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The Face of the Trinity

The Trinitarian Essential for the Whole of God and Life


Chapter 4    What the Substantive Face Distinguishes




The Pseudonimity of God

The Ontological Footprints and Functional Steps of God

The Essential Relational Outcome

The Essential Implications of Anything Less and Any Substitutes


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




But who do you say that I am?

                                                                                                        Matthew 16:15


And you still do not know me?

                                                                                                        John 14:9



            As long as there is continuity with the God of Israel, anonymity of the Christian God is certainly not an issue. Yet, what distinguishes the full identity of God has commonly lacked to be whole-ly defined, leaving questions open that are integral for the theological task even for Christians. What God we are faced with in the Scriptures is the primary issue in the theological task, and how we define God’s presence and determine God’s involvement continue to be critical in the Second Testament. Are we talking about a monotheistic God, a triune God or the Trinity? Yes indeed, all of them, and yet what underlies the three is the irreducible whole of God, whose integrity has not been given primacy or paid attention to, or simply not understood. Nothing less, however, can distinguish (pala) God in the theological task and can compose trinitarian theology and practice—that is, distinguish beyond the common to disclose the whole and uncommon God.

            On the one hand, this identity deficiency should be surprising given the incarnation. On the other hand, it should not surprise us but likely be expected, on the other hand, when we consider what has happened to the significance of the incarnation and has become its prevailing notion. In common thinking the incarnation was quantified in history as the event that brought God to the earth. In quantified terms the embodiment of God signifying the incarnation has become limited to bios and referentialized to the quantitative biography informing us of God’s presence in the world. In other words, embodiment is a quantified descriptive profile of God that lacks the qualitative relational significance of God the Subject. Thus, the lens of embodiment in the theological task is insufficient to distinguish the Zoe (as in Jn 14:6) embodying the heart of God’s whole presence and relational involvement. The full identity and whole profile of God’s face will continue to lack definition until the qualitative relational significance of Zoe and Truth integrally embodying the Way to the Father are known and understood in their substantive relational terms.

            As we pursue the Subject’s deepest profile of God’s presence and involvement, this is a good time to review the issues discussed in chapter one in order not to implement them in this trinitarian theological task. One further matter should also be clear in our listening to the Word. Daniel Hardy points also to the primacy of the Scripture for a ‘density of meaning’ in which the texts open a new depth of meaning beyond other focuses in biblical interpretation. This density of meaning for Hardy conveys more than simply a quantitative ‘extensity of meanings’ found in the Scripture but suggests a qualitative ‘intensity of meaning’ in which

 “both God and humanity are joined, both heaven and history, not simply by way of assertions about them, but as dynamically interwoven and mutually operative…. [The Scriptures] are not simply a tissue of assertions about God and humanity, respectively, like a textbook recital of facts; they are more like accumulated expressions of passions. Why? In them, God, God’s purposes and all the forces of life in the world actually appear together as associated: the inner movement of God is intrinsic to the dynamics of human life.”[1]

            For the intensity of meaning, Hardy recognizes the need for the academy to be freed from the constraints of a merely quantitative interpretive framework, as well as from the reductionism of both the text and in practices/projects which distract from the text. Yet, at the same time, Hardy must also recognize that for the intensity of meaning to have substantive significance, it must be composed integrally by relational terms along with those qualitative terms. Only the integrated relational qualitative significance of the whole Word constitutes the substantive meaning necessary to distinguish YHWH’s presence and involvement further than the First Testament, and therefore more deeply disclosed than previously. Distinguishing the intensity of meaning disclosed by the Word from just the extensity of meanings rendered by the density of narrative information describing the incarnation, this will be vital for knowing and understanding the whole-ly defined identity of God distinguished by the substantive Face above the words of human thought and beyond the scope of human ideas.



The Pseudonimity of God


            It is the wholeness of YHWH that distinguishes the God of Israel beyond comparison to all other gods. Anything less than the whole of God becomes essentially an idol, which serves as a pseudonym shaping God in human terms. Israel’s history evidences the shaping of God in human terms to compose a pseudonymous God, even though the anonymity of God was no longer an issue for them since YHWH’s name was disclosed. This same process of shaping God’s identity extended into NT times and the church that emerged (e.g. 1 Cor 1:12-13; Rev 2:4; 3:2), and has evolved even to modern times. Historically, trinitarian theology and practice is an example of the human shaping of God that has been incomplete of the whole of God, while it has sought to resolve monotheism as a triune God without a whole-ly defined identity.

            As discussed previously, the key functions of YHWH as Father, Spirit and Word further unfolded to embody the whole of God’s glory in the integral ontology and function of the Father, Spirit and Word. The whole of who (being), what (nature) and how (presence) God is, therefore, cannot be reduced to modalism to preserve monotheism, nor fragmented to signify tritheism. This is when the intensity of meaning for the embodied Truth constitutes the whole Zoe of God in the qualitative relational significance of the Way, which integrally discloses the Trinity’s presence and involvement. The embodied Word as Subject person was revealed beyond referential information to compose the essential truth of God’s integral ontology and function in the depth of whole relational terms; the whole Word thereby disclosed each trinitarian person distinctly yet inseparably from each other to distinguish the whole and triune God. The distinction of Subject persons unfolds in the irreducible reality essential of God’s presence and involvement, which is necessary and irreplaceable to compose the essential truth of the Trinity in trinitarian theology and practice—in contrast to a virtual reality of trinitarian persons composing a propositional-doctrinal truth.

            The perception of God’s whole glory embodied by the Word can become ambiguous or misleading and thus obscure the substantive Face distinguishing the Trinity in the theological task. This was the apparent theological task that the first disciples engaged. After being exposed to the Word’s glory revealed to them in Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana, “his disciples believed in him” (Jn 2:11). Their response to his glory and not merely to his miraculous act was justified, since miracles (semeion) are signs that signify some important aspect of the person performing the miracle (cf. Mt 12:38-40). Yet, later when the disciples encountered a furious storm crossing a lake, their belief in Jesus was challenged such that Jesus responded “you of little faith.” After Jesus completely calmed the storm, “they were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this?’” (Mt 8:25-27). Sometime later, at a key point Jesus asked them “who do you say that I am?”—an issue that wasn’t well defined in their theological task. As the glory of God appeared to be fading in their perception, Peter responded to Jesus’ inquiry: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” which Jesus clarified as a theological conclusion not by human shaping and terms from human thought and ideas, but revealed to Peter only by “my Father in heaven” (Mt 16:15-17). In spite of this relational process of disclosure in relational terms, the substantive Face distinguishing the Son and the Father is easily obscured when the Word of God is referentialized as information in the theological task, and thereby susceptible to pseudonimity. Just moments later, as Jesus vulnerably disclosed what was to happen to the Messiah and Son of God, Peter confronted Jesus “and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you’” (16:21-22). Regardless of the Father’s revelation to Peter, he used a fictitious-false name (i.e. a stereotype) for his Messiah in the theological task that wasn’t compatible with the Messiah disclosed by the Son of God—so to Peter Jesus obviously was wrong and had to be corrected by Peter. It wasn’t surprising then that the idolization of Peter’s pseudonymous Lord and Teacher would “never wash my feet (Jn 13:8). Accordingly, and most important in the theological task, the disciples lacked face-to-Face relational connection in their theological task, so that they “still do not know me” and were unable to perceive the glory of the Father whole-ly distinguished in the Son (Jn 14:9). Certainly then, this has direct consequence for the trinitarian theological task and on the significance of the who and what composing trinitarian theology and practice.

            What the disciples demonstrated in their theological task unfortunately is neither uncommon nor a past condition, given the advanced (if not enhanced) knowledge of the Scriptures available today. From the beginning of theological engagement, the long-existing reality has been evident as follows: If the theological task does not account for the essential truth of God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement, then it has to both compose this truth in different terms and thereby shape God according to terms different than God’s self-revelation. The referentialization of the Word is the prevailing alternative in the theological task that transposes God’s whole relational terms to fragmentary referential terms; this epistemological and hermeneutic dynamic inverts the communication process of ‘God speaking to us’ to ‘we speak for God’, resulting in the pseudonimity of God.

            For example, if the Bible is read through someone’s idea of what the perfect being outside the universe must be like, as in classical theism, whose words become primary for theology, ours or God’s? The philosophical influence on theology, which still exists today, has shaped or constructed a different picture of God than the God of thematic relational action and response in Scripture, definitively embodied by the Word in substantive relational terms. The classic doctrine of God, existing in systematic and biblical theologies, does not fit the image of God embodied by the face of Christ, as the monotheist Paul “discovered” and understood the whole profile of his God’s face (2 Cor 4:4-6). This reshaping emerged when concepts from Greek philosophy were used as the framework, which was later refined by the epistemological program of foundationalism to establish a basis for certainty. The quest for certainty emerges again with the consequence of narrowing the words of Scripture. Most importantly, the reshaping of God forms and develops when interpreters of Scripture end up listening to themselves talk about God rather than listening to God speak for himself. Nicholas Wolterstorff defines this as ‘dogmatic’ interpretation: dogma governs our interpretation of Scripture for our divine discourse, not God’s communication of God. Interpreting Scripture in light of itself involves the reciprocating hermeneutic process: interpreting the parts/words in the light of the whole and the whole in the light of the parts/words.[2] This communication process was illuminated by the ancient poet: “The unfolding of your words gives light” and understanding of the whole (Ps 119:130)—that is, to those who listen carefully and do not speak prematurely “of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know,” just as Job learned (Job 42:3).

            It is important for our theological task to understand the workings of referentialization, so that we don’t compose a pseudonymous God in our theology and practice. The subtle workings of reductionism underlies all that unfolds here, thus we should not be quick to assume that it doesn’t apply to our engagement in the theological task.

            The pursuit of theological significance has defined theological engagement since back in the primordial garden (Gen 3:1-6). We need to understand what unfolded there in its larger context. Since the lens of those persons “saw” that some parts of the surrounding context were a “good” means for this pursuit “to make one wise,” they incorporated it into their theological task. Basic to what emerged from this beginning to shape theological engagement was their lens: the interpretive lens refocused from the inner out to the outer in by a quantitative interpretive framework that reduces the epistemic field from God’s whole relational terms to fragmentary referential terms. This shift focuses on an extensity of meanings instead of the intensity of meaning in God’s Word. Even if God did really say ‘that’ (to not eat from the tree), ‘what did God really mean by that’ became the issue. The shift to the latter refocused the theological task to pursue theological significance with a reduced lens. This lens from this quantitative interpretive framework emerged along with the construction of a new language in fragmentary referential terms (i.e. referential language), which substitutes for God’s relational language communicated only in whole relational terms. This replacement language—signified by “you will not die for God knows that when you…” (Gen 3:5-6)—(re)defines ‘what God really means by that’ and thereby determines what God says. In other words, referential language speaks for God, subtly replacing God speaking for God. How does this dynamic from referential language work?

            It has become increasingly apparent to modern scientific research that the language we speak shapes the way we see the world and even the way we think (not necessarily producing thought).[3] This points to the function of language as not merely a means of expression but also as a template imposing a constraint limiting what we see and the way we think. In his study of neuroscience, Iain McGilchrist states about language:

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


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

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

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

            This pursuit of theological significance that was put into motion in the primordial garden needs to be accounted for. In referential language, theology’s subject matter is narrowed down to terms that are disembodied and de-relationalized, thus fragmentary or elusive, without the necessary significance for distinguishing the whole Subject. This limitation or constraint is the designed purpose of referential language, and its use in the theological task has unavoidable consequences epistemologically, hermeneutically, ontologically and relationally.

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

1.  A common assumption made in the theological task extends the sweeping assumption from the primordial garden of not being reduced in our function and thus in our engagement of the theological task; this implies having an existing understanding of sin in our theology that amounts to a weak view of sin, which limits and constrains, distorts and biases the theological task; this then requires the strength of view of sin necessary to address sin as reductionism and to account for any sin of reductionism—which must include addressing and accounting for reductionism’s counter-relational workings—and, therefore, having a lens of sin irreducible to human contextualization and nonnegotiable to human terms.

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

            In the midst of what was put into motion in the primordial garden was God’s voice in relational language pursuing those persons for the sake of theological significance: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9) God’s voice continues to resound today, pursuing us for theological significance. Our response must not follow the relational distance found in the primordial garden, with its weak view of sin without reductionism and fragmented view of the person from outer in, all of which operated under the sweeping assumption that “you will not be reduced” (Gen 3:4). Those who do not vulnerably account for where we are in the theological task—where in relational terms, not the referential terms of what we do, our knowledge and methodology—will continue in the contrary flow set in motion from the primordial garden, on a different theological trajectory and relational path from the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole and uncommon God.

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

            The existing gap between the convention of theological discourse in referential language and theological engagement in relational language is insurmountable. That is, the whole and uncommon God from beyond the universe is not distinguished by the limitation of terms within the universe. We need to examine our epistemology and the epistemic field we use in our theological task, including our hermeneutic framework and lens. Having the continuity of God’s presence and involvement is contingent both on a compatible epistemology that includes God’s epistemic field beyond the universe and on a congruent hermeneutic that translates (not transposes) God’s relational language. Without this compatibility and congruence, the continuity of God’s self-disclosures is disrupted since the communication from the relational context of God’s presence and the relational process of God’s involvement is not received in the relational terms disclosed.

            Since the emergence of referential language, the dynamic of its influence and workings has permeated even human development (including the brain) along with its primary purpose to construct substitute developments in theology. Shaping and constraining what we see and the way we think have had major consequences in human relations, and the most consequential repercussion is in relation to God—magnified in church history and amplified in the global church today and in its post-Christian surrounding context. As discussed, referential language is fragmentary and disembodies-derelationalizes the Word into parts (e.g. teachings, doctrine), which it attempts to aggregate into some unity or virtual whole (e.g. in a systematic or biblical theology). This fragmentation, disembodying and derelationalizing are further evident in textual criticism (historical, form, literary), which embeds us in the secondary without understanding the primary (as defined by God). For George Steiner, this secondary critical reflection is the interpretive crisis that results in the loss of God’s presence—a condition he identifies as ‘a Secondary City’.[5] More critically, the use of referential language in the quest for certainty (e.g. in foundationalism and philosophical theology), which presumably would more accurately describe and represent the Word (e.g. in propositionalism and criticism), cannot be more than self-referencing, inconsistent and incomplete. That is, this is the consequence once it disembodies and derelationalizes the Word as Subject and hence disengages from the Word’s relational context and process vulnerably disclosing the whole and uncommon God. This signifies the detachment of God’s theological trajectory from God’s relational path in the human context, which results in disconnecting from God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement. Who then speaks for God, and what can they reveal about God that would be of significance for theology and practice?

            Different terms such as referential terms always reduce the essential truth of the whole of God disclosed in substantive relational terms, with the relational consequence of lacking the qualitative relational significance in theology and practice of the essential reality of the whole and uncommon Trinity. Such terms at best only provide the possible (as in virtual) truth and reality of God to claim in the gospel. This divergent shape and fragmented profile of God’s face may not compose God's identity in the theological task with anonymity but it essentially does with pseudonimity. The whole of who, what and how God is becomes identified as something less, and the reality of God’s presence and involvement becomes determined by some substitute. Even composed with so-called correct propositional-doctrinal truth, the theological task is constructing a pseudonymous God that has no substantive and sustainable significance for our theology and practice. Inadvertently then, if we can’t account for the truth and reality essential of God’s presence and involvement, we in essence are left with a deistic God—perhaps in function that has evolved without distinction into panentheism or simply pantheism.

            Whenever the essential truth of God’s whole presence and relationship-specific involvement is an elusive essential reality in our theology and practice, we have to speculate in the theological task with what amounts to pseudonimity about God. This pseudonymous God can subtly exist without detection in our midst, because its epistemological illusion from reductionism can compose the identity of God in referential terms using what appears as of similar terminology for God’s substantive relational terms. This subtle process is what the disciples engaged in their theological task with the embodied Word, who neither let them reduce his whole ontology nor derelationalize his whole function.



