"Did God Really Say That?"
Theology in the Age of Reductionism
Chapter 5 The Outcome of Whole Theology
The LORD make his face shine on you…and give you wholeness.
My wholeness I give you.
When the Samaritan woman encountered Jesus, she had been fragmented culturally and religiously as a Samaritan (Jn 4:9,20), relationally (4:17-18, and likely ostracized), and as a person (given her gender in the 1st century). When she left Jesus, she was qualitatively different: she “left her water jar and went back to the city,” where she had been fragmented, and boldly claimed before those people to have theological significance (4:28-29). Though the depth of her response to Jesus is not explicitly stated, implicit in her relational action and words is that she was no longer fragmented but becoming whole. The strategic shift of God’s theological trajectory to vulnerably embody the Word in the intrusive relational path was enacted for only this purpose and has just this outcome: to make whole the fragmentary human condition, conjointly for the wholeness of the person from inner out and for the wholeness of relationships together to be with the whole of God in God’s whole—made conclusive theologically by Paul for the church (Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10).
Going from fragmentation (whether the person and/or their theology) to wholeness is not a transition by the will. The process to wholeness is a transformation from inner out that unavoidably requires change, that is, redemptive change: the inner-out process of the ‘old’ dying and the ‘new’ rising. Jesus introduced the Samaritan woman to the redemptive change (“the hour is coming…and is now here,” 4:21,23) necessary for the transformation to be whole from inner out: “those who relationally respond to him must (dei, by its nature, not opheilo, out of obligation) respond vulnerably in spirit and truth” (v.24). She continued to engage the relational epistemic process with Jesus for this wholeness (v.25). Then came those conclusive words in relational language: “I am”—he, the whole of God, God’s whole. She embraced “I am” in the transforming change to be made whole—the outcome both in her person and theology.
This narrative is a summary account for those in theological engagement to have wholeness in their theological task and their theology to be the outcome of whole theology. While the Samaritan woman could go from fragmentation to wholeness only by transformation, her willingness to vulnerably engage the theological task was critical for the necessary transition to be open to this redemptive change. This critical issue of willingness to change in our current ‘old’ ways always remains the deciding factor (not the determining process) for our person and our theology to become whole. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the Samaritan woman, this necessitates being open and responsive to both the improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path of the Word.
The revelation of the Word emerged integrally from the improbability of God’s theological trajectory as well as the intrusiveness of the Face’s relational path. They are inseparable for God’s self-revelation to be complete. Merely focusing on one without the other does not distinguish the transcendent whole and holy God or God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement in the human context.
When Paul asked “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13), he pointed directly to the fragmented state of the church that resulted from a narrowly focused theological task, further resulting in a divided theology. How we perceive the improbable theological trajectory of the embodied Word and approach the intrusive path of Jesus’ whole person will determine how probable (as in certainty) or improbable (as in whole) our conclusions will be epistemologically, hermeneutically, ontologically and relationally. The critical issue of the distinction between probable and improbable, certainty and whole, involves how deeply our conclusions hold together and as a result how complete they are. The transcendent God beyond the universe is both holy and whole. Yet, we can only know this beyond our self-understanding by the improbable revelation of God’s trajectory from outside the universe that interposed the human context to vulnerably intrude in our personal space—intrude on us from inner out. We cannot have the transcendent God without the personal God, or the converse, and expect our conclusions about God to be other than fragmentary.
The implications of remaining within the limits of the probable—within its narrowed epistemic field and process—are constraining for theology, the consequences of which continue even to this day to separate, divide, fragment and otherwise reduce the integrity of whole theology constituted by the improbable. These consequences are evident today in the disjoined relationship between theology and Christian ethics, as well as with other practical functions, consequently requiring separate disciplines for ethics, practical theology, missions and spiritual formation. For Stanley Hauerwas, “the task of the theologian is not to deny that for certain limited purposes ethics can be distinguished from theology, but to refuse their supposed ontological and practical independence.” Moreover, this fragmenting includes a disconnect between theological and biblical studies. What Paul critiqued in the Corinthian church (noted below) speaks to dividing theology from its determining source in Scripture—“Nothing beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). This interdependent and indispensable relationship has been separated, treated as distant or casual in significance, and its function between biblical and theological studies essentially absent. Markus Bockmuehl further observes today: “Much theological and biblical scholarship does not now pay even lip service to the once universal conviction that Christian theology is at its heart an exegetical discipline.… For its [early church] theologians, the study of Scripture was both source and destiny of their reason and wisdom.”
Any division or separation, however, should be expected and cannot be sufficiently addressed until the underlying reductionism is confronted. This involved Paul’s integral fight both for the whole gospel and against reductionism. Since Paul did not distinguish his theology from his function, he never separated theology and practice. This is why his theology often does not appear to be theology in conventional terms of a prevailing theological framework, yet Paul communicated a knowledge and understanding of God to complete (make whole, pleroo) the word from God (Col 1:25); and his undivided theology essentially both extended and exceeded the relational work that Jesus started (Jn 14:12). So, when Paul raised the question “Has Christ been divided?” he exposed a critical issue involving both theology and practice. The issue is twofold:
The critical issue Paul exposed also implies conversely: 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 our theological engagement does not perceive the improbable theological trajectory of Subject-God or is unwilling to receive the Subject in the intrusive relational path, we have to have some basis for a substitute to give account for our theology. And this leaves us with only one alternative in the theological task: to go over-and-above the Word in relational terms to human shaping and construction in referential terms, which are limited to self-referencing theories and conclusions. The referentialization of the Word is an ingenious alternative that also provides us with an implicit basis for not vulnerably engaging the theological task to be directly congruent with Jesus’ whole theological trajectory and relationally compatible with his relational path on just his relational terms.
Many, of course, would not affirm the dividing of Christ. Yet, subscribing to the mere idea of it is often evident even as it is practiced knowingly or unintentionally in the theological task. The consequence is still that dividing Christ irreversibly results in divided theology, the fragmentary condition of which is evidenced in the elusiveness of whole theology, the absence of the whole gospel, and the lack of wholeness in persons and relationships together, noticeably practiced in both the church and academy. Peter’s confessions of faith certainly did not subscribe to dividing Christ. His theological formation, however, was a prime example of this fragmentary condition in his divided (hybrid) theology, as we discussed previously.
Even though Peter had multiple interactions directly with Jesus, the influence of human contextualization on Peter shaped his lens of Jesus to a narrowed epistemic field in referential terms. Thus, for example, his messiah could not incur the improbability of the cross (Mt 16:21-22), and his Lord could not bear the indignity of footwashing (Jn 13:6-8) that intruded on the vulnerability of both Jesus’ person and Peter’s. The referentialization of the Word accomplishes two critical functions in the process of dividing Christ:
The dynamic of these two functions in the referentialization of the Word unfolded in Peter’s response to Jesus’ person—initially in his improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path—and to their relationship together during their interaction walking on water (Mt 14:22-23). Seeing Jesus in this context challenged Peter to expand his epistemic field to test the improbable. Various dynamics converge in this experiential (and perhaps experimental) moment. Peter initially engages Jesus’ whole person (“if it is you…”) in Jesus’ relational context (“…command me to come to you”). The situation is only the secondary matter to pay attention to here whereas the relational process of their involvement together is primary. Peter is making his whole person vulnerable to Jesus on Jesus’ relational terms—though there is some element of “prove it” contingency to Peter’s faith, yet not in a passive sense without Peter’s full relational involvement. Unfortunately, Peter only pays attention to Jesus’ person and the relationship for a brief significant moment. His focus soon shifts to the situation, which then produces the fear causing a plea to Jesus only in the role to save him from his circumstances. The significance of this shift, in contrast to the beginning of this interaction, involves a critical dynamic: Jesus’ person is reduced to what he can do and the primacy of relationship is replaced by the secondary matter of the situation and circumstances. That is, as Peter’s focus shifted to the secondary, his epistemic field quickly narrowed back to the probable of his perceptual lens that defined the limits of his theology. Obviously, then, ‘certainty’ became an urgent matter for Peter, yet walking on water was not an issue until the secondary became primary. While the matter of Jesus’ self-disclosure on the water becomes obscured here, Peter’s theology—shaped by his function and not his earlier confession—can no longer account for the improbable. Based on a theology of the probable, Peter had no business walking on water; and his theology could only include being saved from trying to do so, in spite of the reality of Jesus’ self-disclosure on the water to signify what Peter is saved to: “to come to you”—“Come” in the primacy of relationship together. This reduced their relationship together and attempted to renegotiate it to Peter’s terms. And the fragmenting process that Peter engages becomes the basis for his unfolding hybrid theology. Moreover, the above process also describes many who enter theological engagement relationally focused on God but then get distracted from the primary by the secondary in the theological task, with an equivalent result of formulating their own hybrid theology.
In further review of Peter in the early church, his ministry was still problematic as long as he engaged in a fragmenting process with his hybrid theology. Despite the successful beginning of his ministry, Peter still functioned from a reduced theological anthropology that fragmented persons with outer-in distinctions. In contrast and conflict, Jesus, in post ascension, corrected Peter’s hybrid theology (Acts 10:9-20, 34-35, 44-48; 11:17), which Peter should have processed into his theology earlier if he had listened to Jesus’ relational language of the primacy of the qualitative and relational signifying Jesus’ theology from inner out (Mt 15:15-20). Yet, even a redefined theology from inner out did not make Peter’s function whole from inner out—that is, the redemptive change of metamorphoo, not the outer-in change of metaschematizo (cf. Rom 12:2). Peter remained engaged in a fragmenting process and ignored Jesus’ warning about functioning in reductionism, which Jesus clearly indicated signifies hypokrisis (Lk 12:1). Consequently, he still divided his theology from practice and thereby engaged in the outer-in function of role-playing (hypokrisis), that Paul exposed to Peter’s face for the sake of the whole gospel (Gal 2:11-14). In contrast and conflict, Peter continued to ‘divide Christ’ and practiced a gospel that was consequentially in both a dismissive functional position to and a distant relational involvement with the improbable Jesus embodied in whole. His early ministry was characterized by proclaiming the gospel of salvation from sin. Yet, his message of repentance did not adequately include the sin of reductionism; therefore his gospel lacked the qualitative and relational depth of what Jesus saved to. This lack was initially indicated by a disparity in the early church (Acts 6:1), that Jesus later corrected in Peter’s theology and that Paul confronted in Peter’s practice. Despite his early boldness to proclaim the good news (e.g. Acts 4:18-20), his soteriology was fragmented (i.e. truncated) and lacked the wholeness of being saved to. In this sense, Peter’s ministry can also be characterized by—what the writer of Hebrews exposed and boldly challenged (Heb 5:11-6:2)—a focus on milk (“the basic teaching about Christ”) without the substance of meat (“for the mature,” cf. 1 Cor 3:1-2).
What unfolded in Peter is the expected pattern from any reshaping of the theological trajectory of God’s self-disclosure in relational terms and fragmenting the whole of Jesus in his relational path; this reshaping and fragmenting narrows down the epistemic field to formulate a hybrid theology based on the limits (and even convenience) of referential terms. Hybrid theology not only divides theology but also separates theology from function, such that its practice can be simply neither congruent nor even compatible with its theology, consequently reducing both to a fragmented condition. This fragmentary condition goes unrecognized in theology or practice as long as one remains within the limits of understanding from one’s knowledge or rationalizing. Reductionism always requires ‘the presence of the whole’ to be fully exposed. Yet, the referentialization of the Word involves an incomplete, selective or otherwise distorted view of the Word that can only be fragmentary in a divided theology, and therefore cannot be complete and whole—and cannot adequately expose reductionism.
