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The Whole of Paul & the Whole in His Theology
Theological Interpretation in Relational Epistemic Process

Paul Study

Section I   The Journey of Paul's Person                              printer friendly pdf version of entire study


Chapter 3    Development in Paul's Journey



Paul's Antecedents and Sources
Knowing Christ and 'in Christ'
Paul's Transition to Apostle (for the Whole of Humanity)
Paul's Thought
Paul's Gospel


Table of Contents

Scripture Index


           As Paul’s journey continues beyond the Damascus road, it is critical that the further reading, interpretation and understanding of Paul (namely in his letters) deeply concern the growth and development of who and what emerged from the Damascus road. What unfolds in Paul’s journey has the following distinctions: What unfolds is not religious though it includes religion; is not spirituality though it bears spiritual development; is not apostolic though it involves the apostle(s); is not missiological though it involves mission; is not ecclesiastical though it involves the church; and is not  doctrinal though it involves theology.

            Paul was vulnerably engaged by the whole of God and thus he vulnerably engaged God for ongoing involvement in the relational progression of God’s whole relational context and process. Therefore, Paul’s journey must not be reduced to these other aspects which appear to prominently occupy Paul’s life and practice. Likewise, his whole person must not be reduced to the prominent roles and related functions he fulfilled in these aspects. Paul’s readers, in other words, cannot redefine the whole of Paul by a quantitative lens diminishing him to fragmentary aspects, however important, and expect to understand his life, practice, thought and theology. Paul’s journey develops only on the basis and with the significance of what emerged in his person from the Damascus road.

            Paul’s readers must not forget or be misled to ignore that Paul did not emerge from the Damascus road a fully developed apostle with ready-made theology. Yet, it is critical to grasp that, most importantly for Paul, the qualitative process of being whole, God’s whole on God’s relational terms, constituted the ongoing basis and significance of all that develops. This was the integrating theme for Paul, which we will discuss further.

            As we examine this development, it will be helpful to understand the various antecedents and sources which influenced Paul’s journey.



Paul’s Antecedents and Sources

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

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

            Moreover, surely Paul considered this experience as some fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-29), and likely recalled Moses’ desire for all the Lord’s people (Nu 11:29), which Paul further made operational for the church to function whole (1 Cor 14:31-33). This also pointed to the deeper relational process involved that went beyond the prophets’ experience of visions and dreams to Moses’ experience of direct relational communication with God “face to face, clearly and not in riddles,” and thus who saw “the form [temunah, image, appearance, manifestation] of the Lord” (Nu 12:6-8). This more conclusively defined Paul’s experience of visions (i.e., revelations), the qualitative significance of which constituted the further and deeper relational context and process he experienced directly with the whole of God. This signified that Paul was to go beyond these OT antecedents.

            Though the continuity with the OT definitely existed, Paul’s journey also involved the transformation from old to new. Paul was not limited to these OT antecedents because foremost for him was God’s vulnerable self-revelation to him directly ‘in Christ’—“who is the image of God…in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4-6). To interpret this revelation in terms of epiphany or by Jewish mysticism is highly inadequate and can even result in reductionism. This self-revelation, constituting the heart of God’s desires, vulnerably communicated the embodied (neither propositional nor doctrinal)  fulfillment of God’s promise for covenant relationship, which opened the relational progression to the Spirit’s presence fulfilling those OT promises and prophecies to the eschatological completion, as Paul made clearly unmistakable (2 Cor 1:18-22). In other words, God’s face shined on Paul in the relational response of grace; God’s face turned to him and made him whole only from above, all of which Jesus incarnated not for Paul’s observation but only for the experiential truth of relationship together. This relational outcome determined the ongoing development of Paul’s involvement with Jesus directly in relationship together, the experiential truth (neither propositional truth nor doctrinal certainty) of which also defined Paul’s Christology and thus his soteriology. Paul’s development would deepen the continuity with the words from God in the OT as well as widen the discontinuity with any of its reductionist faith-response and practice (discussed further in chap. 11, Question 1).

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

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

            The continuity-discontinuity issue is compounded by reductionism, the function of which must be recognized as the source of discontinuity and thus distinguished from the new song. As Ezekiel pointed to (Ez 36:26-27), Paul’s new song was only the transformation from old to new: a new creation of the heart of the person from inner out made whole from above for new covenant relationship together (cf. Gal 5:6; 6:15), just as the embodied Word from God made conclusive for Nicodemus (a key antecedent for Paul noted earlier, Jn 3:1-15).       

            This transformation to wholeness was the heart of Paul’s experience and ongoing development (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Rom 6:4), and thus the heart of his thought and theology. In order to fully understand Paul, he needs to be contextualized deeply into God’s relational context and process. Paul was being transformed from old to new to go beyond a prophetic call and function in order to take the lead of God’s people, perhaps analogous to Moses’ call yet beyond even that. In this sense Paul was neither an apostle of Israel nor an apostate from Israel—to respond to the paradox about Paul raised by James Dunn in the introduction. Moreover, by having his heart circumcised conclusively, Paul shifted essentially from ‘majority Israel’ to ‘minority Israel’, as he clarified theologically (Rom 2:28-29; 9:6-8; 11:1-10; texts discussed further in chap. 12). On this significant basis, Paul was neither an apostle of majority Israel nor an apostate of minority Israel.

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

            The whole of the gospel for Paul was always first this experiential truth, the reality of which relationally involved his whole person from inner out signified by the qualitative function of his heart. This deeper grasp of the person was in part from tamiym’s epistemological clarification by which Paul understood whole meaning, not a reductionist substitute. The functional significance of Paul’s whole development was unmistakably his heart transforming from old to new with the Spirit, as Paul made theologically clear (Rom 8:5-11). It is critical then to account for the qualitative function of the heart (the whole person from inner out) in the study of Paul. To get to the heart of Paul’s thought and theology, which has been elusive in Pauline studies, is in fact to grasp the heart and the experiential truth constituting Paul’s own heart (cf. Rom 2:29; 8:27; 10:10; 2 Cor 4:6; 5:12; Gal 4:6; Eph 1:18; 3:17).

            In this deeper qualitative process, the heart of his thought and theology, on the one hand, is not conclusively found at the level of their informational content (e.g. 2 Cor 3:2-3), thus its elusive definition. On the other hand, a solely quantitative interpretive framework fragments the whole of Paul—whether his life, practice, thought or theology—and its lens from outer in either ignores or is unable to perceive the experiential truth of the heart in his life, practice, thought and theology (cf. 2 Cor 5:12; 10:7). The heart is the only qualitative function which signifies the ontology of the whole person(s) created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Col 3:10; Eph 4:24) for relationship together. Therefore, without this heart Paul’s life, practice, thought and theology have no relational significance to God and functional significance to us, his readers (individually and as church, cf. Eph 4:22-25). Anything less than the heart and any substitute antecedents reduce the whole of Paul from the relational context and process of ‘in Christ’. With only fragments of Paul remaining, this would preclude getting to the heart of his thought and theology. Furthermore, any loss of this whole in Paul would preclude finding the essential unity and vital coherence signifying his thought and theology.

            There are other important antecedents or sources influencing the development of Paul’s thought and theology which need to be identified to understand Paul and his journey. While the process of his development is not clearly indicated in the Pauline corpus, the convergence of certain antecedents and assumptions help us define his developmental process.

            The development of Paul’s thought and theology was neither independent of nor inseparable from the development of his life and practice. This was the integrated functional and relational significance of who and what emerged from the Damascus road. Thus Paul’s development cannot be perceived simply in fixed categories (e.g. his thought, teaching or theology) and static stages (e.g., of his life, practice or mission). Paul’s development was engaged in a dynamic process—for example, of overlapping categories and interacting stages, and conversely, these categories interacted and stages overlapped both with each other and between themselves within the ontology of being whole in likeness of the whole of God. In other words, Paul’s whole person was vulnerably involved in the dynamic process of redemptive change from the old and transformation to the new. Therefore, any discussion of Paul’s thought and theology must be based on his life and practice. Moreover, any development of his thought and theology has to be understood initially as the experiential truth in his life and practice. Paul neither occupied the role of theologian (or biblical scholar) nor engaged separately in the task of doing theology. He was only involved in living theology (as distinguished in chap. 1) on the basis of his whole life and practice. As we discuss Paul’s thought and theology, keep in focus that ‘the theological Paul’ is integrated with ‘the relational Paul’, and conjoined with ‘the historical Paul’, to involve irreducibly the whole of Paul’s person—thus involving inseparably his life and practice.

