Final Words on Campbell, Deliverance of God

Here is my final post on Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. [Click here for a search that should turn up the rest!]

This is the part I’ve been dreading, because I know Douglas will hate me for it, cast aspersions upon me for “not understanding” the importance of the work, etc. But here it is…

This would have been an incomparably better book had the first 466 pages not been appended to the front.

1. Problems with “Justification Theory”

a. An early phase in Campbell’s argument is to lay out “justification theory”–a soteriological model that moves “forward” from an apprehension of God’s just displeasure at the sin in the world through a person’s recognition of this to an introduction of Christ as the means of deliverance.

Campbell’s articulation of this position is exceedingly detailed and complex. As I mentioned in one of my earlier reviews of the volume, it becomes so detailed that I end up failing to recognize this “theory” as belonging to any real life person.

b. In response to this “straw man” objection, Campbell shows how justification theory(hereafter “JT”) actually corresponds to a particular reading of Romans. However, this is no answer to the straw man objection, because the theory itself is so clearly derived from what Campbell takes to be JT’s reading of Romans 1-4.

c. The closest that I can see someone comes to affirming something like Campbell’s “JT” is a classic post-Reformation justification soteriology. But tellingly, Campbell has backed off of his previous identification of this position as the “Lutheran” reading of Paul. The shoe doesn’t quite fit the Lutherans, and it leaves me wondering who, in fact, it is supposed to fit.

d. As a further point along this line of argument, as I said, the closest approximation of JT that I can come up with is a Reformation-influenced soteriology. But interestingly, Campbell finds that strong statements of election and/or predestination are incompatible with JT, which he takes to be entirely voluntarist. In other words, the Calvinistic passages in Paul are incompatible with a Reformed-like, classic “justification theory”!

e. This leads to a final problem with JT, that will be related to my next area of critique: the position is not handled and understood “from the inside out,” as an actual Reformed commentator has made the point and developed the argument. Instead, it is handled from “the outside in,” developing a theory that entails any number of points that “must” be held given certain other commitments–and so Campbell ends up critiquing a system of his own devising rather than the position of any (group of) commentator(s).

f. This weakness of the book is not just nit-picking! Campbell asserts that “JT” is not only the dominant reading of Romans (?!), but that it is the best, most credible alternative to his, that his reading solves all of its problems, and that one must therefore from this point on always adopt Campbell’s reading because of the way that it solves all of JT’s conundrums. Everyone else has underestimated the problem, thereby trapping themselves in too facile solutions, and so we need this entire project to set things right (931-36). Campbell simply won’t convince many to follow him down that road. In part, this is because of problem 2..

2. Problems with Everyone Else

After working through the problems with justification theory, Campbell turns to recent efforts to reread Paul–efforts of Stendhal, Sanders, Watson, Dunn, Wright. Astonishingly, after reading through all of these, and even noting how their readings solve some of the problems Campbell perceives in JT!, Campbell dismisses these all as not only offering inadequate solutions to how we read Romans, but as offering no improvement whatever on JT! He concludes that JT is really the only reading that has any claim to coherence and viability as an alternative to his–but that after listing over 50 problems with it!

In truth, Campbell’s book builds very much on these earlier studies, is simply one step further along the path of understanding Romans than several of these other readers have been able to come up with, and is not successful at establishing the either/or alternative (Campbell or JT) that it strives so ardently to do.

In light of this (which takes us to p. 466), my assessment is that the first 1/2 of the book weakens the overall argument by trying to do too much. Perhaps some of the more important elements (helping us realize how deeply embedded certain JT readings are in church history, for example) might have been covered in 20 pages, but otherwise I recommend that the reader start reading on p. 467.

3. Problems with “the Teacher”

Campbell suggests that the strong denunciations that begin in Romans 1:18ff. are not Paul’s own position, but the view of “a teacher” whom he is opposing. I just have a couple of thoughts on this, issues that need to be addressed before Campbell’s reading will be largely persuasive:

a. Campbell does not give a strong explanation of the γάρ (“for”) that begins a new “voice” in the letter. This is problematic not only because the connector seems to conjunct 1:17 and 1:18 but also because elsewhere in Romans the contrasting voice in a diatribe is clearly marked by rhetorical questions and the like.

b. Part of the reason why we need “a teacher” is because otherwise so much of the argument looks mis-directed, mid-representative of Judaism, etc. But once one has established a plausible theory for how Paul’s critiques could have a viable target, then the need for that particular argument is undone! No longer do we have to see these arguments as lacking a plausible object.

c. Campbell wants to reject much of the material in Rom 1-2 as incompatible with Paul’s thought, and yet we find those very same components in other letters and clearly in Paul’s own voice: God’s wrath, judgment based on works, opposition to homosexuality, condemnation of various stereotyped sins, etc.

While there is certainly a theology with which each of these is incompatible–but apparently it’s not Paul’s. And with this, much of Campbell’s project starts to crumble under its own weight. The book is clearly making a number of decisions based on theology, theological compatibility and coherence, etc. But as much as I’d like to follow down the road that Campbell has cleared for us, the fact that so much of the theology explained away as belonging to “the teacher” is actually Paul’s theology elsewhere raises serious questions as to whether that road will take us to the apostle himself.

I do not wish to end on this note, however, From p. 601 through the end the book presents a masterful reading of Romans, many parts of which will no doubt win the day as exegetical roadmaps to the understanding of the letter. The world of Pauline scholarship is shifting, advancing by fits and starts, and Campbell’s work is an important step both in confirming what has come thus far and in taking the next step forward.

One thought on “Final Words on Campbell, Deliverance of God

  1. Though this comment comes 5 years later, I must thank you for a thorough review of Campbell’s book that notes the good and the bad.

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