Eudokesen ho theos ... apokalupsai ton huion autou en emoi, hina euangelizomai auton en tois ethnesin Gal.1:15, 16.
The conversion of Paul marks not only a turning-point in his personal history, but also an important epoch in the history of the apostolic church, and consequently in the history of mankind. It was the most fruitful event since the miracle of Pentecost, and secured the universal victory of Christianity.
The transformation of the most dangerous persecutor into the most successful promoter of Christianity is nothing less than a miracle of divine grace. It rests on the greater miracle of the resurrection of Christ. Both are inseparably connected; without the resurrection the conversion would have been impossible, and on the other hand the conversion of such a man and with such results is one of the strongest proofs of the resurrection.
The bold attack of Stephen -- the forerunner of Paul -- upon the hard, stiff-necked Judaism which had crucified the Messiah, provoked a determined and systematic attempt on the part of the Sanhedrin to crucify Jesus again by destroying his church. In this struggle for life and death Saul the Pharisee, the bravest and strongest of the rising rabbis, was the willing and accepted leader.
After the martyrdom of Stephen and the dispersion of the congregation of Jerusalem, he proceeded to Damascus in suit of the fugitive disciples of Jesus, as a commissioner of the Sanhedrin, a sort of inquisitor-general, with full authority and determination to stamp out the Christian rebellion, and to bring all the apostates he could find, whether they were men or women, in chains to the holy city to be condemned by the chief priests.
Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, known in the days of Abraham, and bursts upon the traveller like a vision of paradise amidst a burning and barren wilderness of sand; it is watered by the never-failing rivers Abana and Pharpar (which Naaman of old preferred to all the waters of Israel), and embosomed in luxuriant gardens of flowers and groves of tropical fruit trees; hence glorified by Eastern poets as |the Eye of the Desert.|
But a far higher vision than this earthly paradise was in store for Saul as he approached the city. A supernatural light from heaven, brighter than the Syrian sun, suddenly flashed around him at midday, and Jesus of Nazareth, whom he persecuted in his humble disciples, appeared to him in his glory as the exalted Messiah, asking him in the Hebrew tongue: |Shaûl, Shaûl, why persecutest thou Me? It was a question both of rebuke and of love, and it melted his heart. He fell prostrate to the ground. He saw and heard, he trembled and obeyed, he believed and rejoiced. As he rose from the earth he saw no man. Like a helpless child, blinded by the dazzling light, he was led to Damascus, and after three days of blindness and fasting he was cured and baptized -- not by Peter or James or John, but -- by one of the humble disciples whom he had come to destroy. The haughty, self-righteous, intolerant, raging Pharisee was changed into an humble, penitent, grateful, loving servant of Jesus. He threw away self-righteousness, learning, influence, power, prospects, and cast in his lot with a small, despised sect at the risk of his life. If there ever was an honest, unselfish, radical, and effective change of conviction and conduct, it was that of Saul of Tarsus. He became, by a creative act of the Holy Spirit, a |new creature in Christ Jesus.|
We have three full accounts of this event in the Acts, one from Luke, two from Paul himself, with slight variations in detail, which only confirm the essential harmony. Paul also alludes to it five or six times in his Epistles. In all these passages he represents the change as an act brought about by a direct intervention of Jesus, who revealed himself in his glory from heaven, and struck conviction into his mind like lightning at midnight. He compares it to the creative act of God when He commanded the light to shine out of darkness. He lays great stress on the fact that he was converted and called to the apostolate directly by Christ, without any human agency; that he learned his gospel of free and universal grace by revelation, and not from the older apostles, whom he did not even see till three years after his call.
The conversion, indeed, was not a moral compulsion, but included the responsibility of assent or dissent. God converts nobody by force or by magic. He made man free, and acts upon him as a moral being. Paul might have |disobeyed the heavenly vision.| He might have |kicked against the goads,| though it was |hard| (not impossible) to do so. These words imply some psychological preparation, some doubt and misgiving as to his course, some moral conflict between the flesh and the spirit, which he himself described twenty years afterwards from personal experience, and which issues in the cry of despair: |O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?| On his journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, which takes a full week on foot or horseback -- the distance being about 140 miles -- as he was passing, in the solitude of his own thoughts, through Samaria, Galilee, and across Mount Hermon, he had ample time for reflection, and we may well imagine how the shining face of the martyr Stephen, as he stood like a holy angel before the Sanhedrin, and as in the last moment he prayed for his murderers, was haunting him like a ghost and warning him to stop his mad career.
