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The Whole of Paul & the Whole in His Theology
Theological Interpretation in Relational Epistemic Process

Paul Study

Section I   The Journey of Paul's Person               printer friendly pdf version of entire study

Chapter 2       Paul's Journey Begins and Emerges



The Journey Begins

The Journey Emerges

      Whom Paul Encountered
The Nature of the Interaction
Paul's Response to the Embodied Word



Table of Contents

Scripture Index


            Since I discovered Paul on the Damascus road, it would seem logical to start discussing his journey from that time. Yet a larger context is important to frame the whole of Paul who emerged from the Damascus road. What happened to Paul on that road locates unequivocally the pivotal juncture of his journey, where he encounters the Light embodied in the Word from God and when his journey converges with the pivot of all human history, Jesus. Before his journey could shift forward from this axis, however, it first needed to swing back. For Paul, this essentially evoked a retrospective journey to give further context to his life and practice. That is, his journey (including both collective and shared) had to rewind not only through his life just prior to the Damascus road but also in fact rewind further back through Abraham all the way to creation. The whole of Paul’s journey originated at creation, and this retrospective journey is necessary for further context to fill the gap in his journey. It is only from this point of origin that the journey of Paul’s person has meaning and that the subsequent shaping of his person can be understood. Moreover, this retrospective journey is necessary to further understand what fully happened to Paul on the Damascus road, and to grasp what emerged, developed and matured as a result of this pivotal juncture.

            These next three chapters in this section examine the whole of Paul’s journey, with expanded discussion of specific aspects of his practice, thought and theology throughout this study.




The Journey Begins



            Details of Paul’s biography are very sketchy and we have only general references to his life prior to the Damascus road. From a partial rewind of Paul’s collective-journey, we do know from his roots back to Abraham the following: From childhood Paul was certainly foremost a part of Israel (“the tribe of Benjamin”) and a Jew (“a Hebrew of Hebrews”) to the core as signified by observance of torah (“a Pharisee,” Phil 3:5), who was educated strictly according to the law of their fathers (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5), and perhaps advanced to the top of his class (Gal 1:14). Yet, to go even deeper than this primary identity for Paul, we need to rewind further back to creation to locate the origin where Paul was first a human person. This is the shared-journey which Paul shared in common with all human persons. It is the shared-journey of this person who—as the Paul subsequently shaped, defined and determined by the above details—needed to grasp the meaning of what was indeed foremost about his person, and as a result would be able to experience who was indeed primary of his person. This necessitated going deeper than his collective identity to involve the roots of his ontological identity—the identity integrating both what as well as who Paul was.

            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. 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.

            Reflecting on this question swung Paul (as well as swings his readers) back to the origin of his person in order to grasp 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: 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 constituted 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). 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. 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.  

            This retrospective journey that focused Paul on the origin of his person must 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 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, and now he had to account for what he profited from this investment (cf. Phil 3:7-8). Surely he recalled “Circumcise your heart” (Dt 10:16), and that “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendents, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Dt 30:6). Did this describe him, wasn’t he dedicated in his faith-practice? As a Pharisee, was he not blameless before God—rigorously observing purity law to the letter? Could he not then assume the same covenant as Abraham and claim his birthright as his descendent? Yes and no.

            Given the theological basis for the gospel which Paul later makes conclusive in his Romans letter, he apparently questioned strongly the validity of his own participation in the collective-journey from Abraham (Rom 2:28-29, cf. Jn 8:39-40). This was not about the dedication or even sincerity of his faith-practice. Rather, where indeed was Paul’s heart in his life and practice? The heart signifies the ontology of the person from inner out. Thus the heart signifies the qualitative function of the whole person, the qualitative nature of which has been created in the image of God. The heart’s inner-out function of the whole person is what and who God seeks to be involved with for relationship together (see Ps 40:6-8; Isa 29:13, cf. Mt 15:7-9). David understood this and thus prayed for this inner-out function for God’s people (1 Chron 29:16-18), of which Paul had to be aware. The Psalmist also asked the Lord to “judge me…according to the integrity that is in me” (Ps 7:8). ‘Integrity” (tom) is an inner-out function denoting completeness, fullness, which Paul also had to examine in his life and practice.

            In contrast, the person based on an ontology from outer in is signified by less substantive function measured primarily in quantitative terms, by which the person is defined by what one does and/or has—for example by circumcision, observing food laws and the Sabbath (Israel’s identity markers), or by quantity of words and mere forms of worship without the substance of the heart (as Isaiah noted in the above prophesy). In such function the heart remains distant, detached or even closed, thus rendering the most significant aspect of the person uninvolved. A person defined and determined by this quantitative function becomes fragmented into these measured indicators or parts; these parts, even their sum, are insufficient to account for the whole person as created in the image of God. Therefore 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. 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).” The tendency is to render “blameless” as moral purity and/or ethical perfection (cf. Gen 6:9), 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). Yet 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.

