Some reflections on reading The Deliverance of God
In the next couple of weeks, I plan to start my (probably rather long) review-summary of Doug Campbell's amazing book, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009).
Reading this book has proven to be one of the most important experiences of my theological life. In particular, I have felt much joy as a gospel has come into view which is not only understandable and explainable to others, but is one which excites me - a gospel which is truly good news. Since my fascination with things Wright-shaped has started to wane, the complex gospel of counter-imperial, grand-narrative exegesis has likewise been replaced by delight in the gospel of God's unconditional love, a love entirely undeserved, a love which invades my sinful world out of shear graciousness. Apocalyptetai!
Yet doubts lingered in my wrestling with these seismic shifts in my theology of Paul. Campbell's characterisation of Justification Theory (JT) seemed in places unfair. An important example: for Campbell, JT requires a conversion based upon rational cognition. But, I thought, surely JT as I have read it would posit an important role for the Holy Spirit in drawing people to the gospel? As I pondered this, suddenly JT started to parallel more closely my own developing understanding of Pauline theology that is, at root, relational (for more on this, cf. my thesis!). I started to see how elements allocated different soteriological theories in Campbell's schemes, could rather be understood as part of a framework of tensions that one would expect in a relational model. In other words, some of the 'bad news' Campbell had deleted from his gospel start to creep back in - and this, frankly, has disturbed me.
While reading a fine John Webster book (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003]), however, I started to grasp something Campbell had mentioned to me over a coffee recently: 'the relationship is the revelation'. Webster made the point that a doctrine of scripture needs to be understood in light of, and not independently from, God as Father, Son and Spirit, in the economy of God's saving mercy as it builds communities and brings people into saving relationship with himself. Revelation is not abstract information about God apart from this saving and relational activity. The content of revelation cannot truly be neatly divided from its mode, and our doctrine of scripture must reflect this matter. In other words: 'the relationship is the revelation'. These were points my own relational approach had already affirmed.
This further meant, to come to an important point, that my attempt to reconcile JT and participatory approaches via a relational approach had simply aligned with the apocalyptic model. Campbell was simply being more honest about where a relational approach must draw a line against JT. The point that drove this home most forcefully for me was in recognising how JT tends to endorse some sort of theological foundationalism. Indeed, it must do so to function as a consistent theory of salvation. My relational approach could in no way reconcile a foundationalist theology with the revelation of God in the economy of salvation in the crucified Messiah. At least in this respect, my relational approach is found to be simply a partner of Campbell's apocalyptic gospel.
To what extent JT, as detailed by Campbell, is a fair description of 'a theory of salvation' is not in dispute in my mind. Yet, of course, to what extent it reflects main line academic work which would in some way affirm central tenants of JT - this remains an open question. My guess is that Campbell will respond by suggesting that Justification Theorists who wish to use aspects of the apocalyptic gospel, do so only by developing a self-contradictory soteriology. Campbell would claim to have simply removed the contradictoriness and complexity. I thought my relational approach offered a way to affirm tensions and are not tensions the basic bread of responsible theology that doesn't tip into error? In reality, my relational approach seems to stand firmly on the side of the apocalyptic gospel, on the rock of God's unconditional love, in revelation as relationship. Anything else is to try to mix water and oil. And, frankly, even if Campbell is ultimately wrong about the details of JT's description, his exegesis is generally highly compelling.
This is all an ongoing debate in my mind, as you can perhaps detect. I have many other questions. One particularly interesting one concerns the relationship between Campbell's Paul and the rest of scripture, and particularly aspects of the NT that seems to embody the kind of gospel which Paul, according to Campbell, so vigorously attacks in Romans and Galatians.
Fascinating times. Oh, and by the way, the way Campbell's arguments are being dismissed by some main line scholars is rather questionable. There is nothing 'arbitrary', for example, about his reading of Romans 1-3!