I have to confess, as a theologian and pastor, that I’m not as knowledgable about Paul’s writings — and his overall thinking — as I probably should be. Mostly, this is because it is hard for me to read Paul as story, and while I am not opposed to right doctrine (orthodoxy) – indeed, I believe confessing the right revealed truth is essential, otherwise we are not Christians — I’m always suspicious once Paul’s writings get tossed around because it seems like too many Christians seem to espouse a salvation through faith that makes our belief and assent to a set of ideas and propositions as essential to our salvation.
Basically, the faith that saves us is ours. In my mind, that makes saving faith the kind of works that Protestants so decry.
There is some beautiful writing in Paul’s letters, but I still find them troublesome reading because I still have difficulty finding the story. It doesn’t help that with much of what Paul writes, we only have half a conversation — that is, we done have any letters written to him, or any dialogue. So it’s hard to parse what Paul is saying sometimes. At least for me. It doesn’t help that many Christians treat Paul as a kind-of lawgiver, telling us the things we need to do in order to get right with God, follow Jesus properly, and be the people of God.
That said, I have learned to read Numbers and Leviticus in some kind of context and see them full of grace. I ought to be able to do the same with Paul, and I’m not quite sure yet why I can’t.
So Andrew Wilson has done me something of a favor in his review of Doug Campbell’s book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul and he asks a question few Christians I suspect will get at first read — do you read Paul like an Arian?
Arianism, as Campbell understands it, is essentially about foundationalism, in contrast to Athanasianism, which is about apocalypticism. By this he means that Arius begins with the foundations we have in human experience and then works upwards to make judgments about the divine nature (hence “foundationalist”), whereas Athanasius urges the impossibility of doing things this way round, and the necessity of starting with revelation from God (hence “apocalyptic”). For Campbell, all mainstream contemporary readings of Romans, and particularly Romans 1–4, are foundationalist, and hence Arian. He thinks they should be apocalyptic, and hence Athanasian.
Athanasius of Alexandria was an early leader of the church (fourth century mostly) from whom we get the long and unwieldy Athanasian Creed. It is included in the Book of Concord along with the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, and ends with the rather austere statement, “This is the catholic faith; a person cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” I’ve not studied that creed as much as I should, and I know I need to. So, I’ll just let this sit for a bit.
Anyway, Wilson writes of the Athanasian approach to reading Romans:
In contrast, Campbell proposes an Athanasian reading of Romans. Rather than beginning with natural reason and working upwards to God, he argues that Paul does not envisage anybody being able to relate to God without his prior apocalyptic activity in coming downwards; that is, his revelation of himself through Jesus Christ in the gospel. Athanasianism relies totally on revelation in Christ, and sees God as acting unconditionally and benevolently towards humans while still enslaved and unable to believe: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The atonement, in Romans, is not a penal act which freely choosing moral agents can decide to accept or reject, but an Exodus act which liberates those who could do nothing to help themselves (and hence there is no endorsement in Paul of the imperial iustitia, and the spectre of Constantinianism, that Campbell suspects to be at the root of the judicial-punitive view). God steps down and delivers us in Jesus, and there are no strings of contractual obligation (like faith) attached. Faith is not a condition of salvation, in fact; for Campbell, sola fide is a vulgar Protestant idea, since it is so based on the two contracts, and we should instead think of sola Jesus. We bring nothing to the party, he argues, not even faith. We are delivered solely and entirely by grace.
The argument for this reading of Romans as the best one takes a thousand pages of densely argued prose, and summarising it adequately here would be impossible. For Campbell, the chief strengths of his proposal are exegetical (he discusses over thirty exegetical weakness of the contractual-foundationalist view, which throughout he labels Justification Theory, that are resolved using his approach), and theological (since it views God as the indiscriminate dispenser of grace to all, rather than the contractual pedant who needs us to chip in our works and/or faith to experience his deliverance). His strongest point is that it provides a satisfactory answer to the age-old question about the relationship between Romans 1–4 and 5–8, an answer which Justification Theory in all its forms has so far failed to give (is God judge, or liberator? Is unbelieving humanity able to choose to follow God, or dead in sin? Is the Christ-event judicial, or participationist? Is salvation conditional or unconditional? And so on). But for a detailed explanation of why his view fits the evidence better than the alternatives, you’d have to get his book.
It does sound like a book worth reading. Whether it makes Paul any more story for me I do not know. (Again, I have come to love Leviticus and Numbers, and they aren’t really story — well, Numbers is eventually — so I ought to be able to love Paul’s writings as well.) I also need to spend some more time with Athanasius and his creed, if for no other reason than I want to start a worship community and use the Book of Concord, especially the creeds and the two catechisms, as foundations for our shared confession.