Douglas Campbell and the wrath of God

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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.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 11/08/2010 - 20:20 | Permalink

Andrew - Do you think the reason why commentators make "so little—if any—reference to covenant in the discussion of wrath" is because by the time wrath came on Jerusalem, the terms of the covenant had already changed? Ethnic Israel was no longer the covenant people - in terms of the NT presentation. Wrath on Jerusalem was not a covenant action. It was post-covenant. It could not be related to OT parallels of judgement on Jerusalem or Israel.

I suppose you could argue that it was a delayed reaction on God's part, in terms of its covenant significance. But the changed covenant (or fulfilled covenant) signed in Jesus's blood would also make it difficult to see judgement on Rome as further evidence of an outworking of God's covenant purposes (retribution on those who are the instruments of judgement against God's people).

@peter wilkinson:

My problem is not with the New Testament but with the commentators, but I take your point. Still, both in the Gospels and in Paul it seems to me that there is a pretty clear understanding that Israel stands condemned by the Law for its failure to live righteously—and that in Old Testament terms that condemnation translates smoothly into such an event as the Roman invasion and destruction of Jerusalem. How else would Jews have interpreted it? As plain bad luck? I would go so far as to argue that Paul believed that Israel might repent after such a catastrophic judgment, which would keep AD 70 firmly within the covenantal purview.

In any case, even if the new covenant pre-empted AD 70, it still draws its significance from that event. Jesus puts himself forward as a new temple only because he knows that the old temple will be destroyed.

My view is that the new covenant is a covenant in Jesus’ death essentially because the confrontation with both renegade Judaism and repressive Roman paganism will entail the suffering of the community of disciples. Participation in the Lord’s Supper, at its heart, is an agreement to sharing in his suffering in the expectation of sharing in his resurrected life for the sake of the people of God. Judgment on Rome is intrinsically the culmination of that agreement, the final vindication of those who took up their crosses to walk the narrow path leading to life.

Isn’t it also relevant here that Jesus himself is seen the one through whom paganism is judged—the one who rescues the persecuted disciples from their enemies?

@Andrew Perriman:

I used the phrase Jesus's blood deliberately (and you seem to have responded to that in your penultimate paragraph by italicising Jesus's death) as it draws attention to the atonement sacrifice embodied in the developed Passover/Exodus imagery of the Lord's Supper. Ezekiel 45:21-25 and John 1:29 show the Passover and Atonement sacrifices combined in one ceremony, which is borne out elsewhere in the NT - eg Romans 3:24-26.

I only mention this because you seem to have a leaning towards seeing the death of Jesus, and here the Lord's Supper, rather exclusively as signifying participation in suffering, to the exclusion of these important ideas, and this because it suits your preference for a narrative significance to events.

This comment does not contribute particularly to the question of whether the NT looks at broadly sweeping end-of-time events, or narrowly 1st century events (eg in "day of wrath" in Romans 2), as it could be argued either way. My viewpoint is that the death of Jesus in particular avails as a fulfilment of atoning sacrifice for believers in all times, and we are all called to walk the narrow path of discipleship - which may or may not result in direct persecution by powers, such as 1st century Rome as well as 21st century China, Iran, Somalia, Middle Eastern nations, Indonesia, Mexico, India, or even mini-tyrants in local government, education, the health service, and private industry in the UK.