Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 1, Justification Theory

Last semester I noticed a lot of discussion on the theology blogs about the publication of Douglas A. Campbell's book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. There appeared to be a lot of excitement surrounding the book, with many thinking that it was a "game changer" in Pauline studies. Some predicted it would be the theology book of the decade and many had it at the top of their lists for Best Theology Book in 2009.

So I was curious and got a copy.

The book is enormous at 1218 pages. I worried if I'd be able to finish the thing. (I'm impatient with big books.) But I've just finished Part 1 and look forward to moving forward.

As I move through the book I'm going to be posting some "Notes," interpretive summaries of the broad outline of Campbell's book. I say "interpretive" since I'm not a specialist and there is a good chance that I'll misunderstand Campbell at certain points. And, given that I'm summarizing a long and nuanced argument, there is the risk of over-simplification. So reader beware.

I'm going to be posting these notes for two audiences. First, myself. The book is so long that if I don't take the time to summarize what I've read I'll forget it all by the time I get to the end. So these notes are primarily for my own edification and memory record. However, my second audience is people like me, non-specialists who would like to hear about a book that is buzzing among the professionals. I figure there are a lot of people who would like to get a sense of what is going on at “the cutting edge.” This is my frail attempt to bring Campbell's book to the masses.

To begin...

All works of scholarship begin with a problem, some crisis, controversy or conundrum. Campbell's area of scholarship is Paul, his letters specifically. As you might imagine, Pauline scholarship is awash in controversy and debate. We won't go into those debates in depth. I barely understand many of them. But to give you a taste let me present three:

The Meaning of Pistis Christou
What we know for sure is that Pistis means "faith" in Greek and that "Christou" means "Christ." So far so good. But in the Greek there is some genitive ambiguity concerning how the two noun's--faith and Christ--are to relate to each other. Martin Luther, and those who followed him, translated Pistis Christou as "faith in Christ." But a growing number of scholars (e.g., Richard Hays, N.T. Wright) have argued that the proper translation of Pistis Christou should be "faith of Christ." Wow, so much hanging on the switch from "in" to "of"! But it really is a huge change. Specifically, the change moves us from an anthropocentric view of salvation to a Christocentric view. In the former, the human person is the locus of salvation. I, Richard Beck, must have faith in Jesus Christ. My act of faith functions as the key to unlock salvation. In the latter view, it is the faithfulness of Jesus that unlocks salvation. Christ's faithfulness saves me.

Paul's Soteriological Inconsistency
Pauline scholars have argued that Paul's soteriology, his view of salvation, is hopelessly muddled if not outright contradictory. To be sure, this might be unfair to both Paul and the canon. Paul might not be aiming for logical consistency. Plus, Paul might not have written everything we attribute to him. Regardless, it is worrying that Paul, the great theologian of the faith, might be confused or contradictory. For example, when scholars read Romans they see inconsistencies between the soteriology presented in Romans 1-4 and the soteriology presented in Romans 5-8. Of course, not everyone sees these inconsistencies, but as with the Pistis Christou debate, this is a location of scholarly controversy.

The Characterization of Second Temple Judaism and "Works of the Law"
When you hear the Jews described in church, and Paul’s life as a former Jew, they are described in a fairly stereotypical way: The Jews were trying to "earn" their salvation through "works of the Law" (Torah obedience). In short, the Jews were legalists. And this legalism was a source of great pride as many Jews felt that they were, indeed, "blameless" before God. Now, this characterization of the Jews has important soteriological functions. Namely, "Christian" salvation through grace is, at root, a rejection of legalism through works of the Law. Grace is the opposite of legalism. In short, the Christian notion of grace requires a backdrop of Jewish legalism for it to make sense, to be something “new and improved.” The trouble is, is this characterization of the Jews a straw man? Specifically, there is a great deal of biblical and extra-biblical evidence that suggests that legalism wasn't really a problem, for Jesus, Paul or the Jews. Now, legalism was a problem for Martin Luther, his monastic attempts to save his damnable soul. But scholars have argued that Luther's problem wasn't the Jew's Problem. Nor Paul's. Nor Jesus's. And, once again, there is debate about all this. It's another location of controversy in Pauline studies.
In sum, these are three examples of the debates within Pauline scholarship. There are many more and Campbell reviews them all. Exhaustively.

Now here is the breathtaking move Campbell makes. Campbell's basic argument is simple. Most, if not all, of these problems across the wide reaches of Pauline scholarship are the result of a single mistake. One simple but catastrophic mistake. Given this contention you can see the riches that await us. If this one mistake is corrected then Paul breaks free into the sunlight. All this nagging debate and argument about Paul falls away in a single stroke.

