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"Did God Really Say That?"

Theology in the Age of Reductionism

Chapter 3

Theological Formalization of Reductionism:

Negative and Positive Theologies



Negative Theology

Positive Theology

Statements of Affirmation, Assertion, even Dogmatism
Statements of Systematization
Statements of Inclusion


Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Printable pdf of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index




I have declared what I did not understand,

things too distinguished for me, which I did not know.

                                                                                                                   Job 42:3




            When Peter was hungry, he had what might be considered a similar experience to Jesus in his first temptation: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). This test to partake of a smorgasbord was not tempting to Peter, who considered this unclean (common, koinos) food that he never eats in adherence to his primary context, Judaism (10:14). On appearance Peter could be considered to have passed this test. ‘Appearance’, however, is the critical problem that Peter has consistently demonstrated with his hybrid theology shaped by his human contextualization. His narrowed epistemic field, quantitative interpretive framework and fragmentary lens could not look beyond the ‘common’ to distinguish the whole of God and God’s uncommon creative and salvific action (10:15-16). In other words, like Job, Peter declared what he didn’t understand—things too distinguished for him, which he really didn’t know yet in qualitative and relational terms.

            Peter’s critical problem epistemologically, ontologically and relationally, and his related hybrid theology, is not an isolated example that no longer unfolded in historical theology. This problem will be illuminated by Jesus’ post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology to be whole (Rev 2-3, discussed in chap. 6). In the previous chapter we discussed various crucial issues converging to narrow the epistemic field and consequently cloud our interpretive lens to obstruct going further and deeper in theological engagement—both beyond to God’s relational context and free from primary determination by the human context. Failing to address by necessity this convergence and to sort out sufficiently these issues in the theological task have resulted—alongside Peter’s hybrid theology—in a ‘theological fog’ with the historical formalization of both negative and positive (not the opposite of negative) theologies, along with contemporary formulations of certainty, unity and inclusion for further construction of theologies critically needing to be examined.

            The explicit or implicit assumption underlying Christian theology is knowing and understanding God. This assumption applies to all levels of theology. Every Christian occupies the function of a theologian (despite its professionalization) with an assumed theology by reflecting on their belief in knowing and understanding God (cf. Mt 21:15-16). The process of knowing and understanding has been based either on God’s specific relational terms (signified by the open interpretive lens of children, Lk 10:21), or on general referential terms (signified by the narrow lens of “the wise and learned,” and perhaps the dominance assumed by the left hemisphere of the brain). The process used is critical to theological engagement and must be recognized in the theological task because the resulting explanations and conclusions will be different. The difference may not always be clearly apparent in the theology itself but will be unmistakable in its function. Peter, of course, learned this the hard way about his theology and function in the early stages of church development (as witnessed above), which Paul confronted and exposed in his conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against reductionism.

            Negative theology, with the likely good intention to avoid any epistemological illusions (prominently due to anthropomorphism), could only construct explanations and conclusions of ontological simulation. That is, it made God’s theological trajectory so improbable that its declaration has essentially become insignificant, and therefore unable to distinguish the whole of God to know and understand in relationship together. Positive theology(ies), with the inadvertent effort to construct what amounts to ontological simulation of God’s whole, has labored in epistemological illusion. Quite the converse of negative theology but with similar results, positive theology has made God’s theological trajectory so probable that its declaration has lost its significance distinguishing the whole of God, and consequently God’s whole that it presumably seeks to construct.

            Both negative and positive theologies are the distinct substitutes from reductionism, whose presence, influence and working continue to be determinative of theology in this age of reductionism. This applies also to contemporary formulations of certainty, unity and inclusion in theological construction. Further examination will help us in this understanding.



Negative Theology


            One skillful method to narrow the epistemic field is to expand the concept of uniqueness. This is accomplished by creating distinctions in categories such that some distinction stands alone (a unique or new category) and cannot be compared to others in that original or common category. For example, modern science made a distinction in the category of what exists by creating the category of the improbable, whose uniqueness then could no longer be compared to what else exists; and the improbable no longer needed to be accounted for because it could not be known, therefore the conclusion follows that it didn’t exist—presumably based on probability but a conclusion shaped more by a perceptual-interpretive framework from human contextualization.

            Prior to the scientific method, the concept of uniqueness was expanded by Greek philosophy in the category of being. In contrast to our changing world of existence, Plato maintained there is a realm of being which is eternal and unchanging. A revised form of Platonism, known as Neo-Platonism, focused narrowly on the ultimate transcendence of God, all of which influenced early Christian thinking that there is one supreme transcendent God.[1] This philosophical lens was certainly congruent for the monotheism of Judaism and Christian theology but the use of reductionism made it incompatible epistemologically, ontologically and relationally for the whole of God’s revelation—most notably God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path. This narrow monotheism was unable to account for the triune God, and made it inconceivable to speak about the Trinity.

            In a narrowed epistemic field the uniqueness of God’s being cannot be accounted for and thus spoken about, much less known. The essence of that being, what it is and perhaps why, is beyond knowing and understanding—it is simply unique. Yet, this result was not only by design in making this distinction; underlying this method is the consequence from the epistemological, ontological and relational limits imposed by reductionism. The interaction between so-called designed results and the consequence of imposed limits cannot be ignored if we are to sufficiently address the various critical issues converging to narrow the epistemic field and cloud our interpretive lens, and then adequately sort out these issues in the theological task in order to emerge clearly from any theological fog.

            In classical philosophical theology, God was made distinct in the category of the divine and was relegated to it without direct connection to our changing world. This view addresses the basic issue of the knowability of God and has engaged this conversation by seeking to define concepts with precision and rigor of argumentation. Concepts historically attributed to God—such as omnipotence, omniscience, simplicity, immutability and impassibility—may appear to describe the God outside the universe, but in essence they tell us more about the unknowability of God. This fragmentary epistemology emerged in the formalization of negative theology.

            When theologians speak of God with negations, they say, for example, that God’s goodness, power and wisdom are not the goodness, power and wisdom of created realities or persons because God’s are perfect and without any limits. As notably emerged from Aquinas, with roots in Aristotle, this forms the basis for philosophical theology. Diogenes Allen summarizes this development:


First Philosophy concentrates on the study of being in its most perfect form. It has its culmination in a knowledge of the attributes of the First Unmoved Mover, or theology as Aristotle calls it. But, Aquinas’ ingenuity is such that he can by his five ways arrive at a characterization of the primary being that is far more than the First Unmoved Mover and above all not a being among beings. In Aquinas our knowledge of God is nonetheless limited. God is far more than we can grasp because God cannot be defined. Created beings have a genus of being. Being, however, is not a genus. A genus is determined, or made specific by those differentiae which are not contained within it. Nothing, however, can be added to being since outside being there is nothing. Or, put in another way, God is not a being but being itself. The divine essence is not that God is this or that sort of being, but God is an act of independent existence. So we have no categories by which to define God.

