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

Paul Study

Section II   Paul and theology                        printer friendly pdf version of entire study

Chapter 5       The Theological Paul  




The Subject of Theology

The Purpose of Theology

Interpreting Paul's Theology



Table of Contents

Scripture Index



Who has known the mind of the Lord?

                                                                                                                      1 Cor 2:16




            Consider the following statement on human nature:

Health and well-being for a member of our species requires, among other things, being satisfied and secure in our bonds with other people, a condition of “not being lonely” that, for want of a better word, we call social connection.

This statement made about human nature could be a commentary on the creation narrative when God declared, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Yet its source is not theological. To support this statement, the author points to a definitive basis to make this claim about human nature.



Looking more deeply at the invisible forces that link one human being to another helps us to see something even more profound: Our brains and bodies are designed to function in aggregates, not in isolation. That is the essence of an obligatorily gregarious species. The attempt to function in denial of our need for others, whether that need is great or small in any given individual, violates our design specifications. …Social connection is a fundamental part of the human operating (and organizing) system itself.[1]



             Of course, the author is not engaged in biblical commentary. Surprisingly, his view of human nature is based on quantifying the human person by neuroscientific research. While tracing the evolutional roots of natural selection combined with current brain function, John Cacioppo and his colleagues define a human person both in function and in need. The person in neuroscience is defined, better described, in quantitative terms from the outer in. While this research unequivocally associated human function with brain activity, association should not be confused with and must be distinguished from cause. Even with this association, the understanding of human need, notably for relational connection, cannot be adequately gained from an outer-in person in quantitative terms. Cacioppo, himself, concludes about the human problem of loneliness: “What individuals need is meaningful connection, not superficial glad-handing.”[2] This certainly raises the critical question of “what is meaningful connection?” Moreover, the vital corollary question is “what is good news for this inherent human need and problem?”


            This points to deeper roots of the human person than neuroscience uncovers—ancient roots more than biological, though the latter are never reduced from the whole human person defined from inner out. Specifically, this points us to theological roots—the theological roots through which Paul himself journeyed. This is what constituted Paul’s person, practice and thought, thus enabling him to make definitive the theology necessary for meaningful connection and for the experiential truth of good news for the human relational condition.



The Subject of Theology


            The above research from neuroscience is introduced for more than illustrating a point. It is a compelling statement of what is inherent for all human persons (ancient and modern), and urgently speaks of what is the intrinsic need to the human condition (past and present). The ongoing condition of the human person is indeed a relational condition. Human efforts at theological discourse down through history (particularly since the Enlightenment) have often tended to assume, take for granted, to ignore or even to be unaware of this basic relational aspect of humankind in their reflections about God. Such theological reflections have reduced the primary function of both the human person as well as God. Yet, God’s own discourse revealed, notably to Paul, only God’s thematic relational response to and relational involvement with the human relational condition, thus providing the definitive answers to the above questions.

            This relational concern was not lost on the historical Paul, who experienced the relational outcome of God’s concern only in the relational context and process of the whole of God to constitute the relational Paul. And the lens of this relational framework cannot be lost on those wanting to understand the theological Paul. Thus, this chapter (and the whole section) builds on our earlier discussion, notably from the previous chapter, and extends Paul’s epistemology. I begin our discussion of Paul’s theology focused necessarily on human nature and the human relational condition because the relational concern of this lens is central to Paul’s theological concern and should be the sustaining function for all theological discourse. That is to say, paying primary attention to the inherent human relational condition is the central function of theology simply because this is what concerns God and involves God’s purpose of self-revelation to constitute theology. Valid theological discourse, by Paul, his readers or any after him, does not signify a monologue but involvement with God in the relational epistemic process. God’s self-revelation is what the historical Paul was confronted by on the Damascus road; and God’s concern for Paul’s and the human condition is what the relational Paul experienced in relationship together with the whole of God to constitute the theological Paul.

            The hermeneutical key to theology, and thus to the theological Paul, is the interaction of the human relational condition “to be alone”—that is, “to be apart” from God’s whole—with God’s thematic relational response to this human condition. The sum total of God’s actions revealed post-creation were initiated and enacted to fulfill God’s concern to restore human persons to be whole in relationship together—the good news for the human need and problem. No other theological discourse speaks of God and thus can define God, nor speaks for God’s presence and involvement—beyond, that is, the speculation of a theological monologue. If theology is considered truly discourse or talk of God, then the essential question becomes: does theology involve a word ‘from above’ directly from God’s self-revelation by communicative action in the relational context and process of God’s terms, or does theology just engage words ‘from below’ in human contextualization shaped or constructed by human terms. The former is definitive, the latter is speculative.

            For Paul, the definitive emergence of his theology (e.g., his ecclesiology in Eph) was not the result of a theological exercise (even when isolated in prison). Though his synesis (whole understanding) of the theological “forest” of God’s thematic relational action (Eph 1:3-14) certainly involved his reflection with the Spirit (likely while in prison, cf. 1 Cor 2:10), this was only a relational outcome for Paul (Eph 3:3-5). Moreover, Paul’s “synesis of the mystery of Christ” (3:4) was never shaped by his own theological effort but only by God’s communicative action “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (3:5). This relational process of involvement with the Spirit precludes the need for words ‘from below’ of human speculation, shaping or construction. In other words, the theological Paul emerged definitively only from the relational Paul, who was wholly involved with the Spirit in the relational epistemic process.

