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The Face of the Trinity

The Trinitarian Essential

for the Whole of God and Life

 

Trinity  Study


 

T. Dave Matsuo

 

©2016 TDM All rights reserved

No part of this manuscript may be reprinted without permission from the author

Contact: tdavematsuo@4X12.org

 

 Chapter 1            Introductory Terms

 

Sections

  

Historical Terms

The Stereotyping and Idolizing of God's Identity

Defining Terms Distinguishing God's Whole Identity

The Counter-Relational Reality

 

Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Ch 8

Ch 9

Ch 10

Printable pdf
of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index

Bibliography

 

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God.[1]

 

                                                                                                                                     Exodus 20:3,4,7

 

  

            Do all Christians worship the same God? This may seem like a trick question but I assure you of its need and importance. Read on carefully.

            In the world today, people live in a global context that is shrinking our separation from each other and yet amplifying our differences, making it problematic to converge as a global community. Sociocultural, political and economic differences keep us not only apart but in conflict; and religion has emerged as a major determinant in recent global dynamics. It is within this global context and process that Christianity has to define its identity and Christians must determine its God. This unavoidable surrounding condition critically challenges the theology and practice of all Christian churches and those claiming a Christian God.

 

 

Historical Terms

 

            For Christians, Scripture defines that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and all life. Such terms as creation and Creator have certainly been contested, yet when not denied they remain identified without ambiguity. The identity of God, however, is a different issue that remains problematic—even among Christians and within churches, including the related academy.

            In the history of humanity, God has been perceived and identified in different ways, thereby making evident the lack of commonality with the human lens. The diversity of humankind composes the diversity by which God has been identified, shaped or constructed. Throughout human history, defining the identity of God has been a pervasive problem. From the beginning, created persons have been speaking for their Creator (or in place of a creator) rather than listening and letting God speak in order to know and understand the true and whole identity of God. Of course, if God does not speak or remains silent, there is an urgency to fill the void; but this effort is in contrast to human speculation about “Did God say that?” and the challenging of the God who did speak (Gen 3:1).

            The history of religions has reflected the human shaping and construction of the identity of God. In these various terms used for God, perhaps a common thread could be found in some of these religions that can be traced back to the human person created in the beginning. Human evolution, at least, would theorize such common roots and suggest that those religions best adapting to surrounding circumstances through time have survived. Yet, any possible agreement identifying God in those religions would, at best, be only of secondary significance and thus should not be considered what is primary in defining God and for determining God’s identity in the global world today. Even when the terms used for God are transcendent (as in deism), existing all around us (as in Hindu pantheism), or more engaged as Creator (as in the Native American God), how defining those terms for God are for determining the true identity of God cannot be measured on the primary basis of human terms.

Along with the historical terms that have identified, shaped and constructed God, there also has been an ongoing problem in the history of God’s people (Israel and the Christian church) of shaping the identity of their God in human terms. In comparative terms, how compatible and/or congruent is our shape of God’s identity depends on the terms God revealed. In spite of God’s terms (notably those opening this chapter) clearly communicated, which are distinguished from and in conflict with human terms shaping their God, human shaping continues from past to present to be the key issue determining the identity of both the God of Israel and the Christian God. God’s terms noted above are usually perceived in the limits of common reasoning, and such human limits then narrow down God’s terms to an outer-in quantitative focus that lacks the deeper significance distinguishing God’s terms and thus the whole identity of God. The human terms used for their God may appear to be similar in terminology, if not the same, as God’s terms above, but their significance in theology and practice points to a different God—that is, whose name does not distinguish the same identity (though using that name) and who essentially has been reduced to an image (idol) of this God.

            The primary issues underlying this key issue of our human shaping seem to have become increasingly epistemological (both in modern and postmodern terms) and decreasingly ontological (notably in philosophical terms), yet the primary issues involve both equally in our theology and practice. More importantly, the most critical of the underlying issues is relational, the significance of which challenges our epistemology (and the limits of our epistemic field) and our ontology (namely defined by our theological anthropology).[2] These primary issues integrally both expose the limited, contrary or conflicting focus of human terms, and also make evident the irreplaceable disclosure of God’s terms.

            Making this distinction of terms has historical urgency because the tension between God’s terms and human terms is ongoing; and we need to learn from this history. Again, if God did not speak and remains silent, human terms get precedent and human shaping is a non-issue. Yet, for example, even when the Creator speaks indirectly through creation, this only points to God and is insufficient to define the full identity of God—leaving the door open for human reason to identify God in human terms, as evidenced in natural theology. Did God speak beyond the limits of creation to define God’s identity in unequivocal terms that both take precedent over human terms and render human reason to epistemic humility? For those who say yes, then the critical issue becomes that God not only speaks but integrally communicates by God’s relational language—not an esoteric spiritual language but a language understandable in the context of relationship, with a qualitative significance unable to be distinguished merely by referential language (composing the terms of human reason). God’s relational terms, however, cannot be limited by human reason, or else they undergo human shaping: that is, they are relationally disconnected from God’s relational context and reduced from their qualitative significance by being transposed to the narrowed-down quantitative limits of referential language and thereby composed in fragmentary referential terms. In other words, human shaping reduces God (including the communication of God’s language and terms) down to our size.

            Throughout history, of course, language has always been as issue in human communication. Speaking the same language (even nonverbally) is indispensable to make connection, much less to be understood. In recent years, not only are the obvious limits of language recognized but also a distinct constraint our language imposes on us that limits our perception and reasoning. It has become increasingly apparent to modern scientific research that the language we speak shapes the way we see the world and even the way we think (not necessarily producing thought).[3] This points to the function of language not merely as a means of expression but also as a template imposing a constraint limiting what we see and the way we think. In his study of neuroscience, Iain McGilchrist states about language:

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

 

     In the process, language helps some things stand forward but by the same token makes others recede…. What language contributes is to firm up certain particular ways of seeing the world and give fixity to them. This has its good side, and its bad. It aids consistency of reference over time and space. But it can also exert a restrictive force on what and how we think. It represents a more fixed version of the world: it shapes, rather than grounds, our thinking.[4]

Therefore, the use of referential language in terms of God is consequential for constraining how we can think of God and limiting what we can see of God. What then does that do to our interpretation of God’s revelation and our perception of God’s identity?

