In Christ - Conversion and Calling with Douglas A. Campbell
Douglas Campbell looks at examples of how Paul brought the gospel and purpose to the mission field.
Michael Morrison: You’ve spent a lot of your scholarly time on Paul. You’ve got a couple of big books here about Paul. You said in one of our earlier interviews that you are interested in the life of Paul. I thought maybe you could talk a little about that. I’m somewhat familiar with the conversion of Paul from the book of Acts. But how does Paul himself describe his conversion?
DC: We’re a little too familiar with his conversion from the book of Acts. We don’t pay enough attention to how he tells us he got converted. He never uses the language of conversion when he is describing what happened to him; he uses the language of call. He echoes the call narratives of Jeremiah and Isaiah strongly to emphasize that God encountered him in a direct and dramatic way. What took place was a revelation.
So on one level, what happened to him is extremely important for us to understand, which is that a meeting with God took place that God initiated, very unexpected. On another level, it’s a little dangerous to make Paul’s “conversion” the paradigm for our conversion, because he had something very special happen to him. He was called to be an apostle. I’m not sure that all of us are called to be an apostle. Some of us, maybe.
MM: I’ve never been struck down in the way that Paul was. But does his story have any exemplary value for the conversions that we have?
DC: I think it does. But we also need to look harder at what he was doing, how he was converting people. We find there’s a network of friendships and relationships that’s spreading. He’s utilizing networks, sometimes in unexpected ways. People are converting in the context of relationships that they already have.
For example, he often tries to hook up with family networks or Jewish networks where he’s visiting. When those don’t work, he goes and takes employment as a hand worker, and he begins to make friends with the people in the workshop. This is roughly how he met Lydia. Lydia was involved in handworking and textiles. She’s somebody who’s networking with women. He’s not just staying in the networks with men.
He’s probably also working veteran networks when he can as well. Remember, there’s a veteran at Philippi. There’s another veteran probably at Colossae. These are colonies of soldiers who have retired from the Roman Army, they’ve done their 25 years of service, and they kept in touch with one another, and they probably were working in textiles.
We see Paul doing something typical of a new religion, which is sort of playing hopscotch from network to network and exploiting those networks and those relationships and people who know him and are friends of his, become friends of his, who are friends of friends, they’re converting and forming the basis of his new communities.
MM: So could he go into a city and start a church in three weeks, for example? Is that…
DC: Well, this is a bit of an exaggeration. In the ancient world, if you went into a city cold and you didn’t know anybody, you would die. They didn’t know you, you had no food, you had no water, if you fell ill you dropped on the street, you had nowhere to stay. You had to have contacts. These are hostile missionary environments. They don’t like strangers coming in and telling them that the way that they’ve been doing things for hundreds of years is wrong. You need to know somebody who’s there already.
Once you’ve linked up with them, stayed with them for a bit, you need to try and hook onto the sorts of networks and friendships that that person has. This is what we see him doing. In each city around the Mediterranean, he knows somebody who knows somebody, and he goes and stays with them and then links up with somebody else. It’s all about who you know.
MM: What kind of a message would he preach in that situation? How would he introduce them to Jesus?
DC: This undermines our slightly stereotypical notion of Paul arriving and preaching one dramatic proclamatory message that people then respond to with some sort of decision, the altar call takes place on the corner of the streets of Corinth and the Corinthians all come forward. This is not how it worked.
When you’re working with somebody – say you’re a handworker and you’re working on leather or you’re working on sandals or stitching canvas awnings or something like that – you don’t preach at them all day. You chat with them. You get to know them. You’re probably listening to them as much as you’re talking at them. A conversation takes place over many days and weeks and months, and then you turn around after that process, and lo and behold, these people believe what you’re saying. You’re telling the story about how the Spirit who once created everything is also gathering us up into this person. It’s language they can understand, but it’s also language that challenges them.
