Deliverance of God
August 14, 2009


That’s my initial reaction to a quick perusal of the opening chapters of Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul , just out from Eerdmans. Campbell attacks what he calls the “foundationalism” and “contractualism” that undergird “Justification theory” as it has been understood since the Reformation. Weighing in at well over 1000 pages, it’s a breathtaking performance.

What’s wrong with “Justification theory”? A lot, Campbell thinks.

Justification theory “orients the work of Christ entirely toward God’s justice, and focuses significantly if not exclusively on his death.” Alternatively, Campbell argues that for Paul Christ’s death is “a termination of a sinful condition - a termination that then, by the work of the Spirit, can be universalized.”

Justification theory can’t make sense of the sacraments. For Paul, Campbell argues, “baptism evokes the immersion of people in Christ’s death and their reconstitution or resurrection in his new life.”

Justification theory has trouble with ethics. “From a very early point,” in fact, “the theory launches a scathing attack on ethical behavior.” Gratitude only goes so far, and since converts are “sensitive introverts” they “will doubtless simply continue to sin and to recognize that, although at least it will no longer cause mortal pangs.” Crucially, though, “nothing fundamental about their ethical situation has changed.” For Paul, Campbell argues, the “slogan that ‘God justifies the ungodly’” means that “God delivers the wicked from their enslavement to Sin, when they cannot deliver themselves, and thereby demonstrates his unconditional grace and love.”

“Justification theory has no real need for a church,” while Paul’s theology is “inherently ecclesial.”

Justification theory has trouble accounting for Israel too, except as “a more specific version of the generic human condition.” On Campbell’s alternative, which is “fundamentally historical and particular” Judaism “journey through time” and “toward Christ.”

I have my suspicions at certain points about Campbell’s characterization of Justification theory. In a long excursus on violence and atonement in Paul, he honestly admits that “it cannot be claimed that Paul never endorses coercive or violent action in some sort of punitive sense by God against wrongdoing,” but he describes Paul’s references to “punitive action by God” as a “small vein of evidence” that creates a “tension within Paul’s thought as a whole.” Along the same lines, he overstates the contrast between a punitive view of the atonement and his own view that Jesus’ death “terminates the sinful condition.”

Still, from an initial glance, Campbell is on the right track at many points, and the book appears to be bracing and challenging in all kinds of healthy ways.

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