In The Deliverance of God, Douglas Campbell makes a creative move in rereading Romans as Paul’s engagement with a Teacher who has set himself against Paul. Whereas, on the one hand, the Teacher proclaims a message of God’s retribution against human sin, Paul proclaims a non-retributive gospel message of liberation. As a consequence, Campbell divides Romans 1.18-3.20 from the rest of Romans as a section where Paul represents the teachings of the Teacher in 1.18-32, with Paul’s rebuttal of them in 2.1-3.20.2
However, the reasoning for this shared critique diverges, as I think Romans 1.18-3.20 is addressing a theological problem that the rest of Romans address: the nature of God’s relationship to the moral life and status of Jews and Gentiles. Romans is not structured to be a presentation of the Gospel message, but more so to rebut the incomplete and ultimately mistaken accounts of righteousness and judgment of the nations expressed and implied in texts like Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Maccabees, and 4 Maccabees. What I would suggest Paul does in Romans 1.18-3.20 is to turn the expectations of God’s imminent wrath and judgment against the ungodly nations on its head by demonstrating Torah-observant Israel’s vulnerability to God’s judgment also. Romans 1.18-3.20 is addressing the perceived problem that is situated in the specific circumstance of Paul’s writing, rather than an overarching anthropological or soteriological problem about one’s sin and insufficiency that is necessary to be able to prospectively recognize and receive the Gospel.
To that end, this account of 1.18-3.20 as addressing a problem in the specific circumstance doesn’t diverge dramatically from Campbell’s account of Romans 1.18-3.20. Either way, Paul rebuts his opponent before presenting his message, as was standard in the beginnings of speeches in classical rhetoric. However, where the difference is significant is how one integrates the theological account expressed in 1.18-3.20 with what follows? Is what Paul expresses in 1.18-3.20 a necessary presupposition of Paul’s own understanding of God’s judgment in order to understand the rest of the theological discourse? Or, as per Campbell, is 1.18-3.20 simply the rebuttal of another, false gospel? In other words: is the theology express in 1.18-3.20 necessary to account for what Paul expresses in the rest of the letter?
My answer to that is a decisive yes. Romans 1.18-3.20 presents a theological axiom that is necessary for understanding the rest of Paul’s discourse in Romans. God’s judgment fo the Gentiles in leaving them to their sin in 1.18-32 is not unique to the nations. It is also the reality of Torah-observant Jews. When Paul discusses the hardening of Israelites in Romans 9-11, it is apropos to understanding it as equivalent to God’s actions in 1.18-32. God’s hardening of people or, in the words of Romans 11.32, God’s imprisonment into disobedience is universal, happening among both Jews and Gentiles.
This universality of hardening is in stark contrast to the Wisdom of Solomon, which, according to Campbell, the Teacher is dependent upon.3 What is notable is that Wisdom 13-14, the section that Paul seems to echo in Romans 1.18-32, is followed up by praise to God for the moral righteousness and status the faithful have in Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-4. The descent into depravity is followed up by the ascent of righteousness for the faithful in the Wisdom of Solomon. We can metaphorically think of there being two socio-moral narratives in both Wisdom of Solomon and Romans: a socio-moral narrative of descent into depravity and the socio-moral narrative of ascent into righteousness. For the Wisdom of Solomon, the nations are filled with those who are in a descent into depravity, but faithful Jews are in an ascent towards righteousness.
The expectations an audience familiar with the Wisdom of Solomon might have upon hearing Romans 1.18-32 might have been to think that Paul would extol the virtues of the Torah-observant Jews. However, instead of doing that, Paul takes a play out of the playbook of the prophet Amos, who, after describing God’s judgment to the nations in Amos 1.2-2.3, then indicts Judah and Israel in 2.4-8. Judah is specifically indicted because “they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his statutes” (Amos 2.4), which is similar to Paul’s critique of the Jewish sage in 2.17-24. The surprising turn in Romans 2 is better understood as a form of prophetic speech that tears apart any sense of special favoritism for those who boast in the Torah, rather than an embarrassment and humiliation of Campbell hypothesize Teacher. After all, Paul refers to himself in epistolary prescript as a servant of Jesus Christ, which was commonly used as a prophetic designation4, rather than his more customary introduction as an apostle. Paul is not engaging in a repartee with a counter-missionary teacher teaching a different gospel: Paul is speaking in the tradition of the prophets who regularly called Israel to repentance.