            For theology to be truly theology and not the human shape or construction of egology, then theos must be a separate entity from ego (individual or collective). Certainly, it is problematic if there are more than one theos. That was not a theological issue for Judaism in general and Paul in particular where monotheism prevailed, if not always in practice. Yet, monotheism did not preclude the function of egology which limited or distorted their understanding of the one God—namely, the God of covenant relationship whose thematic relational action was only for relationship together in God’s whole on God’s terms. Prior to the Damascus road Paul was embedded in the kind of monotheism reduced by human terms, in which Paul became an admitted extremist (cf. Acts 26:11). For theology to be clearly distinguished, theos must be defined by the terms of God’s communicative action in self-revelation. The most definitive of God’s communicative action has been when “I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles,” just as he did with Moses (Num 12:6-8). Yet, even this relational interaction had its limitation, notably in its transitory effect (as Paul noted, 2 Cor 3:13). The most unequivocal and conclusive way for theology to ongoingly be functionally distinct is for theos to be embodied, that is, a distinct Object set apart from any human subject. Moreover, for this theology to be understood and have meaning, the object-theos must go beyond only being embodied (as if just to be observed) but also relationally engaged and vulnerably involved as Subject, nothing less and no substitutes. Only in the dynamic nature of relationship can the subject-theos be known qualitatively, experienced relationally and thus be wholly understood and have whole meaning. Any other theological cognition is fragmentary or speculative. This is the qualitative-relational significance of the incarnation, the relational response of which embodied the whole of God in face-to-face communicative action to constitute theology—the very response extended to Paul on the Damascus road, the experiential truth of which constituted his theology (2 Cor 4:6; Col 1:15,19; 2:9).

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

            For theology to be of significance, both relationally and functionally, it must by its nature be within the context of its subject matter, namely subject-theos. It is thus insufficient for theology (and the gospel) to be placed just within human context; for example, it is inadequate to grasp Paul’s theology from the lens of the historical Paul. To be contextualized with God, as the whole of Paul was, is to be in God’s relational context and process of God’s communicative action. This is the relational nature of God’s terms, in contrast to and in conflict with a dynamic shift to human terms which increasingly obscures the line of distinction between theology (defined on God’s terms) and egology (defined by human terms).

            In the relational context and process of God’s terms, theology emerges in the intimate reflection on the outcome of vulnerably receiving and responding to God’s communicative action. This outcome then can only be a relational outcome of a person(s) who is involved reciprocally in God’s relational context and process, not an observer (e.g., only as an exegete) or a collator of information (e.g., only as a systematic theologian). Therefore, theology is essentially a vulnerable conversation—that is, a dialogue with the vulnerably revealed God, not a monologue with oneself or even with others about God. Conventional theology, and thus what prevails as theology, is inclined not to be involved in this relational context and process, at least in terms of actual function.

            Paul was vulnerably confronted by his God on the Damascus road and given the qualitative relational (not mystical) opportunity to “be still [rapah, i.e., cease his human effort] and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10) in the “face to face” relational context and process of the one yet whole God. By ceasing from his human effort, even in the name of Judaism’s God, Paul made himself vulnerable to receive and respond to theos as Subject. In this relational process the theological Paul emerged from the relational Paul, who was now wholly involved in relationship together with the whole of God. Thus, I contend that we cannot grasp Paul’s theology apart from this relational context and process for the following factors: (1) this was his definitive basis for his thought and theology (1 Cor 2:13; Gal 1:11-12), (2) this was the only process by which his thought and theology developed (1 Cor 2:4-5; 2 Cor 4:6; Col 1:25-26; Eph 3:2-5), and (3) this is how the theological Paul emerged definitively from the relational Paul and why these aspects of Paul are inseparable to the whole of Paul’s person and must be integrated without reduction in order to grasp the whole in Paul’s thought and theology. Anything less or any substitute for this relational context and process results in either deconstructing or reconstructing, or both, Paul’s theology to something less or some substitute of the whole in his theology. In other words, Paul is disconnected from subject-theos and his theology is elusive or lost.

            If the subject of theology is not functionally distinct (theos or ego) and the context of the subject matter is not functionally delineated (God’s terms or human), then theological cognition becomes a fragmentary adventure (at best), mysterious, esoteric or an illusion (at worst). Paul’s theological cognition has been described with all of these by his readers mainly because they have not fully perceived both the subject and context of his theology. Essentially, theological cognition either involves intentional reflection with the Spirit in a relational epistemic process, or it is simply engagement in intentional or unintentional self-reflection shaped just by human terms. The latter cognition is not of God in God’s terms but of only human contextualization without the definitive presence and involvement of God, just speculative thought about God.

            We need to learn from Paul about what constitutes significant theological engagement and process on God’s terms. To the penetrating question first raised in Isaiah, “who has known the mind of the Lord?” (1 Cor 2:16; cf. Isa 40:3, ruah, “the spirit of the Lord”), Paul claims theological cognition from his involvement with the Spirit in the relational epistemic process
(1 Cor 2:9-13). Paul is unequivocal in the agency of the Spirit as the basis for his theology, for all theology (cf. Eph 1:17; 3:3-5). His polemic here is between human contextualization and the Spirit’s reciprocal relational work (not unilateral) to constitute us further and deeper in the relational context and process conclusive of theos as Subject.

