On grace: John Barclay, “Paul and the Gift” (book review)

“A gift can be unconditioned (free of prior conditions regarding the recipient) without also being unconditional (free of expectations that the recipient will offer some ‘return’).”

The word “grace” encapsulates so much of the gospel, so I was blown away by John Barclay’s masterful study of this word: Paul and the Gift, published by Eerdmans in 2015. It’s big (672 pages), pricey (US $55), and academic, though at the time of this review it was available on Kindle for US $4.50.

If you just want a concise summary, choose Barclay’s Paul and the Power of Grace (Eerdmans, 2020, 200 pages). For me, the larger book was worth the effort. It’s a superb example of how to pursue a word study: I learned as much from his method as his content.

Paul and the Gift starts with anthropology, examining how gifts function in different cultures (Chapter 1). Gifts entail reciprocity: the receiver has an obligation to the giver. At minimum, the obligation is to express gratitude, through it is frequently much more. This chapter was invaluable to me personally. Growing up in a Christian culture that focused on God’s unilateral grace, I was called to act generously and expect nothing in return. I’d never truly understood how gift-giving functions socially to create and maintain relationships. I’m still processing how my failure to understand reciprocity has limited my social intelligence.

Chapter 2 identifies how theologians “perfect” grace by emphasizing different aspects. Many of our theological arguments over grace depend on which perfections you choose:

  1. Superabundance: Most of us emphasize that grace is excessive and all-encompassing.
  2. Singularity: For some, grace is the only way God operates: his “sole and exclusive mode of operation is benevolence or goodness” (p.71). For others, God is not only gracious but also just.
  3. Priority: For some, God’s initiative (as giver) always precedes our response. Barclay says that an over-emphasis on this perfection can “appear problematic in reducing or excluding the responsibility of human agents” (p.72).
  4. Incongruity: Is God’s grace given “without regard to the worth of the recipient” (p.73)? While this perfection sounds obvious to many of us, consider passages like Deuteronomy 28 where God said he would give Israel what they deserved (whether good or ill).
  5. Efficacy: This perfection assumes that grace “fully achieves what it was designed to do” (p.73). Augustine’s theology employs this perfection.
  6. Non-circularity: This perfection assumes the gift comes with no obligation. This is “the modern notion of the ‘pure gift’” (p.74), though quite alien to the ancient world.

Chapter 3 then surveys how scholars have understood grace in Paul, identifying which of these perfections they selected. His survey covers Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Sanders.

Chapter 4 draws his conclusions for Part 1. By this stage, Barclay is making you conscious of your own assumptions about the nature of grace.

The second part of the book then surveys how grace was understood by people in the Second Temple period. The writers/communities he covers are:

  • Chapter 5: The Wisdom of Solomon. Grace is superabundant, but given to those who deserve it (not incongruous).
  • Chapter 6: Philo of Alexandria. Grace is superabundant, prior, effective, reciprocal, but generally not incongruous.
  • Chapter 7: Qumran’s thanksgiving hymns (Hodayot). Emphasizes “grace that is abundant, prior, efficacious, and incongruous” (264).
  • Chapter 8: Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum. This text offers “the most emphatic assertion of God’s unfailing mercy to be found in Second Temple Judaism” (p.267), without singularity or non-circularity and without celebrating incongruity.
  • Chapter 9: 4 Ezra. “4 Ezra displays most openly the theological problems associated with divine mercy or gift if they are perfected as incongruous benefits” (p.308).

Chapter 10 summarizes the diverse understandings of grace in Second Temple Judaism. He offers this parting shot at the New Perspective on Paul (NPP):

We have moved beyond the analysis of Jewish soteriology offered by E. P. Sanders’s model of “covenantal nomism,” … Sanders is right that grace is everywhere; but this does not mean that grace is everywhere the same (pp.318-319).

Part III then examines Paul’s understanding of grace in his letter to the Galatians. Barclay is a Galatians scholar, and it shows. For Paul, grace is “the Christ-gift.” The entire “Christ-event” reconfigures the world, supplanting every other configuration of worth. Chapter 11 compares four diverse readings of Galatians, from Luther, Dunn, Martyn, and Kahl.

Chapter 12 expounds Galatians 1–2. His understanding of key phrases:

  • works of the law: “Torah-observance in general” (p.374).
  • righteousness: a status that is “the result of the Christ-gift, not the condition for it” (p.378).
  • πίστις Χριστοῦ: “faith in Christ,” (p.378)

In summary:

This incongruous gift has subverted the normal definitions of worth and instituted, in their place, new norms, motivations, and practices, whose central value is love (cf. 5:6, 13; 6:2) (p.386).

