Here’s something you might not have considered before: You will never be able to read the Bible objectively. There will always be some level of bias in play. To read the Bible is to interpret the Bible, after all. That’s why it’s wise to be mindful of the assumptions you bring to the text.
The goal isn’t to do away with your assumptions (that’s impossible); it’s simply to be mindful of them so that, if need be, you can exchange them for better ones.
If you read the Bible without reflecting on your own “angle of interpretation,” then you risk messing things up. And sometimes, the results are disastrous. Let me give an example.
When modern folks read about Paul’s Damascus Road experience (e.g., Acts 9), they often think this is his “conversion.” But is it true that Paul thought he converted from Judaism to Christianity? I don’t think so.
Some scholars prefer to say that Paul thought he completed or fulfilled his Judaism instead of converted from it. I think something like this is closer to the truth. Why does this question even matter? Am I splitting hairs? Not at all.
When we say things like Paul “converted” from Judaism, we might give the impression that Paul thought Judaism was something he needed to toss out and do away with. It lends to the idea that Paul abandoned his Jewish heritage altogether in order to accept a new and better thing called “Christianity.” But nothing could be further from the truth.
So why are we so quick to label Paul’s Damascus Road experience a “conversion”? In part, I suspect it’s because we have been taught to think a certain way about how the conversion process works. We then take these assumptions and impose them on the Bible.
Most American evangelicals, for example, get their idea of conversion from 18th and 19th century American revivalism. (Arguably, it was then when the “altar call” started to replace baptism as the new rite of passage into the church). Many church services today, in fact, resemble the old tent revivals. It is assumed that the conversion process must include preaching about individual sin and convincing people of their individual guilt from the Mosaic law—all of which ends with an invitation to come to the altar to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. In evangelical churches, conversion experiences can be powerful and moving. They’re very personal and can even be life-changing.
These particular assumptions about the conversion process have become so deeply embedded into the evangelical psyche that they’re hardly noticed; they’re simply assumed. And as assumptions, they are often unknowingly imposed upon Scripture. So when people read about Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, they might conclude this is his conversion experience.
This is, perhaps, understandable. There are some similarities between modern conversion experiences and Paul’s. For example, Paul had a personal encounter with Jesus and it was life-changing. But when you think about it, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. In fact, Paul’s experience lacked many of the core things evangelicals think a legit conversion must include. Consider this:
(1) Paul never hears a sermon from the Torah/law about why he’s a sinner who should feel guilty for, and repent of, his general sinfulness;
(2) Paul is never told to repent of his self-righteousness and legalism;
(3) Paul is never told that he failed to live up to the strict legalistic standards of the law.
There’s no evidence that, as a result of his experience, Paul fell into psychological remorse in the sense of being convinced for the first time of his guilt under the law. In fact, when Paul does reflect on this question after becoming a Christian, he says the opposite! He claims to have been “faultless” when it came to being righteous under the law (Phil 3:6 NIV). Such talk would never be tolerated in a modern evangelical church. So how could Paul say such things?
It’s simple: Paul’s assumptions about the law (and how it worked) were different from the assumptions many Christians have today about it.
For some, the Torah is nothing more than a repository of proof texts to be used merely as a tool for producing personal guilt in people. But for Paul, the Torah could never be reduced down to this. The Torah was never the source of individual, psychological despair. The Jewish texts for him were storied with a plan of redemption that demanded unfolding. Before his Damascus Road experience, Paul understood the Torah to be unfolded by a steady faithfulness of keeping works of law. After his Damascus Road experience, he realized the Messiah had come and that the Torah would be unfolded by faithfulness to the Faithful One—to Jesus, who fulfilled Torah. At no time in his life, though, did Paul ever think he abandoned Torah.
For Paul, Jesus was the “culmination” (telos) of the Torah (Rom 10:4). And other early Christians agreed: Jesus was the embodiment of the story of Israel (read e.g., Matthew 1-7). Jesus is the apocalypse, the revealing of the big Story. In fact, Jesus embodies the Jewish story in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus doesn’t lead us away from the Jewish story; he puts it on display!
Is Paul a convert from Judaism to Christianity? Not at all. In his mind, he never left his Jewish heritage behind.
So, here’s my point: Don’t unilaterally impose your assumptions onto the biblical text. Be careful to notice when you are reading the Bible in light of the assumptions, practices, and beliefs of your modern church. Some of these assumptions might (not) be helpful! Let Scripture have its say. When you’re willing to let Scripture speak on its own terms, then—and only then—can there be meaningful dialogue between text and interpreter.
I’m not at all suggesting that conversion experiences are bad, nor do I intend to undermine the importance of personal/supernatural experiences with God (I’m a convinced continuationist!). To be sure, genuine critiques could (and need to) be made about modern evangelistic practices—such as the overemphasis on individualism (which over time results in a weird “just-me-and-Jesus” sort of Christianity) and reducing the Torah down to just a pamphlet of guilt-inducing proof texts (don’t forget that Torah is packed with grace!). But really, that’s not my main point here. I’m simply saying be careful about interpreting texts through the lenses of unhelpful assumptions—whatever they might be.
Why remold Paul into our particular version of evangelicalism when, instead, we can sit at his feet and dialogue with him and expand our own horizons? That’s risky! But perhaps we should accept the invitation.