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The Face of the Trinity

The Trinitarian Essential for the Whole of God and Life


Chapter  5                  The Person-al Trinity




Continuity and Discontinuity in Trinitarian Thinking

The Dilemma: To Be or Not To Be

The Global Face of Localized Face Masks


Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Ch 8

Ch 9

Ch 10

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of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index




Boast in this, that you understand and know me, that I am YHWH;

I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the human context.

                                                                                                                        Jeremiah 9:24



            The continuity of the Christian God with the First Testament is problematic as the Trinity. The Trinity as commonly perceived is considered incompatible with monotheism, both of Judaism and Islam, which was the central issue consuming Paul as an unwavering orthodox monotheist. What is essential for monotheism, of course, is to have one God. That’s why polytheism in the human context was a major cause of conflict in the First Testament, yet whose common influence was also a major source for shaping a pseudonymous God that both misrepresents the full identity of YHWH and misuses the name of YHWH essential to who, what and how the one God is. In this way there was also discontinuity with YHWH within monotheism itself, the human shaping of which must not be duplicated in trinitarian theology and practice in order to have the continuity essential to the name of YHWH, and to be congruent with the full identity of YHWH unfolding in the Second Testament.

            As stated above in relational terms, God is present and involved in the human context for the relational-specific purpose for us to know who and what God is and to understand how God is (cf. Jer 24:7)—thus the only boast we can make that has significance to God. This means that God’s presence and involvement are defined and determined only by God or else there is no continuity with YHWH. While human perception of God’s presence and involvement is certainly needed to receive God, it is not the determinant for the identity of God and for what is essential to who, what and how God is. The human shaping and construction of God is in discontinuity with the name of YHWH and is incongruent with the whole ontology and function of YHWH unfolding vulnerably and intimately in the incarnation. That is, if our theological task is to have continuity and be congruent with YHWH, it must be based on what the embodied presence and involvement of YHWH reveals.

            To boast in the theological task of understanding and knowing “me, that I am YHWH, the substantive relational verb” can only be based on correctly perceiving YHWH’s embodied presence functioning as enacted: (1) in the relational involvement of love (“steadfast love”), (2) for the well-being of the human community in wholeness and not merely by the rule of law (“justice”), and fulfilling this function according to (3) the whole of who, what and how YHWH is that can be counted on in relationship together (“righteousness”). What is essential for the embodied presence of YHWH’s function in the above as the Word is also the ontology of the whole Word, who distinguished the integral ontology and function of YHWH. Yet, what is unfolding with the Word’s ontology and function is neither in discontinuity with YHWH nor incongruent with the one God. Again, this can only be determined by God’s presence and involvement, the truth and reality of which must be humanly perceived in order to be received but are not determined by human perception. In the theological task of knowing and understanding God, when we focus on God’s presence and involvement as disclosed in its primacy, one issue that has to be understood for this continuity and congruence is that the Christian God is constituted by neither tritheism nor modalism (having three main forms of function). What must also be understood for continuity and congruence within monotheism itself is that to truly know YHWH is to know the whole of who, what and how God is, that is, as complex Subject uncommon to the human context and distinguished beyond human thought and ideas—all while vulnerably present and intimately involved with us for relationship together.

            This whole and uncommon God is distinguished as the person-al Trinity for us to know and understand, nothing less and no substitutes—the qualitative relational significance of eternal life (Jn 17:3). Even though in recent years there has been more discourse about knowledge regarding the Trinity, most Christians still don’t talk about the Trinity in their practice. This reflects a trinitarian theology and practice not specifically knowing (epignosis) and whole-ly understanding (synesis) the qualitative relational significance of the Trinity as revealed in complete (pleroma) Christology, which is essential for the church family’s theology and practice (as Paul illuminated, Col 2:2-3, 9-10). On the basis of Jesus’ substantive presence and whole involvement, he chastened his disciples for not knowing “me” after all their time together—that is, knowing the complex Subject who composed the epistemological, hermeneutical, ontological and relational keys to the whole and uncommon Trinity (Jn 14:6-11).



Continuity and Discontinuity in Trinitarian Thinking


            When Moses pursued God in his theological task in order to know and understand God, the name of YHWH emerged and the glory (being, nature and presence) of God was distinguished, that is, as revealed by God (Ex 3:13-15; 33:18-20). To know and understand the Trinity in the trinitarian theological task must by its nature (not by duty to tradition) be in continuity with the whole and uncommon God revealed to Moses. Since the totality of God was not revealed by YHWH in the First Testament and has not been in the Second Testament, there is a limit to what can be known and understood about the uncommon God in transcendence beyond the human context composing the common. In the trinitarian theological task, this uncommon God has been referred to as the immanent Trinity, which may have continuity or discontinuity in trinitarian theology depending on the thinking. To have continuity with YHWH and the glory of God is contingent on being congruent with God’s self- revelation; and to have discontinuity is to be either incongruent or incompatible with the disclosures of God (as Job learned, Job 42:3-5). The issue in trinitarian thinking is what has God revealed of Self, and what can be assumed or implied from the disclosures of God that would be congruent or at least compatible for the trinitarian theological task. To learn from Job, there is both a limit to what we can say about or for God, and also an immeasurable depth of what God self-discloses to us. This leads us directly to the whole and uncommon presence and involvement of God that distinguishes the Trinity.

            In trinitarian thinking, God’s presence and involvement in the human context converge in the economic Trinity to define the sum of God’s actions/activity in the common context of human life. The sum of these parts of God, however, cannot be assumed to equal the whole and thus doesn’t determine the whole of God. Nor can we imply from the parts and sum of the economic Trinity what defines the uncommon God, which is essential to have some (not total) understanding of the immanent Trinity. Moreover, while the economic Trinity in the human context reflects the immanent Trinity beyond the human context, it is problematic to say they are the same. Such a conclusion is unwarranted, if not contradictory, based incongruently on what determines the whole basis for God and incompatibly to what defines the uncommon essential of God. When the whole is not determined and the uncommon is not defined sufficiently, then the Trinity cannot be distinguished whole and uncommon in the trinitarian theological task and thus for trinitarian theology and practice.

            The whole of God’s presence and involvement cannot be reduced to merely what God does in the human context. This basis of determination is narrowed down and thereby reduces God’s ontology and function in both the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity it reflects. On the one hand, this narrowed-down basis is a common oversimplification of God’s involvement that essentially perceives only a simple Object. Simultaneously, on the other hand, it indicates a qualitative insensitivity and relational unawareness of God’s presence that misinterprets the complex Subject integrally present and involved. Accordingly, the Trinity’s uncommon presence and whole involvement often has discontinuity in the economic Trinity of prevailing trinitarian thinking, even if the immanent Trinity is not equated to it, because the commonly perceived economic Trinity is not congruent with the uncommon nature of God’s whole self-revelation. When the Trinity’s presence and involvement are accounted for in the substantive relational terms of their disclosure—which is not limited to the function of God’s activity—the economic Trinity will be congruent with the whole ontology and function of the immanent Trinity. On just this basis, the Trinity will have continuity with the whole Word unfolding from YHWH, who distinguishes nothing less than the whole Trinity and no substitutes for the uncommon Trinity.  

            The pivotal issue unavoidable in the trinitarian theological task is who and what define and determine God’s presence and involvement in the human context, which then also provides whole (not total) understanding of YHWH’s face whose total (not whole) profile cannot be seen. The distinction between whole and total is pivotal for both the congruity-incongruity of the who of God’s presence and the compatibility-incompatibility of the what of God’s involvement—the integral who and what essential for the continuity and not discontinuity with YHWH and God’s glory.

            In church history starting from the patristic tradition, what God is has typically centered on God’s being, nature and essence—using the terms ousia and physis (Gk) and essential and natura (Latin). For who God is, the focus has been on Father, Son and Spirit—using the terms hypostasis and prosopon (Gk) and substantia and persona (Latin). The discourse for what God is has involved metaphysics and ontology, with various philosophical systems used to explain especially the immanent Trinity. Yet, in the pursuit of knowing and understanding a more total view of God, the whole of the what and who of God that is present and involved gets fragmented into these parts of God’s existence, attributes and activities. That is, the whole ontology and function of God gets reduced in the trinitarian theological task. The results have commonly been the loss of significance in trinitarian theology that has rendered the whole and uncommon Trinity ambiguous, elusive, if not in a theological fog, and thus insignificant for practice involving the presence and involvement of the Trinity. What kind of continuity exists with this trinitarian thinking and how can the discontinuity be addressed?