The Ontological Footprints and Functional Steps of God


            When the psalmist recounted Israel’s redemption by YHWH through the Red Sea, he noted that the footprints of God’s theological trajectory and relational path were not seen (Ps 77:19). This perception, knowledge and understanding of God’s footprints would change and deepen as the substantive Face embodied the steps of the improbable trajectory and intrusive path of the whole and uncommon Trinity. This required the strategic shift of the theological trajectory of God’s ontological footprints and involved the tactical and functional shifts (the three shifts discussed in chap. 3) of the relational path of God’s functional steps. Unlike the disciples’ limited engagement early in their theological task, our perception, knowledge and understanding will change and deepen as we receive the intensity of meaning communicated by the whole Word that reveals the ontological footprints and functional steps of the Trinity’s presence and involvement.

            Biblical criticism notwithstanding, how reliably can we depend on the Word to distinguish the uncommon God and to have validity for the whole of God beyond human thought and ideas? The psalmist declared that “Righteousness will go before him and will make a path for his steps” (Ps 85:13). Righteousness (sedeq) denotes a relational term signifying who, what and how the person is, thus who and what can be counted on to be reliable in how the person is in relationships, which implies having validity in one’s communication. The righteousness of “the Word of Zoe” composed the reliable basis for John to witness to the validity of this Zoe, who was revealed not merely as an object to observe (apokalypto) but disclosed in relational terms (phaneroo) for the essential truth and reality necessary to constitute the koinonia of relationship together with the Trinity (1 Jn 1:1-4). And this message conveyed by John defines the validity of the good news based on “Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 1:5; 2:1), whose intensity of meaning is notably presented with substantive significance in John’s Gospel.

            In the Gospel of John, the evangelist doesn’t focus on the narrative of Jesus’ earthly life as the Synoptic Gospels do. Perhaps this was intentional by John but more likely by divine design for the primary significance needed to complete the story of the other Gospels; the outcome was that John centers on the theological significance of Jesus’ whole person from “In the beginning.” He illuminated the Word’s integral relational context and process that further distinguishes both YHWH’s function as Father, Spirit and Word, and also their depth in ontology. The theological significance of what John’s Gospel distinguishes emerges from the intensity of meaning in John’s qualitative focus on the whole Word in substantive relational terms. Rather than merely transmitting information about the embodied Word, John echoes the relational communication of the whole Word in its qualitative relational depth of significance, and thus its intensity of meaning, whereby the whole ontology and function of the whole and uncommon God is disclosed (phaneroo, not just apokalypto). The Word’s disclosure is made for only the relational-specific purpose and outcome of having this essential truth and reality of the Trinity in our theology and practice.

            The whole Word communicates the relational terms disclosing the ontological footprints and functional steps of the Trinity’s presence and involvement, which the disciples failed to perceive and thus receive in their narrow christological focus on the Son (Jn 14:9-10). Given what unfolded with the Word contrary to what even the disciples understood, it is critical for us to understand and keep in mind in the theological task that the substantive Face embodied the irreplaceable steps of the improbable trajectory and intrusive path of the whole and uncommon Trinity. In whatever manner we approach the Trinity, we need to accept that the Trinity is both whole and uncommon (holy if you wish), and thus irreducible and unable to be whole-ly distinguished (syniemi) in common terms; and anything less and any substitutes will no longer be the essential truth and reality of the Trinity. God’s presence and involvement are simply nonnegotiable to the best forms of human thought and ideas.

            So, when John declares having relational-specific experience of the Word’s “glory, the glory as of the father’s only son [monogenes]” (Jn 1:14), this monogenes (“one and only”) distinguishes the ontology of the Son beyond what is common within the limits of a quantitative epistemic field and of related human thought and ideas—the limits and constraints of the common. Further and even deeper, if not comprehendible by the common, this monogenes—who is beyond comparison as just being unique or one of a kind—also vulnerably brings out into fullness (exegeomai) the ontology of the unseen God (Jn 1:18), whose ontological footprints and functional steps go beyond the common practice of biblical exegesis. In other substantive words, the ontology and function of the Word makes known from the innermost the heart of the Father’s ontology and function, just as he revealed the strategic shift to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:21-26) and later definitively prayed to the Father the substance of their family (Jn 17:4,6,26). What John’s Gospel highlights communicates to us the deepest profile of YHWH’s face that previously was not seen, and that has been reliably disclosed to distinguish the validity of God’s whole identity.

            The essential truth and reality of the whole and uncommon Trinity’s presence and involvement are who and what we need to account for with congruence in our theology, and how in likeness we have to be accountable for with compatibility in our practice. The whole of who, what and how the Trinity is cannot be reduced epistemologically with a narrow hermeneutic lens in the theological task, or it has consequences in our trinitarian theology and practice both ontologically and relationally. Our hermeneutic lens will define the limits of our epistemic field (and conversely), which then will determine the Trinity’s depth level of ontology and function that we will perceive and receive from the Word’s disclosure to us—just as the disciples demonstrated in their theological task.

            Ancient or modern, our methodology is critical for the epistemic means used for our knowledge and understanding of reality and life together. To go further and deeper in the epistemic process by necessity involves turning our focus to revelations from outside the universe—neither assuming beforehand a reality exists beyond the universe nor assuming such reality cannot exist. Along with eschewing these two assumptions, the assumed superiority of the scientific method that privileges sight over other means of perception is chastened. Thus this epistemic process involves paying attention to disclosures that are “heard” more than seen—in a similar sense of purpose, perhaps analogous, to scientific monitoring of outer space to listen for any signs of alien life. That is, these disclosures are communicative action from the Reality beyond the universe, the access to which cannot be gained by any effort from within the universe, however sophisticated, dedicated or convicted the effort. Therefore, we have to assume that any disclosure is a self-disclosure initiated from a personal Being, whose “discovery” can only be known in the relational epistemic process constituted by the relational context and process of this personal Being’s self-disclosure from the beginning. Anything less and any substitute of this relational context and process reduce the relational epistemic process to, at best, conventional observation, which becomes self-referencing and thus is consequential for the relational outcome for which these self-disclosures have been communicated to us. This reduction applies equally to scientific, philosophical and theological observations, including those by biblical exegetes.

            The declaration that ‘the Trinity is both whole and uncommon’ involves the complete significance (phronēma, as Paul defined, Col 1:19; 2:9) of God’s full identity, which is both cataphatic (what God is) and apophatic (what God is not). This declaration of God’s incomparableness needs to illuminate trinitarian theology of its source and to distinguish it of its substantive significance. We cannot know who God is without embracing what God is not in fragmentary human terms and context, which compose the common. We cannot understand what God is not without receiving who, what and how God is in God’s whole relational terms, context and process, which compose the uncommon. Receiving the latter distinguishes the whole of God and embracing the former distinguishes the uncommon God, the whole and uncommon Trinity.


            If we fail to distinguish the whole and uncommon Trinity in the theological task, then the name of God is rendered to commonization and thereby misrepresented and misused (shaw’, Ex 20:7) in our theology and practice. This is how virtual images of God and the idealization of Jesus become idolized substitutes for the Trinity’s presence and involvement. While Peter correctly identified Jesus as “you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69), he perceived the Word mainly in referential terms (cf. Mt 16:16), thus without the substantive significance of the whole and uncommon Word clearly distinguished from Peter’s common stereotype of Messiah, Lord and Teacher (as discussed earlier). The commonization of who, what and how God is prevails in the theological task—even if unintentional or unknowing—because it is unavoidable whenever the whole and uncommon Trinity is not distinguished.

