Saving Romans from Contractual Theology with Douglas Campbell

The hijacking of Christianity can be traced to readings of Romans which would separate Paul’s gospel from the Gospel(s) by making salvation contractual, righteousness a legal fiction, and by reducing sin to a breaking of the law. The focus on guilt (a partial problem measured by law and resolved through payment) displaced shame (a wholistic problem resolved through a reconstituted humanity) in an economy of salvation obscuring Paul’s depiction of sin as linked to a holistic deception and salvation as cosmic or universal. Christ’s death, justification, sin, punishment, or simply the language of the New Testament, severed from Christ’s universal re-creation, becomes equivocal, as demonstrated not only in the Christianities of East and West but in the Protestant fragmenting of the faith. Augustine’s rendering of Romans 5 most sharply marks the divide between East and West, with his notion of original sin and the various innovations which reach full bloom in the peculiar abominations of John Calvin. The sharp divide between German liberalism/spiritualism and the contractual theory of penal substitution, in their readings of Romans, demonstrate the instability of Protestantism in pitting one side of Paul against the other. The tension between participation in the Trinity of Romans 8 and the focus on the law in 1-3, reproduces, in Protestantism, something like the East/West split.

My work, aimed at resolution to the apparent tensions in Romans, focuses on a rereading of chapters 6-8, which involves a reworked understanding of the human problem as defined by Paul and its resolution in Christ. The problem is not that the obligations of a contract have not been met, and Christ keeps the contract. The problem is that humans are in bondage and Christ frees from this bondage. It is the specifics of Paul’s description of this bondage, as slaves to a death dealing (deceived) orientation to the law, that make sense of the peculiar deliverance enacted by Christ.

By focusing on and developing the concept that sin is a death-dealing deception in regard to the law, which accounts for the human Subject (as well as the human project) outside of Christ, the work of Christ (the entire movement of his life, death, and resurrection) can be understood as reconstituting humanity in the Truth (Trinitarian participation as in Rom. 8) as opposed to a lie.  This will then lead to a theological understanding which accounts for the focus on the revelatory nature of the death of Christ, as sin is understood primarily in terms of a death denying and death dealing deception.

The revelation of Christ is part of salvation, not because it addresses the rational soul allowing for a measured decision, but revelation, in part, exposes the unconscious work of sin as in a lie the conscious work of sin is dependent on what it negates. The specific content and dynamic of the lie is worked out in detail in Rom. 7, among other places. That which is by definition unconscious consists of the basic ‘human project’ or the ‘founding gesture’ of the conscious Subject. 

For Paul, the truth of Christ (found in facing the reality of death in resurrection faith as in Rom. 4) stands over and against the lie of sin (the resistance to death of the fundamental fantasy and the impenetrable mystery of the real –which is the power of negation of the death drive).  Christ exposes the lie of sin (death as life at the foundation of subjectivity) in his acceptance of death and reverses the orientation of sin (slavery to the fear of death) in which the denial is absolute.  Christ relegates death and the law of sin and death to a secondary category and displaces them with the truth (resurrection life).  The depth of the mystery of the truth of Christ displaces the unconscious structured as a lie; that is, sin as a false mystery is displaced by the true mystery and transcendence of Christ at work beyond human consciousness (the reconstituted unconscious).  So, on this account, the truth of salvation necessarily addresses the Subject at both a conscious and unconscious level as the work of sin is exposed as an identity grounded in the dynamics of a specific deception and orientation to death. 

The implication of my argument regarding Romans 6-8 that Christ did not die, primarily, to meet a requirement of the law but to displace a deception which involved the law, is that it is not the law which provides insight into his death, but sin as it is oriented to the law. Paul introduces an economy in salvation which can account for the law but which is not mediated by law.  Salvation, in his understanding, is not gauged in terms of the law but as a counter to sin and the establishment of an alternative identity and an alternative economy in Christ.  The law, for Paul, mediates and governs the economy of sin, but law is secondary in the economy of salvation ushered in through Christ. The law could not deliver life but God has done what the law could not do by sending his Son, and Christ has ushered in the life promised by the law (Rom. 8.3).  The way God did this was to condemn sin, not Jesus, though it was in the flesh of Jesus that sin was put to death.  ‘By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh’ (8.3).  As N. T. Wright puts it, ‘this is some way from saying, as many have, that God desired to punish someone and decided to punish Jesus on everyone else’s behalf’.[1]

Paul’s understanding of the law introduces a series of categories in chs. 6 and 8 which demonstrate that the law mediates sin but, in contrast to Anselm’s (along with the line of theology leading up to the Protestant Reformation) understanding, for Paul, the law does not mediate salvation (so law has a narrower sense for Paul than it does for Anselm).  Salvation destroys the law of sin and death and introduces the economy of life, in which there is no end of resources.  Anselm’s ‘divine satisfaction’ works within a closed economy of law and Christ meets the demand of the system.  There is, however, no relief from the system of exchange and payment but only a meeting of the demands of the law.  In Anselm’s system (and the major part of the Western tradition) the purpose of the law plays a primary and enduring role so that even in Christ it is the economy of exchange that is determinative.

In Paul’s picture of an alternative economy,  the promise of the law is fulfilled (the promise of life which it could not deliver), and the law itself has taken on its correct place as secondary to what God has done in Christ to bring life and restore relationship to God by dispelling the lie of sin with the truth of life in the Son.  The law only has an enduring role in condemning sin in sinful man (Rom. 8.4).  The alienation (between the law and the ‘I’ (ἐγὼ) or the individual) produced by a misperception of the law is overcome in the understanding that the proper role of the law is to point to life in Christ. Participation in Christ inaugurates resurrection life which is inclusive of a manner of life which presumes control over the body and an end of alienation (the ‘I’ against the law) – as ‘by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body’ (8.13).  The split between the individual and the social or between the ἐγὼ (I) and the law can be viewed as part of the problem from within the ‘body of Christ’ which denotes individual and social coherence and unity.  

My work on Romans is primarily theological and I have relied on New Testament scholarship, not my expertise, to support the details of my reading of Romans. What I could not have known is that at the same time I was completing a PhD in theology, with a dissertation and book dealing with Romans 6-8, Douglas Campbell was completing work in New Testament studies arriving at conclusions which support my primary thesis. Campbell has provided a reading of Romans that in general (if not in particular details), accords with my own work in rejecting a contractual reading, rejecting a foundational understanding (what Campbell links to Arianism) or the notion that humans can reach God through creation and reason, and in recognizing the centrality of a participatory soteriology throughout Romans. In the upcoming class on Romans, while we will not deal with all the specifics or bulk of Campbell’s reading, we will work out the details of an understanding that is at once universal, noncontractual, participatory, and unconditional.

Sign up by or before May 27th .
You can register for the course here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings.


[1] See Wright, Romans, 578.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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