The first eight pages of Douglas A. Campbell's The Deliverance of God sets the scene for the detailed argument that is to follow. As such, a brief summary of the introduction will serve both to whet the appetite, but also to introduce several of the main concerns (perhaps even the main concern) or the book as a whole. It should be noted that what follows is my own account in my own words.
Campbell begins by identifying three conundrums that beset contemporary Pauline studies:
1. How to relate Paul's justification statements with his Christ-mysticism? For Campbell this old debate (cf Schweitzer, Deissmann, Wrede et al) is significant because it is really about the possibility of integrating an anthropocentric construal of Paul's gospel with a christocentric construal. Rejecting the suggestion that this should be done by pushing one model to the centre and relegating the other to the periphery of Paul's thought, and suspicious of the attempt to read participation language as relevant only to the post-justification / sanctification stage of Christian existence, Campbell notes that there is, as yet, no persuasive explanation of this relationship.
2. The reliance of the traditional justification model on an inaccurate portrayal of Judaism: Campbell rightly notes that this issue has been at the centre of post Sanders scholarship.
3. The situational context of Romans: again, C. rightly observes that the notion that Romans is written in response to a specific set of circumstances has not generated any real agreement as to what those circumstances were.
C. argues that the reasons these three issues fail to receive satisfactory attention is that scholars fail to grasp the real issues that lie behind them. Like the blind scholars of Indostan, we have only been in contact with parts of the evidence (a trunk, or a leg or a tail) and thus not been able to name the elephant of which these things are but constituent elements.
So what is the elephant in the room and why can't we see it? The answer to the first question is that the western, especially Protestant, interpretative tradition has actually been construing Paul's theology in individualistic, conditional and therefore contractual terms. My own summary of this would be that it is an understanding of the gospel in which the individual searches for and chooses a rational and temporal answer to successive questions: what is wrong with me? how can I put it right? what do I do now? In relation to the three points above, such a construal: 1. cannot integrate the participatory aspects of Paul's soteriology; 2. requires an account of pre-Christian existence that makes the decision of Christian faith appear a rational, logical decision (this account really needs to be a negative portrayal – hence the distortion of Judaism in these accounts); 3. insists on the universality of Paul's contingent, rhetorical statements in Romans and Galatians.
The second question in relation to our blindness is answered by reference to the clear link between the interpretative tradition outlined above and the wider currents of Western history, culture and ideology. Campbell writes: 'could it be that a reading that lays claim to being a construal of the Pauline gospel is in fact a projection of essentially modern European cultural values into the Pauline texts and into their ostensible construal of salvation itself, and is therefore at bottom an idolatrous exercise?' (p.7)
It is this last point that interests me especially. It raises the question as to whether this kind of cultural captivity is inevitable or avoidable. If the former, then to what extent will Campbell articulate the ways in which the current cultural context is shaping his concern to offer an alternative construal? If the latter, what are the methodological and exegetical means by which it may be avoided? After all, everyone who works on this stuff claims to be doing 'exegesis'.