Understanding the Book of Romans with Douglas A. Campbell
The Book of Romans can be confusing without centering on the core teachings of Romans chapters 5 through 8. Due to a camera malfunction, we do not have video of this interview.
JMF: You’ve done a lot of work on the book of Romans, as evidenced by this huge book. It reminds me of a Harry Potter book, it’s so big…
DC: Yes. I’m sorry.
JMF: And absolutely just as scintillating. You do a lot of work in the book on the book of Romans, and you tell us about the gospel as it springs out of Romans 5-8, where you spend a great deal of time.
DC: I think Romans 5-8 is where Paul tells us what really matters to him. It’s where he tells us what God is really like. This happens because in those chapters he’s addressing a couple of very important questions:
- I think he’s being challenged by somebody who was trying to frighten the Christians that he is looking after, and scaring and intimidating them with a future judgment scenario. Someone is trying to make them feel insecure.
- The other question is, he’s been challenged by somebody who is accusing him of libertinism. “According to your gospel, Paul, how can Christians behave in a good fashion? They seem to be out of control, riotously living, and they’re pagans, they don’t really know anything about behaving correctly. They’re not proper Jews.”
Paul pushes back on both these challenges very, very hard. At the basis of both of these pushbacks is Christology. He says, “The reason why we can be secure against the coming judgment is because the God who does not spare his only Son but gives him up for us all can be trusted to take us through any judgment process, and in the judgment he will be on our side. He won’t be on the other side. You can be completely assured when you face the future.
Second, the God who has not spared his only Son but who has given him up to die for us has also transformed us so that we can behave in a way that we need to behave. He’s taken us, he’s entered into our condition, he’s terminated, he’s executed the stuff that was getting in the way. He’s resurrected us into a new condition, he’s joined us to that new condition not only in the Son but through the Spirit. This leads to the only sort of right behavior that is valid and authentic. Romans 5-8 is where we see the heart of the Pauline gospel.
JMF: Isn’t that pretty much the opposite of the way most of us have tended to look at the gospel? The gospel is usually presented with the idea “let’s make people understand there’s going to be a judgment and make them afraid of that judgment.” So people respond to the gospel because they’re afraid of the judgment and they want to escape it. They’ve got to do something to escape it, which is to have faith in somebody who is going to help them. Then we try to maintain that position of escape by trying to behave better. But the way you’re describing Romans 5-8 is the opposite of that.
DC: People have got Paul very, very wrong. If what he’s saying in Romans 5-8 is right, then the model that you’ve just described, which is widespread, has something wrong with it as a presentation of Paul. It could be that Paul was horribly muddled up, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays he was the good Christological thinker that we think he was and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays he was the other guy, then on Sundays he had the day off.
But I think when you plant your flag on Romans 5-8 (That’s where we need to plant our flag, because that’s where he’s doing all his work out of Christology. That’s where he’s talking about God in the light of Christ, and so that is solid information.), what you end up with is another perspective on the model that you’ve just outlined, which is usually articulated in relation to Romans 1-4.
JMF: That’s where we’re confronted with “Christ died for us while we were still sinners.”
DC: Yeah, Romans 5.
JMF: And we’re confronted with “if he’s already done this much for you, how much more is he going to see it through the end.”
DC: Exactly, yeah.
JMF: The judgment is usually thought of as something scary, like a final exam. What if I don’t pass? But we’re talking about the judgment being a good thing and something to look forward to.
DC: Yes. The judgment’s already taken place in the cross. When Paul talks about Christ assuming what we are — the sinful nature, the flesh, as he calls it (the sarx, in the Greek), and terminating it, and cutting it off and executing it, that is a judgment. It’s God’s judgment that this situation cannot continue. It must stop. The hostile part of the judgment is behind us.
When we talk about any future judgment, I think there’s a moment of accountability that’s coming. Paul is clear that we will stand before Jesus on the last day. We may have to give some sort of account for ourselves, and that would be a potentially excoriating occasion…it could elicit some embarrassment. But I don’t think it’s a hostile judgment. I don’t think it’s a judgment where God is going to say, “You tried hard, you’ve been a Christian, you’ve done all the things you’re meant to do, but…” It’s not going to be one of those sorts of judgments where our deeds are laid in the balance.
You can’t get away from the argument of Romans 8, which I think is the finest chapter that he ever wrote. The God who is giving up his own Son for us, giving us the Spirit, is on our side all the way through, all the way down, right through to the end. We should be living lives of joyful assurance.
