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The Person, the Trinity, the Church
The Person, the Trinity, the Church
Placing Modernism and Postmodernism in the
Perhaps you have already struggled with the influence of modernity as a worldview and its dependence on reason in search of knowledge and truth. While you may not have directly engaged this epistemological process, we are all ongoingly influenced by the outcomes of the modern enterprise of progress—whether from the physical and natural sciences or from related applied technologies, and from even theology. Certainly one of the most far-reaching outcomes of this human project impacting humanity is the globalization of the economy. Positive or negative, further development of globalization can be expected since, as sociologist Anthony Giddens states, “modernity is inherently globalizing.”
Along with the economic impact globalization has on peoples of the world, there is a dual phenomenon somewhat paradoxically characterizing globalization. One the one hand, the process is distinctly reductionist, for example, reducing the whole of persons and people to cheap labor, disposable goods or market pawns. On the other hand, globalization is breaking down national boundaries and provincialism to give us a glimpse of the interrelated whole of humanity, albeit in a convoluted sense.
Yet this glimpse of the whole should not be lost to us, particularly as we give meaning to the universal (global) church. Dis-embedding the local church from its surrounding sociocultural context is necessary to re-embed it to the whole of God’s eschatological plan. In this sense, we can say with Giddens that “ecclesiology is inherently globalizing”—breaking down the provincialism and extending the boundaries of the local church.
Systems theory (for example, in ecology and family process) has provided further understanding of a whole as a working system of interrelated parts. There is a general tendency to perceive the sum of these parts as determining the whole, yet in a process of synergism the whole functioning together is greater than the sum effects from the function of its individual parts. Inherent to the whole, however, is not merely a quantitative effect greater than the sum of its parts but more importantly a qualitative effect. Systems theory is a quantitative framework the use of which tends not to account for qualitative aspects. Thus its value is limited though nonetheless useful to help us understand the whole.
While philosophical postmodernism insightfully has exposed the reductionism in modernity and perhaps points to a holistic direction, postmodernity is neither instrumental in fully understanding reductionism nor significant in grasping the whole. Since the main voices of postmodernism do not speak of a definitive whole—only the need for it—a part (for example, a person) cannot truly know the importance of who one is and is a part of, nor understand the primacy of what one is apart from, therefore never really understanding the full significance of how being apart from the whole reduces that part(s) to something qualitatively less (or as God said “not good”). In other words, we need a definitive whole in order to fully understand reductionism. At the same time, until we adequately counter reductionist practice (in epistemology, theology or everyday Christian function both individually and corporately) we will “be apart” from the whole and thus not experience the reality of the whole of God constituted in the Trinity and in the new creation as God’s family.
Reductionism has been around since initial creation. And the current conversation about modernism vs. postmodernism needs to be placed within this ongoing historic context in order to fully understand the process of reductionism, which can be expected to continue until the eschaton. Where would this lead the modernity-postmodernity debate?
As a simplification of the issues, I suggest that it is more helpful to perceive both modernist and postmodernist efforts as the search for the whole in life and a consequent shift to reductionist substitutes in the absence of a reality of life’s whole or a lack of ability to grasp it. While modernity has made the shift to substitutes—either as a presupposition or postulated later—postmodernity (with no monolithic position) is still negotiating with this shift as it struggles for holistic alternatives. Yet the shift to substitutes for the whole predates the Enlightenment and even the ancient Greek philosophy in which the modernist worldview has its roots. The practice of reductionist substitutes was inaugurated by the first human persons in the primordial garden but reductionism itself did not originate from them.
In the narrative of Eve’s encounter with Satan in the garden (Gen 3:1-7), we can observe the first historic account involving the process of reductionism. To understand the full significance of this interaction we have to examine what they are both doing. After the creation of the second human person, Adam and Eve enjoyed being whole parts of the whole of God (cf. Gen 2:25). It was within the context of this whole (discussed earlier as the trinitarian relational context of family) that reductionism emerged to challenge the integrity of the whole.
The encounter began by Satan challenging (testing, tempting) Eve to shift her focus from the whole to the parts (“eat from any tree” 3:1)—which in itself is only significant if it becomes a substitute for the whole. Eve engages the conversation about the parts while still maintaining the relational significance of the whole as God’s very own (“God did say” 3:3). Satan counters by redefining the whole of God as determined by what the parts do (“eat . . . and you will be like God” 3:5), rather than the whole determining the significance of its parts. In this process of reductionism, Satan likewise redefined Eve’s whole person by appealing to her mind (a part) with knowledge (“knowing good and evil”).
