The Conversion of Saint Paul


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(January 25) 

O God, who through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul,…
Acts 9:1-22
Matthew 19:27-30

No other single event after Pentecost is so important in the life of the early church as The conversion of Paul which is recounted three times in Acts (22:6-16; 26:12-18). The narrative, as opposed to the retrospective, account of the events wrenches Acts from its miraculous but somewhat leisurely course into a new level of activity and, it must be admitted, controversy. Apart from the ‘presenting case’ of the need for gentile circumcision which was apparently settled by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), there were deeper underlying tensions: Paul was a Rabbi initially on the side of the persecutors whereas Peter was a fisherman carrying the guilt of denial; Paul was a lawyer and theologian, Peter was impetuous and unsystematic; Paul claimed to be the Apostle of the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-8) whereas Peter also made that claim (Acts 15:7); and, when they ultimately clashed, the convert shamed the stalwart (Galatians 2:11-16). How far that tension was creative and how far destructive of Peter’s preaching of a simple message we will never know; but the question is begged by the Collect which urges us to follow Paul’s doctrine. For all his legality and system, Paul was forging theology ‘on the hoof’, formulating it in response to a random set of questions which was not an ideal basis for developing theology systematically. What the Collect almost certainly has in mind, is Paul’s supposedly central doctrine of justification by faith alone which was Luther’s highly personal Deus ex Machina but which was rapidly assumed as the major doctrinal breakthrough which separated Protestant reformers from Catholic conservatives. That breach has largely been healed but the dispute still rages within the Anglican Communion in the slightly different language of “Penal substitution”. Another strand of doctrine which the 16th Century embraced as part of a general return to neo-Platonism was Paul’s tendency to fall into flesh/spirit or body/soul dualism, a cast of mind enormously boosted by the particular coincidence of the Reformation with the arrival in Europe of sexually transmitted diseases from North America which wrought havoc outside their endemic ecology (although not so great as that which was wrought by European influenza and measles exported to the Americas). There was also a ‘political’ need to down-grade Peter which implicitly meant up-grading Paul which might explain why there were and still are Christians who, consciously or otherwise, rank Paul’s doctrine above Jesus’ teaching, a situation which, as we know from 1 Corinthians 1 would have shocked Paul. He always was, and constantly referred to himself as, a servant of the Gospel and he approaches doctrine with a mixture of directness and self deprecation which is often the style of shy people forced into positions of authority; certainly his humility is under-estimated and under-emulated by his admirers.

In considering his global, primarily doctrinal, impact we should not forget the immediate effects of Paul’s conversion: the church lost a powerful enemy and gained a powerful friend (although his welcome varied between petrified and cautious); the linkage between the Old Testament and the mission of Jesus was put firmly in place long before the Evangelists began to write; the focus of mission was diversified so that the ultimate catastrophe of Palestinian Judaism only had a marginal effect; and the whole enterprise received an intellectual boost necessary for serious discussion with Greek speakers accustomed to an open dialogue on religion and philosophy which was alien to Jews brought up in a profoundly conservative theology and culture. Indeed, one of Paul’s great gifts is his ability to imagine himself outside Jewish tradition even though the results were frequently rough, psychologically, theologically and textually.

Describing the events on the road to Damascus as a ‘Conversion’, as opposed, say, to a radical transformation, is somewhat misleading as Paul never thought of himself as anything other than a fully devout Jew and meticulous Pharisee who, in accepting the general doctrine of the resurrection of the body, had simply accepted Jesus as a very special case. There is admittedly something of the tactical in his use of this argument in his own defence (Acts 23:6) but the sense of scriptural and doctrinal continuity in his writing is at least as strong as the setting of a new course to such an extent that some of the complex discussions into which he was drawn by conservative Jews (notably in Galatians) must have puzzled Gentiles in the extreme. Paul’s mission would have been much easier had he been able to make a cleaner break with his past although this would have given developing Christianity a different theological tone.

Yet however jagged his profile, his achievements are massive: the unbreakable bond between the Old and New Testaments; the consolidation of Trinity; a cosmic interpretation of the sacramentality of Baptism; the first account of the Institution of the Holy Eucharist; the metamorphosis of the Jewish tradition of animal sacrifice into the unique sacrifice of Jesus; a theology of the Cross and Resurrection; the development of the concept of the holy life springing from volunteer behaviour not observance of the law; the entrenchment of the three great motifs of faith, hope and charity; and the summation of all of these in a soteriology which survived beyond the period when eschatological closure was believed to be imminent. Paul is such a massive figure that we are always in danger of exceeding his wish that we should take him at his word. For, as the 13th, he counted himself as the least among the Apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9).

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Are there any significant differences between the three accounts of Paul’s conversion?
  2. Discuss the concept of Paul as the 13th Apostle
  3. Why do some Christians find Paul’s theology more attractive than the teaching of Jesus?
  4. To what extent is Christianity a Pauline creation?
  5. Choose a letter of Paul and write a letter to which it is the reply.

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