            The influence of philosophy on trinitarian thinking has skewed the trinitarian task at the expense of, at the very least, diminishing God’s vulnerable presence and minimalizing God’s relational-specific involvement in the human context. This has constrained qualitative sensitivity and limited relational awareness—notably by doctrines such as divine simplicity—such that the qualitative relational significance of the incarnation is not sufficiently distinguished to know and understand the Trinity—that is, the whole and uncommon Trinity distinguished beyond human thought and ideas by the complex Subject of the Word from YHWH. The incarnation of the name and glory of YHWH “in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6) integrates the improbable interaction between the spheres of physics and metaphysics. The convergence of physics and metaphysics is inseparable and irreducible—notably with one not considered more important than the other—thus integral to distinguish the Trinity in the theological task beyond the limits of the human context, and yet able to know and understand relationally in trinitarian theology and practice beyond the constraints of the human mind.

            In current trinitarian thinking, the focus seems to give epistemological priority to the economic Trinity and ontological priority to the immanent Trinity. This thinking, however, is still fragmentary and does not account for the whole and uncommon that the improbable integral interaction between physics and metaphysics integrates in the incarnation of the whole Word. Part of the issue in the epistemological priority of the economic Trinity is the lack or absence of qualitative significance given to the incarnation, which cannot be limited to historical observation or constrained by referential terms. Likewise, in the ontological priority of the immanent Trinity is the lack of relational significance understood from God’s self-disclosures—revealed indirectly in the world of nature and directly through the incarnation—that is essential for God’s ontology. Lacking this essential significance then ironically leads to God’s ontology being shaped in the theological task by the limits of human ontology and the constraints of human function—which includes negative theology shaping what God is not. In other words, epistemological priority and ontological priority only have significance when they are based on the relational priority given to the whole and uncommon Trinity, whose whole ontology and function are distinguished uncommonly by only the qualitative relational significance of the Trinity’s presence and involvement.

            The essential relational outcome of the Trinity’s ontological footprints and functional steps is the improbable path that integrates the sphere of physics and the sphere of metaphysics for their integral interaction to wholeness epistemologically and ontologically. Anything less and any substitutes in trinitarian thinking limit physics epistemologically and constrain metaphysics ontologically, so that continuity with the whole and uncommon YHWH is ambiguous at best, and discontinuity with the whole and uncommon Trinity prevails and at least distinctly influences trinitarian theology and practice.

            What certainly limits physics epistemologically is its epistemic field, which then inseparably includes its perceptual-interpretive framework and lens. While the latter in physics remains basically status quo, its epistemic field has been challenged to expand both in astrophysics and quantum physics—obviously with more expansion necessary to enter the metaphysical sphere. The sphere of metaphysics, however, must not be contained by the limits of philosophy or else the ontology in this sphere will always be constrained. In relation to what God is, ontology cannot be a concept or idea of the what if it is to be substantive, and thereby have significance both qualitative and relational—integrally in metaphysics and physics. For ontology to be substantive requires jointly to qualify its qualitative significance and to quantify its relational significance. That is, ontology is the what that simultaneously defines and determines the whole distinguishing God in the sphere of physics, who is able to be experienced as the complex Subject. This whole of God, however, is not limited to physics but also extends limitlessly beyond physics to expand its epistemic sphere and integrate physics into the sphere integral to all of life from the innermost to the outermost. Ontology, therefore, is the what that constitutes the whole of God inseparably from function—defining the whole of who and what God is and determining the whole of how God is. Without this whole ontology and its integral whole function, the who, what and how of God cannot be present and involved in order to experience as an essential reality.

            This uncommon substantive of ontology, which is commonly unknown to physics, is analogous perhaps in a limited way to the newly found Higgs boson in quantum physics (as noted in the last chap.). The presence of the Higgs boson was theorized as essential to hold particles together in a whole for physical matter to exist at all; and until its long-awaited discovery, why physical matter existed was a mystery. The reality of God’s ontology holding together the innermost whole of God’s existence also remains a mystery until discovered (not theorized) as disclosed to the human context by God (not by human construction or shaping). The sphere of metaphysics and the substantive of ontology certainly go beyond physics, yet they are not in conflict with physics when not biased by the human limits and constraints of these spheres. Going beyond them, the reality of metaphysics and the fact of physics are integrated by the incarnation of the integral ontology and function of the Word for the essential relational outcome to know and understand nothing less than the whole Trinity and no substitutes for the uncommon Trinity.

            The truth and reality essential of this relational outcome cannot be conflated with human thought and ideas without reducing the ontology and function of who, what and how the Trinity is. There is simply no continuity with the whole and uncommon Trinity unless trinitarian thinking is congruent with the complex Subject of the Word. Any incompatibility with the disclosures by Subject Word will essentially compose discontinuity in the trinitarian task because this redacts the whole Word for an incomplete Christology, which fragments the Subject or reduces the complex Subject to a simple Object. Here again, anything less than and any substitutes for the whole Word are redactions that can neither be congruent with the whole Trinity nor compatible with the uncommon Trinity.

            Likely most problematic for trinitarian thinking in both the economic and immanent Trinity is the issue of personhood, and how to define it without falling into tritheism yet still distinguished from modalism. That means who God is in terms of hypostasis, prosopon and persona do not refer to the Father, the Son and the Spirit as three “individuals” with their intellect, will and freedom—the psychological connotation of ‘person’ with self-consciousness. So, in the trinitarian theological task what defines them as persons that avoids both having three Gods and having one God in three modes? Or perhaps even using the word person for the Trinity should be avoided altogether in trinitarian theology and practice, as Peter Phan comments:

Given the widespread psychological connotation of “person” and given the fact the church cannot control the meaning of words in secular usage, there is a clear and present danger of tritheism, at least at the popular level, in using the word “person” for the Trinity.


     The question is whether, in order to forestall this danger, new words should be coined to express what Christians mean by “person” in the Trinity.[1]

The issue about the term person, however, involves more than locution. This gets to the heart of who and what God created humans to be, and to the innermost of the whole and uncommon God in whose likeness humans are created. The uncommon wholeness essential of the Trinity is neither subject to common terms nor amendable to anything less and any substitutes—both of which reduce Son Jesus’ whole person and redacts the Word disclosing the person-al Trinity.

            Redacting the whole Word takes various forms, notably in biblical and theological studies in the academy yet also throughout the church. Even in the early church, Paul confronted the redaction of the Word (“Has Christ been divided and reduced?” 1 Cor 1:13) and its results in composing “a different gospel” (Gal 1:6, cf. 2 Cor 11:4). The most consequential repercussion is for the complex Subject in the trinitarian theological task. Once this Subject is fragmented from wholeness and reduced of complexity, what emerges is something less than the whole of who, what and how God is, and who emerges is some substitute for the trinitarian complexity of who, what and how the Trinity is. (Please note in this discussion and what follows below, the terminology of who, what and how does not correspond exactly to the what and who used in patristic tradition.) Whether we are speaking of Subject or person, the whole Word cannot be reduced of its complexity without losing the trinitarian who, what and how as Subject-persons essential for the whole and uncommon Trinity.

            The issue here is not about semantics and which appellative best describes the Trinity. In terms of knowing the whole Word (as Jesus required of his disciples) and understanding the Trinity (as Jesus expected of the disciples), the epistemological issue is not how much information about the Word to accumulate; nor is the hermeneutical issue how to understand the Trinity in referential parts or their sum. These result in knowing something less and understanding some substitute. God is neither a mere entity to know about nor a simple Object to understand in part. Such knowledge and understanding may appear appropriate for the immanent Trinity but they have no significance to the economic Trinity, whose reality has congruity and thus continuity with the truth of the immanent Trinity. The truth of the latter is not contingent on the reality of the former, yet they are inseparable from each other to constitute the whole and uncommon Trinity. Thus, one must not be emphasized over the other, nor should one be seen apart from the other. Having this congruity is irreplaceable in trinitarian thinking and keeping this continuity is indispensable for the trinitarian theological task.

            YHWH declares to boast of knowing and understanding “me that I am,” who acts in relational-specific terms involved in “steadfast love, justice” (ḥesed, mishpat) with the whole of who, what and how God is (i.e. “righteousness,” sedaqah for ḥesed, mishpat, Jer 9:24). This legitimate boast only involves knowing and understanding the whole of God who is personally present and relationally involved; and this personal God extended further in physics and deeper in metaphysics by the qualitative relational significance of the complex Subject vulnerably embodying the whole ontology and function of the Word from YHWH. To know and understand the whole Word of YHWH integrally unfolds in only substantive relational terms from the essential relational outcome constituted by the Subject of Jesus’ whole person—whose complexity cannot be known by the limits of quantitative terms or understood with the constraints of referential terms. These limits and constraints in trinitarian thinking lead to discontinuity in the trinitarian theological task, which results in incongruity in trinitarian theology and incompatibility in trinitarian practice.

