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The Face of the Trinity

The Trinitarian Essential for the Whole of God and Life


Chapter 3     The Face of God Embodied in the Word




YHWH Unfolds Embodied in Wholeness

The Whole Gospel Unfolds Embodying the Face of God

God's Strategic Shift

God's Tactical Shift

God's Functional Shift

The Challenge of Subject Face


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




In the beginning was the Word…was with God…was God.

                                                                                                                        John 1:1


He was in the world, and though the world was made through him,

the world did not recognize him.

                                                                                                                       John 1:10, NIV


The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.

                                                                                                                       John 1:14


            In the Second Testament the identity of God is unmistakable, yet there are many issues about the breadth and depth of God’s identity. For the Christian God to have continuity with the God of Israel, this one God must be on the same theological trajectory and relational path as YHWH, “my name forever…for all generations” (Ex 3:15). The pivotal issue underlying the discontinuity of God’s identity involves converting YHWH’s name from the substantive relational verb to a noun, thereby imposing a static title constrained to human terms and limits. Converting YHWH’s name also could include substituting the substantive relational verb with a passive verb or intransitive verb. Such conversion obviously has reduced YHWH and restricted who, what and how YHWH could be and continue to unfold. Issues of reduction and restriction also emerge in NT theology and practice that are critical to the breadth and depth of God’s identity unfolding in the Second Testament, which need clarification and correction in the trinitarian theological task.



YHWH Unfolds Embodied in Wholeness


            Our initial understanding of YHWH, the God of Israel, is not about knowledge of a triune God or even about maintaining monotheism through the Shema. God’s self-revelation is distinguished beyond such referential knowledge about God and vulnerably exposes YHWH in the human context for knowing and therefore understanding the whole of God. YHWH is not fragmentary, something less and thus incomplete but unfolds only whole; accordingly, this is not about the quantitative sense of mono-theism but the qualitative reality of whole-theism. This reality of YHWH emerges whole only from God’s relational context and process, which compose the third horizon of the necessary hermeneutic for the 3-D view of God. This 3-D lens is indispensable in order to whole-ly understand (syniemi, Mk 8:17-18) the Word of YHWH unfolding—the irreplaceable lens for the whole understanding (synesis) to specifically know (epignosis) the whole of God (as Paul provided for the church, Col 2:2). Otherwise, at best, we only have a flat 2-D view (the horizons of biblical writers and readers) of God composed by thought and ideas—a myopic view even when focused on Scripture—which lacks depth and therefore the full, complete and whole significance of God. A 2-D view is not only problematic hermeneutically but presents an insurmountable issue epistemologically.

            Just as the human person has been increasingly reduced to a simple object, notably by the observations of science, we need to discern if the God in our theology and practice is merely a simple Object or a complex Subject. A simple Object is defined in measureable terms, namely by a quantity of parts (i.e. what the Object has and does) observed in the Object, which yield some degree of explanatory certainty about God—as science concludes about the human person and often assumes about the nonexistence of God. The reality of the complex Subject, however, emerges from beyond a limited, narrowed-down epistemic field of human observation, and is contingent on only the transcendent God’s self-revelation. The embodied self-disclosure of this complex Subject was a major point of contention for those dependent on the measureable terms of “human standards” (Jn 8:12-15, cf. Jn 7:24). Yet, the subtle influence of human terms on the epistemic field and interpretation of the incarnation continue to shape much of our theology and practice.

            The reality of the whole of God dwelling in transcendence beyond our human knowledge and understanding signifies a complexity that we cannot reduce to our human terms—even with the simplicity of philosophical theology—and expect the complex integrity of God to remain whole without fragmentation. The complex integrity of God is the issue facing us as YHWH emerged from transcendence on the theological trajectory to be present and the relational path to be involved in the human context, and then unfolds embodied in wholeness of the Word—a relational-specific process that again should not be confused with process theology. Thus, we need to answer this question for the Word in our trinitarian theological task: Is the focus on a simple Object or a complex Subject?

            As we shift our main focus from the First Testament to the Second Testament, the unmistakable name of YHWH unfolds on the most improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path in human history to embody God’s whole identity. However, while the essential truth of the incarnation embodies the whole of God, what Jesus embodied has often become a virtual reality in our theology and practice rather than the essential reality of this truth essential of God. Virtual reality is more pervasive today since the advent of modern technology, yet it has existed from the beginning of human engagement. The virtual reality of Jesus is evident upon realizing that there is a tendency in our theology and practice to fall into a default Christology. That is, we use either an overly christocentric Christology or an incomplete Christology, both of which are fragmentary reductions that don’t signify the whole Word and/or distinguish the whole of God’s Word—who was “in the beginning” (Jn 1:1-2; Col 1:17), emerged from the beginning (Jn 1:3; Col 1:16), and unfolded relationally embodying the whole of God (Jn 1:14; Col 1:19; 2:9). A Christology focused primarily on Christ or lacking the full significance of Jesus’ whole person, such a Christology is a virtual reality of Jesus the Christ that is disconnected from his essential truth. To be connected to the essential truth of Jesus’ whole person involves engaging the relational-specific process both congruent with his theological trajectory and compatible to his relational path, which has the relational outcome of embracing the essential reality (not virtual) of the Word’s essential truth.

            Just as the name of YHWH as a substantive relational verb is essential for God’s whole identity, the Word of YHWH without redaction is essential for the whole of God. A default Christology has consequences for the trinitarian theological task, and its most consequential impact is the fragmentary reduction of the Trinity that doesn’t distinguish beyond mere thought and idea the truth and reality essential to the whole of God. This diminishes the heart of God’s vulnerable qualitative presence and intimate relational-specific involvement and thus renders God to a simple Object, who is likely embodied in doctrinal norms with speculative certainty. God’s complex integrity embodied in the Word has emerged for our relational-specific knowing and converges in the complex Subject’s ontology and function for our whole understanding of the Trinity. Christians should expect the Trinity to be complex, on the one hand, but accessible to understand and experience on the other hand. And Christology (full, complete, whole) is the epistemological, hermeneutical, relational and ontological keys to this relational-specific outcome in our trinitarian theology and practice.

            The nature of being a subject is to be who, what and how that person is. To be a whole subject is to be the whole of who, what and how the person is both from inner out and in relationships with others. The Word as Subject cannot be reduced or else the Word no longer composes the Subject in the whole ontology and function of this person. The most that would remain in a reduced Word is the Object. The Word as Object is neither composed for relationship with others, nor can others have reciprocal relationship together with a mere Object of reduced ontology and function. There is no relational connection, ongoing relationship and reciprocal involvement together without the Subject. This reduced condition is all transformed by the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the irreducible Subject of the Word, who constitutes the whole gospel and its whole relational outcome.

            An incomplete Christology by the early disciples (as in Mk 6:51-52; 8:17-21) rendered their intense years following Jesus to a virtual reality, which didn’t have the relational significance to truly know Jesus’ whole person. In spite of the quantity of referential information about Jesus they could convey, they lacked the essential reality of the truth essential of Jesus embodying the whole of God—much to Jesus’ chagrin after being “with you all this time” (Jn 14:9). This epistemological gap in their theology and practice certainly reflected a problem in the disciples’ hermeneutic lens, which prevented whole-ly understanding Jesus and putting together the pieces (syniemi) revealed to them. Yet, the most critical issue in their theological task was the relational distance they kept from Jesus; for example, they consistently kept their thoughts and wonderings about Jesus to themselves (Mk 4:41; 8:16; 9:32-34; 10:26; 14:4). This relational pattern—which Mark’s Gospel highlights in critical review of the disciples—demonstrated their practice that reflected their lack of relational involvement to make their persons vulnerable to the vulnerable presence and intimate relational involvement of Jesus’ whole person. This certainly created a barrier to fully receive all of Jesus’ self-disclosures. The subtle consequence was not really knowing and fully understanding Jesus in their theology and practice (Jn 14:9-10).

            This irreplaceable relational-specific process was clearly illuminated when Jesus’ whole person vulnerably converged with Peter’s person at his footwashing, only to be refused and kept at a comfortable relational distance with the relational consequence “you have no share with me” (Jn 13:6-8). Later, Peter’s incomplete Christology had to be corrected for the essential truth of Jesus to be proclaimed for the essential reality of all persons (Acts 11:9, as previously illuminated by Jesus, Mt 15:15-20).

            The relational consequence of not engaging the theological task in relational terms is to be disconnected from the Word embodied in wholeness, whereby redactions of the Word result in overly christocentric or incomplete Christologies from fragmentary reductions of Jesus’ whole person. As with the early disciples, this composes theology and practice with a virtual reality of Jesus—a default condition that likely longs for the essential reality of his essential truth (the embodied Truth), which Moses pursued from YHWH in his theological task. Such reductionism of the Word also unavoidably fragments the whole gospel and truncates the salvation enacted in relational-specific terms by the whole of God, and therefore has immeasurable repercussions on trinitarian theology and practice.



The Whole Gospel Unfolds Embodying the Face of God


            The gospel initially emerged with the covenant established with Abraham of reciprocal relationship together in wholeness—“walk before me and be whole” (tāmiym, Gen 17:1). This covenant relationship was constituted by the qualitative face-presence of YHWH’s relational-specific involvement of love (Dt 7:7-9). Now this good news further unfolds in a strategic shift to embody the whole face of God, which involves deeper tactical and functional shifts to distinguish the whole of God in irreducible and nonnegotiable relational-specific terms—that is, distinguishing the whole of God beyond mere thought and ideas (even ideals). This deeper profile of God’s face challenges our epistemic process and whether our hermeneutic lens is open to be able to distinguish God’s whole face unmistakably and thus deeper than commonly viewed.



            This warrants a short pause in our discussion to address a related theological issue just touched on earlier about the face of YHWH.

            Philosophical theology would dispute that God has a face, much less an unmistakable face. Its proponents’ basis for this theistic view is important to understand as we consider what God has or has not self-disclosed. Their epistemic field is critical for the basis of their view. One skillful method to narrow the epistemic field is to expand the concept of uniqueness. This is accomplished by creating distinctions in categories such that some particular distinction stands alone (a unique or new category) and cannot be compared to others in that original or common category. For example, modern science made a distinction in the category of what exists by creating the category of the improbable, whose uniqueness then could no longer be compared to what else exists. This made it easier to take the approach that the improbable no longer needed to be accounted for because it could not be known; and therefore the conclusion follows that it didn’t exist—presumably based on probability, but it was a conclusion shaped more by a perceptual-interpretive framework from human contextualization since mathematics in itself imposes limits making it insufficient for conclusions beyond those limits.[1] Nassim Taleb further discusses the severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience, and the fragility of our knowledge based on probability, thereby creating a barrier to learning more from the improbable.[2]

            Prior to the scientific method, the concept of uniqueness was expanded by Greek philosophy in the category of being. In contrast to our changing world of existence, Plato maintained there is a realm of being that is eternal and unchanging. A revised form of Platonism, known as Neo-Platonism, focused narrowly on the ultimate transcendence of God, all of which influenced early Christian thinking that there is one supreme transcendent God.[3] This philosophical lens was certainly congruent for the monotheism of Judaism and Christian theology but the use of reductionism made it incompatible epistemologically, ontologically and relationally for the whole of God’s revelation—most notably God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path. This narrow monotheism was unable to account for the triune God, and made it inconceivable to speak about the Trinity.

