Our Participation With Christ with Douglas A. Campbell
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
Our guest today is Douglas Campbell, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Campbell is author of The Deliverance of God and The Quest for Paul’s Gospel.
J. Michael Feazell: Thanks for being here.
Douglas Campbell: You’re welcome.
JMF: I would like to talk about your book, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, or at least some of the concepts that are in it. But I’d like to start by talking about the cover (it’s a unique cover), and if you could tell us about how that came about and what the meaning of some of these symbols are on it.
DC: Well, this is the secret to the book. You have to be nice about the cover because it was designed by my wife.
JMF: Very good.
DC: I think it was very funky. She’s a very funky woman. Buried in the collage are codes about what I’m talking about in the book, so my students always pick it up and have a chuckle. At the top, there are two boxes and the arrow, A to B. Most people have a theory about how Paul gets you from Box A to Box B. Box B is where you want to go. But there are lots of different theories about how you set up Box A and Box B and how you get from one to the other. Some of these theories can get in the way of what Paul is often doing.
But the model that I like, that I really push for in this book, is sneaking through the middle here. It uses these letters. You’ve got two Ps and then an M and an E going around the corner. What I’m getting at there is that, I think Paul’s gospel is all about P for participation, and E is for eschatology, which is one of those wonderful words you should use at a cocktail party from time to time. Meaning, there’s a sense in which God has brought to us a new reality, a perfected reality, which is superior to the one that we’re occupying. In Christ, he’s managed to organize things so we participate in it in Christ.
How does that work? I think Paul tells us about this in some detail, particularly in Romans 6, but also with insights from Romans 7 and Romans 5, a little bit going on in Romans 8, but Romans 6 is really where it happens. What seems to have happened in Paul’s mind is: Christ has entered our situation, the human situation, which is good, but there’s a sense in which we’re oppressed, and disordered (and fractured even) by evil powers. The power of Sin (Paul effectively spells that with a capital S—the power of Death, capital D). These demonic forces have unfortunately taken up residence in the stuff that we’re constituted out of (our flesh), so that we’re transient, we’re corruptible, we decay, we sin, and we die.
This is a very heavy burden for humanity to bear. What God has done to drag us back (because this is not God’s intention for creation, for humanity, for any of us, he wants to pull us back into fellowship; this is something we’ve done to ourselves), he sends his Son into that situation to become part of it and to assume it. As the [church] fathers said, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” So Christ takes on all of this mess when he becomes a human.
Then the crucial thing for Paul is that when Christ is executed, when he dies on the cross, that condition is terminated. I’m in the province of termination, and here we are. That places a massive full stop after all of this corruption, all of this dislocation, all of this disorder.
In order to get us through and transform us and heal us, God must provide a state beyond this. This is the eschatology, the eschaton, the things to do with the end. Eschaton is Greek for “end,” ology is just “words about stuff.” So we’re talking about the end, but the end has come right to us, now. So, Christ has taken everything that we are, has terminated it, and then has been resurrected again into this new state where he’s enthroned and sits on the right hand of the Father.
By doing that, because he is God, because he is also the creator, because he is also the new Adam, the second Adam, the one who starts off a new humanity, there’s a sense in which this is now true for every one of us, a reality for every one of us. But God doesn’t leave it at that. The Holy Spirit draws each one of us into this reality in a very powerful, palpable way.
So the second P is very important. The first P is important, that’s the participation in Christ, the second P is the Spirit—it stands for pneumatology [after pneuma, the Greek word for spirit]. Our participation in Christ is by way of the Spirit. As we’re drawn into what Christ has done, we’re drawn into this new transformation of what we are. And this [pointing at the cover] is a humanity in which the power of sin and death and corruption has been broken. It’s quite concrete. I want to say that this is Reality with a capital R. This is more real than anything else that you or I experience.
The sharp-witted among you will have noticed I’ve only covered three letters. I’ve done a P, a P, and an E. Why have I put an M in here at the risk of making the whole thing hopelessly complicated? Well, this reality, this new creation that we stand in the midst of, is not obvious on one level. Paul’s converts knew this. They sensed that when he talked about the new reality, sin being broken, the power of death being broken, they couldn’t see it. Paul said to them, “If you’re part of Christ’s story, you are guaranteed the fullness of this reality. But you must be part of the front end of the story.”
How do we know we’re part of the front end? It’s when we participate in Christ’s sufferings. So the M stands for the martyrological side of what Christ did when he obeyed the will of the Father, suffered, was obedient to the shame of the cross, and died. It’s the story of his faithfulness unto death. It’s the story that Philippians 2:5-11 talks about so much.