            While in relational involvement with the Spirit, Paul’s theological reflection was not done in isolation or in a spiritual vacuum—despite, for example, his time in Arabia following the Damascus road without consulting the other apostles (Gal 1:16-17). Paul was set apart with God but he was not apart from human contexts. Ironically, an isolated or private theology easily crosses the line of distinction into self-reflection and cognition based on human contextualization. How Paul maintained the integrity of his theological engagement and the process necessary for his theology, even while in human contexts, was only by the process of reciprocating contextualization—using the primacy of contextualization with God to determine his engagement in human contexts (discussed in chap. 1). To make reciprocal contextualization functional required Paul’s primary involvement to be with God in the whole of God’s relational context and process made vulnerable to him by the embodied Word and the Spirit. It was in this ongoing relational process of his reciprocal vulnerable involvement in conversation (reflection) with God that Paul established the definitive paradigm needed for theological discourse (dialogue) to be of significance to God as well as of God, not to us (in monologue), and to be defining the Word of God’s communicative action, not ours (in self-reflection).

            Theology, therefore, which truly signifies a word from above, as Paul’s does, is a function of relationship only in God’s relational context and process. For theological discourse to speak definitively of God, it must, by the revealed nature of its Subject, always be involved in relationship with this Subject, not as if this Subject were impersonal subject matter such as a mere text, propositional truths and doctrine. This is a vital distinction for Paul’s readers to maintain. In Paul’s face-to-face experience, this is the context and terms (process) of God’s revelation—conclusively self-disclosed in the embodied Word and further constituted by the Spirit. And what did this monotheist Jew do with the embodied Word from God? He rapah, ceased his human effort in order to be vulnerable to know his God, and thus his heart was opened further and deeper to the whole of subject-theos. Prior to then, Saul had experienced and known only one God. Yet, his God from Judaism was further revealed to him “face to face”—that is, only now a relational experience beyond and deeper than any theological limits, even bias, of the monotheism of Judaism (as Paul noted, 2 Cor 4:2-6). As I have assumed in Paul’s journey, this also involved tamiym’s (whole) epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction. How was this revelation of the whole of God reconciled for Paul without refuting monotheism—a theological issue in one form or another addressed later in the early church?

            In Moses’ summary account of Yhwh’s involvement with Israel, God’s thematic action with them “was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other” (Deut 4:32-35)—monotheism, neither polytheism nor anything less like pantheism or monism. Yet this only established the sole identity of God, whose presence and involvement were deepening and becoming more vulnerable. Israel’s view of the sole identity of God was corroborated by God’s evidential actions, thus was rightly monotheistic. Nevertheless, given the deepening presence and the increasingly vulnerable involvement of this one God, Israel’s monotheism was not complete but preliminary and partial, that is, not whole. Paul’s God indeed remained the only one God, it was not a deconstruction of monotheism. But his monotheism was clearly taken beyond a provisional definition and made further definitive by the deeper presence and more vulnerable involvement of the whole of God. This does not imply that Paul became a trinitarian theologically. Yet his experiential truth of the whole of God made whole the theological discourse necessary for later trinitarian theology. Damascus road was the “Psalm 46:10” relational opportunity for Paul to vulnerably go further and deeper in his monotheism to the experiential truth of the one yet whole God. Not only had this Jew received the name of God, the embodied face of God was vulnerably involved with his whole person for relationship together (which Paul defined theologically, 2 Cor 4:2-6). Whom the psalmist of Israel longed for (Ps 42:2), Paul has experienced in the relational connection necessary with the face of God in order to be made whole (embodying Num 6:24-26), God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms for the human relational condition (which Paul made definitive theologically, Eph 3:2-6).

            The whole of Paul and the whole in Paul were constituted by this experiential truth. Therefore, because this is the whole and holy God, of whom the relational Paul can be unequivocal, the theological Paul can be conclusive of subject-theos for his theology to be whole—nothing less and no substitutes, just as was evidenced in the incarnation and constituted by the vulnerably embodied Word from God.



The Purpose of Theology


            What Paul’s readers need to keep in focus about Paul’s theology is that it was always first his experiential truth. The theological truth for Paul was not about a monotheistic Object. Truth did not come to Paul in propositional form. The Truth was theos as embodied Subject, who was vulnerably revealed only for relationship to be involved in together, thus unmistakably experiential truth for the human condition. This was what Paul experienced and his subsequent theological dialogue communicated in his letters; and its content should be neither confused with propositions nor reduced to mere doctrine (i.e., not mere didache but didaskalia, pointing to the relational process of its source, cf. 2 Tim 3:10, 14-17).

            Thus, Paul’s readers can justifiably assume what Paul would have focused on and been concerned for was to articulate a theology which signified his experiential truth from and subsequent to the Damascus road. Paul’s relational experience was distinguished from the visions and dreams of prophets, to build on Moses’ direct “face to face” with God (Num 12:6-8) in an extension of the incarnation. Paul’s theological dialogue was contingent on this relational process and needed to articulate his face-to-face experience with the whole of God—that is, that which constituted nothing less and no substitutes of the experiential truth of the whole gospel for the human condition. While Paul’s letters likely represented only a portion of all he shared during his ministry, their content is the sum of his thought and theology which communicated his further and deeper knowledge and understanding of God, and thus expressed his grasp of God’s relational whole for the human condition and the terms of God’s thematic relational response necessary for relationship together to be whole.

