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The Person in Complete Context

The Whole of Theological Anthropology Distinguished

Section II: The Person in God's Context


Chapter 4        The Whole Person Distinguished



Distinguished from the Beginning

In the Qualitative Image of God

In the Relational Likeness of God

1. Within the Whole of God

2. With Other Persons in the Human Context

Distinguishing Theological Anthropology



Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Printable pdf of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index



Who is this that obscures my plan and purpose by words without knowledge?

                                                                                                                              Job 38:2


            The responsibility of theological anthropology is to be theological—not physical, social or philosophical—and thus not to shape its theology anthropologically. This responsibility cannot be fulfilled as long as our epistemic field is restricted to the limits of the human context, and also by its constraints. To meet the responsibility of theological anthropology, we now examine the person in God’s context.

            As we deliberate further on the question raised by ancient poets (Ps 8:4; 144:3), we can learn from Job’s experience. In his frustration or cynicism, and perhaps despair, Job initially raised the same question from an opposite approach: “What are human beings that you make such a big deal (gadal) of them, that you even set your heart (leb) on them and are involved (paqad) with them everyday…all the time?” (Job 7:17-18) What provoked Job’s question specifically involved his own person in God’s context.

            First, Job experienced being the object of Satan’s reductionism that defined his person by what he had and did (Job 1:10-11); but Job would not let his person be defined in those reduced terms (1:20-22). Then, Job’s focus on his person was shifted from inner out (2:3) to outer in (2:4-5). When he also made the outer in primary, he was conflicted in person-consciousness and became self-conscious in his context with God (e.g. 10:1; 27:2). What unfolded is critical to the process of theological anthropology and basic to what and who constitute the person in God’s context.

            To answer his question about the person in God’s context, Job narrowed his epistemic field (e.g. 23:3, 8-9) in order to explain his person from outer in, and why this was happening to his person in God’s context. What Job experienced was a struggle common to all persons in God’s context: the vacillation between inner out and outer in (19:26-27)—also between person-consciousness and self-consciousness; and the confusion that preoccupation in the outer in creates (19:19; 27:2; 29:2-5). In the midst of this struggle, Job’s will remained focused on the primacy of relationship with God (2:9-10), even though his person-consciousness waned. His primary focus was the key that allowed him to receive feedback to his answers—answers which begged the question from God (38:2)—in order to engage the relational epistemic process with God for the heuristic function to know and understand his (including our) whole person in God’s context. The relational outcome is theological anthropology.

            In God’s response to Job (38-41), God takes Job’s epistemic field beyond the human context to establish the person in God’s context, that is, the complete context necessary to compose the narrative for human being in whole ontology and being human in whole function (as in 38:36). Therefore, in Job’s assumptions about the person in God’s context, he realized his speculation was based on a narrow epistemic field and its hermeneutic limits (40:5); whereby he received God’s direct relational response in this relational epistemic process (42:4-5) that provided Job with the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction needed for whole knowledge and understanding contrary to his fragmentary knowledge and understanding (42:3). This relational outcome can only be experienced in the primacy of relationship with God in epistemic humility.

          Thus, Job learned in being apart from God’s relational context and relational epistemic process:

Anything less than and any substitutes for the whole signify theological anthropology discourse that “obscures (hashak) God’s plan and purpose (‘esah) for the human person with words without whole knowledge and understanding” (da’at, 38:2); this is the reductionist result of attempting “to explain (nāgad) the person in God’s context I did not understand, the person too distinguished (pala) for me to know from a limited epistemic field and narrow interpretive lens” (42:3).

            The heuristic process does not and cannot go beyond its epistemic field. So, for example, both science and theology cannot explain, define and determine the human person any further than the knowledge available to them in their epistemology—though obviously this hasn’t stopped speculative discourse from speaking about and even for God (sound familiar?). As we deliberate on the person in God’s context, we need to learn from Job. He experienced ontological struggle when he focused on his outer in, which led to relational difficulty in reciprocal relationship with God. On the one hand, Job shared his feelings openly with God but then, on the other hand, he spoke for God on his own terms; and the latter involved both an epistemological and hermeneutical problem. The ontological, relational, epistemological and hermeneutical issues are critical for our knowledge and understanding of the whole person distinguished in God’s context.


Distinguished from the Beginning

            The person in God’s context is distinguished (pala) just in the epistemic field of the whole of God’s relational context, while integrally engaged in the relational epistemic process of God’s communicative action (the relational Word from God, not referential). Pala signifies to separate, to be wonderful, that is to say, to distinguish beyond what exists in the human context and cannot be defined by its comparative terms, or the person is no longer distinguished. Thus, this person can be distinguished only by whole ontology and function uniquely constituted by God, the Creator, the distinguishing nature (no less than pala) of which was beyond Job’s knowledge and understanding (42:3). God pointed Job back to the unique constitution of the person from inner out, who has whole knowledge (hokmah) in the ‘inner’ (tuhot) person and whole understanding (biynah) also in the ‘inner’ (sekwiy, Job 38:36). The ‘inner’ (meaning of Heb tuhot and sekwiy is uncertain) has no certainty in referential language because it signifies a relational term that cannot be known and understood in referential terms. The ‘inner’ that God points Job back to is in the beginning: the whole ontology and function uniquely constituted by God that distinguishes human persons beyond comparison in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God (Gen 1:26-27).

            Evolutionary biology highlights the development of the physical body, including the brain, for Homo sapiens—that is, the bodily development of human antecedents in physical form. While I affirm this physical development, science cannot assume that this physical body developed into the human person. Even with the development of the brain for higher level function unique to humans, the evolution process can only account at best for humans from the outer in. There is a limited quality within the quantitative structure of outer in that neuroscientist Damasio identified in the evolutionary development of the organism’s interior (noted previously). This does not distinguish the whole person but only defines a fragmentary person without the significance of being whole from inner out. So, then, what is the ‘inner’ of the person and how do we account for it with the human body to integrally constitute the whole person from inner out?

            We cannot limit the dynamic process of creation, either by the limits of our epistemic field or by the constraints of a biased hermeneutic lens, which applies to both science and theology. In the creation narrative, the person is distinguished by the direct creative action of the Creator and not indirectly through an evolutionary process that strains for continuity and lacks significant purpose and meaning. At a specified, yet unknown, point in the creation process, the Creator explicitly acted on the developed physical body (the quantitative outer) to constitute the innermost (“breath of life,” neshamah hay) with the qualitative inner (“living being,” nephesh, Gen 2:7); the relational outcome was the whole person from inner out (the inseparably integrated qualitative and quantitative) distinguished irreducibly in the image and likeness of the Creator (Gen 1:26-27).

            The qualitative inner of nephesh is problematic for the person in either of two ways. Either nephesh (Gen 1:30) is reduced when primacy is given to the quantitative and thus the outer in; this appears to be the nephesh signified by supervenience in nonreductive physicality that is linked to large brain development and function. All animals have nephesh but without the qualitative inner that distinguishes only the person (Gen 1:30). Or, nephesh is problematic when it is fragmented from the body, for example, as the soul, the substance of which does not distinguish the whole person even though it identifies the qualitative uniqueness of humans. The referential language composing the soul does not get to the depth of the qualitative inner of the person in God’s context (cf. Job in Job 10:1; 27:2), because the inner was constituted by God in relational terms for whole ontology and function. The ancient poet even refers to nephesh as soul but further illuminates qereb as “all that is within me” (Ps 103:1), as “all my innermost being” (NIV) to signify the center, interior, the heart of a person’s whole being (cf. human ruah and qereb in Zec 12:1). This distinction gets us to the depth of the qualitative inner that rendering nephesh as soul does not. The reduction or fragmentation of nephesh is critical to whether the person in God’s context is whole-ly distinguished or merely referenced in some uniqueness. 

            The qualitative inner of the person can be considered as the inner person. This identity implies an outer person, which certainly would employ a dualism if inner and outer are perceived as separate substances as in some frameworks of Greek philosophy (material and immaterial, physical and spiritual). In Hebrew thinking, the inner (center) and outer (peripheral) aspects of the person function together dynamically to define the whole person and to constitute the integral person’s whole ontology and function (cf. Rom 2:28-29). One functional aspect would not be seen apart from the other; nor would either be neglected, at least in theory, but which was problematic throughout Israel’s history as the people in God’s context (e.g. Dt 10:16; Isa 29:13).

            In Hebrew terminology of the OT, the nephesh that God implanted of the whole of God into the human person is signified in ongoing function by the heart (leb). The function of the qualitative heart is critical for the whole person and holding together the person in the innermost. The biblical proverbs speak of the heart in the following terms:

identified as “the wellspring” (starting point, tosa’ot) of the ongoing function of the human person (Prov 4:23); using the analogy to a mirror, the heart also functions as what gives definition to the person (Prov 27:19); and, when not reduced or fragmented (“at peace,” i.e. wholeness), as giving life to “the body” (basar, referring to the outer aspect of the person, Prov 14:30, NIV), which describes the heart’s integrating function for the whole person (inner and outer together).

Without the function of the heart, the whole person from inner out created by God is reduced to function from outer in, distant or separated from the heart. This functional condition was ongoingly critiqued by God and responded to for the inner-out change necessary to be whole (e.g. Gen 6:5-6; Dt 10:16; 30:6; 1 Sam 16:7; Isa 29:13; Jer 12:2; Eze 11:19; 18:31; 33:31; Joel 2:12-13).

            In Judaism, Paul had already been introduced to the importance of the heart (leb, e.g., Deut 6:4; 10:16; 11:13). Yet, Paul had not understood this importance for the ontology either of Israel as God’s people or of his own person. He had not grasped the integrating function of the heart for the person (cf. Prov 4:23; 14:30; 27:19) until his own heart was exposed on the Damascus road, now vulnerable in relationship with the whole of God. I have assumed that this involved the retrospective journey of his person back to the human roots beyond his Jewish roots in Abraham. The original human roots, both for the individual-person and for the collective-persons together, define the heart as the center of human ontology, not the brain of neuroscience or the sub-atomic dynamics of physics. What is the difference of the heart and how is it significant?

            The integrating function of the heart is irreplaceable. The mind may be able to provide quantitative unity (e.g. by identifying the association of parts) for the human person, as quantified in the brain by neuroscience. However, while this may be necessary and useful at times, it is never sufficient by itself to distinguish the whole person, nor adequate to experience the relationships necessary to be whole. Not even the higher level function of supervenience, as used by nonreductive physicalism, is sufficient to account for the qualitative whole needed to constitute persons in God’s context.

The priority of the inner person over the outer is illustrated in the selection of Saul’s replacement as king. When God sent Samuel to Jesse’s household to anoint one of his sons chosen to be king (1 Sam 16:1-13), Samuel thought for sure that Eliab was the chosen one. Yet, God clarified that Samuel based his conclusion on what he perceived of Eliab’s person through the lens of a reductionist framework using an outer-in approach (v. 7, “appearance,” mar’eh, signifying outward appearance). Samuel had shifted to an outer-in approach in contrast to God who “looks at the heart” using an inner-out focus of personness. By returning to God’s perceptual framework, Samuel was able to perceive the deeper qualitative significance of the whole person from the inner out, thus understanding the significance of David’s outer features (‘ayin and tob) reflecting his inner person (v. 12). In contrast, the priority of the outer over the inner is illustrated in a subtle experience of Ezekiel, where his performance and reputation became the focus over the significance of his message (Eze 33:30-32)—an illusion that continues today, for example, where the medium becomes the message. His “audience” demonstrated a higher level function that is misleading; this further illustrates that supervenience only suggests what ought to be rather than results in real action.

