The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected -Part 4

§6. The Truth of Transfiguration

In the letters of Paul, the central issue is not a doctrine but the as­surance of immortalizing transfiguration through the vision of the Resurrected. Transfiguration is experienced as a "historical" event that has begun with the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. This experience must now be pursued a few steps beyond the previous analysis.

In Galatians I:11-17, Paul insists on the purely divine source of the good tidings he has to bring. The evangel he has to evangelize, he has not "received or learned from any man," especially not from the apostolic pillars in Jerusalem, but exclusively through the "vi­sionary appearance [apokalypsis] of Jesus Christ" (1:12), accorded to him by the grace of God who "revealed [apokalypsai] his Son in me" (I: 16). I am rendering these key passages literally, because para­phrases as one finds them in standard translations would obscure Paul's precision in articulating his experience of the God who enters him through the vision and by this act of entering transfigures him.

The Pauline theophany is structured in depth into the vision of the Resurrected and the presence of the God beyond who, by means of the vision, calls Paul to his apostolate. Paul is, above all, a prophet who is called by God to his office like the prophets of Israel. When he expresses his experience of the call (Gal. I: 15), he uses the same for­mula as Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5) and Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 49:1); and there is even some Cosmological coloring to the formula as the prophets derived it from the Near Eastern formula for the call by which the god ordains the king in his office.

Paul is, second, the apostle to the nations who has to announce the truth of the transfiguration that has begun with Resurrection. This truth he symbolizes as the Evangelium Dei ( euaggelion theou ), as God's "gospel about his Son" that has been promised long ago "by his prophets in the holy scrip­tures" (Rom. I:1-3). The stratification into the call by God and the gospel about his Son is so important for Paul's self-understanding that he refers to it whenever he introduces himself formally as the "apostle," as in I Corinthians 1:1, in Galatians 1:1-5, and most elaborately in Romans 1:1-6. From this stratification he derives his style of "apostle," thereby distinguishing himself from the earlier prophets who held out the promise that now in him is fulfilled.

The meaning of transfiguration as a historical event is set forth in the Letter to the Romans, especially in the famous self-analysis of chapter 7. Paul lives in a state of existential unrest. His anxiety is caused by the conflict between the divine law, the Torah, which demands perfect obedience, and the weakness of the flesh, which makes obedience to the letter impossible. "I delight in the law of God with my inner man, but I see another law in my members warring against the law that my reason [nous] approves, keeping me captive in the law of sin [hamartia] that is in my members" (Rom. 7:22-23). "I discover it as a law, then, that when I want to do right, only wrong is within my reach" (7:21). This conflict inevitably raises the question of identity: "I do not even recognize my action as my own. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I hate." "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it" (7:15, 18). The conclusion: "Now if I do what I do not want to do, clearly it is not I who do it but sin [hamartia] that dwells within me" (7:20). Paul does not attempt to shirk responsibility; he meditates on the loss of the true self in existence when the horizon of order, the "righteousness" or "justification" of existence, is limited by a law that, though it remains holy, has become impermeable for divine presence. Paul is in search of God, like Plato and Aristotle, but he finds the movement of his soul obstructed by a law that, for him at least, has become opaque and prevents his existence in the Metaxy.

Moreover, Paul is very much aware that the obstruction to the free movement is a "historical" problem, peculiar to the Judaism of his time; the law was not always a screen that separated man from God. He knows himself as the successor to the prophets who prefigured the freedom that he has gained; and he knows about the Abraham who lived before the law and to whom his faith (pistis) rather than any deeds in fulfillment of a law was counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:3; Gen. 15:6). "The Law brings wrath, but where there is no Law there is no transgression" (Rom. 4:15). The deadly sense of living irreparably in sin under God's wrath can be overcome only by opening oneself in faith to the grace and love of God. This paradigmatic type of existence Paul finds realized in Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations because of his faith, and his descendants would inherit the world (kosmos). This promise refers, not to the bodily descendants of the patriarch, but to all men who share in the faith of Abraham whether they belong to the circumcision or not. "For he is the father of us all" who live "in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who brings the dead to life again, and who calls into being what is not, as he called what is" (4:9-17).

Abraham is the prototype of man's existence in truth. His universal humanity through faith in the universal God that made him the father of many nations was continued by Israel's prophets to the nations and is now consummated by Paul as the apostle to the nations (4:23-25). The Pauline apostolate, finally, is the consummation of the historical promise that goes back to Abraham, because through the visions of the Resurrected, God has revealed Jesus as his Son who could do what "the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do": Entering the form of sinful flesh, he could break the power of the flesh by the power of the divine spirit (8:3). Hence, from now on there is no judgment of condemnation for those who are united with Jesus Christ. "For the law of the spirit of life-in-Christ-Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death" (8:1-2).

Paul's restlessness because of the weakness of the flesh, his find­ing of the pneumatic order of existence, and his consciousness of a history of faith that culminates in the vision of the Resur­rected must be treated as a unit of experience, just as the Platonic-Aristotelian zetesis, the finding of the noetic order of existence, and the consciousness of the discovery as an event in the history of theophany are a unit that must not be torn asunder. The specific difference between the two units is the accent that falls, in the classic case, on the cognition of structure and, in the Pauline case, on the exodus from structure. The difference, then, expresses itself in the literary form. In classic philosophy, the reflections on history appear incidental to the analysis of structure. Aristotle wrote an Ethics and Politics; he did not write a Historics. With Paul, the history of faith dominates the Letter to the Romans, while the reflections on personal and political conduct in the short present before the Parousia are appended in chapters 12-15. The classic meaning in history can be opposed by Paul with a meaning of history, because he knows the end of the story in the transfiguration that begins with the Resurrection.

The difference between the two conceptions, however, is not con­tradictory; it does not compel a choice between alternatives. On the contrary, the two conceptions together act out, in the luminosity of consciousness, the paradox of a reality that moves beyond its struc­ture. Neither does the classic concentration on structure abolish the unrest of the movement that becomes manifest in the Platonic un­certainties, nor does the Pauline relegation of ethics and politics to the fringes of a history that has been contracted into the transfigur­ing exodus abolish the cosmos and its structure. When the paradox of reality becomes luminous to itself in consciousness, it creates the paradox of a history in suspense between the Ananke of the cosmos and the freedom of eschatological movement. That the two branches of the paradox are distributed, in the Ecumenic Age, over the noetic theophanies of Hellenic philosophers and the pneumatic theophanies of Israelite-Jewish prophets must be acknowledged, but cannot be explained. The process of history is a mystery as much as the reality that becomes luminous in it.

To the symbol "history," it appears, there must be accorded an amplitude wide enough to accommodate all the theophanic events in which the paradox of reality breaks through to consciousness.

This insight should clarify at least some of the issues involved in the worrisome debate about the "historicity" of Christ. As far as Paul is concerned, there was hardly an issue, because he still moved, like Plato, in an open field of theophany. The Olympian gods were, for Plato, just as valid theophanic symbols as his Puppet Player, or the Demiurge, or the Nous, or the unknown Father-God in the Beyond of this diversified field of divinities. In the same manner, Paul moved in a world of principalities, dominations, and powers, of death and sin, among whom the ultimately victorious Son of God had his place under the unknown Father-God beyond them all. In Galatians 4:8-13 and Colossians 2:20, Christ is presented as a supe­rior divinity in competition with the "elemental spirits [stoicheia] of the cosmos"; the recipients of Paul's letters are reproached for backsliding to the cult of stoicheia who "by nature are not even gods" after they "have come to know God, or rather to be known by God" (Gal. 4:8-9).

The openness of the theophanic field, though it came under pres­sure when the Church felt it necessary to distinguish its "monothe­ism" from the "polytheism" of the pagans, could be substantially preserved for almost three centuries. The early Patres, from Justin and Athenagoras, through Theophilus, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, and Origen, to Eusebius (ob. 339) found one or the other subordinationist construction to be the most suitable symbolism for expressing the relation of the Son to the Father-God. In the language of Origen, for instance, though the Son is homoousios with the Father, only the Father is autotheos, the God himself, while the Logos is a deuteros theos, a second God. One should note, furthermore, that Origen still felt quite free to create a neologism like theanthropos, the God-man, in order to express the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus. I mention it especially, because it had a surpris­ing career in the time of the new Christs, in the nineteenth century, when Feuerbach hauled the God whom man had projected into the Beyond back into projecting man, thereby transforming man into God-man. Up to Nicaea (325), when the Athanasian victory put an end to this generous openness, Christianity was substantially ditheistic.

The history of the Patres puts it beyond a doubt that the symbol "Christ" changes its meaning in the transition from the open field of theophany to the realm of dogmatic construction. If the question of the "historicity" of Christ is raised with the "Christ" of the dogma in mind, difficulties will inevitably arise. For the "Christ" of Nicaea and Chalcedon is not the reality of theophanic history that confronts us in the Pauline vision of the Resurrected; and to invent a special kind of "history," disregarding the theophanic reality on which the dogma is based, in order to endow the Christ of the dogma with "historicity," would make no sense. The trinitarian and christological dogma can be made intelligible only in terms of its own history, as a protective device that will shield the oneness of the Un­known God against confusion with the experiences of divine pres­ence in the myths of the intracosmic gods, in mytho-speculation, and in the noetic and pneumatic luminosity of consciousness.

The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected,
pp 321-326.