It will make more sense if you’ve heard Jews speaking, probably, if you’ve hung around the local synagogue, which you could do, if you’ve heard these types of stories about the God of Israel before. That’s going to help you. But Paul is happy to communicate even if you’ve never heard of that material. He can translate his good news into your idioms and your thought forms. He can talk about adoption or benefaction, grace. These are things that every Greek and Roman would know about. They would know about having a patron, they would know about being gifted things, they would know about being adopted into someone’s family, they would know about being immersed as a ritual of entry.
This is Paul communicating also in the language of the street, in a way that makes sense. He’s a very good missionary. He knows what he’s doing. He’s contextualizing.
MM: You mentioned immersion. At what point would Paul baptize these people? Did he realize that they had crossed over from one religious belief to another?
DC: I think so. Sometimes there’s a dramatic moment when you can point your finger at something and say, an event has taken place here, and we need to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, and you would get baptized along with all your household. Other times I suspect that the process was gradual. But at some point it’s appropriate for you to get baptized to signify the reality that you’re now standing in. This would be one of the things that took place.
You would attend the communal meals where the Christians gathered. These are meals taking place every day, and these are meals. A lot of people in ancient times were hungry, maybe two-thirds of the population was hungry, one-third of the population was very hungry — they lived from hand to mouth. So you went to Christian meals, you went to Christian celebrations of the sacraments partly because they were offering you food.
But in the middle of the food was the breaking of the bread and the passing around of the cup. You’re participating in this. As Wesley would say, probably the cup and the bread are functioning like converting ordinances at that time — they’re making the reality of Christ present to you. The cup is going around and the bread is being broken and eaten, and people are saying, “We’re all part of this, this is all one with us, and we’re one with someone who died, but also who is alive now and who is present with us now in a real way.”
I assume that, like most Greek meals, you had the food first and you had the entertainment afterward. The singing would begin, the Christian singing, people maybe would have brought along a song (which was extremely democratic), and the worship would begin, and you would get a sense, “Goodness me, we’re in the presence of the living God here.”
MM: People found themselves in a community.
DC: Exactly. A worshiping community. They were gathered up into its worship. In this way probably many were powerfully affected. This is pretty exciting stuff for an ancient Greek — especially if you’re a woman. You didn’t have access to this type of stuff ordinarily. But these Christians were kind of strangely democratic. If you’re a woman you could come along, you could bring a song, you could prophesy, you could pray, you could participate, as long as you didn’t humiliate your husband in public (which is still probably a good rule of thumb) …this is how these meetings operated. They were very vital and participatory.
MM: Is it just a story that Paul is telling, or is there something there that he’s also exhorting them to make a decision? How do you go about growing this community or solidifying it?
DC: It’s not just a story – it’s a story about a reality that you’re a part of, and that reality has certain claims on you, if you like, has a certain shape. It has a certain set of relationships built into it that you have to respond to. Paul is expecting a response. He has high expectations of his converts. He’s got high expectations of their behavior. There’s a strong emphasis on ethics, in particular what we might call the ethics of relationships.
This is where Paul is innovating — where the Spirit of God is doing something exciting, but also slightly intimidating — in the sense that if you’re a Jew, you would be expecting to do a lot of your responding to God in the temple at Jerusalem, in a particular place, in a particular building, in a certain state of purity. You’d be expecting to do a lot of your responding to God in accordance with strict calendrical observances and diet. Paul’s view is: that stuff is now purely negotiable. If you’re a Jew you should still do it, unless you’re called to engage with another constituency.
But the pagans that he’s calling in his communities off the street…what he’s challenging them with is the inter-relational stuff that we see so much of in the Bible. How do I relate to you? Am I bitter toward you? Angry, hostile, backbiting, slanderous, am I in a status game with you? All that stuff has to stop. How do I speak to you? How do I talk with you? Am I charitable? Am I humble? These sorts of things. This is what Paul is pushing his people to do. (Pushing is the wrong expression.) He’s talking about something that’s drawing them into this in a new way.
MM: So the motivation for the behavior is different than …
DC: Very much so.
MM: He’s offering them a gift of salvation, but once they’re already saved, then what’s the motive for them to do what is right?
DC: He’s offering them participation in a new reality. When you’re in that new reality, you’ve been set free from a whole lot of stuff that is dragging you down, fracturing you and breaking you and harming you. You see more clearly what the good things are in life that God wants you to do. Basically you’re an idiot if you don’t want to do that.
MM: So he’s painting a new reality.
DC: He’s not painting it in the way that we would limit things to that. You’re right, he is depicting something that’s really here. He’s witnessing, in a way, to a reality, so his stories and his depictions are helping Christians understand what’s going on.
It’s exciting. This is why he calls himself an apostle. He’s a diplomat who’s announcing the good news of what God is doing — and what God is doing is really what matters. That’s what’s central, and that’s what’s real, and that’s why if you’re a Christian you’re characterized in part by belief, which is, you understand what’s going on. You’re the one that’s walking around with your eyes open. You’re the one that’s in the daylight. Other people are stumbling around in the dark with their eyes closed. You’re the one that really knows what reality is all about.
That’s an exciting summons. He’s stitching away in his leatherworks, stitching the soles of his sandals, and he’s talking about this stuff to these other impoverished stone workers around, and they’re getting interested in it. They’re going, “Sounds like a good deal.”
MM: Once he builds this community, then he leaves. What are they going to think of that? Or, how long would he be staying in a city?
DC: It looks as though he stayed for about a year and a half, roughly, depending on how things went. Then he shot off, which strikes us as shocking. But he did keep in touch with everybody. We’ve got all these letters, because even after he left, he was still networking with these communities. When you see the thought and the effort that has gone into these texts, you realize how much they’re still on his mind.
If they get into trouble, he’s on a boat straight away and shooting back to visit them. But he’s a missionary, so he’s church planting. His plan is to put these communities in place and then move on in the hope and expectation that they will flourish, and also begin to do the same around them. That’s probably the plan.
MM: As I understand it, letter writing wasn’t that easy in antiquity, and yet he invested quite a bit of, I don’t know, maybe financial resources to be able to do this. As you say, he’s keeping that relationship.
DC: It is a big investment. It’s an investment of time, too.
MM: But he also wrote to some places that he had not been before.
DC: A couple of times, yeah. Paul believes, as I said at the start, that God has revealed himself to him and revealed Christ to him, and he also believes that God has revealed Christ to him in a way that has special significance for people converting out of paganism, not for other Jews. So, when pagans are converting around the place, even when they haven’t converted through his direct ministry, he feels protective about them. And thankfully he writes a letter occasionally to sort them out.
So we have, I think, Ephesians written for this reason. There’s a little group of converts, they’ve converted, they’re not Jews, and Paul’s view was you didn’t have to become a Jew to engage with this new reality, because the Jew/Greek distinction was something that was being transcended. He’s not down on Jews – it’s just that the Jewish people and their history, the nation, is being fulfilled in the Jew, who is Christ, and we’re stepping through into a new reality. There’s no need to go back and around the long way. It’s controversial, by the way – they said this, not everybody liked it.
MM: So the important part of a person’s identity was not their ethnic category.
DC: Exactly. That is a shocking thing to say, and something that we’re still coming to grips with, is it not? We love to group people. We love to look at ourselves in groups.
MM: You’re either with us or…
DC: Exactly. Paul is saying no, that’s not where you are primarily. Primarily you’re characterized by the fact that you’re in this person who has died and been resurrected. Now you’re beyond. That’s where you are. That’s the real you. So it’s a shocking thing to say. It’s exciting, it’s liberating, but terribly, terribly hard to take on board.
Being “in Christ”
MM: Right. Even your expression there (which I know comes from Paul), that you are “in” a person. How does that translate into our modern concepts? We’re not physically in a person, so what does Paul mean?
DC: Right. It’s a special metaphor that is trying to convey to us a couple of things. The first thing that it’s trying to convey is that this is real and concrete, so it’s referring to your being. It’s referring to what we call your ontology, what you’re made of, the stuff that really matters that puts you together. When Paul says you’re “in Christ,” what he’s saying is you’re no longer “in Adam.” Now, everybody is in Adam in some sense. It’s what we all are, it’s how we’re all constructed.
