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"Did God Really Say That?"

Theology in the Age of Reductionism

Chapter  4    The Theological Task Made Whole



Accounting for the Theological Task
Clarifying the Theological Task and Its Terms
The Heart of the Theological Task
Doing Egology or Living Theology


Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Printable pdf of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index




God knows that when you incorporate…your perspective will be

like God’s and have the knowledge to be theologically significant.


Gen 3:5




            The pursuit of theological significance has defined theological engagement since back in the primordial garden. We need to understand what unfolded there in its larger context. Since the lens of those persons “saw” that some parts of the surrounding context were a “good” means for this pursuit “to make one wise,” they incorporated it into their theological task.

            Basic to what emerged from this beginning to shape theological engagement was their lens: the interpretive lens refocused from the inner out to the outer in by a quantitative interpretive framework that reduces the epistemic field from God’s whole relational terms to fragmentary referential terms. Even if God did really say that, ‘what did God really mean by that’ became the issue. The shift to the latter refocused the theological task to pursue theological significance with a reduced lens. This lens from this quantitative interpretive framework emerged along with the construction of a new language in referential terms (i.e. referential language) that substitutes for God’s relational language. This replacement language—signified by “you will not die for God knows that when you…” (Gen 3:5-6)—(re)defines ‘what God really means by that’ and thereby determines what God says. In other words, referential language speaks for God rather than God speaking for God. How does this dynamic from referential language work?



Accounting for the Theological Task


            It has become increasingly apparent to modern scientific research that the language we speak shapes the way we see the world and even the way we think (not necessarily producing thought).[1] This points to the function of language not merely as a means of expression but also as a template imposing a constraint limiting what we see and the way we think. In his study of neuroscience, Iain McGilchrist states about language:


It does not itself bring the landscape of the world in which we live into being. What it does, rather, is shape that landscape by fixing the ‘counties’ into which we divide it, defining which categories or types of entities we see there—how we carve it up.

     In the process, language helps some things stand forward but by the same token makes others recede…. What language contributes is to firm up certain particular ways of seeing the world and give fixity to them. This has its good side, and its bad. It aids consistency of reference over time and space. But it can also exert a restrictive force on what and how we think. It represents a more fixed version of the world: it shapes, rather than grounds, our thinking.[2]


            This modern awareness provides us with some understanding of the dynamic of referential language—how it works and what effect it has—that was set in motion from the primordial garden. The origination of referential language unfolded as God’s relational language is narrowed down and God’s command (sawah, Gen 2:16) is redefined from communication in God’s relational terms to the transmission of information in referential terms. Detaching the command from Subject-God (or de-relationalizing it) removes God’s words from their primary purpose only for relationship together. The command was clearly God’s communication for the wholeness of their relationship together, not the mere transmission of information (the purpose of referential language) for humans to know merely what to do (the focus of referential terms). This inaugural referentialization of God’s words (command) was extended later by the people of Israel whenever they transposed the commandments from God’s relational language to referential language, and consequently shaped the covenant in narrow referential terms—essentially de-relationalizing the covenant from ongoing relationship with Subject-God.

            The shift to referential language opened the door to shape, redefine or reconstruct the information transmitted by God to narrowed-down interpretation (what God really meant by that, “your eyes will be opened”), that is, to reduced referential terms that implies speaking for God on our own terms (signified in “to make one wise”). When referential language is the prevailing interpretive framework for our perceptual-interpretive lens, then this shapes the way we see God’s revelation and the way we think about God’s words—as modern science is rediscovering about language. Conjointly and inseparably, referential language also puts a constraint on our lens, thereby restricting what we see of God’s revelation and limiting how we think about God’s words (“you will not…”). This dynamic from referential language obviously redefines the subject matter in the theological task, and certainly continues to constrain its theological engagement. Any explanations and conclusions that emerge from the theological task in referential terms merely reflect the theological reflections of referential language. Any such theological statements have no theological significance; they only attempt to speak for God—most prominently with the illusion or simulations from reductionism (“you will be like God”).

            This pursuit of theological significance that was put into motion in the primordial garden needs to be accounted for. In referential language, theology’s subject matter is narrowed down to terms that are disembodied (de-relationalized), fragmentary or elusive, without distinguishing the whole Subject. This is the designed purpose of referential language, and its use in the theological task has unavoidable consequences epistemologically, hermeneutically, ontologically and relationally. This dynamic of referential language was illuminated by Jesus in a crucial interaction with those “who had believed in him” (Jn 8:31-45).

            In this highly visible text—yet consistently seen with limited understanding—Jesus distinguished between those following him in relational terms and those believing him in referential terms. The defining issue for the latter group was exposed in Jesus’ question to these believers” “Why do you not understand my speech” (lalia, v.43), that is, “Why is my language not clear to you?” (NIV) The answer was not simply “because you cannot accept my word” (as rendered in NRSV). The underlying issue is the constraint of referential language restricting their ability “to hear my word in relational language.”

            Jesus had just made definitive to them what distinguishes his followers in relational terms: “If you continue in the relational language of my word, you are truly my followers, involved with me in relationship together on my relational terms; and you will know the embodied truth [not de-relationalized, generalized and propositionalized], and Subject-Truth will free you” (8:31-33). Redemption interpreted through the lens of referential language is fragmented to deliverance from situations, circumstances and sin—which these Jewish believers no longer saw their need for (v.33)—and also is refracted neither to see the sin of reductionism nor to include the relational significance of what we are redeemed for: to be freed to become permanent members of God’s family as his very own daughters and sons (vv.34-36). The restricting limits of referential language inescapably makes us unable to understand the Word’s relational language in the theological task, and this has far-reaching consequences epistemologically (not knowing the Truth), hermeneutically (unable to interpret his words to understand God’s revelation), ontologically (not to be free from reductionism and made whole) and relationally (not to experience whole relationship together in God’s family). And Jesus unmistakably connected this dynamic of referential language directly to its originating source in the primordial garden (8:44).

            Accounting for the referentialization of the Word in the pursuit of theological significance is both needed today and problematic. Three other examples help us understand how this skewed pursuit has shaped all levels of the theological task and also exposes our need for redemptive change in any theological engagement, as illuminated above by Jesus.

           The first example involved Jesus and a rich young ruler (Mk 10:16-22, par. Lk 18:18-23). After this man presumably saw the significance of Jesus’ blessing of the children, he pursued Jesus for eternal life, that is, for his own theological significance. He certainly went to the right source to validate his pursuit. However, when he wanted to have this theological significance, he focused on the task of ‘what to do’ to gain theological significance: “What must I do?” (v.17) Jesus answered him in relational language but the rich young ruler responded back in referential language according to the constraints of a theological anthropology defining him by what he did and had. The relational consequence was no theological significance based on ‘what to do’.

