Let me start by saying that I’m in awe of The Deliverance of God. There hasn’t been a book of its kind since Sanders, pressing us to take a long look behind ourselves and then ahead again with new lenses. Parts of it need to be read at least twice for proper digestion, so don’t expect to breeze through it curled up on the couch with a brandy snifter. In addition to the required mental exercise is the physical, which you’ll get from lugging the damn thing around: it comes in at 936 pages, 1218 including endnotes. Is it worth all the effort? Unquestionably.
Douglas Campbell, the author of this massive tome, wants Paul to be unconditionally clear. But two opposing theories of salvation frustrate clarity — “justification” and “transformation”, the former derived especially from Rom 1-4, the latter from Rom 5-8. Deliverance declares war on the former and seeks to uphold the latter as the only scheme truly present in Paul’s letters. This entails a complete rereading of Rom 1-4 (the “citadel” of justification theory, as Campbell calls it) which in turn prompts rereadings of other texts like Rom 9:30-10:21, Gal 2:15-21, and Philip 3 (the “heartland”). The result is a uniform transformation theory emerging from all the texts.
Justification theory is usually associated with the “Lutheran” reading of Paul, but Campbell insists this is misleading since Luther’s theology makes use of transformation theory too. Ditto for Augustine. We should give these guys a break, he says, and just call it the justification reading. But what exactly is justification theory, and where does it come from? It turns out to be “an amalgam of a particular reading of various Pauline texts and a theory of salvation that, given certain key elements, simply must develop in certain directions a a matter of sheer rationality” (p 12). I won’t present Campbell’s entire outline of the theory, as he perceives it, but we need a good summary to understand what he’s up against.
The justification theory implied by Rom 1-4 (but which Campbell will refute), and embraced in varying degrees by later theologians (like Augustine and Luther), goes as follows (see pp 15-29):
Humans are rational and capable of accurate theological reflection, and thus ethical. God is just and is known to everyone, and his ethical demands are revealed to Jews through written legislation, but are known to everyone else innately. Reward and punishment will be appropriated by God on the basis of righteous actions — “on the basis of desert” — with any earthly injustices rectified by a final judgment. Since humans are inherently sinful — that is, they violate God’s ethical demands, and probably often — honest self-reflection concludes that God’s final judgment will be largely negative. Fear of the final judgment causes people to either renew their attempts at righteousness (falling into a “loop of despair”) or retreat into self-righteous denial, boasting, and hypocritically judging others (the “loop of foolishness”). God generously redirects the punishment due sinners onto Christ, who being sinless and divine offers limitless satisfaction through dying. He stipulates a manageable criterion, faith, so that humans who choose it will receive a positive evaluation on the day of judgment and so inherit eternal life. Ethical guidance is still necessary, but it doesn’t provide the basis for salvation. The relationship between humanity and God thus remains conditional and contractual, but much more manageable with the single criterion of faith in place.
The transformation theory implied by Rom 5-8 opposes justification theory in every way (see pp 63-73). And Campbell loves it:
Humans are ignorant and incapable of accurate reflection — a disorderly mess. They inherit Adam’s being, or “flesh”, and are oppressed by evil forces that were released in the garden of Eden. They need to be rescued before they can even begin to think and behave properly. God initiates an elective saving action by sending his son to be martyred in the flesh and raised to an existence which provides a new template for humanity. Christ entered the human condition, assumed it, terminated it, and is now reconstituted in heaven where he continues to intercede — through the spirit — for people still mired in the flesh. Through no choice of their own, humans are rescued from slavery (in Adam) into a new form of slavery (in Christ), which leads to eternal life. Only in hindsight does it become clear how desperate the prior condition was in Adam. Only now is it seen that humanity is trapped and enslaved under all sorts of forces — including the law. But with the spirit no further ethical guidance is necessary, for that would only provide more opportunity for sin and the flesh to exploit. The relationship between God and those in Christ is unconditional and apocalyptic, liberating the believer who participates in death to await resurrection.
Campbell thus needs to launch an assault on Rom 1-4, the “Citadel of Justification”, and prove that Paul’s theology is not what it seems to be in these chapters. He argues that Paul does not in fact portray a prospective scheme of sin (Rom 1:18-3:20) which leads to faith (Rom 3:21-26), because the former section doesn’t represent his thought. Rom 1:18-3:20 is another gospel, that of Paul’s opponents in Rome. These opponents share the same allegiances as the previous ones in Galatia and are identified with the troublemakers in Rom 16:17-18. The teacher of Rom 2:17-24 represents these Jewish Christian opponents, and the entirety of Rom 1:18-3:20 represents the views of this teacher whose commitments are being manipulated by Paul in order to extract important concessions from him under threat of self-contradiction. “What a bitter irony,” says Campbell, “it is to have construed Paul’s brilliant attack on foundationalism as a foundationalist discourse for so long” (p 760). But how does Paul go about this?
