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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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A second implication immediately rises to the surface for those who have learned to think in terms of grace being reducible to superabundance, incongruity, and non-circularity. What about Paul's theology of grace? Isn't it as we have learned in the tradition? Barclay's answer is yes and no. In his opening summary, Barclay lays out his understanding of grace in Galatians and Romans. Here is his thesis for Paul: "Paul s theology of grace characteristically perfects the incongruity of the Christ-gift, given without regard to worth."

Barclay transcends Augustinian anthropology in the term "worth," for he is thinking not only of soteriology but also of how honor and worth were established in the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, a worth that has now been transcended by equality in Christ. Thus, he continues (all italics that follow are mine):

This theology is articulated within and for Paul's Gentile mission, and grounds the formation of innovative communities that crossed ethnic and other boundaries. This incongruous gift bypasses and thus subverts pre-constituted systems of worth. It disregards previous forms of symbolic capital and thus enables the creation of new communities whose norms are reset by the Christ-gift itself. Grace took its meaning in and from Paul's experience and social practice: the nature of the gift was embodied and clarified in novel social experiments.

This social emphasis of Barclay's, so characteristic of Pauline scholarship today in both the new and apocalyptic perspectives, challenges what Paul's theology of grace became in the theological tradition of the church, most definitely in the Augustinian line of thinking. The social experiment of an inclusive community turned in theological history toward an individual's self-reliance (a characteristic, as I said, of the "old" perspective on Paul): "In the subsequent interpretation of Paul, within an established Christian tradition, this motif has played a number of other roles, but has generally shifted from undermining the believers' previous criteria of worth to undercutting their self-reliance in attaining to Christian norms or their understanding of this effort as necessary for salvation."

There are echoes here of the "old" perspective in a more apocalyptic mode, but there is also a concern with ecclesiology, mission, and church formation so characteristic of the "new" perspective. Barclay's focus for understanding Paul's theology of grace is on its incongruity, but his take here is expansive: any regnant system of worth and value is exploded in the embrace of all by God in Christ. What is perhaps most notable about this understanding of grace in Paul is the social focus Barclay gives it: grace was God's apocalyptic act of redemption in Christ to embrace all of humanity in Christ and to form visible but socially concrete living communities where this grace would be experienced and put on display.

A third implication then is how grace has been understood in the history of Christian theology, and it would be too much to detail all that Barclay raises to the surface, so a brief sketch and then a fuller statement about Luther, who one might say made grace famous in theology, must suffice here. Barclay's sketch of that history does not fall short of mastery or compelling prose. He sketches Marcion (singularity, incongruity), Augustine (priority, incongruity in spades, efficacy), Luther (superabundance, singularity, priority, permanent incongruity, and non-circularity but no emphasis on efficacy; and Luther focused on anti-self-reliance and subversion of ecclesiastical authorities), Calvin (priority, incongruity, efficacy, and circularity [not non-circularity, not singularity]; zero-sum game about righteousness, deeply dependent upon Augustine), Barth (incongruity, with wrestling over efficacy), Bultmann (incongruity, priority, and circularity with wrestling about efficacy; no singularity), Käsemann (incongruity into social contexts as well, not singularity or efficacy or non-circularity), J. Louis Martyn (incongruity, priority, efficacy), E. P. Sanders (incongruity, priority), James D. G. Dunn (priority as all-inclusive of grace's meaning, but also incongruity),

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