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

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

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

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

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

            This view, and related views, of theism can be discounted yet there is a valid concern that must not be dismissed. Any theistic view that can be discounted emerges from a narrowed epistemic field, which then makes God unknowable (or less knowable) and our statements about God essentially statements by default—saying either less of what God is or simply not saying much of any depth. Certainly, the face of God would be incompatible with negative theology and its unmistakable presence would render negative theology void. That raises the valid concern from philosophical theology that we must not dismiss while discounting negative theology. The following questions frame the issue: Does God indeed have a face or is this feature what we impose on God as a human construction? And if God has a face, has God’s face been viewed mainly by human shaping? In other words, this raises the valid concern about anthropomorphism shaping or constructing our view of God, which we need to account for in our theology and practice.


         This resumes our discussion to refocus on the whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path. There is a necessary dynamic interaction between the transcendent God and the embodied Word. The breadth of God is his transcendence and the depth of God is his vulnerable presence in the human context and intimate involvement with human persons—that is, the depth constituted by the whole of who, what and how God is, the whole and righteous God distinguishing the Trinity. Both the breadth and depth of God are necessary and inseparable, thus ignoring one or emphasizing one over the other results in an incomplete or distorted view and understanding of God, certainly inadequate to define the whole of God—all of which is illuminated by God’s face. Yet, the face of God fits in the category of Taleb’s Black Swan (noted earlier), which constricts the improbable and creates a barrier to learning more of God from the intrusion of the improbable. This is evident most noticeably with the depth of God and God’s action in human context, which consistently has been reduced of its qualitative and relational significance such that God’s intrusive relational path is not accounted for, even if God’s improbable theological trajectory is. The consequential lack of relationally knowing God was the primary concern that the face of Jesus addressed in his disciples face to face, highlighting his primary purpose (Jn 14:9; cf. Mk 8:17-18). Without the embodied Word in whole illuminated in the face of Jesus, theology is rendered speculative (contrast Jn 1:18) and the gospel is re-formed (contrast 2 Cor 4:4-6). A God of breadth without depth becomes functionally deistic; a God of assumed depth without breadth is anthropomorphic—with both resulting from human shaping and construction.

            As God’s presence (qualitative face) engages the most improbable theological trajectory and God’s involvement enacts the most intrusive relational path, it would seem highly likely that the embodying of God’s face would be easily recognized, if not readily received. After all, distinguished (pala) implies beyond comparison to anything else existing in the human context, making God’s face seemingly unmistakable. But, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11), even after they “have seen his glory” (1:14). This always indicates that epistemological and hermeneutical issues (as discussed earlier) are in operation. For example, a face from outer in is just a re-presentation of a person (e.g. ours in the mirror), which may not be a deception but still cannot be counted on for the whole person. God’s face from outer in (i.e. in referential terms) is a reduced face of an Object that cannot distinguish the whole of God, and thus does not have the deeper profile necessary to be distinct from anthropomorphism. Only God’s face as revealed from inner out in relational terms distinguishes the whole of God as Subject—clearly distinguished from mere parts of God as Object. At the same time, God’s face from inner out does not distinguish the totality of God, only the whole of God; whole is neither totality nor aggregated parts.

            While keeping these issues in mind, we need to turn our attention to more urgent relational and ontological issues involving the embodied Word. One issue to mention initially is between the economy and immanence of the triune God. The immanent Trinity is who, what and how God is whether apart from the human context or within it, whereas the economic Trinity only involves God’s actions within the human context. They are neither the same nor at the same time separable from the other. It is crucial in our understanding of the whole of God that, on the one hand, the glory of God’s immanence is not collapsed into the glory of God’s relational-specific action (not merely activity) in the human context. Yet, on the other hand, they are also inseparable from each other such that separately the economic Trinity does not integrally signify and distinguish the whole of God’s immanence. When our conclusions about who and what God is are based on only our perceptions of how God’s activity is in the human context, then we are most susceptible to anthropomorphism and shaping God by our human terms. The integral distinction of who, what and how God is embodying God’s whole glory will be critical for composing trinitarian theology and practice. This is the relational and ontological challenge (along with epistemological and hermeneutical) that the face of the whole Word presents to us.

            In contrast to those having problems recognizing God’s embodied face, when Simeon—who was involved with and guided by the Holy Spirit of YHWH in relational-specific terms (Lk 2:25-28)—saw Jesus, he declared YHWH’s fulfillment of the good news promising salvation for all peoples (2:29-32). Jesus embodied the encouragement (paraklesis) that Simeon was waiting for, yet Simeon didn’t have any illusions about what was to unfold. Since seeing the glory of Jesus was not a virtual reality for Simeon, he understood the essential reality that the truth essential of Jesus the Christ (Messiah) would shake up the human context (including the religious status quo), and thus that Jesus would be the source for both joy among those redeemed and conflict among those exposed from inner out (2:34-35). In other words, Simeon fully understood (syniemi) already by the Spirit that this Messiah did not come to bring a virtual peace on the earth; instead he brings the redemptive change (the old dying and the new rising) necessary for the essential reality of peace as wholeness in new relationship together (as in Lk 12:49-53; 19:41-42).

            This whole reality of peace is the primacy of new relationship together in wholeness that the face of YHWH promised to “give [siym] you peace”—that is, the siym which means to “bring change and establish a new relationship together in wholeness [shalôm]”—in the whole of God’s definitive blessing for God’s family (Num 6:24-26). The whole of Jesus’ glory (being, nature and presence) embodies this peace only for the relational-specific purpose of this primacy of relationship together in wholeness, which is necessary to constitute God’s family (or kingdom) in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole face of God (as in Jn 17:21-23). On this relationship-specific basis, Jesus embodied the face of YHWH and pursued the religious status quo: “How often have I desired to gather your children…and you were not willing! …You will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is the Word who comes in the name of YHWH’” (Lk 13:34-35).

            Here Jesus clearly reveals his identity with the name of YHWH, whereby his substantive relational action embodied the face of nothing less than the whole of God. The Word of YHWH unfolds, therefore, not only in function from the First Testament but now also revealed integrally in ontology, so that God’s whole ontology and function are distinguished. God is not evolving into wholeness, as process theology claims, but the whole of God’s ontology and function is vulnerably disclosed in this relational-specific process. On the basis of whole relational terms, then, the whole gospel unfolded to illuminate “the glory of God embodied in the face of Jesus Christ,” as Paul later made definitive for the church’s theology and practice (2 Cor 4:4,6).

            The conclusions by Simeon and Paul illuminating who, what and how God is went beyond prevailing theological thought and ideas, primarily because their epistemic field and hermeneutic lens were not limited or predisposed (biased) due to their relational involvement with the Spirit in the theological task (as Paul made clear, 1 Cor 2:9-16). The relational context and process unfolding here increasingly distinguishes the whole of God as the triune God and then as the Trinity. There is no shortcut to the essential truth of the Trinity to compose the essential reality of trinitarian theology and practice, unless of course we would settle for a virtual reality of thought and ideas. That means our Christology must be complete with God’s strategic, tactical and functional shifts.

            The good news of the vulnerable presence of the very heart of God’s qualitative being and of God’s integral relational nature—composing the integral glory of God—unfolds embodied on this improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path. Each relational-specific step embodying this trajectory and path is essential for trinitarian theology and practice, without which there is no essential reality of the truth essential to the embodied whole of God—and thus without the relational-specific outcome of the whole face of God in Face-to-face relationship together in wholeness as God’s irreducible and nonnegotiable family.


God’s Strategic Shift


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

            In the shift from a place (like the mountain, tabernacle, or Jerusalem), and from situations and circumstances, the whole of God becomes vulnerably and relationally accessible for ongoing involvement in direct relationship Face to face. This makes the transcendent God accessible to all peoples and persons regardless of their human distinctions from outer in, on the one hand, which certainly opened up a unique opportunity for this woman, viewed as a person of despicable race-ethnicity, debased gender and likely denigrated character. On the other hand, however, this was unique access only for the relationship-specific involvement from inner out in the primacy together of God’s family, for which this woman would have to shift from outer in to be compatible. This then makes the holy God accessible for relationship only to those who respond in the innermost of Jesus’ relational context and process—in other words, relationship only on God’s terms (cf. Jn 8:31-42). Was this good news or bad news for this woman?

            The relational significance of God’s strategic shift is magnified in this highly improbable interaction. For a Jewish rabbi to engage a Samaritan woman one-on-one in public required an act of redemptive reconciliation—that is, to be freed from constraints of the old (and what defined them), and thus opened to vulnerably engage each other in the relationship of the new. Jesus tore down the constraint of “double jeopardy” (double discrimination based here on ethnicity and gender, resulting in her apparent social ostracism) for her and gave her direct access to a highly improbable, though ultimately unique, opportunity: unrestricted connection and intimate relationship with the whole of God.

            As the interaction unfolds, it becomes increasingly vulnerable face to face. When her emerging person began to understand (theoreo) a deeper significance of the person engaging her (v.19), she turned the focus to God and the existing structure of religious practice (v.20). Yet, her focus should not be limited to the issue of worship but necessarily involved the accessibility of God. Perhaps she had doubts about accessing God if she had to participate in the prevailing practice. Any ambivalence at this point would be understandable, given her social standing in the community.

            In relational language, Jesus vulnerably engaged her to reveal that the old (prevailing religious tradition and way to see things) was going to be changed (Jn 4:21-22), and that the new “is now here” (4:23-24). The strategic shift in the holy and transcendent God’s presence was embodied vulnerably with her in a highly improbable encounter—improbable both in God’s action and in human thinking. As Jesus disclosed the qualitative and relational significance of his whole person (the Word of YHWH) in his pivotal “I am” relational message to her (v.26), the whole of God’s ontology and function became vulnerably accessible for ongoing involvement in direct relationship Face to face. The same relational dynamic was also extended improbably to Paul on the Damascus road, which raised similar issues for Paul in his religious tradition, as for the woman in hers, but with further implications and consequences. This shift to the new relational context and process, however, necessitated (and still necessitates today) terms significant for compatibility in order to distinguish relationship together from prevailing human terms, self-definition and determination. In the strategic shift of the gospel, there is no relational progression with the whole-ly accessible God without these ongoing relational terms: “in spirit and truth” (4:23-24).

            This part of their interaction can easily become virtual and thus lack significance for theology and practice. It is vital, then, to comprehend that Jesus’ disclosure of “God is spirit” (v.24) cannot be distinguished in referential language. Philosophical theology could be satisfied with rendering the transcendent “God is spirit” to the self-existing spirit distinct from all his creatures, who alone has life within himself and is the life-giver. Yet, this referential explanation would neither be significant for this woman’s theological task nor be significant to God and for the whole of God vulnerably disclosed here. Throughout the incarnation Jesus’ whole person vulnerably disclosed the transcendent “God is spirit”, that is, the whole of God’s glory, therefore who, what and how God is.

