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Introducing Con Campbell, Associate Professor of New Testament

newsroomadminAugust 20, 2013

We sat down with Constantine Campbell on his first day in his office. It was bare, except for some arrival gifts from the Dean’s office–some books, an umbrella, a TEDS mug. The sunlight streamed in and we talked about his family, his ideas about teaching, his love of jazz saxophone, the connections between faith & art, his commitment to preaching, and how he teaches, among other things.

Tell me a bit about your background—you were born and raised in Australia.

I was born in Canberra, which is Australia’s national capital. Most people think it’s Sydney, but it’s actually a place called Canberra, which most Americans haven’t heard of. [laughter] But Sydney’s been home for the last seven and a half years, and another stint for four years before that. This is my first time living overseas and my children’s first time going overseas.

What are their names?

Jasmine is eleven, Xanthe is nine, and Lukas is seven. And we have a dog called Mayla. My wife’s been overseas a few times but not to live, so this is a big adventure for all of us.

Tell me about your wife.

In Sydney Bronwyn was working as a prison chaplain, and had some private counseling clients as well. She can’t work on my visa just yet, but we think within ten months or so she’ll be able to. In the meantime she’s going to pick up a couple counseling units here at Trinity, a bit of professional development, and then might look for some work as a prison chaplain, if—I don’t know, do you guys have any criminals over here? [laughter]

What’s your most recent book?

The most recent one is called Outreach and the Artist, which is a popular-level book. For the last ten years or so I’ve performed about 250 evangelistic jazz concerts [on saxophone] with churches around Australia, and the book is collected wisdom about how to harness the power of the arts for evangelism and also how to reach artistic communities, since I’ve done a fair bit of evangelism in the music scene. Before that was Paul and Union with Christ, and in two days I’ve got a Greek handbook on Colossians and Philemon coming out.

It seems that you’ve been able to maintain involvement with music while also building an academic career. I can imagine those two things being at odds with one another.

Well, I was a musician before I was a Christian. I got into jazz in high school and my first degree was in jazz performance—it was actually while I was studying jazz in university that I became a Christian. From that point I was wrestling straightaway with the idea of full-time Christian ministry or whether God wanted me to be a jazz musician for his glory. I know people who do that and they have great ministry through being professional musicians, so I know that’s possible. But the short story is that through conversations with friends and Christian leaders I decided to give Christian ministry a try, and did a two-year ministry apprenticeship straight after finishing my degree. Then after that I went to study theology formally at Moore College.

It’s interesting—I talk about this a lot in Outreach and the Artist—when I went into ministry, I thought I was giving up music, because I’d been practicing four hours a day for years, and I thought once that finished I wouldn’t be able to play anymore. So a decision for ministry was a painful one for me, and it was really serious on that level. But what I found was that people kept booking me for gigs, which was lovely, and then I realized, I actually can still play. So I felt like I was really blessed that I could still play at a good enough level, and in fact I was improving as well even though I was no longer practicing. As long as I was doing gigs I was still improving.

When I got to study theology at Moore College in Sydney, a church leader had the bright idea of getting me to do an evangelistic jazz concert. I thought it was a crazy idea; I thought, what does jazz have to do with Jesus? That’s literally the question I asked. [laughter] Anyway, he kind of made me do it, and it worked great. It was wonderful. Once I did it once, I realized, wow, this is great.

Describe that event.

I brought along a professional quartet from Sydney, and we played secular, instrumental jazz.

What instruments did the rest of the quartet play? And what kind of saxophone do you play?

It was guitar, double [upright] bass, and drums. I play a tenor saxophone—it’s a Selmer Balanced Action made in 1938. It’s a beautiful thing.

We just played some pretty straight ahead jazz. What I do now is—and this developed over the next ten years—play two sets in a concert setting, and the church will advertise it and invite friends. I spend the first set building rapport with people, explaining how jazz works, there’s improvisation and this and that, trying to make some jokes and put people at ease. Then, in the second set, I continue talking about jazz but weave it into a gospel message and try to make that as seamless as possible.

