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Douglas Campbell’s “Rereading” of Paul

April 23, 2012

In an earlier posting I drew attention to the review of recent Pauline scholarship by Tom Wright in the latest issue of Expository Times (vol. 123,May 2012), and mentioned that the same issue contains a large article by Douglas Campbell in which he sets out to summarize and underscore key emphases of his massive tome, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Campbell’s article:  “An Apocalyptic Rereading of ‘Justification’ in Paul: Or, an Overview of the Argument of Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God–by Douglas Campbell” (pp. 382-93). I promised a subsequent posting on Campbell’s article, and so the following brief set of comments.

Campbell’s book is truly massive (1200+ pages), and so his effort to summarize such a behemoth work in the ten pages of article is a commendably heroic task! Campbell claims that he offers in his book a revolutionary reading of Paul that, for the first time in the history of Christianity, grasps what Paul was really saying about salvation, “faith”, and several other related matters. And, to judge from some comments (e.g., the reviews of the book on, some readers clearly feel richly re-paid for the huge effort of working through it. I confess to being one of those who as yet haven’t read the tome, so I can’t offer any personal judgement about how successful it is. I confine myself here to some observations about the Expository Times article.

Campbell alleges “deep, ongoing, and painful problems in the apostle’s interpretation” (385), the most troubling of which is what he describes as a widely-held representation of the Christian as “a contract-keeper, who grasps the contract of salvation by initiating an act (or acts) and fulfilling its stipulated condition(s)” (386). The particular object of Campbell’s scorn here is the traditional Protestant emphasis on personal faith as the necessary response to the Gospel. Critics will likely complain about Campbell’s characterization of “justification” theology as “contractual”.  Some versions of it, perhaps. But any version of it?

He further posits that Romans 1–4 is the key text on which all “contractual” theology rests. “Only here do we find a text that seems to articulate explicitly an account of salvation in contractual and conditional terms…” (388). So, the major exegetical objective in Campbell’s tome is to present a radically different view of this part of Romans. Essentially, Campbell contends that most of this material is Paul engaging in a very clever rhetorical exercise in which he does a kind of “send-up” of the position he wishes to reject. So, e.g., all the references to in these chapters to the universal human predicament of sinful behaviour, the pronunciation of divine wrath against sin, and certainly all statements about divine reward or judgement, all these are the views of Jewish-Christian missionaries who Campbell proposes were worries in Paul’s mind as he wrote to the Romans.

In Campbell’s view, Romans 1–4 is incompatible with Romans 5–8, properly understood, and the latter chapters are to be preferred as evidence of Paul’s view of salvation. He urges that Paul’s theology was all about divine initiative, divine gift, unconditional salvation, and these qualities appear to be what he designates an “apocalyptic” view.

Some enthusiastic readers proclaim Campbell’s book as potentially the most high-impact work on Paul since E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). It’s a bit early to judge, of course, especially as it will take patient readers some time to work through the huge tome (even those who feel impelled to do so immediately). I permit myself here simply to pose a few questions, which I will have to take to my own reading of the book . . . in due course.

  • Are the emphases of Romans 1–4 incompatible with those of Romans 5–8? Is a belief in God’s gracious initiative and in salvation as totally divine gift incompatible with the idea that a human response is summoned (and enabled through the proclamation of the Gospel to which one is summoned to respond)?
  • Is any emphasis on a faith-response to the Gospel necessarily a “contractual” view?   Has Campbell really done justice to the wide swathe of others whom he criticizes?
  • Is Campbell’s startling claim adequately supported that Romans 1–4 largely represents theological views that Paul rejects?  Romans certainly reflects Paul’s use of certain argumentative and rhetorical devices, but more usually we can detect these in the phrasing (e.g., the use of questions which Paul then answers or corrects as unfounded in 3:1-9, 27-31).

In the end, I suspect that the last one will be the crucial question, and Campbell will have to persuade exegetically.  As I’ve said, too soon to tell as yet.   But all of us who care about the question should probably feel obliged to give Campbell the favor of considering his effort to do so.

