Critics of the traditional view of Paul’s theology often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s struggle against the Roman church. 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.
For many readers, this might sound like a foolish question. Acts 9 describes Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as a dramatic conversion from chief persecutor of the church to evangelist for the Church. In Phil 3:4-11 Pau describes his previous way of life in Judaism as worthless in comparison to his new life in Christ. That seems like a “conversion” experience from “being Jewish” to “being Christian.”
Another classic text that seems to describe a conversion experience is Romans 7:7-25. In this text Paul describes his struggle as the Wretched Man who tried to keep the Law but failed, and only found salvation in the freedom that comes through Jesus Christ. The traditional view reads this text as referring to Paul’s own 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.
The New Perspective on Paul calls this traditional view into question. James Dunn has built on the work of Krister Stendhal to argue that Paul did not experience a conversion from one religion to another. Rather, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Hebrew Bible, especially that of Jeremiah. The Damascus Road experience was 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. (Not all scholars who are associated with the New Perspective agree, N. T. Wright still talks about “Paul’s Conversion” in What Saint Paul Really Said.)
Dunn points out that Paul stayed “zealous,” but instead of zealous for the Law, he because zealous as the “light to the Gentiles” (“Paul’s Conversion,” 90). This view of Paul’s conversion is that he does not “found a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism. Paul may not have changed parties within Judaism: he went from a Pharisee who did not believe Jesus was the messiah to a Pharisee who did believe Jesus was the messiah.
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. His Law-free gospel for the Gentiles was a radical change, and a change that was wholly unanticipated in the prophets. The reaction of the Jews in Acts is the key for grasping how radical Paul’s gospel was. When Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without being circumcised, the Jews vigorously oppose Paul, attempt to have him arrested and (later in Acts) they attempt to kill him for what they see as a radically blasphemous revision of the basics of the Jewish faith.
I think that Phil 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 significant radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century. While it is possible Paul thought he was staying within Judaism, his contemporaries disagreed. (I suspect that includes not a few Christians Jews who disagreed with his view of the Law for Gentiles.)
But it is also 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 and in Ephesians 3 he is quite clear that he has a special commission as the apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul never “joins the Jerusalem church” nor does he receive his commission from them (again, see Gal 2). 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.
It is therefore probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call. I agree that Luther and others hear their own conversion in Paul’s Damascus Road experience. 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.
Bibliography: There is a huge bibliography of essays and monographs on this issue; the critical articles include: J. D. G. Dunn, “‘A Light To the Gentiles’ or ‘The End of the Law’? The Significance of the Damascus Road Christophany for Paul” in Dunn, Paul, Jesus, and the Law, 89-107. See also Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982); After Kim was critiqued by J. D. G. Dunn and others, he responded in a number of articles that are collected in Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).