            Interpretation, of course, is an ongoing hermeneutic issue for all languages and communication. How God communicates with us and what God revealed to us are distinguished in the First (Old) and Second (New) Testaments of Scripture.[5] Nevertheless, God’s terms have not always been distinguished in the heritage and tradition of God’s people, leaving the identity of God ambiguous or raising the question of a different God. This has existed even when the referential terms composing our doctrine appear to be the same as God’s relational terms. Interpreting the truth of God’s identity, however, in narrowed-down or fragmentary referential terms creates a theological fog that makes God’s presence and involvement elusive, and thus which composes our faith without the relational significance both for us and to God—the depth of significance that can only be constituted by God’s relational terms. Even the first disciples labored under the epistemological illusion that shrouded the relational reality of their not truly knowing Jesus (Jn 14:9). What this makes evident for our illumination is simply stated: Knowing how God communicates is indispensable for understanding what God communicates; and we need to maintain this integral connection in order to distinguish the full identity of who God is.

            At the same time, who, what and how God is is always subjected to (not subject to) our interpretative lens (cf. Peter, Mt 16:21-23). Anthony Thiselton reminds us that the Scriptures always include the context (horizon) of the writer-author (or speaker); to interpret the biblical text also involves the context (horizon) of the reader (or listener), and that these two horizons must be accounted for to receive fully what is communicated.[6] Yet, this must also include accounting for the language used by each horizon to have compatibility with God’s communication.

            Contrary to the transmission of merely information (the purpose of referential language and terms), communication expresses the identity of oneself to another and thereby requires the unrestricted reception of that communication in order to understand the identity expressed. We all certainly can use clarification and even correction to interpret the language and terms used in the communication—notably when that language is not common to ours. Since relational language is not the common or prevailing language for human contexts, we need to recognize how pervasive and prevailing that referential language is in human contexts and its influence on limiting and constraining human communication. This will warrant not only clarification but correction, yet not primarily by referential terms. In terms of the biblical text, for example, a historical-critical method (e.g. form, textual or literary criticism) has been used to clarify any misinformation; this limited framework, however, should not be assumed to correct misunderstanding of God’s relational terms because such a historical-critical lens does not account for God’s context (horizon). That is to say, in order to receive God’s communication the listener-reader must have connection with the context from which God communicates. God’s context constitutes the necessary third contextual dimension to Thiselton’s two horizons to integrally complete the whole horizon (3-D, as it were) of God’s communication. The most important critical issue in this hermeneutic process is to have connection with God’s context; otherwise our interpretive lens only can have a flat 2-D view, at best, without the depth of 3-D. Since God’s relational terms compose God’s communication from God’s relational context, our interpretation process requires distinct relational connection to receive how God communicates and thus what God communicates to know and understand who God is.

            This is the contextualization that must become primary in the global church—over other notions of contextualization of the gospel and missions—if Christians are to worship integrally the whole of God and thus the same God. Many have started to consider the diversity in the global church as a necessary asset to rise above the limits and constraints of Western Christianity; but we must examine the terms that compose any diversity in our theology and practice. Merely having a view of God identified as Christian is insufficient to claim having the same God. Whether the terms are composed from the global North or South, unless our identity of God is both compatible with God’s theological trajectory as revealed to us in God’s Word, and also congruent with God’s relational path embodied with us by the Word, we have no significant basis to claim the same God and even less to know the full identity of God. Western Christians especially need to be chastened by this reality.

            While all human contexts influence Christians’ interpretation of God’s revelation, diverse conclusions about God should not be uncritically considered an asset in the global church to shape the identity of God beyond provincialism and parochial terms. This assumption, for example, is evident in various postcolonial Christian proposals.[7] Nor should we confuse diversity in theology and practice as defining and determining the summary whole of God but rather the likely fragmentation of God, perhaps even the diversity of Gods. In the midst of human diversity the primary and ongoing process illuminated for Christians is the relational process of God’s communication, into whose relational context we all must enter reciprocally with God in order to receive God’s self-disclosure. The relational outcome of engaging God’s relational context in its primacy is to know and understand the whole identity of God, based on the significance of God’s relational terms distinguished over and beyond any of our limited, speculative and reduced terms imposed on God.

            In the growing intensity of religious diversity in the global context, Christianity in general and all Christians in particular are challenged not to be limited to or constrained by a process of comparative religions, which only reduces the essential truth of who, what and how God is. Our faith is challenged and accountable ongoingly to distinguish the full identity of God and to be distinguished by the whole of God integrally in our theology and practice. To meet this challenge, we will have to shift from our narrowed-down terms to God’s whole relational terms—both a paradigm and relational shift that require converting from the primary influence of our human contexts and making them secondary in order to return to the primacy of God’s relational context—so that we will no longer repeat the history of terms shaping God with anything less and any substitutes.

            And the historical reality is unavoidable: Without making these paradigm and relational shifts our view of God cannot be 3-D but, at best, can only be a 2-D view that is flat, distorted, misleading or simply false, and thereby not knowing the full identity of God and therefore not understanding the whole of who, what and how God is.

