As part of our guest blogging initiative James Clarke & Co is pleased to bring you this insightful post by Sam Bostock who is currently studying a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Union Theological College, Queen’s University, Belfast.
Douglas Campbell is one of the most important and interesting of recent writers on the Apostle Paul. He is a prominent, if somewhat isolated, member of what is called the ‘apocalyptic’ school of Pauline interpretation. In this post we will briefly introduce Campbell’s work to new readers.
At the centre of Campbell’s ouvre is the 1,200 page tome The Deliverance of God: An apocalyptic rereading of justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009). Supporters have claimed that it is “potentially the most high-impact work on Paul since E.P. Sanders“, whose 1977 work Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress Press, 1977) can be fairly said to have launched the New Perspective on Paul movement that has dominated the field of Pauline scholarship since.
Others are less impressed: in a critical review Barry Matlock asserted that Campbell has “zeal for Paul but not according to knowledge” while N.T. Wright recently called Deliverance a “remarkable book”, and then devoted almost 40 pages to critiquing it.
When one begins to look more closely at Campbell’s proposals it seems odd that his work would generate so much debate. Although Deliverance covers an enormous amount of ground, at its heart is an idiosyncratic reading of Rom 1:18-3:20. Campbell suggests that large sections of this text, notably 1:18-32, do not reflect Paul’s own theology at all. Rather, they are part of a ‘Socratic’ dialogue with a Judaizing false teacher, in which Paul reduces the Teacher’s ‘gospel’ to absurdity by parody and by pointing out the inconsistencies in his argument.
Campbell advances this reading against what he suggests is the dominant historical reading of Romans 1:18-3:20 (which he calls ‘Justification Theory’). In Justification Theory, 1:18-3:20 develops a kind of rational argument in which Paul convicts every human being that they have “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, as a preparation for hearing the gospel, which Paul explains in 3:21 on. Without this traditional reading of Romans 1-3, Campbell thinks, no-one would think that Paul’s preaching of the gospel was anything like this.
So why does this matter? Campbell sees two massive problems with Justification Theory. Together, they threaten to wreck our understanding of God and the gospel. The first problem is that Justification Theory suggests Paul argued “forwards” – moving from general principles about humanity that everyone knows to specific conclusions about sin and the need for the gospel. The problem with that, Campbell says, is that in other places, e.g. Romans 5, Paul argues “backwards” – he starts with the unique event of Christ’s coming at the end of the ages, and rethinks everything in light of this apocalyptic event. The traditional reading of Romans 1-3 not only makes Paul look inconsistent, but worse, it allows normal human reasoning to make the incarnation seem like the result of logical argument. Surely, Campbell asks, the revelation of God in Christ is bigger than that?
The second problem with Justification Theory is that it presents salvation “in terms of two contracts, the first one universally failing and the second one appearing more generous”. God gives humanity a hard task initially, and when we (inevitably) fail, he sends Christ so that we need only believe in him to have eternal life. The problem Campbell sees here is that this outline of the gospel presents God as fundamentally contractual; a God of rules rather than a God of self-giving love. Read Romans 1-3 not as a way to be convicted by sin before hearing the gospel, and instead as a demolition of a false gospel, before the real gospel is presented in Romans 5-8, and we see a God not of contracts, but of sheer grace set forth in Christ: “God, who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all…”
Anyone familiar with the theology of Karl Barth or the Torrance brothers will be recognising some of the themes here, and that is no coincidence. Campbell’s is a highly theological reading of Paul, influenced at root by reading two essays by J.B. Torrance. This, along with his detailed description of Justification Theory, makes his work difficult to digest: Campbell’s proposals are so big that they touch on a wide variety of areas and disciplines: doctrine (of revelation and salvation), theological history (early, Reformation and modern) and highly technical exegesis are all rolled into one in Campbell’s massive work.
Anyone wanting to begin to think about Campbell’s work would do well to take a look at a volume of essays published by James Clarke & Co. Bringing together papers from two conferences devoted to discussing Campbell’s work, they feature original (and short!) essays from Campbell himself, along with responses from scholars in a range of disciplines, with the two seminal essays by J.B. Torrance reprinted in an appendix.
Few readers will find themselves agreeing fully with Campbell’s proposals, but I suspect most will find themselves grateful for being forced to think more carefully about how they read the great apostle of grace.
Sam Bostock is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Union Theological College, Queen’s University, Belfast and was studying Douglas Campbell for a paper.
If you would like to read more on Douglas Campbell’s work in Pauline studies then you may be interested in Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul: Reflections on the Work of Douglas Campbell edited by Chris Tilling. Click through to find out more or to buy the book.
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