Paul & the Gift

Article by   November 2015
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John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. 672 pages. $70.00/£45.99

Perhaps the most impressive feature of John Barclay's important new book, Paul & the Gift, is the elegant simplicity and integrity of its central thesis. Indeed, at first blush this simplicity may leave some readers confused about why this work is receiving so much praise as a fresh and ground-breaking statement in the field of Pauline scholarship. However, after Barclay has followed the implications of his core insight through the history of Christian readings of Paul, prominent texts of Second Temple Judaism, and the books of Romans and Galatians, few should doubt its significance.

Barclay takes for his subject grace itself, which has often been the under-examined concept at the heart of historical and recent debates between various readings of Paul and of Second Temple Jewish literature. In part on account of the obfuscating theological baggage of the term 'grace', Barclay opts to view the concept through the lens provided by the more anthropological concept of 'gift'.

Barclay engages with the scholarship surrounding the concept of gift in anthropology, history (studying Greco-Roman and Jewish understandings of gift), and, briefly, philosophy and explores the way that the notion of the gift has been transformed in the modern Western world under a variety of ideological, sociological, and economic pressures and influences. He demonstrates that the practice and understanding of gift-giving within a pre-modern context routinely defies many of our habitual assumptions about gifts: 'gifts may scramble and combine what we are accustomed to regard as polar opposites: freedom and debt, choice and obligation, interest and disinterest' (pp.63-64). Gifts created social and personal ties, obligated reciprocation, and were generally distinguished from wages, loans, and acts of purchase. While gifts were not 'earned', it was typically expected that they should be limited to 'worthy' recipients: indiscriminate gifts were unwise and even disreputable. This understanding is clearly at odds with a common contemporary idealization of the 'pure' gift as radically unilateral and unconditioned--given without regard to worth and without expectation of return.

This anthropological treatment of ancient and modern understandings of gift paves the way for Barclay's central thesis: gift/grace is a concept that can legitimately be 'perfected'--drawn out into some pure or ultimate form--in a number of ways. No perfection of grace should be regarded as its sine qua non, nor is it the case that the more perfections we have the better off we are. He enumerates six perfections of the gift, which provide the basis for a taxonomy of theologies of grace:
  1. superabundance: the supreme scale, lavishness, or permanence of the gift;
  2. singularity: the attitude of the giver as marked solely and purely by benevolence;
  3. priority: the timing of the gift before the recipient's initiative;
  4. incongruity: the distribution of the gift without regard to the worth of the recipient;
  5. efficacy: the impact of the gift on the nature or agency of the recipient;
  6. non-circularity: the escape of the gift from an ongoing cycle of reciprocity (pp.185-186)
Barclay immediately puts his taxonomy to work, describing the various ways in which different theologians over church history perfected the concept of grace. With such a sensitive and discriminating framework for understanding grace, the inner logic of various theologies of grace, as well as the causes of friction between theologies, are rendered more explicable. For instance, a primary impetus for Marcion's theology was his perfection of the concept of grace in the direction of singularity, seeking to distance God from any form of judgment. Augustine--a towering figure in the history of Western theology's developing understanding of grace--dwelt on the perfections of priority, incongruity, and efficacy. Luther does not stress efficacy, but introduces an emphasis on non-circularity. Calvin does not perfect non-circularity in the manner of Luther, but profoundly accents the priority, incongruity, and efficacy of grace in a manner that would prove scandalous to many of those who perfect the singularity of grace.

The usefulness of this approach will become even more apparent when we consider a central issue in recent debates between the New Perspective on Paul and more traditional Protestant Pauline theologies: how is Second Temple Judaism appropriately characterized vis-à-vis grace? On the one hand, many Protestant readings, mistakenly conflating the concept of grace with a particular perfection of it, have historically represented Judaism--the foil for Paul's theology--as a 'legalistic' religion of 'works-righteousness'. On the other, New Perspective theologians, following E.P. Sanders, have been accustomed to view Judaism as a religion of grace in a manner that downplays any sharp opposition between Paul and his Jewish contemporaries on this issue.