MM: It comes with the flesh.
DC: So to say we’re in Christ is a strong statement about what we’re constructed out of. The other thing that he’s getting at with the “in Christ” motif is when you’re in something, you’re inside it or it’s in you — there’s a sense of closeness and intimacy that’s being conveyed by this expression. He’s saying not just that this is the way you’re made, but you’re made in a way that’s very close and intimate with this particular person.
MM: The word identity comes to mind here. Is it identification?
DC: You’re closely identified, without losing who you are. There’s a sense in which (paradoxically) the more involved with Christ you are, the more your own personhood is affirmed, and, in a way, the more you grasp the distinctions between you and him.
MM: He gives us freedom to be individuals, different.
DC: He gives us the freedom to be persons, not individuals. We’re persons. I think we’re being rescued from individualism, actually. But a personhood is something that we need, something we want to have. We want to have full personhood. That is exactly what being in Christ gives us.
MM: I see this distinction you just made between individual and person, and I hear you saying that we are most truly persons when we are in community.
DC: Yes. In relationship. Very much so.
MM: Which ties back in with, our new reality is in these relationships.
DC: It’s an interpersonal reality. Because it’s a communion characterized by these relationships all interlinking or lacing together, it follows that the more invested we are and involved in this community, the more fully personal we are.
MM: And that’s all in Christ.
DC: We tend to think of being in a community and being in an individual as a zero-sum game — the more community the less individuality, the more individuality…it’s almost like people are bubbles. Little areas of space that can’t exist with somebody else without popping.
MM: Yes, personal space.
DC: That’s right. Our culture is telling us this all the time. This is a fundamentally wrong understanding of what being a person is all about, according to the gospel and according to what Paul is telling us. Being a person is all about, actually, investing heavily in these relationships with other people. It’s all about being relational.
MM: That’s why Paul spends so much time telling people….
DC: That’s right. He is a very relational person. Your personhood is bound up with how these relationships are functioning. There shouldn’t be a strong distinction between who you are and how you behave — they’re both parts of the same thing.
MM: So in the first part of the letter he can say you’re not saved by what you do, but then later in the letter he talks about what you’re supposed to do.
DC: Right. He’s getting at slightly different things there. When he says you’re not saved by what you do, he’s trying to emphasize that you don’t access this reality yourself by doing anything, and you don’t control it by doing anything. There’s nothing that you can bring to this party that isn’t being done for you. But when you’re involved with that, there’s a lot that you’re asked to do by way of response. He’s coming from a very different place when he says that. Asking people to behave ethically and in a good way by way of response…it’s just a completely different ballgame from telling them to shape up so that they can get involved in something — very different things going on there.
MM: I like the way you put it earlier — he’s inviting them to participate in a new reality, and that reality is in these good relationships.
DC: I could put it more strongly and say he’s inviting them to recognize this new reality, because I think there’s a sense in which God is reaching out to us and working with us and doing things for us even when we’re not.
MM: It’s already there …
DC: It’s closer than the heartbeat in your throat, but it doesn’t help us much if we’re not cooperating, recognizing, responding, and obeying.
MM: That’s part of the faith response?
DC: Exactly. Faith, in a way, is just recognizing what’s there. We’re also gifted the ability to do that. My advice is not to resist it too strongly. I imagine that Paul’s advice was kind of similar. Don’t resist the reality that has come upon you. Why would you do that?
MM: People have choice in what they believe and accept. If you describe reality well enough, isn’t it going to automatically [make me] say “that’s right,” without me making a specific decision, “Okay, I will have faith in this. I’m not sure if it’s right, but I will have faith.”
DC: It’s easy to lose our way at this point. It’s important that we respond to this reality freely; this is free. And we need to respond with everything we’ve got. There’s no limitation, no “statute of limitations” on how much we need to give to this. We give it everything. All our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. But I wouldn’t describe this as a choice that we’re making.