Paul is emphatic that as we experience some of the suffering in this life, at the same time we experience some of the faithfulness and the obedience, we experience some of the martyrological side of Christ, and we know from that, that we are bolted into this story, and we are at the front end of a story that ends in the termination of all that’s bad, but a glorious resurrection of all that’s good.
That sounds complex, but this is the heart of Paul’s gospel. This is what powers him up, what excited him, what he thinks God has done in Christ. This is what leads him to travel all over the eastern Mediterranean to suffer, to struggle, to found little communities everywhere. This gives meaning to the Lord’s Supper, this gives meaning to baptism. Baptism symbolizes beautifully and nets this idea of participating in Christ’s death and then also being resurrected to new life. I find it all incredibly exciting and helpful.
JMF: Not only Paul, but we often find throughout the New Testament it’s as though the letters begin with the assumption that the recipients are undergoing some kind of suffering, it can be persecution, oftentimes. Then he’s moving from that into “but it has this great meaning for you.”
DC: Very true.
JMF: How is that any different from what all of us experience? All you have to do is listen to the adults, if you’re a kid, and they’re talking about what hurts, and how the government is doing something to mess things up. There’s always something going on that’s painful, a tragedy, a crisis. We live from one crisis and tragedy to the next.
DC: There’s a sense in which, apart from Christ, it’s hard to give meaning to suffering. We can try, but part of the struggle of life is we suspect often, “Does my pain have value? Does it have worth? Does it mean anything?” I think what Paul is offering us here is an understanding of suffering that has a real core of meaning in it. It’s not any old suffering.
I think we get this from one of Paul’s rather neglected letters – 2 Corinthians articulates at great length what it means for him as a leader of the church to suffer. He talks about this suffering—he hasn’t gone looking for it, it’s found him. But this is a mark of his authenticity, and a very powerful one. I don’t want us to run off and look for pain, but there’s a sense in which if it does encounter us, it can mean something.
The other thing we get from 2 Corinthians is the suffering that Paul catalogs there is suffering in which he is reaching out with the gospel to those who do not know about it, and in a way are even hostile toward it. It’s the suffering that’s generated when you take the incarnation seriously and you act in an incarnational way. That’s when you begin to follow the Spirit into situations and locations where you’re uncomfortable, with people that you’re uncomfortable with, where God is calling you to go. When you have to push through these barriers and boundaries… (We love to surround ourselves with barriers and boundaries and keep out the people we’re uncomfortable with, but God is ahead of us and is often pulling us through those to engage with those people.)
When you move through those barriers, get out of your comfort zone, get into cultures, get into languages and situations that you’re not comfortable with, then you experience suffering. You experience incomprehension and rejection. To top it all off, you’re arriving with this shocking gospel—a gospel that is a wonderful gospel of grace, but it’s also a gospel that says to people, “You can do nothing to please God. God has done everything to help you. God has come the whole way to you.” That means, in effect, “All the things that you’re offering me, you just have to put away for now.”
It’s a message that in its very generosity can elicit conflict and hostility. Paul gives us a narrative in 2 Corinthians of the sort of suffering that is often associated with Christian ministry and Christian life. What he’s trying to say is, “It’s okay, this is going to happen, enjoy it if you can, rejoice in it, because this is an authentic mark of the reality of the Christian gospel.”
JMF: Where do you look for assurance of being in Christ if you’re not experiencing that kind of suffering?
DC: That’s a good point, and should allow me to clarify something that’s important. I’m not advocating going and finding pain, but we often define it very strongly with reference to ourselves in an individual way. What Paul is talking about is an attitude of burden-bearing. The pain that Paul often talks about is, in part, the pain of other congregations and other people and other groups that he is shouldering and carrying—the pain that he is feeling. I would say that God is calling us to carry the burdens of people. This is where we’re meant to be going.
The Spirit is often way ahead of us. I think of John 4—when Jesus brought out the disciples to look at the fields and said “a few more months until harvest, and I say look, the fields are white and ready for harvest now.” It’s true. The world around us that’s ripe for harvest is a world that is suffering and struggling. That’s where we’re called to be. There’s a sense in which well, it doesn’t have to be us.
I wonder if we don’t need to be in contact with people who are, in a sense, struggling. There should be, perhaps, a story that we can tell sometimes of relationships that have been set up that we’ve followed the Spirit into where we’re trying to help. And in helping, we are helped and enriched ourselves. Often when we come as people who are prepared to give, we are the ones who end up receiving.