 

 

The Stereotyping and Idolizing of God’s Identity

 

            Perhaps you have wondered at some point in our discussion whether the distinction between God’s terms and human terms is an unwarranted categorization to be applied to Christians. “After all, don’t we Christians really all worship the same God? And, by the way, God’s identity is not threatened by the diversity of Christian views and is not at risk of becoming a different God among those of the faith.” While I can understand these sentiments, such thinking only serves to promote epistemological illusion and to reinforce ontological simulation among God’s people—just like the reality of the first disciples not knowing the full identity of Jesus, even after three intensive years of being exposed to Jesus’ vulnerable relational involvement with them and all he shared of himself “with you all this time” (Jn 14:9). “Don’t you know me?” indeed is a question that all Christians are accountable for and need to answer.

            The identity of God cannot be determined by human terms even though human persons are created in the image of the Creator—the Creator whose name is identified simply as God but whose identity is beyond human reason (cf. Ecc 3:11; Job 42:3-5). A 2-D view of God is the most human persons can compose; and for Christians, this 2-D lens is the default view that prevails until transformed by the 3-D view from God’s relational context and terms. A 2-D hermeneutic is problematic, for example, when the 2-D view prevailing even in the monotheism of Judaism and Islam may be overlooked by Christians to provide a basis for Christians to conflate (read dilute, cf. Paul in 2 Cor 4:2) their theology in order to maintain an ecumenical harmony or evolve into religious pluralism of God’s identity. Even with good intentions the 2-D view from any hybrid theology renders the identity of God to an incomplete or fragmentary monotheism. Likewise, many other Christians also wander in their faith with an incomplete or fragmentary monotheism that has rendered God’s identity to a theological fog and myopic practice. How so?

            Our wholeness—without fragmentation or reduction as persons both individually and collectively—is dependent on the whole of God. God’s identity, therefore, must by its nature be whole for us to be whole in likeness, as those created in the image of God’s whole monotheism. Consider the following about anyone’s personal identity and its formulation.

            Surely you have wondered about your own identity and what composes that identity. Our identity is composed of many factors (both external and internal, explicit and implicit), and its formation doesn’t occur in a singular moment/period in our life. Given its multi-faceted and complex nature, what do you pay attention to or ignore about your identity? On the other hand, how do others perceive your identity and on what basis do you think they have composed your identity? Do they have a fair perception of your identity, how complete is their perception, and how much do you think that they really know you? Then reverse the process and ask yourself the same questions about the identity of others, including your family and friends.

            Personal identity can be a sensitive and even fragile matter. To maintain or protect one’s identity as the significance of ‘self’—in contrast to being conformed to others, controlled by them, or just losing one’s identity—one has to establish boundaries. Boundaries for ‘self’ can be either for protecting one’s self by keeping safe distance from others and not being vulnerable; this is the prevailing mode of human interaction. Or boundaries can be the means to highlight one’s identity rather than obscure it, whereby what distinguishes (boundary markers, not barriers) the integrity of one’s self is asserted in relations with others, such that one’s self is not overlooked, distorted, reduced or otherwise shaped by others but able to be truly known and understood by them. So, what boundaries do you use for your identity? Most important, what boundaries do you think God uses—keeping distance or distinguishing the whole of God?

            The relational reality is that God’s identity functions in the latter boundaries. Some, however, have disputed this by historical measure (using referential terms), while many others by default (using a 2-D lens) have simply not paid attention or ignored the improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path of the integral identity of God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement. Others claim that God’s identity is preserved by the former boundaries, and thus that only a negative theology (what God is not) can be composed by the limits of an apophatic view of God. At this point in our discussion, which of these do you think has a fair perception of God’s identity, how complete is their perception, and how much do you think that they really know God?

            When we have a limited basis for defining another’s identity, any conclusions we make about that person can only be introductory or provisional. Until we find out more about the other, we cannot claim to know the person. If we make set conclusions before finding out, then we have an incomplete, distorted or even false view of the other(s). That’s how stereotypes are constructed, which can be either negative (e.g. of minority persons) or “positive” (i.e. idealized or idolized). Negative stereotypes are hurtful views, yet positive stereotypes (while flattering) are harmful views because they are not complete, real or true identities. Both embracing such stereotypes and imposing them on persons make claim to a different identity of the subject, whether it’s of others or even for oneself. As a minority person of color who was successful athletically and intellectually, I experienced both stereotypes—with the frustration and sadness of others (including my mom) not really knowing me, my full identity. Of course, part of this consequence was my responsibility because I didn’t always assert the boundary markers of my whole person. Yet, most of the others based their perception of my identity on a limited basis or composed it mainly by their terms. Does this happen to God? Specifically, what would you guess to be the prevailing identity that Christians have of God?

            For some reason I keep hearing the echo of Jesus’ voice speaking to his disciples: “Don’t you know me, even after all our time together?” It is important to realize that he wasn’t talking to new and young Christians, to casual church members, even to those just starting out in theological education or ministry. These were the core of his disciples who were embarking on the strategic leadership of the church. If they didn’t really know Jesus at that point, then who was the God they worshiped? Whether you want to say that it was a different God or not, it would be incorrect to say they had a fair and complete perception of God’s identity. That leaves them with a stereotype of the LORD God and making an idol of the Messiah, both of which have no relational significance to God (and thus to Jesus) because they are not based on God’s terms. In reality, their stereotype and idol were in conflict with God’s relational terms, which is evident on the following basis:

Instead of “not having other gods before me,” they didn’t pay attention and receive the whole of God embodied by Jesus, thus constructing God’s identity on their terms whereby they (perhaps unintentionally) “misrepresented the name of the LORD your God”; rather than “not making for yourself an idol,” they idealized Jesus by using only certain parts (notably miracles) of Jesus, which reduced God essentially into an idol whose identity they thus idolized.

