Romans 1:18-32: The Premise of False Teaching Rejected by Paul

The discussion in the first 3 chapters of Romans only broaches Paul’s main point in his gospel. This discussion concludes that all are culpable, all have sinned, and there is no advantage to having the law, but by chapter 7, it is not just that the law is of no help, but the law itself is implicated in the problem. In chapter 7 Paul is referencing the commandment given to Adam and Eve, so that the law and its problems are universalized. It is not only Jews who have a law problem, all people in Adam have the same problem.  It does not matter if the reference is to Jewish or Gentile law, the law of Moses or the law theoretically written on the heart. It does not matter what the source of this law is, as sin creates a deception in regard to the law. Romans 7, implicating the law (period) as giving rise to sin, needs to be kept in mind in chapters 1-3, as in many traditional readings Paul will be attributed with teaching a contradictory understanding to his conclusion in chapter 7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. . ..  The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it killed me” (7:7a; 10-12). Far from teaching that the law is foundational to the gospel, Paul teaches that the gospel delivers those in bondage to the law. Chapters 1-3 is an illustration of how this bondage works, while Romans 4-8 pictures how rescue occurs. Read retrospectively, we can see that Paul is building a case in these first three chapters, not just that the law is of no advantage, but that the law is part of the problem.

It is not just that the human problem is not to be perceived in terms of law and its transgression, but this wrong perception is the problem. The law, which gives rise to forbidden desire, in spite of the life that it seemed to offer and due to the deception of sin, produces death for the ἐγὼ or a life of death described as an agonistic struggle in which the self is split against itself and sin is in control. Paul sums this up as the “body of death” (7:24) or “the law of sin and death” (8:2). The law of sin and death is the structuring principle of the Subject in which life is controlled by an orientation to death due to law (a primordial deception and a destructive drive).

In Paul’s depiction of the Subject, participation in the Trinity is displaced by participation in the law. Specifically, the law displaces relationship with God as Abba, and instead of being found in Christ the struggle with the I or the ego is definitive, displacing life in the Spirit with a death dealing deception. Righteousness perceived on the basis of the law is the sin problem directly addressed by Christ: “Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God” (Rom. 7:4). Being made dead to law (whether Jewish or Gentile), delivered from its strictures, is a key part of salvation.

If we should imagine Romans 1:18-32 is the last word or even the beginning word in regard to the human situation, the conclusion is that the wrath of God is primary. There is no mention of the love of God, which Paul will describe as primary (in chapter 8). The compassion of God has no place in this understanding, and God’s mercy – at least for these pagans – is absent. God judges and condemns, and the notion that he might forgive cannot be contemplated, as God’s righteousness demands judgment. But we know Paul does not think wrath and retribution are the essential nature of God, though in this presentation, all people, but especially non-Jewish people, are culpable and damned. They know what they should do and yet cannot help themselves. They have a law written on their heart, they have a natural revelation about God, but they have chosen to be idolaters and have become sexual predators and perverts. They could have enlightened minds, but instead they are totally depraved with their hearts completely darkened.

In this system, it is not clear whether the culpability is assigned to individuals or to the group as a whole, as it seems some got sin rolling with initial sins, and then this block of humanity suffers the consequences. As Douglas Campbell puts it, “It speaks in strongly condemning tones about others: ‘they have sinned and sinned and sinned again, . . . and I can assure you personally that God is angry with them’ (‘since he and I are on such good terms,’ one is tempted to add).”[1] The “they” here, as a result, is unclear. Who exactly has this philosophical opportunity to recognize the omnipotence, omniscience, and justice of God? It seems an original few may have ruined it for the rest. “After a foolish rejection of the single transcendent God, the disobedient pagans in the passage are rapidly overwhelmed by lusts . . . becoming so immersed in depraved behavior that they generate an entire culture of idolatry and sexual immorality (so vv. 23–27). The pagans are collectively trapped.”[2] By the end of the passage, philosophical man is gone, and subsequent generations are inundated with sinful passions and ultimately murder. Is it fair that they still be expected to know God and act accordingly. Can they “fairly be expected either to perceive a transcendent God or to act in accordance with that God’s wishes.”[3] It would seem there is a fundamental inequity for those who suffer the consequences of the decisions of those given the original opportunity. Where an original few had the possibility to save themselves at the judgment through wisdom, those who come after are tricked by wisdom.

Wisdom is now foolishness, which shows itself in their worship of the creation. They are “filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Ro 1:29–32). God is angry, retributive, and punishing. Pagans are going to die in their sins, and they deserve it. They are getting their just deserts.

