To Live Is Christ





Note - I was bored when it came time to write this paper.  The professor, Rick Beaton, said we could try and be creative, so I was.  This is a man, by the way, who not only is brilliant and among the best I had at Fuller, but he also slipped Monty Python quotes in his tests and syllabuses.  The fun thing was they were not highlighted.  If you didn't know MP, you wouldn't have noticed.  

Copy of the fragment now titled  “To Luke”

                                       April 9, 63  

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.

To Luke, a dear friend and co-worker in the faith:

Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always give thanks to God when I think of you and your perseverance.  You like few others have stood with me in the trials and strains that assail us as ministers of Christ.  I have been refreshed and encouraged by your love and joy in so many ways, both when you are here, and in remembering you when you are gone.

Your efforts in attempting to compile an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled amongst us just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word is a success.  I am so thankful that you were able to talk to those who were involved from the beginning as well as those who even now toil for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord, from whom all blessings come and with whom we expect to spend life everlasting.  Your telling of the acts since the glorious resurrection also is a testament to your faithfulness and diligence.  How well you understand my own thought, how well you know me, my brother in Christ!

Now concerning your questions on my own ministry.  My entrance into the life of Christ is well known to you.  I was called by Christ Jesus himself, not another, to be an Apostle, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.  This was not an inward conviction of my heart, but rather a face to face encounter with the risen Lord, conscripting me into his service. This calling directs me, forces me even, to spread the wonderful news of Christ to those to whom have never heard it, to be a missionary for Christ.  For I am called to be the bearer of the message of the glory of Christ to those who are dead in sin and transgression, establishing communities of believers and raising up leaders within those communities to watch over them.  The center of all my thought about God and man is, of course, the person of Christ.  For he, indeed, is life itself to those who will believe…  [end of the fragment]

            Obviously, there are major difficulties with this fragment, not least of which is the fact that the only extant copy is found on contemporary copy paper, in late 20th century English.  The prose appears to be a poor attempt to reflect Pauline language and thought, seemingly trying to provide Pauline authority to answers of specific questions.  Because of the clear textual difficulties, it will not be the purpose of this brief essay to examine the problems of authorship and dating, rather this paper will seek to examine the questions which seem to be answered here.  First, the question of the process by which Paul came to Christianity will be dealt with.  Was he called or was he converted?  Following this, the vocation of Paul will be looked at.  Did Paul see himself primarily as a pastor, a missionary, or a theologian?  Having discussed these questions, the question of what exactly was the center of Paul’s theology can be examined. 

            The fragment has Paul saying that he was called into the service of Christ, even using the word ‘conscripted’.  Until recently, the incident which occurred on the Damascus road has commonly been referred to as Paul’s conversion, [1] but recent discussion has debated whether or not this is the best term for what brought Paul into Christianity.  Much of this debate hinges on the definition of the term “conversion”, so it is here that a discussion of the topic should begin.   There have been two uses which have dominated.  The first is the traditional concept of conversion as “the process by which a person who struggles with a sense of guilt and inferiority becomes a person with a conscious sense of being right and unified as a consequence of achieving a firmer hold of religious realities.” [2]   Although this has been a long held view, an examination of Paul may lead to some doubt whether he dealt with a “sense of guilt and inferiority” at all. [3] Stendahl, in his book Paul among Jews and Gentiles, challenges this view, saying that this idea comes from an “introspective reading” by Augustine and Luther, and that this event is more of a call than a conversion in the traditional sense. [4]  

            The second, and more recent, definition of “conversion” is very different from the traditional view.  Conversion here is defined as a change in community, causing a re-interpretation of life and thought. [5]   This is the view that C.K. Barrett holds to, saying Paul was indeed converted, and that there is not a distinction to be made between being given a new vocation and being brought to Christ, both happen at the same time, and both are part of the change of life that happens to all that are converted. [6]   It is impossible to argue that Paul did not change communities and begin to re-interpret his past in light of the Damascus Road experience.  The question, however, arises whether what happened to Paul can be correlated to what happens with all Christians or whether there was something unique to Paul and his experience which requires a term that signifies this uniqueness. 

            Paul was a very zealous Jew.  He was very well educated and passionate about the law, so passionate that he felt a need “to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth” whose followers he felt were a great enemy. [7]   This is what led him to pursue “them even to foreign cities” such as Damascus, where he could lock them up and help sentence some Christians to death. [8]   On his way, however, he met Jesus.  This was not an internal awareness of the truth of the message of the Christians he was persecuting, but rather he met Jesus, the risen Lord, himself. [9]   Suddenly, the truth not only dawned upon him, but struck him down and blinded him for several days.  Paul was not given a choice whether or not to follow, he was told to.  F.F. Bruce puts it well:

With no conscious preparation, Paul found himself instantaneously compelled by what he saw and heard to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one, was alive after his passion, vindicated and exalted by God, and was now conscripting him into his service.  There could be no resistance to this compulsion, no kicking out against this goad which was driving him in the opposite direction to that which he had hitherto been pursuing. [10]

This event is not the typical manner in which other Christians entered the Church.  Rather than being convinced, Paul was told in a way that left no room for argument that he must become a Christian.  What we see on the Damascus Road is comparative to the calling of the original Disciples, [11] and especially to the calling of the prophets [12] and Moses. [13]   Paul did experience a change of life, and changed communities, but before he even had a chance to reflect on this, or even realize this, he was given a task to accomplish. [14]   He was not facing an internal struggle, rather as Brown states “before a dramatic moment in the mid-30s Paul had been at peace with his upbringing, with himself, and with his God.” [15] And unlike Nicodemus for example, in which the message is presented, and a response dependent on the hearer, [16] Paul is not given a choice, so it is different than the typical conversion that all Christians face.  The uniqueness of this event, in its force of power and command, causes a need to seek a term that differentiates between what happens in the hearts of most Christians and the event that brought Paul into Christianity.  So, it can be said that the fragment is precise in using the term “call” rather than conversion in relation to what happened with Paul. 

The author of the fragment next has Paul saying that this “call” was one to be “a missionary for Christ.”  A question arises whether the term missionary is the best single word to describe Paul’s primary vocation, or whether the title pastor or theologian would most fit what we see of Paul’s activities.  Of course, Paul exhibited characteristics of all three of these functions, leading Barrett to say that “it is natural to suggest that apostles are like the Queen in chess: they have all the moves of (nearly) all the pieces.” [17]   Yet, Paul himself seems to primarily see his own role as that of a messenger to the Gentiles who have not heard the message of Christ, with the roles of pastor and theologian being derivative of this primary mission. [18]   Paul Beasley-Murray states that “Paul was a pioneer, with his eye always on fresh fields to conquer.” [19]   Because of this pioneer aspect, however, Paul needed to retain connections with the churches which he help form.

In his ministry, Paul was more than just an evangelist.  He did not simply preach a message and let the communities work out what this message meant.  Rather, once he came to a specific locale he seems to have made a lifelong commitment to its maturation.    In this sense he was very much what we would call a pastor, leading Bowers to say that “Paul repeatedly displays a sense of obligation not only to founding but also to nurturing such communities, not only to begetting, but also to rearing, not only to planting but also to cultivating.” [20]   His letters each display a care and concern for the spiritual formation and development of each of the churches.  This care and, especially, love that Paul had for his churches meant that he could not simply let them run themselves, but felt like a parent towards them, seeking their growth and independence, but always ready to become involved in a situation when needed. [21]               Paul’s role as a theologian is much the same.  What a great gift the Church would have if Paul sat down and wrote out an exhaustive systematic theology!  But, the fact is that he did not. [22]   Paul’s theology, as his pastoring, arose from his primary function of missionary.  “Paul was no theologian, far removed from the realities of church life; rather it was his concern for the churches which proved to be the springboard for his theology.” [23]  

The theology that Paul writes is not isolated thought, rather it is usually formed in response to specific issues that arise in the Churches to which he is writing.   The essential point which needs to be made here concerns Paul’s own definition of what it meant to be a missionary.  He did indeed continually seek to new fields to plant in, but did not feel it necessary to abandon his old fields.  His missionary function “found its fullest sense of completion neither in an evangelistic preaching tour nor in individual conversions but only in the presence of firmly established churches.” [24]   Part of helping these churches become firmly established meant that Paul had to, and was seemingly most willing to, be both a pastor and theologian.  Ultimately, however, “his principle and practice were always to break new ground, to preach where Christ had not previously been named (Rom 15:20).” [25]   It was his call to be a missionary which underlay the aspects of theologian and pastor, and which can be called Paul’s primary role.

The final question which arises from looking at the fragment concerns the center of Paul’s theology.  Like the term “conversion” it is important to first define what is meant in the use of the word before a discussion about what it is begins.  The term “center” can most simply be defined as being “the underlying principle of coherence in Paul’s theology.” [26]   It is the primary aspect which shapes and defines his views on everything else.  For Paul this center seems to be the person of Christ, the one who met him on the Damascus road and gave him a mission to fulfill.  Because of this meeting, Paul was forced to re-examine his thought and re-shape his understanding of the God he thought he had known so well.  Although Martin states that this proposal “hardly touches upon the complexity of this man’s mind”, [27] it is hard to find any other concept which so dominates Paul’s thought.  As Barrett says, “It would be possible to now to take up almost any paragraph in the epistles; there is scarcely one that would not yield results in relation to Christ and his death.” [28]

