"Did God Really Say That?"
Theology in the Age of Reductionism
Chapter 6 The Relational Outcome of
Whole Theology and Practice
“The language you use will be the Word you get”
Walk together with me and be whole. Gen 17:1
And let the wholeness of Christ rule in your hearts. Col 3:15
Theology in the age of reductionism will emerge from the theological task as either a referential outcome in various forms of referential terms or a relational outcome solely in God’s relational terms. These results unfold in a process of time, not a singular moment, and are not always neatly either-or, sometimes going back and forth in formative interaction (e.g. as in Peter) or a dialectic process (e.g. as in Paul). Yet, these two outcomes are clearly in competition and their determining processes counter each other in any aspect of theological engagement.
With the mutual assumption of Scripture as God’s revelation, each approach unfolds in a different outcome. In referential terms, the information from Scripture is gathered for a narrow knowledge and understanding about God that can be formed into incomplete doctrines as the basis for faith. Nothing more emerges because the extent of the information in referential terms is gathered in a narrow epistemic field of Scripture seen only in referential language; consequently, this narrowed-down process limits the extent of knowledge and understanding about God available (cf. Jn 5:37-39). These limits then become the basis for shaping and constructing conclusions (notably doctrines of faith) that can unfold in just a referential outcome and nothing more, no matter what else is expected or desired (cf. Jn 6:14-15, 24-28,60,66; 1 Cor 3:4,18-22). This referential outcome may have theological similarities of doctrine (however incomplete) to the relational outcome, and thus may be sufficient for the faith of many. In reality, however, a referential outcome is counter to the relational outcome in both theology and practice.
In relational terms, Scripture is not only God’s revelation but more important God’s communication in relational action that is initiated by God’s relational response of grace. Yet, God’s response cannot be reduced to a purpose of transmitting information about God, however useful the information could be. God communicates for the sole purpose of having whole relationship together. Scripture cannot be approached in a narrow epistemic field and be expected to reveal God’s relational purpose. This epistemic limit of referentialization creates a barrier (veil) to obscure God’s purpose, and, consequently, it cannot distinguish the relational outcome of whole relationship together contingent on having the veil removed. In contrast to narrowing down Scripture to incomplete doctrines for faith, Scripture in relational language opens up the whole of God’s relational response of grace to the human condition. The relational outcome unfolds beyond mere doctrines of faith to nothing less and no substitutes of being whole, living whole and making whole—God’s whole in ontology and function.
In relational terms, God’s revelation emerges and unfolds in the whole of God’s ontology and function in both creative and communicative action for the necessary relational response to the human relational condition. When the purpose of God’s relational response is clearly distinguished, then the focus shifts by necessity to the reciprocal nature of God’s relational terms: who and what God seeks for whole relationship together.
Three persons discussed previously (Samaritan woman, Peter and Paul) give us an overview of what and who God seeks in relationship within the context of competing referential-or-relational outcomes. The definitive revelation of the strategic shift embodying God’s relational response was vulnerably communicated to the Samaritan woman (as discussed previously). What was equally distinguished to her was what and who God seeks in relationship together: the whole person from inner out distinguished by the heart in vulnerable involvement (“in spirit and truth”)—God’s irreducible and nonnegotiable relational terms for reciprocal relationship together in compatible ontology and function.
Who and what the embodied Word seeks was an ongoing challenge for Peter in their relationship together as he vacillated between a referential and relational outcome; and it also was an ongoing tension and overt conflict between Peter’s referential terms and Jesus’ relational terms, with Peter seeking to shape on his own terms what Jesus seeks in relationship. His referential outcome evoked Jesus’ final demand to Peter in relational language for the relational outcome: “You must follow me vulnerably with your whole person in relationship together entirely on my relational terms” (Jn 21:22). Who and what God seeks is our face for face-to-Face relationship that by its nature involves heart to heart for compatible ontology and function. The relational outcome eventually emerged for Peter but not before further redemptive change from his ‘old’ to the new of God’s whole solely on God’s relational terms.
Paul clearly entered the Damascus road on a theological trajectory different than the embodied Face, who confronted Paul about both the conflict of his theological trajectory and the ontology and function of his relational path. Paul’s referential outcome unfolded from a collective-journey with Israel (as early Judaism and Second Temple Judaism in referential terms) and emerged from a shared-journey with all human persons—the outcome in reduced ontology and function from both journeys.
Details of Paul’s biography are very sketchy and we have only general references to his life prior to the Damascus road. From a partial rewind of Paul’s collective-journey, we do know from his roots back to Abraham the following: From childhood Paul was certainly foremost a part of Israel (“the tribe of Benjamin”) and a Jew (“a Hebrew of Hebrews”) to the core as signified by observance of torah (“a Pharisee,” Phil 3:5), who was educated strictly according to the law of their fathers (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5), and perhaps advanced to the top of his class (Gal 1:14). Yet, to go even deeper than this primary identity for Paul, we need to rewind further back to creation to locate the origin where Paul was first a human person. This is the shared-journey which Paul shared in common with all human persons. It is the shared-journey of this person who—as the Paul subsequently shaped, defined and determined by the above details—needed to fully understand the meaning of what was indeed foremost about his person, and as a result would be able to experience who was indeed primary of his person. This necessitated going deeper than his collective identity to involve the roots of his ontological identity—the identity integrating both what as well as who Paul was.
This shared-journey of Paul’s person is in part the reason why it is inadequate to attempt to understand Paul only from human contexts such as Judaism (which in itself was diverse, even for Pharisees) and the Greco-Roman world, or even in the early church. There is a deeper context defining and determining Paul only by which Paul’s whole person can be understood.
This retrospective journey that focused Paul on the origin of his person must have been difficult for Paul the Jew to face because it got to the heart of the matter, both theologically and functionally. On the basis of this reality from his own Scripture, he had to examine his life and practice and openly face the difficult reality of his person subsequently shaped, defined and determined by the reductionism in his collective-journey as well as personal-journey. He had invested his whole life to this perceptual-interpretive framework and in this quantitative system of religious practice, and now he had to account for what he profited from this investment (cf. Phil 3:7-8). Surely he recalled “Circumcise your heart” (Dt 10:16), and that “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendents, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Dt 30:6). Did this describe him, wasn’t he dedicated in his faith-practice? As a Pharisee, was he not blameless before God—rigorously observing purity law to the letter? Could he not then assume the same covenant as Abraham and claim his birthright as his descendent? Yes and no.
Given the theological basis for the gospel which Paul later makes
conclusive in his Romans letter, he apparently questioned strongly the
validity of his own participation in the collective-journey from Abraham
(Rom 2:28-29, cf. Jn 8:39-40). This was not about the dedication or even
sincerity of his faith-practice. Rather, where indeed was Paul’s heart
in his life and practice? The heart signifies the ontology of the person
from inner out. Thus the heart signifies the qualitative function of the
whole person, the qualitative nature of which has been created in the
image of God. The heart’s inner-out function of the whole person is what
and who God seeks to be involved with for relationship together (see Ps
40:6-8; Isa 29:13, cf.
In contrast, the person based on an ontology from outer in is signified by less substantive function measured primarily in quantitative terms, by which the person is defined by what one does and/or has—for example by circumcision, observing food laws and the Sabbath (Israel’s identity markers), or by quantity of words and mere forms of worship without the substance of the heart (as Isaiah noted in the above prophesy). In such function the heart remains distant, detached or even closed, thus rendering the most significant aspect of the person uninvolved. A person defined and determined by this quantitative function becomes fragmented into these measured indicators or parts; these parts, even their sum, are insufficient to account for the whole person as created in the image of God. Therefore the ontology of the human person from outer in is always a reduction of the person God created. This reduced person is essentially, at best, an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of the whole person; moreover, any attempt to construct the whole from outer in is analogous to the human effort to construct the whole from bottom-up demonstrated by the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-4). This is not the person God seeks for relationship together. And any such reduction of the person must be understood as the sin of reductionism, not simply positioned against God’s whole but countering the whole of God’s relational involvement—for example by diminishing God’s involvement only to situations and circumstances, and by minimalizing God’s presence only to a particular place or time. This would emerge as the defining issue underlying Paul’s life and practice.
The heart signifies the unmistakable function of what God seeks: the whole person, nothing less and no substitutes. When God made conclusive to Abraham the terms for covenant relationship together, the Lord appeared to him directly and said clearly in order to constitute Abraham’s relational response: “Walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). That is, “be involved with me in relationship together by being blameless (tamiym).” The tendency is to render “blameless” as moral purity and/or ethical perfection (cf. Gen 6:9), notably in Judaism by observance of the law (cf. 2 Sam 22:23-24). With this lens, even Paul perceived his righteousness as “blameless” (Phil 3:6). Yet tamiym denotes to be complete, whole, and is not about mere moral and ethical purity. Beyond this limited perception, tamiym involves the ontology of being whole, namely the whole person from inner out involved in the primacy of relationship together.
The focus on purity, however, was problematic. In Israel’s history purity often was measured functionally by a code shaped by human contextualization, and thus focused more on what persons were responsible to do rather than on the primary function of being involved in relationship together (cf. 1 Sam 15:22; Jer 7:22-23; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6-8). When such practice was in effect, this demonstrated a redefinition of human ontology from inner out to outer in, thereby reducing persons to the measured indicators of what they did and had. Moreover, in this reductionist process Israel became more about land and nation-state rather than about a people and covenant relationship together, more about religious culture (e.g. ethnocentricism with quantitative identity markers) and politics (e.g. nationalism) than about relational life and practice (both corporate and individual) in the image and likeness of God and having theological significance as God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms. In other words, Israel’s history became the frequent narrative of God’s people diminishing the covenant relationship and getting embedded, even enslaved, in the surrounding human context (cf. Jer 3:10; 12:2; Eze 33:31). This also applied to the tradition of Pharisees during Paul’s time (see Jesus’ penetrating analysis, Mt 15:1-20, cf. the Qumran Essenes’ critique).
These reductions all fragmented the integrated functional and relational significance of tamiym which God made conclusive to constitute Abraham in covenant relationship together. To be “blameless” by its nature must be fully integrated with what and who God seeks to be involved with. Therefore, “blameless” is both inseparable from the qualitative function of the heart and irreducible of the ontology of the whole person from inner out. As a Pharisee who rigorously observed the law, Paul had considered his righteousness to be “blameless” (Phil 3:6). Yet Jesus previously had exposed the reductionist practices of Pharisees of Paul’s day and their underlying ontology of the person from outer in without the significance of the heart (Mt 15:1-20, cf. 5:20). The critical assessment of one’s faith must account for the ontology of the whole person. That is to say, to be blameless is nothing less and no substitutes for being whole as created in the image and likeness of the whole of God. For Abraham, this was the integrated functional and relational significance of his involvement with God signifying his faith, and therefore constituting the necessary relationship together of the covenant on God’s relational terms.
For Paul, this retrospective journey was not about going back merely to his birthright as a descendent of Abraham but more importantly about reclaiming his “creation-right” as the person in full created significance. And what tamiym signified in Paul’s Damascus road experience was indeed the needed epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction from his shared-journey—a journey also shared by all his readers. Any perception of his own blamelessness was an epistemological illusion since his practice only signified an ontological simulation from reductionism, that is, a person functioning only from outer in without accounting for the integrity of his heart. As Paul faced the reductionism in his life and practice, this turned him back to the pivotal juncture of his journey, confronted by the Face on the Damascus road.
This Christophany was an extension of God’s embodied relational response to the human condition (Paul’s condition) in relational terms and thus cannot be narrowed down to a conversion event or even limited to the lens of Jewish mysticism. The Face’s relational response pursued Paul’s face entirely for Face-to-face relationship together in the context of the conflict between them. Yet, the situation and circumstances are secondary in this interaction and should not shift the focus from the primacy of relationship together. The peace between them in Face-to-face relationship does not emerge from a mere conversion—Paul did not turn from his Jewish faith but redefined it; rather, it can emerge only from the transformation of the person from inner out to make whole Paul’s ontology and function for compatible heart-to-heart relationship together. The relational outcome for Paul was the experiential reality of wholeness in their reciprocal relationship together and, on this basis alone, was his experiential truth of the gospel of wholeness that extended Jesus’ relational language and terms from Jesus into Paul.
This relational outcome of Paul’s whole person is who emerges from his journey on the Damascus road. This experiential truth is the basis for what emerges and unfolds in Paul’s life, practice, thought and theology. From this experiential truth, for example, in his Galatians letter Paul will establish the functional clarity of the truth and whole of the gospel from any alternatives of reductionism, and thus to be distinguished from any alternative gospels. In Romans, Paul will make definitive the theological basis for the truth and whole of the gospel, thus providing the theological clarity necessary to be integrated with the functional clarity in Galatians to constitute the truth and whole of the gospel only as the whole of God’s relational context and process in response of grace to the human condition. All of this unfolds of course only because it was first Paul’s experiential truth with the embodied whole of God.
Moreover, the relational significance of Paul’s response constituted the functional significance of Paul’s further response to the content of Jesus’ other words on the Damascus road: obedience, in relational response to the embodied Word’s call to be vulnerably involved with him also in relational response to the human condition of reductionism apart from God’s whole (Acts 9:6; 22:10; 26:15-18). Obedience to God must by its nature be a function of relational involvement; otherwise obedience becomes rendered to some reductionist function defining what a person does, for example, merely from duty or obligation without any deeper relational significance in response to God (cf. Gal 5:3). That type of obedience could not signify the change Paul was experiencing. What emerged from Paul’s obedience was only the outworking of his relational response to and ongoing relational involvement with the whole of God—namely to the embodied Word and notably with the Spirit. And his relational outcome further extending to us is that Paul becomes the definitive bridge (both theologically and functionally): between the Old Testament and the New Testament, between original creation and the new creation, between reduced ontology and function and whole ontology and function, that is, between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ of God’s whole church family.
This is the good news of God’s whole ontology and function in relational response to our condition and why the whole of God seeks who and what—only nothing less and no substitutes for reciprocal relationship together to be God’s whole on God’s relational terms. We need to give account in our gospel and our theology and practice for what God seeks, that is, without reductionism and renegotiation to our terms.
Any gospel heard and received in referential language can only have a referential outcome. This was not the theological trajectory and relational path of the gospel that the Samaritan woman experienced. This was, however, the outcome with which Peter struggled until his gospel became congruent with Jesus’ improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path, in order to determine his vulnerable involvement in reciprocal relationship together necessary to be whole. Since Paul experienced the gospel directly in relational language and terms (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me…I am Jesus, whom you are…” (Acts 9:4-5), his gospel was and had entirely the relational outcome of the whole gospel: the dynamic of ‘nothing less and no substitutes’ making vulnerable the whole of God’s ontology and function in relational response to our condition to make whole our ontology and function in reciprocal relationship together in God’s family. Many of Paul’s readers do not clearly understand Paul’s gospel—some even making a distinction between his and Jesus’ gospel—because their interpretive lens focuses on referential language in his theology for a referential outcome in his practice, consequently not understanding Paul’s relational language extending directly from Jesus’ relational language.
For Paul, this relational outcome was “the gospel of wholeness” (Eph 6:15), and anything less or any substitute was “a different gospel which is really no gospel at all” (Gal 1:6-7). Paul fully understood when he identified ‘the gospel of wholeness’ that it was ongoingly challenged by and in conflict with reductionism. Therefore, the gospel of wholeness is qualified in this context by its ongoing contention with reductionism (Eph 6:10-18) and necessitates this unavoidable and nonnegotiable theology and practice: In contrast to what has become the conventional way of proclaiming the gospel, Paul defines in relational language the conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against reductionism, while in reciprocal involvement with the Spirit in triangulation (cf. navigation) with the situations and circumstances of human contextualization for the reciprocating contextualization ongoingly needed to be whole from inner out, to live whole in qualitative and relational significance, and thereby to make whole the human condition, even as it may be reflected, reinforced or sustained in church and academy. Indispensible, and thus irreplaceable, for this theology and practice is both the strong view of sin as reductionism and the complete theological anthropology for persons in ontology and function to be what and who God seeks in compatible reciprocal relationship. A gospel that does not vulnerably address the sin of reductionism with the relational outcome of whole ontology and function is an incomplete gospel at best, not whole but fragmentary.
The theology and practice of the gospel of wholeness in Paul’s relational language required this relational imperative: “let the wholeness of Christ rule in your hearts, into which wholeness indeed you were called in the one body” (Col 3:15). As discussed previously, Paul made definitive this wholeness of Christ in the integrated function of two inseparable realities unfolding from the relational outcome of the gospel:
From Paul’s own experience, if the wholeness of Christ is the only determinant (“rule,” brabeuo) in our hearts, then the relational outcome will be the integral function of whole persons in whole relationships together. This integral function is a nonnegotiable for the gospel or its outcome is reduced. This relational outcome is conclusive of the qualitative and relational significance of the new creation ‘already’, which composes the new covenant relationship together of God’s whole church family (Gal 4:28-31; Rom 8:6,15-17; 2 Cor 5:18; Eph 2:14-22). As Paul made definitive the ecclesiology for the wholeness of the church, he theologically and functionally bridged this new creation with the original creation, this new covenant relationship with the covenant relationship distinguished with Abraham—who was given God’s terms for relationship together in only relational language (Gen 17:1-2), not unlike Paul. God’s relational terms are always ‘be whole’ (tamiym) as we are involved ongoingly with God in undivided reciprocal relationship together, which the who, what and how of Abraham enacted to warrant the relational function of righteousness—not what he did in referential terms in order to be considered righteous. Paul clearly knew the difference in this critical distinction (Gal 3:6-14; Rom 4) because he once credited himself in reduced righteousness while he labored in a covenant in referential terms (Phil 3:4-6).
Therefore, vital to the issue of righteousness in the whole gospel is our theological anthropology. Abraham and the new Paul were not credited with righteousness for what they did (various forms of works, including serving) or even what they had in referential terms (faith); that would be a referential outcome of defining persons in reduced ontology and function, which is merely a gospel in referential terms. Abraham was credited with righteousness for who, what and how he was in reciprocal covenant relationship with God. This is the necessary hermeneutical lens for righteousness that constituted both the whole of God’s presence and involvement and also the whole person God seeks in compatible reciprocal relationship together—“the new self created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness” (Eph 4:24). This is the relational outcome that unfolded in the gospel of wholeness, which can emerge only from complete, whole (tamiym) theological anthropology.
Moreover, God’s relational terms for reciprocal relationship in the relational function of tamiym (“whole,” not the referential condition of “blameless”) is inseparable from shalom. By their nature in relational terms, tamiym and shalom unfold in God’s relational dynamic of the gospel from the beginning, and thus they must be integrated for the gospel to be distinguished—yet not in the incomplete narrow terms of being irenic and without blame. The good news is incomplete unless the ‘wholeness’ of shalom composes God’s relational response and its relational outcome. Inseparably, the relational outcome of the gospel is incomplete until ‘to be and live whole’ of tamiym composes our reciprocal relational response to and experience of God’s relational response of grace to our human condition. And this wholeness and being whole emerge only from the relational response and outcome of the definitive blessing that the Face initiated from the beginning, vulnerably embodied and ongoingly enacts: “…make his face shine on you and relationally respond in grace to you…and bring the change necessary for the new relationship (siym) together in wholeness” (Num 6:24-26). The integral relational function of tamiym and shalom makes definitive the reciprocal relational nature of the whole of God’s ontology and function, and thereby conclusively discredits any notions of unilateral relationship in God’s blessing, salvific action and the gospel.
Eliminating unilateral relationship from God’s blessing, salvific action and the gospel does not imply in any way that God’s actions are dependent on human actions. The inescapable implication of reciprocal relationship, however, is that God’s whole ontology and function is present not as Object in referential terms but entirely involved as Subject in the relational terms of God’s nature for the sole purpose of relationship together in likeness of God’s relational ontology. On the basis of God’s relational ontology and function, God’s relational actions seek persons in the ontology and function that will be compatible for relationship, that is, nothing less and no substitutes for our whole ontology and function in the vulnerable involvement of reciprocal relationship together without the veil. God’s whole gospel has no relational significance, and therefore no relational outcome, if it involves a theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function that fragments persons into the parts of what they do and have—even if what they have is faith as an identity marker, and what they do is serve (cf. Jn 15:15; Jam 2:23-24). To paraphrase Jesus: “the theological anthropology you use will be the gospel and outcome you get” (Mk 4:24). The relational imperative for Paul is that “the whole of Christ be the only determinant for the person from inner out and their relationships together.”
In the gospel of wholeness, Paul illuminated unmistakably the relational outcome of whole ontology and function (both God’s and ours, Col 2:9-10; Eph 1:22-23), and further extends its intrusion (with Jesus into Paul by the Spirit) on the referential outcome of reduced ontology and function to make it whole, and thereby bridging the ‘old’ with the ‘new’ (Col 3:9-11; Eph 4:20-24). Paul’s illumination is conclusive because this also was the relational outcome of his direct engagement with the Spirit in the relational epistemic process (2 Cor 4:4,6; Eph 3:2-6). His epistemic conclusion should not be confused with mysticism or reduced to the esoteric knowledge of early gnosticism. This was simply the relational outcome of Paul’s ontology and function vulnerably in face-to-Face, heart-to-heart involvement with God’s ontology and function relationally initiated to him for reciprocal relationship together in wholeness. God’s ontology and function was nothing less and no substitutes in relational response, therefore Paul’s ontology and function could neither be anything less nor any substitute in compatible reciprocal response. This is who and what God seeks to compose indeed the good news for our condition.
Yet, this distinguished relational outcome is persistently reduced to a referential outcome, such that the gospel is consistently perceived merely in referential language and terms—much to Jesus’ frustration (Jn 6:26; 14:9) and Paul’s astonishment (Gal 1:6; cf. 2 Cor 11:4). The persistence reflects the influence of sin as reductionism that is still unaccounted for. The consistency exposes the presence of fragmentary ontology and function that still need to be made whole. To what extent does this presence and influence exist or even prevail today? Understanding the answer necessitates returning to the new wine table fellowship with the veil taken away. Most important, resolving the answer requires vulnerably involving ourselves in Jesus’ intrusive relational path. The gospel of wholeness relationally embodying nothing less and no substitutes of God’s ontology and function demands by its qualitative relational nature our compatible reciprocal relational response, not an obligatory response in conventional referential terms.
