Paul: An Apostle’s Journey [Review]

In a recent interview about his book Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, which Eerdmans kindly sent to Theology Forum for review, Douglas Campbell said, “This book is out to make disciples.” Lord willing, the book might do just that. I can say, with certainty, the book challenged me to be a better pastor.

As a student at Duke, I took Campbell’s “Life of Paul” class. He writes the way he speaks, with clarity and wit. The book is intended to introduce Paul’s life and theology to “people who have not been shaped by a seminary experience” (xi). Campbell has done a fine job of writing accessibly, with chapters broken into manageable subsections and concluded with review questions. He keeps his writing fresh by including metaphors and, the true heart of Campbellism, humor. (Even now, I can hear him laughing at himself after the “whole hog” pun on p. 127.) Though I was introduced to much of the content throughout his class, I found myself thoroughly engaged by the prose.

The book follows Paul’s life, but according to Campbell’s unique method.* Campbell starts with Paul’s letters in order to reconstruct the narrative according to Paul’s own account. This stands as an alternative to the conventional approach, which reads Acts first to discover the narrative of Paul’s ministry and then fills in blanks with Paul’s letters. Campbell assumes the details of the stories in Acts are mostly solid (he mentions only two minor details that Paul’s letters seem to correct). The trouble lies in the timeline (p. 5-6). From an inter-Gospel comparison, we know the author of Luke-Acts is willing to adjust the order of events. Why shouldn’t we assume he’s done some shifting in Acts? This way of reading is exciting. Like reading a mystery novel, the reader joins Campbell as he pieces together fragments into a cohesive story. What most readers see as inconspicuous remnants of a lost community, Campbell sees as answers to puzzles left unsolved.

Paul is broken into two primary parts. The first part covers Paul’s conversion and early missionary journeys. The scope of this section is enormous. Campbell reviews Paul’s geographical, theological, and social movements. While reading, one must keep in mind that this is an introduction. At times, it feels as if this book is a trailer that previews Campbell’s forthcoming book, which he footnotes on several occasions. Nonetheless, Campbell offers a panoramic picture of Paul’s life and theology. Where he holds back or simplifies, he does so for the reader’s sake.

In the second part, Campbell introduces the first major threat to Paul’s churches, complemented by three chapters on how God relates to creatures, on how God relates to Israel, and how God’s salvation is not limited in any way. Here he reads Paul against the grain of major Reformation thinkers, but, as he argues, with the grain of Paul’s own logic. The book concludes with a chapter on Paul’s final journey. A dramatic conclusion, indeed.

Here’s what struck me most. The image of Paul painted by Campbell is one of a wise, compassionate, and motivated pastor. From conflict resolution to fatherly love, Paul is more than just a theological treasure-trove. He is an example of pastoral virtue. Campbell does the church a favor by reminding us that Paul’s theology is always grounded in the work of the church, always tied up with the Holy Spirit’s work of reconciliation. Take, for example, Campbell’s interpretation of Paul’s work with the Corinthians.

“When missionaries reach out to others in friendship, bridging into awkward spaces, they get alongside people. Paul is now applying that approach internally, to the Corinthians. This approach can lead a community forward, despite its differences, and hold it together as it navigates the unsettling impact of the Spirit in its cultural forms. The leadership modeled in the cross applies everywhere. But this sort of leadership makes genuine Christian leaders vulnerable, which is probably why so many people avoid it” (p. 116).

This is both deeply theological and pastoral. It sounds somewhat foolish saying it. Paul was writing letters to congregations. What could be more pastoral? I suppose I found myself moved by the sheer depth of Paul’s concern for his people. That is something from which all pastors can learn.

Here’s my take. This book is perfectly suited for undergraduate classes in New Testament survey or the study of the Pauline letters. Additionally, it would be an excellent book for introducing Christian theology, helping students early in their theological education bridge gaps between interpretation and theology. Though Campbell has written accessibly, the book will still be difficult for folks who haven’t read Paul’s letters time and again. I think motivated congregants could handle it, but maybe give them a couple of weeks to read through Paul’s letters a few of times.

And, finally, a few things for which Campbell will have to answer in at the end of the age. First, Campbell is supposedly a Barthian, but Barth is only mentioned once (though his fingerprints are everywhere!). Second, Campbell’s theological interpretation of Zao is completely whack. As recompense on Campbell’s behalf, I’ll leave a video of Zao below.

Other than that, I am deeply grateful for and convicted by this book. My congregants and community owe Campbell a thank you.

*A more comprehensive account of Campbell’s method is offered in chapter one of his earlier book, Framing Paul (Eerdmans 2014).

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