            In the philosophy of religion, such an omnipotent, omniscient, perfect God took creative action in the beginning to form the universe and all in it, after which this Being either left it on its own (deism) or continued to be involved with it—the extent of which varies with each specific view of theism. Both deism and theism depend on a particular interpretive framework, which determines the epistemic process it engages. Perhaps deists need to return to monitoring the universe to listen to the signs of life coming from outside the universe. Yet, the classical theistic picture of God—as self-contained and all sufficient, impassible, etc.—is also not the God of thematic relational action found in the self-disclosures of the Word in and from the beginning that notably distinguished the face of God. The interpretive framework from human shaping and construction has dominated philosophy’s voice in this conversation. In part, this speaks to the Copernican shift in astronomy (the earth revolves around the sun) and its influence on philosophy: theocentricity was replaced by anthropocentricity. The direction of influence was no longer from certainty of God to certainty of the self but now from self-certainty to certainty of God. Hans Küng identifies this methodical beginning emerging from the human being, the subject, one’s reason and freedom, as a paradigm shift that culminates in a radical critique of the proofs of God.[6] Moreover, if we account for reductionism, it would be evident that human contextualization had previously been well established as the primary determinant; this formalization is just a later consequence of further narrowing the epistemic field to what we know and can rationalize. In spite of this history, philosophical theology will hear a clearer voice to respond to for engaging this conversation. This is demonstrated, for example, by current scholarly efforts to clarify how many voices from outside the universe there are.[7] That work addresses the issue of the “threeness-oneness problem” and involves the theological and hermeneutic issues of the Trinity; however, this trinitarian theological task must also address the primary relational issue underlying these issues in order not to continue composing a pseudonymous God. Without addressing this primacy, our results in the theological task will be no further developed than what the disciples knew of God—much to Jesus’ sadness and frustration (Jn 14:9). Like the disciples after intense years engaged in following Jesus, we can find ourselves following the footprints of a different path than Jesus’ steps.

            When John declared that “no one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:18), on the one hand he affirms YHWH’s communication to Moses “you cannot see my face” (Ex 33:20). On the other hand, however, John highlights the substantive face of the Word, who illuminates the whole of God’s face-presence (paneh) not seen before only because it was never self-disclosed (Jn 5:37-38; 6:45-46). Since YHWH only precluded the paneh of the totality of God for Moses’ theological task, the whole of God was always accessible. In the full depth of the substantive Face’s profile, the irreducible and irreplaceable Word discloses both the whole of what the Trinity is and the uncommon of what the Trinity is not—in other words, nothing less than and no substitutes for the whole and uncommon Trinity. This complete Christology in John’s Gospel is pivotal for the trinitarian theological task, and therefore integral for trinitarian theology and practice. Perhaps this Gospel also serves as a theological triage for the urgent care necessary to restore reduced ontology and function to whole ontology and function in the hermeneutic perception of the Word and the theological anthropology of his followers.

            The ontological footprints and functional steps of God’s glory—that is, the heart of God’s being, the triune God’s relational nature, and the vulnerable presence of the Trinity—are disclosed by the Word (Jn 1:14,18; 11:4,40), so that the identity of YHWH’s name is further defined in the glory of the Face’s name (Jn 12:28; 17:4,6,11) and the Son’s (Jn 1:12,34; 5:23,43; 8:54; 10:25,36; 11:4; 17:12). What’s in the name of the Father and the Son is not just their functional significance but also the substantive significance of their integral ontology as persons. The glory of the whole ontology and function of the trinitarian persons is certainly uncommon to human thought and ideas that historically have raised questions and shaped conclusions in the theological task. These issues continue to influence trinitarian theology and practice today, which will be discussed below. Therefore, it is important for us to integrate (put together for syniemi, as in Mk 8:17-18) the qualitative relational significance (intensity of meaning) of the revelations in the incarnation of God’s presence and involvement, in order to receive the whole understanding (synesis, as in Col 2:2-3) of the Trinity.

            The ontological footprints of God can appear vague, most notably if they are not observable; and simply appealing to mystery does not necessarily resolve the matter. Nevertheless, the footprints of God’s ontology are palpable. The breadth of observation is contingent on the extent of our epistemic field, and the depth of observation depends on our hermeneutical framework and lens. This is true even for the footprints of the universe, which science has been finding more and more expansive than concluded earlier. The breadth and depth of what can be known and understood ongoingly challenge the limits and constraints of the human context and the thoughts and ideas it composes. Moreover, the bias of the human context creates a virtual fog that distorts what is perceived or even prevents perception altogether. For example, the expansion of artificial light generated by urban development has brightened (i.e. polluted) the night skies, such that the great majority of earth dwellers can no longer view the stars in space—with the Milky Way the most notably obscured from the naked eye. The bias of the human context also creates theological fog that critically affects what can be perceived.

            The whole and uncommon Trinity cannot be known and understood apart from the historical reality of the incarnation composed objectively in the human context, not by the human context, which challenges the breadth and depth of our perception. At the same time, the Trinity is integrally constituted in substantive qualitative and relational terms, the breadth of which can only be received in the depth of essential reality—that is, beyond the limits of mere quantitative observation and the constraints biasing human perception. The full incarnation of Jesus’ whole person—not selective fragments from whatever perspective—challenged the process of human rationalization and confronted its quantitative lens and method to expand the breadth of its limited epistemic field, and thus to also include the depth of the qualitative and relational in order for the epistemic process to be whole (again not fragmentary or incomplete). The good news of the incarnation, however, is ongoingly subjected to reductionism. This is critical to understand and maintain awareness of in the theological task—notably about our view of sin and our theological anthropology—especially if we want to emerge from any fog in trinitarian theology and practice.

            One subtle influence of reductionism is the narrowing of our interpretive lens—limiting what we can see and constraining how we see and think—for the cause of certainty and, of course, for the sake of self-determination. This common influence always prevents any knowledge and understanding of the whole, since it restricts the whole from emerging by focusing on fragmentary parts and perhaps the sum of those parts. This whole is not some idea of a whole from inside the universe itself (the sum of those parts) but the whole interposing from outside the universe (the whole greater than the sum of parts). Fragmentation prevails in the human context to compose the human condition, the function of which limits, constrains and prevents wholeness from unfolding. Unfortunately, this restriction does not prevent the virtual perception of the whole since creating any epistemological illusion and ontological simulation of the whole (i.e. with some form of unity) are the genius of reductionism. When we are seeking to develop the whole in trinitarian theology and practice, we must by its nature be able to distinguish the whole from illusion of it in our theology and simulation of it in our practice.

            Science, for example, in theory seeks an integrating development in the epistemic process in order to be whole, that is, more complete in its knowledge and understanding of what exists. Yet, its epistemological assumptions and hermeneutic bias restrict the process to the whole, even though there are various tentative claims and expectations of wholeness. The full incarnation (not reduced or fragmented), with its ontological footprints and functional steps, leads the approaches of science, rationalization and modernity, including postmodernity, on this heuristic path to wholeness. Rather than refute or be in conflict with them, God’s self-revelation in the incarnation clarifies and corrects them to be whole (cf. Rom 1:19-20). And the historical-critical approach in biblical criticism needs to converge with this heuristic process to wholeness. Of course, the convergences of any approach will require both epistemic and ontological humility.

            This relational epistemic process and the issue of epistemic-ontological humility urgently apply to theology. The bias of the human context that obscures the view both within and beyond the universe needs to be addressed. If theology is indeed directed by revelation from outside the universe, its formulations should be other than self-referencing; and its understanding needs to be more complete by the nature of the knowledge available from outside the universe. Yet, theology has long labored under a counteracting dynamic: between what God reveals and what we attribute to God; between what God says for and of himself and what we say for God and impose on him; between God’s whole terms and reduced terms of human shaping and construction. Some may locate this dynamic in the hermeneutic circle, thinking that both are necessary without considering their compatibility. But the former is whole and the latter is not just some part that can be interpreted into the whole of God; the latter is fragmentary and from reductionism, which is always incompatible with the whole. Furthermore, comfort should not be taken in the latter’s place in tradition, prominence in the academy, and acceptance in the church.

            When the breadth of our epistemic field and the depth of our hermeneutic are neither limited nor constrained, the Trinity’s presence and involvement can be distinguished according to the terms of their self-disclosure. Human self-referencing cannot substitute for God’s self-disclosure. In the trinitarian theological task, three essential and irreplaceable dimensions are required for the integral understanding of the Trinity as distinguished by God’s full identity—composing the following 3-D perspective essential to God:

1.     Pala-distinguished (as Job learned in his theological task, Job 42:3): God is distinguished beyond all else that exists and thus is incomparable to anything or anyone else; yet the pala of God is not the same as the uniqueness rendering God unknowable in Greek philosophy and negative theology, because God has self-disclosed the improbable, if not the impossible (Jn 1:18; 6:45-46).


2.     Uncommon-holy: God is also holy, that is, separate from and uncommon to all else, therefore irreversibly distinguished from the common signified by all else and thereby simply unable to be defined and determined by the limits and constraints of the common’s human contextualization and lens; the common can only speculate about the Uncommon or just remain silent—that is to say, unless it turns around with epistemic humility and hermeneutic vulnerability to receive the Uncommon’s self-disclosure in the common’s context but only by God’s relational-specific context and epistemic process.


