the gospel. That is, we cannot fight for the whole gospel unless we conjointly fight against reductionism, both in the world and in our own persons (individually and collectively) and the function defining us in church and the academy. Reductionism was and continues to be the most formidable challenger we face in life as well as study. For Paul, reductionism’s challenge is inescapable, though the fight against its influence can be ignored—with significant consequences both theologically and functionally. Therefore, in this study it is critical that we take to heart this integral rule of faith from Paul: “let the wholeness of Christ rule in your hearts” to define and determine our theology and practice (Col 3:15).

This whole gospel embodied by Jesus, the pleroma of God (Col 1:19; 2:9)—who embodied its theology and hermeneutic—was further embodied into (eis denoting relational movement to) Paul who extended the embodying of the gospel of wholeness—and its theology and hermeneutic—in the body of Christ, the pleroma of Christ, in reciprocal relationship with the Spirit. This relational dynamic emerges wholly in Jesus’ story and converges with Paul’s story. From the beginning, Jesus is the theological, ontological, relational and functional keys to God and the integral pivot for God’s thematic salvific action in history throughout the unfolding words in the Old Testament and New Testament. Paul is a functional bridge between the OT and NT to pleroo the communicative word from God. Therefore, he only illuminated what Jesus embodied in whole and never went beyond the pleroma of God to construct his own theology. This addresses our perception of Paul’s antecedents and the issue of continuity in his thought and theology.

 

Paul’s Antecedents and His Continuity

It is important to reemphasize for Paul’s readers not to forget or be misled to ignore that Paul did not emerge from the Damascus road a fully developed apostle with ready-made theology. With this in mind, most importantly for Paul was that the qualitative-relational process of being whole, God’s whole on God’s qualitative relational terms, constituted the ongoing basis and significance of all that develops in Paul’s life, practice, thought and theology. God’s wholeness—being whole in ontology, living whole in function, and making whole the human condition—was the integrating theme for Paul.

Paul’s Christophany on the Damascus road could have made him wonder if he were experiencing what came to be known as Jewish mysticism, or Merkabah (“throne”) mysticism—not a contemplation of God but a mystical vision of God on the throne.[2] Such epiphanies were not uncommon in Jewish history and Scripture. Later, Paul appeared to highlight his mystical visions (2 Cor 12:1-6) and had a series of other apparent mystical visions (Acts 9:12; 16:9-10; 18:9-10; 22:17-21; 23:11; 26:19; 27:23-24; Gal 1:12; 2:2). During the experience of these various visions, perhaps Paul was pointed to the process of visions introduced to Ezekiel (Eze 1:1ff). Furthermore, Paul may have interpreted his own call in part through the lens of the “Servant Songs” (Isa 42 & 49). Yet, while epiphanic influences were certainly present for Paul, these antecedents were insufficient to explain what Paul experienced and to understand his life, practice, thought and theology. Such mysteries involved the knowledge that was associated with revelation (cf. 1 Cor 13:2,8-9,12; Eph 3:3-5); and revelation was closely connected with prophecy (cf. Rom 16:25-26; 1 Cor14:6,25,26,30). This was a relational dynamic which ongoingly involved Paul in the relational epistemic process.

What unfolded in Paul’s journey was no transition to a further (or even new) aspect of his previous service. What was developing was the transformation from old to new (2 Cor 5:17, cf. Col 3:9-10; Eph 4:22-24). The experience of Paul’s visions (mystical or prophetic) involved a word from God, not some unique vision of God or some hidden information about God. That is, these visions involved the communication of God’s revelation, as Paul made unmistakable (1 Cor 2:9-10; 2 Cor 12:1; Gal 1:12; 2:2; Eph 3:3,5; cf. Acts 26:16). Since this involved the self-revelation of the heart of God’s desires, the relational connection for this communication to be received necessitated engaging God only in God’s relational context and process—that is, received compatibly with how the revelation was given, as Paul further distinguished (2 Cor 4:2-6). Paul soon understood that any valid claim of prophetic utterance can only be based on the relational outcome of the Spirit’s presence and work with him (1 Cor 2:10)—the whole of God’s relational context and process.

Though the continuity with the OT is clearly distinguished in Paul, his journey also involved the transformation from old to new. Paul was not limited to these OT antecedents because foremost for him was God’s vulnerable self-revelation to him directly ‘in Christ’—“who is the image of God…in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4-6). To interpret this revelation in terms of epiphany or by Jewish mysticism is highly inadequate and can even result in reductionism. This self-revelation, constituting the heart of God’s desires, vulnerably communicated the embodied (neither propositional nor doctrinal) fulfillment of God’s promise for covenant relationship, which opened the relational progression to the Spirit’s presence fulfilling those OT promises and prophecies to the eschatological completion, as Paul made clearly unmistakable (2 Cor 1:18-22). In other words, God’s face shined on Paul in the relational response of grace; God’s face turned to him and made him whole only from above, all of which Jesus embodied in whole not for Paul’s observation but only for the experiential truth of relationship together. This relational outcome determined the ongoing development of Paul’s involvement with Jesus directly in relationship together, the experiential truth (neither propositional truth nor doctrinal certainty) of which also defined Paul’s Christology and thereby his soteriology. Paul’s development would deepen the continuity with the words from God in the OT as well as widen the discontinuity with any of its reductionist faith-response and practice.

The continuity-discontinuity emerging from Paul’s development certainly involves a hermeneutical issue. In the process of transformation to the new, I affirm that Paul’s lens of Hebrew Scripture also changed. That is, Paul changed from a hermeneutic of the OT that reduced meaning to referential representation of God—for example, by reducing God’s desires and terms for covenant relationship together to a code of behavior to observe and perform, or simply to identity markers as God’s people (Rom 2:29; 7:6; Col 2:14). His change was partly the result of tamiym’s hermeneutical correction and, of further importance, was more deeply a relational outcome. In improbable relational terms, Paul was restored to whole meaning in the relational context and process of God’s communicative action—the words from God’s mouth (cf. Dt 8:3; Ps 119:13; Mt 4:4; Jn 6:63, 68-69). This changed his hermeneutic of the OT from situational content to the relational context and process of God’s thematic action for covenant relationship together, of which Paul was a unique recipient of God’s relational response of grace. This also took his hermeneutic beyond an apocalyptic interpretive framework.

Perhaps with his new lens Paul saw the key antecedent of his experiential truth signified in Psalm 33: “Rejoice in the Lord…sing to him a new song…for the word of the Lord is upright…by the word of the Lord—the purpose of his heart—he creates the hearts of all.” The new song Paul was singing indeed was pointed to in the OT but was not made wholly functional until the embodied Word ‘in Christ’, the pleroma of God who was the basis for Paul’s experience and the truth of his gospel. Therefore, though Paul’s continuity with the OT precluded his conversion to a new religion, the development of his journey can neither be wholly understood from OT antecedents nor adequately explained from Judaism’s practice. Paul’s new song then raises one lingering question from the Damascus road that still needs our attention: Was Paul introduced to a new covenant relationship on the Damascus road? Yes and no. No, since the relationship still involved the same covenant relationship with Abraham. Yes, because the relationship necessitated the further and deeper involvement in it than was accessible as well as practiced in much of Israel’s history, which signified the need to go beyond reductionism (as Paul clarified, 2 Cor 3:6-18, cf. Jer 24:7; Eze 11:19).

The continuity-discontinuity issue is compounded by reductionism, the function of which must be recognized as the source of discontinuity and thus distinguished from the new song. As Ezekiel pointed to (Eze 36:26-27), Paul’s new song was only the transformation from old to new: a new creation of the heart of the person from inner out made whole from above for new covenant relationship together (cf. Gal 5:6; 6:15), just as the embodied Word from God made conclusive for Nicodemus (a key antecedent for Paul noted earlier, Jn 3:1-15). It is critical to understand what Paul had continuity with and discontinuity from. Besides whether Paul converted to Christianity or remained in Judaism, our perceptual-interpretive lens of related issues include whether Christianity is a new religion or not, and whether Paul’s emphases were innovations about Christ or an extension of Jesus. Paul’s continuity or discontinuity varies with our view of each issue, which reductionism influences by narrowing down the epistemic field to fragmentary terms lacking wholeness.

This transformation to wholeness was the heart of Paul’s experience and ongoing development (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Rom 6:4), and thereby the heart of his thought and theology. In order to fully understand Paul, he needs to be contextualized deeply into God’s relational context and process. Paul was being transformed from old to new to go beyond a prophetic call and function in order to take the lead of God’s people, perhaps analogous to Moses’ call yet beyond even that. In this sense Paul was neither an apostle of Israel nor an apostate from Israel—to respond to the paradox about Paul raised by James Dunn (noted previously). Moreover, by having his heart circumcised conclusively, Paul shifted essentially from ‘majority Israel’ to ‘minority Israel’, as he clarified theologically (Rom 2:28-29; 9:6-8; 11:1-10). On this significant basis, Paul was neither an apostle of majority Israel nor an apostate of minority Israel.

What has continuity in Paul’s development involves only God’s whole and covenant relationship together only on God’s qualitative relational terms. What has discontinuity is only about any reductionism of these. Paul’s journey developed beyond those OT antecedents because the embodied Word from God directly spoke “Face to face” with Paul, with the relational outcome that went beyond merely seeing mystical visions; Paul more deeply experienced the whole of God’s vulnerably-involved-person, and thereby understood God even more clearly than Moses (cf. horao, Acts 26:16). This is who Paul illuminated with the veil removed (2 Cor 3:12-18). In this ongoing relational process Paul also gained synesis of the functional and relational significance of God’s whole (Eph 3:2-6). It was on this developing basis that Paul spoke unequivocally, decisively, without compromise about the truth of the gospel (just as Peter experienced from him, Gal 2:11-14). And by its nature Paul increasingly illuminated clearly the whole of the gospel’s functional and relational significance for its experiential truth and reality for all persons (Col 1:19-23; Eph 2:19-22). This is what, inseparably with who, that Paul also illuminated integrally.

In a dynamic developmental process, Paul’s thought and theology were ongoingly exposed to various inputs. Each source could have affected Paul, positively or negatively, Paul in one way or another. The most significant influence and shaping of his thought and theology had to be the defining impact of the following sources:

  1. Judaism—namely from the Hebrew Scripture of the OT and not variants from this canonical text, which some forms of Judaism gave human shaping to and thus should not be assumed as OT Judaism (to which Paul later provided theological clarity, Rom 9-11).
     

  1. Paul’s Damascus road experience—which included all discussed above.
     

  1. Jesus tradition—the existing Christian beliefs from the early church in Jerusalem during Paul’s day, including narrative tradition of Jesus, his sayings and teachings which appear later in the written Gospels.
     

  1. God’s direct revelation to Paul—which also involves the ongoing teaching of the Spirit to disclose the experiential truth further and deeper to Paul in the relational epistemic process (as Jesus promised, Jn 14:26; 16:13). The Spirit’s influence was the significant source in Paul’s theological reflection and formations, which is rarely acknowledged in Pauline studies.

In Paul’s dynamic development, the interaction process of the above antecedents and sources occurs integrally both in his life and practice as well as in his thought and theology. His theological reflection was not a separate task of doing theology but deeply integrated to living his life and practice in the context and process of relationship together with the whole of God. In this relational process, for example, Paul was able to critique variants of Judaism on the basis of sources 2, 3 and 4, along with the correct lens of source 1; yet he was also able to clarify the limits of an authentic Judaism (source 1) by sources 2, 3, 4, notably 4. Moreover, Paul was able to add critical assessment to the Jesus tradition (source 3) on the basis of the further understanding and deeper meaning he received from source 4, in order to establish the theological clarity and operationalize the functional clarity necessary for God’s whole on God’s terms—the respective clarity he made conclusive in his Romans letter and Galatians letter. This clarifying effort, for example, would be similar in principle to a so-called ‘Lutheran view’ of Paul (on justification) in reaction to a Roman Catholic view of works; yet such a reading of Paul has also limited, or even distorted, his views from source 1, Judaism.

Paul, himself, had clarified for God’s people the definitive basis necessary for function in epistemology, hermeneutics, and thus theology: “Nothing beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:1-7). This was a key statement about the source defining Paul’s purpose and determining his practice and theology, as well as his reciprocal relational responsibility determining his fight against human shaping and construction (“who makes you different,” 4:7), which reduced (“went beyond”) the truth of the whole gospel (cf. Paul’s functional clarity and distinction of the gospel, Gal 1:6-12).

For Paul’s readers after the early church period, “what is written” is defined by the canonical text of Scripture—neither in part (as a proof-text for human shaping) nor in fragmentation (as a biased selectivity for human construction) but only in its whole. For Paul, “what is written” also involved what God directly revealed to him (source 4 integrated with the embodied Word overlapping from source 2) for what was also to be written for inclusion in the canonical text of God’s Word.

Paul’s initial Damascus road experience extending into ongoing relationship with the embodied Word from God (source 2) and the subsequent direct revelations from the triune God (source 4) converged in Paul’s theological reflection as the basis for his unfolding thought to develop first the functional clarity of the truth and whole of the gospel (namely in Gal)—which was unmistakably distinguished from any alternative gospel (the ongoing tension and conflict not only in Gal). Then Paul integrated this functional clarity with the necessary theological clarity by developing the conclusive theological basis for this gospel (namely in Rom, the basis for my assumption of its order after Gal). The interrelated development of functional and theological clarity and their integrated definition constituted the truth and whole of the gospel beyond the limits of doctrine to the whole of God’s relational context and process in response of grace to the human condition. This experiential truth always unfolded first in his life and practice and then was developed by Paul ongoingly with the Spirit in contrast and conflict with reductionism, which includes perceiving this as only propositional truth. His theology, for example, in his Colossians letter reflected further development from Galatians and Romans, which Paul likely gained with the Spirit while in prison. The specific situation in Colosse represented a sort of test-case applying the functional and theological clarity from Galatians and Romans, which were needed to expose, challenge and negate reductionism in order to be the whole of God’s family and to make God’s whole on God’s terms. Paul further developed this theological clarity in the general Ephesians letter to define its theological forest and the necessary ecclesiology for relationships together to be whole, that is, to make God’s relational whole functional on God’s relational terms. This dynamic developmental process in Paul’s thought and theology needs further explanation.

