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What is the Key to Unlocking Paul's Theology? An Excerpt from "Paul and Union with Christ"

Categories Theology Book Excerpts


If you missed it, earlier in the week we posted a short video on Con Campbell's book Paul and Union with Christ. The book itself is a thorough treatment of what James Dunn and others call one of Paul's central theological themes: union with Christ.

But rather than conceiving of this important concept as the center of a wheel—where all other ideas emanate like spokes—Campbell images it as a key to discerning the web of Paul's interconnecting, interdependent ideas; "a key provides access to something that is missing in order to make sense of the whole." (439)

The excerpt below further explains this intriguing, insightful description of arguably the key theological motif that helps unlock Paul's whole theology:

We observed…that the theme of union with Christ is directly addressed in approximately thirty-two instances in Paul’s letters.  The prominence of the theme, therefore, both in frequency of reference and theological significance, is substantial.  However, there are many more instances—by far the majority—in which union with Christ is referenced in passing and in connection to other themes.  Indeed, virtually every topic that Paul addresses is in some measure connected to union with Christ.

What are we to make of this?  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…Every Pauline theme and pastoral concern ultimately coheres with the whole through their common bond—union with Christ.  The metaphor of webbing does justice to the fact that union with Christ is mentioned so often: it is enormously widespread.  It also does justice to the fact that, while widespread, it is only addressed directly roughly thirty-two times; it is therefore not the main issue most of the time, but is also never out of sight.  It is essential, without suppressing other themes…

Thus, I argue that union with Christ is not Paul’s ‘great concern’, nor is it the centre of his theological framework.  It is, rather, the essential ingredient that binds all other elements together; it is the webbing that connects the ideas of Paul’s web-shaped theological framework.  It is for this reason that we can say that every blessing we receive from God is through our union with Christ.  It is by being united to him in faith by the Spirit, dying, suffering, rising, and glorying with him, having been predestined and redeemed in him, being identified with his realm, and being incorporated into his people that believers enjoy the manifold grace of God.


Church History, Volume 2

Paul and Union With Christ

by Con Campbell

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