The qualitative significance of the heart is not composed in referential language and terms but only distinguishes the person in relational terms that God “breathed” into human persons. Nephesh may be rendered “soul” but its functional significance is the heart (Dt 30:6; Rom 2:28-29). From the beginning, the heart defined and determined the qualitative innermost of the person in God’s context and not the soul; the soul’s prominence unfolded much later from the influence of philosophical thought, shaped by referential terms. The heart’s significance only begins to define the image of God, yet the heart’s function identifies why the heart is so vital to the person integrally in the image and likeness of God. God’s creative action, design and purpose emerge only in relational language, the relational terms of which are not for unilateral relationship but reciprocal relationship together. Therefore, God’s desires are to be vulnerably involved with the whole person in the primacy of relationship—intimate relationship together. Since the function of the heart integrally constitutes the whole person, God does not have the whole person for relationship until it involves the heart (Dt 10:14-16; Ps 95:7-11).

This may bring up a question that would be helpful to address. If God constituted the physical body with the qualitative inner to distinguish the human person from all other animals, how does relatedness further distinguish human persons since most animal life subsists in relatedness also? Not only does the qualitative distinguish the human person from inner out with the quantitative according to the image of God, but at this intersection of God’s creative action relationship was now also constituted as never before (as in “not good to be apart”)—conjointly and inseparably with the qualitative—to fully distinguish the human person as whole according to both the qualitative image of God and the relational likeness of the whole of God (namely God’s relational ontology and function, discussed below). The primordial garden illuminates the integral dynamic of the qualitative and relational in its wholeness as well as its reduction—the convergence of the physical, psychological, the relational, the social and the cultural, which together go into defining and determining both the human person and subsequent human condition. Paying attention to only one (or some) of the above gives us a fragmentary or incomplete understanding of what it is to be human. The creation narrative provides us with not a detailed (much less scientific) account of humans but the integrated perspective (framework and lens) necessary to define and determine the whole person, as well as the underlying reductionism of the human condition. Therefore, these contexts, expanding parameters, limits and constraints are critical for theological anthropology to distinguish what and who only can be the whole person in God’s context.

The original human roots with Adam and Eve constituted each of them in their individual self, both with themselves in relationship together and with their Creator. Yet, Adam and Eve made two critical assumptions in the primordial garden: (1) that their ontology was reducible to human shaping, and (2) that their function was negotiable to human terms (Gen 3:6-10). Their reductionism reflects a shift from the qualitative inner out (“whole-ly naked and vulnerable,” Gen 2:25) to the quantitative outer in (“naked parts and covered up,” Gen 3:7) without the integrating significance of the heart, thereby fragmenting the whole of human ontology down to one’s parts. This is a pivotal qualitative and relational consequence for persons. Once the person becomes distant from, unaware of or detached from the heart, there is no qualitative means in function to integrate the whole person—leaving only fragmentary parts (however valuable or esteemed) that are unable to distinguish the person in God’s context. Conjointly in creative function, there is no basis for deep involvement and intimate connection in relationships together without the qualitative function of the heart (Isa 29:13; Jer 12:2, cf. Eze 33:31). The qualitative and relational consequence, as witnessed in the primordial garden, is an outer-in association together accompanied with shame, disappointment, confusion or dissatisfaction (bosh, Gen 2:25, cf. Eph 4:18). Only the conjoint function of the qualitative inner (signified by the heart) and the relational from innermost (signified by hearts coming together in intimacy) distinguish whole persons beyond comparison. Nothing less and no substitutes can claim to pala the person in God’s context simply because these persons are constituted integrally in the image and likeness of the whole of God’s ontology and function. This is the created whole of the person and of persons in relationship together from which “is not good to be apart” (Gen 2:18).

David certainly understood this since he was chosen by God based on his person from inner out, and he made his heart accountable and vulnerable to God (Ps 51:6, 10, 16-17;
139:23); and the reductionist substitutes from the outer in were understood to have no relational significance to God (cf. Ps 147:10). This is why David charged Solomon when he was chosen to build a temple dwelling for God: to respond to God and to be involved with your whole heart (shalem, leb) and the desire (haphes) of your person from inner out (nephesh) because God wants your whole person for relationship (1 Chron 28:9). This intimate relationship symbolized by the temple was extended to the hearts of the whole of humanity for relationship together as the whole of God’s family (cf. Acts 15:8,9).

Conversely and conjointly, God acts only in relational terms and communicates only in relational language. Any person focused outer in does not make relational connection with God (as Job struggled, Job 23:3,8-9), and thus is unable to know and understand God merely by referential language, no matter the quantity of referential information about God (as the theological academy labors today). In reality, any such knowledge and understanding about God is simply self-referencing, whereby theological discourse becomes speaking for God from the cognitive level of the mind rather than receiving God’s relational communication and expressing this relational knowledge and understanding of God from the depth level of the heart.

Without the qualitative function of the heart to integrate the whole person, the only alternatives for persons are ontological simulations and epistemological illusions shaped by reductionism. The heart’s significance unfolds in relational terms for the relational outcome that we need to understand more deeply in the divine narrative composing the narrative of human being and being human: The whole of God ongoingly pursues, solely in relational terms, the heart and wants our heart (as in 1 Sam 16:7; Prov 21:2; Jer 17:10; Lk 16:15; Rom 8:27; Rev 2:23)—that is, pursues only the whole person for vulnerable involvement in integral reciprocal relationship together. The innermost person signified by heart function has the most significance to God and, though never separated from or at the neglect of the outer, always needs to have greater priority of importance for the person’s definition and function to be distinguished in God’s context.

Persons in God’s context cannot negotiate either the qualitative condition of their ontology or the relational terms of their function. Theological anthropology discourse must be engaged accordingly. For example, when discussing the social nature and character of human persons, it is insufficient for theological anthropology to talk about merely social relatedness and community to define and distinguish the human person. For nonnegotiated theological anthropology, the person is created in the qualitative image of God to function in relational likeness to the whole of God (discussed shortly). Without renegotiation, therefore, human persons are created in whole ontology and function for the primacy of relationship together solely in relational terms as follows:

The qualitative ontology of the person’s heart vulnerably opens to the hearts of other persons (including God) in order for the relational outcome of the primacy of relationship together to be nonnegotiably and irreducibly distinguished by the wholeness of intimate relationships—defined as hearts open and vulnerably connected together to be whole, that is, whole solely in the image and likeness of the whole of God (“not to be apart…but naked and relationally connected without disappointment”).

When God’s relational terms from inner out are shifted to referential terms from outer in (even unintentionally or perhaps inadvertently), something less or some substitute replaces the above and renders the person and relationships to fragmentary-reduced ontology and function. This qualitative and relational consequence no longer distinguishes persons in God’s context, only shapes them in the limits of the human context by the constraints of the human condition (“to be apart…naked and relationally distant”).

            From the beginning, these two competing, contrary and conflicting dynamics have either constituted the person in the primary of God’s relational context and process, or shaped (even embedded) the person in the secondary of the limits and prevailing constraints in the human context. Nevertheless, the image and likeness of God continue to be illuminated to conclusively distinguish the whole person in God’s context.


In the Qualitative Image of God

            As the image and likeness of God are further illuminated, there likely will occur an uncovering of theological anthropology—or making “naked” if you wish—that reveals a person in a reshaped image or unlikeness of God. This will challenge our assumptions and be critical for the person (including our own) who emerges and develops.

            There are two main and vital issues any theological anthropology must answer:

  1. What does it mean to be the human person God created?
  2. What does God expect from this person?

To expand on our discussion above, understanding the first issue is interrelated to the second. This mutual understanding thus unfolds in relationship together by the inseparable function of righteousness: defined as being the whole of who, what and how the person is that can be counted on by others to be that person in relationship together. Accordingly, any theological anthropology that adequately answers these two issues must by nature be integrated with righteousness, both God’s and ours. Anything less and any substitutes in theological anthropology or for righteousness fragments the person into certain parts over other parts, with the relational consequence of being and living less than whole.

            Ecclesiastes illuminates a simple reality of God’s creative action that is easy to ignore not only to distinguish the human person but also God: “God has also implanted eternity in the hearts of persons” (Ecc 3:11, NIV). What is illuminated is the reality of being connected in ontology and function to something beyond our persons, which can be defined in whole knowledge and be satisfied in whole understanding solely by the whole of God, because that something is transcendent. Eternity (‘olam) should not be seen as a referential term and thus here understood in cognitive terms (e.g. “a sense of past and future into their minds,” NRSV), as part of human rationality and reasoning that traditionally is considered to compose the image of God. In this sense, ‘olam and any other connections thought to be made beyond the human person can also be considered mere epiphenomenon, without clearly accounting for a distinction between them.[1] The reality of eternity consists in relational language and helps constitute the qualitative innermost of the person in the image of God only in relational terms (cf. Jn 17:3). In other words, having eternity in their hearts connects persons to the transcendent God—not just to some cognitive part of God but to the whole of God. Yet, there is a critical distinction that must be made between referential terms and relational terms in order to further know and understand the God behind the image distinguishing the human person. To know and understand God is the relational process to know and understand the person in the image of God.

            What necessarily separates theism from deism is the clarity of God’s qualitative presence and relational involvement. Theism assumes God’s vulnerability, yet more likely has been described traditionally in referential terms not compatible to make connection with God’s presence and involvement. Such a theism is certainly problematic to know and understand God other than with referential information merely about God, which in function is not significantly different from deism. This has obvious implications for the image of God and for persons dependent on that image to be distinguished. The vulnerable presence and relational involvement of God, however, is a relational reality that integrally distinguishes the whole ontology and function of God, who, on the basis of this qualitative relational reality, created the human person and relationships together in that image and likeness of God’s incomparable ontology and function. To use Ecclesiastes’ relational language: “God transplanted into the innermost of human persons not the breadth of linear time in chronological terms composed by a traditional lens of eternity but the depth of the image of the whole of God’s ontology and function.” What God transplanted did not deify the person ontologically (also not to be confused with panentheism) but constituted the person relationally to be whole together, whereby to relationally know and understand the God who is vulnerably present and relationally involved is to have whole knowledge and understanding of God’s image and, on this qualitative relational basis, to know and understand the whole person distinguished by that image in God’s relational context and process.

            This irreversible connection of the person with the whole of God is the simple reality ‘olam signifies that theological anthropology is ongoingly accountable to constitute the person in the image of God: to constitute from inner out as a complex subject of person-consciousness involved in complex relationship both vulnerable and reciprocal, not to compose the person from outer in as a simple object of self-consciousness engaged in simple association. Yet, the reality of this connection is continuously subjected to reductionism and its counter-relational work that must also be addressed definitively with the whole, or fall into being subject to its obscuring influence. ‘The presence of the whole’ constitutes the image of God and makes functional this image for persons to live distinguished in its significance. How is ‘the presence of the whole’ vulnerable to be relationally involved for this vital relational outcome?

