The Deliverance of God: Chapter 1 – The Justification Theory

Chapter 1 (pp.11-35) is Campbell’s account
of what he terms ‘the justification theory’ of salvation (nb. that title
represents a deliberate rejection of the idea of a ‘Lutheran’ interpretation and
moves past the JF acronym of his earlier work).  Given that Campbell offers a lengthy propositional summary
of the Justification Theory in §4, I will not reproduce it here, but attempt
instead a brief summary of the overall gist of his description.

The Justification Theory is a soteriology
of two halves. It is crucial to note the relationship between them.  The first ‘phase’ articulates
explicitly (or operates implicitly) with an understanding of human beings as
rational, self-interested and therefore ethical. It proceeds to construe the
identity of God using the fundamental category of justice: the omnipotent
law-giver and judge.  God’s
judgement is retributive (i.e. it is directed towards punishment / reward of
the unethical/ethical actions of rational self-interested human beings. Thus
phase 1 is essentially an account of an anthropological ‘problem’. This basic
articulation renders soteriology in largely contractual terms, and in its
Pauline manifestation is nuanced by additional factors (e.g. that reward /
punishment is eschatological; that human beings are expected to come under
conviction of sin via introspection; that their response to this conviction is
either despair (good) or boasting (bad)).

The aim of the first phase is to portray
the human condition in such a way as it becomes self-evident that there is no
escape from condemnation. There would be no escape were it not for a new offer,
a second phase, to which the first phase directly points and which takes its
description from the initial construal of God and humanity found in the first

Thus the second phase seeks to satisfy
God’s retributive justice, and enable human beings to appropriate a solution to
their problem.  The basic
contractual structure of phase 1 is retained, so that (a) God still has to
punish – atonement and (b) human beings must do something – faith.

While abstract and theoretical, Campbell’s
description recognizes the explanatory power of this model of salvation.  We could go on to identify its more
popular manifestations (think Billy Graham, or a Journey into Life tract).  However the supplementary point I wish
to make here is that this is a theoretical account of the gospel that has a
deeply existential connection for many of us who came to faith within a broadly
evangelical tradition.  Thus, for
me and I imagine for many others, the challenge of Campbell’s work, indeed of
the New Perspective on Paul in general, concerns not just the definition of
Paul’s gospel, but the nature of my own Christian identity.  One should not expect these concerns
to be at the forefront of an academic argument, but for many readers of this
book it will lie in a shadowy and perhaps scary form in the background.  If nothing else, Campbell’s analysis
will raise questions about what we believe and what we preach.  The Justification Theory has been so
dominant within my own tradition, that it exerts a clear anxiety of
influence over any attempt to reconsider its validity. However, Campbell believes
that it has inherent and ultimately fatal problems and deeply disturbing
implications.  That is the topic of
chapter 2.