The hybrid process of dividing Christ is also evident in Jesus’ further post-ascension communication with various churches. In his relational discourse for ecclesiology to be whole, Jesus’ family love exposed reductionism in church practices to hold them accountable for engaging in a fragmenting process in order to be whole as his church (Rev 2-3). We will discuss one church now with further discussion following below.
A hybrid process emerges clearly in the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29). Thyatira’s economy emphasized trades (including brass-working) and crafts (cf. Acts 16:14). In the Greco-Roman world of that time, trade guilds organized the various trades and were necessary to belong to if one wanted to pursue a trade (much like unions today). These guilds served various social functions as well, one of which was to meet for common meals dedicated to their patron deities, thereby engaging in activities of pagan worship and immorality. For Christians not to belong to a guild and participate would generally mean becoming isolated economically and socially, which may suggest a pragmatic approach to church practice in Thyatira.
In the nature of this surrounding context, Jesus acknowledged this church’s extensive “works” (ergon, work that defined them, Rev 2:19): “love” (agape), “faith” (pistis), “service” (diakonia, service, ministry that benefits others, especially compassion to the needy), “patient endurance” (hypomone, enduring and not giving in to bad circumstances, in contrast to makrothymia which is patience with respect to persons), and that their “last works are greater than the first,” indicating not a status quo situation but actually doing more ergon than before. Yet, their practice also “tolerated” (aphiemi, to let pass, permit, allow, v.20) Jezebel’s teaching. What they let pass, permitted or allowed is important to understand in the above context.
Jezebel (probably a byword symbolizing the OT character of Jezebel, cf. 1 Kg 18:19) appears to be a woman (or possibly a group) accepted within this church fellowship. The practice associated with her teaching probably refers to compromise with prevailing activity related to trade guilds prominent in the city which “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (2:20, NIV). What is significant to understand here is not the obvious disparity of this teaching and practice with the desires of God. What is more significant is how these prevailing influences of the surrounding context were absorbed into the practices of this church along with all its other so-called good works acknowledged above. This is not simply an issue about syncretism, synthesizing competing ideologies, or even pluralism, but goes beyond merely maintaining doctrinal purity to the deeper issue about participation in a surrounding context having the prevailing presence of reductionism and its subsequent influence on their perceptual-interpretive framework. This is the lens which determined what they ignored and paid attention to, thus the lens by which they practiced their works. When reductionism is not negated, its influence then affects how those other works would be engaged with something less and some substitute for the whole of persons and relationships, therefore raising critical issues of their qualitative and relational significance, and their wholeness since the fragmenting process is not disengaged.
Theologically, Thyatira demonstrated a weak view of sin, namely without sin as reductionism which was the normative character of their surrounding context and was embedded in its collective order. Functionally, they also lacked relational involvement with, or maintained relational distance from, God in the process of reciprocating contextualization needed to distinguish their identity in that surrounding context without being determined by it; and any pragmatism in their practice became a euphemism for reductionism—the rationalizing composing ‘a wide gate and road’. Their tolerance was essentially a fragmentation of both their theology and function in a hybrid process, consequently they reinforced the counter-relational work of reductionism and functioned incompatibly to being whole, God’s relational whole on God’s whole terms. The influence of reductionism is usually more subtle than that observed in the Thyatira church.
As long as our perceptual-interpretive framework is reductionist—most notably with a reduced theological anthropology—our lens’ view of the qualitative, the ontological and the relational will not discern the extent of the surrounding influences reducing the whole of church practice. The underlying issue critical for our understanding is the ontology and function of both the person and persons together as church; and the challenging question remains: Is it reduced ontology and function or whole ontology and function? The relational demands of grace, however, clarify for church ontology and function that nothing less and no substitutes than to be whole is the only practice which has any significance to God (as Jesus made definitive about worship, Jn 4:23-24). Additionally, Jesus’ lens of repentance (the turn-around in relational terms of the whole person) in conjoint function with a strong view of sin makes no assumptions to diminish addressing sin as reductionism, first and foremost within church practice and then in the surrounding contexts—in other words, holds person and church accountable for nothing less and no substitutes. This is the ontology and function that composes ‘the narrow gate and road’ leading to whole life (zoe) and its theology. And Jesus wants “all the churches” to clearly “know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts” (Rev 2:23, as he did with Peter); that is, he examines the qualitative significance of persons from inner out, whom he holds accountable to be whole in the relationships that hold together in the innermost as the whole of God’s family (2:25; 3:11). In their effort to be relevant and possibly pragmatic in the surrounding pluralistic context, by engaging in a hybrid process the Thyatira church overlooked (knowingly or unknowingly) in their many admirable church practices what was necessary to be whole and to make whole (cf. a similar error by the church in Pergamum in a reductionist context, Rev 2:12-15).
The issue about being whole is that it is always subject to reductionism, whether it is reductionism of our theology or our function. What Jesus made definitive in his formative family prayer (Jn 17:13-23) is crucial for our whole understanding (synesis) of this issue. What prevails in (en) any context of the world is reductionism. Jesus calls his followers relationally out of (ek) these contexts in order to be whole together as his family, then also relationally sends them back into (eis) those surrounding contexts to live whole together as his family and to make whole the human condition. Without the reciprocating dynamic of this ek-eis relational involvement, church ontology and function become defined and shaped based on the narrowed-down terms en (in) the surrounding context. This relational condition is problematic because of the relational barriers or distance it creates for the ongoing relational involvement necessary with the whole of God on God’s relational terms to constitute the whole of who we are as church and whose we are as God’s family. Without this reciprocating contextualization, our identity in the world becomes fragmentary and, therefore, is rendered ambiguous as the light and/or shallow as the salt (Mt 5:13-16). This is not the embodied whole of his family and the gospel that Jesus prayed for the world to see, receive and respond to.
It is insufficient for churches to be a mere presence, or even merely to function, en the world; their only significance is to function eis (relational movement into) the world both to be relationally involved with others as God’s whole and, by the nature of this function, also to confront all sin as reductionism of the whole. Jesus teaches us about ecclesiology in his relational discourse, and the lesson we need to learn from the hybrid process of the Thyatira church is indispensable: to let pass, indifferently permit or inadvertently allow—“tolerate,” which other churches also did more subtly—the influence of reductionism in any form from the surrounding context proportionately diminishes the wholeness of church practice and minimalizes their relational involvement with God, with each other in the church and with others in the world, consequently rendering its relational condition to a level no longer distinguished for, and perhaps from, the human relational condition. For churches to get beyond practice merely en the world, they need a different dynamic to define and determine their practice.
By searching hearts Jesus communicates the relational message to us that church ontology and function are about being whole in the innermost, not merely doing correct ecclesial practices. And the eis relational engagement of church function has to be conjoined with the ek (movement out of) relational involvement with the whole of God as its defining antecedent in the ek-eis dynamic, or else church ontology and function remain susceptible to engagement in a fragmenting process. This reciprocating relational process negates the continuous counter-relational work of Satan and its reductionist influence (Rev 2:24) by ongoingly engaging, embracing, experiencing and extending God’s whole, that is, the irreducible whole in the qualitative significance of the integrated ontology of both personhood and the church constituted in and by the Trinity, the whole of God. The relational outcome is the theology of wholeness, the only alternative integrally in contrast and conflict with a hybrid theology.
It is vital for our whole understanding (synesis) to learn from Peter and the early church (notably in Thyatira) that the irony of a hybrid process and a wide-gate-and-road approach is that these in fact impose critical limits on what can emerge from our theology and function.
The critical issue that Paul exposed with his original question continued to be of importance—whether paid attention to or ignored—throughout church history; and it continues today to be no less important. The twofold issue, however, currently has less to do with the quests for the historical Jesus and involves more the theological trajectory and relational path of those engaged in biblical study and theology. In relational terms of the Word, can Christ be divided? No. Of course, this was Paul’s point in his rhetorical question because he was congruent with Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path. By engaging the Word in any reduction of these terms, namely in referential terms, is Christ divided today? Yes, indeed.
Anything less and any substitute of the whole of God’s theological trajectory as Subject disembodies the Word from his relational path. Likewise, de-relationalizing the Word from his relational path deflects Subject-God’s theological trajectory. The consequence for either is that the whole of God is obscured and God’s whole is elusive. With such a trajectory and path taken in theological engagement, Jesus then is observed for the transmission of information in a narrowed epistemic field shaped by the limits of the probable of what is more familiar to our knowledge, thereby making us less vulnerable to uncertainty, error or simply our human shortcomings. Much of this process goes unnoticed due to the predispositions from our tradition, yet mostly because of our underlying theological anthropology incompletely determining our ontology and function in the epistemic process and in relationships, notably with God. These limitations were clearly demonstrated by temple leaders after Jesus deconstructed the temple from their tradition and reconstructed it for the primacy of God’s family (Mt 21:12-16). Part of the relational outcome for the temple involved children crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Certainly in our tradition we have no problem with this but within the limits of those leaders’ epistemic field they strongly objected to the improbable. The improbable was twofold for them: (1) the whole of God’s theological trajectory as Subject embodied by the vulnerable presence and relational involvement of Jesus, who to them—within the limits of their tradition—was a mere object transmitting information about God that they disputed; (2), and by implication equally improbable to them—yet based more on their ontology and function rather than their tradition—was essentially that these children knew better than the leaders what they were saying—improbable because the leaders had the key knowledge about God in general and about the messiah in particular from their rabbinic education. Based on an ontology and function defined by what they did and had, there was no way children could make definitive statements about the probable with certainty and without error, much less about the improbable; and they needed to be kept in their place in the socio-religious order based on reduced ontology and function.
Jesus’ response to them redefined the person and transformed the existing relational order. He pointed them to God’s relational action having “prepared praise” from children (katartizo, 21:16). Katartizo connotes either to complete or to repair and restore back to completion (cf. Eph 4:12), which in this context points to God’s relational action to make whole the person reduced to outer-in distinctions and the relationships necessary to be intimately involved together in God’s whole family. This wholeness is signified in the vulnerable openness of these children involved with Jesus in their relational response of trust. This more deeply connects back to when Jesus leaped for joy over his Father’s “good pleasure” (eudokia, righteous purpose) to disclose himself to the intimate relational involvement of “little children” and not to the “the wise and learned” in what integrally constitutes the whole ontology and function of the new relational order (Lk 10:21, NIV). Jesus’ action at the temple fulfilled God’s thematic relational response to reduced persons and their relationships “to be apart” to restore them to God’s whole. Therefore, any ontology and function defined by what a person does (particularly, performance of roles) and has (namely, resources and those roles) both remain within the limits incompatible with Jesus’ action and are essentially complicit with the temple leaders, even though one’s tradition may affirm the children’s behavior. What unfolds in this process of reductionism selectively divides Christ to the parts which fit into our limits, and consequently fragments our theology and disjoins theology and function.
The issue of dividing Christ is intensified as Jesus’ actions continue. The relational response and relational outcome of Jesus’ involvement at the temple cannot be separated, and thus to divide Jesus, days later from his vulnerable relational involvement in footwashing and the conclusive sacrifice behind the curtain to make whole the “temple” without the veil in the primacy of whole relationship together as God’s family. Our tradition today would certainly not separate Jesus from this theological trajectory (at least in part); regardless, we still could disembody (and de-relationalize) Jesus as Subject from his relational path by maintaining an ontology and function that is neither vulnerably involved with the whole of Jesus in intimate relationship together—the qualitative-relational significance of “Follow me,” as Peter struggled with—nor ongoingly engaged with the whole of God (notably the Spirit) in the relational epistemic process (as Jesus and Paul made a relational imperative, Jn 16:12-15; 1 Cor 2:13,16). As Jesus made conclusive, the ontology and function of ‘the relationally distant’ determined the limits of “the wise and learned,” in contrast and conflict with the whole ontology and function signified by children who were vulnerably involved in Jesus’ relational path.