            The Subject-person of the Word has been ongoingly subjected to redaction. A major problem that certainly affects trinitarian thinking is shaping the Subject or constructing the person by anthropomorphism. Of course, Jesus’ whole person cannot be reduced to the parameters of the human person, which was the basis for Arianism creating discontinuity in early trinitarian thinking. Yet, the person of Jesus also cannot be idealized or hypothesized such that the complex Subject is rendered without the qualitative relational significance necessary to distinguish the Trinity’s whole ontology and function. When trinitarian thinking is engaged with qualitative relational significance, the whole ontology and function of the Trinity can be distinguished integrally in the spheres of physics and metaphysics to make unavoidable the personal presence and unmistakable the involvement of the Subjects in the Trinity.

            This exposes us to the essential truth and reality of the Trinity, and thereby we are able to engage the whole and uncommon who, what and how of God to know and understand accordingly:

The Trinity is constituted by three trinitarian Subjects (not Objects), whose integral ontology and function together is known in full (pleroma) as whole persons (not modalism) yet also whole-ly understood (syniemi, synesis) as complex Subjects (not as tritheism, as Paul illuminated the mystery of Christ, Col 1:19; 2:2-3)—the complexity of whom integrates physics and metaphysics beyond their human limits to distinguish beyond comparison (pala) the whole and uncommon Trinity. In spite of this full disclosure, the essential reality is that the whole Trinity is not completely explainable by physics alone; and the essential truth is that the uncommon Trinity is not totally understandable by metaphysics. This reality and truth do not render our knowledge and understanding to fideism, but instead we acknowledge human limits and constraints by deferring to the whole Word’s disclosures in and beyond the spheres of physics and metaphysics.

Yet in trinitarian thinking, to refrain from attempting to completely explain the Trinity requires epistemic humility, and to be resolved from trying to totally understand the Trinity requires ontological humility. Without this humility in trinitarian thinking, we are relegated to a state of incongruity with what God is and to a condition of incompatibility with who God is—neither understanding their essential truth (not in propositional limits) nor experiencing the essential reality (not in virtual constraints) of how God is.



The Dilemma: To Be or Not To Be


            Trinitarian thinking, the trinitarian theological task, and trinitarian theology and practice are accountable for nothing less than the whole and no substitutes for the uncommon that distinguish the Trinity’s presence and involvement in both the spheres of physics and metaphysics. The Trinity’s presence has to be personal in order to be meaningful in metaphysics, and the Trinity’s involvement has to be by substantive Subjects to be of significance in physics. An impersonal Trinity of conceptual Objects has no significance in the human context and is rendered meaningless even in continuity with Christian tradition—just ask the Samaritan woman at the well. Yet, in continuity with YHWH in the First Testament, ‘personal’ is not an adjective but the Subject whose ontology functions as the substantive relational verb distinguishing the presence-face (paneh) of the personal YHWH. To be congruent with the Word of YHWH is to know this Subject whose relational-specific actions of “love, justice and righteousness in the earth” (Jer 9:24) distinguish in faithfulness “the light of your presence-face” (Ps 89:14-15)—further unfolding the face (prosopon) of the complex Subject who distinguishes the presence of the Subjects constituting the personal Trinity (2 Cor 4:6).

            To have congruity with the whole Word distinguishing this personal Trinity creates a dilemma for trinitarian thinking because for the personal Trinity of substantive Subjects to emerge in the trinitarian task, the Trinity has to be, that is, be Subjects as whole persons (not incomplete or fragmentary like human persons) to constitute the person-al Trinity. Anything less and any substitutes will not to be. This dilemma is what Jesus presented to the prevailing religious tradition, and which also faced his followers to know and understand. That includes what contemporary trinitarian theology and practice face in the accessible Face (prosopon) of YHWH, who opened vulnerably to us to bring the change necessary to establish new relationship (siym) together in wholeness (shalôm, Num 6:25-26). This essential relational outcome of the gospel is the uncommon whole constituted in the very likeness of the person-al Trinity, just as Jesus’ person embodied whole and distinguished uncommon (Jn 17:21-26; 2 Cor 3:18; 4:4; Col 2:9-10).

            Unless you assume no substantive significance to the Word in your sphere of physics (and related history) or simply ignore the whole significance of the Word in your sphere of metaphysics, we come face to face with the complex Subject of Jesus’ whole person. Even as we engage face to face, our ongoing challenge or dilemma is unrestricting Jesus to be or constraining him not to be—as Peter struggled face to face with Jesus. In contrast to Peter, when Paul first came face to face with Jesus on the Damascus road, his physics was expanded and his metaphysics was deepened beyond what he could have imagined in his theological task, which centered on “Who are you?” (Acts 9:5). This Subject in these relational terms is the qualitative relational significance of the person, who must by his nature (dei) be distinguished in the trinitarian theological task and be known and understood in trinitarian theology and practice. For Jesus’ person to be, he only can define and determine “Who are you?” as Paul, with epistemic and ontological humility, received Jesus’ whole person. For Jesus not to be, his person is constrained to the shape (or stereotype) imposed on him by others, as Peter imposed on Jesus with the consequence “you have no share with me, my whole person embodying the Trinity” (Jn 13:8), and along with the other disciples “you still do not know me, my whole person embodying the trinitarian persons” (Jn 14:9-10).

            “Who are you?” continues to be pivotal for the trinitarian theological task, or at least should be. The whole significance of who, however, inseparably includes the integral dimensions of what and how his person to be in order to compose the full 3-D profile of Jesus’ face disclosing “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (being, nature and presence, 2 Cor 4:6). Underestimating the necessity for the whole significance of who, what and how will diminish the light of Jesus and thus render ambiguous (if not elusive) the knowledge of God’s glory. God’s full glory is best understood as God’s being, nature and presence, which are distinguished in the human context with the integration of physics and metaphysics to disclose:

1.     God’s qualitative being—the who signifying the innermost heart of God.

2.     God’s relational nature—the what constituting the dynamic nature of God in substantive relational terms.

3.     God’s vulnerable presence—the how of God’s integral function in intimate relational involvement from the inner out by the heart of God.

Without the full profile of these integral three dimensions, the answer to “Who are you?” is not really known and understood, and the presence and involvement of the Trinity in theology and practice lacks qualitative relational significance.

            Furthermore, this whole significance is reduced when who, what and how are separated from each other, or one dimension is overemphasized over the others (e.g. in social trinitarianism) or ignores the others (as in essentialism); likewise, this whole significance is reduced when Jesus is overemphasized for an overly christocentric theology and practice, or as the Spirit becomes the focus in some Pentecostal or charismatic practice. The whole of who, what and how the Trinity is defines the ontology of Jesus’ person and determines his person’s function. The whole ontology and function of Jesus’ person is pivotal, therefore, because his person is the epistemological, hermeneutical, ontological and relational keys to the other trinitarian persons and their whole together (not just unity), whereby the person-al Trinity is disclosed (namely in the sphere of physics) and distinguished (notably in the sphere of metaphysics). Accordingly indeed, “Who, what and how are you?” must by necessity be accounted for and responded to in order to have the integral essential truth and reality of the trinitarian persons in our theology and practice—the to be which is irreplaceable to know the presence and indispensable to understand the involvement of the person-al Trinity.

            From the beginning John’s Gospel established the Word unmistakably “to be” (eimi, verb of existence): God, Life (not bios but zoe integrating physics and metaphysics) and the Light to shine in the human context—disclosing the who, what and how essential to distinguish God’s presence and involvement (Jn 1:1-2,4, 9-10,18). For the Word of God to be and “to become” (ginomai) vulnerable in the human context also required the inseparable inclusion of YHWH as Father (1:14,18). YHWH as Father was not only a function (as witnessed in the First Testament) but involved also the who, what and how of another Subject constituting an ontology like the Word. The ontology and function of the Father emerged as Subject-person at Jesus’ baptism to disclose the trinitarian persons’ presence and involvement together: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:21-22, NIV); also distinguished was the presence and involvement of the Holy Spirit (Lk 4:1,14,18). While the person of the Spirit as another Subject is not apparent at this stage, only a subject-person could make a communicative statement such as the Father disclosed to his Son. This is not anthropomorphism speaking for God and shaping who, what and how God is, but rather God’s self-disclosure integrating physics and metaphysics beyond what is common and incomplete—the reality requiring epistemic humility to accept and ontological humility to receive. In this relational process composed by substantive relational terms, the who, what and how of the Trinity is unfolding to be the Son, the Father and the Spirit in whole ontology and function.