Yet we must not overrate this preparation or anticipate his riper experience in the three days that intervened between his conversion and his baptism, and during the three years of quiet meditation in Arabia. He was no doubt longing for truth and for righteousness, but there was a thick veil over his mental eye which could only be taken away by a hand from without; access to his heart was barred by an iron door of prejudice which had to be broken in by Jesus himself. On his way to Damascus he was |yet breathing threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord,| and thinking he was doing |God service;| he was, to use his own language, |beyond measure| persecuting the church of God and endeavoring to destroy it, |being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers| than many of his age, when |it pleased God to reveal his Son in him.| Moreover it is only in the light of faith that we see the midnight darkness of our sin, and it is only beneath the cross of Christ that we feel the whole crushing weight of guilt and the unfathomable depth of God's redeeming love. No amount of subjective thought and reflection could have brought about that radical change in so short a time. It was the objective appearance of Jesus that effected it.
This appearance implied the resurrection and the ascension, and this was the irresistible evidence of His Messiahship, God's own seal of approval upon the work of Jesus. And the resurrection again shed a new light upon His death on the cross, disclosing it as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, as the means of procuring pardon and peace consistent with the claims of divine justice. What a revelation! That same Jesus of Nazareth whom he hated and persecuted as a false prophet justly crucified between two robbers, stood before Saul as the risen, ascended, and glorified Messiah! And instead of crushing the persecutor as he deserved, He pardoned him and called him to be His witness before Jews and Gentiles! This revelation was enough for an orthodox Jew waiting for the hope of Israel to make him a Christian, and enough for a Jew of such force of character to make him an earnest and determined Christian. The logic of his intellect and the energy of his will required that he should love and promote the new faith with the same enthusiasm with which he had hated and persecuted it; for hatred is but inverted love, and the intensity of love and hatred depends on the strength of affection and the ardor of temper.
With all the suddenness and radicalness of the transformation there is nevertheless a bond of unity between Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Christian. It was the same person with the same end in view, but in opposite directions. We must remember that he was not a worldly, indifferent, cold-blooded man, but an intensely religious man. While persecuting the church, he was |blameless| as touching the righteousness of the law. He resembled the rich youth who had observed the commandments, yet lacked the one things needful, and of whom Mark says that Jesus |loved him.| He was not converted from infidelity to faith, but from a lower faith to a purer faith, from the religion of Moses to the religion of Christ, from the theology of the law to the theology of the gospel. How shall a sinner be justified before the tribunal of a holy God? That was with him the question of questions before as well as after his conversion; not a scholastic question merely, but even far more a moral and religious question. For righteousness, to the Hebrew mind, is conformity to the will of God as expressed in his revealed law, and implies life eternal as its reward. The honest and earnest pursuit of righteousness is the connecting link between the two periods of Paul's life. First he labored to secure it by works of the law, then obedience of faith. What he had sought in vain by his fanatical zeal for the traditions of Judaism, he found gratuitously and at once by trust in the cross of Christ: pardon and peace with God. By the discipline of the Mosaic law as a tutor he was led beyond its restraints and prepared for manhood and freedom. Through the law he died to the law that he might live unto God. His old self, with its lusts, was crucified with Christ, so that henceforth he lived no longer himself, but Christ lived in him. He was mystically identified with his Saviour and had no separate existence from him. The whole of Christianity, the whole of life, was summed up to him in the one word: Christ. He determined to know nothing save Jesus Christ and Him crucified for our sins, and risen again for our justification.
His experience of justification by faith, his free pardon and acceptance by Christ were to him the strongest stimulus to gratitude and consecration. His great sin of persecution, like Peter's denial, was overruled for his own good: the remembrance of it kept him humble, guarded him against temptation, and intensified his zeal and devotion. |I am the least of the apostles,| he said in unfeigned humility that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am; and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.| This confession contains, in epitome, the whole meaning of his life and work.