Relational distance emerges from an ontology and function that has not been relationally involved with Jesus in his sacrifice behind the curtain for the relational outcome to have the veil removed (as Paul clarified, 2 Cor 3:16-18). Ontology and function with the veil is a critical indicator that our theological trajectory has shifted from Jesus’ trajectory, consequently dividing Jesus and fragmenting our theology. Understanding this shift makes explicit this process: the presence of the veil separates Jesus’ theological action from his function, such that we can practice relational distance within the limits of our theology without needing to address our incompatibility with the relational path of Jesus’ function (e.g. the intimacy of his footwashing). In other words, relational distance disconnects Jesus’ theological trajectory from his relational path, and this separation allows us to function in relationships with the veil. Does this relational condition exist, perhaps even prevail, in church and academy today?
Furthermore, when our theological interpretation disembodies Jesus’ teachings and behavior from the theological trajectory and relational path of his ontology and function as Subject, then Christ is divided into these parts—resulting in an incomplete Christology no longer distinguishing the Jesus embodied in whole. An incomplete Christology has two critical repercussions, whose consequences have reverberated through church and academy today:
Therefore, an incomplete Christology assumes a reduced ontology and function for both Jesus and those who have claimed this fragmentary gospel. Consequently, what emerges from the Word and unfolds in the incarnation do not go beyond the hermeneutic impasse shaped by the limits of our human terms from the influence of reductionism—the sin of reductionism that a truncated soteriology is insufficient to save us from. If soteriology saved us from the sin of reductionism, by its nature this would necessitate being saved to wholeness.
The uncommon and improbable Jesus embodied in whole interposes in our human context and does indeed challenge us, confront us, pursue us to redeem and transform us epistemologically, hermeneutically, theologically, ontologically and relationally—from inner out to be held together whole in the innermost. Conjointly, the undivided Jesus together with Paul in whole relationship integrally present, communicate and relationally engage us with the synesis (whole understanding) necessary to take us beyond our critical limits—limits which constrain what can emerge from our theology and function—in order to be whole, theologically, ontologically, functionally and relationally. Whole theology is nothing less and no substitutes, and composes only whole ontology and function both for the persons of God together and for human persons together.
Yet, before we can further discuss the outcome of whole theology, we need to fully understand what God’s thematic relational action responded to. The outcome of whole theology unfolds conclusively in God’s whole response to the human condition and its inherent anthropology.
The major consequence from a weak view of sin is a critical gap in our understanding of the human condition, and perhaps a failure to take the human condition seriously. Conjointly, a reduced theological anthropology not only fails to address the depth of the human condition but in reality obscures its depth, reinforces its breadth, or even conforms to this inescapable and unavoidable condition. The repercussions for us, of course, are that we do not account for our own sin of reductionism, and, interrelated, that we do not address our own function in the human condition. Our function manifests in three notable areas, which are three interrelated issues of ongoing major importance:
A modern example of the breadth of the human relational condition pervading human life on a global scale is found not only on the Internet but in the Internet itself to increasingly obscure our condition. This is the reality according to Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist known as the father of virtual reality technology who has worked on the interface between computer science and medicine, physics, and neuroscience.
Something started to go wrong with the digital revolution around the turn of the twenty-first century. The World Wide Web was flooded by a torrent of petty designs sometimes called web 2.0.…
Communication is now often experienced as a superhuman phenomenon that towers above individuals. A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become.… We make up extensions of your being, like remote eyes and ears (webcams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online). These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people. These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world.
The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.…
The new designs on the verge of being locked in, the web 2.0 designs, actively demand that people define themselves downward.… The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits [b(inary) (dig)its].
What goes into the constitution of the human person and holds the person(s) together in her/his/their innermost in order not to be fragmented but whole?
Attempts by modern science to answer this more specific question have shifted notably to neuroscience along evolutionary terms. And the insights gained from neuroscientists’ hypotheses and findings should not be ignored or dismissed. If anything, they likely challenge our theological anthropology and perhaps chasten, or even put to shame, our practice of faith. While their work does not provide hermeneutic correction for us, it does offer important secondary epistemological clarification about the human person that is helpful to further understand what is primary.
Two interrelated functions appearing to be integral to the human brain are remarkably qualitative (i.e. in terms of feelings) and social (about relationships). In his explanation of how consciousness (a mind with a self) develops, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio promotes the following:
Feelings are often ignored in accounts of consciousness. Can there be consciousness without feelings? No.… I hypothesized that feeling states are generated largely by brain-stem neural systems as a result of their particular design and position vis-à-vis the body.
In conjoint function with the qualitative, there is the relational that emerges for neuroscience to explain what it means to be human. Consider the social function of the brain in neuroscientist John Cacioppo’s research on loneliness:
To understand the full capacity of humans, one needs to appreciate not only the memory and computational power of the brain but its capacity for representing, understanding, and connecting with other individuals. That is, one needs to recognize that we have evolved a powerful, meaning-making social brain.
Because early humans were more likely to survive when they stuck together, evolution reinforced the preference for strong human bonds by selecting genes that support pleasure in company and produce feelings of unease when involuntarily alone. Moreover…evolution fashioned us not only to feel good when connected but to feel secure. The vitally important corollary is that evolution shaped us not only to feel bad in isolation, but to feel insecure, as in physically threatened.
Our brains and bodies are designed to function in aggregates, not in isolation. That is the essence of an obligatorily gregarious species. The attempt to function in denial of our need for others, whether that need is great or small in any given individual, violates our design specifications.… Social connection is a fundamental part of the human operating (and organizing) system itself.
The integration of mind and body by neuroscience, of course, is still from an outer-in framework; consequently its notion of the qualitative is determined by the limits of the quantitative. This is certainly insufficient to answer what holds together human persons in their innermost. Hans Küng is correct to critique the limits of neuroscience. Yet these qualitative and relational aspects observed by neuroscience help draw attention, if not point us, to what is primary in holding together persons in the innermost. At this stage in human life, we, whether in the theological academy or the church, need any helpful support or assistance available, even if only secondary. And if neuroscientists make these observations of the evolutionary development of the human person, what are we doing with the unfolding of God’s words from the beginning? David Brooks, author of The Social Animal, a recent thought-provoking book about the human longing for contact and community, does not think we are doing much of any significance: “Philosophy and theology are telling us less than they used to. Scientists and researchers are leaping in where these disciplines atrophy—they’re all drilling down into an explanation of what man is.”
We can and also need to be more specific: the qualitative and relational aspects necessary for whole ontology and function are neither sufficiently addressed nor deeply accounted for when discussed in theological and biblical studies. This suggests a status quo in theology and function above which we rarely rise, and thus from which we need to experience redemptive change (the old dying and the new rising). This also may raise a further question from some of those readers of such studies: On what basis then is the human condition defined and its resolution determined?
As discussed in part previously, the surrounding context (namely culture) commonly establishes the priorities of importance for life and practice. In the current global context, this larger context is having a further effect in reducing the priorities of local contexts by increasingly shifting, embedding and enslaving persons in secondary priorities and away from qualitative and relational priorities. And, as neuroscience would confirm, this development is taking its toll on the minds and bodies of those affected.
Interestingly, the globalizing dynamic could be a metaphor for the actions of Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path, although with deeper implications and effects for the qualitative and relational. This emerged in the significant connections Jesus made throughout the incarnation. The current period of globalization in human history, though in greater proportion, is neither unprecedented as commonly perceived (cf. humanity in the beginning) nor sufficient to expect significant changes as some propose (cf. the tower of Babel). Jesus, however, ongoingly connected us to the definitive largest context and deepest change necessary for human identity and function to become involved in the qualitative-relational whole, and therefore in what is primary and not merely secondary. For example, the primacy of relationship is inseparable from discipleship as defined and determined by Jesus. This necessarily involves the call to be redefined from outer in to inner out, transformed from reductionism and made whole in relationship together—the full significance of the call to “Follow me” that Peter’s person struggled with to be vulnerable for. If our identity and function are not clearly distinguished in the primacy of relationship constituted from inner out by Jesus, we have shifted to the secondary, whether globally or locally.
The shift to the primacy of the secondary must further be understood in the underlying quest for certainty and/or the search for identity. This process engages a narrowing of the epistemic field to better grasp, explain and have certainty, for example, about what holds the person and world together in their innermost. Functionally, the process also necessitates reducing the qualitative-relational field of expectations from inner out (too demanding, vulnerable with uncertain results) to outer in for quantitative- referential terms that are easier to measure, perform and quantify the results of, for example, in the search for identity and finding one’s place in human contexts (including church and academy). In other words, the shift to the primacy of the secondary and its preoccupation are not without specific purpose that motivates persons even in the theological task and the practice of faith. Yet whatever certainty and identity result in secondary terms can only be incomplete, ambiguous or shallow. Jesus further critiqued this secondary certainty without the primacy in relationship (Jn 5:39,42) and the substitute identity without the qualitative depth of relational involvement (Mt 5:13-16; cf. 15:8-9).
After Paul’s own epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction, he further extended the ongoing fight against the primacy of the secondary and its counter-relational work in the church. This is evident notably in his Corinthians and Galatians letters. The shift from inner out to outer in, and the preoccupation with the secondary over the primacy of relationship together, can be summarized in Paul’s relational words: “So let no one boast about persons from outer in…so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you from inner out? …But when they measure themselves from outer in by one another, and compare themselves accordingly with one another, they do not understand the whole [syniemi]” (1 Cor 3:21; 4:6-7; 2 Cor 10:12); “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for the primary; the only primary that counts is the relational work of faith working through distinguished love” (Gal 5:6).
The shift to the outer in and the secondary is always made at the expense of the qualitative and relational, as evident in Jesus’ and Paul’s critiques. Moreover, the qualitative and relational are interdependent and integral to the process to be whole, both for the person and persons together in relationship. The reduction or loss of either also results in the reduction or loss of the other. That is, they are inseparable. We cannot function in the qualitative from inner out apart from the involvement in the primacy of relationship; and we cannot be involved in the primacy of relationship without the function of the qualitative from inner out. The focus and occupation on the secondary are consequential for reducing, if not preventing, the primary by (1) the focus narrowed to referential terms of the quantitative having primacy over the qualitative and (2) the occupation reduced to functional terms of what essentially becomes counter-relational work. In addition, when the primacy is given to the secondary, there are certainly repercussions theologically and for the gospel, as further evidenced in the critiques of Jesus (e.g. Mk 7:5-8, 14-23) and of Paul (e.g. Gal 1:6; 3:1-5).
Either too much is assumed about the human condition or too little discussion takes place about it. And not enough is said when discussion does focus on the human condition. Yet, the human condition is not as complex as frequently considered, nor can it be oversimplified (narrowed) down to sin as sin is commonly perceived. In God’s strategic shift with the Samaritan woman, he connected her to God’s whole. Yet, when he addressed her human condition, he did not point out her moral-ethical sin. Rather he focused on her fragmentation culturally, religiously, as a person and in her relationships needing to be made whole.
If the gospel involves the fulfillment of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition, then in order to fully receive, whole-ly claim and completely proclaim the gospel, we need to understand the human condition. If we do not, or cannot, account for the human condition, what exactly is our good news and to what is it significant? Certainly, the human condition remains unchanged without the gospel; but the gospel is not good news without the human condition. God’s response is relationally specific so it cannot be generalized. What then is God responding to in his thematic action? Just as the gospel antecedes the incarnation, the whole of God’s relational response emerged from the beginning.