            In the second example, a lawyer tested Jesus in theological engagement (Lk 10:25-29). He wanted to be distinguished in theological discourse so he asked Jesus a question similar to the rich young ruler. Jesus refocused him on the law but only in relational terms, not the referential terms of the lawyer’s tradition. Since the lawyer wanted to establish his significance (“justify himself,” v.29) in the theological conversation, he asked Jesus for more information, that is, for referential knowledge to use in his theological task. In other words, when the lawyer wanted to be theologically significant, his lens focused on having ‘knowledge’ to demonstrate his theological significance. Jesus’ response identified the existing gap between the convention of theological conversation (discourse) that depends on fragmentary knowledge, and the relational terms of his words that involve wholeness in both theology and practice (10:30-37). In the context of this commonly known text, Jesus illuminates for the theological task the theological significance of relational language that is clearly distinguished from the epistemological illusion of theological significance based on ‘knowledge’.

            The third example involves a magician named Simon who converted to Christianity (Acts 8:9-19). After becoming a Christian, Simon saw the significance of Peter and John’s impact on the people by laying their hands on them to receive the Spirit. In spite of Simon’s past of amazing people with his magic, his action now to secure the means to impart the Spirit needs to be understood more broadly. Certainly, Simon wanted the significance of Peter and John. Whether or not it was for the primary purpose for others to receive the Spirit, Simon misguidedly pursued theological significance. Consequently, when he wanted theological significance, he focused on technique/method (“lay my hands”) to have this theological significance. As Simon learned in his theological effort, with the narrow lens determining any theological task there is no theological significance based on ‘methodology’.

            These three examples summarize what has traditionally constituted the theological task: (1) based on ‘what to do’, (2) based on ‘knowledge’, and (3) based on ‘methodology’. In one way or another, separately or jointly, these all reflect a variation of what emerged in the primordial garden. The influence and workings of reductionism (including its counter-relational activity) put into motion, prominently in the dynamic of referential language, consistently raise two critical, undeniable and inescapable issues needing ongoing accountability in the theological task:


  1. The strength of view of sin necessary to address sin as reductionism and to account for any sin of reductionism; therefore, having a lens of sin irreducible to human contextualization and nonnegotiable to human terms.

  1. Basic to the theological task is our theology. Ironically, as demonstrated in the primordial garden, the critical key to significance in the theological task, and to the nature of our theological engagement, is our theological anthropology defining the person from inner out (with the functional significance of the heart) based on who the person is in the qualitative image of God and what persons are in the primacy of whole relationships together in the relational likeness of the whole of God—not reducing the person to outer in defined by what one does and has, and on that basis limiting engagement in relationships to secondary function, noticeably with relational distance in the epistemic process.


            In the midst of what was put into motion in the primordial garden was God’s voice in relational language pursuing those persons for the sake of theological significance: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9) God’s voice continues to resound today, pursuing us for theological significance. Our response must not follow the relational distance found in the primordial garden, with its weak view of sin without reductionism and fragmented view of the person from outer in. Those who do not vulnerably account for where we are in the theological task—where in relational terms, not the referential terms of what we do, our knowledge and methodology—will continue in the contrary flow set in motion from the primordial garden, on a different theological trajectory and relational path than the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God.

            Given God’s presence and involvement, in addition to the question of ‘Where are you?’ God’s voice in relational language further pursues us, perhaps in our theological fog: “What are you doing here?” (just as he pursued Elijah in his theological fog, 1 Kg 19:9,13). We need to account not only for where we are in our theological engagement but also be accountable for what we are doing in the theological task and why we are doing that. What are we doing here indeed!



Clarifying the Theological Task and Its Terms


            To help locate where we are and need to be in the theological task in terms of relational language, we can establish a working definition of theology. With the convergence of the various words, statements and declarations from God highlighted throughout our discussion up to now, the definition of theology has been unfolding. Not to be confused with ‘process theology’, the formation of theology emerges with the following:


Theology emerges from the intimate reflection (not a quantitative analysis) on the outcome of receiving and responding to God’s communicative action in relational terms (cf. theaomi, Jn 1:14), not from measured consideration of mere information in referential terms (e.g. eraunao, search, look into, try to find out, Jn 5:39)—the most significant reflection of which involves and implies the further relational outcome of knowing and understanding God in qualitative relational terms. On this basis, theology needs to be understood beyond the task of formulating doctrines and constructing systems informing us about God in order to get to the depths of theology’s relational significance: making definitive the coherence (synesis, cf. Col 2:2-3) of God’s self-revelations vulnerably communicated to us as God’s Word in relational language only for the primacy of relationship together.


If this is the integrating basis for the subject matter of theology, then the theological task by necessity requires the relational context and process of the Subject, not the mere information about the Object. Therefore, the task of making definitive the coherence of God’s revelations in relational language involves conjointly the ongoing congruence with God’s theological trajectory and compatibility with God’s relational path.

            The initial task of theology is to clearly define its own subject matter without the influence from human contextualization to fragment (or distract it from) its subject matter, and without the shaping from human contextualization to obscure its subject matter. Integral to distinguishing its subject matter, the theological task necessitates engaging the definitive (not conventional) epistemic process made accessible by the Subject that will have the relational outcome of knowing and understanding the Subject (not merely the Object) of its subject matter. This epistemology is indispensable for the theological task and essential for theology. Basic to this (and any) epistemology is our qualitative interpretive framework and the relational hermeneutic used to engage God’s relational epistemic process only on God’s relational terms, in contrast to (and even conflict with) a limited epistemic process with a narrowed epistemic field in referential terms. For too long, the dynamic of referential language has fragmented or obscured the subject matter of theology, and consequently relocated many in the theological task to a different theological trajectory and relational path than the whole of God.

            The existing gap between the convention of theological discourse in referential language and theological engagement in relational language is insurmountable. That is, the whole of God from beyond the universe is not distinguished by the limitation of terms within the universe. Even though physicist Stephen Hawking ostensibly has given up his search for a grand unifying theory due to the limits of self-referencing, efforts in the theological task continue in referential language—further prompting God’s question “What are you doing here?”

            Since the emergence of referential language, the dynamic of its influence and workings has permeated even human development (including the brain) along with its primary purpose to construct substitute developments in theology. As discussed, referential language is fragmentary and disembodies the Word into parts (e.g. teachings, doctrine), which it attempts to aggregate into some unity or whole (e.g. in a systematic or biblical theology). This fragmentation and disembodiment are further evident in textual criticism (historical, form, literary), which embeds us in the secondary without understanding the primary (as defined by God). For George Steiner, this secondary critical reflection is the interpretive crisis that results in the loss of God’s presence—a condition he identifies as ‘a Secondary City’.[3] More critically, the use of referential language in the quest for certainty (e.g. in foundationalism and philosophical theology), which presumably would more accurately describe and represent the Word (e.g. in propositionalism and criticism), cannot be more than self-referencing, inconsistent and incomplete; that is, this is the consequence once it disembodies the Word and hence disengages from the Word’s relational context and process vulnerably disclosing the whole of God.

