In this way R. Michael Allen hopes to make a contribution in his new book, Justification and the Gospel. And I couldn’t agree more with his general claim: dogmatic reasoning is surely going to prove vitally helpful in disentangling some of these important issues. I have been looking forward to this book for a while, not just because of glowing endorsements from some brilliant theologians (Kelly Kapic, John Webster, J Todd Billings etc.), but also because I have benefited from Allen’s previous works.
Why will dogmatic reasoning help? Because justification language involves claims about the activity and identity of God! Simples! Self-critical employment of certain systematic distinctions together with awareness of the theological commitments involved in our exegetical endeavours will surely lend clarity to NT debates, especially when they concern “paradigmatic” and theologically pregnant propositions. Much exegetical mischief has been perpetrated by those unskilled in systematics, whether motivated by naive biblicism, historical-critical commitments (at least those ones living under the illusion that “theology” and “historical” work exist in hermeneutically sealed and separate compartments), or a flat and reductionist grasp of “narrative readings”. I can therefore only welcome Allen’s voice into this lively debate.
But now to get a bit grumpy.
When skimming a book for the first time I tend to see how the author interacts with those I consider to be key dialogue partners, as well as with those whom I think I understand best (Wright, Barth, Bultmann, Campbell, Webster, Dunn etc.). So, turning to the index I find very little interaction with Wright. Fair enough, I suppose. “Perhaps he is making a barbed point?”, I wonder. But what about Dunn? Again, only one reference. Fine, Allen’s work is operating out of a dogmatic perspective so let’s see what he makes of Campbell given that he is the most important dialogue partner in this discussion when it comes to the link between dogmatics and exegesis …
And sadly I found that Allen completely misses the mark with Campbell, despite his importance for Allen’s theme, which in turn makes me wonder what else his book will bungle. I’ll get over this and read the rest of the book, but let me explain why Allen has royally botched this one.
All of this is in one footnote on pp. 42-43, in which he thinks that Campbell’s “justification theory” (JT) is a “historical bogeyman that does not exist as such”. It finds backing only in the work, Allen tells us, of James and Allan Torrance and therefore is not “an example of interdisciplinary cross-pollination” but “manifests the effects of sloppy engagement of a related field”. Some rather robust claims! How does Allen back them up?
First, “‘Justification theory’ renders the Trinity and the life of Christ unimportant … Yet these Protestant theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began their confessions and dogmatics with statements about the Trinity” etc. Second, Campbell’s account of JT’s anthropology (grounded in Rom 1-3) “fails to see that Protestant theology classically construed has understood the teaching of Romans here to be about divine revelation”. Furthermore, these Protestants don’t subscribe to “belief voluntarism”. With a bit of bite, he continues: “One wonders if Campbell has heard of books like Luther’s Bondage of the Will or Calvin’s The Bondage and Liberation of the Will …”. A few more poorly chosen accusations follow, but this summary seems to get to the heart of the matter.
What has happened? The first major error is to think that Campbell’s JT is a description of the theology of the Reformers in toto. Of course Campbell is aware that these theologians held profoundly Trinitarian views! I am amazed he believes Campbell would think otherwise! Rather, JT explains the theo-logic employed in construing Romans 1-3 which, in turn, contradicts precisely those wonderful (yet incompatible) Trinitarian views. I really don’t know why this is so difficult to understand! Surely Campbell’s lengthy sections on Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon and Augustine would have clarified the matter? Apparently not! This also means that to suggest JT is supported only by James and Allan Torrance is – at least if I understand Allen correctly – simply bizarre. Has Allen ever read a commentary on Romans 1-3 and asked what sort of theology is manifesting itself? (try Moo, for starters). One in turn must then ask whether Trinitarian theology has actually shaped one’s understanding of “justification” language, or whether it inhabits a different theological universe (the point behind Campbell’s contrast between JT and the “alternative theory” drawn from Romans 5-8). And if we must name some key supporting theologians for Campbell’s project, need I remind Allen - of all people - of Barth?! I actually think Campbell’s work is probably best called Barthian, especially as the label “apocalyptic” has created such confusion. (Allen’s claim that Protestants don’t subscribe to “belief voluntarism” involves the same misunderstanding of the role and import of JT as well, of course.) Allen’s comments simply show that he has not understood what he is criticising and yet he then happily dismisses Campbell as a result. Bad move.
On the second point, Campbell is well aware of the ways some scholars have sought to deal with the difficulty of reading Romans 1-3 in terms of JT, he doesn’t “fail” at this at all, hence his lengthy discussions relating to “reframing” etc. And when it comes to the actual exegesis of Romans, are the proposals of the Reformers so smooth and theologically consistent (see the examples Campbell lists in chapter 10, but also in chapters 8-9 etc)? Allen can’t just clam what he does here without explaining away the many examples Campbell provides. This misreading, too, stems from a misunderstanding of the meaning of JT for Campbell. But perhaps another problem is involved here. Reading Romans requires close exegetical work – difficulties are not so easily dismissed with an “it’s about divine revelation” wand. This needs to be demonstrated in the text. Perhaps here we encounter one weakness with Allen’s particular theological approach to the issues, which can, it seems from these comments, sit lightly to the text.
This then leads to questions as to whether Campbell has read Luther’s Bondage of the Will etc., and at this point I start to wonder whether Allen has read Deliverance, or just a few pages and a (poor) review. But why would he do this? Chapter 7 of Deliverance should be enough to highlight that Campbell’s project is the key dialogue partner for Allen’s approach. I have no reason to suspect that Campbell’s work “manifests the effects of sloppy engagement of a related field”, but I now have reason to think that Allen’s project slops. And one doesn’t even need to agree with Campbell’s proposals; it is a duty, however, to represent his arguments fairly and not engage with “a bogeyman” (I’m sorry, but he has made turning his own criticisms back on himself too easy). I hope that Allen’s engagement with Campbell is not representative of his work generally, but botching it on Campbell is a big disappointment.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Allen. Even NT scholars have missed Campbell’s point on numerous occasions. But what wound me up was the dismissive and slightly rancorous nature of Allen’s comments. Either way, whether we agree with Campbell or not, I do want to recommend Allen’s work generally and please do pick up a copy of Justification and the Gospel. I am confident that there will be gems in these pages that exegetes will benefit greatly from pondering.
(I also hope that my forthcoming ed. volume Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul will help clarify some matters!)