            The focus on purity, however, was problematic. In Israel’s history purity often was measured functionally by a code shaped by human contextualization, and thus 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 corporate 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; Ez 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[1]).

            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 relational terms.

            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. 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 reconciled to God’s whole only on God’s terms, which would constitute the wholeness in his person, practice, thought and theology. This is the whole of and from God, who and which previously had eluded Paul—and have continued to elude many of his readers.




The Journey Emerges



            The whole of and from God would otherwise have continued to elude Paul if they were not based on what converged and emerged in his journey. What Paul “discovered” in his retrospective journey and now experiences upon returning to the pivotal juncture of his journey on the Damascus road is the defining issue underlying his life and practice: the vital issue of reductionism versus God’s whole. This issue involves the functional dynamics of reductionism as sin signifying the workings of the human relational condition to be apart from God’s whole, thus impacting all relationships.

            Paying attention to or ignoring the presence of reductionism, its counter-relational work and its substitutes for the whole—even in the practice of faith prevailing in the faith-community—is directly correlated to the existing view of sin. A limited or weak view of sin, for example, connotes simply overt acts in terms of moral and ethical impurity, with a quantitative focus on the person from outer in. This suggests a perceptual-interpretive lens whose perceptions of sin are influenced or shaped by the very reductionism that it needs to pay attention to and cannot ignore. Part of tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction for Paul addressed his lens regarding sin which had limited his perception, perhaps distorted it. Faced with the reality of reductionism in his life and practice, Paul could not ignore his participation in the human relational condition of being apart from God’s whole. In spite of his faith-practice, this is the condition which Paul unmistakably came to realize. Beyond simply being contextually embedded, Paul learned he was in the condition of being functionally enslaved. Paul therefore would pay attention to his need for redemptive change and reconciliation to God’s whole.



Whom Paul Encountered


            How did this process emerge for Paul on the Damascus road? This was when he encountered the Light relationally embodied in the Word from God (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:9-18), which Paul later identified conclusively (2 Cor 4:6). It is important in this first encounter to distinguish between the embodied Word and the propositional-didactic Word. The embodied Word is vulnerably from God only for the primacy of relationship together, while the propositional-didactic Word becomes only about God for the primary purpose of doctrine and related teachings; the former is whole, the latter is fragmentary and thus a reduction. Whom Paul encountered on the Damascus road defined the Jesus he will focus on in his letters, as well as determined the Christology in his thought and theology. Likewise, whom Paul’s readers perceive that he encountered on the Damascus road will also primarily define and determine for them Paul’s Christ and his gospel. This points ahead to the issue in his letters of Paul’s near lack of reference to Jesus’ teaching, which we will discuss later.

            As the relationally-embodied Word from God, the first matter we need to understand about the Damascus Christophany is that it was an extension of the incarnation. That is, it was a synopsis of God’s most vulnerable self-disclosure with the same relational significance, which Paul later conclusively clarified theologically (Col 1:15-23). Whether Paul encountered Jesus previously during his earthly ministry is not known, but this was Paul’s confrontation by the embodied Jesus revealing the whole of God. Moreover, God’s engagement was not through a vision or dream but, just as with Moses, was communication “face to face” (Nu 12:6-8, cf. Acts 22:14-15). Apparently Paul was not threatened by this embodiment of the Word as were some other Jews (notably fellow Pharisees) during Jesus’ ministry. Though startled by the Light “from heaven, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13), as a student of Jewish Scripture Paul was certainly familiar with theophanies (epiphanies) to realize that this was a critical moment from the Lord. His recent experience with Stephen’s theophany (Acts 7:55-58; 22:20) likely added to his suspense. Yet, no doubt, the monotheist Paul must have been confused by the triune God disclosed before him.



The Nature of the Interaction


            After whom Paul first encountered had been established, what next transpired in this interaction is critical for understanding what fully emerged from this pivotal juncture in Paul’s journey. Up to that point Paul had made an extreme commitment (fueled by rage, emmainomai, Acts 26:11) to oppose, persecute and destroy everyone associated with the Way and the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 22:4-5; 26:9-11; Gal 1:13). When Paul asked then of his inquisitor “Who are you, Lord?,” the response back likely shocked him: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Paul asked the correct question “Who?,” not “What are you accusing me of?” Yet this was no inquisition by Jesus, it was a confrontation, a relational confrontation. What Paul would learn from his retrospective journey was that his opposition to Jesus had less to do with Judaism and was actually rooted in reductionism. Thus what was about to happen to Paul was indeed fully compatible with the faith of Abraham and the covenant relationship.