“The terms you use will be the outcome you get.”
In my opinion, the most significant contribution from postmodernism is its critique of underlying assumptions (mainly of modernism) that challenges any templates (most notably a grand blueprint or metanarrative) imposing a narrowed view of the world to which human life necessarily conforms. The postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion helped expose such templates which were based on bad or false assumptions. We need to learn from this process and initiate our own hermeneutic of suspicion, yet for a different outcome than postmodernism. It is not the presence of a metanarrative—that is, the metanarrative from beyond the universe distinguished from a grand blueprint from within the universe—that is the issue but rather the notion of a template imposing a narrow view epistemologically, hermeneutically and theologically, and on this basis constraining what and how we are ontologically and functionally. Such a template can exist in the Christian religious community in the form of its tradition or in a less formal pattern of its status quo. The presence and promotion of either need our hermeneutic of suspicion.
As the hermeneutical key to the ‘new’, Jesus initiated this needed hermeneutic of suspicion to expose a template of tradition while introducing the new wine table fellowship (Lk 5:33-39, cf. Mt 15:1-20), and also to jolt the religious community from its status quo in a pivotal interaction with Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-16, cf. 5:39-40). In each interaction, the ‘old’ was maintained at the expense of the ‘new’, therefore tradition and the status quo needed redemptive change for the ‘new’ to be born, raised up in the new and lived whole in relationship together without any template signified by the veil.
The ongoing tension and conflict between the new and the old clearly rises when the new’s presence is constrained, shaped or conformed to the limits of the old. Of course, this increased level assumes the presence of the new, which is distinguished by the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes in our person and relationships, that is, from inner out in the primacy of relationships together. The seeds of new wine that Jesus planted at their defining table fellowship are cultivated in the innermost of human life, not in secondary matter prevailing in human contexts. With relational language serving as a hermeneutic of suspicion, Jesus addressed their religious tradition by engaging the ontology and function of those present (both his critics and disciples), thereby challenging the assumptions of their theological anthropology. In his concern for who they were and how they lived, Jesus addressed their identity. Since Jesus did not separate theology from function, he defined the inseparable interaction between their theological assumptions and identity formation. That is, who we are emerges from our theology, and the identity formed determines how we will live. This underscores the three major issues emphasized in this study: (1) how we define ourselves, which then determines (2) how we function in relationships, which together further determines (3) how faith and church are practiced. By interposing the new wine into the process, Jesus discloses the theological dynamic that redefines who we are and transforms what we are and how we live. Therefore, both our identity and its relational outcome are contingent on the theological dynamic we assume with Jesus.
Theological anthropology and Christology converge at table fellowship with Jesus, as Peter experienced in Jesus’ footwashing. The clarity and depth of the identity emerging from this theological interaction is contingent on the completeness of Christology and its integral influence on theological anthropology. This completeness and integral influence are inseparable from Jesus’ own identity—signified as “the bridegroom” at the new wine table fellowship (Lk 5:34). Yet, Jesus’ own ontology and function are identified further and deeper than this.
While the embodied Jesus was distinctly Jewish, and his predominant surrounding context was Jewish Galilee and Judea, the person Jesus presented (who and what) and how he interacted at the various levels of social discourse were a function of a minority identity, not the dominant Jewish identity. That is to say, Jesus functioned in a qualitatively different way than prevailing Judaism, yet he was fully compatible with OT faith and the teaching of Scripture—not as a religious code but as a relational process with God. What emerged from Jesus was the presence of the new clearly distinguished from their tradition and from the prevailing assumptions defining their ontology and determining their function.
One advantage of his minority identity was to clearly distinguish his significance from the prevailing majority—including from the broader context pervaded with Greco-Roman influence. A major disadvantage, however, was to be marginalized (i.e. considered less, or even ignored if not intrusive) by the majority or dominant sector. This disadvantage is problematic at best for his followers and can precipitate an identity crisis, that is, if his followers are not experiencing the truth of who, what and how they are. Yet, the experiential truth of his followers’ identity is a relational outcome of embracing Jesus in his identity, the clarity and depth of which become a christological contingency. In other words, the specific identity of who Jesus is (or perceived to be), determines the nature of their involvement together, and will be definitive for who his followers are or become. This further challenges our assumptions of discipleship in a conventional servant model and even our view of the cross with a conventional lens of sacrifice (discussed shortly).
In relational terms and not referential, Christian identity must by its nature be qualitatively rooted in and ongoingly relationally based on Jesus’ identity. On this irreducible and nonnegotiable basis, Christology is basic to our identity; and any reduction of our Christology renders our identity to a lack of clarity (as “light”) and depth (as “salt”), consequently precipitating an identity crisis (“no longer good for anything,” Mt 5:13). Therefore, questions like those by the disciples (“Who is this?” Mk 4:41) and Paul on the Damascus road (“Who are you?” Acts 9:5, cf. Jn 8:25) need to be answered in complete (pleroo) theological determination for the answer to be definitive of the qualitative and relational significance of both the incarnation and the gospel. The disciples struggled with this relational epistemic process, while Paul received the epistemic clarification and hermeneutic correction to engage the whole of Jesus for relationship together without the veil—the relational outcome of the new wine redefining who Paul was and transforming what he was and how he lived.
Directly related to the above questions are questions such as “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9) and “What are you doing here?” (1 Kg 19:9,13). These are questions from God involving our theological anthropology, and related theological assumptions of Christology, that are critical for identity formation. Both sets of questions need to be answered to define the depth of our theology (as signified in “Do you also wish to go away?” Jn 6:67), and to determine the depth of our reciprocal relational response (as signified in “do you love me?” Jn 21:16). Our response emerges from the primary identity of who we are, and the identity we form emerges from our theology, that is, the interaction between our theological anthropology and Christology. The ontology and function that result are contingent on this theological process.
If our tradition narrows the epistemic field of God’s self-revelation down to referential terms and limits our theological anthropology to constrained ontology and function (e.g. “fast”), then the outcome will not sprout the seeds of new wine planted in our innermost. This new wine identity is not distinguished from the old by merely having a belief system in Jesus the Christ, no matter how strong the tradition. In referential terms, tradition had already been constrained, shaped or conformed to the reductionist influence and pressure on belief systems exerted by human contextualization. This consequence is most evident in the theological anthropology used for our identity formation.
As Levi learned leading up to their new wine table fellowship (Lk 5:27-32), he had a critical identity issue to address in the vulnerable presence of Jesus’ whole person. Jesus relationally presented the ontology and function in contrast and conflict with Levi’s, as well as any who follow Jesus with a less ontology and function. The underlying theological anthropology of this reduced ontology and function is based on the ontological lie rooted in the human condition: the value or worth of persons measured by what they do and have is always relative in a comparative process that otherwise renders persons to a social position of less (cf. 1 Cor 4:6-7), thereby defining their condition in ontological deficiency (cf. Gen 3:5). In other words, this is human identity based on a deficit model of being less than the prevailing standard, unless one can assume a position of more that would only be relative to an inevitable comparison to someone else having more (cf. 2 Cor 10:12). The deficit model is the prevailing human alternative for identity formation and shaping relationships together that ongoingly needs to make up for an identity deficit—the ontological lie for human ontology and function signifying reductionism and its counter-relational work, both of which are in contrast and conflict with Jesus’ identity of whole ontology and function. His disciples clearly demonstrated this deficit dynamic by arguing among themselves over who was the greatest (Lk 9:46), even at their pivotal table fellowship (Lk 22:24), by asking Jesus for the answer (Mt 18:1), by the request of James and John (Mk 10:35-37) and their mother (Mt 20:20-21), all of which caused further tension among the disciples (Mt 20:24; Mk 10:41). Whether or not Levi participated in this later, he openly addressed his critical identity issue by responding to Jesus’ whole person in reciprocal relationship together, therefore engaging the theological process that redefined who he was and transformed what he was and how he lived. Levi’s ontology and function was no longer relegated to an identity deficit based on the ontological lie, and clearly became the identity of the new wine.
If we do not pay attention to this influence from human contextualization and address its consequences on our own ontology and function, then unlike Levi we remain subject to this ontological lie and continue to construct our identity from a deficit model, which shapes our relationships accordingly. With the lack or absence of a theological anthropology that is whole-ly compatible with Jesus’ ontology and function in reciprocal relationship together, our ontology and function cannot be distinguished from our human context and thus are subject to wide interpretation or determination. Such results would be compatible with postmodernism and its hermeneutic of suspicion but incompatible to address a template imposing its narrow view epistemologically, hermeneutically, and theologically that constrains ontology and function. This would be insufficient for the hermeneutic of suspicion Jesus initiated to challenge our assumptions of theological anthropology. He continues to confront this condition in its need for redemptive change and also jolts the religious community in likely its most implicit condition limiting or precluding this change: the status quo and its underlying epistemological illusion of confidence or certainty and its interrelated ontological simulation of stability and permanence.
Nicodemus represented his religious tradition and the effects of being embedded in the status quo of his religious community. Yet, Nicodemus apparently was dissatisfied with his knowledge and perhaps unsettled in his messianic expectations, such that he ventured out of this status quo to explore expanding his epistemic field to query Jesus (Jn 3:1-15). This epistemic process is critical to understand in this familiar encounter because it demonstrates the template imposed by the status quo to constrain any change beyond its conformity. No doubt Nicodemus knew that Jesus was a dissonant voice to the status quo, nevertheless he encountered much more than his lens limited by the status quo could understand epistemologically, hermeneutically and theologically. This implicit condition creates a hermeneutic impasse that makes it difficult to recognize the new much less embrace it.
In order to establish this interaction’s larger context, it seems reasonable to assume some matters about Nicodemus. He came to Jesus that night for answers to questions which were framed by his Jewish identity, by his involvement as a ruling member (Sanhedrin) in Israel (v.1) and as one of her teachers (v.10); thus he came with the expectations associated with their Scripture, which were shaped likely by an interpretive framework from Second Temple Judaism and no doubt by a perceptual lens sociopolitically sensitized to Roman rule. While Nicodemus came to Jesus as an individual person, his query was as the collective identity of Israel and the corporate life and practice of a Pharisee’s (of whatever variation) Judaism.
Apparently stimulated by Jesus’ actions and perhaps stirred by the presence of “a teacher who has come from God” (v.2), he approached Jesus respectfully, if not with some humility. Yet, he very likely engaged Jesus with the framework and lens which Jesus critiqued elsewhere of “the wise and the intelligent” (Lk 10:21). This would be crucial for Nicodemus. Though his position represented the educated elite of Israel, his own posture was about to be humbled and changed.
Jesus understood Nicodemus’ query and anticipated his questions that certainly related to God’s promises for Israel’s deliverance (salvation), the Messiah and God’s kingship in the Mediterranean world. Therefore, Jesus immediately focused on “the kingdom of God” (v.3), the OT eschatological hope, about which Nicodemus was probably more concerned for the present than the future. Yet, the whole of God’s kingship and sovereign rule is integral to the OT, and thus a primary focus of Nicodemus’ query, however provincial. And he was concerned about it strongly enough (and perhaps inwardly conflicted) to make himself vulnerable to initiate this interaction with Jesus; his query appeared genuine and for more than referential information or didactic reasons. This suggests that Nicodemus stepped out of his probability box to pursue the more of ‘eternity substance’ in his heart.
The conversation that followed evidences a purpose in John’s Gospel to clearly distinguish and make definitive the whole of God’s thematic relational action of grace in response to the human condition—first, in continuation to Israel and then to the nations—that is, to unfold the history of God’s salvation. Yet, the language communicated in this conversation became an issue, and this proved to be revealing not only for Nicodemus but for all he represented—as well as for all who would follow, even through a postmodern period.
The notion of membership and participation in the kingdom of God being contingent on a concept “born again” was taken incredulously by this “wise and learned” leader, whose sophisticated reason was unable to process and explain in referential terms from a narrowed epistemic field. “How can” (dynamai, v.4) signifies the limits of the probable. Then to be told “you [pl] must by its nature” (dei, v.7, not opheilo’s obligation or compulsion), as if to address all Jews, was beyond the grasp of his reason. Dei points to the nature of the improbable. Even after Jesus made definitive (“I tell you the truth”) gennao anothen as “born from above,” that is “born of the Spirit” (ek, indicating the primary, direct source, vv.5,8), Nicodemus was still unable to process the words of Jesus; the status quo continues to prevail (“How can,” v.9). Why? This brings us back to the interpretive framework and perceptual lens of “the wise and the intelligent.” He was unable to understand Jesus’ language because the words were heard from an insufficient interpretive framework limited to the prevailing assumptions of his knowledge and an inadequate perceptual lens constrained in focus only on the secondary in referential terms.
Jesus exposed this as the conversation continues: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand the improbable and the primary?” (v.10). How is Jesus’ question connected to Nicodemus’ question since “born again” (or from above) is not in the Hebrew Scriptures? With this rhetorical question, Jesus implied that from a valid OT perspective (namely “the covenant of love,” Dt 7:7-9) the thematic relational action of God’s covenant relationship would be understood; moreover, the relational outworking of siym for shalom from the LORD’s definitive blessing would be expected and apparent. Jesus was vulnerably extending this covenant relationship of love in wholeness together directly to Nicodemus (and, by implication, to all Jews) by communicating openly what he, himself, knew intimately by witnessing as a participant (martyreo, not merely by observation, v.11) in the life of God (v.13, cf. Jn 1:18). His communication was not with ethereal (epouranios) language but discourse (lego) in the human context (epigeios, v.12), yet with relational language. It was the qualitative nature of relational language that Nicodemus was unable to understand with his perceptual-interpretive framework. Nicodemus remained incompatible for relational connection, unable to engage Jesus with his conventional epistemic process.
The movement of God’s thematic relational action in the covenant relationship of love had been consistently reduced to quantitative situations and circumstances throughout Israel’s history—despite the fact that “the Lord set his heart on you and chose you” was not on a quantitative basis (Dt 7:7). In functional similarity, Nicodemus paid attention to the quantitative limits of human biology in probability terms reducing the person while ignoring the qualitative primacy of whole human ontology. Thus he demonstrated the same framework focused on the quantitative situations and circumstances probable for the covenant, whereas Jesus focused on the ontology of the whole person and the qualitative relationship signifying the covenant of love and wholeness together. The establishment of nation and national identity formation were the prevailing quantitative expectations of any messianic hope in the kingdom, with which, most certainly, Nicodemus came to Jesus that night. In contrast and conflict, Jesus focused on the whole persons necessary in new covenant relationship in wholeness to constitute the kingdom in its innermost—nothing less and no substitutes.
The prevailing perceptual-interpretive framework that Nicodemus represented made some critical assumptions about the kingdom besides the quantitative situations and circumstances probable for the covenant. The two most critical assumptions were relational barriers to understanding Jesus’ relational language:
In this latter relational disclosure, would-be followers came to a similar conclusion as Nicodemus: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52) and “This improbable is difficult; who can accept it?” (6:60), compared with Nicodemus’ “How can this improbable be?” (3:9)—all of which reflected these assumptions in quantitative referential terms from outer in that limited both their knowledge to the probable and their learning of the improbable. This is the implicit condition of the status quo.
What Nicodemus and the others were predisposed to by their perceptual-interpretive framework, and were embedded in as their practice and expectation within the limits of the status quo, was essentially a salvation of the old—a quantitative outcome of reductionism. What Jesus vulnerably engaged them in and with went beyond the status quo to the salvation of the new—the qualitative relational outcome of the whole of God’s relational response to not only Israel but to the human condition. God’s thematic relational work of grace embodied in Jesus for covenant relationship of love constituted the new covenant from inner out, the relationship of which was now directly and intimately involved together with the Trinity in the innermost to be the whole of God’s family (kingdom of those born of the Spirit, of the Father, of the Son). This is the whole gospel vulnerably disclosed by Jesus in relational language which jolted the status quo of the old represented in Nicodemus that night.
Nicodemus came to Jesus as “the wise and learned” in the old. He was now humbled by Jesus’ intrusion on his status quo condition with the improbable “born again or from above,” and by the necessary transition from old to new Jesus distinguished unmistakably in its relational language. Though that term itself is not in the OT, it is clearly evident that “a new heart” and the Spirit’s work for “a new covenant” and Israel’s kingdom (Eze 36:26-27, Jer 31:31-34) would not be unfamiliar to Nicodemus as Israel’s teacher. The meaning of Jesus’ relational message to Nicodemus (and the status quo) defined the needed transformation of human ontology for this new covenant relationship of love, which for Nicodemus functionally involved the transition from “the wise and learned of the old” to the qualitative framework and function of “the little children of the new” (cf. Mt 18:3-4)—undoubtedly a jolt to Nicodemus and the status quo. Yet, apparently, Nicodemus humbly transitioned to “a little child of the new”: first, to receive the whole of God’s self-disclosure embodied in whole by Jesus with a new perceptual-interpretive framework (Lk 10:21, cf. his vulnerability in Jn 7:50-52), then to relationally respond to God in qualitative involvement (Lk 18:17, cf. his involvement in Jn 19:39-42).
John’s Gospel clearly illuminates the relational process of salvation from old to new in Nicodemus and what he is saved to. In this relational context, the evangelist almost seems to give a metaphorical sense to Nicodemus. Certainly, for all who follow, it is the whole relational context and process, necessary by the nature of salvation, to which to respond and by which to be involved in order to belong to the whole of God’s family. Unfortunately, we never hear if Nicodemus became one of the teachers of the old covenant and new, who relationally experienced following Jesus in the relational progression to the family (kingdom) of God, as Jesus defined for such teachers (Mt 13:52).
Jesus made it imperative for Nicodemus and the status quo that the redemptive change to be born from above was the only recourse available to be freed from the constraints imposed by any templates from tradition, the statue quo and the ‘old’ prevailing in human contextualization—that which constrains, shapes or conforms the new’s presence to the limits of the old, as Peter did (Acts 10:13-15, cf. Jn 15:18-20). This is where epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction are needed, both for Nicodemus as well as for us today. Jesus was not pointing to a new belief system requiring Nicodemus’ conversion. Nicodemus could not grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words because his quantitative lens (phroneo) focused on the person from outer in (“How can anyone be born after…?”), and because his reductionist interpretive framework (phronema) was unable to piece together (synesis) his own Scripture (e.g. “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart,” Dt 30:6). This evidenced that Nicodemus was too embedded in the status quo influenced by reductionism to understand—“How can these things be?”—even after Jesus said, “Do not be astonished…”, which implied that a teacher of God’s Word would comprehend God’s whole if not fragmented by reductionism. Now the embodied Word from God (whom Nicodemus initially came to engage) made conclusive the epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction essential for Nicodemus, Peter, Paul, Jews or Gentiles, for all persons: be made whole from above or continue in reductionism.
The sprouting of new wine necessitates addressing without exception all templates that constrain function ontologically and relationally. Such templates (“old wineskins”) are signified in the veil not being removed, thus preventing the new wine table fellowship from inner out in the primacy of relationships together, and thereby rendering all theology and practice to the old condition in front of the curtain—as if Jesus never went to the cross on God’s relational terms. We need to exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion on our own theology and practice to expose and challenge any assumptions that essentially have constrained, shaped or conformed the new to the limits of the old.
Not only is the cross inescapable for the new wine but our view of the cross and what and who we see are indispensable for sprouting the new wine. Moreover, the functional nature of our discipleship needs to be challenged integrally for who and what we follow and for how we follow, in order for the new wine not only to emerge and sprout but also flow. Without the necessary epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction, our theology could bear the burden of epistemological illusion and our practice may suffer in ontological simulation.
Just as Nicodemus asked “How can these things be?” and other would-be followers raised in monologue “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52), there are issues for us to address. In the skewed theological task of these would-be disciples (6:28,30,34), we see the evidence of a narrowed-down epistemic field and the hermeneutical impasse of its limits (6:41-42, 52,60). What appeared improbable to them raises underlying issues beyond Jesus’ improbable theological trajectory to his intrusive relational path that converged on the cross to constitute it—issues raised for all of us. Our view of the Lord’s Supper notwithstanding, we likely would not ask “How can Jesus give us his flesh to eat?” yet we need to ask this question in relational terms and challenge our assumptions of the cross in this age of reductionism. If not reduced to a symbol, it can be said that Jesus’ death on the cross has been grossly exaggerated. Simply stated, we need whole understanding of what converged on the cross and how it was composed, in order to know the whole who of the cross and why he engaged it.
Whatever position we have on the atonement sacrifice becomes the lens that tends to skew our view of the cross. With this lens what we associate with the cross is sacrifice and who we see is the one who made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, the atonement sacrifice is just one part of what converged on the cross. This sacrifice is insufficient to explain the full relational dynamic involved in how the cross was composed, and thus is inadequate to understand the who of the cross and why his relational path vulnerably involved it. Moreover, idealizing the cross creates a hermeneutical impasse that keeps us at a relational distance to go deeper into the cross with Jesus, not simply affirming this cross of Jesus.
Who, what, how and why are integral to God’s relational dynamic that unfolds on the cross. This relational dynamic cannot be narrowed down to one of its parts (namely atonement) without fragmenting God’s whole relational action that constitutes that part; the consequence would reduce atonement to referential terms with the loss of its relational significance and no relational outcome to experience in the new wine relationships together with the veil removed. Jesus clearly defines the whole of God’s relational dynamic: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (Jn 15:9, cf. 17:23,26). What he said next may confuse the dynamic of love if heard in referential language: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). Jesus was certainly pointing to the cross, yet his relational language for “lay down” (tithemi) signifies “to put or place one’s person” in vulnerable relational involvement with others. At times, this vulnerable involvement of love may include sacrifice but not be defined by sacrifice, which Paul’s language may confuse if seen in referential language: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Yet, God’s relational dynamic of love does not revolve around sacrifice. How the Father loves the Son is not about sacrifice but the depth of the Father’s involvement with the Son; and this is the relational dynamic of love Jesus extends to us, notably on the cross and throughout the incarnation and even prior to the embodied Word. And God’s love also cannot be idealized or this keeps both God’s involvement at a less intrusive relational distance and our response to “amazing love” at a less vulnerable relational distance.
