Jesus into Paul
Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel
Presenting the Person - Part 2
Boast in this, that they understand and know me.
Jeremiah 9:24 (cf. 1 Cor 1:31)
Listen to my Son!
In the previous chapter we looked at a sample of the persons in various human contexts to whom Jesus presented his person and distinguished his presence. The post-resurrection presentation of this integral person certainly involved more drama and constituted incomparable significance, yet the face of the person presented was not any more distinguished than before. For example, this was Peter’s experience (post, Jn 21:3-12, and before, Lk 5:4-8) and his ongoing challenge with the distinguished Face presented to him for relationship Face to face (post, Jn 21:19,22, and before, Mt 4:19). And this was what two other disciples fortunately learned from table fellowship with the distinguished Face in their secondary sojourn in the wrong direction on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:25-27, 30-32).
The integral person and distinguished presence of Jesus continues to be further presented in post-ascension. His first notable post-ascension presentation happens on another road in the human context, which is best signified as less secondary and more the major conflict between wholeness and reductionism; many though consider this merely as a major event defined in secondary terms. This is the road where the integral person of Jesus confronts the reduced and thus fragmented person of Paul.
The road to Emmaus and the Damascus road are parallel roads which Jesus intersected signifying the relational dynamic of God’s grace to compose wholeness in relationship together. These roads necessarily must converge in the study of Jesus and Paul to illuminate the relational progression to God’s whole, and relationship together in wholeness as God’s family, or else the journey on the road to Emmaus will remain a wandering in the wrong direction and the journey on the Damascus road will still be fragmented. Jesus’ vulnerable presence and relational involvement continue in post-resurrection and post-ascension to be the epistemological, hermeneutical and functional keys to the convergence of these roads (and others like them in human contexts) and for the response necessary for their sojourners in the reciprocal relationship together to be whole, God’s relational whole only on God’s qualitative relational terms.
Paul’s reputation as an exterminator of those who belonged to the Way preceded him even before he got to Damascus—and so the disciple Ananias was understandably incredulous about him (Acts 9:1-2, 13-14; 26:9-11). That was Paul’s purpose for going to Damascus, that is, until he encountered the theological and functional pivot for his life. Given his purpose, it was not surprising that Paul was confronted about his actions. What was unexpected, however, was whom and what Paul encountered and how he was confronted.
When the Face that shone on Paul said to his face “why do you persecute me?” the Face was distinguished in deeper significance than a Christophany. The integral person and distinguished presence of Jesus further emerges on the Damascus road in the significance of his presentation as an extension of the incarnation. Yet, this is not limited to the embodied Face distinguished further in post-ascension but is integrally the distinguished Face both from the beginning who antedates Paul’s religious roots and in the beginning who antecedes the created image intrinsic to and thus innermost of Paul’s person.
Assuming his good intentions, Paul’s actions to the Way were a reaction to a basic, perhaps major, threat to his faith and its tradition in which Paul had invested his entire life (Gal 1:13-14; Acts 26:4-5,9). His reaction, however, was focused on and “against the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Likely predisposed by the negative stereotype commonly attributed to Nazareth (cf. Nathanael), Paul’s interpretive lens looked at the name of Jesus in referential terms, and consequently reduced Jesus’ name only to human contextualization without the significance of his person. This was problematic for Paul in two critical ways directly associated with his faith-tradition: (1) to ignore the name of the Christ from his own Scripture (Isa 9:6), and (2) to not pay attention to the significance of the person who constitutes the name. Though in many human contexts, a name is commonly just an identity marker, for Jews the name is the person, notably for God who disclosed his name to Moses as the distinguished “I AM” (Yhwh, Ex 3:13-15; 6:2-3; cf. Isa 42:8). Yet, even Yhwh, the LORD, easily is diminished of the whole significance of his person when used in referential language.
Paul’s interpretive lens of Jesus’ name was likely further shaped by some (not all) of his cohort Pharisees, who challenged the validity of Jesus’ identity (Jn 8:13). They received this response from Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). Their reaction (v.59), as is Paul’s, was understandable because the name they heard correctly in relational language is significant unequivocally of the whole person of God and is distinguished unmistakably as their God, “the LORD alone” (Dt 6:4). The ‘I am’ statement they heard from Jesus is the ‘I am’ relational communication Paul hears from the distinguished Face to his face.
The relational dynamics converging and unfolding in this interaction are insufficient to understand as a mere Christophanic event or as merely a traditional call and even conversion of Paul. Consider what integrally converges with Jesus and Paul in the following: epistemologically, “who are you-I am Jesus”; ontologically, “me-I am”; relationally, “you persecute me-whom you are persecuting.” These are critical relational dynamics to understand for the whole of Jesus presented and for the whole of Paul both entering and emerging from the Damascus road. The whole of Paul entering the Damascus road was not a whole but reduced person, thus signifying the underlying convergence of wholeness and reductionism. What happens in this convergence is an even more dramatic extension of Jesus’ person presented to Levi (discussed in the previous chap.). The circumstances are different but the relational dynamic is the same: the distinguished Face who engaged them Face to face with the good news to be redefined back to ‘inner out’, transformed from their reductionism, and made whole in the primacy of relationship together. How does this unfold for Paul as it did earlier for Levi?
When Paul directly asked “Who are you?” he not only knowingly engaged an epistemic process but unknowingly was connected to the relational epistemic process. How the incarnation was extended to Paul on the Damascus road is important to understand in this process.