            There is still a related issue causing a dilemma in trinitarian thinking that could be problematic in the theological task (as noted earlier). This involves even using the word person in trinitarian theology since individualistic understanding of personhood prevails in Western cultures and tends to dominate global perceptions. The lens of individualism biases, distorts and simply reduces the significance of the word person, such that its use in trinitarian theology gives an insignificant shape to the trinitarian persons in trinitarian theology and practice. Of course, philosophical theology and its doctrine of divine simplicity critiques the reduction of God not only with the use of a word but with the entire concept of ‘God is a person’, thus has disassociated any knowledge and understanding of God with person. David Cunningham, who argues against the continued use of the word in trinitarian theology, suggests an alternative to consider:

One can argue that, by strongly asserting the relational and interdependent model of personhood that is specified by the Christian doctrine of God, theology can help postmodernity extend and deepen its overcoming of Enlightenment presuppositions.


     Specifically, Trinitarian theology insists that a “person” is not an autonomous centre of consciousness, nor a radically private entity; rather, persons are necessarily woven into the lives of other persons. They participate in one another’s lives, whether they realize it or not. In God, the Three are all bound up in one another to such a degree that we cannot really speak of any One of them without implying something about the other Two as well.


     …Thus, if we are to continue to speak of “God in three persons,” we must simultaneously define the word person in a highly interdependent, relational way: to be a person is to be a relation, or perhaps a multiplicity of relations. Rather than speaking of “individuals,” we might better speak of “particular persons.” This would help shift the focus away from persons as isolated centres of consciousness, and toward persons as modes in a network—a nexus of relations that is being specified, tentatively and temporarily, for the purposes of identification and discussion, but one that is never truly separable from the whole.[2]

            Cunningham addresses only part of the issue, which potentially further fragments the underlying problem from becoming whole. First, his alternative doesn’t address the three dimensional who, what and how integral to the trinitarian persons distinguishing the whole Trinity but only part of their persons. The p-word, however, should not be about locution in the theological task because this reduces discourse to referential terms, even in discussing relational descriptions. Referentialization narrows down the focus, whereby the Subject(s) is fragmented from the whole relational terms composing each Subject of the Trinity. Rather than about locution, the p-word composes the substantive significance of the whole Word’s communication disclosing the who, what and how integral to the Subject-persons together as the whole Trinity. Secondly, his alternative appears to compromise the integrity of the uncommon Trinity by deferring to the prevailing common perceptions of the word person, and thus allowing those common limits and constraints to inadvertently influence (with good intentions) defining the trinitarian persons and determining their function more by the term relational rather than distinguishing the trinitarian persons—the whole persons constituting the uncommon Trinity beyond the spheres of physics and metaphysics. The results strain to account for the whole and uncommon Trinity in the theological task and further leave the presence and involvement of the trinitarian persons lacking in trinitarian theology and practice. To account for the presence and involvement of the personal God, we need person-al Subjects who are both whole and uncommon. Without the presence and involvement of persons—that is, persons defined from inner out contrary to commonly defined from outer in—the trinitarian Subjects are either reduced from to be to more like Objects, or rendered to referential Subjects not to be in their qualitative relational significance essential for who, what and how they are. Lacking the relational experience of the Trinity’s presence and involvement by their whole persons is the most likely reason that most Christians don’t talk about the Trinity in their practice, even for some of them who discuss the Trinity in their theology.

            The trinitarian theological task has to understand the qualitative relational significance of the communication by the whole Word in order to know the who, what and how of the trinitarian persons. Foremost, this requires an epistemic process not limited to referential terms and a hermeneutic lens not constrained by a focus on referential language, because the Word communicates only in the relational language and terms essential to God. Only the Word’s relational language and terms have the qualitative relational significance to integrally disclose the essential truth and reality of the Trinity’s presence and involvement. These epistemological and hermeneutical issues must not be minimized if we want to get to the ontological and functional heart of the Trinity in our theology and practice.

            For Jesus to be God was certainly not widely received in Judaism and a major cause of conflict with their God (Jn 5:18; 10:33). At the same time, for Jesus to claim to be a tripartite Subject of God was a source of contradiction to monotheism (Jn 5:19-23; 6:45-46; 7:16; 8:16-19 ,25-29; 10:30,35-38; 12:49-50; 14:9-11,26; 15:26; 16:14-15; 17:21-22). What Jesus communicated to distinguish the trinitarian persons also is the source challenging the trinitarian theological task, because the who, what and how disclosed of the Trinity are not reducible from to be to the shape of our limits or negotiable with to be otherwise contained in our constraints. This is the epistemological-hermeneutical-ontological dilemma that Jesus presents in substantive relational terms to trinitarian theology and practice: to be or not to be the whole of who, what and how essential to constitute the person-al Trinity.

            When Jesus responded to charges of blasphemy, Jesus supported his claim to be the ontology of God’s Son by highlighting his function with miracles (i.e. works, ergon, Jn 10:36-38, cf. the significance of v.31). By integrating his function with his ontology, Jesus illuminated the critical interaction between the spheres of physics and metaphysics that confirms his integral ontology and function. His purpose in this was not for apologetics to transmit information in referential terms, nor for that matter to have mere certainty about the Trinity. His only purpose (composed in relational terms) was for the essential relational outcome “so that you may know and understand that the Father to be in me and I to be in the Father.” This essential relational outcome is requisite for the trinitarian theological task and thus indispensable for composing trinitarian theology and practice with the qualitative relational significance of the following:

To know who, what and how Jesus to be is to understand the whole of who, what and how Jesus is in ontology and function integrally (without reduction) and therefore inseparably (without negotiation) with the trinitarian persons—who, what and how together constitute the whole and uncommon Trinity to distinguish the person-al Trinity’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement in the human context; anything less is not essential for the Trinity and any substitutes are no longer of significance to the Trinity.

            The contemporary trinitarian theological task needs to examine if its engagement is in continuity with trinitarian tradition, or congruent with the whole Word. The two are not always compatible, especially when the former’s discourse in incomplete referential terms replaces the Word’s communication in whole relational terms. The existence of both epistemological illusion and ontological simulation has consistently countered the essential relational outcome of the Word’s disclosures, thereby often misleading those engaged in the theological task. Much to Jesus’ frustration about the early disciples’ theological task, they didn’t experience this essential relational outcome to know and understand Jesus’ whole person, since they apparently only focused on one dimension of who, what and how, and also didn’t integrate their metaphysics with physics (Jn 14:11). This is the extent of what we can expect in the trinitarian theological task, when we also don’t listen carefully to the defining self-disclosures communicated by the whole Word in substantive relational terms—the limits which Jesus also made definitive with the paradigm for theological engagement: “the measure you use will be the who, what and how you get” (Mk 4:24). This measure specifically includes the face (prosopon) used for Jesus, discussed shortly.

            The key for the trinitarian persons to be is the Son. The who and what of the Trinity centers on disclosures by the Son to be in whole ontology, and the how of the Trinity pivots on the Son to be in whole function. The Son’s whole ontology and function cannot be minimalized without loss of integrity for the trinitarian persons; nor can it be conceptualized without losing the qualitative relational significance of the Trinity’s presence and involvement. The essential truth and reality of the person-al Trinity unfolds with the complex Subject of Jesus’ whole person, and the qualitative relational significance of his person composes the key for the persons of the Father and the Spirit. Because the whole Word integrates the spheres of physics and metaphysics, Jesus’ person cannot be perceived whole from outer in—which is the reason his teachings, miracles and ministry don’t define his whole person, the common definition used for the person in most theological anthropologies. His whole person can only be known and understood by the who, what and how of the Son from inner out, that is, by his whole person signified by the qualitative relational function of his heart in and beyond the spheres of physics and metaphysics. His inner-out person does not invoke an abstract or mystical metaphysical ontology but the person integrating physics and metaphysics in order to be known vulnerably and thus to experience his heart in specific relationship together—in other words, to experience the truth and reality of the glory of the Trinity disclosed in the who, what and how. It was on this specific basis that the early disciples should have but did not know “my person after all their time together.”

            The Son’s inner-out person discloses the Father’s and the Spirit’s persons from inner out, whose persons become problematic when considered from outer in. In the strategic shift of God’s ontological footprints and functional steps, Jesus disclosed to the Samaritan woman that “the Father is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). Here again, Jesus didn’t invoke the metaphysical realm to embed both the Father and his worshipers in an ultimate spiritual condition, but rather unmistakably discloses the qualitative relational basis for connection with the presence and involvement of the Father to be in the innermost. ‘Spirit’ then signifies the Father’s whole person from inner out functioning vulnerably by his heart, whose presence and involvement cannot be vulnerably experienced with anything less and any substitutes for this person to be. Moreover, this person cannot be responded to compatibly in worship except by the congruence of our whole person from inner out functioning vulnerably by our heart in the essential relational outcome of this whole and uncommon reciprocal relationship together.