Adding to our previous discussion on creation, we cannot address what holds the person and persons together in the innermost without defining persons from both the inner out and the qualitative function of their heart in the primacy of relationships. This constitutes the whole person created in the qualitative image of God and in the relational likeness of the whole of God. Therefore, by this created nature the person must not be seen in fragmentary parts (soul, mind, body) or the whole person is reduced, which is the inevitable consequence of an outer-in approach to defining the person. This distinction is critical to make in our theological anthropology and irreplaceable to distinguish the human condition that God responds to. Without the function of the heart, the whole person from inner out created by God is reduced to function from outer in, distant or separated from the heart. This functional condition was ongoingly critiqued by God and responded to for the inner-out change necessary to be whole (e.g. Gen 6:5-6; Dt 10:16; 30:6; 1 Sam 16:7; Isa 29:13; Jer 12:2; Eze 11:19; 18:31; 33:31; Joel 2:12-13).
The fragmentation of the person to outer in emerged from the beginning. In the primordial garden a critical dynamic took place that is insufficient to understand merely as the sin of disobedience. Along with being created as a whole person with a qualitative heart for integral function from inner out, the human person in the qualitative image of God was not created to be isolated, separated, alone from other persons, that is, to be apart from the whole of relationships together in likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God—the condition of which God made conclusive “is not good, pleasant, beautiful, delightful, precious, correct, righteous” (all meanings of tob) for the person to be and function in (Gen 2:18). God responded at creation to create wholeness in human persons by the inseparable and integral function of the whole person from inner out in the qualitative image of God and of whole persons in the relationships together necessary to be whole in the relational likeness of God. Wholeness is the irreducible and nonnegotiable created ontology and function of both the qualitative and the relational. And anything less and any substitute for the human person and persons together are reductions of creation and contrary to God’s creative action, as well as in conflict with God’s relational response for the whole of persons. This condition is what unfolds in the primordial garden.
The persons in the primordial garden redefined their theological anthropology and reduced their whole persons (from inner out with the qualitative heart in the primacy of relationship) in order to substitute an identity from outer in based on the secondary of what they have and do, and thereby reshape relationships. The consequence was the loss of wholeness in both the qualitative and the relational. In further understanding these critical dynamics, since their action to give priority to the secondary was made apart from the primacy of relationship, by implication the person (self) acted autonomously in the relationship based on one’s own terms. Of further significance then, having assumed an identity apart from the primacy of relationship necessitated being involved in the effort of self-determination. If they had functioned inner out focused on the primary, they would have engaged the above situation by the primacy of relationship. This would have avoided the fragmentation of wholeness in relationship created by their self-autonomy and made unnecessary their attempt to construct an identity in the human context by self-determination, efforts which necessarily involve their shaping of relationships. Their loss of whole relationship together was evidenced in the relational consequence: “the eyes of both were refocused to outer in and they knew that they were naked and they covered their person…. I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself” (Gen 3:7,10). These dynamics were extended further with the overlap of self-determination into the need for self-justification: “The woman whom you gave to be with me [in the primacy of relationship], she gave me fruit…I ate” (3:12). For the person to be defined from outer in and determined by what they have and do, always necessitates a comparative process with human distinctions of ‘better’ or ‘less’, which then inevitably will involve efforts of self-determination.
All these dynamics converge to define the human condition and its engagement in the sin of reductionism. We need to broaden and deepen our understanding of sin to fully account for the human condition in our midst, notably efforts of self-determination and the human shaping of relationships. If we think that the human condition is about sin but understand sin only in terms of conventional moral-ethical failure (e.g. disobedience in the garden), then we do not account for the loss of the qualitative and the relational in everyday human life (even in the church and academy) that God clearly distinguished in created ontology and function of human persons—that qualitative image and relational likeness distinguishing the whole of God. The relational consequence “to be apart” unfolding from the primordial garden is the human condition of the loss of the primacy of whole relationship together and its prevailing relational distance, separation, brokenness, and thus loneliness—which even threatens the integrity of the human brain (per Cacioppo) as further evidence that this condition “is not good, pleasant, beautiful, delightful, precious, correct, righteous for persons to be apart from whole relationship together.” How we tend to do relationship and what prevails in our relationships today are reductions of the primacy God created for whole relationships in his likeness; and the human shaping of relationships composes the human relational condition, which then is reflected, reinforced or sustained by any and all human shaping.
Furthermore, the whole person from inner out signified by the qualitative function of the heart needs renewed focus for understanding the human condition and needs to be restored in our theology and function. We cannot avoid addressing the human heart (our own to start) and the feelings associated with it because the whole of human identity is rooted in it—along with the consciousness of self noted by Damasio—and the depths of the human condition is tied to it. If neuroscience can talk about feelings as integral to the human function, why doesn’t the theological academy discuss feelings as at the core of the human person? A major part of the answer relates to our theological anthropology having redefined the person without the primacy of the qualitative and relational; but interrelated, the main reason involves the human condition, that is, our intentional, unintentional or inadvertent engagement in the reductionism composing the human condition—notably in the self-determination preoccupied in the secondary (“good for...a delight to…desired to”) and in the shaping of relationships (“unexposed and distant,” cf. Gen 2:25). Consciousness as a person necessarily involves feelings—even for the whole of God (e.g. Gen 6:6; Jn 11:33,35; Eph 4:30)—which Damasio defines as essential for the self but locates feelings only in brain function to integrate mind and body. We, however, can and need to go deeper to inner out for the qualitative function of the heart to distinguish the whole person. Jesus clearly declared that the heart is innermost of the person, who when not whole emerges in the fragmented function of reductionism (Mk 7:20-23).
Therefore, a turn from the heart in any context or function has an unavoidable consequence of the human condition. The qualitative loss signified in the human condition emerges when we become distant from our heart, constrained or detached from feelings, thereby insensitive or hardened—just as Jesus exposed (Mk 7:6; Jn 5:42) and Paul critiqued (Eph 4:17-19). This increasingly embeds human function in the outer in and reduces human ontology to ontological simulation. This is evidenced in the function of “hypocrites” (hypokrites, Mk 7:6). In referential terms, hypokrites and hypokrisis (hypocrisy, cf. Lk 12:1) are limited to pretension or falsehood, in acts to dissemble or deceive. In relational terms, the dynamic involves the person presented to others that is only from outer in and thus different from the whole person distinguished from inner out. Just as ancient Greek actors put on masks in a play, hypokrites engages in ontological simulation not necessarily with the intent to deceive but from what emerges by the nature of function from outer in. In other words, whatever the person presents to others, it is not whole and consequently cannot be counted on to be who and what the person is, which is not about the outer-in issue of deception but the inner-out issue of righteousness. This dynamic engages a pivotal issue involving the ontology of the person and its effect on relationships. The consequence of such function in relational terms is always a qualitative relational consequence which may not be apparent at the quantitative level from outer in. The outer-in simulation masking its qualitative relational consequence is exposed by Jesus notably in the relational act of worship: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me” (Mk 7:6). Paul also later confronted Peter and exposed his outer-in simulation (hypokrisis) by the role-playing he engaged in focused on secondary matters, which even influenced Barnabas and others to function outer in (Gal 2:11-14).
The qualitative function of the heart is irreplaceable and inseparable from the primacy of whole relationship together. They are the irreducible and nonnegotiable outworking of the creation (both original and new), for whose wholeness they are integral—and therefore the keys for being whole which cannot be ignored or diminished. Anything less and any substitutes of the qualitative and the relational are reductions which signify the presence, influence and operation of the human condition. Any reductions or loss of the qualitative and relational renders the person and persons together in relationship to fragmentary terms of human shaping, the condition of which cannot be whole and consequently function in the “not good to be apart” from God’s whole—in spite of any aggregate determination made in referential terms. The reduction to human terms and shaping from outer in—signifying the human person assuming autonomy apart from the primacy of relationship—prevail in human life and pervade even in the church and the academy, notably in legitimated efforts of self-determination and self-justification (functionally, not theologically). The interrelated issues of self-autonomy, self-determination and self-justification are critical to understand in terms of the sin of reductionism if we are to pay attention to the human condition in our midst.
If the view of sin in the human condition remains limited to the parameters of moral-ethical failure, then salvation of the human condition merely becomes saving from this sin. Defining sin, however, in its complete nature and function as reductionism, which Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount, necessitates a complete soteriology for the response to the human condition to be significant in its innermost. In the nature of a significant saving dynamic, we cannot be saved just from sin if sin is reductionism. That is, reductionism, and its counter-relational work, by its design and purpose always has fragmenting repercussions on wholeness, the whole, God’s relational whole. Therefore, to be saved from this reductionism of the whole, and the human condition existing relationally apart from the whole, needs to involve, by its very nature, being restored to wholeness—what a complete soteriology saves to. Any saving from reductionism has no meaning and functional significance if wholeness and God’s relational whole are not restored in the innermost; such salvation is in itself reductionism, no matter how normative theologically or sincere in practice. ‘Saved to’ constitutes the primacy of relationship together in wholeness, in the beginning of which God created human persons in the innermost likeness of the triune God, and from the beginning, for which the distinguished Face turned to us in the whole of God’s definitive blessing to bring the necessary change from inner out to restore.
In the creation narrative, human ontology was never about one’s self (or the individual) nor designed “to be apart” from the whole (Gen 2:18). The person was never created to function as if in social isolation, thus the individual has neither the functional freedom for self-determination nor the relational autonomy to determine meaning in life and practice and to constitute wholeness, that is, in mere self-referencing terms. The ontology of the person is only a function of relationship in likeness of the relational ontology of the triune God—in whose qualitative image the human person is created and apart from whom there is no determination of self, meaning and wholeness in the innermost. Since creation, God’s thematic action throughout human history has been to respond to the human relational condition “to be apart.” For example, while persons like widows and orphans were at risk in their situations and circumstances in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was their relational condition apart from God’s whole to which Jesus responded as fulfillment of God’s thematic relational response to restore whole relationship together (as demonstrated in Lk 7:11-16).
Not understanding the depths of what and how the human condition is certainly then necessarily diminishes our understanding of the whole of God’s thematic relational response to it. This has significant implications critical for Christians who supposedly have been saved from the human condition but lack the theology and function necessary for what they are saved to—that is, to that which is the sole definitive replacement to the human condition: the primacy of relationship together in wholeness, God’s relational whole in the innermost, thereby fulfilling the Face’s definitive blessing and response (Num 6:24-26; 2 Cor 4:6). This lack is certainly consequential for the experiential truth of the good news and the experiential reality of its outcome for the human relational condition—the whole relational outcome constituted by Jesus’ prayer for his family to experience and thereby illuminate for the human condition to be made whole (Jn 17:20-23).
Anything less and any substitute in our theology and function either ignores or reinforces the human condition in the innermost, and therefore either sustains or even conforms to its breadth. This state of our theology and function counters the Word’s theological trajectory and relational path, the integrating thematic dynamic of which unfolds conclusively in Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17).
As we transition from the human condition to what makes theology whole, there are intervening dynamics that need to be understood in their contrary interaction and addressed for the flow to this outcome. These contending dynamics converge in the inescapable issue symbolized by ‘the veil’. The veil represents a twofold condition:
Both of these contending dynamics must be fully accounted for in our theology and function in order to have the outcome of their wholeness. Therefore, when God said during creation “it is not good for the human person to be apart,” he focused on the whole person created in God’s image (Gen 2:18). At that stage of creation, the person created was not less than whole in God’s image but apart (i.e. incomplete) from the whole in the relational likeness of the triune God. To complete the wholeness of creation, God created another person (not about gender) for their relationship together (not about marriage) to be in the exact image and the relational likeness of the Trinity, God’s whole. Ever since the primordial garden, for human persons to be apart from God’s whole is “not good” because these persons and their relationships become fragmented—no longer ontologically and/or relationally functioning in the image and likeness of the whole of God. And the presence of the veil represents the definitive indicator of the human condition in reduced ontology and function, even as the veil exists still among God’s people.
