David B Hunsicker

Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Book of the Week: Paul by Douglas Campbell

Eerdmans, 2018.

Eerdmans, 2018.

Book 18: Paul By Douglas Campbell

Genre: Biography / Theology


This book bills itself as a popular-level biography of Paul's life and introduction to his thought. But it is so much more than that; it is a handbook for missions and practical theology, and an accessible introduction to some of the most interesting academic conversations in Pauline studies.  


Following Paul

The book is divided into two main parts. The first part follows Paul from his conversion in 34 AD to his arrival in Corinth in 51 AD. Early on, Campbell argues, Paul has a proto-Trinitarian theology that emphasizes Jesus's divine identity and the Holy Spirit's central role in revealing this knowledge to humans. Almost immediately, Paul begins his mission to the gentiles, going directly to Arabia for about 2 years. At this point, however, he is still preaching a gospel that calls gentiles to something like a Jewish conversion. This changes when he arrives at Antioch in 36 AD and discovers that the Holy Spirit is doing something spectacular. A group of "Christians" have emerged: gentile believers in Jesus Christ who do not conform to a Jewish ethos. This encounter leads Paul to his "gospel", or his good news message, to the gentiles. 

From there, Campbell describes a resourceful Paul who's missionary journeys develop around his ability to move between social classes in order to establish networks among the day-laborers, the wealthy, prisoners, and the family networks that came with each new friendship. With his gospel relatively set and his missionary method honed, Paul experiences a particularly fruitful period of mission work in Galatia, Macedonia, and Greece that ends in 42 AD. This time period includes Paul's letters to the Thessalonians (written from Athens) and his first trip to Corinth (41 AD) where he hooks up with Roman refugees Priscilla and Aquila to begin a street mission among the handworkers and tradesmen. 

Then, Paul goes dark for 7 years and reemerges after a period of great hardship that includes prison, torture, shipwreck, and running from his enemies. When Paul reemerges in 49 AD, he is in Ephesus, where he causes a stir and escapes, then goes to Jerusalem for the Jerusalem Council (50 AD), where he defends his gentile gospel to James and the Apostles of the Jerusalem church. Then, he leaves Jerusalem to return to his Galatian and Ephesian churches, when he is arrested in Apamea. From the Apamean Jail, Paul writes his "Manifesto" letter "Ephesians" (which was probably to the church in Laodicea) as well as a letter to an upstart church he has never visited in Colossae, and the only extant letter we have that Paul wrote to an individual, Philemon.

When Paul is released from the Apamean prison, he visits Colossae and Laodicea before going on to Hieropolis and returning to Ephesus. From Ephesus, Paul commences his Corinthian correspondence, which yields two particularly fruitful extant letters that give us the most information about Paul's vision of Christian ethics. Paul leaves Ephesus in the midst of riots, avoiding Roman charges of sedition and heads to Macedonia and eventually Corinth.

The second part of Campbell's biography focuses on a smaller period of time and is more devoted to developing thematic issues. The chronology follows Paul from his arrival in Corinth in 51 AD to his death in 57 or 58 AD.  This final period of Paul's life is characterized by his fight with his "Enemies" (traditionally called "the Judaizers"), a group of Christians who are displeased with the Jerusalem Council's decision to honor Paul's gospel to the gentiles and go around behind him re-teaching his churches that they must become Jewish, be circumcised, and obey Jewish dietary restrictions. During this time, Paul writes three of his most important letters: Galatians, Philippians, and Romans. In the Galatian and Philippian letters, Paul is trying to undo damage done by his enemies by restating his gospel and dispelling the false teachings of his opponents. They are heated exchanges where we sometimes get clear and succinct expressions of Paul's gospel in the midst of rhetoric and emotional appeal. The Romans letter, written to a church Paul has yet to visit, is an attempt to outrun his opponents and get his gospel to the church first. As such, it is the fullest expression of Paul's gospel.

In Corinth, Paul confronts his enemies face-to-face and loses. His enemies manage to have him arrested for seditious behavior and he is jailed. Once released from jail, he returns to Jerusalem (52 AD) to figure out who is teaching against him, why the council's decision has collapsed, and to bring a large collection of money from his churches to the Jerusalem church to support the poor (a condition of the Jerusalem Council). There, he is arrested again and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin. He is transferred to Caesarea and held by the Romans for a few years before a new governor arrives and hears his case (54 or 55 AD). Finally, Festus tries Paul and honors His appeal to the emperor, shipping Paul off to Rome. Paul is eventually tried and executed in Rome after a few years of house arrest that allows him to have personal contact with the Roman church.