If this is simply Paul’s opinion, we hear nothing of the self-indictment which will come later in the letter, or in notions that he is the chief of sinners (I Tim. 1:15). Are pagan idolaters peculiarly sinful in Paul’s theology, and how does this accord with his notion in Galatians that Judaizing Christians are guilty of idolatry? Whoever Paul is giving voice to, it is in the third person, and he or she is not included among these pagans and their idolatrous ways. As Campbell has described it, this person “has taken the ethical and rhetorical high ground in relation to the pagans, with a striking absence of self-knowledge . . ..  He speaks of God, perhaps as something of a self-appointed representative; indeed, he discloses the future wrath of God now in his own preaching, thereby in part deploying it himself! But this figure has not included himself within this orbit of fallibility. He stands outside and above it. Hence, even if there are elements of truth in what he is saying, the tone of his judgment is potentially repugnant.”[4]

Is this Paul’s starting premise in regard to the human situation, or is this in fact the understanding of a false Teacher he is refuting? What is at stake in our reading of the opening of Romans is nothing short of our understanding of reality. In Romans there are two possible anthropologies, cosmologies and theologies. If we do not clearly sort out the difference here in Romans 1-3, the danger is we will imagine the false anthropology, ontology and theology are presumed by Paul. In these verses retributive justice is the only option, judgment is on the basis of works, and all people have access to full knowledge of God through revelation (they would not need Jesus Christ if they had only done what they know is right).

It is easy to imagine the Teacher giving the amen to 1:18-32, and then extending the argument. “These pagans do not have the benefit of the Mosaic law, by which means idolatry is avoided and enlightened thinking capitalized upon. We possessors of the law control our base desires – you will not find sexual perverts or gossips among us. We circumcised ones, by the very efficacy of this sign receive the benefits of having our desires curtailed.” Texts, such as Maccabees, describe the virtues conveyed by the law – “the goodness or rightness, wisdom, self-control, and courage—to conquer their own bodily appetites and passions even in the most extreme circumstances, here excruciating pain, fear, loss, and humiliation under torture (and this at the hands of dissolute passionate pagans, it should be noted!).”[5] Paul may be arguing so extensively in regard to circumcision, as this is the key sign the Teacher emphasizes. Philo explains the advantages conveyed by circumcision, and the Teacher may presume as much:

It prevents disease (4), “secures the cleanliness of the whole body” (5), makes “the part that is circumcised … [‘resemble’] the heart”—and both organs are, after all, concerned with generation, the heart of thoughts and “the generative organ … of living beings” (6), and allows the seminal fluid to proceed easily, making those nations practicing circumcision the most numerous (7). Philo goes on to suggest, however, that these rationalizations are traditional (8); he supplies two further arguments of a symbolic nature that are closely related to one another. First, circumcision “is a symbol of the excision of all the pleasures which delude the mind; for since, of all the delights which pleasure can afford, the association of man with woman is the most exquisite, it seemed good to the lawgivers to mutilate the organ which ministers to such connections; by which rite they signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure, not, indeed, of one only, but of all others whatever, through that one which is the most impervious of all” (9). Similarly, circumcision is a symbol of “discarding that terrible disease, the vain opinion of the soul” (10). Here, then, circumcision is symbolic of the excision of vice and of the achievement of a superior ethical state, which Philo goes on to link immediately not merely with sound sexual ethics but with the absence of idolatry.[6]

The Teacher cannot imagine how sin is going to be curtailed and ethics instigated apart from circumcision and the Jewish law. These pagan Christians will need to be circumcised, they will need to practice Jewish ethics, and only in this way will they be declared righteous at the judgment.

Whether or not there is a specific false Teacher who may have proposed this understanding (the proposal of Douglas Campbell), what is obvious in chapters 2-3 is that on the basis of the premises here laid out, in the words of Richard Hays, Paul has set up a sting operation.

Romans 1:18–32 sets up a homiletical sting operation. The passage builds a crescendo of condemnation, declaring God’s wrath upon human unrighteousness, using rhetoric characteristic of Jewish polemic against Gentile immorality. It whips the reader into a frenzy of indignation against others: those unbelievers, those idol-worshipers, those immoral enemies of God. But then, in Romans 2:1, the sting strikes: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” The reader who gleefully joins in the condemnation of the unrighteous is “without excuse” (anapologētos) before God (2:1), just as those who refuse to acknowledge God are anapologētos (1:20).[7]

As Campbell points out, many interpreters understand that Paul is trapping someone in their own argument, but the problem is who (or whom) and why? This is not the argument of a typical Jew, but more than likely the argument of a false Teacher on the order of the Judaizing false Teacher in Galatia. This Teacher acknowledges Christ but only in conjunction with the law – setting the work of Christ on the foundation of retributive justice, the primacy of wrath, and the necessity of good works. In this understanding Paul is made to agree with the basic theology of 1:18-32, while in the following chapters he is trying to evoke a bit more self-awareness on the part of someone who would presume to judge someone else. “One ought to be aware that one is in the same boat, so to speak; the judge is also a sinner and ought to acknowledge this. Hence, this turn (in chapter 2) is designed to jolt the figure into a healthier level of self-knowledge—one that might elicit repentance and salvation, rather than hard-heartedness and condemnation of others (see esp. 2:3–5).”[8] But is this all that is going on here; namely that Paul wants potential judges of others to repent and receive forgiveness? If this is aimed at Jews in general, does Paul consider hypocrisy intrinsic to Judaism. If this is all there is to it, this judge seems a bit stupid (in Campbell’s words), in preaching just deserts and then excluding himself. Is this what the typical Jew does? Are Jews as a class of people, judgmental, hypocritical and stupid?

According to Paul then—and for the argument construed in these terms to work—Judaism is not merely contractual, conditional, perfectionist, monolithic, and ahistorical, but innately judgmental and hypocritical! It necessarily includes an internal insensitivity to sinfulness, combining this with a rigorously judgmental attitude to outsiders. In short, Jews are stupid as well as conditional. They promulgate a system that, to a man, they do not live up to themselves, but they nevertheless attack others on ethical grounds and are unaware of their own ethical shortcomings.[9]

While some Christian’s may perceive Judaism in this anti-Semitic manner, I presume not many Jews will see themselves in this portrayal. If it is simply Judaism Paul has in mind, is he presuming that this hypocritical Jew is squandering his opportunity to repent (2:4). Is Paul trying to get a stubborn Jew to repent, receive forgiveness, and be saved – and all of this without mention of Christ. Can a pagan or Jew, in the non-Christian phase here described, receive salvation if they repent and start living up to the law? Does phase one of human history, and phase one of the law prior to Christ, contain the possibility of salvation through the law?  

If those trying to do good deeds prior to Christ can sin and then repent, being forgiven those sins, then they may well arrive at the day of judgment effectively righteous. Given the appropriate contrition—which could presumably take place on their death beds if necessary—such individuals would have been forgiven their sins and shortcomings and so be righteous. God would then have to declare them that and save them on the day of judgment, and they would then have been saved independently of Christ, the church, Christian preaching, and Paul![10]

Given these presuppositions, presumably most Jews will be able to repent and be saved and there is no need for Christ.

Lest anyone should miss this is not and cannot be Paul’s understanding of the gospel – he says as much in 2:16: “according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” In the middle of this presentation, he notes that all of this is contrary to his gospel. His gospel is not a law-based system, but a Christ based system. Though this is only mentioned in passing, Paul will soon make it clear that Christ does not deliver by means of the law but he delivers from the law. But before Paul lays out his gospel, he is going to show the absurdity of a law-based gospel, a law-based judgment, or a law-based understanding of God.

Chapter 2, in universalizing the presumptions of 1:18-32 undermines the Teacher’s notion. He has passed judgment and has not included himself but presumes to judge all of the pagan world, not submitting himself to the same criteria. This Teacher presumes that because he is a law-keeping Jewish Christian, he has met the required standard. In his understanding, the law and circumcision are the means and measure of righteousness. Possessing the law, including or marked by circumcision, must be the means of constraining the sinful passions, evident especially in pagans. The law saves as judgment will be according to works of the law. If this were the case, then Jews and especially Jewish law-keeping Christians would be at a definite advantage (the Teacher’s point).

Paul is not simply trying to convince a hypocritical Jew to repent, he is arguing this entire system makes no sense. He concedes that circumcision may have value if you practice the law, but if not, it is a worthless sign (2:25). On the other hand, the opposite is true: “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (2:26). Paul’s point is the law does not aid in righteousness, and as he will eventually argue, it disenables righteousness.

Paul argues, that according to the criteria of the Teacher there are potentially bad Jews and good pagans. “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (2:9–10). Paul may be ironically quoting the Teacher in this construal of first and last, as to be damned first may not be a privilege, and there is no real difference between Jew and Gentiles in this scheme (to say nothing of Christian or non-Christian).

This Teacher must be boasting about the efficacy of the law: “you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth” (2:19–20). In the Teacher’s view, the law automatically conveys an advantage, such that those who possess it are to be the guides to the rest of blind humanity. Paul gives an historic example (also recorded by Josephus) of some Jews who do not live up to this standard (2:21-24), not to prove that all Jews are charlatans and robbers of temples, but to show that the law and circumcision do not convey the automatic benefits the teacher imagines nor automatically make the Jews the chosen race. 

Having extracted a firm commitment from the Teacher to the principle of soteriological desert, he uses this principle to eliminate an entire set of supposed Jewish advantages—advantages as the Teacher defines them, that is. The Teacher must submit to these eliminations or be exposed as inconsistent if not hopelessly self-contradictory. Paul seems well aware, moreover, that the principle of desert, when it is strictly applied, is peculiarly destructive to historical and elective concerns. Its strict application can produce quite appalling results, if it is pressed.[11]

By 2:29 Paul has rebutted the Teachers arguments using his own premises: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (2:28–29). By the Teacher’s argument it may be concluded, against the Teacher, that it is righteous gentiles who may judge unrighteous Jews. Jews, even, or especially, by his premises, must be accorded no special privilege.

Paul, however, is going to reject this entire scheme. He does not believe God is retributive, or that righteousness is determined by the law, and so too the traditional reading of 3:1-9 is reversed. Verses 2, 4, and 6 are advocating justice and judgment by works. Paul is usually attributed with this portion of the argument, but this is the Teacher’s argument. It is Paul (in 1,3,5,7 and 9) that questions the advantage of the Jew (3:1), who argues the law is nullified by a lack of faith (v. 5), who suggests a strict works-righteousness system is unfair (v. 7), and who questions that the Jew has any advantage. If we miss Paul is refuting the arguments of the Teacher, not only do we end up with the premises of 1:18-32 but we are likely to get his argument in 3:1-9 exactly wrong, attributing to Paul the argument of the false Teacher and attributing to Paul’s interlocutor (in the traditional understanding) Paul’s point.

The alternative is to recognize that Paul, using the premises of 1:18-32, has refuted the false Teacher. In 3:19-20 he silences the Teacher by driving him into a corner through a series of scripture quotations, the very ones on which he relies. The Teacher may imagine he is rescuing Christian converts by insisting they keep the law, the only way of being saved in his scheme. Paul, on the other hand, considers the teaching that the law is primary as falling short of the true gospel.

Paul makes it clear at the end of chapter 3, should there be any question, he rejects law as the basis of righteousness, he rejects retributive justice, and he rejects the entire scheme of the false Teacher. He clarifies the starting point of his gospel at the conclusion of the chapter:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (3:21–24).  

This clinches the argument, but it also serves as the beginning of Paul’s full explanation of the unconditional gospel.

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 546). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Campbell, 359-360.

[3] Ibid..

[4] Campbell, 546.

[5] Campbell, 564.

[6] Cited in Campbell, 566.

[7] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), 389. Cited in Campbell 362-363..

[8]  Campbell, 363.

[9] Campbell, 364-365.

[10] Campbell, 367.

[11] Campbell, 551.

Douglas Campbell’s Framing of Paul Through Ephesians

The frame in which the book of Ephesians might be viewed, as Douglas Campbell sees it, is not as a late and pseudo-Pauline writing, but as an early work, central to Paul’s theology, an understanding which entails several revolutionary shifts. Overall, the understanding of the New Testament, and Paul specifically, must be understood, not through an atonement theory based on contract but one based on covenant (which entails an entirely different theological tenor), but this overall shift points to a series of major turns in theology and exegesis. This is the self-described description of Campbell, which accounts for his peculiar theological understanding and placement of Ephesians (as central) in the Pauline corpus. He notes that there were a series of major shifts occurring during his seminary years in the 1980’s which laid the framework for his theology.[1]

First, the publication of the work of Krister Stendahl in 1963 had thrown into question, what he calls the “Lutheran” understanding of Paul, in which Paul’s main problem was a guilty conscience arising from his inability to keep the law. Paul’s struggle was seen in light of the introspective struggles of Augustine and Luther, and salvation was seen primarily in terms of guilt and its relief. Stendahl notes that, “In the history of Western Christianity — and hence, to a large extent, in the history of Western culture — the Apostle Paul has been hailed as a hero of the introspective conscience. Here was the man who grappled with the problem ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want to do is what I do . . . (Rom.7:19).”[2] As I have pointed out in my work on Romans, this misreading of Romans 7 marks the major forms of the faith (is this the conscious non-Christian Paul, or is this Paul’s reflection on his non-Christian life from a Christian stand-point, or is this simply Christian Paul?).[3] This background, according to Stendahl, gives rise to the Western notion of “justification by faith”: “hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man in his practice of introspection.”[4]

This does not line up with Paul’s own description of his conscience in Philippians and elsewhere:

In Phil. 3 Paul speaks most fully about his life before his Christian calling, and there is no indication that he had had any difficulty in fulfilling the Law. On the contrary, he can say that he had been “flawless” as to the righteousness required by the Law (v.6). His encounter with Jesus Christ — at Damascus, according to Acts 9:1-9 — has not changed this fact. It was not to him a restoration of a plagued conscience; when he says that he now forgets what is behind him (Phil. 3:13), he does not think about the shortcomings in his obedience to the Law, but about his glorious achievements as a righteous Jew, achievements which he nevertheless now has learned to consider as “refuse” in the light of his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.”[5]

Justification by faith, Stendahl notes, is going to mean something very different if the notion of guilt, and relief from guilt, is not the primary lens for reading Paul or understanding Judaism. Stendahl notes the point which will be developed and built upon in what is called, “The New Perspective on Paul”: “for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace.”[6]

Second, in Campbell’s telling of the story, it was E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977, which brought home the fact that Judaism, as it is characterized under the typical Protestant notion, as a “work’s righteousness” religion, gives a legalistic account of “justification by works” that is unrecognizable to Jews. The inherent antisemitism of this understanding, which in the post-Holocaust world was a key concern, added to the recognition of the false portrayal of Judaism in typical Western, mainly Protestant, understandings.  

As James Dunn notes, “What is usually taken to be the Jewish alternative to Paul’s gospel would have been hardly recognized as an expression of Judaism by Paul’s kinsmen according to the flesh. Sanders notes that Jewish scholars and experts in early Judaism have for long enough been registering a protest at this point, contrasting rabbinic Judaism as they understand it with the parody of Judaism which Paul seems to have rejected.”[7] Sanders quotes Solomon Schecter as an example: “Either the theology of the Rabbis must be wrong, its conception of God debasing, its leading motives materialistic and coarse, and its teachers lacking in enthusiasm and spirituality, or the Apostle to the Gentiles is quite unintelligible;” and then James Parks: “… if Paul was really attacking ‘Rabbinic Judaism’, then much of his argument is irrelevant, his abuse unmerited, and his conception of that which he was attacking inaccurate.”[8]

The fact that New Testament scholarship and the framing of Paul’s understanding (through such key scholars as Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Kasemann) is based on this Lutheran model, with its rejection the entire field became suspect.

 Sanders also demonstrated that Judaism is based, not on a contractual relationship of law keeping, but on a covenantal relationship:

In particular, he has shown with sufficient weight of evidence that for the first-century Jew, Israel’s covenant relation with God was basic, basic to the Jew’s sense of national identity and to his understanding of his religion. So far as we can tell now, for first-century Judaism everything was an elaboration of the fundamental axiom that the one God had chosen Israel to be his peculiar people, to enjoy a special relationship under his rule. The law had been given as an expression of this covenant, to regulate and maintain the relationship established by the covenant.[9]

The relationship of the covenant was primary, and the law was added only as a guide to maintain the relationship. “So, too, righteousness must be seen in terms of this relationship, as referring to conduct appropriate to this relationship, conduct in accord with the law. That is, obedience to the law in Judaism was never thought of as a means of entering the covenant, of attaining that special relationship with God; it was more a matter of maintaining the covenant relationship with God.”[10] Sanders refers to this understanding as “covenantal nomism” – which he defines in the following manner:

covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression … Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such … Righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect.[11]

There are multiple implications to this understanding of Paul, which Sanders did not pursue. He simply assumed Paul’s Judaism was different than that of his fellow Jews.

The third thing that Campbell notes, which pertains to the above points, concerned the question of Paul’s “center” (which Campbell refers to as the question of the nature of Paul’s “gospel” or his “soteriology”). With the questioning of the Lutheran Paul, there was a turn to nineteenth century German theology, such as that of Albert Schweitzer focused on “being-in-Christ.” Schweitzer claims, “The doctrine of righteousness by faith is therefore a subsidiary crater, which has formed within the rim of the main crater – the mystical doctrine of redemption through being-in-Christ.”[12]  The question arose as to how to reconcile these two understandings of Paul. Was Paul inconsistent or was the scholarship on Paul flawed?

Fourth, Campbell mentions the impact of the work of Richard Hays, and his understanding that “various phrases in Paul were best understood as references to the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’ as against (Christian) ‘faith in Jesus.’” This coincides with a participatory notion of faith, in which Jesus is not so much the object of faith as the model of faith which his followers emulate.

