Rereading Paul – Romans 1-4

In The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, Douglas Campbell proposes a rereading and thus a new interpretation of Romans 1-4.

In his book, Campbell reveals 56 problems with what he calls “the conventional reading” that essentially define the standard historic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith.  He makes more than a plausible case that his reading makes good sense and virtually nullifies the problems encountered in the conventional reading.

In short (very short, as Campbell’s book is 1,218 pages with over 200 of those pages being end notes) he believes that Paul is refuting a false teacher who has possibly already been through Rome or is on the way.  Paul cannot immediately make it to Rome, and as such crafts an incredibly effective letter employing some of the best rhetorical skills available.

As such, after a brief introduction, Paul begins with a parody or “speech-in-character” (Greek  προσωποποιία)of “the Teacher” a well-known and employed rhetorical device.  The Roman church would have recognized the shift in character as the letter was read to them and readily sensed the tension between Paul and the Teacher.  This sets the stage for the Roman Christians, as they have not yet met Paul, and perhaps have not yet met the Teacher soon to arrive.

In beginning Romans this way, Paul can deal with the Teacher on his terms, under his controlled medium of writing, without fear of jeopardizing his own reputation by simply speaking negatively about his opponent.

So, here is a basic outline of Romans 1-4 as proposed by Campbell:

  • Introduction (1:1-15)
  • Transition to body of letter (1:16-17)
  • The Teacher’s Rhetorical opening (1:18-32) (The Teacher speaks in parody)
  • Paul’s universalization (2:1-8) (Paul’s response – Round 1)
  • Awkward implications for the Teacher (2:9-29) (Paul – Round 2)
  • The taming of the Teacher (3:1-20) (Paul – Round 3)
  • Atonement and justification (3:21-26)
  • Reconsider our forefather (3:27-4:25)

In comparison, here is how the conventional reading plays out:

  • Introduction(1:1-15)
  • Description of the solution in thesis (1:16-17)
  • Statement of the problem (1:18-3:20)
  • Description of the solution in thesis (3:21-31)
  • Authoritative scriptural attestation to that solution (4:1-25)
  • Description of the solution in thesis (4:25)

It should be made clear that Paul views the Teacher’s gospel as false and antithetical to the gospel he preaches.  He believes it to be so dangerous that he sends this letter as a preemptive strike to soften the ground among the church in Rome until he can arrive hoping that they not buy into this false teaching.

As such, there is a major paradigm shift in attributing Romans 1:18-32 to the gospel of a false teacher!

Indeed, many in the Protestant or Evangelical camp believe these verses to be some of Paul’s best and most definitive teaching.

There is much more that could be written and discussed on this, and I will have more posts developing these ideas.

I would like to see what your initial thoughts and reactions are to this interpretation.  I ask you to read through Romans in your Bible and consider if it makes sense.

As usual, comments, critiques, concerns and cheers are all anticipated and accepted!


8 thoughts on “Rereading Paul – Romans 1-4

  1. John, I’d be interested in knowing what would be the translation changes this guy would make under this paradigm shift. It much change some thought for thought translations of these passages.

    As I read through it, I can understand how he would see this device being used… it makes some sense. It does change the way you interpret some of these passages that are quoted often as straight forward teaching with authority. With this device some of these passages can’t be taken that way and in some cases using some of these passages that way would make you in Paul’s view the same as that false teacher he is talking against.

    1. I’ll get to that in another post, as there are some. Indeed, if one reads the Teacher as Paul, and thus as apostolic teaching, then in effect, a false gospel is being promoted.
      That’s why this is so important.
      The biggest question is how can or even will this be received after 500 plus years of the popular interpretation.

      1. There are several questions to ask here: One might is –
        How do these passages affect the larger evangelical gospel as currently understood or perceived? Another might be how some social teachings would be affected by changing the understanding of these passages on their head?

        I seriously doubt many leaders of denominations or entrenched dogmatic pastors would receive it as anything other than heretical. Have you looked into how pre-reformation theologians viewed the interpretation of these passages?
        Do any of them depart from the mainstream view that led to the conclusions that Martin Luther had when he read it. Ha, wonder what he would say?

      2. You and I still think a lot alike, I see!

        I think this interpretation would help us to appreciate a better understanding of the scriptures and the cultures surrounding them. If it causes us to hold our Western traditions a little lightly, then so be it.

        Yes, there are MANY implications to seeing this passage or this letter in new light, but there were also many implications to our current conventional reading, and perhaps we are just comfortable enough with them to no longer see the problems that come along with them, even blinding us to a better interpretation! Campbell states that the history and weight of the conventional reading has “narcotized” us from seeing beyond it or from looking for better answers.

        As far as the conventional reading, we know it goes back to the Reformation, and most specifically Melanchthon.

        I am wondering about and tracing what the early church fathers saw as far as interpreting this text. I have a hunch as to why it might have changed, and I don’t want to give away too much here, but I’ll see if it fits then post it up. Let me know if you see anything worthwhile in this department!

  2. John,

    This is rather interesting stuff. I’ve actually never come across this proposal of Paul’s false teacher, esp. in a section like 1:18-32. Indeed, this calls for a major rereading.

    You ask me on my blog if I’ll ever get around to Campbell. I believe I shall, but I’ll need to block out about six months to tackle this tome. 😀

    1. Well, I got the book for Christmas and I am only about 2/3 through, but well worth the time investment! But since I can read it slow and follow some rabbit trails along the way, I am not in a great hurry to finish.

      I’ll be posting on this quite a bit, so I hope you hang around!

  3. I am convinced that Campbell’s theory about the false teacher is correct, but I think rhetorically 1:18-32 are Paul agreeing with the teacher in a tactical move in order to catch him on his own teaching. God will punish wickedness, even the hidden wickedness of the heart, so you, “O man” better watch out! This means that 1:18-32 still function in the traditional way, except we had better watch out that they don’t stir us to be judgemental as this is exactly Paul’s purpose!

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