When Paul talked about “what I had received” and thus “have handed on to you” (e.g. 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; 2 Thes 2:15; 3:6), there are three extensions respectively for sources 2, 3, and 4, which need to be considered: (source 2a) from Jesus directly (Gal 1:11-12,16; 1 Cor 11:23); (source 3a) further from Jesus tradition (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thes 2:15; 3:6, including as source 3 above); and (source 4a) only from the Spirit directly (1 Cor 2:10, cf. Jn 14:26; 16:13). These three extensions were not mutually exclusive and must be understood as interrelated since they mutually involved the embodied Word from God. While Jesus tradition (source 3a), along with Judaism (source 1), tends to be the focus in Pauline studies, the extensions from Jesus directly (source 2a) and the Spirit (source 4a) have more significance. Therefore, despite their mistaken association with mysticism, they must not be dismissed or minimalized. To the contrary, they are critical to account for in Paul’s thought and theology both in his letters in general and in his connection and continuity with Jesus in particular.

What is critical about the Spirit as source 4a involves the relational epistemic process of synesis (understanding the whole from syniemi, e.g. which reductionists lacked, 2 Cor 10:12). The process of synesis helped Paul put the pieces of God’s revelation together to integrally understand God’s whole (Eph 3:3-5)—a process which Jesus scolded his disciples for not engaging (syniemi, Mk 8:17-21). Paul made this illumination of God’s whole integral to his purpose for the church in order to help them have this whole understanding (synesis) to specifically know (epignosis) Christ and God’s revelation for relationship together (Col 1:9; 2:2). In this process together with the Spirit, Paul struggled to counter the human shaping of the gospel by reductionist substitutes (e.g. in Colosse, apparent philosophical notions, Col 2:1,4).

If Paul’s readers are to understand the depth of his thought, theology and practice, then we must go beyond the existing situations and conditions he addressed in his letters. In order to get to the depth-level of the whole constituting Paul’s life and practice and thus his thought and theology, his readers have to engage deeper qualitative sources than those of Judaism and even Jesus tradition. This involves the further and deeper contextualization of Paul with Jesus directly (source 2a) together with the Spirit (source 4a) in the whole of God’s relational context and process—which a narrowed-down epistemic field does not and cannot include. In this dynamic developmental process, the whole of God ongoingly was relationally involved to redemptively change, transform and make whole Paul’s person, additionally his practice, then his thought and theology in the relational epistemic process. Paul’s ongoing relational reciprocity involved the qualitative relational context and process basic to the faith of covenant relationship together—the faith which signifies the necessary relational response to the whole of God who constituted the relational context and process of grace embodied by Jesus and made functional by the Spirit.

Since God’s thematic action is a function only of relationship, the nature of God’s relational involvement necessitates reciprocal human relational response. The human response compatible to God by necessity is part of the continuity question, which includes the extent of continuity existing between Abraham’s faith and NT faith, specifically as delineated by Paul. Moreover, as the significance of the relational purpose and outcome of God’s thematic action is integrally understood—which Paul did in his experiential truth and synesis from the Spirit—the continuity-discontinuity issue becomes the inseparable issue between God’s whole and reductionism.

Therefore, the issue of continuity-discontinuity in Paul needs to be understood in the deeper issues both relational and qualitative: (1) congruity and incongruity with God’s thematic relational action, and (2) compatibility and incompatibility with God’s whole and wholeness. These deeper issues, and their importance for Paul, do not fully emerge from focusing on the historical Paul merely from human contextualization and its related questions, but only from the relational Paul in God’s whole relational context and process—that is, from the whole ontology and function of Paul’s person who composed the theological Paul and the whole in his theology, in continuity with God’s revealed whole and in discontinuity with reductionism, which is anything less and any substitutes. Decisively for him and unequivocally in his thought and theology, continuity in Paul depends functionally on the presence of this whole in Paul, which is contingent on the reality of the wholeness of Paul. And discontinuity in Paul depends conjointly, on the one hand, on the experiential truth of this wholeness and, on the other, on the reality of reductionism and its presence and influence in human life.

Church tradition had perceived a continuity between Jesus and Paul, without always understanding the relational dynamic integrating them, and less often having whole understanding of the experiential truth constituted by and with the Spirit for the whole of Jesus’ and Paul’s gospel. Modern scholarship has often created a gap between Jesus and Paul without adequately defining their discontinuity, thus shaping theories in an epistemic process with the obvious absence and/or the lack of involvement of the Spirit. Alan Torrance points to Athanasius who identified the necessity of the Spirit in order to make direct statements (first-order claims) about God. Torrance defines this hermeneutic necessity as the “third Horizon” (building on Thiselton’s fusion of two horizons) without whom contemporary readers of Scripture cannot have semantic continuity with the theological paradigms of the apostles.[3] This lack in scholarship has reflected the epistemological illusion from reductionism that has been consequential for ontological simulation both in theological engagement and in church practice, signifying reductionism’s counter-relational work. The primary example of this emerges from the referentialization of the Word that narrows down the epistemic field for better explanation and certainty. Paul challenged and continues to challenge these theological and functional assumptions by distinguishing his continuity with the whole gospel relationally embodied by Jesus and his discontinuity with any reductionism of its wholeness and the pleroma of God.

 

Pleroma Christology

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 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 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 wholly integrated on the level of the whole of God’s relational context and process, in which the 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 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, 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 of God and who pleroo the words of God.

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. For example, ‘in Christ’ is Paul’s major use of shorthand relational language for the complex theological dynamics continuing to unfold in his 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.[4] 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 combined 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).[5] 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 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, wholly embodied in the incarnation to relationally disclose 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.

As the pleroma of God embodying the whole of God’s desires and purpose, the incarnation is constituted only by the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes (i.e. wholeness) and, conjointly, the incarnation composes the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes for all life and function (Col 2:9-10). That is to say, the qualitative whole of God’s heart functions only from top down and from inner out with nothing less and no substitutes in order to be embodied Face to face with human persons for relationship together in wholeness. To be compatible, human persons and function need to function only by this same dynamic in order to be whole (cf. Rom 8:29;
Col 3:10). Anything less or any substitutes of God’s ontology and function could neither constitute the incarnation from inner out, nor constitute God’s relational dynamic embodied ‘in Christ’ from top down. This was part of the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction that Paul experienced in his encounter with the whole of Jesus on the Damascus road.

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 of Jesus embodying the whole of God. Without converging and being contextualized in the incarnation, 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 Jesus 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).

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 Jesus, who was neither reduced by bottom-up shaping nor renegotiated by human terms. His Christology then went further than the limits of the Jesus tradition 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 constitute Paul’s Christology (cf. Eph 3:4; Col 1:25-27). This dynamic flow to his theology is signified in the following framework:

  1. Experiencing Christ: the embodied presence and experiential truth of the whole of Jesus, who is the qualitative Word and relational Truth from the whole of God.

 

  1. Following Christ in relationship: discipleship of his person in the primacy of relationship, not his disembodied teachings or example.

 

  1. Witnessing ‘in Christ’ and thus for the whole of God: the experiential truth in function.

 

  1. Theologizing ‘in Christ’ and thus with the Spirit to illuminate the whole of God.

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.

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 a 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 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 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 Christology.

What distinguishes pleroma Christology from an incomplete Christology of anything less or any substitutes? 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 to fulfill God’s whole desire and purpose to be 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 forest.

Read from a quantitative interpretive framework, Paul’s Christology appears to be both fragmentary in its lack of direct reference to Jesus’ sayings/teachings, as well as 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). 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 which is fragmentary or distorted.

Paul’s theology of wholeness (noted earlier in chap. 7) is the underlying dynamic of his pleroma Christology. The irreducible and nonnegotiable dynamic of wholeness is what Jesus 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:

  1. Christ is the epistemological-theological key to whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God’s ontology, the glory of God’s qualitative being and relational nature (2 Cor 4:6; Col 1:15,19; 2:9).

 

  1. Christ is the hermeneutical key to whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God’s function in relational context and process (Col 1:20-22; 2:2-3; Eph 1:4-11; 3:4-6, 18-19).

 

  1. Christ is the functional key to the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God for human ontology and function, both individually and collectively as God’s family (Col 1:15; 3:10-11; 2 Cor 3:18; Eph 2:21-22).

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 forest.

How did Christ fulfill these functions to be the definitive keys for wholeness in Paul’s Christology? After establishing epistemological clarification of the incarnation as the whole of God ‘in Christ’, Paul appears to jump directly from the manger to the cross in his theological forest, since he does not provide any narrative account of Jesus throughout the incarnation to the cross (e.g. Gal 4:4-6). Quite the contrary, however. In the presence of the Jesus tradition, a narrative account was unnecessary for Paul's Christology. Rather, his purpose, pleroma Christology, magnified the epistemological clarification of “the knowledge of the glory of the whole of God vulnerably revealed by the face of Christ as the image of God” (2 Cor 4:6), that is revealed in the whole of the incarnation. And, most importantly, Paul clearly illuminated these aspects' relational and functional significance ‘in Christ’.

On the Damascus road, Paul was contextualized by Jesus essentially in the experiential truth of the incarnation, not contextualized in Jewish mysticism (cf. Merkabah-vision in Eze 1). The incarnation was the embodiment of the whole of God’s relational context and process, the extension in which Paul was contextualized both by Jesus and with Jesus to be made whole ‘in Christ’. What Jesus embodied was vulnerably disclosed throughout the course of the incarnation; and this extension into Paul was the experiential truth for the basis of his Christology, which was integrated with further whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) from ongoing involvement with Christ and the Spirit in the relational epistemic process together to make conclusive Paul’s pleroma Christology.

The glory and image of God in the face of Christ disclosed in the incarnation are primary to the complex theological dynamics composing Paul’s complete Christology. These dynamics illuminate the glory and image of God beyond their understanding in Judaism and further and deeper than in the Jesus tradition. In the OT, the image of God’s glory is mainly characterized as strength and power (e.g. Ex 15:6,11; 16:6-8; Ps 24:6-8; 29:1-4; 59:9,17). The incarnation, however, deepens this image and glory of God to illuminate the qualitative heart, relational nature and vulnerable presence of God relationally disclosed by the whole of Jesus only for involvement in relationship together. This strategic shift did not exclude God’s strength and power (as demonstrated by the resurrection) but presupposes God’s reign (notably over darkness and now over death); on this basis it fully focuses on God’s relational response of grace wholly extended within the innermost of the human condition—that is, not merely in its situations and circumstances but more importantly to the persons who are apart from the whole of God in order to reconcile them to the relationship necessary to be whole together. This relational outcome can only emerge from the function of relationship, and the incarnation constitutes only this function. As the function of relationship, nothing happens without the experiential truth from the incarnation of the relational dynamic of the image and glory of God, not the conceptual image or doctrinal glory of God. The Jesus tradition rightly understood this relational outcome as only from God’s grace yet did not fully understand the theological dynamics involved or the theological anthropology necessarily engaged. This gap was demonstrated at a church summit in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29) and by Peter’s interpretive framework and lens prior (10:9-16, 34-36), for which Paul later still had to give hermeneutic correction to Peter’s practice for the experiential truth of the whole gospel embodied by Jesus (Gal 2:14).

In the incarnation of God’s relational dynamic determined only by the relational function of grace, Jesus fulfills the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the inherent human relational need and problem (which neuroscience rightly identifies). By fulfilling God’s relational response only in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, Jesus embodied the wholeness of the image of God (eikon). Eikon implies not merely a resemblance to but the total correspondence and likeness of its archetype, here the invisible God (Col 1:15)—just as Jesus claimed to his first disciples (Jn 14:9). The eikon of God is made definitive by the illumination (photismos) of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, whose vulnerable embodiment made God’s qualitative being and relational nature functionally involved with persons for experiential truth in relationship together (2 Cor 4:4b,6). Beginning with his face-to-Face encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, Paul experienced directly this relational dynamic of Christ's illumination 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, fulfilling the three functions unique to the face of Christ:

  1. Whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God’s ontology and nothing less and no substitutes of God’s qualitative being and relational nature (Christ the epistemological-theological key).

 

  1. Whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God’s function in the relational context and process only on God’s relational terms of grace (Christ the hermeneutical key).

This “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” can be seen only directly “in the face of Christ,” which is made problematic if key epistemological, hermeneutic and functional distinctions and issues are not understood. Just as Paul did in his theological systemic framework, he continues in his theological forest to challenge assumptions of the cosmos, theological cognition and anthropology, and of the perceptual-interpretive framework (phronema) and lens (phroneo) used for this knowledge and understanding. Critical to Paul’s pleroma Christology is the ongoing relational dynamic of wholeness from top down and inner out unique to the whole of God. By its nature from bottom up and outer in, reductionism is always positioned against God’s whole to qualify it, redefine it, or shape it by human terms. “The face of Christ,” not merely the concept of Christ, is crucial to which of these dynamics is engaged, and thereby who and what are illuminated and how they are received and responded to. Paul renounced reductionism’s relational dynamic from outer in (“the shameful things that one hides”), which would reduce his whole person, and he did not engage in bottom-up practice which would compromise the whole of God’s word (“falsify, distort,” doloo, to dilute, water down, cheapen, as merchants did with wine to deceive consumers, 2 Cor 4:2). Paul’s relational responsibility from God (oikonomia) functioned to present God’s word in its fullness, complete, thus whole (pleroo, as Paul identified later, Col 1:25). The whole of God’s word cannot be compromised without reducing what and who were embodied in the face of Christ, “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4), “the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).

In Paul’s pleroma Christology, the face of Christ is the exact eikon of God which illuminates the glory of God’s qualitative being and relational nature in Christ’s whole person and function, with the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. This dynamic of wholeness is critical for how the face of Christ is perceived and his function interpreted. In his whole-reductionism discourse, Paul pointed to the relational outcome or consequence of this issue of perceptual-interpretive framework as fundamental to the relational epistemic process necessary to “see [augazo, be illuminated by] the light” from top down (“God who…has shone”) and from inner out (“in our hearts”) “in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4,6). The term “face” (prosopon) can be understood in two contrary dynamics: (1) like a mask worn in early Greek theatre to take on a different identity in a role or as in a masquerade (metaschematizo, cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15); or (2) “face” can signify the whole person, whose identity of who, what and how the person is is not hidden but made fully vulnerable to be wholly perceived and involved with (cf. what the Father seeks, Jn 4:23-24). The first dynamic functions from outer in (e.g. “that one hides,” 4:2) while the second dynamic only functions from inner out (e.g. “by the open statement of the truth”). The interpretive framework of the first dynamic perceives only the outer face of Christ and thereby interprets Christ’s function in reductionist human terms. This outward approach is an incompatible interface with Christ’s face of inner out, and creates distance and maintains barriers in relationship. The relational consequence is not seeing the light and consequently unable to make relational connection with the qualitative being and relational nature of God.

Contrary to the first dynamic, in the second dynamic the face of Christ is without reductionism of the whole of who, what and how God is—just as Jesus conclusively revealed to his disciples (Jn 14:9) and fulfilled for the Father (Jn 17:4,6,26). This is the face embodying, illuminating and involving the whole of God’s glory—nothing less and no substitutes of God’s qualitative being and relational nature—for relationship together. It is the only face and function which constitute pleroma Christology—“the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). Moreover, then, this relational dynamic of the image and glory of God in Christ functions also to illuminate the whole knowledge and understanding of the face of Christ’s function from inner out in God’s relational context and process, whereby to function congruent to only God’s relational terms of grace from top down. Christ’s face and function together are irreducible and therefore indispensable for Christology to be complete. In Paul's pleroma Christology, Christ's face and function constitute the whole person vulnerably involved in relationship. The relational outcome, in contrast to the relational consequence above, is that the whole of God is now accessible for intimate relationship Face to face. The relational implication is that the function of this distinguished Face is compatible only with the human face in qualitative image and relational likeness of his for the qualitative-relational connection and involvement necessary to be wholly Face to face to Face.

This relational outcome is the purpose and function of the unequivocal image and glory of God vulnerably embodied by the whole of Jesus only for relationship together. Indispensably throughout the incarnation, Christ’s function illuminated the whole knowledge and understanding of the qualitative image and relational likeness of God in which the human person and function were created; and by his qualitative-relational function between the manger and the cross, Christ also vulnerably demonstrates the ontological image and functional likeness to which human persons need to be restored for whole relationship together face to Face. Therefore, the relational dynamic of the image and glory of God is essential in Paul’s pleroma Christology for a third function fulfilled in the distinguished face of Christ necessary for relationship together:

  1. The qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God necessary for human ontology and function, individually and collectively as God’s family, in the same dynamic as Christ of nothing less and no substitutes (Christ the functional key).

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. Jesus constituted this dynamic of wholeness in the incarnation of his own person, 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 oikonomia 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. From this integral function in the distinguished face of Christ unfold the remaining theological dynamics in Paul’s 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. This is the indispensable gospel for the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction necessary in order for the whole of God to fully emerge, whole human persons and function to reciprocally emerge, and for wholeness to emerge in relationship together. When Christ embodied this top-down gospel, Christ’s face and function from inner out constituted this good news in God’s relational context and process. By the nature of the whole and holy God, God’s relational context and process cannot be confused with, and thus must be distinguished from, any and all human context and process. The good news of the whole of God’s qualitative being and relational nature, both vulnerably present and involved for relationship together, functions only in the relational context and process of God’s terms.

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 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 emerges in fullness within only God’s relational context and process—the irreducible relational context and nonnegotiable relational process made vulnerable by Christ’s face and function for whole relationship together. 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, 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 and to be vulnerably involved in fulfilling the other theological dynamics of Paul’s forest. Apart from God’s relational context and process, Christ’s embodying 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—resulting in a gospel different from the image and glory of Christ.

Paul's relational responsibility (oikonomia) to pleroo the word of God has been an elusive function for Paul's readers because not understanding the whole in Paul is compounded when to what Paul is speaking and from where he speaks are not clearly understood. As frequently noted, Paul was always fighting conjointly for the gospel of Christ and against reductionism, and this either-or tension pervades Paul's thought and theology and often becomes blurred as to what Paul is saying. In Paul’s thought and theology throughout his letters, issues of continuity and discontinuity (real or perceived) directly involve the following: God’s context and process or human context and process, thus top down or bottom up; the whole gospel or a human-shaped gospel, thus nothing less and no substitutes or anything less and any substitutes; wholeness of ontology and function or reductionism of ontology and function, thus inner out or outer in. Though Paul’s letters address specific human contexts with various situations and circumstances (except for Eph), he is always contextualizing them in the further and deeper relational context and process of Christ’s face and function. Paul always speaks to them from this relational dynamic to illuminate not any gospel but only the gospel of the image and glory of Christ. For Paul, the issue of continuity (or perceived discontinuity, e.g. regarding torah) is related solely to God’s deep desire and thematic relational action for whole relationship together. When theology and the gospel, and their practice, are compatible and congruent with the outworking of God’s relational dynamic in Christ’s face and function, there is continuity in the thought and theology of Paul’s letters. When these, along with human ontology and function, have been reduced from God’s purpose for relationship in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God, then this incompatibility/incongruence involves the discontinuity rightly seen in Paul. In these instances, Paul exposes and confronts substituting human terms and shaping, even as ontological simulation and epistemological illusion from reductionism in order to make them whole (e.g. 1 Cor 1:12; 3:4,22; 4:6-7; 2 Cor 10:12; 11:12-15).

In the discontinuity parts of his letters, Paul responds with the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of the old life and function (e.g. Rom 2:28-29) necessary for the new to emerge (e.g. Gal 6:15; Rom 6:5-10; Col 3:9-11). In these examples noted, as a Jew who is also a follower of Christ, Paul clarifies the continuity of the original covenant and the new covenant (the OT and the NT). To the extent that the incarnation of Christ’s face and function is an extension of OT theology, Paul has continuity with the OT and Judaism faithfully practiced. Anything less or otherwise, there is discontinuity, the influence of which did not determine or give primary shape to Paul's gospel even as a Jew. Moreover, continuity should not be confused with conformity or determinism, or discontinuity mistaken with nonconformity or freedom. Discontinuity signifies anything less and any substitute of the whole according to reductionism. This reductionist dynamic involves the formation of quantitative templates within which human life is defined and human function is determined. This conforming process constrains the whole person and in practice enslaves persons to fragmentary life and function. These templates generated in the world of human contextualization continue today, which computer scientist Jaron Lanier demonstrated about internet technology (noted previously) to highlight reductionism indeed as the origination of templates for human persons and practice to conform to. Human terms, shaping or construction from a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework and lens are in fact the determining templates for human ontology and function which unmistakably constrain and enslave human life in the human condition (which even neuroscience identifies). For Paul, this process is not nonconformity and freedom but discontinuity with wholeness and consequently conformity and enslavement to reductionism (cf. Gal 4:8-10). Conversely, continuity reflects the relational dynamic of the whole of God’s relational response to this human condition for God’s purpose, not to conform human persons to function according to predetermined templates but to redeem them from such enslavement for the only purpose of being restored to wholeness of human ontology and function in whole relationship together (cf. Gal 4:3-7). Therefore, continuity in Paul unequivocally connotes fulfillment of the inherent human need and resolution for the human problem which neuroscience can only identify and describe in quantitative terms but has no qualitative solution and fulfillment for.

Critically, then, Paul’s discontinuity-responses to some practice of a theology or a gospel, along with his challenges to the assumptions of human ontology and function, were necessary 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. Yet this discontinuity issue is not understood in Paul if his readers remain no further than human contextualization and do not go deeper to vulnerably engage God’s relational context and process necessary for the continuity of Christ’s face and function, his whole person vulnerably involved in relationship. For Paul, discontinuity at best results only in an incomplete Christology, not pleroma Christology.

 

Pleroma Christology Completed

The relational dynamic of the integral face and function of Christ continues to be enacted in God’s relational context and process to fulfill God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition, and thereby to complete the theological dynamics of Paul’s forest. This relational dynamic does not unfold in a narrative account by Paul but in the experiential truth of the whole of Paul’s witness and with the development of the whole in his theology. The theological development of God's relational dynamic flows from the gospel of the image and glory of Christ’s face and function in 2 Corinthians to pleroma Christology in Colossians and the emergence of the ecclesiology of the whole in Ephesians. In this flow, Paul’s theological forest illuminates and makes definitive God’s relational dynamic to its whole relational outcome ‘already’ and its eschatological relational conclusion ‘not yet’. The process unfolds for Paul only within God’s relational context and process in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, which Paul engaged by the nature of Christ’s face and function for ongoing qualitative involvement in relationship with Christ and the Spirit.

In an integrated flow of Paul’s letters, following groundbreaking discourse in his Corinthian letters, Galatians establishes the functional clarity of the truth of the whole gospel to clearly distinguish it from any alternative gospels of human shaping. Romans follows to make definitive the theological basis for the truth of the whole gospel, thereby providing the theological clarity necessary to be integrated with the above functional clarity to constitute the whole gospel of the image and glory of Christ in the whole of God’s relational context and process responding in grace to the human condition. These theological relational dynamics are unfolded by Paul in his forest, in ongoing contrast and conflict with reductionism.

Colossians, on the one hand, is perhaps a test-case application of both the functional clarity from Galatians and the theological clarity from Romans to an apparent context of philosophical notions (Col 2:8). On the other hand, Colossians reflects the further development of Paul’s theology from Galatians and Romans. In Colossians, Paul’s theology represents the further development which, in reflection with the Spirit, demonstrates his synesis (whole knowledge and understanding, cf. 1:9; 2:2) of God’s relational revelation to make definitive the pleroma of God and to pleroo (make complete, whole) the word of God (Col 1:19,25), most significantly, in pleroma Christology. In the theological dynamics unfolding in Paul’s forest, God’s communicative action (the word of God) is made complete, whole, and thus fulfilled, by the embodied word from God constituting the whole of Christ’s face and function—that is, by the pleroma of God whom God delighted (eudokeo) in vulnerably disclosing for relationship together. Paul’s synesis involved the continuity of God’s relational dynamic in thematic response to the human condition, initiated even before creation (1:12-20). Continuing God’s relational dynamic in Christ as the image of God, Christ’s face and function (his whole person in relationship) as the pleroma of God completes the complex theological dynamics necessary to make whole the human condition (Col 1:21-22; 2:9-10; 3:9-11). Yet, pleroma Christology in Colossians only identifies the relational outcome ‘in Christ’, leaving more for Paul to unfold.

The whole of God’s relational purpose and dynamic are certainly salvific (cf. Ps 68:19-20). Christ’s whole person in relationship, however, redeemed persons from enslavement to not only save them from the human condition; integrally and inseparably, persons were redeemed to be saved to reconciliation in God’s family in whole relationships together (cf. Rom 5:9-11; Col 1:13). God’s theological dynamic of saved from-to is inseparable from God’s relational dynamic for the integrated outcome of redemptive reconciliation. Ephesians takes over for Colossians to fully summarize God’s complex theological relational dynamics unfolding in Paul’s forest and highlights the relational outcome of what persons ‘in Christ’ are saved to.

In Ephesians, Paul also further develops the theological clarity from Romans, hereby providing the theological forest for all the theological trees. Moreover, Paul added further theological discourse not included in Romans, most notably illuminating the relational outcome of ‘saved to’ by making definitive the ecclesiology necessary to be whole, God’s whole family in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God—just as Christ’s face and function constituted (Eph 1:22-23; 2:13-22), and Jesus prayed for his family’s formation (Jn 17:20-26) that Paul’s own prayer knowingly or unknowingly echoed (Eph 3:14-19).

Jesus’ formative family prayer and Paul’s prayer for the church signify the qualitative depth ‘already’ of the relational outcome of pleroma Christology. As a function of relationship, pleroma Christology defines the course of the continuing theological dynamics unfolding in Paul’s forest and the coherence in his letters of God’s relational dynamic, which Christ’s whole person in relationship completes in whole relational outcome and the Spirit brings to eschatological conclusion. How is this relational process completed?

The thematic answer is simply “the Lord made his face to shine on us and be gracious to us and gave us peace.” This, of course, involved complex theological dynamics which pleroma Christology completes in Paul’s forest on only God’s qualitative relational terms. Vulnerably disclosed throughout the incarnation was the embodied face of the pleroma of God’s qualitative being and relational nature illuminated in the face of Christ. With this distinguished Face clearly embodied in human context and witnessing to human context, yet from only God’s relational context and process, Christ’s face and function turn and head to the cross to complete the whole of the gospel of the glory of Christ—the gospel of peace that God’s face of grace shined on us and gave. The cross becomes the relational means to this relational outcome that is now the major focus of Paul’s pleroma Christology.

Why the cross? For Jews, the cross would appear as an unnecessary priestly sacrifice and was certainly incongruent for Messiah; for Greeks, it seemed only foolishness, as Paul noted for both (1 Cor 1:23). Yet for Paul, the cross was unequivocal good news for the integral relational outworking of the whole of God’s relational dynamic and the experiential truth of these theological dynamics (1 Cor 2:2; Gal 6:14). Therefore, in Paul’s thought and theology the cross is no mere event that is vested with major significance he received from the Jesus tradition (1 Cor 15:3-4). The cross is only the relational extension of the incarnation and the relational outcome of the whole of God’s vulnerable involvement with human persons—which also signified the further relational extension of the incarnation Paul personally received from Jesus on the Damascus road for the experiential truth of the good news in the cross. Paul then never focused on the cross at the expense of discourse on the incarnation but only as the relational extension of it. Just as the incarnation was a function of relationship and not event, the cross signifies the same function of relationship that was embodied by Jesus' whole person vulnerably involved in relationship.

Shortly before Jesus went to the cross, he disclosed to his disciples for their assurance that he was “the way and the truth and the life,” the relational means to the Father for whole relationship together as family (Jn 14:1-6). As discussed previously, his declaration was also in response to Thomas’ claim made from a quantitative epistemic process using a reductionist interpretive lens: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In their distress over his pending death and departure, Jesus necessarily shifted their reductionist focus from the quantitative outer in to the qualitative whole of inner out. Jesus focused them on the relational way to the experiential truth of the whole life (zoe not bios) together with the whole of God illuminated in the face of Christ—that is, the pleroma of God—thus “know me, know my Father…seen me, seen the Father” (Jn 14:7,9). Whether or not Paul knew of Jesus’ disclosure to those disciples, Paul knew Jesus in the relational way to the experiential truth of whole zoe together to constitute his pleroma Christology, whose theological dynamics converge at the cross.

The major part of the complex dynamics converging at the cross involves the issue of election and determinism along with free will and freedom in the critical matter of sin. If God’s election was the decision to predetermine outcomes, then God had no basis to hold human persons accountable for their actions or even reason to do so. This view renders sin essentially as irrelevant. Yet, regarding free will and freedom, in the primordial garden God allowed for only functional self-autonomy (not total) that did not include functional self-determination as the creature apart from the Creator. Nevertheless, human persons exercised their self-autonomy for self-determination, which then became their only functional means for self-justification (Gen 3:6-13; cf. Rom 1:21-25). This critical dynamic of self, with all its variations (both individually and collectively), is not predetermined by God but solely the consequence of human action extending beyond the nonnegotiably prescribed relational terms from the Creator for reciprocal relationship together, and thus is action rightly to be held accountable for—for example, “did God really say that?” This dynamic of self-autonomy, self-determination, self-justification enacts the human condition embedded in and enslaved to the sin of reductionism, that in Paul’s theological discourse in relational terms clearly means to “fall short of the qualitative and relational glory of God,”—for which, in terms of reciprocal relationship, all persons are accountable (Rom 3:23).

For Paul, sin is more than a static condition, and it goes beyond the burden of moral failure and the debt of ethical shortcomings. Sin fully involves a dynamic relational process directly engaging the specific relational context of God. Engagement by individuals and collectives in the dynamic of sin is to “fall short of the glory of God” (hystereo), that is, to come short of the defining created ontology in the qualitative image of God and the determining created function in the relational likeness of God, thus contrary to the glory of God revealed in creation (Rom 1:23) and vulnerably disclosed in Christ’s face and function (2 Cor 4:6). Consequently, the functional dynamic of sin—which includes on the contextual, structural and systemic levels—is to reduce human persons from their created whole qualitative ontology and relational function constituted by the whole of God. This reduction of the human person and persons in relationship together engaged by Adam and Eve critically separated them from the definitive significance of the whole of God’s relational context and process to then be defined and determined entirely by human terms from human context (cf. Rom 5:12). This human contextualization and agency, by its redefined nature, can only be reductionism of human ontology and function, consequently to come short of the glory of God’s qualitative image and relational likeness by which human persons were created (cf. 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). Yet this hystereo should not be confused with not measuring up to some standard (moral, ethical, social, cultural, familial, etc) based on persons defined by what they do and have. Such confusion is often evident in the practice of faith, thereby renegotiating the terms of God’s relational response of grace and engaging in self-determination (not Paul’s polemic in Gal 1:6; 3:2-3; 4:8-9).

Such reductionism of the whole person and reductionism’s counter-relational work on whole relationships together are consequential in function, which at best can signify only ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of the whole of God’s glory. This reductionism was demonstrated by Jesus’ first disciples discussed above prior to the cross. Their statements, “How can we know the way” and “show us the Father,” would rarely be interpreted as moral failure or ethical shortcoming. It was their reductionist perception, both of Jesus and themselves, that prevented wholeness of ontology and function from being seen and known in Jesus as well as being lived in themselves, and as a result from experiencing together with Jesus, even after “all this time” (expressing Jesus’ frustration, Jn 14:9). This was consequential of reductionism as the essential function of sin, the sin of reductionism, from which they needed redemptive change to be whole. Any and all reductions, whatever its variation, of God’s whole on God’s qualitative relational terms to human shaping on human terms engage the dynamic process of sin, all of which is consequential, accountable and in need of redemptive change (cf. Col 2:8-23).

In Paul’s theological discourse, sin is a theological tree that can be fully understood only in its theological forest. Therefore, sin, by its functional nature, must always be perceived and interpreted in the breadth of the relational context and depth of the relational process constituted by the whole of God’s thematic relational action. Anything less and any substitutes are sin itself, the sin of reductionism, with all its expressions critically converging at the cross. This is the cross illuminated by the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:4), the pleroma of God (Col 1:19-20), whose light Paul would not diminish by any reductionism of his own (1 Cor 1:10-17). Reductionism’s presence and influence is pervasive and its practice is prevailing, often even in the church as Paul addressed at Corinth. This makes unequivocal the defining issue for the human condition converging with Christ at the cross:

All human life and function in self-autonomy, created with limits by God, are left with only two choices about self-determination and thus self-justification: either the functional means of human terms, shaping and construction, or the relational means in the face and function of Christ (cf. Paul’s personal either-or, Phil 3:4-9, and the functional constraints of the person, Rom 7:15-25).

The former remains the incorrigible means to reduced ontology and function, and the latter is the redemptive means to whole ontology and function. The issue at the cross is whether the former means is relinquished and submitted to the latter means, so that human life and function can be complete in relational response.

Beyond the event and its drama, the cross signifies the function of relationship embodied by the whole face and function of Christ, who constitutes this relational dynamic even beyond merely sacrificial death for atonement and justification. The theological dynamics converging at the cross cannot be understood by the referential limits of these doctrines (theological trees), the theological discourse of which has traditionally been fragmentary without wholeness, if not reductionist (apart from their theological forest). The cross was fully embodied by the whole of Jesus to be paradigmatic of the dynamic flow of interaction as follows:

The convergence of, first, God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition fulfilled (“It is finished,” Jn 19:30) by the qualitative being and relational nature of God’s glory embodied in Christ’s whole face and function (“I am thirsty,” Jn 19:28), and second, the human responses of self-autonomy at efforts of self-determination and self-justification now submitted to God’s response (“Jesus, remember me,” Lk 23:42) in order to fully share in (“you will be with me,” 23:43) the redemptive means to wholeness (“Father, forgive them,” 23:34) embodied by Jesus only in God’s relational context and process (“Father into your hands,” 23:46) for whole relationship together (“here is your son…here is your mother,” Jn 19:26-27).

 

The submission of human reductionism to Christ’s face and function is more than figurative because it entails the dynamic convergence and engagement by human persons in their sin of reductionism to participate in Jesus’ relational response, notably behind the curtain—signifying the reciprocal, not unilateral, nature of relationship, notably with the veil removed (2 Cor 3:16). This reciprocal dynamic is the necessary convergence in which Christ functionally assumes their reductionism to fulfill God’s response to the human condition (2 Cor 5:21), constituted by the relational sacrifice of atonement behind the curtain (Rom 3:25). The order of this interaction is not clearly linear and is distinctly not unilateral. The interaction of Christ’s relational response of taking on human sin of reductionism is a theological dynamic that can be sufficiently explained only in the whole of God’s relational dynamic; this vulnerably emerged in the incarnation, whose face and function now paradoxically integrates his whole life with reductionist death, not in dialectic tension but in God’s relational response of grace for whole human life to emerge together. Though this certainly involved sacrificing the whole of his life, it is not paradigmatic of sacrifice but more deeply paradigmatic of the whole of his relational involvement with persons in the death of their reductionism—not merely the sacrifice of agape but the depth of agape’s relational involvement (discussed shortly). The pleroma of Jesus’ assuming of sin, however, is paradoxical beyond physical death: resulting, on the one hand, necessarily in the relational consequence of the mystery of fragmenting the whole of God (“why have you forsaken me,” Mt 27:46) for God’s preplanned purpose, and, on the other hand, of the relational outcome of human redemption and reconciliation (Rom 5:6-11; Eph 1:4-10; Col 1:21-22). This is the dynamic paradigm of whole life relationally involved with reductionist life for the death of its reductionism so that whole life can emerge together in relationship.

 

Moreover, this reciprocal relational process is paradigmatic for the ongoing relational involvement—of reductionist life with whole life for reductionism’s death for whole life together—necessary for the redemptive reconciliation as God’s whole family (Col 2:8-14; 3:9-11; Gal 6:14-15; Rom 6:4; 2 Cor 3:18; 5:16-17; Eph 2:14-18). This ongoing relational dynamic by necessity converges at the cross for the old in human life and function to be redeemed in order for the new of wholeness to emerge. Therefore, the cross is the conclusive dynamic paradigm to wholeness, signifying the relational means in Christ’s face and function that exposes, critiques, receives, redeems and makes whole all reductionism at the cross.

For Paul, though the cross is foolishness in human contextualization, it is irreducible to human shaping and nonnegotiable to human redefining, the unequivocal good news of the whole of God’s continued relational involvement for wholeness. In pleroma Christology the cross is the only dynamic paradigm for the old sin of reductionism to die so that the new ontology and function can be raised whole, that is, in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God for reciprocal relationship together in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. In Paul’s theological forest the cross is inseparable from the resurrection and their conjoint function is indispensable for God’s relational dynamic to wholeness—the relational way to the experiential truth of the whole life in God’s family together. A cross apart from the resurrection merely to save us from sin is fragmented, therefore signifies a truncated soteriology that can never be the whole life Jesus saves to.

Thus, from the interpretive lens based on his synesis received from Christ and the Spirit (Gal 1:12; 1 Cor 2:13; Eph 3:3-4), Paul perceived the cross in the flow and relational dynamic of the incarnation. Christ’s death was never reduced or separated from the qualitative being of Christ’s face and the relational nature of his function, which jointly illuminated the glory of the pleroma of God. The cross signified the same function of relationship as the incarnation. This congruence is critical in Paul’s pleroma Christology. Despite the major attention in his letters given to the cross, his theological focus is on the incarnation embodying the whole of God’s relational dynamic in thematic response to the human condition. An imbalanced view of the cross becomes overly christocentric based on an incomplete Christology, whereas for Paul, the cross extends from nothing less and no substitutes of the incarnation of the pleroma of God and therefore is centered on the whole of God (from the Father to the Son by the Spirit) composing pleroma Christology. This is who “the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ” illuminated and who was wholly embodied on the cross to illuminate further. This also is the distinguished Face of the pleroma of God on the cross with whose function in death Paul resolved wholeheartedly to know face to Face (1 Cor 2:2), to share intimately together in relationship (Phil 3:10) and to witness to nothing less and no substitutes (Gal 6:14).

Still missing from this discussion on Paul’s view of the cross through the whole of the incarnation is the principal dynamic of God’s thematic action, which I have purposely left out until now. What is the principal dynamic of God's thematic action, inseparable from the primary dynamic? In Paul’s theological forest, integral with the primary relational dynamic of God’s grace is the principal relational dynamic of God’s love, agape (Eph 1:4-10). Agape is the principal dynamic of God’s thematic action which ultimately is enacted in the incarnation and extended to the cross (Rom 5:6-8; Eph 2:4-5, cf. Jn 3:16). The cross, however, is perceived by many to be the ultimate expression of agape, thereby eclipsing the incarnation in the whole of God’s relational dynamic. This is a distortion because it skews both our view of the cross as well as our understanding of agape.

When we think of love in terms of agape, the main thought to emerge is about sacrifice, sacrificial love (e.g. taking Paul out of context in Phil 2:1-2, 6-8; cf. 2 Cor 8:9). Then, of course, the ultimate example of agape and sacrifice is seen in Jesus on the cross. The doctrine of atonement reinforces this perception, which points to the referential limits this doctrine, apart from the whole, imposes on the qualitative depth and relational breadth of Christ’s involvement in fulfilling God’s relational purpose and thematic relational response for the inseparable dynamic of redemption from sin and reconciliation to God’s family (Eph 1:4-10; Rom 3:24-25; Col 1:13,22). Christ’s face and function certainly included sacrifice, yet sacrifice neither fully embodied his whole person on the cross nor wholly constituted his relational function at the cross. That is, fulfilling God’s relational purpose and response necessitated the whole of Christ’s relational involvement with human persons to integrally save them from the sin of reductionism and save them to be whole together in God’s family. This necessary qualitative depth and relational breadth of Christ’s involvement was not constituted by sacrifice but by only the principal dynamic of agape. How are they distinguished?

The functional significance of agape is not sacrifice, though it may involve sacrifice; much more important, it is about relationship. Sacrifice tends to have the underlying focus on that individual and what that person does (e.g. even in common discourse about Christ’s death), albeit explicitly intended for the sake of others. Agape, however, functions in the relational significance of how to be involved with others in relationship, not about what to do, even for others. The distinction between ‘how to be involved with others’ and ‘what to do for others’ may appear negligible to you, yet it is critical for understanding our actions in two vital issues: one, how we define our person and on this basis, secondly, how we do relationships.

  1. ‘What to do’ is a quantitative focus on my behavior or action which may be needed for others but is even more important for defining my person from outer in by what I do/have. ‘How to be involved’ is a qualitative focus not primarily on what I do but rather on my person defined from inner out and functioning as nothing less and no substitutes of that person. The former is a reduced person and the latter is whole.

 

  1. Persons defined by what they do/have give to others what they do/have; that is, they do relationships also from the outer in, which is not the deeper level of involvement of their person, only what they do/have. This implies only seeing those others also from outer in, which indicates the focus of concern is not really those others as persons but, for example, only as “needs” to act on to better define oneself by ‘what I do’. In contrast, persons defined from inner out function with their whole person to be involved with others as persons, not just their needs for example. This determines the level of involvement they have in relationship with others and also defines the primacy of relationship they give to all interactions. The dynamics distinguished between these two approaches is the significance of Paul’s polemic in “Knowledge puffs up, but agape builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).

The nature of God’s agape is relationship. By its nature, then, the focus in agape must (dei not opheilo, out of duty, obligation) be involvement with others in relationship together—not on me and what I do, even intended for the sake of others. Thus agape qualifies the whole matter of serving, challenges our assumptions about service, and makes problematic servant models focused on sacrifice. So much of this is concentrated on ‘what to do’, which Jesus’ paradigm for serving critiques, chastens and makes whole (Jn 12:26).