The church needs to be up front that we’ll have an event with Christian content, so that people don’t feel trapped into being evangelized. But once people are there, it’s fun, it’s not threatening, and people have a good time and hear something of Jesus. I think of it as a first date: what’s the goal of the first date? It’s to get a second date. So if they have a good time, they hear something of Jesus, they meet some Christians, then their friends might invite them to church on Sunday.

In fact, a few years ago I had the privilege of meeting a guy at a concert I was doing in a big church in Sydney. I’d done one every year for five years at that particular church. This guy I met told me the first time he’d ever come into a church was five years ago when I’d first played there, because a friend brought him along. He liked it, had a good time, his friend invited him to church and he came the next Sunday, he became a Christian, and he’s been a believer for the past few years. That’s the guy I’m aiming for.

Would you say you were really jazzed about that?

Yeah, I was really jazzed about that. It took my blues away. [laughter]

While I was studying theology, this ministry just happened—it was like God just put it into my lap, because after that first concert people just started calling, pure word of mouth. I never did any advertising and never approached a church. At its peak I was doing about twenty of those concerts a year. It wasn’t my plan—I thought it was a dumb idea at first—but God used it.

As that ministry grew, my secular profile kind of declined. I was still doing secular jazz gigs but I wasn’t really chasing them. This ministry was happening by itself without any effort, and it was a wonderful combination of two loves: evangelism and playing music. Up until moving here I’d been doing secular gigs fairly regularly but not really pursuing heaps of them.

Where were you teaching before this?

For the last seven and a half years I’ve been teaching at Moore College, and I’ve been doing on average at least a gig a week through that time.

How do you feel like your perspective as an artist has affected your involvement with New Testament studies?

That’s an interesting question. To be honest, I think it’s had more of an impact on my preaching. Being a musician has certainly helped with languages; there was a kind of discipline that came with practicing saxophone—scales, that sort of thing—that I just immediately applied to learning paradigms, vocabulary, things like that. They say that music is a language, and I guess it is in a way, and there’s a connection between the languages and music. Supposed to be maths as well, but I’m not so good on that front. The languages came easily, and that’s a big part of my academic pursuits.

But with preaching—over the years, my preaching has developed in a way such that I don’t use notes when I’m preaching. I know exactly what I’m going to say but I’m improvising the wording. I think there’s a jazz theme there; you know what the chords are and you know the structure of the tune but you’re improvising what you play over the structure of the tune. I guess my preaching feels very similar now to that.

Let’s switch gears a little bit. If you had to distill down your main findings in Paul and Union With Christ, what would you say?

A few things. First of all, there’s no one word that captures the theme [of “union with Christ”]. In the book I argue that you need at least four words: “union” is a useful term that describes our spiritual union, like a marriage, with Christ, and it has Trinitarian overtones; “participation” is a word that you need to capture up the dynamic elements of it—dying with Christ, being buried with Christ, raised with Christ, being made alive with Christ, participating in the events of Christ’s narrative; there’s “identification,” in which you go from being identified with Adam, sin, death, the world, the devil, to being identified with Christ, and that’s a transfer of realm; and then the fourth term is “incorporation,” because it’s a corporate idea, we’re built into the body of Christ together. I’ve argued that those four terms are necessary to get at the meta-theme “union with Christ.” That phrase can only ever be a shorthand label for it.

I argue that it’s extremely important to Paul, but it’s not the center of Paul. There’s this debate in the scholarship as to whether justification is the center of Paul’s thought, or union with Christ, or something else. The reality is you find “union with Christ” references on every single page, in virtually every paragraph in Paul, but he very rarely ever addresses it head-on as a topic. What that says to me is it’s actually a connecting doctrine, it’s something that Paul uses to connect everything together in Christ. So you want to talk about justification, or sanctification, or adoption, or ethics, or eschatology—all those things are connected by the theme of union with Christ into Christ. They cohere into that theme, but it’s not the central theme of Paul.

Is there “a” central theme to Paul?

Well, I don’t think there is; unless you want to say, “the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus.” Which is kind of like saying, nothing, really, because it’s so obvious. [laughter] But if you’re not going to say that, then I’m not sure that there is. I think unfortunately that whole question has been used to manipulate Paul a little bit; you kind of rule over other parts of Paul to make him say what you want.

In the academy there’s often a sharp division between “biblical studies” and “theology.” Do you feel consciously placed somewhere along that divide?

At Moore College, our tradition, which comes from our biblical theology, is that for academic purposes there might be a division, but there ought not to be. We want to say that our New Testament guys and our Old Testament guys can operate in systematic theology and bring their insights into that and vice versa. I don’t want to be in a box, not because I’m the sort of person who doesn’t want to be in a box—[laughter]—but because my work in the New Testament is ultimately for the good of the church. It’s not solely for the good of academia. A way to serve the church is to show how the New Testament serves systematics and vice versa, and I think it’s exciting at the moment that in New Testament scholarship that is a more acceptable idea than it was maybe thirty years ago. People like Francis Watson and others are saying, it’s ridiculous to have these straight lines; the New Testament is very theological, and you can’t go very far without doing some theology.

You’ve preached pretty regularly while teaching. What’s the place of pulpit ministry in your academic calling?

Well for me, preaching is absolutely central. I’m a preacher at heart. When I was first invited to join the faculty at Moore College, I told my wife: if it means I have to stop preaching I’ll have to quit and go back into church work, because I couldn’t do ministry of any sort without preaching. And to be honest, my model for that was Don Carson. I didn’t even know him at the time, but he’s an academic and a great preacher—I knew him from his preaching before I became familiar with his academic work. For me that was the model of the sort of scholar I wanted to become: not someone off in the ivory tower but serving the church, not just by writing books but actually speaking directly at the grassroots level through preaching, speaking clearly but modeling faithful exegesis and theology.

I preached in Sydney and around Australia at least fifty times a year; last year was sixty-something, by invitation. I don’t really seek it out, but I guess I would if it didn’t come. I loved it. I find it hard to say no to preaching opportunities. If there’s anyone out there who’d like me to come preach, just let me know—I’d love to.

Going back to music for a bit, what artists have inspired you?

I guess some of these names are cliché if you know jazz, but: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny—pretty standard names in the world of jazz. They keep inspiring me. Actually, a Chicagoan named Kurt Elling is my favorite jazz vocalist; he moved to New York before I got here, which is a great shame, but he used to perform every Wednesday night at the Green Mill. On purely musical terms, I listen to those guys and they keep pushing me; I listen to Coltrane to inspire me to practice.

Creatively, there’s also an integrity in those musicians. It’s a really easy trap, and it’s one I’ve wrestled with in music, to want to play a certain way to impress people or to get somewhere. What I love about those musicians is that there’s—I’m sure they were interested in those things at one point before they made it—but there’s a real integrity to their music. It’s about the music. Ironically, the best way to do well as a musician is to forget about those things and only be interested in communicating something through music. So I keep trying to be in that space as a musician.

To be honest, I don’t really listen to much Christian music; I don’t mean that to insult anybody, or whatever. I’m a bit of a jazz purist—I’ve been called a jazz Nazi. [laughter] I just love jazz. It’s not that I don’t appreciate other styles, or genres I should say, but jazz is just my juice, I need some every day. And there’s not a lot of Christian stuff to listen to.

How did you and your wife, Bronwyn, meet?

We met when I was a jazz student in my first year. We were going to the same church in Canberra; we both performed at this fundraising concert for a mission we were both going to go on at the end of the year. Me and my jazz quartet kicked off this concert playing a serious set wearing black suits and playing Coltrane tunes. The next item of this concert, two women got up, and they’re wearing these glasses that make their eyes spiral and these leopard skin pants, and they were doing a lip sync to Abba’s “Waterloo.” And I’d just done this serious jazz concert, and these two people get up there and I go, “What is that?” Well, anyway, one of them was my future wife. [laughter]

We had our first team meeting for the mission the next day, and I met her. By the time the mission came around we were dating, and two years later we were married.