     Even though we cannot define God, we may have some knowledge of God. But our characterizations do not apply univocally. That is they do not mean the same thing when applied to God and to creatures. We must negate any characterization we give God in order to emphasize that these characterizations are not what the divine nature or essence is.[2]


            In Aquinas’ doctrine of divine simplicity, those within the universe cannot know the essence or being of God, nor are our words basically capable of speaking of the creator. This gave rise to the voice of negative theology. We can only make statements of negation, saying just what God is not or cannot be, thus avoiding the limitation of language that is susceptible to falsifiability. In other words, Aquinas’ doctrine is not a description of God because it consists entirely of negations or attempts to declare what God cannot be. It does not ascribe any attribute or property to God since it explicitly denies that God has any attributes or properties.         

            For Aquinas the matter of divine simplicity depends on the notion of God as Creator. Simply stated: If there is a God who creates, then there have to be irreducible differences between God and creatures. Such differences, for example, cannot be distinguished by anthropomorphism. Thus, God cannot be perceived rightly in our terms—neither thought of as being one of a kind of which there could be others, nor thought of as owing his existence to any thing. In Aquinas’ words: “Now we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not; we must therefore consider ways in which God does not exist, rather than ways in which He does” (Summa Theologiae, Ia. 2, Conclusion). In support of Aquinas’ thinking on divine simplicity, Brian Davies responds to contemporary theologians who do not agree:


Could it be that they are mesmerized by the formula “God is a person”? I suspect that many of them are, and that by God is a person they mean that God is an invisible being (like Descartes’s “I”), very like a human one, though lacking a body. If that is what they do mean, however, they are seriously out of step with what might be called the traditional Jewish/Islamic/Christian concept of God. If that is what they mean, perhaps we might also ask them if there is any reason at all to believe that God exists? You and I, corporeal things, things the essence of which does not guarantee our existence, things able to change in various ways as time goes on, things with attributes that come and go, are all, surely, things which raise the question, “And how come they exist at all?” The doctrine of divine simplicity is part of a complicated answer to this question.[3]


         I readily acknowledge my lens focused on the person, yet in a reverse dynamic than what Davies points to. The ‘person’ essential to God and distinguished in the Trinity is embodied by Jesus, who—as Paul made definitive theologically—is the exact and whole “image of God…in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:4,6). The person of Jesus is not a 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 difference of God 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 being defined or determined by any anthropomorphism from human contextualization. The subsequent issue, however, 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.

            In response to the implication of the unknowability of God, Colin Gunton makes this statement:


One consequence of this for our language is that, as they stand, our words are simply incapable of speaking of the creator. That is the truth underlying what is known as the negative theology: that God can best be characterized by thinking away the limitations inherent in words designed—or so the theory goes—to speak of created things. However, what might appear to be a proper human modesty before the divine can turn into the supreme blasphemy of denying revelation. There is a fine line between a proper humility and believing that so long as we do not say anything positive we have somehow laid hold of, or come nearer to the truth about, the divine reality.[4]


         This refocuses on the whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path. There is a necessary dynamic interaction between the transcendent God and the embodied Word. The breadth of God is his transcendence and the depth of God is his vulnerable presence in the human context and intimate involvement with human persons—that is, the depth constituted by the whole of who, what and how God is, the Trinity. Both the breadth and depth of God are necessary and inseparable, thus ignoring one or emphasizing one over the other results in an incomplete or distorted view and understanding of God, certainly inadequate to define the whole of God. This is evident most noticeably with the depth of God and God’s action in human context, which consistently has been reduced of its qualitative and relational significance such that God’s intrusive relational path is not accounted for, even if God’s improbable theological trajectory is. The consequential lack of relationally knowing God was the primary concern that Jesus addressed in his disciples, highlighting his primary purpose (Jn 14:9; cf. Mk 8:17-18). Without the embodied Word in whole, theology is rendered speculative (Jn 1:18). A God of breadth without depth becomes functionally deistic; a God of assumed depth without breadth is anthropomorphic—with both resulting from human shaping and construction.

            It is more than admirable not to speak of matters that we don’t understand, most notably of God. Yet, we cannot claim to be unexposed to the Other distinguished from beyond all creation and the now assumed multiverse. That is, this claim is unacceptable except in a narrowed-down epistemic field that does not account for the improbable. In this sense, we also are unable to speak of anything too distinguished (even by negation) since we don’t know of it. Yet, epistemic and ontological humility are not witnessed here. The critical problem continues, in likeness of Job and Peter: Declarations are made of God who is not understood, and are made to distinguish God who is not known, that is, declarations by default emerging from human contextualization and the human shaping and construction signifying the epistemological, ontological and relational workings of reductionism. This problem continues in a negative form of hybrid theology until the epistemic field is opened to the whole of God. Moreover, Gunton discusses why this negative way is not as negative as it claims.[5] The key is understanding the way of causality by a process of analogy to construct from below a hierarchy from the lower levels of reality to the higher until its final cause is declared—a being who is totally other than it. As with Job and Peter, however, such declarations say more than they suggest, that is, speaking for this being who is not known and understood, therefore speaking more about oneself than the Other. This process is a precursor for positive theology, the counterpart to negative theology in the age of reductionism.

            Ancient or modern, our methodology is critical for the epistemic means used for our knowledge and understanding of reality and life together. To go further and deeper in the epistemic process by necessity involves turning our focus to revelations from outside the universe—neither assuming beforehand a reality exists beyond the universe nor assuming such reality cannot exist. Along with eschewing these two assumptions, the assumed superiority of the scientific method that privileges sight over other means of perception is chastened. Thus this epistemic process involves paying attention to disclosures which are “heard” more than seen—in a similar sense of purpose, perhaps analogous, to scientific monitoring of outer space to listen for any signs of alien life. That is, these disclosures are communicative action from the Reality beyond the universe, the access to which cannot be gained by any effort from within the universe, however sophisticated, dedicated or convicted the effort. Therefore, we have to assume that any disclosure is a self-disclosure initiated from a personal Being, whose “discovery” can only be known in the relational epistemic process constituted by the relational context and process of this personal Being’s self-disclosure from the beginning. Anything less and any substitute of this relational context and process reduce the relational epistemic process to, at best, conventional observation, which becomes self-referencing (as physicist Hawking concluded) and thus is consequential for the relational outcome for which these self-disclosures have been communicated to us. This reduction applies equally to scientific, philosophical and theological observations, including those by biblical exegetes.

            In the philosophy of religion, such an omnipotent, omniscient, perfect God took creative action in the beginning to form the universe and all in it, after which this Being either left it on its own (deism) or continued to be involved with it—the extent of which varies with each specific view of theism. Both deism and theism depend on a particular interpretive framework which determines the epistemic process it engages. Perhaps deists need to return to monitoring the universe to listen to the signs of life coming from outside the universe. Yet, the classical theistic picture of God—as self-contained and all sufficient, impassible, etc.—is also not the God of thematic relational action found in the self-disclosures of the Word in and from the beginning. The interpretive framework from human shaping and construction has dominated philosophy’s voice in this conversation. In part, this speaks to the Copernican shift in astronomy (the earth revolves around the sun) and its influence on philosophy: theocentricity was replaced by anthropocentricity. The direction of influence was no longer from certainty of God to certainty of the self but now from self-certainty to certainty of God. Küng identifies this methodical beginning emerging from the human being, the subject, one’s reason and freedom, as a paradigm shift that culminates in a radical critique of the proofs of God.[6] Moreover, if we account for reductionism, it would be evident that human contextualization had previously been well established as the primary determinant; this formalization is just a later consequence of further narrowing the epistemic field to what we know and can rationalize. In spite of this history, philosophical theology will hear a clearer voice to respond to for engaging this conversation. This is demonstrated, for example, by current scholarly efforts to clarify how many voices from outside the universe there are. [7] That work addresses the issue of the “threeness-oneness problem” and involves the theological and hermeneutic issues of the Trinity.