3.     Whole-complete: God’s self-disclosures are vulnerably enacted only in substantive relational terms, and therefore the who, what and how of God disclosed is always whole, never fragmentary or incomplete—whole-ly given by and for the primacy of relationship together in wholeness and not subject to reduction or negotiation in our theology and practice, notably by incomplete referential language and fragmentary referential terms.

For the trinitarian theological task to be substantive and have qualitative relational significance, only pala and uncommon define and determine the who, what and how essential for the full identity of the whole of God. And the ontological footprints and functional steps distinguishing this whole and uncommon God constitute integrally without negotiation the person-al Trinity and the inter-person-al Trinity (discussed in the next two chapters).


            If we cannot distinguish the essential truth of God’s presence and the essential reality of God’s involvement with us, how can a distinction exposing a pseudonymous God and its virtual reality be made in our theology and practice?



The Essential Relational Outcome


            The church and its related academy, not just its leaders and teachers, are accountable for God’s revelation distinguished in substantive relational terms with nothing less than the whole and no substitutes for the uncommon. Nothing less and no substitutes also hold us accountable to receive and respond to the whole and uncommon God’s self-disclosures by reciprocal relational involvement in the Trinity’s relational-specific context and process. Anything less and any substitutes take us out of the Trinity’s uncommon context and disconnect us from the Trinity’s whole epistemic process, whereby we are left to shape the Trinity in reduced fragmentary terms that render the Trinity incomplete and common—a Trinity no longer distinguished whole and uncommon, nor essentially distinct from a pseudonymous Trinity of virtual reality. The relational outcome of nothing less and no substitutes and the relational consequence from anything less and any substitutes will be determinative for knowing and understanding the Trinity, or for lacking such, just as Jesus made definitive about carefully paying attention to the whole Word (Mk 4:24).

            The Word communicates in substantive relational terms in order for the relational-specific purpose and outcome to disclose the who, what and how essential for the Trinity and all of life integrally beyond the human context and in the human context. To say this is essential is not to labor in the philosophical concept of the essence of something: the basic or primary substance in the being of a thing and that thing’s nature, without which it could not be what it is; and thus, per essentialism, what is essential cannot be lost without ceasing to exist. This conversation is certainly shaped by human thought and ideas, whose limits and constraints compose a narrowed-down framework that is fragmentary and incomplete at best. Notably when applied to God it is unable to get to the innermost that distinguishes the whole of God, and thus that distinguishes the who, what and how essential for God’s whole ontology and function. Perhaps the analogy currently applicable from modern science would be the Higgs boson just discovered with the Large Hadron Converter, which is the most essential particle that determines the existence of matter. The significance is that without the Higgs boson our physical bodies would not have material existence. As essential as this particle is to our physical well-being, it still doesn’t get to the innermost of the human person; nor does it define and determine the whole of who, what and how the person is in ontology and function—it is just one part (albeit the smallest particle) of the whole person. This is the extent of God that is composed by the essence and essentialism of philosophical theology, which clearly lacks substantive depth in the theological task to be of qualitative relational significance for trinitarian theology and practice.

            Having said this, Anselm Kyongsuk Min looks to Thomas Aquinas (leading developer of scholastic philosophy) for a legacy of challenges and questions that any trinitarian reconstruction must address.

Substantively, there are three questions. The first concerns the ontological constitution of the Trinity: how do we conceptualize the process in which three divine persons emerge or originate in such a way as to distinguish each as a distinct person without denying their common divine nature, while also guaranteeing their equality, co-eternity, and mutual coinherence? The second concerns the relation between the essential and the personal in God: do we have a conception of the divine “person” adequate enough to avoid tritheism and modalism by including in itself both the divine essence as God and the distinguishing traits proper to each person? By what criteria do we assign certain attributes to the common essence and certain others to the personal distinctions? The third concerns the relation of the immanent and economic Trinity: what is there in the immanent Trinity that moves God to create, redeem, and govern the world? How does the life and structure of the immanent Trinity serve as the ontological ratio of the economic Trinity?


     There are also two methodological questions which Aquinas did ask and which remain pertinent today. The first concerns the method and criteria of predicating divine names: do we have a developed theory that will justify the use of the only language we know in talking about God, our human language derived from the material world, yet also does justice to the ontological difference between God and creatures and protects our language from the idolatry of anthropomorphism and the abusiveness of ideology? The second concerns the model we use for talking about the Trinity: is the model adequate to indicate something of the infinity of God, the immanence of divine life, and sufficient freedom from our created world while also suggesting an eternal love for creation? Are the models supple enough to accommodate coherently the many aspects of trinitarian theology such as processions, relations, persons, the difference between the relational and the essential, the immanent and the economic, and capable of promoting the coherent, theological appropriation of biblical names (e.g. Father, Son, Word, Gift, etc.)?[8]

These questions certainly have relevance for our trinitarian theological task, and hopefully some have been addressed already with more to follow below. But to reemphasize, such a perceptual-interpretive framework and lens constrains God substantively to its limits—in spite of its conceptual expansiveness attributed to God—and thereby is incomplete to have the qualitative relational significance necessary for the essential relational outcome in trinitarian theology and practice.

            The full identity of God has to be essential or else we are merely identifying less than the whole of God. Once again, the whole of God (not the totality) is not conceptual but constitutes the vulnerable presence and direct involvement of the whole and uncommon Trinity in substantive relational terms. The Trinity’s essence in referential terms has insufficient qualitative relational significance to distinguish the truth and reality essential of the Trinity’s presence and involvement. When God is whole, and integrally uncommon beyond common human fragmentary thought and ideas, the full identity of YHWH is triune and thus the substantive face-presence of YHWH is trinitarian integrally in ontology and function. This is not a leap over Lessing’s ugly ditch from reason to fideism. That is to say in substantive relational terms, trinitarian ontology and function is essential to the whole of who, what and how God is; and without the whole ontology and function of the Trinity, the essential relational outcome of God’s ongoing presence and involvement can no longer be accounted for in the innermost of essential truth and reality (analogous to the limits of the Higgs boson). Therefore, the who, what and how of the Trinity is essentially not distinguished any further than propositional-doctrinal truth and any deeper than virtual reality, thereby rendering God’s identity to some substitute ideal or stereotype.

            The gospel of the embodied Word from the triune YHWH, in order to be good news indeed, has to be trinitarian to be congruent with the ontological footprints and functional steps unfolding in the incarnation—the improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path further enacted by YHWH as Father, Spirit and Word. Without the trinitarian presence and involvement, our theology and practice are composed by only a partial gospel, which becomes an overly christocentric focus from an incomplete Christology. This results in salvation becoming truncated to what sin we are saved from without the qualitative relational significance of what we are saved to: the primacy of relationship together in wholeness as persons with the whole of God in God’s new creation family, constituted in the relational likeness of the ontology of the Trinity—thus what sin we are saved from does not included sin as reductionism.

            The full outcome of salvation from the essential relational outcome of complete Christology is the new creation transforming the human condition from the original creation, which Paul distinguished from the common messianic expectations to make integrally definitive for the church (2 Cor 5:16-17; Rom 6:4; Gal 6:15, cf. Isa 65:17). The new creation was not only constituted by the death and resurrection of the Christ, but in complete Christology emerged from the trinitarian relational context of family and unfolded by the trinitarian relational process of family love, and was thereby distinguished whole and uncommon in likeness of the Trinity (as Jesus illuminated, Jn 17:20-26, and Paul clarified, Eph 4:24; 2 Cor 3:18). The new creation, then, is the reconstituted, recreated whole of the original creation in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the triune God (Col 3:10). The substantive significance of the original creation is integral to the First Testament and the qualitative relational significance of the new creation is integral to the Second Testament—as Jesus distinguished for Nicodemus (Jn 3:3-8)—the whole of which are both essential in their trinitarian likeness (discussed further in chap. 7).