The Face of God relationally responds conclusively to this ontological and relational condition ‘to be apart’ to bring the change necessary for new relationship together in wholeness, thereby fulfilling God’s definitive blessing (Num 6:26). A weak view of sin, however, that does not include sin as reductionism (and the presence of the veil), cannot adequately understand this condition and, consequently, both skews theological anthropology apart from God’s whole and truncates God’s relational response needed to make this condition whole.
The whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace unfolded from the beginning. God’s vulnerable presence ongoingly has been distinguished by the qualitative from inner out—the innermost of God’s heart, beyond any kind of quality in the universe. Even from before the beginning, God’s involvement ongoingly has been distinguished by the relational in wholeness, and only for relationship together in wholeness: God’s direct relational response to constitute covenant relationship together (Gen 17:1-2), and God’s definitive blessing in the theological trajectory and relational path of the distinguished Face discussed above. Therefore, God’s relational response of grace prevails not theologically in referential terms but only in the primacy of whole relationship together—defining human ontology and determining human function in his qualitative image and relational likeness. Otherwise God’s grace is constrained in classic doctrines, and the results are fragmentary for ontology and function, both human and divine.
If we do not have whole understanding (synesis, as did Jesus, Lk 2:47, and Paul, Eph 3:4; Col 2:2) of the primacy of relationship, we essentially do not understand the integral composition needed for theology to be whole and not fragmentary:
The whole gospel is contingent on this whole theology, which Jesus relationally embodied from inner out as the hermeneutic key for the gospel. Conversely for Paul, the embodying of his pleroma theology emerged from the whole of the gospel whom he experienced in the primacy of Face-to-face relationship.
The heart (innermost) of the whole gospel is the depth required to respond to the breadth of the human condition. And the gospel unfolds from the beginning with nothing less and no substitutes; otherwise our gospel is not whole, not a gospel at all, as Paul declared (Gal 1:7). Our beliefs or notions about the gospel tend either to make major assumptions about it so as to render the good news merely to a headline composed with only a sidebar and obituary in the news, and consequently a gospel without full significance for the human condition. Or we take liberties with the gospel in autonomous efforts to shape the gospel for our (individual and collective) determination and justification so as to render the good news merely to another op-ed article in the newspaper, and, as a result, not really a gospel for the human condition. The former composition reduces the gospel and the latter renegotiates it, both of which perceive the gospel in referential terms through a myopic lens—the prevailing interpretive framework and perceptual lens.
In referential words and language—as noted in the news above—the gospel becomes an announcement that transmits information about what God did and what people can do because of it. Such a gospel in referential terms has been reduced to quantitative information describing God’s outer-in function (what God saves from) in fragmentary parts, though the results for human persons have spiritual nuances and implications which have been negotiated on human terms. In such a so-called gospel, the ontology and function of both God and the human person have been reduced and fragmentized by being defined and determined on the basis of what they do, and thus what they have: a referential gospel. This, however, misre-presents the whole gospel that emerged from the beginning in relational response to the human condition, which Jesus embodied to fulfill, and which Paul embodied to complete. We therefore need to challenge any of our assumptions and shaping of the gospel which are anything less and any substitute.
In relational words and language, the gospel is a relational dynamic beyond the proclamation of a static proposition; and it is simply irreducible to referential terms or else the significance of its relational response is fragmented and its wholeness is lost. When this happens, the distinguished Face does not turn and shine to bring new relationship in wholeness but becomes an ambiguous or elusive Face needing human shaping. Moreover, then, the whole gospel is a relational dynamic solely on God’s relational terms, which are nonnegotiable to human terms, or else its relational response is no longer to make whole the human condition but becomes determined by the human-shaping influence of the human condition. From the beginning, the gospel is the distinguished Face’s relational outworking and fulfillment of siym and shalom, nothing less and no substitutes (Num 6:24-26)—as the ancient poet wanted from God, “Lord, say to my innermost, ‘I am your salvation’” (Ps 35:3).
‘Face to face' is the distinguishing nature of God’s relational response to the human condition to make it whole. In the highlight of Israel’s history (liberation from Egypt), Moses affirmed that the LORD “has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2). In a low point in his personal history, the ancient poet above wanted the distinguished Face to turn to his innermost to experience the same affirmation. Both of them expressed their feelings in the most qualitative form (and the earliest) of human communication: song and poetry. Referential words in referential language (a later development in human communication) were inadequate to express the depth not only of their hearts but the qualitative-relational depth of God’s salvation. Moses’ song was a prelude to the communication in their relationship together in which God spoke directly to Moses, Face to face (Num 12:6-8). Their direct relational involvement together was a precursor of what God saves to conjointly with saves from. These early experiences capture the initial relational significance, if not always the qualitative significance, of the dynamics of God’s thematic relational response signifying the gospel. The dynamic that unfolds from these experiences, along with others like Abraham’s, has even further and deeper qualitative-relational significance which distinguishes the gospel unmistakably in wholeness (the shalom of God’s definitive blessing) and thus inseparably from the whole, God’s relational whole. As we fast-forward, the distinguished Face’s relational outworking and fulfillment of siym and shalom intensify.
Moses’ face-to-Face involvement with God was distinguished (Num 12:6-8) but limited (Ex 34:29-35; 40:35), and its qualitative and relational significance was transitory, which Paul later summarized in the context of the whole gospel (2 Cor 3:7,13). The qualitative and relational significance of the gospel were still unclear until the incarnation. Yet, understanding both its qualitative and relational significance in relational terms remained an issue throughout the incarnation and Paul’s time, and remains an issue in referential language for us today. This lack of understanding remains until congruence is made with the embodied Face’s theological trajectory and compatibility is experienced with his relational path, both of which constitute the qualitative and relational significance of the distinguished Face’s vulnerable response to make whole the human condition.
Until the incarnation, the heart of God’s presence and involvement revolved around the tabernacle/temple (Ex 40:34; 1 Kg 9:3), namely vulnerably present and directly involved behind the curtain in the most holy sanctuary (Ex 26:33; Lev 16:2). Thereafter, the new temple of qualitative and relational significance (1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:19-22) would be the heart of God’s presence and involvement. This outcome, however, emerges only when the embodied Face’s theological trajectory vulnerably completes his intrusive relational path to transform the old temple. This relational dynamic unfolded while Jesus was on the cross and during the outcome witnessed in the temple (Mt 27:50-51, cf. Ex 26:31-33; Heb 9:3,6-8). If we interpret God’s action in the temple to a narrowed-down event in referential terms, then it has lost the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel. The embodied Face’s atonement sacrifice behind the curtain transformed the ‘old’ and brought forth the outcome of the ‘new’ without the curtain to constitute its qualitative and relational significance (Heb 10:19-20; cf. 6:19). This provides the essential view of the cross with the curtain and veil removed. In his theology, Paul made the significance of this outcome functional for the church in the experiential truth of the new covenant relationship (2 Cor 3:16-18). No doubt, this outcome emerged from the complex theological dynamics converging on the cross. Yet, these dynamics cannot be narrowed down to traditional doctrines of atonement—namely the classic view of Christus Victor (i.e. Christ’s victory over sin, death and the powers of evil) or the Latin (or Western) view of penal substitution (i.e. Christ’s sacrifice satisfying to God for the consequences of sin)—and expect to have the same relational outcome. That is, in one way or another, these doctrines have taken a more probable theological trajectory or a less vulnerable relational path than Jesus’.
The outcome of new covenant relationship with the veil removed integrally unfolded from the distinguished Face’s theological trajectory extended from the Face’s definitive blessing to bring change for a new relationship (siym) together in wholeness (shalom). This new relationship together in wholeness is constituted only vulnerably behind the curtain, that is, to be congruent with the embodied Face’s theological trajectory and compatible with his intrusive relational path in order to remove the veil for vulnerable face-to-Face relationship together in wholeness. If the ‘old’ condition is not understood with the sin of reductionism, that sin remains in front of the curtain in a truncated response of atonement behind the curtain—essentially then keeping the curtain in place in the condition of the ‘old’ for an incomplete atonement that maintains the relational distance/separation to prevent being new and whole (Heb 10:1). Historically, this relational condition has been kept in place or maintained by the doctrines of Christus Victor and penal substitutionary atonement, thereby indicating the influence of the veil on their interpretive lenses that limits the whole embodied by Jesus to an incomplete Christology. The ‘new’ cannot take place in front of the curtain and does not emerge in theology and the church until the relational barrier (or distance) signified by the curtain is removed—as Paul made functionally conclusive for the wholeness of the church (Eph 2:14-22). These dynamics may appear to be only technical, yet they are essential for the theological anthropology intrinsic to God’s creation, the human condition, the gospel and its outcome. The persons God created whole and who were then fragmented by reductionism are not defined sufficiently by a reduced theological anthropology skewed by a weak view of sin ignoring reductionism (and the veil); nor are they restored (save to) adequately by a gospel whose lens of the person is less than whole (e.g. as practiced by Peter, Gal 2:14).
Theology without the qualitative and relational significance of the whole gospel is then formulated only in front of the curtain in the limits of referential terms, with a constrained view of persons and relationships. The curtain obscures the theological lens epistemologically, hermeneutically, ontologically and relationally from what is distinguished entirely behind the curtain with the Face in relational terms—resulting in theological fog. Theological discourse in front of the curtain speaks only in referential language, which constrains what we see and how we think, for fragmentary discourse. The relational language behind the curtain opens up the whole and the new (cf. 2 Cor 3:16-18). If our theology does not clearly distinguish the whole, then we have not connected with the Face behind the curtain for our theology to be whole-ly significant.
Whole theology is the outcome of vulnerably receiving and responding to the Face behind the curtain to have the veil removed for the intimate heart-to-heart communion of face-to-Face relationship together (Heb 10:19-22); this relational outcome is distinguished in qualitatively understanding and relationally knowing the whole of God, thereby being transformed to the new creation in the image and likeness of the Face (2 Cor 3:18; 4:4,6; 5:17; Col 2:9-10; 3:10). Whole theology and function are constituted entirely in face-to-Face-to-face relationship solely in relational terms only without the veil. Therefore, wholeness in theology and function demands both our vulnerable engagement of the Face’s theological trajectory behind the curtain and our vulnerable involvement of the Face’s relational path with the veil removed. And our theological anthropology can no longer legitimately define anything less of the person or acceptably determine any substitute for relationship together.
The fact of God’s dwelling without the curtain is no mere theological notion that can be reduced to referential information. Indeed, complex theological dynamics converged behind the curtain to make God’s improbable theological trajectory more improbable and the Face’s intrusive relational path more intrusive. This cannot be reduced or fragmented to referential information without incurring major relational consequences. The whole gospel depends on the integral dynamic unfolded in the temple that illuminated the qualitative and relational significance of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition and its outcome to be made whole. The gospel and its theology and function cannot be whole in front of the curtain, that is, without the limits of the veil removed. As the theological and functional keys to the whole of God, Jesus opened the door (curtain) to the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of God to be whole-ly Face to face in relationship together. No more relational separation in the sanctuary, no more cloud to distinguish the whole of God within the limits of God’s earlier relational response to Moses and the tabernacle. And being vulnerable in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes is the essential nature of God’s complete relational response constituting the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel; and this inseparably includes the same vulnerable nature of its outcome of wholeness for persons and relationships and their function and theology. There is no way to avoid being vulnerable in these areas except to replace the veil and remain in front of the curtain to signify relational distance or separation. In other words, the lack or absence of being vulnerable is to stay in the ‘old’—the relational condition ‘to be apart’ that has become normative and collective—which accordingly includes the lack or absence of wholeness for persons, relationships, their function and theology.
