A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how we should be hesitant to talk about ministry as a “calling” in the sense of their being a formal call to be clergy. The way calling is used in many Church contexts, such as the United Methodist Church, it is used to refer to the formal ministry of the clergy in a way that differentiates the clergy and the laity.
Now, the language of calling within the New Testament can be used to refer to a specific purpose that has been outlined for a specific person, such as Paul. If you read the Bible, then there are specific people who have dramatic calling stories; but not everyone has had it in such a dramatic way. While Moses, Samuel and Isaiah had pretty dramatic events, we don’t see such dramatic events for everyone who acts in a prophetic role through Israel’s history; many prophets are introduced and speak in sharp rebuke against the powers threatening Israel, sometimes from without but primarily from within, without any mention of a calling. Similarly for the apostles, most of the apostles did not have a dramatic calling experience (at least dramatic at the time; it may have been after the resurrection though) when Jesus walked up to them in the flesh and said “Follow me!” However, Paul has an experience on the Damascus Road, setting him on the path to be an apostle. The point here is this: the work of proclaiming God’s word in the Bible, whether the prophetic call back to the foundations or apostolic laying down the foundations, is not specifically gated by or reserved for any specific “calling” experience in the sense of a dramatic, clear as day “God is calling you here” sense.
In analysis of the Greek words for calling in the New Testament, κλητός (adjective: “called”) and καλέω (verb: “call”), you see it used in two senses: a specific calling to a specific individual, such as the Apostle Paul, and a calling that applies to believers. However, these two different sense are related to each other, as Galatians 1:6 and 1:15 show.
In 1:6, Paul expresses concern that the Galatians are going off in the wrong direction by listening to other teachers who are urged them to be circumcised and to obey Torah. These teachers probably made some appeals to some dramatic vision or teaching, whether it was something as dramatic as an angelic figure or some dramatic experience in their own life; hence Paul warns against anyone preaching a different gospel, even if they seem to have some impressive credentials. Paul reminds them in his statement of astonishment that they are leaving behind “the one who called (τοῦ καλέσαντος) you in the grace of Christ.”
Now why is Paul astonished? Some might be inclined to think this is merely some rhetorical embellishment. Others might be inclined to read this is a shaming statement, as if Paul is saying “I am surprised at how bad you are being!” But perhaps there is an actual relationship between Paul’s expression of surprise and what follows. Maybe Paul is surprised at how people are making their decisions, as if someone has all the reasons and resources to know the right way to go and yet they still seem to go off track. It is the type of astonishment when someone clearly knows the right way to go, there is no ignorance and confusion, and yet they get misdirected and confused by things that should not confuse them. This is perhaps what Paul is addressing: the Galatians had a calling from God, and yet they seem to be “snookered in” by people who have some impressive experiences but it isn’t from God. It would be like someone having a summons from a high official and then some lower level official saying “don’t worry about going.” Paul is atonished that these people have been called by God Himself through Jesus Christ; why then would they be confused and bewitched by other teachers with other credentials, impressive as they may be to others who did not have the calling they had? This presents the best sense of why Paul is suprised.
I present this point to help provide some insight into the nature of calling. It is something that comes from God; it is an invitation or summons that the people have received and started following.
But this still needs a bit more clarification. Today, when people talk about “calling,” whether it be ministry or a call to be a Christian, it can be used in two senses: one is phenomenological where a person has experienced something, whereas the other is ideological, supposing they are where they are because God called them. For the phenomenological, calling leads to direction or status, whereas for the ideological the direction or status entails the rationalizing that one is called. I would strongly argue that Paul is talking phenomenologically and not ideologically. When you look at Paul recall back to the beginning of the Galatian’s stories in Christ in Galatians 3:1-5, he hearkens back to their experience of the Spirit; there was something that happened in their midst. Then, Paul’s description of how people call out “Abba! Father!” in 4:6 suggests there was something that something happened to the hearts of the believers in how they interpreted their relationship to God, which he assigns to the Spirit. In these contexts, the evidence suggests that Paul is speaking phenomenologically and not ideologically: “Something happened to you! The Spirit came upon you and did dramatic things that you saw and gave you a new heart that saw your relationship to God. This shows you are children of God!”
Now, the calling is not the same thing as this bestowal of the Spirit. Firstly, in Romans 8:29-30, Paul conceives of calling happening before justification; meanwhile, Paul would connect the bestowal of the Spirit to people who are justified, as he does in Romans 5:1-5. So, just because the bestowal of the Spirit is phenomenological doesn’t automatically mean the calling Paul is speaking of is phenomenological, from a strictly logical point of view. But it does suggest that Paul is more conscious of people’s experiences of God and talking about them than he is simply imposing a set of ideas to justify a specific social arrangement and membership in a group of people. Compare 1:6 to Paul’s reference to his own calling in 1:15-16; both of them are said to occur through grace and both of these callings are connected to Jesus. Whereas Paul refers to His calling as one who God “reveals his Son,” suggesting of the dramatic calling he had on the Damascus Road, the similarity of discourse between the Galatian’s calling and Paul’s own calling is suggestive: the calling of the believers was also phenomenological. It may not have been so dramatic as to express anything as particular as Paul expresses about His own calling, but it is probable that Paul understanding the Galatians call as fitting under the same category of his own calling, and therefore a phenomenological one.
In other words, there is a general calling of believers that involves something that happens to them. What this specifically is is not specified. There is no reason to suppose everyone had the Damascus Road experience that Paul had, otherwise Paul would have probably been more specific to say something along the lines of “Hey you dummies! You heard the audible voice of God in Jesus. What are you thinking listening to these clowns over there?” But, there was obviously something that Paul was reminding them as having happened to them, something that would have been enough out of the norm that people would have seen it as God addressing and summoning people.
This is where it is useful to understand what is ultimately so significant about such a summons from God. Obviously, even today if some of us were to have something dramatic happen to you that you can assign to nothing other than the will of God, there would be some strong sense of this being important, but our ideas of God and how God works have been so simplified down to the concept of miracles, that we would not really know how to make sense of this. But how would such a calling be understanding by Paul and the Galatians?
Firstly, Paul was a Pharisee, formerly by membership but the intellectual training he underwent as a Pharisees was still present with him as an apostle. Of the more mainstream Jewish groups, the Pharisees were some of the most apocalyptic of them all, although I use the word apocalyptic very loosely. They believed in a future resurrection from the dead as outline in the apocalyptic book of Daniel in chapter 12. They were inclined to invoke the names of demonic powers, such as in saying that Jesus healings were the works of demonic power rather than the Spirit of God. When Paul was before the chief priest and Jewish council, he divided the Sadducees and the Pharisees in the group by saying what was going on was about the resurrection of the dead, dividing the assembly, and leading the Pharisees to suggest Paul may have had something come to him from an angel or spirit. While there was no singular pattern of what it meant to be “apocalyptic,” the Pharisees has beliefs that saw the will of God being expressed even in the present day through dramatic actions and events, culminating in a dramatic, all-encompassing transformation of human life in the resurrection.
So, understood against this backdrop, Paul’s Pharisaical background would have him investing some sense of apocalyptic meaning to calling. However, this is where I think it is important to note that Paul employs apocalyptic discourse in a way that is unique from what happens in apocalyptic literature. The general pattern in apocalyptic literature is that God makes some revelation, particularly about the political future, to a singular figure, and these people were to record these revelations for future posterity. In other words, a) God’s giving of heavenly knowledge is limited to a singular individual and b) it pertains to the larger, political future that God is going to change. It is my premise, however, that Paul takes the apocalyptic discourse and personalizes to all the believers in Christ. God is providing wisdom and insight to the whole Church, even if there are some people who may have revelations made to them, so theological knowledge appears to be more democratic than exclusive to a special few. Secondly, rather than focusing primarily on God causing political transformations, Paul gives a larger focus to the personal transformations that happen in persons, such as in the apocalyptic language of new creation in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15. The pattern of God’s activity and purposes in apocalyptic discourse has become radically personalized because, for Paul, the life of Jesus Christ is the realization of the apocalyptic-style hopes and believers through Christ then are recipients of and then participate in God’s dramatic works and power.
In other words, the calling is a summoning to become part of God’s powerful work in what we today would call sociology and history, but it had implications for we also refer to as psychology. Using these modern terms to analyze Paul’s discourse, God’s work in the psychological and the historical/sociology are intertwined, although the epistemic methods that provide us knowledge about what is happening in history, sociology, and psychology are dramatically different. What is shared at both levels of explanation, however, is that the resolution of the conflict of other powers with God, as present in the apocalyptic literature, is happening in individual persons, as they move from the fleshy body that has been colonized by the powers of sin and death and towards the power of God through the Holy Spirit. Hence, towards the end of Galatians in chapter 5, Paul reminds them about the difference between the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, reminding them how to live out the liberation God had given them in Jesus Christ. Why? Because by the Spirit through faith they were to wait for the hope of righteousness (5:5), which wasn’t just simply a moral status but a full realization of the way life was to be, both within themselves in how they lived but would also include even the world around them. This was a process to be cultivated within the person over time, however, hence the agricultural metaphor of fruit when talking about the work of the Spirit in Gal 5:22-23; while there may be clear, dramatic periods within the person’s life, such as the experience of the Spirit, what God was going to do was going to occur over time.
So, for Paul, the calling was not simply some nice experience from God that makes people feel loved or gives them a specific status as part of a church/the Church, but it was an invitation to a newness and dramatic change in the future, much as God called Abraham. It is no coincidence that when talking about the faith of Abraham in Romans 4:17, Paul talks about God’s “call into existence that which does not exist,” which prototypically keyed to Abraham and Sarah’s future fertility which had previously been impossible as a way of understanding what happens to the life or those who have faith like Abraham. In apocalyptic literature, God was doing something new in history; in Abraham’s story, God did something dramatically new that is described occurring through God’s creative powers in a person’s life. In Christ, God is doing something dramatically new through the Spirit, to move people from the present realities to a transformation and new creation, which has both historical implications (as in Romans 5) and personal implications (as in Romans 8).
So, calling is a part of this journey from life lived in flesh, being controlled by the ruling powers of the present age, to a new life being formed by Spirit that is being formed into the pattern of the glory of Jesus Christ. Something dramatic beckons people to this journey, and they follow in faith, which Paul wants to be directed towards this creative, apocalyptic power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5) that is understood according to the pattern of cross of Christ and made personally known through God’s agents, like Paul, where in weakness the power of the Spirit is demonstrated.
However, this calling would have a special meaning also in the context of the Galatians’ own life. Imagine living in a world littered with various gods and goddesses; one would not be accustomed to having any real dramatic experience coming from any of them but one would be aware of their existence. On occasion you might go to a temple dedicated to one of them, participate in the rituals; you might hear imperial propaganda about the gods in relationship to Roman power. But at the end of the day, you don’t have any real deep, dramatic experiences when it comes to what we would refer today as religion. Instead, everything you learn about this pantheon is that they are connected to the daily process of life, such as fertility, war, love, etc. Essentially, the gods and goddess were ideological constructs used as propogaters of the present material and social order. This type of religion was ideological, functioning principally in maintain identity and status of the powers and providing an understanding of the regular process of life.
Now, here comes this mysterious man Paul who is talking about this crucified man named Jesus off from those eccentric Jews, who believed there was only God. While he evangelizing, some dramatic stuff happens that is unlike any other experience they would have known, to the point that Paul describes what happened then as “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). If 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 is any indication of Paul’s evangelistic method, this may have occurred by a combination of Paul’s preaching the story of Christ and Paul’s own weak presence (Galatians 4:13) being joined with dramatic works of Spirit. Somewhere, in the midst of all that, the people saw the crucified Christ that so dramatically moved them that they then had a heart open to hearing this calling summons from God.
What a contrast from Roman religion! Rather than a religion that legitimates the present status and patterns of life and their own psychological experiences resembling this religious pattern, they experience something dramatic, radically novel, and potentially life-altering from this mysterious man and from within themselves.
So, for the Galatians, this calling was the disruption of all that they had known and understood, all that they were accustomed to; they were enslaved to these things called gods (Galatians 4:8). There was nothing in their own religious understanding of divinity that could really help them to assimilate this experience, to use modern Piagetian terms, but that they themselves had to accommodate themselves to this dramatic event in the disclosure of Christ and the summons from Christ to them.
Consequently, to understand what this calling and faith was all about, they would need to instructed in the story of God’s disclosure to the people of Israel in the (Old Testament) Scriptures. They had within their experience of their calling from Christ and their recipients of the Spirit a hermeneutical key to begin to make sense of what these Scriptures were pointing forwards to in Christ, that they had some basic insights into the culmination of God’s purposes in Christ.
Meanwhile, these other teachers come along, claiming some dramatic experiences from angels, personal calling narratives, or whatever, that do not have the form of this calling from Christ, but come saying they can help the Galatians understand the connection of their calling with these Scriptures, but one that would have them engaging in a pattern of religion that, in the end, wasn’t that much different from the form of religion they had left behind even if it had different names and different discourses. Likely, these teachers were teaching them how to become part of the present Israel through circumcision and Torah obedience, to try to get them to join in the side of Israel over and against the struggle with Roman power, a struggle that would eventually culminate in the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD. These teachers were more concerned about a political religion that advocated rites and rituals that were, ultimately, about simply establishing a different political order. They were propogating a different ideological religion of identity and status.
The ambiguity these Galatians would have experienced with their calling would be remarkable, to say the least. They were Roman pagans and now they are following this Jewish God; all this sense of mystery about all of it combined with a legitimacy to the Torah and God’s story of Israel would make them susceptible to some apparently qualified Jewish religious teachers. But Paul’s rebuke is a dramatic attention getter and reminder: “You have been called by Christ. Don’t be fooled by the facsimile authority of people who have what essentially amounts to something inferior to what you have received. You can listen to me because you and I both have had similar calling experiences in Jesus, even if mine is a bit more dramatic, although don’t even give me unquestioned, unscrutinized authority if I go off the rocker in what I teach.”
So, the calling that Paul refers to is something real, of a psychological-phenomemological nature that they can only connect to God in Christ, that summons them into a new way of life, and that this shares similarities with Paul’s experience, even if there are some differences between Paul’s own Damascus Road experience and most everyone else’s.
I said a couple weeks back to not seek to be specially called, but seek to be called in Christ. For those curious what I meant by that, this is what I meant. We are called to Christ, and for Paul, this calling is understood more in terms of God’s purposes, as in Romans 8:28, than it is a specific, fixed status one’s life, such as being a clergy person. It is a call to God’s purposes through a journey lead by the Spirit of God to Jesus Christ, both in this present life and in the life post-resurrection.