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.