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The Deliverance of God

2010 February 13
by Mike

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.


11 Responses leave one →
  1. February 13, 2010

    Hey! No spoilers! I’m around page 800.

    Dr. Campbell (the author) has commented a couple of times on my posts working through his book. His longest comment can be read if you click on my name above. It’s Campbell’s summary of a critical part of the book/argument (i.e., Campbell’s reading of what is going on in Romans 1.18-3.20). This is the part, as Mike notes, many are snagging on.

    I find the reading convincing. But this is probably due to my lack of Greek skill and my longstanding problems with Justification Theory.

  2. February 13, 2010

    Thanks for this report, Mike. I had not yet seen this book.

    Without reading 1200+ pages, people can get a taste of what D. Campbell is doing by reading the 1963 article by one of his forerunners, the late Krister Stendahl. The article is titled “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscious of the West.” It’s been reprinted many times and much talked about since it first appeared.

  3. February 13, 2010

    Thanks, Richard and Frank. Included in Campbell’s book is both appreciate for Stendahl’s ground-breaking work and a push back against his focus on introspection.

  4. kathy s permalink
    February 13, 2010

    Can’t wait for more, Mike—I need much, much help in sorting this out. The ideas presented by Campbell (mostly via Richard) have been thrilling to me so far.

  5. February 13, 2010

    1,200 Pages…that would be a long vacation for me. As for seminary students reading the book…the 1,200 pages would be something which Dr. Oster might mercifully grant the student two weeks instead of a week to have read:-).

    I will put this book on my wish list, while I still catch up on my reading of N.T. Wright. Thanks for the review.

    Grace and peace,


  6. February 13, 2010

    Just checked out NTW’s unofficial page. Sez he’s only got four projects underway at the moment, including volume 4 of the NTPG-JVG-RSG series, a multivolume commentary set, and two others, with several more on deck. These are 5-700 pp. volumes, including the cartoons. Who has the time to crank out that much writing and still have a life? qb

  7. rich constant permalink
    February 14, 2010

    i am about 62 years old, your name is familiar,anyway cope and i think mike although it for me has been a long time,and if i am not mistaken. which i very possibly am .

    now then a long time ago maybe between 40 and 50 years ago i went to the Huntington beach church of Christ…..
    was your dad a preacher there or your grand dad. i seem to remember hearing that name from my mom and aunt…

    anyway HI and let me know if my memory is not to skewed.

    nice to see your comments on rich becks blog.

    i will be interested in your comments on gal.

    fore the last 40 years i have been primarily working on the faithfulness of Christ in relation to his death on the cross…
    i am kinda old school. i only studied the bible..on top of sound basics.

    after i found an answer i formed a few questions i don,t thank any one can answer because of traditional theology.
    also i think that the sophistry of this theology began to take it roots when the martyrs were put to death by Rome. these men and woman would be the ones established in the faith and squarely stood up to Rome so depleting a large amount of knowledge. say nothing of the active spirit confirming the words of these men woman the true believers,that were put to death because of the faith in god,that there is deliverance after death because of the faithful work of his son..
    any how let me know will ya.

    blessings rich constant

  8. February 14, 2010

    Hello, Rich. No, I don’t think the minister you knew at Huntington Beach was any relation to me. My dad was a newspaper guy in MO, as was my maternal grandfather. My paternal grandfather was a carpenter. (Why didn’t I get any of those skills?) Thanks for the note, though!

  9. rich constant permalink
    February 14, 2010

    oh well thanks mike enjoy your day

  10. February 17, 2010

    I just finished my review (across three posts) of Part 4, the critical part of The Deliverance of God where Campbell gives his alternative reading of Romans 1-4. At the end of Part 4 Campbell concludes that the “I don’t buy it or believe it” move is no longer tenable. His concluding words from Part 4:

    “I would suggest that the textual citadel for Justification theory in relation to which all else essentially stands or falls–that is, the conventional construal of Romans 1-4–has been taken. A vast array of difficulties and problems is apparent in its conventional reading, while the rereading offered here, as far as I can tell, resolves all of those problems, raising no further difficulties of its own. And this creates a new interpretive state of play. Justification theory must, if it is to recapture this critical ground and survive as a plausible historical construction in relation to Paul, carry out three tasks, at least to some degree.

    First, it must supply a positive justification for its own construal, and not merely assert its truth by reputation or default (that is, by begging the question). Second, it must resolve the difficulties now apparent in that construal, of which there are upward of fifty (although admittedly these vary in severity). And, third, it must find difficulties of equal or greater weight in the suggested rereading…These are clearly considerable tasks. Furthermore, in view of their severity as well as their necessity, it is no longer enough simply to say, “I do not believe” (viz., in this alternative reading). Things have now moved beyond any defense in terms of mere denial. A great weight of tradition and commentary is no remedy for absent justifications, crumbling defenses, and undamaged alternatives.”

  11. gib permalink
    February 20, 2010

    Before I go a buy/read this book, I have one question. Does Campbell deal with Luther through primary or secondary sources?

    If he stands in line with Stendahl, this is a critical question. The main criticism against Stendahl’s work is that he reads Luther through the lens of 18-19th century German existentialists (Lutheran Pietism) who reconstructed Luther. Thus, Luther’s views of guilt/substitution become a bit of a strawman. If Luther is not dealt with on exegetical grounds, then the entire argument is just a rehashing of Stendahl’s work.

    I have a hard time taking on 1200 pages of an argument based on the interpretation of a 16th century theologian’s “feelings”. If the main crux of a thesis is the subjective analysis of a writer’s inner emotions, rather than their exegetical claims, I’ll pass.

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