The idea of justification by the free grace of God in Christ through a living faith which makes Christ and his merits our own and leads to consecration and holiness, is the central idea of Paul's Epistles. His whole theology, doctrinal, ethical, and practical, lies, like a germ, in his conversion; but it was actually developed by a sharp conflict with Judaizing teachers who continued to trust in the law for righteousness and salvation, and thus virtually frustrated the grace of God and made Christ's death unnecessary and fruitless.
Although Paul broke radically with Judaism and opposed the Pharisaical notion of legal righteousness at every step and with all his might, he was far from opposing the Old Testament or the Jewish people. Herein he shows his great wisdom and moderation, and his infinite superiority over Marcion and other ultra- and pseudo-Pauline reformers. He now expounded the Scriptures as a direct preparation for the gospel, the law as a schoolmaster leading to Christ, Abraham as the father of the faithful. And as to his countrymen after the flesh, he loved them more than ever before. Filled with the amazing love of Christ who had pardoned him, |the chief of sinners,| he was ready for the greatest possible sacrifice if thereby he might save them. His startling language in the ninth chapter of the Romans is not rhetorical exaggeration, but the genuine expression of that heroic self-denial and devotion which animated Moses, and which culminated in the sacrifice of the eternal Son of God on the cross of Calvary.
Paul's conversion was at the same time his call to the apostleship, not indeed to a place among the Twelve (for the vacancy of Judas was filled), but to the independent apostleship of the Gentiles. Then followed an uninterrupted activity of more than a quarter of a century, which for interest and for permanent and ever-growing usefulness has no parallel in the annals of history, and affords an unanswerable proof of the sincerity of his conversion and the truth of Christianity.
God deals with men according to their peculiar character and condition. As in Elijah's vision on Mount Horeb, God appears now in the mighty rushing wind that uproots the trees, now in the earthquake that rends the rocks, now in the consuming fire, now in the still small voice. Some are suddenly converted, and can remember the place and hour; others are gradually and imperceptibly changed in spirit and conduct; still others grow up unconsciously in the Christian faith from the mother's knee and the baptismal font. The stronger the will the more force it requires to overcome the resistance, and the more thorough and lasting is the change. Of all sudden and radical conversions that of Saul was the most sudden and the most radical. In several respects it stands quite alone, as the man himself and his work. Yet there are faint analogies in history. The divines who most sympathized with his spirit and system of doctrine, passed through a similar experience, and were much aided by his example and writings. Among these Augustin, Calvin, and Luther are the most conspicuous.
St. Augustin, the son of a pious mother and a heathen father, was led astray into error and vice and wandered for years through the labyrinth of heresy and scepticism, but his heart was restless and homesick after God. At last, when he attained to the thirty-third year of his life (Sept., 386), the fermentation of his soul culminated in a garden near Milan, far away from his African home, when the Spirit of God, through the combined agencies of the unceasing prayers of Monica, the sermons of Ambrose, the example of St. Anthony, the study of Cicero and Plato, of Isaiah and Paul, brought about a change not indeed as wonderful -- for no visible appearance of Christ was vouchsafed to him -- but as sincere and lasting as that of the apostle. As he was lying in the dust of repentance and wrestling with God in prayer for deliverance, be suddenly heard a sweet voice as from heaven, calling out again and again: 'Take and read, take and read!| He opened the holy book and read the exhortation of Paul: |Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.| It was a voice of God; he obeyed it, he completely changed his course of life, and became the greatest and most useful teacher of his age.