The bit that you were worried about is the bit of Paul that’s coming through from Romans 2. The big problem is, what do we do with Romans 2 when we’re really rooted in Romans 5-8? Are we talking about the same gospel? This is where the controversies come from. This is what I was trying to do in my book.
JMF: What is it about Romans 1, 2, 3 that seems to be in contrast with what we’re reading in 5-8?
DC: Romans 1-3 is usually read in a certain way. There’s a consensus — what I call the usual reading or the traditional reading. It’s in most of the commentators. They tend to assume that Paul is, as we put it, thinking forwards, and he’s building up a picture of the gospel from a problem. He articulates a problem and then he matches a solution to that problem. All the hard work and all the critical theological moves have taken place in the definition of the problem.
If you think that this is the way that you should be preaching the gospel, you will find that reading in Romans 1-3, because it works reasonably well. There was a guy running around there who preaches forwards, there was a guy there who has a harsh punitive understanding of God, a conditional understanding of salvation. You’ll find it because it’s a reasonably good fit.
JMF: You mean that the language of those chapters comes across as though there is a fear of a judgment to come in a punitive…
DC: Yeah. Something’s going on that’s talking about this future punitive judgment. Something, some sort of system where you are being threatened with a future evaluation. So you live in a situation of fundamental insecurity, building toward this final judgment. It’s in Romans 1-3.
The question is, has the argument been understood correctly if you attribute all of that to Paul? When you have a very clear understanding of Romans 5-8, what you find when you come to Romans 1-4 is there are little hints and clues in the text that this is not what he was trying to do. He’s not the person that’s setting up this problem and pushing people through to a solution – he’s going after somebody who talks this way. So it’s almost the opposite of the way he’s always been read, or almost always been read.
JMF: So in other words, in Romans 1-3 we’re reading his presentation of the very argument that he’s arguing against in 5-8.
DC: Exactly. Paul is setting up somebody, but he starts off setting them up in a Socratic way, which was typical in the ancient world, where he is using the assumptions of this person and driving them against one another to show how this gospel collapses.
JMF: So back and forth like a dialogue of Socrates.
DC: Right. He’s pushing back on a religious person in Romans 1-3, which sounds too good to be true. I tell people, “We’ve misunderstood what Paul’s getting at here. It’s not really as negative as people think.” And they go, how can you be sure? I answer, It makes better sense in the text because there are these little problems in the text that we’ve known about for a long time, but we haven’t known what to do with them, so we’ve done what the scholars say, we’ve anesthetized them. We’ve passed over the top of them and pretended they’re not there.
JMF: Let’s look at an example or two.
DC: There’s a stack of them, but let me run you through a couple of them. The first problem is that when Paul starts off his tirade, Romans 1:18-32, it’s a very dense aggressive bit of prose. When you read it in the Greek, what you hear is a texture that isn’t quite Paul. It’s a little bit like you’re reading through a Stephen King book (should you read a Stephen King book), and you hit a paragraph that’s written by Jane Austen and you go, something funny is going on here. Somebody is talking in another voice. It’s an aggressive voice.
Then, chapter 2, we hit somebody who’s talking in this way. Who is that person? Tradition has usually said this guy is a Jew. He’s not only a Jew, he’s the Jew — Paul is attacking Judaism here. So the way we get to be a Christian is we learn first what it means to be a Jew, which is to be justified by works, and we fail, and then we sort of flip out of that into Christianity.
But when we read what Paul does with this Jew in this text, we build up a picture that isn’t quite right. It’s not fair. He accuses the Jew from verse 17 and onwards of being somebody who robs temples, who commits adultery, who is a thief, who is a terrible hypocrite. How many Jews do you know that rob banks, sleep with the wrong people on the wrong occasions, this sort of thing? It’s a hostile exaggeration. Not all Jews do this; most Jews don’t. So the person that Paul’s going after here probably isn’t your everyday Jew. It’s somebody else.
If I told you the Jews were very upset about the time Paul was writing this letter because 20 years previously the Roman emperor kicked them out of Rome…imagine a decree coming down from the Governor of California saying all Christians must leave Los Angeles. This would cause quite a trauma, right? In 19 C.E. the Jews were kicked out of Rome because three Jews had seduced a Roman noblewoman and taken money that she had promised to the Jerusalem temple…and absconded with it themselves. So they were thieving, temple-robbing, adulterous Jews. I think that explains what’s going on in this text. Paul’s not targeting everybody who is a Jew, he’s targeting people who come to Rome who pretend to be Jewish teachers and really aren’t.
This fits into the argument that he’s developed here, that he’s going after somebody else. Then if we read on a little bit further, we suddenly have a little to-and-fro between Paul and this other person. The first guy is going, “I believe in desert, I believe in judgment.” The other guy is going, “I believe in the faithfulness and the compassion and the graciousness of God.” The first guy goes, “No, even if you sin, God is not going to rescue you on the day of judgment, what you deserve must hold good.” Then the guy comes back and goes, “But surely if we’re sinful and we get rescued, that shows that God is a compassionate God.” It goes back and forth like this.
The usual reading thinks that Paul is the guy that’s insisting on judgment and desert. How can that guy, Paul, turn around in chapters 9-11 and say God loves Israel, and even though Israel is disobedient, and will rescue Israel? He will not lose faith with Israel. How can the guy saying the opposite in chapter 3 turn around and suddenly say something else in Romans 11?
My reading, it’s the other guy who is insisting on judgment and desert. Paul is the guy who is saying, “What about the faithfulness of God? What about the compassion of God? What about the love of God for people who sin?” These little clues add up to a new understanding of this text, where Paul is attacking someone who is fundamentally religious, fundamentally conditional and contractual. I’m summarizing an awful lot of information, and you might just have to buy the book and read it and you’ll find out all about it.
JMF: It’s a very long book.
DC: Yeah, it is very long. I’m sorry about that. I did my best.
JMF: You must have felt that the entire argument needed to be in one volume rather than breaking it into, say, three volumes or two volumes.
DC: Right. I thought hard about breaking it into two books, but what’s going on when you read Paul, even though we’re often not aware of it, is we’re bringing what we’ve been taught to the text. It’s structuring the way that we read the text, even when we’re not aware of it. We’ve been raised and taught that Paul teaches a certain sort of the gospel. And the way that we’ve often been taught Paul (and I’m referring to the wrong way) is a way that often also resonates with our culture and even with our politics. So the slightly harsh understanding of Paul resonates with the slightly harsh side to American culture, to American politics, to Western politics.
JMF: How would you describe this harsh side of Paul? What’s a summary of that way of viewing it?
DC: It’s all about compassion being directed to a limited group, who has done certain things to earn that compassion and benevolence, and everybody else on the outside being exposed to what they deserve and, if necessary, to punishment. So if you contract into the privileged group by doing certain things, then you’ll be okay, but everybody else basically just has to sink or swim by themselves. If they sink, that usually means in social or cultural terms that they’re going to be punished. This is how we run our politics, and it is how we run a lot of our culture, and this how we’ve been taught Paul.
So part of the length of the book was to show this is how we’re thinking, but it’s not necessarily the way that God is acting toward us in Christ. There’s another way of doing things that we’re getting from Christ. We’re getting a God who doesn’t want to leave anybody out. We’re getting a God who has acted very inclusively first to reach out to everybody. It’s almost the opposite way of doing things. Everybody’s been included and there are people who push away and pull out of it.
So a lot of the book and its length is trying to deprogram people from their wrong way of thinking and reprogram them with this healthier way of understanding God, so that when we get to Paul, we can see that this is what he’s talking about as well. He’s on the same page as we are.
JMF: How do you find it being received? What kind of feedback are you getting?
DC: There’s been a full spectrum of responses, from “this is absurd rubbish” to “this has changed my life forever,” and pretty much everything all the way through in the middle. Quite a lot more enthusiasm than I thought I would get, and a lot more tension than I thought I would get.
When you’re writing a book like this, you worry that when you finish, it will drop in a black hole and no one will talk about it. Well, a lot of people are talking about it. I get a little frustrated with what they say at times. I don’t feel I’m being understood all the time. I don’t feel like my arguments are being presented accurately at all times, but people are trying to break through, and I appreciate that.
There’s a bit of a generational thing going on as well. There are a lot of scholars who have written equally large books on Paul and Romans, and I’m challenging what they’re doing, threatening them. It’s very hard for them to turn around and say, “I’ve been wrong about this all this time,” if they have been wrong. The younger generation, the doctoral student, post-doctoral type of student, seems to be very excited about it.
JMF: What do you attribute that to?
