Review of “The Deliverance of God” by Douglas A. Campbell

Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

Salvation has been understood in terms of “justification by faith” for a long time. While the phrase itself is important in a few of Paul’s letters, what is “justification by faith” in all of its complexity? And is it the best or even most Biblically accurate construal of salvation? According to Douglas Campbell “justification by faith” has taken on a particular yet very complex form—one that cannot be pinned to one tradition, but touches all in some way. It has developed over time and influences the very bedrock of commonplace Christian thought and practice. It is married to a particular reading of Romans 1-4, yet it is fundamentally not Pauline. For Douglas Campbell, this understanding of salvation which shapes Christian existence has several problems as it has come to be understood and needs to go. This is the burden of Campbell’s book, The Deliverance of God, which contains 936 pages of text and 241 pages of endnotes—both full of complex argumentation—toward this end.

The argument proceeds in five parts and, like a traditional reading of Romans 1-4, moves the reader from plight to solution. The overall goal of parts 1-3 is to describe for the reader the plight: the hopeless and broken reality of “justification theory” (the sinful state). Part 1 (six chapters, 218 pages) describes “justification theory” in all its complexity and its problems (from here on I will frequently use Campbell’s abbreviation “JT”). Part 2 (chs. 7-9) offers methodological clarifications and descries the cultural and political influences on “justification theory” that have contributed to its problematic status. Part 3 (chs. 10-12) explains JT’s textual basis in Romans 1-4 and points out where JT leads to a problematic reading of Romans 1-4. In parts 4 and 5, Campbell describes the way of salvation alternative to the way of death (faith). In part 4 (chs. 13-18, 292 pages) Campbell gives his “rereading” of Romans 1-4 that does not have the problems of the typical JT reading under the reign of “sin.” In part 5 (chs. 19-21), Campbell then explores how his new reading changes the shape of other significant “justification” sections in Paul’s letters.

The book is too massive and complex to even summarize well in a typical book review, let alone offer any worthwhile evaluative comments. Lengthier book review articles fail to address the fullness of this book. I hope in this short space to adequately describe the very basic lines of argument, focusing on parts 1, 3, and 4. I will conclude with a few general comments.

The Plight

A significant “conundrum” that has plagued Pauline scholars since Wrede in 1904 serves as Campbell’s starting point: is Paul’s theological center “justification by faith” and the establishment of a “forensic” righteousness imputed to those who profess faith, or is it “participation in Christ” and the “transformation” of the life of the believer? The textual center of this debate is the tension between Romans 1-4 and 5-8. While many have been content to explain the tension in terms of the theological categories of “justification” and “sanctification,” Campbell is not. Indeed, “justification theory,” which steers Christian thought, is the culprit for the tension, as well as other exegetical problems that plague Biblical scholars and threaten to render Paul an incoherent thinker. For Campbell Rom. 1-4 and 5-8 each present quite distinct theories of salvation, and Romans 5-8 does not fit the “justification theory” reading that steers the Christian ship.

What is “justification theory”? According to Campbell’s description, it is a “soteriological theory” that essentially follows along the lines of the “Four Spiritual Laws” plan of salvation. Campbell’s description of JT in summary form (which he develops in pages 11-35): (1) God has created an order according to which there is a way to live by which to attain salvation, and (2) individuals are accountable to this. (3) This is called “the law.” It is known through the Old Testament law, but also through nature and human conscience. However, (4) individuals are incapable of attaining this standard (think Bondage of the Will), and (5) are thus under God’s judgment. (6) God has sent Jesus Christ to pay the price for the individual’s sins, and (7) thus made a way for the individual to be reconciled to God. (8) One needs only to possess faith, and thus receive Christ’s righteousness. The correct demonstration of faith in Jesus Christ places the individual in right standing with God and the individual is thus a recipient of salvation. Problem solved.

For Campbell the main problem with JT concerns its construal of how God effects salvation. JT articulates a theory of salvation that is individualist, conditional, and contractual (3, 11-35). It centers on a modern “individualist” understanding of the human person and her relationship to God; salvation is the domain of the individual and the individual’s position before God. God is a God of retributive justice, and JT demands a “conditional” understanding of salvation that is granted in relation to the individual’s actions. On the one hand salvation is not granted because the individual cannot rightly perform certain actions in accordance with God’s law, and on the other hand it is granted on the basis of another human action that replaces the obedience desired—“faith.” The theory is “contractual” in that the understanding of salvation depends upon and is the result of an exchange or a deal between two parties: God and the individual.

When (Campbell’s description of) JT is set in conversation with (Campbell’s interpretation of) Romans 5–8, it becomes clear that, as the saying goes, “Houston, we have a problem.” For Campbell, Romans 5-8 stipulates that humans are enslaved by the flesh, under power of sin (not “sins”). Salvation results from God breaking in to human existence on a rescue mission to save humanity. This God is not a God of retributive justice, but a benevolent God who wants not to judge, but to “transform” and “deliver” humans out of their oppressive condition (62-65, 75); “they need to be rescued first and then taught to think about God and to behave correctly” (63). This is not a contract with a demand, whether “works” or giving mental assent to a claim and professing “faith.” Humans are incapable. No mental assent of faith is necessary. Salvation is an unconditional act of God for the purpose of transforming humanity through Spirit-led participation in Christ. Faith is the ongoing participation in God’s work.

According to Campbell, JT demands a certain two stage development that leads the convert forward from a problem to its solution: one must recognize one’s despair as an individual sinner characterized by failure to keep the law. Then through professing faith one may receive salvation. But the problem is that according to JT humans cannot rightly choose or accept God. How can they rationally assent to the act of faith? If JT modifies itself to say that the Spirit enables belief, then the first stage is nullified—the individual cannot be held accountable for that which she does not know or cannot do. In other words, the solution must line up with the problem. The problem is that JT has developed a theory of salvation that is dependent on and wrapped up with rationalism, political individualism, and capitalistic modes of existence (292-308) that assume God works in the same ways. But for Campbell, neither God nor salvation work in these ways.

On the basis of Rom. 5-8 and other passages in the Pauline corpus, Campbell argues that Paul reasons the other way around. His starting point is God’s revelation in Christ, not Western-European ways of structuring human existence. This is not quite the same as E.P. Sanders’ famous “plight to solution” vs. “solution to plight” dichotomy; Campbell is suggesting something more complex than the directionality of Paul’s thinking about salvation. For Campbell the issue is fundamentally epistemological. JT fails at a foundational level because it constructs the plight from the standpoint of human frameworks that construct humanity and God in particular ways, and interprets the meaning of Jesus in light of them. For Campbell, one must conceive of God’s salvation on the basis of “Christ alone” and work from there. As he says, “(I)n the light of (the) revelation of salvation, people perceive that their initial condition was dire indeed” (74). That is, one does not reason one’s way to salvation by first recognizing sin, failure, and depravity.

One significant problem that derives from the forward-thinking contractual nature of JT has been exposed through recent scholarship. Because JT requires a particular pre-Christian stage, it has imposed this upon Judaism, which has led to characterizations of Second Temple Judaism as “legalistic” and of “works righteousness.” It has become clearer that these characterizations are more of a fabrication of Reformation thought than historically accurate descriptions of Second Temple Judaism. Second Temple Judaism as we now know it is not Luther’s Judaism, which may have looked more like the Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day than historical Judaism of the first century. The conclusion: God’s work of salvation must be understood differently. Campbell’s point opens up for interesting new ways to conceive the proclamation of the gospel. As Campbell suggests, the true “Pauline” proclamation begins with the word of transformation and hope in Christ, and from that basis identifies where such transformation and hope needs to be effected in particular contexts.

JT also possesses “intrinsic difficulties” (problems with the logic of the theory) and “systematic difficulties” (problems in relation to Paul’s thought throughout his letters). Intrinsically, for example, Campbell argues that the theory is inconsistent at several points. Systematically, JT conflicts with evidence from Paul’s letters, particularly Romans 5-8. One interesting point Campbell draws attention to is that one finds a constant ethical demand in Paul’s letters (especially in Romans 5–8) that has little place in JT since it so removes the emphasis on right ethical living because of human incapability that is never really overcome in the JT model. As Campbell puts it, “(JT) has a serious ethical crisis. It has no convincing way of generating significant ethical behavior from its converts” (82). One sees this in the nearly allergic reaction many Lutherans experience when “works” are demanded of them, or in the question about the third use of the law. Paul’s argument in Romans 5–8 allows little room for a simul iustus et peccator sort of perspective that often goes along with JT, because it is thoroughly transformative rather than contractual and conditional (cf. Rom. 6 and 8).

To this point in the book, Campbell has primarily described JT in theoretical terms. Other than its ideological dependencies and assumptions about humanity deriving from modern philosophical and political individualism and liberalism (289-309), what is the Biblical basis for JT? JT derives its strength from Romans 1-4, which Campbell calls the “citadel.” Campbell, however, argues at length that even Romans 1-4 does not spell out JT, at least the version Campbell described in the first six chapters of the book. There are “overdeterminations”—places where Rom. 1-4 says things that JT does not require, that cause problems for JT (the Gentiles who keep the law in Rom. 2:14 is a key example). There are also “underdeterminations”— claims of JT that Rom. 1-4 does not stipulate (338-411).

The Solution

In light of the cumulative weight of the problems with JT, Campbell’s solution is to “re-read” Romans 1-4. By “re-reading” Romans 1-4, Campbell wishes to offer a reading that makes better sense of Rom. 1-4, given the problems with the conventional reading rooted in “justification theory.” Most significantly, Campbell wants to re-read Rom. 1-4 so that it better aligns with Rom. 5-8. His re-reading, because it does not issue from JT, will not have the problems and the “over/under-determinations” that JT does. This will then take significant ground away from JT and will press toward offering an alternative theory of salvation to JT, one that fits more smoothly with Pauline thought as a whole, and is, in Campbell’s mind, better theology.

Campbell first argues that Romans is not Paul’s systematic treatise on salvation, and Rom. 1-4 is not Paul’s systematic description of the plight of humanity—both Jew and Greek—under sin, preparing the way for the gospel. Rather, Campbell argues that Paul writes to address the influence of “countermissionaries” in Rome, to deal with “another gospel” that has shown up in Rome. Particularly Paul writes to address the perspective of “the teacher” who thinks that Paul has left Gentiles with no ethical roadmap, and thus still in a state of sinfulness and opposition to God. Without the law and circumcision, the Gentiles in the Roman community remain “on the bubble”; they are “in a state of false security” (570).

Second, he argues that Paul uses the ancient mode of diatribe in Rom. 1:18-32 to write in the voice of “the teacher,” writing as if it were the Teacher giving a speech (520-47). It is “the teacher” who, from a Second Temple Jewish perspective, claims that God will judge humanity on the basis of their failure to recognize God and their subsequent idolatry and immorality. Believers in Rome must adhere to the Jewish law to live pleasing to God. In Rom. 2:1–3:20, Paul continues to engage with the Teacher through a universalization of his argument and then by pointing out the problematic implications (547-600). Paul’s essential problem is this: the law and circumcision are equally “ethically inadequate” (570). No new conditional contract will suffice; they do not transform. It turns out that in much of Romans 1–4 Paul is arguing with a Jewish teacher who essentially holds to a version of “justification theory.” In the end, the contractual and conditional “gospel” of the teacher saves no one. Humanity needs transformation, not a new deal.

Some (Very General!) Evaluative Comments

One of the strengths of Campbell’s book is that it attempts to provide a thick description of “justification by faith”—offering an account of its textual base as well as the complex social, ecclesiological, and ideological forces at play that all contribute to create the understanding of the gospel which is common to Christianity. This is worth the book itself. His description is challenging and penetrating, forcing any adherent of JT into critical evaluation mode. While one may wonder who actually holds to the view he describes, one cannot dismiss his caricature altogether. Reading his book and then attending several church services in which the gospel is preached, I have heard Campbell’s caricature too often—both in details and in terms of foundational substructure—to conclude that he has missed his mark entirely. Several common Christian clichés flow from it like the rivers from Eden: the Protestant idea of imputation, or Luther’s “sweet swap”—that Christ’s righteousness is transferred to the individual, with the result that God only sees Christ when he looks at the one who possesses faith; the Reformed notion of total depravity or Lutheran bondage of the will; Luther’s famous simul iustus et peccator; the idea that if I were the only person on earth, Jesus would still have died for me; the idea that those who do not profess the right articulation of “faith” in Jesus, or have not said the sinner’s prayer, are in soteriological danger. It is not that just one or the other of these flows from JT; they all do, according to Campbell’s description. The close association of these common ideas with JT, and with each other, forces the careful reader to re-evaluate.

Campbell also places in the face of the careful reader a very important point: all understandings of the gospel and of salvation are inevitably married to the cultural and ideological forces of particular time and space—even the well-loved “justification by grace through faith.” It is not that justification is not Biblical. Its expressions can all too easily spread in nasty directions when let out in the wild and subordinated to popular cultural thought. But this also applies to Campbell’s own alternative. What cultural and ideological forces underlie Campbell’s entire project? Campbell, though certainly wiser than this, seems unreflective of the hermeneutical lenses which he brings to the project and a questioning of the legitimacy of many of his hermeneutical moves is well in order. No theory and no scholar has a “God’s-eye-view” of things, and all attempts to explain salvation have their problems. This is good to bear in mind, as even our best exegesis is short-sighted and faulty. Campbell raises the importance of not only being careful and deliberate readers of Scripture, but also hermeneutically aware proclaimers of the gospel.

On to the criticism. I will be very general here. The sheer length and complexity of the book functions as nothing less than a massive wall, keeping at a distance all but the specialist with the attention, vocabulary, and sophistication necessary to scale the wall. The demand placed on the reader is such that all strength is gone by the time one gets to the real payoff of Campbell’s “re-reading” of Romans. If only Cambpell’s writing had been clearer and his argument more streamlined! Time and again I found myself re-reading entire sections to grasp what he was getting at, wondering why a particular sub-sub-point was necessary to the argument. It is often difficult to follow Campbell’s steps, and at times one wonders if the chapters could have been organized differently. Interestingly, in a response article, Campbell admits to the benefit of an alternative reading of his book! The ironic problem is that Cambpell’s intention to challenge and overturn a widespread view of salvation will reach only a few. The damage is unfortunately self-inflicted.

Campbell’s rereading of Romans 1-4, while possessing several very insightful points, has its problems, as many have pointed out. It is an intriguing but not a convincing alternative. I can see Paul working with language and ideas that his audience held, and then transforming their understanding; but I find it difficult to recognize that all of 1:18-32 is Paul writing in “the teacher’s” voice, if there even was one specific problematic teacher in Rome. Campbell’s rereading does not solve all of the problems with how to understand the law in Romans 2. More detailed interaction with Second Temple Jewish literature on the function of the law would help here. Finally, I still cannot get a grasp of how Campbell conceives the “problem.” Clearly humanity needs saving, but why? Campbell is remarkably elusive when it comes to defining the standard according to which there is a problem. Humanity is in need of a rescue, enslaved to the flesh, under the power of sin. This much Campbell admits. Have they not violated God’s law? Or is humanity just enslaved to sin and the flesh by accident? Cannot Paul have reasoned from God’s unconditional saving act in Christ and identified a violation of God’s law as the plight?

Although the result of Campbell’s book may not be a clear defeat for “justification by faith” or “justification theory,” he nevertheless succeeds on several fronts: in persuading the careful reader to re-think the overall value of “justification by faith” as it has been expressed, in challenging the reader to face head-on several potential problems with JT, and in offering multiple important points along the way toward a better understanding and application of the important points of Paul’s theology. I recommend this book, especially for pastors. Campbell’s book should be read widely, not necessarily because he is correct, but because no one else presents such a thorough challenge to what many hold so dear. And Campbell has the good intention of making sure we are proclaiming the same gospel that Paul proclaimed.

Kyle Fever is adjunct professor of New Testament at Wartburg College and the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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