[Note: Dr. Campbell was kind enough to comment on the last post. So, as this series moves forward everyone be on your best behavior. Let's not embarrass ourselves.]
As we noted in the last post, Douglas Campbell's contention in his book The Deliverance of God is that our understanding of Paul, his soteriology in particular, has been distorted by the prism of Justification Theory. In one sense, this a shocking claim as Justification Theory is the consensus view regarding salvation (at least in the West). But in another sense, Campbell's claim isn't news, particularly in scholarly circles, as there has been a growing disillusionment with Justification Theory. Many scholars have raised concerns about the Lutheran reading of Paul. However, these criticisms have been particular and piecemeal, a picking away at the edges. Thus, advocates and defenders of Justification Theory have been able to respond and, to some degree, fend off these localized objections. Due to this piecemeal approach Justification Theory has survived relatively unscathed. True, it might be admitted, the theory wasn't perfect. But its general thrust and foundation was solid and cogent.
In light of all this, what is significant about The Deliverance of God is its exhaustive and thorough dismantling of Justification Theory. It really is quite a beatdown. Although parts of Campbell's argument have been known for some time, no one had pulled it all together, marshaling all the damming evidence into one prolonged, devastating and withering critique. This, I suspect, is another reason why The Deliverance of God is on everyone's must read lists. Justification Theory has been thoroughly discredited.
There is no one reason that discredits Justification Theory. That is likely the reason for the theory’s long shelf life. What Campbell does is gather, point by point, all the problems and inconsistencies associated with Justification Theory into one big heap. And when Campbell is done with this work you look at that heap and say, "Justification Theory just can't be right." There are just too many cracks. Too many holes. Too many leaks.
I'm not going to survey every one of these holes, cracks and leaks. I'll simply give a taste, picking up the criticisms of Justification Theory that I think are easy to understand and grasp.
Campbell groups his criticisms of Justification Theory under three headings. These are:
1. Intrinsic Difficulties:For the rest of this post let me give some examples of the issues Campbell discusses as Intrinsic Difficulties for Justification Theory. In the posts that follow I’ll discuss the Systematic and Empirical difficulties.
Theoretical, logical and analytic problems within Justification Theory. That is, the problems of Justification Theory as a theory. For example, a theory that contradicts itself is bad as a theory, irrespective of any ambitions it might have about explaining the world.
2. Systematic Difficulties:
Problems Justification Theory causes for our reading of Paul. Again, as a theory Justification Theory is trying to help us understand (i.e., organize and explain) Paul's thought. But if our theory makes Paul seem confused, incoherent, or inconsistent we should wonder if the theory is doing its job. A proper theory should make reading Paul simpler, not harder. It should turn the lights on, not throw us into darkness.
3. Empirical Difficulties:
Justification Theory is, generally speaking, theological in nature. However, there are places where Justification Theory requires empirical specifications. That is, for Justification Theory to work the world needs to be a certain way. So is the world that way? If not, then even if Justification Theory was self-consistent (which it's not, see #1 those Intrinsic Difficulties) it wouldn't correspond to the world we live in. Justification Theory might be a perfectly fine soteriology for, let's say, Martians, but it wouldn't speak to our realities.
Example 1: Natural Revelation and Epistemology
For Justification Theory to work Gentiles (during Paul's day) and non-Christians (in out time) must be able to examine the cosmos and, if they are honest, reach a few basic conclusions. Some of these conclusions are:
- God's Retributive Justice
- Divine Concern for Human Heterosexuality and Monogamy
- Divine Concern for Ethical Perfection
Immediately, Justification Theory seems incoherent. Is it self-evident when people examine the cosmos that God exists? That there is only one God? That this God demands moral perfection and will condemn you if you fail to achieve perfection? Is it clear that God finds homosexuality unacceptable? That monogamy is okay and polygamy is not? Is any of this obvious? Well, no, it's not. So how could God judge anyone on these particulars?
These realizations about God are only obvious after one has encountered the "Christian" message. And this brings up a related criticism made by Campbell. There is a disjoint between the epistemology of Phase 1 and of Phase 1. As we have just seen, Justification Theory posits a universal and transparent epistemology for Phase 1. Every person should be able to examine the universe and conclude that, for example, God exists, what this God expects of you, that you must be perfect, and that God won't forgive you aren't perfect. All that, to put is mildly, is a bit of a tall order. But even if we grant all this, the person in Phase 1 can't get to Phase 2--the Christian Phase--by examining the cosmos. People can conclude they are damned in Phase 1, but they aren't expected to figure out how Christ can save them. This very particular information isn't embedded in the cosmos. Rather, it is a historical and contingent revelation delivered by human messengers. Concretely, a missionary has to show up at your village.
This is a very odd situation. But we can see why Justification Theory needs it to be this way. The goal of Justification Theory is to have everyone, and I mean everyone, stand condemned in Phase 1. No one is "without excuse." Everyone is doomed and, importantly, they know it. And if they don't know this it is due to the fact that they are disobedient and wicked, willfully ignoring the transparent claims of the cosmos. This universal condemnation functions as a prerequisite, the stage setting for the delivery of the Christian message. The trouble is that the Christian message might never come. It needs to be delivered by human persons. For Justification Theory this makes sense. The Good News isn't philosophical or metaphysical. You can't save yourself by examining the cosmos and worshiping the God (or gods) revealed to human reason. You need to hear about Jesus. The trouble is that while our universal condemnation is open to reason our salvation is not. We all stand condemned but only some people have had the luck to hear the message of Grace. In short, there are two epistemologies in Justification Theory. One that is universal, transparent and a product of natural revelation. The other one is particular, historical and the product of human declaration. And, on sheer theoretical grounds, a theory positing such disjointed epistemologies seems deeply problematic, creating a host of philosophical problems.
Example 2: Theodicy and the Nature of God
For Justification Theory to work God has to send you to hell if you are not morally perfect. This immediately raises problems. Why does God require 100% moral perfection? In the last post we noted that a "good enough" criterion--51% rather than 100%--is unworkable in Justification Theory as it would allow people, through their own moral effort, to save themselves. Thus, it is critical that Justification Theory require 100% moral perfection. Why? Because no one can meet this threshold. Thus, everyone stands condemned. And that is what Justification Theory is trying to accomplish: Universal condemnation. The trouble is that, to accomplish this feat, Justification Theory has to make a claim about God that seems deeply problematic.
First, why would God create this flawed creature and then expect moral perfection? No reasonable person would expect perfection from a biological creature It's just not in the cards.
Second, why is God so harsh? Why isn't his nature more kind, generous and forgiving? Humans don't demand perfection from each other. We forgive. God, apparently, doesn't. And it's not clear why, in light of Justification Theory, God couldn't be this way. Why couldn't God be forgiving and nurturing in light of our transgressions? Not that God would be a pushover, but at least God would be nice and reasonable given that he's working with human beings, creatures that frequently make moral mistakes because, like any animal, we get scared or confused. The trouble for Justification Theory is that if God were like this--nice and reasonable--then the salvific machinery of Phase 2 is rendered moot. God doesn't require the blood sacrifice of Jesus because God is intrinsically forgiving.
Third, in all times and places there have been sweet, kind and decent people. They are not perfect, but they are the moral exemplars amongst us. Think of the sweetest and nicest person you’ve ever known. Perhaps it’s a friend, neighbor or grandparent. According to Justification Theory even these sweet and decent people will be sentenced to eternal hellfire. Further, Justification Theory claims that this outcome is both righteous and just. These people deserve this treatment. And as Campbell points out, this is hugely problematic as it violates every notion of justice and proportionality. As a theory that purports to show God's justice and goodness Justification Theory is just a total failure. Nothing in it shows God to be either just or righteous.
Campbell goes on to discuss other intrinsic difficulties within Justification Theory. Quickly, here are a few others:
In sum, there are a host of intrinsic difficulties with Justification Theory. These are the problems that can be raised simply at the theoretical level, how well the theory makes sense on its own terms. And as we have seen, the whole structure of Justification Theory is a patchwork of problems and contradictions. A house of cards really.
- Why, during Phase 1, did the Jews and Gentiles play by two different sets of rules?
- How, exactly, is the death of Jesus a "payment" for sin? As a metaphor this might make sense, but when pressed the metaphor is incoherent.
- Why is faith privileged the way it is in Justification Theory? And are the models of faith in the theory--Arminian (free will) and Calvinistic (election)--even coherent?
In the next post we will move into the systematic difficulties of Justification Theory. That is, we’ll turn to the biblical text to see how Justification Theory performs in doing what it says it does: Explain Paul.