 The person of Christ, crucified and risen, is the spoke of the wheel from which derives the rest of Paul’s theological development.  Every aspect of life is filtered through the tremendous realization of who Jesus is. For Paul, Christ is not only an aspect of his theology, but life itself. [29]   It is the underlying presupposition which is present in all he writes.  “The subject of every verb is Christ,” as Barrett states, adding the fact that the person of Christ “is central in Paul’s thought is evident.” [30] And while the ideas of justification by faith and reconciliation with God are definitely major topics within the letters, these discussions arise from Paul’s understanding of Christ, and would not exist if not for the fact that Christ appeared to Paul risen and full of glory.  The idea of justification by faith deals with the issue of salvation and how we can relate with God.  Yet, with Christ not only was his understanding of salvation affected, Paul’s very understanding of God himself was altered.  Witherington states that “Paul’s vision of God changed as a result of affirming Jesus as the divine and human Christ.” [31]   With Christ as divine, a new understanding of monotheism was required, leading to the beginnings of Trinitarian thought. The divine and risen Christ was more than a reconciler with God, and thus required Paul to make a complete re-interpretation of all areas of thought about God, even those areas which were not connected to the relationship between God and man. Christ was indeed, “the greatest shaping force on the rest of Paul’s thought.” [32]   The center can be thought of as that which all other doctrine depends on, without which everything else would collapse.  This center for Paul was Christ, and him crucified. [33]

Having covered these major questions, it can be said that while the authorship of the fragment is most certainly of dubious authorship, and recent origin, the basic ideas correspond to Pauline thought.  Paul saw himself as called to Christ, in a unique way which allowed him to adopt the title of Apostle. [34]   He was called to be a missionary, spreading the message of Christ throughout the known world, establishing churches and helping to raise up leaders within them.  And it was the person of Christ that was the center of his thought, from which his soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology, and all other aspects of his theology derive. So while this fragment is of very little value in itself for understanding Paul, it has raised significant questions which spur one to dig deeper into who Paul was and what his thought entailed.  As an example and authority for all Christians, Paul was uniquely used by God and it is vital that all those who follow his lead come to terms with these issues.  The answers to these issues, however, are best discovered by intense and long term reading of Paul’s own thoughts as found in the letters of the New Testament, rather than depending on dubious documents of later origin. 

[1] See Acts 9:1ff.; 22:6ff.; 26:1ff. for Luke’s account of the event , and, maybe more importantly, Galatians 1:11ff. for Paul’s own version. 

[2] William James, quoted by Janet Everts, ‘Conversion and Call of Paul.’Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, (DPL), Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph Martin, and Daniel Reid, eds.  (Downer’s Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 1993) 156.

[3] Phil. 3:4-6. 

[4] Quoted in Everts, 157

[5] Everts, 160

[6] C.K. Barrett, Paul: An Introduction to His Thought  (Louisville, KY:  John Knox Press, 1994) 10.

[7] Acts 26:9

[8] Acts 26:10,11; see also Galatians 1:13 , 14.

[9] Paul most probably did have an excellent understanding of what Christians were claiming.  We have an account of him hearing Stephen’s final speech in Acts 7, and can safely assume that this was not the only testimony given by persecuted Christians before their accusers.  Paul probably knew the Gospel well, but simply did not believe that Jesus was who the Christians were saying he was.

[10] F.F. Bruce, Paul : Apostle of the Heart Set Free  (Grand Rapids:  Eerdman’s, 1977) 75.

[11] Mark 1:16-20; John 1:35-50,; Luke 5:27, 6:12-16

[12] Bruce, 75 n. 1

[13] Exodus 3-4,

[14] Acts 22:10-14

[15] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York:  Doubleday, 1997) 448.

[16] John 3:1; see also Acts 2:14ff., 3:11ff.,13:15ff., 17:22 for other examples of the presentation and response typical of Christian conversion.

[17] Barrett, 125

[18] Galatians 1:15, 16:   Romans 15:15-21;

[19] ‘Pastor, Paul as’, DPL, 654

[20] W. Paul Bowers, ‘Mission’,. DPL, 610.

[21] Beasley- Murray, 655.

[22] Of course, it can be said that the book of Romans approaches this.  It does certainly lay out the basics of Paul’s thought, but is far from being a complete testimony of his understanding of Christian thought.

[23] Beasley-Murray, 654.

[24] Bowers, 610.

[25] Barrett, 127

[26] Ralph P. Martin, ‘Center of Paul’s Theology’, DPL, 92.  Ben Witherington  III warns of the danger of underestimating the ‘significance and  weight of Pauline Christology for Paul’s thought..’  ‘Christology’, DPL , 103.

[27] Martin, 92.

[28] Barrett, 105.

[29] Philippians 1:21;  See also 3:7-11, and I Corinthians 2:1ff.

[30] Barrett, 103

[31] Witherington, 113

[32] Witherington, 112.

[33] I Corinthians 2:2

[34] Galatians 1:1ff.


To Die Is Gain
Back to whither you came
Patrick Oden,  yeoman raven master