            The narrowing of our interpretive lens—limiting what we can see—for the cause of certainty and, of course, for the sake of self-determination always prevents any knowledge and understanding of the whole since it restricts the whole from emerging. This whole is not some idea of a whole from inside the universe itself but the whole interposing from outside the universe. Unfortunately, this restriction does not prevent the illusion of the whole since creating any epistemological illusion and ontological simulation of the whole are the genius of reductionism.

            This process and the issue of epistemic humility urgently apply to theology. If theology is indeed directed by revelation from outside the universe, its formulations should be other than self-referencing; and its understanding needs to be more complete by the nature of the knowledge available from outside the universe. Yet, theology has long labored under a counteracting dynamic: between what God reveals and what we attribute to God; between what God says for and of himself and what we say for God and impose on him; between God’s terms and reduced terms of human shaping and construction. Some may locate this dynamic in the hermeneutic circle. But the former is whole and the latter is not just some part that can be interpreted into the whole of God; the latter is fragmentary and from reductionism, which is always incompatible with the whole. And comfort should not be taken in the latter’s place in tradition, prominence in the academy and acceptance in the church.

            For example, if the Bible is read through someone’s idea of what the perfect being outside the universe must be like, as in classical theism, whose words become primary for theology, ours or God’s? The philosophical influence on theology, which still exists today, has shaped or constructed a different picture of God than the God of thematic relational action and response in Scripture, conclusively embodied by the Word. The classic doctrine of God, existing in systematic and biblical theologies, does not fit the image of God embodied by the face of Christ, as the monotheist Paul “discovered” and whole-ly understood (2 Cor 4:4-6). This reshaping emerged when concepts from Greek philosophy were used as the framework, which was later refined by the epistemological program of foundationalism to establish a basis for certainty. The quest for certainty emerges again with the consequence of narrowing the words of Scripture. Most importantly, the reshaping of God emerges when interpreters of Scripture end up listening to themselves talk about God rather than listening to God speak for himself. Nicholas Wolterstorff defines this as ‘dogmatic’ interpretation: dogma governs our interpretation of Scripture for our divine discourse, not God’s communication of God. Interpreting Scripture in light of itself involves the hermeneutic circle: that is, interpreting the parts/words in the light of the whole and the whole in the light of the parts/words.[8] In the hermeneutic process, however, the whole of the Word in relational language is primary, or else the hermeneutic circle becomes self-referencing in a narrowed-down Scripture. Just as the ancient poet said, “The unfolding of your words gives light” (Ps 119:130), which includes understanding of the whole to those who listen carefully and do not speak prematurely “of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know,” just as Job learned (Job 42:3).

            Yet, this counteracting hermeneutic practice continues to be a critical issue. When theology does not listen to the words of Scripture in the relational context and process composing the relational epistemic process, then theology assumes an interpretive framework to engage a limiting epistemic process that leaves theology on its own to speak prematurely “of things it did not understand, things too wonderful for it to know on its own.” This condition of theology in its actual function also directs us away from and not toward the whole. This epistemic view of God only functions to limit or even prevent the understanding of God’s whole on God’s terms, that which is necessary for us to rise above epistemological illusion and be whole, and to be transformed from ontological simulation and live whole. This reductionist direction is further illustrated in evangelical theology, despite its doctrine of the authority of Scripture and emphasis on the gospel of salvation—by those known as “people of the Book”, who apparently often lack the whole Christology of the Word.

            This leads us to the counterpart of negative theology, that which I call positive theology.



Positive Theology


            Whereas negative theology was unwilling to say enough to distinguish God but nevertheless overstated itself about God, positive theology willingly overstates itself about God yet never says enough to distinguish God. The positive theology designated here is not the opposite of negative theology but becomes its counterpart in the theological task—emerging also from a narrow epistemic field, namely within the limits of what we know or can rationalize.

            To remain within the limits of what you know (the probable) engages a process of reductionism—whether epistemologically, hermeneutically, theologically, ontologically and/or relationally—that necessitates dividing the improbable Christ embodied in whole into fragments which can be shaped and aggregated down to the limited understanding of our knowledge. In other words, if we do not perceive the improbable who emerged from outside the universe and receive this improbable Subject vulnerably present and relationally involved, we have to give some basis for a substitute, which leaves us with only one alternative: human shaping and construction in referential terms which are limited to self-referencing theories and conclusions. This alternative also provides us with a basis for not being vulnerable to the improbable whole of Jesus and his intrusion on his terms.

            Self-referencing is a critical issue in theology because its defining process—as demonstrated by those who define Jesus on their terms, as noted above—relies on (intentionally or unintentionally) a perceptual-interpretive lens that does not process beyond the limits of self-understanding to determine the shape of theology. This process certainly then includes depending on (knowingly or unknowingly) what we know within the relative limits of the probable. The application of a narrowed epistemic field, even with assumptions subscribing to God’s revelation, can only result in a narrowed-down theology (or hybrid theology) that is fragmentary at best or misleading, distorted or incorrect at worst (cf. Peter’s theology, Mt 16:15-17, 21-23). Only such theology can emerge because its understanding does not basically go beyond referential terms and thus can only reference the self-determining perceptions, interpretations and resulting knowledge from the probable, even entitled as revelation. No further and deeper theology emerges since its formulating epistemic process is unable (and unwilling) to go beyond self-referencing in order to distinguish the unlimited (and uncommon) improbability of whole theology from the prevalent common limits of egology—the human shaping of which may claim to be distinct from natural theology but whose function still operates in the primacy of reason.

            Yet, what compounds the limits of this epistemic process is less about reason and more about the human condition. Even as we may affirm the improbable God from outside the universe in referential terms, we still could keep God’s vulnerable presence and intimate relational involvement from intruding our innermost. This lack of vulnerability remains problematic for the improbable and thereby an ongoing issue for whole theology. The whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path are inseparable, integrally composing the unique Subject uncommon to the human context. The improbability of this Subject’s revelation cannot be affirmed, on the one hand, while, on the other hand, avoiding the Subject’s relational intrusion as if merely observing results in knowledge and understanding of the Subject. The whole of the Subject cannot be narrowed down to Object to fragment his intrusive relational path to the less vulnerable probable terms of our shaping of relationship together. This reductionism of relationship signifying the human condition is incompatible with God’s whole presence and relational involvement, and this relational condition needs to go beyond merely declarations of positive theology to the depth of whole understanding and knowing God on relational terms.

