Paul and the Gift
John M. G. Barclay
672 pp., $70.00
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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