Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 11, Father Abraham

In this post we reach the end of Part 4 of The Deliverance of God and, thus, will finally have before us Campbell's "new" reading of Romans 1-4. Recall, Justification Theory rests upon a certain reading of Romans 1-4, the critical text that Campbell calls the "citadel" of Justification Theory. Consequently, if we can discover a "new" reading of Romans 1-4 that eliminates the problems we've noted when Justification Theory is imposed on this stretch of text, and if this alternative reading doesn't create significant problems of its own, we would have in front of us a reading of Paul that can dispense with Justification Theory altogether.

Campbell calls his "new" reading (I keep using scare quotes around 'new' to show that this reading is only new to us and is, perhaps, closer to the original, older meaning) rhetorical because this reading of Romans 1-4 relies upon the notion that Paul is arguing with a false gospel across these chapters. That is, there is a significant back and forth in Romans 1-4 as Paul and a Judaizing "Teacher" rhetorically launch attacks and counterattacks. Eventually, by the end of chapter 4, the Teacher's gospel is in ruins. From there Paul proceeds to present his gospel in chapters 5-8.

Let's take stock to see how the rhetorical reading is shaping up against the conventional reading of Romans 1-4:

Romans 1.18-3.20:

The Conventional Reading:
This is Part 1 of Paul's gospel (corresponding to Phase 1 of Justification Theory), the claim that both Jews and Gentile's stand condemned before a God of retributive justice. Why? Because no one is justified by "works of the law."

The Rhetorical Reading:
Paul begins by presenting the gospel of the Teacher: that the pagans, due to their wickedness, need the salvific assistance of circumcision and the Law. Paul then takes the soteriological logic inherent in the Teacher's gospel (the principle of desert) and applies it to the Teacher himself. In doing so Paul shows that the Teacher's gospel is not good news: Both Jew and Gentile stand condemned under the soteriology of the Teacher's gospel.

There are two soteriological systems on display in this text. A works-based system governed by a retributive God and a gospel of "faith." Justification Theory unwittingly ascribes both soteriological systems to Paul. This creates the morally bizarre God of Justification Theory. More, by conflating the soteriological systems retributive justice becomes God's defining characteristic. The rhetorical reading, by contrast, keeps the two soteriological systems separate. The works-based "gospel" is the message of the Judaizing Teacher (cf. Acts 15.1). Paul rejects this "gospel" as a non-starter. The advantage of this reading is that the image of a wrathful and retributive God is being decisively rejected by Paul. God's defining characteristic, as we will see in chapters 5-8, is love, not wrath.
Romans 1.16-17, 3:21-31:
The Conventional Reading:
After showing that both Jew and Gentile stand condemned before a God of retributive justice Paul then offers his "solution": a "righteousness" that is obtained through "faith in Jesus Christ."

The Rhetorical Reading:
Paul stops in his confrontation with the Teacher's gospel to foreshadow the presentation of his own gospel coming in chapters 5-8. This helps explain why Paul's "gospel" (under the conventional reading) is so much shorter than his statement of the "problem" in 1.18-3.20 (i.e., 63 verses for the wrathful God and only 10 verses for the God of grace). Importantly, and in contrast to the conventional reading, the "righteousness of God" is brought about by the "faithfulness of the Christ." Further, in describing the faithfulness of the Christ Paul co-opts and shapes how the Roman Christians understand the sacrifice of Jesus by linking the bloody death of Jesus with a liberative martyrological narrative intimately associated with the resurrection (vindication) of the Christ.

The conventional reading insists upon an anthropocentric view of salvation: My faith in Christ saves me. The Christological reading focuses upon the faithfulness of Jesus who has liberated us from the ontological enslavement to Sin and Death. Thus, in the conventional reading salvation is in your future: You must act to make it happen (or go to hell). By contrast, under the rhetorical reading salvation is in your past: Christ has already liberated you. The issue, then, is to "trust" in the work of the Christ. You step into a salvation already in place. Yes, there is "atonement" language here relating to the sacrifice of Jesus but the rhetorical reading doesn't read this backward into the wrathful God of 1.18-3.20 (the God of the false gospel). Rather, the language of atonement is read forward as an anticipation of Paul's gospel in chapters 5-8 where the death and resurrection of Jesus reveal the deliverance of God.
Having reviewed the first two sections of Romans 1-4--under the conventional and rhetorical readings--we now turn to the final section: Romans 3.27-4.25.

