There has been much scholarly argument in recent years (as there always is) surrounding the apostle Paul’s post-resurrection encounter with the Christ and whether or not his experience is best described as a conversion or as a calling into the ministry. More specifically, the argument has been centrally focused on the definition of conversion as going from one religion to another over that of Paul being called into the ministry. This may seem unimportant; however, the discussion is of great significance because what occurs within the ivory-tower eventually makes its way, now sooner than later, into consumer books and group bible-study where the topic often gets distorted through the postmodern practice of subjectivity without any research to back it up. For this reason alone, it is vital that those, at the academic level strive, through the gifts given by the Spirit of critical thinking, for the most accurate interpretation possible.
Paul’s theophany experience with the risen savior in Acts 9:1-19 is best described as both a conversion and a calling. In other words, the emphasis should not be placed on one over the other rather both should be equally valued. Admittedly, this is the middle-ground-view that scholars, perhaps for reasons of stubborn pride, cannot argue their way to the center in order to find resolution in the discussion. However, in regard to Paul’s relationship with Judaism, perhaps it is wise not to embrace the extremities by saying either Paul remained a devout Jew with a new message and he “did not” switch religions or to argue in opposition that his reinterpretation of Torah was so radical that it eventually created a new pattern of religion. First and foremost, Paul did not create anything new, such as the “new pattern of religion” that has been argued. The new pattern of religion began with the mission and message of Jesus Christ, which is evident in the four gospels. Paul, like the other apostles, was called to play a vital role in the continuing story of the revealed Messiah and because Paul was not showing any signs of moving towards Christianity, some kind of conversion had to occur. In other words, Paul’s calling necessitated conversion, regardless of what definition one provides for the word conversion, such as the new “modern” definition that defines conversion as moving from one community over to another, which Paul, most absolutely did. So, a good portion of the argument, should be deemed as unsound on the grounds that all the apostles experienced both a conversion and a calling (and not specifically in that order, which is an entirely different argument). In light of this, then, Paul’s experience cannot be seen as one without the other rather it is best described as both conversion and a calling to ministry. As far as the definition of conversion is concerned, that portion of the argument can and should be continued.
Paul’s experience is certainly unique, such as being called as an apostle, however, this should not blind us to the fact that there are aspects to Paul’s experience that are quite common to all Christians. To name a few: all Christians meet Jesus in different ways; have experienced a moment of conversion; surrender to the Lordship of Christ; have received the promised Holy Spirit and all Christians are commissioned to share the gospel message of Christ. Although Paul’s unique theophany experience cannot be seen as a model to replicate, Christians should expect the other aspects of Paul’s experience to have already occurred within their lives and non-Christians should expect that these experiences will occur upon assent to the Gospel truth.
– Kendell Linh Healy
. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, The Ivp Bible Dictionary Series, vol. , Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, © 1993), 161.
. N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©2015), 44
. Ajith Fernando, Acts: From Biblical Text – To Contemporary Life, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan ©1998), 302.
. Ibid., 303.