Paul and the Gift
John M. G. Barclay
672 pp., $70.00
Paul and the Gift: Two Views
Editor's Note: A number of theologically-minded people of my acquaintance—academics, pastors who keep up with scholarship, passionate amateurs—have been waiting a long time for John Barclay's massive study Paul and the Gift, published in 2015 by Eerdmans. Hence we are publishing two reviews of Barclay's book. These are not—emphatically not, as will be clear on inspection—pro and con. Rather, the two complement each other. In a forthcoming issue, we'll publish a pair of reviews of Oliver O'Donovan's Finding and Seeking. Let us know what you think.
Near the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes about the cluster of Jesus-believing Jews in the Roman church: "[I]f [their preservation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace." To many readers, especially downwind of the Protestant Reformation, that statement reads like a truism—an affirmation that holds true across time and regardless of cultural variations. Grace and works are mutually exclusive: it's less a comment especially attuned to the peculiarities of 1st-century Roman or Jewish culture and more like a dictionary definition. Indeed, a modern dictionary defines "gift" (a term closely linked, and sometimes interchangeable, with "grace") as something delivered to a recipient "gratuitously, for nothing." Yet, according to John Barclay's new book Paul and the Gift, the fruit of more than a decade of scholarly labor, nothing could be less obvious. It is Paul—not intuition or common sense or objective, timeless instinct—who is almost single-handedly responsible for making it seem obvious to most of us in the modern West that God's grace excludes human working. In Paul's original context, that conclusion was entirely novel—and strangely, unsettlingly radical.
For many of Paul's fellow Jews, to say that grace was "unmerited" or "free" was far from clear, let alone desirable. In five long chapters of patient exegesis of prominent Jewish texts from the Second Temple period, Barclay demonstrates that many of Paul's contemporaries understood God's grace as superabundant, lavish, efficacious—but, importantly, not arbitrary or unfitting or "free." Like all good givers, God did not give indiscriminately and without cause. His blessings, in the words of Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE-50 CE), "will be accompanied by the grace of the gift-loving God, who glorifies and rewards what is noble because of its likeness to himself." God maintains the order of the cosmos by giving in line with discoverable, rational norms. And, more relevant for many 1st-century readers, God upholds his fidelity to Israel precisely by distributing his grace to those who are worthy of it. This does not make his grace any less gracious. Grace is not a univocal concept in Second Temple Jewish texts. It could be drawn out or "perfected" (Barclay's preferred term, borrowed from the literary theorist Kenneth Burke) in multiple ways, and it may easily be spoken of in the same breath as "works" or moral "fit" or worth. To define grace otherwise—to say that God gives it in disregard for the worth of its beneficiaries—is to open the door to moral chaos and anarchy, to snip the thread that links human pursuit of virtue with the deep structures of creation and providence.
Why, then, does Paul define grace so differently? Barclay's answer is subtle but also forthrightly theological. First, Paul knew himself to be the recipient of an incongruous gift. At the moment when he had acquired the most cultural and moral capital of any Jew he knew (see, for instance, Phil. 3:4-6), Paul discovered a divine grace that operated in complete disregard of his achieved status. As he tells the story, he had "advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors." And yet what came next was not the reward for that advance. Rather, Paul received a calling determined long before his acquisition of cultural worth had even begun: "But … God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles" (Gal.1:14-15). The gift of Christ, the revelation of God's Son, happened for Paul not as the response to his amassing of moral and social worth. It was a benefit that came to him in spite of his unpreparedness for it.
And this, in turn, was how Paul found divine grace to operate among his Gentile converts. In his letter to the Romans, for instance, Paul labors to explain his recipients' lack of moral worth: "for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened" (1:21). And yet, in spite of this, "they are now justified by his grace as a gift" (3:24). The "Christ-gift" (as Barclay repeatedly refers to it) came to pagans in a way that mirrored how it came to Jews in the Diaspora: irrespective of moral and social achievement, in flagrant indifference to their (lack of) fitness and qualification.
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.
Barclay's Paul and the Gift disputes almost every aspect of this standard account. Was there a dominant "Lutheran" tradition, associated with the rise of historical criticism, that distorted Paul's true theology? Yes and no, says Barclay, but mainly no. On the one hand, he grants that Luther mistakenly thought that Paul's target in his Galatians epistle was self-reliant boasting (if that were the burning issue, "it is hard to see why Paul would discount both circumcision and uncircumcision"). Yet he offers a sophisticated, subtle reading of Luther that overturns many of the caricatures of the reformer popular among "new perspective" interpreters. Luther's theology, Barclay suggests, with very little qualification, "constituted a brilliant re-contextualization of Pauline theology in the conditions of the sixteenth-century church."
What, then, of the "new perspective"? Is Paul one who understands Judaism as a religion of "works"? Again, according to Barclay, the answer is yes and no. Yes, grace is a distinctive of virtually all Second Temple Jewish theologies. Almost all Jewish writers contemporary with Paul understand God to be the dispenser of grace, and the Lutheran tradition "fostered a regrettable tendency to figure 'Jews' as exemplars of human self-righteousness." But no, Paul's Jewish contemporaries do not all understand grace as "unmerited favor"; they do not all "perfect" the concept in the same way. "Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism," writes Barclay, "but not everywhere the same."
What emerges from Barclay's book is a new story that disrupts the normal telling of the progress of Pauline scholarship. Over against the "new perspective," Barclay understands Paul to be a genuinely creative thinker, unleashing a "bizarre," even "dangerous" definition of grace into a mix with other competing definitions. For Paul, grace is incongruous—it is a gift that does not "fit" or "match" the worth of those to whom God gives it. In defiance of human achievement, God gives grace to a supposedly successful but actually bankrupt person like Paul (the acme of Paul's human "achievement" had actually set him against God's church). And, conversely, in defiance of human failure, God gives grace to the utterly unworthy idol worshipers of Gentile cities around the Mediterranean. Because grace erupts, cause-less, in the event of Jesus' death and resurrection, it can therefore be given to anyone and everyone. As Barclay puts it, in two of the book's key sentences, "As a singular, particular, but unconditioned event [the incongruous gift of Christ] belongs to no subset of humanity, but is destined for all. Since no one is granted this gift on the grounds of their ethnic worth, no one of any ethnicity is excluded from its reach." No preparation is necessary, and no conditions must be met before the gift of Christ may be received.
Grace excludes working, then—to return to Paul's letter to the Romans—not because that is what "grace" always and everywhere means. Grace excludes working because that is the shape of the Christ-event, the Christ-gift, itself. It was an event that blossomed unbidden. It slashed across the night sky like a shooting star, unlooked-for. It appeared, when Jewish and Gentile eyes alike were turned elsewhere. After such an interruption, after such a seismic occurrence, definitions would have to change, patterns of religion would have to be rethought. Grace itself would have to be understood afresh. It is the unique gift of this book to show us how that happened in and through the 1st-century apostle to the Gentiles—and to give us hope that it might happen through his letters once again.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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