            The Word embodied not only physical life in quantitative terms (bios) but also constituted the qualitative substance of life (zoe, “in him was life,” Jn 1:14); and “the Zoe” distinguished the whole of God beyond physics and metaphysics to embody “the relational Way and the essential Truth…to the Father” (Jn 14:6). Jesus’ self-disclosures (“I am” statements in relational language and terms) were jointly nothing less and no substitutes of God as well as only for relationship together, the whole of which then had theological significance to the woman and to God. If the incarnation embodied anything less or any substitute, it would not have theological significance. As Jesus embodied God’s intrusive relational path (the Way) with his whole person (the Zoe), he directly opened access for her to the transcendent “God is spirit” (the Truth) in vulnerable relational terms, not in constraining referential terms.

             The incarnation makes accessible the presence of the holy and transcendent God. The glory of God in Jesus’ whole person makes evident the heart of God’s being, the core of the whole of the triune God, functionally for relationship (cf. Jn 1:14). In the incarnation the righteous God embodies the righteousness of God, whole-ly with certainty. That is, the vulnerable presence of the very heart of God is the truth of who and what God is, and the functional significance of nothing less and no substitutes; and the intimate involvement of the very core of the whole of the triune God is the truth of how God is, and the relational significance of nothing less and no substitutes. The incarnation embodies this ‘dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes’. Accordingly, the primary composition of this whole truth of who, what and how God is consists of essential relational truth, with its secondary composition as propositional truth. In conflict with the dynamic of referential language, the heart (core) and truth of God in Jesus are not revelations (apokalypto) of mere information in referential language but vulnerable self-disclosures (phaneroo) in relational language only for the intimate involvement necessary for relationship together to be whole. Therefore, “God is spirit” is disclosed by Jesus exclusively in relational language, the terms of which are unavoidably vulnerably present and intimately involved. For her to be compatibly engaged in the theological task also required her vulnerable presence and intimate involvement for reciprocal relationship together. This was her experience in the theological task as she responded back to Jesus with the heart and truth (honesty, Jn 4:16-18) of her own person (“in spirit and truth”). Both as a woman and a Samaritan, she made her person vulnerable culturally, religiously and most important relationally. In contrast to her vulnerable engagement in the theological task, Jesus’ disciples kept their hearts at a distance (4:27,31-33); and their lack of vulnerability in their theological task resulted in not whole-ly understanding Jesus (syniemi, Mk 6:49-52; 8:17-21), with the unavoidable relational consequence of not knowing Jesus in his relational terms (Jn 14:9). “In spirit and truth” are the persons who make compatible relational connection with the whole of God at the depth-level of God’s heart; and theology’s relational significance is contingent on having this congruence (4:23-24).

            Jesus made clear that worship of (and all relational involvement with) the whole of God must be on these terms. These are neither optional nor ideal terms but “must” (v.24); not opheilo, out of personal obligation, duty or moral compulsion but dei, unavoidable, necessary by the nature of things, that is, by the nature of God and this relationship. Since Jesus disclosed the whole of “God is spirit,” this raised the issue again of access to the transcendent God. How do these terms functionally bridge the gap of transcendence to access God? If Jesus were not speaking, we could suspect anthropomorphism. The Samaritan woman then expressed her confidence (oida) that someday the Messiah “will explain everything to us” (anangello, to disclose freely, openly, v.25). Jesus responded even deeper by vulnerably disclosing his whole person to her: “I am he, the person who is speaking to you” (v.26). And what Jesus made clear were the terms “in spirit and in truth.”

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

            Yet, accessing the whole and transcendent God, the immanent and economic Trinity, may still appear virtual and remain elusive in the theological task, if we just focus on the content of Jesus’ words and not pay close attention to the Subject of the Word (as the Father made imperative, Mt 17:5). When Jesus said “I who speak to you,” the term for “speak” (laleo) is contrasted with a synonym term lego (“to say,” discourse involving the intellectual part of the person). Laleo does not emphasize the content of the speech but rather focuses on the reality of communication taking place (as opposed to no communication, cf. Heb 1:1-2). This focus on the factual act of communication makes the function of relationship primary, which is neither to discount what Jesus said nor to disregard the terms (“in spirit and truth”) disclosed as necessary. The significance of this is to account for and pay attention to the relational context and process, the nature of which are necessary for these terms. In other words, “I am he, the God is spirit who is speaking to you” was vulnerably disclosing both the relational context “out of” (ek) the holy and transcendent God for direct access, and then the relational process “back to” the whole and uncommon God for intimate relationship together—the “out of-back to” relational dynamic constituting the whole of Jesus’ person, who composes this relational connection.

            The functional significance of “in spirit and in truth” can only be understood in the relational significance of the holy and transcendent God’s thematic action fulfilled in the incarnation of Jesus’ whole person (cf. Ps 33:11b). Though the Samaritan woman expressed no understanding of these words in his speech, she was experiencing their functional significance in their involvement together.

            This raises two important questions. What if Jesus’ person were something less or some substitute of God, or what if the person Jesus presented in his life and practice were anything less or any substitute of his whole person, even as God? The former has been an ongoing theological issue, which Jesus’ first century adversaries tried to establish about him. Any revisionism of Jesus makes discourse about an accessible God insignificant, if not irrelevant. The latter question is a functional issue that essentially has been ignored. Yet, its critical importance has theological implications about the reliability of our Christology, and more importantly creates a functional problem of integrity for the relational involvement of trust. How reliable is your knowledge of someone if the person presented to you is anything less or any substitute for the who, what and how of that person? Moreover, how can you trust someone in a relationship if you can’t count on that person’s involvement to be beyond anything less or any substitute for the whole person? This is not about having faith in someone without having a sound basis, such as fideism; nor is it about engaging in relationship together merely on the basis of quantitative information, such as prevails today in social media relations.

            Jesus demonstrated to this woman that his involvement with her was nothing less and no substitutes for his whole person. This was congruent with his ongoing self-disclosure of the whole of God and, specific to her, opened access to the transcendent “God is spirit.” Something less or any substitutes would not have fulfilled this function for her, much less fulfilled the whole of God’s thematic action for all humanity. The implication is “I who speak am [here to openly disclose to you that spirit].”

            The incarnation makes accessible the presence of the holy and transcendent God. The glory of God in Jesus’ whole person makes evident the heart of God’s being, the core of the whole of the triune God, functionally for relationship (cf. Jn 1:14). The vulnerable presence of the very heart of God is the truth of who and what God is, and the functional significance of nothing less and no substitutes; and the intimate involvement of the very core of the whole of the triune God is the truth of how God is, and the relational significance of nothing less and no substitutes. The heart (core) and truth of God in the Subject Jesus are not revelations (apokalypto) of mere information but vulnerable self-disclosures (phaneroo) only for the intimate involvement necessary in relationship together as family. Thus, the ontology of “God is spirit” is disclosed by Jesus to be in function both vulnerably present and intimately involved. And the Samaritan woman could count on the reliability of who was disclosed to her because nothing less than and no substitutes for the heart and truth of Jesus’ whole person fulfilled this function in the trinitarian relational process of family love.

            In the strategic shift of the gospel, throughout the incarnation the distinguished presence of Jesus’ whole person vulnerably disclosed the transcendent “God is spirit” (as in v.24)—that is, the innermost of the whole of who, what and how God is. The good news for the Samaritan woman was that Jesus wasn’t engaging her in a theological task to merely inform her for further doctrine about which she could be dogmatic. The strategic shift of the gospel’s relational dynamic reveals the innermost of the whole of God completely for the primacy of whole relationship together, even for a Samaritan woman with a history of failed marriages and cohabitation without matrimony. The innermost of God’s ontology and function necessitates by its nature (dei, v.24)—not the personal obligation or moral compulsion of opheilo—the innermost of human ontology and function for relationship together to be compatible. A reduced ontology and function defined and determined from outer in is incompatible for relationship with the whole ontology and function of God. In addition, the innermost of God’s ontology and function is the truth of who, what and how God is because God is relationally righteous and faithfully involved with nothing less and no substitutes for the whole of God, as vulnerably embodied by Jesus throughout the incarnation. The improbable unfolded before her in order to be with her. Therefore, along with the innermost of human ontology and function is the inseparable need for the truth of who, what and how the person is, that is, being vulnerably open and honest with one’s whole person—weaknesses, failures, sins and all, nothing less and no substitutes (demonstrated by this woman, 4:17)—in order for compatible relationship together to be reciprocal and whole. These are the indispensable relational terms to involve our whole person in the depth of face to Face.

            The relational reality illuminated in the unmistakable face of Jesus is this ontological shift: The heart of God’s being is the aspect of God’s glory made accessible to us with which we can functionally connect for relationship together by God’s relational nature. At the same time, this relational connection is possible (not improbable) also because of the ontology of the human person Jesus implied in “spirit,” which God seeks. That is, the God of heart, who was vulnerably disclosed to us, made us in the image of the whole of God. Simply stated, the God of heart made us persons of heart (cf. Ps 33:15, leb), and therefore the theological task only has significance when it involves the conjoint function of the heart of God and the heart of our person.

            The heart of the theological task involves nothing less than the reciprocal response to the heart of God vulnerably disclosed in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. Compatibility and congruence in this reciprocal relational process is constituted first by God’s heart and then by our heart in likeness. By the nature of ‘heart’ this always involves the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, which is ongoingly challenged, reduced and substituted for by the dynamic of referential language. Therefore, the heart of the theological task demands embodying nothing less and no substitutes for heart; and integral to the theological task is the presence and function of our heart, signifying the vulnerable involvement of our whole person from inner out. Jesus, together with the Spirit, leaped with joy when vulnerable persons engaged the theological task in contrast to the scholarly engagement of “the wise and learned,” because only persons with open hearts receive the depth of God’s revelations (Lk 10:21). This is the hermeneutical key to theological engagement—just as Jesus vulnerably embodied with the Spirit, from the Father—without which the theological task is unable to open the ontological door to the whole of God and the relational door to the theological significance of knowing and understanding God in whole relationship together.

            Tepid results in the theological task, notably in the trinitarian theological task, signify a critical condition of the heart needing an urgent response. This composes Jesus’ ongoing post-ascension response to our heart to open the barrier to reciprocal involvement in theological engagement (Rev 3:20). The theological significance of our conclusions will be crucial for the who, what and how of God composing our trinitarian theology and practice.

            The relational terms that only the complex Subject of Jesus’ whole person made definitive are neither optional nor idealized terms, and certainly cannot be understood as referential terms. Jesus’ relational-specific terms embody the whole of God’s thematic relational response in the gospel and constitute the only terms by what and how God does relationships for the gospel’s reciprocal relational outcome. Understanding the qualitative significance and relational significance of the gospel, however, does not stop with the strategic relational shift. Further shifts unfold in the relational dynamic of the gospel distinguished by the relational-specific progression to deepen our understanding and to fulfill our essential reality for its relational outcome. And in a further shift by the irreducible Subject of the Word, this gospel will be characterized as more of the improbable, thus neither a common nor popular gospel.


