1 Corinthians: Belief (Charles Campbell) -- a Review

1 CORINTHIANS (BELIEF: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. Xviii + 300 pages. 

                Augustine, Luther, John Wesley—they all had a conversion experience as they encountered Paul’s letter to the Romans. Karl Barth changed the theological conversation in the early decades of the twentieth century with his commentary on Romans. There is something powerful about that letter, which few would accord to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. However, for me, 1 Corinthians has proven more influential than the book of Romans. I find it to be filled with possibilities, both theological and practical. Perhaps it’s my ongoing interest in spiritual gifts and pneumatology that drew me to this particular letter, but over time I have discovered that it is filled with intriguing ideas and experiences. There are words about ecclesiology, resurrection, marriage, the Lord’s Supper, and more. During my seminary days I had opportunity to take two classes that focused on all or part of this letter, which enabled me to delve more deeply into the text. Of course, I read through several commentaries along the way. Several of which I have found especially compelling. Some are more technical and others more theological in orientation. I must admit, as a non-specialist, I find the theologically focused commentaries more compelling than the technical ones. My hope is that those who write theological commentary have checked the technical ones! Now, having read Charles Campbell's contribution to the Belief series published by Westminster John Knox Press, I will put it near the top of my list of commentaries on this letter.

Before getting to Campbell’s contribution, I need to say something about the Belief series edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw, a series that has had two contributions honored as Reference Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. These commentaries are written by theologians rather than biblical scholars per se. Thus, the authors of these commentaries have a different vantage point—less focused on the intricacies of the text and more focus on the message. They seek to be rooted in the relevant scholarship of the day, but they offer a more nuanced interpretation than perhaps one might get in a technical commentary.

The commentary on 1 Corinthians was written by Charles Campbell, a professor homiletics at Duke Divinity school. It is fitting that a practical theologian has been chosen to focus on this most practical of letters. Campbell does bring out the practical nature of Paul’s message to the Corinthians, which makes for a lively read (theological commentaries tend to be more readable than technical ones, unless one is fascinated by the intricacies of language and textual considerations).

A central theme of this commentary is Paul’s apocalyptic theology. While apocalypticism is not necessarily popular in many parts of the Christian community, especially on the progressive side—probably due to the dispensationalist phenomena of the past half century—Paul viewed the world through an apocalyptic lens. Campbell recognizes that Paul's message is clearly apocalyptic, but he suggests that this apocalypticism is of a practical nature. The form of apocalyptic theology present here is what he calls a "theology of interruption. He writes that "Apocalyptic imagination, that is, lives in the space where the new age has interrupted the old in Jesus Christ. It lives in the threshold space in which the new age has decisively broken in and changed the world, but in which the old age continues aggressively to exist in tension with the new" (p. 6). Throughout the commentary Campbell illustrates the way in which Paul envisions God interrupting the old age, bringing into existence the new in replacement of the old, whether that has to do with eating patterns or marriage. It is this theology of interruption that, while apocalyptic in nature, has a continuing impact on the Christian worldview.

We see this theology of interruption present in the very first chapter, where Paul introduces his theology of the cross. Thus, "the folly of the cross interrupts the world's fundamental presuppositions about status, power, and wisdom like the fool in the Roman theater interrupts the neat plot and respected actors on the stage. (p. 19). Even as Campbell defines the apocalyptic as interruption, he notes that Paul is aware that his focus on the cross is perceived as being foolish. In laying out his understanding of Paul’s theology of the cross, Campbell helps us rethink our own understanding of the cross, which too often serves as merely a transactional point where Jesus takes a bit of Jesus' blood in exchange for our sins. In other words, this is not a penal substitutionary interpretation.

For those who know the Corinthian letter, you will know that Paul's addresses such issues as the Spirit, resurrection, the nature of the church, ecclesial discipline, marriage relations, the sacraments, and more.  All these foci are addressed with theological acumen. In addition to the discussion of each chapter of the letter, the commentary includes sidebars that are strategically placed throughout the commentary offering brief quotations that can stir the imagination. As is true of all the commentaries in this series, there is also a series of "Further Reflections" appearing throughout the commentary, which focus on issues emerging from the text under consideration. Among the reflections one encounters conversations about “trinitarian trajectories” in the letter, the theological tradition of the holy fools, the relationship of laughter and apocalyptic theology. Perhaps it is his homiletical background, but he brings out Paul's humor in ways that I had not thought of before. The reflection on "The Prophethood of All Believers," which draws from 1 Corinthians 14 is especially helpful, as he draws out from Paul a vision of preaching as prophetic action. I found the conversation on the openness of the table in his commentary on chapter 11 provocative and worth spending time with as I work on my own writings in the area. Of the Table, he writes that for Paul it “is a practice of the new creation; it subverts the social hierarchies of strong and weak, rich and poor, honored and shamed. Where this new creation, shaped by the hospitality and self-giving love of Jesus, is not embodied, it is not the Lord’s supper that we eat. It is, rather a ‘ritual lie’” (p. 193).

Campbell’s commentary on 1 Corinthians is another excellent contribution to Westminster John Knox’s Belief series. It is a readable, thought-provoking, practical, theologically-rooted commentary, that I found to be especially insightful from my vantage point not only as a theologian, but as a preacher. You can’t go wrong with this commentary, even if you find yourself in disagreement. It is highly recommended, and it may even bring to life Paul’s 1 Corinthian letter in new ways. 


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