The fifth contributing influence concerns Campbell’s studies under Richard N. Longenecker, who proposed an alternative frame for understanding the order of Paul’s letter writing. “If Galatians was Paul’s first extant letter (as Longenecker proposed) then the shape of his theological project was rather different from an account that positioned 1 or even 2 Thessalonians first . . . The language and concerns distinct to Galatians and Romans look rather less programmatic and rather more occasional if the latter biography holds good.”[13]

As Campbell concludes, “In short then we were taught in the 1980s at Toronto that some of the key details in Paul’s biography, which affected the interpretation of some of his key letters, were being vigorously contested.[14]

In Campbell’s description this all became coherent and constituted an alternative reading only with his encounter with the work of Thomas and James Torrance. Under the Torrance’s influence he came to a fuller understanding of exactly what might be entailed in a covenantal relationship:

Because the basis for the relationship is precisely this ground, of love, the covenantal actor reaches out to the other and establishes the relationship independently of any action by that party. It is therefore an unconditional and gracious act, and the relationship with the other is a gifted one. The covenantal actor has “elected” to enter the relationship and so taken the initiative. That actor has also thereby functioned “missiologically” and “incarnationally” — in the case of God literally — in stretching to the other actor’s location and, if necessary, meeting them right where s/he is. Once established, moreover, this relationship then extends through time, irrevocably. It lasts as long as the love of the loving covenantal actor lasts, hence, in the case of God, through eternity. And the relationship is consequently characterized by complete loyalty and unswerving fidelity.[15]

Though Campbell does not extend this particular essay to his own framing of Paul and the role he would assign to Ephesians, it seems evident these moves clear the ground for something like a return to the early church understanding of the centrality of Ephesians. As I indicated in my previous blog, Origen considered Ephesians the center of Paul’s thought[16] and according to Richard Layton he defined “this epistle as the spiritual ‘heart of Paul’s letters, a repository of mysteries at which the apostle only hinted in other correspondence.”[17] In the estimate of Origen and Jerome, “…Ephesians, that epistle of the apostle which stands in the middle in concepts as well as order. Now I say middle not because it comes after the first epistles and is longer than the final ones, but in the sense that the heart of an animal is in its mid‐section, so that you might understand from this the magnitude of the difficulties and the profundity of the questions it contains.”[18] As Ernest Best shows, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Hermas, and other Apostolic Fathers knew and used this letter as a key to understanding Paul.[19] However, “with the reformation, and the modernist quest that followed it, the letter came increasingly to be read as a unified discourse with its own distinct message.”[20]

As Martin Wright demonstrates in his PhD dissertation, “Ephesians is deeply embedded in the CP (Pauline Corpus) . . .  it serves an integrating function within the Corpus, and above all . . . patterns of reception and reinterpretation across the Corpus are far more complex than the bifurcation between “authentic” and “spurious” letters can admit.”[21] Wright engages Campbell’s “framing” of Paul noting that in this understanding Colossians and Ephesians are  authentic, “the latter is really the “Laodiceans” of Col. 4:16, and together with Philemon these letters constitute a ‘single epistolary event’, dating from an imprisonment in Asia Minor in 50;59 they therefore precede 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans . . . .”[22] This leads to consequential conclusions as to the centrality of Ephesians:

The place of Ephesians (“Laodiceans”) in Campbell’s schema is intriguing. In his view it is not prompted by any particular crisis, but gives “an account of pagan Christian identity” to a Gentile congregation not founded by Paul. . . . But as a result, and because Campbell locates the letter before 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans, its role in the CP is transformed. Ephesians becomes a distinctively “unconditioned” statement of Paul’s gospel, more so even than Romans; its echoes throughout the Corpus reflect its closeness to the heart of his theology, with motifs first articulated here to be developed later on, perhaps transformed in the crucible of conflict and schism. This is of course the opposite of the usual modern position, that Ephesians is a late text drawing together strands from various earlier Pauline letters (though it sits well with Origen’s view quoted at the beginning of this study). As Campbell realizes, if his frame is accepted, one consequence will be “a more ‘Ephesiocentric’ account of Paul’s thought.[23]

As Wright goes on to note, this means that Ephesians is not occasioned by a particular false teaching (the rise of a rival Jewish-Christian Teacher spurring the discussion in of law, grace, faith and justification/righteousness in Galatians, Philippians, and Romans) as the writing of Ephesians precedes these events. What we have in Ephesians then, according to Campbell, is a summation of Paul’s gospel for a people otherwise not familiar with it.

Campbell sums up Paul’s gospel by highlighting four points:[24] 1. a realized eschatology: Resurrection, ascension, rule, life all come together as the predestined plan of God, and this rule is not simply to a future eschatological fulfillment (though this is not absent in Ephesians, e.g., 1:14; 2:7; 4:30; 5:5; 6:8, 13), the distinctive emphasis of Ephesians is of a present or realized eschatology (e.g., “we are now seated with him at the right hand of God, 2:6).

