Paul & the
Whole in His Theology
With the development of Paul’s practice and thought, his ministry and mission were firmly established. Maturity in Paul’s journey, however, involves less about what he did in ministry and mission and more about what unfolded of the whole of Paul and grasping the whole in Paul (cf. Phil 3:15-16). More deeply understanding the whole of Paul involves Paul’s witness (cf. Acts 26:16). More deeply grasping the whole in Paul involves Paul’s theology (cf. Col 1:25). Both functioned interdependently because both were outgrowths of Paul’s whole person in qualitative relationship with the whole of God, which constituted the ongoing relational basis and integrated the qualitative significance of his witness and his theology. On this relational basis and with this qualitative significance, neither the whole of Paul’s witness nor the whole in his theology is reducible; that is, they are inseparable from each other and from the development of Paul’s journey as a necessity to be whole. Any separation fragments them and thus renders only reductionist understanding and meaning.
If Paul’s call or commission from the Damascus road had not been enacted on the basis and with the significance of his developmental process, then on what basis and with what significance could Paul’s witness be expected to function? Can we simply assume that Paul was able to be a witness for Jesus based on that one encounter? Unless Paul emerged from the Damascus road a fully-developed apostle with a ready-made theology, without development his witness would struggle with inconsistency, contradiction, limitations or deficiencies, which points to difficulties some of Paul’s readers have with him.
Paul was appointed by Jesus to be his witness of “the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you” (Acts 26:16), “what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15). “Witness” (martys) is a term for a person who possesses knowledge of someone (or something) and thus can confirm that one (or thing). The epistemic process engaged by the witness determines the level of knowledge the witness possesses, and thus the extent of confirmation that witness can make about someone. That is, a full witness of Jesus of “what you have seen and heard” has to, as Jesus made requisite earlier, “Then pay attention to [blepo, carefully examine and be aware of] how you listen” (Lk 8:18). Carefully examining and ongoingly being aware of how one listens to the Word from God characterizes the development of Paul’s witness. It is curious, then, why Jesus did not simply count on his first disciples to be the integral witnesses of “what you have seen and heard.” What, if anything, distinguished Paul’s witness from theirs?
A witness with only quantitative knowledge about Jesus from a conventional epistemology can only confirm limited information about the historical Jesus as Object-for-observation. To witness to the whole of Jesus’ person also as Subject-for-relationship involves a deeper epistemology engaging the relational epistemic process with the relational outcome of whole knowledge, not merely quantitative knowledge about informational fragments. This requires a perceptual-interpretive lens which pays attention to the qualitative and relational significance of Jesus. A true and full witness of Jesus, therefore, must be involved as a direct participant in relationship together with Jesus, not a mere observer, in order to confirm the whole of who, what and how Jesus is. Paul was this participant-witness of Jesus not by mere appointment but from his relational involvement constituted by the whole of God’s relational response of grace to him—the whole of whom he continued to experience further and deeper in relationship together “to know Christ” (Phil 3:10-11). Thus Paul’s whole knowledge of Jesus, the embodied Truth only for relationship, was the experiential truth of the whole gospel for whom he was a witness.
Who and what Paul ongoingly was a witness to is critical to understanding the whole of Paul and how he matures. Paul had no illusions about the basis for his life and the necessary ongoing base for his practice: the whole of God’s relational response and involvement of grace. He witnessed only to this grace embodied by the relational response and involvement from Jesus’ whole person—which further speaks to why Paul rarely quoted from fragments of Jesus’ teaching. By this relational function of grace Paul was ‘in Christ’, the whole of Jesus, and nothing less and no substitutes constituted Paul’s witness.
In his witness of Jesus, Paul’s polemic and fight emerged as a joint fight for the gospel and against reductionism. This conjoint dynamic always qualified the strength of his position, and more importantly it nurtured his witness to maturity. For example, Paul clearly distinguished that his joint fight was not by his own means (1 Cor 2:4,13; 2 Cor 10:2-5). Paul ongoingly navigated the thin line between the whole gospel and reductionism in order for his witness not to function by reductionism, even though he was in the context of reductionism. Therefore, his witness in fighting for the gospel necessitated (dei) by the nature of the gospel a fight only by the means of God’s grace, which is not compatible with the use of any of Paul’s own means. That is, Paul’s witness would only be true by the means of the ongoing relationship together embodied by Jesus as well as the further relational work fulfilled in reciprocal relationship by the Spirit. Anything less or any substitute of these relational means of God’s grace is not the truth of the whole gospel, because rather than based on the function of grace (though the theology of grace may be there) such a witness functions on the basis of human effort and some type of shaping from self-determination. This crosses the line into reductionism which Paul’s witness was fighting against. In other words, a true witness of Jesus cannot fight for the gospel while engaging in reductionism. And Paul’s witness matured as it remained true to the whole of Jesus’ person and thus his whole gospel.
The maturing of Paul’s witness in his polemic and fight conjointly for the gospel and against reductionism was neither the passion of a religious zealot nor the wisdom of this age, the aged or any other human source (cf. 1 Cor 2:6-7,9; 2 Cor 1:12). Paul was confident (“the testimony of our conscience”) that his witness in the world and especially toward those in the church was clearly in inner-out congruence with God’s whole on God’s terms (“in holiness and sincerity of God,” i.e., without the outer-in shaping from reductionism), thus “not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Cor 1:12).
God’s grace was not new to Paul since as a Jew educated in Hebrew Scripture he knew of God’s grace constituting the covenant relationship with Abraham and the people of God. God’s grace, however, emerged new for Paul in the experiential truth of the whole of God’s relational response of grace embodied in Jesus vulnerably to him. For Paul, God’s relational response of grace took him beyond the echo from his past to constitute God’s relational involvement of grace in its relational effects and ongoing function in the present—the relational outcome of God’s whole on God’s terms of grace. Moreover, for Paul God’s grace was not just the hope for the future but also the necessary experiential truth for the present (notably in his witness)—the absence or reduction of which make the significant past more faint and the warranted future more vague.
In Paul’s experience, grace was God’s relational response to him with the relational outcome of being made whole. His wholeness had only one source, which Paul always signified in the greetings of his letters with the inseparable function of “grace and peace.” Grace then for Paul also became new in his thought development changing from a theological idea rooted in his heritage or cultural belief and value. Yet his thought on grace did not shift to a propositional truth and doctrinal norm, or even to a spiritual gift (to be discussed later), but developed and matured conclusively as only the whole of God’s thematic relational response and ongoing relational involvement with him, God’s people and the human condition. This was the only grace to be the basis for Paul’s witness; any other means was reductionism.
Maturity is an outcome of the process of growth and development, which involves the process of transformation (sanctification) from old to new. Maturity does not signify the completion (teleioo) of this transformation process ‘not yet’, only a fullness (teleios) of being made whole and thus living whole ‘already’ (Phil 3:12-16), God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms. Paul witnessed to God’s wholeness ‘in Christ’ (as signified in “the gospel of peace,” Eph 6:15, from “the God and the Lord of peace,”
1 Thes 5:23; 2 Thes 3:16). Therefore, Paul’s witness matured not only as a confirmation of the whole of Jesus but also as a confirmation of the whole of Paul, his wholeness ‘in Christ’. Paul’s witness of Jesus was essentially contingent on Paul’s wholeness and was inseparable from the ongoing function of being whole and living whole for making whole. In other words, Paul’s witness was true (read whole) as long as he did not cross over that thin line into reductionism to compromise his function ‘in Christ’. He was influenced, challenged and even tested to do so by the lure of reductionism ongoingly in his journey.
Paul shared how his own condition and circumstance were used by God specifically to help him deal with the lure of reductionism and from crossing that line (2 Cor 12:7-10). This involved “a thorn in my flesh” that served to nurture his development of wholeness in God’s relational context and process and to help him avoid functioning in reductionism by defining himself from outer in by what he had. This included both the thorn to define him as less, and “the exceptional character of the revelations” from God which he boasted of having in his possession to define him as more (12:1-6). The dynamic involved in what Paul shared about himself is important to grasp in Paul’s development to maturity.
Whatever Paul’s apparent physical condition and its related circumstances were, its presence indicated Paul’s own tension (or even struggle) with reductionism and defining himself from outer in by what he had and did over against his identity ‘in Christ’ as a whole person from inner out. Moreover, its effect involved the subtlety of Paul’s attempt to include the Lord in his engagement with reductionism: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me.” This may appear as a simple request for healing. Yet, the Lord’s response reveals a deeper issue for Paul’s person and witness.
To help Paul in this deeper issue, the Lord was involved with him directly about this thorn, even though his response to Paul was contrary to the treble frequency of Paul’s plea. The Lord did not ignore Paul’s pleas about his physical condition, which implied the relational message of what Paul was saying about himself: a person from outer in defined by what he had—notably his thorn perceived to make him less. The Lord responded to the treble strength of Paul’s relational message by penetrating to the inner out of Paul’s whole person: “My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness.” The content level of this message by itself is insufficient either to grasp the depth of the Lord’s communicative action or to understand the deeper issue involved in the content level of Paul’s plea. The Lord’s communication is relational language to Paul which involved a treble strength of relational messages of his own.
Consider what was implied in the Lord’s words:
“My grace”—That is, not a propositional truth, doctrinal norm or gift but my vulnerable relational action, intimate relational response and ongoing relational involvement (implying the relational message of what the Lord is saying about himself and how he is);
“is sufficient for you”—that is, is intimately involved with you for your person to be whole from inner out, not reduced to outer in, thus for your witness to be whole and true (implying the relational message of what the Lord is saying about Paul and what is primary about Paul’s person);
“for [my] power is made perfect in [your] weakness”—that is, my (dynamis, ability) relational means and its effect are the only means to complete (teleo, bring to perfection or its destined goal) not my power (which already is) but to complete and bring to its destination our relationship together as the whole of God’s family only on God’s terms, which necessarily includes your condition of weakness (astheneia, a condition in which one is limited), thus a vital ontological reality for you to embrace about your humanity without redefining your person from outer in in order to counter any ontological simulations from subtle reductionist efforts of self-autonomy and self-determination, even self-justification (all of which implied the relational message of what the Lord is saying about their relationship together and the importance of it even over what Paul does as a witness).
Earlier, Paul had received tamiym’s clarification for any epistemological illusion from reductionism. Here he was chastened for any ontological simulation from reductionism. The Lord’s communicative action was not to keep his people weak and dependent on his power (as many rulers and even church leaders do); God does not engage in power relations. Rather his response, as implied in his relational messages, was further relational involvement to deepen their relationship together to be whole, not to be distant or fragmented as outer-in function signifies. That is, the Lord acted to help Paul’s person and their relationship not to be reduced by human terms and shaping, which is the relational consequence of reductionism’s counter-relational work based on reducing human persons to outer-in definition by what they have (weakness) and do (witness).
The issue of ontological simulation was critical to Paul’s person and thus to his witness. If Paul defined his person and determined his witness on the basis of what he did in his ministry and mission (including of what he had in his possession of God’s revelation), then he was breaching (even unintentionally or unknowingly) the line to reductionism and susceptible to human terms and shaping (cf. 2 Cor 10:2,7a,12). This is signified clearly when one’s witness functions more from an outer-in ontology in which the behavioral forms and expressions are there but lack qualitative significance and substance—a mere form without substance (cf. 2 Cor 5:12). The appearance of such a witness only signifies an outer change of that person (cf. Gal 6:12), not the transformation from inner out (cf. Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17), thus any function from that person becomes merely an ontological simulation. Paul used metaschematizo (outward change and appearance) to accurately distinguish this ontological simulation from the substantive function of ontological transformation from inner out (metamorphoo, cf. Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18). Yet such simulation (or forms) can easily have the appearance of substantive function if only perceived by a quantitative lens (phroneo) from a reductionist interpretive framework (phronema, cf. Rom 8:5-6). Paul, therefore, exposed the ontological simulation of metaschematizo as nothing but a masquerade—a simulation ultimately in which Satan also functions as “an angel of light” and his ministers as “ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:14-15), the source of forms without substance (cf. Jesus exposing the ontological simulation along with the epistemological illusion of some Jews, Jn 8:42-44).
Paul was able to make definitive the sin of reductionism and its ontological simulation and epistemological illusion (2 Cor 11:1-30) because of the wholeness developing in his person and witness. And his weakness was a key factor in this maturing process for the whole of Paul and his witness, because in his condition Paul learned that God’s relational response and involvement of grace is not only sufficient but ongoingly necessary for him to be whole and live whole. Thus it is vital for Paul’s readers to understand about him and with him: The function of ontological simulation (and related epistemological illusion) creates barriers (even unintentionally and unknowingly) in relationship together necessary to be whole. The reduction of relationship together, namely covenant relationship with God, can only be addressed, confronted, redefined, transformed and brought to wholeness through the condition of one’s “weakness” (astheneia, 2 Cor 12:9, cf. ptochos, Mt 5:3). That is, when the true condition of one’s person is openly and honestly made vulnerable in involvement in relationship together with God—which Paul only partially engages by his above pleading in his circumstance yet fully engages in his ongoing relationship—then the relational outcome is necessarily deeper maturing (teleios) relationship together and its relational progression concludes in the eschatological completion (teleioo, teleo) of this relationship together with the whole and holy God in the whole of God’s family. The above cognates of telos (in Phil 3:12-16 and 2 Cor 12:9) are critical to distinguish in the process of maturity, namely for the present function and experience of whole relationship together. The maturing of relationship together is unequivocally contrary to any ontological simulation and is only the full effect (both already and not yet) of God’s relational means of grace, which the Lord made conclusive as “both necessary and sufficient for the whole of you and your witness” (12:9).
Therefore, in the whole of God’s relational context and process of this dynamic, Paul “boasted more gladly” (hedeos) and even “took pleasure” (eudokeo) in his weakness and his limitations in related situations, because this was what faced him with the truth about himself so that he could be face to face with the whole of God in the experiential truth of vulnerable involvement in relationship together (“that the power of Christ may dwell in me…for Christ’s sake”). Not surprisingly, the relational outcome in this dynamic was for Paul beyond what he could have imagined from his treble pleading: “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
In Paul’s ironic assertion, he was not playing with words in the Greek subjunctive mood—suggesting merely a possible scenario with doubt or uncertainty and having no functional significance. Also, Paul was not throwing out a sophism to mislead or even deceive the Corinthian believers, who lived in a Mediterranean world where weakness and power were very consequential. Weakness for Paul was not about bearing a distinction in comparative relations from human contextualization which defined and determined him as less (“insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities,” 12:10). Nor was being strong the notion of having power in stratified relations to secure a higher human distinction defining and determining him as more. The purpose of Paul’s irony was to shift their primary focus away from human contextualization and the influence of reductionism, notably to define human persons and determine human relations from outer in, as he exposed earlier (2 Cor 10:12). Yet this was not a device Paul used to try to strengthen their focus or position solely for the eschatological last days.
Rather Paul’s meaning was immediate, neither isolated from human contextualization nor consigned to the last days. Paul learned firsthand and directly in God’s whole relational context and process the experiential truth of the gospel of Christ (2 Cor 4:4-6); and in his growth and development he gained syniemi (in contrast to the reductionists, 2 Cor 10:12, cf. Col 2:2) to grasp the relational significance of the whole gospel. The function of this gospel necessarily involved the whole of Paul’s person (i.e., unreduced, with his sin, limits, weaknesses and all) in order to receive the whole of God’s (unreduced, with full vulnerability) relational response to him for relationship together in God’s whole. Therefore, for Paul, “to be strong” was not a quantitative reductionist function measured by human terms in comparative-stratified human relations. Paul only signified a person from inner out “made whole in relationship together with the whole of God,” whose “relational means brings to completion my wholeness in God’s relational whole only on God’s relational terms, thus through my weakness.”
This is the relational significance of the whole gospel which the whole of Paul (without reduction) vulnerably witnessed to and made uncomfortably functional for all believers, not only at Corinth. Was Paul’s witness at Corinth compatible with Jesus and congruent with Jesus’ gospel? Many believers there challenged the validity of his witness and message (2 Cor 13:3). Paul pointed them to Jesus’ whole person vulnerably embodied, with whom he was wholly involved in relationship together: “For [Christ] was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power [relational means] of God. For we are weak in him, but [in relation to, eis] you we will live with him by the [relational means] of God” (13:4). This was the experiential truth of the whole gospel which Jesus both embodied and engaged in relationship together by family love to constitute persons in the relationships necessary to be God’s whole family. The whole of God’s relational context of family and relational process of family love constituted the whole of Paul, and thus defined and determined the relational means of his witness to be true in its whole confirmation. Anything less or any substitutes would be incompatible with Jesus and incongruent with his gospel because that would signify reductionism. Paul’s witness to the church at Corinth matured in God’s family love (cf. 2 Cor 11:11; 12:15) because the whole of Paul (weak and all) was vulnerably “in him” and ongoingly relationally involved to “live with him”—nothing less and no substitutes.
In his developmental process to maturity the whole of Paul was clearly ‘already’ and unmistakably ‘not yet’. That is, though maturity did not mean perfection (complete transformation or sanctification), such that growth and development ended, maturing did involve fullness, wholeness in the already (cf. Col 1:28-2:2; 2:9-10; Phil 3:15-16). Therefore, Paul witnessed necessarily both to the whole of Jesus and by implication also to the whole of Paul ‘in Christ’, the latter also an integral witness for the church’s development as God’s whole family. Though the first disciples/apostles all had relational clarity of Jesus in the incarnation, I suggest that Paul had even further relational clarity and, more important, experienced the relational significance of Jesus more deeply (cf. Jn 14:7,9) to be the integral witness of “what you have seen and heard.”
For Paul, to function as an integral witness further involved the maturity process of his identity formation. His witness to the whole of Paul ‘in Christ’ was contingent on his ongoing vulnerable relational involvement with the whole of Jesus, not on anything less from Paul and on any substitutes for Jesus. Therefore, the maturing of his witness involved by necessity the following process of identity formation: Paul’s identity ‘in Christ’ to be wholly defined by Jesus’ full identity only in God’s relational context and process, and for Paul’s identity conjointly to be primarily determined in human contexts by Jesus’ minority identity used in relation to the world. Jesus functioned in the incarnation in his full identity together with assuming a minority identity to constitute his sanctified identity (noted in the previous chapter), which he prayed for his followers to have (Jn 17:18-19). This integrated identity is what became formative of Paul’s primary identity ‘in Christ’ both to define the whole of who and what Paul was as well as to determine his integral witness, call and commission.
As an integral witness notably for the church’s development, Paul had increasing conviction that was expressed in his thought. His maturing was the basis for him to point to the whole of his person and witness beyond just as an example to the depth increasingly as a model for following Jesus the person, not only his teachings and tradition. I suggest that in Paul’s thought he presented his person as more than a mere example of Christian life and practice but also as a definitive model to emulate, replicate and to use as the experiential truth of the gospel and as a true follower of Christ in the new creation. This distinction of model from the notion of an example (which is less compelling and optional) is significant in Paul’s thought, because he appeared decisive in considering his model (typos) as the nonnegotiable standard by which to measure life and practice in the new covenant relationship with the whole of God on God’s terms. Various references in his letters point to him in this way at the risk of appearing arrogant or even holier-than-thou (1 Thes 1:6; 1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thes 3:7,9). Yet, Paul was able to be decisive in his thought with epistemic humility on the unequivocal basis that the whole of his person and witness was only the relational outcome of vulnerably receiving (paying attention to, listening, trusting) God’s relational response of grace ‘in Christ’.
The development to maturity did not preclude the clarity of Paul’s thought and gospel from the challenge of reductionism. Paul’s polemic and fight always remained conjoined for the experiential truth of the whole gospel as well as against reductionism. This delineated the existing reality for the whole of Paul and his witness to function by its nature ongoingly in order to live whole and make whole in the world. To facilitate his ministry and mission Paul easily could have turned to shaping the gospel and the Word from God to better fit (be relevant or conform to) this situation or that circumstance in order to make his ministry more compatible with it and less troublesome or problematic. Such nuances apparently were the norm in many churches, at least in the Achaia region, which Paul described as “peddlers of God’s word like so many” (2 Cor 2:17) that “distort the word of God” (2 Cor 4:2, cf. 1 Thes 2:4-5). The term for “peddle” (kapeleuo) means to merchandise the Word from God, treat it like a commodity and utilize it for one’s own ends (even to facilitate one’s role and function in ministry). The term for “distort” (doloo) means to adulterate, dilute, water down and cheapen—for example, as merchants in Paul’s time used to do with wine for more profit. These scenarios of reductionism basically serve to popularize the Word and make it more palatable for a prevailing mindset and perceptual-interpretive framework—similar to what is seen in Western Christian culture and church practice today, notably in the U.S.
This was the climate in which Paul witnessed. His purpose (oikonomia) relationally from God was to communicate the Word of God in its fullness (pleroo, Col 1:25), that is, whole with nothing less and no substitutes. That meant Paul’s whole person and witness functioned to fight conjointly for the experiential truth of the whole gospel and ongoingly against reductionism. The fight against reductionism was not optional but integral to being, living and making whole in the human context, in which Paul also grew and developed to constitute his integral witness for the church. Despite his development, the whole of Paul was subject to the ongoing challenge and influence from reductionism and its counter-relational work (cf. 2 Cor 2:11). And the maturity of his witness demonstrated the decisive wholeness in his polemic and thought, the depth of which was signified further by the whole in Paul and his theology.
More deeply understanding the whole of Paul and his witness is critical to more deeply grasping the whole in Paul and his theology. Since Paul did not emerge from the Damascus road a fully developed apostle with a ready-made theology, what further unfolds in Paul’s journey is his maturing in wholeness notably signified in his deeper thought and his theology. This was the outgrowth of Paul’s whole person in qualitative relationship with the whole of God, which constituted the ongoing relational basis and integrated the qualitative significance of both his witness and then his theology.
If the whole of Paul indeed developed (‘already’ and ‘not yet’), this wholeness can and must be accounted for in Paul’s thought and theology. This is necessary to more deeply grasp his views. Paul’s readers cannot adequately define a distinct continuity, an internal unity and thus overall coherence in his thought and theology within his letters until they more deeply understand what defined and determined the whole of Paul. His wholeness emerged from the ontology of the person only from inner out and thus emerged by the qualitative function of his heart in vulnerable relational involvement together ‘in Christ’. This qualitative function and relational involvement are not observed or paid attention to by a conventional epistemic process (noted in the previous chapter), the perception of which is necessary to explain and understand the qualitative significance and relational basis of Paul’s thought and theology (cf. Paul’s phroneo of the mature, Phil 3:15).
Any gap in explanation and understanding in Pauline studies is the result, I suggest, of using the lens (phroneo) from a conventional epistemic process. The use of such a lens and consequent gap in understanding is further illustrated today in the field of neuroscience, which engages a conventional epistemic process to explain and understand the human person. Their quantitative observations define the person from outer in with the brain as the center of the person; the conclusions they draw from these observations are assumed to explain human behavior and thus understand human function. This reduces the whole person from any qualitative function based on inner-out ontology, which a quantitative lens would ignore as unfounded—a process engaged in much Pauline scholarship. The person assumed from neuroscience can never be whole for two vital reasons: (1) it is a reduced person fragmented from outer in without the integrating qualitative function from inner out, thus does not go deep enough to account for the whole person; and (2) the qualitative function of the whole person is irreducible and thus irreplaceable for the relationships necessary to constitute the created function for persons to be whole together. This is the created whole in likeness of God necessitating the combined function of persons and relationships together in order to be whole.
The whole in Paul is nothing less and no substitutes than the conjoint function of the whole person, from inner out signified by the qualitative function of the heart, vulnerably involved in the relationships together necessary to be whole. Paul would make operational this wholeness for the church in the vulnerable involvement of transformed relationships which are both equalized and intimate (specifically in Eph, to be discussed in chaps. 9 and 10). This whole in Paul points directly to the heart of his theology, which has been elusive in Pauline studies. At the heart of Paul’s theology is in fact the heart and the experiential truth constituting his own heart (cf. Rom 2:29; 2 Cor 4:6; 5:12; continuity with Ps 33:11,15). The experiential truth of the heart is a qualitative function in relationship (cf. 2 Cor 3:2-3), which signifies the ontology of the whole person(s) created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Col 3:10) only for the created design and purpose to be whole in relationship together (cf. Gen 2:18; 2 Cor 5:5). This dynamic created reality is both underlying and requisite for Paul’s theology.
