Acts 9 – The Calling of Saul

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Was Paul “converted” to Christianity?  There is a problem with this description, since i implies he more from one religious belief to another (perhaps as a Catholic might “convert” to Protestant, or a pagan might convert to Christianity.)  What the question really asks is – “how much of Paul’s worldview changed on the Road to Damascus?”  When we examine Paul’s own theology and compare it to Pharisaical Judaism, the status of his “conversion” is less obvious.  It is possible to describe Paul as a Pharisee who now believed Jesus was the Messiah.  Who was working out the implications of this new belief while doing an evangelistic ministry.  Yet there do seem to be major breaks with Judaism, especially in the treatment of Gentile converts.  What Paul is preaching is not really a sub-set of Judaism, whatever it may appear in the earliest years.

The traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual and psychological conversion. If Romans 7:7-25 deals with Paul’s apparent struggle with sin prior to his conversion, then we do have a spiritual and psychological reversal in Paul’s conversion.  Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee that struggled with sin and the guilt of not being able to keep the Law.  His conversion releases him from the weight of the guilt of his sin; he experiences justification by faith and converts from Judaism to Christianity.

Critics of the traditional view often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s.  Both men found their experience parallel to Paul’s and meditated deeply on what God did in their lives to release them from the weight of their guilt. Their conversion experience colored their theology of salvation.  Since Augustine and Luther are massively influential theologians, their view of Paul’s conversion has influenced later theology.

Beginning with Krister Stendhal, a new view of Paul’s experience has emerged.  Rather than a conversion from one religion to another, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Old Testament, especially that of Jeremiah. This view sees the Damascus Road experience as a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6.  Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry. Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah.  In this view, Paul received a new calling, but still served the same God.  He was to remain a Jew who was called by God to be the witness to the gentiles as anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah.  Paul is therefore not “founding a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law.  His gospel is a new interpretation of the Old Testament and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism..

The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets. The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key.  Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul.

Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely.  He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology.  While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are far more radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.

It is, however, problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus.  He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians. He never joins the Jerusalem church, nor does he receive his commission from them, but he seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel.  Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory.  Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. Ephesians 3:1-6 seems to be the clearest statement of the uniqueness of Paul’s ministry.

It is probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call.  But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake, Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.

8 thoughts on “Acts 9 – The Calling of Saul

  1. It seems like the natural reading of Acts 9 suggests that there is no new teaching by Paul. In verse 31, Luke summarizes that the church grew and increased in numbers. A similar phrase he used at the end of chapter 2. If something new took place with Paul’s conversion, it seems like Luke makes no mention of it. It seems like, Paul is now speaking the same message he once persecuted.

  2. What was your reference for “Arabia” not being the desert of Saudi Arabia? That is the first time I heard that (or at least, that I remember 🙂 ), and it does make sense.

  3. When did Christianity start, with Paul and the gospel of grace, or after the cross with the preaching of the 12? If Christianity began with the 12 are there two Christian churches, one for the body of Christ and one for the kingdom believers? If Christianity began with the gospel of grace, is it proper to call the believers in Christ before Paul’s conversion “Christians”?

  4. >What was your reference for “Arabia” not being
    > the desert of Saudi Arabia?

    This was in Witherington’s commentary, and probably most modern commentaries on Acts. I think there are alot of problems with thinking about modern names for ancient places, this is a serious one. Paul was in the Nabatean kingdom, as north as Damascus, as south as Petra (the Dead Sea), all on the east side of the Jordan.

  5. Jeff, you ask, “When did Christianity start, with Paul and the gospel of grace, or after the cross with the preaching of the 12?” I think you probably know my answer, but the terms used in the question are not really precise enough IMHO. The Body of Christ begins with the Damascus Road experience, despite no new “revelation” mentioned. The term “Christianity” is a problem for me, since “Christianity as we know it” is not really present until after Constantine, and honestly, what we westerners think is Christianity isn’t really all that old. I know a few people that would not consider the entire RCC prior to the Reformation as real Christianity, only the Reformers are true Christians.

    By way of analogy, when did the dispensation of Promise end, and Law begin? At the Exodus is possible but this seems like it is too early, and is more or less a climax to the promise to Abraham. One might say when Moses when up the mountain to get the Law, but no one heard the law for some time after that, and the text as we have it must have been actually written some time after Moses went up Sinai. At best, you have to talk about a transition from Promise to Law, and not about a single day or moment when the dispensation changed all at once.

    The Damascus Road was a theophany / Christophany on a par with Moses at Sinai, and while Paul didn’t fully have a complete understanding of how God was working his plan, it seems to me that meeting the resurrected Lord at that point was enough to send his mind spinning back through the Hebrew Bible in order to begin to develop what we would consider a “theology” of the Body of Christ.

    I am not a big fan of the idea of two churches, but we can probably come back to that idea later since there is something of a “church council” in Acts 15 with perhaps three different “flavors” or Christianity at the table. I think there are at least two or three more possibilities by the end of the first century. Fortunately, Pauline Christianity wins out!

  6. Thanks for your comment. Do we need to be careful who we call “Christian” in the book of Acts, especially since the term did not begin until Acts 11. In other words, is “Christian” a term only for the body of Christ, or any and all believers after the Resurrection?

  7. Some further reflections and questions.
    It seems like Luke is not interested in presenting the newness of Paul’s message. He makes no mention of the body of Christ at all. He begins the book with the Apostles asking about the kingdom of God and Peter preaching that it is near. He also ends the book with Paul preaching about the kingdom of God. Is it Luke’s goal to show that the message of the kingdom has spread from Jerusalem all the way to the ends of the earth from Peter in Acts 2 to Paul in Acts 28?

  8. > is “Christian” a term only for the body of Christ, or any
    > and all believers after the Resurrection?

    I have no problem calling any “believer in Christ” a Christian in Acts, although the term is not coined until Acts 11 and referred then to the Hellenists in Antioch. It is one of those words that has taken on a greater meaning that when it was originally coined. Since I know my audience well, I am sensitive to the use of the term and struggle with the sue now and then (as you might notice!

    On the other hand, I think you are correct to carefully define the term; the real distinction that I observe is “Body of Christ”, or the “universal church” of the Pauline epistles. That IMHO is not in existence until Acts 9.

    >Is it Luke’s goal to show that the message of the kingdom
    > has spread from Jerusalem all the way to the ends of the
    > earth from Peter in Acts 2 to Paul in Acts 28?

    I think this is a correct assessment of Luke’s purpose in Acts; there is theology int he book (it cannot be avoided), but it is not necessarily Pauline theology. This observation has lead some scholars to suggest that Luke is not familiar with Paul’s theology, and not the companion of Paul after Acts 16 (ie, not the “historical Luke.”) I disagree with this view, but it is a problem – Did Luke not read Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, etc? If he did, what would motivate him to ignore Paul as a letter writer in his work?

    (I really would have liked a comment like, “and then Paul wrote a long letter to the Roman church….” It would save so much time in a NT survey class!)

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