2. “Secondly, it is (as a direct consequence of the foregoing) a radical understanding, in that it cuts to the root (the radix) of sin in the sinful being of humanity and the present cosmic order, which is full · of oppressive evil powers that have a foothold in that corrupt being (notably sin and death; they plague the flesh- Gk sarx).” What we learn in this gospel is that resurrection and enthronement defeat the Powers (the prince of the power of the air, Eph. 2:2). It tells us that the power (the power of sin and evil) is defeated in the defeat of death, and that this power of death is that which is wielded by the principalities and powers and by the prince of the power of the air. The gospel of Paul is the mystery revealed in this reign over the Powers (3:9-10). Satan’s power over the nations is ended (3:1-13) and every Christian can participate in this defeat (6:10-20).

3. Campbell notes the Trinitarian aspect of Paul’s gospel which he elsewhere combines in an understanding of the participatory or perichoretic understanding. Paul “uses a sexual metaphor informed by Gen 2:24, understanding sexual union as oneness or unification, as that text suggests. This usage denotes the unity of close relational intimacy, along with close bodily contact without any erasure of differentiation or individuated personhood, and supports a perichoretic account of the divine unity.”[25]

Humankind was created for participation and relationship with God, and the intimacy of this participation is part of the mystery revealed (5:32). Christ’s salvific work (the mystery revealed to all the saints, 1:1; 1:9) brings about unity of all things, “things in the heavens and things on the earth” (1:10), inclusive and represented by the unity of Jews and Gentiles (3:1-6). This saving union with God marks the medium and goal of the Christian life. Christians are to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (4:3) through the oneness of the body, as “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you also were called into one hope . . .. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (4:4–6a). The point of the apostles and prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, or the point of the church is building up the body of Christ “until all of us attain unity of the faith” (4:13) with “the whole body being joined together and united together by every binding ligament of support” (4:16). This gospel unity stands in contrast to the dividing powers controlling those alienated from the life of God” (4:18). Christians are members of one another (4:25) because of Christ’s victory over the alienating power of death and the resultant unifying and life giving of the Spirit (5:14-15) through the predetermined will of the Father.

4. “Fourthly and finally, the model is clearly utterly unconditional: no human act can initiate or effect the eschatological irruption of God-or the Father’s sending of the only Son. People are simply caught up in the irresistible purposes and creativity of God, as Paul himself was outside Damascus . . ..” Paul opens Ephesians with this understanding of God’s unconditional plan: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (1:3-6). Paul informs us, “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:11). All “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (2:4-6). As Campbell puts it, “A new person, and new humanity, has been made. Note, this is not to subordinate the second creation to the first: in Paul the second clearly prefigured the first cosmically, and also vastly exceeds it . . .”[26]

Though I have drawn from Campbell’s early work to his most recent work to highlight the role of Ephesians, I think I have been true to the progression of his thought. In conclusion his summary of the gospel could just as well be a summary of the key role of Ephesians, which he notes:

The secret of the universe and the point of the great narrative that encompasses us all is God’s plan to draw us into a community imaged and formed by his resurrected Son. The risen Jesus will have primacy but also a rather extraordinary equality with those who surround him and look like him. Everyone in this community will therefore be a “brother,” bearing the image of the Resurrected One. . .. Our destiny, then, is to be a “band of brothers,” which is to say, “a family of siblings.” This is God’s great plan that lies at the heart of the cosmos. Its fulfillment is the story that enfolds us all, and it is the only story that really matters.

Just the same notion is expounded at length in the opening section of Ephesians. There Paul uses the form of a blessing— entirely appropriately, since it is a blessing— to convey the insight that fellowship with the triune God lies at the heart of the cosmos. Such is his enthusiasm that he articulates this notion in one sentence that runs on for twelve verses (vv. 3– 14). This purpose existed “before the foundation of the world: that we should be holy and blameless before him, having been chosen in love” (v. 4). At the heart of the cosmos, its inception, its existence, and its future, lies the divine plan to create us and to enjoy us in fellowship. And this plan entailed initiating this relationship by creating us and then calling us and drawing us into communion in the loving movement often known as election, the Greek literally meaning “calling out,” hence “summoning.”[27]

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul

[1] Douglas Campbell, “Covenant or Contract in the Interpretation of Paul.” Participation: The Journal of the T. F.  Torrance Theological Fellowship (2014) 183-184

[2] Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” First delivered as the invited Address at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, September 3, 1961 ; it is a revised and footnoted edition of the “article “Paulus och Samvetet,” published in Sweden in Svensk Exegetisk Ârsbok 25 (i960), 62-77. Accessed online at

[3] Seem my work, Paul V. Axton, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of the Death of Christ in Light of the Psychoanalytic Reading of Paul (London: T & T Clark, 2015).

