Some Summer Reading: Douglas Campbell, ‘Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love’ (Eerdmans, 2020)

After three years of doctoral study focusing on (the Apostle/Saint) Paul, I still find that it is a daily and Sisyphean task not to drown in the sea of literature in response to the thirteen letters that are attributed to him.[1] Each summer, I have tentatively endeavoured to fill in a few more gaps in my knowledge by dipping into some ‘classic’ studies in the field.[2] This summer, I elected to read something a bit newer but which is no less weighty a contribution: Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. Prof. Campbell is a New Testament scholar, hailing from New Zealand, who is based at Duke Divinity School.

I have thought a good deal about Campbell’s work in recent years. While serving as a ministry assistant, I attended some lectures at St Mellitus College, London, in 2015, given by the vivacious Chris Tilling, who happens to be one of Campbell’s greatest supporters.[3] In no small part inspired by these lectures, I wrote a MTh thesis on Paul’s rhetoric on Romans 1:18-3:20 with a particular eye to the audience of this part of the letter. Owing to his viewpoint, typically contra traditional scholarship, that much of this section is voiced by an opponent to Paul’s gospel, Campbell was himself an interlocutor for my project.[4] Campbell has also produced an impressive study on the chronology of the Pauline letters,[5] which ought to be read by any serious Paulinist, although again, some of his judgements have convinced few other scholars.

Most recently, Campbell presented a version of his chapter of Pauline Dogmatics on supersessionism at the British New Testament Conference in Liverpool in 2019 before it was published. He was even due to come to Edinburgh in March 2020 around when Pauline Dogmatics appeared, but regrettably, Covid intervened. In what I have seen and read of Campbell, he has always struck me as a vibrant thinker, who is never afraid to challenge so-called consensuses within Pauline scholarship. So, when Eerdmans ran a Kindle sale earlier in the year, which included his latest release, it had to be bought and this summer provided the occasion to read it.

In fine, I greatly enjoyed Pauline Dogmatics and would recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in Paul. It is characteristically thought-provoking for Pauline scholars, and it is accessible for laity, and others who have thought about Paul’s letters critically.  Admittedly, it is less technical than some of Campbell’s previous work; but, as you would expect from someone of his calibre, it is packed full of ideas in dialogue with some of the most important Pauline scholars of recent times and before that too. The book consists of twenty-nine chapters that amount to over 700 pages, but by virtue of the analogies, anecdotes, and chapter summaries presented as propositional theses, it is immensely readable.

My lasting impression, however, will be how as a confessional Christian scholar of the New Testament, I found it to be relentlessly inspiring – even devotional – as well as challenging. Allow me to expand by offering a few further reflections on the book.   

As the title implies, Campbell endeavours to derive a dogmatic scheme from the letters of Paul. He helpfully considers Paul as a theologian who is fundamentally practical in his outlook in his letters – an aspect frequently overlooked by scholars. Besides the apostle, the greatest inspiration on Campbell’s undertaking is the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Barth’s theological system works backwards from the revelation of Christ, ‘from faith to faith’ (Rom 1:17), i.e., to Christ-believers in the Church. Campbell follows in this apocalyptic vein of interpretation and is fearless in his theological reading of Paul that proceeds from the faithfulness of Christ. While confessional Christian readers are likely to be sympathetic to such an approach to Paul, Campbell realises that non-confessional readers will struggle to follow his analysis. There are, however, other insights brought out by Campbell which should both serve as encouragements for believers and represent viable readings of Paul that ought to be taken seriously by all.

Firstly, Campbell shows that Paul’s apostleship is fundamentally missional. Indeed, one of the building-blocks of Pauline Dogmatics is the missional dimension in Paul, from which Campbell then tries to navigate some contemporary issues related to the letters. Secondly, Campbell mounts a defence for Paul’s pastoral practice and, as the subtitle of the book intimates, the triumph of God’s love in Paul’s gospel. He is not naïve to hermeneutically suspicious readings of Paul, but he shows how Paul can be viewed as an apostle of genuine kindness, contrary to some of these readings. Thirdly, Campbell sensitively articulates how Paul’s teaching on relations might be understood within the Church today. His contention that ‘we recognize clearly the heavy additional burden that a teaching of ‘marriage or celibacy’ places on young unattached Christians in our modern world, and that we craft church communities to support them’ (p. 616) is particularly well said.

In one way or another, Campbell covers the main ground within the Pauline epistles and highlights some of the most relevant secondary literature. Yet, perhaps most impressively, as promised in the introduction, Campbell does not limit himself to theological disciplines; he often draws upon other social-scientific streams. This is the ‘secret sauce’ (p. 3) of interdisciplinarity apparently fostered at Duke,[6] which is an added benefit of the book.

While I highly recommend Pauline Dogmatics, I occasionally found it challenging to navigate, and I suspect others might have similar reservations. Campbell’s style is undeniably idiosyncratic. As in Deliverance, he continues to use his language of ‘foundationalism’ to characterise many readings of Paul which differ from his own Barthian one, which can occasionally become repetitive. Pauline Dogmatics is a fundamentally theological reading of Paul, but some might question whether this is at the expense of Paul’s ancient historical context. Campbell at one point includes a short section on Paul’s ‘ancient philosophical practice’ (pp. 233-235) in thinking about mimesis, but some might call for more interaction with ancient Jewish and Graeco-Roman texts outside of Scripture to buttress some of his claims about the circumstances facing the historical Paul.

The authorship of the Pauline corpus is always a battleground. It should be noted that Campbell views Ephesians and Colossians as authentic but among Paul’s earliest material, while seeing the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) as later, pseudepigraphic writings. He provides some good reasoning for this view concerning the Pastorals in the final chapter, although others may have preferred this to be treated sooner and feel that it provides a rather abrupt ending. Throughout, Campbell is not afraid to voice his convictions. Despite his originality, I suspect that more progressive readers might find his reading of Paul insufficiently revolutionary, while more conservative readers will be unconvinced by his positions around certain issues – notably, soteriology and gender.

Nevertheless, Pauline Dogmatics is a lively contribution which addresses a fabulous breadth of themes and issues in the letters of Paul from a fresh Barthian perspective. I imagine that no-one will agree with Campbell on everything; all readers will probably be delighted and frustrated at various points as they grapple with Pauline Dogmatics. This, in turn, is no doubt an indication that Campbell is one of the most stimulating scholars to have written on Paul in recent times. 

[1] Fourteen if you count Hebrews (which not many people do).

[2] Thus far, this list has included titles like: E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977); Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (1983); Elizabeth Castelli, Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power (1991); Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (2010); John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (2015); Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle (2017).

[3] Tilling edited a volume following a symposium on Campbell’s Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (2009) entitled: Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul: Reflections on the Work of Douglas Campbell (2014).

[4] These claims from Deliverance are part of a wider discussion about interlocutors in Paul’s letters, especially Rom 1-3.  

[5] See his Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography (2014).

[6] This is especially true of Campbell’s colleague at Duke, Susan Eastman in her Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (2017), which impressively combines analysis of Paul’s letters not only with ancient and modern philosophy, but contemporary research from the field of neuroscience.


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