Book Review: “Paul – An Apostle’s Journey” By Douglas A. Campbell

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A few weeks ago a friend recommended I read Douglas Campbell’s work on Paul. Since that time I have worked my way through his book “Paul – An Apostle’s Journey” and want to share some insights on the book, Campbell’s views, and the positives and negatives of the book as a whole.

The first thing to note is that the book is relatively short, 205 pages in all and that includes resources in the back, end notes and study questions for each chapter. It is impressive that he was able to pack in as much information and insight as he did into such a small amount of space.

Second, the book is easy to read. It is accessible theology. People of most levels of biblical understanding could pick up this book without much trouble. He doesn’t dive into complicated discussions on original language. The book is a walk through of Paul’s life and missionary activity in planting churches, working out theology in real time in the first century (how do Jews and Gentiles relate and what does justification now look like in Christ?) and spends time placing the letters into the context of his journeys and how the events surrounding the writing of the letters may have impacted what Paul wrote in concrete ways. The book has 14 chapters and so it could easily be worked into a quarter curriculum system as a primary resource with some caveats below. So overall this is a solid book.

This is not Campbell’s only book on Paul nor is it is first. In this book, he took the chronological/historical work he did in his previous book, “Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography” and worked in Paul’s theology and a good bit of modern day application. It was very helpful to get not only the historical/occasional information surrounding Paul’s journeys and letters but also the chronological information as he dates the events in Acts through Paul’s journeys. Campbell has also spent time in Asia Minor and his knowledge of the topography and views in various cities makes the life of Paul come to life on more than one occasion.

Third, this book is reflecting. Campbell doesn’t just want you to digest a list of information. He has numerous thoughtful sections of modern day application. What is more, each chapter ends with discussion/reflection questions to help you process what you just read. This is one main reason why I believe the book could make at least an outline and resource for a Bible class.

Campbell’s knowledge of Paul is extensive. He does a seamless job of weaving together Acts and Paul’s letters combining occasions with content and situations in Paul’s life and in those localities with the message Paul presents very specifically in each letter. I found this especially enlightening and putting the information together in this way is very challenging and once again he does it in a seemingly effortless way. That is, in my opinion, the greatest strength of this book.

Now for the weaknesses. I am biblically conservative. There are many scholars who believe that several of Paul’s letters weren’t written by Paul. Campbell is in that camp, attributing 10 letters to Paul rather than 13 (p. 79). He believes that the letter to the Ephesians is more likely a letter to the Laodiceans (p.76). His location for Paul’s imprisonment (where he wrote Colossians, Philemon, Philippians and Ephesians) is not in the typically mentioned locations like Caesarea Philip or Rome but in Apamea in Syria on the Orantes river like Antioch (p. 76). He also believes the author of Acts was a messianic Jew (p. 172).

The most controversial chapter in the book is chapter 13, God Wins, where Campbell makes a case for universalism. He does this through some work he did earlier in chapter 11 on contract vs covenant and that in family relationships our relationships are governed by covenants not contracts (p. 140-145). In chapter 13 he wrestles through Paul’s thoughts in Romans 9-11 on the fate of unbelieving Jews. His position is that Christ is greater than Adam (p.165) and so the effect of the presence and work of Christ (salvation) will be greater than the work of Adam (sin and death). I think here is suffers from an issue of quantity over quality. By making this about quantity it necessitates Christ to save more people than Adam condemned but I don’t think that is the best interpretation of Christ being greater than Adam nor the “how much more”‘s of Romans 5:15-17 that he quotes on p.  165. Campbell believes that God’s covenant is irrevocable and that eventually get God what God wants. And since “all Israel will be saved” (p. 167, quoting Romans 11:26) God will eventually save all of the Jewish people.

The vast majority of Jews seem to be unbelievers. But Paul is confident that all Israel will eventually be saved. Why? Essentially because of the nature of the God who summoned Israel into existence in the first place. God called Israel into being and loved Israel by way of its famous ancestors. He gifted Israel with existence and life at the time and will now never let go. He is the sort of God a God who lovingly elects and then maintains this commitment in spite of any hostility and foolishness in the objects of his love. This love will eventually triumph over Jewish unbelief. In short, in the contest between divine benevolence and human recalcitrance fought out in the space that is Israel, God will win. All Israel will be saved. (p.167-168)

He then applies that logic to the rest of the world,

But there seem to be non good reasons for withholding exactly this narrative from humanity in general…God’s Son came to save the human race, undoing the destruction of Adam, not just the destruction of Jews. Hence it seems that exactly the same rationale should apply. God will not let humanity go. In the contest between divine benevolence and human recalcitrance fought out in the space that is the human race, God will win. All humanity will be saved. And we can be confident, in view of this, that God really is a covenantal God, committed to us all permanently and irrevocably. (p.168)

The mistake he is making is Paul’s redefinition of Israel. Paul has already, throughout Romans, defined that Israel are those who have the faith of Abraham (Romans 4) and with this definition, those who have the faith of Abraham are indeed saved…yes, all of us. That is not universalism.