            The theological Paul integrated with the relational Paul was restored to whole knowledge and understanding in the relational context and process of God’s communicative action, namely in the relational response of grace embodied by the Word and Truth “in the face of Jesus Christ”
(2 Cor 4:6). The relational outcome for Paul was both understanding signified as a grasp of meaning and wisdom signified as an understanding of the whole (cf. Eph 3:2-4). Both this understanding and wisdom were not normative in human contexts or even in Judaism. His polemic on epistemology in 1 Corinthians demonstrated Paul’s source of knowledge and understanding, meaning and wisdom, and the contrast with prevailing knowledge and understanding. Paul went from partial knowledge and understanding to whole knowledge and understanding—the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of tamiym. This was not a simple transition because what was partial had always been perceived as whole. As a revealed source of knowledge, Judaism had a basis for its knowledge and understanding to be whole. Yet, this would be true only to the extent of its qualitative-relational significance determined by the one God, nothing less and no substitutes even for the elect of Israel. Outside God’s relational context and process, theological cognition and understanding are reduced to human shaping and construction. And any theological discourse, monotheistic or not, apart from God’s relational context and process remains functionally distant from God’s self-revelation, thus relationally uninvolved with God’s communicative action for covenant relationship together on God’s terms (cf. the terms for Abraham of tamiym).

            The extended-incarnation experience not only constituted Paul’s theology but, more importantly, it transformed his whole person, and thus his practice and thought. This transitioned the relational Paul beyond the limits of his shared-monotheism with Judaism and deeper into the whole of God, clarifying monotheism more definitively in the qualitative-relational significance of God. This had theological and functional implications for Second Temple Judaism and its other major beliefs (along with monotheism) on election, the law and the temple. While monotheism was not deconstructed, aspects of the other beliefs needed to be deconstructed and redefined, about which Paul was decisive (notably in Rom 9-11): for example, to realign the election of Israel with the covenant relationship necessary for God’s family and not for nation-building, to make congruent the law with God’s terms for covenant relationship together and not as identity markers for nation-state, to make compatible the temple with the relational function of God’s presence for the involvement necessary for relationship together to meet the inherent human relational need of all nations and not as the provincial place for a select few determined by human terms constructing a system of inequality, nationalism and ethnocentrism (Eph 2:19-22, cf. Mk 11:17). Paul’s further and deeper understanding of God compared to Judaism evidenced his grasp of God’s whole, the meaning of which he made definitive theologically in order to function qualitatively and relationally on God’s terms. This was always incompatible to human shaping and construction—whether in Judaism or in any other worldview from reductionism—which pervaded the ongoing situations and circumstances Paul confronted in his inseparable fight both for the whole gospel and against reductionism.

            Since Paul’s theology was first his experiential truth, theology for Paul was inseparable from function and can never be reduced to conventional theological discourse engaged in simply a theological task. It likely never occurred to Paul to engage in the latter. For this reason, the discourse in his letters often does not appear clearly theological, at least through a conventional lens, which leaves his theology elusive to many of his readers. Paul’s functional concerns may be apparent to readers but are often perceived without his theological basis necessary to understand the functional significance of his concerns and their theological coherence (e.g., his prescriptions for women and slaves). This has further left Paul an enigma to such readers. Nevertheless, Paul’s discourse, jointly theological and functional, put together (syniemi for synesis) the theological basis for the truth of the whole gospel (Eph 3:4) integrated with the deconstruction of ontological simulations and epistemological illusions of reductionism (cf. Gal 1:6-7, 11-12; Col 2:2-4, 8-10) and, when possible, their reconstruction into the whole gospel (e.g., in his confrontation with Peter, Gal 2:11-14). Paul’s theological discourse in human contexts was based primarily on the whole of God’s discourse to him in the relational context and process initiated by Jesus and deepened by the Spirit. This is the paradigm for theological engagement in human contexts on God’s terms which the whole of Paul witnessed to deeply with the Spirit—and critically speaks to us today. Whether the issue is construction, deconstruction or reconstruction, as a quintessential premodernist Paul puts both modernism and postmodernism into the full perspective of the whole of God, just as he himself was by the embodied Word from God, the pleroma (fullness, whole) of God (Col 1:19; 2:9). Past and present, this was Paul’s relational responsibility for God’s family (oikonomia) to pleroo (complete, make whole) the word of God (Col 1:25)—that is, which was vulnerably embodied by the pleroma of God in relational response to the human condition (Col 1:15-20). The relational outcome of this process for Paul is what signified his theology (e.g., Eph 3:2-12). Contrary to conventional theology, Paul was only involved in living theology (discussed in chap. 1).

            The Subject of Paul’s theology went beyond the monotheism he had in common with Judaism. Moreover, in my opinion, it also went further and deeper than the views of the Jesus tradition, which Paul indeed shared together with the existing Christian community of his time. This is contrary to Larry Hurtado and Gordon Fee who consider Paul’s Christology primarily as discourse already in acquaintance and assumed by earlier Christians from the Jesus tradition.[3] Given the existence of these shared christological convictions, this does not adequately explain the apparent absence or brevity of Paul’s explanatory discourse about Jesus Christ. I suggest that in the theological discourse of Paul’s letters there are various shorthand terms used by Paul. The full significance of this shorthand terminology is not adequately explained by presupposed beliefs or assumed understanding which Paul apparently shared with his readers.

            For example, grace is the primary shorthand term, the relational dynamic of which needs to be distinguished from the limited notion of a mere gift and contextualized in the terms of the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition (cf. Rom 5:15). The full significance of grace is understood only in its relational function, which Paul grasped first in the experiential truth of Jesus Christ in relationship together. The relational outcome for Paul was implicit in his most significant shorthand term, ‘in Christ’. While often elusive to his readers, for Paul ‘in Christ’ was the summary shorthand term in which the full qualitative and relational significance of his theological discourse is condensed and/or implicit. Paul’s theology ‘in Christ’ functionally involved both his integral witness of the pleroma of God and his specific oikonomia to pleroo the word of God; and its qualitative and relational significance went further and deeper than the Jesus tradition. Thus, the theological dialogue of Paul’s shorthand terms is fully understood only in the deeper relational context and process of the whole of God. This was what and who constituted the whole of Paul’s person and the whole in his theology.