Sanders and various New Perspective theologians after him have erred in presuming that the clear presence of a particular perfection of grace, i.e. priority, is evidence of the presence of others. This is by no means the case: the concept of grace was perfected in many contrasting ways in Second Temple Jewish texts. Barclay devotes a few chapters to discussing Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, the Qumran Hodayot, Pseudo-Philo, and 4 Ezra, revealing the diversity of theologies of grace within Second Temple Judaism. Paul neither unilaterally opposes a unified Judaism on this issue, nor shares a clear consensus with them; he is better understood as representing one understanding within a rich diversity of viewpoints. While he is able to agree with the New Perspective that Judaism was a 'religion of grace', this claim is a relatively trivial one for Barclay: the real question is 'at once more complex and less loaded' (p.187), concerning the manner in which different Jewish texts perfect the concept.

Of the various perfections of grace, it is incongruity that is foregrounded in Paul's theology: it is on this point his gospel 'stands or falls' (p.370). At sharp odds with many prominent understandings of divine grace in Judaism and of appropriate gift-giving in antiquity, Paul insists that 'the Christ-gift, as the definitive act of divine beneficence, [is] given without regard to worth' (p.350). Paul opposed Peter in Antioch, neither because observing the law was treated as a means of earning salvation (Old Perspective) nor because the Torah constituted an ethnic or covenantal exclusivity (New Perspective), but because the gospel is founded upon a gift that has subverted all such criteria of value--both circumcision and uncircumcision. It is not those defined by Torah who are fit recipients of God's gift of salvation (i.e. 'righteous'), but those who are 'marked by faith in Christ' (p.377)--Barclay challenges the subjective genitive rendering of πίστις Χριστοῦ--whose lives are founded upon a gift given entirely without regard to worth. 'Faith is not an alternative human achievement nor a refined human spirituality, but a declaration of bankruptcy, a radical and shattering recognition that the only capital in God's economy is the gift of Christ crucified and risen' (pp. 383-84).

In Galatians Paul contends that the Christ-event, although the fulfilment of God's purposes and in accordance with the Abrahamic promises, was radically unconditioned upon the Torah. In contrast to the 'covenantal' reading of such as N.T. Wright, Barclay states: 'What arrives at "the fullness of time" ... is not a "shock" at the end of a "many-staged" plan, but God's counter-statement to the previous conditions of the possible, a new creation in the midst of the present evil age' (p.412). While there is narrative continuity (congruity) at the level of the divine promise, on the human level the Christ-gift represents radical irruption and disjunction (incongruity), a break with the existing course of affairs. This direct challenge to Heilsgeschichte and covenantal readings of progress is bound up with the importance that Paul gives to the startling incongruity of grace.

By adopting a primarily theological frame, Romans is an important development between Galatians (Barclay argues that synthetic treatments of Pauline theology have dulled people to the developments in Paul's thought), enabling Paul to clarify the place of Torah and Israel. 'The theological focus of Romans enables Paul to place the Christ-event on a historical line, with a past as well as a future: the origins of the Abrahamic family (Rom 4) and the means by which Israel was formed and preserved (Rom 9:6-29; 11:1-5) are here significant in themselves, and not merely as types of the present' (p.558). The Christ-event and Israel's history are revealed to be 'mutually interpretative' (p.559), with the Christ-event as 'the moment that gives meaning to the whole' (p.561).

Incongruity isn't the final word: the unconditioned gift is not unconditional, but 'forms the foundation and frame for human works that fit God's judgment' (p.486). A positive verdict in that judgment--the congruous gift of eternal life--is not 'earned' by autonomous exertion nor 'merited' in any sense that would suggest commensurability between humanity and God or that our moral effort 'causes' God's gift. Rather, it is fulfilment of the incongruous gift by which we were first saved. Barclay's Paul is not, technically speaking, a monergist: 'Paul's theology of grace is coherent with emphasis on the necessity of human obedience not so much via the efficacy of grace (with God as the acting agent in believers' action) as via its incongruity (with human righteousness as the product of a divinely created life that is wholly at odds with the normal human condition)' (p.503). In contrast to much Reformed theology, Barclay's Paul does not perfect priority and efficacy in the direction of a predestinarian or monergistic theology.