This is where the process of reductionism can become obscure because logic and reason blur the line between the parts and the whole to confuse the issue of what determines the whole of God (for example, the church) and how to perceive God’s whole (both the Trinity and the person, individually and corporately, created in the triune God’s image). This process is crucial to address because it forms the basis for who will determine what and what will determine whom. This then is about the issue of causation which, specific to Christian practice, involves either the effect of the whole of God on persons (top-down causation) or the effects of Christian behavior on the whole of God (bottom-up causation). While Christian practice tends not to be either-or but a combination, the critical issue to resolve is who gets the primary function and who has only a secondary function, including how they will functionally interact together. Reductionism gives primary priority to the parts over the whole—an influence not always indicated in our theology but witnessed in our practice.
The relational implications of reductionism involve human persons determining relationship with God on their terms in contradiction to only God determining the terms for the relationship. This happens in the functional practice of one’s beliefs, not necessarily reflecting the beliefs themselves. How this gets ambiguous is when the outward forms and practices of those terms appear similar, yet in function are qualitatively different than God’s terms. This becomes clearly distinguished in Christ’s temptations to be discussed shortly.
Eve reasoned that the quantitative elements of a part (“good for food and pleasing to the eye”) would not only enhance her place in the whole but also establish her as whole (“desirable for gaining wisdom” 3:6). Note the direction of causation. Furthermore, since Eve accepted Satan’s redefinition of her person, this shifted her to a quantitative perceptual framework focused on the substitutes of the whole with secondary matter. With this new lens she no longer paid attention to the fact that the whole was also “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (2:9). She could not perceive the forest (and God’s big picture) but saw only “the tree.” By accepting the reductionist challenge to shift to the parts at the expense of the whole, both Eve and Adam reduced their whole person to define themselves by what they did. To assume this primary determination then necessitated their pursuit to be a quantitatively “better” person as a substitute for the whole person and thus necessarily also involved attempts to have relationship with God on their terms (for example without the function of grace).
Along with the obvious sin of disobedience engaged here, we need to grasp what else was involved in this encounter and what Satan did in order to fully understand reductionism.
Reductionism is always positioned against the whole. It has no significance without the presence of the whole. When God said it is not good for the person “to be apart” (a more wholistic rendering of “to be alone” Gen 2:18), God was referring to being apart from the whole created in the Trinity’s likeness. Satan would have us reason that “it’s OK to be apart,” that priority should be given to the work that defines you. Whereas God engages ongoingly in the relational work to respond to the human condition to be apart and to restore us to the whole, Satan intently subjects us to his counter-relational work to reduce the whole and separate us from it. How does Satan go about his counter-relational work?
Reductionism tends not to be the blatant activity often associated with Satan but rather is usually an obscure process having the appearance of being reasonable, normative and even righteous (cf. 2 Cor 11:14, 15). Any shift to reductionist substitutes for the whole may not be apparent because the overt forms may remain while the underlying or deeper significance is absent. For example, a shift may not involve a shift in basic doctrine and theology but what they are based on (for example, a scientific paradigm and foundationalism), or it may not be a shift in basic types of Christian practice but how they function (for example, without the significance of heart), not a change in outward behavior but without the relational significance of intimacy.
The process of reductionism therefore effectively formulates two influentially competing substitutes: one, an ontological simulation of the whole of God but without the qualitative significance of the heart, and, two, an epistemological illusion of the truth of God but without really knowing the triune God in intimate relationship. Without the qualitative significance of the heart and the intimacy of relationships together, there is no certainty of the whole of God constituted in the Trinity, only simulation and illusion. No created entity understands this more than Satan. Consequently, Satan initiated reductionism as an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion for life based on lies (false assumptions, inadequate methodologies, incomplete practices, cf. Rev 2:4; 3:2) he generates (as the author of lies, Jn 8:44) for his twofold purpose: (1) to distance or detach the whole of our person from our hearts and (2) to interfere with our relationship with God by reducing the primacy of intimacy necessary to be whole. His twofold purpose serves his ongoing goal for Christians to reduce our relational function—since he is unable to destroy our relationship with God—so as “to be apart” from the whole.
The lies underlying the reductionist process are even more apparent in the biblical narratives of Satan’s tests of Jesus. Briefly, the temptations of Jesus at the beginning of his formal ministry (see Lk 4:1-13) represent summary tests for all Christians and how Satan will try to interfere in relationship with God. The importance of heart for the whole person and its significance in our relationship with the whole of God are strongly brought out here in what are basic relational tests.