            A qualifying note is necessary for the further distinction between referential language and relational language. The depth of relational language also includes propositions in the communication of vulnerable self-disclosure. Such propositions, however, are only for the qualitative significance of relationship together, not for mere quantitative knowledge and information. Therefore, in contrast to their use with referential language, these propositions must not by their nature in communication be reduced from this primary relational context and process, fragmented from the communication in relationship, and disembodied from the communicator, the Word. The primacy of relational language that qualifies the presence of propositions in communication clearly is heard in Jesus’ “I am” statements (e.g. Jn 6:35; 8:12; 10:7,11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1), which Paul heard, received and responded to only in relational terms (Acts 9:5).

            Essentially, it can be said that referential language was not “designed” for the further development of qualitative communication in relationship but in reality went in the opposite direction which takes us away from qualitative relational connection. Historically, the referential language of prose evolved after poetry, and early poetry was sung, the qualitative significance of which was basic to communication in relationship and not the mere transmission of information.[4] This speaks further to the significance that many portions of the canonical Word are poetry; communication is the key, not transmitting information, which in the Bible singing and music also constitute in the innermost (e.g. Judg 5:3; Ps 27:6; 30:12; 108:1; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). This raises the issue of the effectiveness of prose in theological discourse. Perhaps contrary to Steiner’s own use of prosaic language, he states the following conviction:


It is, I believe, poetry, art and music which relate us most directly to that in being which is not ours. Science is no less animate in its making of models and images. But these are not, finally, disinterested. They aim at mastery, at ownership. It is counter-creation and counter-love, as these are embodied in the aesthetic and in our reception of formed meaning, which put us in sane touch with that which transcends, with matters ‘undreamt of’ in our materiality. …All good art and literature begin in immanence. But they do not stop there. Which is to say, very plainly, that it is the enterprise and privilege of the aesthetic to quicken into lit presence the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between man and ‘the other’.[5]


            While Steiner rightly identifies poetry and music as a qualitative link to the other beyond our being, he only appears to make discourse about this being without the relational connection constituted by communication. McGilchrist further identifies this difference in the qualitative use of words with music and poetry only for communication, which he locates in the function of the right brain hemisphere. This qualitative function of the right hemisphere, and its related view of the world, is in contrast to the quantitative reduction of words to the referential language of prose by the left hemisphere for its function not of communication in relationship but to merely make discourse about something.[6] This critical difference between discourse about the Word or from the Word of God to transmit information, and the qualitative communication by the Word in relationship is not the gap of Lessing’s ‘ugly broad ditch’ but rather the relational distance Jesus made definitive in Luke 10:21 for the presence or absence of the communicative God in relationship.

            The hermeneutic of a child that Jesus makes definitive for the theological task is a challenge, and likely threat, to most in theological engagement. Yet, this necessary hermeneutic for relational language does not eliminate reason but rather puts rational thought into its rightful created context of relationship; for example, not disembodying (de-relationalizing) the words about Object-God from the relational words from Subject-God. The prevailing dichotomy between reason and faith is a construction from referential language, whose distinction-making in referential terms has narrowed the lens giving definition to both reason and faith. Lessing’s ‘ugly ditch’ reflects this dichotomy.

            As a child engages the rightful created relational context with the relational process of trust (not blind faith or fideism), that is with vulnerable relational involvement, this person engages a heuristic epistemic process to learn, understand and experience whom he or she can count on in reciprocal relationship to extend that trust (cf. Ps 119:130). The hermeneutic lens of this person ongoingly counts on who, what and how God says of himself to be in relationship (as in righteousness), nothing less and no substitutes, thus removing the need for speculation about God. In addition, this hermeneutic also rightly holds God accountable to be God in relationship together (e.g. in the relational epistemic process), to be whole-ly with certainty. In the dynamic of the hermeneutic of faith, the epistemic field and process are openly engaged in reciprocal relationship; on these relational terms, neither God does all the work nor do we in the theological task. Therefore, it is vital to understand that accountability in the theological task is by necessity both ways. As God pursues us for theological significance with ‘Where are you?’ and ‘what are you doing here?’ there are times in the relational epistemic process when we need to ask God ‘where are You?’

            This lens of faith is in critical contrast with the narrow lens of reason that limits the epistemic field and process (cf. Dt 30:11-14). In assuming the theological task unilaterally, such reason alone consistently fragments the Object from its relational context and process, thereby reducing the Object to its parts (e.g. commandments, teachings, even attributes) without knowing and understanding the Object as Subject. To know and understand this Object as Subject is the unrestricted knowing and understanding of the whole of God (Subject-Object) intrinsic to theology and necessary to distinguish theology’s relational significance, wholeness, and thus theological significance. The absence or lack of this relational knowing and understanding is identified by Jesus as operating in “the wise and learned.” Just as Jesus made paradigmatic for theological engagement, the resulting gap in the theological task between the hermeneutic of a child and the interpretive lens of ‘the wise and learned’ is insurmountable no matter the latter’s level of scholarship, extent of referential knowledge and rigor in methodology (as Jesus further identified in Jn 5:39-40, and as Paul clarified for the church in 1 Cor 3:18-21).

            The tension and conflict between the hermeneutic of a child and that of ‘the wise and learned’ is reflected in the theological task described in Deuteronomy 30:11-14. The wise and learned, on the one hand, narrow the epistemic field to manage the theological task within the limits of their own understanding, while, on the other hand, they complicate the epistemic process (e.g. with the growing body of information from theological-biblical studies) to limit the theological task to the wise and learned (consider the implications of the complaint by the temple elite, Mt 21:15-16). Epistemic humility is problematic for those entangled in the dynamic of referential language because its related reduced theological anthropology defines them by the self-determination of what they do and have—making any humility ontologically self-defeating. The simplicity of relational language described above that the child-person’s lens counts on—“the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to respond” (30:14)—has no benefit for self-determination; it’s too easy, everybody can do it. This is the expected and necessary thinking of reason separated from its rightful created context—the lens of the wise and learned that emerged from the primordial garden.