God’s Tactical Shift


            YHWH’s function as father established the relational-specific context of family and the relational-specific process of family love, and these remain basic for composing the covenant relationship together of God’s kingdom-family. Covenant relationship together as family can only be composed in this relational-specific context by this relational-specific process, which the whole of God newly distinguished further and deeper than previously disclosed. This relational-specific context and process are embodied whole-ly by the ontology and function of the Word in relational progression integral to both the ontology as well as function of the Father, which then starts distinguishing the trinitarian relational context of family and relational process of family love.

            The relational progression to the Father is critical to understand in the trinitarian theological task, because it reveals both YHWH’s glory further than the prevailing perception as Sovereign, and YHWH’s salvation deeper than the common notion of a kingdom. And by necessity, the relational progression is indispensable to redefine, if not deconstruct, the existing status quo in theology and practice—which is what Nicodemus experienced from Jesus (Jn 3:1-15). This relational-specific progression unfolds in the relational significance of the tactical and functional shifts of the whole of God’s improbable presence and intrusive involvement. Moreover, what will unfold takes us further and deeper in the trinitarian theological task than social trinitarianism.

            The major significance in Simeon’s theological conclusion is connecting God’s glory and salvation. While Simeon alluded to what would unfold, two important matters remain about this connection. The question is, what is this salvation that reveals the glory of God? The issue is, what is God’s glory that reveals not just parts but the whole of who, what and how God is? Understanding this inseparable connection is indispensable for knowing the whole of God, for understanding the Trinity, and thereby for composing trinitarian theology and practice (Jn 1:14; 17:1-5). Yet, antecedent to this understanding is being connected to God’s relational-specific context and having the involvement necessary in God’s relational-specific process in order to receive God’s communicative relational action in self-disclosures to know the whole of God intimately in Face-to-face-to Face relationship together—which the early disciples lacked during Jesus’ time on earth with them (Jn 14:9).

            The good news unfolds when the whole ontology and function of the Word (not just as function) embodied YHWH’s relational context of family and relational process of family love, which in the First Testament distinguishes YHWH’s function as father. As the embodied Word’s ontology and function are disclosed in the Second Testament, the essential reality of this relational context of family and relational process of family love unfolds with the whole Word—not fragmentary parts of the Word, for example, just his teachings—so that the truth essential of the Father’s ontology as well as function are also disclosed (Jn 1:10-14,18). The integral flow of this relational dynamic both composes the continuity between the Testaments and increasingly distinguishes the whole of God who is involved in an improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path. Therefore, as the early disciples learned the hard way, to become a full Christian involves not just to ask God to forgive our sins; and to be a whole Christian involves not just to be saved from our sins. Both of these views may have implicit functional continuity with the OT, which creates subtle illusions of God’s presence and virtual realities of God’s involvement. Such continuity doesn’t have the significance to be in full continuity with the whole and uncommon God’s theological trajectory and relational path; thus these views make evident explicit discontinuity with God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement in new covenant relationship together in wholeness as God’s family. The Word embodies the relational-specific context of family and relational-specific process of family love in whole relational terms, only for the relational purpose and outcome of this primacy as family together—the primacy as family together in the very likeness of God’s whole ontology and function, as Jesus prayed to the Father (Jn 17:21-23).

            To further complete the Christology necessary for trinitarian theology and practice, we must integrate God’s tactical shift. From the moment the complex Subject of the Word established the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of God—“I am he, the person who is speaking to you”—the face of God was distinguished unmistakably for only new relationship together, never to be merely observed. The strategic shift opened direct access to Face-to-face relationship with the whole and uncommon God. The relational dynamic of the gospel also embodies the relational-specific progression of relationship together to its complete (as in whole, not its conclusion) relational outcome. This relational progression unfolds in the gospel with the tactical shift, the further and deeper shift of the gospel integrated with the strategic relational shift.

            Any news about Messiah would be good news since people needed salvation, especially for those who experience discrimination and dispossession. What people needed, however, was often not what people wanted; and the desire and pursuit of the latter continues even today to shape theology and practice. This was the human condition in Judaism that confronted Jesus to his face, and that the face of God embodied in Jesus also confronted in all our human condition. It is not clear whether the Samaritan woman, and those following her, believed in Jesus merely as the expected prophet, or also responded from their innermost to Jesus as the whole of God’s very self-disclosure for relationship together (Jn 4:19,28-29, 39-42, cf. Deut 18:15-19). While the former outcome for them was expected and probable, or at least hoped for, the latter would be an improbable expectation, a paradoxical wish at best. This suggests the difficulty not only of explaining the holy (uncommon) and transcendent God’s presence and involvement but also understanding the significance of God’s strategic relational shift—a difficulty compounded if approached from thinking in referential terms.

            Psalm 8 reflects on the involvement of the transcendent God and Creator with the human person and raises the question (paraphrase of v.4): What is the human person that this God is involved, how can this be? This question provides a transition from the strategic shift of God’s thematic relational action throughout the First Testament to God’s tactical shift within the incarnation.

            A partial theological answer to the question perhaps could be that the human person is not only God’s creation but created in God’s image as the epitome of God in all creation; thus in support of imago Dei, God maintains this involvement and caring (cf. God’s providence). Yet, this is really the wrong question to be asking because it does not focus on the primary. Attempting to explain God’s action on the basis of what defines the human person is to conclude that human persons merit or warrant God’s action—which is essentially the underlying dynamic for identity maintenance in Judaism with its identity markers. Such an explanation cannot be justified as the basis for moving the transcendent God to action. The primary question then to ask focuses on the innermost of God: Who and what are you that this is how you are—present and involved?

            While OT narrative and theology define no deistic God who is detached or distant, there is deeper understanding needed for the holy and transcendent God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement. Even the strength of covenant expectations of God’s action prevailing in the intertestimental period (Second Temple Judaism) cannot adequately account for the relational significance of God’s strategic relational shift. The only answer to this question that can be offered for the improbable is not a referential narrowed-down explanation (e.g. grace as a default explanation) but emerges from the qualitative-relational understanding of God’s innermost: the relational nature of the heart of God’s ontology and function vulnerably enacting the whole of God’s relational response of grace, whereby the glory of God is revealed.

            As the whole ontology and function of Subject-God’s relational work of grace (not as referential Object) made a strategic shift with the incarnation, Subject Jesus’ relational work of grace makes a tactical shift for further engagement in the relational progression. With this shift, only the whole ontology and function of Jesus makes evident the gospel further in the improbable, not to mention the uncommon.

            The improbable is not only about the relational presence of the transcendent God but also about the vulnerable involvement of the holy God, who must by nature be separate and distinguished from what is common (cf. qadosh and hol, holy and common, respectively, Lev 10:10; 11:45). In the mystery of the holy God’s direct relational involvement, Jesus’ whole person demonstrated no relational separation from the common’s context (from micro level to macro) in his ongoing vulnerable involvement. Yet Jesus’ relational involvement illuminated the qualitative innermost distinguishing his relational work of grace from the common’s function. What distinguished the holy God from pervasive common function underlies both the tactical shift for the relational progression as well as the functional significance of the gospel as essential truth for our essential reality (not virtual).

            Jesus emerged in the midst of a religious context pervasive with messianic and covenant expectations, with the surrounding context prevailing in cultural, economic and political stratification. He also encountered the interacting effects of these contextual pressures in his public ministry, yet these effects neither defined nor determined what emerges in the tactical shift of the gospel. The presence of these and other contextual influences, pressures and related problems, however, have importance in the life of Jesus, and accordingly for his followers, and are valuable in our understanding of the gospel, for the following purpose: (1) they help define the pervasive common function from which Jesus’ function was distinguished; and (2) they help identify the prevailing common function from which persons needed to be redeemed. This purpose is realized with the tactical shift. The relational-specific process enacted by Jesus in the tactical shift conjointly distinguished his relational involvement in progression with persons, and distinguished those persons in their relational response in relational-specific progression with his.

            We get our first exposure to Jesus’ tactical shift when he called Levi to be redefined, transformed and made whole (Mt 9:9-13). Reviewing Levi’s story, it was nothing less than the embodying of the gospel—that is, the gospel that is contingent on no substitutes for a complete Christology and a full soteriology. In calling Levi, Jesus demonstrated the new perceptual-interpretive framework distinguished from what prevailed in common function; and this new framework further needs to be distinguished from what prevails today and thus beyond what exists commonly in theology and practice.

Jesus’ whole person crossed social, cultural and religious boundaries to extend his relational work of grace to Levi, who crossed those same barriers (for him) to respond to Jesus in order to connect in relationship together Face to face. In this highly unlikely relationship (given Levi’s status), Jesus made evident his tactical shift for deeper involvement in the relational progression to the Father and family, thus beyond Sovereign and kingdom. This was initially demonstrated by the significance of their table fellowship together (including the presence of other tax collectors and sinners) after Levi’s response (Mt 9:10). Making evident the reality of redemptive change, Levi was not only redeemed from the old but freed to relationship together in the new; dinner together was not a routine activity for pragmatic reasons (as is the Western tendency today, especially in families) but a social communion signifying a depth of relationship together involving friendship, intimacy and belonging[4]—that is, specifically in the primacy of whole relationship together in the relational progression to God’s family. This relationship would transform Levi and make him whole, the reality of which Levi would experience even further in relational progression.

            Intrusively as complex Subject and vulnerably as whole person, Jesus’ tactical shift enacts the relational-specific process in this relational progression for persons like Levi to go from a disciple (and servant) of Jesus to his intimate friend (Jn 15:15), and then to be whole together as family (Jn 14:23; 17:21). Our theology and practice must by this nature account for this intimate relationship together; specifically, our ecclesiology must by this tactical shift account in our church practice for this new relationship together as family—not just friends but sisters and brothers in the primacy of God’s family. Certainly, this is good news for what the human condition needs, yet its depth is threatening for those who don’t want to be vulnerable, which then for them amounts to bad news. Anything less and any substitutes in our theology and practice as well as ecclesiology deny the relational outcome of the intrusive Subject’s tactical shift and disconnect us from the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God’s strategic shift. Thus, the question of good news or bad news keeps emerging, which complex Subject Jesus holds us accountable to answer.

            This new relationship and gathering were not only improbable to observing Pharisees but unacceptable because such practice didn’t conform to their purity code for being holy (Mt 9:11). Yet the holy Jesus in vulnerable presence and intimate involvement was not making evident a relational separation from the common’s context but the distinction of his relational work of grace from common function, even in religious practice. The most probable candidates to follow Jesus would be those with messianic expectations; others likely would be the economically poor. As a low-level tax collector Levi wouldn’t assume to be aligned to the former category, and he didn’t appear to be economically poor, though certainly not rich. These candidates represent, however, what is only the expected from common function—those who warrant a response, for example, as commonly proposed in social trinitarianism. Levi represents the qualitative distinction of Jesus’ relational work of grace from the common function of those who don’t warrant a response. This reflected the perception from a different lens of this new perceptual-interpretive framework, which includes the theological anthropology of the whole person.