Of Calvin's conversion we know very little, but he himself characterizes it as a sudden change (subita conversio) from papal superstition to the evangelical faith. In this respect it resembles that of Paul rather than Augustin. He was no sceptic, no heretic, no immoral man, but as far as we know, a pious Romanist until the brighter life of the Reformation burst on his mind from the Holy Scriptures and showed him a more excellent way. |Only one haven of salvation is left for our souls,| he says, |and that is the mercy of God in Christ. We are saved by grace -- not by our merits, not by our works.| He consulted not with flesh and blood, and burned the bridge after him. He renounced all prospects of a brilliant career, and exposed himself to the danger of persecution and death. He exhorted and strengthened the timid Protestants of France, usually closing with the words of Paul If God be for us, who can be against us?| He prepared in Paris a flaming address on reform, which was ordered to be burned; he escaped from persecution in a basket from a window, like Paul at Damascus, and wandered for two years as a fugitive evangelist from place to place until he found his sphere of labor in Geneva. With his conversion was born his Pauline theology, which sprang from his brain like Minerva from the head of Jupiter. Paul never had a more logical and theological commentator than John Calvin.
But the most Paul-like man in history is the leader of the German Reformation, who combined in almost equal proportion depth of mind, strength of will, tenderness of heart, and a fiery vehemence of temper, and was the most powerful herald of evangelical freedom; though inferior to Augustin and Calvin (not to say Paul) in self-discipline, consistency, and symmetry of character. Luther's commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, though not a grammatical or logical exposition, is a fresh reproduction and republication of the Epistle against the self-righteousness, and bondage of the papacy. Luther's first conversion took place in his twenty-first year (1505), when, as a student of law at Erfurt, on his return from a visit to his parents, he was so frightened by a fearful thunder-storm and flashes of lightning that he exclaimed: |Help, dear St. Anna, I will become a monk!| But that conversion, although it has often been compared with that of the apostle, had nothing to do with his Paulinism and Protestantism; it made him a pious Catholic, it induced him to flee from the world to the retreat of a convent for the salvation of his soul. And he became one of the most humble, obedient, and self-denying of monks, as Paul was one of the most earnest and zealous of Pharisees. |If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery,| says Luther, |I ought to have gotten there.| But the more he sought righteousness and peace by ascetic self denial and penal exercises, the more painfully he felt the weight of sin and the wrath of God, although unable to mention to his confessor any particular transgression. The discipline of the law drove him to the brink of despair, when by the kind interposition of Staupitz he was directed away from himself to the cross of Christ, as the only source of pardon and peace, and found, by implicit faith in His all-sufficient merits, that righteousness which he had vainly sought in his own strength. This, his second conversion, as we may call it, which occurred several years later (1508), and gradually rather than suddenly, made him an evangelical freeman in Christ and prepared him for the great conflict with Romanism, which began in earnest with the nailing of the ninety-nine theses against the traffic in indulgences (1517). The intervening years may be compared to Paul's sojourn in Arabia and the subordinate labors preceding his first great missionary tour.
Various attempts have been made by ancient heretics and modern rationalists to explain Paul's conversion in a purely natural way, but they have utterly failed, and by their failure they indirectly confirm the true view as given by the apostle himself and as held in all ages by the Christian church.
1. The Theory of Fraud. -- The heretical and malignant faction of the Judaizers was disposed to attribute Paul's conversion to selfish motives, or to the influence of evil spirits.
The Ebionites spread the lie that Paul was of heathen parents, fell in love with the daughter of the high priest in Jerusalem, became a proselyte and submitted to circumcision in order to secure her, but failing in his purpose, he took revenge and attacked the circumcision, the sabbath, and the whole Mosaic law.
In the pseudo-Clementine Homilies, which represent a speculative form of the Judaizing heresy, Paul is assailed under the disguise of Simon Magus, the arch-heretic, who struggled antinomian heathenism into the church. The manifestation of Christ was either a manifestation of his wrath, or a deliberate lie.
2. The Rationalistic Theory of Thunder and Lightning. -- It attributes the conversion to physical causes, namely, a violent storm and the delirium of a burning Syrian fever, in which Paul superstitiously mistook the thunder for the voice of God and the lightning for a heavenly vision. But the record says nothing about thunderstorm and fever, and both combined could not produce such an effect upon any sensible man, much less upon the history of the world. Who ever heard the thunder speak in Hebrew or in any other articulate language? And had not Paul and Luke eyes and ears and common sense, as well as we, to distinguish an ordinary phenomenon of nature from a supernatural vision?