For understanding Paul’s thought, it is inadequate to contextualize him only in Judaism. His Damascus road experience indeed took his journey back to the Lord’s definitive blessing (Num 6:24-26), which took him back to the covenant relationship with Abraham (notably tamiym, Gen 17:1-2). Yet, a deeper grasp of Paul’s theology goes even further back than Abraham; to stop there would be incomplete and thus leave the depth of his thought and theology elusive for his readers to grasp. The depth of his thought and the heart of his theology went all the way back to the created person in the primordial garden, and the image and likeness of God, for the wholeness in life. This was who and what Christ first restored Paul to, which Paul then put together (syniemi for synesis) with the Spirit for the whole in his theology (Eph 3:3-5; 1 Cor 2:11b-12; Col 2:2).
Just as in the qualitative significance and relational basis of Paul’s witness (cf. 1 Cor 2:1-5), his theology does not formulate the quantitative knowledge of the truth (in propositional form), though it involves the truth (cf. 1 Cor 2:13). Furthermore, the content of his theology does not have the format of a systematic theology; yet it does have a systemic framework inherent to creation in the image of God (Col 3:10-11), which Christ vulnerably embodied (Col 1:15-20, cf. 2 Cor 4:4,6) and which Paul made definitive in relational function for this whole ‘in Christ’ (2 Cor 3:18; 5:5; Eph 4:12-13). This systemic framework (discussed in chap. 6) involves the relational dynamic between Creator and creation, the interaction of which was rooted in the image of God. This goes further relationally and deeper qualitatively than a conventional epistemic process and subsequent theological formulation can. Seen in God’s systemic framework, Paul’s theology deeply involves whole knowledge of the whole of God, who embodied the Truth for relationship together to be whole, God’s relational whole only on God’s relational terms (2 Cor 4:6; Col 1:19-20). The truth in Paul’s theology was the whole of whom his whole person experienced, thus Paul’s theology was foremost what he lived—living theology, not “doing” theology. This is the whole in Paul making definitive the depth of his thought and the heart of his theology (Col 1:25-26; Eph 3:3-6).
This further and deeper contextualization is necessary if Paul’s thought and theology, and his practice, are to be understood beyond the situations and circumstances he addresses in his letters. Without the defining significance of this contextualization, Paul’s readers do not get past the presenting scenarios to grasp the whole, the whole in Paul, which provides the basis for his thought and theology. This suggests for his readers to take a canonical approach to the thought in his letters and to see his theology as biblical theology. More importantly, this involves the qualitative relational context and process basic to covenant faith; this is definitive for the necessary relational response to the whole of God, who constitutes the integral relational context and process of grace embodied by Jesus and made functional by the Spirit in response to the human condition to make it whole. Nothing less than this experiential truth constituting the whole of Paul emerged from the Damascus road, and no substitutes for this whole from God can constitute the whole in Paul developed in his thought and theology. If Paul cannot be seen in this further and deeper qualitative relational context and process of God, then the whole of Paul is reduced and the whole in Paul and his theology has no significance to be grasped.
The significance of the experiential truth in Paul’s thought and theology was that this gospel Jesus embodied and fulfilled was neither about propositional truths in a new belief system nor about doctrine. If it were, this would either fragment Paul’s thought or reduce his theology—which speaks to an existing condition in Pauline studies. In continuity, for example, with what Moses desired (Num 11:29) and Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28-29) for all God’s people, Paul’s thought extended even further and deeper than they expressed for prophecy and messianic hope. Paul was certainly prophetic but his thought expressed the experiential truth of intimately knowing the whole of God in relationship together (as Jesus made definitive, Jn 17:3) in the ongoing involvement necessary to be God’s whole (as Jesus prayed, Jn 17:23-26). While having continuity with prophecy, Paul’s thought and gospel went deeper than the significance of prophecy to the very heart of God’s desires and thematic communicative action for relationship together (cf. Num 12:6-8). Therefore, the experiential truth of Paul’s thought and gospel were unmistakably a function only of “face to face” relational involvement with the whole of God. The relational outcome was the whole knowledge constituting the quality of his witness, the further action of which interdependently established Paul deeper in his thought and theology.
The relational outcome of this face-to-face involvement in Paul’s thought was the whole in his theology. I suggest that Paul did not intentionally engage in the theological task as a theologian during his developmental process. Nor did his maturity signify he emerged as a theologian. Yet in actual function he fulfilled such a role and task. This does not mean that Paul’s readers can grasp the whole in his theology by using prevailing theological methods which lack qualitative-relational significance—including such canonical approaches and biblical theologies. The whole in Paul is the relational outcome only from the whole of Paul, thus the whole in his theology is contingent on his experiential truth and not any theological discourse. This distinction, on the one hand, seems to reinforce some assumed theology from the Jesus tradition shared throughout the Christian community (notably persons addressed in Paul’s letters). Yet, more importantly, it points to the deeper development in his theology for which Paul was given responsibility to make definitive for the church (cf. Col 1:25-26).
The experiential truth in Paul’s theology included the various revelations beyond the Damascus road which he received directly from God (source 4 noted in chap. 3). This was the basis for his theological reflection developing in the thought in his letters, which suggests an order of their writing as well as his growth and development ‘in Christ’. For example, Paul first developed the functional clarity of the truth and whole of the gospel in Galatians. This unmistakably distinguished the whole gospel from any alternative gospels to decisively address the ongoing tension and conflict with reductionism, an existing problem not only in Galatia (as evidenced in our earlier discussion about Corinth). Moreover, this functional clarity of the gospel was also vital for other apostles and church leaders (notably Peter and Barnabas) to help them distinguish their own practices which essentially shaped a nuanced gospel from reductionism (Gal 2:11-14). How can this latecomer (and former contrarian) be so presumptuous about the gospel before even the core of Jesus’ first disciples?
First, Paul distinguished his commission not by embedding it in human agency (“neither by human commission nor from human authorities”) but rather by embodying it in the whole of God’s relational context and process (“through Jesus Christ and God the Father,” Gal 1:1, which appears binitarian and not trinitarian, but the Spirit was ongoingly involved, e.g. 1 Cor 2:10-13). That is, the whole of Paul’s person, apostleship and function were constituted by the Father’s relational “grace and peace” vulnerably embodied by Jesus (1:3-5). Beyond a mere greeting, Paul presented the prologue that makes definitive the basis for the truth of the gospel and the ongoing base for the whole of the gospel. Secondly, on this basis and base, Paul functionally clarified the truth of this whole gospel and delineated its conflict with any gospel of human contextualization and shaping from reductionism.
The ongoing issue of the gospel goes beyond a mere secondary variation or minor adjustment which has no basic effect of changing its primary significance. When Paul exposed “a different gospel” (heteros, not allos, Gal 1:6), he was making a critical distinction between “another of similar variation” (allos) and “different in qualitative distinction” (heteros, though the term can be synonymous with allos). This difference, with its nuances, can be confusing (“confusing you,” 1:7), yet it was of significant consequence. The difference in gospels was not a minor adjustment but essentially a fundamental deconstruction of the relational source “to pervert the gospel of Christ”—thus changing its primary significance to no gospel at all. Paul clarified conclusively the source of his gospel: It is neither a product of human contextualization nor, therefore, of human shaping or construction but only a relational outcome of involvement together with Jesus Christ (1:11-12). This was a pivotal declaration by Paul which made definitive the relational Source who wholly constituted his gospel as a direct experiential truth. The nature of Paul’s gospel was neither of human origin nor, therefore, amenable to deconstruction, negotiation and any other reduction even with good intentions. It was only on the basis of this qualitative-relational difference that in this letter Paul established the functional clarity of the truth of the whole gospel.