For theology to be theologically significant, it must be on the same theological trajectory and relational path as the Face. For theology to be whole, it must follow the Face’s trajectory and path through the curtain in order to vulnerably distinguish and engage the whole of God to have the veil removed for the relational outcome to be new and whole, God’s whole. Yet, the referentialization of the Face continues to divert this theological trajectory and the dynamic of referential language ongoingly impedes this relational path. Moreover, the conventional wisdom of the ‘old’ supported by a fragmenting theological anthropology continue to challenge the emergence of the ‘new’ and resists the redemptive change to raise it up whole. Even unintentionally or unknowingly with good intentions, any theology on a more probable theological trajectory or a less vulnerable relational path is counter-relational to the Face’s relational work. Nevertheless, the veil has been removed (or the relational barrier broken down, as Paul declared, Eph 2:14) for ‘the presence of the whole’ to expose all reductionism and to be “our wholeness” by vulnerably “proclaiming wholeness” and “making wholeness” in new relationship together as God’s whole—just as Paul made conclusive for the church to be new and whole (Eph 2:14-22), and thus for the human condition and all creation (Col 1:19-20; Rom 8:19-21).
The tension and conflict between reductionism and God’s whole, between the old and the new is ongoing and remains unresolved until clearly distinguished by the new of God’s whole—‘the presence of the whole’. Complex theological dynamics converged vulnerably behind the curtain to constitute this new in God’s whole. This presence of the whole is distinguished entirely by whole theological dynamics, thus an incomplete Christology in referential terms, a truncated soteriology overlooking reductionism, and a renegotiated ecclesiology lacking whole relationship together—including an underlying immature pneumatology misunderstanding (if not missing) the Spirit—are theologically insufficient, fragmentary and incapable for completing this theological task.
When Jesus relationally responded with “my wholeness I give to you” (Jn 14:27), this can be interpreted in referential language or received in the relational language as given. Referential language, however, narrows down wholeness and limits it to notions of peace, most of which have neither qualitative significance for the Face’s definitive blessing (Num 6:26) nor relational significance for Jesus’ relational response. On the other hand, crucial to understanding the theological trajectory of the distinguished Face of God now embodied in whole is understanding his relational language. For most persons, this initially requires a major shift away from referential language focused on quantitative information about God in order to receive Jesus’ relational language involved in communicating the conclusive peace distinguishing the new of God’s whole. This shift is indispensable to be on the theological trajectory and relational path having the outcome of whole theology. God’s thematic involvement is illuminated entirely by the relational language that unfolds the whole of God’s communicative action in relational response to the human condition ‘to be apart’ for the wholeness needed to be redeemed from reductionism and transformed to the new, nothing less and no substitutes. The outcome of whole theology likewise can be nothing less and no substitutes.
In the context of the pivotal table fellowship when Jesus made the above relational response, he also declared moments earlier “I will not leave you as orphans” (Jn 14:18, NIV). In referential language, his words have been interpreted in various ways, mostly situationally and chronologically, yet without the significance of the primacy of relationship together. In relational language, Jesus communicated the direction his theological trajectory and relational path were heading and the relational outcome of not being left as orphans. Moments later in this table fellowship, the integrating thematic dynamic for this relational outcome unfolded conclusively in Jesus’ prayer for the whole constitution of his family (Jn 17).
Paul understood the relational language of Jesus’ words and the trajectory and path of his relational response, because this is what Paul vulnerably experienced initially on the Damascus road and later in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-10,13); and, on this basis, Paul made definitive theologically for the church (Eph 1:3-14; Col 1:13-22). Paul’s theological discourse was therefore also in Jesus’ relational language, not the conventional referential language; and this presents his readers with the same issues for interpreting Paul as understanding Jesus. Thus the complex theological dynamics summarized in Ephesians 1 can include, but should never be limited to, doctrines that have come down to us as classic theological categories. Such categories constrain God’s thematic relational dynamic in response to the human condition to static propositional truths. In his summary, for example, Paul did not advocate for determinism as a theological template that would lay the foundation for Reformed theology; nor did his relational language distinguishing the reciprocal relational process give support in favor of the doctrine of free will over determinism. Paul was, rather, unfolding the whole ontology of God’s qualitative being and whole function of God’s relational nature in relational response to the human condition to make whole human ontology and function in reciprocal relationship together. Static doctrinal categories traditionally tend to be disparate conceptual oversimplifications of complex relational dynamics, thus signifying the influence of reductionism. God’s relational dynamic is crucial to grasp in its wholeness, which necessitates theological engagement unconstrained by any limits from what serve as the templates of doctrine, even if doctrine compels conformity by its truth-claim.
The relational dynamic constituting God’s purpose to selectively engage those who would relationally respond in trust back to his relational response of grace, for Paul, whole-ly involved this vital relational outcome for them: “to be holy [hagios, set apart from common usage, i.e. from reduced ontology and function] and to be whole [amomos, unblemished, cf. tamiym for Abraham, Gen 17:1] before him in love [agape, Eph 1:4, i.e. not the limits of sacrificial love but family love]…for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (1:5). This relational outcome emerged on the basis of God’s preplanning (proorizo) for the purpose (prothesis) of his deep desires (eudokia) to have the wholeness of reciprocal relationship together as family (vv.4-5). In other words, God’s preplanned purpose of the whole of God’s (Father, Son, and Spirit) relational response of grace was solely to redeem them (vv.7-8) from the common function of reductionism in the human condition in order to be reconciled in God’s uncommon (holy) relational context and to be made whole in the reciprocal relationship necessary for God’s family. This relational outcome necessitates the redemptive change in order for this relational process of redemptive reconciliation to have compatible relationship together which is whole in likeness of God, not fragmented and reduced to human terms negotiated by free will. That is, the issue of compatibility for Paul is not focused on persons having free will but on persons being able to function in reciprocal relationship together. The theological dynamics involved are complex yet should not be reduced by the limiting effects of doctrines which signify conformity to templates of human terms to diminish or minimalize God’s relational dynamic constituting Paul’s whole theology.
This corporate dimension of family—the identity of those who belong to God by “adoption as his children,” (Eph 1:5) and who are “marked with the seal of the Spirit…as God’s own people,” (vv.13-14)—is no mere metaphor. Family clearly is the relational outcome of God’s deeply desired purpose in Christ (v.9) to fulfill the family responsibility (oikonomia, v.10) to bring together all as one ‘in Christ’ (anakephalaioo, v.10, cf. Col 1:19-22). The relational outcome of the whole of God’s relational dynamic constituted the whole of their qualitative-relational ontology—which God originally created whole in human persons in likeness of the relational ontology of God (cf. Gen 2:18). This ontological identity integrates the intimate relational involvement of God’s family relationships together, which is constituted conjointly both in nonnegotiable function in the reciprocal relational response (“believed in him,” v.13) to God’s desires, and in irreducible function in the ontology of God’s likeness. Thus, the ontological identity of family is irreducible for church ontology and nonnegotiable for church function, which Paul makes definitive in his ecclesiology unfolding in Ephesians.
Furthermore, the individual dimension of family identity “as his children” (v.5), that is, as God’s very own sons and daughters are not insignificant titles which can be deterministically decreed without fully engaging the irreducible relational process of God’s relational nature. The theological dynamics involved here include “adoption as his children.” Adoption may also appear to be just a metaphor, used by Paul to parallel a practice of adoption that was familiar in Greco-Roman context. Rather, the dynamic of adoption was already familiar in Judaism’s history, as Paul sadly reviewed earlier (Rom 9:2-4; cf. Ex 4:22; 6:6-7; 2 Sam 7:23-24; Jer 3:19). Beyond human contextualization (even Israel’s), adoption involves the necessary relational functions (viz. redemption, reconciliation, transformation) to constitute any person in the human condition to belong to God’s family. In other words, adoption is Paul’s shorthand relational language in which the relational dynamic of the whole of God (Father, Son and Spirit) converges for relationship together.
Adoption involves by its nature this relational process: (1) By necessity, adoption first redeems a person from enslavement or constraint by the payment of a ransom (“in Christ we have redemption through his blood,” Eph 1:7) to be freed from any debt or obligation to a master, benefactor or parent; atonement and justification are also involved yet they should not limit the full depth of God’s relational dynamic. Then, (2) the person is not simply freed (redeemed, saved) from enslavement in a truncated soteriology, which is limited to deliverance from the struggles and evil of the world, or from one’s own sin. Full soteriology conjointly entails saved to adoption, made official with the seal of ownership, “marked with the seal of the Spirit,” (1:13, cf. Rom 8:16). Thus a person is reconciled into God’s family as his very own family member by “the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (1:7-8), now with all the rights and privileges of a full family member, “our inheritance…as God’s own” (1:14, cf. Gal 4:5-7; Rom 8:17)—not restricted as a family slave, servant or even guest. Therefore, completion of these necessary relational functions wholly constitutes, both forensically and relationally, any person in the human condition to belong ontologically to the whole of God’s family “brought together as one in Christ” (1:10). For Paul, adoption was never a theological construct but the experiential truth constituting his ontological identity—not as a mere citizen of God’s chosen nation or as just a part of God’s elect people, but only as God’s very own son to be whole together.
Paul makes definitive this deeply involved relational process of the whole of God—from the Father to the Son to the Spirit—and God’s thematic relational response to the inherent human relational need and problem. This was necessary to clearly illuminate for the human need and problem their complete fulfillment and resolution in the experiential truth and whole of the gospel: “the gospel of your salvation” both saved from and to (1:13), in order to be whole in ontology and function together in God’s family ‘already’ as the church (1:14,23; 4:30). These are the complex theological dynamics of God’s relational desires integrated in the whole of God’s relational context and process which emerge in Paul’s whole theology.
Returning to that pivotal table fellowship, as the relational dynamic of Jesus’ improbable theological trajectory unfolds to fulfill the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition, his first disciples continue to shift to be compatible for relationship face to Face in their reciprocal fellowship. Not understanding Jesus’ relational language, one of them asks him, “Lord, how is it, what has occurred, that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (Jn 14:22) The question was in response to Jesus outlining his theological trajectory and relational path for them with the whole of God (the Father and the Spirit along with the Son) and the relational epistemic process necessarily involved for this relational outcome (14:15-21). The issue is that Jesus discloses his person as Subject who is improbable and whole, which neither the probable can process nor the fragmentary can compatibly engage to understand. The disciple’s question focuses on seeing Jesus as a quantitative Object, that they themselves often related to without knowing (14:9) and had relationship with on their reduced terms (14:5-6, and particularly Peter). The relational words of Jesus’ relational language involve the qualitative experience of him as Subject in relationship together. Therefore, the theological trajectory of Jesus’ disclosures of the whole of God involves only his relational work as Subject (14:1-11)—the relational work that his disciples, in reciprocal relationship, can also extend and exceed (14:12-14), as was fulfilled in the relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul.
Without responding to the referential question, Jesus continues in his relational language to compose conclusively the relational outcome of his theological trajectory and relational path: whole relationship together as family, with its primacy established ‘already’ in relational progression to ‘not yet’ (14:23-28). The distinguished Face’s trajectory and path which emerged from God’s definitive blessing now converges in this pivotal table fellowship for nothing less and no substitutes of this relational outcome, which is composed by the further relational language of Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26).