In this section Paul turns to the story of Abraham, particularly the text of Genesis 15.6:
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
In the conventional reading Paul's turn to Abraham is understood to be Paul using Abraham as a "model" or "exemplar" of faith. More, Paul might also be using the story of Abraham to give Scriptural "authorization" for his gospel of "faith." However, the trouble with this reading, among other things, is that it fails to adequately account for the material before and after Paul's citation of Genesis 15.6.

But if we follow Campbell and continue to see Romans 3.27-4.25 as a part of Paul's extended rhetorical engagement with the Teacher much within this text is explained and illuminated.

According to Campbell, in 3.26 Paul concludes his brief foreshadowing of his gospel. Plus, at this point in the argument Paul has pretty much dismantled the false gospel. Given that Paul might be wrapping things up the voice of the Teacher reemerges to defend himself. We haven't seen the Teacher since 1.18-32 (his rant against pagan immorality), but now, as Paul is wrapping up his attack, the Teacher counterattacks with a series of questions starting in 3.27 through to 4.1. Under the conventional reading Paul is both asking and answering these questions (talking to himself as it where). Under the rhetorical reading the Teacher is asking the questions in a series of attacks and Paul is answering. According to Campbell the exchange from 3.27-4.1 looks like this (from the NIV):
Teacher: Where, then, is boasting?
Paul: It is excluded.
Teacher: On what principle? On that of observing the law?
Paul: No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
Teacher: Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too?
Paul: Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
Teacher: Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?
Paul: Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Teacher: What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather [NRSV: "father according to the flesh"], discovered in this matter?
The Teacher is making three criticisms of Paul's gospel. First, is Paul really saying that being an observant Jew (a cause for "boasting") is not important for salvation? Yes, Paul is rejecting a merit-based gospel of moral desert. Okay, so if that is true is Paul telling these Jewish teachers that there is no advantage in being a Jew? Yes, that is what Paul is saying. Okay, if that is so isn't this newfangled gospel of faith nullifying the Torah and the covenant of circumcision? Not at all, Paul replies, this gospel of faith upholds the law. But, responds the Teacher, if there is no more circumcision what about Abraham, our father "according to the flesh" (i.e., circumcision)?

Paul then turns to the story of Abraham to show how the Teacher is actually misreading the events in Genesis. Specifically, Campbell argues that 4.2-16a is actually a point by point response using the story of Abraham to rebut the criticisms raised by the Teacher's questions in 3.37-31. The parallels look like this (if you click on the text links you'll see the passages side by side):
3.27-28 / 4.2-8
The Teacher raises questions about works, merit-based "boasting," and the law. In his discussion of Abraham Paul shows that Abraham had nothing to boast about. Abraham simply believed God's promise.

3.29-30 / 4.9-12
The Teacher raises questions about the superiority of the Jews over the Gentiles. Aren't Jews privileged by God in salvation history? Paul uses Abraham to show him to be the father of the "circumcised" and "uncircumcised."

3.31 / 4.13-16
The Teacher asks if "faith" is nullifying the Torah. Paul shows in the story of Abraham that faith cannot make the promises made to Abraham "void" (NRSV 4.14).
According to the rhetorical reading what Paul is doing from 3.27 to 4.16 is showing his exegetical superiority over the Teacher. Paul takes up the case of Abraham--the example the Teacher thinks will knock Paul down--and shows how, in fact, the story of Abraham refutes the Teacher! Paul turns the key witness for the prosecution into a witness for the defense. With this final ignominy the gospel of the Teacher is now thoroughly discredited. And having completed his destructive rhetorical work in Romans 1-4 Paul turns away from the Teacher and begins to proclaim his gospel in chapter 5.

But there is actually a lot more going on in chapter 4 that Campbell highlights. Beyond using Abraham to refute the Teacher Paul also uses the story of Abraham to highlight the Christological and liberative facets of his gospel. Consider two examples discussed by Campbell.

First, after discussing Abraham's faith in Genesis 15.6 look at what Paul goes on to say in describing the nature of that faith in 4.16-22:
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations." He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be." Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why "it was credited to him as righteousness."
As Campbell notes, this passage is an embarrassment to Justification Theory. I mean, if this is the kind of faith you need to get saved who can match it? Paul's portrayal here is heroic. Abraham believes "against all hope." Abraham "does not waver." In short, what we see in Abraham is a heroic faithfulness, over long years and in the face of many disappointments. This hardly looks like the faith of Justification Theory.

In short, in Paul's heroic description of Abraham he is not, at root, describing a faith that we must muster. Remember, faith for Paul is Christological. The heroism of Abraham is a shadow of the heroic faithfulness of the Christ. And Paul makes this clear as he continues on in verse 23:
The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
And this Christological focus highlights a second theme in Paul's discussion of Abraham, a theme generally ignored by the conventional reading: the liberative notion of justification in Paul (the deliverance of God). As Paul writes, Jesus "was raised to life for our justification." Note how Paul is shifting away from a view of atonement based upon sacrificial appeasement. Rather, "justification" occurs when the faithful Christ is vindicated at the resurrection, freeing us from the bondage of Sin and Death. Jesus is raised (not killed) for our justification. This motif is clearly seen in Paul's account of Abraham. Abraham had faith in a God who "gives life to the dead." The "promise" to Abraham (and to all of us) was bringing to "life" a "son" from the "deadness" of Sarah's womb. In short, just as Isaac (the son brought to life from the dead) becomes the "righteousness of God," so Christ is revealed to be the "righteousness of God" on Easter Sunday.

What is important to note in both Abraham's story and in the gospels accounts is that the "good news" doesn't involve a wrathful, retributive God. Rather, we see a God of grace that brings liberation and life. As Campbell observes (p. 706):
In short, for Paul, God, as revealed by Christ is benevolent. He acts for us and can be relied on to do so consistently in the future, as he has done in the past and is doing in the present...There is no other character of God behind this acting God; this is God as he truly is--the God who delivers through Jesus Christ. Paul's root metaphor of God, then, is benevolent, or merciful. There is no retributive character to the God revealed to Paul by Christ...And this is what lies at the heart of Paul's dispute with the Teacher. The Teacher has not taken Christ's disclosure of God's benevolence with full seriousness; that disclosure has been subordinated and assimilated to some prior conception of God that is retributive. In this sense, then, the Teacher's conception of God is Christianized but not Christian; it is not revised by the Christ event at a fundamental level.
I have only sketched, across three posts, what I consider to be the most important aspects of Campbell's The Deliverance of God, the rhetorical reading of Romans 1-4 found in Part 4. Others might choose to highlight different aspects of Part 4 in their own reviews. But before going on to the final part of the book, Part 5, I want to mention that what I have left out of my posts is how in Part 4 Campbell shows (in great detail) the superiority of the rhetorical reading relative to the conventional reading. All those problems I noted in earlier posts (and many, many more) are resolved by the rhetorical reading. Which is a remarkable accomplishment.

So where does that leave us? What should we do with the conventional reading in light of the rhetorical reading? Let me end our summary by quoting Campbell's own conclusion to Part 4 (p. 760-761):
I would suggest that the textual citadel for Justification theory in relation to which all else essentially stands or falls--that is, the conventional construal of Romans 1-4--has been taken. A vast array of difficulties and problems is apparent in its conventional reading, while the rereading offered here, as far as I can tell, resolves all of those problems, raising no further difficulties of its own. And this creates a new interpretive state of play. Justification theory must, if it is to recapture this critical ground and survive as a plausible historical construction in relation to Paul, carry out three tasks, at least to some degree.
First, it must supply a positive justification for its own construal, and not merely assert its truth by reputation or default (that is, by begging the question). Second, it must resolve the difficulties now apparent in that construal, of which there are upward of fifty (although admittedly these vary in severity). And, third, it must find difficulties of equal or greater weight in the suggested rereading...These are clearly considerable tasks. Furthermore, in view of their severity as well as their necessity, it is no longer enough simply to say, "I do not believe" (viz., in this alternative reading). Things have now moved beyond any defense in terms of mere denial. A great weight of tradition and commentary is no remedy for absent justifications, crumbling defenses, and undamaged alternatives.

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10 thoughts on “Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 11, Father Abraham”

  1. As I read through this post an idea started forming in my head. I do not think it is by accident that Paul refers back to Genesis to refute the Teacher. The narrative of Genesis is the foundation upon which all the laws of the Torah rest. As such, the interpretation of Torah must fall within the bookends of Genesis' paradigmatic narrative, not the other way around. To say this another way, Leviticus does not interpret Genesis. Genesis provides context for Leviticus.

