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.

Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning body (a body “at one” with itself) in which we are united under the head, who is Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. Sin as discord, disharmony, sickness, or the cancer to be rooted out rules out not only the predominant notions of salvation (salvation from the effects of sin), but the prevailing understanding of punishment, wrath, suffering and damnation.  A good doctor wants to get to the root cause of the problem and so too the Great Physician does not simply address our symptoms but the disease disrupting and destroying the body. Our root problem is not the result of sin. Our root problem is sin itself and yet the prevailing understanding is that sin has caused a series of unfortunate events (God’s honor impugned, the wrath of God unleashed, the law broken, the prospect of hell, suffering, etc.) toward which salvation is directed. Yet, none of these are themselves the cancer of sin which Christ destroys and a Christianity solely focused on dealing with symptoms is inadequate and devastating to the Gospel message (the great insight of George MacDonald). A doctor who only treated symptoms and not the disease would be no doctor at all, so too the primary New Testament picture of Christ as the Great Physician is lost in an understanding focused on the effects of sin rather than the problem itself.

The shift of focus onto sin itself explains how suffering, punishment, anger, and damnation are part of salvation as part of the same process. The destruction of sin, something on the order of radiation treatment destroying cancer, might give rise to suffering but to confuse the suffering with the cure would be the worst sort of doctoring.  A doctor who insisted on making his patients suffer would be a sadist or psychopath and such a notion is certainly not worthy of God. Suffering is not curative, nor is it a means of meting out justice. It is an odd sort of justice or righteousness which imagines suffering “makes right,” the very point of God’s rightness or righteousness given to humans. Suffering is a symptom of sin and increasing it does not address sin nor satisfy anyone but the sadist. Every sort of suffering is a futility (Ro 8:20), even that suffering to which the creation is subjected in redemption. Suffering does not satisfy God nor justice, any more than suffering figures into the cure for any disease.  Suffering may play a part in the destruction of the cancerous sin and one might speak of a doctor punishing a disease or of God destroying sin, but only the worst sort of doctor or judge imagines that punishment or suffering is inherently restorative.

To say God’s honor is restored by extracting a pound of fleshly suffering is already odd, but then to say he punishes someone unconnected to the crime and finds this satisfying, falls short of the goodness of God and in no way addresses sin. Evil is precisely the pursuit of this sort of satisfaction – the pursuit of a human sense of justice. The way we would make things right and what we project onto God is the notion of getting our pound of flesh.

If a theft occurs, punishing the thief does not restore what was stolen, even if it is the honor of God that has been taken (as in Anselm’s picture of atonement).  Neither would a good doctor imagine that receiving radiation for his patient will help the cure. A good judge would not presume that punishing someone other than the criminal is justice. Where God is presumed to be satisfied and penalties meted out in his anger, punishment, and inducement of suffering (whatever one makes of it) this has nothing to do with the work of Christ in making people right by incorporating them into his body.

Part of the issue is to specify how and why sin disunites, alienates, and separates (from the self, others, and God). If salvation is a body united, sin is the resistant core, the alienating power, which as Paul depicts is the turning of self against itself. In the corporate body the foot might refuse to be a part of the body because it is not a hand, or the ear might refuse its place as it wants to be an eye (I Cor. 12:15-26), or as in Ro. 7, it may be that the individual experiences this turning against the self as the mind pitted against the body. This violent turn is a taking up of death as if it is life, as the darkened mind is deceived, given over to “lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22) so that humans violently turn on one another and themselves (James 4:1-2). The deceit, to which the self-deceived do not have access, is to imagine theirs is a pursuit of life or a lusting after life (being, power, gratification) when the desire itself is death dealing (“sin deceived me and I died” Ro 7:11) as it is alienating and isolating (it is “I” alone in Paul’s description). Sin is interwoven with death as it is always violence against life together; it is always a sin against the body. What would have us be lone rangers, Marlboro men, individualists in the worst sense, is simply that which causes us to take up death into ourselves. Sin is death because it is a turning from life together (in Christ) and life together is the only kind of life there is.

In Christus Victor, Christ defeated sin, evil, and the devil, by resisting the lie in his manner of life (he resists the temptations as a grab for life through material gain or powerful status) and undoing or defeating the lie in his death (death and the devil are made powerful in death resistance or the grab for life), and in exposing the lie in his resurrection (death is not absolute, the grave is empty and emptied of its power). The fruit of this defeat, though, is the emergence of a new form of humanity which puts on Christ (in his life, death, and resurrection). In this way, the law of sin and death is displaced by the law of life in the Spirit. The defeat of evil and the overcoming of death must be combined with all of the positive atoning (at one-ing) or incorporation into his body through the Spirit.

The gift of the Spirit is life, shared life, and all of the gifts of the Spirit are aimed at promoting this communal reality. These gifts are not bottled separately so that we have the Spirit apart from being in community. The Spirit indwells us communally. There is no such thing as a private gift of the Spirit. The entire point of exercising a gift is for the community, whether that of the body of Christ or participation in the intra-Trinitarian community. God’s grace is channeled to us in community or not at all.

The whole point of grace, gifts, indwelling Spirit is to bind us together. God does not care about individual souls drifting in isolated units up to heaven any more than God cares about torturing individual souls forever so that he might delight and find satisfaction in their suffering. The entire problem of sin is that we are cut off from God and others and the whole point of salvation is to bring about incorporation into the body of Christ.

Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath

The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced.  The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World) was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.

Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law.  Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason).  Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.

As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seem to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world.  Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.

Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.

Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15).  The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.

In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.

The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.

It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.

The Pleasure of Hurting Others Through the Law

In psychoanalysis there is a technical term for someone who is incapable of questioning the law and whose entire effort is aimed at establishing the law. This sort of individual disavows any inadequacy or the notion of anything lacking in the law and wants to ensure that the law is fulfilled or completed.  Completing or establishing the law may involve her own or others’ transgression which results in punishment.  It is precisely through punishment that the law is “felt” to be established and that pleasure is derived.  This pleasure is found in the fact that “the Law is doing it” so that the immediate suffering/pleasure is the assurance the Law is being served/serviced. Children torn from their mothers’ breast, wailing at the border, are a living proof that the border laws are effectively established. The Law knows no tolerance as zero tolerance serves to define the sharp and absolute edge of this autonomous god-like force. Continue reading “The Pleasure of Hurting Others Through the Law”

The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction

A way of illustrating how sin functions through a lie is to use the theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution as a case in point (a singular illustration) of the lie.  That is, these theories of atonement, I would argue, simply offer up the universal deception of sin under the guise of salvation.  Penal substitution and divine satisfaction do what Paul depicts sin as always doing – presume there is life in the law, that suffering and death are redemptive, and that death is an absolute.  Paul’s picture of the fallen Subject is one in which the law (the law of the mind) is presumed to provide life, and death and suffering, under the guise of law, are continually taken up as the law of sin and death.  Three things come together in this understanding: the law as the will to power (to obtain life and being); desire and suffering of and for the ego or “I” (the idol or image); and the production of death confused with life.  In Paul’s picture this is the dynamic within every fallen Subject.  Likewise, the logic of every form of false religion is built upon these three pillars; the immutability of the law setting up the absolute nature of death which makes suffering and death a form of redemption. The gods of paganism require penalty and payment so that law and order are maintained. The good Buddhist or Hindu recognizes that there is a cosmic law at work (karma or destiny) which must be obeyed, that asceticism or relinquishing of life and self is the means of salvation, and that death is the doorway into this salvation.  Both Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin presume that law is the economy determining the nature of salvation and this salvation requires eternal payment – the death of Christ. If penal substitution and divine satisfaction are a repetition of the problem it is a peculiarly blasphemous repetition as it is at the same time a displacement of the orthodox Christian answer. Continue reading “The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction”

Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease

Where the truth of Christ is understood to counter a lie and the death of Christ an overcoming of the orientation to death fostered by this lie there are an infinite variety of ways in which this overcoming is to be described.  Key throughout is the recognition that this understanding has its explanation in the lived reality of human experience. As opposed to theories of atonement focused on the mind of God (i.e. divine satisfaction, penal substitution) which do not, for the most part, engage the lived reality of human experience, an immanent explanation of how the world is impacted by Christ is readily available.  Let me suggest a direction for the theological enterprise as it engages the ongoing task of apprehending the meaning of the death of Christ. Continue reading “Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease”

Dueling Theologies: Choosing a Theology of Life or a Theology of Death

Stephen Long, in his commentary on Hebrews, describes the YouTube video entitled “Jesus Loves You,” which brings to the forefront the contradictions inherent in a theology focused on guilt.  The video begins with Grey Bloke (a sort of grey blob) telling us he received an anonymous e-mail saying, “Jesus loves you.” Grey Bloke then says, “Well I thought, that’s nice. But then I read the rest of it which says, ‘If you don’t worship him, you’re going to burn in hell forever.’”

He acknowledges this is a “conditional form of love,” and that most forms of love are like that, but he expected something more from Jesus since he “should be more noble” than the rest of us. He asks the anonymous e-mailer, “If Jesus loves me, why does he want to send me to hell?” The reply came back, “He doesn’t want to, but unless you accept him, he’s just going to have to.” Grey Bloke then was confused — “doesn’t Jesus make the rules? He is God after all.”

The response was, “Jesus loves you, but his dad thinks you’re a shit.” That doesn’t seem “fair,” he adds, but “at least it’s clear.” But then he was utterly confused by a response, which said, “P.S., Jesus is his own dad.” Continue reading “Dueling Theologies: Choosing a Theology of Life or a Theology of Death”

Naming the Idol Through Christ and the Law

Scripture provides two frames which, when aligned, give us a view of the world. Much like getting the two lenses of a telescope aligned, the lens provided by the person and work of Christ accounts for and is aligned by the frame of the law and Judaism so that the socio-political and personal realms of the present (with its various idolatries) are exposed.  Looking through the aligned lens of Christ and the law (with all that the law entails) is the means of diagnosing the present predicament – personal and cosmic. In terms of understanding the human predicament, the depth of the disease of sin, and the cosmic implications of evil, the law and Judaism are inadequate but it is precisely the realization of this inadequacy which sets the work of Christ in the proper frame. Continue reading “Naming the Idol Through Christ and the Law”