            The qualitative image of God is known and understood conclusively only in the involved God in the beginning, the vulnerable God of the beginning, and indeed the transcendent God beyond—composed only in relational language according to relational terms by just the relational Word. On this basis, the presence and involvement of the relational Word from the beginning is the key for the ongoing presence of the whole to make functional the image of God. This heuristic process involves how we understand language and communication.

            When we focus on listening to the words in language, we may or may not be focused on communication from another. Words in referential language are commonly what we use to transmit information to talk about something and to express how well we can talk about it, notably to explain it. It can also be about someone, such as God, in our discourse. Yet that other being remains impersonal if the focus is not on communication; the focus on words in referential language becomes an I/we-it relation rather than the I/we-you relationship involving communication. In referential language the other is just an object while in relational language the other is always a subject. This distinction is critical for determining the message unfolding in the words in and from the beginning.

            “In the beginning” (re'shiyt, Gen 1:1; arche, Jn 1:1) are words that can denote first as to time, place, order or in terms of leadership; also can denote the starting point or cause of something commencing. Are these just words in referential language to transmit information, or is this communication from the Other outside the universe—perhaps both?  The primacy of the latter can include secondary aspects of the former. Primacy given to the former, however, is incompatible with the latter and thus does not lead to the primacy of communication in relationship; moreover, it remains fragmentary with its incomplete information—whatever its assumed precision, consistency and certainty—unable to be whole.

            There are two major ways to understand “in the beginning”: (1) in the context of time and space, is ‘the beginning of time’; and, (2), within but not limited to the time-space context, is ‘the starting point of relationship’. These views are not mutually exclusive, yet how they overlap can redefine the message in these words. Traditionally, the first interpretation tends not to include the full significance of the second, even though creation may be affirmed and the Creator acknowledged. “In the beginning,” however, “was the Word” in person solely to communicate, not words in referential language to transmit information. A traditional interpretation is theologically distorted  because, first, it reduces the qualitative whole (including the cosmos and all things in the universe) constituted by the Creator to only quantitative terms, and as a result, secondly, diminishes the relational significance of what the Creator created. Rather, in these relational language words with the Word, God communicated a definitive statement of God’s communicative action as Subject—in contrast to merely transmitting information as Object to be observed—that can only be fully understood as relational work, that which synthesizes the creative work. This relational work does not render the physical universe (or material) as bad or diminish its significance but provides the whole understanding and meaning for what holds it together in its innermost.

            What is the nature of the message God communicated with the Word? The definitive nature of the message unfolding with the Word in and from the beginning is (1) cosmological, (2) relational, and (3) whole. This leads us to the whole of Christology,[2] which is integral for theological anthropology. Yet, theological anthropology will not emerge whole from an overly christocentric Christology, that is, from a Christology that does not account for the whole of Jesus’ person, who by his nature is inseparably integrated in relationship together with the whole of God (integral with the Father and the Spirit). This whole Christology, complete in its qualitative and relational significance, is only composed by the complete face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6)—the who, what and how in whole ontology and function—that must compose our Christology (pleroma Christology, Col 1:19; 2:9) in order for theological anthropology to be constituted with whole ontology and function in the image and likeness of the whole of God as embodied by Christ (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). The embodied Word is the epistemological, hermeneutic, relational and ontological keys to God’s self-disclosing communication, and understanding the whole ontology and function of both God and human persons—which is why the Father communicated the imperative relational message: “Listen to my Son” (Mt 17:5, cf. Lk 8:18). This is assuming, of course, the righteousness of the Word, that is, to be the whole of who, what and how he is and thus can be counted on to be this whole person in relationships.

            As John’s Gospel records (Jn 1:1-4) and Paul affirms (Col 1:16-17), the source of the Word was conjointly from outside the universe and the source of the universe’s creation (Jn 1:10,18; 3:19). This cosmology is integral to the full identity of the Word and the quality and depth of the creative action communicated by the Word—whose dynamic context and process are unfolding from this source, notably recorded in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:4-5, 10-11,14,18; 3:19). This beginning is vital for understanding what unfolds.

            Given the source, the Word cannot be reduced to be defined or determined in any manner by anything in the universe; in other words, the Word is pala, beyond comparison in the human context. If it were, this would result in the following: The Word would be part of the universe itself; or diminished to some aspect (e.g. category, order, species) of creation, even created itself; or otherwise anthropomorphized in human terms. The parameters of the universe can only narrow down the perception of reality outside the universe, which would constrain God in a box of human shaping and construction. Any of these reductions is consequential for the unfolding of the Word by reducing the qualitative depth and significance of the message that we call the gospel. Moreover, given the source, it is only the Word in the beginning that defines and determines the universe and all in it, that is, only on God’s terms and not on human terms. The cosmological nature of this message unfolding with the Word necessitates our epistemic humility and requires our ontological deference.

            Thus, only on this basis does the message of what unfolds and why become definitive. What the Creator created and why are understood not by the mere transmission of information by the Word in the beginning but only as the cosmological source of the message in integrated communicative-creative action as Subject for the primacy of relationship together. This integrally integrated dynamic constitutes the relational nature of the message unfolding with the Word.

            Therefore, what the Creator created and why emerged in the beginning only as ‘the starting point of relationship’; accordingly, the what and why are inseparable from the communicative action that unfolds with the Word. The relational nature of the Word ongoingly engages in communicative action, not in the transmission of information. In further and deeper unfolding of this relational dynamic, the Word embodied this relational communication in the vulnerable self-disclosures of the whole of God (Jn 17:4, 6-8; Col 1:19; 2:9). In his crucial prayer-communication to the Father, what the Son completed (teleioo) in revealing God was not to merely exhibit God for observation in order to impart some information or knowledge about God; that quantitative revelation is signified by the word apokalypto, which only refers to the object revealed. The Son, however, vulnerably phaneroo the Father, that is, more deeply “disclosed you to those whom you gave me”—referring specifically to those to whom the revelation is made in this relational context and process. Phaneroo signifies the further and deeper unfolding of the Word for the sole purpose of relationship together. Therefore, the nature of the message unfolding with the Word is always relational: “who came from the Father…” (Jn 1:14, NIV), “who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18), “God so loved…gave his Son…send the Son” (Jn 3:16-17), “I am…to the Father” (Jn 14:6), “…they may know you…” (Jn 17:3), “I have made your name known to them…so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26), “…what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), “Let the word of Christ dwell in you” (Col 3:16), “Listen! I am standing at the door of your heart, knocking; if you hear my voice and respond to me, I will come in to you for reciprocal relationship together” (Rev 3:20).

            Our understanding of the message unfolding with the Word from the beginning does not emerge from the textual words in referential language. This is not merely having referential knowledge and information about God but critically involves the distinguished process of whole-ly knowing God, which is only the relational outcome of deep involvement in relationship together as Jesus’ prayer above makes definitive (notably of eternal life, Jn 17:3, cf. the disciples, Jn 14:9).  Therefore, communication from the Word is composed by the primacy of relational language and only in relational terms that get quite intrusive because the relational Word speaks to our innermost. The significance of relational language defines, on the one hand, the qualitative ontology, relational nature and vulnerable function of the Word (signifying his glory, Jn 1:14) and, on the other, defines what was created and why. To define these secondarily by only referential language immediately diminishes what was created and minimalizes why, along with fragmenting the Word who created in the image and likeness of the whole of God.

            The reality is compelling, despite not prevailing: We cannot substitute referential language for relational language and have the relational outcome of intimate relationship together. Even neuroscience recognizes the limits and consequences of referential language with the development of prose, in contrast to qualitative communication expressed in poetry, singing and music—all of which predate prose in the development of communication.[3] Does this speak to the prominence of poetic style in significant portions of Scripture?

            The reality is further compelling and even less responded to: The relational dynamic from outside the universe does not emerge with referential language but only in the relational language of the Word solely for ‘the starting point of relationship’. The unfolding of this relational dynamic embodied nothing less than the whole of the Word, whom Paul later made definitive theologically as ‘the pleroma (fullness, complete, whole) of God’ vulnerably self-disclosed (Col 1:19; 2:9). Nothing less than the whole of God emerged from outside the universe and was embodied in the Word to be vulnerably present and relationally involved with us, without any substitute of his wholeness. ‘Nothing less and no substitutes’ is critical for understanding the whole of God emerging from outside the universe in the beginning and this whole embodied in the person of Jesus. Any fragmentation of the whole of God and Jesus—for example, by referential language transmitting only information about God—not only reduces the ontology and function of God but also redefines what creator God created and why. This is critically consequential for both an incomplete theology of God (particularly Christology) and for an insufficient theological anthropology; theology that essentially becomes self-referencing and thus inconsistent and incomplete, that is fragmentary and consequently unable to be whole much less live whole. What defines our ontology and determines our function either emerge from the whole ontology and function of God, or are defined and determined by human shaping and construction, even with theological certainty and the ontological simulation and epistemological illusion advanced by it.

            Definitively what was created and why are contingent on the whole ontology and function of God, and therefore contingent on the Word in the beginning, in whose image human being is created to be whole and in whose likeness all human ontology and function are created to live whole—to be and live whole together in relationship with the whole of God and God’s creation (Gen 2:18,25, cf. Rom 8:17,19). The whole was not a product of some dialectic or abstract process; it was the relational outcome in the beginning of the whole of God’s communicative-creative action. The whole emerged only with the Whole from outside the universe to constitute the whole of the universe and all in it in the innermost (Col 1:17). Moreover, the Whole does not become the universe (pantheism), nor is the universe all there is of the Whole (as in panentheism). The whole of God (the triune God) remains distinguished outside the universe and this Whole’s likeness distinguishes the universe in the innermost to be whole. Though this wholeness was the reality in the beginning, reductionism fragmented the whole of human ontology and function, and also creation (Gen 3:7,10,17; cf. Rom 8:19-21). The good news, however, is the deeper unfolding of the Word to give the light to the innermost necessary to be whole, “who has shone in our hearts…” (2 Cor 4:6).

            For Paul, there is definitive epistemological clarification in “the knowledge of the glory of the whole of God vulnerably revealed by the face of Christ as the image of God” (2 Cor 4:6). ‘Glory’ illuminates the being, nature and presence of God (as Moses requested, Ex 33:18), which reveals the qualitative heart of God’s being, God’s intimate relational nature and vulnerable presence (cf. Jn 17:22,24). The whole of Jesus magnified the heart of God’s being, relational nature and vulnerable presence in the human context by embodying an improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path (Jn 1:14,18). The whole gospel illuminates this glory magnified in Christ as the image of God (2 Cor 4:4). From Paul’s first encounter with Christ, he experienced this glory in relational terms.

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

            The glory and image of God in the face of Christ disclosed in the incarnation are primary to the complex theological dynamics composing Paul’s complete Christology. These dynamics illuminate the glory and image of God beyond their understanding in Judaism and further and deeper than in the Jesus tradition. In the OT, the image of God’s glory is mainly characterized as strength and power (e.g. Ex 15:6,11; 16:6-8; Ps 24:7-10; 29:1-9; 59:9,17). The incarnation, however, deepens this image and glory of God to illuminate the qualitative heart, relational nature and vulnerable presence of God relationally disclosed by the whole of Jesus only for involvement in relationship together. This strategic shift did not exclude God’s strength and power (as demonstrated by the resurrection) but presupposes God’s reign (notably over darkness and now over death). On this basis, this strategic shift in Jesus’ intrusive relational path fully focuses on God’s relational response of grace whole-ly extended within the innermost of the human condition—that is, not merely in its situations and circumstances but more importantly to the persons who are apart from the whole of God, in order to reconcile them to the relationship necessary to be whole together. This relational outcome can only emerge from the function of relationship, and the incarnation constitutes only this function. As the function of relationship, nothing happens without the experiential truth from the incarnation of the relational dynamic of the image and glory of God, not the conceptual image or doctrinal glory of God. The Jesus tradition rightly understood this relational outcome as only from God’s grace yet did not fully understand the theological dynamics involved or the theological anthropology necessarily engaged. This gap was demonstrated at a church summit in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29) and by Peter’s interpretive framework and lens prior (10:9-16, 34-36), for which Paul later still had to give hermeneutic correction to Peter’s practice for the experiential truth of the whole gospel embodied by Jesus (Gal 2:14).