    What shook me up when I thought about this is the fact that my religious tribe (Church of Christ) has done the same with the Gospels. We rush to our interpretation (or misinterpretation) of Paul (our Leviticus per se), and then reinterpret the narrative of the Gospels in that light. We have it backwards. The narrative of the Gospels provides us with the source of our hope and identity: the redemptive justice and preemptive mercy of God revealed in Jesus. Paul's worldview centers around that narrative, and so it makes sense that ours should too.

    Laws, embodied in the idea of rules and regulations, provide easy identity markers but little foundation for growth and discipleship. I think a possible, unintentional perk of Campbell's work is to call us back to the narrative of God's work in Christ. It points us back to the root of our faith and hope.

  2. BJ,
    That's one of the big points I take away. Campbell frames it this way: There is no Christian way to create a God of judgment and wrath. That is, if you start with Christ you just can't create the God of Justification Theory. You need to import the retributive God from some other non-Christ location. This is his point about Justification Theory being "Christianized" but not "Christian." That is, in Justification Theory Christ is an add-on to the God of wrath. He's like an appendix. But if Christ is the beginning and end of our definition of God there is no wiggle room for adding the God of wrath. Christ's loving, agapic self-donation for all of humanity "while we were yet sinners" is who God is. End of story.

  3. I'm not trained as a NT scholar, but I do have some familiarity with the tensions at play in the debates that relate to Rom. 1-4.

    The really interesting - actually, for me, mind-blowing - aspect of all of this is that none of the pieces he is using for his argument seem all that new. Rather, its as if he's discovered a way to arrange them so that (a) they make more sense and (b) they affirm some things a lot of commentators have been intuiting about Paul for a long time.

    I've got my own copy now, and I'm hoping to get started into it myself in a few weeks.

  4. Quite an amazing article. I've read a great deal of Tom Wright's work on the NPP but this does take things one step further. I find it very engaging and, honestly, a Pauline engagement with a "Teacher" does seem to be a wonderfully Hebrew way of making an argument.

    It is also intriguing that among many Reformers that I've known (or read) down through the years salvation is considered in one's past but generally only through predestination or, for the less Calvinistic, due to the finished work of Christ on the cross. (i.e. Looking back to the sacrifice.) The concept is extremely strengthening when one bases justification upon the Resurrection of Christ.

    Another interesting point is that those who hold to some type of Covenantal Theology do not have to totally throw out that framework with this language. This type of viewpoint then bases the covenantal family of God firmly in the Resurrection thereby strengthening the communities own hope of resurrection. Amazing.

    As a seminarian and full time pastor, it is just so frustrating that I find it difficult to take the time out and read a book such as this one.

    Thank you for an insightful post. I must say I'm enjoying following your blog. I've not followed too many in the past but now I make sure I check yours out on a regular basis.

  5. I keep thinking that there is opportunity here for someone to make a buck by making this same kind of argument from a historical perspective rather than/in addition to a hermenuetical one. For example, I'm thinking that Marcion would have favored this reading of Paul, and it may have been this reading of Paul that motivated the OT Yahweh vs Christ dualism.

  6. I don't see Campbell's rhetorical reading creating a dualistic God: OT God=wrath, NT God=grace. That's precisely the misreading of the OT that gets the Teacher in trouble. Both the Teacher and Justification Theory begin with the premise of a wrathful god, and what I see Paul doing in Romans is arguing that God has never been a wrathful God. I say this because once you get to Romans 8, Paul relys heavely on a creation theology to explain the full extent of God's redemptive work in Christ. If that's the case and we go back to the creation narrative of Genesis (much like Paul going back to the Abraham narrative to explain the relationship between faith and Torah), we don't find a God of wrath, but a God of creation, community, and compassion (the last act of God in the Fall is not to zap Adam and Eve, but to make clothes for them). I'm pretty sure Paul and Marcion wouldn't get along all that well.

  7. I still battle with the implied re-iteration and need for blood sacrifice/atonement throughout both OT and NT. To me the "knock-out-punch" verse remains:

    Hebrews 9:22
    "In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."

    Now matching this up against an excerpt from
    Dr. Campbell's text referenced above:

    "There is no retributive character to the God revealed to Paul by Christ...And this is what lies at the heart of Paul's dispute with the Teacher."