            Nathanael demonstrated these limits and going beyond them. After Philip received his call from Jesus, he told Nathanael of the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1:43-51). Nathanael spoke honestly of his skepticism, displaying his bias of a prevailing stereotype disparaging Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asked a logical question based on the common knowledge of Jesus’ human context. While Nathanael had this bias, he remained open to the epistemic challenge from Philip to “Come and see.” By openly engaging the relational epistemic process even with his bias against Jesus, Jesus did not rebuke him but instead affirmed Nathanael’s relational involvement (“in whom there is no deceit”) by further presenting his own relational involvement with Nathanael (“I saw you…before Philip called you”). The person and presence Jesus presented to Nathanael connected him to the deeper relational context that was necessary and sufficient for Nathanael to know who and what Jesus was (“You are…”). The shift in Nathanael’s declaration signified a qualitative difference from other declarations of “You are the Son of God” emerging from positive theologies which have yet to go beyond the limits of their epistemic process (cf. Peter’s declaration and epistemic process, Jn 6:68-69).

            Ostensibly it may appear that positive theology has expanded the epistemic field. Yet, examining its explanations and conclusions unmasks the underlying limits of reductionism. On this basis, as a counterpart to statements of negation, positive theology attempts to declare one or more of the following statements:


  1. affirmation, assertion, even dogmatism

  2. systematization

  3. inclusion



Statements of Affirmation, Assertion, even Dogmatism


            Interpreting the whole of God’s self-revelation and the Word embodied in whole is problematic when our interpretive lens pays attention to only certain things while ignoring other things. This selectivity could be unintentional or we could be selective by design. To the extent that our lens is defined and determined by human contextualization, our theological engagement and reflections are shaped and our explanations and conclusions in the theological task are constructed by the human context. No one is immune from this influence; even Jesus was exposed to it. Yet Jesus consistently countered the human lens and redefined what to pay attention to and what to ignore, thereby distinguishing what is primary from the secondary. It becomes problematic interpreting God’s revelation and the Word when our primary lens is either incongruent or incompatible with Jesus’ lens. One interaction Jesus had clearly distinguished his lens from the common lens.

            Who would question the definition of biological family or family of origin? Yet, when addressed about paying attention to his family, Jesus raised the question defining what is primary to constitute his family: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mk 3:31-35). While this is only one example among many in Jesus’ life, it illustrates the critical lens necessary to interpret not only the improbable theological trajectory but, equally important and more vulnerably necessary, also the intrusive relational path of the embodied whole of God. Selectivity in paying attention to certain aspects of Jesus (teaching, miracles and ethics) and ignoring the intrusive aspects of Jesus’ disclosures (vulnerable presence and intimate involvement) allow us to stay within the limits of our epistemic process and be less vulnerable in the relational involvement necessary to know and understand God in relational terms, not referential. Consequently, the issues involved here are not only epistemological and hermeneutical but unavoidably ontological and relational. These are the issues underlying positive theologies which remain relatively uncontested today.

            Unlike the qualitative difference of Nathanael’s declaration—which was the relational outcome of his open engagement in the relational epistemic process with Jesus—positive theologies declare affirmations about God, assertions of belief and even dogmatism in doctrine while still within the limits of human contextualization—limits not unlike Nathanael’s bias signified in his first declaration “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” How can these declarations be made? How are they possible with the place and authority of the Word?

            Declarations can be made either in general referential terms common to the human context,[9] or in the deeper relational terms distinguished in God’s relational context and process. Declarations in referential terms transmit information about God that may sound the same as communication of God in relational terms, and can even have the same content. A qualitative difference, however, distinguishes God’s relational terms that cannot be observed, replicated or experienced merely on the quantitative level in mere referential terms—as Jesus exposed in some believing in him (Jn 8:43). The difference then is not only a matter of epistemology and hermeneutics but is more deeply ontological and relational—as Jesus made paradigmatic for receiving God’s revelation (Lk 10:21; cf. Lk 8:18). In other words, affirmations, assertions and dogmatic statements about God can never exceed in significance beyond their source—as Jesus made definitive, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mk 4:24).

            The imperative in Mark 4:24 needs to be integrated with Luke 10:21. The difference in the perceptual-interpretive framework between the child-person and the wise and learned (of Lk 10:21) is the difference between the qualitative and the quantitative, the relational and the referential. This difference is critical for defining which epistemic process we engage (relational or referential) and critical for determining how we engage in that epistemic process (vulnerably or measured, distant, detached). In relation to God’s self-disclosures, this difference means the epistemological, ontological and relational gap between the relational outcome of knowing God more deeply and the relational consequence of merely having fragments of information about God, that is, of not truly knowing God. The former is whole knowledge and understanding (syniemi, as Jesus highlighted, Mk 8:17-18) while the affirmation, assertion and dogmatism of the latter can only be some form of reductionism, even when aggregated and generalized.

            The “measure” (metron) we give and get that Jesus refers to involves our perceptual-interpretive framework that we use, which determines (measures, limits) the level of participation in the epistemic process for God’s self-disclosures. The above difference in frameworks signified by the child-person and the wise and learned is clearly made definitive by Jesus for “the level of relational involvement you give will be the extent of reciprocal relationship you get, both in the relational epistemic process and in relationship together”—for either a relational outcome or relational consequence (Mk 4:24-25). Therefore, the relational context and process—that Jesus embodied for our participation in the relational epistemic process to the whole of God, God’s whole and our wholeness—cannot be diminished or minimalized by human shaping and construction without the loss of whole knowledge and understanding, as well as what it means to be whole. Nothing less and no substitutes are the irreducible and nonnegotiable terms the whole of God embodied.

          Philip’s challenge to Nathanael to “Come and see” necessarily continues to extend to all of us, yet necessarily rendered for us today “Come and listen.” This is the relational imperative antecedent to any affirmation, assertion and dogmatic declaration of God. To meet this challenge our “ears” have to have priority over our “mouths.” As the Father made imperative, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (Mk 9:7); and as Jesus made imperative for his followers: “Then pay attention to how you listen” (Lk 8:18), and “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mk 4:24). In other words, it is imperative to listen before we speak, giving priority to the sounds from Subject-Other, which is a necessary relational dynamic in all communication; unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, this dynamic has been reworked in the human condition. Quietly, for example, ‘method’ in scholarship imposes concepts on what we seek to know, giving priority to its own perception (view of Other), thus it essentially speaks before it listens.

            Furthermore, in this epistemic process our “eyes” are even a higher priority than our “ears” and must antecede both our “mouths and “ears” as the determinant for their function; this was the lesson Job deeply experienced (Job 42:3-5). This has less to do with the function of sight and critically involves how and what we see (as in Paul’s concern, Eph 1:18). When Jesus defines “the measure” (metron, metreo) used above, he identifies his followers’ perceptual-interpretive framework and lens, which determines what we will pay attention to and ignore and, therefore, what we see, hear and listen to. That is, to listen carefully and to understand what Jesus says, we not only need to understand the horizon of where Jesus is coming from, but in this process we also need to account for the horizon of where we are coming from—and the defining and determining influence our own context may exert as it converges with Jesus’ context.[10] Without knowing our own horizon and its influence on the framework and lens we use, we cannot listen to Jesus (and later to Paul) to speak for himself on his own terms. ‘Method’, as noted above, signifies a generalizing bias of rationalizing from a scientific paradigm rooted in the Enlightenment, which reduces reality by narrowing down the epistemic field for better explanation. This modernist framework “speaks” before it listens, thereby defining the terms which determine the outcomes.

