Daily Reading for January 25 • The Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle
How could Paul both deny that he had received the gospel through human mediation and yet also affirm that his gospel was in accord with the tradition he received? Unless we are content to conclude that Paul was wholly unscrupulous in his shifts and manoeuvres (a judgment we should hesitate before passing on anyone), the answer has to be something along the following lines. What Paul received and preached, and echoed in his letters, was indeed the common Christian conviction that “Christ died (for us) and was raised (from the dead).” That remained the shared confession and bond which held together the first Christian churches, despite all their diversity, in one gospel. What Paul was convinced of on the Damascus road, however, was not simply this central confessional claim but also that this Jesus was now to be preached to the Gentiles. It is this latter point which Paul focuses on in his most explicit reference to his conversion: God revealed “his Son in me, in order that I might preach (euangelizomai) him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1.15-16). . . .
It was this interpretation of the shared gospel which Paul saw as his primary responsibility to carry out and proclaim. The risen Christ had appointed him apostle (1 Cor. 9.1; 15.8). That is, not to some general apostleship, but specifically as “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11.13). It was evidently this understanding of the gospel to be preached by him as apostle which he attributed directly to God, through Jesus Christ (Gal. 1.1). . . .
Paul’s conversion was a conversion for Paul the theologian. Not a conversion from one religion to another. He remained a Jew and an Israelite, though we can speak of a conversion from one form (or sect) of the religion of his people (Pharisee) to another (Nazarene). But certainly Paul’s conversion must be seen as a fulcrum point or hinge on which his whole theology turned round. And certainly it was the encounter with the risen Christ (as he perceived it) which formed that fulcrum and hinge. It was no doubt the total reversal of some very basic theological axioms (about Israel’s status and the importance of preserving it) and previous conclusions (Jesus as a false claimant to messiahship rejected by God) which was at the heart of the theological reconstruction which must have followed. . . .
What should not be ignored is the evidence that Paul’s own experience played a vital role in the reconstruction of his theology as a Christian and apostle. The theology of Paul was neither born nor sustained by or as a purely cerebral exercise. It was his own experience of grace which lay at its heart.
From The Theology of Paul the Apostle by James D. G. Dunn (London: T&T Clark, 1998, 2005).