Sunday, June 06, 2010

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things Wright-shaped has started to wane, the complex gospel of counter-imperial, grand-narrative exegesis has likewise been replaced by delight in the gospel of God's unconditional love, a love entirely undeserved, a love which invades my sinful world out of shear graciousness.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!


At 6/07/2010 1:59 AM, Blogger volker said...

Hi Chris, this sounds intriguing: "my fascination with things Wright-shaped has started to wane". Can you enlarge on that? Thanks.

At 6/07/2010 9:18 AM, Blogger andrewbourne said...

You may want to ask Douglas over coffee "are you not being too Barthian in how the relationship is the revelation" rather God`s relationship to us is simply that and not try to use the language of JT but use the language of participatrity its fullest sense. Another question to Campbell would be about his philosophical stance in Deliverance why choose the philosophy of science when he would find better use of the Critical Realism of Wittgenstein to further his position

At 6/08/2010 7:41 PM, Anonymous dan said...

My own fascination with things Wright-shaped has also waned but this hasn't led me away from away from counter-imperial readings of Paul. Quite the opposite actually. Although Wright is decent enough as a counter-imperial exegete he almost always misses the point of what the implications of that exegesis are for us (and there are others who are much better at the counter-imperial readings than Wright.

I agree, though, about the shift away from a Grand Narrative. Brueggemann really wins over Wright in this regard (at least for me).

At 6/09/2010 12:47 AM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Chris - careful of the shears in shear graciousness. Relation is a definite step forward but what sort of work is it? It does require the cut of the covenant - and it is like any relationship, ongoing work. Last night we read the 7 letters of Rev 2-3 and I was struck at how much there was of Psalms in them and how the faithful servant invited all those to hear and overcome the troubles in their midst. There was nothing 'automatic' about the relationship. I hope your studies are going well.

At 6/09/2010 7:36 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi Volker,
The main problem I have with Wright's work is his stuff on Paul. I still find some of it VERY helpful, but I am getting more and more frustrated at his grand narrative exegesis, a way of treating Paul which squeezes his letters into that grand story. He seems to sometime sit a bit loose to the actual text

Hi Andrew,
I am going to ask him a few questions for this blog soon, so perhaps we can discuss those questions, or others, then.

yes, totally agree with you. My post was a bit misleading. Sorry!

Hi Bob, well spotted! I'll try and summarise my own work here at some stage.

At 6/10/2010 4:10 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

"The ROCK of God's unconditional love."

Chris, The way you employed the metaphor of solidity above is like shouting louder during the parts of your sermon when the points are weak. There is nothing solid above except in the metaphor being employed. What lay behind the metaphysical curtain remains invisible.

At 6/10/2010 4:13 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

"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!"

Chris, The Anglican wit and theologian, Robert Farrar Capon, might appeal to you, especially his book, HUNTING THE DIVINE FOX. He stresses relationalism and unconditional love throughout all his works which are fun to read, especially his take in the above book on how and why Paul's thoughts got a bit derailed in Romans. *smile*

At 6/10/2010 4:21 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

"One particularly interesting question 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."

Chris, I suggest looking up all the words attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels about how to be forgiven by God and inherit eternal life (Jesus answered those questions in public in many places in the synoptics, and also read the sermon on the mount [he who does these things. . .], the Lord's Prayer [God forgive us as we forgive others], and the basis of the separation of the sheep and goats in Matthew). And then compare that "Synoptic Road to Salvation" with what Paul wrote.

At 6/10/2010 4:58 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...


You're a relationalist in theology?

How does anyone learn the first thing about "relationships?" We have them. With our parents, siblings, other young children, etc.

And we apply those natural experiences imaginatively toward everything from teddy bears to God.

So relationships come first, not relational theology.

So what's wrong with simply seeking the best in every person, every book? And also admitting difficulties with every person and every book?

Can you live without authoritative written assurances of "unconditional love?"

Life is life, friends are friends.

Theology introduces an ocean of concerns and imaginative explanations and adds further difficulties to life itself.

Life is pretty simple. So is the fear of death.

If we really knew what was behind the metaphysical curtain we wouldn't need a book or have to rely on "feeling happy" when we read that particular book. We would know what lay behind the metaphysical curtain.

But I'm afraid we don't know. Humans have been around on this planet for ages, easily hundreds of thousands of years, with upright primate ancestors stretching much further back. All without any sacred writings. And since there's a cap on the Christian canon (unless you're a Mormon), the NT is now about 2000 years old, far older than the gap between OT and NT itself. And perhaps there's at least another hundred thousand years in humanity's future (after some major disasters as well). Will the story of "Jeeeesus" really matter than much to far future humans (if there are any?) Will such a story matter after future generations have encountered three, four, five thousand more years of accummulated human suffering and disasters?

Shouldn't we also all simply concentrate on practical moral wisdom from all the world's religions and philosophies? What's so "wrong" about that option, theologically speaking?


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