The incarnation and the Damascus road converge, within the improbability of the whole of God’s self-disclosure, in both a quantitative-linear progression and a qualitative-reflexive process. In its quantitative-linear progression, the Damascus road is an extension of the incarnation. But it does not, and cannot, end there, or else this aspect of the incarnation becomes merely a historical event, that is, no more than what the main incarnation evokes for many observers: history as a public and accessible event on generally accepted standards of historiography—what one German word refers to for ‘history’, Historie. Paul encountered more than his personal observation of the incarnation. What converged on the Damascus road was more than a historical event but the full qualitative-relational significance embodied by Jesus—similar to the interpretation or significance attributed to historical facts, referred to by a second German word for ‘history’, Geschicte. The significance of God’s story is not the history. That is, God’s story takes place in history and accordingly has historical indicators, but God’s story is not in the details of that history. God’s story involves the whole of God’s relational context and process, in which God’s actions are always relational (e.g. self-disclosure, creation, redemption, salvation) and always for relationship together. This relational process unfolds in the OT into the NT—not the reverse, as interpreted by some biblical theologies. Most certainly, the embodied Word from God did not signify discontinuity with the Hebrew Scripture but rather constituted the continuity of God’s communicative action in relational response to the human condition. Jesus, the embodied Word, was not incompatible with the faith of Abraham and the covenant relationship but in fact compatibly constituted their fulfillment—which he further embodies and fulfills and therefore constitutes into Paul to extend with the Spirit for its completion. To merely use historical indicators for God’s story is incomplete, consequently never sufficient for the whole of God’s story.
Yet what Paul experienced neither should be limited to Historie nor can it be separated from it and reduced merely to Geschicte; to do so would allow Paul to emerge with his own shaping of Jesus and his personal construction of Christianity. In a vital way this interaction paralleled the interaction Jesus had with another Pharisee, Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews (Jn 3:1-15). Jesus made it imperative for Nicodemus, a strict practicing Jew and a teacher of Israel, to be born from above, born anew. This is where epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction are needed, both for Nicodemus as well as for us today. Jesus was not pointing to a new belief system requiring Nicodemus’ conversion. Nicodemus could not grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words because his quantitative lens (phroneo) focused on the person from outer in (“How can anyone be born after…?”), and because his reductionist interpretive framework (phronema) was unable to piece together (synesis) his own Scripture (e.g. “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart,” Dt 30:6). This evidenced that Nicodemus was too influenced by reductionism to understand—“How can these things be?”—even after Jesus said, “Do not be astonished…”, which implied that a teacher of God’s Word would comprehend God’s whole if not fragmented by reductionism. Now the embodied Word from God (whom Nicodemus initially came to engage) made conclusive the epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction essential for Nicodemus, Paul, Jews or Gentiles, for all persons: be made whole from above or continue in reductionism.
What converged for Paul on the Damascus road was not only the historical reality of the risen-embodied Jesus but also the whole of Jesus’ ontology and function: Jesus’ vulnerable presence and intimate relational involvement with the whole of Paul (dedicated Jew, persecutor of the Way as well as Jesus’ person, and a person created in the image of God as well as a reduced person). Wholeness interposed on reductionism.
The vulnerable presence and relational involvement of Jesus’ whole ontology and function likely raised deep conflict for Paul when he heard “I am.” On the one hand, there were the theological assumptions of his cohort Pharisees evidenced above. On the other, the presence of the Face disclosing the name “I am” to Moses could no longer be distinguished from the Face communicating to Paul Face to face. As a result, Paul paid attention to the ontology of “I am” and was engaged further and deeper epistemologically. This necessarily involved a retrospective journey for him in order to compose the whole of Paul who emerged from the Damascus road.
Prior to the Damascus road, Paul’s primary identity was well established in the collective aspect of his retrospective journey with roots even deeper than Moses, going back to Abraham. Paul was a definitive Jew, “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5). Though these roots were instrumental in paying attention to “I am,” Paul needed to go even deeper than this primary identity in order to locate his person. His retrospective journey went further back by necessity to creation, to the origin of the human person defining the roots for his whole person. This is the shared aspect of his journey which Paul shared in common with all human persons—his basic identity. This shared-journey of his person’s basic identity is critical to examine to understand his person. Since Paul’s person was subsequently shaped, defined and determined by his primary identity as a Jew, this deeper introspective was necessary in order to fully understand what was indeed foremost about his person and innermost for his person; and, as a relational epistemic outcome, he would be able to experience who was indeed primary of his person. This process required going deeper than his collective identity as a Jew to involve the roots of his ontological identity—the identity integrating both what as well as who Paul was, and as a result determining how his whole person functioned to be.
As a student of the Jewish Scripture, Paul had access to Scripture and was aware of its content. It is likely then that Paul was familiar with the thoughtful—and no doubt discussion-provoking—question: “What are human beings [enos, persons] that you are mindful of [zakar, think, reflect upon] them, mortals [ben adam, offspring of persons] that you care for them [paqad, positive action of involvement by a superior]?” (Ps 8:4), which Psalm 144:3 echoes (also in Heb 2:6) with the variation “…that you know [yada] the person” and “think of them with esteem [hasab]?” In his cynicism or despair, Job initially had raised the same question from an opposite approach: “What are human persons that you make such a big deal [gadal] of them, that you even focus your heart [leb] on them and are involved [paqad] with them every day…all the time?” (Job 7:17-18, my paraphrase).
On the surface, this question may appear to be about humans but it is actually about God. Yet, though the question was raised in the above contexts with the primary focus pointing to what, who and how God is, it also points secondarily to what the human person is. Pointing to the whole and holy God, the answer rightly defines Yhwh as deeply involved with the human person for the purpose of relationship together, not merely to exercise sovereignty and authority over his creation; and this was Job’s eventual relational conclusion in spite of his debilitating situation and circumstance (Job 42:1-6). What, who and how Yhwh is wholly constitutes this relational involvement with the human person. At the same time, it also helps to know what the human person is to further understand the whole of God’s relational involvement. What each is is intrinsically interrelated. Even though the human person does not constitute God’s relational involvement, the latter constitutes the former wholly in the qualitative image of God for relationship together to be whole in likeness of the whole of God—apart from whom is the human condition. Therefore, what each is is irreducible, and the reduction of either has implications for reducing the other—reducing functionally if not also theologically. Moreover, any such reductionism always includes relational consequences between them due to the counter-relational nature of how reductionism works.
The compelling nature of this question took Paul (as well as takes his readers) back to the origin of his person in order to understand the meaning of the person in full created significance—as well as to understand how subsequently his own person had been reduced from that full significance. By rewinding his shared-journey to the beginning, Paul would recall from the creation narratives that the origin of his person was indeed definitive in his Scripture: the person created in the qualitative image of God—the whole of God increasingly known as the triune God and later as the Trinity—and thus the person composed with a whole ontology from inner out signified by the qualitative function of the heart; therefore this whole person was created with other whole persons in God’s design and purpose for the primacy of relationships together, in order to be whole in likeness of the relational ontology of the triune God (Gen 1:27-28; 2:18,25). This is the theological anthropology made definitive for Paul that by its nature became the functional key for his whole person, and that for his readers becomes a hermeneutical key for understanding the depth of Paul (cf. 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10; Eph 4:24).
This shared-journey of Paul’s person is in part the reason why it is inadequate to attempt to understand Paul only from human contexts such as Judaism (which in itself was diverse, even for Pharisees) and the Greco-Roman world, or even in the early church. There is a deeper context defining and determining Paul only by which Paul’s whole person can be understood—beyond information about a fragmentary Paul narrowed down to referential terms.
This retrospective journey that refocused Paul on the origin of his person would have been difficult for Paul the Jew to face because it gets to the heart of the matter, both theologically and functionally. On the basis of this reality from his own Scripture, he had to examine his life and practice (both collectively and individually) and openly face the difficult reality of his person subsequently shaped, defined and determined by the reductionism in his collective-journey as well as personal-journey. He had invested his whole life to this perceptual-interpretive framework and in this quantitative system of religious practice from outer in, and now he had to account for what he specifically profited from this investment (cf. Phil 3:7-8). The vulnerable presence and relational involvement of the whole of God’s ontology and function exposed his reduced ontology and function.
The ontology of the human person from outer in is always a reduction of the person God created. This reduced person is essentially, at best, an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of the whole person; moreover, any attempt to construct the whole from outer in is analogous to the human effort to construct the whole from bottom-up demonstrated by the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-4). This is not the person God seeks for relationship together. And any such reduction of the person must be understood as the sin of reductionism, not simply positioned against God’s whole but countering the whole of God’s relational involvement—for example by diminishing God’s involvement only to situations and circumstances, and by minimalizing God’s presence only to a particular place or time, as evidenced in much of Israel’s history and his collective-journey. This would emerge as the defining issue underlying Paul’s life and practice.
The heart signifies the unmistakable function of what God seeks: the whole person, nothing less and no substitutes. When God made conclusive to Abraham the terms for covenant relationship together, the Lord appeared to him directly and said clearly in order to constitute Abraham’s relational response: “Walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). That is, “be involved with me in relationship together by being blameless” (tamiym, cf. Gen 6:9). The tendency is to render “blameless” as moral purity and/or ethical perfection, notably in Judaism by observance of the law (cf. 2 Sam 22:23-24). With this lens, even Paul perceived his righteousness as “blameless” (Phil 3:6). Rather tamiym denotes to be complete, whole, and is not about mere moral and ethical purity. Beyond this limited perception, tamiym involves the ontology of being whole, namely the whole person from inner out involved in the primacy of relationship together.
For Paul, this retrospective journey was not about going back merely to his birthright as a descendent of Abraham but more importantly about reclaiming his “creation-right” as the person in full created significance. And what tamiym signified in Paul’s Damascus road experience was indeed the needed epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction from his shared-journey—a journey also shared by all his readers. Any perception of his own blamelessness was an epistemological illusion since his practice only signified an ontological simulation from reductionism, that is, a person functioning only from outer in without accounting for the integrity of his heart (cf. his later theology, Rom 2:28-29). As Paul faced the reductionism in his life and practice, this turned him back to the pivotal juncture of his journey, confronted by Jesus on the Damascus road. From this axis he was now to be introduced to “a new song” emerging from having addressed the thoughtful question earlier (Ps 144:3,9). That is to say unmistakably, as Paul turned around from his reductionist life and practice he would be redefined, transformed and reconciled to God’s whole only on God’s terms, which would constitute the wholeness in his person, practice, thought and theology. This definitive blessing of the face of God is the whole of and from God, who and which previously had eluded Paul—and have continued to elude many of his readers.
Along with tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction from Paul’s shared-journey in retrospect, he experienced personally and directly Jesus’ whole person from inner out made functionally accessible by Jesus vulnerably sharing his heart with Paul. There was a relational dynamic of vulnerability that Paul could not ignore, perhaps reject but not ignore. This went beyond the religious framework of his collective-journey and involved a deeper level than just a belief system. It is on this level that Jesus’ earlier words become indispensable for both Paul and his readers: “Pay attention to what you hear; the interpretive lens you use will be the Jesus you get” (Mk 4:24).
On the Damascus road, the significance of Jesus’ dramatic presentation is less distinguished by sight over sound, and the person Paul vulnerably encountered is better understood as an experience of sound over sight (cf. Acts 9:7). That is, we have to go deeper than a quantitative lens focused on a referential level of transmitting information and get to the qualitative depth of communication in relational language and the relational involvement taking place. A quantitative lens and interpretive framework narrows down the epistemic field to referential terms from outer in, consequently diminishes the whole persons involved (both Jesus and Paul) to fragmentary aspects and minimalizes the relational significance, and therefore primacy, of their qualitative involvement. This becomes the narrowed focus and preoccupation with secondary matters. The qualitative and relational significance of the Damascus road emerge from what is heard more than seen, notably from the mouth of the Face and also with Paul’s words “who are you” having this significance.