            Essentially, Hurtado (with his “presuppose acquaintance”) and Fee (with his “assumed Christology”) either do not see Paul beyond human contextualization (albeit the Christian community) or do not appear to get beyond merely observing the text as an exegete. This vantage point becomes constrained in an incomplete Christology that neither relationally perceives the face of Christ as the pleroma of God for a complete Christology, nor understands the whole of Paul constituted by the experiential truth of the pleroma of God to signify the whole in Paul’s thought and theology. Even though the Jesus tradition and Judaism were primary antecedents for Paul, he was not limited by them to define and determine the extent of his identity and the depth of his theology. The whole of Paul matured indeed and thus the whole in his theology developed further and deeper.

            The functional purpose of Paul’s theological dialogue, just like that of the embodied Word from God, was to illuminate the qualitative function of relationship together to be God’s whole, as defined and determined by the terms vulnerably revealed by God in relational response of grace to the human condition (cf. Col 2:2-3; Eph 1:18-23). Since the theological Paul was the relational outcome of involvement in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit, Paul’s Christology was a direct expression of the relational Paul’s witness of the pleroma of God, and is thus expressed in more functional terms than theological (cf. Acts 22:14-15). And his witness was a direct relational outcome from the experiential truth of relationship together ‘in Christ’ (cf. Acts 26:16)—the extent and depth of which was directly proportional to his reciprocal vulnerable involvement in the relationship. Though Paul did not introduce Christ to most of his original readers, he did take them all further and deeper into the qualitative-relational significance of Christ (cf. Gal 1:11-12, 15-17; Eph 3:2-6). I think it is an error to assume: that the common knowledge of Jesus shared by those readers was of a significance that involved deep understanding of the whole of Jesus; and that the pleroma Christology uniquely constituting Paul’s theological dialogue was already commonly shared by his readers.

            When Paul’s readers see the whole of Paul, not just the historical Paul, they are in a position to understand the whole in his theology. This whole, however, did not emerge from human contextualization, nor was it grasped in the Jesus tradition, as evidenced by Peter’s reductionism discussed previously. Moreover, Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth further evidences the gap in the Jesus tradition (1 Cor 1:12-13; 3:4-7, 21-25; 4:6-7). The issue involved the practice of the gospel shaped by human terms (cf. 2 Cor 2:17; 4:2). Along with human shaping, this raises the issue of reification and the human/social construction of the gospel, all of which the Jesus tradition was not conclusively sufficient to wholly confirm, critique or make whole. I suggest that was because the beliefs of the Jesus tradition were fragmentary at that stage and required the further and deeper work of the Spirit in reciprocal relationship with Paul to make definitive its theological whole. It was the relational responsibility (oikonomia) of the relational Paul integrated with the theological Paul to take the experiential truth of theos as Subject beyond monotheism and further and deeper than the Jesus tradition. Therefore, the only purpose of Paul’s discourse, jointly theological and functional, was to pleroo the word of God: the word of God’s communicative action vulnerably embodied by the Word to make conclusive the good news of the whole of God’s relational response of grace for the human condition to be made whole, God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms.

            The functional purpose and relational responsibility of theology is discourse to illuminate God’s communicative relational action in terms which are not conceptual, esoteric, about mysticism, or reduced from qualitative function and relational involvement in human life, notably disengaged from the inherent human relational need and problem. Though our knowledge and understanding of the whole and holy God are never complete, our conversation of God can be whole based on the whole knowledge and understanding received from God (cf. Paul’s synesis, Eph 3:4-5) in the relational epistemic promise fulfilled by the Spirit (Jn 15:26-27; 16:13-15) and the relational epistemic process engaged with the Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-10,16; Eph 1:17). Theology therefore is a relational word received from God self-disclosed in communicative action and the relational outcome of responding back to God. By its relational reception and response, theology involves the relational function of simply telling God’s self-disclosed story, not propositional truths and systematic information about God. This is the relational story God disclosed (phaneroo, not merely apokalypto, discussed in the previous chap.) only in thematic relational response to the human condition for the relationships together necessary to be God’s whole. Anything less or any substitute revises God’s story, historically and/or relationally, by reshaping or reconstructing it on human terms.

            Paul’s theological discourse is telling God’s relational story, the good news of which he directly experienced first from the whole of God to transform his own story to only God’s relational terms. This explains why various aspects of Paul’s theology converge in his focus on the gospel, and why much of his theological discourse is implicit in his illumination of and polemic for the gospel. Moreover, this is why the theological Paul is inseparable from and integrated with the relational Paul to signify the whole of Paul and thus the whole in his thought and theology. The dynamic flow of this developmental-reflexive process in his theology can be outlined in the following:



1.  Experiencing Christ: the experiential presence of Jesus initially on the Damascus road (the historical Paul) and the emerging experiential truth of the embodied Word and Truth from God (the relational Paul).

2.  Following Christ in relationship: discipleship defined not by service but by vulnerable involvement in relationship together to know Christ, the pleroma of God to constitute the whole of Paul (the relational Paul, cf. Phil 3:7-10).