            Essentially, this relational confrontation by the embodied Word from God contextualized Paul in the incarnation, and thus in the relational context and process of God’s thematic action for covenant relationship. As in the incarnation, this Christophany was not merely about Jesus as historical Object—formulated into teachings to follow, and formalized into propositional truths and doctrines—but more importantly was about Jesus as Subject to be reciprocally involved with for relationship together. The embodied Truth was only for the experiential truth of relationship, for which Jesus also had made himself vulnerably accessible to his disciples in the incarnation (Jn 14:6-9).

            The incarnation was the fulfillment of the whole of God’s communicative action in relational response to the human condition. This Christophany 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—just like his “I am” statements during the incarnation. Thus Jesus’ “I am” statement must by its nature be understood as relational language. The embodied Word from God, both in the incarnation and this Christophany, communicates only in relational language, not in propositional terms.

            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).

            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.[2] 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. 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. In the relational aspect level of meaning in communication, a person conveys messages about the following aspects:


  1. What that person is saying about one’s own self.

  2. What that person is communicating about the other person(s), for example, how one sees them or feels about them.

  3. What that person is saying about one’s relationship with the other, how one sees it or feels about it.


These relational messages qualify the content aspect of the words and the meaning that is being communicated. Thus, understanding these relational messages from someone can mean the basis for truly knowing that person and also for grasping 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, thus 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 apparently attributed to Jesus, “It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), suggests perhaps that 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 points to the further relational message in Jesus’ “I am” statement of how he saw Paul’s whole person (message 2 above), not a person reduced merely to what he did—even notably against Jesus. Thus this relational message communicates how deeply Jesus felt about him 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 constituting the integrated relational and functional significance of the gospel, both in this Christophany 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). Only the embodied Word vulnerably communicated from the whole of God for the primacy of relationship together constitutes the full significance of the gospel. A propositional-didactic Word 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.

            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 grasp how to respond back for the ongoing involvement in 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.



Paul’s Response to the Embodied Word


            As Paul received and understood Jesus’ “I am” communication (both content and relational aspects of meaning), what was his response back to Jesus, to his whole person, that is, to the whole of God? 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 functional 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. In a vital way this interaction paralleled the interaction Jesus had with another Pharisee, Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews (see 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.

            As in the incarnation with persons like Nicodemus, Paul’s Christophany must be understood as face-to-face engagement (a relational dynamic of vulnerability) with the experiential Truth, not discourse of propositional truth. We can only speculate whether Paul ever heard about Nicodemus’ interaction with Jesus. If he had received counsel from this leading Pharisee, it obviously did not make an impact on Paul; then again a seed could have been planted. Regardless, Paul’s response would be to this same embodied Word for the relational outcome to be made whole in relationship together with the triune God. His response would not be a conversion to a new religion or doctrine. This needs more explanation.

            Certainly the notion of being “born again” is rooted in Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus. And many of Paul’s readers use the term conversion to describe this pivotal juncture in Paul’s life. Yet born-again conversion is misleading. Conversion—notably as the notion has been variously defined and even more widely practiced—is insufficient to understand what happened to Paul’s person, as well as to fully explain his practice, thought and theology. While parts of the text in John 3:1-21 have been used as an evangelistic paradigm for salvation, it would be misleading to apply the notion to Paul—not to mention reducing the full significance of Jesus’ relational response to Nicodemus.

            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. Jesus was incompatible, however, with reductionism, with the fragmenting of God’s whole, and with substituting being whole (tamiym) with the human shaping and construction from below. Yet, indeed, the whole of “God so loved the world” was only to relationally respond to human persons in order to be “made whole from above” in relationship together, not to consign them to their reductionism (Jn 3:17). And Paul was in this vulnerability-dynamic face to face with who essentially became for Paul “the embodied paradox”: He who was the continuity of Paul’s Scripture and the compatibility of Paul’s faith united with him who was the discontinuity of Paul’s interpretive framework and the incompatibility of Paul’s practice.

            The Word’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction essentially confined Paul to his reductionism, yet did not consign him to it. He would either continue in that reality of reductionism or respond to the experiential Truth to be made whole from above. As his response Paul neither 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). This common perception of conversion is misleading but is even more distorted with its primary shaping by reductionism—namely by a quantitative framework with a human ontology from outer in. Moreover, on the basis of this epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction, it is incorrect to say that Paul was only called and commissioned on the Damascus road to fulfill the mission to all the nations. Paul could not serve as a light to the nations without tamiym; he could not work for shalom while engaging in reductionism. It is simply inadequate to explain Paul’s Damascus road experience as a shift in beliefs, understanding and mission.

