An Exploration of How Paul Knew what he Knew

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.

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Wisdom and Works of the Law

I have been doing in-depth study of 1 Corinthians in recent months. The manner in which Paul discusses wisdom has been quite surprising to me. In his best known argument, found in 1 Cor. 1, he claims that human wisdom (what the Greeks seek) and signs (what the Jews seek) are dead ends in light of message of the cross, which reduces the former to foolishness and makes the latter a stumbling block. If either human wisdom or a demand for signs are pursued, they empty the gospel of its power.

This doesn’t mean that Paul rejects wisdom altogether. He makes this clear in 2:4-7.

4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

One of my surprises came when I discovered the parallel between 1 Corinthians (the distinction between human wisdom and secret divine wisdom) and Galatians (“works of the law” and “the righteousness that comes from faith”). Paul’s distrust of the law in both Romans and Galatians is well known and a particular interpretation of that distrust is the foundation of the Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone. Both the Latin and Greek traditions reject this interpretation that leads to the Reformation emphasis because both traditions consider it bad exegesis, a topic I cover frequently in this blog.

My fixation with the Reformation doctrine caused me to miss the parallels between works of the law (Galatians) and human wisdom (1 Corinthians). Both letters deal broadly with the question, “How do we know?” But Paul’s interest is not so much in how we know, it is rather a question of why we want to know in the first place. What we have come to think of as classic western theology (embodied in the discipline of systematic theology) appears to fall into Paul’s category of human wisdom. It is an attempt to plumb the depths of God in a manner not dissimilar to chemists, biologists, and physicists plumbing the depths of the physical universe. Such knowledge, while valid within its particular frame of reference, empties the Gospel of its power because divine wisdom operates in a fundamentally different frame of reference.

Divine wisdom may lead to a knowledge of God, but this is a side-show that, while profoundly attractive, is ultimately illusory. Divine wisdom, on the other hand leads to righteousness (“[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption… 1 Cor. 1:30) and what later Christians described as a state of “unknowing.” This logical arc is remarkably similar to the logical arc of Galatians where Abraham receives righteousness, not by “the works of the law” (which came 400 years after Abraham), but by believing in the promise of that which was coming in Christ.

Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Gal 3:3f)

If the goal is knowledge, then it is “of the flesh” (Galatians) or “human wisdom” (1 Corinthians). But the goal is not acquiring knowledge, it is receiving the Spirit, which leads to righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and a profound sense of knowing less than when you started. Paul calls this apprehension of that we cannot intellectually know, “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor. 12:4).

In a previous essay I observed that Paul (in Galatians and Romans, and now in 1 Corinthians) is rejecting the preeminence of objective truth in favor of personal truth, and more specifically, living truth (Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity), which explodes the category of objective truth because this divine, living Personal Truth, is limitless, fathomless, its fullness always being well beyond our grasp. Objective truth is something we can bring down to our level and box up in a multi-volume Systematic Theology. And to the degree we do that, we have created an idol, which is, by definition, a falsehood. The Living, Personal Truth, on the other hand, is active, changing us, transforming us, and leading us to communion with God. Objective truth, because it is something we can essentially control, becomes our “works of the law,” while Personal Truth is something that takes control of us and thereby transforms us by the “righteousness of faith.”

And this begs the question, where did Paul discover and enter into the realm of Living, Personal Truth? Fortunately, his letters point us in the right direction so that we can answer this question.

 

Archetypes of Conversion, Pt. 2

In the previous essay I presented two of three archetypes of conversion in an attempt to expand our appreciation of salvation. Salvation, while God’s action, requires a human response, but not just a single response. Varying and multiple responses are required when God offers us his grace. The archetypes offer us images of these varying responses. The first can be summed up with the binary of repent/receive and is illustrated in scripture by John the Baptist’s message of, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” The second can be summed up with the binary of accept/receive and is illustrated in scripture by Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and her affirmation of Gabriel’s message (and resulting reception of the divine grace of becoming the Theotokos) of, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (when he was given his Christian name, Paul) gives us a third archetype of conversion. This one offers us the binary of see/recive. Saul is a complicated person to understand. When we consider his own description of his life before Damascus, we have to conclude that he had a heart for God. In Philippians 3 Paul describes that life. “As to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (5b-6).

This description could describe many deeply devoted Christians, both lay people and even monks who spend their days striving (ie, Heb 4:11, “let us strive to enter the rest”) to become holy or defending against false teaching. Saul’s problem was not his heart (he was seeking God and not self) nor his discipline (he was evidently an authentic “ascetic” or “spiritual athlete”). Yet, in spite of his efforts and good intentions, something went horribly wrong and those good intentions became truly evil as he sought to exterminate Christianity (his version of “false teaching”) from the face of the earth.

I believe the key clue to what went wrong can be found in 1 Corinthians, and specifically his distinction between earthly and divine wisdom. He offers his basic argument in ch. 1:19-24.

19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Keep in mind that Saul fits both categories of being a Jew and a Greek. He was evidently a leading “debater of this age.” He was also looking for “signs” of the Messiah. But because he approached his faith through the lens of what we would call propositional truth today and what he describes as earthly wisdom, he missed the signs that God gave through Jesus because Jesus didn’t meet his expectations of a proper Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to defeat the Roman overlords. Instead, Jesus was crucified. Jesus was thus a “stumbling block” to his Jewish sensibilities, and “foolishness” to his Greek sensibilities.

So, based on his testimony, it seems that while his heart was converted and he could rightly be called a follower of God, the problem was his intellect, which had not repented of its reliance on human wisdom (or propositional truth). But the intellect is one of strongest and most devious of our emotions, and it often requires quite a shock to the system to shake the intellect out of its self-sufficient blindness. So it is that the risen and living Jesus Christ himself encountered Saul on the road. “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

The intellect is such that it can soften the harshest truth and excuse the most evil action (killing Christians because they are Christians, killing Jews because they are Jews, etc.). The intellect is so seductive that it can even seduce an otherwise righteous person into great evil. So it is that conversion which requires intellectual repentance can be one of the most difficult conversions to make. It is therefore not surprising that what we find on the road to Damascus is a scene of terror. Heavenly light flashed around Saul and it left him trembling and unable to even stand.

Truth is personal and living. Most of us prefer to distance ourselves from the living fire of Truth by diminishing it to propositional truth, or book truth, what Paul calls the letter of the law. God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). And when someone of Paul’s remarkable self-discipline and spiritual advancement is confronted by the living, personal truth, something remarkable—and terrifying—happens.

Later Christians who have been confronted by this same living Lord and who have had to face conversion through repentance of the intellect often called this living presence “the Shekinah glory,” or “the Divine Light,” or “the Divine Energies.” Paul describes it as being transported to the third heaven, and in that state he “heard things that cannot be told, which no mortal is capable or uttering” (2 Cor. 12:4).

This gets to the heart of the problem with the intellect. The intellect is always trying to frame what it knows so it can be uttered. The framing process boxes in the bit of truth so that the intellect is able to grasp, thus reducing it to less-than-truth, or in the case of Saul, non-truth. But true Truth, being not only personal, but divinely personal truth (the very Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity), explodes the limitations of the intellect, leaving us with mere babbling (2 Tim. 6:20) and seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12).

The archetypes of Mary and Paul are dramatic and far beyond any experience we are likely to have. (This, by the way, is why they are archetypes: they illustrate conversion in the extreme.) But they dramatically remind us why salvation not only cannot be separated from repentance, but why salvation requires repeated conversion of different sorts of repentance. Encountering Christ and being saved is not the end of the road. We need a conversion of the heart (John), and conversion of the will (Mary), and a conversion of the intellect (Paul). Furthermore, every time we begin to settle in because we believe we’re getting a handle on things, we need yet another encounter with the living God, the burning light of Christ, to remind us that we don’t know the half of it. This is the gospel of repentance in its various manifestations.

 

Jesus Doesn’t Judge; Words Judge

In yesterday’s Daily Common Lectionary reading (Jn 12:44-50), Jesus says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” If Jesus (who is God, after all) doesn’t judge and judgment is real (the Bible is full of that affirmation!), then who does the judging?

I smell a contradiction!!!

Turns out there is no contradiction. In the next verse Jesus continues, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” It took some time for the import of these two sentences to sink in.

There was a gospel song that folks in the church in which I grew up loved to sing. It began, “Sing them over again to me, Wonderful words of Life. Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful words of Life.” But what if you reject those words? Then the words cease to be wonderful and become judgment. Jesus’ statement in Jn 12:47-48 parallels one of my favorite two verse in scripture: Rom 1:17-18. “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In this remarkable bit of parallelism, Paul seems to equate divine righteousness and divine wrath.

And on this Paul and John agree. Life giving words are the same thing as words of judgment (John). Righteousness is the same thing as wrath (Paul). The Eastern Orthodox commonly teach that heaven and hell are the same place. What believers experience as the warm light of love (because by faith they love God and have been purged of all chaff) the non-believers experience as the hot fire of judgment.

God doesn’t send anyone to hell (in this common Orthodox teaching), rather those who reject God experience the heavenly light of love as a burning hell. Righteousness is wrath. The wonderful words of life will judge us. So indeed Christ does not judge; he’s here to offer salvation! Judgment is all in how we respond to Jesus’ good words.

The Apostle Paul on Costly Grace

Bonhoeffer (in the previous post) was certainly passionate about costly grace. But isn’t that at odds with the idea of “salvation by faith alone” (a phrase many folk assume the Apostle Paul said)? Three points on that: (1) Paul never said it; it’s actually a post-Reformation era formula in response to Erasmus and is a bit of an outlier in Pauline thought. (2) The Reformed doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is not the same thing as Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace,” although it can devolve into that in the hands of fallen humans who are looking for an easy route to the Kingdom. (3) In fact nowhere in the Bible does it say that salvation is by “faith alone.” That phrase is used only once in scripture by James who says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24).

We often cherry pick Paul’s statements about salvation by grace through faith. I in no way want to diminish what he says about grace and faith. The purpose of this essay is to remind us that Paul says some other things as well.

Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Instead, keeping God’s commands is what counts.” (1 Cor. 7:19)

To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law.” (1 Cor. 9:21)

I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27)

I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything.” (2 Cor. 2:9)

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.” (2 Cor. 7:1)

We are ready to punish every disobedience when your obedience is complete.” (2 Cor. 10:6)

Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one ind for the faith of the gospel.” (Phil 1:27)

Therefore, my beloved, just have you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12)

Not that I have already obtained this [salvation] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:12)

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in god’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom. 2:13)

You have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:17-18)

For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot.” (Rom 8:7)