Official Launch of Con Campbell’s book on Paul and Union with Christ

Official Launch of Con Campbell’s book on Paul and Union with Christ March 3, 2013

On Friday I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at Moore Theological College for the official launch of Con Campbell’s new book Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study. It was great to be able to honour Con by offering praise for the book and also trying push him on one or few topics that I think needed to be re-thought and re-loaded.

Here’s the complete text of talk:

Location, Location, Location: Con Campbell on Union with Christ


 It’s a pleasure to be invited to be here to celebrate the publication of Con Campbell’s volume Paul and Union with Christ. Not just because Con is a friend, but because his book makes a worthwhile contribution to Pauline studies and it deserves both attention and scrutiny for that reason.

Apart from offering some accolades for the book, what I want to do is briefly summarize what the book is about, state why it is important, but then to offer a few areas of Con’s book that I think required further attention, better nuance, or perhaps even correction.

Con Campbell and the State of the Union

In a nutshell, Con’s book examines several key phrases in Paul’s letters – in Christ, into Christ, with Christ, through Christ,– in order to determine their exegetical meaning and with a view to establishing their implications as to what union with Christ means according to  Paul.

The first part of the book is its introductory and exegetical phase, Con begins by stating the significance of the topic of union with Christ and the methodological problems associated with studying it. He then engages in a near exhaustive study of modern scholarship on the topic. This is followed with an extensive exegetical study of the major terms that Paul uses (like in Christ, with Christ, through Christ, etc.) and the various metaphors for the believers in connection to Christ. In the second part of the book, its theological phase, Con demonstrates how the various terms Paul uses illuminates the work of Christ, the Trinity, Christian living, and justification by faith. Thereafter follows his conclusions, he draws out implications, and suggests future directions for further study.

Con’s study of the major Greek terms provides a taxonomy of when the meanings in the respective texts are locative, instrumental, agential, associative, or telic. This leads him to the conclusion that “union” and “mysticism” are inadequate designations as they fail to capture the entirety of Paul’s language and what it describes. Instead, Con believes that we need a quartet of terms including union, participation, identification, and incorporation to properly unpack Paul’s references to believers relationship to Christ. According to Con:

 Union gathers up faith union with Christ, mutual indwelling, Trinitarian, and nuptial notions. Participation conveys partaking in the events of Christ’s narrative. Identification refers to believers’ location in the realm of Christ and their allegiance to his lordship. Incorporation encapsulates the corporate dimensions of membership in Christ’s body (p. 413).

The origins of these meta-themes is not in Hellenistic religion or the notion of corporate personality, but they have antecedents in the corporate metaphors for the people of God in the Old Testament (like marriage, temple, and clothing), the words of Jesus in the Johannine tradition, and also the words of the risen Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus.

Finally, for Con, “union with Christ” (in the specific sense which Con means it) is not the center of Paul’s theology, but is more like a web that links various elements of Paul’s thought together, and might even be considered a key to Paul’s theology in the sense that it provides an element that enables one to understand Paul’s thought.

The Strengths of the Book

There are a number of features of the book that are particularly commendable, render the book useful, and strengthen the thesis that is made.

First, no surprises here, Con has a good grasp of Greek, he does not overly theologize or blandly generalize Greek prepositions, he is quite comfortable interacting with the standard lexica and employs grammatical categories with due sensibility. He thus can be trusted when he talks about the semantics and syntax of Greek words and phrases.

Second, I appreciated Con’s genuine attempt to bring systematic theology concerns into his study. He provides spasmodic interactions with figures like Luther, Calvin, and Barth. He is conscious of the relevance of Paul’s concept of union with Christ to the development of Christian ethics and the doctrine of the Trinity.

Third, my favourite chapter was on union with Christ and justification. The reason being was that Con’s arguments dovetails nicely with somethings that I’ve argued earlier in several publications, namely, that “incorporation” is the best way to describe Paul’s theology of justification because it ties the forensic metaphor in with Paul’s in Christ language and its various horizons in soteriology and ecclesiology. In particular, I enjoyed his affirmation that justification has both vertical and horizontal elements. Con, with others like myself, also regards Jesus’ resurrection as his justification, thus believers are justified by virtue of their union with the risen and justified Messiah. And like Campbell, I think this observation allows us to avoid the dichotomy of playing off imputation against union, because union itself is a forensic event that unites us to Christ’s righteousness. I can now gladly count Con Campbell and Kevin Vanhoozer as bonafide co-supports of the position I’ve outlined.

