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Lent Is Our Damascus Road, Part 1: Blindness
Lent Is Our Damascus Road, Part 3: Torn from His Mother’s Womb

The conventional understanding of conversion owes much to the Acts of the Apostles, but the historical reliability of Acts is not always reliable as an historical account of Saint Paul’s career. Our most accurate information comes instead from the seven or so letters that are generally acknowledged to have originated with Paul himself rather than his later disciples or a Pauline school. In these letters Paul never mentions the Damascus road nor does he refer to his experience as a conversion. Consequently it has become fashionable to say that Paul was called rather than converted. Mark Goodacre’s podcast on the subject of Paul's Conversion on the Damascus Road nicely summarizes the historical-critical reasons for this development, but we may still ask whether the distinction really supports the weight of the claims made in its favor.

Even if Acts does seem to describe what looks very much like a conversion, we should not lose sight of the fact that it also describes what looks very much like a prophetic calling or commission: “Depart, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” Paul was converted and he was called—in that order—according to Acts. The value of Acts lies in its separation into two events what Paul likely experienced in a single, unitary moment.

The Western tradition tells us that Saint Paul’s encounter with the risen and glorified Lord was preceded by and prepared for by a severe crisis of conscience over his alleged inability to keep the Law. He subsequently found the solution to this problem and relief from his inner torment on the Damascus road, where Christ revealed the gospel of justification by faith. Modern scholarship tells us that such a portrait owes more to Augustine and Martin Luther than to Paul himself. Paul was not an especially introspective person, according to this New Perspective, nor was he especially distraught over his ability to keep the Law. He himself says that he was a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to zeal, that he persecuted the Church; as to righteousness before the law, that he was blameless (Phil 3:5–6).

The New Perspective tells us that Paul never had a problem with the Law until he met the risen Christ in person. On this view Paul did not convert in the traditional sense of the word because he never experienced a prior crisis of conscience; he never kicked against the goads; he certainly did not convert from Judaism to Christianity. Even Acts does not say that the disciples were called Christians until well after the scales had fallen from his eyes, and at first only in the city of Antioch. Thus it is seemingly more accurate to speak of Paul as a devout, Law-observant Jew who was called as such to convey a message of radical inclusiveness to the Gentiles, and who only later worked out the full implications of that message.

The traditional perspective and the New Perspective on Paul are mirror images. The traditional perspective is prospective and psychological; it traces Paul’s movement from problem—the crushing demands placed on the devout individual by a religion that allegedly requires strict obedience to a Law that is impossible to keep—to solution—the radical gospel of justification by faith. The New Perspective is retrospective and sociological; according to a near canonical formula it traces Paul’s movement from solution—a community in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female (Gal 3:28)—to problem—a set of ordinances that manifestly maintains such boundaries. Advocates of both perspectives make aggressive claims to systematically address many if not all of the questions raised by Paul’s relatively unsystematic corpus of letters, yet they do so (at the risk of oversimplifying) by presuming that the Damascus road was always already about religion rather than experience.

Lent is our Damascus road, but in order to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking through Saul’s encounter with the risen Lord we need to set aside the big questions and attend to the details. The Damascus road is not about Judaism or Christianity; it is not about Law or Gospel; it is not about works or faith. It is about abject blindness in the face of glory; it is about hearing and heeding the words of the Lord. It is about being converted and being called, so before we ask what it means to be called we ought to ponder carefully what it means to be converted.

We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee.
Because by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.

Next post in this series:
Lent Is Our Damascus Road, Part 3: Torn from His Mother’s Womb

Other posts in this series:
Lent Is Our Damascus Road, Part 1: Blindness