The Deliverance of God
I’ve just finished reading the impressive new book by Douglas Campbell, NT prof at Duke, called The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul It is a massive (1200 pages) — and largely successful — response to the modern, individualistic reduction of the gospel that is sometimes abbreviated as “Lutheran.”
The short version of that “gospel” is this: God is wrath-filled because of our sin yet we are helpless to do anything about it because we can’t keep the Law/law perfectly. But Jesus died as a penal substitute for us, and when we put our faith in Jesus (Arminianism: because of our choice; Calvinism: because of God’s preordained choice), his righteousness is imputed to us.
Those who follow current studies in Paul have met serious responses to this reduction through the works of Richard Hays, N. T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight, Douglas Harink, etc. (See, most recently, Wright’s insightful Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.) But in this new tome, Campbell has thoroughly exposed the weaknesses of “justification theory” — its textual weaknesses, as well as its intrinsic and systematic difficulties.
Here’s a taste of what Campbell was hoping to accomplish:
“It is very important to appreciate that this analysis is consequently not an attack on the gospel but an attack on a version of the gospel, and one that I maintain Paul himself would view as false. It is therefore a thoroughly evangelical discussion in both method and purpose. Moreover, the solution that I am aiming toward is deeply Protestant if not Lutheran. To put things at their simplest, only if my rereading is true is it possible to affirm coherently Paul’s slogan that ‘God justifies the ungodly,’ since he means by this that God delivers the wicked from their enslavement to Sin, when they cannot deliver themselves, and thereby demonstrates his unconditional grace and love. . . . [Paul's] description of deliverance and cleansing ‘in Christ,’ through the work of the Spirit, at the behest of the Father, the entire process being symbolized by baptism, is the good news. It requires no supplementation by other systems.”
Here’s what Michael Gorman, author of some of my favorite recent works on Paul, has written about Deliverance:
“I blurbed Douglas’s book and was possibly the most positive of the five who did so:
Douglas Campbell’s continuation of the quest for Paul’s gospel is a bold exercise in deconstruction and reconstruction. One may disagree with parts of the analysis, or take a somewhat different route to the same destination, but his overall thesis is persuasive: for Paul, justification is liberative, participatory, transformative, Trinitarian, and communal. This is a truly theological and ecumenical work with which all serious students of Paul must now come to terms.
This means, more bluntly, that in my estimation Douglas is both profoundly right (’his overall thesis is persuasive’) and simultaneously off the mark (’One may disagree with parts of the analysis, or take a somewhat different route to the same destination’). Fortunately, he is terribly right where it really matters: in his perceptive characterization of the liberative and participatory character of justification in Paul. Unfortunately, the relatively narrow topic of this panel’s review—the book’s treatment of Romans 1-3—is where Douglas is, I think, off the mark.”
I loved what McKnight wrote about it: “It would be a fantastic vacation read or summer read for pastors; it is a must for professors and I believe should be read by seminary students as a primary text on Paul — whether one agrees with it or not.” If I were not a reader of McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, I’d think that he needs to better understand what vacation reading is!
While I am still rethinking his proposal about Romans 1-3 (and am not convinced), this is a valuable and welcome contribution to a discussion that sits right at the center of the church’s mission. And I’m quite convinced that Campbell’s suggestion that “justification theory” is a computer virus that, “having infiltrated a system, overwrites some of its key commands with a foreign code from another programmer and then goes on to execute a series of embarrassing and even destructive actions, often losing original material in the process.”
If the book could help steer us away from having our thoughts dominated primarily by God as Judge and by retributive justice, that would be a nice start.
More coming as I continue to blog about justification, “faith of Christ,” and the book of Galatians.