    Where I'm at now, the $64,000 question is
    what was God (the Father's) motives for the
    solution of sacrifice/atonement???
    Popular "Christianity" assumes the Substition Penal paradigm, hence forcing one to assume God's need to quench His own wrath.

    However, I'm pondering the first sacrifice made.
    In the garden after the "fall". Adam and Eve suddenly realized they were "naked" (being naked wasn't a problem at the outset). They hid
    (was their motive shame, fear, embarrassment)?
    God then asked "Where are you" not that He couldn't figure that out? This I think is the key - what was God's mood or disposition when "looking" for Adam and Eve?
    Was He angry? Maybe disappointed but not angry, maybe just saddened. And not saddened for His sake but saddened that Adam and Eve were now "sad". Then by providing the animal's fur for covering (the decision to carry out sacrifice), was that simply God mercifully trying to help Adam and Eve "heal" from their
    paralyzing devestation.

    I've read (sorry I can't find it) a very radical interpretation of Jesus' sacrificial death. Could it be that instead of Jesus' death representing a sacrifice TO God, perhaps in God's unimaginable and passionate love for mankind, God the Father stooped down and sacrified His only begotten Son TO us and not "for" us - as if to appease us.
    That's seems blasphemous at first, but if this were true, I can only melt with overwhelming sadness of MY offense to Him and His overwhelming love for me.

    Sorry, I'm really rambling, but I'm still struggling to be convinced of the rationale behind blood sacrifical atonement, a paradigm that continues to linger throughout the NT.
    With Dr Campbell's proposal. I kind of understand the martyr/hero model mentioned but it still seems ... lacking - for me anyway.

    The apostle John who seemed very close to Jesus while on earth and who was assigned his Gospel, 3 epistles, and the book of Revelation
    (seems to have been privy of deeper heavenly
    visions) wasn't given a glimpse of the "mystery" that Paul experienced. Maybe that's the difference in Paul's tone. Though John's Gospel is relatively benign relative to Matthew, Mark, Luke, the epistles and Revelation continue to hint at Justification Theory (depending on how read/interpreted).
    The UR camp think's it's possible that Paul's vision (which he was not allowed to write about) was just that, hence a much more brighter tone in his writing.

    If I can understand the God's rationale for blood sacrifice / atonement, I can much more comfortably embrace God as One who's not primarily driven by wrath and JT.

    Gary Y.

  8. Bravo for the summary.

    Gary, I think the nub of the problem is that you are trying to reconcile the various parts of the Bible as if they had a consistent message.

    The reality is almost certainly that there are a whole host of different messages depending on the author/editor and time of publication. Try to reconcile "Paul's" attitude toward women. Can they teach men with their heads covered or must they be silent?

    Is the Kingdom of God imminent or not? Is it a physical kindgom or a spirtual one?

    Does God demand an eye for an eye or should we turn the other cheek?

    None of these things can be logically reconciled. The authors who wrote the Bible would have disagreed as to what God is like and what he wants of us.

    For some authors blood was needed to appease YHWH, for others not. I have no problem believing that "Paul" was in the "not" category, as Campbell contends.

    That said, I also think it is hard to say what exactly was written by Paul. Not only are some of the works with his name written by others, but even his own books may have been altered by later editors.

    Most importantly, though, trying to understand one book in light of another is ultimately futile, IMO.


  9. Thank you so much for this post and series. I would strongly recommend a two books from James Alison: The joy of being wrong (this book is formal) and On being liked ( firs part sumarises his previous work). James Alison using Rene Girard theory of mimetic desire proposes a 'new' atonement theory which is not the Penal Substitution. He shows how from this anthropology the problems of penal substitution are solved and also that the dead of Jesus was necessary for our salvation. This is a very beautiful work of theology and absolutely recommend it.

  10. i will be interested in seeing how Douglas deals with in chapter.5 the Death and the use of the word deviation instead of sin. deviation from gods good word.
    also the new choices that men have, to do good or to do evil...
    god is no respecter of a mans person ...
    any deviation from his good gets death...
    God's fairness!!!!!
    god deals with separation from his good through the faithfulness of a righteous man willing to die for his friends.(a major aspect of the lords relationship with his disciples)
    the righteous act of love for the many aspects of the Rubik of creation and redemption of what is called atonement through love>>>

    but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law. 5:14 Yet death reigned

    blessings rich constant

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