Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love

The eschatological heart of Paul’s gospel in his world and its implications for today

Drawing upon thirty years of intense study and reflection on Paul, Douglas Campbell offers a distinctive overview of the apostle’s thinking that builds on Albert Schweitzer’s classic emphasis on the importance for Paul of the resurrection. But Campbell—learning here from Karl Barth—traces through the implications of Christ for Paul’s thinking about every other theological topic, from revelation and the resurrection through the nature of the church and mission. As he does so, the conversation broadens to include Stanley Hauerwas in relation to Christian formation, and thinkers like Willie Jennings to engage post-colonial concerns.

But the result of this extensive conversation is a work that, in addition to providing a description of Paul’s theology, also equips readers with what amounts to a Pauline manual for church planting. Good Pauline theology is good practical theology, ecclesiology, and missiology, which is to say, Paul’s theology belongs to the church and, properly understood, causes the church to flourish. In these conversations Campbell pushes through interdisciplinary boundaries to explicate different aspects of Pauline community with notions like network theory and restorative justice.

The book concludes by moving to applications of Paul in the modern period to painful questions concerning gender, sexual activity, and Jewish inclusion, offering Pauline navigations that are orthodox, inclusive, and highly constructive.

Beginning with the God revealed in Jesus, and in a sense with ourselves, Campbell progresses through Pauline ethics and eschatology, concluding that the challenge for the church is not only to learn about Paul but to follow Jesus as he did.

Table of Contents
Part 1: Resurrection

1. Jesus
2. Vigilance
3. A God of Love
4. A God of Story
5. Resurrection & Death
6. Resurrection & Sin
7. Defending Resurrection
8. Election

Part 2: Formation

9. A Learning Community
10. Leaders
11. Love is All You Need
12. Loving as Giving
13. Loving as Faithfulness
14. Loving as Peacemaking
15. Loving as Enjoying

Part 3: Mission

16. An Apostolic Foundation
17. Defining the Other
18. The Triumph of Love
19. Mission as Friendship

Part 4: Navigation

20. Missional Diversity
21. Evaluating Paganism
22. Transforming Paganism
23. Request Ethics
24. Rethinking Creation
25. Navigating Sex and Marriage
26. Navigating Gender
27. Beyond Colonialism
28. Beyond Supersessionism
29. The Pastor’s Wisdom

A review copy arrived some time back, for which I thank the publisher.  Eerdman’s also published Campbell’s previous big volume, ‘The Deliverance of God’, which I did not at all like.  I happen, in fact, to agree with Bruce Clark’s take as published in the Tyndale Bulletin.  Of that earlier work, Clark wrote

Campbell launches a sustained attack against traditional theological conceptions of justification and aims to free Romans 1-4 (on which these conceptions seemingly rest) from a widespread rationalistic, contractual, individualistic (mis)reading, which gains its plausibility only by the modernistic theological superstructure forced upon it. Campbell then presents an in-depth re-reading of Romans 1-4 (as well as parts of chs. 9-11, Gal. 2-3, Phil. 3), in which Paul engages in a highly complex, ‘subtle’ polemic, creatively employing ‘speech-in-character’ as a means of subverting a Jewish Christian ‘Teacher’ whose visit to Rome threatens to undermine the Roman Christians’ assurance of salvation. Campbell argues that justification is participatory and liberative: Christ’s death and resurrection constitute the ‘righteousness/deliverance of God’, by which he justifies, or delivers, an enslaved humanity from the power of sin. This article concentrates primarily on Campbell’s own exegesis, concluding that, while important aspects of Campbell’s critique of both “justification theory” and traditional readings of Romans 1-4 must be carefully considered, his own exegesis is not only ingenious, asking too much of Paul and the letter’s auditors, but altogether untenable at key points.

Untenable is the right word.  It was, then, with no slight ‘fear and trembling’ that I made my way into Campbell’s nearly as big book this time.  Would it’s argument, too, be essentially untenable?  Would it suffer from the same sorts of eisegetical mis-steps?  And would its massive size (over 700 pages) be off-putting?

The answer to those questions cannot be either yes or no.  Instead, the answers to those questions and others is that the volume at hand is ‘complicated’.  On one hand, Campbell is a very good writer; and on the other, he tends to verbosity.  What could be said more briefly, without losing profundity, is instead said at sometimes numbing length.

In the movie ‘Amadeus’ there’s a scene where the Emperor encourages Mozart to cut the score of his opera down a bit, the Emperor exasperatingly remarking, ‘There are too many notes’.  Mozart reacts with a bit of dislike, ‘There are just as many notes as required, Majesty’.  And I suspect that Prof. Campbell would have the same reaction if he were to hear that his book has too many words.  But there are only so many words the mind can process before it grows overwhelmed.

Fortunately, the present work is on better footing than the previous ‘Deliverance’.  Though there are still places where Campbell’s exegesis is more like eisegesis.  In, for example, the chapter titled ‘Navigating Sex and Marriage’, Campbell seems to be trying much too hard to make ancient texts modern.  Campbell notes, e.g., on page 598, that Paul thinks in a ‘binary’ way.  How else would Paul have thought?  How else would anyone in all of the history of Christianity have thought about such issues except in binary terms before the last decade?

Furthermore, in the ‘Theses’ section of the chapter Campbell does his best to move readers beyond a traditional sexual ethic in order to encourage them to embrace a wider perspective on love and marriage.  This, of course, has nothing to do with Paul and everything to do with setting Paul aside and moving beyond him to a modern sexual ethic.  Paul is no longer the object of the study, but rather is merely the launching pad for a progressive Christian theological perspective.  Note Campbell’s wording in the final thesis:

‘The churches need to be concretely supportive and restorative here (as they should also be for any others burdened by these structures and their function)’ (p. 620).

In sum, traditional ethics are a burden placed on teens and when said teens wish to explore other avenues of sexual expression, churches should help to unburden them.

What we have, then, in short, is a treatment of Pauline theology that is really a description of Campbell’s own theology.  In much the same way that Karl Barth’s treatment of ‘Romans’ was more Barth than Paul, Campbell’s ‘Pauline Dogmatics’ is more Campbell than Pauline.

Which brings me to the next observation concerning Campbell’s book:  he is too dependent on Barth and not dependent enough on exposition of texts.  There is scarcely a segment of the book that doesn’t call on Barth’s testimony in an effort to make the case but there is very little exposition throughout.  This, though, in its own way fits nicely into Campbell’s appreciation of Barth, since Barth, too, had little interest in the text of Scripture aside from using it as a spring-board for his own intentions.

Another oddity in terms of the book’s contents is what is NOT included.  The title of the book is ‘Pauline Dogmatics’, which leads one to suspect that the chief theological concerns of Paul will appear at some point.  Yet, strikingly absent, is a chapter or even a section on ‘Justification’.  Indeed, the word does not even appear in the subject index.  Once.

Even casual readers of Paul are familiar with his interest in justification.  One merely needs to read Romans 1-6 and that becomes abundantly clear.  Yet a volume titled ‘Pauline Dogmatics’ has deemed it less important a topic than ‘Colonialism’, which Paul would have known nothing about (in terms of the modern notion of colonialism), which nonetheless has a chapter all its own.

Mind you, I enjoyed reading this great big volume.  I liked the fact that Campbell gives readers short subsections to break up the massive thing.  I like the fact that Campbell offers ‘theses’ at the end of each chapter which nicely summarize the argument of each.  I like the ‘key scriptural references’ section at the end of each chapter too, although these are a tad cherry picked and don’t necessarily include texts showing different perspectives (Paul, after all, was the kind of guy who contradicted himself).

Each chapter also has a short ‘key reading, further reading, and bibliography.  And, unsurprisingly, Barth appears – constantly.

Before you go away thinking I disapprove of this book, I don’t.  I like it.  I just wish it had a different title.  I would call it ‘Campbell’s Dogmatics’.  And leave Paul out of it.  Since, as far as I can tell, Paul isn’t in it anyway.

2 thoughts on “Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love

  1. There’s no chapter or section on justification because they’ve replaced the concept – agape and antinomianism go hand in hand to liberal theologians. Where a broad concept of ‘love’ is, there they find justification in the form of ‘restorative social justice’ or ‘non-binary thinking.’

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