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"Did God Really Say That?"

Theology in the Age of Reductionism

Chapter  2     The Globalization of Reductionism



The Emergence of Reductionism

The Scope of Reductionism

Reductionism Exposed and Made Explicit

Jesus, ‘the Presence of the Whole’, Exposes Reductionism
Paul Confronts Reductionism


Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Printable pdf of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index




You will not be reduced…your eyes will be opened.


Gen 3:4-5




            It seems ironic, paradoxical or contradictory to title this chapter as above. This, however, is distinctly how the dynamic of reductionism needs to be entitled to understand its presence, influence and working in our midst.

            As a dynamic counteracting God’s presence, yet often presented as a counterpart (exposed by Paul, 2 Cor 11:14-15), the presence of reductionism must be recognized in order to understand the breadth of its workings and the depth of its influence epistemologically, ontologically and relationally. Without this recognition and understanding, theology struggles with its subject matter to distinguish the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God.

            Two issues will remain insurmountable in theological engagement unless adequately dealt with in the theological task and thereby defined in whole with its theology:


  1. The view of sin and the strength of this view.

  2. The anthropology determining how the person is defined and relationships are engaged.


These issues overlap and interact to identify the critical condition of whose presence is the primary determinant for our position on them.

            The dynamic of reductionism at work and the question needing to be raised about ‘whose presence’ are well illustrated by a compelling cartoon vividly recalled from years ago. The scene takes place in hell where a junior demon is consulting a senior demon about his work in the human context on earth. The junior is somewhat confused about human behavior and asks the senior: “If they’re all doing it, is it still sin?”

            Of course, in the Screwtape tradition of C. S. Lewis, we can imagine the senior’s response as something like this: “Well, it sure is, but don’t let them know that, let them think it’s OK—even that it’s what and how it should be.” The global appearance of some perspective and practice is certainly a defining condition, as the Internet keeps demonstrating. We need to recognize, for example, that the growing frequency and extent of any questionable practice create conditions for redefining those more favorably. Our perceptions of what is unacceptable are being redefined continuously—some for better but mainly for worse. With any relativism emerging from a postmodern context or a climate of undiscriminating tolerance—even with an attitude to be irenic—distinguishing sin, prominently the sin of reductionism, becomes even more difficult.

            What we pay attention to and ignore about sin as reductionism are what we pay attention to and ignore about defining the person and engaging in relationships. They overlap inseparably and interact both unmistakably in the human context and undeniably in theological engagement. Therefore, a weak or insufficient view of sin is consequential for reductionism of the person and relationships. Conversely, any reduction of the person and relationships results in not paying attention to, ignoring or simply not understanding reductionism operating in the entire spectrum of human life and in its dynamic process fragmenting God’s whole.



The Emergence of Reductionism


            The dynamic of reductionism was not part of the original design of the universe and God’s creative action. The human person was created whole from inner out in the image of God (Gen 1:27; 2:7), and also made to be in whole relationships together in likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God (Gen 2:18). Within this context of wholeness in the primordial garden—whether seen as history or perceived as allegory—the reality of reductionism first appeared undeniably and its presence, influence and working emerged as the counteracting dynamic to God’s whole. Yet, the dynamic that unfolded from this context has been ignored, even denied, or not understood, even though it is unavoidably the most critical issue that is indispensable to address for theological significance in our theological task and for what our gospel looks like. To deny, ignore or avoid this dynamic reality, whether in the theological task or the practice of faith, ensures reductionism of our epistemology, ontology and relationships, consequently fragmenting us from God’s whole and rendering our theology and practice anything less than whole.

            The whole of life unfolded in the primordial garden, as did its reduction. Along with the critical challenge to God’s communicative action (“Did God really say that?”) came the distinct counteraction to God’s creative action, and thus the reduced redefinition of the person and relationships that set in motion the counteracting dynamic reverberating through human history. We need to examine and understand this dynamic of reductionism or we will (continue to) fail to contest its presence, influence and working jointly in our theology and practice.

            Eve was not created as an addendum to Adam, merely to supplement him and support his work. Both persons were created in God’s image to be whole. Also signified in being created in God’s likeness was Eve’s creation for the primacy of whole relationship together (not merely marriage) in order to complete the human relational context (“not good for the person to be apart”) by which their persons (from inner out) could now vulnerably involve themselves in the relational process constituted in and by the whole of God. Under this qualitative condition and these relational terms defining the whole person and relationship together in wholeness, the dynamic of reductionism emerges to counteract God’s whole. The dynamic of its appearance now is ongoing, consistently pursuing opportunities to redefine personhood in less than whole terms.

            Satan (the author of reductionism, cf. Jn 8:44) tempted or tested Eve with just such a reduction of her person, while claiming the opposite (“you will not be reduced,” Gen 3:4) with the prediction of greater perception (“your eyes will be opened,” 3:5) enhanced by complete knowledge (“knowing good and evil”). By appealing to Eve’s mind with knowledge—the defining characteristic of the modern information age—the dynamic of reductionism unfolds to redefine her person. Such an appeal subtly altered how Eve functionally defined her person, thereby shifting her from an inner-out qualitative focus on primary matter (i.e. the whole person from inner out and the primacy of relationships) to an outer-in quantitative focus on secondary matter (e.g. attributes about the fruit, “good for food and a delight to the eyes,” 3:6, including the outer appearance of their persons, “they knew that they were naked,” 3:7). What they paid attention to and ignored from this quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework—a reduced lens that was supposed to give them greater perception but did the opposite instead—essentially fragmented (1) what God created, by obscuring the qualitative, and (2) what God communicated, by narrowing the epistemic field (God did say that). All this was the result of transposing their perception from inner out to outer in and inverting their priorities from the primary to the secondary.