The implication of Paul’s argument in Romans 2 is that Israel is not immune to the judgment that the wicked Gentiles are vulnerable to. This is not, strictly speaking, an argument from “universalization” that Campbell suggests, as if Paul is appealing to some broader, rational principles that would paint an inconsistent particularist into an argumentative corner.5 The universality of God’s judgment is what is in question, not a rational principle to demonstrate the rightness of an argument. The credibility of Paul’s denunciation and pronouncement of judgment in Romans 2.1-11 is contingent on what follows in (a) establishing one’s actions as the basis of judgment (2.12-16), (b) indicting Jewish sages as susceptible indictable behavior (2.17-24), (c) making a familiar, Deuteronomic echo about the meaning of circumcision as defining the person’s way of life (2.25-29), and (d) the Torah being a testimony about the sinfulness of those under Torah (3.1-20). It is more fitting to suggest that Paul’s ‘argument’ in 2.1-3.20 proceeds from a prophetic denunciation and proclamation of an eschatological judgment to offering inductive support for the denunciation of those who affiliate themselves with the Torah, with it being finally clinched by a catena of OT quotations that demonstrate that the Jews are not morally privileged according to the Scriptures, in contrast with what is expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-4.
Put more simply, the socio-moral narrative of descent into depravity in Romans 1.18-32 is also applicable to the implied Torah-affiliating figure of Romans 2. Romans 2.5 represents this figure as being hardened and storing up wrath for themselves just like the people in 1.18-32.
The crux of Paul’s social discussion about Jews and Gentiles in Romans is that the universality of God’s hardening among Jews and Gentiles is also suggestive another theological reality: that God’s mercy is also universally bestowed to the Jew and Greek alike. This is at the heart of Romans 11.30-32, the resolution of Paul’s argument in chapters 1-11.
That Romans 11.30-32 should be understood as summarizing the whole of Paul’s argument from chapters 1-11 is evidenced by the similarity between 1.17-18 and 11.32. Even though 1.16-17 has been marked as the thesis statement of Romans, the grammatical and structural parallels of 1.17 and 1.18 suggest that the concepts of 1.17 and 1.18 are related. Campbell suggests this similarity of form is explained to a deliberate contrast of Paul’s Gospel with the gospel of the Teacher.6 If this was Paul’s rhetorical strategy, a preposition other than γὰρ would have been more clear of this contrast. However, the usage of γὰρ would generally suggest that there some form an inferential relationship between the content of 1.17 and 1.18. As 11.30-32 expresses a causal relationship between God’s imprisoning and God’s mercy, it seems that the relationship between 1.17-18 should be understood as causal, where the revelation of God’s wrath describing 1.18 is somehow understood to instrumental in the revelation of God’s righteousness in 1.17. We see a similar causal link between God’s wrath and God’s mercy expressed in 9.22-23. Thus, it seems that the explicit expressed content of 1.18-32 is a necessary, theological presupposition for understanding the rest of Paul’s discourse in Romans 1-11, even if implicitly Paul’s language would have been understood to be from another source that Paul disagrees with in some capacity.
Without the universality of God’s hardening and judgment expressed in Romans 1.18-3.20, Paul’s argument loses a key concept by which to understand the relationship between Israel’s hardening and a universal mercy in Romans 9-11. Furthermore, the discussion of hardening in 9-11 is seemingly brought up out of nowhere when it is first brought up in Romans 9.14-18. There is no further explanation of what hardening is in the immediate context, as if it is a concept that should be understood by the audience. As a consequence, there is an inclination to provide various theological accounts of hardening in interpreting Paul, often relying on certain metaphysical accounts to explain it. Luther in On the Bondage of the Will thought God’s hardening was forced onto a person and evidence of the lack of free will. Similarly, in his commentary on Romans 9.18, John Calvin considers the hardening a foreordained event. However, if we recognize 1.18-32 as the prototype of what God’s hardening looks like for Paul, we can then understand Romans 9.14-18 as Paul picking back up the topic of hardening, directing it in this case towards Israel. Rather than a concept coming up out of the blue, God’s hardening as already been touched upon in 1.18-32 as God’s response to human acts of idolatry and sin.
One of the weaknesses of Campbell’s interpretation of Romans is that he gives scant attention to the resolution of Paul’s theological argumentation in 11.30-32. It is these verses that are suggestive of an important theological relation of God’s hardening and judgment with God’s righteousness and mercy. However, the mistake that interpreters who resemble Campbell’s portrayal of Justification Theory make is that they seem to assume the expression of a logical relationship between wrath and mercy is a necessary epistemic step one must take to come to faith through the Gospel.
