Book Review: Paul and Union with Christ

24269_largeSo I’m trying my hand at something new here. I have been an avid reader as long as I can remember, and read a number of books a year. I just finished “Paul and Union with Christ” by Constantine Campbell, and thought I would write a review. If all goes well, perhaps I’ll keep up the habit with future reads.


For a couple years now…maybe a few, actually…I have had thoughts rolling around my head related to the topic of Union with Christ. It has seemed clear to me through my studies that the theme is a big deal to Paul. In fact, as I have been preaching through the book of Philippians with our church here in Belém I have been emphasizing the importance of our new identity in Christ, which is a result of our union with Him. In late December or early January I did some reading through the Systematic Theologies that I have…McCune, Grudem, Erickson, MacArthur, Strong, Hodge, Calvin, etc., as well as various journal articles, to see how theologians have explained the teaching of our Union with Christ. I was particularly motivated by an article by Tim Miller in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (Miller, Timothy. “The Debate over the ORDO Salutis in American Reformed Theology.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 18 (2013): 41-66), in which he contrasted what he called the “Lutheran Ordo Salutis” (“all benefits—including union and sanctification—flow from justification” [Miller, “Debate,” 44]) with the “Reformed” Ordo, in which “justification and sanctification are distinct-yet-inseparable realities brought fruitfully into relationship by the overarching soteric reality of union with Christ” (Ibid., 49). The point of his article was to draw attention to the influence of the “Lutheran” Ordo within certain Reformed circles (most notably, Westminster Seminary, California).

I recognized the “Lutheran” Ordo as being basically the model I had been taught throughout my education, and was very curious about the so-called “Reformed” model in which “Union with Christ” is the chief blessing from which all other blessings – including justification and sanctification – flow. This model fit very closely with thoughts I had been slowly working through over the course of a few years, but had not quite systematized.

All of this led to the book at hand, which I acquired shortly after Christmas.


The book is a detailed and thorough examination of the topic of Union with Christ in Paul’s writings…that much is clear from the title. At 445 pages, it is not a brief treatment of the topic. Paul and Union with Christ (hereafter PUC) is divided into three parts: Introductory Matters, Exegetical Study, and Theological Study. It is the exegetical study which consumes most of the book.

In the exegetical study, Campbells’s methodology takes him through an examination of every use of the prepositional phrase εν Χριστω, as well related prepositional phrases (εις Χριστω, δια Χριστω, συν Χριστω) and related pronouns. He also examined the various Pauline metaphors, such as the building, body, and bride. Detailed examinations were made of dozens of passages within the Pauline Canon to determine the precise way that the prepositional phrase or illustration was functioning, and what that indicates about the doctrine of Union with Christ.

The theological study systematizes the various exegetical observations into categories of “the Work of Christ,” “the Trinity,” “Christian Living,” and “Justification.” It is after examining union with Christ in relation to these categories that Campbell defends his definition that Union with Christ

is best conveyed through four terms: union, participation, identification, and incorporation. Union gathers up faith union with Christ, mutual indwelling, trinitarian, and nuptial notions. Participation conveys partaking in the events of Christ’s narrative. Identification refers to believers’ location in the realm of Christ and their allegiance to his lordship. Incorporation encapsulates the corporate dimensions of membership in Christ’s body. Together these four terms function as ‘umbrella’ concepts, covering the full spectrum of Pauline language, ideas, and themes that are bound up in the metatheme of ‘union with Christ’. Furthermore, all four terms entail ethical expectations, as Paul draws on the implications of union, participation, identification, and incorporation to inform the Christian life (Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and Union With Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012], 413).

In this way Campbell attempts to communicate the breadth of the Pauline usage of the term. He goes on to suggest a logical (not temporal) ordo salutis that honors this conclusion:

A believer is united to Christ at the moment of coming to faith; their union is established by the indwelling of the Spirit. The person united to Christ therefore enters into participation with Christ in his death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification. As a participant in Christ’s death and resurrection, the believer dies to the world and is identified with the realm of Christ. As a member of the realm of Christ, the believer is incorporated into his body, since union with Christ entails union with his members (Ibid., 414).

In the following chapter Campbell considers the role that the “metatheme of ‘union with Christ'” plays in the theological structure of Paul. He says that,

If, as suggested above, Paul’s thought is metaphorically shaped like a web (rather than a wheel), it is my contention that union with Christ is the ‘webbing’ that holds it all together. Union with Christ is connected to everything else, perhaps, as Bouttier expresses, as ‘the light that illuminates the others’. Every Pauline theme and pastoral concern ultimately coheres with the whole through their common bond—union with Christ (Ibid., 441).

There ought to be no way, then, to construct a proper soteriology or ecclesiology without building that theology on the structure of the doctrine of union with Christ.


It is difficult to imagine a more thorough approach which could be taken to the examination of this theme. PUC is a very logical, careful approach. Though Campbell opens the book suggesting a definition, he quickly qualifies that suggestion and step-by-step builds toward that definition. It is clear throughout the book that the final authority is the text of Scripture, and to the greatest extent possible presumptions are laid aside and conclusions are drawn from the text.

Clearly from the citations above Campbell defends a position consistent with the Reformed understanding since the Reformation. In this regard I found his conclusions persuasive and helpful. There were a couple of concerns which stood out, however.


The first concern was historical in nature. This concern takes on two parts. First, though Campbell did occasionally make reference to the position of theologians throughout church history (most notably in dealing with the question of imputation under the larger question of “Union with Christ and Justification,” he specifically deals with the positions of Luther and Calvin), for the most part PUC does not interact with the positions of the great theologians of the church.

