Paul and the challenge of the Damascus Road Christophany Pt. 1

( Hays references refer to Richard B. Hays,“Salvation by Trust: Reading the Bible Faithfully,”Christian Century 114 (1997): 218-23. and Wright to N.T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective; This post originated in the classroom as a theological reflection)

As any cursory survey of the literature on Paul and Pauline theology shows, the way we understand the person Paul, both the historical and literary figure, and the theology we derive from his body of work is shrouded in fierce debate. The mere fact that the church’s theology is built on our understanding of Pauline theology virtually guarantees that every discussion, every conference, and every reading of Paul will be mired in controversy. Yet, in the midst of discussion about what Paul means by justification or whether he fairly portrays the Jews (once we decide what exactly that portrayal even entails), we must remember that Pauline theology is ultimately theology and therefore intimately concerned with the person and character of God. If we can reasonably presume that Paul, a self-styled Hebrew of Hebrews, is built of solid Jewish stock, then it naturally follows that a covenant-oriented monotheism is at the center of his theology. We may also presume the Law and the Prophets have taught him about this creator-God who chose Israel to be a light to the nations (Wright 83, 87).

What then is such a figure to make of the Damascus road Christophany, wherein the expression of his zeal for his God is shown to be counter to his heart’s love? Some would reckon this experience as a crisis of faith, a forced reexamination of the nature of his faith, but such thinking perhaps arises from our preference for prejudicial language like conversion. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, having mostly cast such language aside, that what Paul suffered in his Christophany was no crisis of faith, but instead a crisis of hermeneutics. In his article “Salvation by trust?” Hays proposes that Paul dealt with the seeming contradiction in his Christ experience by falling back on a timeless principle embodied in the Hebrew Scriptures: trust in YHWH (Hays 219). Paul formulates his articulation of this principle around an exploration of the relationship of the people of God to their divine benefactor. Hays tracks this line of thought through Romans beginning with Paul’s address of the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, and Paul’s eventual juxtaposition of Abraham as a figure of faith against these unfaithful Israelites. Paul sees in this a validation of God and his action in the world: So what if some of God’s people fall away, can their unfaith make void God’s faithfulness? By comparison, the figure of Abraham is confronted with what might seem to many others undeniable proof that God would not keep his promise. Yet, his faith persevered and the old, spent bodies were made fecund. The triumph of trust in the faithfulness of God is clear to Paul.

Paul, when confronted with this astonishing turn of events, is forced to view them not as a contradiction of that which came before, but as a supernatural event of continuity. The answer to the question that most certainly arises from centuries of Jewish abuse at the hands of the powers is found in this unexpected Messiah. Jesus is the demonstration of the one God’s faithfulness which was the subject of such longing. Jesus’ death, as the demonstration of God’s love and provision, becomes for all the path to relationship with God. Just as Abraham trusted in the faithfulness of YHWH, all must now trust in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (Hays 220). The law provided no justification, but God allows us to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ in such a way that we are justified by the experience. Paul applies this trust in the plan of God to his reinterpretation of the scriptures.

When we test Hays’ hypothesis against Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 8:1-6, we see that Hays’ description fits the text rather well. Paul, in addressing the issue of the consumption of meat sacrificed to idols, frames his response around a central theological issue: the character of God. Paul asks, “What is an idol anyway?” It is nothing of substance nor could it be for there is only one God. Paul then appeals to the scriptures to make his point relying on Deuteronomy as he often does (according to Wright, because of its strong monotheism, 90). Paul reframes the Shema, glossing the LXX version with extended descriptions of God the Father and Jesus (Wright 94) which exhibit a parallelism between Father and Son. The Father is the one “from whom are all things and for whom we live”, and Jesus is the one “through whom are all things and through whom we live” (NET). The Father is the source of our life and the object of our devotion, but Jesus is the expression or means. The firmly monotheistic grounding of the passage exhibits Paul’s continued trust in the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, Paul understands the expression of God’s faithfulness through the work of Jesus.