            It is critical to recognize and understand:


For reductionism, the part(s) is primary over the whole, with any sense of the whole (if considered at all) determined only by parts; therefore, reductionism always counters the whole by fragmenting it.


            These workings are consequential most significantly for the person and relationships, and this underlying influence shapes our theology and practice. The dynamic of reductionism initially appealed to Eve to pursue becoming a quantitatively better person (by gaining wisdom, intelligence, expertise, 3:6)—not to mention authority, erudition, perhaps the forerunner of scholarship in theological education—which clearly indicated the redefinition of the person based on what they possess and can do in human terms. Reductionism’s “complete knowledge” (as epistemological illusion) enhances many human identities and status today. Most importantly, even with any possible good intention to become a better person, the further consequence of this reduction and redefinition was how she functioned in her relationship with God and attempted to have this relationship on her terms (based on her response to Satan’s reductionist appeal).

            It is further critical to recognize and understand:


Basic to reductionism counteracting God’s whole is its counter-relational work, with the shaping of relationship with God on our terms its most subtle practice (as will be demonstrated later in Jesus’ temptations).


            Adam fell to and labored under this same reductionism, consequently setting into motion a theological anthropology redefining the person from inner out to outer in based on what they do and have, and on this reduced basis engaging in relationship lacking wholeness. This epistemological, ontological and relational fragmentation dramatically illustrates what underlies all reductionism and Satan’s ingenious counter-relational work—a presence, influence and working that cannot be denied, ignored or elude our understanding any longer. As God said, definitively indeed, “It is not good that the person should be apart from the whole” (Gen 2:18).



The Scope of Reductionism


            The initial appearance of reductionism is insufficient to understand the scope of this dynamic in both its breadth and depth. We need to recognize unmistakably and to understand entirely:


Reductionism by its nature routinely imposes a narrowed perceptual-interpretive framework that reduces our lens with the following consequences:

1.  limits the epistemic field to fragment our epistemology,

2.  diminishes the ontology of all persons,

3.  minimalizes any and all relationships.


            Referentialization of the Word is the most significant, and least understood, consequence emerging from the dynamic of reductionism. Moreover, this dynamic has unfolded, been long established and continues to extend itself in human contexts, even as the norm for the common notion of ‘the common good’. This addresses us both to the globalization of reductionism and the matter of globalization as a social phenomenon of growing reality.

            If it is not apparent in your daily life, the influence of modernism as a worldview and its primacy of rationalizing in search of knowledge and truth have prevailed in determining the quality of life in most human contexts. We are all ongoingly influenced and shaped by the outcome of the modern enterprise of progress—whether from the physical and natural sciences or from related applied technologies, and even from theology. As noted in the first chapter, a most far-reaching outcome of this human project impacting humanity is the globalization of the economy; and we are only beginning to grasp the impact of media technology on persons and relationships.[1] Positive or negative, further development of globalization can be expected—and needs to be anticipated by those in the theological context—since, as sociologist Anthony Giddens states, “Modernity is inherently globalizing.”[2] Both how globalization is unfolding and why it has emerged are equally important to recognize and understand. And understanding this age we live in necessarily requires understanding the scope of reductionism.

Along with the economic impact globalization has on peoples of the world, there is a dual phenomenon somewhat paradoxically characterizing globalization. On the one hand, the process is distinctly reductionist, for example, reducing the whole of persons and people to cheap labor, disposable goods or market pawns. On the other hand, globalization is breaking down national boundaries and provincialism to give us a glimpse of the interrelated whole of humanity, albeit in a convoluted sense.

           Systems theory (for example, in ecology and family process) has provided further understanding of a whole as a working system of interrelated parts. There is a general tendency to perceive the sum of these parts as determining the whole, without the need for further understanding; yet in a process of synergism the whole functioning together is greater than the sum effects from the function of its individual parts. Inherent to the whole, however, is not merely a quantitative effect greater than the sum of its parts but more importantly a qualitative effect. Systems theory is a quantitative framework the use of which tends not to account for qualitative aspects. Thus its value is limited though nonetheless useful to help us understand the whole.

           While philosophical postmodernism insightfully has exposed the reductionism in modernity and perhaps points to a holistic direction, postmodernity is neither instrumental in fully grasping reductionism nor significant in understanding the whole. Since the main voices of postmodernism do not speak of a definitive whole—only the need for it—a part (e.g. a person) cannot truly know the importance of who one is and is a part of, nor understand the primacy of what one is apart from, therefore never really understanding the full significance of how being apart from the whole reduces that part(s) to something qualitatively less (or as God said “not good”). In other words, we need a definitive whole in order to fully understand reductionism. At the same time, until we adequately counter reductionist practice in epistemology, theology or everyday Christian function both individually and corporately, we will “be apart” from the whole and thus not experience the reality of the whole of God constituted in the Trinity and in the new creation as God’s family.