            Essential also to a complete Christology and the substantive face of God, and for this whole relational outcome and its relational completion, is the conjoint ontology and function of the Uncommon Spirit—just as Jesus initially identified the Spirit for this essential relational outcome (Jn 3:5-8), and John (the Baptist) witnessed to (Jn 1:32-34). Later, Jesus as ‘embodied Truth’ told his disciples that there was much more depth to reveal for them to know and understand, namely disclosing God. But, and this is critical to the trinitarian theological task, this relational epistemic process would only be communicated by “the Spirit of truth,” who would integrally lead them in this relational-specific process and constitute the essential relational outcome (Jn 16:12-15). The Spirit of truth communicates for the Subject constituting ‘embodied Truth’ as Subject-Truth’s relational replacement (Jn 14:25-26; 15:26; 16:7, cf. Gal 4:6). As the Word’s relational replacement, not only does the function of the Spirit further unfold from YHWH but so too does the ontology of the Spirit in substantive relational terms to be integral with the ontology of the Word and the Father in order to constitute the essential relational outcome (Jn 14:15-18,23, cf. Eph 2:19-22; Rom 8:14-16; 2 Cor 3:17-18). When Jesus disclosed the presence and involvement of the Spirit as distinct Subject jointly with the Father, what is essential for Christology is complete. The irreplaceable Spirit as the Truth’s relational replacement unfolds in reciprocal relationship to transform the church as the new creation family of God (as Paul illuminated). Yet, contrary to just a concept and in contrast to just a force (even of love) that counter the primacy of relationship, the Spirit can only be involved in reciprocal relationship as Subject; not even an Object engages in reciprocal relationship. Moreover, how can we be involved in this reciprocal relationship with anything less than a person, the Subject of whom also experiences emotional pain (lypeo, grieve, mourn, be distressed) when we don’t fulfill our participation in reciprocal relationship together (Eph 4:30)? God’s whole presence and involvement cannot be reduced to anything less, not can we receive God’s presence and respond to God’s involvement with anything less than our person as subject from inner out, and still have the essential relational outcome.

            The truth essential of this relational outcome is the essential reality of knowing the whole of God in intimate relationship together (1 Cor 3:9-16; Rom 8:11,27), the wholeness of which is constituted by the triune God, the whole and uncommon Trinity (Num 6:26; Jn 14:27; Rom 8:6). The knowledge and understanding of the Trinity is first revealed in and by the embodied Word as Truth, and then extended in the church by the Subject-person of the Spirit as relational replacement of Subject-Truth. The early church determined its whole theology and practice on the substantive basis essential to the Trinity; even though the name of the Trinity was not used, the identity of the whole of God was unmistakable (e.g. Mt 28:19; Eph 4:4-6). At the same time, whole theology and practice likely reflected only a minority of early churches; for example, in Jesus’ post-ascension critique of churches (Rev 2-3), only two of the seven representative churches received positive evaluations while the other five engaged in variations of reduced theology and practice. Yet, this whole theology and practice distinguished the most significant earliest Christian tradition, which unfolded from the whole ecclesiology that Paul made definitive with his complete Christology (the pleroma of Christ, Eph 1:23; 4:11-13; Col 1:19; 2:9). This essential wholeness emerged in substantive relational terms only because of the completeness of God’s relational-specific response of grace (Jn 1:16), of which Paul was a direct face-to-face recipient that transformed his person and thus his theology and practice to wholeness.

            Since the Word of and from YHWH signifies the communication of God’s revelation, this theological trajectory and relational path of the Word are the irreplaceable means to know and understand God (cf. Ps 119:130). Therefore, to have relational-specific knowledge (epignosis) and whole understanding (synesis) of the Trinity (as Paul disclosed, Col 2:2-3) is directly connected to and inseparable from the sole initiative of God’s relational response of grace, which Peter later experienced with epistemic and ontological humility (1 Pet 1:3; 2 Pet 3:18). And Peter also experienced the truth and reality that God’s ongoing relational involvement has the relational outcome of wholeness (2 Pet 1:2,8, cf. Eph 6:15). Accordingly, Peter wrote to his readers in order “to stimulate [arouse, stir up] you to wholesome thinking” (eilikrines and dianoia, 2 Pet 3:1, NIV); that is, more than wholesome or “sincere intention” (NRSV), Peter awakens us to have greater clarity of thought and a perspicacious perceptual-interpretive lens by deeply focusing with coherence on the relational (nor referential) words of God (3:2-7). This will take us beyond the limits of human thought and ideas and past the bias of the human context. As discussed previously, Peter also lacked this clarity and lens earlier himself. This relational process integrates knowledge of God with salvation for the reciprocal relational involvement necessary to be compatible with the whole Word for the relational outcome of wholeness—for which Peter rightfully highlights Paul as having the key to whole theology and practice (3:13-16).

            In Paul’s clarification for and correction of the church, the new Paul (not from biblical studies) makes the whole Word from God the relational imperative, with the wholeness of Christ’s whole person the only determinant for our integral theology and practice in the primacy of new relationship together in wholeness as family (Col 3:15-16, cf. 1 Cor 4:6). Paul fought for both the essential truth of the whole gospel composed only by complete Christology, and the essential reality of its relational outcome in full soteriology. At the same time, Paul fought against both reductionism’s fragmentation of the gospel with an incomplete Christology, and reductionism’s counter-relational workings that truncate soteriology. What Jesus embodied into Paul, with the Spirit, further unfolds the whole Word to distinguish the whole and uncommon God (Acts 9:15; 26:16; Col 1:25-26), which is indispensable for the trinitarian theological task even though Paul was not a traditional trinitarian.[9] The whole in Paul’s theology and practice illuminates the whole Word and the essential relational outcome of God’s whole ontology and function, as well as the wholeness of our ontology and function (Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10). This is ‘the gospel of wholeness’ (Eph 6:15) clarified by Paul, the essential relational outcome of which Paul further illuminates that all of creation longs for in frustration for it to be distinguished by God’s new creation family (Rom 8:19-22).

            All Christians need to join Paul in the fight against reduced Christology, soteriology and thus ecclesiology, and fight for wholeness in our theology and practice, because we are ongoingly subjected to reductionism and its counter-relational workings. Unfortunately, as early Christian tradition also became subject to fragmentary heretical views that reduced the whole and uncommon God to common human thought and idea, the early Church Fathers fought against this reductionism but without wholeness in theology and practice. With all good intentions, for the most part they also inadvertently reduced God’s revelation given in whole relational terms by referentialization of the Word. In other words referentialized, they made secondary the relational-specific purpose of God’s self-disclosures for only the primacy of relationship together, and instead made primary having so-called certainty in the referential doctrines of the church in order to establish the Rule of Faith—the results of which increasingly lacked qualitative relational significance. Orthodoxy appeared to function more as a template for conformity rather than distinguishing the essential truth and reality of the whole and uncommon God’s presence and involvement. Jesus’ critique in whole relational terms would certainly apply here: “you have abandoned the love you had at first,” (Rev 2:4) and “I have not found your theology and practice complete in the sight of my God” (3:2).

            Misplaced, or at least ignored, in this formal theological task was the earliest church’s whole theology and practice, which was defined and determined by God’s self-revelation integrally in the Word—communicated orally and in writing just in relational language and terms—and by the reciprocal relational involvement of the Subject-person of the Spirit. As the embodied Truth’s relational replacement, the Spirit composed a mindset (phronēma) of “life [zoe not bios] and peace [wholeness not fragmentation]” (Rom 8:6). That is, this involves having a qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework and using its lens (phroneō) of whole relational terms (not fragmentary referential terms)—the clarity of thought and perspicacious lens that Peter awakens his readers and those in his succession to.

            The issue here centers on knowing and understanding the whole and uncommon God, which revolves around God speaking for God in self-disclosure, or subtly substituting human church leaders speaking for God with enhancement of God’s Word, even with good intentions. This pivots in the theological task on the complex Subject distinguished by God alone or a simple Object observed/shaped by the human lens—a non-interchangeable distinction in the trinitarian theological task. The difference between Subject and Object is also a subtle distinction that is irreversible once used, which determines who or what will compose our trinitarian theology and practice—just as Jesus definitively declared that “the measure [Subject or Object] you use will be the measure you get in your theology and practice” (Mk 4:24). Only what God communicated in self-disclosure as Subject is congruent with the relational-specific knowledge (epignosis) of the whole and uncommon God, and therefore is compatible with the whole understanding (synesis, Col 2:2-3) of the Trinity. Issues and problems arise and remain when this congruity and compatibility neither exist nor are pursued in trinitarian theology and practice, resulting in rendering the essential relational outcome from complete Christology at best to either a propositional-doctrinal truth or a virtual reality but likely both. Paul was astonished whenever anyone in the church (notably its leaders) turned to anything less or any substitutes (Gal 1:6; 2 Cor 11:3-4).