Labelling their shape of God as an idol is not a misnomer. An idol (‘eliyl, eidolon)[8]  in Scripture signifies to be weak, deficient, which the psalmist made definitive “all the gods of the peoples are idols” (Ps 96:5). Any view of the LORD (Yahweh) and the embodied God that are composed without the primacy of God’s whole terms can only be described as deficient, weak, that is, an idol different from the whole identity of God. In other words, the idolization of the Christian God is the unavoidable implication and consequence of shaping God’s identity using some stereotype composed by our terms, even idealized terms with good intentions. How could this happen to this formative base and formidable core of Christians? This is a question the global church (and its related academy) must answer for itself today.

            Yahweh, the LORD, declared to the people of God to stop highlighting our human resources and celebrating our efforts—that is, boasting (hālal) in their primacy—“but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, my whole identity” (Jer 9:23-24). Much of this can be directed to the theological academy and church leadership yet it rightfully encompasses all of the faith. What is the reality of our personal knowledge and understanding of God; and who is the truth essential of the God we claim, worship and serve?

            To know the full identity of God, Christians must understand the whole of who God is. This is the relational significance of Paul’s experience—one whose prior view of God was an incomplete monotheism—on the Damascus road pursuing the identity of God, “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5) Yet, anyone cannot understand who the whole of God is apart from what God is. And to understand what God is emerges only from the relational experience of how God is—not just some spiritual experience but the ongoing experience of God in relationship. This distinct relational outcome was Paul’s ongoing relational experience that unfolded from the Damascus road, which transformed his view of God to whole monotheism (e.g. 2 Cor 4:6; Col 1:15-19). The whole of who, what and how God is is inseparable; and in any attempt to separate or compartmentalize the integral identity of God, God becomes fragmented and thereby reduced to a stereotype or an idol and essentially a different God with the same name (even as monotheistic)—a name that Jesus himself does not recognize (Mt 7:21-23). Prior to the Damascus road, fragmenting God was Paul’s epistemological, hermeneutic and relational problems. Many Christians, who don’t understand the whole of Paul and thus the whole distinguishing his theology and practice, repeat his problems and duplicate fragmenting God (cf. 1 Cor 1:12-13; 3:18-22).[9]

            Most Christians, including from the first disciples through church tradition to today, think they understand God only by knowing about how God is, apart from what and who God is. Other Christians think they know God by knowing about what God is without experiencing how God is and understanding who God is. Some Christians think they understand who God is without knowing what God is, even though they may think about how God is. All these Christians have come up with terms for God that they have shaped and constructed in one variation or another. Historically, through all this Christian diversity of theology and practice, the results have been terms used for God that correctly can be called myths (e.g. that God is impassible), half-truths (e.g. that God only saves us from sin), and falsehoods (e.g. that the Son is not equal to the Father, that the Spirit of God is only some force, that monotheism and the Trinity are incompatible). From these results have emerged distinctly relational consequences that continue to unfold pervasively and reverberate throughout the global church with the stereotyping and idolizing of God’s identity. This condition, an undeniable relational condition in theology and practice, should not be surprising because such theology and practice are our default mode—operating beyond the common notions of sin. That is, our default mode goes into operation when we are not ongoingly connected to the primacy of God’s relational context (primary over our secondary human contexts, though not excluding them) according to God’s whole relational terms (not by our fragmentary terms), and thereby relationally involved directly and reciprocally with the whole of God.

            Our default mode in theology and practice exposes the following:

1.     Our epistemological problem constrained to the limits of our narrow epistemic field (the source of our information and subsequent knowledge) since we do not further engage the epistemological process more deeply beyond in the relational epistemic process to include the comprehensive epistemic field of God’s relational context disclosed to us.

 

2.     Our hermeneutic problem that either attempts such engagement under the assumptions from the biased lens of our epistemological limits (e.g. using only our reason), or unilaterally gives primacy to the hermeneutic lens of our terms without epistemic humility in order to define and determine our conclusions about God (e.g. by a modernist narrowed-down methodology or a postmodern interpretive inclusiveness).

 

3.     Our relational problem of maintaining (intentionally or unintentionally) relational distance and not becoming vulnerably receptive to God’s relational presence and involvement revealing God’s whole identity—thus evidencing an involvement, or lack of relational involvement, parallel to gathering information about a subject on the Internet and by social media—whereby we directly or indirectly speak for God with stereotypes about God’s identity rather than letting God’s full identity be disclosed in face-to-face relationship.

            Once again, we are confronted epistemologically, hermeneutically and relationally with the persistent question: Do all Christians worship the same God? Christians could identify the same God in referential terms, and many do, but the actual identity of that God may not be the same. In other words, we can identify our God as the Christian God but that cannot be assumed to be the whole of God’s identity (as discussed earlier about personal identity). God’s full identity is only defined in relational terms and not referential, and the disclosure of that identity of God emerges only from God’s relational context involving God’s relational epistemic process. What often prevails for the identity of the Christian God is incomplete, fragmentary and simply reduced to our human shaping, and therefore misrepresentative of being the identity of the whole of God. This has far-reaching implications that need our immediate attention. Any existing reality that all Christians don’t worship the same God makes evident that the truth of God is in fact effectively dead (lost or without vital significance) in those representations—images of stereotypes and idols, even if idealized. The theology and practice of what essentially amounts to “God is dead” despite debatable signs of life is a reality (notably within Western contexts and generations) that we must confront, with urgency so that the living whole of God is distinguished.

            In all Christian theology and practice there are two critical conditions that we need to recognize. First, when our theology is deficient, our practice does not and cannot make up for that deficiency but rather merely reflects the deficiency and witnesses of that less-than-whole God accordingly. Second, when our practice is deficient, our theology must unambiguously account for that deficiency and distinctly provide the means for its significance to be restored by the whole identity of God with God’s whole relational terms, and thereby newly created in the very image and likeness of only the whole of God.

