how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Campbell’s The deliverance of God: three problems, one culprit, two books

I got my hands on Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God only at a late stage of writing The Future of the People of God and could not make more than limited and very selective use of it. That may have been just as well—in any case, I have now picked it up again with the half-hearted intention of reading the whole darned thing properly.

In his remarkably brief and rather elegant introduction Campbell sets out three common problems and a single but complex culprit.

The first conundrum is that scholarship has so far failed to produce a convincing account of how Paul’s argument about justification in Romans 1-4 connects with the argument about participation in Christ in Romans 5-8.

The second has to do with the apparent contradiction between the now widely accepted argument of E.P. Sanders that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not ‘legalistic’ and Paul’s own rubric that ‘a Jews is (not) justified through works of law’.

Then, thirdly, Campbell suggests that there is currently no scholarly consensus regarding Paul’s reasons for writing Romans.

Campbell thinks that these three problems have a common underlying cause:

A single culprit seems to generate our difficulties, namely, a particular individualist—and so possibly also rather modern—reading of Paul’s justification terminology and argumentation that devolves into a conditional understanding of salvation (that is, salvation is granted in relation to individual actions). It therefore also construes Paul’s soteriology… in fundamentally contractual terms. (3)

So, in the first place, the systemic focus on the individual’s rational decision in ‘Lutheran’ readings creates a tension with the emphasis on divine initiative in Romans 5-8. Secondly, it necessitates an understanding of pre-Christian existence as the failure of legalism that is ‘vulnerable to falsification in empirical terms’. Thirdly, such an approach ‘largely removes its chosen Pauline texts from any contingency’, and so ‘it now seems small wonder that scholars have struggled to give an account of the specific circumstances that called forth Romans in particular’ (5).

Campbell will have his own solutions to the particular issues he highlights, but I will take the opportunity here to offer an extremely brief and suggestive summary of my approach to these matters in The Future of the People of God, which at only 179 pages is a much easier read than Campbell’s behemoth of book. It’s possible that in 900 pages time I will look back at this and think, Well, I got that wrong! But from my hurried reading last year and from what I have gathered from reviews, I think that’s unlikely.

It will help if we take the question of underlying cause first. Much of the difficulty we have with Romans arises from the fact that we assume that Paul’s intention was to communicate a generalized atemporal theology. That reflects a hermeneutical perspective quite at variance with Paul’s own concerns, which centre on practical historical outcomes: What will happen to his people? How will the emerging communities of a renewed Abrahamic family survive the impending turmoil of eschatological transition? What impact will the presence of these communities have on the pagan world?

While I agree that a rational individualist-conditional-contractual understanding of Paul’s theology underlies these problems, it seems to me that there is a prior hermeneutical condition which has allowed the modern construction to gain such power over the text. This is the failure of the historical imagination, and I would venture to argue that the three problems that Campbell identifies may be quite easily resolved once the historical existence of the communities that must be the vehicle of his theology is moved into the foreground—though there is clearly much more to the argument than can be reasonably indicated here.

1. It is by being a suffering people in Christ, emulating Christ, participating both symbolically and literally in his death and resurrection, that the largely Gentile community in Rome will be pre-eminently the sort of ‘offering of the nations’—understood in sacrificial and martyrological terms—by which, first, the people of God would be publicly justified, and secondly, YHWH himself would be shown to be righteous in the eyes of the nations. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be separated as an isolated atoning event from the story of the suffering and vindication of the community.

2. A fundamental flaw in the mainstream debate about justification and Pauline soteriology generally is the failure to recognize the historical dimension to Paul’s language of ‘wrath’ and judgment. There is no theological or exegetical basis for the assumption that in Romans Paul has broken away from the prevailing Jewish view that the ‘wrath’ of God is directed not against all individuals but against particular groups of people—the Jews, for example, or the Greeks—and is manifested through catastrophic or otherwise transformative historical events.

The argument, therefore, about judgment and salvation must take account of both a temporal and a social aspect: it is a contingent argument. We cannot make sense of it as a matter of theology only: it has to do with public perceptions of how Jews and Greeks live, how these perceptions will be affected by crises such as the Jewish War or, eventually, the public vindication of the followers of Jesus; it has to do with the concrete efficacy of Law and faith under the present circumstances as means of responding to the crisis of Israel’s existence.

3. Paul wrote Romans to explain and account for these narrative-historical conditions, largely by means of a recapitulation of the gospel-argument that he had put forward to Jews and Greeks, from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum. His contention was that the God of Israel would in due course justify himself, would show himself to be righteous, in the eyes of the nations of the oikoumenē, through the faithful existence of a community of renewed Israel that identified itself with Jesus. The argument is put to the community in Rome because they represented, perhaps supremely, the sacrificial ‘offering’ that Gentiles would make in order that eventually Jesus, who had been appointed Son of God in power, would be acknowledged by the pagan empire as King of kings and Lord of lords.


Interesting observations. I did look up wrath in the OT and what you say makes sense. So how would you understand Romans 1:18?

Sam, just a quick response here. There is a question as to what Paul means by ‘is revealed’. Does Paul mean that the wrath of God has been or is presently being revealed—perhaps in terms of the narrative of 1:19-32? Or does the present tense actually have a future force: God’s wrath will be revealed? I would opt for the former, but I notice that Campbell prefers the latter (Deliverance, 543).

But the actual ‘day of wrath’ is certainly a future event: ‘because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed’ (2:5). And it is a future event that will impact both Jews and Greeks. It is interesting that behind what appears to be a critique of paganism in 1:19-32 is a parallel critique of the Jews for their failure to behave any differently from the Gentiles.

I would also draw attention to the quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17. It pays to read the whole of Habakkuk here, or at least the first two chapters. What he describes is a day of judgment on unjust Israel that will be followed a judgment of the powerful nation that is sent against Israel. In the midst of this turmoil Habakkuk wonders what will happen to the righteous. The answer is that the righteous will live by his faithfulness—by his fundamental, unwavering trust in YHWH.

I argue in The Future of the People of God that this is a pervasive thought in Romans: Paul foresees judgment first on the Jews (let us suppose he had something like the Roman invasion in mind) and judgment on the powerful Greek-Roman world that is so hostile to YHWH and in the end such a destructive, unjust and immoral force. This story of judgment will in different ways threaten the security of the people of God. How will the ‘righteous’ survive or be saved? By virtue of their faithfulness, their fundamental, unwavering trust in YHWH.