The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul

Campbell, Douglas A.
Eerdmans (2009)
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Douglas A. Campbell's monumental book on Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans is the greatest work on the subject since the work Martin Luther never quite wrote; but whether it will have an equivalent impact on faith and life is doubtful even though Luther's actual impact on faith and life is frequently and falsely conflated with his undoubted impact on ecclesiology. And this provides an important clue to evaluating the long-term impact of Campbell because he spends a massive amount of energy on constructing and then de-constructing a perfect, two-stage model of Justification Theory when history shows that the theoretical/theological detachment of earthly conduct from salvation was nothing but an esoteric theological construct. If human conduct and popular belief are anything to go by, the Irish monk who developed a Confessional tariff book was the second most important person in Christianity after Jesus himself. Luther had hardly nailed his Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral when he was forced to turn by sheer force of circumstance to define acceptable standards of human conduct; and Puritans are not called Puritans for nothing. For although there is something superficially attractive in throwing oneself wholly upon the mercy of God in the hope of being saved, our human psyche reacts much more fruitfully to the ability to exercise control over the soteriological process by meeting the terms of a contract; and therefore to the extent that Campbell sees justification theory as contractual, he is correct. The paradox is surely that although, as Campbell points out, Justification Theory appeals to the Western European notion of autonomy by calling on the individual to commit to God, practical autonomy lies in the Pelagian model.

Campbell's book is uncannily similar to John Rawls A theory of Justice (which he briefly cites), even down to the way it is neatly sub-divided but whereas Rawls devises his theoretical "Original position" of what people would mutually consent to behind a "veil of ignorance" before going on to show why what they chose is peculiarly apposite for our times, Campbell painstakingly constructs a Justification Theory which he then methodically destroys before passing on to show how that theory has disastrously affected the way in which we both deliberatively and sub-consciously - the latter subverting the former - read Paul's most difficult letter. His grand rereading depends upon the notion that the letter was not only supposed to be read aloud but to be performed as a dialogue between Paul and a Christianised (but not Christian Jewish) "Teacher", identical in stripe to opponents in Galatia and elsewhere, who is threatening Roman traditional Christian orthodoxy. Paul skilfully - and possibly not always fairly - devises the argument which the "Teacher" has been erroneously presenting to Roman converts which explains, Campbell says, why so much of the text is confusing and contradictory when it is read univocally.

The Justification Theory is based on a two-sage process. In the first a rational, self-interested individual knows the God of justice - as all human beings do - from the cosmos and knows God's ethical concerns from the conscience within; God is an omnipotent, cosmic law-giver and judge of a justice which is retributive and desert-based, bound to reward the righteous inevitably and punish the guilty implacably. In short, the theory requires the prior perception of a forensically retributive God; one must do no less and no more than what righteousness requires; an identical model of what constitutes righteousness is written into every person's heart but has been made more specific in Judaism and so Jewish unrighteousness will be particularly culpable; but as the model applies to all, the Jews are representatives of Everyman. In a sense, all are Jews until they become Christians. The statement is conditional and therefore contractual. The justice will not be earthly but eschatological, with God sending people to heaven or hell. Perfect righteousness is required to attain heaven but nobody will attain that perfection. Reflection shows that we will all be damned; and rational people fear the consequences and seek to avoid the catastrophe but those who deny their fate are foolish and this desperation points people towards the Christian Gospel; people are not in a cul-de-sac of damnation but in a vestibule.

But there is a second contractual phase: the death of Christ satisfies God's requirement for justice and that solution is appropriated by the desperate sinner through faith. Christ's satisfactory and sacrificial death is definitive; his sinlessness and divine status provide limitless, monopolistic, atoning value so that sinners are justified or discharged and, some adherents claim, they are clothed in Christ's righteousness.

This model of justification is, says Campbell, isomorphic with a critical cluster of terminology in Romans revolving around 'faith', 'righteousness' and 'works of law' (in single quotes as the traditional renderings of the Greek). The saving action of the sinner is 'faith' - again, no more and no less - in Christ. Campbell sees this model, with its anthropological individualism and theological retribution, as peculiar to an egotistical turn in Western European thought but, paradoxically, one which subverted the ego.

