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Jesus into Paul

Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel

Chapter  7

The Black Swan of Whole Theology



Encountering the Improbable

Dividing Theology and Its Hybrid

The Theology of Wholeness

Is Christ Divided Today?

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



Has Christ been divided?

1 Corinthians 1:13




Until the discovery of Australia, people held the conviction that all swans had to be white. Then the first black swan was sighted. Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses this development to illustrate the severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge based on predictability. Taleb addresses this prevailing condition which continues due to our dependence on the probability of expectations, with excessive focus on what we know in narrowed-down terms at the expense of learning more (or the whole) from the improbable signified by the black swan.[1] This limitation also reflects the left brain hemisphere’s increasing dominance of the modern mind, according to McGilchrist.[2] The improbability of a black swan then is intrusive to the explainable and predictable, and its intrusion makes us vulnerable unless handled accordingly, that is, narrowed down to explainable and predictable terms. All of this is the dynamic outworking of primacy given to the secondary at the expense of the primacy of the qualitative and the relational—the dynamic which reflects, reinforces and sustains the human condition underlying it.

The truth is that the Jesus embodied in whole is a black swan. And how we approach the Word will determine how probable or improbable the results of our learning will be. Alan Torrance challenges the interpretive framework of modern biblical scholarship with the question “Can the truth be learned?” This question is framed within a broader question “To what extent, and on what grounds, does the New Testament shape and prescribe Christian theology?” which Torrance and Markus Bockmuehl, among other leading biblical and systematic theologians, address.[3] The significant part of Torrance’s answer to his question correctly involves the creative presence of the Spirit in order to have the eyes to discern God’s presence (the significance of the Other distinguished from oneself) in otherwise improbable ways—that is, beyond what we can explain or predict. Hence, without the Spirit, theological hermeneutics never goes beyond the probability of our immanent self-understandings, only to remain within the limits of the familiarity of what we know. Yet, what Torrance also needs to understand is that the Spirit’s creative presence neither involves unilateral action, nor can merely be acknowledged in referential terms. The presence of the Spirit’s whole person is neither reduced to a mystery nor fragmented to an impersonal force but is openly engaged as whole Subject (as Jesus’ relational replacement, Jn 14:16) in only the function of ongoing reciprocal relational involvement in the relational epistemic process. Any lack of the Spirit’s person and reciprocal relationship together render the hermeneutic task to an individualistic (or group) approach shaping a private language of god-talk. In my opinion then, the corollary question, even antecedent to the question Torrance, Bockmuehl and others thankfully address, that also needs to be honestly addressed critically involves this deeper concern: To what extent does Christian theology reflect and is thus shaped by Scripture in the innermost of the primary, not the secondary, and, therefore, can truly be definitive of theology and not egology?

Distinguished from human limits and shaping, Paul clearly made definitive the irreplaceable qualitative and relational involvement of the Spirit’s person necessary to take us beyond the limits of the probable to the improbable of the whole of God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement (1 Cor 2:9-13). Theological interpretation requires both an openness (vulnerability) and expectation of the improbable (e.g. John the Baptist, Jn 1:27-34). Moreover, it demands a paradigm shift away from the secondary to relationally engage the Word’s vulnerable disclosures in the primacy of the qualitative and relational (cf. Nathanael, Jn 1:45-50). This indispensable hermeneutic process is necessarily irreducible and nonnegotiable to get beyond the hermeneutic impasse of the probable and secondary to open the hermeneutic flow to the improbable and the primary, so that the black swan of the Word embodied in whole can be known and understood. In other words, the shift to this relational epistemic process with the Spirit is the only means available, so that we can learn the improbable whole life of the experiential Truth in the relational way from Jesus’ relational replacement, the Spirit of truth (Jn 15:26; 16:13-15). Only the Spirit illuminates the hermeneutic of the whole Word’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path. Whole theology is the relational outcome from the relational dynamic of this theological interpretation.


Encountering the Improbable

What we claim to know in a narrowed epistemic field can only be self-determined understanding, which is unable to go beyond being merely self-referencing. This self-referencing is what physicist Stephen Hawking honestly acknowledged (noted in the introduction) in giving up his search for what holds together the world in its innermost, though he is still preoccupied with substitutes from the secondary. Yet, such epistemic humility is problematic when not acknowledged from inner out. This is the problem that emerged when the strategic shift of the whole of God from outside the universe (Jn 1:1-5) improbably embodied God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement “in the world…yet the world did not know him” (Jn 1:10). Moreover, “he came embodied in whole to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:11). This relational barrier and hermeneutic impasse can be defined as the limits of the probable unable and unwilling to perceive, receive and, therefore, know and understand the improbable embodied in whole—the whole which holds together the world and all in it in the innermost.

The improbable embodied in whole in the midst of the probable involves more than having emerged from outside the universe. The presence of the improbable includes having come to those created in his qualitative image and relational likeness, in whose human condition the qualitative is less probable and the relational is more improbable. The improbable, conjointly from outside the universe and embodied in whole in relational response to this human condition, presented problems in the human context which composed essentially “the narrow gate and road” necessary to engage the whole life (zoe, Mt 7:14).

The improbable unfolds clearly in the Gospel of John for the evangelist’s purpose to identify the whole of Jesus with the Jews and the nation of Israel (1:11), yet to also distinguish him from them for the whole of God’s strategic, tactical and functional shifts in relational progression to the eschatological relational conclusion. The next disclosure of the improbable embodied in whole happened with John the Baptist and then with Nathanael. John the Baptist, however, was expecting the improbable so had no problem recognizing and receiving him (Jn 1:26-36), while Nathanael did not anticipate anything improbable (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”); yet he shifted from his secondary focus to openly respond to the improbable when relationally disclosed to him (1:45-50).

Part of the difficulty persons had with the improbable embodied in whole was engaging Jesus in his relational language. This is evident in the next two major interactions presented in John’s Gospel. The first occurred when Jesus deconstructed the Temple of Jerusalem and reconstituted it on his relational terms (Jn 2:13-22). The temple was central to Jewish religious life in all its variations; more importantly, the temple was the heart of their faith, where God’s presence dwelled to signify ongoing involvement (2 Chr 5:14; 7:15-16, cf. Ex 40:34). Jesus observed their faith-practice by involvement in the temple, but he neither accepted that aspect of their religious life reducing their practice to a purification code nor tolerated the inequitable system this code generated for its adherence. In relational consequence, he drove out those who exploited the less resourceful for profit and who created barriers to access “my Father’s house” (oikos, dwelling, notably of family, v.16). That is, the temple was no mere center of religious activity (cf. church today) but only the context where his Father dwelled for communion together for all peoples (cf. Mk 11:17). While Judaism certainly had knowledge of this in its covenant teaching, its practice had increasingly become narrowed down to referential terms lacking qualitative relational significance, thus practice reduced essentially to the limits of their knowledge in probable quantitative terms of their tradition—just as Jesus also exposed about their temple worship (Mk 7:6-8). Jesus’ words and action communicated relational language against and beyond this reductionism, making definitive the whole relational context of God from inner out and opening the door to the whole of God’s relational context of family.

Furthermore, when his honor was challenged to demonstrate the basis for his action, Jesus only responded with the words: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (v.19). A critical shift in the temple emerged before their eyes. His challengers were focused only on the quantitative aspect of the temple and the limits of the probable, thus they could not understand his relational language opening them to the improbable. Jesus was not playing word-games with them. He was exposing them to the strategic shift in God’s thematic relational action. In the improbability of this strategic shift, Jesus constitutes the transition of the contextual location of the temple from a place as the referential base of God’s dwelling directly to its relational basis in the whole of God, Face to face—which he openly disclosed unpredictably to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:21,23). The improbable whole of God, the Trinity, beyond their probable monotheistic God, would now be vulnerably present in direct relationship and ongoingly be relationally involved intimately together in the whole relational context of family and relational process of family love. And nothing less and no substitutes of the whole of God can be sufficient to distinguish the Face who has turned and shines on them for siym and shalom, to bring the change necessary for new relationship together in wholeness.

The transition of the temple to the whole relational context and process of the Trinity progresses to its eschatological relational conclusion and holds together the eschatological hope in its innermost:

As Jesus disclosed of the improbable, “the Spirit of truth whom the probable cannot receive because it neither sees the improbable nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you” (Jn 14:17); “My Father will love you; and we will come to you and make our home with you” (Jn 14:23); this is, by the relational nature of the whole ontology of the Trinity, the relational outcome in the innermost for both individual persons and those persons by necessity in relationship together in likeness of the Trinity, “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…. The glory that you gave me I have given them that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one as our family…and have loved them even as you have loved me…so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them” (Jn 17:21-23,26); in Paul’s accounts of the church, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); “in him you too are being built together to become the family dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22,
NIV); to the Johannine account of the eschatological relational conclusion in the New Jerusalem, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22).

As John’s Gospel unfolds the improbable, Jesus embodied in whole this relational progression throughout the incarnation and ongoingly constituted it even before the cross. The distinguished Face embodied the whole theology and hermeneutic necessary for the whole gospel, which Paul further embodied with the Spirit for its whole (pleroma).

Jesus’ exposure of God’s strategic shift begins to illuminate the vulnerable reality of the improbable that the heart of the ontology of the whole of God is relationship, whole relationship together—the whole context and process of which continues to develop in John’s Gospel. Jesus took this transition further and deeper in his next major interaction, a communication which essentially intruded on the probable and jolted the status quo of the prevailing perception, interpretation and expectation of salvation. But, then, that’s what black swans do epistemologically and hermeneutically, and further and deeper, theologically and relationally. Jesus embodied in whole these keys to the improbable from outside the universe who constitutes the innermost.

The second major interaction involved a key Pharisee, Nicodemus (mentioned in chap. 4, Jn 3:1-21) who apparently was dissatisfied with what he knew and perhaps unsettled in his messianic expectations, and thus who was willing to expand his epistemic field to query Jesus. The epistemic process is critical to this familiar encounter and should not be overlooked. Nicodemus understood that Jesus was a dissonant voice among what prevailed, particularly in his religious tradition but also in the surrounding sociocultural context. Even though he correctly defined the source of Jesus’ identity as “has come from God” and determined his function as “from the presence of God,” he still did not expect to encounter the improbable.

In order to establish this interaction’s larger context, it seems reasonable to assume some matters about Nicodemus. He came to Jesus that night for answers to questions which were framed by his Jewish identity, by his involvement as a ruling member (Sanhedrin) in Israel (v.1) and as one of her teachers (v.10); thus he came with the expectations associated with their Scripture, which were shaped likely by an interpretive framework from Second Temple Judaism and no doubt by a perceptual lens sociopolitically sensitized to Roman rule. While Nicodemus came to Jesus as an individual person, his query was as the collective identity of Israel and the corporate life and practice of a Pharisee’s (of whatever variation) Judaism.

Apparently stimulated by Jesus’ actions and perhaps stirred by the presence of “a teacher who has come from God” (v.2), he approached Jesus respectfully, if not with some humility. Yet, he very likely engaged Jesus with the framework and lens which Jesus critiqued elsewhere of “the wise and the intelligent” (Lk 10:21). This would be crucial for Nicodemus. Though his position represented the educated elite of Israel, his own posture was about to be humbled and changed.

Jesus understood Nicodemus’ query and anticipated his questions that certainly related to God’s promises for Israel’s deliverance (salvation), the Messiah and God’s kingship in the Mediterranean world. Therefore, Jesus immediately focused on “the kingdom of God” (v.3), the OT eschatological hope, about which Nicodemus was probably more concerned in the present than the future. Yet, the whole of God’s kingship and sovereign rule is integral to the OT, and thus a primary focus of Nicodemus’ query, however provincial. And he was concerned about it strongly enough (and perhaps inwardly conflicted) to make himself vulnerable to initiate this interaction with Jesus; his query appeared genuine and for more than referential information or didactic reasons. This suggests that Nicodemus stepped out of his probability box to pursue the more of ‘eternity substance’ in his heart.