First he uses a speech-in-character (Rom 1:18-32), mimicking the teacher’s “fiery rhetorical entrance which is lit — like that of so many preachers — by the flickering backdrop of hell” (p 529). Following this he finds his own voice (Rom 2:1-3:20) but still reproduces the teacher’s own program (not his own) so as to fling the teacher’s beliefs back in his face. In effect, it’s a reduction to absurdity of his opponents’ gospel which eliminates a set of supposed Jewish advantages. The result places Jews under as much sin as pagans (Rom 3:19-20), which gives the illusion that “sinning” segues into (or necessarily leads to) “faith” (Rom 3:21-26). That, says Campbell, was never Paul’s intent. He wasn’t setting the stage for his gospel but undermining a rival gospel.
By this ingenious inversion of Rom 1:18-3:20, Campbell is able to save Paul from notorious inconsistencies. The most notable one is the statement that pagan non-Christians can be righteoused by the law (Rom 2:13-14). That’s not Paul’s view, but a projection of the teacher’s opening assumptions, intended to embarrass his demand for circumcision and his definition of “true Judaism”, and then to mock sinful Jews at the judgment. Honest critics like Sanders have separated this section from the rest of Paul’s thought because it’s so “not Paul”, while most critics attempt some kind of harmonizing gymnastics. Campbell has given us an out that works. It’s unfortunately wrong.
Let me stress that Campbell deserves credit for owning up to the serious problems of this section in Romans — problems usually ignored or “solved” with the wave of a harmonizing hand. And he’s surely correct that Rom 1:18-3:20 does not reflect Paul’s gospel. He notes the passing allusion to Christ and “my gospel” in Rom 2:16 (p 558), which would indeed be redundant if the surrounding content were the same. In spite of this I do believe Rom 1:18-3:20 sets the stage for Paul’s gospel in a prospective way that Campbell cannot abide. Paul seems to be drawing on standard Jewish soteriology and cheerfully speaks of non-Christian salvation by the law in Rom 2:13, because it’s a chimera and will be exposed as such by the point of Rom 3:20.
As for why Paul is representing material that doesn’t represent him, Philip Esler has a good answer. Ethnic strife in the Roman church demanded that Paul level the playing field between Jews and pagans in different ways, which inevitably entailed focusing on the status of the two groups before they embraced the common denominator of Christ. Only when rival groups are equal in status but share different backgrounds or expertise are they usually able to respect the other’s contribution to the group. (When they’re equal in the same way, they tend to compete with each other destructively — a lesson Paul learned the hard way from preaching the earlier formula of I Cor 12:13/Gal 3:28.) In illustrating how Jews and pagans can be (hypothetically) righteoused by the law, and both (in fact) liable to judgment, but in different ways, Paul accomplished an extremely urgent objective in Romans. There’s no need to complicate the picture with speeches-in-character, oblique counterpoints, and rival gospels. There were doubtfully Jewish Christian missionaries in the Roman church anyway (Campbell is reading a lot into Rom 16:17-20); the situation was quite different from Galatia.
Justification’s citadel remains standing, I’m afraid. But the value of Campbell’s project is that it forces us to come to terms with justification and transformation when their full implications are teased out. On a philosophical level I find this fascinating. But we shouldn’t do violence to Paul by eliminating the scheme we hate. Just because the solution of faith preceded the problem of works doesn’t mean he couldn’t present a prospective scheme when it suited his purposes. We know he was at home with difficult ideas. Take his death metaphors. Sacrifice, scapegoats, redemption, and martrydom are radically different concepts — scapegoats actually the complete opposite of sacrifices — and yet Paul embraced them without embarrassment. He wasn’t terribly troubled by his theoretical inconsistencies. If anything he was bothered by the question of God’s consistency, and was fully capable of making himself inconsistent in order to exonerate God. (Thus Rom 7 corrects the perverse claim of Gal 3:19-24, as does Rom 9-11 for Gal 6:16.) He was concerned about his reputation more than a pristine theology, and by Romans especially the need to play fair ball — “to the Jew as much the Greek” — so as to promote harmony within diversity.
And really, is it such a hard idea that Rom 1:18-3:26 is prospective, as long as we understand that Paul arrived at it retrospectively? Campbell has no problems treating Rom 7:7-25 this way, so why not Rom 1:18-3:26? (The answer, of course, is that he loathes justification in all forms, but adores transformation). Retrospectively, Paul sees a hopeless and frustrated humanity in need of rescue from bondage and sin, and thus portrays a prospective scenario in which the law leads one to cry out for deliverance (Rom 7:7-25). Likewise retrospectively, he sees a humanity incapable of pleasing God much as they think they can, and so depicts a prospective scenario in which the law leads one to faith (Rom 1:18-3:26). Neither reflect Paul’s psychological state before his conversion, and yet both depict a non-Christian’s plight (including his own) as seen in hindsight, no matter how befuddled we are when reflecting on all of this philosophically.
Let’s tease this out further, because the two schemes aren’t as adversarial as Campbell makes them out to be. They complement as much as contradict. Rom 1:18-3:26 shows that Jews anger God by sinning as much as Gentiles do, despite having the law, while Rom 7:7-25 shows that Jews are as much under the power of sin as Gentiles are, precisely through the law. The former emphasizes one’s incapability of pleasing God, the latter one’s incapability of resisting sin. The former underscores human choice in accepting Christ’s expiatory/propitiary sacrifice (in place of doing the works of the law), the latter God’s elective choice in transforming the believer (who dies with Christ in baptism). The former claims that believers still uphold part of the law (even if Paul can never demonstrate this lame assertion), while the latter declares that believers obtain the best the law promised but never delivered, by a new route — the spirit. To say that these schemes are completely contradictory is an exaggeration. They are contradictory in places, and exist in tension with each other, but that’s theology for you.
The question of Paul’s coherency is a huge one that I’ll be addressing in my own book, and it cuts to the heart of my problem with revisionist projects like this. We’ll never solve the Romans puzzle by holding Paul to an unreasonable standard. His theology is realistic precisely because it’s so interactively complex and fraught with dualisms. The spectre of Raisanen will always haunt us to an extent, and it should.
But Deliverance is more than a new reading of Paul’s justification texts in view of opposing salvation schemes. It’s a sharp assessment of the New Perspective’s deficiencies, and in my view where it truly delivers. (It’s also timely in this matter, since I’ve just embarked on a similar project.) The nature of Judaism is reappraised, Paul’s conversion remeasured, the Protestant Reformers consulted afresh. Axioms we’ve been fed since Sanders unfold as half truths and non sequiturs. It’s time for a new era of Pauline studies to take wing, and the first half of this book is a road to liftoff.
On the question of covenantal nomism, Campbell refines Sanders’ corrective, and even manages to rehabilitate legalism within its frame. It’s become taboo to even think of ancient Jews “earning salvation”, but ideas of obligation, desert, merit, and self-interest are, in and of themselves, appropriate ways of representing aspects of a conditional arrangement — which the Jewish covenant certainly was. It was given unconditionally (the grace behind election) but had to be fulfilled conditionally (by the law, atonement, etc), and would likewise at some future point be evaluated (at the judgment) (see p 103). If there’s a difference between the legalistic aspects of ancient Judaism and other religious systems, it’s only at a high level of abstraction.
There’s nothing inherently bad about legalism — perhaps this point is too obvious to appreciate in a post-Holocaust age — since it just refers to an ethical system based on desert (one gets what one deserves by working for it). The problem is that the term has been associated with negative psychological states — “hypocritical”, “cold”, “selfish”, and “calculating” (p 106) — especially when associated with perfectionist legalism. As long as we realize that ancient Judaism wasn’t perfectionist (as Sanders rightly demonstrated), and as long as we keep psychological baggage away from the term, it’s perfectly accurate to see legalism as a component to covenantal nomism. It was married to grace from the get-go.
But does rehabilitating legalism make the old perspective right? “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Campbell. The Jewish covenant made thoroughly reasonable demands, and in fact “there is little reason for a Jew to abandon legalism and the law” (p 121). What the old perspective needs is a perfectionist legalism (like that of medieval Catholicism), and again that doesn’t apply to the first century.
In that case, what is gained by acknowledging a legalistic dimension to Jewish soteriology? Simple. When Paul employs mercantile metaphors (as in the notorious passage of Rom 4:4), he’s not necessarily playing dirty pool, far less speaking an alien language that needs to be worked over by modern revisionists. It’s common for people everywhere to characterize ethical systems in terms of currency, and for obvious reasons. Again, this needn’t imply either a perfectionist or psychologically debilitating system of religion.