            While celebrating Levi’s commencement in the relational progression, Jesus disputed these religious reductionists by clarifying his vulnerable presence, purpose and function (9:12-13). In the strategic shift of God’s thematic relational action, the incarnation was enacted only for direct relationship together as the whole of God’s family. As God’s ultimate response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole, Jesus vulnerably functioned to call such persons to be made whole in the likeness of the triune God improbably unfolding as the Trinity. He made this evident by definitively declaring that these persons are qualitatively distinct (but not intrinsically distinguished) from the “the healthy” (ischyo, to be whole) and from “the righteous” (dikaios, congruence in actions to one’s constitutionally just, right character, which implies wholeness instead of disparity, vv.12-13). In other words, those who were not whole and who remained apart from the whole were the persons Jesus came to be vulnerably involved with in his relational work of grace in order to reconcile them back to the wholeness of God essential for all life.

            “The sick”-“sinners,” whom Jesus called, were not those perceived by common function—that is, those commonly perceived by a surrounding context—as sick or sinners. While Jesus certainly never ignored those defined as sick and sinners, he was involved further and deeper than merely with physical disease and moral/ethical failure. Levi was not suffering physical disease, though he likely was perceived as a sinner of moral/ethical failure, assuming the stereotype for tax collectors applied to him. Yet Jesus notably pursued Levi also for the “social illness” (distinguished from physical disease) he was suffering that made him part of “the sick” (kakos, v.12).[5] The term kakos not only denotes to be physically ill but also to be lacking in value. This suggests social interpretation (not medical) based on a comparative process that labeled persons to be lacking in value. The consequence of having this label was exclusion from participating in valued relationships of the “whole” (as in community), thus suffering the social illness of not belonging. This expands our understanding of Levi’s condition as a tax collector, which was kakos (to be lacking in value), not ischyo (to be whole) and dikaios (to function in wholeness). Though Levi didn’t belong to the prevailing “whole” of the common context, Jesus changed Levi’s condition to belong (as a function of relationship, not merely membership) in God’s whole—the redemptive change constituted just by the old dying and the new rising.

            This also deepens and broadens our understanding of sinners and the function of sin. In the trinitarian relational context and process vulnerably engaged by Jesus, sin is the functional opposite of being whole and sinners are in the ontological-relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole. When sin is understood beyond just moral and ethical failure displeasing to God, sin becomes the functional reduction of the whole of God, thus in conflict with God as well as with that which is and those who are whole. Sin as reductionism is pervasive; and such sinners, intentionally or unintentionally, reflect, promote or reinforce this counter-relational work, even in the practice of and service to church. This is the salvation people needed and yet didn’t often want, because to be saved from sin as reductionism includes by its nature to be made whole, and thus to be accountable to live whole—an uncommon life in contrast and conflict with the prevailing common.

            At Levi’s house Jesus responded to the sin of reductionism in religious practice, both to expose its participants and to redeem his disciples for the relational progression. This involved his tactical shift, which was not about sacrifice and serving, that is, in the common function of the religious community (or a reductionist reading of Mt 20:28 common in Christian practice today). Only Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus quoting “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13), which would not be unfamiliar to Jewish listeners and readers (quoted from Hos 6:6). The fact that Matthew has Jesus repeating this later, when his disciples were accused of unlawful practice on the Sabbath (Mt 12:7), is significant. The code of practice for Judaism was redefined by reductionism, thus these Pharisees did not understand the meaning of the quotation from Hosea. Jesus made it imperative to “Go and learn what this means.”

            Sacrifice (and related practice) was a defining term for Jews, and also has been defining for many Christians (e.g., by misunderstanding Lk 14:33, Mk 10:21). Yet God’s strategic shift to the incarnation was not about Jesus becoming a mere sacrifice on the cross. Moreover, Jesus’ tactical shift within the incarnation was not about a change from Messiah to servant. By referring back to Hosea, Jesus made two issues clear about the practice of sacrifice, not only for Jews but for all his followers: (1) sacrifice does not define the whole person, only a part of what a person may do, thus should never be used to define that person, just as what Jesus did on the cross should not define his whole person (or it becomes an incomplete Christology); and (2) the practice of sacrifice neither has priority over the primacy of relationship nor has significance to God apart from relationship, thus its engagement must not reduce the priority and function of relational involvement—contrast the priorities of the disciples and Mary in their time with Jesus (Jn 12:1-8, par. Mk 14:3-9). What is disclosed about Jesus goes deeper than just his function and includes his ontology. Jesus’ whole ontology and function must be paid close attention to in the theological task since it is irreplaceable for trinitarian theology and practice.

            These two important issues apply equally to service, and the term sacrifice can be replaced by service in the above for the same application. This relational clarity and relational significance are crucial to understand for both of them—particularly for the gospel of Jesus the Christ and his followers’ life and practice. Moreover, a reduction of this relational priority and function prevents us from composing a complete Christology, which embraces the whole ontology and function of the Subject Jesus. This whole Christology embraces the following: the whole of Jesus’ person functioning in whole life and practice that is intrinsically distinguished qualitatively and relationally from common function (as prevails in culture), whereby the whole and uncommon Trinity is disclosed in essential truth for the essential reality of trinitarian theology and practice.

            In his relational work of grace, Jesus made clearly evident the importance of Levi’s whole person and his need to be reconciled to the primary relationships necessary to be whole, thereby functionally signifying his tactical shift for further engagement in the relational progression. For his followers to go beyond sacrifice and service “and learn [manthano, understand as a disciple] what this means [eimi, to be, used as a verb of existence, ‘what this/he is’],” they need to understand the heart of Jesus’ person, not merely the meaning of these words in Hosea. That is, this is not the conventional process of learning as a common rabbinic student but the relational epistemic process characteristic of Jesus’ disciples. This then must by nature be the understanding experienced directly in relationship with Jesus the Subject, aside from any other titles and distinctions ascribed to him, which therefore emerges only in the essential reality of the essential truth integrally embodying the whole and uncommon Trinity.

            Such relational involvement is what the full quote from Hosea expands on: “I desire mercy [hesed, love], not sacrifice, and knowledge [da’at, understanding] of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6). This is not about knowing information about God, which was why those Pharisees never understood the significance of Hosea’s quote. God wants (“desire,” haphes, denotes a strong positive attraction for) the relational-specific involvement of love in the intimate relationship together necessary to understand the whole of God in uncommon wholeness as the Trinity. In other words, this is God’s deepest desire and priority over anything else done for God. Though sacrifice and service are important, they are secondary and must never supersede the primacy of relationship (cf. Jn 12:26). For his followers to get reduced in life and practice to sacrifice or service is to stop following Jesus in the relational progression to the whole and uncommon Trinity, and therefore to be on a different relational path than Subject Jesus. Such reductionism needs to be redeemed for the relationship to progress—and so that the reality of trinitarian theology and practice will be essential and thus unfold in their essential truth.


            The relational progression is further distinguished with Zacchaeus. What unfolds from Levi to Zacchaeus is certainly more improbable in contextual terms (Lk 19:1-10). The significance of this was the design of Jesus’ tactical shift, which further illuminated his qualitative innermost relational function distinguished from common function prevailing in human context. Yet, it is not the situation that is most significant but the relational messages, connection and outcome composed by the Subject of the Word—functions that cannot emerge from an Object.

            To become rich in this ancient community required power to accumulate wealth at the expense of others.[6] Chief tax collectors (Levi’s boss) in particular became rich often by their greedy management of a system that depended on imposing unjust taxes and tolls for greater profit. Low-level tax collectors like Levi merely did their dirty work. As a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus not only bore this social stigma but clearly appeared to abuse his power to extort others by his own admission (19:8). He was a sinner in the eyes of all (not just the Pharisees, v.7), who apparently warranted no honor and respect despite his wealth—implied in not given front-row access to Jesus by the crowd, which he could have even paid for but had to climb a tree with dishonor instead (vv.3-4). The image of a short rich sinner in a tree and the Messiah coming together was a highly unlikely scenario.

            In this common context, Jesus said: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must [dei] stay [meno, dwell] at your house today” (v.5). Jesus further made evident in the common’s context the intrinsic qualitative distinction of his relational work of grace from common function. This was not about hospitality necessary on his way to Jerusalem to establish a messianic kingdom. This even went beyond the table fellowship of shared community or friendship. This relational shift of God’s thematic action was only for deeper involvement in the relational-specific progression, which Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to constitute in the new creation of God’s family.

            Given Jesus’ practice of observing purity as prescribed by the law, he was not ignoring covenant practice in this interaction. Yet he functioned in clear distinction from the prevailing function of covenant practices, which had become a reduction to a code of behavior for self-definition (individual and corporate) rather than the relational function necessary by the nature of the covenant with God. Prevailing function demonstrated that a system defining human ontology and identity based on what persons do inevitably engages a comparative process, which groups persons on a human totem pole or ladder of higher-better and lower-less. This explicit or implicit stratification reduces the importance of the whole person and fragments the primary relationships necessary to be whole. The consequence, even unintentional among God’s people, is reinforcing the human condition “to be apart” from God’s whole.

            Though Zacchaeus certainly was not lacking economically, he lacked by any other measurement. Most importantly, he lacked the wholeness of belonging to the whole and uncommon Trinity. This was the only issue Jesus paid attention to—in demonstration of his perceptual-interpretive framework. By this qualitative lens, he didn’t see a short rich sinner up in a tree but Zacchaeus’ whole person needing to be redefined, transformed and made whole. Zacchaeus also becomes a metaphor for all such persons, whom Jesus must (dei) intrusively pursue in their innermost by the nature of embodying the Trinity’s relationship-specific response of grace; this is how Jesus also pursued the rich young ruler in his innermost, though without the same relational outcome as Zacchaeus (Mk 10:17-23). This metaphor for such persons, whom Jesus must “dwell with” (meno) by intimate relational involvement together as family, also signifies the qualitative and relational significance necessary for the gospel—which his tactical shift composes. Yet these are persons who will not be paid attention to, and thus not understood, without this qualitative lens. This is a metaphor that will not be understood, and thus ignored, without the new perceptual-interpretive framework; and its absence is consequential for the trinitarian theological task.

            The reality of this new creation of the Trinity’s family is revealed conclusively in the essential truth of the relational progression, which the Trinity’s thematic relational work of grace initiates, Jesus’ relational work of grace constitutes and the Spirit’s completes. This new relational condition was neither a response warranted by Zacchaeus nor an experience he could construct by self-determination. While Zacchaeus declared (in the Greek present tense) that he was already making restitution and helping to restore equity for consequences of his old relational condition (19:8), this could also indicate an intention he assumed already as a foregone reality. Thus it would be an error to conclude that this was the basis for Jesus’ responsive declaration: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (v.9). This was not the result of what Zacchaeus did, however honorable an act of repentant Zacchaeus. This was only the relational outcome of Jesus’ relational work of grace: “For [gar, because] the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (v.10). The tactical shift Jesus enacted as expressed in this verse determined the whole outcome in the previous verse.