JMF: Paul uses that kind of language in the opening to several of his letters where he talks about how one congregation’s heart is going out to the suffering of another and that sort of thing.
DC: Yes, the language of sharing is all over his letters. It’s because the reality that he’s involved with is a participatory reality. We are bound up with one another, and so what happens to you affects me in a direct way. The sort of community that we’re being birthed into by this process is a communion. It’s the communion of God, the divine communion, and we’ve been called to be part of that, and so we’re being called to be part of a community where every person is bound up with the reality and the life of every other person. We look at Christ, we look at the Father, we look at the Son, we look at the Spirit—they’re all defined and inextricably intertwined.
When we’re experiencing fullness of our personhood in Christ, what we experience is the reality that we’re involved with one another. We’re very relational. Personhood is all about these relationships. My relationship with my wife is a huge part of who I am. She is a huge part of my personhood. She’s not the only person that’s a part of my personhood, but she’s a very important one. This is a central truth. So, in a sense, we need to be engaged with the people around us who are hurting, and hopefully they’ll be engaged with us when we’re hurting.
JMF: When we talk about the gospel and salvation, we are not talking about details of rules and laws to keep—we’re talking relationships—restorational relationships, building right relationships, good relationships, being together, being in communion with God and with one another.
DC: Absolutely. That’s the church. That’s the reality of the church, which is a reality that’s in God, and you don’t legislate a reality like that. That’s to make a big mistake. There’s a freedom to these relationships that’s very important, because we’re in touch with the person who’s making the rules, as it were.
It turns out that this person, God, is not making rules. God is just calling us into these relationships that have a certain shape, so there’s a flexibility about it, there’s a malleability, if you like, which is liberating. Once you start to try to legalize it and legislate it, you mess it up. In the end of the day, there’s one legislator, and that’s Jesus Christ. If we have any problems, we can go to him and ask him about stuff, which is nice—it’s a good feeling to be operating in a situation like that.
JMF: Often we read Paul as though we have a relationship with the rules. When our relationship is mediated by the law, our focus is on “where are we falling short in terms of this rule or that rule” instead of thinking about it in terms of living out the relationship into which we’ve been called, the relationship we’ve been given that we are a part of and participating in, whether negatively or positively.
DC: Yes. I think Paul was anything but a legalist, and you can see this when you lay his letters out alongside one another and look at their diversity and see the very different advice that’s going to Philippi from the advice that’s going to Corinth, even the advice in the second letter that goes to Corinth, the advice that goes to Colossae, the advice that goes to Rome—extremely diverse, which suggests to me that Paul is very context-sensitive. He’s not laying down universal rules—he’s speaking out of a universal reality, which is a very different thing. That reality is essentially personal. It’s a community that involves people; it involves the divine community.
JMF: It’s like he gets to the very different needs and conclusions by the same path.
DC: Exactly. Under the same Lordship, one might say.
JMF: A lot of similarity in Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, and yet addressing different issues.
DC: Right. Paul is what we might call almost a command ethicist. He’s worried about the thought that you lay down a rule, because he thinks while that can be a good thing for a while, as he points out in Romans 7, eventually you can make that rule and go to some situation where it will do some damage—you can exploit it. The demonic forces that are unleashed in the world that stand against us are much more sophisticated than we are, and they can manipulate these things and can break you down by putting them to work.
So Paul’s approach is, he’s no longer orienting himself primarily by written instructions or by rule after rule or even by propositions—he is orienting himself through Christ. He’s listening to Christ, and Christ is telling him what to do. It’s a living situation where he’s getting instructions from the one who is controlling and organizing everything. He’s getting his instructions from the Spirit and from the Father as well—it’s not just Christ who’s doing this. That’s a very different mentality, isn’t it? It’s a much more intimate reality than we tend to live in ourselves.
JMF: An example of that might be in the way unity is often used with churches. Paul is talking about unity in the Spirit and in the faith, and we, instead of seeing that as being rooted in the relationship of love, we instead use it as a weapon as a church to compel…
DC: Right. Legislate.
JMF: We legislate a lock-step approach to something and call that unity as though it’s unity, but it it’s far from anything resembling communion.
DC: Right. What Paul is talking about is, the church is actually unified, because it is in Christ, and Christ is unified, and he holds everything together. It’s a failure by people to recognize a unity that Christ has established. We don’t have to go out and work at establishing this.
JMF: To create it.
DC: We can respond to something that’s already there.
JMF: To live in the reality of what is already true.