When we think of agape love, the primary thought to emerge is about sacrifice. Then, of course, the ultimate agape-sacrifice is seen in Jesus’ death on the cross. The functional significance of agape (and hesed in OT), however, is focused on involvement in the primacy of relationship—without letting any other matter take away from this primacy (cf. Dt 7:7-9). Sacrifice tends to have the focus on that individual and what one does in the sacrifice, though intended ostensibly for the sake of others. In contrast, agape functions in the relational significance of how to be involved with others in relationship—“as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”—not about what “I” do, notably with sacrifice; the latter is how Jesus’ death gets grossly exaggerated. Therefore, the focus in agape must by its nature (dei in contrast to the obligation of opheilo, as Jesus acted, Mt 16:21) be involvement with others in the primacy of relationship together—neither on me nor what I do, even intended for the sake of others (as Jesus illuminated, Jn 13:34-35). Yet, this is not the prevailing understanding of love in theological discourse.
In prevailing referential terms, love is narrowed down to positive works that God does and an attribute that God has, thereby defining God by what he does and has. Such love essentially constrains God’s ontology and function and has relational consequences, the repercussions of which continue to have dominant influence in theological discourse today. The results of this kind of works is certainly good but this limited outcome does not go to the depths of who, what and how God is in ontology and function; nor does it get to the relational significance of the whole and holy God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement with the reduced ontology and function of human persons. Israel often labored in their focus on the limited outcome of deliverance from their situations and circumstances rather than on the primacy of their covenant of love with God (Dt 7:6-9). Love (both hesed and agape) defines God’s relational work that determines the depth of relational involvement God has with us (including but not only on the cross) entirely for the relational outcome of the gospel of wholeness—new wine relationship together as God’s whole family (Jn 17:21-23). Relational work is clearly distinguished from referential works which mainly focus on situations and circumstances for positive results, not the primacy of relationships in relational work. Any relational involvement that may take place in referential terms is regarded as only secondary to what happens—not the primacy of “put or place one’s person” in vulnerable relational involvement (tithemi, Jn 15:13)—and often is not paid attention to by the lover or the recipient over the positive results. Consequently, with love in referential terms, persons and relationships are defined from outer in and thereby determined by what they do and have in their situations and circumstances. This is a critical distinction that Paul learned from his personal experience with God (2 Cor 12:7-9; Phil 4:11-13). Yet, even the positive results of such love can merely reflect, reinforce or sustain the human condition, results which our theology and practice must account for. This is not the love enacted on the cross. We need a deeper experience of agape than sacrifice, and a new view of the cross takes us deeper than sacrifice.
The nature of agape as constituted by God’s ontology and function is relationship. As disclosed by Jesus and the Father along with the Spirit, agape relationships are signified by the extent of involvement directly in the relationship—and not indirectly through a situation or circumstance (Jn 17:21,23,26)—the depth of which necessitates increasing vulnerability by the person enacting agape (cf. Jn 12:27-28; 13:1-5; 14:9-10). The ultimate enactment of agape disclosed to us is signified in John 3:16, in which the relational significance of the incarnation was Jesus relationally embodying the whole and holy God to be vulnerably present and intimately involved with us for relationship together in wholeness. ‘God with us’ (Immanuel) is neither a mere name nor event but the relational context and process of God’s whole relational action. Agape is the integral function of both God’s grace and wholeness, nothing less and no substitutes. Therefore, this agape relationship initiated by the holy God’s relational grace is the gospel of wholeness. The experiential truth of this ‘good news’ relationship (not mere positive results) was composed by Jesus in his agape involvement with us on the cross—the vulnerably embodied extension of the Father’s love for him (Jn 15:9). What the cross signifies entirely in relational terms, hence, is the depth of relational involvement Jesus engaged conjointly with us and the Father (along with the Spirit), and not about what Jesus did even though it by necessity involved the sacrifice of atonement to remove the veil.
What the cross composes theologically in terms of atonement must by its nature be understood in the relational dynamic of love to distinguish Jesus’ involvement in his intrusive relational path. That is, Jesus’ whole person vulnerably involved himself with the whole human person, thus he involved his person with persons’ sin (namely as reductionism) as well as creation in the image of God. His involvement with persons’ sin was fully vulnerable and intimate (tithemi of love, Jn 15:13) such that he took on and incurred the consequence of that sin—which also involved the relational consequence of separation from God the Father (Mt 27:46)—and integrally prevailed over the human condition by removing the veil to make whole human ontology and function. The wholeness of persons and relationships together is the relational outcome which unfolds from atonement that is integrally determined by Jesus’ relational involvement of love. If this is not the outcome from atonement, then atonement has been fragmented from God’s whole relational action for a reduced outcome in a truncated soteriology of what persons are saved from: sin, yet without sin as reductionism, which, if it were included, would require the above relational outcome of saved to wholeness. Simply stated, if what we get from the cross is just salvation from sin, we are being shortchanged; and either God needs to be held accountable or our theology and practice are incomplete. In the theological task, as Jesus declared unmistakably, “the atonement you use is the salvation you get.” And “the cross you see is the outcome you get in theology and practice.”
Therefore, what the cross represents is no mere event (even idealized), as many refer to it, albeit a salvific event; and it cannot be represented in these terms without representing God in salvific action. What converged on the cross is entirely God’s relational dynamic of love extending throughout the incarnation, and how the cross was composed unfolded from the relational outcome of the whole of God’s involvement with us. This was Paul’s direct relational experience and therefore his major emphasis on the cross, yet only on God’s relational terms and not as mere event in referential terms. While the cross as event likely presents the body of Jesus such that the cross is not disembodied from Jesus—for example, as his teachings get disembodied—the Jesus presented on the cross is disengaged, that is, not relationally involved in agape relationship. This de-relationalizes Jesus with the consequence to maintain the veil that limits both knowing the whole who of the cross and experiencing the relational outcome of why he engaged the cross.
This provides us the new view of the cross and the Jesus on it for the what and who, how and why that are congruent with Jesus’ intrusive relational path to fulfill the whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory. The lens from the relational significance of agape enacted by Jesus on the cross necessarily shifts our focus from Jesus to his relational involvement with others. To only see Jesus on the cross (e.g. a crucifix) is to reduce Jesus’ whole person, consequently to truncate the salvific function of the cross without what Jesus saved to, and to render John 3:16 and the gospel without its relational significance. With this consequential lens, such a narrow view of the cross and of agape fragments God’s relational dynamic to mere sacrifice, not relationship together in wholeness. If the cross is not whole and who is on the cross is not whole-ly embodied by the whole ontology and function (pleroma as Paul made definitive, Col 1:19; 2:9) of God, then the salvific outcome cannot be the whole relational outcome but at best a truncated soteriology in referential terms limited to only saved from.
Jesus does not in fact give us such a reductionist view of him on the cross that fragments his relational action and diminishes his agape involvement. There is no legitimate option to represent him in other than the terms Jesus presented in his whole person. God’s thematic relational action of grace and dynamic of love are intimately communicated and vulnerably consummated by Jesus’ ultimate discourse on the cross. Again, this certainly included atonement but is not limited to it, so that the relational outcome of complete soteriology unfolds with Jesus’ ultimate salvific discourse.
This discourse is understood as his seven statements integrated with his actions on the cross, though each of the Gospel narratives provides a different part of the discourse, with Mark and Matthew including only the most important fourth statement to formulate a structure somewhat analogous to an OT chiasm (two halves framing the key point placed between them). Taken together they evidence the thematic relational message of God, and this composite message’s theological interpretation constitutes it as the ultimate salvific discourse consummating the whole of God’s thematic action for the new covenant relationship together as family. Thus, no aspect of this discourse can be fully understood separated from the context of the whole; nor can any aspect be reduced and still constitute its relational significance in the whole of God’s thematic action.
This was Jesus’ discourse on the cross, in which the language of his words and actions communicated with the ultimate relational clarity and significance—nothing less than relational language.
First Statement: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).
In his initial words, Jesus clearly established his full relational context with the Father, thus pointing to the source of salvation. His initial action also disclosed the full relational process of grace necessary for salvation: forgiveness (aphiemi, to remit sin, dismiss indebtedness toward God, cf. Mt 26:28; also its function in Lk’s emphasis on salvation, Lk 5:20-26; 7:47-50; 24:46-47). How Jesus engaged aphiemi was less about the situation and full of relational significance, which was constituted only by God’s relational grace.
As they killed Jesus, this destruction was the paradoxical relational process necessary for new relationship with the whole of God (cf. Lk 22:20). That is, it is ironic that aphiemi denotes, on the one hand, the forgiveness for their sin and broken relationship with the triune God, which in this moment led to the necessary cost for redemption fulfilled by his death on the cross (cf. Mk 10:45). On the other hand, aphiemi signifies the transformation to the new covenant relationship together constituted by the Spirit, who is Jesus’ relational replacement so he would “not leave [aphiemi] you as orphans” (Jn 14:18). In other words, Jesus enacted aphiemi entirely for relationship together and completely fulfilled the whole of its relational significance by his relational work of grace.
Jesus’ discourse was interjected with challenges to his salvific claim (Mt 27:40, Mk 15:29-30), as well as with mocking of his salvific authority and power as the Messiah King (Mt 27:42, Mk 15:31-32, Lk 23:35). Another detractor was one of the criminals executed with Jesus, who demonstrated a prevailing messianic expectation of salvation in existing quantitative situations and circumstances (Lk 23:39). His derision was about deliverance from his circumstances, not about relationship together; thus, he represented a majority position of those with a reductionist reaction to Jesus.
The other criminal looked beyond their own circumstances and made a qualitative shift to see Jesus’ person (though also as King) and to pursue him in his relational context, despite Jesus’ situation (Lk 23:40-42). Thus, he represented those with the qualitative relational response necessary to receive the vulnerable self-disclosure of God in Jesus for salvation. He received the following relational response from Jesus.
Second Statement: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).
In the relational clarity of his family love, Jesus clearly made definitive the relational outcome and conclusion for anyone and all who relationally respond to his vulnerable relational work of grace for new covenant relationship together. This relational response necessitates reciprocal vulnerability in engaging Jesus in his relational context and by intimate involvement with him in his relational process, as signified by the second criminal’s relational response of trust in Jesus.
The relational conclusion of being “with me in paradise” should not be reduced. Paradise, despite images and notions, is not about a place, that is, about aspects of bios; Jesus’ statement here should be compared to his statements with the churches in Ephesus
and Laodicea (Rev 2:7; 3:21). Rather, paradise is about sharing together intimately in the ultimate relational context of God, and thus complete involvement in the ultimate relational process of participating in the zoe of the Trinity. “With me” is only about relationship together at its ultimate (“Paradise”)—to which Jesus could have added “nothing less and no substitutes,” yet was absolutely definitive in prefacing his statement with “Truly I tell you.”
In the next part of his discourse, Jesus points to what he saves us to, which the first criminal was predisposed to ignore by reducing salvation merely to being saved from bad situations and circumstances.
Third Statement: To his mother, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (Jn 19:26-27).
With the relational significance of his family love communicated in this statement, Jesus gives us a partial entrance into what he saved us to by opening the functional door to salvific life and practice.
There are many aspects for us to reflect on here: circumstances, culture, family, Jesus’ promise to his disciples (viz. Mk 10:29-30). All of these factor into this extraordinary interaction, the outcome of which forms the experiential roots of what he saved us to and the functional roots for the development of his church as family. Building with the persons who truly constituted his family (see Mt 12:47-50), Jesus demonstrated the functional significance of being his family in what should be understood as a defining interaction, yet is often underemphasized or overlooked.
Apparently, Mary had been a widow for a while. In the Mediterranean world of biblical times, a widow was in a precarious position (like orphans), and so it was for Mary, particularly when her eldest and thus primary son (culturally speaking) was about to die. Their culture called for the eldest son to make provision for parents when they could no longer provide for themselves. The kinship family (by blood and law) had this responsibility. Though a widow, in Mary’s case she still had other sons and daughters to care for her (Mk 6:3). Why, then, did Jesus delegate this responsibility to someone outside their immediate family?
Though circumstances, culture and family converge on this scene, they do not each exert the same amount of influence. We cannot let contextual considerations limit our understanding of this defining point in the relational progression of his followers. In relational terms, Jesus was neither fulfilling his duty as the eldest son nor bound by the circumstances. As he had consistently demonstrated throughout the incarnation, Jesus was taking his followers beyond culture and circumstances, even beyond family as we commonly view it. As the embodied whole of God, his relational path (including on the cross) was composed by his ontology and function beyond reductionism, which he expected also of his followers in order to participate in his new covenant family (Mt 5:20).
Jesus’ whole relational context of family and relational process of family love was made evident in his painful condition yet sensitive relational involvement with Mary and John, which should not be reduced by the drama of the moment or the obligation of the situation. Though Jesus was in anguish and those closest to him were deeply distressed, this unimaginable interaction took place because Jesus functionally embodied the family love of the whole of God. This dramatically demonstrates the inseparable relation between theology (of the cross) and function (in the relational involvement of love). In the most touching moment on the cross, Jesus teaches us what being his family means: how to see each other, how to be involved with each other and how the individual is affirmed in submitting to him for it.
For Jesus, family involvement was based on agape relational involvement, so being his family cannot be understood from our conventional perceptions of family involvement or by our conditioned feelings of obligation. Despite his circumstances, Jesus focused on Mary and John with the deepest agape involvement and affection (phileo, cf. Jn 5:20, Dt 7:7): “Here is your son,” “Here is your mother.” How was he telling them to see each other? How was he saying to be involved with each other? How was the individual affirmed in submitting to him?
Jesus gave his followers new eyes to see each other from inner out—beyond circumstances, culture, blood and legal ties, social status. He redefined his family to be relationship-specific to his Father (Mt 12:47-50). This is how he wants us to see each other, and how he saw Mary. It seems certain that Mary was not merely Jesus’ earthly mother but increasingly his follower. She was not at odds with Jesus (though she certainly must have had mixed feelings) during his earthly ministry, as were his brothers. She was always there for him in her role as mother but more importantly she was now there with him as one who did the Father’s will—thus, as follower, daughter, sister. This was the Mary at the crucifixion.
Just as Jesus didn’t merely see Mary as his earthly mother, a widow, a female, he didn’t merely see John as a disciple, a special friend. They were his Father’s daughter and son, his sister and brother (cf. Mt 28:10; Heb 2:11), his family together in the relational progression. This is the nature of agape family love that extended from the Father to the Son to his followers, and how he wants his family to be involved with each other in likeness (Jn 15:9; 17:23). This deeply touching interaction clearly distinguished Jesus’ relational involvement with and response to his family. It was the beautiful outworking of family love in the reciprocal relational process together of being family and building it. Nothing less and no substitutes, just as Jesus lived and went to the cross. This is the function of salvific life and practice in the present, what Jesus saved us to.
On this relational basis and unequivocal relational purpose, Jesus’ action was just as much for John’s benefit as it was for Mary—both in provision and opportunity. In response to Jesus, John acted beyond being merely a disciple, even a friend, and took Mary into “his own” (idios, one’s own, denotes special relationship, v.27). He didn’t just take her into his house; he embraced Mary as his own mother (or kinship sister). She must have embraced him also as her son (or kinship brother). Earlier in response to what each of his disciples let go of in order to “Follow me,” Jesus promised them an even greater family (Mk 10:29-30). True to his words as ever, he partially fulfilled his promise to them. This is the relational outcome ‘already’ for each person who submits to him to participate in his family. No greater satisfaction of being accepted, no fulfillment of the person’s self-worth, no certainty of one’s place and belonging can be experienced by the person from inner out without the relational significance of his new wine family in relational involvement without the veil (cf. Jn 15:11).
As the functional key, Jesus’ action here demonstrated the relationships of love necessary to be the whole of God’s new covenant family with family love (both agape and phileo), and this initial experience composed the roots of his church as family. Moreover, this experiential reality signified the ongoing fulfillment of his covenant promise to his followers (i.e. Mk 10:29-30, which becomes functional in the present as his church family), and thereby established the experiential truth of the gospel for all to experience (cf. Jn 17:21-23).
And as the hermeneutical key, Jesus used not only relational language but also his family language to compose his words as the whole of the Word from God embodied vulnerably for just this new covenant relationship together. This scenario statement, therefore, must be understood in the whole of his salvific discourse and made definitive for the function of his church in its ongoing life and practice.
Keep in mind that his first three statements happened while he was dying a physically painful death. Thus, having clearly and vulnerably communicated God’s thematic relational action of grace in the first half of his discourse, Jesus continued in the second half to intimately consummate his salvific work for the new covenant relationship together of God’s family. The cost for redemption to complete this salvation to the new creation was immeasurable. In unsettling contrast to his previous statement as the most touching moment on the cross, his next statement is the most heartbreaking—while also the most important statement disclosing the relational significance on which the whole of God’s salvific action hinged.
Fourth Statement: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).
Familiarity with these words must not predispose us to minimalize Jesus’ relational language, and thus to diminish the depth of relational significance involved here. Such reductionism can only have a relational consequence of promoting relational distance (however unintentional) from God or of reinforcing the relational condition “to be apart” (however inadvertent) from the whole of God. Moreover, I affirm, nothing will help us understand the distinction between the qualitative (e.g. element of zoe) and the quantitative (e.g. aspects of bios) more than this pivotal relational statement by Jesus.
Beyond the prolonged physical pain (nearly in its sixth hour), Jesus’ words vulnerably exposed his relational pain—which was initially experienced in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:37-38) in anticipation of this ultimate relational pain. The Son’s relationally painful scream not only further expressed his honesty and vulnerableness with his Father, but now even more significantly demonstrated the relational wholeness by which their life together is constituted (Jn 10:38; 14:10,11,20; 17:21). Therefore, we are exposed intimately to what is innermost to the zoe of God: the whole of the relationship of God.
Since God is the Trinity, the whole of the triune God is constitutive of the Trinity’s relationships, while the Trinity’s relationships together constitute the whole of God—apart from which the zoe of God does not function. It was the zoe of the Trinity, the whole of the relationship of God, which was the issue in Jesus’ statement (relational scream).
While Jesus’ physical death was necessary for salvation, that quantitative death of bios was not his ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate was his loss of the qualitative relationship of the whole of God. As a consequence of absorbing our sin, in that inexplicable moment the Son was no longer in the Father nor the Father in him. In this nothing-less-and-no-substitutes action of grace by the whole and holy God, the mystery of the “brokenness” of the relational ontology of the Trinity in effect happened. We can have only some sense of understanding this condition by focusing on the relational reality in distress, not the ontological. With this qualitative focus on Jesus’ pain, we become vulnerable participants both (1) in the painful relational consequence involving any degree of the relational condition “to be apart” from the whole of God, and (2) in the fullness of God’s ultimate response to redeem us from this condition as well as to reconcile us to the whole of the relationship of God, the zoe of the Trinity.
For this wholeness with God to be experienced, however, the relational barriers “to be apart” have to be removed. When the Son screamed out in relational pain, all those barriers had converged on him to evoke the Father’s separation. I assert that it was also the moment the Father cried, and the Spirit grieved. This was their relational work of grace; and nothing less and no substitutes could have consummated this relational consequence, which was necessary by its nature to overcome the relational consequence of sin. Furthermore, nothing less and no substitutes can constitute the family love involved in the relational process and relational conclusion of salvation. Therefore, though in a figurative sense the whole of God was broken, nevertheless the relational significance of this paradoxical moment was functionally specific to wholeness, that is, in order that we (necessarily both individually and corporately) will be whole in new relationship together with the veil no longer between us.
This is how the whole of God indeed “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” Nicodemus apparently would understand this more deeply from this ultimate salvific discourse than he understood from Jesus’ first discourse with him about salvation (see him after Jesus’ death, Jn 19:38-39).
If we understand whole-ly the relational significance of the Son’s relational pain from being forsaken by the Father, this goes beyond relational rejection to the deeper relational condition of being apart from the whole of God. In this sense, what is taken away from the wholeness of the Trinity affects the wholeness of each trinitarian person. Not only are they no longer in each other but they are not one—whole. To be forsaken or to forsake is to be separated from this dynamic whole. Certainly the mystery of this pivotal moment has no ontological understanding; God never stopped being God. And there is also the paradoxical aspect of the Son declaring he will not forsake us as orphans apart from the whole of God’s family (Jn 14:18), who is now himself separated from this whole. Yet, the relational significance of this both signifies the dynamic whole of the Trinity as well as establishes the means for relationship necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. This is the whole of the relationship of God that Jesus not only prayed for his followers to have (Jn 17:20-23), but also paid the cost for the redemptive change necessary to be adopted into his family, and further provided his Spirit to help us grow in this experiential reality and ongoingly function to mature in his new wine family in wholeness together.
As the whole of God’s salvific action nears fulfillment, Jesus’ qualitative relational involvement remained fully embodied in the historical context of the cross. What transpired necessarily involved his whole person, just as indicated in Hebrew Scripture (Jn 19:24,28,36,37). After the heartbreaking interaction, Jesus made this evident in his next statement.
Fifth Statement: “I am thirsty” (Jn 19:28).