The Essential Implications of Anything Less and Any Substitutes


             Underlying the entire discussion about theology and practice is the intrinsic concern to identify God’s presence and involvement, by which the essential identity of God can be defined and determined. This basic concern involves correctly locating God’s presence and adequately understanding God’s involvement. What is essential for God in the theological task involves distinguishing (pala) the whole and uncommon (the three essential dimensions discussed above) presence and involvement of God. Whatever other discourse about God assumed to be essential have no qualitative relational significance integral to both theology and practice, which means that essentially they would compose a pseudonymous God. The essential profile of YHWH’s face is contingent on the substantive face of the Word disclosed only in whole relational terms, whose qualitative relational significance is irreducible and nonnegotiable and thereby who composes the full profile of the triune God indispensable for trinitarian theology and practice.

            Anything less of the Word would not be whole, and any substitutes in this profile of the Face would no longer be uncommon, that is, distinguished distinctly from the shaping by human thought and ideas—the source of idealized stereotypes, pseudonyms and idols. The implications of anything less and any substitutes in the theological task encompass issues and problems accounting for the essential presence and involvement of God in our theology and being accountable for nothing less and no substitutes in our practice. This raises the urgent question for us that is unavoidable in the theological task: If God’s presence and involvement do not compose our theology and practice with their essential truth and reality, then what are the truth and reality of God we claim to have?

            This returns us to the critical matter of our Christology and soteriology and their essential relational outcome. While the theological community needs to pay serious attention to an incomplete Christology and a truncated soteriology, churches cannot ignore these issues because God holds us all accountable for the whole of Jesus’ self-disclosures—just as he did with two of his followers on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32). What Christians follow and what churches practice are rooted in their Christology; and church mission is determined by their soteriology—the significance of which composes their gospel. Therefore, churches need to examine their ecclesiology: what is it based on, what does it pay attention to and what does it ignore, thus how congruent is its theology and how compatible is its practice with the whole and uncommon God’s thematic relational-specific action distinguished by the intrusive complex Subject of the Word?

            Jesus openly asserted, “Blessed are those who hear the word of the Father and relationally respond” (Lk 11:28), “they are my family” (Mt 12:50). The Father vulnerably shared, “This is my Son, whom I love…Listen to him!” (Mt 17:5, NIV). The Son communicated the Father’s words (Jn 7:16; 12:49-50; 14:10,24) and functioned only for the Father (Jn 5:19-20; 6:57; 14:31) and his family (Jn 17:6-8,26); and the Father expressed his affection for his family and directed the attention to his Son for the purpose of their family. These vulnerable assertions by the trinitarian persons are integrated in their mutual relational context and process for the same essential relational outcome. And their conjoint function was made evident by the qualitative relational significance of God’s complete relational action in the incarnation of the substantive Face’s relational work of grace and his relational involvement in the relational progression (as complete Christology), which constitutes his followers in the new relationships of wholeness necessary to be the whole and uncommon Trinity’s family (as full soteriology). The whole Word in substantive relational terms is in essential contrast and conflict with the reductionism rendered in anything less and any substitutes, and also with reductionism’s counter-relational workings composed notably by incomplete fragmentary referential terms.

            Moreover, as the trinitarian persons’ communication signified throughout the incarnation, their assertions interacted together to establish the new perceptual-interpretive framework, providing the lens to determine what to pay attention to and ignore. This is the qualitative framework and lens of wholeness that only the Spirit constitutes in “zoe and peace” (Rom 8:6). For example, we cannot ignore the implications of Jesus saying “they are my family” because the Father says “listen to him, who communicates my words.” And we cannot pay attention to the Son disclosing the Father’s words (which is not just their content) and their functional implications while ignoring the Father and the relationships necessary to be whole together as his family in their likeness (Jn 17:20-23), because Jesus functioned only for the Father and his family (Jn 17:6-11)—which the Father said to pay attention to. This is the uncommon and transcendent whole of God vulnerably disclosed to us—as improbable as it appears. To pay attention to anything less and any substitute, or to ignore the qualitative relational significance of nothing less and no substitutes, demonstrates the lens from a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework, which reduces the complex Subject’s ontology and function of Jesus, the Father, with the Spirit emerging, and thus the whole and uncommon Trinity.

            The complex Subject is always subjected to human shaping in the theological task, which underlies the fragmentary profile of Jesus in an incomplete Christology. In spite of God’s self-disclosure in the incarnation, the full profile illuminating God’s face is commonly not distinguished in our view of Jesus. Given the primacy of the incarnation, what ‘face’ is perceived and received from the embodied Word is the critical challenge of face that defines and determines  what unfolds with the Word. The whole person and substantive face of Jesus are not concepts or anthropomorphism imposed on him but rather his vulnerable function as “the image of the transcendent God…in his person all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:15,19), “in his person the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). The full profile of Jesus’ face is the epistemological, hermeneutical, ontological and relational keys to the whole of God’s glory (being, nature and presence, 2 Cor 4:6). Moreover, his person as the image of God (2 Cor 4:4, cf. Jn 14:9)—along with the person of the Spirit, Jesus’ relational replacement (Jn 14:16-18; 16:13-15; 2 Cor 3:17-18)—is essential for the human person both to know the qualitative relational significance and to have whole understanding of what it means to be and function as the person created in the image of God. There are certainly irreducible differences between God as Creator and creatures. However, as the substantive face of Jesus vulnerably disclosed (e.g. in his formative family prayer, Jn 17:21-23, cf. Col 2:9-10), there is also an irreducible likeness between the persons of the Trinity and the human person (including persons together) created in the image of the whole and uncommon God (cf. Col 3:10; Eph 4:24). Anything less and any substitutes for God or humans are reductions rendered to reduced ontology and function.

            The person in whole ontology and function presents for the trinitarian theological task the further challenge of and for face in full profile. To meet this challenge our “ears” have to have priority over our “mouths,” which may not be as easy as it sounds. As the Father made imperative, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (Mk 9:7); and as Jesus made imperative for his followers: “Then pay attention to how you listen” (Lk 8:18), and “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mk 4:24). In other words, it is imperative to listen before we speak, giving priority to the communicative messages (both in qualitative content and relational significance) from the complex Subject, which is a necessary relational dynamic in all communication. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, this dynamic has been reworked in the human condition with assumptions that bias or preclude listening. Quietly, for example, ‘method’ in scholarship imposes concepts on what we seek to know, giving priority to its own perception (view of simple Object), thus it essentially speaks before it listens.

            Furthermore, in this relational epistemic process our “eyes” are even a higher priority than our “ears” and must antecede both our “mouths and “ears” as the determinant for their function; this was the lesson Job deeply experienced (Job 42:3-5). Yet, this hermeneutic lens should not be confused with the priority of observation in the scientific method. This has less to do with the function of sight and critically involves how and what we see, most importantly the person constituted in the full profile of the face. For example, how and what we see in the person determines the profile we get, and an incomplete profile of the person becomes the basis for stereotypes—speaking for the person rather than letting the person determine who, what and how the person is. When Jesus defines “the measure” (metron, metreo) used above, he identifies his followers’ perceptual-interpretive framework and lens, which determines what we will pay attention to and ignore and, therefore, what we see, hear and listen to. That is, to listen carefully and to understand what Jesus says, we not only need to understand the horizon (e.g. the defining context) of where Jesus is coming from, but we also need to account in this process for the horizon of where we are coming from—and the defining and determining influence our own context may exert as it converges with Jesus’ context. Without knowing our own horizon and its influence on the framework and lens we use, we cannot openly listen to Jesus (and later to Paul) to speak for himself on his own terms. ‘Method’, as noted above, signifies a generalizing bias of rationalizing from a scientific paradigm rooted in the Enlightenment, which reduces reality by narrowing down the epistemic field for better explanation. This modernist framework basically “speaks” before it listens, thereby defining the terms that determine the results—which predictably prevent or limit the essential relational outcome.

