Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 8, The False Gospel

Okay everyone, this is the post you've finally been waiting on! We are finally into Part 4 of The Deliverance of God where Campbell begins to walk through his alternative reading of Paul.

To begin, Campbell asks us to step back and consider the "frame" of Romans. Why was the book written? What prompted Paul to send such a long, polemical letter to a church he had yet to visit? What was going on in the church at Rome?

These questions are important because, as Campbell reviews, different proposed frames for the composition of Romans have produced some intriguing readings. Campbell's frame is that the Roman church encountered (or would soon encounter) some Jewish-Christian teachers who were proclaiming a gospel at odds with Paul's gospel. Paul, thus, is keen to get the letter of Romans to the church in Rome to refute these teachers of a "false gospel." I find this frame very plausible as it fits with a variety of other biblical data: The debates about circumcision in Acts (Acts 11, 15), Paul's squabble with Peter in Antioch (Gal. 2), and, most convincingly, Paul's final exhortation at the end of Romans:

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.
So we can assume that the goal of the letter of Romans was a refutation of a "false gospel," one tied to the Judaizing teachers, those in the early Christian church who taught something similar to what we find in Acts 15.1: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

With this frame in mind we can approach Romans 1-4.

Campbell starts his reading by taking in the big picture. Specifically, when we look at Romans 1-4 we find two soteriological systems. The first is characterized by "works of the Law." The second is characterized by "faith/trust/fidelity." Each of these systems claim to bring salvation: "Righteousness" or "justification." What everyone agrees on is that Paul rejects the first soteriology--righteousness/justification through works of the Law--and advocates the second ("righteousness by faith/trust"). So far so good. The trouble comes, according to Campbell, when Justification Theory unnecessarily (and somewhat paradoxically) links these two soteriological systems. They become, respectively, Phase 1 and Phase 2 of Justification Theory. That is, we move from condemnation under a "works-based" system into the grace of the "trust-based" system. We have already noted some of the contradictions that are created when we link these two systems.

Campbell's argument is that there is no good textual reason to link these two systems. Paul clearly wants to reject the "works-based" soteriology. According to Justification Theory he really can't. Paul has to adopt the Retributive God and the perfectionistic criterion. Why? So he can create the moral despair necessary to propel his audience (then and now) into the arms of grace (Phase 2). But many problems are created when we are forced to link these two soteriologies; weirdly, Paul has to both accept and reject the "works-based" system.

So why not simply leave these two systems separate? In short, two gospels are on display in Romans 1-4. Gospel A: A works-based gospel, and Gospel B: a trust-based gospel. Paul rejects the former and embraces the latter. Importantly, this means that Paul is now rejecting all the problematic aspects of Justification Theory (e.g., the retributive, punitive, perfectionistic God).

In short, the problem with Justification Theory is that it attributes both gospels to Paul. And this creates all those apples and oranges problems we find in Paul where he says one thing and then, later, seems to say the exact opposite. God is a wrathful, retributive God! Wait, no he's not! He's a God of grace and love!

Simplifying, here's the situation with Justification Theory:
Gospel A + Gospel B = Justification Theory
Result: A confused and contradictory Paul (and a really schizophrenic God)
Campbell's very simple solution is this:
Gospel A or Gospel B? Gospel B! (Praise be to God!)
Result: A consistent and cogent Paul (and the God of Jesus Christ)
This solution fits well with the frame for Romans. Recall, Paul is combating Judaizing Christians, a gospel that preaches circumcision and Torah obedience "to be saved" (cf. Acts 15.1). Gospel A--the works-based gospel--is the "good news" preached by these Jewish-Christian missionaries in (or soon to arrive in) Rome. Paul wants to put this "false gospel" on display and thoroughly discredit it. Romans 1-4 shows Paul doing just that.


