On Doug Campbell’s Proposal

In 2009, back when I thought I had a future in Biblical Studies, I bought and read Douglas Campbell’s tome of interminable length, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: 2009) I was impressed by his breadth of reading as well as his depth of thinking. He spent a great deal of time explaining various difficulties concerning what he terms justification theory. Those problems alone apparently required over 100 pages of end notes. The problems are enumerated on pages 168-172. He outlines his understanding of the common Christian understanding of Salvation (Justification Theory) and the problems with it on pages 28-29.

I appreciate Campbell’s hard work and his effort to point out problems of logical incoherence in popular and scholarly explications of the gospel message. That effort alone should prove useful. Campbell also deals well with the question of Paul’s coherence as a thinker in a preliminary way on pages 12-14 and in a more meta-way in 461-930. The problem with his treatment in the later chapters is how much he relies upon his brilliant but unexpected and eccentric (in the best sense of the term) rereading of Paul. He is also one of the few writers I know of who has cited David Bentley Hart’s essay on Anselm’s theory of Atonement (which is marvelous). Those nice things aside, there are some serious problems with his proposal.

What is his proposal?
His proposal is that Paul’s gospel, in Romans, is not fully explained until Chapters 5-8 and that the discourse related to judgment upon ungodliness in Romans 1:18-3:20 is actually a form of “speech-in-character” debate/dialog wherein the condemnation of sin in Romans 1:18-32 and the various utilizations of the Old Testament in chapters 2 and 3 are examples, not of Paul’s thought, but of the false teachers whose influence he is inoculating the Roman Christians against. The implications for this, in Campbell’s mind, are vast. In one sense, based on his rereading, people who utilize the concept of moral law to help people see their need of the atonement are actually preaching the message Paul preaches against!

The Problems

  1. The picture of Paul in Acts is of somebody who preaches a message very similar to that of the other Apostles. James Dunn, David Wenham, Mike Bird, and Scot McKnight have all argued successfully in my mind, that the early gospel was very similar to the content of the four gospels. If Paul preached that and adaptations of that, it is difficult to discern how his message in Romans 5-8 is his gospel qua gospel rather than an apocalyptic description of what the gospel does for the Christian community and how the gospel redefines the meaning of human history. That does not make Romans 5-8 untrue or not useful for explaining the gospel. It just means that those chapters are part of the gospel or the implications of the gospel (and thus they are gospel) but not the gospel. In other words, it appears that Campbell’s approach leaves us with a gospel message that has very little or perhaps no room for the actual ministry and teachings of Jesus beyond his incarnation (as a concept) and his apocalyptic death/resurrection/ascension/return. 
  2. When I read Campbell’s I had just met Chris Tilling (at SBL) and he told me that it was a big, big deal. That’s why I bought it. The book is a big deal, but I had also started reading the rhetorical manuals and was always a fan of the Socratic Dialogs. Thus when I heard Campbell defend his thesis at SBL that year (Mike Gorman is the only person I recall being on the panel), I was very excited to read whether he could make the case for speech-in-character. I wasn’t super impressed. I saw his argument as possible and not remotely probable. And in Chris Tilling’s volume Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul: Reflections on the Work of Douglas Campbell, Robin Griffith-Jones seems to put Campbell’s arguments to rest. I could be wrong, I haven’t read Campbell’s response yet, but Jones’ material comports well with my own conclusions based upon the manuals.
  3. There remains a fairly serious difficulty in Campbell’s approach when he attempts to reread Romans 9-10 with speech-in-character (in my opinion here and Romans 7 are the most realistic places to see this). He ends up saying that the nation of Israel is culpable for rejecting God’s righteous act in Christ (which I think is Paul’s point there all along). The problem with this is that Campbell appears to be lapsing himself back into a Justification Theory reading of Paul (771-821). He is careful to define Israel’s ‘unbelief’ in a very specific way. “It is that they have repudiated the coming of God…(821).” Even though Campbell then reminds us that belief in the gospel is merely assurance/evidence of salvation, not a sufficient criterion, for Paul’s argument to have any force, he needs to be saying more than, “My people weren’t rejected by God, they rejected God and thus have no evidence that God has delivered them.” Even the evidence at that point would be the gospel that they found compelling and thus would be a piece of information that they received (and Campbell is very concerned to make sure that the gospel not be a piece of data to which people cognitively assent because in Justification Theory that is the crux of the problem.)
  4. Campbell’s theory is difficult to find outside of his book in church history. That’s not a reason to reject it. It is simply puts perspective on such a radical redefinition of Paul’s preaching when compared to the past few centuries of Christian theology, interpretation of Romans, and preaching.

There is much to applaud and enjoy in Campbell’s book. I hope he releases a shorter volume that simply proposes the theory and briefly outlines its results with a brief appendix explaining what he sees as the major problems of Justification Theory (rather than the several hundred pages of problems). It might the case that, if his theory is so important for evangelism (he is explicitly critical of many evangelistic organizations in endnotes 11-16 on pages 1005-1006), that he make some pdf files available so that pastors and college ministers can weigh his case against Scripture without having to buy a 1200 page tome that they might not be able to follow. I understand that he might be circumspect about these things because he wants the academics to debate the merits of his case, but I think the gospel on the ground floor of church work is where Campbell’s critique is (if true) most apt, despite its academic analogs.




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