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  1. Bruce Longenecker had his Pauline Theology seminar at Baylor work slowly and carefully through Campbell’s book last semester, culminating in a video-chat with Campbell at the end of the semester. It might be interesting to get Longenecker’s take, or that of some of his NT students, on the arguments of the book. As the sole theologian in the class, I resonated with a lot of what Campbell was arguing for ethically and theologically, but cannot speak to how well it is all worked out exegetically.

  2. Douglas Campbell permalink

    I’m not at all persuaded by the gentile believer reading of the righteous pagans saved by works in Romans 2. There are some serious difficulties with that interpretation in my view. Indeed, I would have thought that any appeal to a reading of these mysterious and deeply problematic figures is not going to create a strong exegetical warrant for anything. (DoG hits various interpretations of these figures hard, so this is a good point to “take and read”.)

    I’m also worried about your (Protestant!) translation of the middle/passive participle in Gal 5:6 as an active. That seems question-begging to me. A better reading would be “faith being effected by love,” which would of course be a problem for you but corroborative of where I want to go. But I haven’t actually disagreed with the appropriateness of faith in Paul. As I said earlier, it’s really really important. It’s just that its theological role in his broader system requires careful definition.

    Paul wants us to love. But no one would argue that we get saved by love. Or by hope. Or by obedience. So do we want to say that uniquely about the virtue of faith? Quite a lot rides on whether we say “yes” or “no” here. If we say no, as I recommend, we still will emphasize the importance of faith within the life of Christian discipleship.

    The judgment texts you cite outside Romans 2 need to be handled carefully. In particular, we all need to introduce and struggle with 1 Cor 3, where wages and accountability are clearly in view but actual salvation is not, and explicitly so. This text is determinative I would have thought for the other judgment warnings in 1C and 2C. That real scoundrels might be excluded ultimately from the kingdom is of course possible. But this action is not necessarily programmatic for everyone. Also, I would like to see you engage with the more universal hopes that Paul expresses elsewhere as well. (Stephen Travis’s book is a good starting point here; and I really like Martinus de Boer on this question.) None of this suggests that God’s retributive judgment is basic for Paul, in my view, as Romans 2 does. This is really the crucial issue.

    Put slightly differently, the broader narrative frame within which judgment is functioning for Paul is really really important. Depending on the narrative, the text is or is not a “traditional” view of judgment. And these critical differences can’t just be breezily elided. To put things crisply: parents do a lot of judging, of their children, of one another, etc., but this does not mean that they ARE judges. Similarly, God in the OT judges a lot, but wouldn’t we want to say that the basic framework out of which this flows is covenantal? I would.

    This is the yes and the no thing again. Larry, do you think that the divine yes comes first in Paul, framing the no, or is it in your view the other way around?