3. The Vision-Hypothesis resolves the conversion into a natural psychological process and into an honest self-delusion. It is the favorite theory of modern rationalists, who scorn all other explanations, and profess the highest respect for the intellectual and moral purity and greatness of Paul. It is certainly more rational and creditable than the second hypothesis, because it ascribes the mighty change not to outward and accidental phenomena which pass away, but to internal causes. It assumes that an intellectual and moral fermentation was going on for some time in the mind of Paul, and resulted at last, by logical necessity, in an entire change of conviction and conduct, without any supernatural influence, the very possibility of which is denied as being inconsistent with the continuity of natural development. The miracle in this case was simply the mythical and symbolical reflection of the commanding presence of Jesus in the thoughts of the apostle.
That Paul saw a vision, he says himself, but he meant, of course, a real, objective, personal appearance of Christ from heaven, which was visible to his eyes and audible to his ears, and at the same time a revelation to his mind through the medium of the senses. The inner spiritual manifestation was more important than the external, but both combined produced conviction. The vision-theory turns the appearance of Christ into a purely subjective imagination, which the apostle mistook for an objective fact.
It is incredible that a man of sound, clear, and keen mind as that of Paul undoubtedly was, should have made such a radical and far reaching blunder as to confound subjective reflections with an objective appearance of Jesus whom he persecuted, and to ascribe solely to an act of divine mercy what he must have known to be the result of his own thoughts, if he thought at all.
The advocates of this theory throw the appearances of the risen Lord to the older disciples, the later visions of Peter, Philip, and John in the Apocalypse, into the same category of subjective illusions in the high tide of nervous excitement and religious enthusiasm. It is plausibly maintained that Paul was an enthusiast, fond of visions and revelations, and that he justifies a doubt concerning the realness of the resurrection itself by putting all the appearances of the risen Christ on the same level with his own, although several years elapsed between those of Jerusalem and Galilee, and that on the way to Damascus.
But this, the only possible argument for the vision-hypothesis, is entirely untenable. When Paul says: |Last of all, as unto an untimely offspring, Christ appeared to me also,| he draws a clear line of distinction between the personal appearances of Christ and his own later visions, and closes the former with the one vouchsafed to him at his conversion. Once, and once only, he claims to have seen the Lord in visible form and to have heard his voice; last, indeed, and out of due time, yet as truly and really as the older apostles. The only difference is that they saw the risen Saviour still abiding on earth, while he saw the ascended Saviour coming down from heaven, as we may expect him to appear to all men on the last day. It is the greatness of that vision which leads him to dwell on his personal unworthiness as |the least of the apostles and not worthy to be called an apostle, because he persecuted the church of God.| He uses the realness of Christ's resurrection as the basis for his wonderful discussion of the future resurrection of believers, which would lose all its force if Christ had not actually been raised from the dead.
Moreover his conversion coincided with his call to the apostleship. If the former was a delusion, the latter must also have been a delusion. He emphasizes his direct call to the apostleship of the Gentiles by the personal appearance of Christ without any human intervention, in opposition to his Judaizing adversaries who tried to undermine his authority.
The whole assumption of a long and deep inward preparation, both intellectual and moral, for a change, is without any evidence, and cannot set aside the fact that Paul was, according to his repeated confession, at that time violently persecuting Christianity in its followers. His conversion can be far less explained from antecedent causes, surrounding circumstances, and personal motives than that of any other disciple. While the older apostles were devoted friends of Jesus, Paul was his enemy, bent at the very time of the great change on an errand of cruel persecution, and therefore in a state of mind most unlikely to give birth to a vision so fatal to his present object and his future career. How could a fanatical persecutor of Christianity, |breathing threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord,| stultify and contradict himself by an imaginative conceit which tended to the building up of that very religion which he was laboring to destroy!
But supposing (with Renan) that his mind was temporarily upset in the delirium of feverish excitement, he certainly soon recovered health and reason, and had every opportunity to correct his error; he was intimate with the murderers of Jesus, who could have produced tangible evidence against the resurrection if it had never occurred; and after a long pause of quiet reflection he went to Jerusalem, spent a fortnight with Peter, and could learn from him and from James, the brother of Christ, their experience, and compare it with his own. Everything in this case is against the mythical and legendary theory which requires a change of environment and the lapse of years for the formation of poetic fancies and fictions.