Fourth, I find his overall thesis entirely convincing. I think Con nails what union with Christ is and how it functions in Paul’s thought.

Criticisms of the Book

In terms of a critique, well, there are a few things I would have done differently. I would have liked a little bit more interaction with Calvin and the Barths (Karl and Markus Barth). I think Calvin’s focus on union with Christ really demonstrates the centrality of the doctrine and shows how it is possible to hold justification and transformation together. Likewise, Karl Barth integrates union very closely with the atonement and enables to stop splitting hairs over substitution vs. representation. Con could also have utilized more of the church fathers and reception history as well. I cannot help but think that figures like Irenaeus, Augustine, and the Cappodocian Fathers would have provided a rich and vitalizing resource of reflection on the significance of union with Christ in light of their own theological reading of Paul.  Again, the theme of theosis is all the rage these days, I think Con, while he touches upon it, could have given it a bit more air time and dealt with it more thoroughly. Those are admittedly minor points of contention which could be easily addressed just by tinkering with some footnotes. However, I do have some deeper concerns about Con’s project and his conclusions.

First, on the sacraments, baptism in particular, Con tries to steer a course between merely metaphorical and initiatory or sacramental views (pp. 335-36, 384-86). Con regards baptism as metaphorical and only suggestive of union with Christ. Baptism at most gives symbolic content to the meaning of dying and rising with Christ and baptism is certainly not the instrument that effects union with Christ. Despite Con’s attempt to carve out a mediating position, he drives a wedge between the sign and what is signified and the result is a somewhat stale cognitive memorialism. While baptism is undoubtedly symbolic for Paul, it is no empty symbol, but an effective sign of God’s grace. (1) When Paul mentions in 1 Cor 10:2 that the Israelites were all “baptized into Moses” he seems to mean something along the lines of participating in the redemptive realities of the Exodus which is signified by the name of Moses. Baptism into Moses is not a commemoration of the Exodus, but stands for sharing in the exodus event. Baptism into Christ may operate similarly, i.e., a genuine participation into the saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. (2) The key passage about union with Christ and baptism is of course Rom 6:1-4. More persuasive than Con’s reading of this passage is the Baptist George Beasley-Murray who, against the anti-sacramentalists, argues that (a) The text relates those baptized to an actual dying and rising with Christ; (b) Baptism entails a corresponding event in the life of the believer whereby his former life alienated from God is ended and his new life in Christ begins; and (c) Baptism into Christ creates the imperative of crucifying the flesh and living in the power of the Spirit. Posed this way, event of Christ’s death and resurrection is made real for the believer in baptism (Baptism in the NT, pp. 132, 138). (3) Con objects to baptism as an instrument of union because he thinks that faith in the instrument of union. The problem is that Paul explicitly attributes baptism as an instrument for participating in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. What we should consider is that if baptism itself is an expression of faith in the objective reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, then baptism can be a means of union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Baptism, then, does not communicate Christ’s saving work to us, the Holy Spirit does that, however, baptism does seem to place us within the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it marks our entrance into the body of Christ, in baptism we identify with Christ’s death and resurrection, and we draw energy from baptism for our respective new life in Christ.

Second, the Graeco-Roman context of Paul’s theology of union with Christ might need to be rethought. Con does a good job of critiquing the view, dominant at one point in mid-twentieth century scholarship, that Paul’s theology of union with Christ was borrowed wholesale from Hellenistic mystery religions (pp. 59, 415). However, I do think the Graeco-Roman background to Paul’s theology is somewhat neglected by much of scholarship, and by Con in particular. As Luke Timothy Johnson has argued, we can only understand how Christianity is different from Graeco-Roman religions after we have first examined how it is similar to them. Certainly by the late second century, such similarities between Christianity and Hellenistic cults were well known, and Christian authors like Justin and Tertullian noted the resemblances between Christ and the mystery religions like Mithraism, and they accordingly regarded Mithraism as a demonic imitation of Christianity. And by the fourth century, it is quite certain that there has been a two way interface between Graeco-Roman religions and Christianity (evidenced in places like iconography).

Obviously such a fluid interpermeation of religious ideas post-dates Paul by centuries. However, reading Paul in the context of Graeco-Roman philosophy and religion reveals many common analogies in imagery, vocabulary, and conception, which possess heuristic importance for plotting the place of Paul’s religious beliefs in the Graeco-Roman world.  What is more, Paul’s pagan audiences might also make correlations between Hellenistic religion and Paul’s heralding of the Messiah. For instance, the idea of a close communion with a deity was hardly unique to Christianity. One can find papyri where a person is invited to “dine at the table of Lord Serapis” in Corinth a way that reminds of the invitation to dine at the table of the Lord Jesus (P. Oxy 1484). Such similarities are not necessarily attributable to a syncretism, but more connected to shared context of the eastern Mediterranean. Marin Meyer wisely notes: “[M]any of the similarities between the mysteries and early Christianity may be attributed to the fact that they were equally religions of the Greco-Roman world. As such, the mysteries and early Christianity often faced similar religious and social challenges, proposed similar ways of salvation and transformation and shared points of similarity in their visions of the way to light and life” (DNTB, p. 724).

To take the Graeco-Roman background of Paul, a Hellenistic Jew, seriously, one need not engage in parallelomania and proceed to read a synopsis of Paul and Hellenistic mystery religions and assume that they are talking about the same thing. Nor does analogy prove genealogy, for even if Paul sounds like Graeco-Roman reigion, it does not mean that they are his sources. But I want to draw attention to a wider backdrop in which Paul’s theological discourse took place – the socio-religious world of Jews, Greeks, and Romans – and Paul’s teaching on union with Christ should be intelligible precisely within that context. However, such Religionsgeschichte considerations are entirely absent from Con’s volume.

Third, I remain exceedingly cautious about what Con says concerning the origins of Paul’s theology of union with Christ.

Now I agree that there might be Old Testament antecedents in the corporate metaphors for God’s people as a bride and temple, and when the metaphors are applied to Christ and the Church, can certainly lend themselves to a type of solidarity of believers with Christ and even being in Christ. The problem is, as Con seems to note, that we lack a middle term to take us from sharing in a metaphor for corporate Israel to being identified with a singular figure of Israel’s recent history when Paul wrote.

In addition, I am far more circumspect about using the Johannine tradition as an antecedent or resource for Paul’s own “in Christ” language. Granted that the Johannine tradition with its terminology of “abiding in me” and so forth is certainly analogous to Paul’s description of being “in Christ.” The problem, however, is chronology and source criticism. The fourth Gospel was probably written 30 or 40 years after Paul died. Resultantly, if anything the influence may have run from Paul to John rather than the other way (see my recent book on Paul and the Gospels with essays by Mark Harding and Colin Kruse on the Paul/John relationship). What is more, while I remain convinced that there is a definite historical tradition in the Gospel of John, it is nonetheless a tradition that has been interpreted and theologized, to the point that it’s handling of the sayings of Jesus stands somewhere between eyewitness memory and theological midrash. It provides more of the voice of Jesus than the words of Jesus. So I am unconvinced that the Johannine Jesus can be a proper source for Paul’s theology of union.

In want of identifying the source of Paul’s union theology, we are on firmer ground to examine Luke’s account of Paul’s calling/conversion on the Damascus road with the famous words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Such a statement assumes a solidarity between Christ and his Church and may have been the seed from which his theology of being in Christ grew. The problem is that Luke appears fairly flexible in his three accounts of Paul’s calling/conversion and the passage in Acts 9 also coheres precisely with the type of ecclesiology that Luke is trying to engender in his readers. The upshot is that such a story is not given by Paul himself in his letters and many scholars  regard it as more Lucan than Pauline in texture. I am actually quite optimistic that Luke’s report of the words of Jesus to Saul are authentic, but nonetheless, a question mark will always remain and thus it is perhaps not the best place to map the origins of Paul’s theology of union with Christ. Paul evidently had a “prime-lordial” experience of the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. It was an arresting and mind blowing event that forever changed his theological framework, but whether his theology of union was given in that encounter or was implanted embryonically and then later grew, remains open to discussion.

Personally, I think the origins of Paul’s theology of union with Christ emerges more fully in his notion of Jesus as Messiah. After all, to be “in Christ” means literally to be “in the Messiah.” Now if the church was in a sense Israel, a renewed Israel, or a true Israel, and if the Messiah was the representative ruler, and redeemer of the Israel of God, then to be “in Israel” was to be “in the Messiah.”  It meant that those who believed and belonged in the Messiah were now member of Israel because they were organically related by the Spirit to the Messiah himself. As such, I think Paul’s theology of union with Christ probably emerged out of a “prime-lordial” experience tied to Paul’s conversion and it developed out of his conception of the Messiah as the representative of Israel.

Notwithstanding those fairly minor criticisms, Con’s book is a tour de force, it will undoubtedly impact the shape of the debate for decades to come, and I hope it goes through several re-printings!

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