Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Deliver us ...

I took delivery yesterday of two books. The first, The Indelible Image is by one of my favourite writers, Ben Witherington. It is the first volume in a two volume work on New Testament Theology and Ethics. As I teach Ethics and with my main interest lying in the New Testament, it is a book which brings together my two principal concerns. As is to be expected, Ben's book is scholarly, well-written, full of insights, and devout: the fruit of many years of research and study. I expect to not only enjoy reading it thoroughly, but to be referring to it for many years to come.

What to say about the second? It is the Deliverance of God by Douglas Campbell. At 1,218 pages, it certainly is not a light read, but it is, nevertheless, getting rave notices on the Internet. Many are claiming, including Campbell himself, that it will revolutionize our understanding of Paul's theology and change Pauline studies forever. You get the idea.

The book clearly covers a great deal of ground tackles many difficult and controversial areas and, again, represents a large amount of research. I am always worried, though, when people claim to be the first really to understand Paul or some other part of the Bible. I find that a bit difficult to believe and not a little arrogant! Campbell basically dismisses most other interpreters of Paul as simply wrong and mistaken. He alone has decoded the mystery which is Paul.

I am looking forward to reading it fully, if only to see what all the fuss is about. I have, however, read parts of it and am a bit bemused. You will know the story of the Emperor's new clothes. How a group of tailors convince everyone that they have made the Emperor a magical new set of clothes that only the wise and clever can see. Everyone pretends that they can see the clothes not wanting to appear foolish. It takes a little boy to shout out, 'The Emperor has no clothes on!' before anyone realizes the deceit.

I wonder if this book may be an academic set of Emperor's new clothes. Campbell in interpreting Romans, for example, claims that in Romans 1-4, Paul is, in fact, saying precisely the opposite to what basically everyone has ever thought that he was saying. Paul, Campbell alleges, is arguing with a 'Teacher' in Rome (although Paul never actually says this is what he is doing) with whom he disagrees and in doing so quotes his argument at length. So, for example, Romans 1:18-32 is a 'speech in person', that is, Paul is giving the Teacher's argument not his own.

Now I know that there are some things in Paul, which, as Peter puts it, are hard to understand, but if Campbell is right then Paul is not only hard to understand, but basically impossible. It would mean that for 2,000 years no-one has been reading the most important work of Christian theology in anything like the right way. If this is the case, then I would suggest that we just abandon all study of the Bible as a waste of time and get on without it.

I don't think it is the case, however. The book is clever, no doubt. Just as the tailors who made the Emperor's clothes were clever. But the joke is on us if we let ourselves be convinced by such extravagant claims.

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