            In the incarnation of God’s relational dynamic determined only by the relational function of grace, Jesus fulfills the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the inherent human relational need and problem (which neuroscience rightly identifies). By fulfilling God’s relational response only in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, Jesus embodied the wholeness of the image of God (eikon, Col 1:15). Eikon implies not merely a resemblance to but the total correspondence and likeness of its archetype, here the invisible God—just as Jesus claimed to his first disciples (Jn 14:9). The eikon of God is made definitive by the illumination (photismos) of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, whose vulnerable embodiment made God’s qualitative being and relational nature functionally involved with persons for experiential truth in relationship together (2 Cor 4:4b,6). Beginning with his face-to-Face encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, Paul experienced directly this relational dynamic of Christ’s illumination now extended also to him. In this relational process with Jesus, God's relational function of grace and its outcome of intimate relational connection together (not mysticism) provided Paul with his ongoing experiential truth of the glory of God ‘in Christ’, the image of God. All this was to definitively establish for the church at Corinth “by the open statement of truth” (phanerosis from phaneroo, 4:2) that the relational dynamic is from God and not from human shaping (4:1). For Paul, the image of God was unmistakable in the relational dynamic of Christ’s magnification of God’s glory, which Paul simply integrates in “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (4:4b). This relational dynamic of the image and glory of God is essential for Paul’s pleroma Christology (completeness, fullness, whole, Col 1:19; 2:9) because it signifies the whole of Jesus’ person vulnerably embodied, magnified and involved for relationship together, fulfilling the following three functions unique to the face of Christ:

  1. Whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God’s ontology as nothing less and no substitutes of God’s qualitative being and relational nature (Christ the epistemological-theological key).
  1. Whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God’s function in the relational context and process constituted only by God’s relational terms of grace (Christ the hermeneutical key).

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

            In Paul’s pleroma Christology, the face of Christ is the exact eikon of God which magnifies the glory of God’s qualitative being and relational nature in Christ’s whole person and function, with the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. This dynamic of wholeness is critical for how the face of Christ is perceived and his function interpreted. In his whole-reductionism discourse, Paul pointed to the relational outcome or consequence of this issue of perceptual-interpretive framework as fundamental to the relational epistemic process necessary to “see [augazo, be illuminated by] the light” from top down (“God who…has shone”) and from inner out (“in our hearts”) “in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4,6). The term “face” (prosopon) can be understood in two contrary dynamics: (1) like a mask worn in early Greek theatre to take on a different identity in a role or as in a masquerade (metaschematizo, cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15); or (2) “face” can signify the whole person, whose identity of who, what and how the person is is not hidden but made fully vulnerable to be whole-ly perceived and involved with (cf. what the Father seeks, Jn 4:23-24; note Num 12:6-8). The first dynamic functions from outer in (e.g. “that one hides,” 2 Cor 4:2) while the second dynamic only functions from inner out (e.g. “by the open statement of the truth”). The interpretive framework of the first dynamic perceives only the outer face of Christ and thereby interprets Christ’s function in mere referential terms or reductionist human terms. This outward approach is an incompatible interface with Christ’s face of inner out, and creates distance and maintains barriers in relationship. The relational consequence is not seeing the light and consequently unable to make relational connection with the qualitative being and relational nature of God.

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

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

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

Without Jesus’ whole person and function throughout the incarnation, whole knowledge and understanding of the image and glory of God would neither be illuminated for vulnerable self-disclosure in experiential truth, nor be definitive for vulnerable human reciprocal response in the image and likeness necessary for whole relationship together

(2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). Theological anthropology becomes definitive only in the face of Christ and distinguishes the human person only in Face-to-face-to-Face relationship together.

            In Paul’s pleroma Christology, the above three qualitative-relational functions are vital for the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction necessary to be whole. Jesus constituted this dynamic of wholeness in the incarnation of his own person, and thereby constituted this dynamic for wholeness by his incarnation for all human life and function (Col 2:9-10). Therefore, this dynamic in the face of Christ was irreducible and nonnegotiable by the very nature of the pleroma of God. Anything less and any substitutes are reductionism of the pleroma of God, the image of God, the glory of God in the face of Christ, consequently reductionism of the human person and function—shifting from the whole from top down to reductionism from bottom up, from the whole from inner out to reductionism from outer in. Paul’s oikonomia to pleroo the word of God always fought jointly against this reductionism distorting and diluting it (doloo, 2 Cor 4:2) and for the whole gospel embodied by pleroma Christology. By its nature, theological anthropology must be nothing less.

            The gospel of wholeness (Eph 6:15) is that Jesus embodied the vulnerable presence and relational involvement of the whole of God for the purpose of whole relationship together. Following Jesus only in relational terms (Jn 12:26), therefore, has the relational outcome in conjoint function to define the person created in the qualitative image of God (Col 3:10) and to distinguish the whole person from inner out (metamorphoō) in God’s relational likeness (2 Cor 3:18). Only whole Christology is how ‘the presence of the whole’ has been vulnerable to be relationally involved to unfold this relational outcome that integrally distinguishes the person in the image of God. Theological anthropology must be on the same theological trajectory and relational path as Jesus to have this relational outcome. And this intensifies Jesus’ relational imperative: “Follow me, my whole person in the primacy of relationship together” (Jn 12:26).

            It is conclusive for theological anthropology that the person essential to God and distinguished in the Trinity is embodied by Jesus. Jesus’ whole person, as Paul made definitive theologically, is the exact and whole “image of God…in the vulnerably present and relationally involved face of Christ.” Jesus as person is not a referential concept or anthropomorphism imposed on him but his vulnerable function as “the image of the transcendent God…in his person all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:15,19). His person as the image of God—along with the person of the Spirit, Jesus’ relational replacement (Jn 14:16-18; 16:13-15; 2 Cor 3:17-18)—is essential for the human person both to know the qualitative significance and to have whole understanding of what it means to be and function as the person created in the image of God. There are certainly irreducible differences between God as Creator and creatures. As Jesus vulnerably disclosed (e.g. in his formative family prayer, Jn 17:21-23), however, there is also an irreducible likeness between the persons of the Trinity and the human person created in the image of the whole of God (cf. Col 3:10; Eph 4:24). Anything less and any substitute of God or humans has been reduced.

            It is certainly correct that the qualitative difference of God is beyond comparison and is irreducible to human terms; and it is a necessary intention for any theological task to clearly distinguish this difference in order not to fall into any epistemological illusion by which God is defined or determined by any anthropomorphism from human contextualization. Nevertheless, the transcendent God beyond the universe vulnerably revealed the glory of God but not as simple Object to be observed for information (as implied in a doctrine of divine simplicity from philosophical theology). Rather, God is relationally disclosed simply as Subject to be involved only for relationship—the improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path that is unequivocally beyond comparison. The subsequent issue of insufficiently knowing and understanding God is a critical condition for theology to confront—given God’s declaration for human boast in Jeremiah 9:23-24—or be rendered to a different theological trajectory from God and consequently, at best, to ontological simulation of God’s being and human being. A different theological trajectory gets us into duplicating Job’s error of using referential “words without knowledge” to discourse about the person in God’s context.

            This addresses the need for theological anthropology to fulfill its responsibility to be theological—not in referential terms but only in relational terms:

Theological anthropology is the most accountable of the theological tasks for the whole knowledge and understanding of God and thereby of the human person, an interrelated qualitative condition and relational function that is irreducible and nonnegotiable. The glory of God beyond the universe has been vulnerably disclosed in relationship as whole person-Subject to be known (Jn 17:3,6,26, cf. Jn 14:9), in order to distinguish—beyond comparison indeed (pala)—human persons in the image and likeness of the whole of God (Jn 17:22-23).

For no greater purpose does the Father make imperative, “Listen carefully to my Son”
(Mt 17:5).

            So, from the beginning to the present, when God asks the person in theological anthropology “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9), God is not asking a referential question for information locating the person. The whole of God asks a relational question to distinguish the whole ontology and function of persons created in God’s very own image and likeness, or perhaps to expose a reshaped image or unlikeness. 


In the Relational Likeness of God

            Any uncovering of theological anthropology that reveals a person in the unlikeness of God may not be surprising, since it will no doubt involve issues about relationship that are not accounted for in relational terms. For example, what is the significance of John 4:23-24 and how is this interrelated to the person in Matthew 15:8? The answers should be at the core of theological anthropology to distinguish the person. Here again, the nature and extent of our Christology is the key, which is why we need to pay close attention to the whole of Jesus as the Father said (Mt 17:5, cf. Mk 4:24).

            Integral to the relational likeness of God is the qualitative image of God, and conversely. Since God transplanted the heart of his being to the innermost of the human person to connect with the whole of God (Ecc 3:11), the whole person can only be distinguished from inner out and just in relational terms (as in Jn 4:23-24). However, any shift of focus to outer in also shifts to referential terms, as in “these people draw near with their mouths...while their hearts are far from me” (Isa 29:13, cf. Mt15:8); and this is when relationship becomes a critical issue reflecting the unlikeness of God.

            The embodied Word relationally communicated the whole knowledge and understanding of God to make definitive the functional reality of God’s image and likeness, while also conclusively providing the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of God’s unlikeness. Jesus distinguished the relational likeness of God in two relational contexts: (1) within the whole of God, the Trinity, together with the persons of the Father and the Spirit, and (2) with other persons in human context, whether together or not.

1. Within the Whole of God

            One of the main distinctions of whole Christology is not being overly christocentric, which may be problematic depending on how Jesus is defined. The traditional lens defining Jesus focuses on only parts of his person—namely on what he did, on his teachings and example—and not on the whole of Jesus. The whole of Jesus vulnerably embodied his whole person throughout the incarnation in the human context; and this involvement is indispensable to understand in his relationships with others that composed his intrusive relational path (to be discussed in the second relational context). Conjointly, the whole of Jesus’ whole person uniquely embodied the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God, the Trinity. Christology remains incomplete when it does not encompass both Jesus’ whole person throughout the incarnation and the whole of God whom his whole person embodied.

            Moreover, by involving us directly in the trinitarian relational context and process, the whole of Jesus involves us in God’s story, that is, the whole of God’s thematic relational action in response to the human condition. We cannot perceive the whole of Jesus apart from God’s story or we reduce the whole of who and what Jesus embodied as well as the whole of how he functioned. This reduction signifies a recontextualization of Jesus that relegates him to our situations and circumstances in history—just as many Jews (including some of his disciples) did with their messianic hopes. Accordingly, when the person Jesus distinguished (both divine and human) is fragmented to various parts of him (however notable), this puts Jesus on a different theological trajectory and relational path. For theological anthropology based on such a fragmentary Christology, Jesus’ person is obscured from the relational ontology of the Trinity and their relational function together as the Whole, and consequently our persons struggle in the relational unlikeness of God.