3.  Witnessing ‘in Christ’ and thus for Christ: the experiential truth in relational function by the whole of Paul in reciprocal relationship with the Spirit (cf. Acts 26:16; 1 Cor 2:1-5).

4.  Theologizing ‘in Christ’ and thus with the Spirit for the whole of God: the theological Paul emerging from and integrated with the relational Paul to articulate the whole in Paul for the theology illuminating God’s whole story in relational response to the human condition (Eph 1:17-18; 3:2-6; Col 1:25; 2:2-3).



            This developmental process has both a linear flow as well as a reflexive dynamic which indicates the extent of reciprocal involvement together in relationship. This further delineates the relational epistemic process which, by the nature of theology, integrates the reception to know God and the response to make God known. Without relationally experiencing Christ (1) and following Christ in relational progression (2), witnessing for Christ (3) has no qualitative substance to confirm the whole of Jesus, nor does theologizing (4) have any functional basis and relational significance to illuminate the definitive good news of God’s whole for the human condition. Paul’s whole gospel and theology involved only the ontological reality of this experiential truth, nothing less and no substitutes, and thus functioned always in contrast and conflict with ontological simulations and epistemological illusions from reductionism.



Interpreting Paul’s Theology


            Interpreting Paul’s theology necessarily involves interpreting the theological Paul, who was integrated with the relational Paul. By telling God’s relational story Paul was also telling his own story—the whole of Paul who experienced first the truth of the whole in his theology. Thus, the dynamic flow outlined above must be accounted for in order to understand Paul’s theological dialogue. Essentially, interpreting Paul’s theology is not a matter of getting into Paul’s mind but, more vulnerably, involves a process of “walking in his sandals.” While both focus on his epistemology, the latter necessitates the relational epistemic process which Paul engaged. Therefore, the interpretation of his theology is less about our theological discourse of Paul’s thought and terminology and involves more the interpretation of Paul’s whole person, thus his relational involvement with the experiential truth of the whole of God, namely embodied by Christ and completed by the Spirit (Gal 1:12; 1 Cor 2:10,13).

            When Paul’s readers get beyond the historical Paul and go deeper than the mere content of his theology, they are faced with the whole of Paul. To understand this whole in Paul’s theological dialogue, his readers need to account for three hermeneutical factors in their interpretation (discussed previously in chap. 3).



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.

2.  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 no 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 vulnerable involvement in the process of relationship with Christ.

3.  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 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 for the human condition. Jesus’ gospel was the experiential truth of Paul’s gospel, by which Paul was made whole.



            Therefore, to read Paul is to read his words from God, to hear Paul is to listen to God’s communicative action—taking us further and deeper into the whole of God. To grasp God’s relational story, and thus interpreting Paul’s theology, we have to listen to God’s communicative action: notably the Father declaring “Listen to my Son” (Mt 17:5), and the Son warning about his revelation “Then pay careful attention to how you listen” (Lk 8:18). This raises some critical issues which Paul’s readers need to address—issues of which Paul’s theology requires resolution to be fully understood.

            The notion that “what one looks for in Paul, one tends to find” has ironic validity, given the biases of Paul’s readers.[4] At the same time, without the irony, what one does not look for in Paul, one certainly will not find. The interpretive framework—determining the lens for what is paid attention to and what is ignored—is vital for grasping Paul, and it is critical to the epistemic process engaged. For example, a quantitative framework may be sufficient to see the historical Paul but a qualitative framework is necessary to see the relational Paul. (This would also apply to neuroscience’s view of the person from outer in and what is needed to see the whole person from inner out.) The issue here involves how the human person is defined and what lens is used to determine a person’s function. Since the relational Paul is inseparable from the theological Paul, grasping the theological Paul involves a contingency to understand the relational Paul which involves his whole person. Yet Paul’s readers cannot understand what they don’t see or are predisposed to ignore. This challenges our interpretive framework necessary to see the whole of Paul—necessarily also challenging our theological anthropology—and it addresses the relational epistemic process basic to the whole in his theology.

            To grasp Paul’s theology, then, necessitates for his readers to engage the relational epistemic process in likeness to Paul’s ongoing involvement in the whole of God’s relational context and process. By its nature, this involvement is compatible with God’s whole and terms which are both qualitative and relational. To be involved with God in the relational context and process of God’s terms clearly distinguishes the function necessary for our hermeneutical lens to have the qualitative-relational significance to know the whole of God—that is, paying careful attention to “listen to my Son.” This function is not an obligatory method but, by the nature of the embodied Word from God, must be involvement compatible to God’s relational communication and revelation (phaneroo, not apokalypto). The Word from God was vulnerably embodied to make known and accessible the whole of God for relationship together (cf. Eph 3:9-12; Col 1:19-20; 2:9). As Morna Hooker describes it, “Vulnerability is built into God’s revelation.”[5] In the incarnation God makes the whole of God vulnerable—vulnerable also to misinterpretation, to not really be listened to, even ignored, not to mention to be persecuted. Paul was guilty of all these functions until he made himself vulnerable to the incarnation further extended to him by the vulnerably embodied Word from God. Being vulnerable, both for Paul and his readers, is the only response compatible for involvement in reciprocal relationship together with the Word of God’s communicative action, whether for the relational epistemic process or for the relationship necessary to be God’s whole family.