John’s Gospel began with the eternal state of Jesus the Christ as the Word who was always God (Jn 1:1-2, contrary to Arianism). When the whole of the Word became flesh also, Jesus the Christ became fully human while still fully divine to constitute his whole person (Jn 1:14, contrary to Apollinarianism). In this expanded Christology (beyond the Synoptic Gospels) the evangelist’s narrative included this part of Jesus’ salvific discourse. With the words in this statement, we are reminded that Jesus’ person was also human. Yet, this brings us face to Face with his full humanity and the human toll involved in his action necessary for salvation. This “I am” is the counterpart to the other “I am” statements the evangelist developed in this Gospel for a more complete Christology (see Jn 6:35,51; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7,11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). In conjoint function, these “I am” statements are his relational work of grace fulfilling God’s thematic action and the Face’s definitive blessing for new relationship together in wholeness.
Jesus’ thirst was not merely the dehydration from physical exertion and trauma, but more importantly points to the depletion of his full humanity completely extended in intense vulnerable involvement in his relational path. This thirst signified that his relational work of grace was both the divine action of his deity disclosing the whole of God and also the relational involvement of his full humanity; and this conjoint function cannot be diminished in either function without reducing Jesus’ whole person for an incomplete Christology. Any reduction of Jesus’ whole person has theological and functional implications for soteriology, resulting in fragmenting what Jesus saved us from or saved us to, or both, thus a truncated soteriology. Such reductionism is always consequential for relationships, whether it is relationship together with God or within Christ’s church as family, or both.
In these fourth and fifth statements of his discourse, we are openly exposed to (even confronted by) this functional picture of Jesus’ whole divine-human person: He who was vulnerably present, intimately involved and completely fulfilling the whole of God’s thematic relational action of grace only for new covenant relationship together.
Thus, “when he had received the drink, Jesus said….”
Sixth Statement: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).
“Finished” (teleo, complete, not merely ending it but fulfilling it to its intended conclusion), that is, his relational work for redemption to free us from the old and its relational significance “to be apart” from the whole of God (ultimate death). With these words, his ultimate salvation discourse was being brought to a close. Essentially all had been said and done, except for the concluding chapter in the history of salvation by the whole of God’s thematic relational action responding to the human relation condition.
As Jesus completed his redemptive work for the original covenant (cf. Ex 24:8 and Mk 14:24), the transition to the new conjointly begins. In Luke’s Gospel, the evangelist is concerned about a gospel accessible to all, thus he narrated the temple being reconstituted for the new covenant (Lk 23:44-45). Mark and Matthew’s Gospels also included the temple curtain event (Mk 15:38, Mt 27:51), yet they appeared to include this only as part of the narrative detail of events during the crucifixion without pointing to its relational significance (cf. Ex 26:31-33, Heb 10:19-20). Luke apparently changed the order of this event to precede and thus directly connect with this closing statement in Jesus’ salvific discourse—no doubt in further emphasis of Luke’s concern for an accessible gospel for all, which the relational significance of the torn temple curtain constitutes and Jesus’ next and last words both point to and will consummate.
Seventh Statement: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
With his final words in this ultimate salvific discourse, Jesus engaged the furthest and deepest in the trinitarian relational context and process. This relational cry to his Father contrasted with his earlier scream from relational pain (fourth statement), yet these cries for relationship were also conjoined in the mystery of the relational dynamic enacting the Trinity’s salvific work of grace.
Jesus said, “I commend” (paratithemi, to entrust, i.e. to relationally entrust) “my spirit” (pneuma, signifying the very core of his person), yet his relational language did not compose a dualism here implying he did not entrust his body; rather, he entrusted his whole person. His last words evidenced the submission of his whole person for relationship together in the transitional journey to complete the redemptive work of the old and to raise up the new. By his intimate involvement in this vulnerably present and ongoingly involved relational context and process of the Trinity, Jesus was fully constituted in the final salvific action necessary for this ultimate relational conclusion: the resurrection and the birth of the new creation in the new covenant relationship together as family constituted in and by the Trinity, which the Spirit ongoingly transforms from the old to the new and brings to maturity for the eschatological completion.
Immediately after Jesus’ discourse, various responses from those who witnessed his death were recorded (Mk 15:39-40, Mt 27:54-55, Lk 23:47-49). By the nature of his ultimate salvific discourse, however, compatible relational response back to the whole of Jesus is necessary (dei) for the experiential truth and relational reality of this new covenant relationship together. This nothing-less-and-no-substitutes relational response is thus irreducible and nonnegotiable, just as Jesus vulnerably embodied and intimately involved his whole person only for this relationship together to be whole with the veil removed—the new wine relationship of God’s whole family. His ultimate salvific discourse is a summary of the relational words that the Father makes imperative not only to “listen to my Son” but also to relationally respond to the whole of the Word embodied for nothing less and no substitutes.
What we hear and see from this cross are not only about Jesus and sacrifice. This view of the cross cannot be distinguished through a narrow lens that reduces the complete context and process of Jesus’ involvement. This narrow lens was used by the first criminal to see Jesus in a reduced way and consequently to seek salvation (deliverance) merely from his negative circumstances. As Jesus further involved his whole person in the third statement, he defined what he saves us to, which the first criminal ignored and could not understand because he was predisposed by his reductionist lens. Yet many Christians are also predisposed with a similar narrow lens and thereby can just view the cross essentially as the first criminal without whole-ly understanding what they are saved to. There is no forgiveness in relational terms (statement 1), however, unless it emerges from the relational consequence of the depth of Jesus’ agape involvement (statement 4) to constitute the relational outcome for statements two and three to be the experiential truth of this relational reconciliation in God’s whole family.
The Lord’s Supper cannot partake of this view of the cross without participating in this view from the cross. The Lord’s Supper, on the one hand, celebrates Jesus’ agape involvement, which cannot be narrowed down to partaking of quantitative symbols of the quantitative aspects of Jesus’ sacrifice. More deeply significant then, on the other hand, the Lord’s Supper is participating in the qualitative relational involvement of Jesus’ agape action, and therefore having communion (intimate relational connection) together person to person, heart to heart as God’s family—the relational outcome ‘already’ of statement three. Anything less and any substitutes for engaging Jesus’ whole person in his deep relational involvement is to engage merely in ritual flashback of his sacrifice, and therefore not to be involved with Jesus in his vulnerable relational path on the cross. When Paul instructed the church on its communion practice, his relational language focused on the relational distance in their gatherings; the relational consequence simultaneously fragmented the new wine communion instituted by Jesus and countered the relational involvement embodied by Jesus to compose the new covenant relationships together necessary to be his church family (1 Cor 11). For Paul, to have relational distance in the Lord’s Supper is to participate “in an unworthy manner” that nullified “the new covenant in my blood” (11:25-27).
The set of words and actions communicated in relational language by Jesus on the cross define the whole who and determine the what of the cross, and how it was composed and why. The depth of God’s whole relational action and dynamic of love constitute the integral relational context and process for sacrifice and make conclusive the relational outcome of atonement for persons and relationships together to be the whole and holy God’s family. This new view of the cross, however, makes relationally imperative Jesus’ intrusive relational path in the new wine relationships without the veil, and therefore holds us accountable—the who and what God seeks—for this ongoing vulnerable involvement in our theology and practice in order to be congruent with the view from the cross. Our relational distance is no longer acceptable and cannot distinguish the ontology and function unfolded on and from the cross. Who and what did not end with the cross but rise to be followed in compatible reciprocal relationship in nothing less and no substitute of whole ontology and function.
The theological task may not always start out with a focus on discipleship—which is unfortunate since this puts ‘the cart before the horse’—yet that is its essential engagement if its outcome is distinguished with theological significance. In the age of reductionism, for the theological task to be in relational terms it must by the nature of its relational epistemic process be engaged in the relational context and process of discipleship. That is, to be distinguished the theological task follows the whole who of the cross in his intrinsic relational path of vulnerable involvement; this is inseparable from the theological trajectory distinguished fully in its process. If not on this basis, the theological task is engaged by default down to referential terms, the limits of which render theology and practice fragmentary, in reduced ontology and function of both God and us.
This default position and epistemic limits were evident in the struggles of Peter’s theological task, despite having started out with discipleship, that is, based on his narrow understanding of who to follow. Hence, Jesus made conclusive in his last words to Peter implied in his relational language: “your discipleship will be determined by the depth of your agape relational involvement with me and my family—in the primacy of relationship together and not the secondary of serving and sacrifice” (Jn 21:15-22). The primacy of discipleship could be confused with the secondary since earlier Jesus identified himself as “the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). Yet, as in John 15:13, tithemi defines putting one’s person in the vulnerable dynamic of agape involvement; in the shepherd metaphor this explains why the sheep know him (Jn 10:2-16). To follow Jesus is to be agape relationally involved with him on his vulnerable relational path (“where I am,” Jn 12:26). Nothing less and no substitutes unfold in the relational outcome of whole theology and practice, which Peter eventually learned the hard way in the early formation of the church.
In their time together even leading up to the cross, Jesus clearly defined for his followers who to follow, what to follow and how. When he disclosed the imminence of his death, his relational language was not focused on sacrifice but distinguished between what was primary and secondary (Jn 12:23-27). It was in the primacy of relationship with his Father that Jesus made definitive his discipleship in the primacy of relationship together—contrary to discipleship in the rabbinic tradition—and thereby conclusively distinguished this relational involvement from the secondary of serving (v.26). Though serving is not unimportant, the servant model illuminates neither Jesus with the Father nor his followers with him (Jn 15:15). What determines this involvement in the primacy of these relationships is entirely by the depth of agape in relational involvement, not in sacrifice and serving. The immeasurable depth of agape involvement intimately manifests between the Father and the Son, “As the Father has loved me,” and then proportionately overflows between Jesus and his followers, “so I have loved you” (Jn 15:9). Only agape involvement flowing from the whole of God in the primacy of relationship together constitutes his followers (“that they may be one, as we are one…and have loved them even as you have loved me,” Jn 17:22-23), and on this relational basis alone distinguishes his followers (“Just as I have loved you…by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have agape relational involvement with one another” Jn 13:34-35). Note that even as Jesus makes definitive the vulnerable relational process of the relational path to follow him, Peter asked for information to process in his theological task (v.36, cf. 21:20-22).
In contrast and even conflict with the limits of serving and sacrifice, therefore, Jesus clearly distinguished his followers by two relational imperatives of discipleship which can only be whole-ly understood in relational terms: (1) “follow my whole person in the primacy of relationship” (Jn 12:26) based entirely on (2) “remain, dwell, abide (meno) vulnerably in the intimacy of my agape relational involvement with you that flows from the Father” (Jn 15:9). These relational imperatives make unavoidable the primary engagement of the theological task in the vulnerable relational path of Jesus, and not just with his theological trajectory. The relational outcome of discipleship is the emergence ‘already’ and the ongoing unfolding of whole ontology and function in relational likeness to the whole and holy God, which is based not on mere knowledge about God but on the agape relational involvement (Jn 17:23,25-26). Likewise, the relational outcome of whole theology and practice is based on just this agape relationship.
Yet, the experiential truth of relational involvement with the whole and holy God is distinguished only when discipleship is clearly distinct from the influence and shaping from human contextualization (the common or ordinary usage distinct from the uncommon, holy). When his followers receive the communicative word from God in relational language, they are distinguished from the world and its prevailing referential language, “just as I am not of the world” (17:14). This discipleship is crucial for the theological task to have the relational outcome of whole theology and practice. The whole and holy God’s communicative word in relational language is the experiential truth that makes Jesus’ followers distinct from the common and ordinary of human contextualization, and thus distinguishes them in the world with their whole ontology and function “just as you Father sent me into the world, so I have sent our family into the world” (17:17-18). And with the relational outcome ‘already’ of the whole theology and practice of his family in relational likeness of the Trinity, “the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v.23).
Without discipleship in the primacy of agape relational involvement together in the whole and holy God’s family, the relational outcome of whole theology and practice does not emerge and ongoingly unfold. Anything less and any substitutes in the age of reductionism are insufficient to distinguish theology and practice from the common shaping of human contextualization, and are unable to prevent their fragmentation by reductionism and its counter-relational work. This default position in referential terms yields only a referential outcome in reduced ontology and function of both God and us. Theological discourse in referential language can be rigorous, eloquent and profound, but when in relational language there is a qualitative distinction of the relational messages it communicates (without the quantity of words) in significance to the whole and holy God and for the whole ontology and function of God’s family—the critical difference between the quantitative outer in and the qualitative inner out. Theological discourse in referential language speaks to “the wise and learned” whom Jesus critiqued consistently for their narrow epistemic field and limited engagement (Lk 10:21; 17:20-21; Jn 5:37-40). Theological discourse in relational language speaks to the vulnerable heart of a “child”; this is not just about the relational nature of faith but integrally also involves what is human ontology in the qualitative image of God and human function in God’s relational likeness.
“The discipleship you use will be the ontology and function you get, both as a person and persons together as church.”
The primary motivation underlying the discipleship of many is the pursuit of self-determination (even unknowingly or inadvertently); and this implicit condition is difficult to recognize since it is constructed by epistemological illusion (e.g. in Bible study, Jn 5:39) and ontological simulation (e.g. in worship, Mt 15:8-9). Self-determination, notably as engaged both in church and academy, is consequential for human ontology and function in two primary, and unavoidable, ways:
For any success in self-determination for the person and the church, the need to control the results is critical. This control necessitates a shift to the secondary and away from the primacy of agape relational involvement that goes deeper than what one can control. This focus on the secondary makes the person and the church susceptible to reductionism, rendering their results to the shape of fragmentary ontology and function from human context. In his struggles, Peter eventually shifted from the secondary to the primary for the whole ontology and function of the church (cf. 1 Pet 1:22-23; 2:9-10). Similarly, the church has struggled with the secondary throughout church history in its attempts to establish its ontology and function, consequently forming merely ecclesial or missional identities rather than its definitive ontological identity distinguishing the church in the world—the ontological identity made conclusive by Jesus in his formative family prayer (Jn 17:21-23).
In further discourse in relational language about the process of agape relationship for the person and persons together as his family, Jesus used the metaphor of the vine and the branches (Jn 15:1-8). The metaphor neither signifies a static state nor describes merely an organic condition, but only the relational context and process of God’s agape involvement as family together. “To abide or remain” (meno, 15:4-7) involves the dynamic process of reciprocal relationship together, with its reciprocating contextualization and triangulation to be whole, live whole and make whole in the human context (not be shaped by it)—the fruit of discipleship. This metaphor does not define an ontological union with God, or this union would be the deification of persons in an ontology and function that goes beyond the image and likeness of God to the ontology and function distinguishing God exclusively. Nor should this metaphor be considered the structural arrangement for God’s family; this structure would shift the church family to a more unilateral relationship in contrast and conflict with the relational imperative requiring the primacy of reciprocal relationship together in agape involvement—the reciprocal response to God’s relational terms that Jesus further defines in this context (15:9-11). Both the ontological union and the structural arrangement lenses (or variations) of Jesus’ metaphor narrow down his relational language to secondary interpretations that do not determine church ontology and function in the primacy of the primary. Even with good intentions, the results emerging from such lenses are limited to a church’s self-determination over the relational outcome unfolding from “the Father’s agape relational involvement with the Son, who extends this agape involvement with us to be God’s whole family, who extend agape involvement with each other and the world.”
Moreover, it is important to understand the experiential truth that in Jesus’ claim that seeing him was seeing the Father, he vulnerably disclosed in this twofold ontological and relational reality (ontological One and relational Whole) the importance of both what constitutes God’s triune being as well as what matters most to God. God’s self-disclosure embodied in Jesus was the who and what of the whole of God, and of how God only does relationships to be Whole. It is in this trinitarian relational context by this trinitarian relational process that the whole of God’s thematic action is extended in response to the human condition for relationship together as family in family love. While those who respond back cannot experience ontological oneness (heis eimi) with the whole of God, they can have in reciprocal relationship the experiential truth of relational oneness (en eimi) together with the Trinity. The experiential truth of en eimi with the Trinity unfolds in the relational outcome of Jesus’ formative family prayer; and this experiential reality composes the integral relational basis and ongoing relational base for Jesus’ followers to have heis eimi with each other together as his church for the ontological oneness to be whole in likeness of the Trinity (kathos, in congruence with the Trinity, Jn 17:21-23). The whole of Jesus embodied nothing less than who, what and how the whole of God is in his relational work of grace only for relationship together and to make relationships together whole, God’s whole on God’s terms. His formative family prayer constitutes his followers together in this qualitative relational significance that matters most to God. Therefore, his church lives ‘ontologically one’, heis eimi together, en eimi the relationships with each other necessary to function to be ‘relationally whole’ (“one”) in likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity.
These relational dynamics of God’s thematic response are critical to pay attention to as they converge for this distinguished relational outcome. The distinguished Face continued to turn to his family not only to bless but necessarily to challenge for the new relationship together in wholeness that distinguished his church. We need to look back into his face to understand this ontology and function of the church. Jesus’ composing for ecclesiology to be whole did not stop with the end of his formal earthly ministry; that was only the prelude. He had other defining interactions specific to his church, which can be considered his post-ascension discourse for the ecclesiology definitive for his church to be whole.
After the Spirit came to his church for its development and completion, the face of Jesus shined on Paul to engage him in relationship for his transformation and called him to be whole to clearly distinguish the church’s wholeness for the experiential truth of the gospel (Acts 9:1-16, Gal 2:11,14). Then Jesus challenged Peter’s perceptual-interpretive framework for making distinctions about persons/peoples, in order to redeem his bias in relationships which created barriers in his church preventing all persons from coming together in transformed relationships as God’s family without the veil (Acts 10:9-36; 15:7-9). In family love Jesus clarified the full significance of his relational work of equalization to establish the function of his church also as equalizer, and thereby the ecclesiology of the whole was being made definitive. Yet, what was formed (and reformed) theologically was not always made functional in practice, which was the reason Paul later had to chasten Peter in family love for him to practice the relationships together necessary to be whole as God’s church family congruent to the truth of the gospel.
Jesus’ post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology continued when his family love exposed reductionism in various church practices to hold them accountable for the integrity necessary to be whole as his church (Rev 2-3). The skewed emphasis of the secondary over the primary in churches was clearly evident in his post-ascension discourse. We need to continue this discourse started previously. Examining his discourse with these churches will help us fully understand the functional and relational significance of Jesus’ continued involvement in the ecclesiology needed for churches to be whole—God’s relational whole only on God’s qualitative relational terms.
Being whole always involves the issue of reductionism. That is because 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 (as defined in his formative family prayer, Jn 17). Without the reciprocating dynamic of this ek-eis relational involvement, church practice is functionally based on just en (in) the surrounding context and thereby shaped in its influence. This is problematic in function for the ongoing relational involvement with the whole of God and God’s terms to constitute the whole of who we are as church and whose we are.
Without the ongoing function of the reciprocating ek-eis relational involvement, there is no engagement of a culture’s life and practice in the surrounding context with the necessary process of reciprocating contextualization. In conjoint function with triangulation, reciprocating contextualization provides the relational process imperative for the qualitatively distinguished identity of a church to function in the surrounding context without being defined or determined by what prevails in that context. That is to say, without this reciprocating relational process in church practice, there is no consistent functional basis to negate the influence of reductionism. This leaves church practice susceptible to subtle embedding in the surrounding context, or engaging in ontological simulation and epistemological illusion, despite the presence of apparent indicators of important church practices illuminating its identity. This is illustrated in the various churches Jesus addressed, each notable for its own variation of church practice. The influence of reductionism is usually more subtle than witnessed in the Thyatira church (Rev 2:18-29, discussed previously). This is evident increasingly in the other churches Jesus addressed, as we look next at the church in Laodicea (3:14-22).
Laodicea was a rich city, the wealthiest Phyrygian city, ten miles west of Colossae. It was known as a prosperous banking center, for its textile industry and its renowned medical school. Their residents had great pride in their financial wealth, fine clothes and famous eye salve. But Laodicea lacked a natural water supply. Hot water was piped in from hot springs and cold water came from the mountains. Both were lukewarm by the time it reached Laodicea. Since hot water was preferred for bathing and cold for drinking, there were frequent complaints about their water as inconvenient to their exceptionally comfortable lifestyle. This background gives important context for Jesus’ discourse and helps us understand further the significance of his concern for ecclesiology to be whole.
To Jesus, how the church in Laodicea functioned was just like their water: lukewarm. Though tepid does suggest that their church practice was “hot” earlier, church life and practice was now comfortable, self-satisfied and complacent, essentially status quo of what prevailed (3:16). Their self-assessment reflected the perceptions of the surrounding city: that they were rich and had everything they needed (3:17a)—relatively speaking, of course, since the comparative process always makes such self-definition provisional. More importantly for those whose self-definition is based on what they do and have, Jesus addressed the illusion of those perceptions and exposed their reductionism (v.17b). They functioned in the epistemological illusion of reductionism, consequently their church practice was without functional substance and relational significance. For Jesus, their lukewarm practice was not only inconvenient but distasteful (“I am about to spit you out of my mouth”), which Laodiceans could readily identify with given their water condition. Moreover, their neither-cold-nor-hot practice was a lie of reductionism implying their fragmentary theological assumptions. First, there is no intermediate condition of church practice between being God’s whole as family or not, that defines its existence. Jesus held this church accountable for their integrity—even “cold” was better than a lie—which is how family love functions with its working assumption. Then there was the assumption of their theological anthropology that defined them by what they did and had, which determined their church practice. Both assumptions involve reduced ontology and function.
The Laodicean church practice should be familiar to Western churches, notably in the U.S. Yet, this is not merely about relative affluence and comfortable lifestyles. This is about the first major issue of what defines the person, and how this eventually determines how church practice functions. The surrounding context of Laodicea defined itself by what it did and had. The human person was perceived from the outer in, thereby functionally reducing the importance of the whole person from the inner out signified by the heart. In this quantitative process, both the importance of the whole person and the primary priority of whole relationship together are replaced by secondary areas of interest and concern. Substitutes are made for the functional substance of our heart and for the quality of our relationships. Substitutes involve any alternative that reduces the qualitative and functional significance of being whole as persons in relationship together. These substitutes from reductionism are what the church in Laodicea accepted (intentionally or inadvertently) from its surrounding context of the Greco-Roman world to determine its church practice, consequently creating the illusion (the epistemological illusion of reductionism) about the well-being of their existing condition. This false sense of self-understanding is ongoingly promoted, reinforced and developed by Satan, who encourages churches with Christian substitutes in ontological simulation (cf. 2 Cor 11:14-15)—which Jesus addressed further in two other churches.