In the first test (Lk 4:3), Satan’s reductionist approach is apparent in what he tried to get Jesus to focus on. Ostensibly, it may seem merely to be food and the circumstances of Jesus’ hunger (cf. Mt 4:2, 3). This may also seem like a test of his deity (“if you are the Son of God . . .”) to prove what Satan certainly already knew. Yet, Satan was trying to get Jesus to see his own person in a certain way, which Jesus exposed by his response: “a person [anthropos, man or woman] does not live on bread alone” (Lk 4:4).
Since the tendency is to look at this statement apart from its context, the usual interpretation of Jesus’ words is merely to prioritize the spiritual aspect of life over the physical, thus inadvertently substituting dualism for the whole person. That would be too simplistic and inadequate to meet the challenge of Satan’s test. In his response Jesus was not reducing the whole of life or the person into different parts with the spiritual at the top of the priority list. Yet, in his use of reductionism that is exactly how Satan was trying to get Jesus to see his person and thus function (despite the implications of turning the stone into bread). Satan was trying to reduce the whole of Jesus’ person to only a part of himself because he knew the relational consequence this would have—keep in mind Satan’s objective.
Satan cultivates this reductionism with the influential lie: the need and importance to see ourselves and therefore to define the person by what we do and have, as well as to define our life by situations and circumstances—the priority of the parts which make up ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. This process becomes an approach to life with reductionist substitutes focused on secondary matter, not the primacy of the whole of the person and the relationships necessary to be whole.
Jesus connects us to the whole—for which there is no substitute—by the latter half of his first response: “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (recorded only in Mt 4:4). Rather than focus on situations and circumstances to define our life and limit our person, Jesus tells us to focus relationally by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. The original OT words were given to understand (yada, to know personally) that reductionist life focuses on situations and circumstances (parts like food) whereas wholeness in life involves the relational meaning of “on every word. . . .” These words cannot be reduced to mere truths, beliefs or propositions, nor limited to the “spiritual” realm. They are words “that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3). “Mouth” (peh) signifies direct communication from God, communication which is a relational process involving intimate connection that the incarnate Word vulnerably revealed for us to experience as a relational reality. As Jesus defines by these words, the whole of God constituted in the Trinity determines (top-down causation) the whole person and the relationships in life necessary to be whole.
The reductionist occupation and its relational consequence emerge in the second relational test (Lk 4:5-7). Satan further dangled status, privilege, power, and possessions before Jesus by which to better define his person based on the quantitative criteria of reductionism. Modern scenarios of this test would involve areas of education, vocation, economic security or having certain relationships. Yet the pursuit of these reductionist substitutes comes with a cost that intentionally or unintentionally compromises our integrity, beliefs and practice and has the relational consequence of less intimacy with God. This compromise and relational consequence were overtly presented to Jesus by Satan in order for us to fully understand the reductionism of “if you worship me” (4:7).
What is overtly presented to Jesus is rarely as obvious to us. If the compromise and relational consequence of this pursuit of reductionist substitutes are more obscure for us today, it reflects how Satan tweaks some truths with another major lie: to have any of these resources will make me a better person, or enable me to do more (for example, even to better serve God and others), or give me the most satisfaction and fulfillment. In this process of reductionism we see the genius of Satan to blur the distinction between truth and lie; and his influence is not accounted for when we give priority to the parts over the whole and consequently do not distinguish between the importance of the qualitative and the secondary significance of the quantitative.
Jesus countered the second relational test with words (4:8) which we either perceive with only quantitative significance (for example, in the activity of what we do) or often take for granted with their familiarity (for example, as an obvious expectation or given obligation). Certainly we would worship God over Satan and serving Satan is not an option, that is, as long as these choices were always straightforward in our situations and circumstances, as it was for Jesus in this second test. We need to grasp the significance of Jesus’ second response when he declared “worship” and “serve” in his response. Because Jesus is again connecting us to the whole, he wants us to focus relationally on the context and ongoing process these terms provide. “Worship” and “serve” are not about “doing something” before and for God but about the qualitative relational significance of being involved with God in intimate relationship. His response is not about a mere rule of faith but about the relational imperative necessary for relationship together. Jesus is defining and exercising the relational work necessary to be whole in order to negate Satan’s counter-relational work that reduces the whole person from the heart and the intimate relationship necessary to be with the whole of God.
Satan does not necessarily destroy the forms of worshiping and serving God, only substitutes their practice with ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. He does not contend with these practices if they have no qualitative and relational significance. When the qualitative whole of God (in God’s heart and intimately relational nature) becomes secondary in our practice, we shift to the practice of reductionist substitutes for the whole. While this shift may not change our activity level related to relationship with God—could even increase the activity—reductionist practices invariably create a shift in relationship to an increasing (usually unintentional) self-focus, self-interest, self-serving involvement—the priority of the parts over the whole. This becomes increasingly an inadvertent process of doing relationship with God on our terms, which by implication is bottom-up causation. This is the issue which emerges in Jesus’ third relational test (4:9-12).