            What the whole Word disclosed from inner out is irreplaceable for the presence and involvement of the trinitarian persons to be; and the whole who, what and how of the Word continues to be palpable through his relational replacement, the Holy Spirit. We first discussed in the last chapter the Spirit of Truth as the embodied Truth’s relational replacement (Jn 14:16-18,26; 15:26; 16:14-15). The complexity of Jesus as Subject-person can only be replaced by the complexity of another Subject-person. Anything less than a person (such as a force, power or even love) and any substitutes for a subject (viz. a simple object) could not serve as a replacement for the Subject of Jesus’ person from inner out. Furthermore, anything less or any substitute for the inner-out person essential to the Spirit does not grieve (Eph 4:30) but at best is a mere impassible Object. We must not reduce to referential terms the relational message communicated by Jesus at his ascension to further distinguish the person of the Spirit (Acts 1:8). Neither power nor common perceptions/practices of baptism by (in or with) the Spirit (Acts 1:5) compose the essential relational outcome of the whole of who, what and how is present and involved to be and continue to become known and understood. This profile of the Spirit is more than personal but an integral person essential for the person-al Trinity. If the Spirit’s whole person composes our theology, then our practice needs to seek less of the so-called manifestations of the Spirit and pursue his person more in reciprocal relationship together.

            As his relational replacement, the Word continues to be palpable because the whole inner-out person of the Spirit “will testify about me, the whole of who, what and how I to be” (Jn 15:26, NIV, not simply “testify on my behalf,” NRSV). The Spirit will not merely “guide you into all the truth” with information but will witness to and share with us the heart of the Truth from inner out, whose vulnerable presence and whole involvement will continue to be the essential reality through the Spirit’s person, whose whole person from inner out will bring to conclusion the essential relational outcome of the Trinity. Therefore, if the Spirit’s person is not to be, then the Son’ person also will not to be in ongoing presence and involvement (as Paul illuminated, 2 Cor 3:17-18; Eph 2:21-22), and the Father’s person who sent the Son and the Spirit is also rendered not to be. In the condition then of not to be, the Father, Son and Spirit essentially are reduced merely to functions that are insufficient to be congruent with the trinitarian persons who integrally—without the separation of their persons or the reduction of any person—together constitute the person-al Trinity. Even though in this subtle reduction their functions may have compatibility with YHWH’s functions in the First Testament (discussed in chap. 2), they are not defined further to distinguish the 3-D profile of the who, what and how constituting YHWH’s face that is vulnerably disclosed in the Second Testament.

            This dilemma persists in the trinitarian theological task. When the trinitarian persons are not free to be as disclosed by the Word (as in Jn 1:18), the whole Word cannot be received and thus known in the human context (Jn 1:10-11). Consequently, the embodied Word that is perceived is not the who, what and how of God’s glory (Jn 1:14; 2 Cor 4:6). The profile of the Son’s face (disclosing YHWH’s face) is never the whole profile without the Father’s person and the Spirit’s; and this whole profile unfolded for us to integrate such as the following:

Just as Jesus cried out in substantive relational terms “whoever sees me sees the person who sent me” (Jn 12:45), this essential statement is irreducible and nonnegotiable and must be integrated in the trinitarian theological task with his essential declaration “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9), and thereby integrated in trinitarian theology and practice because “I am the first and the last, and the living one” (Rev 1:17-18) who speaks to the churches (Rev 2:1,8,12,18; 3:1,7,14) for them to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (2:7,11,29; 3:6,13,22), which illuminates the essential truth and reality “the Lord is the Spirit…seeing the glory of the Lord…the Lord, the Spirit” (as Paul unveiled, 2 Cor 3:17-18) that composes the whole profile of the person-al Trinity to be whole-ly integrated in trinitarian theology and practice.

To what extent any such integration resolves this dilemma depends directly on what reliability we give to the Word to speak for himself and the Trinity, and thus on what validity we give to whole profile of who, what and how the Word embodied, enacted and disclosed.

            Moreover, this dilemma is not resolved by assuming to know the trinitarian persons based on a partial profile composed by their titles, roles and functions—no matter how well integrated. Any identity from a partial profile renders the trinitarian persons to stereotypes, which, even idealized, become idols of human shaping that fragment the whole Trinity and commonize the uncommon Trinity.



The Global Face or Localized Face Masks


            The face (presence, paneh) of YHWH profiled in the First Testament had been limited (never total), elusive in presence, cast in referential terms, and subjected to human shaping and misrepresentation. Similarly, in spite of the fact that Jesus’ face was a historical reality, the profile of his face has been revised historically and it continues to be variable in Christology, with a tenuous profile in trinitarian theology and practice. This condition extends Jesus’ frustration with his disciples, to whom he vulnerably disclosed the full profile of his face (prosopon) and yet who still didn’t know his whole person. Likewise, we are confronted today in the trinitarian theological task either to openly receive the face of the Trinity distinguished by Jesus’ face, or to turn (even inadvertently) to anthropomorphism to shape the profile of his and thus the Trinity’s face. Anthropomorphism includes the influence from the limits of our surrounding context and the constraints intrinsic to the common in and around us, which we need to account for in our trinitarian theology and practice.

            When Christians experience the reality of the Trinity’s presence and involvement, their experience will certainly vary in terms of extent and depth. Yet, any variation in this experiential reality neither signifies epistemological and ontological variation in the essential truth of the Trinity, nor composes relational and hermeneutical variation for the Trinity’s essential truth. The truth essential of the Trinity is not subject to reduction or negotiation, even though the Trinity’s presence and involvement are subjected ongoingly to them in Christian theology and practice. As the majority of Christians has shifted its center from the global North to the global South, the essential truth and reality of the Trinity are increasingly critical in order to know the whole of God’s presence and to understand the uncommon God’s involvement. Thus, Gerald Bray lays out a challenge for the Majority World with the following:

     Christians in the Majority World are thus faced with a series of questions about the doctrine of the Trinity that they must answer if they are to survive and prosper. The first and most basic of these is straightforward—do we need the Trinity at all? Can we not express our belief in God, Christ, and the Spirit in some simpler way that will avoid giving offense to other monotheists? How important is the traditional doctrine of the Trinity for expressing our Christian convictions? Can we safely leave it to one side as a complicated problem that the ordinary person does not need to bother with? Can it be reconstructed in a way that would help to indigenize it in recently Christianized cultures, making it seem less of a Western import and more attuned to the thoughts and needs of new believers? Or is the doctrine of the Trinity so totally bound up with ancient Greek thought that if the latter is discarded it would collapse of its own accord? In other words, can it be expressed in other thought forms, or is it just the product of a tradition that was once dominant but that is now being challenged and may soon lose its remaining influence in the Christian world?[3]

Certainly many Christians in the West implicitly ask themselves many of these questions, all of which amplifies the need of all Christians to experience the personal presence and involvement of the whole and uncommon God.

            Whether in the global South or North, the relational imperative directly from the face of Jesus’ whole person is: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). Even Matthew’s Gospel, which was directed to monotheistic Jews, closed with the narrative focused on the trinitarian persons who inseparably and integrally constituted the triune God. Global theology needs to return even further back than Christian tradition—including any formulaic misrepresentations of Jesus’ relational imperative—and embrace the whole profile of the face of our one God. 

            As noted previously, face in Hebrew (paneh and paniym) points to the front view of someone, the significance of whose presence involves either the presentation of the whole subject and not mere parts of the person—or merely an outward re-presentation of a person, as emerged in the primordial garden (Gen 3:7) and later formed a mask (prosopon, as worn in ancient Greek theatre). The front view of God as Subject and not a side view as Object is irreplaceable to know and understand God; and this is the profile disclosed in the face (not a mask) of the Word. A righteous face constitutes the presentation of the whole of who, what and how the subject-person is, and therefore can be counted on to be that person as subject (not object) in relationship together. For God, the face constitutes both this ontological reality of the presence of God as Subject and the relational outcome of the intimate involvement of Subject-God in relationship. Can we claim with the ancient poet to “behold your face in righteousness…satisfied, beholding your presence” (Ps 17:15) in the theological task, and then to be satisfied with anything less and any substitute of our personal God in our theology and practice?

            Now the issue remains, given “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6): Without falling into modalism by keeping the Father, Son and Spirit together through misrepresenting their names, how then can the trinitarian persons integrally converge without composing tritheism, three Gods instead of one triune God? Of course, the face of Jesus ongoingly faced this issue in conflict with monotheists, in tension with would-be followers unwilling to go beyond their limits and constraints, and even in subtle contrast with his disciples not vulnerably involved with his persons face to face.

