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John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 3

[NOTE: This is a 3 part summary of Prof. Barclay’s book, “Paul and the Gift”. Read Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.]

4. Paul’s Theology of Grace in Its Original Social Context

In this section of the book, Barclay spends about 118 pages tracing Paul’s theology of grace in his letter to the Galatians, and another 113 pages doing the same in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

In both letters, Barclay finds the dominant motif to be the incongruity of grace. The gift, for Paul, is the Christ-event: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, in both letters, the implications of this gift are profound for creating and imagining a new community in which previous barriers are eliminated. The kind of welcome we have received from God in Christ requires believers to embody the same kind of welcome to one another—a welcome irrespective of previous measures of ‘worth’. Barclay writes, ‘Since God’s incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and united them in their common faith in Christ’ (p. 566).

The key features of Barclay’s reading of Galatians, drawing from his own summary remarks, are as follows:

  1. The theology of Galatians ‘drives toward the formation of innovative communities, which not only span the boundary dividing Gentiles and Jews, but practice a communal ethos significantly at odds with the contest-culture of the Mediterranean world’ (p. 443).

  2. The incongruity of grace ‘enacted in the Christ-event and experienced in the Spirit’ reconfigures reality, and represents a ‘ “human-level” disjunction’ and yet a ‘ “divine-level” continuity (p. 443).

  3. The contextual specificity of the letter means that by ‘works of the law’ Paul means ‘Jewish practices beholden to the Torah, not “works” or “law” in a generalized sense (contra-Luther). For Paul, the Christ-event subverted every other value-system or means of defining worth, even the Torah. This also adds ‘breadth to the canvas’ of Paul’s theology since any worldly definition of honor or worth is also struck down.

  4. Communal practice is ‘integral to the expression of good news’. Living by faith is ‘necessarily expressed in new patterns of loyalty and behavior’, with the Spirit as its source, director, and norm (pp. 444-5).

  5. No denigration of Judaism is necessary, whether as a religion of works or otherwise. Paul shows that the ‘demands of the good news surpass the authority of the Torah’ (p. 445).

Barclay offers no such neat summary of the key features of his reading of Romans. But each section includes a conclusion, and I am drawing from these to outline what is notable to me:

  1. Romans is concerned with relating the Christ-event to the story of Israel.

  2. The motif of the incongruity of God’s gift is its major theme. Barclay sees Paul as parading ‘not the match but the mismatch between the act of God and the value or condition of its human beneficiaries’ (p. 490). ‘When the narrative of the Abrahamic family is told in this incongruous shape, it emerges that all people, Jew and Gentile, derive their identity, in faith, from the God who gives life to the dead and has now raised Jesus as the source of new life’ (p. 492).

  3. The eschatological vision of God’s judgment is one where the gift of Christ will be the ‘fitting outcome of a life of “good work” (p. 492). This does not make the gift conditioned, but neither does it make it unconditional. God’s gift is ‘designed to produce obedience, lives that perform, by heart-inscription, the intent of the Law’ (p. 492). God, after all, gives His grace to sinners not because He is morally indifferent, but because He ‘intends to transform the human condition’ (p. 492). Paul’s phrase ‘obedience from faith’, used to bookend his letter, demonstrates that obedience is ‘the product of a life created through God’s incongruous gift’ (p. 492).

  4. As slaves to God who have an obligation to Him and to one another, our obligation does not gain grace or win another installment of grace (pp. 517-8).

  5. The essential incongruity of grace that continues in the life of the believer is not evidenced in the believer continuing to be a sinner (per Luther)—since ‘what began as a morally incongruous gift will be completed as a morally congruous gift’ (p. 518). Rather, the essential incongruity of grace is seen in the resurrection life of Christ (from which all holy living in the believer springs) co-existing in the believer’s own life, their mortal body. Playing off Luther’s maxim, Barclay creates his own: simul mortuus et vivens—at once dead and alive.

  6. Rather than paint Paul as monergistic or synergistic, Barclay simply asserts that for Paul the life of the believer is derived from Christ.

  7. The Christ-event is not simply the ‘latest episode in a story of grace’. Rather, it is the final, complete, decisive, and comprehensive enactment of incongruous grace. It is the moment that gives meaning to the whole narrative.

Summing up his reading of Paul in Galatians and Romans using his own taxonomy of the ‘perfections’ of ‘gift’, Barclay concludes:

‘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 expectation 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. While some Pauline texts suggest the efficacy of grace in the will and work of the believers (1 Cor 15:9-10; Phil 2:12-13), this perfection receives no special profile in Galatians and Romans. Everything that may be said about the believer is predicated on the resurrection life of Christ, as the source of new life in the Spirit: no one can “walk in line with the Spirit” unless they “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). But the efficacy of grace (in the sense of the present, causative agency of God within the agency of the 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.’

5. New Contexts and New Meanings of Grace

What happens when Paul’s letters are read in new contexts? What happens when the criteria of worth is no longer the Torah but a ‘Christianized’ value-system? How should one make sense of Paul’s ‘works of the law’ then?

In every social context after Paul, his radical theology of incongruous grace has been read no longer as the ‘critical theology of a new social movement’, but rather as the ‘self-critical theology of an established tradition’ (p. 570). In short, ‘missionary theology is turned inwards’ (p. 571).

Augustine ‘interpreted “boasting” as the pride of believers who attribute merit to themselves, and not to God, directing the ‘critical edge of Paul’s theology’ against ‘Christian construals of virtue-acquisition’ (p. 571).

Luther’s achievement 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). Paul’s theology of gift is ‘re-preached to effect the perpetual conversion of believers’, making the gospel a ‘mission to self and a daily return to baptism’ (p. 571).

Calvin used Paul’s theology to expose the ‘human incapacity to fulfill the law’s demands.

Barth (and Martyn) drew on Paul to subvert the ‘ “religious” movement toward God that is no more than a “human enterprise” ’ (p. 572).

The New Perspective on Paul understood the focus of Paul’s critique to not be merely achievement or performance of works, but the very criteria by which worth is measured—a criteria which served as an ethnic and social boundary (p. 572).

Finally, Barclay gives us his own suggestions for where one might locate this book in terms of these other readings of Paul (bold type are my additions for emphasis):

‘Thus, the reading of Paul offered in this book may be interpreted either as a re-contextualization of the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition, retuning 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. I have disagreed in significant ways with interpreters on both sides of this divide, and the reading offered here does not harmonize the two interpretative traditions but reshapes them both. Thus it opens a path beyond current dichotomies, placing their respective strengths within a frame that is responsible both to the Paul’s historical conditions and to the theological structures of his thought.’

And therein lies Barclay’s gift of ‘Paul and the Gift’.

For more, read Wesley Hill’s review of it HERE, Reformation21’s review HERE, and the Christianity Today interview with Barclay HERE.

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