Chapter 13 continues to Galatians 3 and beyond. While there are many excellent insights, I found parts of this chapter unconvincing, particularly Barclay’s attempt to disassociate the Christ-event from human history:

Paul insists that the Christ-event is the fulfillment of God’s promise but does not confirm the Torah as the authoritative framework for life. … Paul coordinates the Christ-gift with “promise” but not with “Law,” creating a narrative characterized by continuity and consistency at the level of divine purpose, but by discontinuity and incongruity at the level of human history (pp.388–389).

The last part of that statement is problematic. The Christ-event certainly cannot be constrained to fit within the Sinai covenant’s value system, but disconnecting it from human history is too much. Abraham was a significant part of human history, and the Christ-event cannot be disassociated from that history. God’s purposes and human history have always been intertwined. The Sinai Law was a temporary intervention (not in continuity with the Christ-event), but Barclay is claiming too great a disconnection here. Later in the chapter it becomes clear that his target with this claim is the NPP (N. T. Wright and James Dunn).

Chapter 14 applies the message of Galatians to the new community that exists in Christ. Among the gems, this statement on the fruit of the Spirit almost defines discipleship:

The highest goal of existence “in Christ” is not self-knowledge or self-mastery for the sake of individual perfection, but a pattern of pro-social behavior issuing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22–23). It is striking how many of these qualities are given concrete form in the communal maxims that follow (5:26–6:10) (p.430).

Communal practice is integral to the expression of the good news (p.444).

Part IV then surveys grace in Romans. If Barclay intended to challenge what we already think, he succeeded. I really wish I had a year to re-read Romans from a kingdom perspective.

In Chapter 15, Barclay compares Paul’s understanding of grace (with “gift” and “mercy” as synonyms) with other Second Temple literature and Galatians. Paul’s perfections of grace include incongruity, but not singularity: “The Christ-gift was given without regard to worth, but it was also just—an expression of ‘the righteousness of God’” (p.475). The incongruity opens the door for Paul’s mission to gentiles.

Chapter 16 discusses the transformative power of grace in recipients’ lives: under the reign of grace, in newness of life, still in the same bodies, but as a new community. The gift was free, but that does not mean we are free from obligation to God:

The gift is entirely undeserved but strongly obliging: it creates agents who are newly alive, required to live the life they have been given. This obedience is not instrumental (it does not acquire the gift of Christ, nor any additional gift from God), but it is integral to the gift itself, as God wills newly competent agents who express in practice their freedom from sin and slavery to righteousness. God’s grace does not exclude, deny, or displace believing agents; they are not reduced to passivity or pure receptivity. Rather, it generates and grounds an active, willed conformity to the Christ-life, in which believers become, like Christ, truly human, as obedient agents (5:19). Without this obedience, grace is ineffective and unfulfilled. (pp.518–519).

Chapter 17 is devoted to the question of God’s dealings with Israel in Romans 9–11. For Barclay, the history of Israel and the Christ-event (the gift) interpret each other:

Thus, if Christ is read in the context of Israel, Israel is also, already, Christologically defined.
To state the matter dialectically: the incongruity of grace is the hallmark of the Christ-event because it is characteristic of God’s dealings with Israel; conversely, the incongruous pattern of God’s dealings with Israel is Christologically determined (p.560).

Chapter 18, the final chapter, pulls together his results. One of the great strengths of the book is clarifying how “a gift can be unconditioned (free of prior conditions regarding the recipient) without also being unconditional (free of expectations that the recipient will offer some ‘return’)” (p.562).

The perfection of grace that Paul focuses on most is incongruity. Incongruity — God giving his gift (the Christ-event) to undeserving people — includes Gentiles. Incongruity is foundational for Paul’s mission to Gentiles.

So what perfections of grace does Barclay see in Paul?

The incongruity of grace does not imply, for Paul, its singularity (since God’s act of grace in Christ is predicated on his judgment of sin) or its non-circularity (since the gift carries expectations of obedience). Because it is incongruous, the priority of the gift is everywhere presupposed, but Paul rarely draws out predestinarian conclusions, as in the Hodayot or in the theologies of Augustine and Calvin. The superabundance of grace is also presupposed and sometimes explicit, but its efficacy is given less attention than the Augustinian tradition might suggest. … The efficacy of grace (in the sense of the present, causative agency of God within the agency of believers) is not of central concern in either Galatians or Romans, and is not a necessary entailment of their primary perfection, the incongruity of the gift of Christ (p.569).

I highly recommend this thought-provoking book as a theologically informed and historically aware survey of one of the most important words associated with the gospel.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

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