When Paul heard Jesus’ words “whom you are persecuting,” this opened Paul to the sounds of wholeness—undetectable as referential language—and relational communication from the whole of God. This was not an opening to mysticism but involved the relational dynamic in which wholeness interposed on reductionism. This process retrospectively indeed reengaged Paul epistemologically to the significance of tamiym and its epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction. Further engagement for Paul was necessary relationally for tamiym’s deeper significance.
The focus on purity, however, was problematic and insufficient for Paul’s further engagement. In Israel’s history purity often was measured functionally by a code shaped by human contextualization, and accordingly focused more on what persons were responsible to do rather than on the primary function of being involved in relationship together (cf. 1 Sam 15:22; Jer 7:22-23; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6-8). When such practice was in effect, this demonstrated a redefinition of human ontology from inner out to outer in, thereby reducing persons to the measured indicators of what they did and had. Moreover, in this reductionist process Israel became more about land and nation-state rather than about a people and covenant relationship together, more about religious culture (e.g. ethnocentricism with quantitative identity markers) and politics (e.g. nationalism) than about relational life and practice (both collective and individual) in the image and likeness of God and having theological significance as God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms. In other words, Israel’s history became the frequent narrative of God’s people diminishing the covenant relationship and getting embedded, even enslaved, in the surrounding human context (cf. Jer 3:10; 12:2; Eze 33:31). This also applied to the tradition of Pharisees during Paul’s time (see Jesus’ penetrating analysis, Mt 15:1-20, cf. the Qumran Essenes’ critique).
These reductions all fragmented the integrated functional and relational significance of tamiym which God made conclusive to constitute Abraham in covenant relationship together. To be “blameless” by its nature must be fully integrated with what and who God seeks to be involved with. Therefore, “blameless” is both inseparable from the qualitative function of the heart and irreducible of the ontology of the whole person from inner out. As a Pharisee who rigorously observed the law, Paul had considered his righteousness to be “blameless” (Phil 3:6). Yet Jesus previously had exposed the reductionist practices of Pharisees of Paul’s day and their underlying ontology of the person from outer in without the significance of the heart (Mt 15:1-20, cf. 5:20). The critical assessment of one’s faith must account for the ontology of the whole person. That is to say, to be blameless is nothing less and no substitutes for being whole as created in the image and likeness of the whole of God. For Abraham, this was the integrated functional and relational significance of his involvement with God signifying his faith, and therefore constituting the necessary relationship together of the covenant on God’s qualitative relational terms.
The incarnation was the fulfillment of the whole of God’s communicative action in relational response to the human condition. The extension of the person Jesus vulnerably presented on the Damascus road was the triune God’s communicative action in relational response to Paul’s condition. Jesus vulnerably expressed his “I am” statement to Paul only as relational communication (albeit confrontational) from God—as were his “I am” statements during the incarnation. Hence Jesus’ “I am” statement must by its nature be understood as relational language. The embodied Word from God, both in the incarnation and on the Damascus road, communicates only in relational language, not in propositional terms using referential language.
The primary purpose of Jesus’ language is always for relational significance, either in positive relational outcomes or negative relational consequences. This was the impact of Jesus’ “I am” on Paul. When he heard “I am Jesus,” Paul must have thought he was being held accountable and judgment was about to come down on him. Yet the significance of Jesus’ relational language was not for a relational consequence but for a relational outcome beyond what Paul could have imagined (cf. 1 Tim 1:13-17).
In referential language, the focus is just on the transmission of information about something or someone. The underlying interpretive framework and lens provide information from an epistemic process which has narrowed down the epistemic field in order to have more certain explanation of the information transmitted. This implies a view and its information from outer in for this certainty. This referential level is not deep enough to detect the sounds of wholeness. In relational language, however, the focus is on the communication of the persons involved in relationship, the terms of which go beyond information and cannot be narrowed down to referential terms even for the sake of certainty. Relational language and terms imply a view from inner out whose communication is both quantitative (content aspect) and qualitative (relational aspect). In this sense, relational language is open-ended rather than narrowed-down, thus the communication is neither complete merely in quantitative terms nor understood merely by its content aspect.
Relational language is simply communication which includes two interrelated levels of meaning: (1) the content aspect of the words themselves, and (2) the relationship aspect which can be expressed verbally or nonverbally, directly or indirectly, usually implied by the words yet a distinct part of the communication. Since relational messages are always attached to the content of messages and help us understand its significance or any deeper meaning the content may have or its message includes, it is consequential not to pay attention to them—as Jesus made conclusive (Mk 4:24). If just the content of messages is considered, the significance of the communication may not be fully understood—notably the relational significance conveying the further and deeper meaning of the communication, as on the Damascus road. The three relational messages—what the person says (1) about oneself, (2) about the other person(s), and (3) about their relationship (all discussed earlier)—integrally qualify the content aspect of the words and the meaning that is being communicated. Therefore, understanding these relational messages from someone can mean the basis for truly knowing that person and also for understanding how to respond back to the person. Not understanding these messages is often the basis for misunderstanding that person and for insufficient, incompatible or inappropriate responses back.
Before the content of Jesus’ other words to Paul can be considered, his “I am” communication must be understood. “I am Jesus” goes beyond just acknowledging his identity to Paul. Who he is cannot be separated or reduced from what and how he is. That is to say, Jesus’ whole person was made vulnerable to be relationally involved in this interaction, and he directly shared that message about himself with Paul. This was the relational message about himself (message 1 above) that qualified the content of his words.