 

 

Defining Terms Distinguishing God’s Whole Identity

 

            So, what does our discussion to this point have to do with the Trinity? In a 2-D reality wanting (if not longing) to be 3-D (i.e. real and whole 3-D, not virtual and fragmentary), these introductory terms are crucial to whether or not the whole identity of God (1) emerges as God’s true identity, (2) is clearly distinguished as essential truth beyond comparative human terms, and (3) has uncompromising primacy for unambiguously determining integrally both our theology and practice. If God’s identity cannot have definitive terms, then Christians can only have a diverse faith—with the object of such diversity composed by a fragmented God of questionable, if not contradictory, identity.

            When terms used for God are discussed, they can generally be located along some point on a continuum. This continuum will range from knowing God at one of its ends to not knowing God at the other end; and the range includes degrees of mystery about God, which can be described below:

               <----------------------------------------------------------------------->

(-) totally unknowable God           (more)<degrees of mystery>(less)               totally knowable God (+)

 On this continuum, mystery about God stops short of totally knowing God, since totally knowing God assumes that everything there is to know about God is known, or at least knowable. On the other hand, the unknowable God can be a total mystery, if God exists at all, and signifies the apophatic terms known as negative theology (notably from philosophical theology).

            When we want to account for terms used for God that are defining, then we need to examine three vital signs for the condition of those terms to be significant of and integral to God: 

1.     The source of those terms, illuminated by the epistemic field of the source that constitutes the source’s epistemological integrity, thus that can be counted on to be definitive. This significance constitutes the epistemological condition.

2.     The connection with this source in the source’s epistemic field, the connection of which can only be made according to the source’s terms, and therefore which can only be engaged by relational involvement in order to receive the defining terms disclosed by the source. This significance constitutes the relational condition.

3.     Upon relational connection with the source and reception of the terms disclosed by the source, those terms must be interpreted by the nature of the source’s relational context that only uses relational language with whole relational terms. Conclusions about those terms for God disclosed by the source, therefore, cannot be narrowed down to referential language using fragmentary referential terms, or they will no longer be defining. This significance constitutes the hermeneutical condition.

Examining these vital signs and ongoingly paying attention to them will either ensure our epistemological, relational and hermeneutical conditions, or expose any epistemological, relational and hermeneutical problems. The whole identity of the whole of God is at stake here, and the implications of any fragmentation (notably by referentialization) have far-reaching consequences, namely for the ontology and function of both God and those created in God’s image and likeness.

            If we want to account for defining terms for God, then those terms cannot be narrowed down and fragmentary but by necessity must be complete and whole. Defining complete terms for God does not mean to totally know God on the above continuum. Since the Christian God is the transcendent holy God, there are inherent limits for all human persons that prevent us from knowing the totality of God. Nevertheless, the whole of God has been revealed in order to be known and understood. It is crucial that ‘complete and whole’ be distinguished from ‘totality’. The whole of God is accessible to humans because of God’s self-disclosure, but the totality of God is beyond what God revealed as well as beyond our human limits to understand. That does not mean, however, what Christians don’t understand about God is due to mystery. Mystery about God has been invoked too easily in Christian tradition, thus readily composing incomplete terms for God. While complete terms do not define the totality of God, they distinguish terms that are defining for the whole of God, God’s whole identity—just as Paul defined with pleroma (fullness, complete, thus whole) to distinguish the whole monotheism of God (Col 1:19; 2:9). Only complete and whole terms distinguish the true full identity of God from all other terms that can just narrow down and fragment God.

            To account for the whole of God has always been the most critical theological task. Yet, this task has had the most divergent engagement, emerging from the beginning in the primordial garden with the underlying assumption that legitimizes human efforts to take hermeneutic autonomy to reinterpret God’s relational communication: “Did God say that?”—implying that if God did say that, “you are to determine what God meant by that” (Gen 3:1,5). Such efforts to speak for God have made God’s wholeness elusive or irretrievable. When the wholeness of God and God’s identity is to be accounted for—and this wholeness and whole has lacked being addressed with significance in Christian theology and practice—wholeness cannot be considered an abstract concept or perceived as a conceptual model. Wholeness constitutes the ontological condition of God, who only functions congruently in wholeness. This essential reality of whole ontology and function distinguishes what and how God is, and who, what and how God created the ontology and function of human persons in whole likeness. The issue prevailing in the theological task, however, has been a limited epistemology constrained by a narrow epistemic field that is disconnected from God’s relational context, therefore having relational distance from the whole of who, what and how God is. The consequence of these epistemological and relational problems is necessarily having to depend primarily on a hermeneutic lens biased by human terms—notably giving primacy to fragmentary referential terms, as evident in Christian scholarship. Even conceptually, wholeness and fragmentation are incompatible, yet the latter are routinely conflated to represent the former. The process of referentialization fragments terms (i.e. reduces them) in order to either grasp them with more certainty (as in science) or to render them to our controlling efforts (such as for self-determination), and likely both. This is, has been and will always be problematic for accounting for wholeness.

            The whole ontology and function of God and of human persons in likeness cannot be determined by their parts—for example, the attributes and resources they have and/or the amount of things they can do and achieve. Nor can their wholeness be determined even by the sum of their parts. The truth is that the sum of those parts never equals the whole; and the fact of synergism is that the whole is always greater than the sum of those parts. In the theological task, therefore, the primary focus must not be on the parts of God because the extent of those parts will be misleading to define of the whole of God and thus will not help us understand the whole ontology and function of God. Any focus on the parts of God must always be secondary to the primacy of the whole, the whole of God, God’s whole ontology and function; and the significance of any parts of God (even God’s love) is only distinguished when integral to this definitive whole. While we may claim to know God by parts (especially love), we cannot boast to understand the whole of God by who, what and how God’s love is distinguished with complete relational significance. For the parts of God to remain primary and not rendered to the whole of God is to fragment God in our theology and practice; and thereby we will compose our theological anthropology with a fragmentary ontology and function lacking wholeness. Moreover, we should neither assume nor expect that divergent terms used for God are even compatible with the identity of the whole of God, much less integral for God’s whole ontology and function and can be conflated to determine God’s wholeness.

