An incarnational view of justification by faith (whose faith justifies us?)

Kudos to the Experimental Theology blog for highlighting the work of Douglas Campbell (pictured right) in The Deliverance of God. Though Campbell's book is long, dense and expensive, it's an important trinitarian analysis of Paul's doctrine of justification.

Paul's thesis in Romans is summarized in 1:17: "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, 'The righteous will live by faith.'"  Here Paul is quoting Habakkuk 2:4: "See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright - but the righteous will live by his faith."

Paul's point is often misunderstood by viewing the one referred to here as "the righteous" who will "live by faith" as you or me. That misunderstanding then leads to another, namely that we attain a state of being "righteous" through our faith in Jesus.This view leads on to a transactional theory of justification that says we give God our faith in Jesus, and in exchange, he credits to our "account" his righteousness.

Campbell asserts that Paul's argument is radically different than this popular (but erroneous) view. Paul's argument, says Campbell, is not transactional but incarnational (and thus centered fully on Jesus and his work, not on ours). The faith that justifies humanity, to which Paul refers, is the faith (better translated "faithfulness") of Jesus himself. He (not you or me) is "the righteous" (better translated "righteous one") who has faith. This reading is faithful to the Greek text and supported by Hebrews 10.37-39 where the "one who is coming" (i.e. Jesus) is linked to the same verse in Habakkuk that Paul cites in Romans 1.

Paul is declaring that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, is alive (through his resurrection) because of his faithfulness (onto death on the cross) - and it is his faithful death and vindicating/re-creating resurrection life that justifies humanity. Note how this understanding aligns with what Paul says as he begins Romans:
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 1:1-4).
The gospel that Paul declares is not about our performance (including our "faith"). Rather, it is the stunning declaration of the shockingly good news that Jesus Christ, through his faithfulness unto death, vindicated by his bodily resurrection, is declared by God to be both Lord (God) and Christ (Messiah/Deliverer).

This great good news is for all. In Romans 5-8, Paul shows that all people are included in Jesus by virtue of who he is (the incarnate, crucified and risen God-man), and what he has done as the representative and substitute of all humanity. In short, what has happened to Jesus, has happened to us all. In Jesus, we all have died to sin - which means we all are forgiven and accepted by God. In Jesus, we all have risen to new life, and thus we all share his perfected/glorified humanity.

The invitation of the gospel is to open one's eyes (and heart) to embrace this stunning truth. When we do, everything changes, and we begin to participate in and thus enjoy the new life that is ours in Christ.

This is the gospel that Paul proclaims, and it is in light of this gospel, that justification must be understood.

If you'd like to learn more about Campbell's perspective, check out the the Experimental Theology blog. You can also listen to presentations from Campbell and other theologians debating his positions at Church Leadership Conversations (see the bottom of the Nov. 24, 2009 entry, and note that the audio quality of these recordings is very poor).


Anonymous said…
This is an enlightening post. And it leads to a key challenge for us all.

You see, one of the most important rules of Bible study goes something like this: "The original text can never mean more than it meant to its author and his original audience."

Paul had something firmly in mind when he wrote. What he wrote, however, has been influenced and changed in meaning by our modern perspective. And this perspective is oh so hard to get rid of.

Therefore, we moderns typically come up with a meaning that is quite alien to what Paul meant.

Let us be alert to what Paul had in mind, and we might just recapture the faith once and for all and for all time delivered to the original saints.

All the best!

J. Richard Parker
"The original text can never mean more than it meant to its author and his original audience."

I hope you're only referring to the content of the New Testament because if you're including the Old Testament then I think there are some issues with that statement.

Anonymous said…
Well, actually I am referring to the content of the entire Bible, especially in regard to the author part. It is as Peter tells us:

1 Peter 1:10-12
10 The prophets searched carefully and tried to learn about this salvation. They prophesied about the grace that was coming to you. 11 The Spirit of Christ was in the prophets, telling in advance about the sufferings of Christ and about the glory that would follow those sufferings. The prophets tried to learn about what the Spirit was showing them, when those things would happen, and what the world would be like at that time. 12 It was shown them that their service was not for themselves but for you, when they told about the truths you have now heard. Those who preached the Good News to you told you those things with the help of the Holy Spirit who was sent from heaven—things into which angels desire to look. (NCV)

2 Peter 1:16-21
16 When we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling just clever stories that someone invented. But we saw the greatness of Jesus with our own eyes. 17 Jesus heard the voice of God, the Greatest Glory, when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice said, “This is my Son, whom I love, and I am very pleased with him.” 18 We heard that voice from heaven while we were with Jesus on the holy mountain. 19 This makes us more sure about the message the prophets gave. It is good for you to follow closely what they said as you would follow a light shining in a dark place, until the day begins and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Most of all, you must understand this: No prophecy in the Scriptures ever comes from the prophet’s own interpretation. 21 No prophecy ever came from what a person wanted to say, but people led by the Holy Spirit spoke words from God. (NCV)

You see, the Bible is like a great novel that tells of God's (the overall Author's) dealing with humankind. However, we moderns have so mixed up the novel's flow that we quite easily miss what its authors and the Main Author are telling us. So we typically live in great darkness as to what God is doing with humans and His great love for all of humankind.

I hope this helps. All the best!

J. Richard Parker
"Well, actually I am referring to the content of the entire Bible, especially in regard to the author part."


Your original comment and the one above suggests that the only thing that we can take from any section of Scripture is the meaning that the original author had in mind and what the original audience would have been expected to know.

This obviously cannot be true (and even your quotes from Peter prove this) or else the entire New Testament becomes incoherent. The writers of the NT took great pains to show their audience that the message of the Scripture (at this time the Old Testament) was about Christ--who He was and what He came to do. Throughout the OT, God (F-S-S) continued to paint the portrait of Christ and His work in redemptive history through typology and imagery so that the people would recognize Him as the Son, the King, the Servant, the Disciple, the true "Israel", the "seed" of Abraham and the Seed of the Woman that was promised throughout the Scripture. Jesus even chastised the leaders for not recognizing who He was.

I would venture to say that none of the writers of the Old Testament (nor their "audience") knew the full meaning of what they were conveying in their writing. Moses certainly didn't understand Jesus (or abstractly, God the Son) as the Lamb of God or our Passover when he was writing and communicating to the people of Israel. But the New Testament understands that Moses was speaking of Christ. The entire exodus experience speaks directly of Christ--His person and His work.

In fact, this is the witness of the New Testament--that Jesus has come in fulfillment of the whole Scripture (the OT). Jesus says as much Himself: all the Scripture (OT) speaks of Me (Luke 24:13-32). Speaking to the Jews He said, "You search the Scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me...if you believed Moses you believe Me for he wrote of Me" (John 6:39-47).

We would have a very impoverished view of Christ if we failed to read the Old Testament as God intended for it is there that He paints His portrait as the One promised to come!

You can't tell me that Hosea, for example, had Jesus in mind when he was stating a simple historical fact: When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (Hos. 11:1).

If we only allow the Scripture to mean what Hosea meant and what his audience would have known, then the Gospel writer is mistaken when He attributes this meaning to Jesus (Matt. 2:13-15). This verse (and many other passages) show us that even the nation of Israel itself was prophetic and pointed to the true "Israel", the true "son" of God, Jesus the Christ.

con't in next post...
con't from previous post

The New Testament is the record of the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ--everything about the OT is prophetic. The New Testament gives us our hermeneutic for reading the Old Testament. Obviously we don't go looking for Jesus under every rock or in every sentance of the Old Testament; but we surely can't take from the OT only the meaning that the original authors intended. If we do that, then Christ is a mystery and the NT becomes meaningless.

This is why I wanted clarification as to whether or not you were including the OT in your statement.