Instead of presenting rudimentary, epistemic stages of faith development, Paul’s concern is to give an account of the outworking of God’s purposes in history by understanding the two socio-moral narratives of descent and ascent. Responsibility is placed on the actions of Adam for universally bringing about the descent into sin and death into the world (Romans 5.12-14). The end result is that even someone who tries to obey Torah resembles Adam in their own moral descent (Romans 7.7-13).7 By contrast, Christ’s obedience has made possible a moral ascent for everyone (Romans 5.15-21). Those who are baptized into Christ participate in this moral ascent and transformation by their union with Christ’s death and resurrection freeing from them sin and enabling them to successfully use their bodies for the purpose of righteousness (Romans 6.1-23).
Paul’s understanding of the universal reality of both socio-moral narratives among both Jews and Gentiles presents a stark contrast with the anthropology of the Wisdom of Solomon, which sees the pagan world living in a moral decline that will lead to their eventual destruction by God, whereas faithful, Torah observant Jews are by God’s mercy on a moral incline that will lead to their inevitable vindication. Paul’s argument is not to reject this view that we see expressed by the Wisdom of Solomon, but rather to show its incompleteness, as both experience and Israel’s Scriptures demonstrate that much of Israel can be on the moral decline and that even Gentiles can live faithfully before God and become part of God’s people. The startling conclusion of Paul’s argument in Romans 11 is that Israel’s hardening by God is instrumental in the merciful inclusion of the Gentiles, which will, in turn, lead to the merciful reinclusion of Israel.
Paul’s argument in Romans gives what, in the words of legendary radio story-teller Paul Harvey, may be understood as “the rest of the story.” Only, this rest of the story challenged some the other narratives that were commonly packaged together with this partial, ethnocentric narrative, such as Abraham’s obedience at the time of testing being the origins of his justification before God rather than His faith8 and that the devil and Cain are complicit in the presence of death and evil in the world rather than Adam.9 While those other narratives were told in such a way that it exonerates those figures that Israel identified themselves with, such as Adam and Abraham as morally exemplary figures, Paul’s alternative telling of Israel’s story tears apart these narratives by putting responsibility for sin on Adam’s shoulders and emphasizing that Abraham was justified through faith before he was every faithful. This implication of these arguments is to demonstrate that there is no some inherent incline towards righteousness among humanity that only Abraham and his ancestors retained in virtue of God’s election and Torah, but rather that the moral decline has universally devastated Israel and all the nations alike, while God’s mercy in the atonement of Christ to reverse this decline is also abundantly given to Jews and Gentiles alike.
In conclusion, Paul’s discourse in Romans 1.18-32 is a necessary theological presupposition for understanding the wider argument in chapters 1-11. While Campbell’s argument is on stronger grounds when he rejects the Justification Theory’s prospective, epistemically foundationalist reading of Romans as providing an account of conversion where one moves from recognition of the negative experience under Torah and of one’s sinfulness that leads to faith and reception of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, Romans 1.18-32 is prospective in development of Paul’s discourse, laying an argumentative foundation that will then be used to make sense of significant parts of the argument throughout Romans 1-11. The prospective movement in Paul’s argument is to be understood as part of the rhetorical strategy to undercut the partial anthropological and historical narrative being told by the Wisdom of Solomon, but it is not intended by Paul to be in any way suggestive of the way the Gospel is received by individuals.
- Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God,
While I have some deep reservations about how Campbell situates Paul’s discourse against the backdrop of a specific teacher without nary a direct or indirect reference, the strength of Campbell’s reading rests on what can be an overriding sense that Paul is responding to something. I happen to believe Paul is responding to specific conceptions of Judaism espoused by specific literary texts that would have been instrumental in fomenting a sense of Maccabean zeal for Torah, such as 1 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, and Wisdom of Solomon. To that end, the difference between Campbell’s reading and my thesis is a matter of who or what Paul is responding to while recognizing that there is some set of teachings that Paul is challenging.
However, the other reservation I have is the way that Campbell treats the content of Romans 1.18-3.20 as not functioning as a theological presupposition for the rest of the discourse in Romans. To be clear, here, I am in agreement with Campbell’s critique of the traditional reading rooted in Justification Theory that Romans 1.18-3.20 is the articulation of problem necessary for people to recognize in order to receive the Gospel articulated in 3.21 onwards.1Ibid., 315.
- Ibid., 544.
- Richard Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, 102.
- Campbell, The Deliverance of God, 548-549.
- Ibid., 543.
- Ben Witherington (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 178-191) understands Paul to be engaging in a rhetorical prosopopoeia in Romans 7.7-13, impersonating Adam. While I think it is a hypothetical Jew, not Adam, who is being impersonated in Romans 7.7-13, there are certain resemblances to Adam in the passage that would rhetorically cast this hypothetical Jew as acting like Adam.
- Compare 1 Maccabees 2.52 with Romans 4.
- Compare Wisdom of Solomon 2.42 and 10.1-4 to Romans 5.12-21.