           The two issues of the strength of our view of sin and the qualitative-relational significance of our theological anthropology continue to interact to determine our theology; and reductionism shapes our theology in human terms with its influence toward a weak view of sin and fragmentary theological anthropology. These positions undermine the extent of theological engagement and accordingly preclude depth in theology. This results not only in obscuring theology’s subject matter but relegating Subject-God to the place of object (however honored)—object of doctrine and of faith in those doctrines. Such theology emerges further in the above interaction as it becomes embedded in globalization.

To understand our current age of modernism and postmodernism within the globalizing dynamic is to understand reductionism, that is, to recognize the age of reductionism and to understand its globalization. The conversation about modernism versus postmodernism needs to be placed within the ongoing historic context of reductionism in order to fully understand the narrowing-down process of reductionism and its scope of influence today. As a simplification of the issues of the modernity-postmodernity debate,[3] I suggest that it is more helpful to perceive both modernist and postmodernist efforts as the search for the whole in life and a consequent shift to reductionist substitutes in the absence of a reality of life’s whole or a lack of ability to grasp it. While modernity has made the shift to substitutes—either as a presupposition or postulated later—postmodernity (with no monolithic position) is still negotiating with this shift as it struggles for holistic alternatives. Yet the shift to substitutes for the whole predates the Enlightenment and even the ancient Greek philosophy in which the modernist worldview has its roots. The practice of reductionism’s substitutes was inaugurated by the earliest human persons in the primordial garden discussed earlier.

           To understand the full significance of Eve’s encounter with Satan we have to examine further what they are both doing. Integral to the creation of human persons in God’s likeness (Gen 2:18), Adam and Eve enjoyed being whole members of the whole of God (signified in 2:25). It was within the distinguished context of God’s whole that reductionism emerged to challenge the integrity of the whole.

           Satan’s challenge of Eve to shift her focus from the whole to the parts (“eat from any tree,” 3:1) in itself is only significant if it becomes a substitute for the whole. To her credit Eve engaged the conversation about the parts while still maintaining the relational significance of the whole as God’s very own (“but God said,” 3:3). Satan counters by redefining the whole of God as determined by what the parts do (“eat…and you will be like God,” 3:5), rather than the whole determining the significance of its parts. This distinction is critical to make, conspicuously in the theological task.

           This is where the process of reductionism can become obscure because logic and reason blur the line between the parts and the whole to confuse the issue of what determines the whole of God (or God’s whole as the church) and how to perceive God’s whole (both the Trinity and the person, individually and corporately, created in the triune God’s image). This process is crucial to address because it forms the basis for who will determine what and what will determine whom. This then is about the issue of causation which, specific to Christian practice, involves either the effect of the whole of God on persons (top-down causation) or the effects of Christian behavior on the whole of God (bottom-up causation).[4] While Christian practice tends not to be either-or but a combination, the critical issue to resolve is who gets the primary function and who has only a secondary function, including how they will functionally interact together. Reductionism gives primary priority to the parts over the whole—an influence not always indicated in our theology but witnessed in our practice. Reductionism is further evident when the secondary becomes the focus over the primary.

           Conjointly, reductionism’s counter-relational work always involves human persons determining relationship with God on their terms in contradiction to God as sole determiner of the terms for the relationship. This happens in the functional practice of one’s beliefs, not necessarily reflecting the beliefs themselves. How this gets ambiguous is when the outward forms and practices of those terms appear similar, yet in function are qualitatively different from God’s terms—the critical distinction between our referential terms and God’s relational terms. This becomes clearly distinguished in Christ’s temptations to be discussed shortly.

By having her epistemic field reduced, Eve reasoned that the quantitative elements of a part (“good for food and pleasing to the eye”) would not only enhance her place in the whole but also establish her as whole (“desirable for gaining wisdom” 3:6). Note the direction of causation. Furthermore, since Eve accepted Satan’s redefinition of her person, this shifted her to a quantitative perceptual framework focused on the substitutes of the whole with secondary matter. With this new lens she no longer paid attention to the fact that the whole was also “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (2:9). She could not perceive the forest (and God’s big picture) but saw only “the tree.” By accepting the reductionist challenge to shift to the parts at the expense of the whole, both Eve and Adam reduced their whole person to define themselves by what they did. To assume this primary determination then necessitated their pursuit to be a quantitatively “better” person as a substitute for the whole person and thereby necessarily also involved attempts to have relationship with God on their terms (e.g. without the function of grace). Yet, we have to recognize that the significance of their actions went beyond the obvious sin of disobedience; we have to understand that the sin of reductionism underlies all sin. Understanding the scope of reductionism is basic for understanding the human condition, and for the nature of sin as reductionism necessary to be redeemed for the human condition to be made whole.

           By definition and the reality of its dynamic, reductionism is always positioned against the whole. It has no significance without the presence of the whole. When God said it is not good for the person “to be apart” (a more wholistic rendering of “to be alone” Gen 2:18), God was referring to being apart from the whole created in the triune God’s likeness. Satan would have us reason that “it’s OK to be apart,” that priority should be given to the work that defines you. Whereas God engages ongoingly in the relational work to respond to the human condition to be apart and to restore us to the whole, Satan intently subjects us to his counter-relational work to reduce the whole and separate us from it. How does Satan go about his counter-relational work?