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Technically, Paul could argue that he never persecuted Jesus personally and directly. Jesus, however, communicated that he received Paul’s action “personally and directly.” His words alone indicated that and did not mean “symbolically and indirectly.” Yet his relational message conveys the further and deeper meaning of his communication. This “I am” statement was qualified by the relational message in which Jesus communicated something ontological and relational about himself and his followers. They are God’s whole in the irreducible interdependent relationships together necessary to be in likeness of the relational ontology of the whole of God. What Jesus is ontologically as one of the trinitarian persons constitutes how Jesus is relationally involved with the whole of God’s people, just as Jesus defined in his prayer to the Father (Jn 17:23,26). To persecute any person in God’s whole is to persecute the whole, thereby to persecute Jesus personally and directly (cf. Jn 15:18-23). This is the who, what and how of Jesus’ whole person “whom you are persecuting.” This integrated functional and relational significance of Jesus’ communication points ahead to the development of Paul’s ecclesiology with the metaphor of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12).
There are further relational messages to understand. While Jesus was certainly not releasing Paul of responsibility for his actions, his confrontation of Paul was not as a heretic to be condemned—though Paul belonged to a sect of Judaism (hairesis, Acts 26:5). An isolated message Paul attributed to Jesus, “It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14, cf. Ecc 12:11-12), points to how Jesus defined Paul’s actions as self-defeating, destroying the very significance which can fulfill his faith (cf. his teacher Gamaliel’s conditional statement, Acts 5:39). This opens up the further relational message in Jesus’ “I am” statement of how he saw Paul’s whole person (message 2 above), not just as a person reduced to what he did—even conspicuously against Jesus. Accordingly, this relational message communicates how deeply Jesus felt about Paul as a person, which included how his own person was affected relationally by Paul. Moreover, included in his communication, the additional relational message of what Jesus wanted for their relationship and how much he valued it was also implied (message 3 above). In other words, this relational confrontation by the embodied Word from God was truly the relational response of grace by the whole of God who pursued Paul’s whole person for the only purpose of relationship together. This relational outcome indeed was the relational significance of Jesus’ communication with Paul and the deep impact his “I am” statement had on Paul—which later became the basis for Paul’s Christology.
The embodied Word from God communicated the relational messages composing the integrated relational and functional significance of the gospel, both in this presentation of his person as in the incarnation. What Paul would experience from Jesus was indeed an extension of the relational messages in the incarnation of the Word (cf. a Pauline description, 1 Tim 1:15-16). Yet only the whole of the embodied Word vulnerably communicated from the whole of God for the primacy of relationship together composes the full significance of the gospel. A propositional-didactic Word in referential terms by its nature cannot communicate the relational messages essential to establish the gospel in its integrated relational and functional significance; it only establishes a doctrine of the gospel for propositional truth and certainty of faith, not for the experiential truth of ongoing relationship together. Paul did not encounter that Word, though many of his readers perceive him through that lens. Just as in the incarnation, Jesus’ whole person came to Paul to be personally and directly involved only on a relational basis with relational language, not in propositional terms for a didactic task to transmit information.
The Word from God whom Paul encountered vulnerably communicated “I am” with the full significance of relational messages to establish the qualitative basis required for Paul relationally both to truly know his triune God and to wholly understand how to respond back for the ongoing involvement in new covenant relationship together. And this same Word is whom Paul’s readers need to encounter also, because the same epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction Paul experienced indeed are keys to what Paul wrote in his letters.
Returning to the words Paul heard from the distinguished Face, “It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), Jesus’ use of relational language also refocused Paul on the relational process of God’s communicative action, the words of which cannot be altered (subtracted from or added to) by human shaping and construction in referential terms (cf. Mt 5:17-20; Dt 4:2). Paul was hurting his own person by engaging in this reductionist process, which his Scripture also had warned him against: “The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccl 12:11-12; cf. Jn 5:39). Paul later clearly stopped going up against the goads and relationally responded to the whole of God’s words communicated in relationship (cf. 1 Cor 4:6). Paul’s readers, notably in the academy, are still challenged today by these same words in relational language.
When the Father gave the imperative “Listen to him,” he was focused on the necessity of listening to the conclusive messages communicating the whole of God’s thematic relational action, which the integral person presented by Jesus fulfilled vulnerably through their distinguished relational context and process in the human context. Nothing less and no substitutes of the distinguished Face turned and shined, that is, the whole person and presence of Jesus in irreducible and nonnegotiable relational terms. This is the relational dynamic that further unfolded post-ascension.
And what emerges from the Damascus road is only the relational outcome from the whole of God’s relational dynamic distinguished in the relational context and process of God’s qualitative relational terms. This is the relational dynamic that was extended into Paul and unfolded by him—as Jesus promised to his followers (Jn 14:12)—to pleroo (complete, make whole) the words from God (Col 1:25) and to make definitive the pleroma of Christ (the whole body of Christ, the church, Eph 1:23). In what is characteristic of sight and sound, we can say that Paul was into the ‘sound’ of Jesus—that is, the sound of relational language—and less focused on the ‘sight’ of Jesus. Therefore, Paul became less limited by referential language than the early disciples appeared to be (notably Peter) and more open to understand the qualitative depth of the relational significance of the embodied Word, whose relational context and process are not “seen” but clearly heard (Mt 17:5) when carefully listened to (Lk 8:18; Mk 4:24). Paul’s response to and involvement with Jesus were on this qualitative-relational level and thus relationally involved with the whole of God—whose grace Paul was a prime recipient of (cf. 1 Tim 1:15)—in God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition. Therefore, in this relational epistemic process with the Spirit, Paul’s epistemology shifted from the referential words of Scripture shaped and constructed ‘from below’ to the Word relationally extended ‘from above’. And his life, practice and theology emerging can only be understood as the relational outcome of his vulnerable involvement with the whole of God in this distinguished relational context and process.