            We need to understand the process of salvation here in order not to have a truncated soteriology, which strains the gospel for lack of theological and functional clarity. The term “salvation” (soteria) comes from “a savior” (soter), which comes from the function “to save” (sozo). “Today salvation [from Jesus as savior] has come [ginomai, begins to be, comes into existence] to this house [oikos, a family living in a house], because [kathoti, to the degree that] this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” This points to the continuity of YHWH as Word and Savior that Jesus embodied not only with his function but also in his whole ontology. Yet, this continuity is often short-circuited in the theological task. Doctrinal predispositions and biases of a truncated soteriology (involving only what we are saved from) and an incomplete Christology (e.g., reducing Jesus’ whole person to a role as savior) prevent us from perceiving the relational-specific process involved here and understanding the relational progression inherent to salvation (and what we are saved to).

            Jesus’ whole person was vulnerably present and intimately involved with Zacchaeus for the relationship necessary to be saved. Jesus didn’t come merely to bring salvation into existence but to engage Zacchaeus for the distinctly specific relationship to be saved “to the degree that he is a son of Abraham.” If this “degree” meant to the extent that Zacchaeus demonstrated adherence to the code of Judaism, then this was salvation coming into existence based on what Zacchaeus did in order to be identified with the lineage of Abraham. If “degree” involved the extent to which Zacchaeus engaged Jesus in the relational progression necessary to be saved, then this was salvation based on Jesus’ relational work of grace, not Zacchaeus’ lineage with Abraham. Jesus needed by nature (dei) to dwell at Zacchaeus’ house only for the latter degree.

            What does it mean to be saved and what is this salvation that is not truncated? Limiting our discussion to the term “to save,” sozo denotes to deliver, to make whole. In Jesus’ relational work “to save,” sozo includes both and thus necessarily involves a twofold process: first, to deliver from sin and its consequence of death, and secondly to make whole in the relationship necessary together with the whole and uncommon Trinity. Salvation (soteria) is a function of sozo. Soteriology is truncated when it is only a function of the process “to deliver”—that is, only what we are saved from. Sadly, this truncated understanding is our prevailing view of salvation, and this includes those overemphasizing ministries of deliverance. A full soteriology, however, necessarily is a function of sozo’s twofold process, which then must by its nature also involve “to make whole”—that is, including by necessity (without being optional) what we are saved to. This second function of the process is the significance of Jesus sharing directly with Zacchaeus “I must be [dei] relationally involved [meno]…” (v.5). This dei and meno “to make whole” constitutes the relational significance of the gospel of transformation to wholeness in likeness to, with and of the uncommon whole of the Trinity. This full soteriology signifies the glory of God, the whole of who, what and how the Trinity is that we are completely saved by and to in relationship together—all of which converge integrally in Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17).

            What are we specifically saved to and what is the relationship necessary together with the Trinity to make us whole? The answer directly involves Jesus’ tactical shift for further and deeper involvement in the relational progression. Levi and Zacchaeus had similar experiences of Jesus vulnerably pursuing them in their condition “to be apart” from the whole; and both directly experienced his intimate relational involvement for the purpose to be made whole. Yet each of these narratives emphasizes a different aspect of the relational progression. Combining their experiences with Jesus into one relational-specific process provides us a full view of the relational progression of relationship together in wholeness with Jesus that unfolds intimately to the whole and uncommon Trinity.

            The relational progression began with the call to “Follow me”—the call to be redefined, transformed and made whole. Relationship with Jesus as a disciple (mathetes) was a function of an adherent, the terms of which were determined only by Jesus.[7] This relationship went further than the common function of traditional rabbinic students as learners preparing for the role of teachers themselves eventually. Jesus’ disciples served others (diakoneo) in various ways, yet with the integrating paradigm making relational involvement with him the primary priority, not the work of serving (Jn 12:26, cf. 21:15-22). Disciples functioned as servants, ministers, deacons (diakonos), which tended to be perceived as the role of servant. Disciples became servants (cf. Mt 20:26-28), though with no fixed distinction between these identities.

            Servant (diakonos and the functional position of doulos, slave) did reflect movement in the relational progression, as Jesus implied (in Mt 20:26-27), but this does not define its relational completion. Unfortunately, our perceptions and practice of discipleship tend to be defined by a servant model, which may need redeeming (cf. Martha’s practice, Lk 10:38-42). Yet, Levi in particular did not give up his servant role to a chief tax collector merely for another form of servanthood transferred to Jesus. Table fellowship for Levi and Zacchaeus necessarily functioned to take disciples further and deeper in relationship together than as mere servants. Table fellowship demonstrated the relational progression to friendship, intimacy and belonging. Jesus clearly constituted this movement in the relational progression when he intimately communicated to his disciples: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15, NIV). The relational progression to this deeper relationship should neither be confused nor conflated with common notions of relationships between friends, which are shaped by the constraints of the human relational condition. Moreover, the depth of this relationship unfolds directly from the integral relationship between the Father and Jesus, such that Jesus shares everything with his uncommon friends.

            Friendship in the ancient world was not loosely defined, as we experience it in the modern West and globally on the Internet. Though there were different kinds of friends, the four main characteristics of friendship involved: (1) loyalty (commitment), (2) equality, (3) mutual sharing of all possessions, and (4) an intimacy together in which a friend could share anything or everything in confidence.[8] A good servant (or slave) would experience (1). Good friends in the Western world today would certainly experience (2), hopefully (1), and less and less likely (4), but rarely (3). Modern perspectives tend to devalue (4) and magnify (1) and (2). Though his disciples never had (2) with Jesus, they experienced the others with him; Jesus demonstrated the first (Jn 15:13), the third (Jn 15:9,11; 16:14-15) and the fourth (Jn 15:15; 16:12-13), with (4) notably signifying the nature of their relationship as Jesus shared above. As noted earlier, the disciples were inconsistent with (4) in their response, with Peter apparently the most open to share, which simply evidenced their human relational condition needing to be transformed to wholeness in relationship together.

            The movement from disciple and servant to friend in the relational progression, however, is only a function of relationship together in its primacy. It is not an outcome from sharing time and space, activity or work together, though it certainly involves these as secondary to the primacy of relationship. Table fellowship between Jesus and his disciples signified the function of intimate relationship together in which everything could be shared—notably demonstrated in their last table fellowship together. This was not about sharing merely personal information but sharing one’s whole person. This relational involvement cannot be reduced to an activity, or shared time and space. Without the vulnerable presence of the whole person and the intimate relational involvement, there was no relational significance to whatever they did—including proclaiming the gospel. Jesus did not want mere loyal disciples and servants but friends to share intimate relationship together; he was vulnerably present and intimately involved “to seek and to save” persons for this relational progression to the Trinity. This relational process necessitates the intimate relational function of friends, nothing less and no substitutes.

            Yet, friends together is not what we are saved to. Though the function of friends is necessary in the relational progression, it is insufficient for the relationship necessary together to make us whole, that is, the relationship together in likeness of the integral relationship constituting the Trinity—the only outcome of what Jesus saves us to. The relational progression does not conclude in friendship with Jesus, the ideal of which has become another contemporary misperception of Jesus shaped by the prevailing influence of reductionism to define our life and practice. In Jesus’ tactical shift demonstrated with Zacchaeus for his involvement in the relational progression, Jesus alluded to both: what we are saved to, and thus the relationship necessary to be whole.

            Their relationship together went further than the friendship of table fellowship, and their relational involvement went deeper into the relational progression. Though Zacchaeus’ salvation was not “because” of ancestry with Abraham, there was essentially relational connection as “a son of Abraham,” as Jesus declared (Lk 19:9)—pointing to vital connection with Abraham’s wholeness in faith (as Paul’s will later emerge). That is, “to the degree that” (kathoti) Zacchaeus’ whole person from inner out—the shift Zacchaeus also made to be compatible with Jesus—was intimately involved with Jesus on the basis of the Trinity’s relational response of grace, Jesus redeemed him from the outer in of the old (of the common’s function) and transformed him in the innermost to the new as a son belonging in the family of God represented by Abraham. Therefore in their intimate involvement together Face to face, Zacchaeus was constituted in Jesus’ very own relational context, this whole God’s trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love. In other words, the Son’s Father would also become Zacchaeus’ Father and they would effectively be brothers, as Jesus indicated after the resurrection (Jn 20:17, cf. Mt 12:50). This was what Zacchaeus was saved to, and this was the relationship necessary by nature to make him whole in the innermost together in God’s uncommon whole—the relational progression to the uncommon wholeness of God, the Trinity irreducibly as family.

            Both Zacchaeus and Levi received and responded to the three vital relational messages (about God, them and their relationship) that the ancient poet asked to experience in his innermost as his salvation from YHWH (Ps 35:3). While the poet’s experience of what he was saved to was limited, he did receive these relational messages sufficiently to understand that YHWH “delights in the shalom of his servant” (Ps 35:27). Shalom is the definitive relational outcome of siym in the definitive blessing initiated by YHWH in the distinguished Face’s relational-specific work to bring change for new relationship together in wholeness (Num 6:26), which Jesus embodied whole-ly to fulfill with nothing less and no substitutes but the gospel of transformation to wholeness.


            The trinitarian theological task is both challenged in its theology and accountable in its practice by the disclosure of who and what God is and how God unfolds in these strategic and tactical shifts. The whole of God is constituted in the life of the Trinity. Yet the wholeness of the Trinity’s life is signified neither by the titles of the trinitarian persons nor by the roles they perform. While each trinitarian person has a unique function in the economy of the Trinity, that function neither defines their persons nor determines the basis for their relationship together—that is, how they relate to and are involved with each other. Their whole persons (not modes, nor tritheism) are neither ontologically apart from the others nor functionally independent, but always by the nature of God’s whole ontology and function are relationally involved in intimate relationship together as One (perhaps in perichoresis but more significant in relational synergy) by the relational-specific process of love, functional family love (Jn 10:38; 14:9-11,31; 15:26; 17:10-11, Mt 3:17; 17:5). This is the uncommon whole of God, the uncommon wholeness of the Trinity’s life, that Jesus vulnerably shared for his followers to belong to and experience in likeness of the Trinity in order to be whole in ontology and function; and that he prayed as the central focus to form his family for the world to witness the essential reality (not virtual) of this essential truth (not propositional form) of the gospel (Jn 17:20-26).

            Belonging to the Trinity’s family is both a position and a function. As a position, belonging cannot be experienced by a servant (or a slave, cf. rich young ruler’s error)—nor even by a disciple without full involvement in the relational progression—but only by a son or daughter as God’s very own. As a function, belonging cannot be fulfilled by a disciple (even as friend), no matter how dedicated to serving or devoted to Jesus. Disciple and servant in effect become roles to occupy that are fulfilled by role players, that is, when involvement in the relational progression is not fully engaged. Belonging is only a relational function of those in reciprocal relationship together with the Trinity in the position as God’s very own family. This is the relational outcome that intruded on the persons of Levi and Zacchaeus.

            It is this relational function of family that the face of Jesus the Subject made unmistakable, irreducible and nonnegotiable by the trinitarian relational process of family love. This points to the functional shift of Jesus’ relational-specific work of grace to constitute his followers whole-ly in the consummation of this relational progression distinguishing the gospel—the irreducible Subject composing nothing less than its relational outcome transforming to the wholeness essential for all life.