 

            As we discussed above about knowing the extent of someone’s identity, just knowing parts of someone never equals knowing that whole person—no matter how many parts are known and even if those parts are added together. This then necessarily prompts a variation of our opening question: Do all Christians worship the whole of God? If their God is anything less or any substitute, then what is this God, who is this God, and how does this God function? And within the diversity of influence surrounding the global church, how compatible is their diverse theology and practice of worshipping the identity of their God with the way prescribed by God’s nonnegotiable relational terms: “You shall not worship the LORD your God in such ways”—that is, as the majority of others do (Dt 12:4).[10]    

            These epistemological, hermeneutic and relational problems were evident in Job when he engaged in an intense debate with his friends over fragmented views of God. What happened next is a pivotal lesson for all Christians to learn from—an integral methodology that distinguishes the defining identity of the whole of God. The LORD (i.e. Yahweh) intruded relationally on Job: “Who is this that darkens [obscures, hashak] my terms [‘esah] with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2) Job’s terms created a theological fog over God’s whole ontology and function, whereby he fragmented the whole identity of his God without knowing and understanding (da’at) God. This was the self-determined theological task that emerged from a man described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Like Jesus’ first disciples, Job’s epistemological, hermeneutic and relational problems kept him from knowing and understanding the whole ontology and function of Yahweh. Therefore, the LORD intervened on Job’s narrow epistemic field to distinguish God’s whole identity to him by the relational terms of God’s relational context; the relational outcome was that Job’s biased hermeneutic lens was refocused to perceive the presence and involvement of the whole of God—just as Paul experienced on the Damascus road. The outcome of Job’s relational experience was the essential truth of knowing and understanding the whole of his God. Job summarized this defining relational outcome:

“You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my terms without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things about God I did not truly understand, things too distinguished [pala] for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak’…. Up to now my ears had heard of you but now my eyes have perceived you with understanding [ra’ah]” (Job 42:3-5).

What Job had heard before was fragmentary referential terms about the God of Israel. But his hermeneutical clarification corrected his epistemological illusion to open the relational connection face to face with the whole presence and involvement of his God (as experienced by Moses, Num 12:6-8).

            The integral methodology for distinguishing the defining identity of our God, which we need to learn from Job, is not about procedure. Rather it involves our relational practice that engages the theological task—a task participated in by any and all Christians who seek to sort out their beliefs, gain their meaning or put them into practice—with this integral involvement: distinctly with epistemic humility (perhaps by even epistemological humiliation), the ongoing relational practice of which gives hermeneutic priority to the primacy of God’s whole relational terms (and language) over distinctly secondary limited human terms, while clarifying narrowed-down referential terms (and language) and correcting their fragmentation. This relational practice connects with God’s relational context and is involved in God’s relational epistemic process to receive the essential truth revealed by God; and only the relational outcome from this relational involvement constitutes the reciprocal relational response of those worshipping the whole of God whom they know and understand.

            This integral methodology is implied in a relational imperative that condenses this relational practice as follows: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). In modern times, notably in this electronic age, to “be still” in our active, (pre)occupying, even consuming human contexts is a pervasive issue; but to “be still” in our human condition (from inner out) is the prevailing issue addressed in this imperative. To be still (raphah) means to cease, desist, that is, to cease from human effort and to desist from depending on human resources in the theological task. The relational imperative for our theological task is ‘cease and desist’ from our unilateral engagement, or at least giving primacy to our efforts, and thus from our explicit or implicit efforts of self-determination, which signifies the human condition. The relational practice of raphah is imperative relationally so that God’s communication in whole relational terms is distinguished as the primary source revealing and therefore defining the whole of who, what and how God is. Raphah in relational terms not only gives God the opportunity to speak in the theological task; but reciprocally integral to this relational epistemic process is for us to listen vulnerably in epistemic humility and hermeneutic receptivity in order to “know and understand the I AM, YHWH, the whole of God.”

            Even though the human person is created in the image and likeness of the whole of God, despite the reality that God “has also set eternity in the hearts of humans, yet they cannot fathom the whole of who, what and how God is” (Eccl 3:11, NIV). In other words, human persons cannot know the whole of God by undertaking the theological task in self-autonomy, by self-determination, or on the primary basis of their own terms composing their epistemological, hermeneutical and relational problems. By relational connection, however, and the ongoing practice of relational involvement with God’s eternal relational context, “this is the significance of eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God” (Jn 17:3)—intimately know the essential truth of the whole of God, the whole of who, what and how Jesus embodied for his defining prayer to constitute the whole ontology and function of his church family in likeness (Jn 17).

            Anything less and any substitutes in our theology and practice are not the true and whole identity of God. Therefore, cease and desist, and let the whole of God communicate by God’s defining relational terms instead of speaking by our speculative terms, in order that we can know and understand the triune God, the Trinity in wholeness.

 

 

The Counter-Relational Reality

 

            ‘Be still’ is an uncomplicated relational practice, yet involvement in this practice is problematic—with a complexity of relational issues that counter this relational practice. The breadth of these relational issues are rarely addressed in the theological task, and usually not paid attention to or simply not understood. Thus, the counter-relational reality composing the underlying depth of these relational issues does not get accounted for in our theology and practice. The consequences emerging from this counter-relational reality are explicit and implicit relational consequences, which include fragmenting our epistemology and hermeneutics but most importantly reducing our ontology. The defining issue for determining the theological task is our theological anthropology. A theological anthropology defining human identity composed by reduced ontology and function thereby also will define God’s identity with reduced ontology and function; and the ultimate relational consequence is that both humanity and God are fragmented, along with their relationships between them and within each of them. This critical condition can render the trinitarian theological task to be on life support, unless urgent intervention can transform this critical consequence.

            What is this counter-relational reality? It emerged from the beginning with the subtle challenge “Did God really say that?” This set into motion a pervading dynamic composing these challenges:

1.     The relational challenge to exercise self-autonomy for pursuing self-determination—“God knows that when you do this your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing…” (Gen 3:5).

2.     The epistemological challenge to narrow down your epistemic field, so that you will have a better grasp of what to know and achieve more certainty in that knowledge—“that the source was good for this knowledge, and…to make one wise with expertise” (sakal, 3:6), all conducted under the sweeping assumption that “you will not be reduced” (3:4).

3.     The hermeneutical challenge that uses a biased lens based on the subtle influence of this assumption, which then warrants hermeneutic autonomy to reinterpret God’s terms and to skew your focus for self-determination (even in the name of scholarship or to be a better Christian)—“So when the persons saw that the source in its narrow epistemic context was consonant with their view and to be desired for their purpose, they acted in self-determination” (3:6).

These often subtle and implicit challenges are designed to reconstruct the theological task, and fully addressing them will likely require initial deconstruction to restore it back to its primary focus and engagement.

            Creator God communicated terms in the beginning for those persons to follow, just as Yahweh communicated terms (as noted to open this chapter) for the people of God to follow in the primacy of covenant relationship together (not as a code for conformity). The relational, epistemological and hermeneutical challenges raise issues with God’s terms in order to counter God and God’s creation and people in likeness. These issues need to be illuminated in order for this persistent counter-relational reality to be exposed, so that its pervasive influence will be accounted for and neutralized in our theology and practice. The terms that God commanded also need to be further clarified, given the diminished focus from counter-relational influence. As noted earlier, God’s terms are only relational terms for us to follow, the language of which is specific to God’s relational language and not to be generalized to human language and terms. In other words, God’s relational language and terms are nonnegotiable and thus are irreplaceable in theology and practice. Furthermore, God’s relational terms must not undergo referentialization, because referential language and terms are not relationally specific and in reality are used to be counter-relational.

            Relational terms only serve a relational purpose for a relational outcome, which is always primary in who, what and how God is. As Creator and sovereign LORD, for example, God’s terms can easily be misperceived apart from relational understanding, and thus all too often resisted (e.g. as too demanding) or countered (e.g. as too controlling), both knowingly and unintentionally—as emerged from the primordial garden (cf. also Num 16). The relationship-specific nature of God’s terms, however, does not constitute unilateral relationship but reciprocal relationship. This is where the issues raised above become crucial for our theology and practice and need further illumination for our clarification and correction.

            God’s relational terms are communicated to persons who have the free will to receive and accept them or to refuse and deny those terms. God does not impose those terms on human persons in order to control them under God’s rule—the ultimate Rule of Law. Nor did God impose those terms as templates for human conformity, wherein nonconformists are punished, rejected or destroyed. If God wanted total control over and complete conformity from the human population, God would simply have made robotic objects without a will. Prevenient grace from Reformed theology, for example, may define God as irresistible but at the expense of defining God with the diminished significance of God’s relationship-specific terms, which has implications for the ontology and function both for God and for human persons. The only significance of God’s terms, in contrast, is for the primacy of relationship together in likeness of the whole of God’s whole ontology and function. Human persons who receive and accept God’s terms choose to be involved in reciprocal relationship with the whole of God (not just parts of God); but, and here is the pivotal issue, they have to choose to be vulnerably involved on the basis of their whole ontology and function in the very image (not control) and likeness (not conformity) of God’s whole ontology and function. The whole of God’s whole relational terms only serve this whole relational purpose for this whole relational outcome. Anything less and any substitutes are always easier choices to make—for example, fragmented engagement over integral involvement, involving only parts of the person over the whole person—and this is when the pervasive and persistent counter-relational dynamic has opportunity to challenge and influence the choices made.

            From the beginning, this counter-relational reality (signifying reductionism) has shaped our theology and practice by transposing God’s relational terms into subtle reductions of anything less and any substitutes. These subtle reductions in our theology are incongruent with God’s whole ontology and function, and their presence in our practice makes our ontology and function incompatible to God’s. Human perception has long been subject to this defining influence, which has pervaded and continues to prevail to determine how we simply see things in everyday life. For example, how have God’s people perceived and practiced the laws of God (torah)? And what is the significant difference between our traditional Rule of Faith and the ultimate Rule of Law (imposed by God to control us, noted earlier)? The defining issue here is how relationship specific God’s terms have been perceived, codified and applied to determine our theology and practice. This has direct consequence in the theological task, which is ongoingly countered with relational, epistemological and hermeneutical challenges. Making an important distinction will help illuminate how the counter-relational dynamic can (or does) influence our theological task involving God’s terms.

            When we consider God’s terms in the theological task, it is important to ask the following questions: Are God’s terms recorded in Scripture rules imperative to follow as stipulated, as in the rule of law, or are they mere standards that provide the necessary criteria for practice (e.g. moral standards) but have latitude in their observance and application? When Christians are faced with any type of rules, especially as teen-agers, we have a tendency to wonder how we can get around them or how far we can bend the rules. Yet, we usually realize that rules are rules and that to break them has consequences. On the other hand, when standards are given to us, we seem to think that there are variable ways we can do something according to those standards, and that there are different levels of measurement in meeting those standards. Any perceived flexibility of standards allows for more autonomy and self-determination, with perception biased by such efforts; whereas rules require nonnegotiable adherence (conformity, if you wish) that minimizes autonomy and does not promote the latitude of self-determination. Given this distinction, how would you categorize God’s terms? Are the terms of God’s law not to construct idols and not to misrepresent God’s name given to us as rules or standards? Additionally, how do you think Christians use God’s terms to define the theological task and determine their conclusions for theology and practice?