The primacy of whole relationship together as family in the already is the peace from God’s definitive blessing fulfilled by Jesus that “I leave you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27). The theological trajectory and relational path of this peace, however, should not be confused with the common, probable and fragmentary notions of peace shaped by the world—“I do not give to you as the world gives”—but clearly distinguished as from the Uncommon, by the improbable, and as whole. Here again the critical difference between a referential God as Object and the relational God as Subject emerges with further clarity and depth. Historically, Christian peace movements and peacemaking have often taken a different theological trajectory than the one Jesus as Subject fulfilled relationally from God’s definitive blessing. The theological trajectory and relational path of the peace Jesus enacts converge in the narrow gate and road of wholeness and its uncommon and improbable relational outcome of whole relationship together in the very likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God—“that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (Jn 17:22-23).
Moreover, the wholeness Jesus gives in relationship together as family in likeness of the Trinity is the experiential truth ‘already’ that “I will not leave you orphaned” (Jn 14:18), and that determines our whole ontology and function both as church family and in the world: “so that they may be one, as we are one…that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:22-23). This is the integral basis for the theological anthropology of whole ontology and function in critical contrast and conflict to reduced ontology and function. The roots of this ontology and function go back to creation, and its theological trajectory and relational path emerged in covenant relationship with Abraham when God directly communicated the clear relational imperative to him: “walk before me and be tamiym, not merely blameless but be whole” (Gen 17:1). If our theological anthropology does not have this theological trajectory and follow this relational path, then the ontology and function of the person and persons together as church family will not be tamiym. The relational consequence is that persons essentially become relational orphans and their gatherings become more like orphanages, in contrast and even conflict to the wholeness Jesus gives them in relationship together (cf. Jn 16:33).
During their pivotal table fellowship together—integrally involving his footwashing and Lord’s Supper—Jesus made conclusive the whole theology that his theological trajectory and relational path vulnerably embodied and relationally disclosed (Jn 13-17):
Grace and peace—that is, the whole of God’s relational response of grace and the relational outcome of wholeness—are relational dynamics integrated in Jesus’ theological trajectory that are integrally enacted and fulfilled along his relational path in the primacy of whole relationship together in God’s family (cf. Col 1:19-20). Wholeness in relationship together involves the primacy of whole persons (from inner out, cf. “in spirit and truth”) in intimate involvement to know the whole of the other person, as signified by Jesus’ footwashing and as constituted by participating in Jesus’ sacrifice (his body and blood) behind the curtain in the temple in the intimate presence of God (cf. Heb 10:19-20). In Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path, grace and peace emerge without the veil in the primacy of intimate relationship together with the whole of God and the whole of each person as family—the primacy of wholeness with the veil removed that Paul clarified theologically and functionally (Eph 2:14-22; 2 Cor 3:16-18). Therefore, whole theology—whether of God, the person or the gospel—involves the vulnerable involvement and relational intimacy in the primacy of whole relationship together with no veil. This primacy of relationship is irreducible and nonnegotiable in Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path.
The reduction or renegotiation of this primacy was the critical issue for two other churches which Jesus exposed in his post-ascension relational discourse, along with the church in Thyatira discussed earlier. The church in Ephesus was exemplary in maintaining its church identity and doctrinal purity in the surrounding context (Rev 2:1-3,6). Their church ontology and function, however, had become a substitute for the primacy of relationship together: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first in the primacy of relationship and renegotiated what’s primary” (v.4). The church in Sardis was a successful church with a prominent reputation in the surrounding context (Rev 3:1). Yet, their ontology and function was a mere simulation of the primacy of wholeness, so Jesus jolted them in their illusion because “I have not found your works pleroo” (v.2), that is, complete, whole “in the sight of my God’s perceptual-interpretive lens” (enopion, before, in the presence of, cf. Abraham before God, Gen 17:1). In spite of their high level of church performance, both churches were on a different theological trajectory and relational path than Jesus.
In his relational messages to the churches in Ephesus, Sardis and Thyatira, Jesus teaches us a critical lesson that delineates a simple reality of life about the human person and the surrounding social context—matters we either pay attention to or ignore depending on our assumptions of theological anthropology and the human condition (e.g. the church in Thyatira). His lesson is integrated with his formative family prayer (Jn 17:9-19) and addresses the issue of contextualization defining us. Since we do not live in a vacuum, our ontology and function (both individual and corporate) are either shaped by the surrounding context we are en (v.11, thus “of the world,” v.14), or constituted by what we enter eis (dynamic movement “into”) that context with. In the latter constituting process, for the dynamic of eis to define and determine our ontology and function in congruence with Jesus (v.18) necessitates the ek (“of” indicating source) relational involvement to negate any defining influence on us from a surrounding context (“not of the world”) in order to determine us by our primary source in the whole of God’s relational context and process, therefore constituting the whole ontology and function in the primacy of relationship together for the eis relational movement back to the world (vv.16-18). Human contextualization, though neither disregarded nor necessarily unimportant, is clearly secondary to God’s in this process that integrally distinguishes our primary identity of who we are and whose we are (v.9). This reciprocating relational process (ek-eis relational dynamic, cf. reciprocating contextualization discussed previously) signifies the relational demands of grace for reciprocal relationship conjointly compatible with the theological trajectory of Jesus’ coming eis the world and congruent with his relational path of wholeness for all of life with which he engaged the world. Nothing less and no substitutes can distinguish the whole ontology and function of Jesus and of those in likeness who indeed follow him in the primacy of whole relationship together as family without the veil.
The clearest indicator that we have not shifted from Jesus’ theological trajectory and veered from his relational path is our theological anthropology. Our ontology and function reveal if we have, on one side of the coin, reduced and renegotiated the primacy of relationship and, on the other, kept the veil—both of which have the same relational consequence. The ontology and function in shalom and tamiym that emerge only in the primacy of relationship are what confirm that we are compatible with Jesus’ theological trajectory and congruent with his relational path (as the ancient poet anticipated, Ps 37:37). Tamiym was critical for Paul’s life. He was on a different theological trajectory when he entered the Damascus road. Then the whole of Jesus intruded on his ontology and function and jolted his theological anthropology, causing a retrospective for Paul in which he received tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction. The relational outcome was that the distinguished Face shined on him to bring change for new relationship together in wholeness—without the veil. The Paul who emerged from the Damascus road was now not on a reshaped variable theological trajectory parallel to Jesus’—though his congruence has been questioned—but his theological trajectory was integrally compatible and whole-ly congruent with Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path. Paul was vulnerably involved in ongoing reciprocal relationship with the whole of God (the Son and the Spirit, together with the Father), who composed the whole of Paul and his witness, as well as the whole in Paul and his theology. The relational dynamics that unfold are the relational work of Jesus’ theological trajectory extended into Paul and exceeded by him with the Spirit—just as Jesus promised for those relationally involved with him (Jn 14:12-13) and defined for Paul (Acts 26:16).
Jesus’ theological trajectory extended into Paul to continue its progression on Jesus’ relational path in relational response to the human condition to make it whole. Jesus’ focused concern for the human relational condition is also the focal point in Paul’s theological lens—and should be the core and sustaining function for all theological discourse—because this is what concerns the whole of God and involves God’s whole disclosures as Subject to constitute the theological trajectory vulnerably embodied by Jesus. Paul embodied this whole theology in likeness of God’s whole disclosure as Subject who confronted the historical Paul on the Damascus road, and because God’s relational concern for Paul’s and the human relational condition is what the relational Paul experienced in whole relationship together with God without the veil to integrally constitute the theological Paul. The relational path of function, inseparable from Jesus’ theological trajectory, was always antecedent to Paul’s theology. Therefore, the hermeneutic key to whole theology, and to the whole in Paul’s theology, is the integral interaction of the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s relational whole with God’s thematic relational response of grace to this human condition. The sum total of God’s actions revealed post-creation were initiated and enacted to fulfill God’s concern to restore human persons to be whole in relationship together—the good news for the human need and problem. This is what Paul clearly proclaimed as the gospel, not of his shaping but only directly revealed from Jesus (Gal 1:11-12). No other theological discourse speaks of God and thus can distinguish the whole of God, nor speaks whole-ly for God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement.
This is signified in Paul’s standard greeting in his letters, “grace and peace,” his shorthand for the relational dynamics of God’s relational response of grace and its relational outcome in the primacy of whole relationship together as family with the veil removed. In the theology of wholeness, Paul purposefully stressed the necessary epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction by which his own person was confronted to be whole (tamiym), and by which he confronted Peter to be whole. This epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction were critically signified with the simple address in the beginning of each of his letters: “grace and peace” (both of Timothy’s letters add “mercy”). He also closed most of his letters with a greeting containing these terms. The simplicity and frequency of this greeting should not define its significance as formulaic and thereby ignore his distinguishing purpose (semeion, 2 Thes 3:17). These terms are critical to Paul’s thought and theology and basic to his gospel—aspects his closing greeting further emphasized.
“Grace and peace” were not combined by Paul as referential theological concepts but as a relational theological paradigm. They integrally compose part of his shorthand theological discourse for the functional convergence of the interdependent relational action and relational outcome directly from God the Father and Christ—whom Paul identified as “the God of peace” and “the Lord of peace” (1 Thes 5:23; 2 Thes 3:16; 2 Cor 13:11; Rom 15:33; Phil 4:9). The relational dynamics involved between relational action and outcome was an interaction Paul never separated nor assumed to be in operation.
This unfolding relational dynamic of “grace and peace” establishes the integral flow which outlines Paul’s theological framework to wholeness:
Paul’s theology of wholeness makes functional the qualitative and relational significance of this relational outcome.
Interrelated with “grace and peace” in Paul’s letters is “blameless and holy,” or a variation (1 Thes 3:13; 5:23; 1 Cor 1:8; Col 1:22: Eph 1:4; 5:27; Phil 2:15; 1 Tim 6:14). This composes his further shorthand discourse for a functional paradigm to supplement his theological paradigm above. Paul did not emphasize “blameless and holy,” for example, for the church at Thessalonica’s eschatological concerns, merely for the sake of purity when Christ returns. It is critical to pay attention to his shorthand language in order to have whole understanding of his relational message. Paul builds on “blameless” (amemptos, amomos, anenkletos) only from tamiym and deepens it: (1) what it means for the person to be whole qualitatively from inner out (“holy,” hagios, uncommon function), and (2) what it means for whole persons to live in relationship with the holy (uncommon) God together to be whole, the relational whole of God’s family only on God’s relational terms. Therefore, “holy and blameless” signify function only “uncommon and whole”.
To summarize what unfolds in Paul’s thought and theology: the functional paradigm of “holy and blameless” converged with the theological paradigm of “grace and peace” to signify being whole in relationship together (peace and blameless) only on the ongoing basis of the whole of God’s relational response and terms for the relationship (grace and holy). This integrally summarizes the irreducible gospel of peace for which Paul so lovingly fought, while necessarily fighting against reductionism so uncompromisingly (Col 2:8-10). Despite the reality that longing for wholeness was a given and was intuitive for the human person in Paul’s theology, the function of wholeness was never merely assumed by Paul and, more important, never left to the interpretation from human terms.
