Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Douglas Campbell headshot

If the apostle Paul was walking the earth right now, he would probably be in prison, says Douglas Campbell, professor of New Testament.

Campbell has focused his academic research on the apostle Paul, focusing on both his life and theology. In particular, he has argued that Paul’s understanding of salvation is informed by an apocalyptic (or world-changing) perspective, not the models of forensic justification or salvation-history that have tended to dominate interpretations of Paul’s theology.

Paul has been terribly misunderstood, Campbell explains. In his upcoming book, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey (Eerdmans), he hopes to give Christian leaders a better understanding of the tentmaker from Tarsus.

“I’ve spent most of my career unhappy with the way Paul is interpreted,” he says. “I think the mainstream interpretation of Paul is problematic on all sorts of levels. It fundamentally misrepresents what he’s trying to say about the gospel.”  

Campbell’s view of Paul was shaped during his first teaching job at his alma mater, the University of Otago, in his native New Zealand. He received a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy; then he went on to earn his master’s and doctorate in religious studies from the University of Toronto. Back at the University of Otago, he became friends with the famous theologian Alan J. Torrance.

“He explained the difference between understanding a God who relates to you in contractual, conditional, and legal way as against a God who relates to you in covenantal way, which is motivated and structured by a loving relationship,” Campbell says. “You can’t talk about a God of love if you approach salvation in a legal and conditional way.”

The apostle Paul is also connected to one of Campbell’s other great passions: prison ministry. “Paul would be evangelizing in prison, working the networks and organizing,” he says. There would be a lot of praying going on. He would be profoundly unhappy with the things going on in the country.”

Campbell is a leading faculty member in the Certificate in Prison Studies at Duke Divinity School. His introduction to prison ministry came when his wife felt compelled to reach out to a friend of their son who was convicted of a crime and sent to prison during his junior year of high school. “That was the start of a long relationship, now 12 years long. We kept calling, writing and visiting. He’s like a third child to us. It opened our eyes to the U.S. penal system.”

The start of this relationship coincided with the decision by Duke Divinity School faculty to become more involved with prisoners and issues around mass incarceration. Campbell teaches a core course for the certificate dealing with issues such as racial dynamics, mass incarceration, and restorative justice.

Students taking the certificate also take a Project TURN course. Project TURN creates a learning environment in which incarcerated men and women and Duke Divinity School students learn alongside one another as classmates inside a facility. “It makes for a very powerful learning experience,” Campbell says. He intends for the certificate to balance academic training and personal spiritual development, offering a unique experience in which diverse students stretch their boundaries and enlarge their imaginations.

“Every minister should be as familiar with the inside of the local prison as they are with the local hospital and most aren’t,” Campbell argues. “There’s a huge gap here. I’m quite passionate about it! They should be supporting people doing time, along with their family, friends, and the people working there because they have one of the toughest jobs.”

Campbell is the author of Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography (Eerdmans), The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans), and The Quest for Paul's Gospel: A Suggested Strategy (T&T Clark). A book of essays has been published analyzing his critical approach to justification: Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul: Reflections on the Work of Douglas Campbell (ed. Chris Tilling, Wipf & Stock).

“My recent publications are all meant to be read by and to help Christian leaders. They address all the critical issues Christians face. They deal with issues of truth, the nature of God, and mission. How to navigate diversity? How to engage with situations like prisons? They are directly focused on what the church should look like.”

Campbell also likes framing the minds of his students. “They are young, enthusiastic, and passionate. They are the future leaders of the church, the guardians of the gospel, and change agents in society. Shaping them appropriately is an important job. They have a lot to learn. I get energized by their enthusiasm and interest.”

Paul is great example to them. “Paul is a seminal figure in all of this. He had a vision. He didn’t work this out in an office. It’s not abstract. He worked this out on the ground. He’s the definitive missionary and church planter.”