The conversation that followed evidences a purpose in John’s Gospel to clearly distinguish and make definitive the whole of God’s thematic relational action of grace in response to the human condition—first, in continuation to Israel and then to the nations—that is, to unfold the history of God’s salvation. Yet, the language communicated in this conversation became an issue, and this proved to be revealing not only for Nicodemus but for all he represented—as well as for all who would follow, even through a postmodern period.

The notion of membership and participation in the kingdom of God being contingent on a concept “born again” was taken incredulously by this “wise and learned” leader, whose sophisticated reason was unable to process and explain in referential terms from a narrowed epistemic field. “How can” (dynamai, v.4) signifies the limits of the probable. Then to be told “you [pl] must by its nature” (dei, v.7, not opheilo’s obligation or compulsion), as if to address all Jews, was beyond the grasp of his reason. Dei points to the nature of the improbable. Even after Jesus made definitive (“I tell you the truth”) gennao anothen as “born from above,” that is “born of the Spirit” (ek, indicating the primary, direct source, vv.5,8), Nicodemus was still unable to process the words of Jesus; the probable continues to prevail (“How can,” v.9). Why? This brings us back to the interpretive framework and perceptual lens of “the wise and the intelligent.” He was unable to understand Jesus’ language because the words were heard from an insufficient interpretive framework limited to the probable of his knowledge and an inadequate perceptual lens constrained in focus only on the secondary in referential terms.

Jesus exposed this as the conversation continues: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand the improbable and the primary?” (v.10). How is Jesus’ question connected to Nicodemus’ question since “born again” (or from above) is not in the Hebrew Scriptures? With this rhetorical question, Jesus implied that from a valid OT perspective (namely “the covenant of love,” Dt 7:7-9) the thematic relational action of God’s covenant relationship would be understood; moreover, the relational outworking of siym for shalom from the LORD’s definitive blessing would be expected and apparent. Jesus was vulnerably extending this covenant relationship of love in wholeness together directly to Nicodemus (and, by implication, to all Jews) by communicating openly what he, himself, knew intimately by witnessing as a participant (martyreo, not merely by observation, v.11) in the life of God (v.13, cf. Jn 1:18). His communication was not with ethereal (epouranios) language but discourse (lego) in the human context (epigeios, v.12), yet with relational language. It was the qualitative nature of relational language that Nicodemus was unable to understand with his perceptual-interpretive framework. Nicodemus remained incompatible for relational connection.

The movement of God’s thematic relational action in the covenant relationship of love had been consistently reduced to quantitative situations and circumstances throughout Israel’s history—despite the fact that “the Lord set his heart on you and chose you” was not on a quantitative basis (Dt 7:7). In functional similarity, Nicodemus paid attention to the quantitative limits of human biology in probability terms reducing the person while ignoring the qualitative primacy of whole human ontology. Thus he demonstrated the same framework focused on the quantitative situations and circumstances probable for the covenant, whereas Jesus focused on the ontology of the whole person and the qualitative relationship signifying the covenant of love and wholeness together. The establishment of nation and national identity formation were the prevailing quantitative expectations of any messianic hope in the kingdom, with which, most certainly, Nicodemus came to Jesus that night. In contrast and conflict, Jesus focused on the whole persons necessary in new covenant relationship in wholeness to constitute the kingdom in its innermost—nothing less and no substitutes.

Their prevailing perceptual-interpretive framework made some critical assumptions about the kingdom besides the quantitative situations and circumstances probable for the covenant. The two most critical assumptions were relational barriers to understanding Jesus’ relational language:

  1. Membership in the kingdom was based on generational descent and natural birth in quantitative referential terms; to understand the qualitative functional significance of Jesus’ relational language, his relational message (v.7) must be integrated with the incarnation’s fulfillment of God’s thematic action in relational terms of the covenant relationship of love (as summarized by the evangelist in Jn 1:10-13; cf. his discourse on those redeemed in Jn 8:31-36,42).
  2. In addition, participation in the kingdom was based on what one did from outer in, accordingly adherence to a purification code of behavior was imperative, especially for national identity maintenance; to understand the whole relational context and process of Jesus’ relational language, his message (v.6) needs to be embodied in the vulnerable relational context and process of his whole person from inner out intimately disclosing the whole of God in the innermost (made evident in his further disclosure of the improbable, Jn 6:54,63).

In this latter relational disclosure, would-be followers came to a similar conclusion as Nicodemus: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52) and “This improbable is difficult; who can accept it?” (6:60), compared with Nicodemus’ “How can this improbable be?” (3:9)—all of which reflected these assumptions in quantitative referential terms from outer in that limited both their knowledge to the probable and their learning of the improbable.

What Nicodemus and the others were predisposed to by their perceptual-interpretive framework, and also were embedded in as their practice and expectation within the limits of the probable, was essentially a salvation of the old—a quantitative outcome of reductionism. What Jesus vulnerably engaged them in and with went beyond the probable to the salvation of the new—the qualitative relational outcome of the whole of God’s relational response to not only Israel but the human condition. God’s thematic relational work of grace embodied in Jesus for covenant relationship of love constituted the new covenant from inner out, the relationship of which was now directly and intimately involved together with the Trinity in the innermost to be the whole of God’s family (kingdom of those born of the Spirit, of the Father, of the Son). This is the whole gospel vulnerably disclosed by Jesus in relational language which jolted the status quo of the old represented in Nicodemus that night.

Nicodemus came to Jesus as “the wise and learned” in the old. He was now humbled by Jesus’ intrusion on his probable with the improbable “born again or from above,” and by the necessary transition from old to new Jesus distinguished unmistakably in its relational language. Though that term itself is not in the OT, it is clearly evident that “a new heart” and the Spirit’s work for “a new covenant” and Israel’s kingdom (Eze 36:26-27, Jer 31:31-34) would not be unfamiliar to Nicodemus as Israel’s teacher. The meaning of Jesus’ relational message to Nicodemus (and the status quo) defined the needed transformation of human ontology for this new covenant relationship of love, which for Nicodemus functionally involved the transition from “the wise and learned of the old” to the qualitative framework and function of “the little children of the new” (cf. Mt 18:3-4)—undoubtedly a jolt to Nicodemus and the status quo. Yet, apparently, Nicodemus humbly transitioned to “a little child of the new”: first, to receive the whole of God’s self-disclosure embodied in whole by Jesus with a new perceptual-interpretive framework (Lk 10:21, cf. his vulnerability in Jn 7:50-52), then to relationally respond to God in qualitative involvement (Lk 18:17, cf. his involvement in Jn 19:39-42).

John’s Gospel clearly illuminates the relational process of salvation from old to new in Nicodemus and what he is saved to. In this relational context, the evangelist almost seems to give a metaphorical sense to Nicodemus. Certainly, for all who follow, it is the whole relational context and process, necessary by the nature of salvation, to which to respond and by which to be involved in order to belong to the whole of God’s family. Unfortunately, we never hear if Nicodemus became one of the teachers of the old covenant and new, who relationally experienced following Jesus in the relational progression to the family (kingdom) of God, as Jesus defined for such teachers (Mt 13:52). Nevertheless, the transition of God’s thematic relational work of grace emerges further and deeper in this relational discourse. The strategic shift to the qualitative relational significance of the new was present and unfolded in its innermost.

This would be relationally disclosed further and deeper not only as present but also as vulnerably involved from inner out, as Jesus did in his communicative action with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-30, discussed in chaps. 2 and 6). The presence of the improbable embodied in whole was neither merely an Object to be observed nor to gather information from. The whole of God is vulnerably present and relationally involved as Subject with nothing less than whole ontology and function. In clear disclosure of God’s strategic shift, this was the pivotal relational message that this improbable Subject communicated in an unpredictable action to a Samaritan woman. Equally important, the whole of who, what and how God is was improbably presented to her as Subject not to inform her but only for relationship together Face to face. This distinguished Face-to-face relationship together, however, necessitates by its nature compatibility with the innermost of God’s whole ontology and function, who is vulnerably present and relationally involved as Subject for this whole relationship together. Therefore, “in spirit and truth” (4:23-24) are irreducible and nonnegotiable contingencies for compatible relationship with the improbable whole of God, who is embodied in whole relational terms and not fragmented referential terms. In other words, our whole ontology and function, constituting the open and vulnerable involvement of our heart from inner out with nothing less, are the only relational terms which will go beyond the limits of the probable to receive and be involved compatibly with the improbable Subject in the innermost.

Though the depth of this woman’s relational response to Jesus “in spirit and truth” is not clear, she certainly made an impact on many Samaritans in her city with the good news of the improbable (4:39-42). This level of qualitative relational involvement with Jesus that required going beyond the probable was a relational barrier and hermeneutic impasse for others wanting to follow Jesus (noted earlier, Jn 6:24-63). The issues in their minds focused ostensibly on ‘flesh and blood’. Underlying this were the real issues: the contrast and conflict between being preoccupied with the secondary and pursuing the primary (6:26-27), between referential terms and relational terms (6:28-29), between the quantitative from outer in and the qualitative from inner out (6:30-42), between remaining within the limits of the probable and stepping out to go beyond to the improbable (6:43-63)—all of which overlap and interact in the most critical issue between reductionism and its counter-relational work and God’s whole and relationship together in wholeness.

The black swan embodied in whole does indeed challenge us, confront us, pursue us to redeem and transform us epistemologically, hermeneutically, theologically, ontologically and relationally—from inner out to be held together in the innermost.


Dividing Theology and Its Hybrid

As evidenced by these various encounters with the improbable, how we perceive Jesus and approach the Word will determine how probable or improbable our conclusions will be epistemologically, hermeneutically, theologically, ontologically and relationally. The critical issue involves how deeply our conclusions hold together and as a result how complete they are. The implications of remaining within the limits of the probable, for example, are constraining for theology, the consequences of which continue even to this day to separate, divide, fragment and otherwise reduce the integrity of whole theology constituted by the improbable. These consequences are evident today in the disjoined relationship between theology and Christian ethics, as well as with other practical functions, consequently requiring separate disciplines for ethics, practical theology, missions and spiritual formation.[4] For Stanley Hauerwas, “the task of the theologian is not to deny that for certain limited purposes ethics can be distinguished from theology, but to refuse their supposed ontological and practical independence.”[5] Moreover, this fragmenting includes a disconnect between theological and biblical studies. What Paul critiqued in the Corinthian church (noted below) speaks to dividing theology from its determining source in Scripture—“Nothing beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). This interdependent and indispensable relationship has been separated, treated as distant or casual in significance, and its function between biblical and theological studies essentially absent. Markus Bockmuehl further observes today: “Much theological and biblical scholarship does not now pay even lip service to the once universal conviction that Christian theology is at its heart an exegetical discipline. …For its [early church] theologians, the study of Scripture was both source and destiny of their reason and wisdom.”[6]

Any division or separation, however, should be expected and cannot be sufficiently addressed until the underlying reductionism is confronted. This involved Paul’s integral fight both for the whole gospel and against reductionism. Since Paul did not distinguish his theology from his function, he never separated theology and practice. This is why his theology often does not appear to be theology in conventional terms of a prevailing theological framework, yet Paul communicated a knowledge and understanding of God to complete (make whole, pleroo) the word from God (Col 1:25); and his undivided theology essentially both extended and exceeded the relational work that Jesus started (Jn 14:12). So, when Paul raised the question “Has Christ been divided?” he exposed a critical issue involving both theology and practice. The issue is twofold:

  1. To divide theology from practice in their inseparable relationship is by implication to reduce both to a fragmented condition (1 Cor 3:16-17, 21-23; 14:33).
  2. In their disjointed condition, both theology and practice become narrowed-down to the limits of what persons know, so that each of them becomes shaped by the probable apart from their whole constituted by the improbable (1 Cor 3:18-20; 4:6-7; 8:1-2).