            This lens of self-determination in the theological task is indispensable to understand because it redefines the purpose of the theological task and also determines our identity in ‘what we are doing here’. Self-determination is the underlying dynamic that needs to be understood in human shaping and construction. The presence of self-determination may be apparent in an individualistic context like the United States but how is this relevant in collectivistic contexts? The reality is that self-determination is never pursued in a vacuum or in isolation from the self’s surrounding context; it is always a process in relation to others outside of oneself, thus self-determination can be both by an individual and a collective. The underlying dynamic of self-determination is made definitive by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6, which overlaps with self-autonomy in Mt 5 and self-justification in Mt 7). This prevailing effort, which constitutes human shaping and construction (cf. the tower of Babel, Gen 11:1-4), focuses our interpretive lens on what to pay attention to and what to ignore (cf. Gen 3:4-6). Moreover, it also signifies an outer-in ontology and function, the process of which depends on rationalizing in its acts of determination and consequently defines self and relationships by quantitative parts, aspects or things for easier determination. In further understanding, the quest for self-determination is inseparable from a search for identity, which conjointly leads to the quest for certainty. Here is when the underlying dynamic becomes more obscure. With the elusive nature of certainty in the universe and in the absence of wholeness, the definition of certainty by necessity becomes reduced and narrowed down to what we can control and thereby be certain about. Then, of course, this dynamic engages the variable of fear, which easily becomes the driving force behind human effort—extending self-determination into self-justification.

            This process is further seen in the theological task for certainty. The need for certainty in doctrine, notably among evangelicals influenced by modernism’s scientific paradigm of foundationalism or by postmodernism’s rejection of any metanarrative, has often been driven by fear in its quest for self-determination in a surrounding context which is, at best, adversarial and, more likely, hostile to and in reductionist conflict with the whole of God. Yet, we must count the cost for the theological task and our identity to be defined by human contextualization and determined by its measures (metron). This need, quest and related fear have narrowed the focus of theology, and by referentialization the theological task has constrained the Word from God to speak for himself. As Jesus made conclusive, “the measure you use will be the measure you get in return results” (Mk 4:24).

            These interrelated epistemological, hermeneutical, ontological and relational issues confuse the subject matter of theology, and they diversify (i.e. fragment and partition) the theological task (e.g. into multiple and separate disciplines). If the primary purpose of our theological task is no longer focused on making definitive the coherence of God’s self-revelations vulnerably communicated to us as God’s Word in relational language, then our subject matter will not be distinguished. Moreover, our identity in ‘what we are doing here’ remains subject to the distinction our self-determination achieves in the comparative process. These are the relational consequences because self-determination undertakes the theological task unilaterally, with the burden of its work solely on us. Yet, the presence of self-determination in the theological task is often clouded by epistemological illusion or ontological simulation—the genius of reductionism that has captivated the theological community in much of its history. In reality, however, this is what we are doing in the theological task, and any theological fog is also the result of our own doing.

            As we address these interrelated issues in our theological task, our subject matter will be unmistakable and the purpose of our theological task will become congruent with God’s theological trajectory and compatible with his relational path. The relational outcome will be knowing and understanding God for the formation of whole theology and practice—clearly in contrast to and in conflict with any other definition and determination in the theological task. This leads us to the heart of the theological task.



The Heart of the Theological Task


            The pivotal point in God’s improbable theological trajectory was the strategic shift of God’s thematic relational action when the Word embodied God’s intrusive relational path. It is distinguished as intrusive because up to then in the human context God’s heart dwelled primarily in the temple (1 Kg 9:3). When Jesus vulnerably disclosed the intimate presence of God to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:6-26), this pivotal theological engagement emerged in relational language to illuminate the theological task for her. How can we say she was involved in the theological task? In reality, when anyone (even children) seeks to sort out their beliefs, gain their meaning or put them into practice, they are engaged in the theological task. She demonstrated this involvement (4:12, 19-20,25); and she also challenged others in their theological task (4:28-30, 39-42).

            Jesus’ disclosure of “God is spirit” (v.24) cannot be distinguished in referential language. Philosophical theology could be satisfied with rendering the transcendent “God is spirit” to the self-existing spirit distinct from all his creatures, who alone has life within himself and is the life-giver. Yet, this referential explanation would neither be significant for this woman’s theological task nor be significant to God and for the whole of God vulnerably disclosed here. Throughout the incarnation Jesus’ whole person vulnerably disclosed the transcendent “God is spirit”, that is, the whole of God’s glory, therefore who, what and how God is. This self-disclosure was jointly nothing less and no substitutes of God as well as only for relationship together, the whole of which then had theological significance to the woman and to God. If the incarnation embodied anything less or any substitute, it would not have theological significance. As Jesus embodied God’s intrusive relational path with his whole person, he directly opened access for her to the transcendent “God is spirit” in vulnerable relational terms, not in constraining referential terms.

             The incarnation makes accessible the presence of the holy and transcendent God. The glory of God in Jesus’ whole person makes evident the heart of God’s being, the core of the whole of the triune God, functionally for relationship (cf. Jn 1:14). In the incarnation the righteous God embodies the righteousness of God, whole-ly with certainty. That is, the vulnerable presence of the very heart of God is the truth of who and what God is, and the functional significance of nothing less and no substitutes; and the intimate involvement of the very core of the whole of the triune God is the truth of how God is, and the relational significance of nothing less and no substitutes. The incarnation embodies this ‘dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes’. In conflict with the dynamic of referential language, the heart (core) and truth of God in Jesus are not revelations (apokalypto) of mere information in referential language but vulnerable self-disclosures (phaneroo) in relational language only for the intimate involvement necessary for relationship together to be whole. Therefore, “God is spirit” is disclosed by Jesus exclusively in relational language, the terms of which are unavoidably vulnerably present and intimately involved. For her to be compatibly engaged in the theological task also required her vulnerable presence and intimate involvement for reciprocal relationship together. This was her experience in the theological task as she responded back to Jesus with the heart and truth (honesty, Jn 4:16-18) of her own person (“in spirit and truth”). Both as a woman and a Samaritan, she made her person vulnerable culturally, religiously and most important relationally. In contrast to her vulnerable engagement in the theological task, Jesus’ disciples kept their hearts at a distance (4:27,31-33); and their lack of vulnerability in their theological task resulted in not whole-ly understanding Jesus (syniemi, Mk 6:49-52; 8:17-21). “In spirit and truth” are the persons who make compatible relational connection with the whole of God at the depth-level of God’s heart; and theology’s relational significance is contingent on having this congruence (4:23-24).

            The heart (core) of the person is the “spirit” disclosed by Jesus, which is necessary and intrinsic to “God is spirit” in order to be involved with the Father (Jn 4:23-24). By vulnerably disclosing the heart of God’s being, the core of the triune God, Jesus made evident the transcendent “God is spirit” as the present and involved “God is heart” (cf. Ps 33:11, leb, heart). This does not redefine the ontology of God but distinguishes the strategic shift of God’s thematic relational action. By embodying the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, Jesus is the hermeneutical key that opens this ontological door to the whole of God.

            The heart of God’s being is the qualitative aspect of God’s glory made accessible (vulnerably present) to us with which we can functionally connect for relationship together by God’s relational nature. This relational connection is possible (not improbable), however, only because of the ontology of the human person Jesus implied in “spirit,” which God seeks. That is, the God of heart, who was vulnerably disclosed to us, made us in the image of the whole of God. Simply stated, the God of heart made us persons of heart (cf. Ps 33:15, leb).

            As Jesus distinguished in the above practice of worship, Scripture consistently makes the functional (not ontological) distinction between the outer person and the inner, the distinction between what we are doing in outward behavior and what truly exists inwardly, and the importance of fully understanding the significance between them (see Deut 4:29, 1 Sam 16:7, Ps 51:16-17, Acts 15:8-10, Rom 2:28-29). This necessarily takes us back to creation.

            When God created the human person, an aspect of God was “breathed” into the person constituting the “inner person” (nepes, Gen 2:7); nepes has a quantitative aspect in which God created all living creatures (Gen 1:30) and a qualitative aspect created only in human persons. Though a defined “inner person” implies an “outer person”—which may appear to employ a dualism in defining the human person (inner and outer, spiritual and physical/material)—they are not substances to be perceived separately as in classic dualism from a Greek philosophical framework (notably from Platonism). Rather the inner (center) and outer (peripheral) aspects of the person function together dynamically to define the whole person from the Hebrew concept. Thus one functional aspect should not be seen apart from the other, nor should either be neglected; this invariably happens in an outer-in approach to defining the person—which is why the worship practice Jesus rejected only paid attention to the outer, ignoring the inner (Mt 15:8-9). Hence, the theological issue regarding human ontology and the functional issue in life and practice converge critically in this integral question: which aspect of the person has more significance and thus needs to have greater importance—though not at the neglect of the other aspect?

            In Hebrew terminology of the OT, the center of the person is the heart (leb); that is, conceptually, the “inner person” (nepes) that God “breathed” of the whole of God into the human person is signified by the heart (leb). The biblical proverbs speak of the heart in the following terms: identified as “the wellspring” (starting point, tasa’ot) of the ongoing function  of the human person (Prov 4:23); using the analogy to a mirror, also functions as what gives definition to the person (Prov 27:19); and , when not reduced or fragmented (“at peace,” i.e. wholeness), as giving life to “the body” (basar, referring to the outer aspect of the person, Prov 14:30), which describes the heart’s integrating function for the whole person (inner and outer together).

            This illuminates that the function of the heart signifying the “inner person”—which then is inclusive of the outer—involves two critically irreducible and irreplaceable functions:


  1. As the definitive aspect for personhood that qualitatively integrates the whole person, the heart’s presence signifies the presence of the whole person and constitutes the involvement of the whole person in one’s life and practice.

  2. The heart is the basis of the person that whole-ly determines the significance of a person’s relational involvement with the vulnerable heart of God, specifically for intimate relationship together with the Trinity (in whose image and likeness the human person is created), the experience of which is constituted in only the whole of God’s relational context and process on just God’s relational terms (signified by “in spirit and truth”).


These two interrelated functions of the heart are integral to theological engagement in order to distinguish and make coherent God’s vulnerable self-revelations.

            The function of the intellect apart from the heart may be able to provide quantitative unity for the person—for example, the association of human parts and function described by scientific research. While this knowledge may be necessary at times, the function of the intellect is never sufficient by itself to define the whole person or to experience the relationships necessary to be whole, particularly with God. Reason alone can never describe the ontology of the person, human as well as Divine, nor does it define the qualitative function of relationships between persons. Only the heart provides the qualitative integration of the whole person made in the likeness of the God of heart; only the compatible heart provides the functional basis for experiencing intimate relationship (hearts coming together) with the whole of God, which is why the Father seeks those persons of heart for the primacy of relationship together.

            This makes definitive why the “God is spirit” (heart) is disclosed exclusively in relational language to those “in spirit” (heart)—just as illuminated by the faith of a child, Lk 10:21), who by nature must function in likeness of heart to be involved in the theological task to distinguish the heart of God. The strategic shift of God’s thematic action just in relational terms makes intrusively evident that the whole of God’s desires are to be directly involved with the whole person for intimate relationship together in wholeness. Since the function of the heart constitutes the relational involvement of the whole person, God cannot count on the whole person for this relational outcome until it involves the heart with nothing less and no substitutes. In this reciprocal relationship together, the compatible relational response is composed just by the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. Accordingly, referential terms cannot establish the theological engagement necessary for what can be only a relational outcome.

            The heart of the theological task involves nothing less than the reciprocal response to the heart of God vulnerably disclosed in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. Compatibility and congruence in this reciprocal relational process is constituted first by God’s heart and then by our heart in likeness. By the nature of ‘heart’ this always involves the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, which is ongoingly challenged, reduced and substituted for by the dynamic of referential language. Therefore, the heart of the theological task demands embodying nothing less and no substitutes of heart; and integral to the theological task is the presence and function of our heart, signifying the vulnerable involvement of our whole person from inner out. This is the hermeneutical key to theological engagement—just as Jesus vulnerably embodied with the Spirit, from the Father—without which the theological task is unable to open the ontological door to the whole of God and the relational door to the theological significance of knowing and understanding God in whole relationship together.

            Tepid results in the theological task signify a critical condition of the heart needing an urgent response. This composes Jesus’ ongoing post-ascension response to our heart to open the barrier to reciprocal involvement in theological engagement (Rev 3:20).



Doing Egology or Living Theology


            The task of theology and its results have shared a common history ever since the primordial garden. A common pattern has shaped much of its effort and results, emerging after the introduction of the relational words communicated from God in the beginning. This pattern redefines all references of God-talk in different terms, and thereby establishes doing theology over-and-above those words from God.

            When the persons in the primordial garden sorted out their beliefs and their meaning, they initiated the theological task. After taking into consideration their surrounding context, they went over-and-above God’s words and redefined God-talk in referential language in order to gain the wisdom to construct their theology.

            When Moses dealt with his frustration about the people’s complaint in their critical situation of no water, he received specific words from God to put into practice (Num 20:2-12). In his theological task to put this belief into practice, Moses went over-and-above those words in specific relational language and separated them from Subject-God’s relational meaning and intention in the communication of those words. By doing so, the practice Moses put into action was then shaped by the situation and his frustration about it (“Listen, you rebels, shall we [Moses and Aaron] bring water for you out of this rock?” 20:10). In other words, Moses’ theological task was self-determining once he separated God’s words from their relational meaning and intention to communicate the relational messages of God’s righteousness and faithfulness in covenant relationship together. The relational consequence was that Moses disengaged his direct involvement with God in the theological task and redefined God-talk in his own terms; therefore, he highlighted his self-determination (“shall we”) in his theology and practice, with major relational consequences (v.12).

            Essentially, it can be said that Moses initiated the interpretive lens of ‘intentional fallacy’: the fallacy that meaning must be connected solely with what a speaker or author meant or intended to assert by their words. Consequently, the meaning of God’s Word for its readers becomes separated from Subject-God; this opens the door for the autonomy of self-determination to go over-and-above the words from God to redefine God-talk, determine the theological task on one’s own terms, and shape and construct theology accordingly.

            Paul directly confronted this autonomy of self-determination in the theological task of many in the church at Corinth with the theological imperative: “Nothing beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6, discussed previously in chap. 2; cf. Ecc 12:12). That is, nothing beyond the communicative words from God in the canonical text of Scripture; moreover, what is written neither in part (as a proof-text for human shaping) nor in fragmentation (as a biased selectivity for human construction) but entirely in its whole. Only this source in whole establishes the definitive basis for operation in epistemology, hermeneutics, and thus theology. Without this determining source the theological task is opened to self-determination. The underlying goal of self-determination in the theological task is not always apparent; but when theological effort goes over-and-above what is written, Paul makes the goal unmistakable by adding “so that none of you will be puffed up” (cf. 1 Cor 8:1b). Paul illuminated the indivisible interdependence between theology and Scripture for this fragmented church with their self-determined (and self-promoting) theology.

            Furthermore, the primacy of the Word is the antecedent determining all theology for it to be significant, not the converse. Therefore, what determines what and who determines whom is contingent on whether or not the theological task goes over-and-above the words from God. Moreover, going over-and-above God’s words can be enacted even after initial primacy is given to the Word (e.g. with survey or even exegesis) as only the introductory stage in the theological task; this is followed by what is considered the main task separated from the introduction of words from God, and that is now in function or practice (if not clear in theology) self-determined. From the point of view of historic Christian thought and life from its inception, Markus Bockmuehl comments that “to read Scripture is never some jumping-off point from which to abstract or develop the ‘real’ intellectual or theological task.”[7] As noted above and discussed later, Paul established conclusively the constituting source needed for the theological task to be of significance to God, not to us, and to be defining God’s Word, not ours. Doing theology over-and-above is not only self-determining but fragmentary, as Paul further illuminated for the church.

            A new form of doing theology over-and-above has been institutionalized in the theological academy today for the determination of modern theology. When theological literacy is discussed for the twenty-first century, its complexity makes attaining this literacy nearly a life-time enterprise (at the least, years of theological education). Robert Neville explains that the reason for this complexity of theological literacy is that in our modern context an unusually large (or newly large) number of perspectives need to be incorporated into one’s own theological perspective.[8] That is, today’s complexity means incorporating many perspectives into our theological task in order to emerge with results of any distinction. Bockmuehl comments further about this library of information from human construction: “By any standard it is now impossible to keep up with the sheer quantity of publications, increased exponentially by two and a half decades of word-processing technology.”[9] Neville adds further:


Theological literacy is complex regarding truth…. The contextualization of interpretation is enormously complex, and is hard to press beyond hermeneutics. The existential reality of engagement is equally complex, and not to be read off theological expressions considered by themselves. The identification and sorting of the interweaving of iconic, indexical, and conventional reference in interpretation is mind-boggling in its complexity. And yet all these complexities must be in hand before adequate formulations of questions of theological truth are possible.[10]


            In other words, literally, what is meant by theological literacy today is less about being well-versed in God’s words but more versed in the words of others. However one composes theological literacy in the contemporary climate, it shapes the current process of doing theology into going over-and-above the words from God—even if the words are the primary focus, yet transposed to referential language (e.g. by ‘intentional fallacy’). The complexity of theological literacy today is more complex than identified above because it neither recognizes nor accounts for the complications due to the influence and workings of the dynamic of referential language. How do we need to understand this today so that we return to and continue in those words from God communicated exclusively in relational language? Paul helps us to distinguish this process.

            Doing theology over-and-above God’s words in relational language emerges from human contextualization—whether it involves incorporating some aspect of the surrounding context (e.g. by persons in the primordial garden), giving primacy to situations and circumstances (e.g. by Moses), or deferring to prevailing practices (e.g. the church at Corinth) and convention (e.g. the theological academy). The alternative is not to be removed from human contextualization.

            In my opinion, Paul did not intentionally engage in what is conventionally considered doing theology, though he clearly undertook the theological task (according to the definition noted earlier). Paul was otherwise engaged in reciprocating contextualization between his involvement in God’s relational context and process constituting God’s vulnerable relational action, and his involvement in the human condition of human contextualization. Paul’s ongoing involvement in the latter was always to make definitive, on the basis of his involvement in the former, God’s relational response to make whole the human relational condition. This constituted, for example, his involvement with those to whom his letters were addressed. This making-definitive purpose necessarily included a form of theological discourse, yet in effect Paul was too involved mutually with God’s life and human life to consider a separate task of doing theology, that is, as traditionally defined. In this sense, Paul was involved in the dynamic relational process of living theology rather than in the static (and also isolating and fragmenting) activity of merely “doing” theology.

            In the tradition of doing theology various issues emerge about its practice which need to be held accountable for with the questions God raised earlier. We learn from Paul that engaging in theology must not be done in isolation or in a “spiritual vacuum,” even as one is reflecting. Though monastic theology rightly shifted the theological task from a quantitative interpretive framework to a qualitative one, its isolating context tended to preclude God’s intrusive relational path, thus resulting in its theology lacking relational significance. We should not be misled by such a perception of Paul, notably when he went off to Arabia following his Damascus road experience without consulting the other apostles (Gal 1:16-17). Such isolated or private theology likely becomes one’s personal theology (which some have interpreted about Paul and his gospel), or more of a sense of theology on “my terms,” that is, more accurately described as ‘egology’ not ‘theology’. The implication of Peter’s contrary behavior with Jesus points to such a theology formulated on his own terms (see Mt 16:21-22, Jn 13:6-8)—even after confessing a fundamental truth-claim of faith revealed to him by the Father (Mt 16:15-17). These efforts justify a postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion and deconstruction.

            Likewise, engaging theology only in human contextualization, even as one is in conversation with the Word as Peter was, becomes theological discourse determined by human shaping (individual and/or collective). This also is theology on my/our terms, not God’s terms, thus has more the sense of anthropological theology or sociocultural theology, all of which have relational consequences. This also can be seen in Peter’s (and collective Judaism’s) theology about purity (Acts 10:13-14). The human shaping of Peter’s theological discourse in this situation demonstrated that his theology was not determined by his dialogue with Jesus earlier, when Jesus emphatically declared what is unclean and defined the whole of human ontology from inner out signified by the heart (Mt 15:10-20). Even after this interaction with the embodied Word, Peter continued to shape his own theology based on a reductionist interpretive framework. Moreover, even after the above Christophany corrected his theology, Peter continued to be shaped by his human contextualization with the Jews, thus affecting his relationships with Gentiles.

            The issue of human contextualization shaping how we do theology continues to emerge today in the context of the global church. The distinction between ‘doing’ theology and living theology is no mere conceptual distinction but critical for distinguishing their function: the theological task for ‘doing’ theology is a monologue in referential language about Object-God; the theological task of living theology is a dialogue with Subject-God in only God’s relational terms. The former’s theological engagement is unilateral, leading to a monologue; the latter’s theological engagement is reciprocal, requiring a dialogue. This dialogue was demonstrated by the Samaritan woman in her theological task (Jn 4:12,15, 19-20,25), in contrast to a monologue taking place among the disciples in their theological engagement (4:27,31-33; cf. Mt 8:23-27; Mk 9:30-32; 10:26). On this basis, ‘doing’ theology results in the distinction of egology; the relational outcome of living theology is distinguished by theology. The dynamic of a theological monologue needs to be addressed today both in the context of the global church and in the process of its theological formation, so that theology can rightfully be restored to the function of dialogue and its conversation jointly engaged by the whole of God and God’s whole family.

            For theology to be truly theology and not the human shape or construction of egology, then theos must be a separate entity from ego (individual or collective). Certainly, it is problematic if there are more than one theos. That was not a theological issue for Judaism in general and Paul in particular where monotheism prevailed, if not always in practice. Yet, monotheism did not preclude the function of egology which limited or distorted their understanding of the one God—namely, the God of covenant relationship whose thematic relational action was only for relationship together in God’s whole on God’s terms. Prior to the Damascus road Paul was embedded in the kind of monotheism reduced by human terms, in which Paul became an admitted extremist (cf. Acts 26:11).

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

            Generally speaking, the flow of Western theology has been from the academy to the church. In the global South theology is considered to flow from the church to the academy, though institutionalizing may be changing the flow. This somewhat paradigmatic flow in the West has created a hermeneutical problem biasing who does theology (perhaps not unlike the temple elite discussed earlier, Mt 21:15-16)—even though the theological task is the rightful engagement of all God’s people (notably the child-person as Jesus illuminated, Lk 10:21). Analogous to the hermeneutical circle that reflexively converges the two horizons of past and present, the theological hermeneutical circle needs to reflexively converge the horizons of the present church and the academy. Yet, it must not stop there if this hermeneutic is to be theologically significant. Both of these current horizons also need to be contextualized not only in human contexts but more importantly in the further and deeper relational context and process of the whole of God’s theological trajectory and relational path. This is where and how Jesus contextualizes those who follow him in the vulnerable relational path to the Father to constitute us in the relational primacy of life together in the whole of God’s family. In the theological task, this requires the functional convergence of the following:


Conjoined with the two-dimensional (past and present; church and academy) hermeneutical circle is the most important third dimension—the reality of the context into which Jesus contextualizes us to be whole, God’s whole.


This three-dimensional hermeneutic is engaged in the theological task through the process of reciprocating contextualization (in dialogue namely with the Spirit) by which all human contexts can be understood and become secondary in their particular distinction. Therefore, any one and all human contexts can no longer be justified as the primary determinative factor for theology, the shape of the gospel, and the life and practice of the global church in likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity, the whole of God.

            Accordingly, if global theology does not engage this reciprocating contextualization in its theological task, its two-dimension hermeneutical process will merely formulate either (1) a convergence of voices in a skewed theological conversation (or collective monologue), whose efforts fall short in an epistemological illusion and ontological simulation of unity (or an intercultural compendium) to leave them fragmented (as in the tower of Babel, Gen 11:1-5,9), or (2) a collection of voices from a postmodern-likeness of theologies situated in various human contexts that form a multicultural theology in the likeness of an inadequate multiculturalism from human contextualization (discussed earlier in chap. 3). Either one emerging from a two-dimension hermeneutic does not result in an integrated theology of God’s whole, but rather only in the diversity (of fragmenting) of human shaping and construction of theology, the gospel and the church. Either is the consequence from and further consequential of reductionism of both human ontology in the whole image of God (Col 3:10-11) and the ontology of the church in the whole likeness of the Trinity (Eph 1:22-23; 2:22; 2 Cor 3:18).

            The conventional understanding and practice of the hermeneutical circle in modern theological-biblical studies is distinctly only two-dimensional, converging past and present horizons. Yet, in spite of the value of this lens, the two-dimension hermeneutic neither distinguished the whole of God nor leads to understanding God’s whole. The third dimension that Jesus contextualized in only relational terms is irreplaceable to distinguish the whole of God for theology and indispensible for understanding God’s whole in the theological task. Without this third dimension we are ‘doing’ theology in unilateral theological engagement, disconnected from the theological conversation to a monologue, thereby left to our speculations in the theological task, with the growing results of egology to shape and construct theology, theological literacy, the gospel and the church in the twenty-first century. At the same time, without ongoing reciprocal contextualization in the human contexts of life and practice, this third dimension becomes merely information in referential terms that has no functional, relational and thus theological significance.

            For theology to be of significance, both relationally and functionally, it must by its nature be within the context of its distinguished subject matter, Subject-theos and not just object-theos. It is therefore always insufficient (or incomplete) for theology and the gospel to be placed just within human context, though human context is necessary. For example, it is inadequate to fully understand Paul’s theology from the lens of the historical Paul. To be contextualized with God, as the whole of Paul was, is to be in God’s relational context and process of God’s communicative action. This is the relational nature of God’s terms, in contrast to and in conflict with a dynamic shift to human terms which increasingly obscures the line of distinction between theology (defined on God’s terms) and egology (defined by human terms).

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

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

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

            Theology, by its very nature that truly signifies a word from above, as Paul’s does, is a function of relationship only in God’s relational context and process. Hence, for theological discourse to speak definitively of God, it must, by the revealed nature of its Subject, always be involved in relationship with this Subject, not as if this Subject were impersonal subject matter such as a mere text, propositional truths and doctrine. This is a vital distinction for Paul’s readers to maintain. In Paul’s face-to-face experience, this is the context and terms (process) of God’s revelation—conclusively self-disclosed in the embodied Word and further constituted by the Spirit.

            Since Paul’s theology was first his experiential truth, theology for Paul was inseparable from function and can never be reduced to conventional theological discourse engaged in simply a the task of doing theology. It likely never occurred to Paul to engage in the latter. For this reason, the discourse in his letters often does not appear clearly theological, at least through a conventional lens, which leaves his theology elusive to many of his readers. Paul’s functional concerns may be apparent to readers but are often perceived without his theological basis necessary to understand the functional significance of his concerns and their theological coherence (e.g. his prescriptions for women and slaves). This has further left Paul an enigma to such readers. Nevertheless, Paul’s discourse, jointly theological and functional, put together (syniemi for synesis) the theological basis for the truth of the whole gospel (Eph 3:4) integrated with the deconstruction of ontological simulations and epistemological illusions from reductionism (cf. Gal 1:6-7, 11-12; Col 2:2-4, 8-10) and, when possible, their reconstruction into the whole gospel (e.g. in his confrontation with Peter, Gal 2:11-14).