            This vulnerable involvement signified the relational Paul who qualitatively determined the theological Paul. The historical Paul came to be only the relational Paul, and the theological Paul functioned always as the relational Paul. Therefore his theology cannot be grasped apart from or reduced from the relational Paul. In function, the relational Paul is the hermeneutical key to Paul’s theology—notably his Christology and pneumatology, making functional his ecclesiology to be whole. Yet the vulnerable involvement of the relational Paul was not a quantitative function of the person from outer in (e.g., of how much, cf. Phil 3:7-10). It was the qualitative function of the person from inner out, that is, the whole person signifying the vulnerability of relational involvement only by the heart (i.e., of how deep, cf. 2 Cor 5:12; 12:7-10, as discussed in the previous chap.). This pointed to the theological anthropology implicit to Paul, which then also points us back to the opening discussion on human nature and the inherent human need, and their necessary theological roots made definitive by Paul. This involves the wholeness of both persons and their relationships, which are inseparable to be whole and are irreducible to be God’s whole.

            Thus, for Paul’s readers this necessitates examining how we functionally define the human person; moreover, this further necessitates addressing the pervasive reduction (theological, philosophical or social) of the human person and relationships in our human contexts which, for Paul, constitute sin. Our interpretive lens certainly determines what we pay attention to or ignore first in ourselves, then in others including Paul and the whole of God. The theological Paul will not allow his readers to avoid these issues and remain less than vulnerable—that is, if they want to grasp the whole in his theology. Nor can his readers ignore that Paul’s theology is vitally integrated to the relational function of the whole gospel, for which his fight by necessity was jointly his fight against reductionism, reductionism as sin, sin as reductionism, and reductionism’s counter-relational work—that is, anything less or any substitutes for God’s whole on God’s terms.

            Interpreting Paul’s theology contextualized by God, not by human contextualization, is inseparable from interpreting the theological Paul, the whole in Paul signified by the whole of Paul. Interpreting his theology is confounding by trying to get into Paul’s mind, even though Paul unequivocally asserted: “But we have the mind of Christ” in response to the penetrating question “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (1 Cor 2:16). What, I suggest, Paul meant by this clear declaration was not about an intellectual assimilation or absorption of Christ’s mind. While his assertion certainly includes the reasoning of his theological cognition, having the mind of Christ is less about mental cognition (cf. the qualitative ruah, “spirit”, Isa 40:13) and involves more the depth of knowing the whole person as the relational outcome from vulnerability in relationship together (Eph 3:19; 4:13, cf. Jesus’ lesson on the epistemic process discussed in chap. 1, Lk 10:21). Moreover, what Paul makes definitive here is the new perceptual-interpretive framework which can only emerge as a relational outcome of vulnerable involvement with Christ in relationship together with the Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-13, fulfilling Jn 16:12-15; cf. phronema, Rom 8:6). In other words, vulnerable involvement with Christ transformed Paul’s framework and how he saw things, that is, the person, relationships, life and, most importantly, God, through the lens (eyes, mind) of Christ (cf. Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23-24; Col 3:10-11). It is only by this same lens that Paul’s readers can understand his views—a viewpoint not from getting into Paul’s mind but from vulnerably walking in the sandals of the whole of Paul.

            Therefore, in order to be compatible with Paul’s theology, it is inadequate to use just descriptive theological categories. To describe his theological discourse (dialogue, not monologue) in such quantitative or static terms may fit conveniently into conventional doctrinal categories, but this would only be fragmentary without the qualitative-relational significance of the whole in Paul’s theology. For the whole of Paul’s thought, we need experiential levels which account for both the qualitative and relational involvement of God and with God as Subject as well as Object. Additionally, for the whole in his theology, we need to have some focus on Paul’s dynamic theological forest—that is, the whole of God’s thematic action in relational response to the human relational condition (e.g. Eph 1:3-14; Col 1:15-20)—in which to piece together (syniemi) his theological trees for their whole understanding (synesis). This indeed was the experiential truth of Paul’s transformed interpretive framework and lens—a new phronema and phroneo by the Spirit (Rom 8:5-6). Thus, his theological dialogue cannot be measured and his theology cannot be interpreted by anything less or any substitutes and still be a word from above of the whole of God.

            The whole of God’s thematic communicative action converged for Paul in the experiential truth of the vulnerably embodied Word. The relational outcome constituted his new perceptual-interpretive framework and lens, the hermeneutic function of which was relationally signified in the maxim “Nothing [not to go] beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). For us today, what is written is limited to the corpus of the biblical text. What was written for Paul seems to point back to the limits of the OT corpus for Judaism and of the Jesus tradition (if any texts existed), both of which Paul went beyond. What, then, was definitive for Paul that his interpretive framework would not go beyond?

            The specific situation and circumstances Paul faced at Corinth provide the stimulus for his polemic and thought. This context and Paul’s response also help his readers understand his theological discourse (explicit and implicit) on the human person and the relationships necessary to function as the church. The existing condition in that church was fragmented relationships created by the misguided competition of each person’s claim to be either of Paul or of Apollos or of Peter or of Christ (1 Cor 1:12). The underlying dynamic of these divisive relationships (3:3,21) reduced the persons involved to being defined from outer in (1:13) based on fragmentary knowledge (3:1-5). What Paul addressed in the church at Corinth—and continues needing to be addressed in the church today—exposed the human shaping of the gospel and the human construction of theological cognition from human contextualization. Both this human shaping and construction went “beyond what is written”—that is, beyond the definitive source of subject-theos in God’s communicative action (1:19,31; 3:19-23). Paul only used what was previously written (e.g., Isa 29:14; Jer 9:24; Job 5:13; Ps 94:11) to illuminate the communicative action of God’s revelation on God’s terms—which Paul himself continued to receive further and deeper—as well as to expose anything less and any substitutes.