[4] Stendahl, “Introspective Conscience”

[5] Stendahl, Ibid.

[6] Stendahl, Ibid.

[7] James Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” The Manson Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Manchester on 4 November 1982. Subsequently delivered in inodified form as one of the Wilkinson Lectures in the Northen Baptist Theological Seminary, Illinois, under the title “Let Paul be Paul”. Accessed online at

[8] Dunn is quoting Sanders, Paul, p. 6. See the fuller survey “Paul and Judaism in New Testament scholarship” on pp. 1-12.

[9] Dunn, Ibid.

[10] Dunn, Ibid.

[11] Sanders, Paul, pp. 75, 420, 544. Quoted in Dunn.

[12] A. Schweitzer, Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1930, 2 1954). Quoted from Carsten Claussen, “Albert Schweitzer’s Understanding of Righteousness by Faith according to Paul’s Letter to the Romans” “Romans through History and Cultures Group”; SBL Annual Meeting 2007 in San Diego

[13] Campbell, “Covenant or Contract.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] F. Pieri and Ronald E. Heine, “Recovering Origen’s Commentary On Ephesians from Jerome,” The Journal of Theological Studies NEW SERIES, Vol. 51, No. 2 (October 2000), pp. 478-514 Published By: Oxford University Press

[17] Richard Layton, “Recovering Origen’s Pauline Exegesis: Exegesis and Eschatology in the Commentary on Ephesians” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8:3, 373–411 2000 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[18] Origen and Jerome, The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, ed. and trans. Ronald E. Heine (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 77. This part of the commentary survives only in Jerome’s version, but Heine attributes much of it, including the quoted passage, to Origen.

[19] Ernest Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, ICC
(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 115–17. Quoted in Oscar E. Jiménez, Metaphors in the Narrative of Ephesians 2:11-22, (Brill, 2022) 2.

[20] Max Turner, “Book of Ephesians,” in Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (London: SPCK, 2005), 187. Quoted in Jiménez, Ibid.

[21] Martin Wright, Breaking Down the Dividing Wall: Ephesians and the Integrity of the Corpus Paulinum, (Durham theses, Durham University, 2018) 10.

[22] Wright, 10.

[23] Wright, 80-81.

[24] Outlined in Campbells essay, “Covenant or Contract.” I am filling out his outline from Ephesians.

[25] Douglas Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics (Kindle Locations 1441-1445). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[26] Campbell, “Covenant or Contract.”

[27] Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, Kindle Locations 1699 – 1711.

Should Christians Refrain from Going to Court in Cases Involving Other Christians?

Paul links three topics which, on the surface, may appear to have little in common: “going to the law” or taking someone to court (I Cor. 6:1-8), sexual immorality (6:9-11), and freedom and discipline (6:12-20). What these three topics share is a warning against manipulating or taking advantage of fellow Christians. In Corinth there is apparently an elitist group – those who count themselves “wise” and who have more economic and social standing and who are misusing their freedom in Christ.  These people, as seen most clearly in chapter 11, are taking advantage of their social standing. They are “grasping” sexually (some conclude they are using boy prostitutes), financially (attempting to make money by taking advantage of their Christian brothers and sisters), and even in their station in the church (pride of place in wisdom and position) they are “grasping” what is not theirs. The situation, where some in the church are taking others to court, may be an extension of the thematic problem; the wealthy and powerful taking advantage of the poor and weak. Continue reading “Should Christians Refrain from Going to Court in Cases Involving Other Christians?”

The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence

One of the key moments in Alexander Campbell’s break with Presbyterianism and denominationalism came when he returned his communion token, unused, to the coffers of the Presbyterians. The token, issued by the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian Churches, was a ticket of entry showing that the bearer had been duly tested and approved by the clergy to gain access to the Lord’s Table. The tokens were a form of “salvation currency” as the bearer was declared a bona fide Christian (to be denied a token was to lose access to body of Christ). The tokens became sacred objects, some even requested they be put in their coffins at death, and they were a means for clergy (who came to view them as their personal possession) to accumulate power and insure their own station. The system originated with John Calvin and spread to Protestant churches all over the world, including the U. S. The particular thing which may have plagued Campbell, as he purposely put himself at the end of a line of 800 some communicants, was that he realized that his new friends among the Scottish reformers would not qualify for the Lord’s table as they were not of the right party.[1] Continue reading “The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence”