Sunday, 13 September 2009

Douglas Campbell

Some very quick (and undeveloped!) thoughts on Douglas' Campbell's Quest for Paul's Gospel. One thing I found very striking is his treatment of Paul's ethics. He argues that some aspects of Paul's ethics flow from his soteriology (basically the idea of union with Christ), while other aspects seem to be more 'static' and 'rooted in a particular conception of creation'. So, in Galatians 3:28 he affirms the unity of Jew and Greek; male and female etc. This, argues Campbell, is consistent with his view of salvation. However, in other places (e.g. 1 Cor 11:2-16; Romans 1) he affirms 'gender codes', and that homosexuality is 'unnatural'. These affirmations are tied to creation not salvation making his ethics inconsistent according to Campbell

What to do with this inconsistency? Campbell is clear:
'If Paul was inconsistent at this point, as seems likely, failing to prosecute his soteriology (and who of us can cast the first stone here?!), then I suggest that, having detected this, we should simply overrule those inconsistencies in the name of his central convictions. Paul’s soteriological centre, along with its consistent ethical corollaries, should trump his inconsistent ethical admonitions; his position on redemption should overrule his inconsistent statements about creation’ (p127).

I have to confess that I stopped reading the book at this point. Calling Paul inconsistent is just seems the easy way to write off the parts of his teaching you don’t like and shows that you have not understood how his theology fits together. Campbell does say (I did read on a bit!) that he doesn’t ‘suggest this lightly, but only after careful consideration. Neither do I do so because of some external agenda; it is Paul’s own position on redemption that forces us to call his creation-based ethics into question. (So here I act on in accordance with the important principle that scripture should interpret scripture.)[…] And this decision allows us to leave behind the series of theological and social problems associated with those commitments, which is surely a good thing.

An interpreter of Scripture once made the observation that our tendency is to trust ourselves and to suspect Scripture (of being inconsistent etc.) whereas the Scripture suggests that we should trust it and suspect ourselves (of having sub-conscious agendas etc.). That position will not convince anyone in the guild who takes a fundamentally critical stance towards Scripture, but to honour it as God's Word it is surely the right way to approach it.

As I say there are other problems with The Quest for Paul’s Gospel (like how he sets justification and participation in polar opposition to each other) but this one is particularly striking and revealing.


Dave Clancey said...

Very helpful Pete (particulalry for those of us who probably won't read him!). Amazing how time and time again it is an a priori doctrine of Scripture which hangs over all our biblical and theological work.

Roger Gallagher said...

Hi Pete,

Have you seen the articles in the press concerning Phillip Pullman? He's writing a book for kids claiming that Jesus wasn't the Son of God, Paul made it all up.

I know that this argument was trendy in academic circles some time back. Have you looked at the issue, and do you know any good books that critique this position.

Peter Orr said...

Hi Roger

This is an old (and tired!) argument. Have a look at David Wenham's book:


Dave Clancey said...

Galatians 1:11-12 is always a good place to start too...

Roger Gallagher said...

Thanks to both of you. I thought that it would be an old and tired argument. But how many people are up on the literature? Look at the effect the Da Vinci Code had, and Pullman's a better writer than Dan Brown.

I imagine that CPX (Centre for Public Christianity) will publish a response, but these always take months to come out. I'd like to have something simple I can give to my kids ASAP defending the Bible, but letting them know that this defence is based on solid scholarship.

Peter Orr said...


I think the best way to handle this question is to just look at the NT:

-Look at how Luke opens his Gospel and how he describes how he has carefully investigated everything by speaking to those who were eye-witnesses. Richard Bauckham's book Jesus and the eyewitnesses: the Gospels as eyewitness testimony would be helpful here as well.

-Galatians 1 and 2 as Dave mentioned are very revealing. Notice how Paul testifies that he didn't receive the gospel from the other apostles but when he sets the gospel he was preaching before them (2:2), they confirmed that it was the same gospel they were preaching. In other words Paul - like the other apostles - had received it from Christ.

-See also Hebrews 2:3;1 John 1:1

These verses will not necessarily convince the skeptic but they will hopefully guard believers against the error that Pullman is promoting.