            As these two horizons converge, the primary determinant of how the words communicated are to be understood for the listener/reader must always come from the context of the speaker. Certainly, some secondary influence still remains from the listener’s side. Yet, in the relational epistemic process the hermeneutical dynamic involves successive interactions between listener and speaker, reader and text, in the reflexive process of a ‘hermeneutical cone’[11] for further and deeper understanding. Throughout the process, however, the speaker’s context emerges as the primary determinant without negotiation with the listener’s side. And Jesus’ context cannot be limited to historical human contextualization but needs to include “in the beginning” and his relational context from outside the universe. His horizon is both nonnegotiable to human terms and irreducible to human shaping and construction.

            In his imperative for his followers, Jesus makes it clearly conclusive: our perceptual-interpretive framework and lens will define our reality and determine how we function in our life (“the measure you give”). On this basis alone, we should not expect to experience anything more or less (“the measure you get”), notably in relationship together. Implied further in his words, Jesus defined the outcome of a qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework and the consequence of a quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework, both of which are directly correlated to the epistemic process: “For to those who have a qualitative framework and lens, more will be given; from those who have nothing, that is, no qualitative framework and lens, even what they have from a quantitative framework will be taken away or rendered insignificant” (Mk 4:25).

          The early Church Fathers variously struggled with the influence of Greek philosophy to establish the Church’s theological identity, yet the contextualization of basic Greek thought continued to shape its declarations. The formalization of human contextualization in the church came in the fourth century with Constantine, who made Christianity a state religion, the birth of Christendom; theology was institutionalized and its declarations were contextualized accordingly. Under these conditions Augustine emerged on a theological path to become the prominent Father of the Western church—whose footprints charted the steps for the Reformation—yet not without some of the “baggage” of his context. As prominent as his declarations were, and were to become, they were insufficient to distinguish the church as God’s whole on God’s relational terms—in spite of even his declaration of ‘the invisible church’ as distinct from a state church. However, after the fall of Rome in 410, his apologetic work, The City of God, pointed in the right direction beyond human contextualization and shaping.

            In the first half of the Middle Ages (500-1500 CE) until 1000 (called the Dark Ages), the theological task mostly took place in monasteries and thus is called monastic theology. As Tony Lane describes it:


The goal was not the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but edification and worship. The approach was one of contemplation and adoration. The theologian was not a detached academic observer studying his material from outside, but a committed, involved participant.[12]


In the eleventh century, philosophy further shaped a new approach to theology: scholastic theology or scholasticism.


Theology came to be studied outside of the cloister—in the university, and in other ‘secular’ (non-monastic) settings. The goal was objective intellectual knowledge. The approach was one of questioning, logic, speculation and disputation. It was more important for the theologian to have a philosophical training than to be godly. Theology had become a detached objective science. This approach did not eliminate the older monastic approach, but it displaced it from the front line of theology.[13]


It was in this context that Aquinas emerged to attempt to synthesize faith (theology) and reason (philosophy from Aristotle).

            The obscurities of scholastic theology and the struggle to reconcile philosophy with theology eventually led to renewed interest back to the primary sources (the Hebrew and Greek Bible and the early Church Fathers). This return was the Christian Humanism led by Erasmus, whose effort to reform the contemporary church of its abuses laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. Yet, Erasmus’ return to primary sources was a scholarly approach, rather than, for example, the approach of monastic theology. The Reformers who followed had a similar lens, and their declarations eventually became codified into detailed dogmatic systems—certainly with great impact on doctrine (at least in referential terms) but with mixed results in practice, notably in how relationships were engaged and thereby how church as God’s family was practiced. To the extent that this is accurate, what this demonstrates about the return to the Bible as the primary source is that there is no guarantee of the following:


  1. It distinguishes the whole of God and God’s whole self-revelation.

  2. Its affirmations, assertions and dogmatic statements of God have direct significance to God, therefore theological significance.

  3. Its declarations are based on whole knowledge and understanding resulting from qualitatively understanding and relationally knowing God.


            Based on what Jesus said, “the measure you give will be the measure you get,” we cannot and should not expect to experience anything more than our interpretive framework and lens allows, even from the primary source of the Bible. The two-fold relational imperative that Jesus conjoined to his irreplaceable declaration above qualifies what we can expect and what is guaranteed from God’s self-revelation: (a) “pay attention to how you listen” (Lk 8:18), and (b) “pay attention to what you hear” (Mk 4:24); and with this relational response and involvement in the primacy of relationship with Subject-Source, “still more will be given you.”

            All affirmations, assertions and dogmatic statements of God must give account of their source (human contextualization or God’s relational context and process) and, equally important, must account for how they relate to this source. This accountability applies also to the positive theologies which emerged from the Reformation. This necessarily applies to any theological engagement and any aspect of the theological task, not as an obligatory methodology but by the nature of the epistemological, hermeneutical, ontological and relational presence, influence and workings of reductionism. Without this epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction, plus related humility, the epistemological illusions and ontological simulations from reductionism are not recognized, exposed and contested; and theology continues to be fragmentary.

            None of the declarations from the Reformation were sufficient to meet the challenges to come with the Enlightenment and the predominance of reason and the determination of science. From the 1700s, the truth of Christianity has been questioned (e.g. by Deism and rationalism) and the authority of its source challenged (e.g. by science and historical criticism). Influenced by this climate of human contextualization, some Christians (most notably neo-evangelicals from the mid-20th C) attempted to meet this challenge with the search for certainty. As discussed previously, the search for certainty is pursued on referential terms based on a narrowed-down epistemic field, that is, the referentialization of the Word. In general, referential certainty is based on the fragments of information known (for science, information known within the universe), therefore any certainty assumed can only be fragmentary certainty—partial at best and misleading if taken as complete. This has not been recognized, understood or addressed by most in the theological community.

            More importantly, their search for certainty epistemologically included implicitly the underlying quest for identity both ontologically and relationally—an identity based on a theological anthropology defining the person by what one does (scholarship) and has (certainty of belief system), thus an identity that must be significant enough in a comparative process to be distinguished in relation to others (namely their critics in science and the academy). Here again, any certainty of identity assumed is only fragmentary certainty, not whole certainty. This approach is certainly not compatible with what Jesus made paradigmatic for the ‘certainty’ of God’s revelation (Lk 10:21); nor is it congruent with the underlying assumption for all Christian theology of knowing and understanding God.

            The search for certainty also led to the misguided attempt to establish the inerrancy of the Bible; this effort was not unexpected since the authority of the source was being questioned. There is an important issue here that has been inadequately understood and consequently inappropriately addressed, with resulting unnecessary (even unfortunate) declarations. By overstating itself about God’s revelation, the inerrant declaration never says enough to distinguish God but unfortunately even obscures the whole of God and reinforces a theological fog needing to be lifted to illuminate who, what and how God is.

