In a chapter in The Deliverance of God exploring the ‘yawning gap between Justification theory’s description of Judaism and the actual nature of of surrounding Judaism’ (124) Douglas Campbell makes the point that by no means all forms of Judaism were preoccupied with matters of soteriology. So the assumption made by Justification theory that Judaism was fundamentally a system that promoted salvation through works and therefore needed to be corrected by a theory of justification by faith is flawed.
Alluding to Jacob Neusner’s argument in The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70, Campbell suggests that the rabbinic sources ‘are not necessarily best understood as oriented by soteriology at all’ (118). Rather their discussions are ‘framed by a vision of an alternative, essentially symbolic universe taking shape on earth, informed by Torah’. They are not discussing ‘What does it mean to be saved?’ but ‘What does it mean to live?’
What Campbell finds significant here is the implication that rabbinic law observance may not be ‘best comprehended within a soteriological or an individually self-interested framework’—that it, therefore, may not provide the necessary premise for Justification theory. I think, however, that we may take the argument in a much more constructive direction. I would suggest, first, that Neusner’s argument about rabbinic Judaism points us towards a more solidly biblical understanding of Christian existence and purpose; and secondly, that this will enable us to move beyond Campbell’s rather static opposition between the soteriologies of justification and transformation.
We rarely question the notion that Christianity is a religion of salvation and essentially of personal salvation. Its mission is to save the lost; its cutting edge is conversion; its ultimate goal is eternal life with God in heaven. But that seems to me a misreading of the biblical narrative. The story starts not with the salvation of Abraham but with the call to be the progenitor of a chosen people, who in the shape of their corporate life in the land promised to them would constitute a creation in microcosm, a loyal counter-testimony to the narrative of defiance and violence that is presented in Genesis 1-11. Through that concrete and by no means untroubled existence they bear witness to the reality of the Creator.
At certain critical moments along the way this people finds itself in need of salvation from some state of bondage or political disaster: from Egypt, from Babylon, from the devastation of AD 70. Usually this is a salvation from sin—from the persistent failure to live according to the terms of the covenant. The salvation of the people through the death of Jesus is accorded a decisive status—not least because his resurrection introduces an utterly alien and wonderfully new ontology into the proceedings.
But arguably the overarching purpose or mission of the people remains much as the rabbis understood it: neither to be saved nor to save but to sustain a vision of an alternative symbolic universe—a world in microcosm. Salvation is secondary to that purpose. It becomes necessary when the purpose fails. It is the means by which the vision of an alternative universe is recovered. What Paul does in Romans, in his complex argument about justification and transformation, is not set out a theory of salvation but explain the process, which is essentially a historical process, by which the promise made to Abraham would be fulfilled when, to all appearances, it was destined for the shredder.
There are two important Trinitarian differences between the Christian and the Jewish understanding of this function. The first is that the microcosm as we know it is informed not by Torah but by the Spirit. The second is that because Christ was made judge of the nations, appointed as Lord above all other powers, given the nations as an inheritance, the ‘symbolic universe’ came to be constructed on an imperial scale. That construction has now more or less collapsed, and the church is struggling to reinvent itself as a creational microcosm, to rebuild an alternative, largely symbolic universe under drastically transformed conditions.