Finally, the whole life-work of Paul, from his conversion at Damascus to his martyrdom in Rome, is the best possible argument against this hypothesis and for the realness of his conversion, as an act of divine grace. |By their fruits ye shall know them.| How could such an effective change proceed from an empty dream? Can an illusion change the current of history? By joining the Christian sect Paul sacrificed everything, at last life itself, to the service of Christ. He never wavered in his conviction of the truth as revealed to him, and by his faith in this revelation he has become a benediction to all ages.
The vision-hypothesis denies objective miracles, but ascribes miracles to subjective imaginations, and makes a he more effect ive and beneficial than the truth.
All rationalistic and natural interpretations of the conversion of Paul turn out to be irrational and unnatural; the supernatural interpretation of Paul himself, after all, is the most rational and natural.
Dr. Baur, the master-spirit of skeptical criticism and the founder of the |Tübingen School,| felt constrained, shortly before his death (1860), to abandon the vision-hypothesis and to admit that |no psychological or dialectical analysis can explore the inner mystery of the act in which God revealed his Son in Paul (keine, weder psychologische noch dialektische Analyse kann das innere Geheimniss des Actes erforschen, in welchem Gott seinen Sohn in ihm enthülte). In the same connection he says that in, |the sudden transformation of Paul from the most violent adversary of Christianity into its most determined herald| he could see |nothing short of a miracle (Wunder);| and adds that |this miracle appears all the greater when we remember that in this revulsion of his consciousness he broke through the barriers of Judaism and rose out of its particularism into the universalism of Christianity.| This frank confession is creditable to the head and heart of the late Tübingen critic, but is fatal to his whole anti-supernaturalistic theory of history. Si falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. If we admit the miracle in one case, the door is opened for all other miracles which rest on equally strong evidence.
The late Dr. Keim, an independent pupil of Baur, admits at least spiritual manifestations of the ascended Christ from heaven, and urges in favor of the objective reality of the Christophanies as reported by Paul, 1 Cor.15:3 sqq., |the whole character of Paul, his sharp understanding which was not weakened by his enthusiasm, the careful, cautious, measured, simple form of his statement, above all the favorable total impression of his narrative and the mighty echo of it in the unanimous, uncontradicted faith of primitive Christendom.|
Dr. Schenkel, of Heidelberg, in his latest stage of development, says that Paul, with full justice, put his Christophany on a par with the Christophanies of the older apostles; that all these Christophanies are not simply the result of psychological processes, but |remain in many respects psychologically inconceivable,| and point back to the historic background of the person of Jesus; that Paul was not an ordinary visionary, but carefully distinguished the Christophany at Damascus from his later visions; that he retained the full possession of his rational mind even in the moments of the highest exaltation; that his conversion was not the sudden effect of nervous excitement, but brought about by the influence of the divine Providence which quietly prepared his soul for the reception of Christ; and that the appearance of Christ vouchsafed to him was |no dream, but reality.|
Professor Reuss, of Strasburg, likewise an independent critic of the liberal school, comes to the same conclusion as Baur, that the conversion of Paul, if not an absolute miracle, is at least an unsolved psychological problem. He says: |La conversion de Paul, après tout ce qui en a été dit de notre temps, reste toujours, si ce n'est un miracle absolu, dans le sens traditionnel de ce mot (c'est-à-dire un événement qui arrête ou change violemment le cours naturel des choses, un effet sans autre cause que l'intervention arbitraire et immédiate de Dieu), du moins un problème psychologique aujourd'hui insoluble. L'explication dite naturelle, qu'elle fasse intervenir un orage on qu'elle se retranche dans le domaine des hallucinations ... ne nous donne pas la clef de cette crise elle-même, qui a décidé la métamorphose du pharisien en chrétien |
Canon Farrar says (I.195): |One fact remains upon any hypothesis and that is, that the conversion of St. Paul was in the highest sense of the word a miracle, and one of which the spiritual consequences have affected every subsequent age of the history of mankind.|