    • Douglas: Well, generous soul that I am, I shall simply overlook your reluctance to see the right reference in Rom 2:12-16;-) I think the case has been made satisfactorily by a number of recent exegetes, but let me turn briefly to other matters in your comment.
      As to Gal 5:6, I understand the middle/passive form of the verb here to have a middle-voice sense: “faith working (itself out) through love”. And contextual statements just a few lines later, 5:13-15 seem to me to support this, the whole Torah being fulfilled in the one command to “love your neighbour as yourself”, and also “love” as the first (and I take it principal) “fruit of the Spirit” in 5:22. I’m puzzled that you find this idea a “worry”.
      I have to say also that I find your phrasing/posing of matters . . . well, a bit tendentious and distorting to the discussion, Douglas. E.g., how is faith a “virtue”, something acquiring merit? To be sure, in some theologies (Bultmann’s prominent among them), “faith” is defined as a kind of abstract/bare principle or special form of religion, over against “works”, “law”, etc., and is almost totally removed from the historical context in which Paul’s frequent references to “faith” emerged. In my view, whenever Paul refers to “faith” he always means “faith in Christ (as God’s surpassing provision for salvation)”. For Paul, it is not the act of faith that saves but the object of faith. And faith is simply the summoned human response to God’s provision in Christ, no more meritorious than is a drowning man grasping a lifeline thrown to him. The lifeline saves him, but he must respond to it.
      And why are you so allergic to the idea of God’s judgement, when Paul seems to refer to it emphatically and a number of times (e.g., in addition to the texts I mentioned, Rom 14:10-12), and warns about certain behaviours blocking entry into the Kingdom of God (e.g., Gal 5:19-21)? Of course, God’s passing negative judgement isn’t in Paul’s discourse the attribute or action that he prioritizes. Instead, obviously, it is God’s gracious provision in Christ and the consequent offer of redemption to all. Indeed, I would say that the reference to Christ’s “pre-existent” role in creation in 1 Cor 8:4-6 (my pal, Jimmy Dunn’s view to the contrary notwithstanding) suggests that Paul may have thought of creation itself as “Christ-shaped”. So, in that sense at least, God’s redemptive purpose precedes even creation (to say nothing of human sin).
      But the universal dimensions of Pauline salvation-thinking are not incompatible with his also contemplating some being disobedient to the Gospel. Might you be trying to collapse unduly a complexity (NB: contra Raisanen, not a contradiction) in Paul’s discourse? After all, he wasn’t Karl Barth, spending all his time pondering great thoughts and wrestling with 18 centuries or so of Christian theology. Paul was a missionizing agent of the Gospel, an heir of his biblical/Jewish religious tradition, significantly “re-configured” by Christ (as Paul came to perceive him). And his letters express his efforts to defend the legitimacy of his gentile converts/mission over against other Jewish-Christian views, and his efforts to consolidate, correct and nurture those converts. Athanasius, Arius, Augustine, Luther, all of them great figures, but their issues weren’t his, and I rather think that it’s not terribly helpful to read Paul’s letters as if they were. (Yes, that’s a gentle expression of a concern that this might be a feature of your approach. No offence intended, just candour.)

      • Douglas Campbell permalink

        I think it really is time to read the book Larry, because you have stated a set of positions here as if they were criticisms of my work, when, barring the first minor quibble over Gal 5:6, I agree pretty wholeheartedly with all of them. The difficulty I am addressing in DoG is a reading that as I see it precludes taking all these positions more broadly in Paul–one introduced into his description by later church dynamics. So if you want to say what you say here consistently and coherently, you will need Deliverance, so to speak.

        And, yes, it isn’t terribly helpful to read Paul simply as later great figures have, especially if they got him wrong. I couldn’t agree more. But you now need to take your own advice and purge your description of such vestiges. And DoG should help you here.

        (Probably to our mutual relief, I’m going to have to sign off this thread for a bit; grading, conferences, and doctoral examinations are all pending. I will dial back in in a couple of weeks. But I have enjoyed the to and fro. Thanks for engaging me so helpfully.)

      • Yes, thanks for giving me (and other readers) the courtesy of your time and engagement with my blog posting and subsequent queries. Emeritus as I am now, I can only offer sympathy in your examining and marking!

  3. Douglas Campbell permalink

    A fair question, but one I hope I do work toward elucidating at various points in DoG.

    I’m actually concerned with a particular reading of some of Paul’s texts that leads to a particular theological account being unleashed within his broader description. I’m very specific about that account. It’s a contractual construal of Paul’s “justification” texts. And this is in fact one of the main reasons why I start DoG with a model, rather than with traditions and names.

    NT scholars have called this reading “Lutheran” in the past, but I think this is sloppy. Luther is both for and against it. And it is very unfair to tar all subsequent Lutherans with this brush. Melanchthon I think is far more strongly committed to it, although not unequivocally.

    So I am only pushing back on a reading of Paul that has been with us for 25% of his interpretative history. It had antecedents, but nothing quite like this. Moreover, I am doing so basically for Reformed reasons. So think of my project as an attack on a vulgar Protestant, especially “Lutheran,” reading of Paul in the name of Calvin and his modern descendants. In doing so, however, it becomes possible to offer a more catholic reading as well, and one in greater continuity with the Patristics. The “Lutheran” reading is pretty much absent from the church fathers, as far as I can tell. The terms are there but the model of sola fide is not, which is the key point. So I find this accusation that I’m doing something new really really puzzling. I’m actually making a plausible retrieval project possible.