Thinking With Paul

By far, the best part of Campbell's biography is his attempt to correlate Paul's thinking with the events of his life. To that end, Campbell engages in what Karl Barth called mitdenken, or "thinking with" Paul. A few of my favorite examples of this:

  1. A Trinitarian Paul (Chapter 1). We learn immediately that with Paul's conversion, Paul comes to recognize that Jesus is YHWH and that he begins to work out the implications of this claim on both his Jewish monotheistic theology and the manner in which this truth is received and comprehended by his listeners as divine revelation made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.
  2. A Missional Paul (Chapter 4). Campbell's reading of Paul is a primer in missiology. In Paul, Campbell finds an example of an aggressive missionary style that simultaneously avoids colonial and hierarchical power dynamics. Paul is someone who knows how to build relationships with people from all walks of life ("Strange friendships", Campbell calls them). These relationships are predicated upon the fact that they are "no strings attached"; Paul doesn't begin with an agenda, he begins with relationship. In this way, he avoids establishing relational dynamics that are unequal or utilitarian. We see Paul's adaptability also working toward this end. In some towns, he takes his place as a "tentmaker" alongside other artisans and handworkers, while in other towns, he connects with the ruling classes. He even leverages his status as a prisoner to engage other prisoners, allowing his gospel to spread all over the place as his co-prisoners are released and carry his gospel back to their hometowns. 
  3. An Ecclesiocentric Paul (Chapters 5 and 9). Campbell's Paul is very much the apocalyptic Paul that is the subject of contemporary Pauline studies. Owing its origin to Karl Barth, Ernst Käsemann, and J. Louis Martyn, the apocalyptic Paul has generated a new theological trend called Apocalyptic Theology (I will introduce my readers to this trend in a forthcoming review of Philip Ziegler's wonderful book, Militant Grace). A consistent move a number of self-identified apocalyptic theologians make is to criticize theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas for being "too ecclesiocentric" and talking about the church instead of talking about God. Sometimes this criticism also plays itself out as concerned Protestants worrying that Hauerwas is too Catholic. One of the most interesting features of this book is that Campbell's reading of Paul is apocalyptic and Hauerwasian. That is to say, Campbell sees a genuine ecclesial ethic in Paul's thought that does not compete with his primary claims about God's apocalyptic intervention into his creation through Jesus Christ. The Apocalyptic theologians tend to place divine and human agency at odds with each other and over-emphasize God's agency and downplay human agency. Here, Paul is very much concerned to think through questions about "life together" as disciples of Jesus and "The Christian City", or the idea of the church as an alternative polis.


Pauline Scholarship

Those who are not abreast of recent trends in Pauline New Testament scholarship will find that Campbell's Paul is an very accessible introduction to one of the more important voices in Pauline studies. Here, we find Campbell's Pauline chronology clarified and made more accessible. One of the most interesting features of Campbell's reading of Paul is his early dating of Paul's letters and his authentication of some of the so-called deutero-pauline letters (2 Thes, Col, Eph). Although Campbell has defended those moves in more detailed writings, here we see the payoff more clearly. The timeline is rendered coherent and the interchange between chronology and "thinking with" Paul bears fruit. 

The second half of the book presses the most novel aspects of Campbell's interpretation of Paul's thought: his Torrencian reading of Paul's understanding of covenant, the relationship between Israel and the church, and his universalist trajectory. A lot of these themes are the payoff of the hard work he does in the first half of the book. Only in the context of Paul's vigorous defense of his gospel in the face of his enemies, do Paul's teachings regarding Christian sexual ethics and the like fully fall into place. Here, we have to understand Paul's recital of aspects of Judaism not as his own gospel but as his rhetorical engagement with the gospel presented by his enemies. These are, no doubt, the most controversial claims Campbell makes about Paul's thought.

Another feature of this work is the clarity and brevity of thought. Over the years, Campbell's writing has become more clear and focused. From the unwieldy and inaccessible Quest for Paul's Gospel (2005), to his magesterial The Deliverance of God (2009) and his more detailed Framing Paul (2014), Campbell has become a good writer. More importantly, he has wrestled with his interpretation of Paul enough to finally grasp it in enough detail to present it in a more accessible manner. This book is probably his best writing because it is free from all of the heavy-lifting and readers will more clearly see the implications of all of the heavy-lifting. 

In the end, what is certainly clear is that Campbell's work sets the stage for a "Pauline theology" for 21st century Christians; whether or not it is actually Paul's theology is a matter Pauline scholars will continue to debate for years to come.


Review: Every Pastor should read at least the first 1/2 of this book.