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Douglas Campbell’s insufficiently apocalyptic reading of justification in Paul

Having worked through the first part of Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God I think at least one broad provisional judgment can be made with regard to his general approach. What Campbell has done so far is set out in a very thorough and rigorous fashion what he understands by Justification theory, its multi-layered and extensively ramified shortcomings, and an alternative and clearly preferred theory of salvation drawn principally, or at least representatively, from Romans 4-5. It’s an impressive and, on its own terms, extremely cogent analysis; but it is also a deeply bifurcated analysis, and I really wonder whether it is going to help us make sense of the language of justification in Paul or its relation to other elements in his thought.

A simple overview of the two soteriological systems is given in an excursus towards the end of this preliminary theoretical analysis. These two ‘capsule summaries’ give a pretty good indication of both the scope and the density of Campbell’s argument—indeed, they may be too dense to be of much use if you haven’t read the preceding 183 pages.

Justification posits a God characterized fundamentally by retributive justice, and then struggles to articulate commitments to Christ’s divinity, incarnation, and resurrection—although it is strongly committed to his sinless life and death, has no role for the Spirit, and so is not recognizably Trinitarian. Its theological epistemology begins in the unsaved state, thereby attributing a fundamental capacity to humanity—the abilities to know God, to recognize the good and to do it (because humanity is culpable for not doing so). So at all these key points it works forward. It is also generic and universal at this critical first stage; it holds good irrespective of particularities of history. Consequently, its ecclesiology is fundamentally contractual or conditional and individualistic, its implicit politics is coercive, and its ethic is voluntarist….

Conversely, the alternative theory articulated by Romans 5-8 posits a God characterized fundamentally by benevolence, and is innately committed to an incarnate and resurrected Christ. Further, only the Spirit can reconstitute humanity in relation to this paradigmatic trajectory, so the model is inherently elective and Trinitarian. It is also historical and particular in that God enters history at a specific point. Consequently, the model’s theological epistemology is revelatory and retrospective; it works backward. Its anthropology is also fundamentally incapacitated, and its ecclesiology and ethics therefore irreducibly elective and so reconstitutive and liberative. Its implicit politics is not coercive. (184)

Of course, we still have a long way to go, but what I find really quite extraordinary for a book that purports to offer an ‘apocalyptic rereading of justification in Paul’ is that the debate has been established from the start so comprehensively as a choice between two competing theories of salvation. The first theory gets subjected to intense scrutiny qua theory (there are, admittedly, hundreds of pages of exegesis still to come). The alternative theory, in contrast, gets off rather lightly. Given this deeply polarized presentation of the debate and a stubborn refusal on Campbell’s part to tolerate theoretical incoherence, it barely comes as a surprise when he concludes that ‘a solution that could plausibly eliminate Justification theory from Paul would resolve our difficulties’—indeed, that the ‘elimination of Justification theory from Paul’s interpretation is vital to his fundamental evangelical integrity’ (217, Campbell’s emphasis).

Now I appreciate that it is easy to read too much into those closing statements—he is only talking about Justification theory, and we are still really making only prejudgments. But it feels as though a strong interpretive cross-wind has suddenly blown up and I wonder if we are going to be able to hold a plausible course.

It bothers me that in this massive ‘vestibule’ (a favourite figure of Campbell’s) to a reading of Romans we are confronted immediately with such a stark and unyielding choice between two largely abstracted, free-standing soteriological constructs. Apart from anything else, the possibility seems already to have been ruled out—by the polemically motivated concern to describe and contradict a theory of Justification—that the whole question of the place of justification in Paul’s thought might need to be framed rather differently.

A genuinely apocalyptic reading of Romans

I would argue—but of course, I have argued—that the theological content of Romans becomes remarkably lucid and coherent once a consistent ‘apocalyptic’ narrative is brought into view. This forward-looking narrative, which should be construed quite realistically and biblically—we might say politically and prophetically—provides the magnetic field that brings the central concepts of wrath, gospel, faith(fulness), justification, salvation, suffering, etc., into meaningful alignment and keeps them from being exploited or deformed by extrinsic theological concerns.

Campbell follows mainstream interpretive tradition in assuming that Paul has only a final eschatological terminus in mind, which has the effect (despite some protests to the contrary) both of minimizing contingency and of encouraging generalizing readings of the text. It seems to me, however, that it makes better sense, both historically and hermeneutically, to characterize the end-point in more immediate political-religious terms and in a way that puts the troubled story of a people at the heart of Paul’s theological argumentation. Only tangentially does Paul touch on universal themes such as the pervasive reality of sin and death or the groaning of creation for renewal.

So I would outline an apocalyptically structured account of Paul’s thought and the place of justification in it roughly as follows, beginning at the narrative end-point and working back from there.

1. Wrath against the Greek and the vindication of Israel’s God. Paul’s argument aims ultimately at the judgment of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, the manifestation of God’s wrath (an unfashionable word but worth retaining) against the ‘Greek’, and the realization of the promise entailed in the allusion to Psalm 2 that YHWH’s Son would inherit the nations. This would be a decisive demonstration of God’s righteousness. It provides us with the core sense in which such a reading of Romans counts as evangelical, though evangelicalism as we know it does not know how to handle these historical dynamics.

2. Evidence for the coming historical upset. The eventual public vindication of YHWH was anticipated in the resurrection of Jesus, who was ‘declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead’. This was the core content of the ‘gospel of God’ (Rom. 1:1-4) which Paul aimed to proclaim to the whole empire, from Jerusalem to its westernmost limits. It was anticipated also in the emergence of an ecumenical—that is, oikoumenē-wide—Jewish-Gentile movement of renewal which announced by its very existence the transformed extent of YHWH’s rule.

3. Wrath against the Jew—the historical accountability of Israel. However, if Israel’s God was to hold the pagan world accountable for its inveterate idolatry, immorality and injustice, he had first to hold Israel accountable (cf. Rom. 3:5-6), because this people of the Law should have provided a visible and consistent benchmark of righteousness. Israel should have been a light to the nations—’a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children’.

4. Israel condemned by the Law. Israel failed in this calling not because the Law was flawed but because Israel was found to be as much in bondage to sin as the pagan world. Therefore, Israel would not be justified by the Law; indeed, it had come to the point that Israel stood condemned by the Law.

5. It had come to the point that…. There is an important observation about timing to be inserted here, reminding us that this is essentially a historical rather than a theoretical argument. The current unsatisfactory state of affairs had existed for a long time, which strengthened the charge that YHWH had so far not acted to justify himself—or to justify the claims made on his behalf. Paul believed, however, that matters were moving towards a foreseeable and tumultuous resolution of this long-standing dilemma—that God was no longer willing to overlook the times of ignorance. History was coming to a head.

6. An alternative basis for the justification of the community. Therefore, an alternative basis, independent of the Law, was needed so that, on the one hand, the promise to Abraham might be vouchsafed and, on the other, that a viable, visible standard of righteousness might be set in place against which the world would be judged. The apocalyptic context—the onset of wrath—determined that only faith(fulness) would guarantee these concrete outcomes.

7. The righteous will live by faith(fulness). This emerging community of renewal was not subject to the wrath that would sooner rather than later devastate national Israel and eventually consign the old pagan order to oblivion. But this justification in the light of wrath would have to be demonstrated or lived out under the conditions of wrath—the night was far gone, the day of conflict was at hand—which is why Habakkuk 2:4 is so critical for Paul’s argument. When God judges unrighteous Israel and then the overweening and oppressive enemy of his people, the righteous person will not be untouched by the chaos but he will live by his faith(fulness)—not by an act of abstract rational cognition (Campbell is spot on here), but by a steadfast trust in the face of adversity.

8. Participation in the story of Jesus. This faith(fulness) is necessarily a participation in Christ’s faithfulness, an inclusion in the story of the suffering, death and vindication of the Son of man. The community has been justified by its belief that God is acting to vindicate himself through the historical process initiated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. But this justification would be ineffectual and meaningless without the practical emulation of Jesus’ response to opposition.

9. Apocalyptic emulation not ethical sanctification. This is not a general procedural addition of sanctification to the justification of the believer. Romans 5-8 sets out the theological character of the engagement of this Christ-like community—a community conformed to the image of the firstborn martyr—in the apocalyptic narrative that would culminate in the victory of YHWH over the gods of the pagan world. Chapters 12-15 provide further practical instruction as to how a community such as the church in Rome should live as a sacrificial offering from the nations for the sake of the eventual vindication of Israel’s God.

Framed in this way it should be clear that ‘justification’ should be neither assessed nor dismissed as a theory of salvation: it is part of an argument about the historical trajectory of a community under pressing eschatological conditions. Equally it is a mistake to oppose to this a participationist theory of salvation. The participation of the early ‘martyr’ community in Christ as the first martyr will certainly account for their ‘survival’ or eventual ‘deliverance’, but the thought is a direct implication of its having been justified on the basis of the eschatological commitment of faith(fulness).

This practical, experiential, narrative-apocalyptic explanation has an intrinsic coherence and pertinence that, in effect, simply bypasses the strained theoretical debate that Campbell so meticulously describes. The respective weaknesses and strengths that are highlighted in his capsule summaries are entirely consistent with the differing locations of the two thoughts in Paul’s argumentation. But as I said earlier, these are only really prejudgments.