A few pages from the end of The Deliverance of God Douglas Campbell appends a rather limp section—less than a page—on the “wrath of God” (929-30). The discussion, admittedly, concludes a chapter examining only Philippians and a smattering of “ancillary’ texts in the light of his re-reading of Paul’s argument about justification, but it seems to reflect the general tenor of the handling of the theme of wrath in the book.
Campbell somewhat grudgingly accepts that Paul “occasionally endorses an aggressive process of divine action” but insists that it does not thereby follow that “this process is functioning in a theologically foundational location within his thinking” (Campbell’s emphasis). He then suggests that it is also possible to give an “apocalyptic” account of wrath in these texts—”that is, in terms of a loving God’s anger directed against any situation that is evil”. The apologetic motivation is apparent: “Anger can be the reflex of benevolence or love just as it can spring from concerns with desert.” But what makes this understanding “apocalyptic” as such is that wrath may be understood as “God’s reaction against a sinful situation”.
This is certainly a step in the right direction, but a very sluggish one—Campbell seems to be dragging too much polemical baggage, too many modern sensibilities, to recognize the full apocalyptic force of the language of ‘wrath’ in Paul, which is ultimately and very importantly the language of historical crisis.
I find it hard to understand generally why commentators—Campbell is certainly not alone in this—fail to consider the possibility that when Paul speaks of the wrath of God, he has in view, in the first place, precisely God’s reaction against the particular situation of the sinfulness of a “crooked generation” (cf. Acts 2:40).
Why is there so little—if any—reference to covenant in the discussion of wrath? Why is nothing said about the Old Testament background to the motif of divine wrath? The phrase “tribulation and distress” (thlipsis kai stenochōria), for example, occurs three times in inverted form in Deuteronomy 28 LXX, where it describes the sufferings inflicted on Israel by an enemy which YHWH will bring against them in judgment (Deut. 28:53, 55, 57; cf. Is. 8:22; 30:6). Why would Paul not have had this sort of narrative in mind, prophetically restated, when he spoke of the “tribulation and distress” that would come first on the Jew—we may leave the “Greek” out of the picture for now? Why is the background narrative about the concrete historical wrath of God towards both Israel and the Chaldeans regularly suppressed in discussions of the significance of Habakkuk 2:4 for the linking of righteousness and faith? And why, for that matter, does no one attempt to connect Paul and Jesus at this point?
I still have vast tracts of The Deliverance of God to traverse—I only flipped to the end out of curiosity, wondering if I’d ever make it through alive. But nothing I have read so far suggests that there is a place in his “apocalyptic rereading of justification in Paul” for the thought that the destruction of Jerusalem by the idolatrous Principate might have amounted to some sort of fulfilment of the warning that there would be “wrath and fury” for those who obey unrighteousness.
In fact, Campbell appears to have dismissed the relevance of AD 70 entirely for understanding Paul, though in a different context: “to assume the destruction of the temple is anachronistic for the early church; it was still standing when Paul’s texts were penned” (43). I would suggest, on the contrary, that the realistic prophetic insight, articulated apocalyptically, embracing not only the destruction of Jerusalem but also the imminent suffering of the churches and the eventual defeat of paganism, is integral to Paul’s argument in Romans. It is the premise of the wrath of God that anchors his theology historically as an interpretive response to the complex crisis of transition from troubled national Judaism to an ecumenical community under Christ as Lord.
For more on this see my rough summary of the apocalyptic argument in ‘Douglas Campbell’s insufficiently apocalyptic reading of justification in Paul’ and, of course, my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.