Paul and the Gift
John M. G. Barclay
The Unexamined Grace
The old theology that at one time was an instinct for readers of the apostle Paul, especially for readers of Romans, has become a battlefield. The "old" perspective lost its privileged location to the "new" perspective, and now the "old" and the "new" have been met and challenged by the "apocalyptic" perspective on the Apostle Paul. Categorizing theologies, orientations, and scholars presents only rough-and-ready distinctions, but within reason we can say these are dominant approaches to Paul's theology today.
The "old" perspective on Paul enters the discussion of Paul's theology with an Augustinian understanding of the human condition—fallen, sinful, depraved, and in need of grace all the way down—and it sees this anthropology mirrored in the human attempt to justify oneself before God on the basis of performance. Hence, this old reading contained a very serious belief that "works of the law" expressed human vainglory. As for those who have read Paul this way, one thinks of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Rudolf Bultmann, and Hermann Ridderbos, but many others could be listed. None of them agrees completely with the others, but these theologians have a similar orientation.
The "new" perspective enters at a different point, even if many who share the new perspective have an Augustinian anthropology similar at points to that of the "old" perspective. This group of scholars enters the discussion at a narrative level: God's covenant with Israel, the story of Israel, and the fulfillment of that story in Jesus as Messiah as it expands to include Gentiles in the Pauline mission. At the font of this new perspective was a broad challenge to the old perspective's understanding of Judaism, namely that at least so-called "late" Judaism had been infected with a meritorious soteriology. The new perspective is then first of all a new perspective on Judaism and only by extrapolation a new perspective on Paul. If one shifts the problem Paul confronted from self-reliance to covenantal privilege, the solutions Paul offers shift as well. In place of that works-righteousness Judaism, the architect of the new perspective, E. P. Sanders, in 1979 contended that Judaism as a whole was an election and covenant-based religion with Torah observance (works of the law) merely how one maintained one's relationship to Israel's covenant God, not how one entered into that relationship. Or more commonly among the new perspective thinkers, "works of the law" distinguish Jews from Gentiles and hence express some kind of ethnic, national, electional privilege. No two new perspective scholars agree on every point, however, so we must take into consideration considerable differences between Sanders, for example, who focused on Judaism as covenant nomism and not works-righteousness as well as on soteriology (he called it "participationist eschatology"); James D. G. Dunn (whose theology of Paul is framed by soteriology and seeing "works of the law" as "badges of distinction" for Jews); and N. T. Wright (whose focus has been on a narratival revision of monotheism, election, and eschatology through the advent of Christ and the gift of the Spirit).
If the entry point for the "old" perspective was anthropology leading directly to soteriology and for the "new" perspective a kind of historiography cum soteriology and ecclesiology, the entry point for the more recent "apocalyptic" Paul has been God's apocalyptic act in history that devalues everything prior and makes all things new. The roots of the apocalyptic Paul lie in the German scholarly successor to Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, and his understanding of "apocalyptic," but the apocalyptic approach has become a fixture in the US through the works of J. C. Beker, J. Louis Martyn, M. de Boer, and Douglas Campbell, and also in the UK in the singularly nuanced works of John Barclay, the successor to Dunn as the Lightfoot Professor at Durham University. But again, we need to appreciate difference; these scholars don't completely line up with one another, so the term "apocalyptic" is once again only an orientation. Barclay, known for his precise analytics and for emphasizing diversity, crosses lines in having an integral narrative that has both continuity and discontinuity (see his exposition of Romans 9-11 at pp. 520-561), a strong emphasis on all things new in Christ, and a rigorous commitment to the revised understanding of Judaism as both a covenant and grace-shaped faith. So I locate him with the apocalyptic Paul thinkers knowing his distinctions from Beker, Martyn, and Campbell.
An illustration of the apocalyptic approach to Paul is seen in this statement by Barclay: "Thus, the Christ-event is not simply a stage in Israel's history, even its final stage; it is the moment that gives meaning to the whole." I would not just quibble with that way of framing the matter—who says "simply a stage" or "simply … its final stage" and who denies it "gives meaning to the whole"?—but such is the focus of the apocalyptic Paul: a massive act of God invading the cosmos in the Christ-event to liberate it from the grip of sin and systemic evil. One learns to read the Bible by letting the Christ-event turn everything inside out. Barclay's view of grace, however, is not tied exclusively to this model, and at time transcends all three orientations to Paul, so Paul and the Gift will be of value to all interpreters of Paul.
