Paul and Union with Christ

Title of Work:

Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study

Author of Work:

Constantine R. Campbell


Pastor Dan Witte

Page Number:


Format Availability:

Paperback, Kindle




Paul and Union Resize CoverIn Paul and Union with Christ Campbell writes for scholarly believers in Christ who can read Greek and are acquainted with theological debates among Protestants. He supplies a study of every passage in Paul’s letters which discusses union with Christ— both the Father’s union with Christ (often overlooked in a study like this) and the believer’s union with Christ. The publisher summarizes, “Campbell carefully examines every occurrence of the phrases ‘in Christ’, ‘with Christ’, ‘through Christ’, ‘into Christ,’ and other related expressions, exegeting each passage in context and taking into account the unique lexical contribution of each Greek preposition. Campbell then builds a holistic portrayal of Paul’s thinking and engages contemporary theological discussions about union with Christ by employing his evidence-based understanding of the theme” (back cover).

Campbell begins the book by noting that Paul never directly explains what he means by ‘union with Christ.’ He writes,“This creates a problem for any student of Paul’s theology, since union with Christ is both important and obtuse” (21)— thus often misunderstood, we might add. Campbell quotes the Bible in English using the Holman Christian Standard Bible. After a 400 page inductive study laced with references to the work of other scholars, Campbell reaches conclusions big and small, including:

1.) Paul often uses the words “in Christ” or “in him” where we might have expected “by Christ” or “by him,” expressing agency or instrumentality. Campbell cites Alfred Wikenhauser on the likelihood that “Paul evidently ‘wished to bring out the point that to some extent Christ was the abode of God’s gracious presence, the place where God willed and worked the salvation of man’” (328).

 2.) For Paul, union with Christ was not mysticism (412), nor a derivative of Greco-Roman religion (415).

3.) Union with Christ, though vital, is not the center of Paul’s thinking. It is not the hub of a bicycle wheel. A better analogy would be the threads of a spider’s web, or the web of a fishing net (437–439). It is a key to true theology, but not the key (439–441).

4.) No one word or picture can summarize our union with Christ. Campbell writes, “Our relatedness to 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.” (Campbell is thinking of Romans 6:1–14, for example— dying and rising with Christ.) “Identification refers to a believer’s location in the realm of Christ and their allegiance to his lordship. Incorporation encapsulates the corporate dimensions of membership in Christ’s body” (413, italics original).

5.) Why does Paul use “in Christ” phraseology so much more than other New Testament writers? Campbell likes Adolf Deissman’s idea that the original catalyst for Paul’s theology of union with Christ came from Paul’s reaction to Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” and “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4,5) (420).

In general, I found Campbell’s work detailed and convincing. The book also contains a bibliography, scripture index, subject index and author index. I am not surprised that Paul and Union with Christ won Christianity Today’s 2014 Book Award in Biblical Studies.

Some places Campbell did not convince me:

A.) Commenting on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:39 that the believing widow must remarry “in the Lord,” Campbell says that the phrase could modify the verb marry, but more likely modifies the potential marriage partner. Campbell seems to assume what he is trying to prove, since μόνον can be either adverbial or adjectival. He concludes that any potential husband for a Christian widow must also be a Christian (173).

B.) Commenting on Romans 6:1–4, Campbell writes, “Baptism into Christ’s death does not depict the physical rite of baptism as the means through which the believer is united to Christ in his death” (336; see similar comments on both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, 384–387).

C.) Commenting on Romans 5:18–19, Campbell writes, “When Paul says that ‘through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone’ (5:18), this then refers to everyone who enters the new domain of life; ‘the many will be made righteous’ (5:19) likewise refers to members of the new realm of Christ” (346; see similar comments denying universality/objectivity to God’s justifying sinners, 390–401).

D.) Campbell pits Luther against Melanchthon on whether justification of sinners before God is imputation of Christ’s righteousness, union with Christ or both. In substantiating this claim, Campbell cites no references in his footnotes to primary sources giving us what Luther or Melanchthon actually wrote, only secondary sources (402). This seems sloppy, though I concede that Campbell’s aim was an exegetical survey, then doctrinal summary— not a historical doctrinal survey.

The book also contains a bibliography, scripture index, subject index and author index. How might an interested pastor, who subscribes unhesitatingly to the Book of Concord, use this work? Here are a few suggestions. He might read it (slowly!) to brush up on Koine Greek , doctrinal nuances and  theological controversies. He might refer to the book when he is preaching through Paul’s epistles, to see how Campbell analyzes a particular “in Christ” phrase. He might also simplify the book greatly, whittling away what would not help the average church member, and make the book the basis of a future Bible study for his congregation.

In such a study a pastor could survey key places where Paul uses “in Christ,” “with Christ,” “through Christ,” “into Christ,” and similar phrases. He could teach Philippians 2:1–11, Romans 6:1–14, 1 Corinthians 10–11, 1 Corinthians 12 and other crucial sections of Paul’s letters to bring out the various gems which the Spirit brings to light for us via Paul. Campbell helpfully lists the 32 passages in Paul’s letters which he considers to most directly speak of our union with Christ (421–435). Pastor and congregation would also benefit from reviewing some of the key verses Campbell lists from John’s Gospel which describe the Father’s union with the Son (418–419). These are worthy of study, meditation, and prayer for all of us!

Since 2013 Constantine R. Campbell (Ph.D., Macquairie University) has been associate professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. A native of Australia, he formerly taught at Moore Theological College in Sydney. He has written three books on verbal aspect in Biblical Greek— two highly technical studies and Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (2008). He also authored Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People (2010) and Colossians and Philemon: A Handbook on the Greek Text (2013). He says he became a Christian while studying music as a college undergraduate. He is an accomplished jazz saxophonist and sees a connection between Koine Greek verbal aspect and jazz. Campbell is an ordained deacon in the Anglican Church of Australia.