The only choice that we would make in this situation would probably be a choice to do the dumb thing, which is to sin or resist or reject. This is what gets us into trouble. We tell ourselves, it’s okay if we push back on this reality, it’s okay if we disobey, if we reject a certain amount of what’s going on here, but the Bible basically calls this transgressing or sinning, because there’s something stupid and destructive about it. My advice is not to do it. [laughing]
I wouldn’t present the gospel in such a way that you had a choice to walk away from it, because it’s a declaration of reality. You can respond to the reality that’s in front of you and you can walk away if you really want to, but you’re denying what is, and there’s something a little foolish about it, and this is why we get the declaring language coming through so strongly.
DC: Exactly. This is how it is. Why wouldn’t you be involved with this?
MM: Right. The gospel is good news and not a good invitation.
DC: Right. It’s a declaration. Exactly. It’s a slightly different way of thinking about what’s going on, but it’s not aggressive because, as I said before, it’s worked through in these conversational settings. People are often converting as this washes over them in time.
MM: Not putting people on the spot.
DC: Right. You’re getting to know them, welcome them into your home, feed them, listen to them, talk with them, have a good time with them, share this sort of thing with them, and particularly, if it aligns with how you behave, that will be a powerful witness. You will turn around and after a few months or years, most of those people will have joined your community.
MM: Those people will like what they see of the gospel in you.
DC: Right. You’ll mediate the truth of the gospel. Fortunately, it won’t be entirely down to you or me.
MM: That’s a good thing.
DC: With God’s grace we will imperfectly mediate the gospel. Very much so.
MM: You mentioned faith, and it made me think of something you have written about the faith of Abraham. The way that faith is described in Romans is astounding. Is this the kind of faith we need to have?
DC: I hope not. Abraham’s example is used sometimes in a way that can be a little destructive and challenging, as if we are to access this reality by choosing to have faith like Abraham, which opens up the door for fellowship with God. The way Paul describes Abraham’s faith is unwavering, without doubt. We need to read behind the lines there. We skip over the fact that Paul is playing with two stories; he’s playing with Genesis 15 and Genesis 17 and also with Genesis 21 and 22. What’s going on is the promise of a son, miraculously, to Abraham from his sterile loins. Abraham had to wait about 14 years from the age of 86ish through the age of about 100…
MM: Without ever wavering.
DC: Yeah. If that’s what we have to do to become a Christian, we are all in deep trouble. But if in this unwavering trust in God we see an echo of Christ and then we see Abraham in anticipation of Christ’s unwavering faithfulness to the point of death and his resurrection, then we see faith as a gift that we can receive in Christ, from Christ.
At that point all things become possible. If this is not something we’re having to generate for ourselves, it’s something that God is giving us, we’re built into, and we grow into, then it starts to make sense. It starts to make sense as an aspect of our discipleship, rather than a criterion of entry.
MM: So when Paul was telling this story, he wasn’t using it as an example?
DC: I don’t think he was using it as an example of how we get saved. He was using it as a story that spoke about Christ and spoke about unwavering fidelity, through suffering if necessary, until a miraculous life-creating event takes place. He was probably saying, if you go back to the start of Israel, what happened? It was a resurrecting event in which a person of great faithfulness endured for a long time and then suddenly the Spirit of God created somebody miraculously out of a situation that was basically dead. Now here we are, talking about Jesus Christ — somebody who faithfully in an unwavering way walked to death and then was raised from the dead, so life was miraculously created. So we’re standing, my friends, in the presence of the very fulfillment of the nation of Israel. This is where it was always going all along.
MM: What Abraham only pre-figured.
DC: In the patriarchs we get this pre-figuration of what has come to fulfillment in the gospel.
MM: So he’s not the example of what we do, but the example of what God does.
DC: Exactly — and what God does is gift us with life, life from the dead. It’s an exciting promise.
About Douglas A. Campbell
Douglas A. Campbell is Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. He received his PhD in 1989 from the University of Toronto.
This interview gets to the heart and core of Paul's gospel. It includes our Reality with a capital "R" plus our participation with Christ and with each other in communion with God.