    Note, Larry, however, that a key tactic on the part of my critics has been to deny that I am attacking anything real at all, although if this is the case, then I find their vituperation fundamentally inexplicable. I actually think that my critique is right on target. Hence the blowback.

    Unfortunately, Paul’s justification texts are read in the main today in this strangely modern contractual or conditional way. Name a commentator on Romans, and they do it. It’s as if his interpretation in these texts has been taken over by Southern Baptists (and I say this with due apologies to my friends and students who are more discerning SBs).

    A lot of said commentators deny doing this later on, and read Paul differently in other texts, but then the result is just a muddle (and, worse, a vindication of Räisänen’s charge that Paul does not make sense on all the key issues–and who wants that!).

    I hope this helps Larry. (Thanks for responding BTW.)

    • A couple of short questions, to which I hope you can give a short (!!) reply: And maybe the reply should be “read the damn book!”
      Question: Are you claiming that Paul couldn’t have thought that there will be a final judgement, and that human behaviour will be a major factor in that judgement?
      Question: Are you claiming that Paul did not agree with the sort of view of universal human bondage to sin that most commentators read in Romans 1–4? I must be very dense, for I don’t immediately see the huge tension you allege is posed by these chapters vis-a-vis Romans 5–8. Again, brief please.
      Question: If you agree that the human response of “faith” is now demanded and sought by God, and enabled through the declaration of the Gospel, how would you distinguish (concisely) between this legitimate role of faith-response and the allegedly “contractual” view of faith that you condemn?

      • Douglas Campbell permalink

        Question 1: No–although quite a bit depends on just what you mean by “major factor.” Romans 2 is actually unique. The text itself states that salvation will depend entirely on works. There’s no way around that position in this text. I don’t see Paul ever commit to this in his judgment texts elsewhere. They look to me like accountability scenarios. It’s the difference between a job evaluation and a job interview–quite significant. But there’s another critical distinction in play here that must ultimately not be overlooked.

        This is all about whether God’s “no” precedes and grounds God’s “yes,” or whether the “yes” precedes and grounds the “no.” Barth wrote about 12 books on the differences between these two sequences. The former is a theological disaster; the latter is what I take Paul to be committed to–the gospel. If this distinction is not intelligible, then what is at stake in my book in relation to Romans 2 will not be either, and neither will the problems underlying this sort of protest against it.

        Question 2: Well…. I do think Paul is committed to human depravity, and I take Paul to be stating that in Rom 3:9b-18. But this commitment is very problematic when it is aligned with natural theology, as Calvin well knew. And any strict accountability scenario in terms of salvation is also now in acute tension with it. We now have a kangaroo court in Romans 2. (We also have a major problem brewing with election.) So my work is in part an attempt to take Paul’s commitment to depravity seriously.

        Question 3: It all depends on the sola. Faith is a critical part of a full-fledged Christian response to God’s work in Christ; it is a key Christian virtue, among others; see esp. 1 Cor 13:13; and Gal 5:22-23. But if it is elevated to the only “condition” that Christians must fulfill in order to the saved, then you’re into a completely different, and theologically debased, soteriology. Paul never uses “sola” (monon–although James does!, see 2:24). Luther was of course so put out by this that he added it to the Pauline text! But it wasn’t and isn’t there. Big big mistake.

        That’s as brief as I can be–good questions.

      • Douglas, you wrote: “Romans 2 is actually unique. The text itself states that salvation will depend entirely on works. There’s no way around that position in this text. I don’t see Paul ever commit to this in his judgment texts elsewhere.” I presume that you refer specifically to Rom 2:5-11? If so, I guess it depends on how you understand the wording of the passage. Taking (as I do) Rom 2:12-16 as referring to gentile-believers who “do not by nature have the law” but fulfil its requirement through having God’s law written on their hearts, I’ve taken 2:5-11 as referring to the “doing good” that is what Paul calls “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). The wording reflects very much a traditional idea of God’s judgement, but Paul’s *reference* reflects his view that a positive response to the Gospel now comprises the “good works” required. (I myself see no significant place for “natural theology” in Paul, so that’s not relevant.)