One cannot fault the author for not presenting an historical theology of Union with Christ; such an attempt would clearly be beyond the scope of the book. However, placing his conclusions within the context of the historical conversation would have helped immensely. Demonstrating – or at least affirming – that his position was consistent with any of the church fathers is important in showing that our conclusions are not novel, nor are we the first to be asking these questions or proposing these conclusions. Granted, PUC does occasionally mention some of the older theologians, even citing them at times; however, no real effort is made to place the conclusions in their historical context.

Furthermore, the treatment of modern theologians is quite extensive. PUC is clearly in conversation with theologians – both conservative and otherwise – from the last 150 years. Authors such as Barth, Bultmann, Schweitzer, EP Sanders, Dunn, and others are frequently cited, and their views seriously reckoned with. It is certainly true that these authors, some liberal, some neo-orthodox, reflect the state of the conversation presently. But I was left wondering if their voices really ought to have such influence, given the (presumably) great presuppositional differences between an orthodox, conservative theology and liberal or neo-orthodox theologies. Would it not be better to interact more with the historical voices which represent the (presumably) shared presuppositions of the author, rather than give so much time to the intrinsically faulty theologies represented by authors such as Sanders, Schweitzer and Barth?


Before criticizing, I ought to make clear that I benefitted tremendously from this book. Theologically, exegetically, this book is a model not only in its conclusions but also in its methodology. His final systematic conclusions are sound and reliable exactly because the methodology was so rigorous and careful.

However, there was one seriously concerning moment in the theological study. In considering “Union with Christ and the Work of Christ” Campbell approaches the question of “The New Adam.” This leads him to an exegetical examination of Romans 5:12-21 – one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament. There have been a wide variety of interpretations on this passage throughout church history. Campbell seeks to be careful and logical in his examination of the passage. He clearly does not want to enter into the passage allowing presuppositions on the nature and function of imputation (either the imputation of sin or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) color his examination…or his conclusions.

This lack of commitment to positions on the mechanism of the guilt of mankind or the mechanism of the righteousness of the elect causes Campbell to consider all options. The main question of the passage is the exact way in which Adam and Christ represent mankind. Are all mankind in some way “in” Adam or Christ, in a form of solidarity with them (whether it be realistic [seminal] solidarity or representative [federal] solidarity)? Or is there another mechanism in place? Campbell particularly deals with Robert Tannehill (Dying and Rising with Christ: A Study in Pauline Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), whose position “does not … require that all humanity is incorporated into Adam; humanity participates in the domain represented by Adam, but Adam is not in himself a corporate personality standing over humanity” (Campbell, PUC, 344).

Campbell’s conclusion is that,

Paul is not suggesting that Adam’s sin is imputed to all humanity, but that he opened the door to a dark domain through which all people subsequently walked, because ‘all sinned’ in a concrete rather than figurative way. Consequently, Adam’s role is that he marks the beginning of this dark domain; he held the door open as all humanity walked through (Ibid., 345).

However, this position seems to eliminate any means which requires mankind to “walk through” the “door to a dark domain.” It provides no real mechanism to explain the force of Paul’s words in vs. 19, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners…” If Adam merely “opened the door to a dark domain” and “held the door open as all humanity walked through,” there is no sense of necessity for “many were made sinners” (which in fact seems to be Paul’s point in vs. 12, where “death spread to all men, because all sinned”). Moo states,

If, then, we are to read v. 12d in light of vv. 18–19—and, since the comparative clauses in these verses repeat the substance of v. 12, this seems to be a legitimate procedure—“all sinned” must be given some kind of “corporate” meaning: “sinning” not as voluntary acts of sin in “one’s own person,” but sinning “in and with” Adam. This is not to adopt the translation “in Adam” rejected above. The point is rather that the sin here attributed to the “all” is to be understood, in the light of vv. 12a–c and 15–19, as a sin that in some manner is identical to the sin committed by Adam. Paul can therefore say both “all die because all sin” and “all die because Adam sinned” with no hint of conflict because the sin of Adam is the sin of all. All people, therefore, stand condemned “in Adam,” guilty by reason of the sin all committed “in him.” … For Paul, Adam, like Christ, was a corporate figure, whose sin could be regarded at the same time as the sin of all his descendants (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 326-328.)

Moo goes on to wrestle in footnote 61 in loc. with whether or not that corporate meaning is “realist” or “federal,” without arriving at a solid conclusion. The point is moot as long as some form of corporate meaning is affirmed.

Ironically, Campbell cites Moo as supporting his general position, which is clearly not a correct interpretation of Moo’s position.

This does not necessarily invalidate Campbell’s larger point that Adam and Christ are the entry-points (as the Moo citation makes clear). However, Paul is certainly saying more in this passage than that.

Again, the concern at the end of the day is that Campbell’s position provides no real necessity for the sinfulness of all man. In short, while not a direct attack on original sin, one is left wondering how Campbell would defend such a doctrine. He makes the statement that “it is not clear from a theological point of view why Adam should be given such a privilege. Why is all humanity outside Christ encompassed by Adam? Why is humanity incorporated into him? Why should Adam’s actions be ‘imputed’ to all?” (Campbell, PUC, 344). Though it is a challenging text, the answer to Campbell’s rhetorical questions seem to be in the text, as Moo’s exegesis makes clear.


Paul and Union with Christ is a very important book in the development of the doctrine of Union with Christ. Campbell claims that “no previous study of union with Christ has been so ambitious in the scope of its detailed analysis, and few have attempted such a deliberate integration of exegesis with theology” (Ibid., 443) (#humblebrag), and he is probably correct. Any pastor or theologian thinking seriously about soteriology or ecclesiology ought to incorporate this book and its conclusions to his doctrine. It is a sound, model example of an exegetical theology.