In terms of the integrity and quality of Jesus’ communication (the second definitive issue for all practice discussed previously), Paul was into the sound of Jesus’ relational language; and this connected Paul to the depth of Jesus’ relational involvement (the third definitive issue). This provided the epistemological, hermeneutic and functional keys for Paul, which opened the door for the relational dynamic of the whole of Jesus into Paul, therefore defining and determining the person Paul presented.
The integral person and distinguished presence Jesus presented to Paul challenged not only Paul’s theological anthropology but his theological assumptions about God. Even though his assumptions about God were based correctly on the Shema (Dt 6:4), his monotheism was incomplete, not whole. The presence of the whole of God in Face-to-face relationship with Paul changed that for him to compose inseparably the complete Christology and whole monotheism. Yet, it is important for Paul’s readers to understand that Paul’s whole theology was first a functional reality in his life, that is, the relational outcome from ongoingly having his ontology and function defined and determined in wholeness by the distinguished Face in relationship together.
Paul did not emerge from the Damascus road as a fully developed apostle with a complete ready-made theology. As Paul’s journey continues beyond the Damascus road, it is critical that the further reading, interpretation and understanding of Paul (namely in his letters) deeply concern the growth and development of who and what emerged from the Damascus road. What unfolds in Paul’s journey is without the following distinctions: What unfolds is not religious though it includes religion; is not spirituality though it bears spiritual development; is not apostolic though it involves the apostle(s); is not missiological though it involves mission; is not ecclesiastical though it involves the church; is not about ethics though it involves ethics; and is not about doctrine though it involves theology.
Paul was vulnerably engaged by the whole of God and as a result he vulnerably engaged God for ongoing involvement in the relational progression of God’s whole relational context and process—the relational dynamic of God’s thematic action from the beginning. Therefore, Paul’s journey must not be reduced to these other referential aspects which appear to prominently occupy Paul’s life and practice. Likewise, his whole person must not be reduced to the prominent roles and related functions he fulfilled in these aspects. Paul’s readers, in other words, cannot redefine the whole of Paul by a quantitative framework with a referential lens diminishing him to fragmentary aspects, however important, and expect to understand his life, practice, thought and theology. Paul’s journey develops only on the basis and with the significance of what emerged in his person from the Damascus road.
The relational process and outcome of Paul’s ongoing vulnerable involvement with the whole of God in Face-to-face relationship was summarized by Paul frequently in his shorthand relational language ‘in Christ’ (e.g. 1 Cor 1:30). Based both on his relational engagement to wholeness by the person and presence Jesus presented and on his ongoing involvement in the relational epistemic process with the whole of God for whole understanding (synesis), Paul had no illusions about his person and emphasized epistemic humility: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31). Paul learned the hard lesson that to define one’s person based on, for example, what role one performs or what resources one has is a reductionist theological anthropology diminishing the wholeness of God and thus relationship together (1 Cor 1:28-29). This was Paul’s urgent theme to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 1:12-13; 3:4; 4:6; 2 Cor 10:12,17). And the basic issue raised for Paul’s readers (past and present) revolves around the question: Is our God a referential God in fragmentary terms (1 Cor 1:13a) or the relational God in wholeness (1 Cor 14:33a)? This basic issue was critical for Paul in the Jesus he presented and in the monotheism he maintained. The whole of Jesus could not be understood in fragmentary terms and the whole of God could be known only as the God of wholeness, not as a God of fragmentation.
Paul’s warning of exceeding “what is written” and his repeated emphasis on boasting from Jeremiah 9:24 are significant for distinguishing the whole of Paul and the whole in this thought and theology. What the LORD declared in the context of these relational words first exposes boasting (halal) from a fragmentary theological anthropology that defines the human person from outer in (Jer 9:23,25-26), which Paul took to heart to redefine his own person and faith (Phil 3:4-8; Rom 2:28-29). Accordingly, the focus of such boasting also reduced God to referential terms, for example, narrowing down God’s deliverance merely to situations (i.e. saved from) and the law to a mere code of behavior—including worship behavior of praise, glorifying, rejoicing and celebrating (halal, cf. hallelujah) before God without the function of the heart (cf. Isa 29:13). The primary focus of the LORD in relational language, however, is on God’s whole ontology and function: the whole of God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement Face to face in human contexts, engaged in the relational work (‘asah) of distinguished love (hesed), who can be counted on to be who and what God is (sedaqah) and how God is (mispat, 9:24). Based on these relational terms of the whole of God’s relational dynamic—not reduced to God’s attributes in referential terms—boasting and worshipping are constituted whole (cf. tamiym) and signify wholeness (cf. shalom) conclusively by the following condition: “that they understand (sakal, cf. synesis) and know (yada, cf. epignosis) me, that I am.” Jesus extended this relational condition deeper into the whole of God’s relational context and process (Jn 17:3), which also exposed reductionist approaches to the words from God only in referential terms (Jn 5:39; Lk 11:52). Paul turned from the latter and only the former is the key distinguishing his person, even as a Jew. This was the ongoing relational outcome for the whole of Paul from inner out—and hence the nature and significance of his boast only in relational terms (cf. 2 Cor 11:7-10)—that determined the whole ontology and function of the person he presented both for himself and for Jesus.
If Paul’s readers are to go beyond merely having information about Paul and his Jesus, then they need to engage them further than human contextualization and locate them in the deeper context that defined their whole person and determined how they function in wholeness. This necessitates, on the one hand, a compatible theological anthropology that pays attention to the whole person from inner out in the primacy of relationship. Anything less will be incompatible for the relational outcome of whole understanding (synesis) of the person from inner out. Any substitutes will be incompatible for involvement in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit to specifically know (epignosis) the whole person, not merely information about the person. To emphasize, this does not shift Paul’s readers from rationalism to existentialism but rather gets beyond these frameworks in order to engage openly in the qualitative and relational significance of God’s self-disclosures in the persons of Jesus and Paul. And synesis of the person from inner out and epignosis the whole person are requisite for the synthesis of their persons.
What emerged from the Damascus road for both Paul and his Jesus essentially does not exceed what converged there. Yet how Jesus and Paul are perceived shapes what converged, and in this manner determines what emerged. If who converged were just historical subjects, then who emerged are limited to their historical contexts. If who converged were referential objects to be observed in the text, what emerges never exceeds those referential terms. It is more than problematic for Paul’s readers to be limited to human contextualization and constrained by referential terms, because neither of these positions can adequately define who and what converged and consequently are insufficient to determine who and what emerged.
The Jesus in post-ascension on the Damascus road is inseparable from the Jesus in the incarnation in human contexts, therefore is irreducible from his whole person in and from the beginning. The Paul converging on the Damascus road is inseparable from his roots, and therefore is irreducible from the person created in the image of God, constituted by the whole of who converged with Paul. Yet Paul entered the Damascus road as a reduced person whose function and faith were fragmentary. Congruent with the whole person Jesus presented to others in human contexts, his whole person and Paul’s reduced person were who converged; accordingly, it is critical also to understand that wholeness and reductionism are what converged, just as evidenced in the incarnation. The convergence of who and what in human contexts resulted in either relational consequences (diminished, distant or broken relationship) with Jesus, or in the relational outcome of whole relationship together. Paul certainly did not experience a relational consequence with Jesus. The relational outcome that emerged, however, can only be determined by the depth of relational involvement of who and what converged. In other words, who and what emerged with Paul did not exceed who and what converged.
A complete christological account of the Jesus who converged with Paul is not gained from referential observation of the narrative and critical interpretation of the text. If the embodied Word was indeed communicative action relationally extended from above, we need to step away from our primary position ‘in front of the text’, and move out from any likely security pursued ‘behind the text’, and then to be vulnerably involved ‘in the text’ in order to engage compatibly the Word in the relational epistemic process. As the epistemological, hermeneutical and functional keys, the person and presence Jesus presented opens the door to the whole of God in relational terms just to understand and know God in whole relationship together, not for referential information about God. In this convergence, Paul’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction turned him away from his primary position ‘in front of’ what was written and from the referential words shaped from below in order to receive the Word relationally extended from above. The relational outcome that emerged from Paul did not exceed who converged and what Paul listened to: “Where are you?” “What are you doing here?” “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” “Listen, and I will speak” “Listen to my Son.” “Pay attention to how you listen,” and “pay attention to what you hear; the measure you use will be the Jesus you get.”
For Paul, the Jesus who converged with him defined the measure Paul used for both the Jesus he got and his Jesus who emerged. The relational dynamic of the incarnation for Paul was signified in his relational language with the phrase “the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), which is commonly rendered merely to referential terms. The whole of Jesus’ person and presence constituted “the word of Christ” for Paul and why he made ongoing relational involvement with the Word essential for the church as God’s family in wholeness (Col 3:15-16). Paul was not writing about the referential word about Christ embedded in propositional teachings, but only the relational word of Jesus’ whole person and presence who vulnerably embodied God’s communicative action in relational response to the human condition: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). This is who converged with and constituted the whole of Paul and the wholeness emerging from the Damascus road and unfolding with Paul, as evidenced in his definitive ontology and function for the new creation family of God (Col 3:10-17). Jesus’ person, presence and relational involvement are the whole word of Christ in relational terms on whom Paul focused in his corpus, rather than the referential content of Jesus’ words and teachings. This I affirm speaks to why Paul’s corpus lacks those quantitative aspects; his corpus is instead complete with the qualitative depth of Jesus’ person and presence—the whole of whom Paul could boast of understanding and knowing (as in Jer 9:24; 1 Cor 1:31), yet only because of whole relationship together.
In Paul’s corpus Jesus was not a mere referential figure in his thought and theology. Paul never constructed a theology on a referential Jesus, based on and/or supported by various references to Jesus’ sayings and teachings—somewhat like an academic study today. Jesus conclusively defined and determined whole ontology and function. Namely, the person and presence of Jesus constituted the whole of God, the pleroma (fullness, complete, whole) of God for Paul (Col 1:19; 2:9) and his whole person and presence, along with the Spirit, constituted the whole of Paul to pleroo (to complete, make whole) the communicative word of God (Col 1:25). For Paul, nothing less and no substitutes would be the whole who converged with him and the wholeness necessary to emerge to constitute Paul, his Jesus, his gospel and the communicative word of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition. And if Paul’s readers will listen to the sound of his relational language and not merely depend on their sight of referential words, there will be further and deeper understanding of the relational dynamic synthesizing Jesus into Paul and of his wholeness which emerged.
In relational terms of wholeness, who emerged from the Damascus road also was not a converted Jew but a transformed Jew. This differentiation is vital to distinguish the whole of Paul who relationally functioned conjointly in human contexts and God’s context, with the latter his primary determinant. When we put together the various segments of God’s thematic relational action and Paul’s journey to the Damascus road, their integration is the relational outcome of his person redefined from outer in back to inner out, transformed from his reductionism, and made whole in the primacy of relationship together as God’s new covenant family—all congruent with Judaism’s faith as enacted with tamiym, and consequently incompatible with any reductionism of its practitioners and practices. In Paul’s relational response to the whole of Jesus, he neither simply converted to a new religion (as assumed by traditional Pauline studies) nor changed (“converted”) to another variation of Judaism (as assumed by a new Paul perspective). While not a conversion, the relational significance of Paul’s response did redefine his collective identity from ‘majority Israel’ to ‘minority Israel’, as he later theologically clarified (Rom 2:28-29; 11:1-32). Moreover, on the basis of tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction, as well as the Face’s definitive blessing of shalom, it is incorrect to say that Paul was only called and commissioned on the Damascus road to fulfill the mission to all nations. By no means could Paul serve as light to the nations without tamiym; nor could he work for shalom while engaging in reductionism. It is simply inadequate to explain and misleading to suggest Paul’s Damascus road experience as a shift in beliefs, understanding or mission. A conversion or call is insufficient understanding of these relational dynamics and is inadequate to define the whole person emerging from the Damascus road. Even more so, such interpretation becomes a distortion when shaped by a reductionist interpretive lens focused outer in.
