Bill Long 12/20/04
Further Reflections on the Apostle Paul
In order to prevent his exuberance at the exceptional character of his revelations from carrying him to unearthly heights, "a thorn was given me (the Apostle Paul) in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated (II Cor. 12:7)." This unnamed weakness of Paul led him to make one of his most profound statements: "So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me....for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (II Cor 12: 9,10)." I contain my exuberance here, aware of my own thorn, as I continue my treatment of ecphonesis.
3. The ecphonesis of wonder. Paul again, no surprise. Once again he uses ecphonesis as his means of resolving an issue when he gets to the end of his own capacities for explanation. The ecphonesis appears in Romans 11. In Romans 9-11 Paul explains the meaning of "Israel," i.e., those Jews who not only have not "come to Christ" but are seemingly as hardened in their opposition to Jesus as they were during his lifetime. This is a problem for Paul, since he believes that the way that the Good News of God is to spread to the earth is "to the Jew first, and then to the Greek."
So, in Rom. 9-11 he explores how God's plan for humanity in Christ can be fulfilled while, at the same time, there is intransigence among his fellow Jews. His argument is elaborate and beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say by the end of 11 that Paul has explained to himself that the "disobedience" of the Jews is actually only a temporary thing, but is an opportunity for the Gentiles to have access to the one true God during the Jewish time of disobedience.
"Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy (11:30-31)."
God has temporarily imprisoned them all to disobedience "so that he may be merciful to all (v. 32)."
The Ecphonetic Outburst
Paul has once again, as he had in ch. 7, gotten to the end of his intellectual wrestling with a problem. This one he has seemingly "solved" more completely than the one of inner conflict. Israel's instransigence is only temporary, and is permitted by God so that Gentiles may "come in." This illustrates God's paradoxical love--to confine all to disobedience so that He may lavish grace upon all. Then comes the ecphonesis of wonder.
"O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways (11:33)!"
There is an irony here. Paul celebrates the inscrutability and unsearchability of God precisely when he feels he has figured out the mystery. It is a common human phenomenon. We might say, 'It is immensely difficult to understand. Very few do. But let me tell you what it means.' Paul celebrates the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God when he feels he has understood those riches. And, in defense of Paul, there really is nothing quite like the feeling of understanding something that you feel no one else has quite grasped. It is like coming upon territory where there are no human traces, and you see the scene and feel that it was all set out just for you. To solve an intellectual conundrum in a creative way fuels our sense of wonder.
A Final Word on Paul and Ecphonesis
In fact, however, Paul was wrong. Sorry to disabuse you of the belief that a Gospel or Epistle writer must always be correct. In fact, nearly 2000 years have passed between the time of Paul and our own day, and Judaism has not gone away. Paul expected his Jewish brethren to receive the grace of God through Christ. That is the only responsible way to read Romans 9-11. But it didn't happen. And, it won't happen. It would take more than Christ to make Jews Christians. Jews for Jesus nonwithstanding, those who convert from Judaism to Christianity are few and far between.
This analysis doesn't diminish my respect for Paul or my enjoyment in trying to limn his mind and understand his use of rhetoric to make his arguments. Ecphonesis is one of his friends as he argues. The world is better for his mind and for his exclamatory outbursts.
One more essay on ecphonesis will complete my treatment.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long