Reductionism tends not to be the blatant activity often associated with Satan but rather is usually an obscure process having the appearance of being reasonable, normative and even righteous (cf. 2 Cor 11:14-15). Any shift to reductionist substitutes for the whole may not be apparent because the overt forms may remain while the underlying or deeper significance is absent. For example, a shift may not involve a shift in basic doctrine and theology but what they are based on (e.g. a scientific paradigm and foundationalism), or it may not be a shift in basic types of Christian practice but how they function (e.g. without the significance of heart, as exposed in worship by Jesus, Mt 15:8), not a change in outward behavior but without the relational significance of intimacy (signified by “heart and vulnerableness,” Jn 4:23).

           The process of reductionism therefore effectively formulates two influentially competing substitutes: one, an ontological simulation of the whole of God but without the qualitative significance of the heart, and, two, an epistemological illusion of the truth of God but without really knowing the triune God in intimate relationship. These substitutes counter God’s strategic shift and who and what the Father seeks in whole relationship together (as Jesus vulnerably disclosed, Jn 4:23-24). Without the qualitative significance of the heart and the intimacy of relationships together, there is no certainty (in spite of doctrinal certainty) of the whole of God constituted in the Trinity, only simulation and illusion. No created entity understands this more than Satan. Consequently, Satan initiated reductionism as an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion for life based on lies (false assumptions, inadequate methodologies, incomplete practices, cf. Rev 2:4; 3:2) he generates (as the author of lies, Jn 8:44) for his twofold purpose: (1) to distance or detach the whole of our person from our hearts and (2) to interfere with our relationship with God by reducing the primacy of intimacy necessary to be whole. His twofold purpose serves his ongoing goal for Christians to reduce our relational function—since he is unable to destroy our relationship with God—so as “to be apart” from the whole. Moreover, his counteracting influence and counter-relational work are evident in theological engagement today when our hearts are distant and our involvement is less than vulnerable in the theological task.

           The scope of reductionism makes it crucial for understanding our working theological anthropology implicit to all theological engagement and unavoidably underlying the theological task. Any diminishing of the ontology of all persons and the minimalizing of any and all relationships, which directly emerges from reductionism, are inseparable from our theological anthropology unless they are unmistakably accounted for and contested. The theological anthropology issue will remain insurmountable in our theological engagement unless it conjointly includes the strong view of sin necessary to fight against the scope of reductionism as sin. Therefore, the interaction of these two issues necessitates neither assuming nor neglecting either one because it will be at the expense of the other.

           Returning then to the question raised by the junior demon: “If they’re all doing it, is it still sin?” There is a certain degree of validity in thinking that in our age it is much harder to deal with sin today than in the age, for example, of the early church. To the extent that this is true, two factors heavily contribute to this condition. One factor is contextual and the other is structural. They operate separately and in combination. The church today and those in theological engagement need to understand these operations if they expect to be distinguished in their practice.

           The contextual factor is distinct in the increasing normative character of sin. As discussed earlier, it bears repeating that the growing frequency and extent of any questionable behavior or practice create conditions for redefining those more favorably. Our perceptions of what is unacceptable are indeed being challenged continuously and likely redefined. As the relativism of a postmodern context or a climate of indiscriminant tolerance continue, distinguishing sin becomes even more difficult. This process can also be seen as a reaction to forms of Christian legalism with its rigidity and dependence on constraints—particularly reactions from less conservative Christians. In this process Christian liberty is exercised, and somewhat abused, in a manner influenced more by its social context than its redeemed nature and purpose (cf. Paul’s polemic in 1 Cor 10:23-33).

           The other factor that heavily contributes to a weak position on sin is less distinct because it is a structural factor. Being a structural factor, its effects on our understanding of, and subsequent dealing with, sin is much less obvious than the common moral and spiritual issues. In understanding that life is not merely operating under the total control or influence of the individual, there are broader operations which must be taken into account. These are found on the more systemic level of everyday life.

           It is in this no-less-real area of human life that our understanding of sin must be further developed both in our theology and our practice. This is critical in the conjoint fight for the gospel to be good news indeed for the human condition to be made whole and the fight against the scope of reductionism.

           Sin or evil can no longer be seen merely as the outworking only of the individual(s). It can also be found in the operations of institutions, systems and structures of a society, or the global community. In its more developed stages evil is not only manifested at this structural level but rooted in those very institutions, systems or structures such that they can operate quite apart from the control of the individual, or even the latter’s moral character. This is especially true, for example, when the very infrastructure of a society obscures moral issues and legitimates such systemic operations.

           Evidence of this process in U.S. society has been found historically, for example, in the development of racism from the level of individuals’ prejudice to the systemic level known as institutional racism or discrimination. Contrary to common understanding, at this systemic level you don’t need prejudice or racist intentions to have institutional discrimination. Such an operation, in fact, could be run by well-intentioned persons but still produce the outcome of racism. Complicity with discrimination could also be unintentional on the part of any person directly or indirectly involved.

           Jacques Ellul commented back in the mid-20th century about such a systemic process: “A major fact of our present civilization is that more and more sin becomes collective, and the individual is forced to participate in collective sin.”[5] This process continues today in increasing global conditions which broaden and compound our participation in sin and evil. Child labor and slave-like factory practices, for example, which would not be tolerated in the U.S. become tolerable overseas to serve U.S. consumer interests.

           The net effect of this structural factor on Christians is the responsibility for directly or indirectly propagating sin by either knowingly or unknowingly being in complicity with the operation of such an institution, system or structure. Of course, it should be clearly understood also that this collective nature of sin does not take away the individual’s accountability for sin. But it does reveal the extensive reality of sin and the church’s need to address the full scope of sin as reductionism, both for the church’s own transformation and for its redemptive purpose in the world—and this applies to the academy.

            The development of the church’s purpose in actual practice is directly related to the strength of its position against sin, which is the function of theology to provide this basis for the church’s practice—which is the academy’s responsibility. In prevailing conditions, the normative character of sin and its collective nature interact to confuse us of the presence of sin as reductionism, to distort its operation in everyday life and to create illusions about the benefits of its results. All the harm which has been incurred for the sake of “progress” is a prime example of this consequence. Yet, despite these conditions it is really immaterial whether it is more difficult to deal with sin today than before. We are accountable to recognize, address and work for the redemption of the scope of reductionism as sin. And our theology must be whole to underlie this whole practice.



Reductionism Exposed and Made Explicit


            The various epistemological, ontological and relational issues—notably about sin and the person—engaged by reductionism tend to be submerged until the dynamic of reductionism is sufficiently exposed. Given the ingenious workings of reductionism, its exposure has been difficult in the theological task. More important, however, than the disguised presence of reductionism (cf. 2 Cor 11:14-15) is the variable absence of the whole. Since reductionism has no significance without the presence of the whole, it is distinctly exposed and made explicit when the whole is present. The further issue then in recognizing, understanding and contesting reductionism is having or not having the functional presence of the whole, that is, God’s whole.

            The LORD’s covenant relational terms to Abram were definitive: “walk before me and be blameless” (tamiym, Gen 17:1), that is, be whole. In a reduced anthropology, the person is redefined by what they do, which renders tamiym to blameless of sin—yet without including the sin of reductionism that counters the whole of who, what and how the person is from inner out. Blameless without wholeness is a key reductionist substitute to define the person from outer in without the significance of the heart and on this basis engage relationship with God on our terms (cf. Isa 29:13), consequently rendering us to the absence of the whole.

            God’s definitive blessing distinguished the Face who shines on us “and give[s] you peace” (shalom, Num 6:26). In relational terms, God’s definitive blessing only has the outcome of peace as wholeness, that is, the relational outcome (from siym) of new relationship together in wholeness—the relationship in likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God. The Face’s presence and relational involvement are distinguished in the unequivocal presence of the whole, the whole of God. Yet, neither the covenant relational terms to be whole nor the definitive blessing of relationship together in wholeness were a relational reality for Israel to sufficiently expose reductionism in their theology and practice. In the variable absence of the whole, their theology and practice were often reduced, reflecting a weak view of sin and a fragmentary theological anthropology. Consequently, reductionism prevailed to be the dynamic ontological, relational and epistemological alternative (substitute) in all of creation to the wholeness (shalom) of God’s created whole (tamiym).


Jesus, ‘the Presence of the Whole’, Exposes Reductionism


            The sufficient and necessary presence of the whole that distinctly exposes reductionism was distinguished in the incarnation by the embodied face of God (as Paul declared, 2 Cor 4:2-6). In reductionism, the underlying assumptions of the person and of their relationships—which include the divine person and relationship—targeted by its dynamic are based on incomplete or false understanding, which in reality are lies serving as epistemological illusions of the embodied Truth from God and as ontological simulation of the whole of God and their relationship together. The lies masking reductionism’s counteraction and counter-relational work emerged clearly in three pivotal interactions with ‘the presence of the whole’ following his baptism.

            While in the desert fasting for forty days, Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit…led by the Spirit” (Lk 4:1, signifying the trinitarian relational context and process), is hungry (Mt 4:2) and encounters Satan. In these three interrelated interactions (temptations, tests), the importance of heart function for the whole person and its significance in relationship with the whole of God definitively emerge in what are basic relational tests. Matthew’s Gospel (4:1-11) has a different order than Luke’s (4:1-13) but we will examine Luke’s order for its progression in this relational process.



First Relational Test:

            In the first test (Lk 4:3), Satan’s reductionist approach is apparent in what he tries to get Jesus to focus on: stones to bread. His test may appear to be about food and the circumstance of Jesus’ hunger, or even a test of Jesus’ deity (“if you are the Son of God…”) to prove what Satan certainly already knew. These initial words (“if you are”), however, challenged not the factual truth of Jesus’ whole person, the certainty of which Satan is incapable to diminish. Rather Satan’s words seek to diminish the functional integrity of the presence of this truth by trying specifically to confuse the basis on which Jesus defines his person. Satan ingeniously uses this moment, influenced by Jesus’ circumstances, to get at something deeper and more consequential. More implicitly then, Satan is trying to get Jesus to see his own person in a reductionist way, which Jesus exposes by responding: “a person [anthropos, man or woman, which implies all of us] does not live by bread alone” (4:4).

            Since the tendency is to look at Jesus’ response apart from its context, the usual interpretation of his words is merely to prioritize the spiritual aspect of life over the physical (material), thus inadvertently substituting dualism (e.g. from Platonism) for the whole person. That would be too simplistic and inadequate to meet the challenge of Satan’s test. Jesus was neither reducing the whole of life nor the person into different aspects (parts) with the spiritual at the top of the priority list. By his use of reductionism, however, that is exactly how Satan was trying to get Jesus to see his person and function accordingly—which included the reduction of turning stone to bread as only a mere quantitative miracle without the qualitative significance of the person it points to (the purpose of miraculous signs). Satan was trying to reduce the whole of Jesus’ person to only a part of himself because he knew the relational consequence this would have.

            Satan cultivates this reductionism with the influential lie, which prevails as the human norm today: the need and importance to see ourselves and therefore to define the person by what we do and have, as well as to define our life and practice by situations and circumstances. This perceptual-interpretive framework gives priority to the parts (or aspects) of the person and relationships which functionally make up ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. The consequence of this process becomes a life and practice with reductionist substitutes focused on secondary matter, not the primacy of the whole person and the relationships necessary to be whole.

            We need to understand Satan’s main challenge to our life and practice. Yet, we will not fully understand the influence of his presence without qualitative awareness of and relational focus on ‘the presence of the whole’.

            Jesus connects us to the whole—for which there is no substitute—by the latter half of his response to Satan’s first challenge: “…but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (recorded only in Mt 4:4). Rather than focus on situations and circumstances to define a person’s life and limit that person, Jesus demonstrates the need to focus relationally by sharing these words from Deuteronomy 8:3. The original OT words were given “to relationally make known and teach” (yada, to understand personally, to know intimately) the Israelites in their hearts (8:2,4) that reductionist life focuses on situations and circumstances (parts like food in the desert), whereas, in contrast, wholeness in life involves the relational meaning of “on every word….” These relational words cannot be reduced to referential words, propositional truth or rule of faith, nor limited to the “spiritual” realm; that is, these words cannot be de-relationalized from the whole of God. They are “every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (8:3). “Mouth” (peh, also used as the idiom peh ‘el-peh signifying direct communication, e.g. with Moses “face to face,” Num 12:8) signifies direct communication from God—a communicative act which is in a relational context involving a relational process of intimate connection in the same way that the embodied Word vulnerably discloses (phaneroo, not apokalypto) his whole person for his followers to experience as a relational reality.

            Thus the person Jesus presents to Satan in this relational test is unequivocally making evident in his ontology and function ‘the presence of the whole’. And as Jesus clearly defines by these words, the whole of God constituted in the Trinity determines (top-down causation) the whole person and the relationships in life necessary to be whole.


Second Relational Test:

            As this encounter continues, the reductionist occupation and its relational consequence emerge in the second relational test (Lk 4:5-7). As an interrelated extension of the first test, Satan further offers status, authority/power, privilege and possessions to Jesus to use as a means to better define his person based on the quantitative criteria of reductionism (used in the first test). Modern scenarios of this offer would involve areas of education, vocation, economic security or even the “possession” of certain relationships. Yet the pursuit of these reductionist substitutes comes with a cost that intentionally or unintentionally compromises the integrity of who and what the person is, and thereby how that whole person functions in life and practice; this cost includes the relational consequence of less direct qualitative involvement, and thus intimacy, with God. This compromise and relational consequence were overtly presented to Jesus by Satan, and on this basis we are able to fully understand the reductionism intrinsic to “if you worship me” (4:7).

            What is overtly presented to Jesus, however, is rarely presented as explicitly to us. If this compromise and relational consequence underlying this pursuit of reductionist substitutes are more obscure for us today, it reflects how Satan tweaks some truths with another major lie: to have any of these resources will make me a better person, or at least enable me to accomplish more—even with the intention, for example, to better serve God and others. While there is some truth that such resources can be helpful toward this purpose, in this process of reductionism we see the genius of Satan to blur the distinction between truth and lie. His influence is not accounted for when we give priority to defining the person by secondary aspects of what one does and has over the whole person—and consequently do not distinguish between the importance of the qualitative and the secondary significance of the quantitative, both in our person and our relationships.

            In this second relational test, Jesus counters Satan’s challenge with “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him” (4:8). We tend to hear his words merely as a rule of faith, which we either perceive with only quantitative significance (e.g. in the activity of what we do) or often take for granted with their familiarity (e.g. as an obvious expectation or given obligation). Certainly we would worship God over Satan and serving Satan is not an option, that is, as long as these choices are always straightforward in our situations and circumstances, as it was for Jesus in this second test. We need to fully understand the significance of Jesus’ second response when he declared “worship” and “serve” in this response. Because Jesus is again connecting us to the whole, he wants us to focus relationally on the context and ongoing process these terms provide. “Worship” and “serve” are not about “doing something” before and for God but about the qualitative relational significance of being involved with God in intimate relationship. His response is not about a mere rule of faith but about the relational imperative necessary for reciprocal relationship together. Jesus is defining as well as exercising the relational work necessary to be whole in order to negate Satan’s counter-relational work that reduces both the whole person from the heart and the intimate relationship necessary to be with the whole of God.

            Satan does not necessarily displace all the forms of worshipping and serving God, he only substitutes their practice with ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. He has no need to contend with these practices if they have no qualitative and relational significance. When the qualitative whole of God (namely, God’s heart and intimately relational nature) becomes secondary in our practice, we shift to the practice of reductionist substitutes for the whole. While this shift may not change our activity level related to God—but could even increase the activity—reductionist practices invariably create a shift in the relationship by displacing the functional centrality of God (not in doctrine or as the object of worship and servicing) with the relationship now functionally focused on us, that is, where the parts have priority over the whole. This becomes increasingly an inadvertent process of practicing relationship with God on our terms, which by implication is bottom-up causation, and is the major issue which emerges in Jesus’ third relational test.