DC: They’re putting the pieces in place for the remaining creative research on Paul, so they’re at a much more malleable stage of life. I remember when I was like that. There aren’t too many costs involved with them saying, “What I was taught was wrong, let’s run with this new paradigm.” There are a lot of costs involved with the older generation turning around and seeing the paradigm that they’re working with is no longer functioning. This is typical if it’s a paradigm shift. This is how they always work. It just means that I have to be patient and a bit lucky.
JMF: You’re not the only one who takes this perspective, though.
DC: I hope not. Certainly not on Paul as a whole. There are a lot of scholars who agree with me about the main thrust of his gospel. That is right. I’m standing in a long tradition in terms of reading Paul this way. I would hope that what I’m saying about Paul’s gospel is in complete continuity with the way the Patristics have read him, the Cappadocians, the best parts of the Catholic tradition, Orthodoxy, the best parts of the Reformation, right through the modern period. I think I’m in touch with the best theology of the church. It’s true, though, that there are a lot of non-scholars reading Paul who aren’t quite so thrilled with what I’m up to… I don’t always hear good reasons from them why that’s the case.
JMF: You wouldn’t attribute it entirely to their history of research and study and teaching, would you? Because there are examples of major theologians who come across a new perspective and who go with it. What is the attraction to holding on to a view of Paul that is more judgmental than grace-filled?
DC: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Whether you acknowledge it or not, theology is always in play when we’re reading Paul, and it’s almost being scrutinized by that, so we’re very defensive about it. If we’re not crystal clear on certain theological positions, we will lapse into a conditionality and a sort of a contractualism. If we’re not vigilant that we don’t do that, if we’re not 100 percent committed to a gospel that is unconditional, a gospel of grace.
JMF: When you say conditionality and contractual, you’re driving at what?
DC: Certain people present our relationship with God in a way that basically is a contract. They talk about it as a covenant, but it’s a contract. A contract is something where I will do something for you if you fulfill certain conditions first. It’s always an if/then structure. This is how we run our society. This is how we run our families half the time, unfortunately. This is how we run our politics, and this is how we run our theology. But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the way God deals with us.
JMF: “I’ll give you salvation if you do something for me.”
DC: Exactly. It seems very natural to us, it’s an easy way, it slips off the tongue, doesn’t it? But it’s a fundamental corruption of the gospel. Once you put that little word “if” in, you have the destroyed the gospel of grace. It’s as simple as that.
JMF: And a covenant, by contrast …
DC: Unfortunately, people have debased the use of the word because they’ve talked about the covenant, but then they’ve talked about it contractually, which is what it really isn’t. We learn about what a covenant is, the covenant in fact, from looking at how God has related to us in Christ. It’s as simple as that. It’s utterly unconditional. It’s benevolent, it’s loving, it’s his choice for us from the foundation of the world to be in fellowship with him and to be transformed by him. That’s what a covenant is. There are no conditions, no strings attached. There’s no “if,” there’s no “but.”
JMF: In the Old Testament, it’s full of that, isn’t it?
DC: It is and it isn’t. Depends how you read it.
JMF: The idea that “I will be faithful to my covenant regardless of what you do.”
DC: Right. Very much so.
JMF: “I change not in my covenant faithfulness, therefore you are not destroyed.”
DC: Exactly. What tends to happen is a little mistake. People shift from what God is expecting of us in the covenant relationship, and they turn those things into a condition. God lays out that which is expected of us and appropriate of us — the way we should respond to God in this relationship — and they like to turn that into a contract. We like to introduce these other conditions for all sorts of ultimately pretty sad reasons.
This is the great battle going on in the interpretation of Paul. This is the struggle that’s going on his understanding at the moment. The stakes are so high, this is where the conflict is, at times, so strong, and people are so rooted to the conditional or contractual gospel. This is why they fight back so hard. It’s a tragedy that so many good folk in the church have been taught that God is a God of conditions. They’re defending “the true gospel” when they push back on a reading that I’m offering, which is a reading based in grace.
JMF: If you take grace unconditionally, doesn’t that level the playing field, as it were? There’s no room for me to say, “I’ve been faithful in this way and that way, and you haven’t, so I deserve more than you. You need to be condemned, and I need to be, I’m going to be…” You automatically think that way.
DC: I am superior here in some sense. So we need to find some way of setting that up. We have to introduce conditions…
JMF: Yeah. It seems a rather base way of looking at it, but…
DC: It’s sinful.
JMF: It’s religious, as opposed to gospel.
DC: Yeah. It’s religion at its heart, as opposed to gospel. That’s right.
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.