On this same basis, including further involvement with the Spirit, Paul then integrated this functional clarity with the necessary theological clarity by developing the conclusive theological basis for the whole gospel in his Romans letter. I suggest that Romans came after Galatians because of its primary theological emphasis, which Paul developed later (not as a theologian) to provide the necessary basis to support his primary functional emphasis in Galatians. This is not to suggest that Galatians excludes theology, or that Romans is without functional focus. It does, however, point to Paul’s priorities and the whole in his theology: That his initial purpose was function not theology, and that his ongoing concern was for wholeness in both theology and practice without separating them from their inherent integration. For Paul, theology and practice were inseparable because by their nature they are necessary together to be whole. Otherwise they are subject to reductionism we see in the false separation between academic theology and practical theology in theological education today.
Paul’s interrelated development of functional and theological clarity, and their integrated distinctness, constituted the truth and whole of the gospel beyond the limits of doctrine and mere doctrinal certainty. It was necessary to include the theological basis for this gospel with its functional clarity to make the relational significance of the gospel unmistakable in the already and conclusive in the not yet. Its relational significance is the relationships together needed to be God’s whole on God’s terms—the whole of God’s family in relational progression to the eschatological completion of the new creation (cf. Gal 6:15). Paul builds on Galatians to further distinguish “the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1) by taking his readers on what can be described as a canonical tour through biblical theology, starting with creation and the human condition and getting into the heart of the gospel and its significant roots both historically and, most important, relationally. This outlines the systemic framework of Paul’s theology (discussed in chap. 6) and points to his theological forest (discussed in chaps. 7-9).
To further distinguish the gospel from any shaping from human contextualization, Paul turned to “the gospel of God” (cf. Rom 15:16). This is the gospel of the triune God, whose thematic relational action (“promised beforehand…in the holy scriptures,” 1:2) initiated the incarnation and embodied his Son through the Spirit (1:2-4). This relational dynamic constituted the gospel in the whole of God’s relational context and process for the singular purpose and outcome of relationship together with the whole of God (1:5-6). This dynamic is unique to the gospel of God, whose relational response of grace vulnerably embodied in the peerless ‘trinitarian’ relational context of family by the incomparable ‘trinitarian’ relational process of family love made “the loved ones of God” whole together—the peace (wholeness) of the gospel contingent only on the grace from the God of peace (1:7). Paul continued in Romans to clearly establish the theological basis for the gospel. Any so-called gospel found “to be apart” (both in source and function) from this integral relational context and process is “a qualitatively different gospel” shaped by human terms from human contextualization, thus a reduction of the whole of the gospel of God—just as Paul exposed in Galatians. And for Paul even in Romans, the gospel was not in effect reduced to a doctrinal proposition but always involved the relational dynamic constituting the whole of God’s relational response of grace to the human condition.
Since Paul spoke from the relational experience of his heart, his thought and theology cannot be grasped by reduction to mere noetic terms and process. This points to the further intellectual challenges Paul addressed in Colosse and Laodicea (Col 2:8, cf. previous discussion about Corinth). In his Colossians letter, I suggest, Paul expressed his further theological development from Galatians and Romans, which likely points to his theological reflection with the Spirit while in prison. His theological development in Colossians accounts for the theological differences with his undisputed letters which causes doubt about Paul’s authorship. More significantly, however, his theological development demonstrated Paul’s involvement in his relational journey ‘in Christ’ together with the Spirit to engage them in the relational epistemic process for the ongoing synesis (whole understanding, cf. Col 1:9; 2:2; Eph 3:4) of God’s revelation in order to make definitive: (1) “pleroo [to complete, make full or whole] the word of God, the mystery…now relationally disclosed [phaneroo]” (Col 1:25-26), and thus, (2) the integrated theological basis and functional significance of the experiential truth of the whole gospel (Col 1:9-23).
Given Paul’s ongoing involvement, the relational epistemic process is indispensable to understanding Paul’s theological development. “Pleroo the word of God” rightly points to what would be known today as biblical theology. Yet making definitive the whole of God’s word more importantly points to a specific canonical approach focused more on phaneroo, not apokalypto. That is, phaneroo is God’s revelation as communicative action relationally directed to persons, not to reveal something for information but only to disclose the whole of God for relationship together. Biblical theology based only on apokalypto is insufficient to define the process of “pleroo the word of God, the mystery…now phaneroo.” Thus, the process of pleroo from God cannot be understood without phaneroo, that is, apart from the relational epistemic process by which God discloses himself to persons. Phaneroo engaged Paul in the relational epistemic process necessary for the synesis to be conclusive in “pleroo the word of God.” Paul’s synesis of “the mystery” (also declared in Eph 3:4) was biblical theology from the qualitative-relational interpretive framework of phaneroo. While his synesis from syniemi (understanding the whole by putting parts together) was the theological link (cf. Eph 5:17) between phaneroo and pleroo, phaneroo was the hermeneutical key in this theological process without which pleroo would have remained a mystery. In other words, “pleroo the word of God” was conclusively the whole of God and the whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace for the human condition to be made whole in relationship together as the whole of God’s family—the experiential truth of the whole gospel.
In Colossians, Paul apparently was responding to a theological crisis in the churches both in Colosse and Laodicea (Col 4:16, cf. Rev 3:14-18), in which their identity was affected by the influence of philosophical notions from mere human reasoning and construction (Col 2:4,8, cf. 20). This condition reduced the truth of the whole gospel and thus needed the theological and functional clarity for the churches there to be and live the whole of God’s family—beyond the mere Christian ethics to which Colossians is often reduced. The extended length of Paul’s opening remarks (1:1-2:5) was uncharacteristic of his undisputed letters, which raises the style issue of his authorship. Yet the situation and development there required a further and deeper response from Paul than he had usually expressed in his previous letters—though in those letters he always responded in part to the ongoing issue of the gospel posed by reductionism. This necessitated establishing this further framework (including Paul’s most detailed cosmology, Col 1:15-20, discussed in chap. 6) and deeper context to address the issues in Colosse and Laodicea. In this process, Paul also had opportunity to clearly establish his further theological reflections and deeper theological development in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit for synesis of God’s whole.
Colossians can be considered somewhat of a test case applying the functional clarity from Galatians and the theological clarity from Romans needed to expose, challenge and negate reductionism for the sake of the whole gospel—the precedent of which the church in Laodicea failed to take to heart, and thus whose heart Jesus pursued (Rev 3:19-20). Paul was entrusted with the administration (oikonomia) of “pleroo the word of God,” that is, the management (oikonomia involves a household) of the whole of God’s family (Col 1:25). This was the summary key Paul came to understand which defined decisively his purpose (oikonomia) and ministry (diakonos) of God’s whole. Yet, as a Jew who became a follower of Christ, Paul was doing more than defining the continuity of the NT word of God with the OT word of God for his readers. More important, as a person made whole from reductionism, Paul made conclusive the experiential truth of the whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace to make whole the human condition (Col 1:26-27; Eph 3:2-6). Therefore, Paul’s synesis of God’s relational disclosures constituted his development essentially of biblical theology, that is, theology which pleroo (to complete, make full or whole) the relational word from God, the gospel of peace (wholeness) from the God of peace.
This biblical theology was developed further in the general letter later entitled Ephesians (without personal greeting or specific situation and circumstance), extending the theological clarity of Romans. His further theological reflection in his general letter, likely also while in prison, defined the theological ‘forest’ and added aspects not included in Romans. The added theology developed in Ephesians notably involved the ecclesiology necessary to be whole—the theology of God’s whole functioning in relationship together on God’s relational terms, his oikonomia (administration, management oversight, Eph 3:2) of God’s whole new creation family (Eph 2:14-22).