Is there a recording of that somewhere? A video?

There are photos, and that’s bad enough. [laughter]

How is the family feeling about the transition to the States?

It’s obviously a massive move. I think I knew pretty early on that it was something I wanted to do, but I wanted everyone in the family to decide for it. So I said to the kids, if any of them decided they didn’t want to come, we weren’t going to go—which was a gamble. We had a number of walks where we talked about it—one time I took them out for ice cream and we chatted about it and my daughter Xanthe said, “Daddy, if we move to America can we go to Disneyland?” And I said, sure. And she said, “Ok, let’s move to America.” [laughter] Anyway, we went straight to Disneyland soon as we arrived, so I’ve fulfilled that promise.

The kids are at a good age—they’re not teenagers yet, and they’re happy to be where we are, really. It was a much tougher decision for my wife; she had to really think and pray about it hard. We spent a good eight or nine months thinking it through. It’s been a smoother transition than we expected, but she’s really tight with her family and close friends. Skype is great. Skype is a wonderful blessing. I’ve never really appreciated it until now.

What’s the time difference?

Oh, it’s awful—it’s like, fifteen hours. So we only have early mornings and late nights where we can overlap. But so far, so good; we need to meet some people and make some friends, and we’re still looking for a church.

Talk to me about the exegetical guide to Colossians and Philemon you’ve got coming out.

It’s in the Baylor Handbook to the Greek New Testament. There’s only about a half dozen volumes out so far; it’s seeking to give grammatical and syntactical comments on every word in the text. It doesn’t take the place of a commentary but is really designed to be used alongside a commentary. When you’ve got exegetical questions in the Greek, even really technical commentaries can’t deal with everything in sufficient detail. So you read the commentary for thematic and certain exegetical comments, context, things like that, but you use the Baylor handbook to supplement that. They’re trying to marry cutting-edge linguistic advances in the Greek world with an accessible format.

It was kind of providential, because I’m teaching Colossians this semester, and now I’ve done all the work. So I’ll turn to page 28 and say, this is what I think about this relative pronoun.

Did anything surprise you working through Colossians that you hadn’t seen before?

There are always surprises, I think, when you’re working that closely with the text. And there are exegetical issues on which I thought I knew what I thought, until I had to defend it in the text. I think what most surprised me was how much work there was with actually exegeting every single word. I did it in six months, so I was really trying to get it done quickly, but it was a pretty intense six months.

What are some principles that guide how you teach your classes?

I guess there are a few overarching principles and then there are some methods I’ve come to develop over the last few years. I really prize clarity, and I’m really not interested in boggling students’ minds with so much complex stuff that might sound impressive or make me look good but is actually not very helpful if you can’t remember any of it or decipher it. So I aim to be clear.

It does depend on what I’m teaching; mostly I have been, and will be teaching here, exegesis of the Greek New Testament, and the method that I’ve come to enjoy and that I think is most helpful is to do live exegesis in the classroom. So I put the text up with a syntax diagram and work the text live with the students, so lots of class interaction. I’m not interested in downloading a commentary, because you can go pick that up anytime. I try to think: what is unique about the classroom? And that’s the interaction that I can have with them in real time.

I’m as much interested in teaching the text as I am in developing their method of reading the text. I want to model exegesis in the classroom. I’m not sure if this is helpful, but I did get into a pattern of not really handing out any notes, just my syntax diagram, and I really don’t care if they take down notes or not, as long as they imbibe what it is to do New Testament Greek exegesis and become good exegetes. We’ll wrestle over exegetical questions and I want them to know what the text says, but for a lifetime of ministry I’m convinced it’s more important that they develop the tools and the methods to do it for themselves, so that in ten years’ time they say to themselves, “What do I think Colossians 1:15 means?”, rather than, “What did Dr. Campbell tell me it means?”

