Paul and Union With Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study

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Constantine R. Campbell is a senior lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological College. He brings a very strong Greek background to this study of Paul as you can see from his previous publications (like Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative (Studies in Biblical Greek) and Verbal Aspect and Non-Indicative Verbs (Studies in Biblical Greek) as well as the perhaps more inviting Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek).

Overview

In Paul and Union With Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study, Campbell is conducting more detailed and technical study of Greek, but not without an eye toward theological dividends (much like the previously reviewed Prepositions and Theology in the Greek NT). The book is divided into three sections: the first on introductory matters, the second on exegetical details, and the last on theological conclusions.

In the opening chapter he sets out the approach to his study. After explaining the hazards of assuming too much about what you are theologically looking for in an exegetical investigation, Campbell says:

This study, then, is exegetical-theological, belonging to the discipline of New Testament theology. It will be apparent that this differs from traditional systematic theology in that it begins with textual minutiae and develops through to conceptual big picture; it does not start with the whole, but progresses from one pole to the other (23).

The starting point for Campbell is Paul’s usage of “in Christ,” which he categorizes as an idiom rather than a formula (25ff). He then adopts a “canonical hermeneutic” that treats all the canonical books of Paul, since “this book is not for academia alone. It is also for the church” (28). Campbell then helpfully presents his major conclusions up front, and in this review I’ll follow his lead (29-30):

  • The term “union with Christ” is deemed insufficient to convey all that Paul includes in the theme…To do justice to the full spectrum of Paul’s thought and language, the terms union, participation, identification, incorporation are adopted, in place of previous terminology
  • Certain conceptual antecedants that give rise to Paul’s metatheme of union, participation, identification, incorporation can be found in Jewish theology and the Old Testament, but most profoundly in the words of Jesus, beginning with his words to Paul on the Damascus road.
  • The metatheme of union, participation, identification, incorporation is regarded to be of utmost importance to Paul, yet does not occupy the “centre” of his theological framework. It is, rather, the essential ingredient that binds all the other elements together

To make the case to support these conclusions, Campbell starts by outlining the “state of the union.” Basically, Campbell chronicles every major New Testament exegete or theologian who has published a monograph on the theme of union with Christ in Paul’s thought. After said chronicle, Campbell looks for connecting threads running through the varied viewpoints.

From here, we move to section two which gets us to the meat of the book. At over 130 pages, chapter 3 is nothing if not thorough in its exegetical treatment of every instance of “in Christ” in the New Testament. That’s right, none of the 73 occurrences escape exegetical scrutiny. Campbell helpfully moves through these in terms of categories of thought rather than just starting in Romans and working right on through to Philemon. Helpfully too, Campbell summarizes as he goes so that he is not just providing running commentary on each verse but is also summarizing the findings. For some readers, these summaries may provide the path through the exegetical sections of the book.

Chapter lengths shorten up for the rest of the book. In chapter 4 Campbell turns to the phrase “into Christ,” before looking at “with Christ” and “through Christ” in chapters 5 and 6 respectively. Before finishing out the exegetical section of the book, Campbell offers an intriguing (and very important) chapter on Pauline metaphors. This helps bridge the gap well from detailed exegetical study into theological terrain. Since Paul’s metaphors of “body of Christ” and “bride of Christ” touch on the concept of being united to Christ without using the prepositional language in every instance, Campbell does well to include this chapter in his study.

In the last section of the book, Campbell draws his conclusions together unto theological headings. Each chapter in turn relates the exegetical findings to some important theological consideration:

  • Union with Christ and the work of Christ (chapter 8)
  • Union with Christ and the Trinity (chapter 9)
  • Union with Christ and Christian living (chapter 10)
  • Union with Christ and Justification (chapter 11)

Each of these chapters goes back to the different prepositional phrases and ties them into the theological topic at hand, as well as key metaphorical expressions that were outlined in chapter 7. The proper conclusion of the book is then reached in chapters 12 and 13 where first, Campbell defines “union with Christ,” and then suggests trajectories for future studies using his work.

Strengths/Weaknesses

A clear strength of Campbell’s work is his attention to detail and patient scholarship. It is also a clear example of the importance of starting with close attention to the text of Scripture in order to faithfully do theology. You can see as you read through Campbell’s work that his close attention to what Paul is actually saying leads him to more carefully nuance the understanding we have of “union with Christ.” It also leads him to see it as a web, or “unifying concept.” that holds much of what Paul says together rather than as a “center.”

Another strength is Campbell’s consistent summaries of his work. This can also be a weakness since it leads to some redundancy, especially in the exegetical sections. However, it is better viewed as a strength since it allows readers to know exactly what conclusions Campbell is drawing from his exegetical and theological investigations, and in the case of his introduction, sometimes gives a detailed thesis up front.

Conclusion

Though I haven’t done so here, Campbell’s book invites critical interaction with its contents. He has done the academy and the church a service by writing this book and because of his clarity in expressing his thoughts, he will find readers in both venues. This would make an ideal book for seminary students and pastors, or really anyone who is highly interested in studying the New Testament. If you’re looking for a thorough study in Paul’s theology and his concept of “union with Christ,” this is probably the new go-to book on the topic and will be a great addition to your library.


Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and Union With Christ: An Exegetical and Theological StudyGrand Rapids: Zondervan AcademicNovember, 2012. 480 pp. Paperback, $34.99.

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Thanks to Zondervan Academic for the review copy!

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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