When agape is understood as not about ‘what to do’ (even notably with sacrifice and service) but ‘how to be involved in relationship’, then the incarnation is the ultimate enactment of agape constituting the breadth and depth of the whole of God’s vulnerable involvement with human persons. As Christ’s whole face and function embodied throughout the incarnation, agape relationships are signified by the extent of involvement in the relationship. Depth of involvement necessitates increasing vulnerability from inner out by the person enacting agape, of which John 3:16 is the ultimate enactment yet inseparable from Jesus’ footwashing. Thus, the incarnation—and all other examples of “incarnational” popular today—must by its agape nature be both embodying and engaging in the depth of relational involvement necessary to be whole; otherwise the incarnation is narrowed down to fragmentary referential terms. This depth of relational involvement continued to the cross as an extension of God’s agape relationally embodied and engaged in the incarnation. Without the whole of God’s relational dynamic of agape to constitute who is embodied and relationally involved on the cross, the cross also becomes fragmented in referential terms.

What the cross constitutes theologically in terms of atonement, as well as justification, needs to be understood in the whole of God’s thematic response in the principal dynamic of agape. It is the relational significance of agape that constitutes the depth of Christ’s relational involvement beyond the limits of doctrines to the experiential truth of the whole gospel. In this relational dynamic, Jesus’ whole person from inner out vulnerably involved himself with the whole human person(s), therefore he involved his person with the person’s sin as well as the person in the image of God. His agape involvement with the person’s sin was fully vulnerable, to such depth that he took on and incurred the consequences of that sin, which also deeply involved the relational consequence of separation/rejection from the Father. In other words, Jesus went beyond merely doing what was needed for atonement and justification (Col 1:19-22). Accordingly, what the cross illuminates is the breadth and depth of agape’s relational involvement that Jesus engaged wholly both with human persons and the whole of God (the Father along with the Spirit), not about the referential fragments of what Jesus did even though it involved sacrifice albeit for human atonement and justification. Indeed, the cross is only the relational extension of the incarnation and the relational outcome of God’s agape involvement with human persons, nothing less and no substitutes.

Jesus' whole person is whom Paul saw on the cross—the whole of Jesus in qualitative being and relational nature (“the glory of God in the face of Christ”) in relationship, not what Jesus did. This whole Jesus in agape relational involvement had extended even to the contrarian Saul for the relational way to the experiential truth of whole life in God’s family together. Thus, Jesus' whole person is who, not what, Paul increasingly knew face to Face, shared intimately in whole relationship together, and witnessed for with the whole of his own person in pleroma Christology. This is the relational outcome of the principal dynamic of God’s agape for which Paul prayed to the Father for his church family to experience from inner out (“in your inner being…in your hearts”) the pleroma of God’s qualitative face and relational function (“his glory”) in the qualitative depth and relational breadth of Christ’s agape involvement for the wholeness of reciprocal relationship together (Eph 3:14-19). Paul’s prayer does not close in doxology to end his letter (to which was added a second letter) but as a transition in affirmation of the relational means (way) to the experiential truth of whole life together as church family in God’s agape relational involvement and relational likeness (3:20-21); this integral relational process continues to develop in Ephesians not as ethical exhortation (paraenesis) of ‘what to do’ but as the principal dynamic of agape of ‘how to be involved’ in relationship both in the church and in the world (as in Eph 4:11-16), the lack of involvement in which grieves the Spirit (4:30). Paul's emphasis on how to be relationally involved echoes Jesus’ formative family prayer for his church family—not to function in fragmentary sacrifice and service, but to live whole in agape involvement together in relational likeness to the experiential truth of the relational ontology of the whole of God, also “so that the world may believe…so that the world may know that you sent me and have loved them by the relational involvement even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:20-26).

All the theological dynamics embodied in the incarnation of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition and that converge at the cross are indeed the relational outcome of the principal dynamic of God’s agape relational involvement. Paul thereby gives his readers a new view of the cross and the Jesus on it. Anything less, even with doctrinal certainty, is fragmentary and does not understand the pleroma of God relationally present and vulnerably involved for only the experiential truth of whole relationship together; this is the relational consequence from the referentialization of the Word. The lens based on the relational significance of agape enacted by Jesus shifts the focus from Jesus (at the center of sacrifice and service) to his relational involvement with others, both humans and God—just as demonstrated in Jesus’ ultimate salvific discourse on the cross (noted above and developed in the next chap.). To only see Jesus on the cross in a christocentric focus is to reduce the Jesus, the pleroma of God, embodied on it, thereby assuming a view of the cross and of Jesus’ agape as about only sacrifice, not relationship together. Such a diminished view reduces the salvific function of the cross and distorts Jesus’ relational purpose. If the cross is not seen in its whole, and if who is seen on the cross is not wholly embodied by the pleroma of God, then the salvific outcome cannot be whole. At best, the outcome would be fragmented and diminished to a truncated soteriology of only what Jesus saved from, though often this outcome becomes merely an ontological simulation or epistemological illusion from reductionism substituting for the whole salvific outcome. The whole salvific outcome is constituted by the pleroma of God only in full soteriology of what Jesus irreducibly and inseparably saves from and saves to.

Jesus himself did not in fact provide such a reductionist view of his person on the cross. His salvific discourse on the cross clearly illuminates the qualitative depth and relational breadth of his agape involvement in relationship with other humans and God. By his unequivocal face and function, clearly distinguished, the whole of Jesus allowed for little reflection on his self, but rather challenged the perceptual-interpretive framework of his viewers to go further and deeper to the relational dynamic of the pleroma of God vulnerably responding to them. This view of Jesus and the cross cannot be seen through a reductionist lens, however, regardless of the depth and breadth of his agape involvement. This was the lens used by the mocking criminal crucified with Jesus. With his quantitative focus, he only saw Jesus from outer in, embedded in their common circumstance, which was incongruent for the Messiah. Yet, in desperation he still said “Save yourself and us” (Lk 23:39); that is, he sought salvation (deliverance) only from his negative circumstance, disregarding what Jesus had just said about forgiveness. As Jesus enacted further relational involvement with his mother and John, he illuminated deeply what he also saves to, which this criminal still could not see and consequently could not pay attention to because he was predisposed by his reductionist lens.

Reductionism may allow for a truncated soteriology, as demonstrated in the church situation at Corinth (1 Cor 1:12-17). In reality, the sin of reductionism is often seeking deliverance from only this or that without desiring any further involvement, specifically qualitative relationship together, therefore not including saved from the human shaping of relationship together. Reductionism, however, will never allow for the full soteriology of pleroma Christology because what the pleroma of God saves to makes whole the human condition in relationship together as God’s family (cf. the contrasts in Corinth, 1 Cor 3:4-9, 21-22). This wholeness in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes is incompatible with reductionism, and consequently reductionism’s counter-relational work is always seeking to diminish, minimalize, fragment or deny the primacy of relationships together necessary to be whole in relational likeness to the relational ontology of the whole of God (cf. its basis, 1 Cor 4:6-7, and its implication, 8:1, and its contrast, 14:33)—that is, countering the relational outcome of the full soteriology (10:16-17; 11:25; 12:12-31).

Regardless of the extent of the sin of reductionism, the gospel of the glory of Christ’s face and function fulfilled God’s thematic relational response to make whole any persons in the human condition (Col 1:19-22; 2:9-10). Anything less functionally and any substitutes theologically of the pleroma of God could neither fulfill the whole of God’s relational dynamic, nor would such reductions even have all the complex theological dynamics converge at the cross to be completed. By its irreducible nature, the full soteriology can only emerge from and be constituted by pleroma Christology. Moreover, pleroma Christology cannot be reduced to or confused with mysticism and esoteric knowledge as developed in Gnosticism and its Pleroma, which Valentinus misinterpreted from Paul in the second century.

 

While the whole of Christ’s qualitative face and relational function has fulfilled God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition to complete pleroma Christology, the pleroma of God’s agape relational involvement continues further in qualitative depth and relational breadth. Just as the cross and death of Christ is inseparable in dynamic function from his resurrection, the irreducible theological dynamic of pleroma Christology coheres further in the nonnegotiable theological dynamic of the full soteriology. These are the complex theological dynamics which continue to unfold in Paul’s theological forest. Their convergence and thus coherence in his forest are understood in the theological dynamic of wholeness from his theological systemic framework, which now further interacts with the emerging theological dynamics of belonging and ontological identity. By their nature, these dynamics unfold always in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, with the principal dynamic of agape relational involvement, and by the primary dynamic of God’s relational grace completed by the Spirit. And their relational outcome can only be distinguished, and thus only has significance, in pleroma soteriology.

 

 

Pleroma Soteriology

In spite of advanced medical knowledge today to prolong human life and function, the medicalization of modern life (similar to the referentialization of the Word) underdiagnoses the inherent human relational need and insufficiently intervenes on the human problem—the very human relational need which, ironically, has been also correctly identified by advanced neuroscience. All these human efforts merely attempt to save persons from this condition or that disorder, without any deeper knowledge and understanding of what human life and function need to be saved to. No matter how much and how long modern medicine can control human life and sustain its function, it cannot make them whole.

At the same time, if our primary focus remains on saving from the human condition of sin for extending life in eternity, this salvation is also not whole—neither understanding eternal life distinguished as zoe in kairos, nor knowing the whole of God in relationship distinguished by Jesus as eternal life (Jn 17:3). The reductionist perception (e.g. quantitative and referential) of saving human life and function is limited at best to saving it from its condition. Such narrowed-down salvation has traditionally involved the doctrines of atonement and justification, which may have limited functional significance (Rom 3:23-26, cf. Heb 2:17) yet lack their relational significance as the means of being saved to the full relational outcome (Rom 5:9-11; Col 1:21-22). Atonement and justification remain fragmentary until integrated in pleroma Christology for their whole understanding in God’s relational dynamic, from which emerges the relational outcome composing pleroma soteriology (Col 2:9-10; Eph 1:22-23). In other words, what is necessary to save human persons beyond these limits is the whole knowledge and understanding that is the distinguishing (albeit improbable) function of pleroma Christology.

Pleroma Christology is not a religious statement but a relational dynamic that vitally connects all human life and function to its Creator in order for its condition to be fully restored from inner out and only on this basis made whole. This relational dynamic cannot be a function of static doctrine because the limits imposed by a static position also do not go beyond merely saving from this condition or that disorder, similar to the medicalization of life. Such Christology is incomplete and any soteriology associated with it will only be truncated. Pleroma Christology, however, is only a function of the whole of God’s relational dynamic vitally responding to make whole the human condition. By its very nature, this relational response conjointly saves human life and function from its condition and to whole ontology and function in relationship together. Therefore, the saving dynamic clearly emerging from and constituted by pleroma Christology can be only pleroma soteriology, whose function is also in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes.

What constitutes the dynamic that salvation is the relational outcome of? And what is this relational outcome that by necessity is definitive for pleroma soteriology?

In Paul’s theological forest, the human condition of reductionism is a given for all human life and function, both for Jews with the torah[6] and Gentiles without it, (Rom 3:9,23). For Paul, a Jew, to declare “there is no distinction” (diastole, 3:22b) between human persons was, on the one hand, incongruent with the prevailing practice of Judaism and, on the other, compatible to the nature of the covenant relationship established with Abraham (cf. Rom 4; Gal 3:8-9). These may appear as contradictory positions, as may his statements between “no human being will be justified in his sight by deeds prescribed by the law” (Rom 3:20) and “the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13). In reality, in these two sets of statements Paul is exposing critical dynamics specific to the sin of reductionism and is illuminating the definitive relational dynamic necessary for human life and function to be whole. The above two positions/statements do not contradict each other; in each pair of statements, the former is about reductionist Jews whose diastole (distinction) was embedded in practices for national identity, and, in contrast and conflict for Paul, the latter is about whole Jews who obey the law in reciprocal relational response to God’s terms only for covenant relationship together. Since the Damascus road, Paul had not shifted from being a contrarian of Christianity to a contrarian of Judaism. He had become vulnerably involved in the relational dynamic of fighting jointly for the experiential truth of the whole gospel and against reductionism in Judaism (which he himself had practiced) and in all human life and function, even in churches, to make them whole. His involvement included challenging theological assumptions, particularly about human ontology and function.

Just as Paul wholly understood for himself, he spoke to the reductionism in Judaism necessitating the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction from tamiym (Gen 17:1-2; cf. Rom 4:16), from the covenant of peace (wholeness, Isa 54:10; Eze 37:26), and, most importantly, from the salvific relational work of the Messiah “that made us whole” (Isa 53:5; cf. Eph 2:14-17; 6:15; Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10). Paul clearly shifted the definition of Jews from their human contextualization in Judaism to contextualization in the whole of God’s salvific response of grace as the only means for the human condition no longer “to be apart” from God’s whole—God’s thematic relational response initiated by the covenant relational promise to Abraham (Rom 4:13-17; Gal 3:17-18) and which now “is attested by the law and the prophets” (Rom 3:21, cf. 1:2; Gal 3:8-9).

Involved in the salvific process are various theological trees, which Paul integrates together in the whole of God’s relational dynamic so that salvation has the necessary relational outcome to be whole—pleroma soteriology. These theological trees included faith, the law, justification and righteousness. For reductionist Jews, the dynamics of these trees had become fragmented, misinterpreted and convoluted in practice for Israel’s self-determination as nation-state, or even for their self-justification before God. The OT attests to Israel’s recurring problem of getting embedded in the larger surrounding context rather than sojourning as God’s people in and to eschatological covenant relationship together. The consequence of their embedding was their immediate concern for deliverance to be saved from those surrounding contexts and related situations, yet just with the primary concern to restore their national identity. The relational consequence had deep repercussions: (1) it constructed a reductionist theology and practice of soteriology (yesuah) limited primarily to save them from (yasa) their immediate burdens, thereby reducing the perception of God to only a deliverer whose function is defined by what Yesua does in quantitative terms from outer in; then (2) this reductionist perception of God and God’s function was consequential both for reducing the ontology of their person (individually and corporately) from inner out to outer in, and for reducing their function from qualitative terms to quantitative terms outer in based merely on what they did without the qualitative function of their heart in the qualitative image of the holy God and without the qualitative involvement in the primacy of relationship together in the relational likeness of the whole and holy God (cf. Rom 2:28-29).

The dynamic interaction between this relational consequence from reductionism and the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology pervade Paul’s theological discourse as he makes the necessary epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction notably for faith, the law, justification and righteousness to be integrated in God’s relational dynamic of Paul’s theological forest. In contrast and conflict with human contextualization, what clearly emerges from the whole of God’s relational context and process is the fulfillment of God’s thematic salvific response embodied by Jesus Christ: “But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God as been disclosed” (Rom 3:21). God’s relational dynamic of grace vulnerably embodied in Christ is accessible to all persons equalized before him—whatever their sin of reductionism, “no distinction, since all…fall short of the glory of God” (3:22-23)—to be “justified…through the redemption and reconciliation that is in Christ, whom God relationally put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” (3:24-25, cf. Eph 1:7-9; Col 1:22). Yet this relational outcome of Christ’s salvific work always includes by its nature the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of the relational consequence discussed above. This dynamic interaction involves the experiential truth of Christ’s salvific relational work that “makes us whole” (Isa 53:5) in the covenant relationship together of wholeness (Eze 37:26; Rom 5:1; Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10; Eph 2:14-18)—just as the prophets in Scripture attested (Rom 1:2; 3:21). In other words, this gospel of peace (cf. Eph 6:15) from the peace of Christ (Col 3:15) is the irreducible salvation constituted by pleroma Christology.

In the fulfillment of God’s relational dynamic of grace in response to the human condition, the pleroma of God functioned in the dynamic of wholeness to integrally save from and to. The term “to save” (sozo) means both to deliver and to make whole, together composing the qualitative relational nature of pleroma soteriology. How does this dynamic of wholeness epistemologically clarify and hermeneutically correct the theological dynamics of faith, the law, justification and righteousness?

Paul points to the experiential truth that “the righteousness of God has been disclosed” (Rom 3:21). Rather than a proposition about God framed in Scripture, this can be distinguished as the experiential truth of not only what has been disclosed but how it was disclosed—phaneroo, not apokalypto. Apokalypto tends to focus on just the object disclosed (as in Rom 1:17). Phaneroo, however, also engages a relational dynamic to focus on the person(s) to whom something is disclosed. That is to say, phaneroo illuminates God’s relational dynamic that is involved in disclosing the righteousness of God for persons to experience the truth of in relationship together. What they can experience of God is not the truth of a static attribute called righteousness (dikaiosyne) or the mere outcome of what God does—namely to receive the gift of righteousness as only something about or from God. The distinction of phaneroo is vital for whole understanding of God’s relational dynamic: to experience the righteousness of God is to experience the fullness (rightness) of who and what God is and to be able to count on this whole ontology in how God functions in relationship together, nothing less and no substitutes. Dikaiosyne, therefore, is never enacted in isolation but is always a function of how one lives in relationship. English translations lose this relational clarity of dikaiosyne, according to E. P. Sanders, by rendering dikaiosyne with ‘justification’ and its cognate verb, dikaioo, with ‘to justify’, which connote legal action and status.[7] Moreover, these also connote proof of a character trait of God, all of which narrow God down to referential terms. For example, God’s salvific relational dynamic in response to the human condition was a demonstration, proof (endeixis) of “his righteousness…that he himself is righteous” (Rom 3:25-26)—not in legal terms of “his justice” (in NIV)—which Abraham relationally counted on God to be and thereby to fulfill in relationship together (Rom 4:13, 19-20). God’s righteousness goes beyond God’s character to also be God’s relational function.

On the basis of God’s relational dynamic to clearly phaneroo the righteousness of God for human persons to experience in relationship together, the other theological dynamics also emerge to make whole the human condition. God’s thematic relational response of grace disclosing his righteousness made definitive the relational context and unequivocally put in motion the relational process necessary for human persons to engage in reciprocal relational response to who, what and how God is in order to be made whole, and hereby to live whole in relationship together. Abraham’s relational response constitutes the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction needed for human response to be relationally congruent with God’s relational context and relationally compatible to God’s relational process. In Paul’s theological forest, God’s relational context is irreducible to human contextualization and God’s relational process is nonnegotiable to human terms. This necessary distinction involves Paul’s theological anthropology basic to his theological systemic framework that challenged prevailing assumptions of human ontology and function. In Paul’s theological discourse, this distinction involving anthropology magnified the dynamic interaction of the relational consequence of reductionism (discussed earlier for Israel) with the relational outcome unfolding for pleroma soteriology. Given the clear relational disclosure of God’s righteousness, Paul simply asks of all human ontology and function, “Then what becomes of boasting?” (or human pride, kauchesis, Rom 3:27). Paul’s polemic is without equivocation: “It is excluded…a person is justified by faith apart from all human efforts at self-autonomy from human contextualization and their human terms for self-determination and self-justification” (3:27-28).

Moreover, “if Abraham was justified by such human effort and terms, he has something to boast about, but not in relationship to God” (Rom 4:2). Paul does not totally discount any benefit of human effort. Yet, this benefit only exists in human contextualization that Paul amplifies. When fair, human contextualization and its terms operate on a quantitative system of exchange (quid pro quo) resulting in benefits (“wages”) commensurate with human effort (4:4). The results do not exceed the effort, nor can they be expected beyond an exchange process. God, however, does relationship neither on the basis of an exchange principle nor on any other human terms. Rather, “to one who without human effort and terms trusts him who justifies those in the sin of reductionism, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (4:5; cf. Gal 2:16)—just as it truly was for Abraham (4:3, 20-22; cf. Gal 3:6-9). The former process of human effort is a relational consequence of reductionism despite any secondary benefits, while the latter relational process in reciprocal response is the relational outcome to wholeness. Distinguishing the contextual source of these relational dynamics is critical to understanding the functional significance of the theological dynamics constituting the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology.

In God’s relational dynamic to wholeness, what are these dynamics of “trust…justifies…faith…righteousness” (Rom 4:5) for Paul? God’s communicative action and phaneroo of his righteousness are always initiated relational responses of grace to human persons for relationship together, which by their nature necessitate compatible reciprocal relational response to complete the relational connection. God’s relational nature precludes unilateral relationship, yet God’s qualitative being in whole and holy ontology cannot do relationship together reduced to human terms, even by well-meaning adherents of the law (Rom 4:13-16). The only compatible reciprocal relational response is faith (pistis, and its cognate verb, pisteuo). Yet, the perception of pistis as ‘belief’ and pisteuo as ‘to believe’ (e.g. in the common translation “Abraham believed,” 4:3) often lacks the relational significance Paul is illuminating in this relational response. Belief and believing may connote acknowledgment of some fact or proposition about God, or may further imply a personal assent of God (even as monotheism, cf. Jas 2:19), neither of which involves the whole of the person believing nor are sufficient therefore to constitute the compatible relational response to God’s righteousness—the whole of who, what and how God is in relationship (cf. Eph 3:17,19). In contrast to this relational process, N.T. Wright would propose “that we use the noun cognate with ‘believer’ [pisteuo] to express the status of this confession [i.e. the Shema] within the Pauline communities: justification by belief [pistis], i.e. covenant membership demarcated by that which is believed.” For Wright, the nature of faith to Paul and the heart of his doctrine of justification by faith were about the things believed or believed in “because he is anxious about the boundary-markers of the communities he believes himself called upon to found and nurture.”[8]

A static view of pistis as belief, whatever the truth and conviction of its content, may signify status or membership but it does not constitute relationship—specifically, relationship together on God’s terms. Faith as relational trust is the only compatible reciprocal response that constitutes the vulnerable involvement of the whole person necessary for relational connection with who, what and how God is. This reciprocal relational response from inner out is the depth of Paul’s polemic and desire for Jews to take them beyond merely what they believe to the qualitative-relational nature of faith to be made whole (Rom 10:1, 9-11). Moreover, Paul illuminated to the church at Corinth that even definitive knowledge of a correct belief in monotheism (or the Shema) is insufficient to constitute the relational function of pistis, both with God and in relation to others (1 Cor 8:1-6; cf. Jesus’ critique of the church in Ephesus, Rev 2:2-4).

As Paul countered the reductionism at Corinth, his epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction illuminate his depth of involvement in both faith in Christ and following Jesus. If we read Paul’s letters apart from their total context, we can be misinformed about both faith and discipleship. Paul did not specifically use terms like “following Christ” (akoloutheo) and being his “disciple” (mathetes) but rather focused on “faith in Christ.” Does this mean discipleship was not important or a priority in Paul’s discourse? Certainly not, yet he seems to be taken this way. When Paul discussed the different followers of different personalities (namely, Apollos, Cephas, Christ, Paul, 1 Cor.1:12), he did not use the term akoloutheo, yet their attachment to these personalities is usually rendered “follow” in today’s translations (e.g. NIV). The divisive situation in Corinth is informative for us. It is highly likely that Paul avoids using the terms for “follow” and “disciple” because of this kind of situation where people had a tendency to follow “cult-like” personalities, as well as systems of false teachings. Paul wanted to counter these reductionist practices by focusing only on the person of Jesus Christ and engaging in the relational response of faith directly in him. He never wanted believers to reduce Christ to mere teachings and thereby fragment his person (“is Christ divided?” 1:13); nor did he want “following Christ” to become an association or something they merely do in defining their faith. Faith was always relational for Paul, the reciprocal response of which necessarily involved the whole person for ongoing relational connection with who, what and how God is.

Paul’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction were ongoing to distinguish the pistis necessary to be sozo, that is, to be made whole beyond a truncated soteriology. Even pistis as faith, however, can be problematic because, though faith as trust is the necessary reciprocal response for relational connection, it is not sufficient by itself for relationship together with the righteous whole of God. Other theological dynamics by necessity converge with the relational dynamic of faith for the relational outcome of wholeness in relationship together.

Faith, even with belief in the Shema, can become ambiguous in its relational significance or elusive in its relational function, just as Paul ongoingly exposed and confronted (e.g. Gal 3:1-5; 4:8-11; 5:1-6; Col 2:6-12, 16-22). In Paul’s thought and polemic, faith becomes ambiguous in its relational significance when its relational context shifts from God’s to human contextualization; faith becomes elusive in its relational function when its relational process renegotiates God’s terms with human terms, whereby human shaping of relationship together becomes the primary determinant. In the dynamics of pleroma soteriology, Paul never ignored the relational consequence of reductionism and its effects on the relational outcome to wholeness, since Paul himself had been embedded in it until his experiential truth of pleroma Christology turned him around on the Damascus road and redefined his faith only in God’s relational context and process. Therefore, it is critical to understand the interpretive lens by which Paul perceives faith and interprets its function.

Faith has been perceived in two ways, implying the source of its perspective which may appear complementary but in function are competing, thus important to distinguish.

  1. From God’s top-down perspective: By the qualitative function of God’s relational nature, faith in functional likeness is a relational dynamic engaged by the relational trust of the whole person in response back to God’s relational initiative of grace from top down in order to constitute the vulnerable involvement necessary to be compatible for relationship together. This is a reciprocal relational process enabled only by God from top down for qualitative function from inner out, therefore by its nature nonnegotiable on only God’s qualitative relational terms. Jesus embodied this faith in his relationship with the Father, which was paradigmatic for his followers. In this sense pisteos Christou (Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16; 3:22; Phil 3:9) equally involves the faith embodied by Christ from top down (“faith of Christ”) that his followers must also relationally exercise for the relational outcome constituted by Christ (“faith in Christ”)—who fulfilled this by the faith he embodied from inner out (cf. Lk 23:46). In other words, from God’s perspective Christ is not only the object of faith, the Other; the embodied whole of Christ is also the Subject of faith, with whom his followers need to be involved with relational trust for the experiential truth of relationship together ‘in Christ’—the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology constituted by pleroma Christology. Therefore, the ‘faith of Christ’ is the functional key (the relational Way) definitive for the relational dynamic of faith that is necessary to constitute the reciprocal response for this relational outcome. If Paul indeed had a double meaning of pisteos Christou (‘faith of Christ’ and ‘faith in Christ’), it was by design for the relational purpose to integrate the two by necessity for the faith of those in Christ to be defined from top down and to function from inner out.

 

  1. From human bottom-up perspective: Faith makes a functional shift (not necessarily theological) from the qualitative inner out to the quantitative outer in. The shift to less qualitative inner out and more quantitative outer in reduces the primacy of faith’s relational dynamic and consequently its relational involvement, which emerges from the human shaping of relationship together. This is the relational consequence of reductionism that diminishes both the function of relationship and the ontology of the persons involved. Using this lens, faith becomes more about what we have (e.g. beliefs) and/or do with respect to God (e.g. believe in, cf. Wright). While God is the object or goal of faith, this faith does not engage the embodied whole of Christ as Subject, as a result is not defined by God from top down. This is a bottom-up substitute from human contextualization, which at best is an ontological simulation or epistemological illusion. This faith, then, is the human activity that in relation to God intentionally or unintentionally shifts the focus from God’s terms by essentially renegotiating human terms as the determining factor shaping faith’s function from outer in, along with shaping the gospel, its covenant relationship, promise and conclusion. The nature of faith from human bottom-up perspective cannot rise above reduced human ontology or function deeper than outer in, because it is embedded in the very human condition of reductionism that is made whole solely by God’s relational action from top down. This relational outcome, of course, emerges only from a compatible reciprocal response of faith as relational trust, which cannot be wholly engaged while the relational consequence of reductionism prevails. The human alternative to this relational faith trusting God is the self-autonomy of human effort seeking to self-determine any meaning and result of faith—or, essentially, relationship with a disembodied God (e.g. a mere belief) shaped by human terms (e.g. merely believing in an Object, cf. Col 2:18-19). Since this faith is neither defined from top down nor functions from inner out, it is subject to ongoing variation of its identity and interpretation of its function, consequently its ambiguity and elusiveness (cf. 1 Cor 4:6-7).