            As these two horizons converge, the primary determinant of how the messages communicated are to be understood for the listener/reader must always come from the context of the speaker. Certainly, some secondary influence still remains from the listener’s side. Yet, in the relational epistemic process the hermeneutical dynamic involves successive interactions between listener and speaker, reader and text, in the reflexive process of a ‘hermeneutical cone’[10] for further and deeper understanding. Throughout the process, however, the speaker’s context emerges as the primary determinant without negotiation with the listener’s side. Even with this priority, any assumed three-dimensional view flattens out when the Word is received in referential terms. Moreover, the three-dimensional dynamic of a hermeneutical cone/spiral regresses to a recurring cycle, if not a perpetual or even vicious circle. The Word’s intensity of meaning and depth of understanding emerge only from whole relational terms, which can only be received and thereby known by engaging the Word’s relational-specific context and relational epistemic process. Yet, this hermeneutic process is not engagement in referential terms but is involvement with the Word in reciprocating relational terms; and this hermeneutic function if fulfilled by the Spirit’s reciprocal relational involvement (as in Jn 16:14).

            And Jesus’ context cannot be limited to historical human contextualization but needs to include “in the beginning” and his relational context from outside the universe constituted within the Trinity, which has been vulnerably accessible in the human context by the trinitarian relational process of family love. His defining-context horizon is both nonnegotiable to human terms and irreducible to human shaping and construction; and thus his defining context is never subject to human context, even though it certainly is subjected to human contexts. This composes the 3-D lens required to distinguish the whole and uncommon Trinity, and anything less and any substitutes distort the view of God—making God’s presence and involvement ambiguous if not elusive.


            With this trinitarian relational context and process in focus, reflect back on the pre-Damascus-road Paul. Here was a Jew of religious conviction, impassioned to eliminate the embodied shape of his religious roots and the embodied reshaping of his religious convictions; he was dedicated to the demise of this new embodiment in Jesus—both Jesus’ distinguished Face and faces following—threatening his religion by redefining the terms. Consider the post-Damascus-road Paul. Here was a Jew of deeper conviction of faith, impassioned to eliminate instead the human shaping of the Face’s profile emerging from his religious roots and the human terms reducing the new depths of his faith and the whole gospel. What brought this change (i.e. the redemptive change of transformation) in Paul? The simple answer is who—the substantive Face, who not only turned and shined on Paul but who was vulnerably present and relationally involved directly in Paul’s life, Face to face. Certainly then, Paul experienced not merely a Christophany but nothing less and no substitutes for the substantive Face distinguishing the essential truth and reality of the whole and uncommon God, therefore completing Paul’s previously fragmentary monotheism to whole monotheism.

            The challenge essential of Face in full profile goes unmet by the mere fact of embodying the Face. Certainly, the incarnation is essential theology; and in spite of how ‘critical’ (historical, form, literary) the embodied Word has become in biblical studies, no human shape or construct distinguishes the substantive Face unless the Face distinguishes his own Self. This profile goes further than the details of what the embodied Face disclosed of himself (notably his teachings and ministry) to more deeply account for how the Face was present and involved in the human context by the integral nature of what and who the embodied Face was. What unfolds from the Word and emerges clearly is the substantive Face of the complex Subject, who distinguishes the whole and uncommon Trinity in the qualitative relational significance essential to the trinitarian ontology and function of YHWH.

            Either the substantive Face distinguished the complex Subject disclosing the whole and uncommon Trinity, or the most that can be attributed to the Face is a simple Object that lacks the qualitative relational significance necessary to constitute the whole ontology and function of God, and thus of ours in likeness. Who, what and how does a simple Object define persons to be, presumably in their essential substantive profile?

            Social media today provides us with a contemporary analogy yet recurring example of persons reduced to simple objects. In spite of the increasing quantitative engagement in social media preoccupying persons, there is minimal-to-no qualitative involvement required for a person’s presence. Thus, that person’s presence is based on the quantitative engagement of a simple object, which projects a person of essentially a pseudonymous identity. This simulated human transaction has become a prevailing substitute for the human communication involved in human interaction, notably in face-to-face relational involvement. The profile of a person’s face on social media becomes an illusion constructed by a quantity of referential terms (including visuals and symbols); and the prevailing consequence is the reduced, fragmentary and misleading identity of persons composed only by the so-called presence and involvement of a simple object. This pseudonymous identity, unfortunately but not surprisingly, is commonly mistaken for the substantive presence and involvement distinguishing the full identity of a complex subject. For example, has the identity of Christ become reduced to the profile of a cross, perhaps signifying the ultimate emoticon (or emoji) of social media?

            Most importantly, the prevailing perception of God as a simple Object is also commonly mistaken for the complex Subject distinguished only by the substantive Face—whose qualitative relational significance is constituted in nothing less than and no substitutes for whole relational terms. Accordingly, if we accept (willingly or inadvertently) the incomplete or distorted profile composing a simple Object in our theological task, the essential implication for which we must assume responsibility is the absence or loss of the complex Subject’s presence and involvement in our theology and practice. This, therefore, composes a critical condition without the full profile of the substantive Face integrally distinguishing the whole and uncommon Trinity, that is, without the essential of nothing less and no substitutes.

            When Jesus asked Peter “do you love me” in relational terms (Jn 21:15-22), our familiarity of this interaction often transposes it to referential terms. This has consequences not only for Peter (and all other disciples) but most importantly for Jesus. John’s Gospel records this crucial interaction not for its narrative significance but for its theological significance composed in substantive relational terms. Jesus is asking his followers (including us) for the compatible relational response and involvement that is congruent with me—integrally signified by the nonnegotiable relationship-specific imperative “follow me” (vv.19,22; 12:26). Compatibility in practice is contingent on congruence in the theology of who, what and how the whole Word of YHWH is in integral function and ontology. Did Peter respond to merely the embodied face of Jesus from outer in—“you know that I love you or else I wouldn’t be here”; or did he declare his relational involvement with the substantive Face essential to the profile of Jesus’ whole person, who also vulnerably distinguished the function and ontology of the Father and the Spirit for his disciples to follow? Therefore, essential to “love me” and “follow me,” and all theology and practice related to “my name,” involves this whole person of the complex Subject, whose wholeness is constituted inseparably, interchangeably and thus integrally with the ontology of the Father and the Spirit as persons (as in Jn 10:38; 14:9-11; 16:14-15).

            We cannot claim to follow and love Jesus fragmented from the trinitarian persons—the whole of who, what and how together constitute in only substantive relational terms the person-al Trinity, distinguished whole and uncommon in the human context also as the inter-person-al Trinity. Jesus embodied, enacted and disclosed only the uncommon presence and whole involvement of this whole-ly Trinity. Along with the essential implications in the trinitarian theological task, nothing less and no substitutes “follow me” and “love me,” even worship “my name”; nor can anything less and any substitutes compose the uncommon truth of God’s vulnerable presence and the whole reality of God’s relational involvement essential for us to worship, love and follow.   

            At this point in our discussion, on what basis did Jesus tell his disciples “and you still do not know me”? And how well would you say that you know Jesus?    



[1] Daniel W. Hardy, “Reason, Wisdom and the Interpretation of Scripture” in David F. Ford and Graham Stanton, eds., Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM Press, 2003), 72-76.

[2] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Promise of Speech-act Theory for Biblical Interpretation” in Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, Karl Moller, eds., After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 73-90.

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

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

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

[6] Hans Küng, The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 43-53.

[7] A descriptive overview of this work, in interaction with systematic theology, is found in Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[8] Anselm Kyongsuk Min, “God as the mystery of sharing and shared love: Thomas Aquinas on the Trinity” in Peter C. Phan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 105.

[9] A full discussion of this relational process and outcome is found in my study, Jesus into Paul: Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel (Integration Study, 2012). Online at http://www.4X12.org.

[10] This composite term is taken from what more accurately defines the process not as a circle but as a ‘hermeneutical spiral’, which James D.G. Dunn describes as a ‘three-dimensional cone’. “Criteria for a Wise Reading of a Biblical Text” in David F. Ford and Graham Stanton, eds., Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM Press, 2003), 51.



©2016 T. Dave Matsuo

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