            The inerrancy position is an unnecessary rationalization with a limited quantitative focus for the purpose to ensure the certainty and maintain the integrity and authority of the Bible. Yet, this is referential certainty only about the text in referential terms, not about God’s revelation as communicative action in relational terms. Though with apparent good intention—in reaction to a modernist critical framework—inerrancy is not only unnecessary but it also does not fulfill its purpose to preserve God’s Word, that is, from the most damaging and basic underlying issue that undermines its authority: reductionism. In the effort to establish the fact that “God did say that,” the lens of inerrancy has paid less attention to what God said and, equally important, has ignored how God said it; consequently, it has not contested reductionism’s original challenge (“Did God really say that?”) but rather further reinforced reductionism and its counter-relational work. That is, inerrantists commonly disembody both God’s communicative word and embodied Word from the whole of God’s relational context and process by reducing God’s relational language and terms to a narrowed referential language and terms, and thereby de-relationalize the Word.

            Any apparent certainty from this narrowed framework must be examined next to the cost for this certainty. This and any referentialization of the Word often are declared by an incomplete Christology (even overly christocentric), a truncated soteriology (neither saved from reductionism nor saved to God’s relational whole), an immature pneumatology (without the ongoing relational involvement of the Spirit) and renegotiated ecclesiology (without whole relationships together in likeness of the Trinity), thereby making fragmentary declarations that reduce both the whole of God and God’s relational whole only on God’s relational terms. These doctrines, propositions and related practices, in fact, “go beyond what is written” (countering Paul in 1 Cor 4:6) and functionally violate the intent and purpose of inerrancy. Therefore, inerrancy does not go far and deep enough to get to the heart of the issue and concern, and as a consequence its affirmation, assertion and dogmatism tend to be constructed with the epistemological illusion and ontological simulation from reductionism, shaped by its counter-relational work.

            A qualifying note about the text of Scripture. No doubt there is human agency in the text of Scripture that needs to be accounted for to understand a particular human context giving shape to the text. Human agency of the text, however, just gave shape to the text at that point in time when Scripture became textual, that is, secondary shape. Human agency neither defined the form of language God used in self-revelation, nor determined the content of that language. Hence, human agency existed in only a secondary process of shaping the text and its eventual canonical form. The primary determination always remained with God, who alone both speaks for God and is accountable for the language and its content—human shaping notwithstanding.

            Therefore, there is a necessary alternative to inerrancy. In our quest for epistemic certainty (and underlying ontological and relational identity)—rather than the inerrancy of the Bible as text in referential terms that has narrowed down the epistemic field of God’s Word—we need the deeper significance of Scripture as God’s revelation with communicative action in relational terms. This constitutes the qualitative depth of God’s self-disclosure in vulnerable relational action that unmistakably distinguishes God irreducibly in the whole of who, what and how God is as revealed. The significance of God’s Word is not in the certainty of the text in referential terms (fragmentary certainty) but the certainty of God’s revelation in relational terms (whole certainty), that is, relational certainty distinguished from referential certainty. Some may contend that this reliably emerges only from the referential certainty of the text. That assumes the primacy of referential words and content in determining the significance of communication in relationships over the speaker/author of the communication. This too is a narrowed epistemic field that ignores, even precludes, the relational messages and content signified only by the qualitative presentation of Subject-speaker/author. These relational messages from any subject are the critical aspect conveyed in all communication that qualifies the meaning or significance of the words.

            This distinguished significance constituted only by Subject-God emerges in the function (not concept) of ‘righteousness’, God’s righteousness—not as an attribute of Object-God but as the dynamic function of the whole of who, what and how God is that can be counted on in relationships (namely in self-disclosure) to be nothing less and no substitute, that is, whole-ly with certainty. On this basis, the ancient poet celebrates God’s righteousness because “the LORD is righteous in all his ways” (Ps 145:7,17). Likewise, we can celebrate that Scripture is nothing less and no substitute but the righteousness of God’s communicative action, whole-ly with certainty. This relational certainty by necessity must qualify all communication for the communication to be significant. It is only the righteousness of Scripture as the Word in God’s relational terms that can be counted on to compose the self-disclosures of God. Anything less and any substitute (namely in referential terms) reduce God’s righteousness and fragment the whole distinguishing who, what and how God is directly in relationship.

            Therefore, inerrancy is rightly understood not in narrow referential terms and language to base certainty of the comparative place of the Bible in human context. Rather inerrancy comes in whole relational terms and language to distinguish the function of Scripture: as the communicative words God defines them to be and constitutes with his righteousness, and on this basis alone can be counted on in relationship that God determines these words to serve. Nothing less and no substitutes of what God defines, constitutes and determines can be whole and thus inerrant for the qualitative basis necessary for irrefutable relational significance. There is, of course, a certain aspect of faith in this process, just as even scientists exercise faith while operating in the scientific method. This faith, however, is not a unilateral assumption but the reciprocal relational response engaged in the heuristic epistemic process from outside the universe, which then also exceeds that faith of natural theology.

            Moreover, we need to recognize that certainty and inerrancy in referential terms is based on probability. Such certainty and inerrancy is distinct from improbability, thus does not distinguish the whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path—the vulnerable relational action of God’s self-revelation from outside the universe. If the improbable is not possible, then any reality beyond the universe does not exist and any faith in such a reality is only a unilateral assumption. Conversely, if the improbable is not impossible, then any denial of this reality is also a unilateral assumption of faith. Certainty and inerrancy in referential terms must account for its faith.

            We also must understand that certainty and inerrancy distinct from improbability has more to do with distinguishing our identity than distinguishing God’s revelation. That is to say, a position of certainty and inerrancy seeks to be heard in the human context, along with the desire or need for one’s identity to have distinction (if not also acceptance) in the comparative process of human contextualization. This underlying quest is prominent in the theological academy; and apologetics perhaps has been an expression of it. While apologetics has been needed in theological discourse, the same issues above exist and must be accounted for. Whenever, for example, apologetics becomes more of an end in itself, it is less a means to distinguish the whole of God and more a means of distinction for acceptance (the lack of which diminishes one’s person in comparative relations). Acceptance is understood further in the dynamic of marginalization. As a discipline theology has been marginalized by science, if not rendered insignificant. Part of its insignificance has been the result of theology’s own doing. If our theological anthropology defines the person by what one does (theology) and has (significance), then to be marginalized in one’s discipline is to be marginalized as a person. On this basis, acceptance (or to be heard) is less about one’s theology and more about one’s person.

            In the theological fog of uncertainty (and referential certainty), the ancient poet provides the hermeneutic key to certainty of God’s self-disclosure: “O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth” (Ps 78:1, NIV). The certainty is not in the details—for example, in the quantitative aspects of torah, to which Israel consistently narrowed the covenant. Rather this certainty emerges unmistakably with three major issues:


  1. the significance of the person-Subject presented,

  2. the integrity (righteousness) of this person’s communication,

  3. the depth level of relationship this person-Subject engages in the above communication of the person presented.


Like torah when it is disembodied or de-relationalized—that is, removed from the primacy of relationship together—the Word de-relationalized becomes merely information. “Listen to the qualitative and relational depth of the words of my mouth,” “Listen to my Son” (Mt 17:5), “pay attention to how you listen” (Lk 8:18), and “pay attention to what you hear directly from the words of my mouth” (Mk 4:24), in dynamic interaction together, define the relational context and determine the relational process necessary for all theological declaration to fulfill theology’s underlying assumption “that they understand and know me” (Jer 9:24).


            What we witness in the unfolding of historical theology since the Church Fathers is a pattern in the hermeneutical circle of recurring cycles:


Initial theological clarity®emerging theological fog®dissatisfaction and a search for more®partial shift back to the primary source®limited theological clarity®return of theological fog.


And what underlies the recurring cycles is both a consistent and further narrowing of the epistemic field that results predictably from a limiting interpretive framework. This hermeneutical pattern has become a vicious cycle, with the prospect of no significant change on its horizon. Significant change, however, will require redemptive change from the influence and workings of reductionism and its counter-relational activity. This redemptive change can only be the relational outcome of vulnerably engaging the horizon of the triune God, that is, only on God’s relational terms through ‘the narrow qualitative gate and relational road’ to knowing and understanding the whole of God and God’s whole. Nothing less and no substitutes will break the recurring cycle of theology and remove the theological fog.



Statements of Systematization


            It is one matter to summarize Scripture in a biblical theology. It is a further matter to give coherence to God’s self-disclosures. Yet, it is another matter to systematize the Bible in some foreign, arbitrary or artificial structure imposed on God’s Word, commonly found in systematic theologies. This latter effort seeks to provide a unity to the various facts, themes, propositions and doctrines perceived in the Bible. The common results from such efforts have been some form (shaping or construction) of unity without having the substance (theological significance) of its content to support its unity. The underlying assumption of systematization is that the above parts determine the whole, and that the sum of these parts defines the whole. The aggregate of parts, however, has constructed only some illusion of unity or a simulation of the whole in Scripture. Such results are to be expected because “the measure you give will be the measure you get,” that is, a quantitative interpretive framework with a narrowed epistemic field in referential terms only formulates a semblance of wholeness signifying the epistemological illusion and ontological simulation from reductionism; and on this basis formalizes this illusion or simulation in systematic theologies. For example, this process can be observed in an encyclopedic approach that organizes the Bible according to topics; another example is the concordance approach that systematizes the facts of Scripture, just as the natural sciences do with the facts of nature. Whatever arbitrary, foreign or artificial structure on a quantitative basis is imposed, it does not distinguish the whole of God and God’s whole.

            This is a bold critique to make. Yes, indeed. Yet, the burden is on systematic theologies to account for the basis of its structure providing so-called unity to its parts. Furthermore, they have to account for why their parts are the ones identified, and how those parts are interrelated, if they are at all.

            God’s revelations are not fragmentary even though they are disclosed at different times and contexts. They certainly need to be put together for depth of understanding, as Jesus expected of his followers (syniemi, Mk 8:17-18) and as Paul made definitive for the church (synesis, Col 2:2-3). Yet, “the LORD is righteous in all his disclosures,” that is, the whole of who, what and how God is can be counted on in each of God’s self-revelations. God’s whole defines the parts of this whole body of communicative actions and determines how the parts are interrelated. On the one hand, God’s whole becomes fragmented in a narrowed epistemic field, thereby God’s revelation becomes fragmentary. Yet, on the other hand, God’s whole does not emerge in an apparent broadened epistemic field in generalized terms, and God’s revelations remain fragmentary. Either approach can apply to the efforts of systematic theology. Jesus illuminated the process for us to clarify this critical issue by making a vital distinction.

            The coherence of God’s self-revelation “that leads to whole life” (zoe, not mere bios, Mt 7:14) is composed on “the narrow gate and road,” which is only constituted on God’s relational terms (in contrast, e.g. to the road to Emmaus in the opposite direction). In Jesus’ definitive declaration, he distinguishes the relational context and process of God’s theological trajectory and relational path from all human contextualization. The latter’s distinction is often unrecognized because it has become so generalized that its application tends to be ignored, prominently in the theological task. Systematization is a generalized attempt to organize or systematize the facts, themes, propositions and doctrines of the Bible based on the referentialization of the Word. These generalizing systematic theologies point to and have taken essentially “a wide and easy road” to formulate their explanations and conclusions, construct their unity and formalize their statements, all of which signify what Jesus identifies as their apoleia (loss, ruin, Mt 7:13), that is, reductionism. Jesus makes this vital distinction of human contextualization to help us recognize and understand the prevalence of reductionism and the implications of its illusions and simulations—which he exposed in the rest of his definitive discourse in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7).

            Notably absent or lacking in the above systematic theologies are two defining issues: (1) the strength of sin as reductionism (either ignored or not understood), and (2) an anthropology of the whole person in whole relationship together in the image and likeness of not fragments of God but the whole of God (both illuminated in the Sermon on the Mount). The zoe of the whole of God is distinguished only through and on “the narrow qualitative gate and relational road,” therefore “few find it.” The “wide and easy road” is the prevailing narrow epistemic process in referential terms that may organize information about God but only with fragmentary explanation and conclusion that lack wholeness. Without accounting for the sin of reductionism and its counter-relational work diminishing the person, any unity is the expected epistemological illusion or ontological simulation from reductionism. These are the unavoidable consequences that systematization continues not to recognize, at least adequately, and thus not to contest, at least sufficiently, but likely may have become further embedded in—noticeably since postmodernism’s rejection of a metanarrative and its hermeneutic of suspicion.



Statements of Inclusion


            In contrast to dogmatic declarations from systematic theologies, yet still in likeness of their unifying process, there are statements of inclusion. Challenged by postmodernism to situate all theological discourse in their human contexts and spurred by globalization, theologies of inclusion (e.g. multicultural, pluralistic and global theologies, plus related peace theologies) are increasingly formalized as the unifying basis for God’s people as well as for understanding God and the gospel. These declarations have made any use of a metanarrative difficult, unnecessary or inappropriate; and its dogmatic expression rightly calls for a hermeneutic of suspicion. In its place, inclusive theologies have increased the aggregate of parts to define more inclusively and determine more broadly what can be declared as God’s whole both in creation and with salvation. How can many of these declarations be considered the theological formalization of reductionism?

            In a climate of globalization within the age of reductionism, we have to exercise our own hermeneutic of suspicion—not as in postmodernism to deconstruct a metanarrative but in order to distinguish God’s whole from reductionism, which then may necessitate a means of deconstruction to be whole. Globalization, thankfully, has expanded our lens to vistas beyond any provincialism (as the early church experienced by being scattered, from Acts 8). Unfortunately, the quantitative lens of globalization focusing on secondary matter has also narrowed what we pay attention to and ignore (consider Peter’s lens in Acts 10, that needs to be seen in the context from Acts 8). This has a direct impact on what is taken into consideration to determine the whole and what can be distinguished as whole (notably God’s whole, as Peter learned from Paul).

            The plurality of peoples, cultures and faiths visible in the expanding global community cannot be ignored. Yet how we pay attention to them is the critical issue facing Christian theology today. How we consider them (e.g. in a comparative process), relate to them (e.g. from a hierarchical structure with distinctions of more and less), and are united with them (e.g. by a deficit model) will determine the depth and significance of any theology emerging from global conditions. Necessarily factored into this process of determination—though likely not considered, understood or even perceived (or discerned)—include the strength of our view of sin (e.g. its normative and collective nature) and our theological anthropology (defining both persons and relationship).