Campbell's solution to the problems in Paul is simple and elegant. But a moment of reflection should reveal an important consequence of this reading. Specifically, if Paul is presenting two gospels in Romans 1-4--one false the other true--then significant portions of Romans 1-4 will not be Paul's teaching. That is, there will be times in Romans 1-4 when Paul is presenting the false gospel and we don't want to attribute those words to Paul or the Christian gospel. This is a very different way of reading of Romans 1-4. According to the conventional reading, 100% of Romans 1-4 is Paul speaking and, thus, 100% true. As noted above, this creates a lot of problems. If Paul is responsible for saying 100% of Romans 1-4 then, well, Paul's saying a lot of weird things. But if a part of Romans 1-4 is the "false gospel" then 100% of Romans cannot be attributed to Paul. Paul wrote it all, but Paul isn't endorsing it all. In fact, Paul is actively arguing against this gospel in Romans 1-4.

In short, according to Campbell, Romans 1-4 is an argument in the form of Greco-Roman diatribe. Sometimes a diatribe can become highly Socratic (see the question/answer format of Romans 3.1-8). Diatribes also have lots of rhetorical questions ("What shall we say then...?"). And, importantly, diatribes also employ what is known as "speech-in-character," where a sage/teacher adopts the voice, argument, persona and rhetorical style of an antagonist allowing those voices, in a performative way, to argue back and forth. Think of Stephen Colbert's Formidable Opponent:

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The difference between Colbert and the diatribe form is that where Colbert's persona are balanced the "Formidable Opponent" in a Roman diatribe is meant to be defeated in the argument. Paul wants to defeat the "Formidable False Gospel" of the Judaizing teachers in Rome. So he imports their voices into Romans 1-4 to knock them down.

If we recognize Romans 1-4 as a diatribe we then need to read the text rhetorically, noting when Paul switches from his own voice to the voice of the Teacher of the "false gospel." This might seem like a hard thing to do. And it is for English readers. In The Deliverance of God Campbell discusses the various textual clues that would have signaled for the church in Rome the change of voices (e.g., Colbert switching back and forth) as the letter was read aloud (and performed by Phoebe for them).


So how does Romans 1-4 read if we read it rhetorically? Let me sketch out, with more to follow, how this reading works for the first part of Paul's argument (under the conventional reading) for Romans 1.18-3.20.

Recall, according to the conventional reading Romans 1.18-3.20 is supposed to be Paul's "Statement of the Problem." That is, all people--both Jew and Gentile--stand in sin. To make this argument Paul makes an appeal to two different moral "laws." The Gentile stands condemned under a natural law of conscience and the Jew stands condemned under the Mosaic Code. For each, Jew and Gentile, a retributive God working with a perfectionistic criterion is running the show.

Under the rhetorical reading much of Romans 1.18-3.20 is actually a presentation of the "false gospel." The most critical presentation of this "false gospel," given as a "speech-in-character," is presented right out of the gate in 1.18-32. Recall, this text borrows a lot from the Wisdom of Solomon, a bit of Jewish moral propaganda ranting about the depravity of the pagans. Importantly, what we find in 1.18-32 is the soteriological principle of desert, the message that righteousness is attained by ethical performance. And, according to the Judaizing teachers, the Gentile Christians in Rome would have been impaired in being ethical people (they were pagans after all) because they didn't have the tutelage and structure of the Law.

After the presentation of the "false gospel" in 1.18-32 Paul then makes a rhetorical move in 2.1-8 to universalize aspects of the "false gospel." Specifically, as noted above, the the principle of desert infuses the indictment of the pagans. This is clearly stated in 1.18:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men...
In 2.1 Paul takes up this principle of desert and applies it to the Judaizing teachers. He asks, in effect, "If your gospel is driven by moral desert how does that criterion apply to you?" According to the "false gospel," grace is going to shown "to the Jew first and then to the Greek" (1.16) because of the Torah obedience of the Jew (so you Roman Christian had better get circumcised!). But, as Paul responds to the "false gospel," in point of fact the wrath of God will be upon "the Jew first and then to the Greek" (2.9). In short, from 2.1 onward Paul shows how there is no ethical, ontological, or eschatological advantage in being a Jew. In fact, as Paul argues in 2.25-29, there are many pagans who are morally superior to Jews.