God’s Functional Shift


            The strategic and tactical shifts illuminated the face of only Subject-God, clearly distinguished from an Object. These shifts make evident the ontology of the Subject—the whole of who, what and how God is—which is inseparable from the Subject’s function. This disclosure has continuity with YHWH’s functions in the First Testament, functions which were premature to distinguish the ontology of the functions as Father, Spirit and Word. As accessed in these shifts, the Subject’s ontology and function are most notably distinguished in relationships, both within the whole of God and with others. The Trinity is not distinguished by each person’s title or role, which would create distinctions causing stratification and relational distance between them (discussed further in later chapters). Rather the whole of God is always distinguished by the ontology and function of the trinitarian persons inseparably being relationally involved in intimate relationship together as One, the Trinity as family (Jn 10:30; 17:21-23). The truth and reality essential of their relational involvement, which Jesus embodied, has more significance defined by the integral nature of relational synergism than the concept of perichoresis traditionally used in trinitarian theology. Furthermore, Subject-God’s vulnerable self-disclosure constitutes the ontology and function in likeness that distinguishes his followers as whole and his followers in whole relationship together as family (his church). This relational outcome will fulfill Subject Jesus’ prayer above as his functional shift becomes an ontological and functional reality. All of this points to the trinitarian essential for the whole of life, both God’s and ours.

            In God’s strategic and tactical shifts, the whole and uncommon God’s thematic relational action integrally converges within Jesus’ relational work of grace in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love. This coherence of relational action is completely fulfilled by Jesus’ whole person with his vulnerable relational involvement in distinguished love—the love that is further distinguished as this process of family love, of which Zacchaeus and Levi were initial recipients. With the qualitative significance and relational function of family love, Jesus (only as Subject) embodied in whole the gospel’s functional shift—the function necessary for the innermost involvement in the relational progression in order to bring it (and his followers) to relational consummation (not yet to full conclusion). What is this family love specific to the trinitarian relational process?

            During their last table fellowship, Jesus intimately shared with his disciples-friends “I will not leave you orphaned” (Jn 14:18). While Jesus’ physical presence was soon to conclude, his intimate relational involvement with them would continue—namely through his relational replacement, the Spirit (14:16-17). This ongoing intimate relational involvement is clearly the synergistic function of the trinitarian relational process of family love, which directly involves all the trinitarian persons yet beyond the sum of their persons (Jn 14:16-18,23,27). Yet, the full qualitative significance (in relational terms not referential) of this relational synergism of family love is not understood until we have whole understanding (synesis) of the relational significance of Jesus’ use of the term “orphan” and his related concern.

            In their ancient social context orphans were powerless and had little or no recourse to provide for themselves, which was the reason YHWH made specific provisions for them in the OT (Dt 14:29, Isa 1:17,23, cf. Jas 1:27). This might suggest that Jesus was simply assuring his disciples that they would be taken care of. This would address the contextual-situational condition of orphans but not likely the most important and primary issue: their relational condition. It is critical to understand that Jesus’ sole concern here is for the relational condition of all his followers, a concern that Jesus ongoingly pursued during the incarnation (e.g. Lk 10:41-42; Jn 14:9; 19:26-27), after the resurrection (e.g. Lk 24:25; Jn 21:15-22), and in post-ascension (e.g. Rev 2:4; 3:20). Moreover, to understand the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel is to have whole understanding of the gospel’s relational dynamic unfolding the depth of the Trinity’s relational response to the breadth of the relational condition of all humanity.

            Orphans essentially lived relationally apart; that is, they were distant or separated from the relationships necessary to belong to the whole of family—further preventing them from being whole. Even orphans absorbed into their extended kinship network were not assured of the relational function of belonging in its qualitative relational significance. The relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole and to not experience the relational function of belonging to the whole of God’s family would be intrinsic to orphans. This relational condition, which is also innermost to the human condition, defines the relational significance of Jesus’ concern for his disciples not to be relational orphans but to relationally belong. And the primary solution for what addresses an orphan’s relational condition is the process of adoption essential for persons to be whole together. Without adoption, distinguished in the primacy of whole relationship together as family, this relational condition remains unresolved. Therefore, Jesus’ relational-specific work of grace by the trinitarian relational process of family love enacted the process of adoption, together with the Spirit, to consummate the Trinity’s thematic relational response to the human relational condition (Jn 1:12-13, cf. Mt 12:48-50; Mk 10:29-30). Paul later provided the theological and functional clarity for the Trinity’s relational process of family love and its relational outcome of adoption into the Trinity’s family (Eph 1:4-5, 13-14; 5:1; Rom 8:15-16, Gal 4:4-7).

            The reality of adoption may appear more virtual than essential, and that would depend on whether adoption is constituted by the essential truth of the Trinity. In referential terms, adoption either becomes doctrinal information about a salvific transaction God made, which we can have more-or-less certainty about. Or adoption could be merely a metaphor that may have spiritual value but no relational significance. Both views continue to lack understanding of the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel embodied by Jesus’ whole ontology and function, and further misre-present the gospel’s relational outcome in the innermost of persons and their belonging in family relationship together. The qualitative relational outcome essential from Jesus’ intimate involvement of family love constitutes his followers in relationship together with the Trinity as family, so that Jesus’ Father becomes their Father (Jn 14:23) and they become “siblings” (adelphoi, Jn 20:17, cf. Isa 63:16; Rom 8:29). If the functional significance of adoption is diminished by or minimalized to referential terms—or simply by reductionism and its counter-relational work—the relational consequence for our life and practice is to function in effect as ‘relational orphans’, even as members of a church. In the absence of his physical presence, Jesus’ only concern was for his followers to experience the ongoing intimate relational involvement of the whole and uncommon Trinity for the essential truth and reality of belonging in the primacy of whole relationship together as family—which the functional shift of his relational work of grace made permanent by adoption. This relational action established them conclusively in the relational progression to belong as family together, never to be “let go from the Trinity as orphans” (aphiemi, as Jesus said).

            The essential reality of the Trinity’s presence and involvement in relationship together as family has no significance if the truth essential of the Trinity cannot be distinguished in the relationship-specific process of adoption. The Trinity’s family love only has meaning and purpose when the relational outcome is adoption. In its most innermost function, the trinitarian relational process of family love can be described as the following communicative and creative action by the whole and uncommon Trinity:

The Father sent out his Son, followed by the Spirit (cf. Jn 1:14; Mk 1:10-12; Jn 17:4), to pursue those who suffered being apart from God’s relational whole, reaching out to them with the relationship-specific involvement of distinguished love (cf. Jn 3:16; 17:23,26; Eph 1:6) thereby making provision for their release from any constraints or for payments to redeem them from any enslavement (cf. Eph 1:7,14); then in relational progression of this relational connection, taking these persons back home to the Father, not to be mere house guests or to become household servants, even to be just friends, but to be adopted by the Father and therefore permanently belong in his family as his very own daughters and sons (Jn 8:35; Rom 8:15-17, and made definitive for the new creation church family in Eph 2:13-22).

This is the innermost depth of the Trinity’s family love, which vulnerably discloses both the relational significance of God’s relational work of grace and the qualitative significance clearly distinguishing Jesus’ relational involvement from common function, even as may prevail in church and academy. This qualitative relational significance discloses the whole and uncommon Trinity, who penetrates with an intrusive relational path that we must account for in our theology and be accountable to in our practice. In the theological task, the truth and reality of the Trinity are distinguished only in these relational-specific terms. Therefore, they must be experienced to clearly distinguish the Trinity in our theology and practice—the relationship-specific outcome from the essential truth and reality of the Trinity’s uncommon vulnerable presence and whole intimate involvement.

            Functional and relational orphans suffer in the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s relational whole, consequently they lack belonging in their innermost to be whole. While this is a pandemic relational condition, it can also become an undetected endemic functional condition among his followers and in church practice—even with strong association with Christ and extended identification with the church. It is an undetected condition when it is masked by the presence of ontological simulations and epistemological illusions from reductionist substitutes—for example, performing roles, fulfilling service, participation in church activities (most notably in the Eucharist) and membership (including baptism), yet without the qualitative function from inner out of the whole person and without the relational involvement together vulnerably in family love. When Christian life and practice is without this integral qualitative relational significance, it lacks wholeness because it effectively functions in the relational condition of orphans, functional and relational orphans. This then suggests the likelihood that many churches today (particularly in the global North) function more like orphanages than family—that is, gatherings of members having organizational cohesion and a secondary identity belonging to an institution but without belonging in the primary relationship together distinguished only in the innermost of family. This exposes the need to be redeemed further from the influence of reductionism in the human relational condition, most commonly signified by the human shaping of relationships together, which the relational function of family love directly and ongoingly addresses for relationship together as family in likeness of the Trinity. And the depth of the Trinity’s response and involvement converge in relationship-specific process of adoption.

            Adoption, therefore, in the trinitarian task is indispensable for making accessible the Trinity and for helping to distinguish the ontology and function of the Trinity. Moreover, adoption is irreplaceable in our theology and practice to be compatible in the functional, tactical and strategic shifts of the Trinity’s ontology and function. This compatibility requires being on the same improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path as the Trinity, which then may require corresponding shifts (notably Jn 4:24) in our theology and practice—for example, a shift from a theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function, from an incomplete Christology and truncated soteriology, and essentially from the religious status quo prevailing in our contexts. The experiential truth and reality of adoption cannot justify anything less and any substitutes in trinitarian theology and practice.

            By the relational nature of the Trinity, the trinitarian relational process of family love is a function always for relationship, the relationship of God’s family. These are the relationships functionally necessary to be whole in the innermost that constitutes God’s family. That is, distinguished family love is always constituting and maturing God’s family; therefore, family love always pursues the whole person, acts to redeem persons from their outer-in condition and to transform them from inner out, and addresses the involvement necessary in the primacy of relationships to be whole as family together in likeness of the Trinity. In only relational terms, family love functionally acts on and with the importance of the whole person to be vulnerably involved in the primacy of intimate relationships together of those belonging in the Trinity’s family. When the trinitarian relational process of family love is applied to the church and becomes functional in church practice, any church functioning as an orphanage can be redeemed from counter-relational work to function whole as the Trinity’s uncommon family together. Then its members will not only occupy a position within the Trinity’s family but also engage from inner out and experience the relational function necessarily involved in belonging in the innermost of the Trinity’s family that integrally holds them together—together not merely in unity but whole together as one in the very likeness of the Trinity, just as Jesus prayed for his church family (Jn 17:20-26).

            In this functional shift enacted for the gospel, Jesus’ relational function of family love vulnerably engaged his followers for the innermost involvement in the relational progression to the uncommon whole of the Trinity’s family. This integrally, as well as intrusively, involved the following relational dynamic: being redefined (and redeemed) from outer in to inner out and being transformed (and reconciled) from reductionism and its counter-relational work, in order to be made whole together in the innermost as family in likeness of the Trinity (as Paul made definitive, 2 Cor 3:18; Col 1:19-20). Theologically, redemption and reconciliation are inseparable; and the integral function of redemptive reconciliation is the essential relational outcome of being saved to the uncommon wholeness of the Trinity’s family with the veil removed to eliminate any relational separation or distance (as Paul clarified, Eph 2:14-22). The irreducible and nonnegotiable nature of this integral relational dynamic of family love must (dei) then by its nature be the essential truth having qualitative-relational significance for this wholeness to be the essential reality of consummated belonging to the Trinity’s family. Family love also then necessarily involves clarifying what is not a function of the Trinity’s uncommon family, and correcting misguided ecclesiology and church practices, and even contending with what misrepresents the Trinity’s family, which includes confronting virtual realities of the church. The integrity of God’s whole is an ongoing concern of family love. This was further illuminated by Jesus when his family love exposed the ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of family, along with its counter-relational work—exposed by his relational action centered on a familiar theme composed with relational words in relational language, not referential: “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-47).