Living together in the experiential truth of God’s whole is the relational reality and functional significance of the ecclesiology of the whole which Paul made definitive in Ephesians. Yet, ecclesiology by itself is only a theological ‘tree’ which must be relationally embodied within the theological ‘forest’ for its relational reality and functional significance. In his introduction Paul outlined this theological forest (Eph 1:3-14) with a condensed summary of the complex theological dynamics constituting the whole of God’s thematic action in response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole for the salvific purpose to be made whole in relationship together with the whole and holy God. Paul’s further synesis, more deeply understanding God’s whole, can be considered the integrating epistemic process, the integrating hermeneutical framework and the integrating theological framework for the various theological trees in Paul’s previous letters (notably in Romans) to make definitive their theological forest necessary for them to be whole and not for aspects of Paul’s theology to remain fragmentary. It is within this theological forest that Paul’s ecclesiology was relationally embodied to be the ecclesiology of the whole (discussed in chaps. 9-10). As an introduction to the theological forest Paul defines this quite simply as the qualitative-inner-out (pneumatikos) relational blessing (eulogia 1:3) ‘in Christ’.
The developmental flow of Paul’s theology is critical for grasping the whole in Paul and his theology, and what emerges as his pleroma theology. It would be incorrect to perceive his synesis as a mere spiritual gift from the Spirit which Paul simply used optimally in the theological task. His synesis was only the relational outcome of his ongoing involvement with the Spirit in the relational epistemic process of God’s relational context and process. Therefore, this relational process of theological development also has critical implications for Paul’s corpus. Paul’s letters are not random, isolated or even relative statements made just to respond to various situations. They articulate key aspects of the whole of God’s revelation—namely aspects of God’s self-disclosure to Paul, whether by Christophany or through the Spirit, supplemented by and supplemental to Hebrew Scripture and the Jesus tradition. This relational process implies three vital matters:
That is to say, Paul’s letters decisively expressing his thought and theology were not random or a mere human construction. They together made conclusive and they themselves were made definitive as the whole of God’s communicative word.
Given the definitive place of Paul’s corpus in the canon of Scripture, it is a common error by Paul’s readers to examine his thought and theology in his letters as mere texts apart from the relational process constituting them. Doing so is a hermeneutical error which essentially circumvents Paul’s hermeneutical imperative “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6; cf. what Jesus made requisite, “pay attention to how you listen,” Lk 8:18). This was Paul’s qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework, which emerged from the Damascus road and which further signified his ongoing involvement in the relational epistemic process that made conclusive his whole knowledge and whole understanding. Thus the whole in Paul and his theology is epistemologically contingent on and functionally inseparable from this relational process. A hermeneutical error goes beyond what Paul wrote in his letters by using some form of the alternative that Paul confronted in Corinth with his polemic: reductionism (cf. 1 Cor 3:18-20). This reduction of Paul occurs when the context, process and thus source constituting what and how he wrote is either ignored or not wholly accounted for in his life, practice, thought and theology. The consequence is to neither understand the whole of Paul nor grasp the whole in Paul. Rather what gets defined and determined about Paul comes from some human wisdom shaping his thought and amounts to some conventional human construction of his theology. The elusiveness of the whole in Paul’s thought and theology is a direct result of the presence and influence of reductionism, which is found both in a traditional view of Paul and in a new perspective of Paul.
The hermeneutic and epistemic processes face ongoing tension with alternatives from reductionism. This is the nature of Paul’s combined fight for the gospel and against reductionism, the interrelated dynamic pervading his thought and permeating his corpus; hence it must be accounted for in his theology. One critical implication this has for grasping the whole in Paul and his theology is to distinguish his primary purpose (his oikonomia) as that of function and not theology. That is to say, the intention of Paul’s theology was not to establish doctrine and its certainty but only to make definitive the theological basis for function. His theology was never an end in itself but always the means for function to be God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms. In his fight for the gospel, the truth of the gospel for Paul was neither about propositional truth nor about doctrine, though it certainly involved theology, that is, as the basis for the experiential truth of the gospel and as the means for the function of the whole gospel. The interrelated dynamic of Paul’s fight for the gospel would not allow the gospel to be embedded in doctrine because his fight against reductionism would not allow the gospel to be reduced from God’s relational whole. In Paul’s theology, the gospel was only embodied by Jesus for the function of relationship together. And the theological clarity of this gospel was not about the task of theology Paul was “doing” but involved the depth of theology Paul was living.
Paul’s gospel never varied from the function of the relational embodiment of Jesus vulnerably involved throughout the incarnation. Paul’s theology of the gospel necessarily involved a theology of Jesus (Christology). Yet not any Christology would be both compatible for the whole gospel and sufficient against reductionism. That is, the interrelated dynamic pervading Paul’s thought had to be accounted for in his theology, which thus required from Paul by necessity a Christology of the whole of Jesus without human shaping or construction from reductionism. Paul’s Christology, then, involved the need to go further than the limits of the Jesus tradition and even deeper than the early perceptions of the first disciples-apostles (cf. Gal 2:6-9; 2 Pet 3:15-16). Such a Christology developed along with Paul’s witness as he was made whole to fulfill his purpose (oikonomia) to definitively pleroo the embodied Word from God. This distinguished the complete Christology from an incomplete Christology lacking the whole of Jesus. For Paul, this involved the pleroma of God in pleroma Christology (Col 1:19-2:9, discussed in chap. 7)
Though Paul apparently assumes some common knowledge of Jesus with his original readers, his account of Christ appears to draw minimally from both the Jesus tradition and even from the other apostles (cf. Gal 1:15-17). Paul’s main source for the development of his witness came from his direct experience with Jesus in relationship and in the relational epistemic process. In Paul’s account of his Damascus road experience, Jesus told him of his witness both of seeing Jesus then and of Jesus further appearing to Paul (horao, Acts 26:16). This points to the ongoing relational involvement Paul had with Jesus, in which horao means not merely seeing (blepo, cf. 2 Cor 10:7a) Jesus but further encountering Jesus’ whole person (cf. 2 Cor 5:16) and more deeply experiencing him, thus grasping the significance of the whole of Jesus. This ongoing experiential truth of Jesus’ whole person in relationship together defined the whole of Paul and determined the whole of his witness. Integrated directly with this process, this experiential truth of the whole of Jesus defined also the whole in Paul and determined the whole in his theology—notably the whole of Paul’s Christology to constitute conclusively the complete Christology, pleroma Christology. Therefore, Paul’s Christology was partly theological and wholly relational, that is, not a conventional theology but the theological function for relationship together to be God’s whole by God’s terms. It is deficient to examine Paul’s theology only in part and thus essentially apart from the relational process constituting it, because doing so ignores the interrelated dynamic that would neither allow Paul’s gospel to be reduced to doctrine nor allow his theology to be reduced from the whole—his function of pleroo the embodied Word from God.
The purpose of Paul’s oversight (oikonomia) of pleroo the word of God (Col 1:25) was directly integrated with the longstanding mystery about Christ (Rom 16:25; Col 1:26), for which his oikonomia was responsible (Eph 3:2-3, 9; Col 2:2). Christ was not mysterious to Paul, even though his knowledge of Christ was limited and thus epistemologically provisional (cf. Phil 3:10; 1 Cor 13:12). It was the ongoing experiential truth of Jesus’ whole person in relationship together, involving Paul also in the relational epistemic process along with the Spirit, which was the source of Paul’s whole knowledge of Christ to define his pleroma Christology. Paul’s synesis of “the mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:4) was not about some mystery of Jesus’ person (though the incarnation is a mystery), but a mystery about God’s thematic relational action which Jesus embodied (Eph 1:9; 3:6). As a functional extension of the incarnation, Paul relationally experienced the whole of Jesus and thus had no equivocation in declaring his inner-out understanding “I know [oida] the one in whom I have put my trust” (2 Tim 1:12).
Paul’s experiential truth of Jesus was relational, not propositional, that is, with the embodied Truth who was only for relationship together with the whole of God (Jn 14:6). The Truth made this experiential truth the basis for knowing the whole of God (Jn 14:7). For Paul, moreover, to be ‘in Christ’ was less mystical and wholly relational. Paul had further relational clarity of the Truth than the first disciples appeared to have, and thus Paul clearly grasped more deeply the relational significance of the whole of Jesus (cf. Jn 14:7,9). His whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) of Jesus made conclusive his pleroma Christology. This is signified by Paul’s definitive designation of Christ as “the pleroma of God” (fullness, complete, that is, whole, Col 1:19, cf. pleroo, 1:25).
