Paul and Union with Christ by Constantine Campbell

Over the past several years there have been a number of topics that have been heavily discussed in blogs, journal articles and have been the focus of books and addresses at conferences. One such topic has been that of union with Christ. Unlike other discussions on the trinity or Scripture for instance, the discussion on union with Christ has not been met with the same kind of hostility or polarizing opinions and interpretations (in this readers opinion at least). While the number of recent books on the subject has not been numerous, of the books that have been published their impact seems to have been deep and far reaching.

Most of the books have intentionally focused on the theological considerations of union with Christ with a mix of historical and practical considerations. What has been missing is an intentional sustained exegetical treatment of the subject as the foundation for the broader theological discussion. In order to fill this gap Constantine Campbell has recently written a book titled Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study with Zondervan (2012). As the title indicates, this books is concerned with three focuses: (1) it deals with the subject only in the writings of Paul, (2) it address them first through exegesis of the relevant texts and (3) following the exegesis it moves onto the theological implications gleaned from the exegesis.

Exegetical Analysis

The bulk of the book is taken up with exegetical analysis. The first sets of texts under consideration are naturally those with the specific phrase “in Christ” and “into Christ”. Rightly recognizing the fluidity and elasticity of prepositions Constantine broadens his exegetical analysis to include all “with Christ” and “through Christ” prepositional phrases. Going even further, all “in” phrases that are clear referents to Christ but use words like Lord and Him are discussed as well. In addition to the prepositional phrases Constantine includes metaphors through which Paul discusses union with Christ. These include the body of Christ, the temple and marriage among others. With all of these considerations together, Constantine truly discusses the whole sweep of passage in Paul that pertains to union with Christ.

At the beginning of each chapter a brief history of the phrase or metaphor is discussed. Especially with the prepositional phrases, Constantine lays out the range of meaning as listed in BDAG. This becomes very useful for the reader as they can refer to it while they read his analysis. All of the texts under consideration in each group are broken down into various subgroups based on their focus. For instance, within the seventy-three occurrences of “in Christ” they are broken down into ten subgroups with some further sub categorization. So here, all the texts dealing with believers’ actions in Christ (p. 94-101), faith in Christ (p. 111-13) or the trinity in Christ (p. 127-40) are grouped together.

The essential layout in the analysis of each section is straight forward. The text is provided in Greek with the HCBS translation provided below it. When it comes to the prepositions and there possible meanings, not every BDAG listed option is discussed for every occurrence/text. What you see in the discussion of each occurrence is not a weeding out of every BDAG option but a weeding out of each realistic possible option. Some conclusions are drawn more quickly than others as the meaning is more apparent in some texts. For those that are not so immediately obvious Constantine does a good job of sifting through the possible options as he sees it.

Though this is the exegetical stage of the discussion, and the more developed theological conclusions are drawn later, Constantine wrestles with the various theological conclusions that he feels would be the result of either taking the preposition or metaphors a given way. This is how he sifts out possible options and comes to his interpretation of choice. What rises to the surface here is that we are presented with the reality of how our theological interpretation and exegetical method go back in forth to help bring us to our conclusions and interpretations about a given text. Exegetical conclusions are never drawn in a vacuum as some would like to believe but are always coupled with and informed by our broader theological positions. Constantine shows us how this looks and does so with as much objectivity as one can expect.

In chapter seven Constantine deals with the metaphors relevant the theme of union with Christ. The chapter layout is the same. He indicates up front that throughout the chapter he offers sustained engagement with the work of Sang-Wong Son’s monograph,

Corporate Elements in Pauline Anthropology (p. 267).

Theological Conclusions

At this point Constantine deals with the theological implications of is exegetical analysis. He covers ground in several areas: union with Christ and the work of Christ, the trinity, Christian living, and justification. He briefly covers all of the applicable groups and subgroups from the exegetical section that contribute to the theological theme under discussion. From there he synthesizes the relevant texts and builds a theological framework.

Throughout this section Constantine addresses a number of important theological issues. He spends time at length on Romans 6 and dying and rising with Christ (p. 333-42). His short but meaty discussion on Romans 5 and the new Adam will be of interest to many. He does not see the exegetical support for a Calvinistic interpretation of imputation but rather argues for representation that is both” mechanical and symbolic”. (p. 346) They are “mechanical in the sense that Adam and Christ open the door to their respective domains, providing the means through which others may enter in……Both figures are also symbolic representatives of their respective domains since both are the ‘first man’ of each.” (p. 346) He prefers to see imputation in conjunction with union with Christ (p. 399). Here he also mixes this discussion with his chapter on justification (chap. 11).

With all of the exegetical and theological discussion Constantine has engaged in, his conclusion on the definition of union with Christ is multi-termed/idiomatic (p. 26; 413):

  1. Union – gathers up faith union with Christ, mutual indwelling, trinitarian, and nuptial notions.
  2. Participation – conveys partaking in the events of Christ’s narrative.
  3. Identification – refers to believers’ location in the realm of Christ and their allegiance to his lordship.
  4. Incorporation – encapsulates the corporate dimensions of membership in Christ’s body.

This multi-termed/idiomatic view sees the theme of union with Christ as an umbrella term for various other related theological developments in the theology of Paul and the NT.

Conclusion

One of the goals in writing a book is to match the content with the stated purpose of the book which is usually found in the title itself. Constantine has definitely accomplished his goal of providing an exegetical and theological study on the theme of union with Christ in the writings of Paul. His exegesis is exemplary, honest and he is humble about his conclusions. His theology is as consistent with his exegesis as one can expect from anyone. While you may not agree with all of his exegetical choices (and expects this), you are pressed with an exegetical argument for his choices.

Paul and Union with Christ is the only book of its kind in the union with Christ discussion and it should serve as a model for all exegetes on how to analyze and synthesize various passages on the same subject. Future writers seeking to do the same thing with different theological or thematic focuses should follow in his steps.

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