            What is this relational likeness of the Trinity that Jesus vulnerably embodied to distinguish human persons? Some have attempted to define a relational idea of personhood in the later development of trinitarian theology. Niels Gregersen offers cautionary balance to emphasize that the interrelations between the divine persons are still thought to be unique to God and not related to human beings: “The question remains, however, whether it is possible to deduce a comprehensive ontology for the Trinity, and whether theologians of today should argue for such a direct derivation of the human concept of personhood from the trinitarian concept of the personhood of God.” Noting differences between the trinitarian and the anthropological concepts of personhood, he points to Orthodox theologians’ rejection of recent attempts to use the trinitarian concept as a general ontological model, and he continues: “Positive resemblances and suggestive proposals should not make us blind to remaining differences.”[4]         

            The doctrine of the Trinity emerged in the fourth century as a response to theological conflict and reductionism. Arius specifically taught that Jesus was subordinate to God in substance (ousia) and was created (begotten by the Father). The Council of Nicea (the Nicene Creed in 325) countered that Jesus was begotten (i.e. generated, not created) from the substance of the Father, of the same substance (homoousios) with God. In further response to another form of Arianism (from Eunomius: divine substance is unbegotten and only belongs to the Father), the Cappadocian fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, between 358-380) formulated the distinction between the same substance of God and the different persons (hypostasis) of God, thus establishing the doctrine of the Trinity: one God existing in three persons.[5]

            Essentially, from the fourth century into the twenty-first, we observe one aspect of God emphasized over another (e.g. the oneness of God or the divine threeness), and some aspect of God reduced (e.g. God’s substance [ousia] or the persons/personhood [hypostasis] of God), as well as redefined or ignored (e.g. “begotten” or the relationality of the Trinity). If not in theology most certainly in function, these perceptions and interpretations profoundly affect how we define God—namely in the ontological and relational nature of the whole of God. I suggest that much of this theological difficulty can be resolved or prevented if trinitarian theology emerged first and foremost from complete Christology. This is the compelling antecedent Jesus’ vulnerable disclosures made evident about him and the Father, which involved the Spirit together.

            John the Baptist testified that “I saw the Spirit…remain [meno, dwell] on him” at Jesus’ baptism (Jn 1:32, cf. 3:34). From there, Luke’s Gospel records that Jesus was full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit (Lk 4:1,14). These early accounts made evident the presence and function of the Spirit in Jesus’ embodied life and practice, which Jesus himself confirmed (Lk 4:18, cf. Is 11:2; 42:1); and their function dynamically continued in Jesus’ post-resurrection interactions (Acts 1:2) and continues in his post-ascension involvement (Acts 9:17; 13:2; 16:7) and discourse (Rev 2-3). In essence, the Spirit meno with Jesus together to constitute the trinitarian relational context and process. When Jesus told his disciples that he will send the Spirit to them as his relational replacement not leaving them as orphans (Jn 14:18), he pointed to the relational ontology between him, the Spirit and the Father (Jn 15:26; 16:13-15). This ontology that the trinitarian persons have in common as One is what Jesus vulnerably disclosed about his Father and himself.

            The most significant relational function in the incarnation of how God does relationship is Jesus vulnerably disclosing his relationship with his Father. Ontologically, they are one and their persons are equally the same (consubstantial, Jn 10:30,38; 14:11,20; 16:15; 17:21), and thus inseparable (never “to be apart” except for one unfathomable experience on the cross, Mt 27:46). As trinitarian persons (not modes of being) in the qualitative significance of the whole of God (not tritheism), they are intimately bonded together in relationship (understood conceptually as perichoresis) and intimately involved with each other in love (Jn 5:20; 14:31; 15:9; 17:24). This is the relationship of God that Jesus functionally distinguishes of the whole of God, the Trinity.

            To review Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (transformation), the Father openly said: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17; 17:5). The term for “to be well pleased” (eudokeo) can also be rendered “to delight.” To be pleased with a son expresses a common bias about parental approval of what a child has done; on the other hand, to delight in a son deepens the focus on the whole person from inner out, with a deeper expression of what a parent feels in the primacy of relationship together. “Delight” better expresses the qualitative heart of the Father in intimate relationship with the Son focused on his qualitative whole person, and consequently should not be interpreted as the Father’s approval of the Son’s performance. This distinguishes that the Father delights in the Son and loves him for his whole person, not for what he does even in obedience to the Father. If we are predisposed to parental approval, we will ignore the deeper significance of their relational involvement.

            Furthermore, it is important to pay attention to their language as they interact. In the Father’s expression above, his words to the Son are simple, signifying the relational language of the heart, and therefore intimate. Jesus’ language with the Father in the garden called Gethsemane (Mt 26:39,42) and on the cross (Mt 27:46) is painfully simple and disarmingly direct language—words also straight from his heart. There are no platitudes, formal phrases or “sacred terminology” in their interaction—simply communication from the heart, and thereby ongoing communion together in intimacy. Their intimate communion forms the basis for communion at the Lord’s table to be in likeness, as the relational outcome of Jesus removing the veil for whole relationship together (2 Cor 3:16-18). Yet, their intimacy can easily be ignored by our relational distance or even be reduced to referential language by a non-relational quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework.

            The theological and functional implications of their intimate relationship are critical for our whole knowledge and understanding of God. What is vulnerably disclosed distinguishes the relationship of God without anything less and any substitutes of who, what and how God is. The particular interaction at Gethsemane demonstrates the relational process of family love involved in the Trinity’s relationship with each other. Consider again: what had been planned together even before creation and was now being fulfilled by the incarnation, the Son astonishingly did not want to continue; and imagine what the Father feels upon hearing the Son’s request. This is a strong contrast to an earlier interaction (see Jn 12:27-28). Despite the unique circumstances, what we need to understand about the Trinity, and thereby function in likeness in our relationships, is why this interaction even happened at all.

            Certainly human weakness is involved in this situation but this is not the significance of this interaction. The incarnation was integrally based on the principle of nothing less and no substitutes, and accordingly always functioned in relationship on the basis of nothing less and no substitutes. Why this interaction even happened at all is because by the nature of their relationship in the whole of God such an interaction could happen, was “designed” to happen, therefore was expected to happen—an outworking of God’s relational righteousness. That is, what this interaction signifies is the complete openness (implying honesty) and vulnerableness of their whole person (not reduced to roles and performance in the Godhead) with each other in the intimate relational involvement of love as family constituted by their whole relationship together as One—which the Father also seeks from us (Jn 4:23-24). By being completely vulnerable here, Jesus clearly illuminates how they do relationship together to distinguish the relationship of the Trinity, which Jesus also prays for us to experience (Jn 17:21-26). In other words, the trinitarian persons can and need to be their whole person before each other and intimately share with each other anything, so to speak—without the caution, restrictions or limits practiced in human relationships since the primordial garden to contrast “naked from inner out and without need for embellishment,” and “naked from outer in and keeping relational distance”. Anything less than and any substitutes of their whole person and these relationships necessary to be the whole of God no longer would constitute the Trinity (as qualitatively distinguished in whole relationship) and therefore becomes a reduction of God.

            The relationship of God necessitates the function of the whole person, yet never centered on oneself and therefore always as a function of relationship in the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. What emerges from the relational dynamics disclosed between the Father and the Son is that the most significant function of relationship is signified by God’s love. Their family love ongoingly constitutes the Trinity’s relational oneness (intimate communion) illuminating the ontological triunity of God and distinguishing God’s whole ontology and function from outside the universe. As the Father made evident at the Son’s baptism and transfiguration, the Trinity’s love engages only how they are involved with each other’s person. The synergistic (and perichoretic) mystery of this qualitative involvement is so intimate that though three disclosed persons yet they are one Being (the ontological One), though distinct in function yet they are indistinguishably and indivisibly one together—without relational horizontal distance or vertical stratification (the relational Whole). And this relationship of God is disclosed not for our mere information but made accessible for us to experience in whole relationship together in likeness. This reciprocal relational experience is the integral purpose of Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26).

            For relationship together in likeness, it is essential to understand the implied nature of who the Son and Father are and what they are in relationship together. This necessitates further examining two clear overlapping statements Jesus disclosed to define his relationship with the Father: (1) “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30; 17:11,22), and (2) “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10:38; 14:10-11,20; 17:21). We need to understand Jesus’ definitive declarations both ontologically and relationally, thus expanding on the Greek concept of perichoresis in trinitarian theology.[6]  

            Jesus’ first declaration of “The Father and I are one” (heis eimi) essentially revealed the dynamic existence (eimi, verb of existence) of their persons dwelling in each other together as one (heis). Heis eimi signifies the ontological oneness of the trinitarian persons in qualitative substance (consubstantial, homoousios), the nature of which cannot be differentiated in any of their persons from the whole of the triune God and differentiated in this sense from each other. Each trinitarian person is whole-ly God and an integral part of the whole of God, implying that each is incomplete without the others (pointing to the depth of pain Jesus shouted on the cross, Mt 27:46). Yet what Jesus disclosed is not the totality of God but only the whole of who and what God is and how God does relationship.

            This raises two related theological issues to be aware of in this discussion. The first issue involves either reducing the persons of the Trinity (intentionally or inadvertently) into the whole of God’s being such that they lose their uniqueness or ‘personness’, the loss of which becomes susceptible to modalism; or, on the other hand, overstating their uniqueness as persons opens the possibility of shifting into tritheism. The second issue involves reducing the whole of the Trinity (beyond our context in eternity called the immanent Trinity) into the so-called economic Trinity (directly involved with us in revelation for salvation) so that the transcendent God loses mystery.[7] This is not to imply two different Trinities but to clarify that God’s self-revelation is only partial and thus provisional—not total, yet whole. Reducing the whole of each trinitarian person or the whole of God’s being are consequential not only for our understanding of the triune God but also for understanding what is important about our persons and our relationships together in order to be whole in likeness of who, what and how God is.

            In his formative family prayer, Jesus asked the Father that all his followers together may “be one as we are one” (Jn 17:11,21-22). To “be one” (heis eimi) is the same ontological oneness among his followers “just as” (kathos, in accordance with, have congruity with) God’s ontological oneness (heis eimi); yet his followers’ oneness does not include having ontological oneness with the triune God such that either they would be deified or God’s being would become all of them (pantheism).

            What Jesus prayed for that is included, however, involves his second declaration about his relationship with the Father that overlaps with their ontological oneness (heis eimi). “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (en eimi, Jn 14:10-11) further reveals the ongoing existence (eimi) of their persons in the presence of and accompanied by (en) the other, thereby also signifying their relational oneness constituted by their intimate involvement with each other in full communion—just as their relationship demonstrated at his baptism, in his transfiguration, in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, along with the presence and function (meno) of the Spirit. This deep intimacy in relationship together (en eimi) is conjoined in the ontic qualitative substance of their ontological oneness (heis eimi) to constitute the trinitarian persons in the indivisible and interdependent relationships together to be the whole of God, the Trinity qua family. The conjoint interaction of the ontological One and the relational Whole provides further functional understanding of perichoresis.

            Their ontological and relational oneness uniquely constituted the embodied Word, the only one (monogenes) from outside the universe to fully exegete (exegeomai) the Father (Jn 1:18)—not to merely inform us of the transcendent and holy God but to vulnerably make known the Father for intimate relationship together as his family (Jn 1:10-12), just as Jesus prayed (Jn 17:6,26). These relational aspects and functions provide the remaining basis for Jesus’ claim that if we see the whole of his person we see the Father.

            Whether before or after creation, God’s action in relation to us is how God does relationship. This suggests how the triune God is throughout eternity because the righteous God cannot be inconsistent with the revelation of how God does relationship. This does not, however, define or describe the totality of the immanent Trinity, which cannot be reduced to only the economic Trinity—a differentiation which is helpful to maintain to counter reductionism. Definitively, we can only talk of God in relational terms of how the Trinity is with us—both before creation in anticipation of us and after with us in the human context.

            If human persons are not or cannot be distinguished by the relational likeness of the Trinity, then human persons in relationships have no distinction from the social relatedness of all animals. Certainly, human history has strained for this clear distinction in human relations between persons, yet this reflects the human condition and not the nonexistence of the relational ontology of God constituting human likeness. The person in theological anthropology must have clear distinction by its created nature of “not good to be apart from the whole”; otherwise persons are not and cannot be distinguished (pala) in the human context and will merely reflect, reinforce or sustain the human condition.

2. With Other Persons in the Human Context

            We also need to keep in clear distinction that the triune God does relationship in two distinct relational contexts, which certainly overlap yet must remain distinct in determining the terms for relationship. The improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path of the embodied whole of Jesus vulnerably addressed human persons in his relational language and not the prevailing referential language of the human context. The basis on which the terms for relationship are defined will determine what human ontology and function emerges. Whole human ontology and function emerge from the relational terms in likeness of the Trinity, while reduced human ontology and function emerge from referential terms in unlikeness of the Trinity. For the relational outcome that distinguishes the person in God’s relational likeness, it is vital to understand the relational language of the Word.

            Basic to this relational language—implied in all communication, verbal and nonverbal, even during transmission with referential language—is imparting three relational messages implicit to what is communicated by sounds, gestures or words. These relational messages need to be distinguished for deeper understanding of the message communicated. All communication has not only a content aspect but also a relational aspect that helps us understand the significance of the content of communication. In these relational messages, which are usually implied, a person conveys to others one or all of the following messages:

  1. Something about one’s self, for example, how one sees, defines, or feels about oneself; Jesus’ call to “Follow me” implies about his self that his whole person is vulnerably present and intimately involved, and is not about his teaching and example.
  2. Something about one’s view of the other(s), for example, how one sees, defines or feels about them; “you ‘follow me’” implies that also your whole person is important, not what you have in resources or can do in service or mission as a disciple.
  3. Something about their relationship together, for example, in what way one defines the relationship or what it means to that person; “you ‘follow me’ in relationship together” implies about this relationship that it is very important to “me”, and is the primary priority over serving.

These relational messages are vital to distinguish because they qualify the content aspect of all communication. The content alone of the words “follow me” easily become redefined by our terms, as demonstrated by prevailing inadequate interpretations for discipleship (even by the first disciples). Words by themselves, apart from the context of relational messages (e.g. tone of voice, look on one’s face, speaking face to face or looking away), have less meaning, perhaps no meaning, or may even mean the opposite. As these relational messages are received and understood from the person communicating, there is a deeper basis for knowing that person and a fuller understanding of how to respond back.[8]

            The significance of this relational language is found no more conclusively than in the Word’s likely most compelling communication to us: “Follow me.” And theological anthropology can be defined essentially as the unfolding of these relational words, which cannot be listened to in referential content but in the distinguished relational messages from the Word; this is demonstrated in Jesus’ commonly misperceived interaction with Peter (Jn 21:15-22, to be discussed in chap. 5).

            The relational language of the Word is further composed of these three relational messages, which integrally qualify the self-disclosures of the whole of God and help bring to light the needed understanding of God’s whole thematic relational response to the human condition unfolding with the Word. Besides within the surrounding context, the deeper significance of the Word’s words emerges in the relational context of understanding what the Word says of himself, or about other(s) or the relationship together, implied in his communication. The relational nature of the language and the messages from the whole Word are irreducible and nonnegotiable for the relational outcome constituted by the Word, in and from the beginning, of the relationships together necessary to be whole, God’s relational whole only on God’s relational terms. This relational dynamic from outside the universe is vulnerably present and relationally involved with the unfolding of the Word to define and determine the whole nature of his message in the gospel.

            The Trinity’s relational involvement in the two relational contexts still involve the trinitarian relational context of family, and how God does relationship is consistent for both contexts. Moreover, in both contexts God still functions by the trinitarian relational process of family love. The enactment of family love, however, in the latter context requires a different relational process. Understanding the different relational processes is critical for our whole knowledge and understanding of the Trinity and trinitarian uniqueness, and inseparable for whole understanding of how we need to do relationship with the whole of God and with each other together to be whole.

            For the whole and holy God to engage in relationship with us involves a very distinct relational process appearing both paradoxical and incompatible, which illuminates what matters most to God and therefore how God does relationships. In ultimate relational response to the human condition “to be apart,” the Father extended his family love to us in the embodied trinitarian person of the Son (Jn 3:16-17). Yet, unlike how the trinitarian persons love each other in the Whole by a “horizontal” relational process between equals, the inherent inequality between Creator and creature necessitates a vertical relational process. This vertical process would appear to preclude the Trinity’s intimate involvement in relational oneness (en eimi) as family together to be whole; that is a logical conclusion from interpreting this process separated from the whole relational context and process of God. Additionally critical to this vertical equation, the incompatibility between the holy God and sinful humanity compounds the difference of inequality between us. The perception of God’s ultimate response from a quantitative lens might be that God reached down from the highest stratum of life to the lowest stratum of life to bridge the inequality, which certainly has some descriptive truth to it yet is notably insufficient both for understanding the Trinity and for an outcome beyond this intervention—for what Jesus saves us to.

            More significantly, God pursues us from a qualitatively different context (holy, uncommon) in a qualitatively different process (eternal and relational) to engage us for relationship together only on God’s terms in the trinitarian relational context of family and process of family love. That is to say, unlike the Trinity’s “horizontal” involvement of family love, God had to initiate family-love action vertically downward to us in response to our condition “to be apart” in order to reconcile us to come together in compatible relationships en eimi the whole of God. The mystery of this response of God’s relational grace can only be understood in a vertical process, which must be distinguished not only from the “horizontal” relational process of how the Trinity loves among themselves, but also from any horizontal process implied (and imposed on God) in the reductions of this vertical process—reductions signified by renegotiating relationship with God on our terms. This subtle renegotiation of terms—functionally, not necessarily theologically—pervades Christian and church practice (cf. the early disciples and the churches in Jesus’ post-ascension discourse). Yet, without God’s family-love initiative downward, there would be no compatible relational basis for God to connect with us or for us to connect with God, both initially and ongoingly.

            In this qualitative relational process, the whole and holy God can only love us by a vertical relational process because of the inherent inequality between us. God can only do relationships as God, which Jesus embodied, and never on any other terms, specifically ours, which points to our not having ontological oneness (heis eimi) with God. Nevertheless, in spite of God’s obvious distinguished ontology and superior position and authority, in loving us downward the Son came neither to perpetuate nor to expand the quantitative and qualitative differences between us, though his working assumptions never denied the extent of those differences. Nor did he come to condemn us to or bury us in those differences (Jn 3:17), which Paul clarified theologically (Rom 8:1). In the qualitative difference of God’s family love, the whole of Jesus vulnerably disclosed how God does relationship for relationship together to be whole, which the Spirit’s relational work extends for us to experience this primacy of relationship further and deeper to completion. It is vital for us to understand the implications of this qualitative relational process engaged by the whole of God (cf. Jesus’ footwashing)—both in our relationship with the Trinity and in our relationships together as church, then in our relations with others to embody the good news of whole relationship together.

            For the eternal and holy God to be extended to us in family-love action downward required the mystery of some paradoxical sense of “reduction” of God (cf. Jn 17:4-5), suggesting a quantitative-like reduction (not qualitative) of God that appears incompatible to the whole of God. The action of God’s family love downward underlies the basis for the functional differences in the Trinity revealed to us in the Scriptures—functional differences present in the Trinity even prior to creation yet differences only about God in relation to us (Jn 3:16, cf. Rom 8:29, Eph 1:4-5, 1 Pet 1:2, 1 Jn 4:9-10). These differences among the trinitarian persons appear to suggest a stratified order of their relationships together. Jesus indicated that “the Father is greater than I” (meizon, greater, larger, more, Jn 14:28) only in terms of quantitative distinctions for role and function but not for qualitative distinction of their ontology. There is indeed a stratification of function in the Trinity, yet their different functions only have significance in the relational process of enacting family love downward to us. Their functional differences correspond to the economic Trinity, and Scripture provides no basis for a stratified order of relationships in the immanent Trinity in eternity. In other words, their functional differences are provisional and cannot be used to define the relational ontology of the totality of God. To make that application to the transcendent triune God can only be an assumption, the theory of which says more about ourselves than God. What the embodied whole of the Word of God vulnerably disclosed helps us understand the Trinity sufficiently to preclude such an assumption.

            As the Word of God who created all things, the Son embodied the most significant function of subordinating himself to extend family love downward (as Paul highlighted, Phil 2:6-8). This subordinate action of family love is further extended downward by the Spirit as the Son’s relational replacement to complete what the Son established (Jn 14:16,18,26). God’s initiative downward in the Son, however, must be distinguished from a view that the transcendent God needed an intermediary (i.e. Jesus) to do this for God—a form of Arianism that claims Jesus is less than God in deity, being or substance (ousia). Despite any apparent sense of quantitative reduction of God to enact family love downward, the incarnation was the nothing-less-and-no-substitute God revealing how the whole of God does relationship.

            The relational context and process of God’s focus on human persons (even before creation) and involvement with us (during and after creation) compose the functional differences in the Trinity necessary for God to love us downward. Each of the trinitarian persons has a distinct role in function together as the whole of God to extend family love in response to the human relational condition. Thus it is in this relational context and process that the Trinity’s functional differences need to be examined to understand the significance of trinitarian uniqueness. There are two approaches to the Trinity’s differences that we can take. One approach is a static and more quantitative descriptive account of their different functions and roles in somewhat fixed relationships, all composed in referential terms. For example, gender complementarians use this approach to establish the primacy of an authority structure within the Trinity that extends to marriage and usually to church. Meanwhile, many gender egalitarians use the same approach but come to different conclusions about the meaning of the Trinity’s functional differences—sometimes even to deny them; the primary focus remains on human leadership and roles also, though who occupies them is open to both genders.

            The other approach to the Trinity’s differences is more dynamic and qualitative, focusing on the relational process in which their differences occur. While this approach fully accounts for the different functions and roles in the Trinity, the relational significance of those functions involves how each of the trinitarian persons fulfilled a part of the total vertical relational process to love us downward as the whole of God, not as different parts of God. In this qualitative approach, the primary significance shifts from authority (or leadership) and roles to love and relationships. When churches assess their practice in terms of likeness of the Trinity, they need to understand which approach to the Trinity they use. For example, the successful and highly regarded churches in Ephesus and Sardis certainly must have had an abundance of leadership and role performance to generate the quantitative extent of their church practices, yet Jesus’ post-ascension discourse exposed their major deficiency in the whole of God’s primary function of love and primacy of whole relationship together (Rev 2-3). And, as Jesus made evident in this discourse, central to a church’s assessment is the awareness of the influence of reductionism—the influence that narrows down qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness.

