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Paul and Union With Christ
by Fred G. Zaspel
(originally published in Credo 3:1, January 2013, pp. 68-69)
In his newly-released Paul and Union With Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Zondervan, 2012) Constantine R. Campbell, senior lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, has provided the new “go to” reference work on the doctrine of union with Christ. I cannot decide whether to describe this new work as a model of theological exegesis or as a model of exegetical theology. In fact, it is both, and it will likely prove to be the new standard on the subject.
The past century has witnessed a continuously growing interest in the doctrine of union with Christ, with varying viewpoints and emphases, and today interest in the subject seems at an all time high. But to my knowledge no one along the way has provided anything like the kind of resource we have in Campbell’s new book. It is a milestone.
Campbell begins with a crisp summary of his subject, task, and conclusions (chapter 1), a helpful chapter that sets the reader well on course. Chapter 2 provides a helpful survey of the last 100+ years’ scholarship on the subject, highlighting the varieties of approaches and conclusions that have shaped the discussion. This survey and the concluding summary provide a quick “up to the moment” understanding of the state of the doctrine.
As helpful as all this is, the bulk and foundational significance of Campbell’s work is the detailed exegetical study provided in chapters 3 through 7. Here we have a careful guide through every Pauline passage that uses the language of union - in Christ, in the Lord, in the beloved, in him, in whom, into Christ, with Christ, through Christ, etc. Each expression in each of its occurrences is examined, uncovering its exact sense and nuance. Then he provides the same kind of exegesis of each occurrence of the union metaphors - body of Christ, Temple, building, marriage, and new clothing. These chapters are a gold mine of clear theological exegesis.
With this thorough foundation laid, the remaining chapters move to systematic theology, bringing together the conclusions provided by Campbell’s close exegetical work, demonstrating the shape of Paul’s understanding of union with Christ in relation to the work of Christ, the Trinity, Christian living, and justification. His sorting through the discussion of imputation and union with Christ I found particularly lucid, but in every category he gives clarity and advance to the discussion.
Campbell concludes that union with Christ in Paul’s thinking cannot be expressed or defined in any single term: the ideas of union, identification, participation, and incorporation are all in view, however a given passage may stress one or another of these concepts. He also concludes that although it is probably not accurate to speak of union with Christ as the center of Paul’s theology, overwhelmingly prominent as the theme is, it is a key, the “essential ingredient that binds all other elements together.” Connected as it is “to everything else,” it is the “webbing” that holds it all together.
It is for good reason that interest in this doctrine continues, essential as it is to an understanding of the gospel. Campbell’s exposition of this marvelous theme is a genuine contribution to the study that leaves us in his debt. Combining thorough exegetical analysis and clear, simple theological precision, future discussion is now set on firmer ground. And certainly no pastor or teacher will want to expound Paul’s epistles without this helpful aid close at hand.