        As to whether the idea of judgement of “works” is so unique to Rom 2, don’t we have a similar statement in 2 Cor 5:10; and how about 1 Cor 6:9-11; or 1 Cor 9:24-27, among others?

        I grant you that Paul prizes “love” (esp. Gal. 5:14). But he does speak of securing a faith-response to the Gospel as pretty crucial (again, e.g., Rom 1:5, and v. 16), and in Gal 5:6 focuses all that “counts for anything” on “faith working through love”.

        I can’t debate Luther, Melanchthon, et alia, and I can only admire your confident statements about such a wide sweep of theological history. I’m simply trying to penetrate what you want to say about Paul.

  4. Douglas Campbell permalink

    Larry, thanks for this respectful introit. A couple of clarifications might help from this point on though that I respectfully submit by way of response. Your final comments are not quite on the mark, at least as I understand things.

    (1) I have a particular account of freedom and agency in play in relation to election, as articulated especially by Romans 5-8 (although more recent publications articulate that more fully that DoG). So I am NOT arguing that God’s gracious initiative and human response are “incompatible”–far from it. I would want to argue strongly, however, that a certain account of human freedom–in terms of “choice”–IS incompatible with election, properly conceived. And that is an account that marries with modern cultural accounts of freedom, which I take to be basically Liberal. So we modern readers need to be a bit more self-conscious about the notion of freedom that we are bringing to the text. (DoG ch. 9.)

    Hence (2) responses in faith to the Gospel, properly conceived, are absolutely fine. I have no argument with proper articulations of these. But (3) the usual reading of Romans 1-4–i.e., the usual construal of that text’s argument–does not permit these healthy accounts of election and freedom in Paul. I mean by this the construal of the argument in foundationalist terms, working up from certain self-evident propositions. This READING is unavoidably conditional and hence contractual.
    Note, moreover, that this argument commits the Pauline analyst so persuaded to particular accounts of judgement and divine wrath (and freedom), and in particular critical dogmatic locations. This is the problem I grapple with–rather less than some suggest, but sufficient trouble for the day. I am entirely happy with other, better positioned accounts of judgment and divine wrath and freedom, and indeed am strongly and fully committed to them. But this critical clarification is why I am recently referring to the key differences between Athanasius and Arius.

    Given the conceptual damage that I see what is basically a recent particular Protestant construal of Romans 1-3 doing, I suggest we resolve our problems by reading the argument socratically. So it’s not, strictly speaking, just a rhetorical reading. It simply suggests that the first paragraph in the argument, vv. 18-32, does not end up representing Paul’s position, and it suggests this because it wants to suggest ultimately that “works of law” is not part of Paul’s own theology–a standard claim in some Pauline quarters of course.

    Martyn, in other words, is in my view the way forward on all these issues. And I do not think this assignation of the first paragraph’s reference is too radical or extensive. Many assign longer texts in Rom 7 and 2 Cor 11 to other voices. And it may be that Paul and his opponent agree on quite a bit in Rom 1 in any case (I think they do); but Paul doesn’t want to put this material up front, so to speak. And that’s a critical difference–as big as the difference between Barth and Brunner, or between Athanasius and Arius.

    Well, I’ve ended up going on a bit longer than I thought I would. But I hope this is nevertheless a helpful set of clarifications. The argument of DoG has been so widely and fundamentally misrepresented that sometimes I hardly know where to start.

    • Douglas, I’m happy to post your extended comment (a length of comment I hope others won’t offer, but one that is due you as the object of my posting), and to have your clarifications on some points. I suppose that it would have been helpful (or would now be helpful) for you to indicate more explicitly those versions of Pauline theology that you see as NOT subject to the rather severe pasting that you dole out to alleged “contractual” forms of “justification theory”. The impression often taken (and relayed) is that you are presenting things as “Campbell contra mundum” (i.e., somewhat like Athanasius!). If that is how you see things, then it’s a “big ask” to get readers to grant such a privileged insight into Paul after all these centuries. If it isn’t what you mean, it would be helpful to indicate your allies.
      I take it that J.L. Martyn is one?

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