“The pleroma of God” was not a concept signifying some esoteric knowledge about or vague sphere of the mystery of God, as Valentinus misinterpreted from Paul to develop the Pleroma for Gnostics in the second century. Nor was “the pleroma of God” a conceptual-theological person. Rather this pleroma personally residing (katoikeo) in the embodied Jesus was the whole God person who functioned only to reconcile for relationship together in wholeness with God (Col 1:19-22). Nothing less and no substitutes than the relational ontology of the whole of God could constitute this pleroma, nor could anything less and any substitute constitute Jesus as “the image of God” (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:4) to disclose this relational function—which Marcion erred in doing by also misinterpreting Paul in the second century to support his docetic view that Jesus only appeared to be in bodily flesh. This was the One and Only who exegetes God (Jn 1:18) with his whole person in vulnerable face-to-face involvement in relationship: “God…who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). This was in continuity with God’s disclosure “face to face” with Moses (Num 12:6-8), yet now with complete self-disclosure of the whole of God vulnerably embodied in the face of Christ.
This was not about mysticism to Paul. His thought and theology were based on God’s relational action and its functional significance in Christ. Paul’s whole person experienced the whole of Christ in face-to-face involvement together. The relational outcome was synesis (whole knowledge and understanding) not only of the whole of Christ but by his nature also the pleroma of God. Therefore, this was the relational outcome of the whole of God’s family in intimate relationship together, just as the embodied Truth vulnerably revealed (Jn 14:7) and the Son intimately prayed (Jn 17:26). Paul’s Christology then was based on what he lived, not on what he formulated in a theological task. And based on his experiential truth of the whole of Jesus in God’s whole relational context of family by the integral relational process of family love, Paul echoed and extended Jesus’ formative family prayer to the Father (Jn 17:20-26). Whether or not Paul was familiar with Jesus’ prayer, he certainly grasped the full desires of the Son with the Father in their oneness. Though not clearly a trinitarian in the later sense, the maturing monotheist Paul came humbly before the Father to pray for the necessary ecclesiology, in which the church as God’s family may be made whole (pleroo) from inner out, not by theology but by the relational involvement of the family love and the qualitative functional depth of “the pleroma of God” (Eph 3:14-19). Indeed, for Paul, the whole of God relationally responded “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20, with his experience in his weakness a notable example, 2 Cor 12:7-10, as discussed earlier).
In Paul’s thought and theology, his fight for the experiential truth of the whole gospel—both in the church as well as for the whole of humanity—can only be fully understood in relational terms and as relational language. These relational terms and language were constituted in the integral relational context and process embodied by Jesus and completed by the Spirit. Paul’s ongoing experiential truth of Jesus’ whole person in relationship together along with the Spirit did not stop with defining his pleroma Christology since the relational outcome necessarily involved salvation, thus also defining Paul’s soteriology (theology of salvation).
As a learned Jew, Paul was well versed in God’s history of deliverance of Israel. This history of Israel was frequently about God’s people getting embedded in the surrounding contexts rather than sojourning to eschatological covenant relationship together. Thus OT soteriology tends to focus primarily (though not completely) on the concern for deliverance and national identity more in relation to immediate situations and surrounding contexts rather than focusing on the primacy of covenant relationship together. Paul’s experience from the Damascus road went beyond this limited, if not truncated, view of salvation. He came to understand that he was not simply delivered, redeemed from his reductionism. There was something totally new transpiring ‘in Christ’ which he was saved to (2 Cor 5:17), and in which he deeply shared from inner out (cf. 2 Cor 3:6). Just as Paul’s involvement in the relational process made conclusive his pleroma Christology, he subsequently needed to articulate a full soteriology congruent with the relational outcome from the complete Christology. That is, salvation is not only deliverance or redemption from (e.g. some enslavement, condition or sin), but by the nature of its relational outcome necessarily includes in function what Christ also redeemed for and thus saved to (both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’). Soteriology is truncated without what Christ saves to. While a truncated soteriology is congruent with Judaism and much OT thinking, it is not the fullness of the covenant relationship together at the heart of God’s promise for his people. This was fulfilled and made whole by Christ, the pleroma of God, in God’s thematic action to complete the relational response of grace to the human condition. God’s thematic action, then, is more than redemption history that just frees humanity from any condition of enslavement. God’s action is even more than salvation history if limited to deliverance and salvation from sin. Soteriology becomes truncated by anything less than the whole gospel, and by any substitutes for the gospel of peace (wholeness). And though the God of salvation is certainly the God of deliverance (cf. Ps 68:20) who saves (yasa, cf. Isa 35:4), the God of peace did not stop there for Paul but acted only to make whole.
In Paul’s transformed perspective, the pleroma of God embodied the relational progression of God’s thematic relational response of grace beyond mere deliverance to complete the salvific work necessary for being saved both from and to. As with his Christology, Paul’s thought and theology on salvation were congruent with what was first the experiential truth in his life and practice ‘in Christ’, both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ (Phil 3:12-16). In his developmental process, Paul definitively provides the theological clarity for this full soteriology (Rom 5:6-11; Col 1:19-22; Eph 2:11-22), in congruence by necessity with the relational outcome from the complete Christology. While his theology may appear imbalanced toward what Christ saved from, nevertheless his focus was not theology but always function. For example, in recounting his past (Phil 3:4-11) and what he was saved from, Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection (as in his other letters) can easily eclipse what he was saved to. He includes this, however, within the dynamic of Christ’s death and resurrection for the functional purpose of the relational involvement to know Christ, that is, not in a mere cognitive way but only through intimacy of involvement in relationship together—the qualitative significance of koinonia (3:10). For theological clarity of what Christ saved to (to balance saved from, Rom 5:9), Paul made definitive: “much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved [in] his life” (Rom 5:10). The preposition “in” (en) is more conclusive than “by his life” (NRSV) or “through his life” (NIV). What Paul defined is not simply the means for salvation but equally important, inseparable and irreducible he made definitive the relational outcome of being saved to reconciled relationship together ‘in Christ’, that is, with the whole of Christ. This is implied in the significance of the preposition en which means remaining in place, for example compared to the preposition eis (implies motion into). Thus, en relates to those with whom someone is in intimate union, not in mere association or in outer-in identification. In other words, en decisively involves what Christ saved to and being in the experiential truth of the relational outcome of Christ’s salvific work only for relationship together (cf. Col 1:19-20; 2 Cor 5:17-19).
Paul made theologically clear: In the relational progression of God’s thematic relational response of grace, Jesus embodied (“at the right time,” Rom 5:6) the salvific work necessary (“died for the ungodly”) to constitute God’s relational context of family by God’s relational process of family love (“God proves his love for us…”, 5:8)—not just love but “his own” (eautou) unique family love. This is the family love Paul later prayed for the church to experience to be whole (pleroo) for what they are saved to in “the pleroma of God” (Eph 3:14-19).
The term for “saved” (sozo) means to deliver and to make whole. Sozo can denote either saved from (delivered) or saved to (made whole), yet both are necessary to be made whole in an inner-out ontology. “To be made whole (sozo) en his life” (Rom 5:10) involves both the necessary redemption (saved from) and transformation for reconciliation in relationship together (saved to) with the whole of Jesus, the pleroma of God—that is, saved to relationship together with the whole of God in God’s family. For Paul, sozo in full soteriology can only be congruent with being made whole, and therefore by its nature must always involve this qualitative-relational function of what Christ saved to. In the whole of Paul’s soteriology, for salvation to be full and ‘to be saved’ made whole, the relational outcome of Jesus’ salvific work of grace can only be conclusively effected and experienced in the qualitative functional involvement of relationally being the whole of God’s family together (cf. Rom 8:15-16). Anything less or any substitutes is a truncated soteriology, or a different gospel from reductionism (cf. 2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:6). This is the only functional and relational significance of Paul’s definitive assertion that through and en the whole of Jesus “we have now (nun, i.e. already) received reconciliation” (Rom 5:11)—the experiential truth of the whole gospel of what Christ necessarily also saved to, both in the already and for the not yet. In the integrated dynamics of Paul’s theology, it is only pleroma soteriology which emerges from pleroma Christology (to be discussed in chap. 8). Thus, tamiym, sozo and peace (only as shalom) involve a reciprocal relational dynamic, all of which converge in only one relational outcome ‘already’ and relational conclusion ‘not yet’: whole relationship together in God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms.
