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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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Using the sixfold schema of perfections described in chapter 2, we have found that our texts agree at some points, and differ widely at others. All of them perfect the superabundance of divine "grace," stressing the excess of gifts poured into the world, or the "abundance" of divine mercy and goodness, extended in manifold ways. On the other hand, in another point of agreement, none of them perfect the non-circularity of grace, the notion that God gives without expectation of return … . Beyond these two points of agreement, however, the forms of perfection vary greatly. Some (e.g., Philo) tend toward the singularity of God's benevolence (God as the cause of good alone); others (e.g., the Hodayot) let God's mercy shine against the backdrop of his wrath and punishing judgment. Some (e.g., Philo and the Hodayot) suggest the efficacy of grace, attributing to God the human response that God's grace elicits; others (e.g., Wisdom of Solomon) show no interest in qualifying human agency in any such way. Some stress the priority of God's benevolence, whether in a pre-creational determination of human destiny (the Hodayot) or in God's prior causation of all human acts (Philo). Most strikingly, and most importantly for our study, some (e.g., the Hodayot and LAB; Ezra in 4 Ezra) stress the incongruity of divine mercy, while others (e.g., Philo, Wisdom, Uriel in 4 Ezra) do not. This is not because some have a "higher" or "purer" view of grace than others. This is only one of six possible perfections, and to decide that incongruity is the sine qua non of "grace"—as modern dictionary definitions (and the Christian tradition) tend to do—would be to skew our analysis from the beginning. It is just the case that our texts disagree on how they configure divine goodness in this regard, and it would be equally mistaken to regard the incongruity of grace as ubiquitous in Second Temple Judaism as to consider it absent from its repertoire of perfections.

Hence, Barclay ponders the diversity of grace theology in Judaism to conclude that the difference between an incongruous gift and a congruous gift is not the difference between grace and no grace but instead between one perfection of grace and another perfection of grace.

Sanders and Wright have both been pressed about grace by their critics, though not always for the same reasons, but what Barclay argues is that both have framed grace too often in terms of its priority or incongruity without sufficient attention to the expansiveness of grace found in his six perfections. His delineations of these perfections permit him to stand in consort but tension with most orientations to Paul as he seeks to nuance grace in a Pauline theology shaped as much by missiology as by individual soteriology. As such, Paul's grace theology is very Jewish:

Paul participates in a number of Jewish conversations concerning God's beneficence toward Israel and the world, such that his themes, his questions, and many of his answers stand in close proximity to those of other Second Temple Jews. It would make little sense to say that he emphasizes grace more than other Jews of his time, but it is also clear that his views are not identical to those of the others surveyed, just as they disagree among themselves.

How so? "If Paul's voice is consistently distinctive, that difference concerns the Christ-event and the Gentile mission, and the relation of both to the incongruous mercy of God."

Barclay puts this all together in his conclusions in a way that tells the story of how we have learned to read Paul, and here he pushes hard against the old perspective:

Our theme has long been significant in attempts to place Paul among, or against, his fellow Jews. A theological reading of Paul's antithetical expressions has produced an image of Judaism as a religion of "works-righteousness," with the conviction that Paul, and Paul alone, grasped the meaning of "grace." On this reading, fostered by Reformation interpretations of "works" … , other contemporary Jewish configurations of grace were judged self-contradictory, mixing grace with soteriologies of recompense or achievement. In reaction, Sanders's "covenantal nomism" represented Second Temple Judaism as a uniform "religion of grace," with Paul on this point indistinguishable from all his fellow Jews … . Our analysis of selected texts has suggested a different conclusion: grace is everywhere in the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same.
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