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

  1. Judaism—namely from the Hebrew Scripture of the OT and not variants from this canonical text, which some forms of Judaism gave human shaping to and thus should not be assumed as OT Judaism (to which Paul later provided theological clarity, Rom 9-11).
  1. Paul’s Damascus road experience—which included all discussed above.
  1. Jesus tradition—the existing Christian beliefs from the early church in Jerusalem during Paul’s day, including narrative tradition of Jesus, his sayings and teachings which appear later in the written Gospels.
  1. God’s direct revelation to Paul—which also involves the ongoing teaching of the Spirit to disclose the experiential truth further and deeper to Paul (as Jesus promised, Jn 14:26;
    16:13). The Spirit’s influence was the significant source in Paul’s theological reflection and formations, which is rarely acknowledged in Pauline studies.

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

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

            For Paul’s readers after the early church period, “what is written” is defined by the canonical text of Scripture—neither in part (as a proof-text for human shaping) nor in fragmentation (as a biased selectivity for human construction) but only in its whole (discussed further in chap. 9). For Paul, “what is written” also involved what God directly revealed to him (source 4 conjoined with the embodied Word overlapping from source 2) for what was also to be written for inclusion in the canonical text of God’s Word.

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

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

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

            If Paul’s readers are to understand the depth of his thought, theology and practice, then we must go beyond the existing situations and conditions he addressed in his letters. In order to get to the depth-level of the whole constituting Paul’s life and practice and thus his thought and theology, his readers have to engage deeper qualitative sources than those of Judaism and even Jesus tradition. This involves the further and deeper contextualization of Paul with Jesus directly (source 2a) together with the Spirit (source 4a) in the whole of God’s relational context and process. In this dynamic developmental process, the whole of God ongoingly was relationally involved to redemptively change, transform and make whole Paul’s person, additionally his practice, then his thought and theology. Paul’s ongoing relational reciprocity involved the qualitative relational context and process basic to the faith of covenant relationship together—the faith which signifies the necessary relational response to the whole of God who constituted the relational context and process of grace embodied by Jesus and made functional by the Spirit.

            If Paul cannot be grasped in this further and deeper qualitative relational context and process, then the whole of Paul is reduced to limited quantitative aspects and will remain elusive in fragmented understanding. It is only this same relational process with Jesus in ongoing relational involvement with the same Spirit, in which and by whom Paul’s readers will have the same whole understanding (synesis) to specifically know (epignosis) the same Christ and God’s whole as Paul did—nothing less and no substitutes.



Knowing Christ and ‘in Christ’

            Most Pauline readers make the valid observation that quotations of sayings of Jesus are nearly absent in Paul’s letters (notably present, 1 Cor 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-25). There may be allusions or echoes of Jesus’ sayings depending on how they are perceived (e.g. 1 Thes 4:15-17; 5:1-7; Rom 8:15; 12:14; 13:8-10; 14:14). In this ongoing dispute about the extent of Paul’s knowledge of Jesus, Seyoon Kim concludes that since Paul emphasized the Christ-event over Jesus’ teachings, the significance of Jesus for Paul was not primarily as a teacher but what Christ did, namely in his death and resurrection. Thus, Kim suggests, Jesus’ meaning for Paul was different from that of a rabbinic or a philosophic teacher for his pupil; and Paul would not refer to Jesus’ teachings in his letters compared to that of a rabbi’s or a philosopher’s references to his teacher in the rabbinic or philosophical tractates.[2] This position, however, implies that Paul only defined Jesus by what he did, which would not be sufficient to explain Paul’s perception of and involvement with Jesus’ whole person.

            This has raised the issue of how much Paul actually knew about Jesus, and even how interested he was in Jesus tradition or in the historical Jesus. I suggest that it is misleading to use the absence or presence of Jesus’ sayings to define his knowledge of Christ or to determine Paul’s interest in the person. Such a focus on Jesus defines him primarily by what he said, did or the resources he had. This definition reduces Jesus’ whole person and commonly disembodies his person from his sayings, teachings and acts, even on the cross. The absence or presence of Jesus’ sayings, then, does not unmistakably measure how little or much Paul actually knew the person of Jesus or was involved with his whole person. Such a measure does, however, point to a quantitative lens and assumptions about the ontology of the person from outer in. This critical issue of perceptual-interpretive framework was raised earlier by Jesus about “the wise and intelligent” (Lk 10:21). This was no longer Paul’s lens and interpretive framework. He had received tamiym’s hermeneutical correction and epistemological clarification of the ontology of the person. Thus Paul neither disembodied Jesus from his sayings nor reduced Jesus to his teachings and acts. Moreover, Paul’s discipleship was not about merely following Christ’s teaching or example but only about following his person in relationship together (cf. Jn 12:26, and Jesus’ last words to Peter, Jn 21:22).

            On the Damascus road, Jesus connected with Paul in relationship, not by his teachings. Therefore, in compatible relational response, Paul’s involvement was in the primacy of relationship together with Jesus’ whole person, in which he was a witness of Jesus throughout his letters. Anything less and any substitutes of this qualitative-relational process would be reductionism—of the incarnation of the Word from God, and of the whole of the gospel, including Paul’s whole person. That would diminish both the relational basis for Paul’s witness and the qualitative extent of his witness of Jesus.

            The primacy of this relationship together was the experiential truth of the whole gospel in which Jesus constituted Paul and the Spirit deeply took him further. The full functional and relational significance of his experiential truth of Jesus as both Object and Subject was concentrated by Paul in his frequent use of the term ‘in Christ’. His reference to ‘in Christ’ was never conceptual but a shorthand term. Paul centered the focus of ‘in Christ’ on the deep involvement of this relationship together and not on disembodied teachings or Christ-event. Relationship ‘in Christ’ became the basis and ongoing base for Paul’s thought, the focus of which was first the experiential truth of his practice. To further understand Paul’s thought ‘in Christ’ we need to more deeply grasp his practice, notably in relationship with Christ. Yet the functional dynamics of relationship ‘in Christ’ did not involve Paul in mysticism.[3]

            In Jesus’ formative family prayer during the incarnation just prior to his crucifixion, he said to the Father decisively: “I have revealed you to them” (Jn 17:6). The term Jesus used for “reveal” was not apokalypto, which refers only to exhibiting the Object revealed. Jesus used phaneroo to refer to those to whom the revelation was made. The incarnation of the Son went beyond only revealing the triune God to include the full functional and relational significance of vulnerably disclosing the Father directly to his disciples for the primary purpose of relationship together. By the nature of phaneroo, this relational process vulnerably involved the necessity of Jesus both as Object to engage and as Subject who engages for unmistakable relational connection. The relational outcome (both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’) of this qualitative-relational process (ongoing without end) is the intimate experience of knowing the Father and the Son in family love together (Jn 17:3,26). For Paul, the Damascus road was the extension of this incarnation and the integrated functional and relational significance of this gospel: the experiential truth of Jesus’ vulnerable involvement with him only for relationship together.

            As the ontology of Paul’s person was redeemed from an outer-in practice of reductionism and transformed to the inner-out function of being whole, the covenant relationship together developed further qualitative meaning and deeper relational significance (as Paul made clear later, 2 Cor 2:14-3:18). In this developmental process, “being transformed [metamorphoo, not metaschematizo, outer change] into the same image” (as Christ, 3:18) has a qualitative significance that manifests to others (phaneroo, 2:14), the basis of which Paul defined as “the fragrance of knowing him” (2:14). Paul used the metaphor of “fragrance” (cf. Gen 8:21; Ez 20:41) to point to the qualitative significance of being in intimate relationship with Christ ‘face to face’ (cf. 2 Cor 4:6). Knowing Christ in intimate relationship together—hearts from inner out coming together—was Paul’s deepest desire and personal concern (Phil 3:7-11).

            Yet, knowing Christ should not be confused with informational content (e.g., disembodied teachings and examples), as Paul learned from tamiym’s epistemological clarification. Rather this was the deeper knowledge and whole meaning involved only in the relational epistemic process. In other words, knowing Christ is only the relational outcome of deep involvement directly in relationship together by persons from inner out functioning at the level of the heart, just as functionally and relationally constituted by Jesus in the incarnation.

            When the Christ-event dominates the incarnation, then Christology is incomplete. An incomplete Christology signifies the reduction of Jesus’ whole person, which diminishes the functional significance of the Christ-event and minimalizes the relational significance of the embodied Word from God vulnerably disclosed for the purpose only of relationship together. The relational consequence (not outcome) of this reduction is merely knowing Jesus’ teachings and knowing about the historical Jesus—knowing information and things about Jesus—without essentially knowing Jesus’ whole person directly in relationship together. The tendency to disembody the incarnate vulnerable person of Jesus (both as Subject and Object) from anything else about him (i.e., only as Object) is consequential of reductionism, which always further includes the relational consequence from reductionism’s counter-relational work. Paul neither encountered a disembodied Jesus nor was his deepest desire to know anything less or any substitute than Jesus’ whole person in the communion of vulnerably sharing in Christ’s life together—as Paul made unequivocal in his biographical statement of personal accountability for past, present and future (Phil 3:4-16).