            Serving as a triage for the urgent care needed in trinitarian theology and practice, John’s Gospel is unmistakable about the full identity of the whole Word. The evangelist was unequivocal about the essential truth and reality of Jesus’ whole ontology and function, which John only summarized in his testimony (Jn 21:24-25). His definitive summary didn’t speak for (in place of) the Word but clearly echoed (as a reliable witness should) Jesus’ communication disclosing his full profile—the profile that by necessity composes the global Face. Unfortunately, many other books have been written since, which try to speak for the Word and compose profiles in discontinuity, incongruity or simply incompatible with the full profile of Jesus’ whole person.

            Jesus was unequivocal with his disciples: “Whoever has seen my face has seen the Father. …Believe me that my person is in the Father and the Father’s person is in me” (Jn 14:9-11), and that “the Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30), even as he prayed to his Father “we are one” (Jn 17:22). We need to understand Jesus’ definitive declarations both ontologically and relationally, thus expanding on the Greek concept of perichoresis in trinitarian theology.[4] Accordingly in the trinitarian theological task, when Jesus communicated in substantive relational terms to “Believe me,” he focuses them/us on the whole who, what and how of his person that can be reliably counted on (per his righteousness) to validly distinguish the face of his whole ontology. In disclosing the ontological footprints and functional steps of the Trinity, Jesus didn’t ask for a blind faith without a reasonable basis, as in fideism. That kind of faith in Jesus’ reliability has no valid basis. However, to “believe me because of the works themselves” (i.e. his miracles, 14:11), his whole ontology and function were disclosed to them face to face both within the integrated spheres of physics and metaphysics and beyond them. With the reliability and validity of his Face, Jesus also integrally takes their/our epistemic process beyond the epistemological limits of physics and in substantive relational terms provided whole understanding (syniemi and synesis) beyond the ontological constraints of metaphysics. Therefore, the who, what and how of the Trinity disclosed by Jesus has valid epistemological and ontological significance only to the extent that they are reliably based on his substantive relational terms—which are irreducible to referential terms and nonnegotiable to any human alternatives even with the best of intentions.

            In trinitarian theology, for which John’s Gospel provides the most reliable basis in relational terms, Jesus’ first declaration of “The Father and I are one” (heis eimi) essentially revealed the dynamic existence (eimi, verb of existence) of their persons dwelling in each other together as one (heis). Heis eimi signifies the ontological oneness of the trinitarian persons in qualitative substance (or the traditional term consubstantial, homoousios), the nature of which cannot be differentiated in any of their persons from the whole of the triune God and differentiated in this sense from each other. Each trinitarian person is whole-ly God and an integral part of the whole of God, implying that each is incomplete without the others (pointing to the depth of pain Jesus shouted on the cross, Mt 27:46). Yet what Jesus disclosed is not the totality of God but only the whole of who and what God is and how God engages relationship.

            This again faces us with two related theological issues that cannot be ignored in this discussion. The first issue involves either reducing the persons of the Trinity (intentionally or inadvertently) into the whole of God’s being such that they lose their uniqueness or ‘personness’, the loss of which becomes susceptible to modalism; or, on the other hand, overstating their uniqueness as persons opens the possibility of shifting into tritheism. And merely eliminating the term person to distinguish the Trinity’s ontology and function does not resolve this issue. The second issue involves reducing the whole of the Trinity (beyond our context in eternity called the immanent Trinity) into the prominent economic Trinity (directly involved with us in revelation for salvation) so that the transcendent God loses mystery.[5] This is not to imply two different Trinities but to clarify that God’s self-revelation is only unfinished and thus provisional—not total, yet whole. Reducing the whole of each trinitarian person or the whole of God’s being are consequential not only for our understanding of the triune God but also for understanding what is important about our persons and our relationships together in order to be whole in likeness of who, what and how God is.

            In his formative family prayer, Jesus asked the Father that all his followers together may “be one as we are one” (Jn 17:11,21-22). To “be one” (heis eimi) is the same ontological oneness among his followers “just as” (kathos, in accordance with, have congruity with) God’s ontological oneness (heis eimi); yet his followers’ oneness does not include having ontological oneness with the triune God such that either they would be deified or God’s being would become all of them (pantheism).

            What Jesus prayed for that is included, however, involves his second declaration about his relationship with the Father that overlaps with their ontological oneness (heis eimi). “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (en eimi, Jn 14:10-11) further reveals the ongoing existence (eimi) of their persons in the presence of and accompanied by (en) the other, thereby also signifying their essential relational oneness constituted by their intimate involvement with each other in full communion—just as their relationship demonstrated at his baptism, in his transfiguration, in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, along with the presence and function (meno) of the Spirit. This deep intimacy in relationship together (en eimi, their relational wholeness) is integrated in the integral qualitative substance of their ontological oneness (heis eimi) to constitute the trinitarian persons in the indivisible and interdependent person-al relationships together to be the whole of God, the Trinity as whole family. The integral reciprocating interaction of the ontological One and the relational Whole provides further functional understanding of perichoresis.

            Their ontological and relational oneness constituted the embodied Word improbably beyond the explanations of physics and the understanding of metaphysics. The Son is the only one (monogenes) from outside the universe to fully exegete (exegeomai) the Father (Jn 1:18), not to merely inform us of the transcendent and holy God but to vulnerably make known the Father for intimate relationship together as his family (Jn 1:10-12), just as Jesus prayed (Jn 17:6,26). These relational aspects and functions provide the remaining basis for Jesus’ claim that if we see the whole of his person we see the Father—and why the Father made it the relational imperative for us to “Listen to him” (Mt 17:5).

            Whether before or after creation, God’s action in relation to us is how God engages any and all relationships. This suggests how the triune God is throughout eternity because the righteous God cannot be inconsistent with the revelation of how God engages relationship. This does not, however, define or describe the totality of the immanent Trinity, which cannot be reduced to only the economic Trinity—a differentiation which is helpful to maintain to counter reductionism, not to mention to help us stop speaking for God. Definitively, we can only talk of God in relational terms of how the Trinity is with us—both before creation in anticipation of us and after with us in the human context to disclose the whole who, what and how of the person-al Trinity. The trinitarian theological task must observe these parameters if it is to know and understand the whole and uncommon Trinity.

            Furthermore, as noted earlier, when Jesus said “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30), this understandably created major conflict for the Jews who were rooted theologically in the monotheism of the Shema (Dt 6:4). Paul certainly was among those whose monotheism would not allow for any variance from the theological basis of their faith: ‘God is one’. Yet Paul was sufficiently open to listen to the response to his query “Who are you?” (Acts 9:5), thereby gaining epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction to receive the essential truth of the pleroma (fullness, whole) of God. Jesus’ response did not convert the object of Paul’s faith to the new God beyond monotheism but rather engaged Paul in the relational epistemic process to open the ontological and relational doors to the Subject of the Shema, who was vulnerably present and relationally involved for reciprocal relationship Face to face to Face. In referential terms this revelation appears to be incongruent with monotheism and thus incompatible with the Shema, nevertheless in relational terms Paul remained irreducibly congruent with monotheism and nonnegotiably compatible with the Shema—as improbable as it rightly appears.

            Thomas McCall concludes about Second Temple Judaism that it was reliably monotheistic: there is only one God, and this God is the Creator and Ruler. Yet “this account of monotheism is not centered on numerical oneness, nor does it obviously dictate that there is at most one divine person.”[6] He quotes contemporary Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide in support:

The Oneness of God, which could be called Israel’s only ‘dogma,’ is neither a mathematical  nor a quantitative oneness…the difference between gods and the One God is indeed not some kind of difference in number—a more miserable understanding there could hardly be—but rather a difference in essence. It concerns a definition not of reckoning but of inner content; we are concerned not with arithmetic but rather with the heart of religion, for ‘one’ is not so much a quantitative concept as a qualitative one.[7]

Lapide’s distinction between a quantitative concept and a qualitative one is necessary to make yet insufficient to understand Paul’s monotheism.

            The issue of the Shema involves what distinguishes its God and thus how this God is distinguished. God is distinguished as ‘the only One’ entirely from outside the universe, who therefore has no other qualitative kind in the world by which to be compared. ‘God is one’ means unequivocally ‘God is incomparable’. Yet this qualitative distinction of God is insufficient to resolve the issue of the Shema. This exclusive identity is not a concept, quantitative or qualitative—though philosophical theology historically has rendered it as such. Rather the full identity of God emerges from the essential relational outcome of the qualitative being (the who) of God’s vulnerable self-disclosure as Subject. Now the complex Subject illuminates the whole and uncommon God’s direct relational involvement (the how of God’s presence) in communicative action to clearly distinguish the relational nature (the what) of God—disclosing the vulnerable presence and relational involvement of the innermost being of the who, what and how of “God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.” Without God’s relational response from outside the universe, the whole and uncommon God is not distinguished to us and no one knows of the One who is incomparable. Therefore, the who of the Shema is fragmentary unless both what distinguishes its God and how this God is distinguished are clearly defined qualitatively and determined relationally. Accordingly, the qualitative and relational whole of this One can neither be reduced to referential terms (even as the Shema) nor negotiated down to human shaping (a numerical One), both of which are contingent on and comparative to what is probable within the universe, and consequently is unable to go beyond self-referencing to distinguish the incomparable One of the Shema.

