Saul (that is, the Apostle Paul before Jesus Christ gave him his Christian name on the road to Damascus) was a rather remarkable and faithful Hebrew who, in other circumstances, we would probably want to emulate. He described himself as a “Hebrew born of Hebrews: as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5f). (Remember he sincerely believed the church was teaching heresy. He was not persecuting Christians as much as he was stamping out heresy—a venerable Christian tradition in later centuries.)
Saul’s heart was in the right place. He was seeking after God through a combination of knowledge of God, faithfulness to the rituals that had revealed God through the centuries, and the sort of self-discipline that can only be called athletic in its practice. These are the very things that Christians have promoted as the means to truly know God over the centuries.
While Saul’s heart was in the right place, his intellect had led him astray. He knew the scriptures inside and out. He knew his own tradition inside and out. He knew his internal drives and desires inside and out. But in all of that, he never actually came to know God. And because he never actually knew God, our tendency is to dismiss all these facets of his life as useless. Paul’s own description can be read in this manner, but what Paul finds useless is not his knowledge of scripture (he tells Timothy to study them as “a worker who has no need to be ashamed” to the end that he can “rightly explain” them in 2 Tim. 2:15). Nor does he find his remarkable self-discipline to be wasted, calling on Christians to similar discipline, to run the race, not just to compete, but to “receive the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). The real problem is not in the running, but rather “running in vain” (Gal 2:2).
It was his encounter with the living Truth that revealed his intellectual vanity. On the Damascus road God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Gal. 1:16). What was revealed was a profoundly different sort of knowledge of God described above. It was a knowledge that defies, and in fact, shatters, human categories of knowledge.
I hesitate to call this mystical knowledge, but if we can move beyond the baggage of that word “mystical,” it is a helpful idea. A mysterion is knowledge that shuts the mouth. (Yes, that’s actually one of the historical meanings of that Greek word mysterion!) It is knowledge that is not gained through the intellect but is instead communicated to the heart (Greek, nous, the center of our being). Paul’s insights into the Gospel were so radical he did not initially trust them and therefore went to Peter and the other apostles to verify that what was revealed was indeed true Gal. 2). This mystical knowledge transformed Christianity from a sect of Judaism into something different and, while continuous with Hebrew faith, was at the same time completely new.
We almost certainly won’t have encounters as dramatic as Paul had, but this is the pattern of how we acquire knowledge of God, as distinguished from knowledge of the Bible, the Church, or theology. I am regularly accused by my Evangelical friends and family of dismissing the Bible, or diminishing its importance. That is only true if one thinks of the Bible as a source of intellectual knowledge about God and faith. I am not seeking fellowship with scripture; I am seeking fellowship with God. And the Bible is the preeminent stepping stone into the mysterious, “mouth-shutting” realm of true knowledge of God that leads to the fellowship Christians seek. There are other stepping stones: the liturgy, the insights of Christians who have gone before us, the athletic struggle of prayer and fasting, but scripture is the preeminent stepping stone. And it must be always remembered that it is a stepping stone. Again, the goal is not knowledge of scripture, but personal knowledge (ie, interaction, and ultimately, communion with God).
The way I just described it was not Paul’s frame of reference, so this is not how he described it. But when Paul warns against human wisdom and rails against the works of the law, this is certainly a big piece of what he is railing against. Knowledge of God is a dangerous thing that drains the power of the gospel and leads to confidence in our own understanding. Knowing God, on the other hand, shuts our mouth and circumscribes our being (will, intellect, emotions, etc) while enlarging the heart so that we can take in more divine presence and thus be transformed from glory to glory.
This new (and yet older than Abraham) form of knowledge is Paul’s greatest gift that he gives to us in gasps and glimpses in his various letters found in the New Testament.