First Thoughts on D Campbell’s Deliverance of God

First Thoughts on D Campbell’s Deliverance of God December 14, 2009

I am reviewing Douglas Cambell’s tome The Deliverance of God (Eerdmans, 2009) for a review journal.  I have just begun reading this massive work and I am about 200 pages into it – a mere 20%!

I will confess that I did not spend much time in his precursor text – The Quest for Paul’s Gospel (2005).  Nevertheless, from bits and pieces I had picked up before of Quest and other essays of his, I liked his take on Paul.  Also, I myself am a fan of the ‘Paul and Apocalyptic’ school and, though Campbell rightly confesses that Lou Martyn has been its most well-known advocate, I think it was J.C. Becker who enchanted me to reading Paul this way (and also my supervisor John Barclay’s encouraging me to give Kaesemann and try).

So what of the Deliverance of God?  I must say that it has been, so far, a stunning and bewildering critique of the popular soteriological position – Justification theory (which he associates with Luther, but follows its logical and philosophical character apart from the work of just one scholar).

In the first 200 pages, his critique is logical and philosophical.  He draws in some history-of-interpretation issues, but his overall point is that “Justification theory,” the dominant view of most Christians and many (especially protestant) scholars, is incoherent, individualistic, deeply inconsistent, patchy in terms of focusing on what Paul focuses on, and even harmful to Christian thought.  If nothing else, though Campbell can be accused of using the term “obviously” or “clearly” too much, he problematizes Justification theory in a way no one else has done in the past.

Since I am a Methodist, I resonate with many of Cambell’s concerns –why does Justification theory (JT) not have a thoroughgoing pneumatology?  What about the empowerment and impulse for ethics?

At the same time, and again I want to repeat that I am only a short way through the book, Campbell is deeply concerned that JT presumes that fallen humanity can really think through their own depravity and find “faith” to choose Christ and accept God’s offer of salvation.  For Campbell, Paul’s hamartiology is far too serious to allow for this kind of “rationalistic” and “contractual” approach which sees humanity as fallen, but still epistemologically functional.  In Campbell’s mind, Romans 5-8 paints a picture of a hopelessly blind humanity that needs LIBERATION – that is, God’s one-sided unconditional deliverance to change the world and free, that is, DELIVER humanity from bondage to oppressive powers – SIN and DEATH.  While I resonate with the apocalyptic tones in his very colorful portrait of Pauline theology, it comes across as either Calvinistic (humanity is too lost to choose God, so God does some choosing), or universalistic (God’s apocalyptic deliverance is absolute).  I think, and I say this only knowing part of Campbell’s argument, that if he pushes the election part too far, then Paul loses his prophetic voice – the prophet (who figures prominently in apocalyptic discourses as God’s own herald), keep in mind, preached judgment as well as hope and the covenantal people were addressed as if they had the choice (or at least were responsible for their choice) of renewed obedience (I think of the prophetic Psalm 78).

So far, though, it is very gripping reading.  My only wish was that he launched his attack in stages, releasing two or even three different books (perhaps in rapid 6-month successions).  The first part of the book (so far) is very compelling and I think it is the part that will end up influencing scholarship.  At the SBL review session, I was introduced to some of his thinking specifically on Romans 1-4 and I can sense that this seems a bit more idiosyncratic.  We will see, of course.  I delay judgment until I have heard him out – all 1000 pages!

I encourage Paulinists out there to really set aside some time to work through this book.  Whether or not it ends up doing in scholarship the kinds of things Campbell hopes for, it will stand as an excellent piece of literature – carefully crafted and planned and he has clearly done his homework.  Doctoral students can see here what it means to tackle an issue (especially a large issue) from every angle.  But please, when you publish, don’t do endnotes as Campbell did.  I think he did it to save some pages (and I can appreciate the need to make production cheaper).  But so far I have consulted absolutely no endnotes.  Shame on me, but I blame the format.  As I always do.

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  • mark begemann

    i don’t know that i have such a problem with the frequency of “obviously” and “clearly” so much as whether or not it really is that obvious or clear. it seems some of the arguments have other options than a or b and a few too many dichotomies are forced. but i, too, am just working my way through it so that is in no sense a final judgment. what a great work, i recommend it to more than just Paulinists!

  • Douglas Campbell

    Nice post. (I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to chat about this at SBL; hopefully we can sit down together in Atlanta.) Two comments:

    (1) I think it’s unwise to assume a Liberal view of agency. It’s not–and never is–a question of either causality, especially divine causality, or human choice and agency. MacIntyre is great on this, as is Barth of course (III/1 especially). You seem to be operating with a post-Enlightenment dichotomy–causal universe versus human freedom defined as choice. (Kant!) This needs to be theologically–and thoroughly–recast, wherever we encounter it. Jeremy Begbie’s recent work on agency is terrific on this BTW. (I might have mistaken you here of course; if so, please excuse me.)

    (2) The front-loaded critique in Deliverance is being slightly misunderstood in some circles. I’m not saying that this is what everyone is doing (as Watson, e.g., mistakenly seems to assume). I am saying that a lot of people are doing this. And I am making the further set of claims that this is also the best currently defensible reading apart from an apocalyptic approach. So–crucially!–those who disagree with this particular account of matters need to defend their departures from it. And at this point I will then don the prosôpon of Doug Moo and suggest to them that their exegesis is deficient.

    It’s much harder to disagree with this reading than you think. I don’t like it, but it’s a very powerful interpretative construct; it has most of its ducks lined up in a row. And this more than can generally be said for revisionist readings. You might not have reached ch. 7 yet, but there I suggest that any account of Paul in this relation has to align exegesis, argument, and theory, and very few interpretations succeed in doing this. (Ch. 12 looks at some leading contenders and suggests that they are all wanting. Unfortunately, this is only a representative sample.)

    In short, any departures from the powerful conventional approach warrant critical justification and not merely assertion.

    Well, I’ve written much more here than I intended to, and have to get back to the cave.

    I’m looking forward to your next posts!

  • S. Daniel Owens

    As I read through the book last month I couldn’t help but be haunted (liberated?) by the Dr. Campbell’s reworking of a very important historical doctrine. It is the doctrine of Total Depravity. It seems as if the total inability of humanity is not assumed by his reading of Paul. I wonder if you could keep an eye out for that and one day share your thoughts on Paul’s benevolent attitude. (BTW I really like it but I was surprised that this wasn’t a bigger issue at SBL.)



  • JMS

    Thanks for reviewing this, Nijay. I’m hoping to get my hands on a copy sometime this year and dig in (I’m primarily an OT guy when it comes to area of study, but I have to stay balanced! 🙂

    BTW, when did you become Methodist?? Was it during your GCTS days or in the U.K.? Just curious.

    Blessings my friend,