I notice that at the bottom of your latest comment you do mention that God is the overall "author" of the Bible and with that, of course, I agree. But that statement doesn't mesh with your previous statement, so now I'm confused about where you stand.

I'm not trying to start an argument, but I also think we should be clear about how we approach the Scripture. The hermeneutical question is all-important. God's word from the beginning is eschatological--it's progressing towards a purpose. And the New Testament shows us how we are to interpret the OT. We miss this purpose if we limit our understanding of the Scripture (the OT, at least) to simply what the original author intended for his audience.

Would you agree?

Thanks for the feedback.

Anonymous said…
Hi there!

I don't want to drift too far away from the content of the present posting on this blog. Suffice it to say that I feel Peter's words I noted clarify this matter.

Furthermore, the theme of the Bible is consistent and continuing, in my opinion, and is reflected in the writings of all its authors, which really served as the scribes for the Main Author, meaning God.

This consistency and continuity is found from the earliest times. An example of this is noted by Paul in his reference to the gospel given and the promise made a long time ago to Abraham:

Galatians 3:8
8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (NIV)

When we moderns drift away from these concepts, we easily embrace an alien gospel.

All the best.

J. Richard Parker
Anne Gillam said…
I must admit that at times reading this blog is like listening to someone speaking in tongues. Don't get me wrong, the lack of understanding is all on my part. That is why I really appreciate it when the word of God is spoken in plain language. Thank you Ted, because I know that you will do so. Keep up the good work [all of you], but remember that to make an impact with your words, it also must be understood. I fully agree with this article. We as humans keep trying to do the work of God for ourselves. I am glad he is a very patient and understanding God. Yours in Him! Anne
Ted Johnston said…
Jason & Richard, thanks for your dialog on the issue of biblical interpretation. I would add only that it is the person of Jesus, the living Word of God, who is the essential and ultimate interpretive "key" for all Scripture. The Apostolic word, the gospel, which presents this Jesus, shows us the way forward, modeling in itself a Christ-centered approach to interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).

Clearly, the original readers of the Hebrew scriptures did not understand them as they came to be understand in the church in the light of the Christ event. However, this understanding illuminates, rather than overthrows the text.

Anne, thanks for "hanging in" through posts that get a bit technical. The language of theology is sometimes unfamiliar, but we learn as we go. It's our goal to try to unpack complex ideas in understandable terms. But that's a journey for us all.

Have you listened to the SBL Deliverance of God session (in the link you provided) in which Michael Gorman, Douglas Moo and Allan Torrance dialogue with Campbell about his book? I've only begun listening to it and have finished Gorman's presentation in session 1. I"m in the middle of Moo's critique.

I'd be interested to know your take on their criticisms. I think I'll purchase Campbell's book and a couple of Gorman's.

Ted Johnston said…

I have listened to the audio presentations in which Campbell's book is critiqued (pro and con). Unfortunately, the sound quality is poor so it's hard to understand (particularly when Allan Torrance speaks in his Scottish brogue!).

What is debated has largely to do with two competing views of the order of salvation (what they refer to as the "ordo salutis").

Gorman and Moo advocate for a traditional Western-legal view, while Campbell and Torrance advocate for a Trinitarian, Christ-centered view that is more characteristic of the early Eastern church fathers (such as Athanasius).

The Western view flows largely from a view of God as holy judge who must remain separate from sinners. Salvation then becomes largely about a legal transaction. In this view, justification does not happen to a person until they personally demonstrate "saving faith." You believe, and in response, God acts to justify.

The Eastern/Trinitarian view explains justification from the perspective of the triune God of love as he is revealed to us in and through the person of Jesus Christ. This view says that humanity is reconciled to God and thus justified before God in the person of the God-man Jesus who is the representative and substitute for us all. Jesus is not only the sacrifice for our sin, he is also the faithful human who trusts God for our salvation.

From this trinitarian perspective, the invitation to a non-believer is not "believe and you will be justified" (the Western/legal approach), but "believe because you are justified."