Stepping back, we can summarize the content of the "false gospel" in the following way. The pagans are depraved and stand condemned before God. And this is a Good of retributive justice. But God gave the Law to provide moral support and guidance. The Law, thus, is the means of salvation for the pagans. The Law is "the good news." Yes, it is a salvation based upon ethical merit. But this isn't as bad as it sounds as God, through his grace, gives us the Law. Thus, if the Gentile Christians want to come out from pagan sin they need to embrace the Law as their hope of salvation. This is their gospel.

Paul, for his part, is aghast at this gospel for its lack of Christology. According to Paul, the Law confers no ethical advantage. As he argues from 2.1-3.20, the Jew is no better, ethically speaking, than the Gentile. The Law cannot save. Only participation in the death and resurrection of Christ can save us. This is Paul's gospel.

In short, there is a lot of similarity between the conventional and the rhetorical reading (to this point at least). Paul is rejecting a works-based righteousness in each. But the rhetorical reading allows us to jettison all the problematic aspects of the "false gospel"--a wrathful, retributive God, moral perfectionism, etc. In this new reading, these things are not imported into Christian soteriology the way they are in Justification Theory. According to the Judaizing teachers Paul is debating, God is a God of wrath and judgment and ethical performance. So you better get your act together! And fast! But Paul steps in to say, "How is that good news?" Paul's gospel is different: God is a God of surprising, jawdropping love. While we were sinners Christ came and rescued us. We were enslaved and now we are free. Our primal, first experience of God isn't an experience of wrath and retributive justice. It is, rather, the experience of radical, surprising and inexplicable love.

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10 thoughts on “Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 8, The False Gospel”

  1. Dr. Beck,
    In anticipation of this post, I did some homework and spent some time this week reading chs 1-4. Suprisingly, I came to some very similar conclusions as Campbell. If you don't mind (feel free to moderate if necessary), I'd like to run this up the flagpole and see who salutes it...

    Generally, at least through ch. 4, Paul seems to be ranting against some specific group of Jews for their 1) denial of the "truth" (presumably Jesus), and for 2) their reliance on their "Jewishness" above all else, presumably even above God. Paul seems intent, not only to expose the fallacy (and hypocricy) of that reliance, but to defend apparently [God]-fearing Gentiles as being right with God, and to condemn this arrogant group of Jews, by a single standard--the righteousness of God through Jesus. In other words, everyone, Jew or Gentile, faces God fairly with no partiality. Being a Jew gives no advantage; being a Gentile causes no disadvantage (i.e. "all have sinned"). The purpose of the Law and the Hebrew nation, then, was/is altogether different than has been put forth by the Jews to this point. The Law was not the "way" to righteousness, much less the way to God. It was a lesson, to teach the Jews--then by/through the Jews to teach the Gentiles--about God and ourselves.

    In other words, we all will be dealt with fairly by God, in the light of or as a result of Jesus.

    I like these readings better. :) The idea of catching a break from God is good news.

  2. Justin,
    Your reading seems to go right along with what Campbell is arguing (maybe he'll step in to help us out; remember, he's using is wife's Google account and is showing up as "Rachel", not to be confused with the Rachel of the blog "Oratorical Fireworks" but who might also want to weigh in; it's all a little confusing...).

    As you note, there is a "leveling" going on in both in the conventional and the rhetorical reading. Jews and Gentiles are being put on the same footing. Sometimes Paul does this by pointing to Jewish sinfulness and, at other times, to Gentile righteousness. The big point being, there is no ethical or eschatological advantage of being a "true Jew." In making this argument Paul undermines the core of the Jewish-Christiam teacher's core message (found in 1.18-32) to the Gentiles at Rome: You are all depraved and lost (as godless pagans) so you better listen to my message about the salavtion being offered you through the Torah ("works of the Law").

    In short, Paul, by showing no ethical advanage to having the Law, seeks to discredit the works-based gospel by questioning its fundamental assertion: That Jews ethically outperform Gentiles. If this is not true then the "gospel" of these Jewish-Christian missionaries is not true. It's a false gospel, it's not good news.

    The key aspect of the rhetorical reading is that Paul is decisively rejecting this gospel (and the view of God sitting behind it) in Romans 1-4. The problem with Justification Theory is that it insists that we all must move through this gospel, the very gospel Paul is saying is invalid and false.

  3. General Note:
    I see a lot of wonderful possibilities for preaching through Romans using the rhetorical reading.

    The performative aspects would make for some dramatic moments.

  4. A simile by way of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:

    Shakespeare's plot turns on an absurd decision on Brutus' part--to help kill Caesar via this incredibly flimsy rationale: "So Caesar may [be corrupted by power]; Then lest he may, prevent. ...therefore think him as a serpent's egg...and kill him in the shell."

    Either Shakespeare was a hack, or the flimsy rationale is not a flaw of the play. An enlightened reading has us see Brutus' rationale as depicting something tragic and absurd about our humanity: political motives can override good judgment. If we read the flaw into the play, we miss its point. As that is true of Shakespeare, I think it is true of Paul.

    Richard's schematic of Campbell's critique:

    Gospel A + Gospel B = JT
    Result: A Confused...Paul (and a Really Schizophrenic God)

    But I think Paul was holding up a mirror to human nature in order to point out a confusion in humanity: the morals and ideals and hopes we all have and the realities we can achieve contradict and disappoint even the best of us.

    Remove the contradictions, and you remove the mirror Paul wants to hold up to human nature. "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me...?" I believe that the gospel is the answer to that question, and I fear that Dr. Campbell's reading breaks Paul's mirror on human nature. A mirror that shows us we need to be saved from ourselves.

    I just ordered the book, and look forward to a deep and extremely informative read. Perhaps I will discover that I am a bit too much like Brutus. But then Brutus is very much like what appears in Paul's mirror...

  5. Dr. Beck,

    I'm loving this series. A question though: you state that Paul's gospel is not a works-based gospel but rather "only participation in the death and resurrection of Christ can save us". I'm curious how you see this meshing with the soteriology of universalism? Is this a game changer for universalism. Please don't read this like I'm trying to use your own words against you; I'm not. I might be mixing apples and oranges here, but the thought hit me that when we use words like "only" it sounds as if it could negate a universalistic soteriology. Help me work this all out in my head.

    Thank you for this blog; its helped me more than I can express.


  6. Jayson,
    That's a good question. The issue boils down if one's universalism is Christological or not. My universalism is Christological (Jesus is the way to the Father). The only change to traditional accounts is extending the salvific work of Christ postmortem.

  7. I'm a little disappointed by this solution to the problem. Two reasons:

    1) Maybe I'm missing something, but Campbell's interpretation (and I don't know enough to say it is right or wrong) doesn't overturn JT, it just shades the setup in a slightly different manner.

    In the end, the answer remains that Jesus died for our sins. Everything before that may be intersting but ultimately is inconsequential.

    2) I always have pause when trying to judge a theology that proposes a reading missed for hundreds or thousands of years. It goes against my theory that simple is more likely to be true. Again, I'm not expert enough to judge, and maybe this questions is answered in the book, but how did the correct interpretation of the book get lost for so long?

    All in all, though, another stimulating post.


  8. The premise of Romans is 2:13. But the law Paul is referencing is not the Sinai code of law. He is referencing a law that has been added relative to the Lord's ascension. Heb. 7:12 "The law was added so that the trespass (singular) might increase." "the trespass' is the Lord's murder. No one can figure out Romans unless he understands which law Paul is referencing.

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