The critical issue Paul exposed also implies conversely: To remain within the limits of what you know (the probable) engages a process of reductionism—whether epistemologically, hermeneutically, theologically, ontologically and/or relationally—that necessitates dividing the improbable Christ embodied in whole into fragments which can be shaped and aggregated down to the limited understanding of our knowledge. In other words, if we do not perceive the black swan who emerged from outside the universe and receive the improbable Subject vulnerably present and relationally involved, we have to give some basis for a substitute, which leaves us with only one alternative: human shaping and construction in referential terms which are limited to self-referencing theories and conclusions. This alternative also provides us with a basis for not being vulnerable to the improbable whole of Jesus and his intrusion on his terms.

The improbable vulnerably disclosed in the above encounters was not embodied in whole according to referential terms but irreducibly and nonnegotiably according to God’s relational terms. Theology defined in referential terms redefines the improbable (and the whole) by the probable, thereby determines theology based on the limits of fragmentary knowledge and related understanding—or what Paul referred to as human wisdom and what emerged notably from the Enlightenment as the primacy of reason. Biblical revelation in referential terms narrows down the improbable of God’s relational disclosures to that which can be understood by the probable. The explanatory conclusion that can result from a narrowed epistemic field, and does indeed result for many, is a hybrid theology of doctrinal certainty, even of the Bible itself. Such certainty, however, is just based in probable terms. Moreover, this certainty circulates in a referential epistemic process, which Jesus identified as characteristic of “the wise and learned” in contrast to the relational epistemic process of “little children” open to the improbable (Lk 10:21). This brings us back to the matter of self-referencing in our theories and any resulting conclusions and knowledge. In their pursuit of certainty, self-referencing was demonstrated by those who theorized about the bread from the improbable (Jn 6:41-42) and about Jesus’ flesh and blood (6:52,60).

Self-referencing is a critical issue in theology because its defining process—as demonstrated by those above defining Jesus on their terms—relies on (intentionally or unintentionally) a perceptual-interpretive lens that does not process beyond the limits of self-understanding to determine the shape of theology. This process certainly then includes depending on (knowingly or unknowingly) what we know within the relative limits of the probable. The application of a narrowed epistemic field, even with assumptions subscribing to God’s revelation, can only result in a narrowed-down theology (or hybrid theology) which is fragmentary at best or misleading, distorted or incorrect at worst (cf. Peter’s theology, Mt 16:15-17, 21-23). Only such theology can emerge because its understanding does not basically go beyond referential terms and thus can only reference the self-determining perceptions, interpretations and resulting knowledge from the probable, even entitled as revelation. No further and deeper theology emerges since its formulating epistemic process is unable (and unwilling) to go beyond self-referencing in order to distinguish the unfamiliar black swan of whole theology from the prevalent white swans of egology—the human shaping of which may claim to be distinct from natural theology but whose function still operates in the primacy of reason.

Yet, what compounds the limits of this epistemic process is less about reason and more about the human condition. Even as we may affirm the improbable God from outside the universe in referential terms, we still could keep God’s vulnerable presence and intimate relational involvement from intruding our innermost. This lack of vulnerability remains problematic for the improbable and thereby an ongoing issue for whole theology. The whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path are inseparable, integrally composing the Black Swan. The improbability of a black swan cannot be affirmed, on the one hand, while, on the other hand, avoiding the Black Swan’s intrusion. The whole of the Black Swan cannot be narrowed down to fragment his intrusive relational path to the less vulnerable probable terms of our shaping of relationship together. This reductionism of relationship signifying the human condition is incompatible with God’s whole presence and relational involvement, and this relational condition needs to be addressed for theology to be whole.

The irreplaceable relational work of the Spirit is the necessary relational means that constitutes theology beyond the referential terms of the probable in the relational epistemic process to the improbable. Therefore, for our theology to go further and deeper than self-referencing, we need to honestly examine both our functional position in relation to the improbable and most important our relational involvement with the improbable. The absence, lack or distance in relationship with the improbable Subject embodied in whole renders us to just referential terms with God, with only information about God to refer to within the limits of our self-understanding—an understanding which at best is fragmentary lacking synesis (whole understanding). This was the issue for Peter and the problem with his hybrid theology.

Peter clearly illustrates the theological problems we face when we try to reconcile the Jesus embodied in whole to a narrowed epistemic field, that is, within the limits of what we know or can rationalize. Of all the original disciples, Peter had the most opportunity to experience the more dramatic of Jesus’ self-disclosures, which should have formed the integral basis for his initial knowledge and understanding of God, his theology. His first experience of Jesus happened when he became a disciple. After working all night without catching any fish, Jesus instructed Peter to fish again, resulting in more fish than they could handle (Lk 5:4-11). Peter’s response to Jesus rightly went beyond the situation to recognize the distinguished presence of the qualitative: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (v.8). By falling down at Jesus’ knees, Peter demonstrated his humble submission to Jesus’ self-disclosure. His response, however, did not necessarily define his functional position in relation to the improbable and determine his relational involvement with the improbable Jesus embodied in whole.

Later, when Jesus asked his main disciples if they also wish to stop following him, Peter makes this summary statement: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:67-69). Peter’s confession of faith certainly distinguished him from the would-be followers of Jesus in this context. His theology at this stage appears to have doctrinal certainty, which suggests it is more referential than relational and hence based in the probable terms of what Peter knew from his previous experience with Jesus and of what he could rationalize. This becomes evident as Peter’s theology is about to redefine the improbable Jesus embodied in whole by the probable—in contrast and conflict even with his confession. Yet, confession alone is insufficient to follow Jesus’ whole person, who is disclosed only for relationship—the relationship together with which Peter clearly starts to struggle and negotiate on his reduced terms. This struggle was ongoing for Peter and continued even after the resurrection, which necessitated from Jesus an urgent restatement of his original relational imperative to Peter to refocus Peter on the primacy of whole relationship together: “you, follow me” (Jn 21:22).

Peter’s relational condition with Jesus, and his related theological problem, seemed to first emerge with his response to Jesus’ person and their relationship together during their interaction walking on water (Mt 14:22-33). Seeing Jesus in this context challenged Peter to expand his epistemic field to test the improbable. Various dynamics converge in this experiential (and perhaps experimental) moment. Peter initially engages Jesus’ whole person (“if it is you…”) in Jesus’ relational context (“…command me to come to you”). The situation is only the secondary matter to pay attention to here whereas the relational process of their involvement together is primary. Peter is making his whole person vulnerable to Jesus on Jesus’ relational terms—though there is some element of “prove it” contingency to Peter’s faith, yet not in a passive sense without Peter’s full relational involvement. Unfortunately, Peter only pays attention to Jesus’ person and the relationship for a brief significant moment. His focus soon shifts to the situation, which then produces the fear causing a plea to Jesus only in the role to save him from his circumstances. The significance of this shift, in contrast to the beginning of this interaction, involves a critical dynamic: Jesus’ person is reduced to what he can do and the primacy of relationship is replaced by the secondary matter of the situation and circumstances. That is, as Peter’s focus shifted to the secondary, his epistemic field quickly narrowed back to the probable of his perceptual lens that defined the limits of his theology. Obviously, then, ‘certainty’ became an urgent matter for Peter, yet walking on water was not an issue until the secondary became primary. While the matter of Jesus’ self-disclosure on the water becomes obscured here, Peter’s theology—shaped by his function and not his earlier confession—can no longer account for the improbable. Based on a theology of the probable, Peter had no business walking on water; and his theology could only include being saved from trying to do so, in spite of the reality of Jesus’ self-disclosure on the water to signify what Peter is saved to: “to come to you”…”Come” in the primacy of relationship together. This reduced their relationship together and attempted to renegotiate it to Peter’s terms. And the fragmenting process that Peter engages becomes the basis for his emerging hybrid theology.

When Jesus further queried his disciples about their personal opinion of his identity, Peter made another summary confession affirming Jesus’ deity: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” a revelation which Jesus acknowledged Peter had received from “my Father in heaven” (Mt 16:16-17). Yet, though Peter’s confession was theologically correct about Jesus, his theology could not translate into function with Jesus in relationship together because this would require going beyond his limits based on the probable in order to engage the improbable Jesus face to Face on Jesus’ relational terms—a relational position of vulnerability that Peter still avoided. This was clearly evident soon after his confession when Jesus vulnerably disclosed the painful course “he must” (dei, necessary, unavoidable) take to the cross and the resurrection (16:21). Rather than receive the face of Jesus (and God’s relational response of grace), however, Peter takes Jesus aside as if to counsel him (maybe partly from the confidence gained due to his confession), not to console Jesus. Peter acts boldly “to rebuke him” (v.22). The word “rebuke” (epitimao) means to censure, blame, berate; it is an abrupt and biting charge sharply expressing disapproval, harshly taking someone to task for a fault (cf. Mk 1:25). The word implies that Peter expressed a warning as he confronted Jesus on this absurd disclosure. “God forbid it, Lord!”—the term (hileos) functions in such phrases as an invocation for overturning evil (cf. in our vernacular, “Heaven forbid!” or “Absolutely no way!”). We have to appreciate Peter’s honesty in sharing his feelings with Jesus. In this sense, Peter made himself vulnerable to Jesus. Yet, despite his honesty, was he really opening his whole person to Jesus? The answer involves why Peter had these feelings.

Jesus’ response to him helps us understand. He responds back even more strongly by identifying Peter as the enemy (v.23)—in contrast and conflict with moment’s earlier (v.17). Why? Because he was a “stumbling block” to Jesus; the term (skandalon) always denotes enticing or trapping its victim in a course of behavior which could ruin the person. Compared to earlier (v.17) when Peter was influenced by the Father’s revelation over human rationalizing, Peter shifted from God’s whole terms to his reduced function on the basis of the probable terms of his hybrid theology limited to “human things” and “not on divine things.” His focus “in mind” (phroneo) means to think, have a mindset—that which underlies one’s predisposition or bias. This is the activity of one’s perceptual-interpretive framework, which also involves the will, affections, conscience, therefore to be mindful and devoted to that perspective—the lens of Peter’s predisposition that emerged from his hybrid theology. In other words, his theological framework and lens defines what he pays attention to and what he ignores, thereby determines how he will function as a person and in relationships, most notably with Jesus.

The issue that has fully emerged for Peter in this interaction is not focused on being made whole and having a whole theology but on defining relationship with God and shaping it by his reduced terms on the basis of his hybrid theology. Peter had strong feelings against Jesus’ self-disclosure because that was incongruent with his perceived image of God and what God should do; for Peter, the improbable was incompatible with the probable. This is not merely about his messianic hopes and expectations but exposes a deeper issue. That is, Peter’s perceptual-interpretive framework reduced Jesus’ whole person and determined the terms of their relationship; this then redefined Jesus to function in Peter’s reduced context, not his whole relational context, consequently to be something less than and some substitute for the One whom Peter professed to be earlier. In contrast and conflict with the whole of Jesus and Jesus’ vulnerable self-disclosure here of his relational work to constitute whole relationship together, Peter remains within the limits of the probable in which he can feel more certain and less vulnerable. By its nature, a hybrid theology invariably becomes a wide-gate-and-road theology. This exposes the relational dynamics engaged in a hybrid theology and its predisposition for a dismissive functional position to and a distant relational involvement with the improbable embodied in whole who intrudes his innermost.

These constraints on Peter’s function shaping his hybrid theology keep emerging, as further evident in the next extraordinary self-disclosure of the whole of God. Six days after the above interaction, the face of Jesus is presented the most vulnerably than at any other moment during the incarnation. This happens when Jesus is “transfigured” (metamorphoo, to transform, to alter fundamentally) before Peter, James and John (Mt 17:1-9)—a privileged experience for them that should be integral in taking Peter beyond his limits.

The transfiguration marks a pivotal point of Jesus’ disclosure of God’s glory, which these disciples have the unique opportunity to experience further and deeper: the “visible” heart of God’s being, as Jesus is transformed to exalted form and substance (cf. Moses’ face, Ex 34:29); the intimate relational nature of the whole of God, as the Father, along with his Son, communicates directly with them in relationship (cf. with Moses, Ex 24:15-16; with Elijah, 1 Kg 19:8-18); and the vulnerable presence and involvement of God, as illuminated clearly in this amazing experiential moment. At this reunion of key persons in God’s family, the whole of God’s thematic relational action coheres from the past (represented by Moses and Elijah) with the present (presented by the Messiah in God’s glory embodying God’s grace) to the future (by the present constituting reality of God’s kingdom/family). In the Father’s relational communication (an extension from Jesus’ baptism, Mk 1:11) specifically directed to these disciples to build relationship together, two vital messages summarize all that God relationally has disclosed, promised and experienced with his people: (1) the full affirmation of his Son in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love, and (2) the clear relational imperative (“Listen to him!”) for all his followers to pay attention and respond to him in his relational context and process—imperative because Jesus’ relational language communicates the whole of God, not only with his words but from his whole person, for the whole understanding (synesis) necessary to have wholeness in theology and practice (cf. Mk 8:17-18).

The whole of God’s glory is vulnerably disclosed in the face of Jesus, as Paul later made definitive (2 Cor 4:6). Moses and Elijah responded to God’s glory “face to face” on God’s terms to build the covenant relationship together. What does Peter do with God’s glory; how does he respond to the face of Jesus?

God’s glory is not disclosed to observe for information, even to use to construct theology, or merely to behold in awe, but only for relationship—by the necessity of God’s being, nature and presence. When Peter wanted to erect three tents (for Jesus, Moses and Elijah) as the opportune purpose for him to be present (Mk 9:5), consider what this does to the whole of God’s heart and intimate relational presence vulnerably presented to him. In the tension of this vulnerably improbable moment, Peter resorts to the past, both immediate and distant, which is still present in function for him. His old mindset (perceptual-interpretive framework and lens) exposed by Jesus six days ago, quickly expressed itself further when he tries to constrain God’s glory to a place—just like the OT ways of relating to God indirectly in the tabernacle (tent). Once again, Peter reduces Jesus’ whole person and relates to the face of Jesus on his reductionist terms, not Jesus’ relational context and process as the Father makes imperative for him. Peter’s shift to the tents further exposes the relational dynamics in his hybrid theology: the reductionist substitute he uses for the face of Jesus; how reductionism diminished his direct relational involvement with God’s glory embodied by Jesus’ whole person; and as a result the relational distance he maintains from intimate relationship together with Jesus and the whole of God as family. The relational consequence is that how Peter functions directly prevents their relationship from functioning together in the relational significance of “Follow me.”

Peter’s function in these relational dynamics is inseparable from his theology; and the unavoidable interaction between function and theology was consequential for both his function and theology. By shifting away from the inner out to narrow down his epistemic field to more quantitative terms from outer in, Peter’s theology cannot account for the qualitative and relational in God’s ontology and function, and consequently cannot account for Peter’s whole person created in the qualitative image and relational likeness of God. Ontology and function have been reduced to fragmentary terms, which become barriers to vulnerable involvement in the primacy of whole relationship together. Peter’s person struggled in this relational condition, as he was constrained within the limits of his reduced theological anthropology, the most notable indicator of a hybrid theology.

All of these relational dynamics converged at Jesus’ footwashing (Jn 13:1-17), at which Peter’s hybrid theology continues to emerge. As discussed previously, it is vital to see Jesus’ engagement beyond referential terms of what to do in serving to its depth in relational terms of how to be involved in relationship (“he loved them”). The intimate depth of Jesus’ relational involvement in footwashing was the most vulnerable self-disclosure of his whole person that emerged in the unique relational context of his table fellowship as family together. This depth of relational involvement unfolds in his relational process of family love to constitute his family in Communion together—that intimate table fellowship of worship indivisible from his footwashing. When Peter refused Jesus’ footwashing, he fragmented both Jesus’ person and his person to their roles and status, reducing the person to outer in by what one does—or in reference to Jesus, what he should not do. The function of Peter’s theology merely extends from his earlier attempt to prevent Jesus from going to the cross (Mt 16:22). Consequently, in the limits of his hybrid theology the probable and secondary continue to prevail, and Peter simply rejected the most vulnerable presence and intimate relational involvement of the whole of God.

Seemingly incongruent with these relational dynamics at this pivotal table fellowship, moments later Peter declared without hesitation “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (13:37). Such a statement, however, along with his earlier confessions of faith, are not incongruent when made in referential terms from a hybrid theology that has reduced Peter’s person to what he does—or doesn’t do in the matter of footwashing. As the evening progresses and the weekend unfolds, even a lack of performance in what he does did not turn Peter from his reductionism and away from his secondary focus. This is indicated in the qualitative and relational significance of Jesus’ final words to Peter before his ascension: “Do you love me, Peter?” then “don’t focus on the secondary of your service but ‘follow me’ in the primacy of whole relationship together”.

Peter’s ministry was still problematic as long as he engaged in a fragmenting process with his hybrid theology. Despite the successful beginning of his ministry, Peter still functioned from a reduced theological anthropology that fragmented persons with outer-in distinctions. In contrast and conflict, Jesus, in post ascension, corrected Peter’s hybrid theology (Acts 10:9-20, 34-35, 44-48; 11:17), which Peter should have processed into his theology earlier if he had listened to Jesus’ relational language of the primacy of the qualitative and relational signifying Jesus’ theology from inner out (Mt 15:15-20). Yet, even a redefined theology from inner out did not make Peter’s function whole from inner out—that is, the redemptive change of metamorphoo, not the outer-in change of metaschematizo. Peter remained engaged in a fragmenting process and ignored Jesus’ warning about functioning in reductionism, which Jesus clearly indicated signifies hypokrisis (Lk 12:1). Consequently, he still divided his theology from practice and thereby engaged in the outer-in function of role-playing (hypokrisis), that Paul exposed to Peter’s face for the sake of the whole gospel (Gal 2:11-14). In contrast and conflict, Peter continued to ‘divide Christ’ and practiced a gospel that was consequentially in both a dismissive functional position to and a distant relational involvement with the improbable Jesus embodied in whole. His early ministry was characterized by proclaiming the gospel of salvation from sin. Yet, his message of repentance did not adequately include the sin of reductionism; therefore his gospel lacked the qualitative and relational depth of what Jesus saved to. This lack was initially indicated by a disparity in the early church (Acts 6:1), that Jesus later corrected in Peter’s theology and that Paul confronted in Peter’s practice. Despite his early boldness to proclaim the good news (e.g. Acts 4:18-20), his soteriology was fragmented and lacked the wholeness of being saved to. In this sense, Peter’s ministry can also be characterized by—what the writer of Hebrews exposed and boldly challenged (Heb 5:11-6:2)—a focus on milk (“the basic teaching about Christ”) without the substance of meat (“for the mature,” cf. 1 Cor 3:1-2).

This lack and disparity in Peter’s own theology and function reflect the fragmentation of his person, the extent of which had a reductionist influence on a segment of the early church—including Barnabas, as Paul exposed to Peter’s face at Antioch (Gal 2:13-14). Even though Peter advocated for equality at the church council in Jerusalem, his advocacy likely still focused on an incomplete soteriology, with no indication of being saved to the primacy of whole relationship together as family (Acts 15:6-11). It is critical to understand, that in Peter’s hybrid process (in anyone’s hybrid process) there were limits to what could emerge both theologically and functionally. This raises a related question about Jesus’ declaration after Peter’s confession that “on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). How is this compatible with Peter’s theology and function? I affirm that Peter’s confession in this context was also made as the spokesperson for the disciples; and on this basis Jesus responded to the collective “you” to build his church as family together, of which Peter was certainly one member but only a fragmentary part (as Paul clarified, 1 Cor 3:11). God’s relational whole as family cannot and is not built in a fragmenting process on reduced terms, and that, in my opinion, is the basis for Paul becoming the lead apostle for the whole of both the gospel and the church. Later, in the church’s transition Peter appears to affirm Paul’s lead and the important depth of Paul’s letters for the church (2 Pet 3:15-16).

What we see unfolding in Peter is a pattern of his reshaping God’s self-disclosures on God’s whole terms, fragmenting the whole of Jesus and redefining his person in a narrowed-down epistemic field for a hybrid theology based on the limits of Peter’s reduced terms. Hybrid theology not only divides theology but also separates theology from function, such that its practice can be neither congruent nor even compatible, with its theology, thus reducing both to a fragmented condition—the critical issue Paul exposed earlier in the church in Corinth. This fragmented condition goes unrecognized as long as one remains within the limits of understanding from one’s knowledge or rationalizing. As Peter demonstrated, this fragmentation of theology may have doctrinal certainty and appear to be united, yet it is not whole. These are the results of epistemological illusion and ontological simulation from reductionism and its counter-relational work, which inevitably can only be in contrast and conflict with the whole of God and the whole ontology and function improbably embodied in Jesus. This hybrid process is also evident in Jesus’ further post-ascension communication with various churches. In his relational discourse for ecclesiology to be whole, Jesus’ family love exposed reductionism in church practices to hold them accountable for engaging in a fragmenting process in order to be whole as his church (Rev 2-3). We will discuss one church now with further discussion following below.

A hybrid process emerges clearly in the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29). Thyatira’s economy emphasized trades (including brass-working) and crafts (cf. Acts 16:14). In the Greco-Roman world of that time, trade guilds organized the various trades and were necessary to belong to if one wanted to pursue a trade (much as unions today). These guilds served various social functions as well, one of which was to meet for common meals dedicated to their patron deities, thereby engaging in activities of pagan worship and immorality. For Christians not to belong to a guild and participate would generally mean becoming isolated economically and socially,[7] which may suggest a pragmatic approach to church practice in Thyatira.

In the nature of this surrounding context, Jesus acknowledged this church’s extensive “works” (ergon, work that defined them, Rev 2:19): “love” (agape), “faith” (pistis), “service” (diakonia, service, ministry that benefits others, especially compassion to the needy), “patient endurance” (hypomone, enduring and not giving in to bad circumstances, in contrast to makrothymia which is patience with respect to persons), and that their “last works are greater than the first,” indicating not a status quo situation but actually doing more ergon than before. Yet, their practice also “tolerated” (aphiemi, to let pass, permit, allow, v.20) Jezebel’s teaching. What they let pass, permitted or allowed is important to understand in the above context.

Jezebel (probably a byword symbolizing the OT character of Jezebel, cf. 1 Kg 18:19) appears to be a woman (or possibly a group) accepted within this church fellowship. The practice associated with her teaching probably refers to compromise with prevailing activity related to trade guilds prominent in the city which “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (2:20, NIV). What is significant to understand here is not the obvious disparity of this teaching and practice with the desires of God. What is more significant is how these prevailing influences of the surrounding context were absorbed into the practices of this church along with all its other so-called good works acknowledged above. This is not simply an issue about syncretism, synthesizing competing ideologies, or even pluralism, but goes beyond merely maintaining doctrinal purity to the deeper issue about participation in a surrounding context having the prevailing presence of reductionism and its subsequent influence on their perceptual-interpretive framework. This is the lens which determined what they ignored and paid attention to, thus the lens by which they practiced their works. When reductionism is not negated, its influence then affects how those other works would be engaged with something less and some substitute for the whole of persons and relationships, therefore raising critical issues of their qualitative and relational significance, and their wholeness since the fragmenting process is not disengaged.

Theologically, Thyatira demonstrated a weak view of sin, namely sin as reductionism, which was the normative character of their surrounding context and was embedded in its collective order. Functionally, they also lacked relational involvement, or maintained relational distance, with God in the process of reciprocating contextualization needed to distinguish their identity in that surrounding context without being determined by it; and any pragmatism in their practice became a euphemism for reductionism—the rationalizing composing ‘a wide gate and road’. Their tolerance was essentially a fragmentation of both their theology and function in a hybrid process, consequently they reinforced the counter-relational work of reductionism and functioned incompatibly to be whole, God’s relational whole on God’s whole terms. The influence of reductionism is usually more subtle than that observed in the Thyatira church.