            Understanding the relational significance of trinitarian differences requires more than the descriptive accounts of authority and roles; this is an observation made in referential terms. The more dynamic and qualitative approach by necessity goes beyond this to the qualitative whole of persons and relationships and the dynamic process in which they are involved to be whole and not fragmentary. This requires the theological framework that redefines persons not based on what they do (notably in roles) or have (namely authority) but on who and what they are in qualitative significance together, thus understanding relationships as a vulnerable process of the relational involvement in family love (as at Gethsemane) between such whole persons (unreduced by what they do or have) and not as relationships based merely on authority and roles (essentially reductionist distinctions, erased by Jesus’ claims with the Father). These qualitative relationships help us understand what is necessary to be whole as constituted in the Trinity, and whereby persons and the church are to live whole in likeness of the Trinity—which requires a compatible theological anthropology congruent with this theological trajectory and relational path.

            When relationships are defined and examined merely on the basis of roles, the focus is reduced to the quantitative definition of the person (at the very least by what one does in a role) and a quantitative description of relationships (e.g. a set of roles in a family) according to the performance of those roles. This is usually in a set order for different roles (as in a traditional family) or even mutually coexisting for undifferentiated roles (as in some non-traditional families). Yet this limited focus does not account for the variations that naturally occur in how a person sees a role, performs that role and engages it differently from one situation to another; for example, compare Jesus’ initial prayer at Gethsemane of not wanting to go to the cross (Mt 26:39) with what he had clearly asserted in various situations earlier. Nor does this narrowed focus account for the dynamic relational process in which all of this is taking place—the process necessary for roles to have relational significance; for example, examine Jesus’ intimacy with the Father at Gethsemane and assess its significance for his role to die on the cross.

            Moreover, when primacy is given to the Father’s authority and role to define his person and also to constitute the relationships within the Trinity, this tends to imply two conclusions about the Trinity—if not as theological assumptions, certainly in how we functionally perceive God. The first implication for the Trinity is that everything is about and for primarily the Father (an assumption congruent with patriarchy); the Son and the Spirit are necessary but secondary in function to serve only the Father’s desires. While there is some truth to this in terms of role description, the assumed or perceived functional imbalance reduces the ontological oneness (heis eimi) of the triune God, the ontological One. Interrelated, this imbalance created a further assumption or inadvertent perception of the Son’s and Spirit’s roles being “different thus less” (as in identity deficit) than the Father’s, thereby operating in stratified relationships preventing the relational oneness (en eimi) necessary for the whole of God, the relational Whole. This points to the second implication for the Trinity, that such primacy of the Father also tends to imply a person who exists in relationships together without interdependence and essentially self-sufficient from the other trinitarian persons—similar to the function of individualism in Western families. This unintentional assumption or perception counters the ontological One and relational Whole by reducing the relational ontology of God as constituted in the Trinity, the innermost relational nature which is at the heart of who, what and how the whole of God is.

            These two implied conclusions (or variations of them) about the Trinity are problematic for trinitarian theology, notably when integrated with the whole of Christology. They also have deeper implications for our practice of how we define persons, how we engage in relationships together and how these become primary for determining the practice of church, and in whose specific likeness our persons function and our church practice is—the three inescapable issues for ontology and function. While the priority of the Father’s authority and role must be accounted for in the revelation available to us, our understanding of trinitarian functional differences deepens when examined in the relational context and process of the whole of God and God’s thematic response to the human condition in the vertical process of love. God’s self-revelation is about how the whole of God does relationship as the persons of the Trinity in response to us for relationship together in God’s whole—the ultimate disclosure and response of which were embodied by the whole of Jesus. The keys for whole theology and practice emerge within this complete Christology.

            In his vulnerable involvement of family love, Jesus confronted the relational human condition and restored persons (e.g. from reductionist human distinctions) to qualitative wholeness from inner out in relational terms in the relational likeness of the Trinity as God’s own family. This was demonstrated in his relational interactions, for example, with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:7-26), Levi (Mk 2:13-17), Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10), the prostitute (Lk 7:36-50), Martha’s sister Mary (Lk 10:38-42), even including his mother Mary and beloved disciple John while on the cross (Jn 19:26-27)—making evident the qualitative innermost of the whole person in the qualitative image of God.

            The ontological One and the relational Whole, which is the Trinity, is what the whole of Jesus embodied in his life and practice throughout the incarnation. Though unique in function by their different roles in the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition, what primarily defines their trinitarian persons are not these role distinctions. To define them by their roles is to define the trinitarian persons by what they do, which would be a qualitative reduction of God. This reduction makes role distinctions primary over the only purpose for their functional differences to love us downward, consequently reducing not only the qualitative substance of the Trinity but also the qualitative relational significance of what matters most to God, both as Creator and Savior.

            For whole knowledge and understanding of God, role distinctions neither define the trinitarian persons nor determine their relationships together and how they do relationships with each other. God’s self-disclosure is about God’s relational nature and function only for relationship together. As disclosed of the persons of the Trinity, namely in the narratives of Jesus, the following relational summary can be made:

The Father is how God does relationship as family—not about authority and influence; the Son is how God does relationship vulnerably—not about being the obedient subordinate; the Spirit is how God does relationship in the whole—not about the helper or mediator.

In their functional differences, God is always loving us downward for relationship together—to be whole, God’s relational Whole.

            The primacy of whole relationship together distinguishes the ontology and function of the Trinity. Anything less and any substitutes of the Trinity give primacy to secondary aspects, however important that aspect may be to the gospel. Therefore, we cannot utilize how each trinitarian person discloses an aspect of how God does relationship in loving downward in order to make reductionist distinctions between them, by which to eternally define their persons and determine their relationships. The consequence of such a reductionism of God alters the embodied whole of God’s theological trajectory and relational path, with repercussions reverberating to the innermost. This reduces the primacy of the whole of God’s desires, purpose and actions for redemptive reconciliation from our relational condition as well as ongoing tendency “to be apart.” Furthermore, this reduction removes trinitarian uniqueness from the relational context of the eschatological big picture and from its relational process constituted by the primacy of how God does relationship within the Trinity and thereby in relationship to us. The shift from this primacy of the relationship of the Trinity reduces who, what and how God is and thereby can be counted on to be in relationship, that is, reduces the righteousness of God. The gospel then shifts away from this primacy and the experiential truth of whole relationship together to a referential truth of a truncated soteriology (only saved from sin without saved to God’s whole). What irreducibly constitutes this nonnegotiable primacy in the Trinity’s ontological One and relational Whole is how they function in their relationships in the whole of God as the whole of God and for the whole of God. This functional-relational oneness of the whole of God is not signified and cannot be constituted by their authority and roles. Primary function in the distinctions of authority and roles would not be sufficient to enable Jesus to say seeing him was seeing the Father.

            This primacy of whole relationship together in the Trinity is irreducible to human contextualization and nonnegotiable to human shaping of relationships. The integral relationship of the Trinity is the righteousness of God that Jesus clearly made the primacy for his whole followers to seek first in God’s kingdom-family to distinguish them from reductionism (Mt 6:33, cf. 5:20). The emphasis on authority and roles, however well-meaning, does not give us this primacy for relationships together to be whole as family in our innermost, nor is it sufficient to reconcile us from being apart—even if our relational condition “to be apart” only involves relational distance minimizing intimacy in our relationships. The further relational consequence of this emphasis strongly suggests relational and emotional orphans functioning in church as orphanage—no matter how successful and well-respected church practice is, as clearly exposed in the churches in Ephesus and Sardis by Jesus’ post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology to be whole. Jesus disclosed definitively that this is not the likeness of the Trinity by which his church functions to be whole—at best only an ontological simulation and an epistemological illusion.

            As the embodying of the whole of God and God’s thematic relational action, Jesus is the relational and functional keys to the likeness of the Trinity necessary for the experiential truth of his gospel and its relational outcome in the relational significance of his church family. His declaration to be in the Father and the Father in him (en eimi) was not simply to inform us of the whole of God (heis eimi) but to provide the primary means to relationally know and experience the whole of God and relationally belong in God’s family. As we understand this complete Christology, we more fully understand the deeper significance of his designation as “the only One.” This primacy of whole relationship within the Trinity is distinguished only by their intimate communion and family love (Jn 3:35; Mk 1:11, Jn 5:20, Mt 17:5, Jn 14:31). Relationships of intimate communion and family love are both sufficient and necessary to constitute the whole of the triune God (homoousios) as well as to define the significance of the trinitarian persons (hypostasis) and to determine their integral relationships together (perichoresis). This intimate communion of family love is what matters most to God because it illuminates what’s innermost in God and distinguishes what’s most significant of God—not authority, different roles, unique functions. This is the depth of what “the only One” foremost wants us to experience in relationship together en eimi with the Trinity, the relational Whole, and on this irreducible and nonnegotiable basis expects his distinguished followers to live heis eimi with each other for the ontological oneness of his church family in likeness of the Trinity, the ontological One—in fulfillment of his formative family prayer (Jn 17).

            Therefore, our intimate relational involvement of family love signifies both the relational oneness with the Trinity in ongoing communion in the life of the triune God, and the relational and ontological oneness of God’s family as church living to be whole in likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity. This relational oneness is not about a structure of authority and roles, or a context determined by such distinctions, but oneness only from the function of relationships in the intimate relational process of family love. These ongoing dynamic relationships of family love, however, necessitate by its nature the qualitative innermost of God (Mt 5:8) and thus relationships only on God’s terms (Jn 14:21; 15:9-10; 17:17-19). Intimate communion with the whole of the triune God cannot be based only on love, because God is holy. This relationship requires compatibility of qualitative innermost, and therefore the need for our transformation in order to have intimate relationship with the holy God. God’s love downward does not supersede this necessity, only provides for it. Further interrelated, the whole of God’s relational work of grace constitutes the redemptive reconciliation for our relationships in his family to be transformed to equalized and intimate relationships together necessary to be God’s whole on God’s terms, that is, in relational likeness of the whole of God

            In creation, God constituted the human person in the image of the qualitative innermost of the whole of God signified by the function of the heart, not in dualism but in wholeness
(Gen 2:7). The trinitarian persons and human persons in likeness cannot be separated or reduced from this qualitative innermost and still be defined as whole persons. This wholeness signified by the heart is what the Father seeks in worshippers (Jn 4:23-24) to be in his presence to experience him (horao, Mt 5:8), and what the Son searches in church practice to be whole (Rev 2:23). This primacy of the heart challenges the level of our qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness and our assumptions of theological anthropology. The qualitative significance of the heart is an integral necessity for the primary definition of the person from inner out, both trinitarian and human, not the secondary definition of what they do (roles) or what they have (authority) from outer in, and therefore is vital for both human ontology and the ontology of the Trinity.

