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Paul and the Gift
Paul and the Gift
John M. G. Barclay
Eerdmans, 2015
672 pp., $70.00

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Wesley Hill


Grace Redefined

The disruptive Christ-event.

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It was this experience, both Paul's own and that of his converts, that gave his definition of grace its peculiar twist. Before Paul's calling and before his unusual career of planting churches in the Gentile world, he might well have understood grace differently. He might well have "perfected" the concept as "merited favor" or a "fitting gift." But after Christ, it was no longer possible to understand grace as a gift to the worthy; it must exclude works and worth or not be grace at all.

One common way of telling the history of critical study of Paul goes like this. Around the time of the rise of historical critical methods, in 18th- and 19th-century Germany, among other European locales, the predominant way of reading Paul was shaped by Lutheran theology. Paul was a universalizing prophet whose radical message of a law-free salvation cut against the grain of a "works"-oriented Judaism and ultimately ensured that a de-particularized version of the Jesus story would triumph in the far fringes of the Roman Empire and beyond. By extracting Jesus from the narrow confines of legalism and interpreting him as the end of meritorious striving after righteousness, Paul undermined human "religion's" quest to climb its way into divine favor. Opposing the "Judaizers" of his day, Paul in the 1st century anticipated Martin Luther's struggles against a petty and fastidious medieval Catholicism in the 16th. Everyone from Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), a leader in the 19th-century "Tübingen School" of New Testament interpretation, to Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a member of the Confessing Church, it is said, was in thrall to a "Lutheran" Paul—until around the year 1977.

When E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism in that fateful year, the tectonic plates of Pauline interpretation shifted. In the way the story is often told, Sanders emerges as a post-Holocaust civil rights hero who exposed the implicit anti-Semitism in the standard Lutheran reading of Paul. Sanders' book was preoccupied with what he called the "pattern of religion" in Second Temple Judaism. Contrary to Bultmann and other Lutherans, Sanders argued that that pattern was entirely grace-based. Judaism was best characterized, Sanders said—in a formulation that would become widely repeated—as a "religion of grace." All (or almost all) of Paul's fellow Jews believed they "got in" to covenant relationship with God by gracious election, and they believed that they would "stay in" that relationship by gratefully keeping God's law (nomos in Greek)—hence, "covenantal nomism": Jewish law-keeping was undergirded and sustained by a merciful divine covenant. Whatever else Paul was upset with his co-religionists about—and Sanders admitted he found Paul notably inconsistent on this score—he clearly did not intend to indict them, as Luther had indicted the papists of his day, for "works righteousness."

Sanders' revolution was so successful that it was quickly hailed as a "new perspective" on Paul and Judaism from which there could be no return. Others rushed in to buttress his conclusions. James D. G. Dunn, Barclay's predecessor as Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University, maintained that Paul's conversion "did not teach him of God's grace, as though for a Jew he was learning of it for the first time." Paul was not an ancient version of Luther. Instead, Paul discovered the universality of God's mission and consequently devoted himself to a Gentile-focused ministry. Paul's problem with Judaism was not that it was focused on earning God's grace but rather that it was too nationalistic, too focused on maintaining ethnic and cultural boundaries and excluding non-Jews from its charmed circle. Paul wanted only to add belief in Jesus as the universal Messiah to an already-gracious Judaism. Paul was certainly not the radical ancestor of Luther that Baur and Bultmann took him to be.

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