I also don’t agree with Campbell that Paul’ marginalizes the story of the exodus and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai more than many other Jews in his day would have been happy with.” (p.158-159. He says Paul was much more interested in Abraham and Genesis. I don’t agree with this assessment because the exodus is the backdrop/metanarrative for much of what Paul wrote. It is the backbone of Romans 6 and the water/slavery/freedom narrative informing Paul’s baptismal theology. Here is how N.T. Wright described how Abraham and Exodus actually intersect in Paul’s writing in Romans 4-6,

The ‘new exodus’ theme, like so much else in Romans and Galatians, is rooted in the divine promise made to Abraham. The covenant promises in Genesis 15 were focused on the seed and the inheritance; the patriarch was told that the seed would obtain the inheritance by first being enslaved and then being rescued and brought home to their promised land. This Passover-sequence – liberation from slavery by coming through the Red Sea, arriving on Sinai and being given the Torah (with all the resulting problems) and finally being led by the presence of YHWH himself in the pillar of cloud and fire until they arrived in the land – this sequence is now recapitulated, majestically (but to most commentators invisibly) in chapters 6— 8. Once the stage is set – the promises to Abraham now fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah (chapter 4) and the whole Adam-to-Messiah sequence revealed (5.12– 21) – then the story can begin. First, the crossing of the Red Sea. In chapter 6, the old-Adam people who were enslaved to sin are liberated through the water of baptism, in which the Messiah’s ‘death to sin’ and ‘coming alive to God’ is ‘reckoned’ to them. As the Messiah’s people they are therefore the new-exodus people, the freed former slaves, who have to learn new habits of heart and body commensurate with their freedom (6.12– 23). The old ways are ‘unfruitful’ (6.21); the new ways have their telos, their ‘goal’, in ‘eternal life’, the life of the age to come, which Paul will eventually describe more fully in chapter 8. With this, we are very close, though in different ways, both to Galatians 3.23– 9 and to Galatians 4.1– 7. The freed slaves then arrive at Mount Sinai, and that is the next stop in Paul’s narrative. Here in Romans 7, with such considerable and sophisticated artistry that it has remained opaque to most modern commentators, he weaves together the story of Israel at Sinai with the story of Adam in the garden – a classic rabbinic-style move, allowing two great scriptural narratives to interpret one another and to generate a third. In 7.7– 12 the ‘commandment which was unto life’, that is, the Torah itself (which really did promise ‘life’ 680), stands in parallel with the forbidden tree in the garden and, mysteriously, with the tree of life that remained untouched. Israel is lured by sin into breaking the commandment, just as Adam and Eve were lured by the serpent into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

‘Apart from the law, sin is dead. 9I was once alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life 10and I died. The commandment which pointed to life turned out, in my case, to bring death. 11For sin grabbed its opportunity through the commandment. It deceived me, and, through it, killed me.’

This is the story of Israel under Torah, exactly as in 5.20: ‘the law came in alongside, so that the trespass might be filled out to its full extent.’ The arrival of Torah precipitates Israel into recapitulating the sin of Adam. Grasping this, and its range of implications, is at the heart of grasping Romans in general and the question of redefined election in particular. – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Location 26853). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Last, is his assessment of baptism and its being quite unnecessary. He creates an illustration of a “good old-fashioned Southern Baptist preacher” who preached baptism to a group of Episcopalians with these words “you have to be baptized properly to gain his benefits, as the good book says. You must be fully immersed after making a free decision for Christ. Only then are you truly saved.”

In this fictionalized example the group turns to their bishop and she offers them these words,

“Do you believe in your hearts that Jesus is Lord, and that God raised him up to sit at his right hand as Lord? Do you confess this truth every week and maintain it faithfully?”

They answer, “Yes”

She responds, “Then you need not fear. You already bear the marks of Jesus’s person in your character and your behavior. This believing – this faith – is evidence that Christ’s character is already imprinted upon you by the Holy Spirit. Like him, you will one day be resurrected and enter into glory. God is already among you! God has already saved you! Have no fear! Nothing can break this relationship that God has established with you. You don’t need to be afraid of some future Day of Judgment when God might exclude you. He loves you. He has already sent his Son to die for you, and this when you did not even know him but despised and reviled him. Get baptized if you want to avoid causing offense, or if you feel the Lord has called you to. But don’t do so from fear. You have been called to freedom, not to bondage. You are participants in a gospel, not a religion.” (p.148)

We already know he goes on to espouse universalism so I guess this isn’t surprising. This is a false dichotomy between gospel and religion and also between doing it from only two options: to not cause offense or due to fear. What about doing it because the Bible says repeatedly to do it? That would be a good reason!

All in all this book has historical and theological value. Just know there are areas where Campbell may depart from your comfort zone. I am certain he does so out of study and conviction, believing these truly are the best reasoned answers. I still disagree with him in a few places while finding great value in the majority of what he wrote in this book.

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