            In spite of not outright refusing or denying God’s terms, there has been much liberty exercised with what form God’s terms have in theology and practice. Historically, God’s people narrowed down God’s relational terms to rules for them merely to conform to (e.g. the Sabbath and temple sacrifices). Even though the stipulations of God’s terms (laws) served only the relational purpose of covenant relationship together, they transposed God’s relational terms to identity markers to serve their purpose of self-determination for nation-state. Consequently, their theology and practice signified a counter-relational reality that reduced both their ontology and function and God’s (exposed in Isa 29:13, and again by Jesus, Mk 7:6-8)—in other words, traditions composing ‘rules of faith’ by fragmentary human terms (cf. Paul’s critique, Col 3:20-23). The rules for their theology and practice may have identified a monotheistic God, but they did not worship the whole of God—the identity of whom cannot be distinguished in anything less than whole ontology and function. Nevertheless, the counter-relational workings of reductionism embedded them in an epistemological illusion and ontological simulation, as they wandered in a theological fog (cf. the debate in Num 16). Jesus later also exposed the subtle counter-relational nature of reducing God’s terms in our theology and practice from God’s relational purpose, which also exposed self-autonomy with the rules that reduced the primacy of relationship together (Mt 5:21-48, in the context of his definitive discourse for discipleship, Mt 5-7).

            Jesus himself was condemned for not adhering to God’s so-called rule of law (e.g. about the Sabbath, Ex 20:8-10; Lk 13:10-14; Mt 12:1-9). Since his accusers reduced God’s relational terms and used those fragmentary referential terms to identify their God in the theological task, their relational, epistemological and hermeneutic issues could not perceive and receive that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt 12:8), and therefore that he constituted the whole of God’s ontology and function (cf. Paul’s further critique, Col 3:16-19). What Jesus exposed was the reductionism underlying their theological task that was consequential for composing their counter-relational theology and practice. What Jesus also illuminated existing in the subtlety of a counter-relational dynamic is that rules and standards are interchanged at the convenience of those influenced by reductionism and its counter-relational workings (Lk 13:15-16; Jn 7:22-24). This subtlety provided the necessary latitude and flexibility that promoted their hermeneutic autonomy to pursue success in self-determination.

            In the essential truth and reality of God’s relational terms, however, what Jesus illuminated is not the either-or fragmentary character of God’s terms. Rather Jesus illuminated the both-and integral nature of God’s terms that signify the primacy of whole ontology and function distinguished only by the whole of God and constituted for our theology and practice. Murder, for example, is a rule imperative to follow as stipulated in God’s terms (Ex 20:13). As a relational term, murder also is a standard that constitutes the primacy of God’s relational purpose for relationship together in wholeness, which then extends the application of God’s terms beyond ‘the letter of the law’ in observing the rule of law (Mt 5:21-26). In fact, such a standard of God’s terms encompasses an imperative rule that not only challenges the insufficiency of conformity but encourages vulnerable involvement in the practice of the primacy of relationships together in wholeness in likeness of the whole of God’s presence and involvement (Lev 19:18; Mt 5:43-44,48). Reductionism and its counter-relational workings, however, always maintain the either-or distinction between rules and standards, so that they can be interchanged at our convenience to serve our limits and constraints in reduced ontology and function.

            The Shema—“The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Dt 6:4)—distinguishes the whole of God with this integral term that is both a rule and a standard for the theological task. It serves as a rule of law that constitutes the standard necessary to compose the Rule of Faith for our theology and practice. Yet, historically this has been problematic whenever its rule narrows down God’s whole ontology and function or its standard does not encompass the whole of God. This is the consequence from fragmenting God’s terms into either rules or standards that we can expect from the defining influence of reductionism and its counter-relational workings determining our theological conclusions about the identity of God. The development, or lack thereof, in trinitarian theology has been evident of this struggling process to emerge whole. I am praying in ongoing reciprocal relationship that this study will serve to illuminate the face of the whole of God, and thus help to integrally distinguish the trinitarian essential both for God’s ontology and function as well as ours. For this relational outcome to unfold in our theological task, the surrounding reality of reductionism and its counter-relational workings needs to be paid attention to in its breadth and depth, and its relational, epistemological and hermeneutic challenges redeemed where their influences have pervaded Christian theology and practice.

 


 

[1] Unless indicated differently, all Scripture quoted are from the NRSV; any italics in the Scripture quoted throughout this study signify emphasis or further rendering of terms.

[2] This is discussed further for the church and academy in my following studies: “Did God Really Say That?” Theology in the Age of Reductionism (Theology Study, 2013), and The Person in Complete Context: The Whole of Theological Anthropology Distinguished (Theological Anthropology Study, 2014). Both online at http://www.4X12.org.

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

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

[5] These are alternative designations for the biblical text of God’s revelation, which have commonly rendered the OT subordinate to the NT and thus less important than and even irrelevant for the NT. See the experience of designating the Testaments by John Goldingay in Old Testament Theology, Vol. Two: Israel’s Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 13-14.

[6] Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 42-46.

[7] For example, see Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and L. Daniel Hawk, eds., Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

[8] Hebrew and Greek word studies used in this study are taken from the following sources: Horst Balz, Gerhard Schreider, eds., Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990); Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975); R. Laid Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce Waitke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980); Ernst Jenni, Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Mark E. Biddle, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997); Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974); Harold K. Moulton, ed., The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978); W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1981); Spiros Zodhiates, ed., Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (Chattanooga: AMG Publ., 1996).

[9] For an expanded discussion of Paul, see my study The Whole of Paul and the Whole in His Theology: Theological Interpretation in Relational Epistemic Process (Paul Study, 2010). Online at http://www.4X12.org.

[10] For a study distinguishing worship in the human context, see Kary A. Kambara Worshiping in Likeness of God: Not Determined “in their way” (Worship, 2016). Online at http://www.4X12.org.

 

 

©2016 T. Dave Matsuo

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