Douglas Campbell’s massive tome (740pp) on Paul looks intimidating. Yet because he writes in an inviting and skillful manner, almost any interested and motivated reader could grasp its content. In fact, it is one of the best-written theology books that I have ever read. Almost certainly, interested lay-persons, college students, and seminarians alike could read and understand this work of pauline theology. Added to that, the cross-disciplinary methodology of Campbell makes the content feel at home in the real world. Insights from sociology and other disciplines de-jargonize the theological arguments throughout.
While I am praising the book’s ability to communicate, I by no means will praise every argument that Campbell puts forward. In fact, I find myself in a position of critical appreciation (sometimes highly critical). For example, the sachkritik method of Campbell (pressing a key, clear idea into a less clear idea to make sense of it) sometimes overrides the scriptural evidence; his hopeful universalism becomes too skewed because it says more than Scripture does; his ethics according to sachkritik and anti-foundationalism lead to infelicitous conclusions; and his admittedly nuanced social trinitarianism gives me pause.
In a purely academic volume, such views would only arrive into the hearts and minds of other scholars who have a framework for understanding such matters. Yet Campbell’s easy writing style and clear communication make his Pauline Dogmatics quite manageable for any interested person. For this reason, I suspect there is an added urgency to discuss some of his methodological positions and theological judgments because while Campbell is frequently illuminating, he is also frequently wrong.
Foundationalism and the unveiling of Christ
It is worth stating what I believe constitutes a fundamental element of Campbell’s thought on Paul. Campbell argues that Paul argues everything from a Christ-centred location. Practically, this means Campbell starts with Christ and retroactively reads the Scriptures (i.e., the OT), sees all theological dogma as relating to Christology (and corrected by it), and advocates for a Christological ethic that divorces itself from certain concerns of protology and natural law.
It should be obvious that starting with Christ is in fact good. He reveals God to us after all (John 1:18). But the particular way in which Campbell relates Christ to creation—through a non-linear theory of time (a view rooted in Einstein but mediated through T. F. Torrance)—creates some particular problems.
For example, Campbell claims that creational norms such as marriage, gender, and sex in fact do not precede God’s plan to save humans (an infralapsarian view, he claims). Rather, God first decided to elect to save before creating the world, and so sin introduces into the world the need for procreation and sustainability in the human race due to death. Such matters then are intermediate institutions.
Indeed, Campbell is only saying what many Christians have said—even my great theological hero Gregory of Nyssa. Yet he does so for entirely different reasons, I should think, since he wants to then make the claim that natural norms as temporary institutions may be modified due to the eschatological moment and relationality of Christianity. That is, since we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28), then we can allow for the provision of gay marriage within the bounds of faithful monogamy.
You see: by denying foundationalism as the bug-bear of Christianity, Campbell has no place (or little place) for something like natural law. Indeed, creational norms are temporary institutions that are not natural as such for him. Marriage, gender roles, sexuality, and so on carry a certain flexibility due to his Christ-foundation that he sees as an antithesis to foundationalism.
While he discusses Ephesians 5 at length (surmising that Paul makes a somewhat contradictory case since he calls males in Christ while females the church in his Christ-church analogy), Campbell does not discuss Genesis 2—which precedes the Fall narrative of Genesis 3. Granted, Nyssa and others see these as two creation accounts. And on such ancient readings, the addition of sex and passions follow the Fall of humanity.
Yet I do not think Campbell even goes here. He likely has patristic influences due to his reading of Torrance and his mediated reading of Maximos the Confessor, yet it seems to me as if he does not draw from the well of Nyssa or Maximos directly. And that would be obvious since they would not deny natural law, despite sharing an apocalyptic view of the cosmos.
Getting back on point, Genesis 2 precedes Genesis 3. Genesis thus chronicles marriage and presumably sex and procreation as part of the pre-lapsarian world—one which at least strongly hints if not requires the goodness of marriage and procreation. Pointedly, a sacramental reading of Genesis 2 points to the reality of Christ and his church as Paul does in Ephesians 5, making marriage a powerful and original—and dare I say Christological—aspect of creation.
So yes, let’s start with Jesus and his unveiling. But then let’s also affirm that to be created in the image of God (Gen 1) means to be created in the Image of God—Christ (Col 1:15) as thinkers like Athanasius and Calvin have affirmed. Then being in Christ, Adam and Eve unite to signify the supralapsarian intent of creation—divine union with the body of Christ. And this tells us how Paul actually gets it right in Ephesians 5.
As Christ heads the body (the church), so, by imperfect analogy, the husband heads his wife, who represents the body of Christ (the church). Marriage thus represents a totus Christus symbolism, which Augustine so clearly worked out in his sermons on the psalms.
