Douglas Campbell, Stephen Colbert and Katy Perry – Romans 1:18-32

So, what do Douglas Campbell, Stephen Colbert and Katy Perry have in common?  Read on and find out!

In Douglas Campbell’s book The Deliverance of God, one of the main propositions asserted is that in Romans 1:18-32, Paul is using a rhetorical device called “speech-in-character” or prosopopoeia – προσωποποιία (pgs 532-33) allowing Paul to create an opposing case in order to invalidate it and reveal the veracity of his own teaching.

Since many people, even in academic circles, are unfamiliar with this rhetorical device, Campbell goes to great lengths to explain and inform the reader just how effective this tactic could be when deployed in a New Testament letter.

The ramifications of this are incredibly significant.  In short, if Paul’s teaching is not present in verses 18-32 but it is instead something that Paul is refuting, then false teaching has been passed off as truth.  I will address the myriad of effects that this could cause in later posts.

I believe that Campbell makes a very strong case that Paul was using “speech-in-character” in Romans 1:18-32.  But I had a couple questions and wanted to dig a bit further, so I wrote to him in July of 2010 and asked the following questions.  He was kind enough to reply and also to give me permission to post up his responses here on my blog.

My questions centered around the historical interpretation of Romans.  Why wasn’t the correct interpretation passed down generation to generation in the church?  Why did the shift in interpretation occur?  To that, Campbell answered:

I think the shift happened as soon as the original situation was lost, when all the cues in context were lost. It’s a bit like watching a Stephen Colbert episode without knowing all about the politicians and issues that he’s making fun of. Satirical and ironic texts are very much creatures of the moment, and hence vulnerable to their loss of immediate context.

The church also didn’t generally pay much attention to contingency; this has only been recovered in the modern period.

The church has also, unfortunately, often had a theological viewpoint closer to Paul’s opponents than to Paul. Not all of the church, but a sizable chunk. So they wouldn’t detect a problem beginning with a harsh foundationalism. Sad but true. And this applies to certain Reformation readings as much as to certain Patristic and Catholic readings. The struggle for grace and against conditionality has gone on in every major church tradition right back to the inception of the church I fear. Paul understood grace, like Augustine, because he’d had a very very big involvement with sin. “He who has been forgiven much loves much.”

So, are you saying that the cues for any given document could be lost, yet the practice of προσοποποιια could continue and be recognized in later documents? (ie Origen’s responses to Celsus in The True Discourse)

You should be able to reconstruct prosopopoiia in a later historical critical reading. Also any irony or satire.

But prosopopoiia wouldn’t necessarily be coterminous with a local satirical target. Justin and Origen both wrote more generic texts than a Pauline letter.

It makes good sense to me that very early on the church lost Paul’s intent in Romans 1:18-32.

Consider that the use of the New Testament writings changed soon after their immediate use.  Romans for example was written specifically to the churches in Rome with a specific purpose in mind.  Yet, just a few generations later, that same letter was handled more like a theological reference as the churches began to universalize and solidify their beliefs and teachings, especially in refutation of error.  As such, much of the original intent and purpose was lost and the letter was read straight through as the teachings of Paul, and therefore the inspired Word of God.

The $20,000.00 question, then, is how does Campbell’s suggested reading affect a view of the book of Romans as the Word of God?  I do not see how it would change that in the least.  The only difference is that we would recognize that Romans 1:18-32 is a bad example of preaching, as the context or Romans 2-4 clearly reveals.

To that I say good riddance!  Seriously, take a look at this church billboard.  A modern-day manifestation straight out of Romans 1:18-32!  And we wonder how to be more effective at outreach…but that’s another post entirely.

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