Con Campbell’s new book, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012, 479 pages, $34.99 softcover) is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. I predict that scholars and serious students of the Bible will be referring to this book for years to come. The reason is simple: Campbell has meticulously and even-handedly taken one of the Apostle Paul’s central themes, union with Christ, and has painstakingly examined it both through an exegetical and a theological lens.

If you want to read this book, some familiarity with syntactical Greek categories (the kind you normally learn in second year Greek) will be helpful. For those who do not have a background in Greek, let me recommend that you first read Part 1 (pages 21-64) and then skim your way through the “gnarly” exegetical section (Part 2, pages 67-266), then follow-up by reading the chapter on metaphors (chapter 7, pages 267-324) that closes the “exegetical” section. In the “gnarly” section, you can simply read Campbell’s subsection headings and then look at the verses he has listed in each section just to get an idea of which verses he has chosen to group together and why. Then read the summaries at the end of each chapter to see how he brings these verses together.

But if you do choose to follow this suggestion so as not to get bogged down in the details, at least allow the weight of what Campbell has done in the exegetical section to have the impact that it deserves. Campbell has thoroughly charted out the range and variety of the operative Greek expressions (such as “in Christ”) with sensitivity to their literary contexts and has parsed out for the reader which aspects of those expressions he considers important. One of the strengths of this book is found in Campbell actually building upon his exegetical insights when he starts “theologizing.”

Observing the structure of Campbell’s book makes me think of the structure of my office building. At the new Talbot School of Theology building where I work, New Testament and Old Testament professors have been assigned offices on the second floor while our theologians and philosophers do their work on the third floor. Based upon the way Campbell has structured his book, I think he might approve of the way our offices have been laid out!—with theology and philosophy resting upon an exegetical base (…though he is fully cognizant of the fact that it is not so simple as the intentionally reductionistic way I’ve just described it; see his comments on pages 22-23 and 406-407).

Part 3 (pages 327-444) is the theology section of the book. In this section, Campbell starts by evaluating four key areas that connect with the theme of union with Christ in Paul: 1) Union with Christ and the work of Christ, 2) Union with Christ and the Trinity, 3) Union with Christ and Christian living, and 4) Union with Christ and justification. These sections are extremely useful. He includes such insights as the recognition that there are objective and subjective aspects to the discussion; that the topic of union with Christ has a God-ward element as well as a Christ-with-humanity element; that for Paul union with Christ is real but does not lead to a mixing or mingling of the divine with the human (the stumbling block of so much that is called “mysticism”); that a proper understanding of union with Christ can protect from libertinism on the one hand and moralism on the other; that only talking about the imitation of Christ is far too weak to be able to hold together all that Paul intends when he dips into this topic; that justification should be viewed as one aspect of the broader theme of union with Christ, even though it would be a mistake to try to use union with Christ as a way to deny imputation. Whew! And this is only a small sampling of the various topics entertained in the theological section of the book.

All of a sudden, Campbell pulls out a big surprise for chapter 12! We’re 405 pages into the book, and he finally gets around to defining what he means by “union with Christ”! What author would ever think to wait for more than four hundred pages to haul out the definitions? It’s kind of like waiting until the end of a wedding feast to produce the best wine! What makes this move brilliant is that for hundreds of pages Campbell has skillfully been drawing a net around the borders of what should and should not be included in this discussion through his scrupulous evaluation of what Paul himself does and does not include in this theme. So, what is included in the topic that Campbell calls in short form “union with Christ”? I’ll let him answer this question himself:

“I propose that this theme 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 dimension 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’ (413).

In the final chapter, Campbell boldly addresses one of the crucial issues in this discussion, the question of how important this theme is to Paul. Is union with Christ the “centre” (his spelling) of Paul’s theology? Or might it be a “key” to unlocking the mind of Paul? Campbell prefers a different metaphor than that of a “center” or “key”; he favors the metaphor of a spider web. Campbell suggests that union with Christ is like the webbing that holds everything else in Paul together. Yes, I agree…almost. I concur that union/participation/identification/incorporation “in Christ” is basic to the “webbing” of Paul’s thought, though I’m not nearly as confident that we should identify it as the webbing. What about eschatology or redemptive history? Those, it seems to me, are also basic substructures of Paul’s thought, all of which center upon the person and work of Christ. Still, I agree that there are few structures more basic than union with Christ in Paul, and that if you don’t get what Paul is doing with this theme, you won’t really get a lot of other things in Paul.

My only concern with this book is that, despite the fact that Campbell did include a separate chapter on union with Christ and Christian living, I think that people reading this book will probably still be hard-pressed to know how this theme actually connects with their daily Christian lives. For anyone who reads this book and finds himself asking, “And now what?” let me recommend a recent article by Sarah Lebhar Hall in Christianity Today (Nov 2012), 37-39 entitled: “The Key to a Purposeful Life: It’s not imitating Christ, but union with him that makes the difference.” (Click here for Hall's article.) That article will provide some starting points for thinking through the subjective implications of union with Christ for your daily life. (All the while please keep in mind that some of the features of this theme will not connect with your “daily” life; some aspects of this theme are simply objective truths…)

Two weeks ago when I ran into the author of this book on an elevator at a conference in Milwaukee—and temporarily and embarrassingly forgot his name!—I had no idea that the book he had just released, and that I was planning soon to read, was going to help me so much in pulling together various strands of Paul’s thought on which I have been meditating for many years. This book, honestly, was a God-send. I anticipate reaping the fruits of Con Campbell’s labors for years to come, both in my theological understanding and in my awareness of what it means to live “in Christ.”