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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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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.[1]

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