The reality of incongruous grace is necessarily expressed in communities that reject the competitive struggles for honour characteristic of their culture, where people treat each other in accordance with Christ's gift given without regard to worth. This communal dimension is prominent in Barclay's account, but doesn't play off social practice against individual conscience in the manner characteristic of many New Perspective readings.

Barclay recognizes the ambivalence of his thesis in the context of current debates: 'the reading of Paul offered in this book may be interpreted either as a re-contextualization of the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition, returning the dynamic of the incongruity of grace to its original mission environment where it accompanied the formation of new communities, or as a reconfiguration of the "new perspective," placing its best historical and exegetical insights within the frame of Paul's theology of grace' (p.573). While New Perspective theologians have frequently articulated their position against the foil of a supposedly misguided Lutheran theology, Barclay recognizes the genius of the Augustinian tradition in addressing Paul's teaching of the Christ-gift given without regard to worth to societies where criteria of worth had themselves been Christianized. 'The achievement of Luther ... was to translate Paul's missionary theology of grace into an urgent and perpetual inward mission, directed to the church, but especially to the heart of each believer' (p. 571). Yet such appreciation is tempered by Barclay's opposition to the traditional Protestant understandings of Judaism and to the belief that Paul's polemics were chiefly directed against people seeking to earn salvation through moral effort (although he observes some shift towards a focus upon works as moral achievements--not necessarily understood as 'earning salvation'--in the 'deutero-Pauline' epistles).

Paul & the Gift is a landmark contribution to continuing debates in Pauline theology, refocusing the conversation in important ways and offering a path beyond some present antagonisms. It is not without its limitations and some of the concerns that it will provoke within the Reformed tradition should already be apparent from my sketch of his thesis above. At one point, Barclay remarks upon the New Perspective's use of culturally resonant and theologically fashionable language of 'rights', 'equality', and 'inclusion' (p.161). When Barclay himself speaks of the freedom in Christ Paul proclaimed as one to 'transgress cultural limits, to challenge "ancestral traditions"... and to resist the claims of final authority advanced by the Torah, or by any other cultural norm' (p.364) or as something that 'subverts pre-existing norms' and 'does not fit any pre-constituted system of value' (p.387), I believe we should register comparable resonances and maintain a degree of caution. The anthropological angle of approach offered by the category of 'gift', while undoubtedly illuminating for the most part, throws certain crucial theological elements of the picture into a degree of shadow. This is particularly apparent in Barclay's relative neglect of the sacrificial themes in Pauline theology and of the phenomena of sacrifice and 'offering' in general. It is important to remember that Barclay is not presenting a dogmatic or systematic theology--or even a synthetic 'Pauline theology'. His principal purpose is to describe various theologies of grace, not to arbitrate between them. In refusing to tether 'grace' to a particular perfection such as incongruity he ensures that we recognize the semantic latitude of the term. However, this concern needs to be counterbalanced by statements such as Paul's in Romans 11:6, in which Paul seems to treat incongruity as non-negotiable when it comes to the meaning of 'grace'. While Barclay's work helps to clarify that the meaning Paul gives to the term 'grace' was not just a generally accepted meaning of the term, many readers will wonder whether he does justice to the hotly contested--and perhaps even essentially contestable--character of the term. That is, different theologies of grace don't and needn't just coexist, but are frequently bound up in fierce antagonisms, often refusing to acknowledge each other's legitimacy precisely as accounts of grace (perhaps in a manner comparable to contemporary debates about 'marriage'). Where general definitions and taxonomies such as Barclay's would leave such disputes undecided, granting the term to all parties alike, dogmatics and polemics may have a more important part to play here than Barclay's project might imply. Such reservations notwithstanding, this is an important and rewarding book, whose promising thesis will provide fruitful avenues for future conversation.

Alastair Roberts did his doctoral studies in Theology in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair's Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged
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