That’s just the opening sally of Campbell’s critique; there’s plenty more. Where things really get interesting is by the end of the book’s first half he categorizes four types of revisionist strategies going on in the New Perspective (acknowledging there can be overlap between them) (pp 412-413):
(1) Generative Reframing (e.g. Francis Watson, Philip Esler)
(2) Editorial Reframing (e.g. Ed Sanders, Heiki Raisanen)
(3) Motif Rereading (e.g. James Dunn, Tom Wright)
(4) Comprehensive Rereading (e.g. Stanley Stowers, Mark Nanos)
Reframers concede the basic correctness of the conventional (“Lutheran”) reading of Paul and focus on reinterpreting the circumstantial frame for that reading (see pp 414-440). They tend to construe Paul’s reasons for arguing badly (or “Lutheranly”) in a sympathetic light — he was in a heated polemical situation and not at his best; he was struggling with theological dilemmas as a consequence of central convictions; he was making up his arguments as he went along to get converts; he was trying to establish leadership over certain social groups. Reframers acknowledge the Gentile issue as accounting for the origins of Paul’s conflict with the law, but don’t necessarily see that issue present in his arguments at every turn.
Rereaders challenge the conventional (“Lutheran”) reading itself, whether by focusing on particular semantic units (motifs), or by giving the Pauline texts a complete overhaul (see pp 440-466). Thus “works of the law” are boundary markers distinguishing Jews from pagans rather than legalistic requirements; Christ is “the end of the law” only in the sense that the role of the Torah as a badge of national election is over; God’s saving action in Christ is an act of covenant faithfulness to include Gentiles in the scope of salvation; Paul may have even had a two-track plan of salvation, with Jews still saved by the law. Rereaders see the Gentile issue present in key texts, if not just about everywhere.
(I should point out the considerable overlap between Campbell’s four categorizations and the three I’m planning to use in my book. Both groups of reframers fall into my category (A), motif rereaders into my category (B), and comprehensive rereaders into my category (C).)
Campbell objects to reframing strategies primarily because “they seek to marginalize the difficulties historically and biographically (or editorially) rather than actually removing them — the hermeneutical equivalent of taking painkiller while a fatal disease continues its deadly progress” (p 415). This naturally begs the question. What if those difficulties simply cannot be removed? What if the conventional reading is (at least partly) inherent to Paul’s meaning? What if we’re stuck with the disease?
Rereaders are almost apriori committed to a program of coherency, and as I’ll be arguing in my book, that damns their project in advance. It’s ironic that Campbell endorses the most revisionist strategy of all (comprehensive rereading), since it’s associated with “hyper” New Perspective advocates like Stowers (see p 459). We’ve seen how he rereads Rom 1-4 (1:18-3:20 isn’t Paul, and 3:21-4:25, isolated from that previous block of material, squares with the transformation theory presented in Rom 5-8). I’m a reframer (a cross between editorial and generative, I suppose, since I find Sanders, Raisanen, Watson, and Esler equally compelling about different things), and say that Campbell’s rereading not only strains credulity as much as those he tries distancing himself from, but is governed by an underlying agenda shared by all rereaders, namely, the desire to make Paul push a “single” attractive gospel. For New Perspective rereaders, it’s an ecumenical or anti-apartheid gospel. For Campbell it’s a neo-Protestant one. Oddly enough, he’s able to reclaim a Protestant Paul completely on his own terms, and candidly admits to it:
“The solution that I am aiming toward is deeply Protestant if not Lutheran. [!] To put things at their simplest, only if my rereading is true is it possible to affirm coherently Paul’s slogan that ‘God justifies the ungodly’, since he means by this that God delivers the wicked from their enslavement to Sin, when they cannot deliver themselves, and thereby demonstrates his unconditional grace and love. Alternative construals of this slogan are caught by irreconcilable contradictions and theological conundrums — issues of theodicy, capacity, and so on. But in affirming the slogan in this sense we of course being loyal to some of the central insights of Protestantism and of Luther. Furthermore, only now is it possible to affirm coherently Paul’s construal of ‘sanctification’, which he seems to discuss with such profundity in Romans 5-8, elevating this material now to its rightful status. Paul’s account of sanctification is his gospel… It requires no supplementation by other systems.” (p 934)
I’m not sure which is worse: the old Lutheran Paul or this new one. But I think Campbell’s apostle is more Calvin than Luther. He champions the subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou (see pp 641-647), which is a house of cards and an attempt by some to smuggle Calvinism in through the back door. With Campbell I think that’s exactly what’s going on.
What do I think of The Deliverance of God? My head is still spinning. It’s a milestone in appraising three decades of a new approach to Paul which has blinded as much as illuminated. It demands that we think outside the box, get outside the box, and seize new possibilities. It makes a brilliant stab at meeting its own demands, but ends up snared — caught in the same kind of vise choking Dunn, Wright, Stowers, and Nanos. Paul has been reduced, his theology lacerated. Wrede and Schweitzer did him more justice with less tools. Justification theory is present in Paul, even if only as a weapon to claim ground in a Jewish-pagan context. It’s subordinate to transformation theory, but not a mirage.