            Complete Christology provides the keys necessary for trinitarian theology and thereby for theological anthropology to be whole. The Cappadocian fathers (between 358-380) formulated the initial doctrine of the Trinity by distinguishing the trinitarian persons (hypostasis) from substance (ousia) to clarify relationality; but they advanced the person as ontologically more important than substance in order to give priority to the relationality of the triune God—establishing a social trinitarianism—though for the Cappadocians their persons were based on begottenness and spiration. While this significantly countered the prevailing idea of God’s essence as unrelated (or nonrelational), complete Christology does not allow reducing the importance of the qualitative substance of God—that is, the innermost of God who functions from inner out in the primacy of the heart. Jesus vulnerably disclosed his person and the innermost of his heart interacting together in relationship with the Father to make definitive both as necessary to define the whole of God (the ontological One) and the relationships (threeness) necessary to be whole (the relational Whole).

            This lack of understanding the ontological One and relational Whole in trinitarian theology creates a gap in understanding the Trinity and as a result a gap in human function and church practice based on likeness of the Trinity. Complete Christology provides whole understanding of the qualitative significance of God to more deeply understand the relationality of the Trinity.[9] In trinitarian theology, the predominant explanatory basis for relationality has been the Greek idea of perichoresis: the interpenetration of the trinitarian persons in dynamic interrelations with each other. The importance of perichoresis is certainly critical for our perceptual-interpretive framework (notably of Western influence) and it may be a conceptually more complete term to define the ontology of the Trinity. But this idea of relationality needs further and deeper understanding because it lacks the functional clarity to be of relational significance both to more deeply know the whole of God and to intimately experience who, what and how God is in relationship together. The Eastern church, rooted in trinitarian theology from the Cappadocians, appears to lack this functional clarity in their ecclesial practice based on the Trinity.[10] If this is accurate, I would explain this as primarily due to the functional absence of the whole person in their relationships together as church—given the reduction of ousia inadvertently diminishing the function of the heart and as a result unintentionally minimizing intimacy together. This shape of relationship together would not be the likeness of the Trinity. The whole of Jesus provides this clarity in how he vulnerably functions with his person in relationships throughout the incarnation—signifying his intrusive relational path—for which he holds his church accountable by family love as demonstrated in his post-ascension discourse on ecclesiology for be whole (summarized in Rev 3:19).

            Without this clarity to establish relational significance, our Christian life and practice function less relationally specific in involvement with the whole of God—though the intention may be there—and as a result we function as persons and practice church apart from (lacking involvement in) the relationships necessary to be whole as God’s family constituted in the Trinity, even though the idea may be understood. The lack of functional clarity has immeasurable ramifications for how the human person is perceived in the image of God and how our persons together were created in likeness of the Trinity, both of which are necessary for imago Dei. And the absence of clarity diminishes how those persons in God’s image function in relationship together necessary to reflect the Trinity’s likeness, as well as to represent God’s whole and build God’s family—all counter to Jesus’ prayer distinguishing persons in the human context (Jn 17:20-23). This lack of the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God opens the door to and tends to result in ontological simulations and epistemological illusions of the whole with reductionist substitutes from the human shaping of relationships together. This is not the door that Jesus’ relational and functional keys open, as he told the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7), which is why Jesus still knocks on many church doors for relationships together to be made whole—just as he did with the church in Laodicea (Rev 3:19-20).

            The need for our fuller and deeper understanding of the Trinity goes beyond to be merely informed about God, which perichoresis tends to do. We need this whole understanding (synesis) to experience the whole of God for relationship, as the early disciples’ lack with Jesus demonstrated (Jn 14:9). This is the only purpose of God’s self-disclosure vulnerably embodied in the whole of Jesus, making complete Christology the necessary antecedent for trinitarian theology. In the incarnation, the whole of God ultimately emerges and converges for this relationship together, which Jesus intimately disclosed in functional clarity and experiential truth: to be relationally involved with God as whole persons together in the whole of God’s family constituted in and by the Trinity. The whole experience of this relational reality of God’s whole without reduction of its relational truth (e.g. to referential truth) has been the integrating theme of the Trinity’s relational response to our human condition “to be apart” from the whole from the beginning in the primordial garden. Indeed, the whole of God’s desires were formulated even before creation to restore us to the whole in the new creation, to be completed by the Spirit in God’s eschatological plan concluding with the Son partaking of the last Passover cup at the ultimate table fellowship (cf. Mk 14:25).

            As the Son fulfilled his earthly function to vulnerably embody God’s family love downward to constitute his whole followers in the whole of God’s family, his relational replacement, the Spirit, extends this family love by his cooperative relational work to bring their new creation family to its ultimate relational conclusion. Trinitarian uniqueness emerges and coheres in complete Christology, which establishes the relational significance of the Spirit and his reciprocal relational work: as ‘the presence of the ontological One and relational Whole’ who continues to be vulnerably involved in relationship to distinguish and raise up to completion whole persons in whole relationships together in the qualitative image and relational likeness of God (2 Cor 3:17-18). Theological anthropology cannot ignore the third person of the Trinity but must engage this person ongoingly in the relational epistemic process for the knowledge and understanding necessary both for the whole of God and for the whole human person (Jn 15:26; 16:13-15; 1 Cor 2:9-16).


Distinguishing Theological Anthropology

            The person in whole ontology and function cannot be distinguished without knowing and understanding the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God. As Job learned and theological anthropology needs to learn in relational terms, this knowledge and understanding are only accessed and received in the relational context and process of God’s communicative action (the relational language of God’s revelation, Job 42:3-6). God’s self-disclosure is whole-ly distinguished solely in relational terms by the embodied Word, who engaged the improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path (Jn 1:14,18) that constituted the vulnerable presence and relational involvement of the whole of God for relationship; that is to say, only for relationship together from inner out signified by heart level involvement, therefore for intimate reciprocal relationship in wholeness (as Jesus prayed, Jn 17:3, 6-8, 20-26). It is solely within the relational context and process of God’s communicative action disclosed by the whole of Jesus that the image and likeness of God is understood and experienced in relational terms, not as mere knowledge in referential terms. Anything less and any substitute of this person in theological anthropology will be insufficient, and even distorted, to define and determine the person created in God’s image and likeness—unable to distinguish the whole person in God’s context who is distinct from the human context while in it. Moreover, to understand and experience this whole ontology and function in relational terms requires reciprocal relational involvement with Jesus’ person in “Follow me,” with the Father’s person in family together, and with the Spirit’s person for the relational conclusion.

            In other words, theological anthropology cannot be discussed in whole terms unless the person is first experiencing the relational outcome of whole ontology and function with the Trinity. This relational outcome does not emerge from a theory, nor is there integral significance in theological anthropology apart from this vulnerable involvement of our whole person (signified by heart not mind) in the primacy of relationship with the whole of God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement—that is, not mere association with God (e.g. engaged on the referential level of the mind) but the compatible response to God’s that is congruent with God’s relational context and process for reciprocal relationship together. This is the only person distinguishing theological anthropology, and whom theological anthropology can distinguish in God’s context.

            Job’s discourse on the person in God’s context was composed with speculation, educated guesses if you wish. There were limits to his knowledge to understand what was indeed distinguished (pala) beyond the human context (Job 42:3), which required his epistemic humility to engage the relational epistemic process with God for necessary epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction. This is the responsibility of theological anthropology that, by its theological nature, it must fully assume in order to pala the person in God’s context.

            Distinguishing theological anthropology depends on ‘the presence of the Whole’ in relational terms to jointly constitute theological anthropology’s whole ontology and function as well as to expose any of its reduced ontology and function. From the beginning, therefore, theological anthropology is the relational outcome of the integral dynamic of God’s creative action and relational response of grace constituting the whole of God’s presence and involvement to define and determine human ontology and function in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the Trinity. Based on the ongoing presence of the ontological One and relational Whole, it should be unmistakable also from the beginning to the present that anything less and any substitute of this whole is not theological anthropology but a distinctly different ‘humanistic anthropology’: namely, anthropology shaped and constructed by the epistemic limits of the human context and by the hermeneutical, relational and ontological constraints of the human condition. These limits and constraints are interrelated but the influence of the latter is notably the relational consequence of human self-determination explicitly or implicitly apart from God’s context, which results in anthropomorphic and anthropocentric human ontology and function lacking wholeness.

            Theoretical models of the human person are at best constructed by incomplete knowledge—without even accounting for a biased hermeneutic lens—and thereby are insufficient to understand the human person and cannot be the basis for theological anthropology (as Job learned). According to its nature, theological anthropology clarifies and integrates the knowledge of the human person illuminated by the Creator and magnified by the embodied Word for the integral significance necessary to understand the whole of human ontology and function. The heuristic epistemic process of theological anthropology, therefore, inevitably involves deconstruction of other models of the human person in order for the epistemic clarification and hermeneutic correction needed to distinguish the whole person. Within theological anthropology discourse past and present, I include dualism (body and soul), nonreductive physicalism (with the primacy of supervenience), and their emergent variations, in the category of models of reduced ontology and function needing deconstruction, epistemological clarification and/or hermeneutic correction.

            Whether humanistic anthropology (e.g. from science) has validity in any aspect of human ontology and function is contingent on its compatibility and/or congruence with theological anthropology. Moreover, regardless of some aspect of humanistic anthropology having validity, it can only serve to support theological anthropology and by itself cannot be definitive of human ontology and function. Due to the nature of humanistic anthropology’s limits in its epistemic process, its results are merely based on fragmentary knowledge and thus understanding that can never be complete and therefore whole (as physicist Hawking learned about the universe, noted previously). Humanistic anthropology, however, can be useful in the heuristic process—for example, to help integrate the physical outer with the qualitative inner yet without determinism—which God uses in the relational epistemic process to help us understand the theological anthropology of whole ontology and function.

            This epistemic and methodological distinction is critical for the unmistakable nature of theological anthropology to be distinguished from humanistic anthropology. The latter at best can only be secondary to the primary emerging from and constituted by God’s relational context and process. On this basis alone, theological anthropology is distinguished and, thereby, whole-ly distinguishes the person’s ontology and function in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God—nothing less and no substitutes.



[1] Consider again neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s recent experience while his brain was not functioning, in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.

[2] A more complete discussion on Christology is found in my other studies, Sanctified Christology: A Theological and Functional Study of the Whole of Jesus (Christology Study, 2008), The Whole of Paul and the Whole in His Theology: Theological Interpretation in Relational Epistemic Process (Paul Study, 2010), Jesus Into Paul: Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel (Integration Study, 2012), available Online: http://4X12.org.

[3] See McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, 94-132.

[4] Niels Henrik Gregersen, “Varieties of Personhood: Mapping the Issues” in Niels Gregersen, William B. Drees and Ulf Gorman, eds., The Human Person in Science and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 11-12.

[5]  J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2004), 252-69. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed. Freeing Theology: the Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 85-87. Stanley J Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 7-8.

[6] For an overview of perichoresis in trinitarian theology, see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

[7] For a discussion on these distinctions of the Trinity, see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives.

[8] The conceptual dynamics of human communication are discussed in a classic study by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Helmick Beavin, Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967).

[9] For a broader development of this trinitarian theology, see my overlapping studies The Person, the Trinity, the Church: the Call to be Whole and the Lure of Reductionism (2006), and Sanctified Christology: A Theological and Functional Study of the Whole of Jesus (2008), online at http://www.4X12.org.

[10] For a modern Eastern view conceptualizing personal being as a communal ontology of the Trinity and the church, see Eastern theologian John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985).







©2014 T. Dave Matsuo

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