The Pauline Way Begins on the Road to Damascus

Author: Archbishop Carlo Ghidelli

The Pauline Way Begins on the Road to Damascus

Carlo Ghidelli
Archbishop of Lanciano-Ortona, Italy

"Learning Christ" through conversion

One of the most powerful expressions of the entire epistolary corpus of Paul is certainly the phrase: "That is not how you learned Christ!" (Eph 4:20). It is so dense with meaning that in the Bible promulgated by the Italian Bishops' Conference, it was felt necessary to translate it: "But it was not in this way that you learned to know Christ". It is also a question of "knowing"; however, the translation does not perhaps render the concise meaning of the words Paul chose, but rather, dilutes it.

It would seem that Paul developed his thought in three stages.

"Not in this way" refers to the previous verses in which Paul stigmatizes a certain behaviour that he does not hesitate to describe as that of the "Gentiles" (Eph 4:17-19), in other words absolutely incompatible with the newness Christ introduced into the history of humankind and hence into the life of believers.

Paul was probably alluding to the classical idea of the two ways which we also find in Psalm 1: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked" (v. 1), but he certainly brings about a transposition and spells out the contrast between the former existence and the new one. Here the main lines of his educational method can already be glimpsed.

The attitude he called, precisely, "pagan", is described as: levity in evaluating the situations of life, blindness in thought and being aloof to the life of God as a consequence of ignorance of the things of God, "cardioporosis" (which corresponds to the "hardness of heart" [cf. Mt:19:8]), that is, a hardness of heart which becomes impervious to any sentiment of compassion or mercy, and spiritual insensitivity which implies neglect of all that concerns the sphere of the spirit, hence surrender to every form of debauchery, impurity and ungodliness, as well as to that insatiable beast which is avarice.

The grave question Paul once asked himself also applied to them: "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rm 7:24). Both the individual and collective dimensions are interwoven in Paul's mind and both call into question his pedagogical method.

Paul faced all this with open eyes and took stock of the almost desperate situation of a humanity that was living without God, hence without hope in this world (cf. Eph 2:12).

Considering the Ephesians' moral conduct, it is as if one were rereading that passage of Paul's Letter to the Christians of Rome in which he lists equally serious and despicable vices: ungodliness that extinguishes pietas, injustice that suppresses the truth, impurity that clouds the mind and oppresses the heart, foolishness that thwarts wisdom, deceit, idolatry, lust, depravation, wickedness, covetousness, malice, envy, rivalry, fraud, spitefulness, vilification, futility, disloyalty, ruthlessness and the inability to make any ethical judgement (Rm 1:18-32).

These vices make the human being, all human beings, inexcusable before God, so that God himself can only abandon them to their destiny. In his role as educator, Paul took on the burden of this specific situation: he did not avoid it, nor did he wish to. It is to this humanity that he felt sent.

The resulting picture is without any doubt sad and depressing, black from every point of view. Here Paul can once again see God's anger (Rm 1:18): however, God did not wish to vent his wrath against a world engulfed in sin. In fact, Paul associated the themes of anger and saving justice which can be considered as a summary of his preaching of the Gospel to the pagans, as found, for example, in the First Letter to the Thessalonians: "For they themselves openly declare about us what sort of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the coming wrath" (1:9-10).

The focus: Jesus the Liberator

Thus, Paul recognized Jesus as the Liberator, the one Saviour of humanity. Jesus, therefore, also personifies the supreme value of Pauline pedagogy.

If it is true that today we are facing a return to paganism in various forms, the timeliness of Paul's teachings and exhortations must be emphasized. His Letters are also addressed to us. The guidelines in his educational project are also valid for us.

Paul explained what he meant by the expression: "learning Christ". Indeed, he added: "assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus" (Eph 4:21).

Let us analyze this sentence carefully. First of all, Paul clearly suggested that there is not, nor can there be, any learning of Christ or of what the adherence of faith to his Gospel entails without listening to him properly, that is, to his words and his teaching.

It is no longer possible to listen to the living voice of Jesus of Nazareth, however, it is always possible to listen to the Gospel of salvation by accepting his witnesses, Apostles and disciples who, with their preaching and personal testimony, went about spreading the Good News of Jesus who died and was raised (1 Cor 1:18-30). Faith comes from listening and faith brings with it the gift of salvation.

