Campbell, Douglas A. Paul: An Apostle’s Journey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. 219 pp. $25, pb. Link to Eerdmans
At slightly less than 200 pages of text, Campbell’s new introduction to the life and thought of the Apostle Paul is written with the layperson in mind. There are no long discussions of the New Perspective on Paul nor does Campbell engage in highly technical language in the book. Only rarely does he engage the Greek text. The book uses endnotes (fourteen pages) making for a smooth reading experience. Campbell includes a number of personal insights which draw the ancient text forward to contemporary issues. For example, he concludes his first chapter on Corinth with a section entitled “the take-home from Corinth.” Chapters conclude with a series of questions designed for group discussions or perhaps even short writing prompts for papers.
As he does in detail in Framing Paul (Eerdmans, 2014), Campbell tells the story of Paul’s life based on the Epistles first, and then uses the book of Acts. Since there are so many questions surrounding the authorship and genre of Acts, many scholars consider the story of Paul in Acts to be a hagiography written to support the unity of the early church and highlight the successes of the Pauline mission. For example, Campbell suggests Paul’s visit to Athens is intentionally modeled after Socrates, a wise man who was unjustly arrested and executed. Although Campbell thinks Acts is “99 percent accurate” (p. 5), he still argues a sound historical methodology should use the authentic letters of Paul to “frame” the contours of Paul’s life before turning to the book of Acts.
Framing Paul’s story with the Epistles rather than Acts results in two detailed periods in Paul’s life. First, the events around the time of his conversion are clear from the epistles, especially Galatians, from A.D. 31-41. Second, the events of A.D. 49-52 are very detailed based on the Corinthian letters and Paul’s anxious comments at the end of Romans concerning his plans to return to Jerusalem with the collection. Acts is the only source for Paul’s life after this time (his arrest in Jerusalem, house arrest in Caesarea, journey to Rome and house arrest in Rome). For the most part, this “last journey” (Acts 20-28) is the subject of the final chapter of the book.
But this book is more than the story of Paul’s missionary journeys. Campbell suggests Paul makes a theological journey as well. Clearly his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus changed his thinking considerably, but as he encountered new challenges as the apostle to the Gentiles Paul was forced to think and rethink how the Gospel challenges the culture of the first century. For example, Campbell has two chapters on the Corinthian church: “Culture Wars at Corinth” and “Navigating Sex and Gender.”
Both of these chapters concern how the Gospel ought to change the way Corinthian Gentiles think about common cultural practices. Campbell offers a list of fourteen problems in the Corinthian church which more or less form the outline to 1 Corinthians. The problems boil down to a basic failure of Christians to relate to one another with kindness, beginning with the leaders of the church who were engaged in bitter competition with one another. What is more, the Corinthian church struggle with what Campbell calls “Christian intellectualism” as well as “sexual intellectualism” (100, 104). He discusses the difficult “silencing of women” passage in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 by suggesting the Corinthian women were loosening their hair and acting like devotees of Dionysus (110). Paul does not intend to silence all women in this passage, only those who are behaving inappropriately in the congregation.
The second part of the book covers several theological topics. Campbell deals with “enemies” of Paul, the covenant vs. contract, the status of Israel, and eschatology. The title of the chapter on Paul’s view of the future for Israel is entitled “God wins” and deals in part with the difficult text in Romans 11 that “all Israel will be saved.” He points out Paul’s argument is based on the Old Testament motif of the remnant; God never lets go of Israel.
What is more, God is a covenantal God who always faithful to his promises. Therefore, “all Israel will be saved” means just that. It is a kind of “Pauline universalism” based on the character of God. Campbell says “the covenant is unbreakable, and ultimately enwraps us all in the gracious purpose of God that was established with us through his son before the foundation of the world” (169). The following few paragraphs unpack tentatively a sort of universalism, “I expect everyone to be raised in glory, although some more shamefacedly than others.” In an end note, Campbell points out his view here is not far from C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Intriguing, but I suspect this controversial conclusion will draw attention away from the rest of the book.
Conclusion: Campbell’s book is a pleasure to read. His presentation of the basic ideas of Paul’s thought are clear and he draws conclusions which will resonate with the contemporary reader. Perhaps the biggest drawback to the book is its brevity; some topics worthy of a chapter are dispatched in a few pages. This new introduction to Paul ought to serve well for both undergraduate and graduate level classes as well as any interested layperson who wants to understand the life and teaching of the Apostle Paul.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
4 thoughts on “Book Review: Douglas Campbell, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey”
Thank you for your review. I am now eager to read this one!
Thanks, Phil! You remain, my primary source for Biblical materials and vetting what I would benefit from reading or adding to my library of resources.
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