While Jesus exposed the Laodicean church’s reductionist substitutes and deconstructed their illusion, he also extended further family love by making his whole person vulnerable to them for the redemptive change imperative in relationship together to be whole (3:18-19). He was clarifying for them that relationship together on God’s terms is incompatible with any reductionist practice. As family love always functions, he redefined them to pursue their whole persons from the inner out to be redeemed to come together in transformed relationships. This is signified in Jesus’ well-known words which followed—an intimate relational message of family love for his church, usually taken out of this context. The classic image of Jesus knocking at the door (v.20) is a metaphor of these deep desires of the whole of God to have intimate relationship with his family—signifying the new wine communion together. The change they needed, therefore, must (by its nature as signified in the Trinity) be a relational change transforming their practice from a mere gathering without relational belonging (church as orphanage) to whole persons intimately involved in relationships together as family (signified by “open door,” hearts coming together in intimate communion). This metaphor clearly illuminates that redemptive change is the relational imperative for his church.
This metaphor is helpful to locate the ongoing involvement of Jesus with his church: pursuing his followers for transformed relationships together as family with the veil removed. We cannot continue to reduce Jesus’ intimate relational message of family love for his church in this metaphor by perceiving it only for the individual, as is Christian convention. This metaphor of Jesus’ relational work of grace needs to be returned to its full context for use in ecclesiology. Therefore, the significance of Jesus still knocking should not be lost on even the most mature Christian because it is a relational key in Jesus’ involvement for ecclesiology to be whole (cf. 3:7-8). This metaphor functionally interacts with the metaphor of church as orphanage to make whole his church.
Any church practice “to be apart” continues to function with the veil. This misrepresents the gospel and is a contradiction of God’s desires specifically for the new creation family in likeness of the Trinity, which Jesus constituted earlier with his defining family prayer. Since what integrally reflects the life of the Trinity is church practice only in likeness of the Trinity’s relational ontology of intimate interdependent relationships as family, any alternative to the relationship of God’s whole always becomes church practice shaped as an orphanage, notably operating as an organization or as a voluntary association (cf. church in Thyatira and trade guilds). This either-or defining process is an ongoing tension for church practice. For churches to address the influence of reductionism, even in pragmatic practice, they need the presence of the whole, God’s whole. This is the whole that the relational function of the Trinity ongoingly provides as the church’s integral relational basis and ongoing relational base, by which Jesus knocks on church doors. Therefore, embracing the relational function of the Trinity emerges as the primary issue facing churches to define and determine how they will function both within themselves and in the world.
This relational issue was involved in two other churches Jesus addressed. The next church, the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-3), had “a reputation of being alive” apparently in the prevailing perception, although the city hosted many pagan cults whose practices pervaded the surrounding context. The implication here is that this church lived behind their “reputation” (onoma, used as the substitute of what a person actually is). Even with their reputation of being alive, Jesus made no such assumptions about them. Rather he examined how they functioned through the qualitative lens penetrating inner out with family love. Uninfluenced by the surrounding bias, he exposed what existed beneath the outer layer of “being alive”: “you are dead” (nekros, the condition of being separated from the sources of life, thus being unaccompanied by something) based on the fact that “I have not found your works complete in the sight of God”—that is, incomplete or fragmentary based on God’s terms, not as defined by the surrounding context. With the perceptual-interpretive framework Jesus makes definitive here for ecclesiology, their “works” (ergon, works denoting what defined them) were not “complete” (pleroo, to fill up, make full, complete or whole). In other words, what defined them was not whole. What was missing in their church practice?
Since no explicit sins such as idol worship and sexual immorality were mentioned (as in Thyatira), their incomplete deeds point to something more subtle or lacking. Their activity was perceived as alive, yet likely in the quantitative aspects of bios, not the qualitative function of zoe. Their reputation signified only a substitute (onoma) of the integral identity of who, what and how his church is, consequently lacking the integrity of wholeness. While Jesus’ polemic about soiled and white (leukos, bright, gleaming) clothes described those incomplete and a remnant who weren’t incomplete respectively, bright clothes symbolized those who participated in God’s life (3:4).This is about relationship and involvement together, which soiled clothes symbolized a barrier to, precluded or maintained with relational distance. Any type of “soiled” clothes—whether stained by blatant sin or dirtied from subtle incomplete work—would have this relational consequence. I conclude this all implies the following: their deeds were not whole because they were substitutes from reductionism; and they were not whole because what defined them was based on reductionist practices; thus how they practiced church was separated or distanced from the relational involvement of God’s life, unaccompanied by the vulnerable presence and function of the Trinity, because of their sin of reductionism—in what defined their persons and determined their relationships together, and thereby in how they practiced church.
The issue of not being complete and being whole started back at creation and the purpose to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). The Hebrew term for “fill” (male) generally denotes completion of something that was unfinished. When God declared “not good for human persons to be apart,” God started with Adam and Eve the relational context and process of the function to be God’s family. This was now fulfilled by Jesus—as he declared “I will not leave you as orphans” and sent us the Spirit for completion—in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love.
This relational context and process were not the primary function of the Sardis church’s involvement and ministry, so Jesus critiqued what they “filled their church” with, as he does all churches.
In spite of how well the Sardis church presented itself (its appearance) and how well it was perceived (its image), qualitative substance was lacking. This reflected a shift in how they defined themselves from the inner out to the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo). Their lack of deeper qualitative substance exposed the credibility of their reputation as essentially meaningless—though worth an image in comparative reductionists terms—while the validity of their work (apparent service and ministry) was relationally insignificant because they were separated (“to be apart”) from the substance primary to wholeness of life. These are severe critiques Jesus made of a church which at least was doing something to earn that reputation of being alive—unlike the Laodicean church’s lukewarmness. The choice essentially of style over substance is not unique to the church in Sardis. In fact, the distinction between style (for appearance and image) and substance is blurred in many current church practices. Yet, the credibility gap between what appears to be and what actually exists is not readily apparent to a church and observers, when a church relies on what it does to define itself. Reputation becomes one of those valued indicators of success which many churches depend on for feedback to evaluate their work—or value to validate their position in God’s kingdom. Jesus asks, “What are we filling our churches with?” The above is not the dynamic of pleroo that distinguishes the pleroma of Christ (as Paul illuminated, Eph 1:23).
Family love functions for the integrity of relationship together to be whole, and for accountability for anything less and any substitutes. Thus, Jesus’ critiques were ‘a critique of hope’ in his call to be whole—a functional key in his involvement for ecclesiology to be God’s whole. When Jesus confronted them to “wake up,” the sense of this two-word combination (gregoreuo and ginomai, v.2) is to emerge as new, whole persons. This was not about self-determination but redemptive change—the relational imperative. They needed to be transformed in the inner-out aspects and functions (metamorphoo) of a person, while being redeemed from the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo) that did not give full importance to the qualitative function of the whole person (signified only by the heart). Their outer-in over inner-out way of defining themselves determined what they paid attention to in how they did relationships and how they practiced church—which were not complete but fragmentary and thus without wholeness. This certainly diminished their relationships both with God and with each other, though they were unaware of this condition due to the simulation and illusion of reductionism that critically reduced their qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness; consequently they ignored the lack of qualitative relational substance.
With the lens of repentance by the function of family love, Jesus called them back to what they had “received” (lambano, v.3) in relationship from the beginning: his whole person, not just his teachings. As disclosed in John 1:12, lambano means to embrace and follow him as person-teacher—that is, be his disciples not as students in the rabbinic tradition but as adherents in relationship together in progression to be whole as God’s family, thereby pointing to his formative process in the ecclesiology necessary to be whole. In other words, Jesus called them back to be whole in the qualitative function of relational work inherent in who, what and how the Trinity is, and therefore who his followers are and what his church is: the whole of God’s family distinguished by whole relationship together. For nothing less and no substitutes of this relational reality, they needed to become transformed persons from the inner out who vulnerably engage in the relational work necessary to integrate equalized and intimate relationships together to be his church family in the new relational order.
The rigorous nature of this relational process makes church practice more susceptible to reductionism; church practice accordingly is also tempted to use the easier (also read pragmatic) alternatives of reductionist substitutes—notably with a less vulnerable shaping of relationship together. The lack of primary involvement in this definitive relational work for church practice becomes even more acute with the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-4).
Jesus consistently disclosed knowing these different churches’ “works” or deeds (ergon, what defined them). The list of the Ephesian church’s deeds is impressive: their “toil” (kopos, denotes not so much the actual effort but the weariness experienced from that effort); their “endurance” (hypomone, endurance as to things and circumstances, in contrast to patience toward persons; signifies character that does not allow losing to circumstances, cf. church in Thyatira); they maintained the doctrinal purity of the church under trying circumstances and did not tolerate falsehood, unlike the Thyatira church and its hybrid theology; they even suffered repercussions for Christ’s name and yet endured the hardships to remain constant in their faith. This list forms a composite picture describing how they were, what they did and were involved in, which essentially was extremely dedicated in major church work, and which can also describe a number of successful churches today.
Jesus knew not merely the information about their deeds but also knew (oida) the nature of them, and the extent of their functional significance. It may seem somewhat perplexing that Jesus was not impressed with this church and even felt to the contrary about their church practice: “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (v.4). As noted previously, if this was not Jesus’ own critique, we would easily discount this as a misguided conclusion or uninformed allegation. Yet, his discourse here for the integrity of ecclesiology raised a serious issue of church function, which is crucial to account for in how we practice church ourselves. His critique makes conclusive the very heart of his desires for ecclesiology to be whole.
The term “abandoned” (aphiemi) means to forsake, abandon persons, to leave, let go from oneself or let alone—which would include functionally maintaining relational distance even while in close physical proximity or in mutual activity. Aphiemi is the same term Jesus used in his promise to “not leave his followers orphaned” (Jn 14:18). Connecting these relational messages provides the context and process for the function of ecclesiology to be God’s whole. In the church context at Ephesus this strongly describes not paying attention to the whole person and not giving primary priority to whole relationship together. They worked hard doing things for God but the relational process necessary for their functional significance was deemphasized or misplaced in their effort. This often happens as churches develop and the goals of church growth become the priority of church practice. In the process, as the Ephesian church demonstrated, there is a subtle shift in which the means become the end and its primary purpose for relationship together to be whole is abandoned or made secondary.
As the term hypomone for “perseverance” denotes, they were so focused on circumstances and situations such that persons (especially God) unintentionally were ignored in relationship, inadvertently left in relational distance or emotionally forgotten. Their hypomone was in contrast to the Philadelphian church’s hypomone, which was a reciprocal relational response to Jesus’ desire (“you have kept my word”) for relationship together (3:8,10). What distinguished them from the Ephesian church was the latter’s referentialization of the Word. Enduring “for the sake of my name” (2:3) narrowed down “my name” to “name without my person,” that is, apart from relationship together. By “abandoning” their involvement in relationship together (however unintentional or inadvertent), their focus shifted to their persevering character of not giving in to bad circumstances. Thus, their endurance for the sake of “name without my person” also stands in contrast to makrothymia, which is patience, endurance, longsuffering with respect to persons; the former is about dedication in hard work (characteristic of the Ephesian church) while the latter involves relationship with mercy, grace and family love (cf. Mt 18:21-22, Rom 2:4).
Despite what would usually be defined as significant church practice reflecting sound ecclesiology, there was distance in their relationships leaving them in the condition “to be apart,” indicating a well-run orphanage and not ecclesiology of the whole. They did not have the relational involvement of family love, which is the only involvement having relational significance to God (cf. Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a priority over ministry to the poor, Mt 26:8-13, par. Jn 12:1-8). This is further evidenced by their reduction of the truth to mere doctrinal purity. They forgot that the Truth was vulnerably disclosed only for relationship together on God’s terms, which they were effectively redefining on their terms. Essentially, their referential terms reversed the priority order of Jesus’ paradigm for serving (Jn 12:26) that clearly defined the first priority of discipleship as intimate involvement in relationship together, not focused first on the work to be done for serving (diakoneo). Consequently, they also compromised their identity as the light, which is rooted in their relationship with the Light (Rev 2:5b, cf. Mt 5:14-15); this was also contrary to Paul’s relational imperative for the church to “live as children of light” (Eph 5:8). Since they focused primarily on what they did—indicating their theological anthropology in how they defined themselves—they paid attention to related situations and circumstances and less important issues, while ignoring the primacy of relationship together in family love. Functioning with this perceptual-interpretive framework of a reduced theological anthropology resulted in the relational consequences of forsaking their first love that reflected the lack of relational involvement in their church practice and signified their renegotiated ecclesiology.
This was the relational involvement Jesus called them to turn around and get back to for them to be whole: “Repent, and do the relational works you did at first” (2:5). Jesus was restoring their misplaced priorities and more deeply made discipleship definitive by further illuminating the relational significance of his paradigm for serving. This involved the first priority of discipleship, which is ongoing vulnerable involvement with Jesus in the relational progression to the whole of God’s family—the formative process in Jesus’ involvement for ecclesiology to be whole. His ecclesiology is the ongoing relational outcome of discipleship in this relational progression to the whole of God; and this by necessity vulnerably engages reciprocal relationship with the Trinity and conjointly is intimately involved in reciprocal relationships together as church family in likeness of the Trinity.
The basic complaint Jesus had against this church is the primary issue facing all churches for defining their ontology and determining how they will function: embracing the whole ontology and relational function of the Trinity, and embodying church practice in likeness of the Trinity’s relational ontology, therefore in congruence with and ongoing compatibility to Jesus’ defining prayer for his family (Jn 17:20-26). In all that the Ephesian church was doing (which was a lot), they were not directly involved in the relational context and process of the whole of God and did not function in the context of family and process of family love constituted in the Trinity. They demonstrated a direct correlation between the priority we give relationships and the extent to which we are loving, as defined by relational involvement, not as doing something, however dedicated. For Jesus, this correlation is irrefutable for ecclesiology to be whole. Whether Jesus’ complaint against this church included both their relationship with God and with each other is not clearly indicated in the text. Yet we can strongly infer that it included all their relationships, because their primary emphasis on their work reflected the three major issues ongoing in life: (1) how they defined themselves, which further determined (2) how they did relationships and thus (3) practiced church. These three major issues are always deeply interrelated, and also in integral interaction with the primary issue of the Trinity, noted above, thereby together they need to be accounted for in ecclesiology in order to be whole.
The practices of both the churches in Ephesus and Sardis were contradictions in function that reflect the subtle influence of reductionism. What they focused on and engaged in were reductionist substitutes for the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. The relational consequence was to become embedded in ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. Moreover, the relational function of the Trinity cannot be understood in theological propositions nor experienced in church doctrine, even in its purity. By reductionist practice, these churches demonstrated how their practice (“abandoned the love you had at first” 2:4) and their understanding (“a reputation of being alive,” 3:1) became decontextualized from what was primary, and embedded in human contextualization. In their ironic struggle to remain distinct in a pluralistic Greco-Roman context, the Ephesian church stopped paying attention to the greater context which defined them and distinguished their significance. In their effort to be significant (or popular) in their surrounding context, the Sardis church ignored the primary context which constituted them. That is, they were removed, diminished or deemphasized from the relational context and process of the Trinity and needed to be recontextualized in the relational nature of the Trinity. This is the function of reciprocating contextualization in the ek-eis relational involvement that Jesus made imperative to distinguish his family in the ecclesiology to be whole and to make whole. Without this reciprocating relational dynamic, church practice increasingly finds its functional basis only en (in) the surrounding context, in which reductionism prevails.
Whatever a church’s surrounding context may be, we can expect the prevailing influence of reductionism to affect the whole of church practice. It will, that is, unless there is the ongoing function of the reciprocating ek-eis relational involvement to definitively distinguish church purpose and function from beyond merely its position en the world. Jesus’ church’s purpose and function in the primacy of relationship together to be God’s whole necessitate nothing less and no substitutes for this whole, as the terms of God’s relational grace demand. Without function in the relational terms of grace in reciprocal relational involvement, reductionism is able to shift grace’s demand for nothing less and no substitutes than the whole in church practice to anything less and any substitute (cf. “Did God really say that?”). The shift entails the following: (1) This shift is qualitative, thus cannot be observed in quantitative terms, as the Thyatira church’s increased amount of “good deeds” demonstrated and the Laodicean church’s wealth, fine clothes and medicine illustrate; (2) This shift is ontological, away from the inner-out whole person, thus cannot be understood by an outer-in ontology of personhood, as evidenced by the Sardis church’s inability to understand its true condition; (3) This shift is relational, thus cannot be experienced in any other human activity than the primacy of intimate relationships together, as signified by the unawareness of the Ephesian church’s diminished experience in their level of relational involvement together.
As long as our perceptual-interpretive framework is narrowed down, for example, to referentialization, 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 relational demands of grace, however, clarify for church function that nothing less and no substitutes to be whole is the only practice which has significance to God. Additionally, the lens of repentance in integral 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. And Jesus wants “all the churches” to clearly “know that I am he who searches minds and hearts” (Rev 2:23)—that is, examines the qualitative significance of persons from inner out, whom he holds accountable for their integrity to be whole in relationships together 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, the Thyatira church forgot 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).
These churches were not unique in church formation and they cannot be considered exceptions in church history. Each church has a counterpart in the contemporary church that must be taken seriously because of Jesus’ critique for his church to be whole:
All these churches have in common what continue to be critical interrelated issues needing epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction: a weak view of sin not including reductionism, and a fragmentary theological anthropology reducing ontology and function.
It is not sufficient for churches to be a mere presence, or even merely to function, en the world; their only significance is to function ek-eis (whole relational movement into) the world both to be relationally involved with others as God’s whole and, by the nature of this whole function, also to confront all sin as reductionism of the whole. That is, the church’s whole ontology and function makes whole the human condition; the church does not reflect, reinforce or sustain it. Jesus communicates directly to us about the whole of ecclesiology in his discourse, and the relational message we need to learn to listen to and receive him in about the Thyatira church is clearly illuminated: to let pass, indifferently permit or inadvertently allow—“tolerate,” which the other churches also did more subtly—the influence of reductionism in any form from the surrounding context directly 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. For churches to get beyond practice merely en the world, they need a different dynamic to define their life and determine their practice.
By searching hearts Jesus communicates clearly to us that church function in its innermost is about being whole, not merely engaging in correct ecclesial practices. And the eis relational engagement of church ontology and function en the world must by its nature be integrated with the ek (movement out of) relational involvement with the whole of God as its defining antecedent in the ek-eis dynamic. 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 in the qualitative significance of the integrated ontology of both personhood and the church constituted in and by the Trinity, that is, only in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the Trinity.
In his relational discourse Jesus communicates a critical relational message to us that delineates a simple reality of life about the human person and the existing social order—matters we either pay attention to or ignore depending on our working assumptions of humanity and society. Since we do not live in a vacuum or in social isolation, our practice is either shaped by the surrounding context we are en (thus embedded) or constituted by what we enter eis that context with. In the latter function, for eis to define life and determine practice necessitates the ek relational involvement to disembed us from a surrounding context in order to transplant us into the whole of God’s relational context and process, hereby integrally constituting God’s whole for the eis relational movement back. This reciprocating relational process signifies the relational demands of grace compatible with the working assumptions with which Jesus came eis the world and his assumptions of humanity and the existing social order with which he engaged the world. On this basis, Jesus (as well as Paul) ongoingly challenges both our theological anthropology and our ecclesiology for the only purpose of wholeness.
For our practice both as person and persons together as church, disembedding from the influence of reductionism to transplant into God’s whole is the issue we need to understand in relational terms and not in conventional referential terms. Without the function of nothing less and no substitutes, which grace demands for person and church, wholeness is diminished and the whole is minimalized—that is, functionally no longer whole. For church practice to fulfill its divine purpose and function, it must account in its function for being relationally transplanted in the whole of God and God’s theological trajectory and relational path for its globalizing commission “sent to be whole” in integral relational function with its “call to be whole and holy” (as Jesus pointed the Thyatira church to, 2:26-29).
Jesus’ post-ascension discourse is not merely an addendum for his church; it is what in pre-ascension he vulnerably embodied with nothing less and no substitutes of the whole of God and ongoingly accounted for within the whole of God’s intimate response for whole relationship together. After his church had opportunity to establish its practice in his integrated call and commission, his relational message communicated in family love the critique of hope necessary for all churches also to embody in its practice the qualitative relational function to be God’s whole in likeness of the Trinity. Now in deeper reciprocal relational responsibility, his church is ongoingly accountable for the whole of God’s whole with compatible relational response back. And his post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology is clearly definitive for his church’s response to be whole as God’s new creation family, and for his church to live and make whole as equalizer for God’s new relational order in response to the human condition. His relational communication for ecclesiology composes church function—necessarily by the nature of the church’s whole ontology—only in relational congruence with his embodied function as the equalizer in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love, nothing less and no substitutes but the triune God’s irreducible whole on God’s nonnegotiable relational terms.
For the church to have this relational outcome in likeness of the Trinity, it has to emerge and flow from the redemptive change that constitutes the new wine relationships together in wholeness without the veil. As demonstrated by the inauguration of the new wine table fellowship (Lk 5:33-39), redemptive change requires an ontological and functional change from inner out that is distinguished from what shapes human contextualization. Paul continues this primary focus by making redemptive change functional for the church.
In the systemic framework of Paul’s theology, God’s creative and communicative actions are always relational actions only for whole relationship together. God’s relational action does not impose a template on the human person to reduce human function. By God’s relational nature, relationship is never unilateral but necessitates compatible reciprocal response and involvement. On this relational basis, Paul never assumed that the function of wholeness would simply emerge, nor did he leave wholeness’ function to the interpretation of human terms. Therefore, as Paul made definitive the integrated function necessary for wholeness, he also made imperative the ongoing redemptive change vitally necessary to turn from reductionism to wholeness, and transition to be whole, live whole and make whole—God’s irreducible relational whole on God’s nonnegotiable relational terms (Rom 12:1-2).
In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul provided the theological clarity for the whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition. Paul now concentrates on the functional clarity (building on his Galatians letter) necessary to function whole. Based on his theological discourse in the previous chapters, “therefore” (12:1), Paul issues to his family (“brothers and sisters”) a nonnegotiable call (parakaleo, “appeal to”) “to present” (paristemi) their persons to God in the necessary reciprocal relational response to God’s relational response of grace (“by the mercies of God”). What is this necessary reciprocal relational response?
A variation of this call was first issued to Abram: “I am El Shaddai, walk before me and be tamiym” (Gen 17:1). Just as Abraham was not reduced to being defined by the perfection of what he did (“blameless”), paristemi (“to present,” stand before) also should not be reduced to ‘what to do’ (i.e. “sacrifice”) according to religious norms (e.g., torah or a reduced popular gospel)—which would essentially be done in front of the curtain. Rather Paul’s call to paristemi was only about ‘how to be involved in relationship’ according to the whole gospel constituted by God’s relational response of grace that removes the veil. Then, “to present, stand before” God in what necessary way? How?
This involves the three basic interrelated issues integral for determining all practice:
These issues are implied in Paul’s discourse. In his nonnegotiable call, he is making definitive a further functional paradigm to extend his earlier functional paradigm of “holy and blameless.” This added paradigm is necessary both to be whole in reciprocal relationship with God and to live whole in transformed relationships together as God’s church family—which is a functional requisite to make whole in the world, just as Jesus prayed about relational wholeness together (Jn 17:21-23).
By defining the significance of the person presented with “your bodies as a living sacrifice,” Paul is expanding on his earlier discourse when he used a slave metaphor (Rom 6:13,16,19). Now he shifts to an offertory metaphor, yet the significance of human ontology from inner out is the same for the person presented, involving the whole person (“present yourselves,” 6:13,16) which includes all the outer parts of the body (“present your members,” 13,19). The relational dynamic is vital to understanding the integrity of the person presented and the quality of what that person communicates by the sacrifice (thysia). The act of sacrificing tends to be perceived as presenting some part of what we have or some aspect of what we do, thus communicating to God some fragmentary quantity from the presentation of our person, that is, whose integrity has been reduced. While this type of thysia is compatible with the conventional servant paradigm prevailing in Christian practice, it is not compatible with the relational paradigm to be whole in reciprocal relationship with God that Paul is making functional (cf. Jesus’ paradigm for serving, Jn 12:26). In Paul’s theology of wholeness, thysia is only a function of whole relationship together and this reciprocal relational act cannot be reduced to a secondary function like sacrifice.
The depth level of involvement with God in relationship is contingent on who is presented before him and what is communicated to him. Nothing less than the whole person and no substitutes for the qualitative function of the heart are significant to the whole of God or compatible with God’s whole function (“…holy and acceptable to God”). In Paul’s call, this relational dynamic is reasonable, rational and logical (logikos), not a template imposed unilaterally by God for adulation (“worship”). By its very nature, only this dynamic constitutes what is involved and thus necessary in the function of wholeness (cf. Col 3:9-10). A reductionist interpretive framework (old phronema) with a quantitative mindset (old phroneo) turns this thysia into ‘what to do’, signifying the presentation of a person defined from outer in, rather than the call to ‘how to be involved in relationship together’ by the whole person uniquely from inner out, communicating and involved by the qualitative function of the heart. This is the ongoing tension and conflict reductionism generates with being whole and the function of wholeness in order to diminish its significance to fragmentary terms and to substitute ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. Paul also addressed this opposing dynamic in his call.
The quantitative ‘appearance of things’ (without qualitative substance) conforming to templates of the world is the norm in human contextualization shaped or constructed by human terms on the basis of human ontology from outer in; this essentially signifies the human condition. The limited knowledge and understanding gained from what only appears reasonable, rational and logical for further knowledge and understanding are the ongoing lure of reductionism pervading the epistemic process of theological cognition, the kosmos, and human life and function. By its nature, this reductionist process necessitates God’s whole to expose, deal with and make whole the influence of reductionism on God’s offspring and family (cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15). Paul thus provides the functional key to address reductionism by making it imperative to directly deal with the issue by a two-fold process in conjoint function.
Furthermore, this inner out change necessarily involves “the renewing of your minds.” The term anakainosis (from anakainoo) involves the process and work of restoring something back to a new condition. This change needs to include the basic change of making new (anakainoo) their mindset (phroneo, i.e. their lens determining what they pay attention to or ignore) and its perceptual-interpretive framework (phronema, i.e. the basis for their lens)—changing from a quantitative phroneo and reduced phronema to the qualitative phroneo and whole phronema of God’s qualitative-relational whole, the phroneo and phronema constituted exclusively by the Spirit (Rom 8:5-6). This signifies the ontological change which turns from the outer in of syschematizo and metaschematizo to the inner out of metamorphoo. In other words, anakainoo is nonnegotiable and cannot be partial, selective or some hybrid because “to make new” is to be made whole in human ontology restored to the qualitative image of God and in human function restored to the relational likeness of God (cf. Col 3:9-10; 2 Cor 5:16-17; Eph 4:23-24).
Taking this process deeper for God’s family, Paul provides this functional paradigm to engage the relational dynamic necessary for the process of redemptive change to wholeness, the change which he clarified theologically in Romans 6. This integrated functional-relational paradigm in conjoint function fully embodies the involvement of God’s family from inner out to be compatible for the experiential truth of the whole of God’s relational context and process for whole relationship together. One relational outcome of this experiential reality is the relational involvement necessary “to test, discern, distinguish and affirm” (dokimazo) the intimate (“good and well-pleasing”) and complete (teleios) desires (thelema) of God. In no other context and by no other process is the whole of God vulnerably disclosed; thus nothing less and no substitutes than the whole person presented at the depth level of vulnerable involvement in God’s relational context and process can constitute God’s family in the transformed relationships together necessary to be whole. As Paul illuminates this wholeness imperative clearly in relationship with God, he extends his dialogue for this wholeness to be definitive in relationship together in the church, “which is his body, the pleroma of him who completes all in pasin [the whole]” (Eph 1:23). The only existing alternative is reductionism.
Paul’s nonnegotiable call to his family was simply nothing other than the relational call to be whole, congruent with Jesus’ call to his followers first and foremost to be whole. And congruent further with Jesus’ prayer for this wholeness for his family (Jn 17:20-26), Paul prayed for the church family (Eph 3:14-19). This was the qualitative significance and relational nature of his theology of wholeness embodied in Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path. This integral theology illuminated from inner out (“has shone in our hearts”) the whole knowledge and understanding of the qualitative being and relational nature of the whole of God (“to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”) vulnerably revealed relationally “in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), the pleroma of God (Col 1:19), of whom were created human ontology in the qualitative image and human function in the relational likeness (Acts 17:28; Col 1:15-16), and by whom human persons are restored to whole ontology and function (Col 2: 9-10; 2 Cor 3:18; 5:17), nothing less and no substitutes (Gal 6:15; Col 3:9-11). Therefore, what Jesus constituted in the incarnation of his own person and, likewise, constituted for our persons (both individually and collectively) by his incarnation is the irreducible and nonnegotiable dynamic of wholeness: the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes for all life and function that holds them together in their innermost.
Yet, for the church to experience the reality of this relational outcome of wholeness in its theology and practice required unavoidably and inescapably the ‘old’ in itself—notably its worldview-interpretive framework and mindset-interpretive lens—to die before the new creation relational framework and lens with the veil removed could emerge. This redemptive change is the relational outcome of reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit, which Paul also made definitive theologically and imperative functionally.
What clearly emerges from ongoing relationship together with the Spirit is the functional wholeness that is incompatible, incongruent and discontinuous with reductionism pervading human context, as Paul clarified functionally and theologically (Gal 6:14-16; Rom 8:6). When Paul boasts of the cross of Christ through whom he has been crucified to human contextualization (“to the world,” Gal 6:14), the soma of the pleroma of God and the pneuma of the whole of God are integrated and resurrected for the whole embodying of the new creation. That is, this is the embodying in qualitative zoe (not quantitative bios) and wholeness (“life and peace,” Rom 8:6), in which the Pneuma inseparably dwells also in mortal soma for whole relationship together as God’s family (Rom 8:11, 14-16; cf. Eph 2:22). The theological dynamics Paul illuminates have only functional significance for this relationship together (Eph 2:18). Apart from the function of relationship and its relational embodiment Paul’s theological clarity has no significance, both to God and to human persons for the fulfillment of the inherent human relational need and the resolution of its relational problem (Eph 2:14-16). The Spirit is present and relationally involved for the whole ontology and function necessary for the ongoing relationship together to be God’s whole—the embodying as the pleroma of Christ ‘already’ in relational progression to its completion in the relational conclusion ‘not yet’ (1 Cor 12:13; cf. Jn 7:37-39).
The Spirit’s relational involvement notably emerges in the resurrection, in which the Spirit’s dynamic interaction also involves us wholly (soma and pneuma) to be embodied in the new creation (new person, new life, new covenant, Rom 8:11). Involvement together in this relational process is also defined by Paul as being baptized in the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13; cf. Mt 3:11; Acts 1:5; 11:16). The theological dynamic of baptism is complex and mysterious but the relational process involved is uncomplicated yet rigorous: death to the old and raising of the new (Rom 6:3-8). Being baptized with the Spirit makes functional the redemptive change from reduced ontology and function (consequential of the sin of reductionism) necessary for the emergence of whole ontology and function (cf. Ti 3:5). The relational outcome of this relational process is the redemptive reconciliation of whole persons embodied in relationship together as the new creation family of God (Col 1:19-22; Eph 2:14-22)—“baptized into one body” without false human distinctions from reductionism (1 Cor 12:13). This zoe, the embodying of the new creation, emerges specifically from the relational work of the Spirit (Rom 8:11; 2 Cor 3:6; cf. Jn 6:63; Rom 8:6)—“we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13; cf. Jn 7:38-39). On this basis, Paul declares unequivocally: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him…. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom 8:9,14); furthermore, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). Therefore, the experiential truth of the theological dynamics of wholeness, relational belonging and ontological identity functionally emerge from reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit for their experiential reality.
The dynamic interaction of the Spirit and the pleroma of God always constitutes ontology and function in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. Accordingly, the reciprocal relational involvement by the Spirit is neither with only the human pneuma nor with just the human soma. Such involvement would create a duality which fragments the person. Human soma without pneuma is a critical condition because it is a reductionism focused on the outer in that the person cannot distinguish unequivocally from sarx, consequently is rendered to the sin of reductionism notably in ontological simulation (as discussed earlier about Paul’s polemic beyond the situation to the underlying reductionism in 1 Cor 6:12-20). Likewise, human pneuma apart from involvement of soma becomes disembodied, which is also a reductionism focused on a subjective part of a person, not the whole person qualitatively integrated from inner out. The focus of such a person cannot distinguish from subjectivism, esoteric individualism or self-centered separatism—as often found in spiritualism, mysticism and asceticism—thus rendered to the sin of reductionism notably in epistemological illusion (cf. Paul’s polemic about reductionism in spiritual practice disembodied from the church in 1 Cor 14). The Spirit is relationally involved only with the whole person (soma and pneuma inseparably) from inner out signified by the function of the heart and embodied in the primacy of relationship together (2 Cor 1:22; Gal 4:6; Rom 5:5; 8:16; Eph 1:17-18; 3:16-19). Additionally, the Spirit’s relational involvement with the whole person from inner out includes both the person’s mindset (phroneo, Rom 8:5) and its basis, the person’s perceptual-interpretive framework (phronema, 8:6). In this involvement, the Spirit transforms quantitative phroneo and reduced phronema and composes the qualitative phroneo (interpretive lens) in its whole phronema (interpretive framework). Both of these changes are necessary for the Spirit to embody persons in qualitative zoe and wholeness together (“life and peace”), and to function ongoingly in this new embodiment (1 Thes 5:19,23; 2 Thes 2:13; Rom 15:16).
Paul is clear about the experiential truth of the Spirit’s relational involvement. Yet, it is important for his readers to understand that by God’s relational nature the Spirit is involved in reciprocal relationship, not unilateral relationship. The Spirit’s reciprocal relational involvement implies a necessary compatible reciprocal relational response to and involvement with the Spirit—not as contingency limiting God’s relational nature but as the condition/terms for relationships together according to God’s relational nature (cf. Paul’s conditional sense in Phil 2:1; 2 Cor 13:13). Therefore, in relation to the Spirit, Paul always assumes the presence of the Spirit (e.g. 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 1:21-22; Gal 5:5), but he does not assume that the Spirit has the opportunity to engage in reciprocal relational involvement and work, as he implies in his ongoing relational imperative (not moral imperative) “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thes 5:19). Certainly, the Spirit can and does act unilaterally; yet his primary concern and function is in reciprocal relational involvement with persons who “belong to Christ” (Rom 8:9) to extend and complete the whole relationship together constituted by the embodied pleroma of God—all of whom the Spirit also raised up together in order to functionally embody the pleroma of Christ as Jesus’ relational replacement.
This is the depth and breadth of the Spirit’s relational involvement with persons belonging to Christ, and the likeness of involvement necessary from those persons to be compatible, congruent and continuous in reciprocal relationship together with the Spirit. The dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes constitutes the ontology and function of the Spirit and needs to constitute the ontology and function of those in whom the Spirit dwells. In Paul’s theological forest, anything less and any substitutes of the Spirit’s ontology and function are an immature pneumatology still undeveloped and needing to be whole; anything less and any substitutes of human ontology and function are a deficient theological anthropology, the assumptions of which for Paul always need to be challenged in order to be made whole. That wholeness, however, is made functional solely by the relational dynamic of pleroma pneumatology.
In the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, the relational involvement of the Spirit’s whole ontology and function makes functional the theological dynamics of wholeness integrated with relational belonging and ontological identity for the experiential truth of their embodiment in those belonging to Christ. The emergence of the new (wine) identity for these persons is functionally constituted only by the reciprocal relational work of the Spirit; human terms from human contextualization cannot establish the identity formation of who they are with Christ and whose they are in Christ (Rom 8:9-11). Paul is definitive that this identity is not formed by a social process but by the relational dynamic of the Spirit in reciprocal relationship together (Rom 8:12-17; Gal 5:16-26). The new creation identity constituted in this relationship together as family is neither a static condition nor a contextual characteristic, but a dynamic process of relationship together necessitating by its nature ongoing reciprocal relational involvement with each other without the veil. Paul also describes this reciprocal response as “we are debtors” (opheiletes from opheilo, Rom 8:12), that is, not in human terms and contextualization but to God’s favor (indebted to a benefactor). Yet, opheiletes in this context should not be reduced to an obligation (opheilo) to fulfill. Paul is not defining an ethical mandate but illuminating, by the nature (dei, not opheilo) of God’s relational response of grace, the reciprocal relational response necessary for whole relationship together. Moreover, when Paul further defines this reciprocal response by “Live by the Spirit” and “are led by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16,18), he is also not defining a moral imperative for our conduct (outlined in 5:19-24). Rather this is another relational imperative by which he further illuminates the reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit necessary for functionally constituting the new identity distinguishing who we are with Christ and whose we are in Christ (5:25).
What this reciprocal involvement with the Spirit constitutes is the ontological identity and embodying of God’s new creation (Gal 5:6; 6:15; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:10-11; cf. 2 Cor 3:17-18). Just as pneuma and soma are inseparable for the whole ontology and function emerging from the Spirit’s involvement, ontological identity and embodying of the new creation are also inseparably integrated for the wholeness made functional by the Spirit (examine Paul’s relational connections: 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-28; 4:6-7; Rom 8:14; 12:5; Col 3:15; Eph 2:14,18,22). And this ontological identity and embodying of the new creation are integrally based on the functional reality of relational belonging to God’s family as definitive daughters and sons, the experiential truth of which only emerges from the reciprocal relational involvement of the Spirit (Eph 1:13-14; 2 Cor 1:21-22; Rom 8:14-16; Gal 4:6-7). Without the Spirit’s reciprocal involvement and relational work, this identity and new creation are rendered, at best, to only ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of wholeness—simulation of whole relationship together with illusions of the whole of God (Gal 6:16; Col 3:15; cf. Rom 12:3-5; 1 Cor 3:21-22).
‘The veil’ is a defining issue for both the church and academy in their theology and practice. The relational outcome of whole theology and practice does not emerge and cannot unfold until “the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:16). This primary outcome (usually ignored as secondary) is a necessary aspect of the transformation from inner out (metamorphoo) constituted by the whole of God (Lord and Spirit inseparably) in reciprocal relationship, so that we are changed into whole relationship together without the veil in relational likeness of the triune God (3:17-18). Theologically, only the whole of God removes the veil (periaireo, to take away, abandon). Yet, functionally in reciprocal relationship, we also are accountable for our compatible response “to abandon the veil” for vulnerable agape relational involvement together as God’s whole family. The veil is a nonnegotiable contingency for the relational outcome of whole theology and practice.
As Jesus decisively exposed in the church at Ephesus (Rev 2:4), the relational path that the church operates on will define its ontology and function, which will determine whose likeness the church lives in. This is the reality also for the academy determined by the likeness of its God.
Jesus’ defining statement “the measure you use will be the measure you get” (Mk 4:24) was not expressed as a propositional truth, though it should be paid attention to with that significance. More importantly, his relational language communicated this relational statement that is directly connected to his relational imperative “Pay attention to the words you hear from me”; this extends the Father’s relational imperative “listen to him” (Mt 17:5)—the embodied Word from God. Later, while everyone was amazed at what Jesus did, he qualified these relational imperatives to listen to the Word with the use of tithemi (to set, put one’s person, Lk 9:44, cf. “lay down one’s life,” Jn 15:13, discussed previously). In referential language tithemi would be about putting Jesus’ words “into your ears” (NRSV) to complete the transmission of information. Yet, in this context his disciples did not understand his words (i.e. have a frame of reference, aisthanomai, 9:45, cf. Heb 5:14) even though Jesus said tithemi. Why? Because Jesus’ words are in relational language that cannot be recognized, perceived, understood (aisthanomai) to distinguish his relational words without the interpretive framework of his relational language (cf. Jn 8:43). The disciples only heard referential words to put in their ears which had no significance to them. They did not put their whole persons into the relational involvement necessary for the relational epistemic process to have the hermeneutic to understand Jesus’ relational language; and their relational distance evidenced their lack of vulnerable involvement in tithemi with the Word (“they were afraid to ask him”).
This demonstrated some critical interrelated issues for those who “hear” the Word, notably in the academy:
“The language you use will be the Word you get,” and “the interpretive framework, lens and hermeneutic you use will be the knowledge and understanding of the Word you get”; thus, “the epistemic process you engage will be the theology and practice you get”—nothing less and nothing more, though Jesus further qualified this process in relational terms, not quantitative referential terms (Mk 4:25).
His defining statement is decisively the determining process for the academy.
If the academy is able to distinguish its primary subject matter from the secondary, then the above dynamic is also the defining process for the academy’s God. The embodied Word illuminated the whole of God entirely within his improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path which are not subject to variation—as two of his followers learned conclusively on the road to Emmaus. Therefore, the whole and holy God is distinguished from the common (what prevails) of human contextualization and cannot be narrowed down to conventional referential terms. To do so engages in the prevailing referentialization of the Word that reduces the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of God’s relational ontology and function, thereby fragmenting God’s ontology and function to the parts of what God does in situations and circumstances and has in attributes. Furthermore, the whole and holy God cannot be distinguished by the determination of scholarship—namely as defined by the secular academy, the explicit or implicit criteria guiding self-determination in the theological academy while engaged in the comparative process of competing relationships. The above engagement shifts the focus of the theological task to secondary matter and contains its primary involvement to the quantitative level from outer in.
As the key to the theological task, the Word embodied the relational language to illuminate the Word from God (Jn 5:19-20; 10:37-38; 12:49-50; 17:6-8,14,26). Only the Word in relational terms distinguishes the whole and holy God—the relational basis for the Father’s imperative to listen to the Word. Yet in this relational process, God is also clearly distinguished from human contextualization (as Jesus addressed) and in likeness distinguished those who receive the Word also from human contextualization (as we encounter): “I have given them your word, and the world has hated, discredited, dismissed and ignored them because they do not belong to the world in ontology and function, just as I do not belong to the world” (Jn 17:14). This constitutes God and those who receive the Word in the minority contrary to what prevails in human contexts.
The minority (or uncommon) dynamic also composes their ontology and function in the primary and not in secondary matter. On this basis, listening to the Word in relational language is problematic for the theological task when engaged in a comparative process for its significance. Besides needing to have epistemic humility, it requires the vulnerability of being defined from inner out and of relational involvement on these terms. In other words, the unavoidable decision for the academy is either to be distinguished in likeness of the whole and holy God illuminated by the Word in relational language, or to have some distinction in likeness of the God in referential terms who would be less contrary to what prevails in human context(ualization). Though the referential God could have doctrinal certainty in the Word’s improbable theological trajectory, this does not assume a minority position but still pursues acceptance in human contexts on prevailing terms; consequently, it is incongruent with the Word’s primacy in his intrusive relational path.
This divides the Word, separating his theological trajectory from his relational path. This fragmentation is consequential for the academy in its theology and practice. To disembody and de-relationalize the Word as Subject from his relational path engages an ontology and function that is neither vulnerably involved with the whole of Jesus in intimate relationship together—the full significance of “Follow me” that Peter struggled with in his theological task—nor ongoingly engaged with the whole of God in the relational epistemic process. This ontology and function composes the relational distance that determines the limits of the wise and learned, as Jesus made conclusive (Lk 10:21). Relational distance fragments the Word’s theological trajectory from his relational path, and this separation maintains the veil that obscures recognizing, perceiving and understanding the Word from God communicated entirely in relational language. Indeed, the language used by the academy will determine the Word that delineates its God. And the academy’s theology and practice can be distinguished only to the extent in likeness of its God.
