An aspect of Paul’s conversion explains God’s ‘reluctance’ to deal with individuals Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
Even at a cursory reading of the Acts of the Apostles one notices the Lord’s reluctance – if that is the word we want – to deal with people one-to-one, bypassing the normal forms of human mediation. Of course, the Lord does speak to individuals, to be sure. For example, he gives Philip a special message to guarantee his encounter with the Ethiopian pilgrim [8.26-9]. The Lord likewise speaks to Saul of Tarsus in a direct and immediate way. The Lord does the same with both Peter and Cornelius. However, these examples, in which the Lord speaks directly to individuals, are not only exceptional in the Acts of the Apostles, they also appear in contexts that prove them to be exceptions.
These revelations are treated as preliminary and preparatory for the more significant meeting between two men. Clearest of all, I suppose, is the case of St Pauls conversion. In view of the Apostles claim to have been instructed by the Lord directly [Galatians 1.12], a close look at the recorded circumstances of that conversion is warranted. It will preserve us, I believe, from misinterpreting Pauls claim.
Jesus refuses Saul’s request
Consider the historical context: Saul the Pharisee was on his way to Damascus, ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ [9.1; cf 22.19; 26.11; 1 Corinthians 15.9; Philippians 3.6; 1 Timothy 1.13]. All at once, Jesus addressed him, calling him by name and summoning him to repentance. It was in this direct encounter that Saul requested specific directions for his life: ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’ [9.6; 22.10]. But this request the Lord refused to grant. Instead, Saul was told, Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do’ [9.10; 22.10]. I mention the Lords refusal here in connection with the Tow ecclesiology’ – rather popular these days – in which the believer is related to Jesus first, and to the Church second. Let me say that this is not what we find in the Acts of the Apostles. In this passage Jesus asserts, in effect, T refuse to say another word to you, Saul of Tarsus.
Get yourself into Damascus and consult those people you were on your way to persecute. You humble your soul to the authority of my Church, because your ill treatment of those Christians was inflicted on me. I will not deal with you directly. Those people in Damascus speak for me.’
The tone and message of this text in Acts indicates, I submit, a ‘high ecclesiology’, in which the believer is normally related to Jesus within the institutional context of his Church, later described by Paul as ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ [1 Timothy 3.15].
God’s Word is a source of unity St Augustine correctly perceived why the biblical God is ‘reluctant’, as a general rule, to instruct men directly. It would betray, he said, man’s corporate nature, which is also the condition of the Church. He wrote, ‘The state of our race would have been more seriously impaired, had God not chosen to use men as the ministers of his Word to other men.’ The very intent of that Word, he said, is to unite the hearers together in the one body of Jesus’ Church, his temple.
‘Moreover,’ wrote Augustine, ‘love itself, which ties men together in the bond of unity, would have no means of pouring soul into soul, and, as it were, mingling them to one another, if men never learned anything from their fellow men’ [De Doctrina Christiana, Preface, 6].