            For example, global theology today which is not contextualized further and deeper into the whole of Jesus’ relational context and process merely becomes a multicultural (or intercultural) compendium of theologies giving their unique human shaping to the gospel, while seeking a unity of faith or a whole among God’s people with the good intention of giving each of them a voice. Such a multicultural compendium, like social multiculturalism itself, does not provide unity or lead to the whole; it merely tends to become relative degrees of tolerance, thus essentially not significantly different from pluralism. And it is imperative for our understanding to realize: the tolerance, or even acceptance of pluralism, becomes invariably a stratified process and system, therefore not unifying for the whole—though illusions of harmony may exist to simulate wholeness—but in reality further fragmenting with the counter-relational work of reductionism making comparative distinctions from human contexts. These comparative distinctions of global contexts are fragmenting because the underlying theological anthropology defines them from outer in by a reduced ontology and function. For global theologies (including the West or global North) to be redefined in the deeper contextualization of Jesus’ whole relational context and process, they must willfully let go of the primacy given to their contexts for their self-determination. Integral to this change is addressing the influence of reductionism for their theological anthropology to be transposed to inner out with wholeness in ontology and function.

            We can learn from Paul that defining persons in a plurality by what they do and have unavoidably fragments the basis for God’s whole and the embodied Word (1 Cor 1:13; Eph 1:22-23), including also the persons and relationships necessary to be whole (1 Cor 1:10-12; 4:6-7). In Paul’s fight for this gospel of peace (cf. Eph 6:15), his theology and function were not shaped by his Greek context and its concept of peace. Paul’s framework of peace was from the Hebrew shalom: the well-being constituted by the relational condition of wholeness. The lens he used for this wholeness came from Jesus. And it is from Jesus that we need to learn the determining process for theology in a plurality.

            Basic to Jesus’ involvement in the human context with all its plurality is his confrontation and exposure of reductionism. This was witnessed in his three temptations and more significantly demonstrated in his intrusive relational path, which certainly can make us uncomfortable relationally. Yet, beyond the discomfort of being made vulnerable, Jesus’ approach to the plurality in human context is a major jolt to the theological status quo, if not also disturbing to those declaring any theology of inclusion. How so?

            For Jesus, it was irreplaceable and nonnegotiable in determining theology in a plurality to directly make distinct the presence, influence and workings of reductionism in order to distinguish God’s whole. His jolting and disturbing declaration was made clearly for this distinction: “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division (Lk 12:51, “but a sword,” par. Mt 10:34). How do we reconcile Jesus’ words with our notions of peace and its distinction in theologies of inclusion? Certainly the human condition and its human relational problems need all the help they could get. The issue theologically is neither about foregoing help for the human condition, nor about what and who can help. The issue foremost in God’s salvific response is to make the human relational condition whole, not about some mere help (or merely deliverance). Furthermore, the interpretive framework for the whole is qualitative not quantitative. Theologies of inclusion assume that the greater the plurality brought together, the greater God’s people will be; this assumption operates only with the underlying false assumption that the parts define the whole and the aggregate of parts determines the whole.

            For Jesus, mere notions of peace can compound the human problem if they construct illusions and simulations of wholeness. The wholeness Jesus embodied to make the human condition whole is clearly distinguished from all other peace in human contextualization (Jn 14:27); and on this basis Jesus wept over the human context when he saw it: “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace” (Lk 19:41-42). The strength of Jesus’ lens against the sin of reductionism and for whole anthropology were demonstrated soon after when he forcefully cleared out the temple to make it whole for the plurality of people groups—yet distinguished on a qualitative basis, not the quantitative basis signified in the existing temple. In Jesus’ lens of hermeneutical suspicion, his seemingly contrary dynamic is a means of deconstruction to make whole the human condition. Therefore, the division and conflict Jesus came to cause are by nature needed both to distinguish the wholeness he embodied for the human condition, and to make distinct that any other declarations of peace and related theologies of inclusion simulating or illusory of wholeness are on a different theological trajectory and relational path than Jesus.

            Perhaps such illusion and simulation of wholeness can be witnessed in the contemporary context with the plurality of faiths (and also the diversity of Christian faith). Interfaith dialogue (and the ecumenical conversation) today is either (a) a function primarily of relationship and secondarily of ideology, or (b) primarily of ideology and secondarily of relationship. If it is the latter (b), then such dialogue requires compromise ideologically (i.e. reduction of Christian beliefs) in order to have relationship. If the former (a), this involvement in the primacy of relationship necessitates understanding and acceptance of persons (not affirmation of their beliefs) in order to have relationship—which may include mutual disagreement of beliefs but not the rejection of their person, and thus does not require compromise, only love. The latter (b) compounds the human problem if it is an illusion or simulation of wholeness. The former (a) must also be intrusive (not irenic) with agape involvement in order to distinguish the wholeness embodied by Jesus to make whole the human condition.

            The nature of God’s whole and the sin of reductionism demand this determining process in the theological task, not just for theologies of inclusion but for all theological declarations. The determining issue is compatibility and congruity with the theological trajectory and relational path of the wholeness Jesus gives, that converges in the narrow qualitative gate and relational road of the uncommon, improbable and whole, and therefore that cannot be determined by incomplete notions of peace to widen the gate and road in the common, probable and fragmentary.


            All positive theologies, whatever their statements, are challenged in their interpretive frameworks to distinguish both their view of sin and their theological anthropology from human contextualization, and thus from the influence and workings of reductionism. Without meeting this challenge of their basic assumptions in these two critical areas, their theological trajectory becomes rendered to the theological formalization of reductionism. What constitutes Jesus’ inseparable theological trajectory and relational path and what emerges are irreducible and nonnegotiable.

            The bottom line for theology and what emerges from the theological task reflects our theological engagement:


Have we declared what we did not understand,

     things too distinguished for us, which we did not know?


Or are we declaring what we do indeed understand,

     because the things too distinguished for us have been vulnerably revealed

     in relationship together for us to know whole-ly?





[1] Tony Lane provides an overview of this development in A Concise History of Christian Thought, completely revised and expanded edition (London: T&T Clark, 2006).

[2] Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985).

[3] Brian Davies, “Simplicity” in Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2010), 45.

[4] Colin E. Gunton, Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 36.

[5] Colin E. Gunton, Act and Being, 60-66.

[6] Küng, The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion, 43-53.

[7] A descriptive overview of this work, in interaction with systematic theology, is found in Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Promise of Speech-act Theory for Biblical Interpretation” in Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, Karl Moller, eds., After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 73-90.

[9] Iain McGilchrist also identifies this generalizing process in the dominance of the brain’s left hemisphere, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[10] See a discussion on two horizons by Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 42-46.

[11] This composite term is taken from what more accurately defines the process not as a circle but as a ‘hermeneutical spiral’, which James D.G. Dunn describes as a ‘three-dimensional cone’. “Criteria for a Wise Reading of a Biblical Text” in David F. Ford and Graham Stanton, eds., Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM Press, 2003), 51.

[12] Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, 88.

[13] Lane, 88.





©2013 T. Dave Matsuo

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