            Jesus made unmistakable that the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole is pandemic (and enslaves us all to sin as reductionism, 8:34), thus critically endemic to those who labor in ontological simulations and epistemological illusions of God’s family (8:35,39,42). What Jesus distinguished with his relational words in relational language was both in contrast to and conflict with what prevailed in human contexts (8:43)—the influence of which permeates even gatherings of God’s people. To be distinguished necessitates meeting the contingencies of Jesus’ familiar words above. His familiar words are an integral relational message first contingent on his inseparable relational words connected to them: “If you continue in my relational word, you are truly my disciples.” In spite of this context, these familiar words are usually separated from their contingency on this integral structure of Jesus’ relational message. The relationship-specific contingency of discipleship, however, is not met by merely following his disembodied words or teachings, which also are de-relationalized. It can only be fulfilled by following Jesus’ whole person, which Jesus made paradigmatic for discipleship (Jn 12:26) and the Father made relationally imperative (Mt 17:5). To “know the truth” is not a referential fragmentary truth (likely in propositional form) but the whole of the embodied Truth as Subject in the primacy of relationship. Therefore, “make you free” further involves a contextual contingency communicated in Jesus’ complete relational message. In other words, there is no relational progression to belong in the Trinity’s family without redemption, and there is no redemption to be reconciled together as family without receiving and relationally responding to Jesus’ family love in his functional shift (Jn 8:35-36). To be relationally involved with the whole Word and to relationally know the embodied Truth are indispensable for the complete Christology necessary that constitutes the full soteriology of what we are saved to.

            The relational progression does not and cannot stop at just being a disciple, or end with liberation as it did for many in Israel. The prevailing influences from the surrounding contexts—most notably present in the human relational condition shaping relationships together, yet existing even in gatherings of God’s people—either prevent further movement in the relational progression or diminish deeper involvement in its primacy of relationship. God’s salvific act of liberation is never an end in itself but an integral part of God’s creative action for new relationship together in wholeness—the distinguished Face’s relational work of siym and shalom. This is where church practice overemphasizing deliverance and other liberation theologies are often lacking, and thus promote, reinforce or sustain a truncated soteriology. When the people of Israel frequently sought deliverance, they usually neither pursued it nor pursued YHWH for the purpose of deeper involvement in the primacy of relationship together in wholeness. The embodied Truth in the trinitarian relational process of family love is the fulfillment of the whole of God’s thematic relational response, nothing less than the strategic shift of God’s relational work of grace. And the face of God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement distinguished within the Truth as Subject are solely for the primacy of this essential relational outcome. From the beginning, liberation (redemption, peduyim, pedut, pedyom, Ps 111:9) was initially enacted by YHWH for the Israelites in contingency with the Abrahamic covenant’s primacy of relationship together (the relational outcome of shakan, “dwell,” Ex 29:46). To be redeemed was never merely to be set free but freed to be involved in the relational progression together.

            Moreover, redemption is conclusively relationship-specific to the uncommon whole of the Trinity’s family together on just the Trinity’s relational terms, which are the relational context and process the Truth embodied. Jesus’ relational words must be understood in the whole context of God’s thematic relational action as well as in their immediate context. By the strategic, tactical and functional shifts of God’s relational work of grace, Jesus the Subject fulfilled God’s relational response to the human condition, thereby also defining the contextual contingency of the familiar words of his relational message. Jesus’ relational language is unequivocal: the embodied Truth is the only relational means available for his followers to be liberated from their enslavements to reductionism (or freed from a counter-relational condition, Jn 8:33-34), for the innermost relationship-specific purpose and outcome, so that they can be adopted as the Father’s own daughters and sons and, therefore, be distinguished as intimately belonging to his family permanently (meno, 8:34-36; cf. shakan above). Yet, belonging in family together has significance only in likeness of the Trinity, and the Word and Truth embodied the way and the life of the Trinity to disclose this likeness for family together (Jn 14:6; 17:26).

            Additionally in contrast, the immediate context of Jesus’ relational words further defines a reduced servant (doulos) as one who is not free to experience God as Father and participate (meno, dwell) in his family as his own child (as Paul clarified theologically and functionally, Rom 8:15-16; Gal 4:6-7). Any mere servant, or mere disciple stalled in the relational progression, are relational orphans and thus must be redeemed first, then must be adopted to belong in its innermost relational significance. This integrated context makes clear the contextual contingency in Jesus’ relational message declaring adoption as irreplaceable. Anything less and any substitutes for God’s people are reduced in function to ontological simulations and epistemological illusions. Whatever forms these simulations and illusions from reductionism may have in church practice today (including as an orphanage), these persons have no position of significance nor belong in the innermost with relational function in the Trinity’s family as long as the adoption process is not complete. Without the relational reality of adoption, a church functions in a reductionist substitute, at most, and engages in counter-relational work, at least (the implications of Jn 8:43-44 among God’s people). And without experiencing redemptive reconciliation in the primacy of intimate relationship with the embodied Truth who “will make you free” (8:32) with the relational work of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17-18), there is no other relational means for the outcome of adoption. If we find ourselves (as person and church) in this critical condition, then what relational position does this put us in with the whole and uncommon Trinity (and the trinitarian persons), and what is the extent of the good news that we assume to claim?



The Challenge of Subject Face


            The face of God in its deepest profile disclosed in the human context is the central concern for our trinitarian theological task. The deepest profile of any face must be composed by the subject of that face; an object is insufficient to provide a profile of depth. The nature of being a subject is to be who, what and how that person is. To be a whole subject is to be the whole of who, what and how the person is both from inner out and in relationships with others. The challenge to the trinitarian task is to distinguish this Subject who illuminates the whole face of God. If we don’t meet this challenge, we will rely on what amounts to stereotypes—the prominent notions such as when Jesus inquired “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13-14).

            The challenge of God’s face being present and involved has been fulfilled by the unmistakable face of Jesus in his deepest profile of whole ontology and function—the irreducible Subject of the Word now more distinguished than YHWH’s function as Word. In the functional shift of Subject Jesus’ relational work of grace initiated by the Father and completed with the Spirit, his trinitarian family love whole-ly constitutes his followers in their innermost—by the relational progression to the whole and uncommon God—in the relationships necessary to be whole together as the triune God’s very own family. This is the only relational outcome jointly that is congruent with God’s thematic relational response to the human relational condition, and that Jesus’ whole person vulnerably fulfilled with his strategic, tactical and functional shifts in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love.

            God’s whole face was embodied and thereby disclosed in these strategic, tactical and functional shifts to distinguish the Trinity’s ontology and function:

1.    The strategic shift distinguishes the heart of who and what God is—the ontology of trinitarian persons.

2.    The tactical shift distinguishes the depth of how God is—the function of the Trinity—inseparable from the heart of who and what God is—the Trinity’s ontology and function.

3.    The functional shift distinguishes the whole of who, what and how God is for the relational outcome that composes the integral understanding (syniemi, Mk 8:17, synesis, Col 2:2) of the Trinity’s whole ontology and function.

            The face of Jesus’ whole person is the epistemological, hermeneutical, relational and ontological keys to the whole of God in uncommon wholeness, the whole and uncommon (whole-ly) Trinity. In continuity with the First Testament, the functions of YHWH as Father, Spirit and Word further unfold in the embodied Word to disclose in substantive relational terms the whole ontology of YHWH as Father, Son and Spirit. The qualitative relational significance of God’s self-disclosure distinguishes the face of God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement, without which God’s whole face is distorted, obscured or simply lost in the surrounding human context. Therefore, anything less and any substitutes for Jesus’ whole ontology and function as Subject render him in an incomplete Christology, no longer distinguishing the whole of who, what and how Jesus is from inner out and in relationships with other persons (both trinitarian and human). This is the only qualitative and relational significance that the whole gospel of Jesus the Subject composes—nothing less and no substitutes. Accordingly, without this qualitative relational significance, the gospel is reduced to a truncated soteriology about only what we are saved from and to a fragmented soteriology without the whole (God’s relational whole) that holds us together in our innermost both as the person in God’s qualitative image and as persons together in the Trinity’s relational likeness.

            As the Subject of the Word unfolds irreducibly, the whole Subject of the Trinity intrudes in our lives, persons and relationships to compose the heart of our theology and practice. That is, assuming that we fulfill the challenge for our face (“in spirit and truth”), the intimate challenge which can only be disclosed by the unmistakable Face fulfilling the challenge of God’s whole face. Without the Subject whole-ly establishing the essential truth of the Trinity’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement, there is no relational connection, no ongoing relationship and no reciprocal involvement in essential reality together. Therefore, this whole gospel and its whole outcome are contingent on the irreducible Subject’s complete Christology, for which we must give account in our theology and be accountable in our practice—that is, for us (both as person and church) to be transformed in his relational progression to wholeness, in the likeness of nothing less than the Trinity. For the gospel we claim and proclaim to be of substantive relational significance, it must be the irreducible essential truth of the Trinity’s relational-specific context and process of transformation to new relationship together in wholeness. And just the whole Subject of God’s face constitutes the irreplaceable essential reality of this nonnegotiable relational outcome.

            The full relationship-specific significance of the incarnation and the whole relationship-specific outcome of the gospel shake up the status quo in all theology and practice—as Nicodemus experienced with the embodied Word. The name of YHWH as the substantive relational verb has unfolded beyond the probability of human terms and prevailing religious expectations to reveal the uncommon truth and reality of the substantive relational ontology of the triune God’s face. Inescapably then, the whole ontology and function of the Father, Son and Spirit together—not merely in the unity of God but integrally as the whole of God—is vulnerably present and intimately involved ongoingly to distinguish the improbable and unexpected Trinity for our essential truth and reality in the theological task. Nothing less and no substitutes can define and determine the deepest profile of the whole and uncommon God’s face, and therefore our theology and practice must by its substantive relational nature reflect the Face and illuminate its whole Subject.



[1] For a helpful discussion on the limits of mathematics, see Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.

[2] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007).

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

[4]  For further discussion of table fellowship by Jesus and the Mediterranean world, see S. Scott Bartchy, “The Historical Jesus and Honor Reversal at the Table” in Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina, Gerd Theissen, eds. The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 175-183.

[5]  For a discussion on disease and illness in the Mediterranean, see John J. Pilch, “Healing” in John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina, eds. Handbook of Biblical Social Values (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 103-104.

[6]  For a discussion on rich and poor in the Mediterranean context of the NT, see Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 97-100.

[7]  For an in-depth study of mathetes, see Michael J. Wilkens, Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995).

[8]  Craig S. Keener reports this information on friendship in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 302.



©2016 T. Dave Matsuo

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