Paul and Union with Christ (Review)

Paul and Union with Christ (Review) February 5, 2013

At SBL 2012, I had the chance to meet and chat with Constantine Campbell at a group dinner. Con shared with us a little about his new book Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Zondervan, 2012). I was eager, after that, to get my hands on it and give it a read.

The theological subject “union with Christ” is not a neglected topic in Pauline scholarship – far from it! It has been examined by a number of scholars throughout the last century. However, most of the time scholars have entered into the subject deductivelyapplying some kind of model to Paul’s language of union/participation, and then developing a union-theology from there. What Campbell is interested in, in this book, is an inductive study (“exegetical”) which closely examines the actual syntactical ways in which Paul uses his Christ language vis-a-vis believers (and God the Father, God the Spirit). While parts of the book can get a bit tedious due to the detailed language discussions, at the end of the day, it is work that has a huge pay-off. Campbell, in the latter chapters of the book, distills and synthesizes his inductive analyses and thinks “big picture” about a number of theological topics that are bound-up with Paul’s union-with-Christ language.

Given the importance of this subject and the sensible and necessary approach Campbell takes to move the discussion forward, this book is a major contender for my “Best Biblical Studies Book of 2012” award!

The book is about 450 pp. and is divided into 13 chapters. “Introductory Matters” are discussed in the first two chapters. Then Campbell moves on to four key prepositional phrases in Paul as well as union-with-Christ metaphors (chs. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Chapters 8-13 comprise a theological analysis and reflection on the work done in chs. 3-7. Suffice it to say that while this theme has emerged as central in Pauline theology, the work of trudging through the details of Paul’s language has not really been done. Campbell sees it as his task to do this work before he can reflect on the wider theological implications.

Chapter 1: Introduction and Methodology

The opening chapter does a good job of getting at the need for this study. Much is presumed about Paul’s union-with-Christ language. Indeed, the focus tends to be on the phrase εν χριστῳ. But Campbell (wisely) wonders: “how may we move beyond this phrase to detect other phrases or indicators of the theme of union with Christ?” (25). Even with this key phrase, “what appear to be the unifying features of [its] usage?” (25).

I appreciate that, right away, Campbell spells out what he came to conclude after his thorough study:

(1) the language of “union with Christ” does not capture all that Paul means regarding this theme. It needs to be supplemented by complementary words like participation, identification, and incorporation (each with its subtle, but necessary, nuance).

(2) The paradigmatic antecedents for Paul’s union-with-Christ theology most likely come from Paul encounter and experience with Jesus on the Damascus road (29).

(3) It is probably not helpful to think in terms of a “center” for Paul’s theology (be it “union with Christ” or something else). Rather, Campbell thinks Paul’s union-with-Christ theology is more like a web, “the essential ingredient that binds all other elements together.”

I would probably add a four key idea for Campbell, one that is a major emphasis in the book, but was, perhaps, too obvious to need stating up front: the phrase εν χριστῳ is “not a formula that indicates the one concept in every instance of usage. It has a broad spectrum of meanings according to context” (p 367, fn 46).

Chapter 2: The State of the Union

This chapter is a brief, but insightful, review of major studied in this theme of union with Christ. Campbell includes Deissmann (Die Neutestamentliche Formel ‘In Christo Jesu’, 1892), Bousset (Kyrios Christos, 1913), Schweitzer (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, 1930), Bultmann (Theology of the NT, 1948-1953), John Murray (Redemption-Accomplished and Applied, 1955), Wikenhauer (Pauline Mysticism, 1960), Neugebauer (In Christus, 1961), Bouttier (En Christ, 1962), Barth (Church Dogmatics, 1932-1968), Tannehill (Dying and Rising with Christ, 1967), WD Davies (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 1970), EP Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977), Gaffin (The Centrality of the Resurrection, 1978), JD Dunn (Paul the Apostle, 1998), M Horton (Covenant and Salvation, 2007), and Gorman (Cruciformity, 2001).

While Campbell has done a fantastic job summarizing the work of these figures, I was surprised that he did not include Morna Hooker’s work here. He acknowledges her work elsewhere in the book, but I believe her concept of “interchange” has been hugely influential in the study of Paul and union with Christ, and particularly as a challenge to some “substitution” readings of Pauline passages.

Chapter 3: εν  Χριστῳ

Campbell examines 73 (yes 73!) occurrences of this phrase, attempting to determine (in context) how it should be understood. As any student of Greek knows, εν is a very flexible preposition that can have a wide range of in-context meaning. While it has a broad meaning that is locative it can also be used in an (a) instrumental way, (b) indicating a state or condition, (c) determining an association, (d) attributing cause, or (e) agency, or (f) marking recognition. Campbell see all of these uses of εν represented in the use of this phrase in at least one instance. However, there is a larger representation of the “instrumental function.”

Clearly, then, the phrase εν χριστῳ performs a characteristic role in the description of God’s acts and gifts of kindness toward his people. In some sense, it would seem, God’s acts towards believers are performed through Christ or are in some way conditioned or associated with Christ…mediating the work of God towards believers. (94).