            For Paul, “Who are you?” included “what and how are you?” and thus emerged only as the essential truth of the Subject of the Shema, the One from outside the universe who is incomparable (Col 1:16-17). This was his unmistakable relational experience with the whole and uncommon God and his whole understanding (synesis) of the qualitative triune God in relationship (Col 1:19-20; 2:2), whose whole ontology and function became known and understood as the Trinity. Though Paul never became a “trinitarian,” his theology deepened into whole monotheism that distinguished the Father, the Son and the Spirit together indivisibly as the whole of God, distinguished only as uncommon. For the whole of Paul and the whole in his theology, it was evident that monotheism and trinitarianism were compatible since the monotheism of the Shema was not about the quantity of one but the quality of the whole in relationship.[8]

            In contrast and even conflict with any referential terms ascribed to the Shema, and hereby imposed on monotheism, this distinguishing process of who, what and how illuminates the language that is both qualitative and thus relational. That is, this is the relational language that the whole and uncommon God necessarily used in ongoing communicative action for self-disclosure only by the One’s relational context and process—not by human contextualization in the universe, though disclosed in human contexts—to vulnerably distinguish God’s whole presence and involvement. Accordingly, this integrated relational language cannot be reduced to mere quantitative terms in the referential limits of human contextualization—for example, to construct tritheism or to shape modalism, on the one hand, or, on the other, to combat them with propositional truths and doctrinal certainty (including the dogma of the Shema). This relational language and its substantive relational terms are the hermeneutical key that the face of Jesus embodied whole-ly to enact integrally in order to reveal and know the whole and uncommon Trinity, and the functional key for this essential truth only in relationship together. Critically then for the theological task, the qualitative relational significance of this relational epistemic process is the theological key for the access of those relationally involved signified bylittle children” and a barrier for those relationally distant typical of “the wise and learned” (Lk 10:21; cf. Mt 21:15-16).

            Whole monotheism is illuminated solely in the qualitative from outside the universe and is distinguished only in the relational by involvement directly with us Face to face in the primacy of whole relationship together. The incomparably personal God’s definitive blessing (Num 6:24-26) is inseparable from the Face in the Shema and indistinguishable from “the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). In Paul’s whole monotheism, the improbable is indeed illuminated and distinguished by the essential truth of “the Father and I are one,” indivisibly together with the Spirit who completes the whole of God’s uncommon thematic relational response and relational progression (1 Cor 2:9-10; Rom 15:13; Eph 3:20-21). Without whole monotheism the gospel is reduced to a truncated soteriology of deliverance—just saved from, notably from this situation or that circumstance—without the good news for whole relationship together in likeness of the Trinity. This good news defines the monotheistic shift that transformed (not converted) Paul by his relational involvement with the pleroma of God to epistemologically clarify, hermeneutically correct and deepen his monotheism to be whole.

            Yet, Paul’s search in his theological task of “Who, what and how are you?” also remains unavoidably in juxtaposition with Jesus’ frustration over his disciples’ theological task “and you still don’t know me.” This tension exists in the trinitarian theological task, which continues to have consequences today in trinitarian theology and practice lacking the full profile of the global Face of God. Unavoidably then, Christians from all nations, tribes, cultures and human contexts also need epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction in order for the face of their one God to be whole and uncommon and not to be fragmentary and commonized by variable profiles shaped from the influence of their surrounding contexts. This clarification and correction do not emerge from Western theology and practice but unfold from beyond all human contexts, thereby also holding accountable Western profiles. Since the disclosure of the global Face, the face of YHWH can no longer be contained to just the functions of Father, Word and Spirit revealed in the First Testament. Nor can the global Face of the Word from YHWH in the Second Testament be constrained by the localized profiles of variable human shaping (cf. Mt 13:54-57; 16:13-14). The global Face of the one God needs to be understood, claimed and proclaimed in contrast to and even in conflict with localized profiles of God’s face.

            Christian faith has to be involved further and deeper than in just the identity of God. If our faith is to go beyond referential terms and its narrowed-down epistemic field, then it has to connect with the front (paneh) of the whole of God as Subject—that is, connect directly with the face-presence of God revealed in face-to-face relationship together (cf. 1 Chr 16:10-11; Ps 24:6; 27:8-9; 67:1-2; 80:3,7,19). Therefore, two unavoidable interrelated issues of the face again need to be addressed: (1) subtle anthropomorphism intrinsic to human contextualization and the fragmentary human shaping of God’s face in surrounding contexts, and (2) the face (prosopon) functioning as a mask (as in early Greek theatre) that presents the face of Jesus from outer in (as in a stereotype, whose identity may not be congruent or even compatible with the whole person behind the face-mask, even if presented idealized. The first issue is critical for trinitarian theology and the second is crucial for trinitarian practice. And both are interrelated for defining our theology and practice, notably the prosopon of Jesus’ person, and also for determining our ontology and function, that is, as either whole or reduced.

            A face from outer in is just a re-presentation of a person (e.g. ours in the mirror), which may not be a deception but still cannot be counted on for the whole person. God’s face from outer in (i.e. in referential terms) is a reduced face of an Object that cannot distinguish the whole of God, and thus does not have the full profile from inner out necessary to be distinct from anthropomorphism. Only God’s face as revealed from inner out in substantive relational terms distinguishes the whole of God’s profile as Subject—clearly distinguished from mere parts of God as Object. At the same time, God’s face from inner out does not distinguish the totality of God, only the whole of God; whole is neither totality nor parts.

            On the whole and uncommon God’s theological trajectory and intrusive relational path, the face of the Trinity’s uncommon vulnerable presence and whole intimate involvement turned to engage us in relationship, as Paul experienced from that pivotal point on the Damascus road. The relational outcome of new relationship together in wholeness only emerges when Subject-Face makes relational connection with our face from inner out (distinct from a face mask) for Face-to-face-to-Face reciprocal relationship together. This dynamic relational response of grace has been the face of YHWH’s ongoing definitive blessing from the beginning that unfolded in the gospel of transformation to wholeness with the embodied face of the Word’s whole person. In the First Testament, YHWH’s face is clear but not fully distinguished. With the whole Word, however, the face of YHWH is fully distinguished (again, whole-ly not totally) unmistakably. That is to say, fully distinguishing not the quantitative face of God (from outer in) but the qualitative face of God (in the depth of inner out), whose likeness Christ’s whole person bore in his embodied face (prosopon, 2 Cor 4:4,6; Col 1:15; Jn 14:9. Thus, the prosopon of Jesus Christ should not be confused with the mask (prosopon) worn in Greek theatre but is only the fully distinguished counterpart to the paneh (face, presence) of YHWH, disclosing the front profile of the whole and uncommon Trinity.

            If indeed the Word, who speaks for himself, is from outside the universe, then the Face, whom we tend to talk about, is not just another or even special embodied face in the human context. That is, the Face is neither another in common life and practice whose presence is praiseworthy and above reproach, nor another within the context of what is ordinary who is involved with others in extraordinary ways. While such presence and involvement in the human context rightly give Jesus a special face in comparison to the other faces in the population, it is still another embodied face among the many in the same category of ‘common’ and of the same kind of ‘ordinary’. As philosophical theology does correctly identify in this process, which should not be discounted, any distinction in this category and of this kind can be special only in a comparative process within that category and kind; but the value-judgment ‘special’ does not distinguish (pala) it from that category and kind (cf. Isa 40:18).

            This limited parameter or constrained measure becomes problematic for what we talk about for Jesus. For example, Jesus’ ethical practice is certainly special and would be beneficial to emulate. Yet, ethics is not what distinguishes the whole of Jesus’ person beyond comparison, even though it is an important distinction commonly used for Jesus. There is an essential (critical if you wish) difference between a special Face and the distinguished Face. Both may be associated with the embodied Face and easily conflated. A special Face, however, is attached to Jesus by a narrowing-down process from a conventional view inside the universe that attempts to better explain Jesus, notably from outer in by what he does (hence ethics). Even with good intentions, a special Face is incompatible with the embodied Face from outside the universe; and though complimentary in christological discourse about the Face on narrowed-down fragmentary terms, it is still unable to speak of the Face in whole terms. The distinguished Face beyond human contextualization emerges only from the Trinity’s relational-specific response of grace, in congruence with the whole ontology and function constituting the full profile of the face of Jesus’ person from inner out. Therefore, the distinguished Face can only be distinguished when he distinguishes his Self in the constituting relational context and process of the Trinity’s relational grace, just as the embodied Face emerged. What emerges that is distinguished beyond a mere distinction of special?