The early disciples failed to recognize, perceive and understand (aisthanomai) Jesus in his relational words in the above interaction. Their lack was not a singular moment of incomprehension or due to unintelligence, but an ongoing condition with the relational consequence of not knowing Jesus in relational terms even after intense years together (Jn 14:9). Their lack evidenced a condition that the writer of Hebrews identified as involving our aistheterion (from aisthanomai, Heb 5:14): that is, our organ of perception, capacity of recognition, sense of discernment—the faculties needed to know and understand what we see and hear, including being able to distinguish God’s whole from reductionism (“good from evil”) in our theology and practice. These faculties are made definitive by Paul as our phronema (the perceptual-interpretive framework of the mind) and our phroneo (the related perceptual-interpretive lens and mindset, Rom 8:5-6), both of which form the basis for our working hermeneutic. Both these writers address the tension and conflict between wholeness and reductionism, and the outcome from our aistheterion, phronema and phroneo (Heb 5:11-14; Rom 8:5-6). This directly determines the level of involvement with the Word while in the theological task and the interpretive process, and the outcome of that engagement.
Conjoined with Paul’s first relational imperative—“let the wholeness of Christ be the only determinant for your ontology and function, both individually and corporately” (Col 3:15)—he adds a second relational imperative: “let the word of Christ dwell in you whole-ly...” (3:16).
From the beginning the Word emerged from the innermost of God and improbably intruded from outside the universe to illuminate what is innermost for human persons in response to the human condition (Jn 1:1-5). As the unfolding of God’s communicative word of definitive blessing (Num 6:24-26), the distinguished Face shined on us to bring change (siym) for new relationship together in wholeness (shalom) with his vulnerable presence and relational involvement. Nothing less than the whole of the Word, the pleroma of God, in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6) was embodied in the innermost to compose ‘relationship together involving the whole person’. This is “the word of Christ” that Paul made the relational imperative to “dwell in you” (enoikeo, Col 3:16), denoting to indwell us, inhabit by special presence (as in Rom 8:11; 2 Cor 6:16).
For the word of Christ to indwell us whole-ly and inhabit by special presence raises three critical issues that are integral for our knowledge and understanding of the unfolded Word in the innermost:
These issues overlap and interact for either the relational outcome with the unfolded Word that Paul made imperative, or something less and some substitute.
The hermeneutical question emerges as the initial issue but this matter will soon be indistinguishable from the other issues. Underlying the horizons of reader and author-text in hermeneutics is the lens from theological anthropology that either allows for the improbable Word to speak for himself, or that narrows down the Word to better explain it with more certainty in probable terms. The latter involves the referentialization of the Word.
The distinguished Face’s theological trajectory and relational path emerged from the whole of God’s definitive blessing and converged irreducibly and nonnegotiably in the intimate communion of whole relationship together. Who came and what has come cannot be experienced in the innermost on referential terms. The unfolding of the Word from God illuminating the innermost is only the relational Word, solely in relational language just for ‘relationship together involving the whole person’, the referentialization of whom deconstructs the whole of the Word, redefines the language and reshapes the relationship—all narrowed down to human contextualization and renegotiated to human terms.
Paul’s relational imperative for the relational word of Christ to indwell our innermost is inseparable from and contingent on his relational imperative to “let the wholeness of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col 3:15): brabeuo, preside, direct, govern, be predominant, that is, Christ’s wholeness be what is primary to define and determine us from inner out, our whole person and our relationships together involving the whole person. Without this primary determination, the word of Christ is known and understood without his qualitative and relational significance that are necessary to indwell qualitatively and inhabit relationally by special presence in our innermost. Paul’s relational imperatives, therefore, are neither separable nor negotiable, and to diminish or ignore them signifies not knowing how the Word unfolded and not understanding what unfolded, and thereby to distort the unfolded Word and to misrepresent his gospel of new relationship together in wholeness.
The hermeneutical question of how the Word unfolded antecedes the theological question of what unfolded. Yet, the integral interaction between hermeneutics and theology composes our understanding of who came and what has come. This leads us to the second critical issue, the qualitative level of engagement in the theological process. The qualitative issue involves the whole person from inner out, signified by the primary function of the heart. This becomes a major issue when the level of engagement not only in the theological process but also in life turns from the primacy of the heart and consequently disengages the whole person.
Later, Jesus clearly distinguished for all the churches the primacy of the heart in their ontology and function (Rev 2:23). This primacy is what unfolded and what has come that distinguishes the innermost of God. The roots of this primacy go back to creation, in which the human heart was implanted with eternity (‘olam, Ecc 3:11)—not about a quantitative element or chronological sense but a qualitative depth from the innermost of God that is fulfilled, completed and made whole (pleroo) by the pleroma of God (Col 2:9-10) in eternal life (Jn 3:16). Eternal life is composed in the innermost only by the Word unfolded, but this notion has been narrowly shaped in referential terms such that, for example, classical theism has viewed God as everlasting in time, and philosophical theology has disputed God’s changeability implied in time and views God as timeless (cf. Jn 3:31-32). Time, however, can refer to either the quantity of chronos or the quality of kairos, and life as either quantitative bios or qualitative zoe. The eternal of eternal life in relational terms is not either-or but both-and—both chronos and kairos in the endless season of opportunity (timeless) to know God (Jn 17:3) by participating in the zoe of God through the bios of Jesus for intimate relationship together in God’s family (Jn 3:16; 6:68). The qualitative of kairos and zoe is primary over the quantitative of chronos and bios while also inseparable from its secondary counterpart, which as both-and, not either-or, constitute integrally the whole of God who came and the whole in God that has come, and hereby the wholeness from and with God in relationship together. This primacy, however, must not be displaced by the secondary or this wholeness will be fragmented.
If John 3:16 is basic to our belief system, then we need to understand who brought it and what he brought. Eternal life as either-or is neither eternal nor life signifying the whole ontology and function of God embodied by the Son for new relationship together in wholeness. As either-or, the truth of the gospel has been reduced and salvation has been truncated; and the consequence leaves both without the outcome of wholeness in human ontology and function that is innermost by necessity to the nature of the whole gospel and pleroma soteriology. Eternal life composed by the Word unfolded is whole knowledge and understanding of the Trinity in relationship together, as clearly illuminated in the Son’s prayer (Jn 17:3). This relational outcome ‘already’ is the whole ontology and function of the church family in likeness of the Trinity, who holds them together as one in their innermost (Jn 17:20-26). The turn from the heart is to turn away from both the innermost of God and the distinguished Face who brought change for new relationship together in wholeness.
The loss of the primacy of the heart and the absence of the heart’s engagement create an insurmountable gap with the innermost of God to know and understand the qualitative whole of who came and what has come. The primacy of the qualitative in the innermost of God unfolds to illuminate unmistakably that ‘relationship together involving the whole person’ is irreducible and nonnegotiable for God, and thus is irreplaceable for direct engagement with God even though perhaps temporarily evaded. The embodied Word vulnerably disclosed God’s whole ontology and function in relational terms entirely for reciprocal relationship together in compatible ontology and function. The dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes distinguishing the Word embodied the who and what of God, and whole ontology and function is what and who God seeks in relationship. This is the Word whom Paul encountered just in relational terms (“why do you persecute me?”), and the who and what Paul responded to vulnerably and thereby compatibly.
As discussed earlier, the relational significance of Paul’s response composed the functional significance of Paul’s further response to the content of Jesus’ other words on the Damascus road: obedience, that is, the reciprocal relational response to the embodied Word’s call to be vulnerably involved with him also in relational response to the human condition of reductionism apart from God’s whole (Acts 9:6; 22:10; 26:15-18). The reciprocal relational response of obedience to God must by its nature be a function of relational involvement; in the primacy of relationship obedience cannot become a reductionist function defining what a person does, namely from duty or obligation without any deeper relational significance in response to God (cf. Gal 5:3). What emerged from Paul’s obedience was only the outworking of his reciprocal relational response to and ongoing relational involvement with the whole of God—namely to the embodied Word and notably with the Spirit. With a transformed phronema (interpretive framework) and phroneo (lens) the Word became his hermeneutic key to whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) of the whole of God, thereby composing Paul’s whole monotheism—no longer his former incomplete monotheism in referential terms of the Shema (Dt 6:4).
The Word in relational language confronted, challenged and transformed Paul’s interpretive framework, lens and hermeneutic of covenant relationship and God’s terms for reciprocal relationship together (“walk with me and be whole.” Gen 17:1); this transformation by necessity involved the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction of tamiym (being whole, not about mere blameless). God’s relational terms included the law, which was joined with tamiym for compatible relationship together from the inner out (heart) of the whole person (cf. Ps 119:1-4), but that Paul previously merely observed in referential terms from outer in with his underlying self-determination (Phil 3:6). The process of defining the law in referential language and determining its practice in referential terms—for example, ‘letter of the law’ that Jesus exposed in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5:21-28)—emerges from a narrowed-down epistemic field of Scripture from a quantitative interpretive framework that limits or constrains the lens for practice. The law as God’s relational terms, however, was crucial to Paul’s transformation. He now clearly recognized, perceived and understood the law’s heuristic function to expose our reduced ontology and function and lead us to the necessary relational connection for whole ontology and function (Gal 3:19,24; Rom 3:20; 5:20). For Paul, the shift to relational language reconstituted the covenant to the covenant of love (Dt 7:9), and the Shema in whole monotheism now included by necessity his reciprocal response of love’s relational involvement by his whole person (Dt 6:4-5). This was the relational outcome of Paul’s hermeneutic correction.
Therefore, when recognized, perceived and understood in relational terms, the law defines conclusively: on the one hand, how we cannot be involved in covenant relationship with a reduced ontology and function incompatible for reciprocal relationship, and, on the other hand, how we need to be relationally involved ongoingly for compatible reciprocal relationship in whole ontology and function. This is the knowledge and understanding of the Word that Jesus vulnerably embodied for new relationship together in wholeness without the veil.
When Jesus was asked to quantify the greatest commandment, he responded in relational language with the wholeness of the Shema and the whole ontology and function of reciprocal agape relational involvement both with God and others (Mk 12:28-31). The person cannot be fragmented into its parts, most noticeably the mind, because this reduces ontology and function, namely to the intellect and human rationalizing. Such a theological anthropology is incompatible with God’s wholeness and relational terms for reciprocal relationship together. The noteworthy response to Jesus’ relational words from his inquirer (an expert in the law) surprisingly recognized its relational significance over any “burnt offerings and sacrifices,” that is, over the secondary (12:32-34, cf. Heb 10:1). The Word illuminates in the commandments only God’s relational terms for the covenant relationship of love and how to be vulnerably involved in reciprocal relationship together, not what to do in observing the law in an obligatory mode. On these relational terms, Jesus communicated his relational words to his followers, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (Jn 15:10). This was not a contingency to be loved, which is easily misunderstood in referential terms and further misperceived by self-determination. Rather this is the relational terms for reciprocal relationship together in the compatible response of agape involvement, in the relational likeness of the Son’s reciprocal response to the Father. His relational words in agape involvement illuminate God’s vulnerable terms for the relational outcome to intimately know God (“my joy in you”) in whole (pleroo) relationship together (“your joy be complete,” 15:11).
The Word in relational language is the only Word that Paul made the relational imperative to be vulnerably involved with “as you teach and contend with reductionism in one another in all wisdom” (Col 3:16)—the Word in whole of the wholeness in Christ. Referentialization divides Christ and fragments the Word, both of which are incapable of composing the “whole wisdom” (pas) needed to teach and critique one another (as Paul clarified in 1 Cor 3:18-21)
In a common concern by a group of biblical scholars and theologians for wisdom in the interpretation of Scripture, David Ford and Graham Stanton share their working view:
More widely, wisdom is about trying to integrate knowledge, understanding, critical questioning and good judgment with a view to the flourishing of human life and the whole of creation. Theological wisdom attempts all that before God, alert to God, and in line with the purpose of God.
Kevin Vanhoozer takes us even further by defining wisdom as an understanding of the whole. He says contemporary epistemology needs to recover two notions that have been neglected: (1) understanding (a grasp of meaning) and (2) wisdom (an understanding of the whole).
Daniel Hardy points also to the primacy of the Scripture for a ‘density of meaning’ in which the texts open a new depth of meaning beyond other focuses in biblical interpretation. This density of meaning for Hardy conveys more than simply a quantitative ‘extensity of meanings’ found in the Scripture but suggests a qualitative ‘intensity of meaning’ in which “both God and humanity are joined, both heaven and history, not simply by way of assertions about them, but as dynamically interwoven and mutually operative.” For the intensity of meaning, Hardy recognizes the need for the academy to be freed from the constraints of a merely quantitative interpretive framework, as well as from the reductionism of both the text and in practices/projects which distract from the text.
Yet, the qualitative significance of understanding wisdom in Scripture needs to be distinctly addressed in the integrated relational context and epistemic process, which can only be engaged with epistemic humility. This is why Jesus jumped with joy when the Father’s self-revelation made relational connection with vulnerably engaged “children,” not with the detached or measured engagement of “the wise and intelligent” (Lk 10:21). We today are challenged by this same process. That is, Jesus points to the necessity of the “hermeneutic of a child” who is vulnerably engaged essentially in a relational epistemic process. This hermeneutic certainly does not eliminate reason but puts rational interpretation into its rightful whole created context of relationship; thus in doing so, it does not disembody the text (the revelation of the Other) from its subject matter (the communicator as Subject in relationship); otherwise, the Subject is de-relationalized. Just as a child vulnerably engages this relational context by the relational process of trust (not to be confused with fideism), this relational involvement with epistemic humility opens up outcomes of learning, understanding and experiencing whom/what we can know, count on, and be defined and determined by—as well as provides ongoing feedback of the significance of these aspects.
Rational interpretation alone tends to disembody the object of the text from its relational context and process, ironically, for example, by a quantitative framework embedded only in history. This reduces the ontology of the object of the text in effect by fragmenting the whole object into component parts without understanding the object-Other as communicator-Subject self-disclosed for relationship together. However, engaging the Object of the text also as Subject is a function only of relationship, the relational involvement of which is irreducible and essential in order to understand integrally both meaning and the whole. The fragmentation by rationalistic thinking signifies the human shaping or construction of the text, knowledge of God and understanding the whole, by efforts essentially of self-autonomy, self-determination and even self-justification. This is the hermeneutic of “the wise and intelligent” exposed by Jesus, which still challenges us today. Paul also addressed this reductionist function in wisdom and its perceptual-interpretive framework when he echoed Psalm 94:11 to counter reductionism in the early church (1 Cor 3:20) and its relational consequence (1 Cor 4:6; 8:1; 14:36).
This points to the limits, if not impasse, in the hermeneutical process which prevent further flow to deeper outcomes beyond merely what we know, to more significantly whom we know. Understanding and wisdom involve more than acquiring knowledge (even as so-called truth and moral imperatives) and must involve a deeper epistemology to have whole understanding (synesis) of the meaning of God’s self-revelation, and thus an understanding of the whole, the whole of God and God’s relational whole.
The experiential truth of the gospel was what deeply affected Paul on the Damascus road, that is to say, the gospel of ‘the embodied Truth for relationship’. The Truth cannot be reduced to mere propositional truth claims, for such reductionism would essentially disembody the Word made flesh and de-relationalize Jesus from his relational path, and thus render the gospel devoid of its integrated functional and relational significance of the whole of God. Again, this Truth was vulnerably disclosed in order to constitute the whole of God’s thematic relational response to make whole the human condition in relationship together. Such reductionism then is not the gospel Paul encountered on the Damascus road. Paul experienced only the embodied Truth for relationship together because the Truth is only for relationship, nothing less and no substitutes. This relational outcome was the experiential truth of the whole gospel through which Paul’s hermeneutical process flowed to understand the whole as God’s relational whole only on God’s relational terms.
Reflecting on the flow and outcome of this hermeneutical process helps us to further formulate a working view of wisdom, which we can experience with Paul during the course of this study:
Wisdom signifies the relationally reciprocal means both to know the whole, that is, of God’s intimate desires as disclosed to us, as well as to act on those desires only in the relational response desirable to God; wisdom ongoingly involves the relational means to both, for which it is accountable. Therefore, wisdom is not an end in itself which we can claim as an attribute in our possession; nor is wisdom a source of knowledge and behavior which, in effect, become self-determining or self-promoting, regardless of ethical and moral value. Rather, wisdom is a function in relational significance which witnesses to and highlights the whole of God, who initiates vulnerably disclosing himself relationally with us as the source of all wisdom composing our wisdom by reciprocal relationship. Thus by its relational nature, unmistakable wisdom functions only with epistemic humility to illuminate the whole of God.
Any significant accounting of wisdom in the interpretation of Scripture must involve this function. And the relational outcome from the Word in relational language can only be ‘whole wisdom’ that distinguishes the epistemological, hermeneutical, theological and relational significance of knowing and understanding the whole of God. Nothing less than this relational outcome was the focus of Paul’s prayers (Eph 1:17; Col 1:9; Phil 1:9).
This is the Word in whole and its whole wisdom that Paul makes the relational imperative for the academy to teach and contend with reductionism in one another to make whole, be whole and live whole as God’s church family in new wine relationships together without the veil (Col 3:9-17, cf. 2 Cor 5:16-18). When the academy has whole knowledge and understanding of the Word, it can fulfill this relational purpose in likeness of its whole and holy God. On this relational basis, business as usual in the academy has to be primary involvement in church “business” for the ontology and function of both to be whole in likeness of their God.
This ongoing relational outcome will require redemptive change in the academy and the maturity to be vulnerably involved in the primary (the tithemi of agape) without getting distracted, displaced or disengaged by the secondary. This change involves the new interpretive framework (phronema) and lens (phroneo) necessary for the hermeneutical means (aistheterion) to have the relational clarity (aisthanomai) for even further and deeper whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) of the Word. And the maturing of the academy further involves its epistemic process.
Theological cognition has been an (mis)adventure since the primordial garden—attempting to define ‘what did God say’ and to determine ‘what did God mean by that’. The pursuit of theological cognition in the primordial garden “knowing good and evil” is contrary to the theological cognition of “the mature whose hermeneutical means have been developed in the relational epistemic process to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14). The key difference in theological cognition is the epistemic process used. ‘Good’ (e.g. the common good) has been narrowed down to prevailing terms such that it has lost its theological significance. Even Jesus challenged being called “Good teacher” by the rich young ruler when he responded with definitive theological cognition: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:17-18). The epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction by the Word should not be ignored by the academy in order for its theological cognition to mature to the depth of the primary (“solid food”) over the secondary (“milk”), so that it can conclusively “distinguish God’s good from evil” (Heb 5:13-14)—that is, to distinguish God’s whole (“the wholeness of Christ”) from all reductionism. Anything less and any substitutes of theological cognition is a misadventure guided by the age of reductionism.
Job uttered his theological cognition based on a conventional epistemic process in a limited epistemic field (“I had heard of you by the hearing of information in oral tradition,” Job 42:3-5). His epistemic process resulted in a theological cognition that did not really know and understand God, even though he uttered the limited information heard about God as if he did—a common position taken by those engaged in self-determination (Job 32:1). The LORD involved Job in the relational epistemic process (“Listen carefully and I will speak in relational language”) with the relational outcome of whole-ly knowing and understanding God (“but now my eye sees you directly face to Face”). In this relational epistemic process Job turned from his referential theology and practice and demonstrated the epistemic humility signifying his reciprocal involvement for this relational outcome (42:6).
Job’s experience makes evident the need for the three-dimensional hermeneutic (previously discussed) that converges the horizon of the past (his tradition) and the present (his hearing) with the primacy of the relational context and process of God’s self-revelation (Scripture in relational language). The three-dimensional hermeneutic requires the relational epistemic process and relational involvement in it that is not constrained by a limited epistemic field narrowed down to referential terms.
The absence of this relational epistemic process and relational involvement were exposed among the educated elite by Jesus, which is noteworthy for the academy’s approach and methodology. For those who were threatened by Jesus’ theology and practice (Jn 5:18), he simply addressed their approach, including the assumptions of their interpretive framework: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…yet you refuse to engage me in the relational epistemic process for the relational involvement necessary to have life”—zoe in qualitative terms, not bios in quantitative terms—“and in your traditional epistemic process you have never heard the Father’s voice or seen his form, and you do not have his relational word abiding in you for your theology and practice” (Jn 5:37-40).
When Jesus was asked for quantitative indicators of the emergence of the kingdom of God, he simply addressed their methodology and underlying assumptions: “The kingdom of God is not coming with secondary matter that can be carefully observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘That’s it!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you in the primacy of relationships together in wholeness without the veil” (Lk 17:20-21). Relational distance in the epistemic process is retained by a limited epistemic field in referential terms with a narrow hermeneutic lens, the methodology of which imposes a template for only a referential outcome for theology and practice. The relational outcome of God’s whole family emerges from direct relational involvement with the Spirit in the relational epistemic process and unfolds in maturity with ongoing reciprocal involvement with the Spirit in relationship together for whole theology and practice.
This may raise a legitimate question by the academy to process further about Paul, especially since he is presented as the definitive model for all theological engagement: How important was methodology to Paul’s theology, given his approach to the Word?
Paul’s theological engagement cannot be described in conventional terms but is better defined in function as a process of living theology—in which theology was never separated from function and the priority was always function over theology for Paul. Thus, Paul was involved in communicating God’s story of thematic relational response to the human condition, a story with which Paul earlier had had only historical association. He now, however, has directly experienced the truth of God’s story relationally and continues in that experiential truth to illuminate God’s story theologically. This relational process is vital to theological engagement and was Paul’s basis for it.
