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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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Scot McKnight


The Unexamined Grace

What God's gift entails.

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N. T. Wright (de-centers grace; more along the line of priority and, I would add, efficacy; I would not say Wright de-centers grace, for his theme of election is nothing other than a theology of grace), and, though Barclay briefly touches on others, we mention only Douglas Campbell—who perfects all six perfections! To which Barclay adds, "Campbell sounds most like Marcion." Hence, for Campbell grace is only grace if all six perfections are in play. Now more on Luther:

At the heart of the Lutheran Reformation was the reconfiguration of Paul's theology of grace, with a set of perfections not entirely identical to those developed by Calvin. Luther did not "rediscover" grace (which was near the center of practically every form of medieval theology), nor did he simply reinvigorate the Augustinian tradition. As an isolated slogan, sola gratia tells us far too little about its precise Lutheran configuration. What is distinctive in Luther is not only the relentlessly Christological reference of grace, but also its permanent state of incongruity. On these grounds, believers live perpetually from a reality outside of themselves, a status of divine favor enjoyed only in and from Christ. Their agency does not need to be re-attributed to the agency of grace, because their works are non-instrumental, and are performed in faith, that is, from the security of a salvation already granted. On the same grounds, gift-giving is stripped of the instrumental reciprocity that had been basic to its rationale since time immemorial. In this sense, Luther did not just reform the church. He offered a new theological definition of gift whose ramifications continue to be felt today.

Barclay does not derive his six perfections of grace from a phenomenological exploration but, as we've already noted, from anthropology, Greco-Roman literature, and Jewish sources. First, he examines what "gift" is like in anthropological studies and what the ancient sources tell us. An opening line shifts away from what most think grace as gift means: "But even the slightest knowledge of antiquity would inform us that gifts were given with strong expectations of return—indeed, precisely in order to elicit a return and thus to create or enhance social solidarity." What Romans historians have called "reciprocal benevolence" then characterized the very essence of grace as gift. One not only gave out of superabundance to those of lesser worth but also one expected circularity in order to create a cohesive group. Drawing on Marcel Mauss's well-known The Gift, Barclay points to these obligations: "the obligation to give, the obligation to receive, and the obligation to return." Such gifts flow from those in power; they are invested with the personality of the donor, and reciprocation expresses both gratitude and social bonding. Gifts then were not "free" and "pure" as one might expect if "singularity" and "non-circularity" are the reigning assumptions. This set of ideas from Mauss and anthropology more generally is largely confirmed in the evidence from Greco-Roman sources.

As we have seen, gifts, like trade or pay, involve reciprocity: in all these spheres, there is a common structure of quid pro quo. What distinguishes the sphere of gift is not that it is "unilateral," but that it expresses a social bond, a mutual recognition of the value of the person. It is filled with sentiment because it invites a personal, enduring, and reciprocal relationship—an ethos very often signaled by the use of the term charis (grace).

Were Jews different when it came to grace? Yes, but not much, Barclay concludes, except in their expectation of a future reward from God: "The Jewish ideology is undergirded not by the ethos of a 'pure,' unreciprocated gift, but by an emphasis on the certainty of reciprocation from God." One of the most important elements of Barclay's brilliant tour de force is his examination of representative authors and texts in Judaism, which cannot be sketched here, but his summary can be given:

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