Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 2, The Intrinsic Problems of Justification Theory

[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:
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.
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.

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:
  1. Theism
  2. Monotheism
  3. God's Retributive Justice
  4. Divine Concern for Human Heterosexuality and Monogamy
  5. Divine Concern for Ethical Perfection
Recall, for Justification Theory to work people must stand self-consciously guilty in Phase 1, the Pre-Christian phase. But if these propositions cannot be self-evidently squeezed from the cosmos then how could you claim that the people in Phase 1 were willfully disobedient and violating their consciences? In short, how could God judge people when there is no way for these people to reach any of these conclusions?

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:
  1. Why, during Phase 1, did the Jews and Gentiles play by two different sets of rules?
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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.

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.

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11 thoughts on “Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 2, The Intrinsic Problems of Justification Theory”

  1. "These realizations about God are only obvious after one has encountered the Christian message" - I don't think you meant the way this seems to read.

    If that is the case, then what you are labeling the Christian message is false in that it fails to proclaim the anointing or the anointed.

    Your 5 points summarize where Paul comes from in Romans 1. He poses this obvious theory as a trap, not as a substitute for truth.

    By the time I reach the end of this post, I see you are arguing against a theory of substitutionary atonement rather than a theory of justification. I will look forward to the next salvo.

  2. Bob,
    That's a fair point. I've gone back and put quote quotes around the word Christian to distance that adjective from the what I would consider to be the more proper Christian message.

  3. I am more impatient about reading the rest of this review than I have been for quite a long time! I resonate with these critiques and I look forward to hearing Dr. Campbell's alternative to Justification Theory and penal substitution. Thanks for your well written review.

    anyway that's what my aom always said to me.
    bet those words still ring in your ears also...
    blessings rich constant

  5. What strikes me is the way all of this is resonating with things that skeptics and fringe believers have been saying for years. I can't tell you how many times I've heard/read complaints about the way that justification-based evangelism wants to start out by developing an elaborate theology of sin and wrath, that just seems bizarre and counter-intuitive to the outsider.

  6. Bob, while the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement is one of the atonement theories that fits within this overarching model of justification theory, it's hardly the only one. The much older satisfaction theory, for example, also falls under that umbrella. (And truthfully, penal substitution has generally seemed to me to be at its heart a reworking of the satisfaction theory through the lens of natural law rather than the older lens of western, medieval feudalism.)

    To find the theories of atonement that do not rely on the overarching framework of justification theory, you have to go further back to theories like recapitulation and ransom, the Christus Victor theories.

    So it's not just substitutionary atonement that relies on this justification theory framework. It's pretty much all the theories developed in the Western church that I've personally explored. To one extent or another, they all assume this lens.

    I'm not a scholar or other academic, but this book sounds like it might be worth the effort I'm sure it takes to read. I'll have to look into it.

  7. seems to me that most don,t deal with the initiator of the deviation from Gods good in the creation and that god is as innocent as a dove in this act of evil.what does weakness and loving intent reap from evil....the cross it is all just to easy and there is HELL to pay.because a good and righteous life is vindicated.and the thoughts and desires of the hart are revealed and justified when good is called evil in the reprobate mind.
    this is all a compaired to what...

    rich constant

  8. I'm sympathetic to everything in your summary of Campbell, and thanks for helping me see more clearly why I'd like to jettison Justification Theory. Still, I think the driving reason why the "Theory" is so popular was left out: Human shortcomings ought to grieve everyone--human and divine--and what to do about the grievances presents a dilemma for anyone who wants to be both loving and just. It's that dilemma which Anselm, in "Cur Deus Homo?," addresses with his theory. And narrowly construed, I think Anselm's point is powerful. Perhaps if it is viewed as an analogy, rather than a theory, with the shortcomings one expects of any analogy, it's core point can be accepted? Or is even the core point flawed? (I see I'm assuming that it is Anselm, not Luther, who was the prime mover with respect to JT. Perhaps that ought to be a question too?)

    A second point. A fundamental commitment to Justification Theory is not compatible with Luther's sola scriptura, which WAS a fundamental commitment for him. From within the protestant tradition, might that be yet another implicit reason to drop JT?, that its de facto association with the Reformation might be flawed from a de jure understanding of its core motivations... And it would get my guy off: If it don't fit (Luther's/the Reformation's core commitments), we must acquit.

    I would like to know whether Dr. Campbell took up these questions, but especially the first.

  9. if we would look to the issue that the trinity dealt with (death and life through doing and honoring the father's good) and how that issue was dealt with [(deviation Rom.5 from good into self similarity [evil])the factorial theory} we might be more able to deal with the effect of the act(atonement)and a little better equipped handle the hermeneutical theories involved from the Root perceptions...
    and so it goes
    rich constant blessings all

  10. P.S.

    whats interesting self similarity could at one point can or could be a mirror image of the people zealous of god's good works(subjectively) hence god's righteous (son of man) judge.
    rich constant

  11. i do like this question
    the answer is simple.
    it' the why that makes your head spin around.

    another P.s.
    If Christ is Righteous Under Gods Torah LAW Perfect without deviation.
    How is God Righteous To Curse A Righteous man to
    THE Death.

    acts 2:31 also thief with him in paradise.before redemption

    this is a conundrum an exercise in sideways logic. Because of orthodox theology and reformed theology anthropocentric view of justification this is not a paradox

    answer is not fulfilled it...has nothing to do with the question and can't be used

    blessings rich constant

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