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John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 2

[NOTE: This is a 3 part summary of Prof. John Barclay’s book, “Paul and the Gift”. Read Part 1 HERE.]

2. Distinct Perfections of Grace

Barclay then borrows the term ‘perfection’ from Kenneth Burke’s work to refer to the ‘tendency to draw out a concept to its endpoint or extreme’, sometimes to clarify a definition, other times to gain a rhetorical or ideological advantage (p. 67).

Barclay then identifies six ‘perfections’ of the concept of grace over the course of Pauline scholarship (pp.185-186):

  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.

Barclay is quick to add a few qualifiers, which may be outlined in the following way:

  1. even though each ‘perfection’ configures gift in some maximal form, none of these can be claimed as the essence of grace;

  2. don’t assume that the ‘more perfections of grace, the better’;

  3. be wary of the ‘tendency to pile perfections on top of each other’;

  4. be wary of the tendency ‘to extend single perfections to a greater and greater extreme’ (p. 187).

These cautions are not against hypothetical situations, for, as Barclay demonstrates, the history of Pauline scholarship shows these tendencies to be powerfully present.

In what is one of the most illuminating chapters of the book, Barclay outlines how Marcion, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin ‘perfected’ the notion of ‘gift’ in their reading of Paul’s theology of grace. (He also surveys Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, Martyn, and most notably E. P Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul.) The contribution of this chapter is significant. Because a thorough and accurate representation of just one of these theologians would be impossible for one individual to do, Barclay relies not only on his own substantial scholarship but also on the best scholarship on each theologian, identifying the core themes and avoiding dubious theories.

Here are a few of his key insights:

  1. Marcion perfected grace in its singularity, making it difficult to associate the God of the New Testament with any sense of judgment.

  2. Augustine perfected grace in its priority, incongruity, and efficacy. It was Augustine’s drive to perfect the priority of grace to what some may deem an extreme end late in his life that gave rise to his doctrine of election and predestination. But while that is well-known, what is often missed is his emphasis on the efficacy of grace—its power to make believers fitting and deserving heirs of eternal life (p. 88).

  3. Luther perfected grace in its superabundance, priority, incongruity, and non-circularity. In his famous use of the poles of ‘law’ and ‘gospel’, Luther also tended to perfect the singularity of grace, naming Christ only as Savior and not as judge. The main feature of Luther’s theology with regard to his understanding of ‘gift’ is his belief in the permanent incongruity of grace—the believer always remains a sinner unworthy of grace (seen in his famous maxim, simul justus et peccator—‘at once righteous and a sinner’). The righteousness present in a believer is an ‘alien’ righteousness that belongs to Christ. This, in one sense, gives Luther’s theology a sharply Christological focus. Yet the lack of any emphasis on the efficacy of grace for fear of its encouraging a propensity toward ‘works’ destroyed the reciprocal structure of a gift and unwittingly gave rise to the Western ideal of a pure gift. (It was Kant who took Luther’s theological reading of grace and universalized it to refer to the ‘horizontal’ dimension of giving to one another as a matter of duty, not relational reciprocity.) In Luther’s mind, ‘good works’ to a neighbor is now ‘horizontalized’—done for the good of the other, and not as a service owed to God that God might also recognize and reward.

  4. Calvin perfected grace in its priority, incongruity, and picked up key Augustinian strands in its efficacy. For Calvin, it is the gift of the Spirit from which ‘every valuable feature of the believer’s new life arises’ (p. 129). Grace achieves its goal and does not leave the believer with a life that is perpetually incongruent to the righteousness of God. In the terms often used regarding the ‘agency’ of works, Calvin is neither ‘monergistic’ nor ‘synergistic’, but rather ‘conceives of believers’ actions as both wholly God’s and wholly their own’ (p. 129). Influenced by Augustine, Calvin drew the priority of grace to an absolute, resulting in what Barclay calls Calvin’s belief in the ‘omnicausality’ of God.

  5. The New Perspective on Paul perfects grace in its priority and incongruity. The great contribution of the New Perspective is its refusal to read Paul’s ‘works of the law’ as generic ‘law’ or ‘good works’, but rather as a specific Torah-shaped righteousness that gave a sense of national identity to Israel. This prevents a reading of Paul that seeks to avoid the efficacy of grace and to embrace instead the non-circularity of grace (Luther). But its missteps, to Barclay, are its assumption that the priority of grace implies its incongruity. Not everyone who believed that God chose Israel believed that Israel was unworthy of the choice. In short, ‘grace is everywhere in the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same’ (p. 565).

3. Paul among Jewish Theologians of Grace

Where earlier theologians have viewed Judaism as the ‘foil’ to Paul’s notion of grace, the New Perspective on Paul made nearly the equal and opposite error of asserting that Judaism is a religion of grace in the same way that Paul preached grace. The particular perfection of grace in its incongruity is not ubiquitous in Judaism, but neither is it unique to Paul (p. 565).

What is unique to Paul is how he related the incongruity of grace (a) to the ‘Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely’, and (b) to ‘the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based observances of value (“righteousness”)’ (pp. 565-6). Barclay argues that this theology of grace ‘reshaped Paul’s understanding of the identity of Israel’, thus making it a mistake to read his theology as being against Judaism or as seeing the new Jew + Gentile communities of believers as a replacement of Israel (p. 566). Rather, Paul’s hope is for Israel to return to the very root of their faith—a dependence upon the unconditioned mercy of God, something that can be done fully and definitively by putting their faith in Christ.

Read Part 3 HERE.

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