The first and irreplaceable foundation of Paul's pedagogy is found here. Paul considered listening as equivalent to obedience, which he made clear in Romans: "through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith" (1:5; cf. Rm 15:18; 16:26).

Furthermore, to be able to say one has learned Christ it is also necessary to submit to every form of instruction (didache), which is complete only if it embraces the entire mystery of Jesus, unabridged and without additions.

Since in the passage we are analyzing Paul used the expression "in Jesus" only here, it could seem that he was lashing out against certain opponents, perhaps exponents of the Gnostic trend which held that the Saviour was not identified with the Person of Jesus. Thus Paul has invited us to accept the mystery of the Incarnation and enter into its profound, salvific dynamism.

Even if he did not speak of this mystery often, all the Pauline Letters demonstrate that he had assimilated its historical depth and established his pedagogical method upon it.

Of course, the mystery of Jesus should be accepted in its entirety: it is not legitimate, therefore, to dissemble what is indivisible by its nature. On the one hand, it is impossible to underestimate redemption from sin, which Jesus brought about through his Passion. death and Resurrection, by describing it as a "negative theology"; on the other, it is not permissible to exalt God's Incarnation, as though it sufficed for humanity's salvation, by describing it as a "positive theology". The two sides of the one mystery need to be harmonized in a single act of faith and therefore also in a single educational project.

Undoubtably Paul is an exemplary and unparalleled teacher of this didache. He exercised his magisterium in all the communities he founded and with his preaching, taught all that is necessary "to learn Christ". At the same time he taught that it is impossible to acquire knowledge of Christ unless one submits humbly and joyfully to the sweet yoke of God's word.

A method rooted in his conversion

Every authentic pedagogue must come to terms with this truth: Paul was fully aware that his pedagogical method was rooted in his conversion on the road to Damascus.

Finally, Paul indicated to those who seriously wanted "to learn Christ" the duty of adopting a behaviour that is diametrically opposed to their previous conduct.

Indeed, he urged the Ephesians: "put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires" (4:22). Paul addressed the same exhortation to the Christians of Colossae, where he invited them to "[take] off the old self with its practices", to "put on the new self" (3:9, 10).

In both contexts Paul pointed to the radical transformation of life, expressed by Baptism. Through a new creation, brought about in Christ, the person is led to his true humanity and, through obedience, moves toward true and full knowledge: this is how to "learn Christ"!

Paul learned this in the first person and often testified to it in his Letters, even relating how much it cost him to remain faithful to this standard of life. Paul tested the validity of his pedagogical method, first of all, on himself.

With well chosen and moving words, Paul recommended to the Ephesians "do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God" (4:30), a concept already known to the Prophet Isaiah (63:10) and certainly worthy of study.

It can be said that the Spirit of God given to man is, in a certain way, conditioned by the person's good or bad behaviour. One reads in the Book of Wisdom: "the holy spirit of instruction shuns deceit, it stands aloof of reckless purposes, is taken aback when iniquity appears" (1:5).

Therefore, it is possible to nullify the grace received and reduce the pedagogical method inherent in Christ's Gospel to insignificance. Paul could not fail to consider and alert those to whom he addressed his teaching of this terrible possibility.

On the contrary those who are truly willing to learn Christ must "be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect" (Rm 12:2) which is, the holiness that derives from truth and not the delusion that it derives from one's own action or good will. It is a truth centred on Jesus which stimulates the person's full compliance with God's action. In this Paul seems to approach Johannine theology.

The powerful meaning in the Pauline expression "learn Christ" can be fully grasped when it is not considered a question of abstract knowledge or knowledge acquired only through hearsay. On the contrary, this "learning" implies an experience of him, an experience mediated by his words and his witnesses. It requires free, unreserved submission to him through faith; the will to live in a manner that conforms to faith and fidelity to the word given. It gives access to a continuous process of being likened to the One whom we want to know; it promises a good that God alone can give; it anticipates an experience that verges on paradise.

All this is part of that pedagogical method which Paul learned from Christ from the very outset of his conversion. Therefore he was the first to be able to say that he learned Christ; only in this capacity can Paul address the same exhortation to us.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 June 2008, page 6

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