With these two perceptions of faith, Paul’s readers need to understand what he means when he refers to faith, as well as the faith he implies even when he does not refer to it (e.g. about works, cf. 1 Cor 3:13; Phil 2:12). Paul actually uses both perspectives, notably in his polemics, to distinguish faith’s determining source from God’s terms or from human terms and shaping. For example, in general, all Jews had faith, including belief in the Shema. Paul’s indictment of reductionist Jews was not about having no faith; at issue was their type of faith. His faith-works antithesis is between these two perspectives of faith, that those engaged in works think they have faith, but do not have the relational significance of faith engaged only on God’s terms. Many of Paul’s readers who subscribe to the doctrine of justification by faith may be expressing nothing more than a belief for a certainty of what they have or for security of what they do; or their initial faith-response may have been the relational trust from inner out but has since functioned merely from outer in. Moreover, faith is often perceived as a singular act, after which faith becomes what one has or does as a believer, who now has the legal status of being justified by faith. For Paul, this relational outcome was not a doctrine that could be simply claimed by a belief. Such an oversimplification actually obstructs the theological dynamics which are constituted only in the experiential truth of God’s relational context by God’s relational process in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. In fact, Paul clearly identified the relational outcome in Christ as the functional significance of only the relational dynamic of faith conjoined with work in its full relational significance: “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). That is, Paul defines the relational response of faith as ongoing participation in the work (energeo in Gk indirect middle voice) of entrusting one’s whole person to be vulnerable in the relational involvement of agape, not about merely obedience or sacrifice (cf. 1 Thes 1:3).

The biblical norm for faith rooted in Abraham has always been the reciprocal relational response from inner out to God’s top-down initiating grace in thematic relational response to the human condition (Gal 3:8-9; Rom 4:16). The response of those rooted in Abraham has to be compatible with the relational terms of the whole of God’s relational nature—the definitive terms for relationship together. Anything less and any substitutes for this faith-response of relational trust by the whole person from inner out are incompatible responses from reductionism, which for Paul always needed epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction for wholeness. These two meanings of faith, therefore, are critical to distinguish in the ongoing tension and conflict between God’s relational whole from top down on God’s relational terms from inner out and reductionism of that whole from bottom up with terms from outer in. To confuse these faiths or to not distinguish them will give us inadequate, distorted or fragmented understanding of both the whole of Paul’s own witness and the whole in his theology—whose personal faith was constituted in the experiential truth of God’s relational context and process for the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology (cf. Acts 22:14-15).

In the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, faith as relational trust is the reciprocal relational response compatible for relational connection with the relationally disclosed righteousness of God, the whole of who, what and how God is and can be counted on to be in relationship. As the relational process continues, other necessary theological dynamics converge with this relational dynamic of faith for the relational outcome of wholeness in relationship together.

 

Pleroma Soteriology Completed

Faith as relational trust is necessary but is not sufficient in itself for relationship together with the whole and holy God; other complex theological dynamics are needed to engage the relational process that completes the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology.

Faith in the Deliverer/Savior may be sufficient for a truncated soteriology of merely being delivered/saved from—as often demonstrated both in Israel’s history and an incomplete Christology. Yet, pleroma Christology constitutes only pleroma soteriology. Paul clarified in his theological forest that the pleroma of God relationally disclosed the righteousness of God (cf. Acts 22:14-15) for the gospel of salvation (soteria, Rom 1:16-17; 3:21; Eph 1:13). That is, the face of Jesus vulnerably embodied the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:4-6), the gospel of wholeness/peace (Eph 6:15) basic to the whole of Jesus’ salvific work (Eph 2:14-18), to complete salvation with the relational outcome necessary for also being saved to (Rom 5:1-2, 10-11; Col 1:19-22; Eph 3:6).

If faith rooted in Abraham is insufficient for this completed relational outcome, what is the sufficient meaning of “Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3)? And what does it mean that he and his offspring were “justified by faith”?

Through his experience, what Abraham “gained” (heurisko, discovered, Rom 4:1) in a heuristic process of discovery was not about faith as something he just possessed or exercised isolated to the individual, but about the relational significance of faith as only a function in dynamic reciprocal relationship together with God. As our forefather, Abraham’s discovery, by its very nature, must apply to all of us in the same heuristic process. His discovery, however, seems to elude the theological process of some traditions. Since the Reformation, this relational dynamic of faith has been all but lost. Martin Luther has been influential in minimalizing the theological issue to a conflict between ‘justification by works’ or ‘justification by faith’, which are perceived often without an understanding of the sin of reductionism inherent in ‘works’, and very likely without the relational significance of the dynamics involved in either position. Proponents of a so-called Lutheran view of Paul follow their theological forefather, centralizing the doctrine of justification by faith as the heart of Paul’s thought and theology. This imposition on Paul reduces the issue to a question of doctrinal purity on this matter—a question raised which is not necessarily always pointing to the intent of Paul’s polemic about “works prescribed by the law” and “the law of faith” (Rom 3:27-28). Such a claim to this doctrinal purity about faith tends to signify the very kauchesis (boasting, pride) Paul challenges, which ironically also defines persons in the similar reductionist way as works by what one has/does. This claim is also in contrast to Abraham’s discovery, which was not self-discovery but the outcome of a relational process. The consequence of this reduction is to skew the issue to be more about the faith we have/do, and thus faith isolated to the individual, and less about our functional involvement (“faith working through agape,” Gal 5:6) in relationship together with God and others—thereby reversing the heuristic process of Abraham. For Paul, the inseparable theological and functional issue is only between reductionism and wholeness in relationship with God.

While Abraham could well have “discovered” such doctrine, Paul clarifies that “what was gained by Abraham” was the experiential truth: either persons can attempt to do relationship with God on human terms and be “justified by works,” or they can experience relationship with God on God’s relational terms, the relational dynamic of which is insufficiently explained by the doctrine of justification by faith. In human contextualization, human terms define human effort in a comparative process based on an exchange principle (law) of quid pro quo, which is imposed on God to renegotiate God’s relational terms. This reduces God’s relational context and process constituted by God’s relational dynamic of grace from top down in relational response from inner out, and substitutes human shaping from bottom up and human terms from outer in (cf. 1 Cor 4:6-7). What Abraham essentially discovered then was that relationship with God is not by an exchange process of quid pro quo. Once again, this heuristic process has less theological focus on our faith and more functional concern with our relationship with God. I contend, therefore, that justification by faith was not the heart of Paul’s thought and theology; rather, justification was one of the complex theological dynamics constituted by God’s relational response of grace to the human condition for the relationship necessary to be whole together.

How was justification only partially the focus of Paul’s concern and theology, and what then was at the heart of his concern and central to his theology? The heart of Paul’s concern was not for doctrinal purity; though theological purity was certainly needed in the religious pluralism of the ancient Mediterranean world, it was not sufficient in itself to fulfill Paul’s primary concern (nor Jesus’, cf. Rev 2:2-4). The central and integrating theme of Paul’s thought and theology always focuses on, revolves around and illuminates the experiential truth of intimately knowing the pleroma of God in relationship together (examine Paul’s prayers, Eph 1:17-23; 3:13-19). This is further evident in the understanding that the theological Paul emerged not from the historical Paul but from the relational Paul.

The whole of relationship together was Paul’s experiential truth from the Damascus road and his ongoing relational progression since then (as he shared in Phil 3:7-11). In this summary reflection communicated in one of Paul’s last letters, he illuminates the necessity yet insufficiency of his relational response of faith, and he integrates it with the righteousness and implied justification both necessary and sufficient for relationship with the whole and holy God. Anything less and any substitutes of these theological dynamics would be reductionism of the relationship necessary to be whole together: “I regard everything else as loss…as rubbish in order that I may grow together with [kerdaino] Christ and be found [heurisko] intimately in him (3:8-9). This heuristic process for Paul, as for Abraham and his offspring, is contingent on the convergence of righteousness and justification with the relational means of faith, by which they are received for function sufficient to be whole in relationship together.

Justification (dikaiosis) is a difficult term to fully understand in Paul that becomes more ambiguous when perceived as an isolated theological tree apart from the whole of God’s relational dynamic constituting Paul’s theological forest. On the one hand, justification has a clear judicial sense for Paul that declared persons guiltless from sin and thereby right before God (Rom 4:25; 5:9,18), that is, free from any legal charge (anenkletos) and thus without defect or blame (amomos, Col 1:22). While this sense of justification may seem to be merely a static condition, for Paul justification must be understood as a relational condition that also inseparably engages a relational dynamic. The dynamic of justification is also integrated with the dynamics of redemption and atonement for sin (Rom 3:24-26; 8:1-4; cf. Eph 1:7); their purpose together, however, if concluded here, would be incomplete in a truncated soteriology of only being saved from sin. For justification in particular, the judicial aspect to be saved from sin is not the determinative understanding of this dynamic that Paul focused on in his thought and theology. Based on his experiential truth of the whole gospel, justification is not simply about human persons (individually and collectively) becoming OK or right before God. For Paul, on the other hand, the significance of justification is further and more deeply understood only when this dynamic engages the relational process for human persons to be wholly involved in relationship together with God, not only before God. Emerging from the relational outcome of atonement enacted by Jesus behind the curtain is the removal of the veil for direct involvement in this relationship with God (2 Cor 3:16-18). In other words, according to Paul, to be justified (dikaioo) is the relational condition inseparable from its counterpart to be righteous, which is the relational function engaging this relational condition entirely for relationship together; and the conjoint functional significance of dikaioo, both justified and righteous, is lost whenever the primacy of relationship is reduced, consequently relegating the individual to a referential condition apart from the functional significance of relationship together, as a justified relational orphan.

The dynamic of justification integrated with redemption and atonement converge in Paul’s theological forest for just one purpose. These dynamics point further and deeper to their relational purpose constituted by the whole of God’s relational response of grace: reconciliation and wholeness (peace) in relationship together with the whole and holy God (Rom 5:1-2, 10-11; Col 1:19-22). Faith as relational trust in reciprocal response is the only relational means by which to receive and experience the relational outcome of these relational dynamics. In a complex process that Paul does not fully explain—likely because the details are secondary to his primary relational purpose, if not a mystery (cf. Ps 71:15)—the necessary relational response of faith is made sufficient by these theological dynamics for the outcome of another theological dynamic that is further necessary to make whole all relationship with God. This other theological dynamic is dikaiosyne, not justification but righteousness—the relational function distinct yet inseparable from the relational condition of justification (Rom 1:17; 3:21-22; 4:3-5; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Eph 4:24).

Paul always framed his theological discourse in the functional terms of the gospel, the whole gospel embodied by God’s relational dynamic of grace solely for relationship together—thereby signifying the primacy of relationship for the theological Paul gained from the relational Paul. For relationship with the whole and holy God to be indeed good news, specific theological dynamics need to be engaged; and these theological dynamics need to function with relational significance for their relational outcome to be the experiential truth of the whole gospel. As much as Paul theologically clarified and illuminated this gospel, he likewise exposed and confronted anything less and any substitutes from reductionism, accordingly challenging theological assumptions in the process. The sin of reductionism, which is positioned against the whole gospel, diminishes, minimalizes or otherwise reduces these theological dynamics from their relational purpose to function, at best, in only a truncated soteriology of being saved from even sin, that is, other than sin of reductionism. The specific theological dynamic that negates reductionism and its counter-relational work is righteousness. In God’s thematic relational action in response to the human condition, the righteousness of God (sedaqah) emerges as the definitive relational basis for the hopeful expectation of God’s salvation, as the psalmist testifies (Ps 71:15-16). In Paul’s theological forest of God’s relational dynamic, God’s righteousness relationally embodied by Christ, “the Righteous One” (Acts 7:52; 22:14), is the functional key for the relational outcome of salvation to be complete—specifically to be saved to wholeness in relationship together, pleroma soteriology.

Relationship with the whole and holy God must by God’s relational nature (dei, not by the obligation of opheilo) be reciprocal; and the reciprocity should not be confused with or reduced to the moral-ethical deeds of opheilo as a substitute for the relational response and ongoing involvement of faith as relational trust (“faith working through agape,” Gal 5:6). Yet, also by the very nature of God’s qualitative being, the ontology and function of the persons involved must be likewise compatible for relationship together, which should not be confused with mere piety. Faith as relational trust is the necessary reciprocal response but not sufficient in itself for human ontology and function to be compatible with God’s. Some means is necessary to eliminate the presence and effects of sin as reductionism so that human persons can be compatible with the whole and holy God. The dynamics of justification, redemption, and atonement make our relational dynamic of faith sufficient in ontology and function to be compatible to have relationship together. However, for our ontology and function to be directly involved in the relationship and to compatibly function with God’s ontology and function, they must be also comparable to God’s righteousness (see previous discussion on righteousness in chap 5).

Dikaiosyne is not about justification and its dikai-cognates are not only about God’s justice, being just and justified. That theological function has already been accounted for. Righteousness is a further theological dynamic of how God functions in relationship and can be counted on for that ontology and function. As relationally disclosed, God’s righteousness involves interaction with the dynamic of God’s glory illuminated in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). What the pleroma of God vulnerably embodied of God’s glory was the qualitative being and relational nature of God for the qualitative presence and relational involvement of the whole of God in Face-to-face relationship together; this defines “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (4:4). What God’s glory signifies is the ontology and function of the whole of who, what and how God is, which is who, what and how God’s righteousness enacts openly with his own face (not a mask) in relationship together and on this irreducible basis can be counted on for nothing less and no substitutes. In other words, God is righteous (dikaios) when God’s involvement in relationship is congruent with the whole of God’s ontology and function, which by God’s very nature is congruent with the glory of God’s qualitative being and relational nature. This integral dynamic cannot be separated or the whole of God becomes fragmented into attributes without the depth of their relational function.

Therefore, the relational dynamic of God’s righteousness-glory was embodied congruently by the face of Christ, the Righteous One, who not only relationally disclosed God’s righteousness but enacted the means for transformation necessary for human ontology and function in relationship: first, to be fully compatible with God’s ontology and function (God’s face), then to be vulnerably congruent with our ontology and function (our face), and hence to be wholly comparable to God’s righteousness. When God experiences our involvement in relationship together as congruent with our ontology and function and thereby can count on us to be that person in face-to-Face relational involvement, then God can account for us to be righteous and our involvement will “be reckoned [logizomai] to us” as righteousness (Rom 4:23-24).

Yet, there are important distinctions to understand in the process to righteousness. Faith does not constitute us as righteous or justified; faith is only the relational means to receive this relational outcome constituted by the theological dynamics of God’s relational response of grace embodied in the face of the Righteous One (cf. Gal 3:14,18). In face-to-Face relationship together, the face of our righteousness is not faith but the congruence of our ontology and function ‘in Christ’. This face of righteousness, both Christ’s and ours, must be the relational function of the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, accordingly by its very nature cannot be anything less or any substitute. The latter is only a mask, not the real prosopon, that just signifies playing a role in ancient Greek theatre different from one’s whole person—which for Paul also involved not being transparent in relationship together, consequently in effect presenting a pseudo image of oneself (Eph 4:24-25; Col 3:9). This is the functional significance of hypokrisis of the reductionists warned against by Jesus (Lk 12:1), the relational consequence of which was demonstrated in Peter’s hypokrisis exposed by Paul (Gal 2:11-14). Moreover, this is the critical relational significance of Jesus’ relational expectation for his followers’ righteousness to be clearly distinguished from the reductionists (Mt 5:20). The face of righteousness should neither be mistaken for faith nor confused with all who confess faith.

While through the relational means of faith, yet to be distinguished with being from faith, this righteousness is the dynamic outcome only of transformation in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor
5:21). Just as God’s righteousness is congruent with God’s whole ontology and function and is congruent with the glory of God’s qualitative being and relational nature, our ontology and function need to be transformed to be righteous. This necessitates transformation from inner out (metamorphoo, not metaschematizo) that involves the redemptive change of the old ontology and function reduced to outer in for the new ontology in the qualitative image of God and new function in the relational likeness of the whole of God (2 Cor 3:9-11,18; Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10; cf. Jesus’ prayer, Jn 17:22-24). This dynamic transformation process, which constitutes us compatible to be involved in relationship together by making us comparable to God in righteousness and congruent with whole ontology and function, is the gospel of wholeness (Eph 2:14-18; 6:15) and its antecedents (Isa 53:5; 54:10; Eze 37:26-27). This is the gospel of the glory of Christ congruently embodied in the face of Christ for Face-to-face-to-Face new covenant relationship together as the new creation (1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; cf. Jn 17:20-21).

Righteousness, both God’s and ours, is not a static attribute of an individual as if in a vacuum, or the outcome of what one does (e.g. moral-ethical behavior) as if isolated only to that individual. Rather, righteousness is only how one lives in relationship. Even adherence to the torah was insufficient for righteousness, and why Jesus made it clear that his followers’ righteousness exceed the righteousness of the reductionists (Mt 5:20). This is the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction from wholeness (tamiym, Gen 17:1), which for Paul is critical in the heuristic process shared with Abraham (Rom 4:1; Gal 3:1-9; cf. Col 2:20-21). When the full function of righteousness prevails, theological perception and interpretation deepen and theological anthropology becomes whole. In its reciprocal dynamic, righteousness is always a function of persons in relationship. Therefore, by its nature it must be seen in its relational context, specifically, in relational context with God, which means to function in God’s relational context and process. The righteous are not merely morally or ethically right (cf. tamiym rendered as “blameless”) but those who can be counted on by God to function in relationship together as God’s qualitative relational terms expect. Righteousness then, both God’s and ours, is the functional basis for hopeful expectation in relationship together, whether it be for salvation (Rom 1:16-17; cf. Ps 71:14-15), the fulfillment of its promise (Rom 4:20-24), or simply for reciprocal relationship together (Eph 4:24; cf. Jn 17:25-26), which includes Jesus praying to his “righteous Father” whom he counted on in relationship together with family love. This is how the dynamic of righteousness is necessary to make whole all reciprocal relationship with God, and why Christ is the functional key to this righteousness for the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology.

The above complex theological dynamics converge in Paul’s theological forest to be composed together in pleroma Christology for the fulfillment of their relational purpose. The pleroma of God conclusively embodied the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition, and only on this basis completed the relational work necessary for these theological dynamics to constitute human persons solely for the experiential truth of relationship together with the whole and holy God—the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology. Any of these theological dynamics apart from pleroma Christology becomes fragmented, unable to fulfill its relational purpose even though it may serve a doctrinal purpose. Theological trees can only be fragmentary without their theological forest. This fragmentary condition is the expected result from the referentialization of the Word.

Reflecting further on one theological dynamic in particular perhaps will be helpful. Whenever any theology of justification stops short in function (not necessarily in its theology) of the primacy of relationship in salvation and does not illuminate the relational involvement necessary for the qualitative function of salvation’s relational outcome, it becomes a reductionist substitute of both pleroma Christology and pleroma soteriology. Such a theology of justification by faith invariably operates with a reduced human ontology and function, which essentially becomes a reduction of God’s relational dynamic of grace, and, unintentionally or inadvertently, a theology tending to fall into ontological simulation or epistemological illusion that is in need of the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of wholeness. We need to ask if a traditional (or Lutheran) reading of Paul centered on justification by faith should be included in these shortcomings. I think it does. The incarnation of Jesus was constituted not only by God’s relational dynamic of grace but, equally important, was also constituted in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, wholeness. For Paul, Jesus wholly embodied the pleroma of God (the whole of God’s qualitative ontology and relational function) throughout the incarnation to the cross and the resurrection, therefore also constituting the dynamic of wholeness for all life and function in the innermost (Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10). The pleroma of God’s salvific work relationally involves the whole and holy ontology and qualitative-relational function of God, which vulnerably engages human persons in their reductionism with the theological dynamics necessary to make whole human ontology and function in qualitative-relational likeness of God for the sole purpose of relationship together with the whole and holy God. Such relationship is irreducible from the whole of God and is nonnegotiable to reduced terms and conditions for the holy God. Therefore, any theology engaging Christ without the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes in the primacy of whole relationship together is an incomplete Christology, and any theology involving salvation apart from the dynamic of wholeness in this primacy is a truncated soteriology.

Pleroma Christology is a function of the dynamic without any reductionism and the human shaping of relationships. By the irreducible and nonnegotiable nature of this dynamic, pleroma soteriology emerges from pleroma Christology only in the dynamic of wholeness. However, this dynamic is opposed, both theologically and functionally, by reductionism trying to diminish, minimalize, distort, redefine, reconstruct, or otherwise discount or even ignore God’s whole. Understanding this opposition significantly deepens our understanding of sin and also broadens our perception of it as the sin of reductionism. Paul’s thought and theology illuminate this understanding, and his conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against reductionism magnify this perception. Yet, Paul’s readers will neither recognize nor have this tension and conflict with reductionism apart from the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. The consequence will always be to make theological assumptions which Paul ongoingly challenged. One influence of reductionism is the limitation of a traditional doctrine of justification. The traditional issue between justification by faith or by works does not adequately frame the problem because, depending on how faith is defined, both can be functions of reductionism. Moreover, the issues tend to be limited to human contextualization (e.g. the Reformation for a traditional view of Paul, or Second Temple Judaism for a new perspective) without engaging God’s relational context and process—that which was primary for defining and determining the whole of Paul and the whole critical in his theology. Those issues need further epistemological clarification than conventional biblical theology tends to provide, and they need deeper hermeneutic correction than historical theology can identify. This need is fulfilled not by a systematic theology but rather by the relational whole in Paul’s theological systemic framework and his theological forest—his family responsibility (oikonomia) to pleroo the communicative word from God to complete the communication of whole knowledge and understanding of God in relationship.

For Paul, the issue of justification is a relational issue that needs to be framed, and thus understood for the relational implications one engages, as either justification in relational response to God’s relational initiative, or justification ignoring or renegotiating the terms of God’s relational initiative. This relational process implies either justification constituted by relational involvement with God on God’s terms, or justification signifying reductionist involvement with God and consequently a function of human terms shaped by human contextualization. While a traditional theology of justification by faith certainly implies a relational response to God’s grace, that response can also function in reductionist involvement with God signifying the influence of human contextualization. This easily occurs without the understanding and perception of sin as reductionism, which is a relational consequence of function apart from the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes of God’s whole. Therefore, according to Paul’s lens, the limitation, contradiction or consequence of a traditional theology of justification by faith is in need of the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of tamiym, which he himself needed to be sozo, made whole in the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology.

It is the experiential truth of this relational outcome and its ongoing relational involvement together ‘already’ which is at the heart of Paul’s concern and central to his theology (the relational Paul determining the theological Paul). Whole relationship together with the whole and holy God was not a theological construct to be realized in the future. It is the completion of God’s thematic relational response of grace to sozo the human condition, the relational outcome of which ‘already’ functions by necessity in the relational progression to ‘not yet’—just as the whole of Paul’s witness continued to illuminate (Phil 3:12-16). For the whole in Paul’s theology, tamiym, sozo and shalom involve a reciprocal relational dynamic, all of which converge entirely in one relational outcome ‘already’ and relational conclusion ‘not yet’: whole relationship together in God’s relational whole on God’s qualitative relational terms—the new creation family.

The complex theological dynamics, which converged in Paul’s theological forest to be composed in pleroma Christology, fulfill their relational purpose wholly in the theological dynamic of adoption. Integrated with and extending from Jesus’ relational message to his followers (Jn 14:18), adoption was not a theological construct for Paul but the experiential truth of the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology. Adoption is the relational function of the whole of God’s family love constituting persons ‘already’ into God’s family in whole relationship together (Rom 8:15-17; Eph 1:5, 13-14; 2:18-22)—just as Jesus prayed nearing his completion of God’s salvific action (Jn 17:21-23). If adoption is not the conclusive relational outcome of these complex theological dynamics, then these dynamics do not fulfill their relational purpose and any presumed salvation resulting from them is not by the pleroma of God.

Only pleroma soteriology emerges from pleroma Christology. Therefore, it is wholly completed by the righteous Son with family love in the relational dynamic of adoption in conjoint function with the Spirit—who is his relational extension of the pleroma of God, whom Jesus made definitive (Jn 15:26; 16:13-15) for Paul’s experiential truth (1 Cor 2:9-16) to pleroo the embodied word of God as the church (Eph 1:22-23; 3:16-19; 4:12-13).

All these theological dynamics were enacted by the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes in the primacy of relationship. By the definitive terms of wholeness, anything less and any substitutes for Paul were always subject to epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction; he had zero tolerance for reductionism. The theology of wholeness is a basic dynamic in Paul’s theological systemic framework and his theological forest. With pleroma soteriology completed, further emerging from its relational outcome to overlap and interact deeply with the theological dynamic of wholeness are the dynamics of the theology of belonging and the theology of ontological identity as constituted in the new creation family and embodying the pleroma of Christ, the church.

 

Putting together these aspects of Paul’s synesis (his whole understanding disclosed in Eph 3:4, cf. Col 1:9; 2:2) makes clear that the whole of his witness and the whole in his theology were deeply rooted in pleroma Christology—the integral theology constituted from the relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul. This illuminates how the relational Paul emerged from the historical Paul to compose the theological Paul. Functionally and theologically for Paul, the experiential truth of the pleroma of God’s whole ontology and function by necessity involved pleroma soteriology making functional ‘already’ the relational outcome of being saved to God’s new creation family. In the complex theological dynamics of Paul’s theological forest and his pleroma theology, God’s whole family in transformed relationships together is the gospel of the glory of Christ, the gospel of wholeness in the face of Christ’s whole ontology and function, the pleroma of God (Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10; 3:10-11; cf. 2 Cor 3:18)—all emerging for Paul in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes in the primacy of whole relationship together. Therefore, in Paul’s forest the theology of ontological identity emerges only from the theological dynamic of belonging, which together are inseparably integrated and rooted in the theology of wholeness, and thereby in contrast and conflict with reductionism ongoingly.

This wholeness is the primary identity that defined Paul’s ontology and determined his function (the historical Paul notwithstanding), and the identity by which all who relationally belong to Christ need to be contextualized to be whole, both as persons individually and collectively. The relational outcome of God’s whole family together is the ontological identity of integrally who we are and whose we are. Whose we are is always the determinant of who we are, never the converse or there is reductionism to human shaping and terms. And what whose we are determines for who we are is always about family, not about the individual, in the primacy of whole relationship together. Whole persons have been set free by Christ not for self-autonomy but are redeemed for adoption to be whole in whose we are, that is, in likeness of the whole of God (Gal 5:1, 13-14; Eph 4:24-25; Col 3:15; cf. 1 Cor 8:1). Wholeness for the person is contingent on wholeness in relationship together, therefore the whole person is inseparable from and indispensable for God’s new creation family—which in Paul’s theological forest is the church, “the pleroma of Christ who makes all whole in the whole” (Eph 1:23; cf. Rom 12:4-5). This is the only relational outcome from the gospel of wholeness (Eph 2:14-18; 6:15).

The experiential truth of this whole ontological identity—“and you have come to wholeness in him” (Col 2:10)—is Paul’s prayer for the church (Eph 3:18-19) and his desires for the church (Col 2:2-3) and his purpose of the church (Eph 4:12-13)—all of which echoes and helps fulfill Jesus’ formative family prayer for his family (Jn 17:20-26), while clearly illuminating the relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul. Indeed, in Paul’s pleroma theology there is nothing less and no substitutes but the primacy of whole relationship together in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God—the experiential truth of which holds together all human life and function, including the universe, in the innermost, thereby integrally fulfilling the unavoidable question of Goethe’s Faust.


 

 


[1] Colin E. Gunton, “Historical and Systematic Theology” in Colin E. Gunton, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1997), 15.

[2] For a discussion on mysticism as background to the NT, see Jon C. Laansma, “Mysticism”, in Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds., Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 725-37. For a discussion on mysticism in Paul, see Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 165-213.

[3] Alan J. Torrance, “Can the Truth Be Learned?” in Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance, eds. Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 143-163.

[4] 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.

[5] For an example of this interpretation, see Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective, 165-213.

[6] This torah, and Paul’s use of nomos, is the sum of the commandments and nonnegotiable desires required of Israel at Mt. Sinai with the accompanying sanctions, and is to be distinguished from the Torah (the Pentateuch) which contains much more than law. See Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 335-40.

[7] E. P. Sanders. Paul: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 52-58.

[8] N.T. Wright. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 2-3.

 

 

©2012 T. Dave Matsuo

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