Review: Beyond Justification by Douglas A. Campbell and Jon DePue

Book: Beyond Justification: Liberating Paul’s Gospel by Douglas A. Campbell and Jon DePue

Publisher: Cascade Books, 2024.

Overview: This book challenges what the authors call “justification theory,” and it offers a textual solution that liberates Paul’s gospel from that theory.  Justification theory is the standard Western interpretation of the gospel, but as Campbell and DePue point out, it is fraught with problems both textually, historically, theologically, and politically. What emerges from their unraveling of this theory is a more beautiful gospel that is truly good news; it is also a message that is more faithful to the broader scope of Paul’s gospel of participation in the resurrection of the crucified Christ.

Since reading this new book by Douglas Campbell and Jon DePue, I’ve recommended it to my friends more than any other book I’ve reviewed. It is so easy to recommend because it is clear, thorough, and well-argued, and, most of all because it offers a vital reframing of the gospel. The book offers a massive and important shift in perspective, one that solves many of the issues with the standard approach to the gospel.

What is justification theory? The book describes it as a reading of Paul based largely on Romans 1-3 that follows nine steps: First, everyone knows God accurately; second, righteousness is God’s commitment to his glory; third, the Jewish law and personal conscience reveal God’s expectations; fourth, there are rewards or punishments for fulfilling God’s demands; fifth, humans fail to follow God’s command; sixth, all humans deserve retributive punishment; seventh, Christ satisfies God’s wrath against sin; eighth, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers; ninth, Christ’s righteousness is appropriated through faith alone.

There are a number of problems with this theory, however. First, there is the issue of penal substitution, which becomes central to the narrative of salvation. I have a long video on the problems with penal substitution, which I won’t rehearse here. But that atonement model is clearly a central part of justification theory. Second, this theory only makes use of about 10 percent of Paul’s texts. As Campbell and DePue often point out, justification theory makes a small number of texts central, while using those texts to force an interpretation of the remaining 90 percent of texts. But that procedure only leads to further problems.

Justification theory is basically the foundation of evangelical Christianity’s definition of the gospel. But, as Campbell and DePue point out, it relies on a faulty reading of Paul in Romans 1-3. The famous “Romans road” approach to evangelism is a classic example of this. The assumption is that the first step of the gospel is to proclaim bad news, that is, to describe why the individual is judged by the law and condemned accordingly. However, this operates with a faulty understanding of Jewish law, which is not a threat of punishment but a gift.

E. P. Sanders’s classic study, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, offered the main challenge to this perspective. This study examined how Jews in Paul’s day understood themselves according to primary sources from the time period. Sanders uncovered that the law was not understood as a means of “self-salvation,” as it is in justification theory, but rather what he called “covenantal nomism.” In other words, the Jewish understanding of the law during Paul’s life was not one of legalism but of covenant. This challenge is important because it undercuts the central tenant of justification theory—that first there was legalism, then there is grace.

Campbell and DePue then survey the major responses to Sanders’ challenge, which is known as the “New Perspective on Paul.” This perspective, in Campbell and DePue’s summary, “basically claimed that Paul’s legalistic account of ‘the Jew’ in Box A… should be nuanced in more sociological, corporate, and historical directions” (p. 151). However, The problem with this is that it still does not solve the problem of a clear legalist interpretation of the Jewish law in Paul’s writings. Therefore, Campbell and DePue do not think the New Perspective on Paul is adequate as a solution. As they write, “A new perspective on [justification theory] won’t work…. We need a comprehensively new reading of this textual data that lies beyond [justification theory] itself” (p. 154).

The solution Campbell and DePue offer is not to downplay the legalism in Paul’s writings but to understand the texts socratically. Through an interesting re-reading of Romans 1-3, they are able to suggest—I think successfully—that Paul is engaging critics of his gospel in a sort of Socratic debate. The text might be read, then, as Paul’s dialogue with a gospel that is not his own, one that he is opposed to rather than endorses. Campbell and DePue focus on Romans 1-3 because that is where the bulk of the material for justification theory appears. Their solution—though it is more complex than this—is effectively to suggest that Paul is not endorsing everything he is writing, and in fact, Paul is directly disputing the texts that are often used to defend justification theory.

In particular, they suggest that Romans 1:18 is the first verse where another “voice” enters the letter. The argument is that the church in Rome would have been able to recognize the difference, which is an argument they support with comments on the book of Galatians. Paul’s letter would have been read aloud to the church in Rome, not read silently, so the tone shift in 1:18 is a noticeable enough change to suggest that Paul is quoting his opponents to dismantle their argument.

One of the profound effects of this reading is that it makes Paul’s argument far more interesting and compelling than a flat reading entails. In fact, it makes Paul seem quite a bit more brilliant than the rather bland and flat reading offered by justification theory. In their interpretation, Campbell and DePue show how Paul systematically dismantles his opponent’s assumptions and corrects them with his own gospel of participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Campbell and DePue wonderfully walk you through that argument, and the results are fascinating.

There is quite a bit more to this approach, of course. But the benefits of this reading are immense. As the subtitle suggests, the primary result is to “liberate” Paul’s gospel from the clutches of justification theory. It results in a fascinating approach to Romans, one that is able to meet the challenges posed by E. P. Sanders and even go further by uncovering a more robust concept of Paul’s gospel of participation in Christ.

There is so much to commend about this book, but ultimately, I can recommend it based on the liberating effect it might have on both individuals and the church as a whole. This reading will potentially make the good news truly good news once again. It also confirms Barth’s critique of the law-gospel sequence while supplying a sophisticated textual argument to match Barth’s theological argument (which is, for me, a bonus to an already excellent book). Overall, I highly recommend this book.

I want to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for a review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections. 

Watch my interview with Jon DePue: