In revisiting Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God, I’m struck (even more than on first reading) by how unique Paul is made out to be when compared to his later interpreters. Readers unfamiliar with the book should consult my review for thorough summaries of the justification and transformation models in order to understand what follows.
Early in the book Campbell chronicles the writings of theologians like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon in order to assess the “ratios” of justification to transformation in each, and the mixtures naturally vary. For instance, Augustine reached a point where he abandoned all aspects of the justification model in favor of transformation.
“It is fair then to claim that the early Augustine — who should be characterized as neo-Platonic and even semi-Pelagian — supports Justification’s initial premises, but the later or mature Augustine, evident from at least 396 CE onward, certainly does not, and would doubtless be appalled at any such suggestion!” (p 282)
In the case of Luther’s later writings, however, aspects of both models became accentuated.
“Luther seems to betray little cognizance of the fact that [his Transformation doctrine] causes acute difficulty for his endorsement of Justification… The contradiction is absolute.” (p 270)
The obvious question prompted by Campbell’s assessments (which I take to be fairly accurate) is simple: if Augustine’s thought evolved and changed, and if Luther’s theology became increasingly contradictory over time, why can’t Paul’s thought have evolved and changed, and why can’t his theology have taken on tensions and contradictions the more he thought about things? Campbell’s project puts me in mind of the Jesus-questors of the ’90s who thought it implausible that Jesus could have been apocalyptic and sappiential, or that he fasted and feasted, or that he attached positive valence to honoring one’s parents as much as hating them — all on account of inconsistency. You’d think that historical critics, by this point, would be comfortable respecting the biblical figures as human beings.
For all their differences, Augustine and Luther shed light on the apostle’s own thought process. Paul went in the opposite direction of Augustine. Where Augustine first harped on justification issues and later abandoned them (almost completely) in favor of transformation doctrine, Paul began in reverse (“the solution preceding the problem”, as Sanders famously put it), with aspects of justification theory resulting as (almost inevitable) consequences of transformation beliefs. This, in turn, made Paul as contradictory as Luther (whose direction of thought was also opposite that of Paul’s), in the sense that justification is as much present in his thought as transformation is (especially in his later thought, witness Rom 1-4 and 5-8 respectively) — and we don’t need to whitewash the justification texts (esp. Rom 1-4) anymore than scholars of Luther try claiming that the Reformer didn’t mean what he said half the time.
As I noted in my review, I don’t think justification and transformation are quite as contradictory as Campbell makes them out to be, especially by the standards of Paul’s day where human will and divine election went hand-in-hand. Many of the tensions are judged as such (and quite understandably) by the horizons of modernity. Yet it’s fair to grant Campbell at least some incoherencies between the two models. What we can’t grant is that Paul was incapable of being incoherent himself.