            Paul could not ignore also the ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of reductionism present in his life and practice, which he later fully understood (cf. Phil 3:4-8). Though a later Pauline review of his pre-Damascus road actions appeared to absolve him of his responsibility (1 Tim 1:13), Paul did not deny his incompatibility, incongruity and conflict with the embodied Word from the God both of his forefather Abraham and of his created person. Paul knew he was not blameless and his sin was the sin of reductionism. This was the functional reality of Paul’s condition, essentially the human condition apart from God’s whole. Thus, the epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction penetrated Paul’s interpretive lens and framework into his heart: be made whole from above or continue in reductionism.

            The whole of God pursued only Paul’s whole person from inner out, nothing less and no substitutes. Jesus was looking vulnerably face to face into Paul’s heart (perhaps as Ps 139:1,23-24 echoed in Paul’s mind, cf. Rom 8:27; Rev 2:23). Perhaps also, Paul was stunned by the flash realization from another Psalm that his practice had been “in vain” (saw’, Ps 127:1-2), that is, insubstantial, without significance to God, only a human construction from outer in, bottom-up. Assuming that, Paul could also have been convicted of Ezekiel’s words from exile, which involved turning back to the point of departure (sub, Ez 18:30-31). Paul was not only engaged by the relational dynamic of vulnerability, he was now engaging it with his whole person. In response Paul did not convert, he turned around, that is, repented (which Paul later clarified theologically, Rom 2:4, cf. 2 Pet 3:9). The embodied Word used Ananias (a disciple and devout Jew, Acts 9:10-16; 22:12-16) to help Paul in this process, in what can be considered comparable to John the Baptist’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). Yet much more was involved than that—beyond what Nicodemus could grasp in quantitative terms and what even Abraham could have anticipated in qualitative terms (Acts 13:24-25; 19:4).

            The relational dynamics are the key to understanding Paul’s response. Paul turned from reductionism for the redemptive change necessary for the relationship together to be made whole from above. Just as his forefather Abraham responded, Paul’s whole person here responded relationally to the same relational response of grace now embodied from God—responding with the same relational faith for the same covenant relationship together. 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).

            In this relational process, 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 syschematizo/metaschematizo and the qualitative 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, thus only God’s whole on God’s 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, indeed, Paul received God’s definitive blessing of wholeness (Num 6:24-26), the same as Abraham and all tamiym with him (cf. Ps 119:1). In the integrated relational and functional significance of this blessing, “by turning his face to you and giving you peace,” the whole of God relationally responded in grace to Paul in order to “bring change and establish a new relationship [a meaning of siym, “give”] together in wholeness (shalom).” In its further significance, this was the experiential truth of the relational progression of God’s thematic relational action of grace, the relational outcome of which also transformed Paul into “the new song” (pointed to earlier in Ps 144:9, cf. Ps 40:3; Rev 5:9-10): that is, the new creation made whole from above for further and deeper covenant relationship together (as Paul testified, 2 Cor 5:17-18; Gal 6:15; Rom 6:4; Eph 4:22-25; Col 3:9-11).

            This relational outcome of Paul’s whole person is who emerges from his journey on the Damascus road. This experiential truth is the basis for what emerges and unfolds in Paul’s life, practice, thought and theology. From this experiential truth, for example, in his Galatians letter Paul will establish the functional clarity of the truth and whole of the gospel from any alternatives of reductionism, and thus to be distinguished from any alternative gospels. In Romans, Paul will make definitive the theological basis for the truth and whole of the gospel, thus providing the theological clarity necessary to be integrated with the functional clarity in Galatians to constitute the truth and whole of the gospel only as the whole of God’s relational context and process in response of grace to the human condition. All of this unfolds of course only because it was first Paul’s experiential truth with the embodied whole of God.

            Moreover, the relational significance of Paul’s response constituted the functional significance of Paul’s further response to the content of Jesus’ other words on the Damascus road: obedience, in relational response to the embodied Word’s call to be vulnerably involved with him also in 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 from 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 embodied Word and notably with the Spirit.

            The journey of Paul’s whole person emerged on this basis and with this significance, and this person must be accounted for to wholly understand Paul. Anything less and any substitute of this person’s life, practice, thought and theology by his readers can only be defined by Paul himself as reductionism.

            We continue in the next two chapters to the development and maturity of Paul’s journey on the basis and with the significance of what emerged in Paul’s person.




[1] See 4QNah 1:2,7; 2:2-3; 3:3,8.

[2] For a discussion of the conceptual dynamics of human communication, see Paul Watzlawick, Janet Helmick Beavin and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967).



©2010 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.


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