            In its irreducible relational context and nonnegotiable relational process, the Trinity’s relational-specific response of grace has unfolded from the beginning in communicative action, which is conjointly qualitative from inner out, yet not mystical, and always in relationship, never isolated or disengaged (e.g. as some spiritual disciplines imply). This nature of the Trinity’s relational dynamic is evident in the full profile composing the global Face to fulfill the Trinity’s ongoing global relational response of grace with family love to all nations, tribes, cultures and their peoples and persons. What becomes further evident of the Trinity’s relational dynamic of who unfolds is disclosed in how the global Face distinguishes his Subject-person and what he distinguishes of the trinitarian persons, the whole who, what and how of which are neither distinguished by nor in a special Face of whatever localized variation. Accordingly, the global church and its related academies must distinguish the global Face from localized faces in global theology and must be accountable for the global Face over localized faces in global practice.


            The trinitarian persons distinguished by the global Face are not reversible, that is, reduced to mere functions in order to account for the unity of God; this just falls into modalism. Nor can their persons be reimaged such that their whole ontology lacks the functional significance of substantive Subjects in order to get around tritheism. The complexity of Subject-persons in whole ontology and function, on the one hand, integrates the spheres of physic and metaphysics while, on the other hand, takes their interaction integrally beyond their limits and constraints. This means inescapably for the trinitarian theological task that the complexity of the trinitarian persons distinctly within each other as the ontological One can only be known and understood as the functional Whole constituting their persons together. Beyond this there is no available total explanation epistemologically and complete understanding ontologically, which requires epistemic humility to accept this reality and ontological humility to embrace this truth.

            Lacking total explanation exists not only in the Christian faith community. Total explanation also escapes physics itself, even as it approaches metaphysics. In a recent interview revealing some things he can’t figure out, the world-famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking wonders about the mystery of the following: “Why do the universe and all the laws of nature exist? Are they necessary? In one sense, they are, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. But is there a deeper reason?”[9] Mystery, in other words, exists wherever and whenever humans are taken to the end point, beyond which only God determines to disclose or to remain inaccessible. Although for some, mystery is invoked either before accounting for or as a substitute for what God has disclosed. Making sense of the cosmos is a central question that maintains any dichotomy between physics and metaphysics. In the search for meaning, physicist Marcelo Gleiser adds: “Much of the tension stems from assuming that there are two mutually inconsistent realities, one within this world (and thus ‘knowable’ through the diligent application of the scientific method) and the one without (and thus ‘unknowable’ or intangible, traditionally related to religious belief).”[10]

            In the epistemic process, for Gleiser “both the scientist and the faithful believe in unexplained causation, that is, in things happening for unknown reasons, even if the nature of the cause is completely different for each. In the sciences, this belief is most obvious when there is an attempt to extrapolate a theory or model beyond its tested limits…. These extrapolations are crucial to advance knowledge into unexplored territory. The scientist feels justified in doing so, given the accumulated power of her theories to explain so much of the world. We can even say, with slight impropriety, that her faith is empirically validated.”[11] Using Newton and Einstein as examples, Gleiser adds: “To go beyond the known, both Newton and Einstein had to take intellectual risks, making assumptions based on intuition and personal prejudice. That they did so, knowing that their speculative theories were necessarily faulty and limited, illustrates the power of belief in the creative process of two of the greatest scientists of all time. To a greater or lesser extent, every person engaged in the advancement of knowledge does the same.”[12]

            In the epistemic process, mystery can be simply denied or rendered essentially unexplainable, which is insufficient for the trinitarian theological task if that ends the epistemic process without further heuristic engagement. In Paul’s whole theology and practice, however, he further illuminated “the mystery of God, namely Christ,” for our whole understanding (synesis) to know specifically (epignosis, not general knowledge) the whole (pleroma) of God, “so that no one may deceive you by fine sounding arguments” (Col 2:2-4, NIV). This mystery remained for the disciples in their early theological task, since they didn’t put together the pieces of Jesus’ self-disclosure to understand (syniemi, Mk 8:17-18) his whole person and thus to know the whole who, what and how he is to be (Jn 14:9).

            Thus, only the presence and involvement of the Trinity speaks for the personal God, the whole of who, what and how we can indeed know and understand; searching for anything beyond that is simply academic, trying to speak for God from human thought and ideas. Therefore, in our trinitarian theology and practice we need to exercise epistemic humility to stop pursuing total explanation of the person-al Trinity, and to maintain ontological humility to refrain from grasping at total understanding of the Trinity other than disclosed by the global Face, who provides whole understanding. Only from this humility can we boast of knowing and understanding our whole and uncommon God, which is the boast in contrast to and conflict with any other boast made in the trinitarian theological task (Jer 9:23-24).


            The global Face is the full profile of the one person-al God, whose presence and involvement in substantive relational terms—not in mere referential terms even if doctrinally correct—integrally distinguish the whole and uncommon Trinity. Therefore, the global Face is universal, and neither subject to change in the who, what and how presented (Heb 13:8) nor subject to revision in any representation. Variable profiles of Jesus’ face both fragment the full profile of his person and thereby lose the substantive significance of the trinitarian persons in whole ontology and function together. Localized faces, shaped in the global South and North, are no minor issue insignificant to trinitarian theology and practice. Such faces, even as have prevailed in Western theology and practice, only mask the essential truth and reality of the true identity of the whole and uncommon Trinity—for example, by embellishing the Face of the Trinity with incongruent stereotypes and incompatible images, even as idealized. Unmasked, the full profile of the global Face then distinguishes the person-al Trinity’s uncommon vulnerable presence and whole intimate involvement in the integral relational response of grace and love. This integrally involves the person-al trinitarian relational process of family love (as in Jn 14:23; 17:23,26), which needs to be engaged in the trinitarian theological task by Face-to-face reciprocal relationship that composes the relational epistemic process and the ongoing hermeneutic interaction (beyond a circle or cone) necessary in order to know and understand this person-al Trinity (as in Jn 17:3).

            Without the global Face of the Son one with the Father and the Spirit, we cannot know and understand the person-al YHWH, whose ontology and function have further unfolded in the improbable integration of the spheres of physics and metaphysics to distinguish also the inter-person-al Trinity integral to the person-al Trinity. Nothing less than the global Face and no substitutes by localized face masks have the qualitative relational significance to be needed to know and understand the face of YHWH now fully disclosing the whole and uncommon Trinity. And the global church in all its diversity has no valid basis to boast of anything less and any substitutes in its global theology and practice—even with good intentions to deconstruct the dominant influence of the Western church’s theology and practice.

            The whole Word continues today, integrally together with the vulnerable presence and relational involvement of the Spirit’s person, to be: (1) the epistemological key that unlocks the qualitative relational door to the whole of the triune God, and (2) the hermeneutical key that unlocks the ontological door to the whole and uncommon Trinity. Along with Paul in the theological task, we are accountable to know and understand from inner out the whole “who, what and how you to be” in our trinitarian theology and practice. Therefore, in both theology and practice, all Christians are accountable to be from inner out, both vulnerably present and relationally involved as the subject-persons together composing one whole and uncommon church family in the qualitative relational likeness of the Trinity—the whole and uncommon Trinity who is disclosed to be integrally person-al and inter-person-al for our person(s) to know and understand without our needing to speculate epistemologically or enhance ontologically.



[1] Peter C. Phan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 19.

[2] David S. Cunningham, “The Trinity,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 198-99.

[3] Gerald Bray, “One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity” in Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue and K. K. Yeo, eds., The Trinity among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 22.

[4] For an overview of perichoresis in trinitarian theology, see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

[5] For a discussion on these distinctions of the Trinity, see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives.

[6] Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 60.

[7] McCall, 60-61.

[8] Jews, Muslims and other monotheists, who cannot embrace Jesus as divine because that would compromise their monotheism, unfortunately are constrained by a quantitative monotheism which cannot receive the relational revelation of the qualitative whole of God. The consequence is to reduce God from whole monotheism to their referential terms and practice, whereby the holy (uncommon) God becomes commonized.

[9] Interviewed by Larry King on “Larry King Now,” June 28, 2016. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/stephen-hawking-greatest-mystery.

[10] Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 3.

[11] Gleiser, 4.

[12] Gleiser, 7.



©2016 T. Dave Matsuo

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