In chapter 1 of his megabook, The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), Douglas Campbell outlines what he calls “the justification theory of salvation”, which he seems to regard as a summary of the conventional understanding of the gospel amongst the majority of Western Christians (7). If read in a certain light, then Campbell’s description of this “theory”, and his exposition of its difficulties (especially the “intrinsic difficulties” in chapter 2), can be of great help to those of us who want to speak the gospel clearly and accurately. How? Because it’s so wrong, and so detailed. Hence it provides us with a neat and nicely described catalogue of distortions to avoid. Let me explain.
As I began reading Campbell’s description of “justification theory”, I was startled by its wild claims. It certainly didn’t reflect what I had learned in theological college about justification and salvation. Campbell’s theory, for example, espouses a voluntarist view of humanity, natural revelation and the experience of despair as an essential component in salvation, an arbitrary view of “faith”, and a strict contractual / economic view of atonement. As far as I can tell, this “theory” doesn’t reflect any of the serious attempts to articulate the gospel made by any well-thought-through theologian or exegete in the history of the Christian church. I checked out the endnotes to find out who on earth Campbell was talking about, but discovered that he doesn’t give any examples of anyone who could be said to endorse this “theory”, apart from a couple of parenthetical references to Luther (notes 21 and 24); and that his short critique of Federal Calvinism (pp. 14-15) is based almost entirely on some articles by James Torrance rather than on any primary sources.
When Cambpell does critique a particular theologian at length (Anselm, in chapter 2), he gets him wrong at his most fundamental point. Campbell argues that Anselm’s view of the atonement is “essentially economic” because it posits that “human sins are a violation of God’s rights to certain good and services”, and then implies that Anselm didn’t consider that “[t]he only thing that God can be deprived of is the honor and respect due him and his decrees” (p 52). Now I’m not saying that Anselm got everything right, but you can’t accuse him of not taking God’s honour and respect seriously. This is his basic idea of atonement – the satisfaction of God’s honour (not paying back money to God). See 1.11-14 in Anselm, ‘Why God Became Man’. Pages 100-83 in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1956.
So after reading these chapters, I concluded that Campbell isn’t deriving his “justification theory of salvation” from any of the serious traditions of Christianity, and so (despite his protestations, pp 12-13) his theory is a “straw man” in the technical scholarly sense, failing in its intended purpose to describe “the most formidable account of the [biblical] data that we yet possess” (p. 13).
However … as I kept reading and rereading, I had to ask, where is Campbell’s theory coming from? I can only guess, but the only explanation I can find is that he has derived his “theory” from elements of some popular gospel preaching. His description does indeed resonate with the kind of Gospel-preaching that emphasises “our decision for Christ” above all else, or gospel preaching that sets God the “just” father in opposition Christ the “loving” son, or gospel preaching that tells us simply to “have faith” without adequately describing the object of and reason for such faith, or gospel preaching that promises individual salvation and nothing more. It’s quite possible for gospel preachers to fall into traps such as these, and more.
So, if you are a gospel preacher, and you have a few spare hours, I’d suggest that you read through Campbell’s “theory” and his critique of it (at least chapter 2). Campbell usefully lists a lot of traps for young (and old) players. And if your own gospel preaching sounds like Campbell’s “justification theory of salvation”, weep, repent, and go back and read the Bible (and Luther and Calvin, for that matter).