The theological Paul was able to distinguish the fact of God’s story from fiction, and to grasp God’s definitive relational action without speculation, unequivocally on the basis, and thus to the extent, of God’s direct revelation to him. That is to say, the theological Paul was not whole-ly constituted by the limited historical Paul but most significantly by the vulnerable relational Paul. Theological engagement, then, involved implicitly a relational “methodology” for Paul. His readers need to understand that this theological process is a function of relationship, not a quantified theological task without that qualitative involvement even if it included biblical exegesis.
In his theological process, Paul made a further claim to “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). If his claim is understood in only epistemological terms, then what Paul possessed was further knowledge (albeit inside) about God. For Paul, however, having the mind of Christ was the relational outcome of reciprocal relationship with the Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-10; cf. Jesus’ claim, Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15). To have the mind of Christ from the Spirit signifies the new phroneo and phronema with the Spirit (Rom 8:5-6), which are necessary for the whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) to engage unequivocally in conclusive theological discourse of God’s story and definitive theological dialogue of the whole of God’s thematic relational action. This theological engagement for Paul further implies a qualitative “methodology” of having the mind of Christ for the needed interpretive framework and lens, which provide the relational awareness and qualitative sensitivity to wholly grasp the relational extent and qualitative depth of God’s vulnerable revelation (cf. Paul’s imperative, Rom 12:2). This qualitative methodology emerges in function entirely from reciprocal relationship with the Spirit, the outcome of which is by its nature a relational outcome and not from a subjective self-consciousness. Therefore, Paul’s qualitative methodology is inseparable from and in ongoing interaction with his relational methodology.
Paul never engaged in theological discourse beyond God’s self-disclosure (as he demonstrated, 1 Cor 4:6) in order to construct any fictional parts of God’s story or to speculate about God’s thematic relational response to the human condition. He did not need to be engaged in such theology from bottom up because he was relationally involved with the mind of Christ ongoingly with the Spirit in the relational epistemic process to extend the theological dialogue of the Word from top down. The relational outcome of Paul’s reciprocal relational response was from “him who…within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can do or imagine by our own theological reflection” (Eph 3:20): “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’—those things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:9-10).
Listening to God became a relational function for Paul and not merely a pronouncement of moral obligation from the tradition of Jewish Scripture. Relational connection and involvement with the whole of God was nonnegotiable for Paul and the relational imperative for both his function and his theology. Therefore, Paul was able to complete (pleroo) the communicative word from God and to illuminate whole (pleroma) theology only on the basis and to the extent of his relational and qualitative methodology; this compatible process clearly signified his reciprocal relational response to God’s vulnerable revelation and Paul’s ongoing relational involvement with the whole of God. And by his reciprocal relational involvement in the whole of God’s relational context and process, Paul’s theological engagement is paradigmatic for all who are involved in the theological task, particularly in the academy.
Paul’s approach and methodology in the relational epistemic process are inseparable from his relational imperative above to have the word of Christ in relational language vulnerably received by our person (“dwell in you”) whole-ly in the ongoing relational context and process composed by the Word (Col 3:16). Relational involvement with the Word in the relational epistemic process is indispensable particularly for those who teach and critique one another both in the academy and the church (cf. Elihu with Job, Job 32-37) in order to have whole wisdom to be, live and make God’s relational whole as church family. This necessarily integrates the relational imperative of the Word with the relational imperative of Christ’s wholeness (Col 3:15) for the relational outcome of whole theology and practice, thereby whole-ly responding to Paul’s relational purpose. As Paul demonstrated in his whole practice and illuminated in his whole theology for the church, I contend that the academy is responsible for the theology necessary for the church’s practice and is accountable for both the academy’s and church’s theology and practice to be whole. Therefore, when Paul made conclusive for the theological task, “Nothing beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6), this equally implied “Nothing less than what is written.” That is, nothing less than the Word in relational language communicated from God that integrally distinguishes the whole and holy God’s presence and involvement. Accordingly, this communication from ‘nothing less than the Word in relational language’ is not recognized in a narrowed-down epistemic field; nor is it understood in a conventional epistemic process. ‘Nothing less than the Word in relational language’ requires vulnerable relational involvement in the relational epistemic process in order to be distinguished in the relational outcome of whole theology and practice. This is the minimum relational level of involvement required to engage the relational epistemic process with the Spirit, which certainly is contrary to any level of relational distance maintained in both the epistemic process and the theological task.
In Paul’s approach to the Word and his theological methodology, the ongoing interaction of the primacy of the qualitative with the primacy of the relational is integral to knowing and understanding who came and what has come, the Word entirely in relational language. Consequently, any loss of the primacy of our heart (our person made vulnerable from inner out) and any lack of our relational involvement from inner out (relationship together involving the whole person) create an insurmountable gap with the innermost of God’s ontology and function for an impasse to know and understand the whole and holy God. This is who and what God seeks in compatible reciprocal relationship together. Therefore, our relational level of involvement in the epistemic process is an unavoidable issue that the academy is accountable to address.
The relational issue centers on ‘relationship together involving the whole person’ and therefore converges inseparably with the qualitative issue. While the qualitative issue involves the turn away from the heart, the relational issue involves a turning to the human shaping of relationships. The Word unfolded and how the Word unfolded cannot be reduced to only the Object revealed for mere observation in a conventional epistemic process, notably shaped by modernity. Such a hermeneutic and theological approach to the Word disembodies the Subject unfolded, whose distinguished presence is involved in relationship. How the Word unfolded was as Subject only in relationship, and this conjointly signifies the primacy of the relational and necessitates the relational epistemic process to know and understand the pleroma of God who came and the pleroma of Christ that has come. Without this relational level of involvement in the epistemic process, all that remains is the Object to be observed through a quantitative lens on referential terms; and such observation, as Jesus clarified, is unable to perceive the qualitative in the innermost of God and the relational in the whole of God. The referentialization of the Word engages a fragmentary process characterized by human shaping of relationships that reduces the relational level of involvement to a distant or detached condition, whether in the epistemic process or in life. Underlying this process is a theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function. This underlying issue was Paul’s deepest concern for the church family when he declared “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13), and was the focus of Jesus’ post-ascension critiques of churches turning away from the primacy of the qualitative and relational.
When Paul clearly distinguished the pleroma of God who came as “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17), this has significance in the innermost just within the primacy of the qualitative and relational; and this has significance for our ontology and function in the innermost only when who came and what has come emerge from the qualitative and relational’s primacy. Therefore, turning away from the heart and turning to the human shaping of relationships are consequential decisions that reflect, reinforce and sustain the human condition in its innermost. These are consequences that the church and academy must account for in their own practice. For related accounting, both critical issues of the qualitative and the relational directly involve three inescapable issues and three unavoidable issues.
Three inescapable issues for our ontology and function needing accountability:
These inescapable issues are present ongoingly, knowingly or unknowingly, and operate with or without qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness. They decisively address our theological anthropology and consistently challenge our assumptions of ontology and function. Furthermore, they are interrelated to and in interaction with the following.
Three unavoidable issues for all practice, necessary to account for in all moments:
These unavoidable issues are directly correlated to God’s relational righteousness, whose presence and involvement can be counted on to be who, what and how God is in relationship together, and who expects reciprocal relational response in compatible righteousness to be who, what and how we are (Eph 4:24; cf. 2 Tim 3:16). This is unavoidable in relationship together and is accountable for nothing less and no substitutes in whole relationship together, as Jesus clearly made his family accountable for in relational terms (Mt 5:20).
The whole of God who came and the whole of God’s whole relationship together that has come are at issue here in the innermost. Though this whole is clearly present and continuously active—as evidenced in Jesus’ family prayer and Paul’s echo of it—both Jesus and Paul never assumed the function of wholeness in the church family, including the theological community, given the ceaseless challenge from reductionism. These critical, inescapable and unavoidable issues address to what extent the Word unfolds for us in the innermost, and thus to what extent there is wholeness in our theology and practice.
The whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) of God and its relational outcome of whole theology and practice can emerge, unfold and mature only in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit. This process by its given nature can neither be reduced to just the quantitative, nor function with assumptions of human ontology from outer in. Jens Zimmermann concludes also from his examination of our hermeneutical heritage:
Knowledge in general and knowledge of God in particular are existential and relational. Knowledge, in other words, is not defined according to a modern scientific model of detached, neutral observation, but knowing requires that the knower be involved with the thing known.
A qualitative phroneo from a whole phronema by its new nature has to involve a relational epistemic process with the Spirit because synesis is not a human construction. God makes possible this whole understanding (cf. synesis in 2 Tim 2:7) as an outcome of revelation, namely self-disclosure, which God reveals not in a vacuum, nor posts on the bulletin board of humanity (contrary to natural theology), but only in the context and process of relationship (cf. Lk 10:21). Therefore, this whole knowledge and understanding is only a relational outcome, which makes synesis a function only of relationship, not human effort regardless of its good intention. And from knowing and understanding the whole and holy God, we can be distinguished together in whole theology and practice. Our relational epistemic process with the Spirit will unfold and mature nothing less and no substitutes.
The relational outcome of whole theology and practice is a unique experience (not common but uncommon) in the age of reductionism, both within the church and academy. In spite of their good intentions in these interdependent contexts, this relational outcome continues to strain to emerge, struggle to unfold and have difficulty to mature. On the one hand, this is not unexpected with the ongoing presence and pervasive influence of reductionism and its counter-relational work. It should, on the other hand, be surprising given the gospel of God’s whole presence and involvement. The issue involves what happens to the new wine, as Paul contends (Eph 4:14, 20-24).
For the whole of Paul and the whole in his theology, there is no other relational outcome from the gospel of wholeness; “the new creation is everything” (Gal 6:15) for those who follow the whole of Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path in the new wine relationships together with the veil removed (Eph 2:14-22). The seeds of new wine have been planted in our innermost and have sprouted ‘already’, yet the good news of its flow has not been accurately reported. There is just something missing to announce. The gospel has lost its significance without this relational outcome, reduced to what Paul defines as “no gospel at all.” What does remain prominent, if not prevailing, in this condition is both a weak view of sin not dealing with reductionism—and thus inadequately understanding the human condition—and a fragmentary theological anthropology reducing the ontology and function of the person and the church and for the academy. Consequently, various templates have formed in theology and practice that have constrained the outcome of the gospel to their limits—the function of old wineskins (Mk 2:22).
Old wineskins are implied in the alternatives of anything less and any substitutes discussed above. Certainly then, old wineskins both constrain the flow of the new wine and reduce it of its qualitative and relational significance. The nature of old wineskins emerges with any reduction of our ontology and function, thus from an ambiguous or shallow personal-collective identity with relationships still having the veil—for example, who we are without what and/or whose we are—in contrasting and conflicting function with Jesus’ new wine table fellowship.
Jesus disclosed the new wine when the issue of fasting was raised to him. His response is inseparable from his major discourse for his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. Focused on efforts of self-determination, Jesus exposed trying to get closer to God through fasting from outer in (Mt 6:16-18). This effort to establish one’s righteousness (dikaiosyne, 6:1) assumes a reduced ontology and function that constrains the person in an outer-in discipline having no qualitative significance from inner out, and consequently has no relational significance to God. For Jesus, this fasting is an old wineskin that cannot contain the new wine. In Jesus’ relational language, reduced ontology and function are both incompatible and incongruent with whole ontology and function; and the nature of old wineskins is reduced ontology and function, defining the person from outer in and determining relationships still with the veil—unable to be vulnerably involved heart to heart with God face to Face in the nature of the new wine, the new covenant, and with persons together in the new creation family.
Old wineskins are the relational consequence of becoming embedded in an ontological lie from reductionism that imposes an identity deficit, in which a person (or together as church or academy) struggles to erase any deficit by efforts of self-determination in what one can do (e.g. fasting). The more control one can exercise over this process, the more certain the results of one’s efforts can be expected. The pursuit of certainty, however, requires a reduction epistemologically, ontologically and relationally in order for the control needed to succeed in self-determination—notably narrowing the epistemic field to the probable and minimizing vulnerability in relationships. This is how God’s terms for covenant relationship outlined in the torah have been reduced to a behavioral code, how persons seek to become justified by what they do, how Jesus’ teachings become disembodied to mere principles to follow, how the new wine gets put into an old wineskin. The nature of old wineskins, therefore, is the nature of the human condition in its reduced ontology and function, seeking self-determination and self-justification by its reduced ontology and function in order to overcome the deficit for its reduced ontology and function. And, accordingly, old wineskins emerge from an ambiguous or shallow identity necessitating the veil in relationships, because it fails to engage the integral identity formation outlined by Jesus in the beatitudes (Mt 5:3-10) and pursues a reduced righteousness from outer in rather than whole righteousness from inner out (contrary to Mt 5:20 in Jesus’ major discourse for his followers).
Old wineskins first emerged in the primordial garden in the form of the fruit for self-determination and then with their loincloths for self-justification, and most significantly in their relational distance (Gen 3:6-10). The ontological lie from reductionism imposed an identity deficit to create an illusion of climbing the ontological ladder to a higher status: “you will not be reduced…you will become like God” (3:4-5). Constructing the tower of Babel was another old wineskin of reduced ontology and function seeking to climb the human contextual ladder for self-determination and justification (Gen 11:1-4). These examples demonstrate that old wineskins can have the appearance of something new (the fruit), innovative (loincloths) and a new venture (the tower); yet their reality is merely an illusion for reduced ontology and function.
The influence from human contextualization for innovation and new ventures has accelerated in the modern world of science and technology. At the same time, these efforts have also required a reduction epistemologically, ontologically and relationally in order to produce results. For example, the illusions of new skins developed by the recent changes in media technology are consequential for diminished involvement in relationships and minimalizing the quality of life, even though they have greatly increased our information, productivity and other quantities in life. As noted previously, such innovation stemming from modern technology has only reduced the primacy of the qualitative and the relational. These results, however, witness to the limits of what can emerge from reduced ontology and function. The new wine does not emerge and flow from the changes of innovation but only with transformation from inner out of whole ontology and function.
Shifting from innovation and its ambiguity of function and usefulness, we turn to a more practical approach. Pragmatism is another old wineskin constraining the new wine that needs more attention if the concern is for the flow of new wine. While a pragmatist may have significance by not separating theology from its practical function—in this sense Paul can be considered a pragmatist—pragmatism has a purpose and concern of less depth. Contextually, pragmatism should not be confused with pragmatics in linguistics that concerns understanding the meaning of messages in the relational context of the speaker—an ongoing necessity for Jesus’ relational language and messages. In a more limited concern, even with good intentions, pragmatism involves the effort in discipleship that focuses primarily on situations and circumstances, and concerns what is most practical in those contexts. With this narrowed-down focus and concern, pragmatism essentially reduces the relational involvement of the whole person with God by shifting this primacy to the situations and circumstances. Often unknowingly, this limits the relational process of discipleship to outer-in engagement by redefining one’s person from inner out to outer in, thereby renegotiating relationship with God on our terms. By reordering the primacy of relationship, pragmatism unintentionally promotes the counter-relational work of reductionism and reduces the whole ontology and function constituting both the new wine and its discipleship, therefore disregarding Jesus’ relational imperative for his followers.
Jesus’ conflict with the reductionist segments of Judaism involved their pragmatism in contrast to their needed relational function in the covenant relationship together, the covenant of love. Pragmatism also emerged at another new wine table fellowship to try to constrain the new wine (Mt 26:6-13; Jn 12:1-8). The new wine flowed from Mary with her vulnerable involvement in relational response to Jesus. The expensive perfume was secondary to the primacy of relationship together but the disciples made it an issue of discipleship in primary response to the situation of the poor. By rebuking Mary harshly (par. Mk14:5), they demonstrated the limited concern of their pragmatism, therewith exposing their continued reduced ontology and function that still had not tasted the new wine but indeed tried to constrain it. In contrast and conflict, Jesus fully experienced the primacy of Mary’s involvement and the depth of her discipleship—celebrating the new wine together and anticipating her flow of the new wine to give clarity and depth to “wherever this gospel of wholeness is proclaimed in the whole world” (Mt 26:13).
The new wine distinguishing God’s whole on God’s terms always involves making choices. Choosing what we will pay attention to and what we will ignore. Choosing what is a greater priority, what is primary or what is secondary. Choosing what will define our person and what we will not let define us. Choosing how we will define others and how we will not define others. Choosing how we will be involved in relationships and how we will not do relationships. Choosing the uncommon (holy) over the common. Choosing zoe over bios, the qualitative over the quantitative. Choosing to live more by the opportunities of kairos than by the constraints of chronos. That is to say, choosing to be whole, to live whole and to make whole. Yet, these choices are not about human agency but about involvement in reciprocal relationship together in response to God’s relational grace, the basis and ongoing base for relationship together to be whole.
Making these choices signifies celebrating the whole, signified in the new wine table fellowship. With each choice, we celebrate God’s whole and being whole in communion together. Making the choice may be difficult but what also emerges in making it is celebrating the whole of God’s new creation family together. This is the family responsibility which we humbly submit to and thankfully account for in the relational process of family love because we are “not left as orphans” but have been adopted into God’s family. Therefore, we celebrate our redemption to be free to make these choices. We celebrate our transformation to make these choices in family love. We celebrate our reconciliation to make these choices for relationship together in God’s new family. And we celebrate making these choices in relationship together without the fragmenting presence of the veil. In other words, by making these choices we celebrate being made whole to be whole in order to live whole and to make whole, God’s whole on God’s terms.
The critical choices made by persons in the first new wine table fellowship and then by Mary involve not choosing the secondary (fasting and the old wine, ministry to the poor) over the primacy of whole relationship together from inner out. The choice to live vulnerably in relationship together to be whole is what the Father seeks (Jn 4:23) and the Son searches for (Rev 2:23b) and pursues in post-ascension (Rev 3:20). The choice of the primacy of relationship together and building intimate communion together as family is the choice of God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms. Making this choice, as Mary beautifully made with Jesus, is the experiential reality of having good news, in which Mary’s whole significance has yet to be established today because of a fragmentary gospel. By making this choice in the primacy of God’s relational terms to live whole in vulnerable relationship and to build intimate communion together as the new creation family, even at the expense of ministry, they celebrated God’s relational whole—which is indeed the experiential truth and functional significance of the gospel. Accordingly, in this choice and the celebration signified with it, they experienced even greater depth of living whole. This is the flow of Mary’s new wine that needs to distinguish our gospel today, indeed for the whole world.
These two new wine table fellowships clearly demonstrate the importance of making these choices and celebrating God’s whole in integral function in order both to enjoy the breadth of being whole and to experience the depth of living whole—the makarios (fully satisfied) from the beatitudes and from the relational outcome of the Face’s definitive blessing, vulnerably constituted by the whole of God’s agape relational involvement (Jn 15:9-11). Making the choice and celebrating God’s whole converge most definitively for his church family in relationship together when they function in Eucharistic worship. Celebrating in Eucharistic worship is the most integral opportunity of God’s new creation family to build intimate communion together. Yet, this distinguished opportunity is not a mere spiritual tradition and practice of faith merely engaged before God; such practice may signify still being in front of the curtain. Tradition easily becomes a substitute for deeper involvement in relationships without the veil, and hereby serves as an old wineskin. Thus, what we participate in and how we participate are vital; that means even the logistics are important to help us build God’s relational whole that holds us together in our innermost. This communion is a qualitative function only of relationship, intimate relationship together with the whole of God, therefore relationship not embedded in the past or simply anticipating the future but relationship vulnerably functioning in the present. By removing the veil with his sacrifice, Jesus constituted the new creation family ‘already’ (Lk 22:20; Jn 17:21-23). In Eucharistic worship, when his church functions in vulnerable relationship to build intimate communion together, his church family in whole ontology and function experiences the height of relational involvement with the whole of God.
Together with the presence and reciprocal relational work of the Spirit (the Son’s relational replacement), Jesus’ transformed followers are theologically and functionally reconciled together to be the new creation whole of God’s family in likeness of the Trinity, ongoingly in the trinitarian relational process of family love. At this integral new wine table fellowship with the whole of God, his church can celebrate God’s whole only as church family together without relational distance, not as relational and emotional orphans functioning as orphanage (as Paul illuminated, 1 Cor 11). Without this relational celebration of God’s whole, our Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology and eschatological hope become merely narrowed-down referential doctrine essentially disembodied and de-relationalized with nothing qualitatively distinguished to practice and relationally significant to experience both with God and with each other together. The only alternative left to practice and experience in this relational condition is “old wine,” about which some say “The old is good or enough, even better” (Lk 5:39).
Jesus raised up Paul to extend and exceed his relational work of the new wine fellowship (Acts 26:16; Jn 14:12). Vulnerably involved with the whole of Jesus and in reciprocal relationship with the Spirit, Paul became the hermeneutical key for the theological and functional clarity of the church as God’s family in whole ontology and function. Therefore, even traditional, conventional and prevailing distinctions such as circumcision and uncircumcision became old wineskins for the new wine fellowship in his perceptual-interpretive framework—“neither…is anything” (Gal 6:15). For Paul, himself as a reduced person made whole, the new covenant and new creation were indispensable for the gospel, irreplaceable for its relational outcome, and irreducible for its emerging ontology and nonnegotiable for its ongoing relationship together—“the new creation is everything.” Nothing less and no substitutes either defined Paul or determined his theology and function. The flow of the new wine in the new covenant and creation constitutes the relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul, and the who, what and how of Paul embodying the theology and hermeneutic of the whole gospel for practice to be, live and make God’s relational whole.
As God has called us to “walk with the whole of God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement, and be whole,” this reignites God’s questions for all of us in the church and academy: “Where are you?”—“What are you doing here?”—“Why are you…?”
And to extend the flow of new wine today, Jesus into Paul into…?
 See 4QNah 1:2,7; 2:2-3; 3:3,8.
 While some early manuscripts do not include this statement, it is important to include this to establish the relational flow of the discourse.
 David F. Ford and Graham Stanton, eds., Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM Press, 2003), 2-3.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 340.
 Daniel W. Hardy, “Reason, Wisdom and the Interpretation of Scripture” in Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom, 72-76.
 Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 131.
©2013 T. Dave Matsuo