This, I think, is why there is such a buzz about this book. There are all these micro-level debates about Paul, little provincial struggles about this or that aspect of Paul. Which is, by the way, what scholars do. We specialize and focus on these little details. Expertise is finding a detail you just dominate. No one in the world knows as much about Romans 1.3 as you do. You did your entire dissertation on that single verse!

So Campbell's work is stunning (and long) because he tries to take in the entire sweep of Pauline scholarship. A macro-level approach that, he thinks, can fix the various micro-level problems. Of course, to make such a suggestion, you have to demonstrate to the micro-level specialists that you know what the hell they are talking about. You have to demonstrate competence and a grasp of the relevant issues. And this Campbell tries to do. Which is why the book is so long.

Of course, I have no idea if Campbell is successful in this. I'm no Pauline scholar. But everyone can grasp what his goal is: Fix the fundamental mistake that is causing all these problems.

So what is the fundamental mistake? The fundamental mistake was reading Paul through a particular theoretical lens. This lens is often called the Lutheran Reading of Paul. Campbell, not wanting to get bogged down in historical details as aspects of this reading pre-date Luther, prefers to call this reading, generically, Justification Theory.

According to Campbell, Justification Theory was the big mistake. When you read Paul through the lens of Justification Theory you get a wildly distorted Paul. And the debates within Pauline scholarship are created by this distorted Paul. This warped, funhouse mirror image of Paul. And if Justification Theory is wrong and alien to Paul then clarity might be achieved if we could read Paul through the spectacles he was wearing. To see Paul as he saw himself, not as we see him through the prism of Justification Theory. So Campbell's project is twofold. First, show us the flaws of Justification Theory with a particular focus on how Justification Theory is implicated in the debates within Pauline scholarship. And, second, show us an alternative reading of Paul, one that approximates, as best we can, how Paul understood his own theology.

So what is Justification Theory?

First off, as a theory, Justification Theory is a way of explaining Paul. More specifically, it is a way of organizing the Pauline data--textual data mainly, but also historical, theological, anthropological and sociological data--in a way that makes sense of it all. And, like all theories, if Justification Theory creates more problems than it solves we grow dissatisfied with the theory and begin to wonder if a better theory should replace it.

Most Christians already know the broad outlines of Justification Theory. It is the consensus view on salvation, what it is and how it happens. A part of what Campbell does is to specify the theory in great detail, proposition by proposition, so that any disagreements about the theory can be taken up and debated point by point. But we don't need to go into that amount of detail. I'll paint the theory in broader strokes. In fact, I'll summarize Campbell's description of Justification Theory with a picture (click on it for a larger view):

As described by Campbell, Justification Theory posits two phases and salvation is, essentially, the movement from one phase of existence to the second. The first phase is the pre-Christian condition. Movement to the second, Christian phase is essentially an epistemological journey triggered by two realizations. The first realization is that there is a just, holy and omnipotent God who is characterized by retributive justice. The second realization is that human beings, across the board, are unable to achieve moral perfection. These realizations are reached in one of two ways. For the Jew, these realizations come through attempts at Torah obedience. According to Justification Theory, the Jew should come to the realization that he cannot keep the Law perfectly. For the Gentile, having never come into contact with the Law, the Phase 1 realizations come from an innate moral law that is shared and universal, a "natural law" available to everyone. Everyone knows right from wrong and you also know that you can never be perfect.

The nadir of Phase 1 comes when the two key realizations come crashing down upon you. God is a God of justice. All of us have sinned (i.e., are not perfect). Consequently, God will judge us negatively. Despair comes when we realize that we cannot rescue ourselves. We cannot keep the law--Torah or Natural--perfectly. We are doomed.

Pausing for a moment, you might be wondering if I have presented a caricature of Justification Theory. For example, is it really reasonable to expect Gentiles to reach these conclusions having never heard of the Torah or the gospel? But Campbell is clear that Justification Theory must endorse this proposition. If it doesn't then someone, somewhere could comfortably live within Phase 1, indefinitely and without blame. They simply wouldn’t know any better. And couldn't know any better. In short, for Justification Theory to work it must get everyone into the same boat and you need some mechanism to do that, some way to indict people who never heard of the bible or Jesus. The alternative would be that people could get into Phase 2 without acknowledging Christ (i.e., God takes them into heaven because they didn’t know any better) or that God judges these people unfairly (because these people are, after all, clueless about the gospel story). Thus, for God to be righteous in his judgment everyone must stand before Him with a guilty conscience.

Here's another oddity. Why does God demand moral perfection? Why does it have to be 100% rather than 51%. The trouble with a "good enough" criterion (I’m 51% good) is that many (if not most) people can, realistically, achieve this goal. Such a situation is intolerable to Justification Theory. It would suggest that people could, by hitting the moral criterion of 51%, achieve salvation on their own, through their own good works. So the perfectionistic criterion has to stay, as unreasonable as it is, for Justification Theory to work.

In short, the parts of Justification Theory that seem odd or caricatured are, in fact, integral and vital to the theory. Weaken these aspects of the theory and it collapses.

Returning now to the theory, many readers will recognize the journey to despair in Phase 1 to be the very same pathway Martin Luther walked. During his early monastic days Luther became acutely aware of God's looming judgment and his own moral imperfections. And, try as he might, Luther could not work hard enough to save himself. He felt himself to be doomed.

At this point the offer of salvation enters the picture. At the point of despair God extends salvation to the believer. The believer accepts this offer by exhibiting the saving criterion: Faith. In the Calvinistic variant faith is given by God to the believer. In the Arminian variant faith is a free act of human volition. Either way, the believer must exhibit faith to trigger movement into Phase 2.

Phase 2 is the Christian Phase and it is characterized by two things. First, the judgment of God, previously directed at the human person, is satisfied by the death of Jesus. In this view, Jesus "substitutes" himself, takes the place of the believer, taking the full judgment of God upon himself. Second, the righteousness of Jesus, his blamelessness, is imputed or reckoned to the believer. In short, where Phase 1 is characterized by a moral despair--the failure to achieve moral perfection in the face of God's judgment--Phase 2 is characterized by grace, accepting through faith the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. God’s judgment is satisfied and the believer is “saved,” counted as righteous before the Judgment Seat of God.

Most of this is familiar territory. It is, as Campbell points out, the familiar "turn or burn" view of salvation. Stuck in Phase 1 you cannot save yourself. If you think you can get yourself out of Phase 1 on your own that is a manifestation of delusional damnable pride. Further, no one can avoid the indictment of Phase 1. Either the Torah or Natural Law condemns you. Failure to acknowledge this is also a mark of pride. Thus, if you choose to remain in Phase 1 God is both righteous and justified to judge you negatively. The only way out is to face up to your fundamental moral incapacity and to accept, through faith, the gift of grace.

Stepping back from Justification Theory we can now make a few broad observations. I'll only comment on a few of these, picking up the ones I think Campbell emphasizes.

First, the theory is introspective. It is the inward journey of a tortured conscious. People will see both Augustine and Luther in all this. Being introspective the model is individualistic and pietistic.

Second, the theory is driven by human self-interest. At the critical moment an appeal is made, "You cannot save yourself. Will you not accept this wonderful gift of grace?" Self-interest is the motive force that propels you from Phase 1 to Phase 2. Salvation is, basically, a sales pitch.

Third, the entire journey from Phase 1 to Phase 2 is epistemological. Movement occurs via the acceptance of a few critical propositions. About God. About your moral situation (i.e., you are a sinner in the hands of an angry God). About the offer of grace. Faith is entirely rationalistic.

Fourth, the model is contractual. An offer is made and a stipulated criterion is specified (faith) for the offer to be accepted. Salvation has a conditional if/then structure.

Finally, the model is prospective, it moves forward in time. You begin with the present and move toward the future where salvation awaits you.

As you might expect, these aspects of Justification Theory will prove to be problematic. Many have been widely discussed and debated (e.g., faith as overly rationalistic). Some of these issues were new to me.

And now with Justification Theory described we will be able to explore its inconsistencies and weaknesses. In the next post I'll begin my summary of the rest of Part 1 of The Deliverance of God discussing the various of the problems inherent in Justification Theory.

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12 thoughts on “Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 1, Justification Theory”

  1. Richard, thanks a bunch for tackling this book. I too have seen the mountain of discussion on Campbell's volume, but have yet to come accross an accessible work through of it such as you have started.
    Thanks for writing (as usual) in a style that is available to us laypeople too. I will read on with great interest.

  2. Wow! I am delighted, once again and as usual, to benefit from your superb teaching. I think you might find the lens through which I will be considering your exposition of this work interesting.

    I have long suspected that personality plays a big role in how a person experiences Christian faith. There seems to be a big difference between those who see the need to mold their lives into conformity with christian ideals and those who despair that they have no hope of doing so, and so need salvation from themselves, primarily.

    Both Paul and Luther were outsized personalities; and both shared an explosive/confrontational disposition as a centerpiece of their psyches. Such a disposition works well for starting a movement, but not for accommodating membership in the Kingdom. I think that the very thing that made Paul and Luther pivotal in Christian history--that they were born fighters--made them reject themselves, fundamentally, as compatible with salvation. They needed to reject themselves and hope in an outside force capable of reforming them, literally.

    I note this, way prematurely perhaps, because if you have framed this work accurately at the outset, it starts off without taking this into account: the "wildly distorted Paul" may be essential to understanding the real Paul--and Luther. Moreover, though self-accommodation/self-confrontation modes of experiencing faith may predominate in the lives of individual faithful, I do not think that anyone is 100% one way or the other, which is to say, that we need to take the distortion into account in order to understand faith--which addresses this distortion in human nature itself.

    If so, your characterization of Pauline/Lutheran faith as introspective, self-interested, epistemological, etc., need not predominate for the "Lutheran" view: It would just be the sober starting point, given an acknowledgement of one's shortcomings as a human being, i.e., the "Lutheran" view need not imply self-absorbtion. In fact, what it does imply is a cesire to overcome it in a really fundamental way.

    But then I may have jumped the gun in a really embarrassing way--perhaps a fatal flaw of my Lutheran identity. :)

    Thanks, Richard.


  3. Thank you for tackling this daunting topic and making it comprehensible for those of us who aren't Ph.D's. You've whetted my curiousity as to what Campbell's solution is.

  4. Richard,

    I haven't worked through Campbell as of yet. But years ago when I read Freud in the German, I had an epiphany of sorts: how can that which is rooted in the id ever arrive at superego understanding? Freud (as well as Augustine and Luther) denies but presupposes a highly individualized kind of global free will and intellectual comprehension. All three were more inclined toward Plato as opposed to Aristotle. Paul is self-conscious, rabbinic, and steeped in Hellenistic culture, but hardly Platonic and systematic. He writes on the fly, dealing with circumstances, using and mixing metaphors, persuading, cajoling and warning phrases, romance, flattery, confrontation, anger, hyperbole, soaring poetry, and even vulgarity to present his gospel of God's willingness to adopt us all despite our willingness to settle for less. Paul doesn't discount individual piety but he places it into its larger context--into what Elton Trueblood called "the company of the committed." We are healed and made whole among God's loving and forgiving community.


  5. oh boy this should be a lot of fun for me and you get to do the study... i
    sure don't mind letting you read the stinking 1300 pages if you need a little help ask john mark. he loves to read also... :-)
    blessings to you rich...
    rich constant

  6. Butt now rom.3:21
    Christocintric wiew of the vindication of god’s very good GEN. and grace through faith work of god in christ the faithfulness of christ

    here are a few key points that I use to come to an understanding of paul’s word’s of god’s faithfulness in the rom.3:3-4 a righteous work of faith also in the work of the righteous act of rom.5:18
    the law is not made for a righteous man says m the law was made for sinners and makes sin very simple sinful, (!st. tim,)
    / (james2:10 For the one who obeys the whole law but fails18 in one point has become guilty of all of it). and for the Jew under the law(Jesus),the true vine there was curse attached to sin under law. Gal. third chapt. Which brings about second Corinthians 521.
    Which the law being spiritural could not judge the thought and the intent of the action that came in the appearance of sin on a tree .
    Christ on a tree which presupposes that he did something to get their that was sinful.
    Paul says the law says cursed of God is anyone that hangs on a tree.
    But Jesus was doing the will of God, redemption of the good of creation through the faithfulness of the divine nature.
    That switches over to Romans the eighth chapter to spirit of life through faith of put this one down
    Rom 8:2 for the law of the Spirit of the life in Christ Jesus did set me free from the law of the sin and of the death;
    Rom 8:3 for what the law was not able to do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, His own Son having sent in the likeness of sinful flesh(flesh of sin), and for sin, did condemn the sin in the flesh,
    Rom 8:4 that the righteousness of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

    blessings my brother

    Translation from the new English translation

    3:21 Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God?46 Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.47 3:22 But the scripture imprisoned48 everything and everyone49 under sin so that the promise could be given – because of the faithfulness50 of Jesus Christ – to those who believe.
    Sons of God Are Heirs of Promise
    3:23 Now before faith51 came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners52 until the coming faith would be revealed. 3:24 Thus the law had become our guardian53 until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous54 by faith. 3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.55 3:26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.
    Blessings rich constant

  7. It's actually Douglas here, wearing the prosôpon of his wife, Rachel, who runs the google account.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my book and do such an insightful summary. I take my hat off to you, and look forward very much to your further posts. I especially like the diagram.

  8. I see that I am a few years behind in this conversation. But, seeing as I can't access Mr. Campbell's book from Cambodia (yet), I still want to thank you for your summary to get me started.

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