            Paul’s statement of personal accountability is a key text for more deeply grasping the process of growth and development in his life and practice, and thus for further understanding his thought ‘in Christ’. Paul prefaced his statement by identifying further the reductionists in the church who function from an outer-in ontology defined by their human effort: “those who only cut away the flesh for outward circumcision [katatome]…put confidence in the quantitative efforts of what they do and have” (sarx, Phil 3:2-3, my paraphrase). In comparative analysis, Paul openly highlighted his own reductionist identity in which he previously functioned according to what he did and had (3:4-6). Some have misinterpreted Paul’s identity here as the apostate from Israel and thus reinforced anti-Semitic views. But Paul was only identifying a type of practice of Judaism, not Judaism itself—a type of practice which also would be identified in Christianity (cf. Rev 2-3). By taking personal responsibility for his past and now being accountable in the present, Paul personally demonstrated the conflicting ontologies between outer in and inner out. Thus he pointed to the critical juncture of what persons are going to put faith in and base their life on (pepoithesis, 3:4a) and essentially entrust themselves and submit to (peitho, 4b).

            The critical juncture in Paul’s journey, of course, occurred initially on the Damascus road. Previous to then, Paul had put his faith in and submitted himself to a quantitative outer-in ontology, but since then he has been redemptively changed from that reductionist ontology and transformed to the qualitative inner-out ontology of the person made whole from above in the image of God in the face of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 4:4-6). While this was an ongoing process of growth and development for Paul, in the already-present he has a new perceptual-interpretive framework with the mindset (hegeomai, Phil 3:7, phroneo, 3:15-16, cf. phronema and phroneo in Rom 8:5-15) to understand what is reductionism: for example, “gains,” “rubbish” of old ontology and “loss,” lost for new ontology (3:7-8). At the same time, to grasp what is the whole of the new ontology constituted only in relationship together with Christ in the depths of intimacy (‘in Christ’): “knowing Christ…gain Christ and be found ‘in him’…through the relational response of trust (faith) ‘in Christ’…to qualitatively know him and be relationally involved with him together in intimate fellowship [koinonia]…and wholly involved together with my whole person in likeness [symmorphizo] of his whole embodied person” (3:8-11).

            In this comparative analysis in Paul’s accountability statement, he appears to examine its consequence or outcome only in quantitative terms: “gain” (kerdos) and “loss” (zemia, vv.7-8), perhaps in the socio-economic terms of the Mediterranean world surrounding the church in Philippi. In fact, Paul shifts back and forth between the quantitative of reductionism and the qualitative of God’s whole, in which “gain” in the former is “loss” in the latter, conversely “gain” in the latter is “loss” in the former. This appears analogous to a zero-sum dynamic. Yet the latter (God’s whole) is never contingent on the former (reductionism), only in conflict with it. Rather what Paul clarified is that human practice from a quantitative outer-in ontology of reductionism is always incompatible with human function from a qualitative inner-out ontology of God’s whole—thus an either-or dynamic, not a zero-sum. Whatever its common form or normative practice, good intention or positive motivation, reductionism is always positioned against God’s whole and is ongoingly engaged in counter-relational work for diminishing or fragmenting God’s relational whole and the experience of relationship together ‘in Christ’.

            Earlier Paul similarly fought against reductionism and for God’s whole in the church at Corinth (1 Cor 2:1-5; 2 Cor 2:17-3:1). He refused to engage in reductionist processes of human “classifying” (enkrino, categorize, 2 Cor 10:12) by essentially defining the person from outer in based on what one does or has—for which Paul established functional clarity in his Galatians letter. Such human classification invariably requires by its nature a comparative process: “they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another.” The relational repercussions are to stratify persons, stereotype and confine them in human constructs of distinction-making (such as race, ethnicity and class, even gender, cf. Gal 3:28), thus distancing, separating and fragmenting relationships together necessary to be God’s whole—the stratified relations, for example, of racism, classism and sexism, which formalize into systems of inequality. Paul exposed this process in the church as the counter-relational work of reductionism (1 Cor 4:7; 12:12-13). Those who engaged in it failed to perceive the impact on God’s relational whole because they “did not put the pieces together to understand” (syniemi, 2 Cor 10:12, cf. synesis). That is, with a quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework and reductionist lens (cf. 2 Cor 5:12), they did not put the pieces together of God’s revelation notably in Christ, therefore they were unable both to know Christ and to grasp God’s whole—just as Jesus earlier exposed the disciples lack of syniemi to truly know him (Mk 8:17-21).

            When Paul acknowledged to the Corinthian church his personal lack of “lofty words and wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1) and others’ opinions that “his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor 10:10), he did so to contrast what is important to reductionist perception with what is important to God: “to know nothing…except Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 2:2). This then calls for the antecedent question of “how Paul classified, categorized or rather defined Jesus”, and on this basis engaged the epistemic process to know Christ. For his measure, and in opposition to “the measure” of the reductionists (metron, 2 Cor 10:12), Paul would not go “beyond the measure of the sphere” (kanon, 10:13) essentially of God’s whole. That is, the whole of God necessarily provided a standard, limits and terms for Paul’s engagement in the epistemic process to know Christ. And this kanon defined Jesus in conclusive terms as both qualitative and relational, therefore the only basis Paul can truly know Christ had to be compatibly both qualitative and relational (as Paul defined elsewhere, 2 Cor 4:2-6; Col 1:15, 19-20; 2:2-4; Eph 4:13).

            Unlike Paul’s previous practices, this necessarily involved for Paul to perceive Jesus qualitatively and to engage him relationally, which then necessitated perceiving his own person in qualitative terms and his involvement to converge only in the relational context and process of Jesus. Yet, the nature of this involvement was a process of Paul’s growth and development. Paul also acknowledged “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10), which pointed to his own tension with reductionism and struggle to define himself by what he did or had (“my weakness”). Paul shared how his own condition and circumstance were used by the Lord specifically to keep him from the lure of such reductionist self-definition, in order for him to more deeply experience the Lord’s qualitative involvement and relational response (“my grace”). This experiential truth was “sufficient for you” as well as necessary for Paul’s person to be in his weakness (not defined by it) in order for his growth and development to be made further whole in relationship together—the telos of the whole of God’s relational response of grace which constituted the functional and relational significance of the gospel (“my power is made perfect,” i.e., my relational means and its effect to make whole in relationship together).

            This was the ongoing experiential truth ‘in Christ’ of Paul’s growth and development in relationship with Christ. Thus, when Paul went on record in his accountability statement for the present and future, his focus on the Christ-event must not be misinterpreted: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). Paul was not redefining Jesus merely back to what he did, and to his example and his resources. In other words, Paul’s deep desire should not be reduced to some aspiration in sacrificial servanthood and an ultimate attainment in discipleship to be like Jesus. His desire was only the depth of Paul’s heart to be with Christ (cf. Jn 12:26) and for his relational involvement to vulnerably participate in Christ’s whole life—not indirectly in mutual activity but only directly in intimate relationship together. This was limited only to the terms (kanon) of the relationship together in which Christ would make him whole ‘in  Christ’ (as Paul theologically clarified, Rom 6:3-11), and being whole ‘in Christ’ to live whole together and to make whole in the world (2 Cor 5:17-21; Col 1:19-23; Eph 2:13-22; Gal 3:26-29).

            Paul clearly grasped the experiential truth of what constitutes relationship with the triune God and the qualitative-relational involvement necessary to function in relationship together on God’s terms (cf. Eph 3:16-19). Despite any confusion about Paul’s Christ-event allusions or athletic metaphor (Phil 3:14, cf. 1 Cor 9:24ff), Paul understood that to know Christ was never about achievement in human effort, however rigorous and well-intentioned his self-discipline or self-determination (as his previous practice attested). To truly know the qualitative and relational Christ could be neither by mutual activities together nor from gaining informational knowledge about him. This was only the relational outcome from qualitative-relational involvement directly in vulnerable relationship together. The principal barrier to this relational process is the contrary function of a reductionist outer-in ontology and its counter-relational work, which Paul quantified by measures of “gain” in a comparative human context defined by such ontology. This pervasive function in faith-practice, however, constituted the human terms which attempt to shape relationship with God and the gospel (“righteousness of my own,” Phil 3:9). Paul would not trust in (pepoithesis) and submit to (peitho, 3:4) human terms. He refused to go beyond the kanon of God’s terms to define and determine the qualitative-relational process to know Christ.

            For Paul, to know Christ only had meaning in the qualitative-relational terms revealed by the whole of God. God’s terms for relationship together, in conflict with human terms, by its nature necessitates “the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil 3:9). That is, this is the righteousness of the whole person (in inner-out ontology) from the relational outcome of Paul’s relational response of trust (“faith”) to the relational response of grace by Christ. This dynamic signified Paul’s reciprocal relational involvement together with Christ in the whole of God’s relational context and process constituted by Christ (both in the incarnation and on the Damascus road) and brought to full completion by his Spirit in God’s eschatological plan (Phil 3:12-16; 2 Cor 1:21-22; 5:5). The relational progression of this relational outcome (the already) and eschatological conclusion (the not yet) is the ongoing dynamic of the experiential truth ‘in Christ’, which, as Jesus prayed decisively, grows and matures “to know the Father and the Son…in God’s family love together” (Jn 17:3,26) in order to be and live whole in likeness of the Trinity and thus to make whole in the world (Jn 17:20-23). This was the growth and maturity (teleios) Paul was experiencing to lead the church to be God’s whole “with such a mindset” (the qualitative phroneo from the whole phronema, Phil 3:15); and regarding anything less and any substitutes which are qualitatively different (heteros), the Spirit will give them feedback (apokalypto, 3:15, cf. 1 Cor 3:16-22; 2 Cor 5:5). This qualitative-relational process involved “the fragrance of knowing Christ” which developed the further qualitative meaning and deeper relational significance of covenant relationship together made functional by Paul with the Spirit for the inner-out ontology of a new covenant (2 Cor 2:14-3:18).

            Paul’s life, practice, thought and theology grew, developed and matured in the experiential truth: To know Christ decisively is to be qualitatively and relationally ‘in Christ’, and the experiential truth of being ‘in Christ’ is unequivocally to know the qualitative and relational Christ in the integrated qualitative-relational process of only God’s terms. Paul’s readers likewise cannot go beyond the kanon of God’s terms if they are to have syniemi of the whole of Paul’s integrated life, practice, thought and theology, and thus synesis of the whole of God (as Paul made unmistakable for the church, 1 Cor 4:6; 2 Cor 10:12-13; Col 2:2-4).


Paul’s Transition to Apostle (for the Whole of Humanity)

            Paul’s growth and development in the relational progression with Christ for ongoing involvement in the whole of God’s relational context and process ‘in Christ’ must not be reduced to the prominent roles and related functions he fulfilled—notably as an apostle. What continued to unfold in Paul’s journey was the functional reality that a former persecutor of the church was increasingly put into the lead of the church (cf. 1 Cor 15:9-10). This irony was not lost on some who challenged Paul’s position (cf. Acts 9:26; 22:19-20; 1 Cor 9:1-2), or even ignored him well into the second century.[4] The fact that Paul the Jew led the church raises further the issue of continuity-discontinuity.

            On the Damascus road Paul never converted to a new religion in rejection of Judaism. He repented of his reductionist faith-practice in Judaism while still remaining a Jew of Judaism’s covenant faith. Later, for example, Paul practiced a Nazirite vow despite his conflict with Jews in Corinth (Acts 18:18; cf. 21:23-26; Num 6:2,5,13-20). His rejection of reductionism in variants of Judaism can even be considered to make Paul an orthodox Jew. From the Damascus road there is only further discontinuity with any reductionism in Judaism but there is even deeper continuity with the faith and covenant relationship constituted by Yhwh’s grace (cf. Acts 26:6-7).

            God’s thematic action in relational response to the human condition—a condition of which Israel was even a part and a relational response of which Israel was only part of the recipients—became direct experiential truth for Paul’s person. The continuity of God’s thematic relational response was extended ‘in Christ’ and was fulfilled in the incarnation by Jesus (as well as on the Damascus road) to constitute the functional and relational significance of the gospel for Paul (cf. Gal 1:11-12, 15-16)—whose continuity Paul developed theologically (notably in Rom) from his experiential truth still as a Jew, perhaps an orthodox Jew. Moreover, Paul ongoingly experienced the triune God and increasingly grasped the whole of God, who were illuminated directly by the Light (2 Cor 4:6) and directly from Paul’s introduction to and involvement with the trinitarian persons (e.g. 1 Cor 2:9-10; Eph 3:4-5). Yet, there is no evidence that Paul ever shifted from being an OT monotheist, though Marcion’s two gods and Valentinus’ Gnostic Pleroma certainly misinterpreted Paul to support their views in the second century. While also no trinitarian in the later sense (notably of the Cappadocians), Paul was taken further and deeper into the experiential truth and understanding of God than Judaism had experienced or understood. This did not create discontinuity with Judaism’s God but fulfilled the covenant promise from the whole of God in God’s whole relational context and process. And though Paul never formally put together a trinitarian theology, he integrated the functional and relational significance of the trinitarian persons constituting the whole of God which further laid the definitive groundwork in anticipation of such theology.

            In the transition to apostle in Paul’s journey, his identity as a Jew remained. This identity, however, was modified and no longer was the primary identity either defining who and what Paul was, or determining how he functioned. Before becoming an apostle, Paul became a disciple of Jesus on the Damascus road. Based on the relational experience, his discipleship was not primarily about adhering to Jesus’ teaching or serving according to his example. Rather Paul was involved in following Jesus’ whole person in relationship together (see Jesus’ paradigm for serving for his disciples, Jn 12:26; Lk 10:41-42). Jesus constituted the monotheist Paul in the whole of God’s relational context and process, which signified God’s thematic relational response of grace. Paul’s Jewish identity had been formed mainly from human contextualization, but Jesus contextualized Paul further and deeper into his own full identity with God (and as God) as an extension of the incarnation. This became Paul’s primary identity defining who and what he was. Moreover, in the incarnation Jesus’ full identity conjoined functionally with his minority identity in the world to form what can be considered Jesus’ sanctified identity, which Jesus prayed for his followers to have (Jn 17:18-19).[5] The conjoint function of Jesus’ sanctified identity became formative of Paul’s primary identity ‘in Christ’ both defining who and what he was as well as determining how he was in Jesus’ unique call to him into the world. This is the full significance of Paul’s identity declaration: ‘By the [relational response of] grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:8-10).

            In one sense, Jesus’ connection with Paul on the Damascus road had more relational clarity (cf. Acts 22:14) than his disciples had perceived with him in the incarnation, even after three years together (cf. Jesus’ disappointment, Jn 14:9). The relational outcome or consequence for each of them respectively was the extent of functional clarity they had for their discipleship. This was demonstrated when Jesus’ last words to Peter were emphatically once again: “You, follow me” (Jn 21:22, emphasis added). Discipleship for Paul involved his whole person in relationship together with Jesus’ whole person in relational progression with the Spirit to be the whole of God’s family by God’s family love. In other words, what distinguished discipleship for Paul involved only being whole, God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms. This signifies the already-fulfilled portion of Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26), which Paul would make conclusive theologically and functionally in the ecclesiology necessary to be God’s whole (Eph 2:19-22; 3:14-19).

            Starting from tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction, Paul’s journey was distinguished by the experiential truth of being whole—made whole from above, living whole in relationship together and making whole in the world. This was the relational outcome of the gospel of wholeness (Eph 2:14-17; 6:15). Wholeness was Paul’s theme, an integrating theme of his life, practice, thought and theology. Therefore, any continuity in Paul always involves coherence with God’s thematic relational response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole since creation (cf. Gen 2:18), and also involves congruity with the whole from God embodied by Jesus (cf. Col 1:19-20; 2:9-12). Any discontinuity always involves Paul addressing the reduction of God’s whole (cf. Gal 2:5,14; Rom 2:28-29). Paul was an apostle of Israel only to the extent of this continuity. He can be considered an apostate from Israel only to the degree of this discontinuity signifying his fight against reductionism.

            Paul’s readers (in his time and today) cannot adequately understand Paul without knowing his primary identity and thus without a grasp of the wholeness of his life and practice, the whole constituting his discipleship. This whole is what integrates Paul’s thought and theology, and what underlies his role and function as an apostle. It is premature to assume that Paul undertook serving as an apostle right off the Damascus road without deeper transformation of his person and further transition in his discipleship. There are no narrative details or biographical notes to support this transition, though Paul’s time in Arabia and the three years before going to Jerusalem to connect with the other apostles (Gal 1:15-19) suggest some type of transition. Ananias pointed Paul to a specific process by involving him in “calling on the Lord’s name” (Acts 22:16), which Paul later clarified theologically in a full soteriology not only of deliverance in ‘saved from’ but also being ‘saved to’ (cf. Rom 10:8-13). It seems unreasonable, however, to assume that Paul was merely engaging in discourse about becoming/being a new creature ‘in Christ’ reconciled in new covenant relationship together without that being first the growth and development of his own experience together both with Christ and also with the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 3:4-6,18; Rom 8:29).

            When Jesus called Paul, he called him foremost to be whole which involved the discipleship of “Follow me” in relationship together. This transitional process in Paul’s calling was then conjoined with Jesus’ commission of Paul to be sent into the world (Acts 9:15; 13:2; 22:14-15,21; 26:16-18). While Paul’s commission emerged from the Damascus road, his growth-and-developmental process does not preclude a transition to apostle but strongly suggests it. Moreover, in Jesus’ paradigm of serving for his disciples (Jn 12:26), Paul’s commission (or any others’) was contingent on his call to be whole because he was sent only in coherence with God’s thematic relational response and with congruence with the embodied whole from God, just as Jesus prayed for all his followers (Jn 17:15-26). That is to say, Paul was sent to “make whole” in the world, the functional significance of which necessitates by its nature (neither by obligation nor reductionist service) being whole and living whole.

            This conjoint call and commission provided Paul with the understanding (grasp of meaning) and wisdom (grasp of the whole) needed for his role and function as an apostle. To separate the commission from the call to be whole is fragmentary; to perceive Paul’s call only from the notion of a commission to be sent lacks understanding not only of the whole of Paul but more importantly the whole of Jesus, and thus the whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition. Therefore the inseparable and irreducible conjoint call-commission of Jesus must define and determine the apostle who Paul is.

            Paul’s identity as an apostle did not define the sum of who, what and how Paul was. This is a critical distinction to grasp because his primary identity in the whole of God’s relational context and process ‘in Christ’ defined and determined this apostle, as Paul’s identity declaration made unmistakable (1 Cor 15:9-10). As an apostle, Paul is commonly know as “the apostle to the Gentiles”—even in Paul’s own words (Rom 11:13) implied from Jesus’ apparent commission (Act 9:15). This title or identity can be misleading as well as divisive. It separates Paul’s ministry from the whole of God’s mission (thematic relational action to the human condition), thus fragments God’s whole action into separate parts along with Peter’s ministry as “an apostle to the Jews” (Gal 2:7-8). These titles certainly reinforce a tension and conflict between Paul and Peter, that is, if the gospel is shaped by their human contexts. Even though Peter’s theology of the gospel was corrected in a Christophany and made whole (Acts 10:9-16, 34-36), he still functioned inconsistently with a nuanced gospel shaped according to his context with the circumcised. Thus Peter practiced with a perceptual lens from what he essentially considered his primary identity as a Jew, not ‘in Christ’. Paul confronted Peter, and others including Barnabas, “in his hypocrisy” with the truth of the whole gospel not reduced by their human contexts (Gal 2:11-14).

            While Paul’s own words (different titles, different ministries) also appear to suggest a nuanced gospel, Paul was not making this distinction with their respective titles and ministries. He only pointed to a secondary division of labor (cf. his body metaphor, 1 Cor 12:12-20), the fulfillment of which did not partition their ministries but overlapped in both the functional and relational significance constituting the whole gospel—just as Paul clarified when he added to his words earlier: “I glorify my ministry [to Gentiles] in order to make my own people [Jews] jealous and thus save some of them” (Rom 11:13-14). For Paul, this was the function of his whole person in his primary identity ‘in Christ’, not his identity as apostle to the Gentiles.

             We need to grasp the deeper meaning of Paul’s words and grasp the whole of God and God’s whole defining and determining this apostle. Beyond apostle to the Gentiles, Paul is more accurately understood as a person who was made whole by Christ and thus was commissioned/sent to make whole the human condition by relationally extending God’s relational response of grace. Paul extended the same relational response of grace from God that he necessarily first experienced himself in order to provide relational witness to this experiential truth, not merely to give discourse about it. This was the functional meaning of the Damascus road that Ananias provided for Paul: “The God of our ancestors [both as Jews and as humanity] has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice [in God’s relational context and process]; for you will be his witness to all the world [all humanity] of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:14-15, cf. 26:16). Paul’s witness was no mere theological discourse about the gospel but his ongoing relational involvement in the experiential truth and whole of the gospel, nothing less and no substitutes namely from reductionism.

            The apostle Paul can only be understood accurately as being whole, which means beyond the constraints of reductionism which tends to be implied in the title ‘apostle to the Gentiles’. Therefore, I suggest, Paul as apostle is more accurately described as apostle to the whole person and for the whole of humanity. That is, as ‘apostle for the whole of humanity’ Paul’s relational function only served to make whole the human condition in God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms. All of his relational actions involved coherence with the whole of God’s thematic relational action, which ‘in Christ’ was the unmistakable continuity and conclusive fulfillment of God’s relational response of grace both for covenant relationship with Abraham and for original creation to be whole in God’s qualitative image and relational likeness—as Paul made definitive theologically (Col 1:15-20). It was with congruence only to this whole gospel that Paul’s whole person “became a minister” (diakonos, Col 1:23) according to God’s family administration (oikonomia) given to him for the church in order “to complete God’s word” (pleroo), that is, to make God’s relational communication whole for his family (Col 1:25), “so that we may present everyone mature” (complete, whole, teleios) ‘in Christ’ (Col 1:28; 2:9-10).

            The growth and development of Paul’s whole person ‘in Christ’ indeed defined and determined this apostle, apostle for the whole of humanity. Moreover, as partly indicated in the above discussion of this process, being whole with God ‘in Christ’ also defined and determined his thought as well as his gospel.



Paul’s Thought

            Paul’s wholeness, being whole, must be accounted for if his readers are to get to the heart of Paul’s thought and his gospel. For Paul, wholeness involved an ontology of the person from inner out made whole from above, just as Jesus made conclusive to Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-15). By its nature nothing less constitutes this new creation, nor can anything less and any substitutes define and determine Paul or the significance of his life, practice, thought and theology. Any grasp of Paul remains elusive when based on a reduced Paul fragmented  by an interpretive lens paying attention to some aspects (notably quantitative) while ignoring others (namely qualitative). Such a perception neither sees the breadth nor comprehends the depth of the journey of Paul’s person—the ongoing qualitative-relational process of being whole with God ‘in Christ’ both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ (cf. 2 Cor 3:18; Rom 8:19-24,29).

            Paul made operational the functional and relational significance of the whole gospel for the Gentiles (and also the Jews) on the basis of God’s revelation to his whole person, not for just his role as an apostle (Col 1:25-27; Eph 3:2-6; Rom 16:25). His ongoing relational involvement with the Spirit was the basis for further theological reflection in Paul’s thought (1 Cor 2:12-13), thus demonstrating the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the Spirit as his relational replacement (Jn 15:26; 16:7,12-15). Paul’s thought reflected the outcome of the relational epistemic process in which he was directly involved by God’s whole relational context and process. This required (dei) by its nature the qualitative and relational involvement of Paul’s whole person, not the obligation (opheilo) of a servant or even the duty of an apostle. The inner-out ontology of Paul’s whole person made it difficult to understand his thought—that is, problematic to understand from any other perceptual-interpretive framework—for his readers back in his time through to today.

            Peter himself found it necessary to comment on Paul’s thought in his letters (2 Pet 3:14-16). While encouraging the challenged church to live whole with Christ (“blameless and in peace,” cf. tamiym and shalom in our previous discussion), Peter noted that this was also Paul’s concern even though “there are some things in his letters difficult to understand” (dysnoetos, emphasis added). The term dysnoetos is not used in the sense of something being obscure, imprecise, unclear or abstruse—though Pauline studies have perceived Paul in these ways—but rather of meaning not understood in a simple or immediate manner, not comprehended without careful study. Peter was not implying that Paul’s thought was complex. Nor does dysnoetos here suggest that careful study was about scholarship—something certainly not lacking in contemporary Pauline studies. What dysnoetos does point to in Paul’s thought is the deeper epistemology having the qualitative meaning and relational significance constituted by the whole of God. This deeper epistemology involved the epistemological clarification Paul received from tamiym, which also necessarily included his hermeneutical correction from a quantitative interpretive lens focused on reductionist ontology from outer in.

            Earlier in his discipleship Peter struggled with his own reductionism, apparently even until Paul confronted him (Gal 2:11-14). Now he demonstrated having grasped the deeper epistemology of God’s whole (“blameless and in peace”) signified in Paul’s letters, which Paul directly engaged in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit for the relational outcome of experiential truth. The qualitative-relational significance of this experiential truth provided the grasp of meaning and the understanding of the whole of “what is truly God’s” (1 Cor 2:11-12). Neither Paul nor Peter could have had this outcome merely from scholarship in a conventional epistemic process (cf. Paul’s operating basis, 1 Cor 2:4,13, and Jesus’ hermeneutic lesson and definitive epistemic process, Lk 10:21). Likewise, as Peter correctly pointed out to Paul’s readers, Paul’s thought will remain difficult to understand apart from the deeper epistemology of God’s whole made evident in the relational epistemic process—which cannot be substituted for by any level of scholarship however reformulated or fresh.

            Paul’s thought was based on an epistemology that was both qualitative and relational. Moreover, beyond mere intellectual expression his thought was rooted in the conjoint function of wisdom and love. We need to discuss this further for deeper understanding of Paul’s thought.

            There are two basic approaches in an epistemic process, which Paul also addressed in his first Corinthian letter. The two basic approaches, a conventional and a relational epistemic process, can be described as follows:

  1. Conventional epistemic process. The quantitative observations of creation and human life to distill provisional information and facts, from which views and conclusions are made more or less likely as seen through the interpretive lens of the observer’s presuppositions rooted in their sociocultural context, ideology and philosophy (cf. Ps 19:1-6; Rom 1:20; 1 Cor 1:20-22; 2:8,14). Though the field of interest is the surrounding quantitative context, the main determinant for what is paid attention to or ignored is a human lens. Thus any knowledge and understanding from this process essentially have been by human shaping or construction. This conventional epistemic process can also be applied even to the approach of God’s Word (cf. Col 2:8; Gal 1:6-7, 11).
  1. Relational epistemic process. The qualitative engagement (which includes some quantitative) of listening to God’s communicative action for what God has revealed (even beyond creation) in a qualitatively significant relational context and process in order to make known the whole of knowledge (still somewhat provisional given God’s transcendence) directly from the Creator, thus distinguished from quantitative fragments of knowledge as seen indirectly in God’s creation. This relational epistemic process is initiated by the whole of God’s relational response of grace and must (dei) by its nature be engaged compatibly within the relational context and process by which God disclosed this whole knowledge namely in the Word, and then in the embodied Word and through the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2:4-13; 2 Cor 12:1; Gal 1:12; Eph 3:2-5). The knowledge received from the relational epistemic process is not determined by the recipient but only by the primary source, God (cf. 1 Cor 4:6-7). Thus knowledge from God is definitive whole knowledge, nothing less and no substitutes, and is always defined without any reduction by something less qualitative or by some indirect process shifting determinacy to human shaping and construction (cf. 1 Cor 2:16). Jesus made conclusive this relational epistemic process (Lk 10:21), which was the functional purpose for the Father to impress upon his followers “Listen to my Son” (Mt 17:5). And to grow in this relational epistemic process, Jesus made it requisite for his witnesses, “Then pay attention to [blepo, carefully examine and be aware of] how you listen” (Lk 8:18).

            Paul addressed these basic epistemic processes as an either-or issue. This does not mean that they are mutually exclusive. Participation in one does not preclude participating in the other, yet engagement in a conventional epistemic process has a tendency to limit or bias how the relational epistemic process is engaged. On the other hand, full involvement in the relational epistemic process always chastens (hermeneutically clarifies, refines or corrects) any engagement in the other. The issue Paul addressed was which epistemic process is going to be the primary (or only) determinant for knowledge, understanding and meaning of human life. He framed the issue as between “the wisdom of the world/this age” (1 Cor 1:20; 2:6; 3:19) and “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:21,24,30).

            Wisdom commonly is an attempt to integrate knowledge, understanding and meaning to formulate some basic principles for optimal human life (cf. Col 2:8,20; Gal 4:3). The human shaping and construction of wisdom competes with God’s wisdom for this determinant position to guide, lead or otherwise inform human life (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25; 2:4-8,14). Both cannot be primary (cf. 1 Cor 3:18-20; 8:2). Moreover, God’s wisdom (“secret and hidden”) is not attainable through human intellect and effort (“None…understood this…nor the human heart conceived…they are unable to understand,” 1 Cor 2:7-9,14). It can only be received as the relational outcome from full involvement in God’s relational context and process by which God discloses the whole knowledge for God’s wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 2:9-13,16). God’s wisdom then is experiential truth from relationship together, not a reasoned truth from human reflection. Therefore, having God’s wisdom signifies the relational outcome from reciprocal relationship together in which God has given the means both to grasp God’s whole (God’s intimate desires as disclosed) as well as to act in wholeness (be whole, live whole and make whole) only on the basis of God’s terms, thus the means only in relational response desirable to God. Having God’s wisdom is accountable for both of these means.

            Paul’s thought was rooted deeper than in mere wisdom and fully into only God’s wisdom. When he claimed to “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), this was not about mysticism or about esoteric knowledge forming the roots for later Gnosticism. Paul’s thought was not a noetic infusion of absolute conventional knowledge by God. Having the mind of Christ was having the whole knowledge for God’s wisdom, which was the relational outcome of Paul’s full involvement in the relational epistemic process. In other words, Paul’s thought was infused with the whole knowledge of the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God. Thus having the mind of Christ was the experiential truth of the embodied Word, who was both Object to grasp and Subject to be relationally involved with.

            The relational outcome of this whole knowledge for God’s wisdom is never an end in itself or for oneself. Paul later clarified that all knowledge implies a social process affecting others, and whole knowledge comes with even greater responsibility for how it affects others. Paul was accountable for the reciprocal relational means which is constituted by God’s wisdom. Therefore, along with being based on a qualitative-relational epistemology, Paul’s thought was rooted in the conjoint function of God’s wisdom and love. Wisdom and love are inseparable in God’s whole. Wisdom as the relational means to live whole and make whole by its nature (not by obligation) necessitates relational involvement with others by love, God’s family love (cf. 1 Cor 13:2; Gal 5:6; Eph 3:19; 4:15-16; Col 2:2-3). Paul put this into context for us.

            Building on the discussion of the two basic epistemic approaches he initiated in the earlier part of his first Corinthian letter, Paul made clear his epistemology and its functional and relational significance (1 Cor 8). Though the situation was about food sacrificed to idols, the underlying issue was about knowledge and its use. In this situation Paul addressed the two basic approaches to human knowledge to get to the source of all knowledge and understanding, as well as to identify each approach’s distinguishing character and the functional significance of their difference. He did this in order to clarify the implications for negative consequences or positive outcomes which the use of that knowledge can have.

            Interestingly, Paul put conventional knowledge into juxtaposition with love (agape)—“Knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1, cf. 14:4)—and identified for each two vital matters to grasp for human living. The first vital matter is the distinguishing character of conventional knowledge and of love. Knowledge tends to revolve around the knower and thus becomes an end for oneself to be better defined—that is, “puffs me up”; love rightly engaged (not about what the lover does but about how to be involved with others) focuses beyond the lover and the lover’s action to the persons with whom the lover is involved for their sake, not the lover’s—that is, “builds others up.” The difference in the character distinguishing conventional knowledge and love creates both tension and conflict in human life and relationships; ‘me versus others’ is a human problem that affects us all.

            The other vital matter Paul identified is the functional significance of their difference in character. With the attention (even unintentional) on ‘me’ (even unknowingly), whatever the human context is, the knower assumes the primacy of the individual over the whole in human life, and thus assumes the freedom for such pursuit. That the individual’s interest and concern are the priority is the knower’s position by functional implication, despite any contrary intentions or beliefs—that is, “puffs me up” because the individual is more important than the whole, or “puffs me up first,” even “puffs me up only”. Love functions in clear distinction from conventional knowledge since the lover assumes the primacy of the whole over the individual, yet neither at the expense of the individual nor by reducing the importance of the whole person created in the image of God. Moreover, the lover affirms persons created in the likeness of the relational ontology of the triune God, therefore also affirming the primacy of the relationships necessary for the person and persons together to be whole—that is, love “builds others up” in these relationships which then will also build the lover’s person up to “build us up together to be whole,” God’s whole on God’s terms. The functional significance of the difference between knowledge and love not only creates tension and conflict in human life and relationships but also with God; ‘the individual versus the whole’ signifies the human relational condition which involves us all.

            Paul used this juxtaposition of knowledge and love to expose illusions about the epistemic process and to chasten the working assumptions and simulations of human ontology. Additionally, I suggest, in his polemic Paul necessarily implied that the ontology of the human person was created whole conclusively for two interdependent functions: (1) the person was created whole from inner out to constitute the qualitative function of the person (signified by the importance of the heart), who cannot be reduced to outer-in definition and function and still be whole; (2) and interrelated, those whole persons also were created for the relational function not “to be apart” essentially from one another in qualitative function but only in the qualitative relationships together necessary to be whole. That is to say, God’s created whole on only God’s terms—not by human shaping or construction—is the integrated qualitative-relational function of both person and interdependent relationship together to constitute wholeness. And Paul was confronting the epistemological illusions and ontological simulations from reductionism which had influenced life and practice in the church—the necessity of which certainly continues to be relevant for the church today.

            Part of the epistemological illusion involved failing to acknowledge the quantitative limits of one’s knowledge (“Anyone who claims to know something,” 1 Cor 8:2, cf. 13:8,9,12). Such knowledge must not be used to define the person and determine human life and practice because it “does not yet have the necessary knowledge” (dei, by its nature) to go beyond ontological simulation. Knowledge and human ontology cannot be reduced to mere quantitative information, facts and practice. The necessary wholeness of knowledge and human ontology is by its nature always in the context of relationship with God, the creator of all life and the source of its knowledge, which Paul clarified theologically and functionally by affirming monotheism in a pluralistic context as the conclusive source of whole knowledge “through whom we exist” (8:4-6).

            As the determinative source, God is the only one who, on the one hand, reveals conventional knowledge within the quantitative limits of creation and, on the other, reveals further and deeper whole knowledge in its qualitative significance of relationship. Without engaging this relationship to receive the whole knowledge from God, the epistemic process is limited to conventional knowledge from creation (essentially knowledge without understanding). From this limited basis human persons can only make assumptions or speculations at best to shape and construct human life, even ideas of God. Paul addressed the liberties taken with such limited knowledge as well as how all knowledge affects others. Yet there is often a thin line between God’s whole and the human efforts amounting to epistemological illusion and ontological simulation. For this purpose in his polemic, Paul put knowledge into juxtaposition with love to expose the dynamics of reductionism in clear distinction from the qualitative-relational function of God’s whole.

            To understand Paul’s thought in his corpus, Paul needs to be kept in the deeper relational context with God, which then always locates the existing situation into further and deeper context. Knowledge from God did not come to Paul in informational form, nor did the truth come to him in propositional form. The embodied Truth was always for relationship to be involved in together (cf. Jesus’ definitive disclosure to his disciples, Jn 14:6), thus always functioned qualitatively and relationally for experiential truth. This was what emerged, and progressively continued, for Paul from the Damascus road. Therefore, for Paul, knowing something (even whole knowledge as truth) which God revealed (e.g. 1 Cor 8:7-8) must by its nature be understood as the relational outcome of God’s relational response of grace for relationship together. This knowledge (notably as truth) then was given in love (agape family love), because the Truth is always for relationship and any truth given is only about relationship together, not mere information. Thus, this knowledge-as-truth, or wisdom-as-experiential-truth, comes with the reciprocal relational responsibility to use this knowledge in the qualitative-relational way it was given by God—and not, as in the context of the situation (8:9-13), for one’s individual use (“this liberty of yours”) or gain (“puffs me up”). If not used in the way given, its use will have relational consequences: “others see you who have this knowledge” and influenced by that a “brother is destroyed by your knowledge.” Such use of knowledge, even if unintentional, is sin, the sin of reductionism.

            Paul was making unmistakable the relational reality that we know by the saying: “A little knowledge can be dangerous,” which Paul would add “and its use can be deadly,” thus reducing God’s relational whole and fragmenting the relationships together necessary to be whole. The above situation about food only highlights the issue about knowledge and its use, for which only the further and deeper relational context and process of God can provide understanding. Paul’s thought and polemic then applies to any use of knowledge in any situation, notably in the church and the academy, where knowledge is used to puff up individuals at the expense of or substitute for building up in love the whole of God’s family.

            In Paul’s thought and polemic he made conclusive two vital matters about epistemology:

  1. The epistemic process for acquiring knowledge is never done in a vacuum, that is, in isolation from the presence or influence of others; the contextual source of one’s interpretive lens (what is paid attention to or ignored) exerts defining influence on the extent of the knowledge acquired.
  1. Moreover, what happens to that acquired knowledge, and its implied use, remains in the context of others; any acquired knowledge always engages either a negative dynamic (e.g., comparative to others signifying more or less, cf. 1 Cor 1:12; 3:3-4; 2 Cor 10:12) or a positive dynamic (e.g., edifying of others to build wholeness, cf. 1 Cor 13:1-2,8), that exerts determining influence further involving others (including God) and how others will be affected (intentionally or unintentionally) simply by the knower assuming possession of that knowledge.

In other words, Paul made it a functional reality for any epistemology and epistemic approach: Knowledge involves a social process with relational implications which affect all of us in one way or another. And Paul held the church accountable for these relational implications.

            There are other aspects of Paul’s thought along with epistemology which are integrated to define and determine the whole of Paul. The development of Paul’s thought was the deeper epistemology of whole knowledge from God, which was the theological basis for the experiential truth of his gospel. His thought functionally overlapped with his gospel such that to understand his gospel necessitated more deeply understanding his thought; and conversely, to understand his thought involved further understanding his gospel.



Paul’s Gospel

            What was Paul’s role and function to develop this new faith in Christ?  Did he serve to develop Christianity beyond its roots in Judaism and transform it from a Jewish messianic renewal movement into essentially a new religion which influenced the Greco-Roman world and beyond? Did Paul engage in effect in the reification (human authorship and enterprise seen as objectified fact) of Christianity and the church, thus promoting a belief system and institution of his own construction; or was he in fact responding in many of his letters to the reification of Christianity and the church by false or reductionist practices of many associated with the church, in order for him to clearly distinguish their human constructs from the whole of God’s thematic relational action and creative involvement making whole from above? What indeed was the significance of Paul’s gospel and how did his gospel differ from Jesus’ gospel? These interrelated questions have been issues for Paul’s readers, to which I have partially related and will continue to relate throughout this study.

            To sufficiently understand what Paul is saying in his letters—as illustrated by our initial discussion above of his thought in 1 Corinthians—his readers need to be aware of and thus account for the following three hermeneutical factors in their interpretation:

  1. Paul is not speaking in a vacuum. His words are framed in human contexts which must be accounted for in interpretation. Thus what he says should not be taken out of context in order to form normative positions, timeless truths or doctrinal certainty. For example, in his letters Paul is not writing a textbook summary on Judaism and its faith. He is referring only to those aspects which are involved in reductionism in those human contexts he is addressing. Thus his polemics should not be used to characterize Judaism or as a caricature of all Jewish practice in order to support stereotypes, propositional truths or doctrine. At the same time, this is not to preclude that Paul’s theology constitutes the irreducible and nonnegotiable terms of God for the ongoing life of God’s people.
  1. Paul always speaks in a human context, clearly speaking to a human context; yet, in order to understand Paul, his readers need to realize that Paul is not speaking from a human context. His critiques, prescriptions and theology formed in his letters are contextualized beyond those human contexts to his involvement directly in God’s relational context and process. Paul’s corpus emerged in human contexts but was constituted from the further and deeper context of the whole of God through full involvement in the process of relationship together with Christ. This is the primary context that defined and determined the whole of Paul’s life, practice, thought and theology. This is signified by Paul’s frequent use of ‘in Christ’, which is neither a concept nor mysticism in Paul but only signifies the qualitative function of the whole person in relationship together. Therefore, it is insufficient to understand Paul solely from human contextualization. This is the key issue for understanding Paul’s gospel. Moreover, I suggest that the limits, shortcomings or distortions of both a so-called Lutheran Paul and a new perspective of Paul (more accurately of Judaism) are problematic consequences of this hermeneutical absence. They essentially contextualize Paul in human contexts (sixteenth-century Reformation or first-century Judaism) and do not see Paul in his primary context by using a deeper lens. This leaves them merely with a Paul determined by those human contexts, thus effectively reduced from the full qualitative-relational significance of ‘in Christ’ to a Paul of human shaping.
  1. Until Paul’s readers “listen to” (see, read) Paul from the qualitative framework into which Paul was relationally contextualized and constituted with and ‘in Christ’—God’s relational context and process from which Paul was speaking to extend and give further clarity to God’s voice—we will not have the interpretive lens necessary to go beyond human shaping of the gospel in order to grasp the experiential truth of the whole gospel constituted, fulfilled and made whole by Jesus. Jesus’ gospel was the experiential truth of Paul’s gospel, by whom Paul was made whole. Without this lens of Paul’s corpus, God’s whole on God’s terms (the relational good news) gets ignored, fragmented and reduced to the shape of human terms constructing epistemological illusions of the gospel and ontological simulations of God’s whole family, the church. If we do not account for this whole in his letters, we have no clear understanding of Paul’s purpose and what he is fighting for and against. Furthermore, we have no unequivocal basis by which to resolve an apparent paradox of Paul that was raised earlier: apostle of Israel or apostate from Israel.

            Contrary to the perception that Paul’s corpus is filled with inconsistency, contradiction and enigma and has no unity or coherence, there is a common thread and developmental flow for his readers to understand. This involves the functional overlapping of his thought and his gospel in the above three hermeneutical factors.

            As Paul addressed in his letters various situations and conditions involving tension, distress, fragmented relationships and a lack of harmony in the church, he emphasized certain themes which were vital to his thought and gospel. Paul began each of his letters with a simple address (with the likely exception of Ephesians whose title was apparently added later): “grace and peace” (both letters to Timothy add “mercy”). Furthermore, he closed most of his letters with a greeting containing these terms. It would be an error to read this as a mere formulaic greeting. The significance of his address is critical to Paul’s thought and basic to his gospel, which his closing greeting pointed to or summarized.

            Paul consistently combined “grace and peace,” which indicates they are inseparable. They are not joined as mere concepts but converge in function as interdependent relational action and outcome directly from God the Father and Christ—whom Paul identified as “the God of peace” and “the Lord of peace” (1Thes 5:23; 2 Thes 3:16; 2 Cor 13:11; Rom 15:33; 16:20; Phil 4:9). Paul began his letters with peace in conjoint function with grace and ended his letters with peace contingent on grace in order to illuminate the functional and relational significance of the gospel.

            Grace was not some mere notion of favor or a spiritual gift (commodity) dispensed by God for human possession (or consumption). Grace only signified God’s relational response to the human condition on the basis of God’s terms, thus relational response without contingency to human terms. The definitive relational outcome of God’s relational response of grace is the peace of God (cf. Phil 4:7), the peace of Christ (cf. Col 3:15), from the God of peace, the Lord of peace. This was the integrating theme of Paul’s thought throughout his letters, which pointed first to Paul’s own experiential truth of this peace with Jesus on the Damascus road. Though Paul had been in conflict with Christ and Christians (the Way), God’s relational response of grace extended peace to Paul; yet this peace was not a mere “olive branch” to address their disharmony. Jesus did not pursue Paul just for the absence of conflict. Such a conventional peace signified human construction, as Jesus distinguished from his relational response (Jn 14:27). Jesus relationally responded in family love to reconcile Paul to his family to make Paul whole. This relational outcome of wholeness is the qualitative depth of the peace of Christ (thus the peace of God) that Paul directly experienced from the Lord of peace (thus the God of peace). Therefore, this is the wholeness which constituted shalom further and deeper than Israel and Judaism had experienced.

            While Paul addressed the various situations lacking peace, Paul’s emphatic theme of peace went well beyond the ancient Greek notion of peace simply as the absence of conflict. For Paul, peace was rooted in a Hebrew understanding, which ‘in Christ’ had become the irreducible well-being constituted only by the wholeness of God and the relationships together necessary to be whole, God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms. This is further understood in his letters by another ongoing theme interrelated to “grace and peace”: “blameless and holy” or a variation ( 1Thes 3:13; 5:23; 1 Cor 1:8; Col 1:22; Eph 1:4; 5:27; Phil 2:15; 1 Tim 6:14). Responding to the church at Thessalonica’s eschatological concerns, Paul did not emphasize “blameless and holy” merely for the sake of purity when Christ returns. Paul builds on “blameless” (amemptos) from the covenant relationship in the OT and God’s relational terms to Abraham to be tamiym (“blameless,” Gen 17:1-2). As discussed earlier, tamiym is clearly about persons being whole in relationship together with God, the holy God, thus constituting relationship only on God’s terms.

            In Paul’s thought, “holy and blameless” converged with “grace and peace” to signify being whole in relationship together (peace and blameless) only on the ongoing basis of God’s relational response and terms for the relationship (grace and holy). Furthermore, Paul’s own experience and thought made clear that this relational outcome is not about relationship together only in the future but necessarily ‘already’ in the present, just as Jesus relationally embodied in the incarnation and ‘already’ constituted for his followers—the experiential truth and whole of the gospel.

            For Paul, his gospel was clearly the experiential truth of “the gospel of peace” from the Lord of peace (Eph 6:15). It is this wholeness ‘in Christ’ (both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’) which Paul unequivocally made nonnegotiable to human terms and irreducible to human shaping and construction in order to clearly distinguish: (1) the qualitative significance of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), just as Jesus made whole from above (Jn 3:3-7); and (2) the relational significance of new covenant relationship together in the ecclesiology of the whole (2 Cor 5:18; 13:11; Eph 2:14-15; Col 3:15; Rom 8:6), that is, in likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity as Jesus prayed in his formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26). Nothing less than and no substitutes for this peace integrated Paul’s journey, practice, thought and theology. And nothing less than and no substitutes for the relational response of God’s grace constituted the basis and ongoing base for the whole of Paul. Therefore, for Paul, this relational outcome of wholeness (peace contingent on grace) is “the distinguishing purpose [semeion] in every letter of mine” (2 Thes 3:17), which Paul’s readers need to understand qualitatively as critical to his thought and need to grasp relationally as basic to his gospel.

            From his experience with Jesus on the Damascus road and his subsequent involvement in relationship together, Paul’s gospel emerged directly from the gospel relationally embodied by Jesus. Thus, Paul’s thought is better understood as a qualitative extension of the incarnation, even though in quantitative terms he rarely quoted from Jesus’ teaching. Paul understood that the embodied Truth was only for relationship, and that his witness was to the experiential truth of Jesus’ whole person—neither reduced to his teachings nor fragmented by his deeds but only for the relationship together necessary to be God’s whole. Moreover, from his previous practice in Judaism and tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction, Paul understood that anything less than and any substitutes for this gospel of peace are incompatible and in conflict with the truth of the whole gospel relationally embodied by Jesus. In other words, Paul clearly understood that reductionism is always positioned against the wholeness ‘in Christ’, seeking to formulate alternatives (“a different gospel,” Gal 1:6-9) by human terms, shaping and construction.

             Human terms, shaping or construction occur when the gospel is contextualized within the primary influence of human contexts. Jesus takes his followers further and deeper than this, as he did Paul. Paul declared unequivocally that the origin of his gospel cannot be explained by human contextualization and the influence of surrounding contexts (Gal 1:11-12), which also includes by Paul’s own shaping or construction. To the contrary, his gospel was contextualized only in Jesus’ whole relational context and thus can be understood only by Jesus’ whole relational process, which for Paul was first his direct experience with Jesus to be transformed and made whole in the experiential truth of the whole gospel relationally embodied by Jesus. As a person vitally concerned about this whole gospel, Paul turned first to the gospel of peace he experienced directly from the Lord of peace to make definitive the theological basis for his gospel. Paul did not engage in reification, that is, essentially construct his own gospel and belief system to support an institutional order of his shaping, in which he lived as if this were the nature of God’s truth and the reality of peace ‘in Christ’.[6] He did, however, expose those who did.

            Therefore, though Paul’s letters delineate specific human contexts, he was always contextualizing the gospel further and deeper in the whole of God’s relational context and process embodied by Christ. Paul never spoke in a vacuum but always spoke in human contexts and to those contexts, yet he never spoke from human contexts, including of his own shaping and construction (except to illustrate reductionism in comparative relations, e.g., 2 Cor 11:16-12:13). Paul’s readers then should not look for a unity in Paul’s thought and theology in his corpus until they understand where he is speaking from. This is what defined and determined Paul, and thus what constitutes how he was involved with those to whom a letter was addressed. This is how Paul’s thought and his gospel functionally overlapped, the conjoint function of which is vital for his readers to understand his thought and to grasp his gospel. From this understanding emerges any sense of coherence and wholeness in Paul’s thought and theology. Without it, all that his readers have is fragmentary, parts of which appear disjointed and contradictory or even in conflict (cf. Peter’s commentary, 2 Pet 3:16).

            Given the deeper context defining and determining the whole of Paul and the wholeness ‘in Christ’ integrating his thought throughout his corpus, there emerged two distinct depths in Paul’s development. On the one hand, there was his compassionate, sensitive and loving relational involvement with God’s family for the purpose of being God’s whole and living whole on God’s terms, thus making unmistakable the functional and relational significance of the gospel. On the other hand, there was his passionate, rigorous and uncompromising response to anything less and any substitutes among those related to God’s family for the purpose of exposing and confronting reductionism to make them whole, thus making irreducible and nonnegotiable the experiential truth of the whole gospel. In these ongoing depths of action Paul made his own person vulnerable to any relational outcomes or consequences resulting from those he addressed. It would be inaccurate to perceive Paul’s passion as a mere expression of his personality transferred from his previous passion to persecute the church (cf. Acts 26:11). His previous passion came from an outer-in ontology and his new passion emerged from the depths of an inner-out ontology made whole. This process of transformation to wholeness was the gospel of peace Paul deeply felt so strongly about. And the only alternative to this whole gospel was one reduced by human terms, shaping or construction. And such alternative for Paul, experientially, epistemologically and ontologically, had no basis and qualitative-relational significance beyond human design to be defined as a gospel (Gal 1:6-7).

            What this delineates about Paul was his strength of position on the ongoing issue of the gospel. The issue is ongoing because reductionism is always positioned against the whole of the gospel, and the gospel of wholeness, always seeking to redefine it with something less or some substitute. The strength of Paul’s position was clearly expressed in his polemic about the issue, which is always twofold: It is an inseparable fight for the truth of the whole gospel, on the one hand, and against reductionism, on the other. Paul’s corpus unfolds in his growth and developmental process. And this is what his readers with the proper lens (cf. 2 Cor 5:12; 10:7a; Gal 2:6) can see maturing as they understand the qualitative significance of his thought and grasp the relational significance of his gospel.



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

[2] Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 287.

[3] James D. G. Dunn perceives Paul’s ‘in Christ’ language through the lens of mysticism. The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 390-412.

[4] For a brief discussion of Paul in the second century, see Calvin J. Roetzel, “Paul in the second century” in James D.G. Dunn ed., The Cambridge Companion to St Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 227-41.

[5] For a discussion on Jesus’ sanctified identity, see my study Sanctified Christology.

[6] For a helpful discussion of the dynamic of reification and its implications in human life, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: the History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 177-20.



©2010 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.


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