Doug Campbell: Do You Read Romans Like An Arian?
For Doug Campbell, Associate Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School (which, sorry Harvard, is probably the world’s leading Divinity School at the moment), all mainstream ways of reading Romans, including the Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and New Perspective ones, are thoroughly and unacceptably Arian. His proposal, articulated with striking originality and creativity in his massive book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, is (among other things) that we need to recover an Athanasian reading of Paul - and that as we do, all sorts of exegetical and practical weaknesses to the Arian reading will get sorted out. For those of us who, like me until recently, have always considered the Arian/Athanasian distinction to be essentially Christological, this will come as a surprise, since there is nothing in James Dunn’s or Douglas Moo’s exegesis of Romans that implies Jesus was a created being. But Doug Campbell isn’t using the word like that, and his protest is, if anything, at a deeper level.
Arianism, as Campbell understands it, is essentially about foundationalism, in contrast to Athanasianism, which is about apocalypticism. By this he means that Arius begins with the foundations we have in human experience and then works upwards to make judgments about the divine nature (hence “foundationalist”), whereas Athanasius urges the impossibility of doing things this way round, and the necessity of starting with revelation from God (hence “apocalyptic”). For Campbell, all mainstream contemporary readings of Romans, and particularly Romans 1-4, are foundationalist, and hence Arian. He thinks they should be apocalyptic, and hence Athanasian.
The contractual-legal reading of Paul in Romans 1-4, which Campbell says characterises almost all modern readings of the text, is basically foundationalist. It begins with the assumption that humans can know God simply by reasoning upwards from creation. Then it thinks in terms of an analogy for God, in this case as wrathful judge, and sees humans as morally free agents who can choose either good or bad, and who receive rewards or punishments accordingly. Judaism, in this reading, is one particularly clear example of the moral contract which man has failed to keep; God is the one who dispenses just punishments in a manner that suspiciously resembles the Constantinian state; and Christianity then comes in as the definitive, second contract between man and God, in which God gives justification in exchange for faith. This contractualism - we give faith, God gives justification - is at the heart of the Arian reading, and emerges (ironically) most clearly with Augustine and his ordo salutis, or what T. F. Torrance calls “the Latin heresy”. The result is that humans are contract-keepers, God is primarily a judge, and the gospel is not good news for anyone unless they (a) hear it and (b) believe it.
In contrast, Campbell proposes an Athanasian reading of Romans. Rather than beginning with natural reason and working upwards to God, he argues that Paul does not envisage anybody being able to relate to God without his prior apocalyptic activity in coming downwards; that is, his revelation of himself through Jesus Christ in the gospel. Athanasianism relies totally on revelation in Christ, and sees God as acting unconditionally and benevolently towards humans while still enslaved and unable to believe: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The atonement, in Romans, is not a penal act which freely choosing moral agents can decide to accept or reject, but an Exodus act which liberates those who could do nothing to help themselves (and hence there is no endorsement in Paul of the imperial iustitia, and the spectre of Constantinianism, that Campbell suspects to be at the root of the judicial-punitive view). God steps down and delivers us in Jesus, and there are no strings of contractual obligation (like faith) attached. Faith is not a condition of salvation, in fact; for Campbell, sola fide is a vulgar Protestant idea, since it is so based on the two contracts, and we should instead think of sola Jesus. We bring nothing to the party, he argues, not even faith. We are delivered solely and entirely by grace.
The argument for this reading of Romans as the best one takes a thousand pages of densely argued prose, and summarising it adequately here would be impossible. For Campbell, the chief strengths of his proposal are exegetical (he discusses over thirty exegetical weakness of the contractual-foundationalist view, which throughout he labels Justification Theory, that are resolved using his approach), and theological (since it views God as the indiscriminate dispenser of grace to all, rather than the contractual pedant who needs us to chip in our works and/or faith to experience his deliverance). His strongest point is that it provides a satisfactory answer to the age-old question about the relationship between Romans 1-4 and 5-8, an answer which Justification Theory in all its forms has so far failed to give (is God judge, or liberator? Is unbelieving humanity able to choose to follow God, or dead in sin? Is the Christ-event judicial, or participationist? Is salvation conditional or unconditional? And so on). But for a detailed explanation of why his view fits the evidence better than the alternatives, you’d have to get his book.
To many (if not all) readers of this blog, this reading of Romans will sound either incomprehensible or completely bizarre. How on earth can Romans 1-4 be read to indicate that, as Campbell affirmed recently, “we all are in Christ, so wake up and smell the coffee”? Well, this is where his reconstruction of the purpose, background and structure of Romans comes in. For Campbell, Romans is like Galatians in its purpose: a response to false Jewish teaching, and in fact contractualism in general. And the argument of Romans 1-4, though you always thought that most of it had just one speaker, should actually be read as a dialogue between two speakers, namely Paul and a Jewish teacher. And the bit that you knew had two speakers, 3:1-8, you’ve actually been reading upside down. It should instead be read like this:
Paul: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation.”
Teacher: “To the Jew first.”
Paul: “Also to the Greek, for in the gospel the righteousness of God is disclosed which is by fidelity and for fidelity, as it is written, ‘My righteous one [=Jesus] shall live by his faithfulness.’” (1:16-17)
Teacher: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against the unrighteousness of men. Unbelieving humanity is justly being judged by a wrathful God for their idolatry, deviant sexuality and approval of evil. Fire, brimstone, and all that.” (1:18-32)
Paul: “Ah, but if that were true, then the Jews would be judged too, wouldn’t they? And then even you, O Teacher, could not be saved. So what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” (2:1-3:1)
Teacher: “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
Paul: “What if some were unfaithful? Doesn’t their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?”
Teacher: “By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”’
Paul: “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)”
Teacher: “By no means! For then how could God judge the world?”
Paul: “But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come? - as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.” (3:1-8)
Teacher: “What then? Are we Jews any better off?”
Paul: “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin. Look at all this Scriptural evidence! But now the righteousness of God had been made known, apart from law, by the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. All sinned, and now all are redeemed in Jesus.” (3:9-26)
Teacher: “Then what becomes of our Jewish boasting?”
Paul: “It’s excluded. God isn’t the God of the Jews only, is he? He’s also the God of the Gentiles.” (3:27-31)
Teacher: “What shall we say about Abraham, then?” (4:1)
Paul: “I’m glad you asked. He wasn’t justified by works. Nobody is. Contractualism is bunk.” (4:2-25)
OK, so I may have summed up Romans 4 a bit flippantly, but you get the idea. And if Campbell is right, then pretty much all of us have been reading Romans 1-4 upside down. In his view, this has led us into a smorgasbord of church problems including foundationalism (1:18-23), judgmentalism and gay-bashing (1:24-32), judgment by works (2:1-16), supercessionism (2:17-29), belief in total depravity (3:9-20), and contractualism, with faith as our side of the bargain (3:2-4:25). Oh, and Arianism. Yikes.
So I have to ask: is he right? Is Romans a response to Jewish false teaching? Is sola fide vulgar? And are you reading Romans like an Arian?
Andrew Wilson’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, is out now, published by IVP who are offering a generous discount for readers of this blog.