Third Relational Test:

            These three interrelated tests in Luke’s order reveal a progression in Satan’s counter-relational work and the comprehensive impact of reductionism. Since, at this stage, Satan has been unable to reduce Jesus’ person by distancing him from his heart or to divert him from intimate relationship with the Father, he now seeks to disrupt directly how that relationship functions, though in quite the opposite way one might expect (Lk 4:9-12).

            The dramatics of this scene at the highest point of the Jerusalem temple should not detract from the important relational work going on here. Satan quotes from the Scriptures, yet not in the convention of reductionist proof-texting (4:10,11). He uses this quote (from Ps 91) to challenge Jesus to claim a promise from the Father—a proposal suggested commonly by many in church practice. His challenge, however, is not about building trust and taking God at his word. We have to focus deeply on relationship with God and what Satan is trying to do to the relationship.

            Jesus counters Satan with the response: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (ekpeirazo, test to the limits, see how far it can go, 4:12). How does this work? Sometimes the dynamics in relationships get complicated or confusing, and Satan uses reductionism to compound the relational process. God certainly wants to fulfill his promises to us; yet, we must go deeper than the typical perception of this process which puts it in a quantitative box of reductionism, thus imposing a shift on the relationship apart from the whole of God—and the functional centrality of God. We always need the whole (and the context of God’s big picture beyond ourself) to keep in focus that God fulfills his promises only on God’s terms (for the big picture). If Jesus tried to evoke his Father’s promise in the manner Satan suggested, then he would be determining the relationship on his own terms (with the focus shifted to him). This is the real nature of this subtle relational test Jesus refused to do and the ongoing underlying temptation Satan presents to all of us: to test the limits of God and how much we can determine or even control (directly or indirectly) the relationship on our terms, even unintentionally. The false assumption here, of course, is the crucial lie, which functionally (not theologically) pervades our life and practice: that the relationship is negotiable and that God accepts terms for it other than his own.


            These relational tests continue for Jesus in one form or another as the person he vulnerably discloses is now further presented to others. Yet this person Jesus presents is always whole and only for relationship, that is, on his terms. Consequently, reductionism and its subtle influence and substitutes will also persist to challenge Jesus, even to follow him in would-be disciples and in the early disciples themselves. Nevertheless, ‘the presence of the whole’ always exposes Satan’s counter-relational work intrinsic to reductionism; and Jesus’ ontology and function will clearly make evident for our life and practice how to partake of and participate in the whole of God—prominently for all theological engagement and by necessity for the theological task as well as integrally for theological education.


Paul Confronts Reductionism


            For the ongoing exposure of reductionism, we also need to keep emphasizing the reality that reductionism tends not to be the blatant activity often associated with Satan but rather is usually an obscure process having the appearance of being reasonable, normative and even righteous (as Paul exposed in theological contexts, 2 Cor 11:13-15). This means any shift to reductionist substitutes for the whole may not be apparent. The shift to the referentialization of the Word by the theological community is a most notable example that has yet to be understood as a reductionist substitute for the whole Word embodied in relational terms. The consequences have been far-reaching for the church and academy, which is a major discussion in the course of this study. Yet, what unfolds is a variable extension of what Paul confronted in the age of reductionism.

            It is in the whole of God’s family as church that Paul further made explicit the presence, influence and workings of reductionism, as he intensified his joint fight for the gospel of wholeness (Eph 6:15) and against its reduction. This is witnessed throughout his letters, especially as he dealt with the fragmented church at Corinth.

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

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

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

            Paul was definitive, bold, uncompromising, yet loving, in his theological dialogue because his theology was unmistakably first his experiential truth of theos as Subject in relational response to his own relational condition. When Paul answered the penetrating question “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” his answer was not just epistemological. His answer confirmed the vulnerable involvement of his person from the inner out in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit to relationally know the mind of Christ, more deeply that is, to relationally experience the heart of Christ and thus the whole of God in reciprocal relationship together to be made whole and to live whole, nothing less and no substitutes. This relational outcome ‘already’ for Paul was jointly his relational responsibility to integrally witness of the pleroma (fullness, i.e. whole) of God and his family relational responsibility (oikonomia) to pleroo (complete, make whole, Col 1:19-26) the word of God. These were basic, nonnegotiable functions for who Paul was and whose he was—not Pauline nuances—and therefore by their nature, irreducibly at the heart of his theological dialogue.

               Paul’s explicit countering of reductionism did not unfold without the retrospective of tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of his own reductionism in his theology and practice. Accordingly, his conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against reductionism was not mere theological discourse but what emerged from his experiential reality of the whole of God in relationship together. Experiencing ‘the presence of the whole’ in relational terms (not referential) is a necessary and sufficient condition to distinctly expose and make explicit reductionism’s presence, influence and workings in our theology and practice. Yet, to learn from Paul, there is the critical underlying problem (both epistemologically and hermeneutically) that ongoingly needs to be addressed for God’s self-revelation in general and Paul’s theology in particular, the age of reductionism as we have been discussing.