This phrase εν χριστῳ (or “in the Lord”/”in him”) has not only to do with God’s activities “in Christ,” but also believers actions (in Christ), characteristics of believers, faith in Christ, justification, and new status.

Chapter 4: εις  Χριστον

This chapter concentrates on a less frequent, but somewhat similar, phrase: εις χριστον. We find this phrase used in reference to things given to people “into Christ,” faith into Christ, “into Christ” as a periphrasis for Christians, and in relation to “Trinity into Christ.” Campbell came to recognize that the two most common uses of this phrase pertain to “the expression of goal, and reference or respect” (216).

Chapter 5: συν Χριστῳ

The concentration of the use of this phrase for Paul deals with “participation”: “believers partake with Christ in his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, glorification, and session in heaven” (236).

Chapter 6: δια  Χριστου

As one might guess, the use of this phrase tends to denote “instrumentality (and occasionally agency) and is sometimes best described as mediatorial” (266).

Chapter 7: Metaphors

Paul’s union language is not exhausted by his prepositional phrases. Campbell is right to point to a number of important metaphors: body of Christ, temple/building, marriage, and clothing. In his study, body and temple/building focus on “incorporation,” and marriage on “spiritual union.” The clothing metaphor also underscores union.

Chapter 8: UwC and the Work of Christ

“virtually every element of [Christ’s] work is connected to union with Christ” (352).

Chapter 9: Union with Christ and the Trinity

There are a few occasions when Paul refers to believers being “in God [the Father]” (1 Thess 1:1), but most often it is “in Christ” because “It is Christ who indwells believers through his Spirit, and it is to Christ that believers are joined through the Spirit. The same is not said of the Father because such would undermine the unique role of the Son and the ancillary role of the Spirit” (359). In this illuminating chapter, Campbell also briefly discusses theosis. This term, for Campbell, does not mean divinization, but features a kind of union with the Trinity through Christ that “points to human transformation that we might become like God” (368).

Chapter 10: UwC and Christian Living

This chapter looks at the ethical and formative dynamics of union with Christ. Campbell especially appeals to Gorman’s concept of cruciformity and the parallel idea of “dying and rising with Christ” discussed by Tannehill.

Chapter 11: UwC and Justification

While Campbell affirms that union with Christ language is “linked to justification” (esp insofar as Christ is the means through which God justifies the sinner), the term “justification” for Paul “does not denote covenantal faithfulness or ethical transformation” (405). Transformation may be a necessary corollary, but it is not bound up per se in Paul’s definition of justification (contra Gorman).

Chapter 12: Defining Union with Christ

Campbell wishes to define this in terms of (a) union [dwelling], (b) participation [partaking], (c) identification [location/lordship of Christ], and (d) incorporation [social dimension with the whole church in view]. He also explors conceptual antecendents, finding few OT models helpful. Rather, it is probably generated from his own Damascus road experience with Christ.

Chapter 13: Implications and Future Directions

Here Campbell returns to questions about the center of Paul’s theology. He thinks of union with Christ more as a web that nets his whole thought together. Also, Campbell explores “future directions” of study. One important need is for someone to explore “the pastoral and devotional implications of union with Christ.” Personally, I think this would make fine topic for a ThD thesis.


Strengths: What can I say? This is an outstanding study – well written, detailed, but not overly complex, sensibly ordered and arranged; he summarizes frequently so that the “big picture” is in mind. He is fair and balanced in his engagement with scholarship. For PhD students, this book might serve as a nice model of a clear and productive “monograph” (that is also reasonably priced!). I think Campbell is right to move away from a “center” approach to Paul’s theology. I think he is right to see “in Christ” not as a rigid formula, but a phrase that has somewhat different nuances in context. However, Campbell does seem to admit there is a locative (in the realm of Christ’s lordship) sense always in the background of its use. So, there is, perhaps, a static feature that makes it a key catchphrase.

Also, his research is quite enriching in terms of the history of the study of the concept. One could see this book getting excessively long, but I think Campbell made it just about the right length.


(1) I mentioned above that I think it would have been right to include Morna Hooker in the survey of literature. Her work has been very influential.

(2) When it comes to “antecedents” (models from which Paul may have constructed his own understanding of union with Christ), I was disappointed to not see Richard Hays’ essay that sought to explore this matter precisely: “What is ‘Real Participation in Christ’? A Dialogue with EP Sanders on Pauline Soteriology” (in FS for Sanders, 2008). Hays considers four possibilities: (a) family, (b) political/military solidarity, (c) ekklesia, and (d) “Participation as Living within the Christ Story” (a narrative approach).

(3) One might quibble with any of Campbell’s individual passage studies, concluding the preposition rather means “this” or “that.” How clear is the big picture if prepositions can be so slippery and there is potential for so many moving parts?

(4) It would have been nice to have charts at the end of each chapter and, perhaps, at the end of the book. Given the huge number of passages Campbell examines, it would have been helpful to see the result.

Overall, again, this is a very worthwhile study, one that I found myself drawn into, partly because of the subject matter and partly because of Campbell’s accessible writing style.

This is a book every seminary student should own, and serves as an important resource in the study of Paul’s Christology.

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