In the relational dynamic unfolding on the Damascus road, what was happening in Paul’s response was qualitative not quantitative. Paul was not converted from the outer in, he was transformed from inner out (cf. 2 Cor 3:18). This was a vital distinction between the quantitative change from outer in of syschematizo/metaschematizo and the qualitative change from inner out of metamorphoo, which Paul later made imperative for redemptive change (Rom 12:2). Paul’s previous life and practice clearly signified outward conformity (syschematizo), and he turned around to go beyond mere outer-in change (metaschematizo) to experience only the qualitative change from inner out (metamorphoo) of his whole person. In other words, Damascus road was not about Paul’s conversion; it was the experiential truth (not a doctrine) of Paul’s reconciliation of his whole person with the whole of God to be made whole from above (as Nicodemus was challenged earlier), thereby only God’s whole on God’s qualitative relational terms. And tamiym had become both Paul’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction as well as what also newly defined his person (whole ontology) and determined his practice (whole function), therefore the definitive blessing of shalom for new relationship together in wholeness.
If whole understanding (synesis) of who emerged eludes us, then certainly the person Paul further presented will be incomplete, distorted or contextualized just by human shaping to his readers. This includes both the Jesus he presents as well as his own person presented to others. And this has further implications for what emerged, rendering his corpus merely to referential terms which narrows down his thought and theology to fragmentary aspects lacking coherence, and thus without wholeness. This is not who and what emerged.
On the basis of Paul’s response to what he heard (as noted above), Paul was able to further respond to Jesus. That is, the relational significance of Paul’s response composed the functional significance of Paul’s further response to the communication of Jesus’ other words on the Damascus road: his obedience, in relational response to the whole of Jesus’ call and relational message to be vulnerably involved together with him in further relational response to the human condition of reductionism apart from God’s whole (Acts 9:6; 22:10; 26:15-18). Obedience to God must by its nature be a function of relational involvement; otherwise obedience becomes rendered to some reductionist function defining what a person does, for example, merely out of duty or obligation without any deeper relational significance in response to God (cf. Gal 5:3). That type of obedience could not signify the change Paul was experiencing. What emerged from Paul’s obedience was only the outworking of his relational response to and ongoing relational involvement with the whole of God—namely to the whole of Jesus’ person and presence and notably with the Spirit.
Moreover, it is important to understand in the development of who and what emerged, that Paul was not only vulnerably engaged by God’s relational context on the Damascus road of human contextualization but he also reciprocally engaged God’s distinguished relational context by his own ongoing vulnerable involvement in God’s whole relational process. The primacy of his relational involvement with the whole of God necessarily was made functional even from within his human contexts by what can be defined as the process of reciprocating contextualization:
The ongoing relational involvement with God in the trinitarian relational context solely on God’s terms for reciprocal relationship together; in this relational context of ongoing reciprocal interaction, engagement in human contexts is defined on this basis and thereby primarily determined by God in order to be God’s whole, live whole together, and thus to make whole in the world.
Jesus made this process evident ongoingly in the person he presented in human contexts (e.g. at the wedding in Cana, discussed in the previous chap.). And in a notable human context, Paul shared how his own condition and circumstance were used by God specifically to help him deal with the lure of reductionism to keep from crossing that line (2 Cor 12:7-10). Briefly, this involved “a thorn in my flesh” that served to nurture his development of wholeness in God’s relational context and process and to help him avoid functioning in reductionism by defining his person from outer in by what he had—a condition defining him as less. By the process of reciprocating contextualization Paul was chastened for any engagement in ontological simulation from reductionism. The Lord’s response helped Paul’s person and their relationship not to be reduced by human terms and shaping, consequently not to be distant or fragmented as outer-in function signifies. That would be the relational consequence of reductionism’s counter-relational work based on reducing human persons to outer-in definition by what they have and do, which diminishes relationships accordingly.
Without the primacy of God’s relational context for reciprocal contextualization, we are left with only the influence and shaping from human contextualization, which in itself has been influenced and shaped by reductionism. It is an insurmountable challenge to recognize the source of this influence and shaping unless we have God’s whole (from top-down self-disclosure) for orientation in the process of reciprocating contextualization. Reductionism essentially reverses this process from the bottom-up by giving primacy to human contextualization both to define and determine human ontology from outer in and relationships accordingly, as well as to construct knowledge of God in order to effectively counter God’s whole. This was demonstrated in the three relational tests of Jesus, as discussed in the previous chapter.
This process of reciprocating contextualization functionally determined Paul’s person, practice, thought and theology. Therefore ‘the historical Paul’ seen within human contextualization in the canonical texts is also ‘the relational Paul’ in God’s relational context and process composing God’s revealed Word, which further made definitive God’s whole to him to additionally compose the significance of ‘the theological Paul’. The historical Paul, relational Paul and theological Paul converge and emerge in the text of God’s Word by reciprocating contextualization to define and determine the whole of Paul’s person and witness (who emerged), and the whole in his thought and theology (what emerged). And the historical, relational and theological Paul must be integrally accounted for by Paul’s readers in order to boast with him of understanding and knowing the whole of God, with nothing less and no substitutes.
 See 4QNah 1:2,7; 2:2-3; 3:3,8.
 This is McGilchrist’s essential description of the brain’s activity in the left hemisphere. The Master and his Emissary.
©2012 T. Dave Matsuo