The order of these three tests in Luke (different order in Matthew’s account) takes on added significance because it reveals a progression in Satan’s counter-relational work and the comprehensive impact of reductionism. Since, at this stage, Satan has been unable to distance Jesus from his heart or to distract him from intimate relationship with the Father, he now seeks to disrupt directly how that relationship functions, though in quite the opposite way one might expect.
The dramatics of this scene at the highest point of the Jerusalem temple should not detract from the important relational work going on here. Satan quotes from the Scriptures yet not in the convention of reductionist proof-texting (4:10, 11). He uses this quote (from Ps 91) to challenge Jesus to claim a promise from the Father--a proposal suggested by many in church practice. His challenge, however, is not about building trust and taking God at his word. We have to focus deeply on relationship with God and what Satan is trying to do to the relationship.
Jesus counters Satan with the response: “do not put the Lord your God to the test” (ekpeirazo, test to the limits, see how far it can go, 4:12). How so? Sometimes the dynamics in relationships get complicated or confusing, and Satan uses reductionism to compound the relational process. God certainly wants to fulfill his promises to us; yet, we must go deeper than the typical perception of this process which puts it in a quantitative box of reductionism, thus imposing a shift on the relationship apart from the whole of God--and the functional centrality of God. We always need the whole (and the context of God's big picture beyond ourself) to keep in focus that God fulfills his promises only on his terms (for the big picture). If Jesus tried to evoke his Father’s promise in the manner Satan suggested, then he would be determining the relationship on his own terms. This is the real nature of this subtle relational test Jesus refused to do and the ongoing underlying temptation Satan presents to all of us: to test the limits of God and how much we can determine or even control (directly or indirectly) the relationship on our terms, even unintentionally. The false assumption here, of course, is the crucial lie, which functionally (not theologically) pervades our life and practice: that the relationship is negotiable and that God accepts terms for it other than his own.
If we take this reductionist process from how we subtly do relationships on our terms and apply it to how we do church, what is the consequence? I suggest that the prominent practice of church as a voluntary association is a shift to a reductionist substitute for the whole of God’s family constituted in and by the Trinity; and this practice has become merely an ontological simulation of the body of Christ laboring under an epistemological illusion of the Truth, who vulnerably revealed the whole of God for intimate relationship together. This is a relational consequence in contradiction to the relational outcome of Jesus’ family prayer for all his followers (Jn 17).
Reductionism has separated the whole individual person and has distanced the collective whole of God’s people from the whole of the trinitarian relational context of family and relational process of family love. This has embedded the local Western church in reductionist substitutes of individualism and voluntary association characterized by privatism. While these are certainly relational consequences from contextual influences (such as modernity), the full understanding of reductionism can only be gained from adequately perceiving Satan’s counter-relational work.
This is further understood when the interpretation of the task to “fill the earth” (discussed earlier, Gen 1:28) becomes the activity of populating the earth—that is, population growth in quantitative terms (bottom-up causation) rather than in qualitative terms of completing the whole of God’s family (a reciprocal relational process primarily of top-down causation). As a simulation of the ontology of the church, the task of “fill the church” (church growth) has often been undertaken by populating it in quantitative terms, not the quality of God’s family as constituted in and by the Trinity. These approaches to “fill the earth” and “fill the church” are the simulations and illusions of reductionism which distance persons from the whole and the relationships necessary to be whole, even while appearing to successfully accomplish God’s design and purpose (cf. the reductionist substitutes for the whole used in the churches at Ephesus and Sardis which Christ exposed in Rev 2:2-4; 3:1, 2).
Reductionism is not merely a philosophical framework but more importantly an underlying counter-relational process struggling against the whole of God. In this relational process Satan’s counter-relational work is always seeking to reduce the whole of God’s relational work by substituting ontological simulations and epistemological illusions for the whole of God and his creation (original and new in Christ)—a process persisting until the eschatological conclusion. Until we can fully account in our practice for Satan’s counter-relational work—as Jesus demonstrated in his tests—reductionism and some form of its substitutes for the whole will remain influential in our midst.
These relational tests of reductionism continue to engage us in postmodernity, yet now with even greater challenge for the church to be the definitive whole of God. This is what faces church practice today.
 Anthony Giddens, The Consequence of Modernity, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 63.
 For a discussion of the issues, particularly as they have affected theology, various sources are available including: Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996).
 For a further discussion on the general issue of causation, see Nancey Murphy, Theology in a Postmodern Age (Czech Republic: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2003).
©2006 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.