As long as our perceptual-interpretive framework is reductionist—most notably with a reduced theological anthropology—our lens’ view of the qualitative, the ontological and the relational will not discern the extent of the surrounding influences reducing the whole of church practice. The underlying issue critical for our understanding is the ontology and function of both the person and persons together as church; and the challenging question remains: Is it reduced ontology and function or whole ontology and function? The relational demands of grace, however, clarify for church ontology and function that nothing less and no substitutes than to be whole is the only practice which has any significance to God (as Jesus made definitive about worship, Jn 4:23-24). Additionally, the lens of repentance in conjoint function with a strong view of sin makes no assumptions to diminish addressing sin as reductionism, first and foremost within church practice and then in the surrounding contexts—in other words, being accountable for nothing less and no substitutes. This is the ontology and function that composes ‘the narrow gate and road’ leading to whole life (zoe). And Jesus wants “all the churches” to clearly “know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts” (Rev 2:23, as he did with Peter); that is, he examines the qualitative significance of persons from inner out, whom he holds accountable to be whole in the relationships that hold together in the innermost as the whole of God’s family (2:25; 3:11). In their effort to be relevant and possibly pragmatic in the surrounding pluralistic context, by engaging in a hybrid process the Thyatira church overlooked (knowingly or unknowingly) in their many admirable church practices what was necessary to be whole and to make whole (cf. a similar error by the church in Pergamum in a reductionist context, Rev 2:12-15).

The issue about being whole is that it always involves reductionism, whether it is reductionism of our theology or our function. What Jesus made definitive in his formative family prayer (Jn 17:13-23) is crucial for our whole understanding (synesis) of this issue. What prevails in (en) any context of the world is reductionism. Jesus calls his followers relationally out of (ek) these contexts in order to be whole together as his family, then also relationally sends them back into (eis) those surrounding contexts to live whole together as his family and to make whole the human condition. Without the reciprocating dynamic of this ek-eis relational involvement, church ontology and function become defined and shaped based on the narrowed-down terms en (in) the surrounding context. This relational condition is problematic because of the relational barriers or distance it creates for the ongoing relational involvement necessary with the whole of God on God’s relational terms to constitute the whole of who we are as church and whose we are as God’s family. Without this reciprocating contextualization, our identity in the world becomes fragmentary and, therefore, is rendered ambiguous as the light and/or shallow as the salt (Mt 5:13-16). This is not the embodied whole of his family and the gospel that Jesus prayed for the world to see, receive and respond to.

It is insufficient for churches to be a mere presence, or even merely to function, en the world; their only significance is to function eis (relational movement into) the world both to be relationally involved with others as God’s whole and, by the nature of this function, also to confront all sin as reductionism of the whole. Jesus teaches us about ecclesiology in his relational discourse, and the lesson we need to learn from the hybrid process of the Thyatira church is indispensable: to let pass, indifferently permit or inadvertently allow—“tolerate,” which other churches also did more subtly—the influence of reductionism in any form from the surrounding context proportionately diminishes the wholeness of church practice and minimalizes their relational involvement with God, with each other in the church and with others in the world, consequently rendering its relational condition to a level no longer distinguished for, and perhaps from, the human relational condition. For churches to get beyond practice merely en the world, they need a different dynamic to define and determine their practice.

By searching hearts Jesus communicates the relational message to us that church ontology and function are about being whole in the innermost, not merely doing correct ecclesial practices. And the eis relational engagement of church function has to be conjoined with the ek (movement out of) relational involvement with the whole of God as its defining antecedent in the ek-eis dynamic, or else church ontology and function remain susceptible to engagement in a fragmenting process. This reciprocating relational process negates the continuous counter-relational work of Satan and its reductionist influence (Rev 2:24) by ongoingly engaging, embracing, experiencing and extending God’s whole, that is, the irreducible whole in the qualitative significance of the integrated ontology of both personhood and the church constituted in and by the Trinity, the whole of God. The relational outcome is the theology of wholeness, the only alternative integrally in contrast and conflict with a hybrid theology.

It is vital for our whole understanding (synesis) to learn from Peter and the early church (notably in Thyatira) that the irony of a hybrid process and a wide-gate-and-road approach in fact imposes critical limits on what can emerge from our theology and function. The improbable Jesus embodied in whole, in integral relationship with Paul, together provide us with the synesis necessary to take us beyond such limits in order to be whole—theologically, ontologically, functionally and relationally.


The Theology of Wholeness

The whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition unfolds in a theological trajectory and along a relational path that converge in the narrow gate and road of the incarnation—and that cannot be divided or fragmented to “widen” the gate and road. By the narrow gate and road, the improbable embodied in whole by Jesus was vulnerably disclosed (beyond apokalypto) in the distinguished relational context and process (to phaneroo) that fulfilled God’s definitive blessing to his family to enact siym for shalom to bring the change necessary for new relationship together in wholeness (Num 6:24-26, discussed previously). The relational context and process distinguishing the Face of God involved the relational work of Face-to-face relationship that intruded on the probable (the common) and challenged them with the improbable (the Uncommon). For whole understanding—our indispensable and irreplaceable synesis (as Paul defined, Col 2:2-4)—it is necessary to follow this theological trajectory and relational path.

Crucial to understanding the theological trajectory of the distinguished Face of God now embodied in whole is understanding his relational language. For most persons, this initially requires a major shift away from referential language focused on quantitative information about God in order to receive Jesus’ relational language involved in communicating qualitative knowledge and understanding of God only in relationship—a significant difference for the epistemic process that needs to be accounted for. This shift is unavoidable if we are to follow the theological trajectory of the Face of God, because without shifting we would not be on the same trajectory.

Referential terms puts God on a different theological trajectory merely as the Object to be observed and for faith. The information gained and conclusions formed about God in this common epistemic process are shaped by the limits of what we know or can rationalize, that is, shaped by our self-understandings. In contrast and even in conflict, the relational terms of God’s face unfolds in the theological trajectory as Subject (beyond a mere Other) to be involved in reciprocal relationship together Face to face, whose Face cannot be defined and whose relationship cannot be determined by our face. What we know and understand of God is distinguished in the relational epistemic process emerging from our involvement in reciprocal relationship with Subject-Face—whom the early disciples had issues distinguishing without syniemi (putting the pieces together) in its necessary relational epistemic process (Mk 8:17-18). The difference in these trajectories may seem unnecessarily nuanced when in fact the difference is immeasurable if knowing and understanding the whole of God are primary and therefore is composed by the relational Word. As Subject, God speaks for himself, and theology is contingent on God’s communication in relationship. As Object, God’s voice is mute and God’s words are disembodied, fragmented and otherwise subjected to human shaping in the theological task. As Subject, relationship with God is only on God’s whole terms. As Object, relationship and relating to God is negotiated by reduced human terms, shaped by the probable down to a fragmentary condition; this is how Christ becomes divided, as Paul exposed in the critical twofold issue discussed earlier. To follow Jesus’ theological trajectory as the distinguished Face, we must, by his nature as Subject, be involved with him along his relational path (cf. Jn 12:26). Yet, as witnessed in earlier discussion, the relational Jesus embodied as Subject is both improbable (uncommon) and whole, and that is problematic for the probable (common) and fragmentary—an unsettling intrusion on what prevails (the common, as ‘the wise and learned’ and would-be followers discovered) and a jolt to the status quo (distinguished from the uncommon, as Nicodemus learned).

As the relational dynamic of Jesus’ improbable theological trajectory unfolds to fulfill the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition, his first disciples continue to shift to be compatible for relationship face to Face in their pivotal table fellowship together. Not understanding Jesus’ relational language, one of them asks him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (Jn 14:22) The question was in response to Jesus outlining his theological trajectory and relational path for them with the whole of God (the Father and the Spirit along with the Son) and the relational epistemic process necessarily involved for this relational outcome (14:15-21). The issue is that Jesus discloses his person as Subject who is improbable and whole, which neither the probable can process nor the fragmentary can compatibly engage to understand. The disciple’s question focuses on seeing Jesus as a quantitative Object, that they themselves often related to without knowing (14:9) and had relationship with on their reduced terms (14:5-6, and particularly Peter). The relational words of Jesus’ relational language involve the qualitative experience of him as Subject in relationship together. Therefore, the theological trajectory of Jesus’ disclosures of the whole of God involves only his relational work as Subject (14:1-11)—the relational work that his disciples, in reciprocal relationship, can also extend and exceed (14:12-14), as was fulfilled in the relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul.

Without responding to the referential question, Jesus continues in his relational language to compose conclusively the relational outcome of his theological trajectory and relational path: whole relationship together as family, with its primacy established ‘already’ in relational progression to ‘not yet’ (14:23-28). The distinguished Face’s trajectory and path emerged from God’s definitive blessing and converged in this pivotal table fellowship for nothing less and no substitutes of this relational outcome, which is composed by the further relational language of Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26).

The primacy of whole relationship together as family in the already is the peace from God’s definitive blessing fulfilled by Jesus that “I leave you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27). The theological trajectory and relational path of this peace, however, should not be confused with the common, probable and fragmentary notions of peace shaped by the world—“I do not give to you as the world gives”—but clearly distinguished as from the Uncommon, by the improbable, and as whole. Here again the critical difference between a referential God as Object and the relational God as Subject emerges with further clarity and depth. Historically, Christian peace movements and peacemaking have often taken a different theological trajectory than the one Jesus as Subject fulfilled relationally from God’s definitive blessing. The theological trajectory and relational path of the peace Jesus enacts converge in the narrow gate and road of wholeness and its uncommon and improbable relational outcome of whole relationship together in the very likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God—“that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (Jn 17:22-23).

As much as the human condition and its human relational problems need all the help they could get, Jesus is unequivocal about his theological trajectory and relational path: “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Lk 12:51, “but a sword,” par. Mt 10:34). What Jesus goes on to describe is the division, conflict and breakdown within families that he came to cause (12:52-53)—in apparent contradiction to the whole relationship together as family defined above. The issue, however, is the theological trajectory and relational path of the peace Jesus gives, that converges in the narrow gate and road of the uncommon, improbable and whole, and therefore that cannot be determined by incomplete notions of peace to widen the gate and road in the common, probable and fragmentary. These relational words by Jesus must be understood by the relational message he painfully communicated as his relational path penetrated Jerusalem: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Lk 19:41-42). Then he intruded on the temple to forcefully cause its “division” in order to make it whole for God’s family (19:45-46). What constitutes Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path and what emerges are irreducible and nonnegotiable.

Nothing less and no substitutes but wholeness of the person and persons together in relationship constitutes Jesus’ peace and distinguishes it as uncommon, improbable and whole. It is the uncommon, improbable and whole that, by the nature of its ontology and function, intrudes on the common, probable and fragmentary notions of peace to expose its epistemological illusions and ontological simulations (even in families and the temple/church) shaped by the reductionism of human-shaped relationships prevailing in the human condition. Jesus’ seemingly divisive statement is his relational language composing the qualitative depth of his relational work necessary in direct response to the human condition to make it whole in relationship together as family. This is Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path of peace that constitutes the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel; and anything less and any substitutes can neither be definitive of the good news of wholeness (as Peter learned, Acts 10:34-36) nor determine the gospel of wholeness (as Paul proclaimed, Eph 6:15). And if our theology does not have this improbable trajectory and follow this intrusive relational path, then our theology cannot be whole but only divided, separating theology from practice (such as ethics and peacemaking), and thus fragmenting both without the synesis “that make for wholeness.” The theology that emerges from this fragmentary condition is at most a hybrid theology.

Moreover, the wholeness Jesus gives in relationship together as family in likeness of the Trinity is the experiential truth ‘already’ that “I will not leave you orphaned” (Jn 14:18), and that determines our whole ontology and function both as church family and in the world: “so that they may be one, as we are one…that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:22-23). This is the integral basis for the theological anthropology of whole ontology and function in critical contrast and conflict to reduced ontology and function. The roots of this ontology and function go back to creation, and its theological trajectory and relational path emerged in covenant relationship with Abraham when God directly communicated the clear relational imperative to him: “walk before me and be tamiym, not merely blameless but be whole” (Gen 17:1). If our theological anthropology does not have this theological trajectory and follow this relational path, then the ontology and function of the person and persons together as church family will not be tamiym. The relational consequence is that persons essentially become relational orphans and their gatherings become more like orphanages, in contrast and even conflict to the wholeness Jesus gives them in relationship together (cf. Jn 16:33).

During their pivotal table fellowship together—integrally involving his footwashing and Lord’s Supper—Jesus made conclusive the whole theology that his theological trajectory and relational path vulnerably embodied and relationally disclosed (Jn 13-17):

  1. The whole of who, what and how God is; the whole of Jesus by nature is unable to be divided (“you still do not know me?”) nor can the whole of God be separated (“seen me has seen the Father,” “we are one”); Jesus embodied and disclosed only God’s whole ontology and function, nothing less and no substitutes.
  2. The whole of who, what and how the person is; our ontology and function are whole in his qualitative image (“not of the world just as I am not”) and relational likeness (“one as we are one”); and we are whole together as God’s very family (“make our home with them,” “the Father’s love…in them, as I in them,” “they become completely one”); this is the definitive identity of both who we are and whose we are.
  3. The whole of God’s relational response of grace to the human condition to make persons whole in relationship together as God’s family (“the Father sent me into the world,” “I am the way…to the Father,” “to give eternal life…that they may know the whole of God,” “I will not leave you orphaned,” “we will come to them and make our home with them,” “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”); nothing less and no substitutes constitute the gospel.

Grace and peace—that is, the whole of God’s relational response of grace and the relational outcome of wholeness—are relational dynamics integrated in Jesus’ theological trajectory that are integrally enacted and fulfilled along his relational path in the primacy of whole relationship together in God’s family. Wholeness in relationship together involves the primacy of whole persons (from inner out, cf. “in spirit and truth”) in intimate involvement to know the whole of the other person, as signified by Jesus’ footwashing and as constituted by participating in Jesus’ sacrifice (his body and blood) behind the veil in the temple in the intimate presence of God. In Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path, grace and peace emerge without the veil in the primacy of intimate relationship together with the whole of God and the whole of each person as family—the primacy of wholeness with the veil removed that Paul clarified theologically and functionally (Eph 2:14-22; 2 Cor 3:16-18). Therefore, whole theology—whether of God, the person or the gospel—involves the vulnerable involvement and relational intimacy in the primacy of whole relationship together with no veil. This primacy of relationship is irreducible and nonnegotiable in Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path.

The reduction or renegotiation of this primacy was the critical issue for two other churches which Jesus exposed in his post-ascension relational discourse, along with the church in Thyatira discussed earlier. The church in Ephesus was exemplary in maintaining its church identity and doctrinal purity in the surrounding context (Rev 2:1-3,6). Their church ontology and function, however, had become a substitute for the primacy of relationship together: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first in the primacy of relationship and renegotiated what’s primary” (v.4). The church in Sardis was a successful church with a prominent reputation in the surrounding context (Rev 3:1). Yet, their ontology and function was a mere simulation of the primacy of wholeness, so Jesus jolted them in their illusion because “I have not found your works pleroo” (v.2), that is, complete, whole “in the sight of my God’s perceptual-interpretive lens” (enopion, before, in the presence of, cf. Abraham before God, Gen 17:1). In spite of their high church performance, both churches were on a different theological trajectory and relational path than Jesus.

In his relational messages to the churches in Ephesus, Sardis and Thyatira, Jesus teaches us a critical lesson that delineates a simple reality of life about the human person and the surrounding social context—matters we either pay attention to or ignore depending on our assumptions of theological anthropology and the human condition (e.g. the church in Thyatira). His lesson is integrated with his formative family prayer (Jn 17:9-19) and addresses the issue of contextualization defining us. Since we do not live in a vacuum, our ontology and function (both individual and corporate) are either shaped by the surrounding context we are en (v.11, thus “of the world,” v.14) or constituted by what we enter eis (dynamic movement “into”) that context with. In the latter constituting process, for the dynamic of eis to define and determine our ontology and function in congruence with Jesus (v.18) necessitates the ek (“of” indicating source) relational involvement to negate any defining influence on us from a surrounding context (“not of the world”) in order to determine us by our primary source in the whole of God’s relational context and process, therefore constituting the whole ontology and function in the primacy of relationship together for the eis relational movement back to the world (vv.16-18). Human contextualization, though neither disregarded nor necessarily unimportant, is clearly secondary to God’s in this process that integrally distinguishes our primary identity of who we are and whose we are (v.9). This reciprocating relational process (ek-eis relational dynamic, cf. reciprocating contextualization discussed previously) signifies the relational demands of grace for reciprocal relationship conjointly compatible with the theological trajectory of Jesus’ coming eis the world and congruent with his relational path of wholeness for all of life with which he engaged the world. Nothing less and no substitutes can distinguish the whole ontology and function of Jesus and of those in likeness who indeed follow him in the primacy of whole relationship together without the veil.

The clearest indicator that we have not shifted from Jesus’ theological trajectory and veered from his relational path is our theological anthropology. Our ontology and function reveal if we have, on the one hand, reduced and renegotiated the primacy of relationship and, on the other, kept the veil—both of which have the same relational consequence. The ontology and function in shalom and tamiym emerge only in the primacy of relationship and confirm that we are compatible with Jesus’ theological trajectory and congruent with his relational path (as the ancient poet anticipated, Ps 37:37). Tamiym was critical for Paul’s life. He was on a different theological trajectory when he entered the Damascus road. Then the whole of Jesus intruded on his ontology and function and jolted his theological anthropology, causing a retrospective for Paul in which he received tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction. The relational outcome was that the distinguished Face shined on him to bring change for new relationship together in wholeness—without the veil. The Paul who emerged from the Damascus road was now not on a reshaped variable theological trajectory parallel to Jesus’—yet whose congruence has been questioned—but whose theological trajectory was integrally compatible and wholly congruent with Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path. Paul was vulnerably involved in ongoing reciprocal relationship with the whole of God (the Son and the Spirit, together with the Father), who composed the whole of Paul and his witness, as well as the whole in Paul and his theology. This is signified in Paul’s standard greeting in his letters, “grace and peace” (discussed previously), his shorthand for the relational dynamics of God’s relational response of grace and its relational outcome in the primacy of whole relationship together with the veil removed. The relational dynamics that unfold are the relational work of Jesus’ theological trajectory extended into Paul and exceeded by him with the Spirit—just as Jesus promised for those relationally involved with him (Jn 14:12-13) and defined for Paul (Acts 26:16).

Jesus’ theological trajectory that extended into Paul continues its progression on Jesus’ relational path in relational response to the human condition to make it whole. This focused concern for the human relational condition is the focal point in Paul’s theological lens—and should be the core and sustaining function for all theological discourse—because this is what concerns the whole of God and involves God’s whole disclosures as Subject to constitute the theological trajectory vulnerably embodied by Jesus. Paul embodied this whole theology in likeness of God’s whole disclosure as Subject who confronted the historical Paul on the Damascus road, and because God’s relational concern for Paul’s and the human relational condition is what the relational Paul experienced in whole relationship together with God without the veil to integrally constitute the theological Paul. The relational path of function, inseparable from Jesus’ theological trajectory, was always antecedent to Paul’s theology. Therefore, the hermeneutic key to whole theology, and to the whole in Paul’s theology, is the integral interaction of the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s relational whole with God’s thematic relational response of grace to this human condition. The sum total of God’s actions revealed post-creation were initiated and enacted to fulfill God’s concern to restore human persons to be whole in relationship together—the good news for the human need and problem. This is what Paul clearly proclaimed as the gospel, not of his shaping but only directly revealed from Jesus (Gal 1:11-12). No other theological discourse speaks of God and thus can define God, nor speaks for God’s presence and involvement—beyond, that is, the speculation of a theological monologue. If theology is considered truly discourse or talk of God, then the essential question becomes: does theology involve a word ‘from above’ directly from God’s self-revelation by communicative action in the relational context and process of God’s terms, or does theology just engage words ‘from below’ in human contextualization shaped or constructed by human terms. The former is definitive, the latter is speculative.

For theology to be indeed whole theology and not fragmentary by the human shaping and construction of egology, then theos must be a separate ontology and function from ego (individual or collective)—though not merely as Object but distinguished as Subject on a relational path. For Paul, the definitive emergence of his theology (e.g. his ecclesiology in Eph) was not the result of a theological exercise (even when isolated in prison). Though his synesis (whole understanding) of the theological “forest” of God’s thematic relational action (Eph 1:3-14) certainly involved his reflection with the Spirit (1 Cor 2:10, perhaps while in prison), this was only a relational outcome for Paul (Eph 3:3-5). Moreover, Paul’s “synesis of the mystery of Christ” (3:4) was never shaped by his own theological effort but only by God’s communicative action “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (3:5). This relational process of involvement with the Spirit precludes the need for words ‘from below’ of human speculation, shaping or construction. In other words, the theological Paul emerged definitively only from the relational Paul, who was wholly involved with the Spirit in the relational epistemic process.

The embodied Word of God’s communicative action was revealed to Paul neither in propositional terms nor even in conventional theological language. It was only in relational language and terms for relationship together. For Paul, the incarnation became the functional meaning of good news for his and the human relational condition—the meaningful relationship to fulfill the inherent human need that even neuroscience identifies. No other theological discourse constituted the good news for the inherent human need and problem. Therefore, for Paul nothing less and no substitutes than the experiential truth of the gospel of the embodied Word from God had relational significance. And the theological Paul emerging from the relational Paul witnessed in terms of function, not in doctrine. Accordingly, all of Paul’s theological concerns converged in his focus on the gospel. Likewise, all of Paul’s theological discourse cohered in his integrated fight for the experiential truth of the whole gospel and against reductionism. Anything less or any substitutes for Paul were what he clearly defined as “a different gospel” (Gal 1:6-7) and would not have been theology but egology (Gal 1:11-12, cf. 1 Cor 2:10-13; Col 2:8-9).

The issue of human contextualization, and its influence of reductionism, was critical for the whole of Paul and the whole in his theology. Human contextualization is the underlying process for Christ being divided and thereby for forming the basis for hybrid theology. This fragmentation is unavoidable when the influence of human contextualization becomes primary. Paul understood its consequences from his own experience previously embodied in the historical Paul, which is the basis for not interpreting his theology merely by the historical Paul. We cannot understand his theology and its trajectory apart from the relational context and process of its relational path for the following factors: (1) this was his definitive basis for his thought and theology (1 Cor 2:13; Gal 1:11-12), (2) this was the only process by which his thought and theology developed (1 Cor 2:4-5; 2 Cor 4:6; Col 1:25-26; Eph 3:2-5), and (3) this is how the theological Paul emerged definitively from the relational Paul and why these aspects of Paul are inseparable for the whole of Paul’s person and must be integrated without reduction in order to integrally understand the whole in Paul’s thought and theology. Anything less or any substitute for this relational context and process results in either deconstructing or reconstructing, or both, Paul’s theology to something less or some substitute of the whole in his theology. In other words, Paul is disconnected from Subject-theos and his theology is elusive or lost, consequently rendered to a reduced theology fragmented by human contextualization.

Paul’s theological discourse in human contexts was based primarily on the whole of God’s discourse to him in the relational context and process initiated by Jesus and deepened by the Spirit. This is the paradigm for theological engagement in human contexts on the relational path of God’s terms that the whole of Paul witnessed to deeply with the Spirit, and which critically speaks to us today. Whether the issue is construction, deconstruction or reconstruction, as a quintessential premodernist Paul puts both modernism and postmodernism into the full perspective of the whole of God, just as he himself was by the embodied Word from God, the pleroma (fullness, whole) of God (Col 1:19; 2:9). Past and present, this was Paul’s relational responsibility for God’s family (oikonomia) to pleroo (complete, make whole) the word of God (Col 1:25)—that is, which was vulnerably embodied by the pleroma of God in relational response to the human condition (Col 1:15-20). The relational outcome of this process for Paul is what signified his whole theology (Col 2:10; Eph 1:23; 2:14-22; 3:7-12). In contrast to and sometimes in conflict with conventional theology, Paul was only involved in the theological trajectory and relational path of wholeness embodied by Jesus.

Paul’s new qualitative interpretive framework (his phronema) renders the meaning of the whole gospel, and his new relational interpretive lens (his phroneo, Rom 8:5-6) provides understanding for the theological anthropology of the whole person and the relationships together necessary to be whole—that is, the good news of the definitive relationship that conclusively fulfills the inherent human need and problem to have the intimate relationships together held together in the innermost without the veil (2 Cor 3:16-18). This is the same inherent need and problem that even neuroscience identifies in the human person from outer in. Both this qualitative and relational significance in Paul and his theological trajectory are critical for his readers to interpret the whole in his theology. Wholeness for Paul was first an experiential truth, the relational reality of which constituted the ontological identity of who Paul was and whose he was. These are the experiential levels of Paul’s theology which conventional theological categories do not account for, and accordingly are inadequate to understand this wholeness of Paul and are incompatible to explain the wholeness in his theology. What the continued use of these categories does help indirectly to understand, however, is how in any practice the presence of God’s whole is needed to expose the influence and workings of reductionism.

Paul’s theology did not have a systematic quantity that could be collated for systematic information about God. Likewise, a systematic format to his theological discourse is nonexistent in his letters. I will assert, however, there is a systemic quality to his theology which signifies the systemic framework for the whole in his theology.[8] It is this systemic framework that is necessary in order to integrally understand the coherence of Paul’s thought in his letters and this whole at the heart of his theology. His theological systemic framework is rooted in revelation initiated by God as Subject and thereby based on whole knowledge from top down in the relational epistemic process, not on fragmented knowledge constructed from bottom up in, at best, a limited epistemic process observing the theological trajectory of God as Object. The outcome from this systemic framework in Paul’s theological discourse made conclusive the theology of wholeness, without which the human species will remain reduced and fragmented, unable to be restored to whole ontology and function in God’s relational whole from inner out—that which holds together all of creation in the innermost (Rom 8:15-16, 19-21).

Discourse focused on the theology of wholeness was constituted “in the beginning” for Paul, just as Paul revealed the theological unknown and thus the mysteries of the kosmos and of human life and function to the Athenians (Acts 17:24-31). The theology of wholeness involves the relational dynamic of God’s creative and communicative action which constitutes the whole knowledge and understanding necessary for the cosmos and the human person. In this theological discourse from above is revealed the systemic framework to all creation which defines and determines its wholeness (Col 1:15-17). Within this systemic framework both the cosmos and human life are integrated to define wholeness for each, therefore also establishing their need for this systemic framework in order to determine the function of their wholeness (Col 1:17, synistemi, to consist together). Without this systemic framework there is nothing other than speculation to integrate the parts of creation—leaving the cosmos and human life fragmentary and as a result limited only to their fragmented knowledge and understanding, unable to be whole. Left fragmentary and essentially on their own (as were the Athenians), cosmology and physics as well as anthropology and neuroscience can only speculate or, by its own misplaced faith, only hope for what its wholeness is.[9] Moreover, they are confined within this limitation to determine their function just on the basis of human terms, fragmentary as they are.

In other words, definitive wholeness is constituted entirely within the whole of God’s systemic framework. Paul’s theological discourse on wholeness was unequivocal: Apart from God’s whole, there is only some form of reductionism which for the human person constitutes the human condition (“to be apart”)—the inherent human need and problem correctly identified by neuroscience research (cf. the “groan” in 2 Cor 5:2,4; Rom 8:19-22). In this human condition there is undeniable (yet misplaced) longing for wholeness and motivated (yet misguided) pursuit for fulfillment of this relational need—both of which are ontological-functional givens for Paul and intuitive for human persons in his theological anthropology. Moreover, Paul can be definitive about the whole and decisive about reductionism because the dynamic of wholeness in his theology was exclusively from above, initiated by God only on God’s terms (cf. Col 2:9-10) and thus not subject to human terms, even Paul’s or Peter’s. Human terms can only, at best, redefine wholeness by epistemological illusion and reconstitute wholeness with ontological simulation from reductionism—which is evidenced in the modern digital world,[10] not to mention in the globalization of human economy today.

In the theology of wholeness, Paul purposefully stressed the necessary epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction by which his own person was confronted to be whole (tamiym), and by which he confronted Peter to be whole. This epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction were critically signified with the simple address in the beginning of each of his letters (as noted previously in chap. 6): “grace and peace” (both of Timothy’s letters add “mercy”). He also closed most of his letters with a greeting containing these terms. The simplicity and frequency of this greeting should not define its significance as formulaic and thereby ignore his distinguishing purpose (semeion, 2 Thes 3:17). These terms are critical to Paul’s thought and theology and basic to his gospel—aspects his closing greeting further emphasized.

“Grace and peace” were not combined by Paul as mere theological concepts but as a theological paradigm. They integrally compose part of his shorthand theological discourse for the functional convergence of the interdependent relational action and relational outcome directly from God the Father and Christ—whom Paul identified as “the God of peace” and “the Lord of peace” (1 Thes 5:23; 2 Thes 3:16; 2 Cor 13:11; Rom 15:33; Phil 4:9). The relational dynamics involved between relational action and outcome was an interaction Paul never separated nor assumed to be in operation.

This unfolding relational dynamic of “grace and peace” establishes the integral flow which outlines Paul’s theological framework to wholeness:

  1. The relational context of the whole of God and God’s family, only from top down.
  2. The relational process of the whole of God and God’s grace (family love), only from inner out.
  3. The relational progression to the whole of God as God’s whole family, only on God’s qualitative-relational terms.

Paul’s theology of wholeness makes functional the qualitative and relational significance of this relational outcome.

After creation, tamiym reemerged with Noah (Gen 6:9) and was reestablished with Abram in covenant relationship together (Gen 17:1-2). “Blameless” is the common rendering of tamiym, but “complete” and “whole” more significantly denote tamiym and its qualitative and relational significance to God. Not surprisingly, blameless tends to be measured merely on the basis of adherence to the torah (which Abram didn’t have) or to a further Christian moral and ethical framework (as some perceive in Paul’s letters). As mentioned in the previous chapter, interrelated to “grace and peace” in Paul’s letters is “blameless and holy,” or a variation (1 Thes 3:13; 5:23; 1 Cor 1:8; Col 1:22: Eph 1:4; 5:27; Phil 2:15; 1 Tim 6:14). This composes his further shorthand discourse for a functional paradigm to supplement his theological paradigm above. Paul did not emphasize “blameless and holy,” for example, for the church at Thessalonica’s eschatological concerns, merely for the sake of purity when Christ returns. It is critical to pay attention to his shorthand language in order to have whole understanding of his relational message. Paul builds on “blameless” (amemptos) only from tamiym and deepens it: (1) what it means for the person to be whole qualitatively from inner out (“holy,” hagios, uncommon function), and (2) what it means for whole persons to live in relationship with the holy (uncommon) God together to be whole, the relational whole of God’s family only on God’s relational terms. Therefore, “holy and blameless” signify function only “uncommon and whole”.

To summarize what unfolds in Paul’s thought and theology: the functional paradigm of “holy and blameless” converged with the theological paradigm of “grace and peace” to signify being whole in relationship together (peace and blameless) only on the ongoing basis of the whole of God’s relational response and terms for the relationship (grace and holy). This integrally summarizes the irreducible gospel of peace for which Paul so lovingly fought, while necessarily fighting against reductionism so uncompromisingly (Col 2:8-10). Despite the reality that longing for wholeness was a given and intuitive for the human person in Paul’s theology, the function of wholeness was never a mere assumption by Paul nor left to the interpretation from human terms.

Paul made definitive this wholeness ‘in Christ’ (both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’) as the integrated function of two inseparable and nonnegotiable aspects of life:

  1. “Let the peace of Christ rule to be the only determinant in your hearts” (Col 3:15a). The first aspect of wholeness involves by necessity the whole person from inner out constituted by the qualitative function of the heart restored to the qualitative image of God (Col 3:10; 2 Cor 3:10). This whole person is the qualitative function of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17), which Jesus made whole from above (Jn 3:3-7). Consequently anything less and any substitutes defining the person and determining one’s function are reductionism (Gal 6:15). Wholeness ‘in Christ’, however, is neither the whole person in isolation nor the whole person merely associated with other persons.
  1. “…to which [peace] indeed you were called in the one body” (Col 3:15b). The second inseparable aspect of wholeness is the integrated function of whole persons from inner out vulnerably involved in the relationships together necessary to be whole. By its very nature, this relational dynamic necessitates the qualitative function of the restored heart opening to one another (“Do not lie to each other…” Col 3:9) and coming together in transformed relationship as one (“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew…” Col 3:11, cf. Gal 3:26-29), thereby constituting the integrated function of equalized persons from inner out in intimate relationships of “love which binds everything together [syndeo], the inseparable and nonnegotiable relational bonds in perfect harmony” (teleitos, completeness, Col 3:14) for definitive wholeness. This integrated function of whole persons in whole relationships together constitutes the qualitative-relational significance of new covenant relationship together, which Paul made further definitive for the ecclesiology necessary for the whole (2 Cor 5:18; 13:11; Eph 2:14-15; Col 2:10; Rom 8:6) in relational likeness to the relational ontology of the whole of God (just as Jesus prayed for his family, Jn 17:20-26).

Wholeness ‘in Christ’, therefore, by its very nature necessitates the integrated function of both whole persons in the qualitative image of God and whole relationship together in the relational likeness of God in order to constitute being whole. This interdependent dynamic of wholeness also illuminates the interdependence between the three crucial issues in human life and function:

  1. The lens we use to perceive the person (from outer in or inner out) determines how we functionally (not ideally) define ourselves and others.
  2. Then, how we function in relationships is generally determined by how we define ourselves and others; and in reflexive interdependence, how our relationships are can determine how we define ourselves.
  3. And thus, how both of the above influence, define, even determine how we actually see church and function in relationships at church, in our gatherings together as church.

Each of these corresponds directly to each of the three relational aspects (the relational context, process and progression) which outline Paul’s theological framework to wholeness, and they interact together by necessity in order to be whole. The main flow of these issues, from (1) how we define ourselves to (2) how we function in relationships, is the primary correlation of ontology as the determinant of function, definitive for both God and human persons. Paul ongoingly addressed these interdependent crucial issues throughout his corpus in order to be God’s whole family, most notably addressed in the churches at Corinth and Galatia and with persons like Peter and Philemon.

Nothing less than and no substitutes for this wholeness integrated Paul’s person, thought and theology, as well as his relationships and the function of the church. Therefore, for Paul, God’s relational action and the relational outcome of wholeness (peace contingent on grace) is “the mark [semeion, distinguishing his purpose] in every letter of mine” (2 Thes 3:17). This was nonnegotiable and accordingly irreducible in the theology of wholeness basic to his systemic framework.

In the systemic framework of Paul’s theology, God’s creative and communicative actions are always relational actions only for whole relationship together. God’s relational action does not impose a template on the human person to reduce human function. By God’s relational nature, relationship is never unilateral but necessitates compatible reciprocal response and involvement. On this relational basis, Paul never assumed that the function of wholeness would simply emerge, nor did he leave wholeness’ function to the interpretation of human terms. Therefore, as Paul made definitive the integrated function necessary for wholeness, he also made imperative the ongoing redemptive change vitally necessary to turn from reductionism to wholeness, and transition to be whole, live whole and make whole—God’s irreducible relational whole on God’s nonnegotiable relational terms (Rom 12:1-2).

In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul provided the theological clarity for the whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition. Paul now concentrates on the functional clarity (building on his Galatians letter) necessary to function whole. Based on his theological discourse in the previous chapters, “therefore” (12:1), Paul issues to his family (“brothers and sisters”) a nonnegotiable call (parakaleo, “appeal to”) “to present” (paristemi) their persons to God in the necessary reciprocal relational response to God’s relational response of grace (“by the mercies of God”). What is this necessary reciprocal relational response?

A variation of this call was first issued to Abram: “I am El Shaddai, walk before me and be tamiym” (Gen 17:1). Just as Abraham was not reduced to being defined by the perfection of what he did (“blameless”), paristemi (“to present,” stand before) also should not be reduced to ‘what to do’ (i.e. “sacrifice”) according to religious norms (e.g., torah or a reduced popular gospel)—which would essentially be done in front of the veil. Rather Paul’s call to paristemi was only about ‘how to be involved in relationship’ according to the whole gospel constituted by God’s relational response of grace that removes the veil. Then, “to present, stand before” God in what necessary way? How?

This involves the three basic interrelated issues integral for determining all practice:

  1. The integrity and significance of the person presented before others.
  2. The quality of what that person communicates to those others in relationship.
  3. The depth level of involvement that person engages with those others in those relationships.

These issues are implied in Paul’s discourse. In his nonnegotiable call, he is making definitive a further functional paradigm to extend his earlier functional paradigm of “holy and blameless.” This added paradigm is necessary both to be whole in reciprocal relationship with God and to live whole in transformed relationships together as God’s church family—which is a functional requisite to make whole in the world, just as Jesus prayed about relational wholeness together (Jn 17:21-23).

Paul’s nonnegotiable call to his family was simply nothing other than the relational call to be whole, congruent with Jesus’ call to his followers first and foremost to be whole. And congruent further with Jesus’ prayer for this wholeness for his family (Jn 17:20-26), Paul prayed for the church family (Eph 3:14-19). This was the qualitative significance and relational nature of his theology of wholeness embodied in Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path. This integral theology illuminated from inner out (“has shone in our hearts”) the whole knowledge and understanding of the qualitative being and relational nature of the whole of God (“to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”) vulnerably revealed relationally “in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), the pleroma of God (Col 1:19), of whom were created human ontology in the qualitative image and human function in the relational likeness (Acts 17:28; Col 1:15-16), and by whom human persons are restored to whole ontology and function (Col 2: 9-10; 2 Cor 3:18; 5:17), nothing less and no substitutes (Gal 6:15; Col 3:9-11). Therefore, what Jesus constituted in the incarnation of his own person and, likewise, constituted for our persons (both individually and collectively) by his incarnation is the irreducible and nonnegotiable dynamic of wholeness: the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes for all life and function that holds them together in their innermost.

Paul’s paradigm, conjointly theological (“grace and peace”) and functional (“holy and blameless” and “to present…”), makes definitive the wholeness and its function for human life in the cosmos. In his systemic framework composed by God’s creative and communicative action, this theology of wholeness conclusively integrates all knowledge and understanding into the wisdom and experiential truth of the whole, that is, the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes of God’s qualitative-relational whole embodied by the undivided Jesus—the experiential truth of the whole gospel for the inherent human need and problem. This relational epistemic process and theological discourse do not stop here, however. While Paul’s theological systemic framework always involves an eschatological trajectory, there is much more ‘already’ to unfold further and deeper on this adventure as sojourners together in relational progression to ‘not yet’—as Paul shared intimately of his own journey (Phil 3:10-16, cf. Jn 17:3) and kept praying for the church (Eph 1:17-18; 3:19).


Is Christ Divided Today?

The critical issue that Paul exposed with his original question continued to be of importance—whether paid attention to or ignored—throughout church history; and it continues today to be no less important. The twofold issue, however, currently has less to do with the quests for the historical Jesus and involves more the theological trajectory and relational path of those engaged in biblical study and theology. In relational terms of the Word, can Christ be divided? No. Of course, this was Paul’s point in his rhetorical question because he was congruent with Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path. By engaging the Word in any reduction of these terms, namely in referential terms, is Christ divided today? Yes, indeed.

Anything less and any substitute of the whole of God’s theological trajectory as Subject disembodies the Word from his relational path. Jesus then is observed for the transmission of information in a narrowed epistemic field shaped by the limits of the probable of what is more familiar to our knowledge, thereby making us less vulnerable to uncertainty, error or simply our human shortcomings. Much of this process goes unnoticed due to the predispositions from our tradition, yet mostly because of our underlying theological anthropology determining our ontology and function in the epistemic process and in relationships, notably with God. These limitations were clearly demonstrated by temple leaders after Jesus deconstructed the temple from their tradition and reconstructed it for the primacy of God’s family (Mt 21:12-16). Part of the relational outcome for the temple involved children crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Certainly in our tradition we have no problem with this but within the limits of those leaders’ epistemic field they strongly objected to the improbable. The improbable was twofold for them: (1) the whole of God’s theological trajectory as Subject embodied by the vulnerable presence and relational involvement of Jesus, who to them—within the limits of their tradition—was a mere object transmitting information about God that they disputed; (2), and by implication equally improbable to them—yet based more on their ontology and function rather than their tradition—was essentially that these children knew better than the leaders what they were saying—improbable because the leaders had the key knowledge about God in general and about the messiah in particular from their rabbinic education. Based on an ontology and function defined by what they did and had, there was no way children could make definitive statements about the probable with certainty and without error, much less about the improbable; and they needed to be kept in their place in the socio-religious order based on reduced ontology and function.

Jesus’ response to them redefined the person and transformed the existing relational order. He pointed them to God’s relational action having “prepared praise” from children (katartizo, 21:16). Katartizo connotes either to complete or to repair and restore back to completion (cf. Eph 4:12), which in this context points to God’s relational action to make whole the person reduced to outer-in distinctions and the relationships necessary to be intimately involved together in God’s whole family. This wholeness is signified in the vulnerable openness of these children involved with Jesus in their relational response of trust. This more deeply connects back to when Jesus leaped for joy over his Father’s “good pleasure” (eudokia, righteous purpose) to disclose himself to the intimate relational involvement of “little children” and not to the “the wise and learned” in what integrally constitutes the whole ontology and function of the new relational order (Lk 10:21, NIV). Jesus’ action at the temple fulfilled God’s thematic relational response to reduced persons and their relationships “to be apart” to restore them to God’s whole. Therefore, any ontology and function defined by what a person does (particularly, performance of roles) and has (namely, resources and those roles) both remain within the limits incompatible with Jesus’ action and are essentially complicit with the temple leaders, even though one’s tradition may affirm the children’s behavior. What unfolds in this process of reductionism selectively divides Christ to the parts which fit into our limits, and consequently fragments our theology and disjoins theology and function.

The issue of dividing Christ is intensified as Jesus’ actions continue. The relational response and relational outcome of Jesus’ involvement at the temple cannot be separated and thus to divide Jesus days later from his vulnerable relational involvement in footwashing and the conclusive sacrifice behind the curtain to make whole the “temple” without the veil in the primacy of whole relationship together as God’s family. Our tradition today would certainly not separate Jesus from this theological trajectory, though we still could disembody Jesus as Subject from his relational path by an ontology and function that is neither vulnerably involved with the whole of Jesus in intimate relationship together (the qualitative-relational significance of “Follow me,” as Peter struggled with) nor ongoingly engaged with the whole of God (notably the Spirit) in the relational epistemic process (as Jesus and Paul made a relational imperative, Jn 16:12-15; 1 Cor 2:13,16). As Jesus made conclusive, the ontology and function of the relationally distant determined the limits of the wise and learned, in contrast and conflict with the whole ontology and function signified by children who were vulnerably involved in Jesus’ relational path.


Relational distance emerges from an ontology and function that has not been relational involved with Jesus in his sacrifice behind the curtain for the relational outcome to have the veil removed (as Paul clarified, 2 Cor 3:16-18). Ontology and function with the veil is a critical indicator that our theological trajectory has shifted from Jesus’ trajectory, consequently dividing Jesus and fragmenting our theology. Understanding this shift makes explicit this process: the presence of the veil separates Jesus’ theological action from his function, such that we can practice relational distance within the limits of our theology without needing to address our incompatibility with the relational path of Jesus’ function (e.g. the intimacy of his footwashing). In other words, relational distance disembodies Jesus’ theological trajectory from his relational path, and this separation allows us to function in relationships with the veil. Does this relational condition exist, perhaps even prevail, in church and academy today?


Furthermore, when our theological interpretation disembodies Jesus’ teachings and behavior from the theological trajectory and relational path of his ontology and function as Subject, then Christ is divided into these parts—resulting in an incomplete Christology no longer distinguishing the Jesus embodied in whole. An incomplete Christology has two critical repercussions, whose consequences have reverberated through church and academy today:

  1. An incomplete Christology tends to be overly christocentric because it has diminished or minimalized the whole of God, that is, God’s whole ontology and function vulnerably present and relationally involved not only distinguished as Subject but integrally distinguished as Son, Father and Spirit in the relational ontology of the Trinity.
  2. Moreover, an incomplete Christology renders Jesus’ theological trajectory to a truncated soteriology that may necessarily include what Jesus saved us from (sin, yet without sin as reductionism) but insufficiently involve what he saved us to—the whole relationship together as God’s family in likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity, whose primacy is ‘already’ in function only with no veil.

Therefore, an incomplete Christology assumes a reduced ontology and function for both Jesus and those who have claimed this fragmentary gospel. Consequently, what emerges from the Word and unfolds in the incarnation do not go beyond the hermeneutic impasse shaped by the limits of our human terms from the influence of reductionism—the sin of reductionism that a truncated soteriology is insufficient to save us from. If soteriology saved us from the sin of reductionism, by its nature this would necessitate being saved to wholeness.

The uncommon and improbable Jesus embodied in whole interposes in our human context and does indeed challenge us, confront us, pursue us to redeem and transform us epistemologically, hermeneutically, theologically, ontologically and relationally—from inner out to be held together whole in the innermost. Conjointly, the undivided Jesus together with Paul in whole relationship integrally present, communicate and relationally engage us with the synesis necessary to take us beyond our critical limits—limits which constrain what can emerge from our theology and function—in order to be whole, theologically, ontologically, functionally and relationally. Whole theology is nothing less and no substitutes, and composes only whole ontology and function both for the persons of God together and for human persons together.

As improbable as this may appear, the intrusion of the Black Swan is inescapable. His presence and involvement continue to pursue us for our vulnerable reciprocal involvement in new relationship together in wholeness.



[1] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007).

[2] McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, 163-64.

[3] 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), 3, 143-63.

[4] For a discussion on how theology and ethics have been disjoined and the need to restore their unity, see Stanley Hauerwas, “On doctrine and ethics,” in Colin E. Gunton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 21-40.

[5] Hauerwas, 22.

[6] Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 88.

[7] For further contextual information, see Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).

[8] For an expanded discussion on Paul’s systemic framework, see my study The Whole of Paul and the Whole in His Theology, 105-134.

[9] Consider the following statement on the current state of human knowledge in physics by physicist Steve Giddings: “Despite all we have learned in physics—from properties of faraway galaxies to the deep internal structure of the protons and neutrons that make up an atomic nucleus—we still face vexing mysteries…. We know, for example, that all the types of matter we see, that constitute our ordinary existence, are a mere fraction—20%—of the matter in the universe. The remaining 80% apparently is mysterious “dark matter”; though it is all around us, its existence is inferred only via its gravitational pull on visible matter.” Taken from “The physics we don’t know,” op-ed, Los Angeles Times, Jan 5, 2010.

[10] Consider this critique of the digital world by Jaren Lanier, a computer scientist known as the father of virtual reality technology: “Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the internet with the rise of web 2.0. [Uniqueness of persons] is being leached away by the mush-making process [of fragmentation]. Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting [i.e., a template] had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely.

If a church or government were doing these things [to impose conformity], it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form. It is utterly strange to hear my many friends in the world of digital culture claim to be the true sons of the Renaissance without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.” You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 2010), 48.



©2012 T. Dave Matsuo

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