You can’t read more than a few paragraphs of Paul’s letters without bumping into something about Christians being “in Christ.” It’s so prevalent that many would say that it’s the most important theme in Paul’s theology, a concept you must grasp if you’re going to understand anything Paul says about salvation, the Christian life, or God’s plans for creation itself.
But there’s just one problem. No one seems to know what it means.
In steps Con Campbell with his book Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Zondervan, 2012). Campbell’s goal is to take another look at the biblical texts and see if we can work out what Paul means with this pivotal idea. And in the process he offers a thorough and insightful study of what it means to be “in Christ,” why that matters for how we read Paul, and, more importantly, how that shapes our view of salvation itself. Campbell’s book is a must-read for anyone looking to wrestle with these central issues.
Campbell summarizes his argument quite efficiently in the introduction (pp. 29-30), laying out three main points that he wants to explain and defend:
1. In Christ is a complex concept. We struggle to understand what it means to be “in christ” because that is a complex concept combining at least four key aspects: union, participation, identification, and incorporation. An adequate understanding of being “in Christ” will not try to encompass that entire concept under any one of those aspects, but will allow all four to inform us. So, rather than see these four as different ways that Paul uses “in Christ” language, Campbell suggests that all four together define what it means for a believer to be in Christ. It is our union-participation-identification-incorporation in him.
2. In Christ is both new and old. Second, although Campbell identifies a number of ways in which the “in Christ” formula has antecedents in the OT, other Jewish writings, and Jesus’ own words, Campbell thinks that we need to recognize the “boldly original” nature of this concept in Paul. So Campbell’s argument will strive to emphasize both Paul’s commonality with his tradition and his originality.
3. In Christ is the “glue” of Paul’s theology. Finally, while Campbell clearly thinks the “in Christ” formula is important for understanding Paul’s theology, he also thinks it is a mistake to view it as the “center” of his theology. Instead, Campbell thinks we should view “in Christ” as “the essential ingredient that binds all other elements together” in Paul’s theology. So it’s not that being in Christ is more central that justification, sanctification, or other theological issues. It’s that none of these theological concepts makes sense in Paul’s theological matrix without viewing them through the lens of our union-participation-identification-incorporation in Christ.
The rest of Campbell’s work unfolds sequentially as an attempt to defend these three central arguments. After two introductory chapters in which he explains his methodology and offers a helpful historical overview of various ways of interpreting the “in Christ” formula, Campbell breaks the rest of the book down into two parts: an exegetical study (chapters 3-7) and a theological study (chapters 8-13). The exegetical portion offers a thorough analysis of various ways in which Paul refers to our being in Christ (in Christ, into Christ, with Christ, through Christ, etc.). And the theological study analyzes the relationship of our being in Christ to theological issues like the work of Christ, the Trinity, justification, and more.
In all, the body of the work is among the most thorough treatments that I’ve seen of what it means for Christians to be in Christ and the theological implications of that claim.
I don’t think there’s any question that the strength of Campbell’s book lies in its exegetical thoroughness. Campbell discuss every variation of Paul’s “in Christ” formula and discusses at least briefly all of the main passages in which each formula is located. Drawing on his strengths as a NT exegete, the reader is treated throughout with concise but interesting snippets of Greek exegesis as Campbell seeks to understand key texts like Rom 5-6, 2 Cor 5, and Eph 1, and many others. The book is worth acquiring for its exegetical thoroughness alone.
A second key strength, though, is Campbell’s willingness to dive into the theological implications of his exegetical moves. Unlike some exegetical studies, which are content to remain with the textual limitations of their subject matter, Campbell intentionally addresses the significance of his understanding of our being in Christ for other theological issues. That makes Campbell’s study an interesting case study in bridging the “gap” between biblical studies and systematic theology. Those of us who love bringing together quality exegesis and substantive theological reflection can only applaud Campbell for his valuable contribution.
Most significantly, Campbell directly engages the important question of whether his emphasis on our being “in Christ” causes any problems for the traditional Protestant emphasis on the doctrine of imputation. In a video interview that I posted earlier, Campbell explains that we should not see these two as being in opposition to one another. Instead, our union with Christ grounds the “great exchange” between us and Christ, whereby his righteousness is transferred to us and our imputation is transferred to him. Regardless of whether you agree with how Campbell presents the discussion, Campbell’s discussion here is insightful and interesting.
Like most books, one of the key weaknesses of Campbell’s work flows from one of its great strengths. His commitment to thoroughness and engaging every relevant text can get a little tedious at times. By the fourth or fifth time we’ve looked at “with Christ” and what it means in relation to other texts and concepts, I’ve moved into “skim mode.” I found Campbell’s book most useful when I read his conclusions carefully and dipped into his exegetical analysis as needed to understand his conclusions. Moving forward, it will be an excellent resource for understanding particular texts and how they fit into Paul’s broader theology. Used that way, Campbell’s book is an invaluable resource. If you just read it cover to cover as I did, some of the arguments can start to pile up on each other.
In addition, the scope of material that Campbell covers in this one book means that almost all of his exegetical arguments on specific passages are reduced to a few paragraphs at the most. Although I found Campbell’s exegesis largely convincing, I’m sure that NT specialists will be frustrated at times that he didn’t have space to develop his arguments on specific passages more thoroughly. And, of course, if they disagree, they will probably not find sufficient data in his arguments to convince them otherwise.
In sum, Campbell’s book is an outstanding resource. It is, of course, invaluable for anyone wanting to understand Pauline theology in general. But even more, Campbell is a fine example of someone who is committed both to paying close attention to the biblical texts and to thinking carefully through the systematic implications of his exegetical conclusions. So I highly recommend the book for both theologians and biblical scholars as an example of bringing us all closer together.