The case against (and for) coercive violence in Paul

Douglas Campbell has a curious and ambivalent excursus (89-94) appended to the section in The Deliverance of God in which he claims that Justification theory and the ‘alternative theory’ of salvation drawn from Romans 5-8 differ markedly in the place that they accord ‘coercive and violent punishment’. For the alternative theory

not only suggests that coercive violence is not part of the divinely endorsed response to wrongdoing but implies that it may itself be an evil, which is to say that a key axiom within Justification theory must actually be repudiated as evil. (89)

That, of course, is quite a statement, but there is some back-pedalling done in the excursus, which makes it sound as though it was added as an afterthought in the light of critical feedback.

The heart of Campbell’s argument against coercive violence in Paul is christological:

The central defining dimension in Paul’s soteriology—the cross—is emphatically noncoercive and nonviolent. (Coercion and violence are of course received by Jesus at this point.) And according to Paul, Christians are saved by their participation in it. (89)

The other arguments put forward—Paul’s boasting in his sufferings, his metaphorization of military language—mostly flow from this contention. In the balance against this view, however, Campbell concedes, with evident reluctance but commendable integrity, that the language of ‘wrath’ is present throughout Paul and not merely in the standard Justification theory texts. I find his argument, nevertheless, unsatisafactory in two respects.

First, Campbell assumes that the language of wrath and judgment in Paul refers uniformly to a final judgment. But there is no good exegetical reason for this, and it does not do justice to Paul’s argument. ‘Wrath’ in the Old Testament and almost universally in the texts of second temple Judaism refers not to a final judgment of God but to a proximate judgment that will be realized through historical events. The interpreter, therefore, has to consider whether Paul is thinking in essentially these terms when he speaks of wrath first against the Jew and then against the Greek (see also ‘Jew first, then Greek in Campbell’s The Deliverance of God’). Old Testament precedent would suggest that this means wrath against Israel followed by wrath against Israel’s menacing imperial antagonist—not an undifferentiated final judgment.

If this is indeed the case, then Paul’s entire argument in Romans (and elsewhere) must be framed differently. The core terminology of wrath, faith, righteousness, salvation and gospel will be seen to refer not to the dynamics of personal salvation, whether by way of justification or participation, but to moments in what is essentially a national, or at least corporate, narrative. Personal options and outcomes must find their place secondarily within that narrative.

Secondly, I think that at least here Campbell overlooks the fact that the violence that came to be directed against Israel is understood even in the New Testament as an outworking of extreme sanctions stipulated in the covenant, and that Jesus became, in effect, an innocent victim of this. If nothing else, his death on a Roman cross was a symbolic anticipation of the severe suffering that the Romans were to inflict upon the Jews in the course of the war, not least by crucifixion. It is this historically contextualized narrative—and not Jesus’ death in some sort of narrative vacuum—that determines the sense of the argument about an atonement for the inveterate sins of Israel. It also, I think, provides the starting-point for understanding the perplexing relationship between Romans 1-4 and 5-8.