I'm not sure about Campbell's take on Romans 1-3 that sees the text largely as the voice of a false teacher in Rome presenting a false gospel (a trinitarian view of justification is not dependent upon this interpretation).

What truly is essential (in a trinitarian view), is that we "locate" ALL aspects of our salvation (justification included) in the person and work of Jesus Christ as our substitute and representative. And that includes the faith that saves. Jesus, on our behalf, is the human who trusts God perfectly to justify humanity through his person and work.

This faith of Jesus is what counts, though it does not sweep aside our belief - which is our trust in Jesus to have faith for us.

Clearly we are not justified by our own faith. Were that true, we'd all be "up a creek" because none of us has perfect faith. However, Jesus does on our behalf.

And so our faith is in Jesus, not in our own faith.
Ted Johnston said…
In my original post, I referenced the Experimental Theology blog, which is now discussing Campbell's book. That discussion shows how Campbell regards Romans 5-8 as Paul's presentation of the gospel.

"[Romans 5-8] is a gospel that proclaims the 'righteousness of God'...God's liberative act in Christ which rescues a helpless and powerless humanity...The 'righteousness of God' proclaims 'the deliverance of God' through the work of the faithful Christ. Thus, the language of faith, justification, righteousness, and redemption are interpreted in Christological and liberative terms."

It is in the light of this gospel, that Paul earlier in Romans draws the following conclusion (Romans 3:19-26; Campbell's translation):

"Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be liberated in his sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from law, the deliverance of God has been revealed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the deliverance of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who trust in God. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but they are now liberated by his grace as a gift, through the release that is in Christ Jesus, whom God intended to be an atonement by means of Christ's faithfulness, by means of his blood. God did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine mercy he released us from the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous because he liberates the faithful Jesus."
I just finished listening to the Moo section and I find his analysis compelling (from what I could actually hear of it clearly). Both Gorman and Moo seem to suggest that Justification Theory (as Campbell puts it) is the most natural outcome from a simple and exegetical reading of the text. Their argument that Campbell needs a "false teacher" and his rhetoric as Paul's antagonist in order for his claim that Romans 1-4 isn't dealing with Justification Theory (as such) seems...well...justified.

Campbell's claims that Justification theorists have read their presuppositions into the Paul's argument are equally (and even more so according to Moo and Gorman) valid claims against Campbell. They claim that he is forcing his participatory presuppositions onto Romans 1-4 because the more natural reading and better exegetical reading of it supports J.T. I haven't heard Torrance's presentation yet, but I'm guessing that the pendulum will be swinging back in favor of Campbell.

Did you get the idea that Campbell was trying to hard to make this understanding work? Granted, I haven't yet read Campbell's book (and I plan on reading it along with Gorman and Moo), but in going over Romans 1-4 it certainly seems as if Campbell is trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

Oh well, on to Torrance and then Campbell's rebuttal!

BTW--I've just started the series at the Experimental Theology blog, so that may shed more light on this for me.

Well, I just listened to Torrance's and Campbell's presentations. I wish I could hear what Torrance said at the beginning of his speech because it certainly brought the house down! I can't remember the last time I heard that much laughter at a theological meeting!

Anyway, Torrance and especially Campbell made a very cogent defense of his reading of Paul and I'm even more excited to get his book. I need to listen to everything again since the audio wasn't the greatest and I'm sure I missed much from every presenter, but Campbell seemed to bring a holistic approach to the soteriology of Paul that does more justice to Paul's overall theology, in my opinion, than does J.T.

I've also begun reading the "Notes on the Deliverance of God" at the Experimental Theology blog and I'm undestanding Campbell's approach much better.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Ted Johnston said…

I'm glad that these materials are helpful to you as you study the merits of a trinitarian, Christ-centered, incarnational theology.

If you end up reading Campbell's book (no small task!), I'd appreciate hearing what you think - we could share your insights on this blog.