At the heart of both Christian and Pauline theology is the theme of grace. Where the "old" emphasizes grace as God's unmerited gift to rebellious and proud sinners, the "new" focuses more on grace as God's goodness to embrace both Jews and Gentiles in redemption, though most also mix into this expansion of God's people the theme of unmerited grace. But grace is even more emphatic, to the point of universalism at times, for the apocalyptic Paul interpreters. Taking each of the orientations to task, Barclay stands grace on entirely new ground. In fact, all will have to meet his challenge that grace's meaning has been reduced and assumed rather than articulated in nuance. As he puts it, "Considering the centrality of this matter for the comprehension of Paul and of other Second Temple Jews, it is surprising how rarely the definition of 'grace' has been subject to careful analysis."
I shall proceed straight to the central contribution of Paul and the Gift. There are, Barclay contends, six different "perfections" of grace, by which he means six ways grace as gift works itself out toward extremes or its farthest point in meaning and implication. Those six perfections are superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, and non-circularity. These perfections need his clarifications, for the whole book gains its vision from these terms:
We have noted the tendency to draw the theme of gift/grace to an end-of-the-line extreme, especially for polemical purposes and in relation to God; and we have observed the variety of forms that this "perfecting" tendency can take. Since gift-giving is a complex social relation, it is possible to "perfect" grace (to define its essence in some "pure" or "ultimate" form) in a number of ways. We have identified six possible perfections:
(i) superabundance: the supreme scale, lavishness, or permanence of the gift;
(ii) singularity: the attitude of the giver as marked solely and purely by benevolence;
(iii) priority: the timing of the gift before the recipient's initiative;
(iv) incongruity: the distribution of the gift without regard to the worth of the recipient;
(v)efficacy: the impact of the gift on the nature or agency of the recipient;
(vi)non-circularity: the escape of the gift from an ongoing cycle of reciprocity.
As he will later articulate, Barclay's perfections of grace operate from different angles: the first is about the gift itself; the second and third about the giver (God), the fourth about the person to whom the gift is given, the fifth about its effect, while the last is about reciprocation. These perfections then illustrate the varied dimensions of a phenomenology of the gift.
Three implications of nuancing grace into these six perfections can be detailed. I begin with a general implication for understanding how to relate the six perfections of grace. Each of the perfections is grace; each can exist without the others; grace, in other words, is not always one or all the others but can be one of them or a mixture of various perfections. Thus, it is simply unfair to the ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds to think it is only grace when it is superabundance and incongruity and non-circularity, and here Barclay has his eye on certain exaggerations—prominent today in church life in the US—in Lutheran and Reformed theology. One can call it grace if it focuses on God's superabundant gift even though at the same time it is "circular," that is, if it expects the one to whom the gift is given to reciprocate somehow. Barclay establishes this point about grace and reciprocation on the basis of a phenomenology of gift from modern anthropology, on the basis of how Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures worked when a gift was given, and on the basis of two Pauline letters, Galatians and Romans. The singularity of grace, quite attractive to some today under the category of "unconditional" love, tends to co-exist with the perfections of priority and non-circularity, while incongruity and efficacy are for some advocates downplayed for a modern age obsessed with self-esteem and microaggressions. It might be said that the "old" perspective tends to think grace is superabundant, prior, incongruous, and non-circular—and if these are not present or if anything else is present (like efficacy or circularity), it is simply not grace. Barclay pushes us to think we are in need of a theology of graces.
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),
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:
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.
In this we find a compelling feature of the new perspective blended with the apocalyptic Paul, but all set on a new foundation in this ground-breaking study of grace.
Barclay's conclusions about the Pauline conception of grace, which was the goal of this book and which could only be answered once one understood what gift-giving was (and is) like and how both the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds comprehended such grace—and which can't be understood without patient examination of Paul's letters to Galatia and Rome in context and narrative flow—are these: grace is christologically focused with a central element of incongruity at the communal level of forming an alternative society in the church. Barclay finds varying emphases on the perfection of superabundance, priority, singularity, and efficacy, but Paul's theology of grace is not non-circular, that is, the apostle expects those who have experienced God's grace to respond in love and grace.
Pauline studies and the church will be indebted to Barclay's Paul and the Gift for decades, and those who read and ponder will never be the same again.
Scot McKnight is the Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and the author of Kingdom Conspiracy (Baker) and A Fellowship of Differents (Zondervan), as well as The Heaven Promise (WaterBrook).
1. Barclay wrote an essay in a collection on the apocalyptic Paul. See John Barclay, "Under Grace: The Christ-Gift and the Construction of a Christian Habitus," in Beverly Roberts Gaventa, ed., Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8 ( Baylor Univ. Press, 2013), pp. 59-76.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.