JMF: Which means I need to change, as opposed to making everyone else agree with me.
JMF: Robert Capon calls it left-handed authority as opposed to right-handed authority.
You’ve mentioned that Paul illustrates some of his theological positions in his ministry in what he wrote about the slave Onesimus and also Lydia in Philippi. How do you see those playing out in…
DC: If I’m right about Paul’s gospel and what was making it tick, you’ve probably detected by now that God comes down so far to us, and we’re all so deeply involved in the situation that’s wrong, and we’re accountable for that wrongness on a certain level, that it levels out all the distinctions that we like to introduce to stratify our relationships. The gospel of grace knocks down status and pretentions. When Paul talks about the new reality that we live in, he does so quite clearly from time to time, that these old barriers have been broken down and transcended, so that there is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female, that you’re all children of God in Christ Jesus. That’s his most famous saying about those things, in Galatians 3:28.
We’re fond of saying that from the pulpit and even our Bible studies, but it’s another thing to actually enact the erasure of these status differentials on the ground and to push past them—that’s hard work. So the question arises—was Paul himself somebody who was actually committed to doing that, or was he a bit of a theorist? Was this something he was happy talking about, or was it something he actually did?
I was enormously impressed when I pushed into his letter that he wrote to Philemon and reconstructed that situation there and realized that he was really practicing what he preached and the situation in that little letter.
Paul has written to a guy called Philemon, who’s married to a woman called Apphia. Apphia is a Phrygian name, and I think Philemon was probably accompanying [the letter to the] Colossians, so it’s going to an ancient territory in present-day western Turkey—it would have been ancient Phrygia. It looks as though Philemon and Apphia are a Phrygian couple, which make them members of an ancient civilized barbarian race.
Paul is writing on behalf of a guy called Onesimus. Onesimus is not his name, it’s a slave name, a Latin name, just means “useful.” It’s like as we would call “Handy Andy.” Slaves were so depersonalized in the ancient world that they weren’t allowed to use their own names, but were just called things like Number 1, Number 2, Number 3, or they were called after places where they were born, or they were called pet names. Onesimus is a slave, this is his slave name.
When we read the letter to the Colossians, that’s also going to the same situation, I think, we read a similar statement to Galatians 3:28 in Colossians 3:11, but it’s oriented slightly differently. Paul says there’s no Jew or Greek, circumcised, uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free. Barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free. What’s a Scythian doing in Colossians 3:11? What is a Scythian? A Scythian is a barbarian that rides around the Russian steppes. It was a name that was applied to people who were enslaved from the northern part of the Black Sea. Everyone who was enslaved out there was called a Scythian—you often got a higher price for them if you called them a Scythian. These slaves were brought down into the Mediterranean, and they were mainly sold at Ephesus, one of the great slave markets of the ancient world.
It’s likely that Onesimus or his parents is some poor white guy who’s been enslaved by pirates from the north shore of the Black Sea. He’s come down, he’s been sold at Ephesus, and now he’s working for this Phrygian couple, and there’s a problem in this household, there’s great unhappiness, there’s a fractured relationship.
Paul has run into Onesimus in jail, and Onesimus has come to him and said, “Please help me out here. Something is wrong in this household.” This was something you could do in the ancient world—it wasn’t quite as bad as running away. If you ran away and you were caught, you were branded, you could be executed, terrible things would happen to you. But you could run to a friend of the family and say, “I’m in deep trouble here, please help me out.”
So Onesimus comes to Paul, and as we reconstruct the relationship, this is what happened. It doesn’t look like he was a Christian when he arrived. He’s a pagan boy that’s unhappy. He is the lowest of the low. He’s an unhappy slave, branded as lazy, he’s a white slave from a far-off barbarian land. In terms of social status in the ancient world, he’s as low as you go.
Paul practically falls in love with him. He says, “This boy is my heart now, he has become my heart to me while I’m in chains.” He sends him back to his master, Philemon, with this letter, but also having converted him. He sends back a cover letter saying to the leader of the congregation, “Look, take care of this situation, look out for him.”
Then he says, “Charge any money to my account, I’m coming to visit soon.” What I see in there is that Paul has reached out to this, this probably teenager, and has grasped him, drawn him to the reality of Christ, given him that gift, and set up a relationship that seems deep and committed and genuine between a high-status religious figure and this very low-status marginal guy who’s been causing trouble, this person from the bottom rung of society.
So I thought to myself, well, it looks to me as though Paul’s really delivering on this from time to time. It’s quite a challenge to us and for us as well.
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.