            Paul’s theological discourse in human contexts was based primarily on the whole of God’s discourse to him in the relational context and process initiated by Jesus and deepened by the Spirit. This is the paradigm for theological engagement in human contexts on God’s terms to which the whole of Paul witnessed deeply with the Spirit—and critically speaks to us today. Whether the issue is construction, deconstruction or reconstruction, as a quintessential premodernist Paul puts both modernism and postmodernism into the full perspective of the whole of God, just as he himself was by the embodied Word from God, the pleroma (fullness, whole) of God (Col 1:19; 2:9). Past and present, this was Paul’s relational responsibility for God’s family (oikonomia) to pleroo (complete, make whole) the word of God (Col 1:25)—that which was vulnerably embodied by the pleroma of God in relational response to the human condition (Col 1:15-20). The relational outcome of this process for Paul is what signified his theology (e.g. Eph 3:2-12). Contrary to conventional theology, Paul was only involved in living theology.

            The only purpose emerging from Paul’s discourse (jointly theological and functional) in his letters was to complete and make whole the words of God; it was clearly not about Paul’s words:


That is, the words of God’s communicative action in relational language vulnerably embodied by the Word to make conclusive the good news of the whole of God’s relational response of grace for the human condition to be made whole, God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms.


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

            What this means for the theological task is a likely shift in its theological trajectory and a new (renewed) vulnerability in its relational path that will make it compatible for engagement with Subject-God and congruent with the Word in relational terms. Theology which truly signifies a word from above is a function of relationship in God’s relational context and process. For engaging theology to have this significance, it must, by the revealed nature of its Subject, always be engaged in relationship with this Subject, not with impersonal subject matter. This is the context and terms (process) of God’s revelation—conjointly self-disclosed in the embodied Word and further constituted by the Spirit. Thus, unlike the static activity of merely ‘doing’ theology, living theology is first and foremost the personal engagement of God in relationship, not on my/our terms but only on God’s relational terms—the only terms which constitute God’s revelation/communication in the text of Scripture. Reciprocally, involvement with God in the whole of God’s relational context and process also includes living theology in relationship with God’s people for wholeness in theology and practice. These functional relationships together provide the qualitative relational context and process for God’s people to know God in communion whole-ly, and thus to grow in the relationships together necessary to be whole (one) in likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God. This is the nature of Paul’s theology that he made consummate in the ecclesiology of the whole.

            Moreover, this experiential truth from the relational involvement in living theology further extends theological discourse by reciprocating contextualization in relation to all humanity and creation. It is this relational context and process in which living theology becomes truly ‘logos of God’, that is, theology which speaks of God’s whole on God’s relational terms for the human relational condition—thus discourse more relational than theological. For Paul, this is the experiential truth and whole of the gospel—the only gospel his person ongoingly witnessed to and his theology increasingly made definitive in its functional and relational significance.


            Based on the above discussion, anyone engaged in the theological task—that emerged from the primordial garden and continues to emerge into the twenty-first century—is inescapably faced with those penetrating words in relational language: “Where are you?” and “what are you doing here?” and moreover “why are you doing that?” and “talking about that?” (Mk 8:17) It is no longer adequate just to focus narrowly on the task, however widespread and acceptable this has become. We need to take responsibility for our own theological engagement. How we engage the theological task will determine its significance; and its underlying theological anthropology defined by what we do, the knowledge we have and the methodology we use, is neither sufficient nor necessary to establish theological significance.

            It’s time for us to honestly ask ourselves if we are just engaged in the referential task of ‘doing’ theology, or if we are vulnerably involved in the dynamic relational process of living theology. As witnessed in Paul, living theology by its nature demands unavoidably an integrated functional and relational significance which nonnegotiably involves the reciprocal relational process of conjointly engaging God and being engaged by God. Therefore, integral to the process of theology is becoming vulnerable with our whole person (signified by the function of our heart) to the whole of God’s self-revelation vulnerably communicated in relational language to us for whole relationship together, so that emerging from our theological task is this theology:


  1. having the relational significance of intimately knowing and whole-ly understanding the triune God, whose thematic relational action further coheres in the inseparable experiential truth of this communion in whole relationships together as the fullness of God’s family in likeness of the Trinity;


  1. and including the function of relationally witnessing to this experiential truth and the whole of the gospel for the human condition to be made whole.


            Accordingly and irreplaceably, living theology is simply and entirely a relational outcome of reciprocal relational engagement—just as Jesus illuminated and made paradigmatic for the theological task (Lk 10:21)—therefore, which never disconnects the significance of theology from the text of God’s communicated Word in relational language, and which makes indivisible the integrated relationship between theology and practice. The relational outcome for living theology emerges in the significance of ‘wholeness in theology and practice’. This is the relational outcome that emerged from Paul.

            Paul was vulnerably confronted by his God on the Damascus road and given the qualitative relational (not mystical) opportunity to “be still [rapah, i.e. cease his human effort] and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10) in the “face to face” relational context and process of the one yet whole God. By ceasing from his human effort engaged even in the name of Judaism’s God, Paul made himself vulnerable to receive and respond to theos as Subject. In this relational process the theology of Paul emerged from the relational connection of Paul, who was now whole-ly involved in relationship together with the whole of God. If Paul had not ceased from his own effort in the theological task, this relational outcome would not have been his experiential truth. And his relational responsibility to complete and make whole for the church those relational words from God would not have been fulfilled.

            Rapah is the relational imperative for our theological task—to cease our unilateral engagement, our monologue, our efforts of self-determination—so that we can indeed “know that I am God,” and, on this basis alone, in dialogue make definitive the coherence of God’s relational action communicated vulnerably to us in relational language for the relationships together necessary to make whole the human condition. God’s relational terms are irreducible for theology and nonnegotiable for the theological task.




[1] Reported by Sharon Begley in “What’s in a Word?” Newsweek, July 20, 2009, 31.

[2] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, 110.

[3] George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[4] See Oliver Sacks for a discussion on perfect pitch, tonal communication and protolanguage, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brian (New York: Vintage Books, 2008); see also Edward Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), 9.

[5] Steiner, Real Presences, 226-27.

[6] McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, 105.

[7] Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 90.

[8] Robert Cummings Neville, “On the Complexity of Theological Literacy” in Rodney L. Petersen and Nancy M. Rourke, eds., Theological Literacy for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 39-54.

[9] Markus Bockmuehl, 33.

[10] Robert Cummings Neville, 51.




©2013 T. Dave Matsuo

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