Campbell then goes on to explore a mass of what he sees as conceptual difficulties before embarking on an exhaustive exegesis of the key texts in Romans and to a lesser extent in Galatians and Philippians. The argument turns critically on the alternative translation of the word in Greek which is usually translated as "faith" which is applied to the individual, as in: "... we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (AV Romans 3.28) when the word should not be understood and translated as the attribute of the individual believer but as "the faithfulness" of Christ which makes a radically different, "apocalyptic" reading possible. This new perspective is then applied through a word-by-word re-examination of key texts, building to a series of grand conclusions which, among other things, show that Romans 1-4 and other key Justification texts in Romans and elsewhere on the one hand and Romans 5-8 on the other are in no way contradictory or puzzling but actually reinforce each other when allied with his thesis that the supposedly strong Justification texts are words in the mouth of the "Teacher" and not Paul.

Campbell concludes: that the act of faith for Paul is retrospective, following on from his coming to know the loving Christ, rather than prospective in response to a retributive God before coming to Christ; that the essence of faith is not standing back while the blood of Jesus is counted out against our transgressions but is participation by the believing community in Christ through the work of the Spirit which is redundant in justification theory; that, far from being a renunciation of "works of law", faith requires a profoundly ethical stance, reflected in action; and that belief in Christ turns not on the atonement of the Crucifixion but on the eschatological centrality of the Resurrection which is also redundant in justification theory. In sum, an apocalyptic, eschatological reading of the supposed Justification Theory "citadel" of key texts both accords with the Pauline oeuvre but, more critically of course, coincides with our understanding of the Gospel which Jesus preached of a benevolent and not a vengeful God.

It would be ungenerous not to quote part of his own conclusion that the 'righteousness' of God is a: "... singular, saving, liberating, life-giving, and eschatological event, in which being is inseparable from action. ... the subtle evocation of the ancient discourse of kingship, by way of Psalm 98 in Romans 1.16-17, suggests) nuancing this sense further in terms of 'the right act' of God, the divine monarch, on behalf of his appointed royal representative, Jesus. And this took place concretely in God's resurrection, heavenly enthronement, and glorification of Jesus as the Christ". 

It can be seen from that single text that this book is both sweeping and granular but the former depends critically on the latter and its overall thrust is profoundly satisfying although it is occasionally marred by Campbell's supreme self-confidence as he methodically demolishes every scintilla of Justification Theory supposed to be in Paul's key texts. He is merciless to his opponents and his polemical tone is occasionally at odds with his painstaking scholarship, sustained by the use of the military metaphors of "citadel" and "heartland" to characterise the traditional reading; but he is surely correct on two counts, even though the polemic blunts his conciliatory message: first, his reading is profoundly Protestant because Paul asserts that God delivers the helplessly wicked from their sins, showing his unconditional grace and love; and, secondly, it is ecumenical because the traditional Catholic elements of trinitarianism and sacramentality are congruent with and not contradictory  to Protestantism.

Overall, the exposition and demolition of 'pure' Justification Theory is masterful and fascinating but ultimately not so important as the complete demolition of the doctrine of atonement. No less important is the restoration of a full Trinitarian reading in place of one which makes a nonsense of the sacred economy of mutual accord and makes the third 'person' redundant. But for Easter children the key inversion is surely the centrality of the Resurrection 'over' the Cross.

I found the theory of dialectical performance utterly convincing, not only in its exposition but also through reading passages where Campbell allocated parts to Paul and his opponent and am only sad that in a book of this size he could not find room for a complete 'performing' edition. One hopes that will soon follow as a vital teaching aid. In the meantime, this monumental work will show whether those who preach a doctrine of a literal understanding of Scripture will be able to take a very large dose indeed of their own medicine, engaging Campbell in hand-to-hand combat, clause by clause and often word by word as a necessary precondition for establishing a coherent reading. For my part, I have to admit to a degree of partisanship: in a lifetime of theological study I have never been able to understand the terms 'righteousness' and 'justification' in a Christian context; and at least I now know why.

IN a modest conclusion which belies his earlier definitive claim for the apocalyptic rereading over the traditional Justification reading of Romans, Campbell hopes that his lifelong work will open new vistas and so do I but so far reaction to this stupendous book has, in view of its scope and claims, been muted both in initial reviews and rejoinders. It deserves much better.

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Study Notes