Paul made definitive this wholeness ‘in Christ’ (both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’) as the integrated function of two inseparable and nonnegotiable aspects of life:
Paul’s paradigm, conjointly theological (“grace and peace”) and functional (“holy and blameless”), makes definitive the wholeness and its function for human life in the cosmos (Col 1:19-20). In his systemic framework composed by God’s creative and communicative action, this theology of wholeness conclusively integrates all knowledge and understanding into the wisdom and experiential truth of the whole, that is, the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes of God’s qualitative-relational whole embodied by the undivided Jesus—the experiential truth of the whole gospel for the inherent human need and problem. This relational epistemic process and theological discourse do not stop here, however. While Paul’s theological systemic framework always involves an eschatological trajectory, there is much more ‘already’ to unfold further and deeper on this adventure as sojourners together in relational progression to ‘not yet’—as Paul shared intimately of his own journey (Phil 3:10-16, cf. Jn 17:3) and kept praying for the church (Eph 1:17-18; 3:14-19). His latter prayer in the context of Ephesians whole ecclesiology echoes and extends in the church Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26). As Paul whole-ly understood in relational language, this prayer can only be fulfilled in the whole ontology and function of the church as God’s family.
As the new of God’s whole is distinguished, we could assume that it will be openly received given our human condition. That would not be a good assumption given the redemptive changes required theologically, ontologically and relationally to receive the new.
The new has always been unsettling in human history, particularly in a comparative process with a limited epistemic field (cf. Lk 5:39). This was the issue for Nicodemus when Jesus introduced him to the new born from above—from outside the universe and human contextualization (Jn 3:1-13). What Nicodemus was introduced to is what Paul distinguished in his Galatians letter (see Gal 6:15): that is, the new is distinguished from what exists or prevails in human context, and therefore cannot be compared or confused with that. Beyond what can be compared in a limited epistemic field, Paul earlier defined this new reality as emerging from Jesus (2 Cor 5:17) and later clarified it theologically as those relationally involved with Jesus in his theological trajectory and relational path (Rom 6:4). What interposed the original creation and its existing life—from outside the universe in the relational action of God’s strategic, tactical and functional shifts—was a new creation and its new life for the human condition, yet not without controversy for those remaining within the limits of the old.
In God’s relational action there are complex theological dynamics which converge in Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path to constitute the whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition. The roots, growth, outcome and maturing of the new creation were integrally signified in a metaphor used by Jesus about the new wine (Lk 5:33-39). The focus of new wine provides us with an integral understanding of the new creation and its related issues.
When Jesus initiated the Lord’s supper for the pivotal table fellowship, the “cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20). The disciples had yet to understand the significance of the new covenant for relationship together in the context of God’s kingdom, since immediately after the supper they disputed about which of them was the greatest (Lk 22:24-30, cf. 13:29-30). While Jesus exposed their reductionism and constituted their relationships in the relational wholeness of his kingdom, the disciples evidenced their need to be changed (cf. Mt 18:1-4)—that is, the process of redemptive change in which the old dies so the new rises. This is the significance of the new that Jesus anticipated at the earlier table fellowship with the parable of new wine. This parable tends to be used incorrectly to emphasize new forms and practices, but the new is about changed persons experiencing new relationship together (the focus in Lk 5:34-35). Perhaps, at that stage, the disciples only practiced ontological simulation of the new by following Jesus’ example but without relational involvement with his whole person. Yet, redemptive change was soon available for them when Jesus fulfilled his salvific work, as the Lord’s supper pointed to, signifying his sacrifice behind the curtain for the new covenant relationship. Redemptive change is inescapable to be new and whole. This always raises the issue of vulnerability and how willing our person makes our heart vulnerable (as “in spirit and truth”) to engage God.
In this new wine table fellowship, Jesus addresses the juxtaposition of “eat and drink” (the new) and “fast and pray” (the old). The shift from the old to the new is more than a paradigm shift but the transformation that emerges from Jesus’ anticipated sacrifice behind the curtain for the relational outcome of new relationship together in wholeness with the veil removed. Their new wine table fellowship anticipated their new covenant relationship without the veil such that they could enjoy the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of Jesus without the constraints of the old. The veil can be understood as follows: the gap between the universe and that which is beyond, the barrier between human limits and the transcendent God, the qualitative distance between the human heart and the heart of God, and the relational distance between the human person and the whole of God. The absence of the veil, therefore, is critical for new covenant relationship together; and the new wine table fellowship is solely a function of this new creation.
In his emphasis of the gospel for all people, Luke’s Gospel further highlights this process. Various table fellowships Jesus had with persons (Levi, Lk 5:27-31, a prostitute, Lk 7:36-50, Martha and Mary, Lk 10:38-42, Zacchaeus, Lk 19:1-10) disclosed this process of the new wine, yet it also brought controversy. Why all the controversy about the new wine table fellowship that fulfills the human condition? This is a question that needs to be addressed even today amongst ourselves. The answer necessarily involves both how the new is defined and the old is perceived.
While the source of the new creation is clearly from outside the universe, the seeds of the new wine are planted in the innermost of human life (Eze 11:19; 36:26). Therefore, the new wine emerges only from inner out and not from outer in (Jer 31:31-34; 2 Cor 3:3). A foretaste of the seeds of this relational dynamic was given when Moses summoned all the Israelites back to covenant relationship together with God (Dt 30). Understood in relational terms, this is a key dynamic underlying either the unfolding of God’s blessing (30:16,19) holding life together in the innermost (“heart,” from inner out, vv.1-2,6,10,17) for the wholeness in the gospel (“life,” vv.15,19-20), or the only alternative of reductionism (“death,” “curses,” vv.15,19). In this underlying relational dynamic, we are accountable to distinguish ourselves (“choose life,” v.19) in reciprocal relational response from inner out in the primacy of relationship together (“loving the LORD your God,” v.20). This is a foretaste not only of the new wine but the unsettling it brings: accountability to distinguish ourselves in reciprocal relational response as whole persons in relationship together face to Face with the whole of God.
The unfolding of the blessing from God’s face to bring change for new relationship together in wholeness (siym for shalom) is the integrating dynamic for the new creation. What then unfolds in the OT is not a history of events, or the narrative of situations and circumstances of a people. Rather what unfolds is the primacy of relationship and the relational progression of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition, and the whole of God’s involvement with the people of God in relationship together (as evident in Moses’ summons above). An outline of God’s thematic relational action and response includes the following:
God’s definitive blessing integrates the relational progression unfolding in the OT to the NT. This is what is embodied and fulfilled in the NT; thus the OT is not only about the past or simply old (e.g. superseded) but inseparable in the relational dynamic of the OT into the NT. Therefore, the whole gospel is not an NT phenomenon emerging with the incarnation of Jesus and developed by Paul. The whole gospel originated even before creation and has unfolded in relational progression since (Eph 1:4; Mt 25:34). This outline continues in the NT:
As God’s relational dynamic unfolded from the OT into the NT, it extended from Jesus into Paul. Yet, this process cannot be limited to their historical human contexts, for example, that Jesus and Paul were both Jews. Here in human contexts, of course, their stories neither end nor, just as important, did their stories begin. This is certainly obvious for Jesus, though this is usually not the focus for the origin of Paul’s story. Jesus and Paul extend us further than their prevailing human contexts to the divine (divine and deity used interchangeably) person of Jesus and Paul’s primordial human person; therefore, they take us deeper to the innermost whole of both God’s divine being and human being, of which Paul was not merely a Jew but more importantly a human person in the image of God. The story of the divine person and being integrally unfolds in the story of Jesus, and Paul’s story is the reciprocal emergence of the human person and being. These are seeds of the new wine that cannot remain buried in their narratives. While each person lived in human contexts, they cannot be limited to those historical frameworks and thus be defined by them. The new wine emerges only from inner out and, at best, can only be simulated from outer in. Paul’s story unfolds whole-ly as the person and being God created from inner out because it converged with Jesus’ story to be redeemed, recreated and made whole. These are their integral stories for the gospel of wholeness further constituted by Jesus into Paul.
God’s relational dynamic of both the OT into the NT and Jesus into Paul always unfolded integrally from inner out with nothing less and no substitutes. The reciprocal response of nothing less and no substitutes for the inner out is the critical issue that creates controversy about the new wine and that confronts the old in us. God’s relational dynamic from inner out with nothing less and no substitutes gives primacy to the qualitative and relational and, therefore, renders all else secondary—not necessarily unimportant but nevertheless secondary. Anything less and any substitutes from us, even with good intentions (e.g. Peter), make the secondary primary, thereby reducing the primacy of the qualitative and relational and, unintentionally or intentionally, reinforcing the old, that is, embedded further in reduced ontology and function. By its nature, the seeds of the new wine are planted in the innermost of human life for the germination of the new wine from inner out in the primacy of new relationship together in wholeness with no veil. What sprouts from these seeds is irreducible and nonnegotiable, notably to secondary matters and the old of human contextualization.
As we shift our lens to perceive the convergence of Jesus and Paul along with the Spirit, and understand the relational dynamic that not only integrated them in the gospel but also further unfolded and extended them in the new creation family of God (the church) to the eschatological relational conclusion of the whole of God’s thematic relational action, then we gain whole understanding of the human relational condition and the whole of God’s thematic relational response since creation to make whole his creation in the innermost. Jesus is the integral person in the relational process to the new wine but not the central figure around which all this revolves theologically and functionally. As the embodied whole of God, Jesus fulfills the Face of God’s relational response; Paul is transformed by it and thereby extends its relational dynamic, and the Spirit brings it all to completion. Fragmenting any of their persons or all of them together has critical consequences for the relational outcome of the new wine—namely for the new wine table fellowship in the primacy of relationship together without the veil (signified in Jesus’ parable, Lk 5:36-37). When the distinguished Face of God is embodied in whole, and vulnerably present and intimately involved, then his family “eat and drink” in face-to-Face relationship together, not by maintaining relational distance in “fast and pray.”
In spite of any controversy, the seeds of the new wine sprout to grow the new wine, whose qualitative and relational expansion cannot be contained in the old (Lk 5:37-38); and those who try to shape it within the old only dispel the new and fragment the whole—an elusive issue for Jesus’ early critics that continues to be problematic today. The outcome from these seeds is new wine theology, and what sprouts from new wine theology is the relational outcome of wholeness conjointly in theology and practice—just as Jesus’ relational response conclusively gave us nothing less and no substitutes in contrast to what prevails in human contexts, even in churches and the academy (Jn 14:27). And Jesus continues to challenge and encourage those on his theological trajectory and relational path, “who deepen their relational involvement with me will also enact the relational work that I enact and, in fact, will enact greater relational work than this” (Jn 14:12).
 For a discussion on how theology and ethics have been disjoined and the need to restore their unity, see Stanley Hauerwas, “On doctrine and ethics,” in Colin E. Gunton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 21-40.
 Hauerwas, 22.
 Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 88.
 For further contextual information, see Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).
 Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 3-20.
 Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 242.
 John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), x, 15, 127.
 Hans Küng, The Beginning of All Things, 179-91.
 Quoted in an interview about his book, Newsweek, March 7, 2011, p.47. For an integrated account of these issues, see David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011).
 Both Ephesians and Colossians are commonly regarded as disputed letters of Paul mainly because they did not follow the form, language and thought in his undisputed letters. I contend, however, that they reflected the further development of his thought and theology—though they may have been penned by another hand. In view of this, Ephesians closely followed Colossians and Philemon—most likely also written from prison around the same time period—with Philemon as a functional bridge to Ephesians (in the Pauline corpus), in which Paul makes definitive the theological basis for Philemon’s relational function to be whole. While the Colossian text included Paul’s most detailed cosmology, it is a less detailed summary of Paul’s theological forest compared to the Ephesian text. Ephesians reflects Paul's further development, suggesting his deeper theological reflection with the Spirit while in prison for conclusive synesis, the whole knowledge and understanding of God outlined above. Paul’s unfolding relational function to pleroo the word of God (Col 1:25) for the church family to have synesis in its ontology and function (Col 2:2-3) is expressed in this development.
©2013 T. Dave Matsuo