            The whole of God, which had eluded Paul prior to the Damascus road, will remain elusive in theological, biblical and Pauline studies as long as this pervasive condition is not addressed. Until the eschaton, God’s whole ongoingly has positioned against it the workings of reductionism. The significance of reductionism is contingent on the presence of God’s relational whole because reductionism’s only function is to interpret, understand and effectively redefine the whole by its mere parts, thereby fragmenting the whole—essentially parts which are apart from the whole. Reductionism promotes nothing more and provides no alternative framework.

As witnessed in the primordial garden, reductionism most certainly redefines the human person by utilizing only a quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework for a level of knowledge and understanding of the person merely from the outer in; namely, the person is defined quantitatively by what one does or has without any accounting of the whole person from the inner out signified by the qualitative function of the heart. This fragmentary view of the person is basic to reductionism. Neuroscience today illustrates this reductionism in its limited knowledge and understanding of the human person gained by observations interpreted from brain activity.[6] Yet persons of faith throughout history, both in the church and in the theological academy noticeably since the Enlightenment, have also labored under the influence of reductionism in their interpretation, understanding and identity of the whole person, not to mention of God; this reductionism includes redefining the relationships together necessary to be whole, God's relational whole on God’s relational terms. The latter reduction is a relational consequence directly from the counter-relational nature of the workings of reductionism, the scope of which extends further and deeper than most recognize or understand.

               Like Paul, we can only come to a full understanding of reductionism because of ‘the presence of the whole’, who is present only because of the qualitative-relational significance of God’s self-disclosure. This relational outcome is contingent on what Paul made imperative: “Nothing beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). Going beyond what is written (or said) is inseparable from the reductionist challenge “Did God really say that?” Both take liberty with God’s self-disclosure to speculate, shape or construct knowledge about God on one’s own terms. Such efforts in the theological task lack epistemological and ontological humility—lacking what Paul defined, “so that none of you will be puffed up”—therefore precluding or minimizing theological engagement on the basis of God’s relational response of grace, prompting Paul’s question for all involved in the theological task: “What do you have epistemologically and ontologically that you did not relationally receive? And if you received it relationally by grace, why do you boast about your efforts and resources as if it were not a gift” (1 Cor 4:7).

               When our theological anthropology defines the person by what they possess and can do, then boasting is both expected and necessary to establish our identity, worth and comparative standing in relation to others, including God. This is the expected self-determination and the necessary self-justification which ongoingly emerge from the scope of reductionism’s presence, influence and workings unless recognized, redeemed and transformed in our theological engagement by ‘the presence of the whole’ for the relational outcome of whole theology and practice. Moreover, this relational outcome emerges in the presence of the whole only from the relational imperative of epistemic and ontological humility—just as Paul functioned in his practice and made definitive in his theology.


               The whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path has embodied and illuminated ‘the presence of the whole’ in Face-to-face relationship, so that we can humbly “boast in this, that they understand and know me,” (Jer 9:24)—not the reductionist boast that necessarily highlights what we possess and can do (9:23).

               If there is no present reality from beyond the observable parameters of the uni-multiverse, then the whole in fact is not present to distinctly expose reductionism and make explicit its narrowed epistemic field for our understanding of its fragmentary knowledge. We essentially, then, become relegated to the senior demon’s response: “Let them think…it’s what and how it should be” (noted earlier). In these narrowed terms and on this fragmentary basis, any globalizing search for the whole can only be self-referencing, therefore only reductionist. On this supposed basis, physicist Stephen Hawking rightfully gave up his search for a grand unifying theory (noted in chap. 1). It should become apparent also, that any construction in theology is problematic without the understanding and accounting of reductionism because such construction becomes inseparable from human shaping and thus merely self-referencing. This is the extent of what can be expected from reductionism since its limits imposed on its practitioners allow for nothing more, with no alternative epistemologically, ontologically and relationally. In contrast and conflict, the relational dynamic of the whole of God necessitates by its nature nothing less and no substitutes.

               “You will not be reduced…your eyes will be opened…with complete knowledge.” Is this the promise and workings of theological education prevailing today? In his conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against reductionism, Paul asks the critical question to make explicit the reductionism of the church at Corinth, and of all his readers (most prominently those engaged in the theological task): “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” (1 Cor 2:16, echoing ‘the presence of the whole’ in Isa 40:13).

               Like Paul, Job was confronted with his reductionism in ‘the presence of the whole’, and thus turned from his narrowed-down epistemology to experience the whole of God in the relational epistemic process (Job 42:3-5). Their experience is the only relational outcome of significance that distinguishes the whole of God in the theological task—the relational epistemic process of which requires the vulnerable theological engagement of our whole person from inner out, nothing less and no substitutes.


               For theology not to be fragmentary, its trajectory must be able to navigate and rise above the age of reductionism. In order for theology to be whole, its path of engagement must go beyond the scope of reductionism and the limits imposed by its globalization to be involved ongoingly in the intrusive relational path with ‘the presence of the whole’.




[1] See Sherry Turkle for helpful discussion on this impact in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[2] Anthony Giddens, The Consequence of Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 63.

[3] For a discussion of these issues, particularly as they have affected theology, various sources are available including: Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[4] For a further discussion on the general issue of causation, see Nancey Murphy, Theology in a Postmodern Age (Czech Republic: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2003).

1. Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (New York: Seabury Press, 1967), 13.

[6] For a recent discussion of these limits, see Hans Küng, The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion, trans. by John Bowden (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 179-91.





©2013 T. Dave Matsuo

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