This theologically clarified what Paul earlier shared of his deep desire to grow in knowing Christ in intimate relationship together (Phil 3:10). This also points to Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17) and the reason Paul echoed that prayer for the church to function in the ecclesiology necessary to be whole (Eph 3:14-19). Jesus’ prayer is commonly known as his high priestly prayer, which tends to focus on his high priestly function as the sacrifice for and the intercessor of what he saved from. Jesus’ prayer, however, was focused on what he saved to, hence, I suggest, it is more deeply defined as his formative family prayer. In his prayer, he gives the theological and functional basis for what he saved to. First, it involves the relationship together in eternal life which Jesus vulnerably embodied for his followers to experience the truth of in order to relationally know the Father and the Son (Jn 17:2-3); this confirmed what Paul was saved to and his reciprocal function necessary to know Christ. Yet, what Jesus saved to should not be reduced for just the individual and to some individual spiritual formation of knowing God. Further and deeper, the fullness of what Jesus saved to also involves the relationships together necessary to be whole. What are these relationships together which constitute being made whole?
Jesus’ prayer defines conclusively the nature and function of these relationships together to be whole. He continued, “that they may all be one” (17:21). To “all be one” should not be reduced to some conventional unity, an outer-in harmony or a semblance of peace. Jesus clearly qualified “all be one” with kathos (“just as…”), which signifies to be in congruence with. That is, Jesus defined conclusively that “all be one” is nothing less than relationships together in congruence with his relationship with the Father: “just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you.” “En me” and “en you,” as noted earlier about en, defines the relational ontology of the trinitarian persons in intimate union, that is, their unique unity and oneness. Jesus saved to nothing less and no substitutes, “so that they may be one [in congruence] just as we are one, I en them and you en me, that they may become completely one” (22-23), “so that the love with which you loved me may be en them, and I en them” (26).
Jesus did not pray for the deification of his followers en God’s ontology. What Jesus saves to, however, does involve being made whole in the relationships together which must by its nature be in congruence with (kathos) the very likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God, the Father en the Son and the Son en the Father along with the Spirit. This whole of relationships together by family love in likeness of the Trinity is the definitive witness to the world of the experiential truth of the whole of God’s relational response of grace to the human condition (17:21,23); and this was the experiential truth for Paul’s integral witness and why he echoed Jesus’ prayer for the church. Moreover, on the basis of the experiential truth of what Jesus saved to, Paul further made functional the relationships together in likeness of the whole of God in the definitive ecclesiology for God’s family to be and live whole and thus to make whole in the world, just as Jesus prayed. Thus for Paul, the witness constituted only in the qualitative function of these intimate relationships together of persons transformed from inner out (Col 2:9-12; Eph 2:14-22; 3:14-19) will decisively change the relational order of human relations (Gal 3:28; Col 3:9-11, cf. 2 Cor 5:16), even the created order (Rom 8:19-21; Col 1:20)—to be discussed in chapters nine and ten.
The pleroma of God ‘in Christ’ defined the pleroma Christology and determined the pleroma soteriology in Paul’s thought and theology—nothing less and no substitutes than the whole of God and God’s relational response of grace with its full relational outcome. Therefore, Paul’s purpose and oversight (oikonomia) of pleroo the Word of God always functioned in intimate relational involvement with the pleroma of God to define the heart of his gospel and to determine the nature of Paul’s inseparable fight for the gospel and against reductionism. For the whole of Paul and his integral witness, the truth of the gospel is the whole of the gospel only for relationship together, both decisively ‘already’ and clearly ‘not yet’. For the whole in Paul and his theology, nothing less and no substitutes constituted the gospel, that is, the only gospel relationally embodied by the whole of Jesus and relationally completed by the Spirit for God’s family to be whole and live whole in relational progression to God’s eschatological completion, as well as to make whole in the world—God’s relational whole only on, by and in God’s relational terms.
In his ongoing journey, the whole of and in Paul matured ‘already’, though he was clearly on an eschatological trajectory to ‘not yet’ (Phil 3:12-16). This process needs to be understood in its function as the relational progression to the Father embodied by Jesus (Jn 14:6) and unfolded by the Spirit (2 Cor 5:1-5; Eph 1:13-14; Rom 8:14-17) for the ultimate relational conclusion to be the whole of God’s family in intimate relationship together. This relational progression constituted ‘in Christ’ already has essentially the eschatological trajectory which both fully engages the relational context and process with God further into eternity, and wholly involves this relational context and process deeper into the depths of the whole of God. ‘Not yet’ does not preclude the experiential truth of ‘already’ but clearly takes the qualitative and relational significance of the already further and deeper to its relational conclusion.
In Paul’s thought and theology, there appear to be two worlds: the world of darkness in an evil age which is coming to a close (cf. 1 Cor 7:29a, 31b; Rom 13:11-12), and the world of light in a new creation to come ushered in the already by Christ (cf. 1 Thes 5:4-11,23; 2 Cor 5:16-17). His thought should not, however, be considered a dualism of the opposing spheres of evil and good; rather, he points to two defining and determining contexts. Paul’s polemic was emphatic that the church lives still in the world but must not be contextualized by it (cf. 2 Cor 10:2-3; Eph 5:8,15-16). The only context that defines the church as God’s family is the further and deeper relational context ‘in Christ’ (cf. Eph 3:14-15; 5:8), and thus the sole process which determines the church family is the integral relational process of God’s family love (cf. Eph 3:16-19; Jn 17:26). The whole of God’s relational context and process must by its nature (dei, not opheilo in obligation or duty) constitute who, what and how the church is. Yet the church’s posture while still in the world cannot be passive in the object-position, simply waiting for the completion of the new creation. Rather, more urgently, church involvement as God’s family signifies the relational dynamic of living in cooperative relationship with the Spirit to be whole ‘already’ and to make whole in the world (cf. Col 3:9-17; Eph 5:18-21), just as Paul’s prayer echoed Jesus’ prayer.
This takes Paul’s thought beyond Jewish apocalypticism. J. Louis Martyn affirms the approach that apocalyptic constitutes the heart of Paul’s gospel, and that only a consistent apocalyptic interpretation of Paul’s thought is able to demonstrate its fundamental coherence. Though there is continuity in Paul’s thought with apocalyptic, his thought was taken further and deeper to constitute it in the whole of God’s eschatological plan (Eph 1:9; cf. Ps 33:11) as well as thematic relational action vulnerably embodied by Christ and functionally completed by the Spirit. That is, Paul’s thought was constituted in the experiential truth of the whole relational context of God’s family by the integral relational process of God’s family love, for which Paul made definitive the theological forest (Eph 1:3-14). This constituted Paul’s eschatology, not in a doctrine of events but more significantly in relationship, namely the relational conclusion of ongoing involvement with the embodied Truth together with the Spirit in the relational progression to the Father. Paul’s thought was never fixated on the last days but was involved only in this progression of this relational process to be God’s relational whole by God’s relational terms. In Paul’s theological flow, the not yet will always emerge from the already. Therefore, the whole in Paul, and thus in his thought and theology, involved his fight both against reductionism and for the whole gospel in order to make functional the new creation ‘already’ in the church with the ecclesiology of the whole.
For Paul, the two contexts in the world are in ongoing tension for the church. This tension, on the one hand, has a negative effect influenced by reductionism which must be accounted for (negated or redeemed). On the other hand, this tension has a positive affect of making whole which ongoingly needs to be acted on in reciprocal response to the whole of God. If Paul’s readers do not grasp the functional significance of these two contexts and contextualize Paul in the correct one, they will not understand Paul’s journey and the whole of his person, practice, thought and theology. Clarity of the already-not-yet wholeness together (cf. 1 Thes 5:10-11, 23-24) was Paul’s purpose (oikonomia) of pleroo the word of God to make functional the truth of the whole gospel of the pleroma of God, the whole of Jesus, for whom the whole of Paul matured to be a whole witness, and the whole in Paul developed into a whole theology, pleroma theology, nothing less and no substitutes.
©2010 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.