Tell me about some of your other hobbies. Any favorite TV shows?

I don’t watch a lot of TV really, but box sets—and now Netflix, we don’t have that in Australia so that’s great. My favorite TV show is something I’ve learned is slightly anathema to Christians in America, and that’s The West Wing. I love it. Being outside the American political system, it doesn’t mean for Australians what it means for you here. And this segues to one of my hobbies, which is, I’m into American presidents. I read biographies, particularly presidential ones. Abraham Lincoln is one of my heroes.

Did you see Lincoln?


Yeah, three times. [laughter] I loved it. I love living in Illinois where I see his face on every license plate.

I’m actually more interested in American history than Australian history, but particularly American presidents.

What else have you been reading lately?

I’m reading a John Adams biography at the moment that some students gave me as a farewell gift, by David McCullough, which is great. I didn’t really know that much about Adams so I’m developing an appreciation for him. There’s also another book called Eyewitness to Power, which is written by David Gergen; he was a speechwriter for every president from Nixon through to Clinton, and that’s really interesting.

Returning to the subject of art, North American evangelicals have had a pretty anemic approach to art in many ways. What is your perspective on the relationship between the Christian faith and the way we think about creating or appreciating art?

Well, I think it’s pretty anemic in Australia as well, possibly even more so since Australian culture as a whole is less in touch with the arts than I think American culture—these are broad brushstrokes, obviously. But in the church, there’s been a whole range of things that have complicated that question. One has been evangelicalism and its reaction to the charismatic / Pentecostal movement. Music in church was a typical—at least, in Australia—overreaction. “Liberals do social action, so we’re going to do none.” “Charismatics do music, so we’re not going to have any at all.” It’s a typical overreaction that has done damage to the arts in the evangelical world.

The way I think of it is that it’s simply one of God’s gifts of creation. It’s for our good and for his glory. The book I mentioned, Outreach and the Artist, is about using the arts for evangelism. I don’t think you need to justify being into the arts; they’re good in and of themselves. It’s just part of life that God has uniquely given us as human begins, and I think part of the purpose is to give expression to our humanity—our ups and downs, pain, joy, praising God or depression—whatever it is, you give expression to your realities in the world, and that’s just good for us to do, whether as artists expressing those things or as recipients of art. It’s a fairly common saying to say that music is food for the soul, and as a Christian on one level you don’t want to go there, but on another level there is truth to that. God has given it to us to do something that’s very hard to pin down but we know it’s good. Of course it can be abused, and as part of God’s good creation it is bent out of shape, and many of God’s gifts can be turned into terrible things. But that’s not art’s fault—it’s our fault.

So I guess I want to say—enjoy art as a gift from God because it is a gift from God. Use the arts to praise God and give thanks for it, but they’re just good, part of his good creation for our good. I think the church needs to appreciate that and not reduce everything down to, “there must be some gospel benefit”—it’s great if there is, and there’s a place for that too, but it’s not the only purpose for the arts.

If you had one or two brief pieces of advice for a student beginning their journey in theological education, what would you tell him or her?

Well, practical advice would be: master the languages straightaway. Students sometimes think, I didn’t come here to study languages, I came to study God’s word. But you need to get on top of the languages because it’s the foundation for everything else. As you get into more advanced exegesis they just become so essential. It sounds a bit counterintuitive if you’re looking for a spiritual “tip,” but: master your languages.

From a spiritual point of view, I think every theological student goes through the experience of the Bible having been a devotional text and then becoming an object of study. You can lose that devotional element. The one thing I want to say is: don’t worry if that happens. It happens to everyone, and it’s something you have to go through, but always aim ultimately to regain that. Once you’ve pulled everything apart and scrutinized everything in depth, you need to sit back and say, this is God’s word to us, and I need to listen and obey and draw nearer to God. The saddest thing, and the greatest danger of theological study, is that you might actually move away from God, and that’s a travesty.

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