            In other words, for Paul the only conclusive theological discourse is limited to vulnerable involvement in the relational epistemic process of God’s revelation, namely embodied by the Word who makes definitive the whole knowledge and understanding of God’s whole only on God’s terms, and thus “nothing beyond what is [conclusive revelation from God].” God’s terms are irreducibly qualitative and nonnegotiably relational involving the whole person in reciprocally vulnerable relationship together. Anything less and any substitutes, including of persons and relationships, are from reductionism and its counter-relational work. This was at the heart of what Paul fought against in the church at Corinth and at large: “so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you [from inner out, not outer in]? What do you have that you did not receive [from God’s initiative]? And if you received it, why do you boast [of human reasoning, shaping and construction]?” (4:6b-7).

            Paul’s qualitative interpretive framework renders the meaning of the whole gospel, and his relational interpretive lens provides understanding for the theological anthropology of the whole person and the relationships together necessary to be whole—that is, the good news of the definitive relationship that conclusively fulfills the inherent human need and problem to have meaningful relationships together. This is the same inherent need and problem that even neuroscience identifies in the human person from outer in. Both this qualitative and relational significance in Paul are critical for his readers to interpret the whole in his theology. Wholeness for Paul was an experiential truth, the relational reality of which constituted the ontological identity of who Paul was and whose he was. These are the experiential levels of Paul’s theology which conventional theological categories do not account for, and thus are inadequate to understand this wholeness of Paul and are incompatible to explain the wholeness in his theology. What the continued use of these categories does help indirectly to understand, however, is how in any practice the presence of God’s whole is needed to expose the influence and workings of reductionism.

            The experiential levels of Paul’s theology can be accounted for by integrated discourse focused on the following suggested theological dynamics:


·     Theology of wholeness: theology only from above, which constitutes God’s whole on God’s terms for the human condition (Col 2:9-10; Eph 2:14-15).


·     Theology of belonging: the theological function of pleroma Christology and pleroma soteriology in pleroma ecclesiology (Col 1:19-20; Eph 1:4-14; 2:11-22; Rom 8:15-17; 12:3-13).


·     Theology of ontological identity: the qualitative and relational significance of theological anthropology ‘in Christ’ and its relational outcome in the whole of Christian ontology (2 Cor 5:5,16-17; Col 2:10-3:17; Eph 1:5,13-14; 2:1-22; 5:3-14).



These are not fixed or static categories filled with exegetical data. These overlapping and interacting theological dynamics involve exegetically the theological outworking (discourse or story) of the following: the whole of God’s creative and communicative action in relational response to the human relational condition, and human persons’ relational reception of and response to God’s family love, and the relational outcome ‘already’ and the relational conclusion ‘not yet’ in this integral relational context and process vulnerably embodied by the Son and ongoingly being completed by the Spirit, indeed by the whole of God for relationship together in God’s whole family.



            Paul was definitive, bold, uncompromising, yet loving, in his theological dialogue because his theology was unmistakably first his experiential truth of theos as Subject in relational response to his own relational condition. When Paul answered the penetrating question “Who has known the mind of the Lord?,” his answer was not just epistemological. His answer confirmed the vulnerable involvement of his person from the inner out in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit to relationally know the mind of Christ, more deeply that is, to relationally experience the heart of Christ and thus the whole of God in reciprocal relationship together to be made whole and to live whole, nothing less and no substitutes. This relational outcome ‘already’ for Paul was jointly his relational responsibility to integrally witness of the pleroma of God and his family relational responsibility (oikonomia) to pleroo (complete, make whole) the word of God. These were basic, nonnegotiable functions for who Paul was and whose he was, and therefore by their nature, irreducibly at the heart of his theological dialogue.

            And Paul’s readers can neither interpret the whole of Paul’s person and the whole in his theology with anything less or any substitute, nor can they even engage in interpreting his theology with anything less or any substitute of their own person. His readers can only find the theological Paul in the relational epistemic process with their own vulnerable involvement in likeness of the relational Paul, who lived his theology in the definitive relationships together in likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God—the very wholeness for which Jesus prayed for his family (Jn 17:20-26), and Paul prayed after him for the church to be God’s whole family (Eph 3:14-19).







[1] John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. loneliness:Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 8, 127.

[2] Cacioppo. loneliness, 269.

[3] Larry W. Hurtado. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 98-133. Gordon D. Fee. Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 2-6.

[4] Take to heart the statement by Stephen Westerholm noted previously in chap. 1: “Perhaps a corner in the chutzpah hall of fame should be reserved for those of us who write about Paul. We are, after all, hardly less liable than other mortals to misconstrue the thinking of our spouses; that of our teenage offspring we have long since despaired of divining. We too contend daily with the impenetrable otherness of our contemporaries: any forgetfulness of our limitations incurs prompt and painful refutation. The study of the ancients, on the other hand, allows a good deal of scope for our pretensions and, best of all, immunity from instant rebuttal—and we have certainly milked its potential to the fullest. Given a first-century apostle a few of whose letters we have read, we make bold to distinguish what he said from what he really thought, and even to pontificate n why he thought the way we think he did. Indeed, as the assumptions that governed Paul’s thinking become more and more remote from our own, the assurance with which we pronounce on the direction and deficiencies of his reasoning seems only to increase.” Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 214.

[5] Morna D. Hooker. “Where is Wisdom to be Found? Colossians 1:15-20 (I)” in Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom, edited by David F. Ford and Graham Stanton (London: SCM Press, 2003), 127.




©2010 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.


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