Hopeful universalism by sachkritik
Campbell argues that Paul’s theology leads to a sort of hopeful universalism. He does not think Paul was a universalist as such, but he argues that Paul’s theology leads in this direction. He does so because of his use of sachkritik, which approximates the idea of the analogy of Scripture yet differs from it because sachkritik can override some assertions found in Scripture that conflict with the centre, the Gospel—at least Campbell claims this is the case.
In this method, one interprets unclear or infelicitous ideas by the clearest and most important idea. For Campbell, that clear idea is God’s love for us in Christ and God’s electing yes towards mankind. He thinks Paul’s logic of Adam-Christ and God’s desire to save all people means that we can think one-step ahead of Paul’s textual arguments to conclude something like a hopeful universalism. Hopeful universalism does not affirm the certainty of universal salvation but dares to hope that all shall be saved on the basis of who God is and what Christ has done.
I do not find Campbell’s use of sachkritik particularly balanced nor even the method itself particularly felicitous. Scripture does interpret Scripture. Clear concepts do clarify less clear statements. But I think, in certain places such as in universalism, Campbell presses his sachkritik into the text and incorrectly says more than one ought. Scripture’s affirmation of hell, while terrible, should be believed. The tension between God’s love as creator and his elective grace as redeemer may have some ultimate resolution—but we can only grasp as analogical truths via that wonderful interval between our finite knowledge and God’s infinitude.
God knows it. We do not. We must affirm what Scripture does, and trust in God whom he reveals himself to be in Christ without saying more than we ought.
I suppose that Campbell may agree since he only affirms his hope that all shall be saved. Yet I still hope that this brief exploration of his use of sachkritik demonstrates how his arguments may become one-sided or unbalanced. As hinted above, the same sort of method applies to his view of sexuality and ethics in ways that I find particularly problematic (yes, I hate the word problematic too. But it fits here!).
Relational personality in the Trinity
Campbell spends very little time on social trinitarian theology. He spends much time on how relational personality works out in the life of the church. So I do want to give the impression that Campbell plumbs the depths of trinitarian theology, yet his social conclusions play a major role in how he conceives of mission in the world.
Social trinitarian affirms that human society should model itself after a triune social order in which Father, Son, and Spirit exist within a community of persons. Campbell rejects this facile definition, but he basically endorses a kind of social trinitarianism in which we involve ourselves in an ontology of divine persons (2020: 69). And it is this and other relationship threads that Campbell quite frequently returns to.
Humans, for Campbell, are made up largely by their relationships to one another as image-bearers. He of course offers other ways to understand persons and their relationship to one another. But it is worth pausing here for a moment because of the importance of trinitarian thought to Christianity.
One implication of social trinitarian thought is that each person in God carries his own social consciousness or centre of consciousness. Campbell does affirm these matters, but given the stakes here, it seems like he should have at least articulated what it might mean for the trinity to have a social implication since such theological often runs afoul of creedal notions of God in which God essentially has one will, one power, one energy. Three persons subsist in his single essence. More could be said, but the social trinitarian doctrine creates a number of massive problems, which seem to go overlooked in the book’s argument.
Campbell is a Barthian, apocalyptic, hopeful universalist; he is also one who rejects any contractual notion of justification. For that reason, evangelical readers will (and should) struggle with Campbell’s arguments. Of course, that’s a far cry different from not being able to learn from Campbell. His reading of Paul oftentimes is quite illuminating. His interdisciplinary approach often leads to fascinating ways to conceive of Paul’s message.
And so I find myself in an interesting place with Campbell’s work. Since I have a deep-seated interest in understanding Scripture and the mind of Christ, I am reading Campbell to help understand why he does what he does as well to discern insight into Paul’s writings. Yet I also have a theological background which helps me to read with some confidence and ability to discern what seems plausible and what does not.
I have some cause to worry that his excellent communication style and seemingly plausible arguments could convince many of what I see to be particularly wrong-headed ways of reading Paul. And yes, I say that with the kind of trepidation due one who criticizes Pauline scholar of the calibre of Campbell.
Yet, I am convinced. What can I do?
Should you read it? I learned a lot from Campbell through his close readings of Paul and theological insight. I also objected to quite a lot as this review shows. So I can only say that if you have read this review and find such works of interest and benefit, please read. If academic theology or Pauline studies are new to you, I would not recommend this work because of everything I have said above. Please read Thomas Schreiner’s introduction to Paul instead.
Disclaimer: the publisher kindly provided me with a review copy of this book.