Paul and the Gift, by John Barclay

Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same (p. 6).

With this simple statement, John Barclay (Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University) begins to unravel some of the biggest recent controversies in New Testament studies. Was the apostle Paul diametrically opposed to the Second Temple Judaism in which he was raised, because he preached grace and they preached works? This is what many have assumed. But what about the realisation that Second Temple Judaism was also concerned about grace? Is Paul actually much closer to Second Temple Judaism than we might have thought?

Barclay’s monumental book, Paul and the Gift (2015), seeks to address these questions. It does so, first, by clarifying what we might mean by ‘grace’ – or, alternatively, what we might mean by describing something as a ‘gift’.

The title, Paul and the Gift ‘has a double nuance’: hinting at Marcel Mauss’s anthropological classic, The Gift (1925), and also hinting at ‘divine gift-giving, which for Paul is focused and fulfilled in the gift of Christ (the gift)’ (p. 4).

But surely we know what a gift is? In our world, a gift – a pure gift, that is – is something that is given ‘with no strings attached’ (p. 6). After all, if you expect something in return, it simply isn’t a gift, right?

Well, no. That’s a very modern (and Western) notion of a ‘pure’ gift (p. 59), and would have been completely unrecognised in the ancient world. In practically all other cultures, a gift is given in order to elicit some response. There are better and worse gifts, to be sure, but they all play their part in sustaining relationships. This is true today, probably more than we realise. You give your friend a birthday present, and you hope they will respond, not necessarily by giving you a gift in return, but by showing appreciation, and by recognising the value of your relationship. You give your boss a bit of extra work, or your boss takes you out for a meal, not as a ‘pure gift’ with no strings attached, but in order to sustain a healthy relationship. And so on. That’s simply how gifts have worked, throughout human history.

So what makes a gift into a good gift? What does it mean when we describe God’s gift of (salvation in) Christ as a ‘gift of grace’? This is where there is disagreement, and Barclay identifies six possible characteristics (or ‘perfections’), which could be combined in various different ways in order to answer this question (pp. 69-75):

  1. Superabundance. We might say that God’s gift is a good and gracious gift because it is a big gift.
  2. Singularity. We might say that God is a good and gracious giver because he only ever acts for the good of the recipient (and never punishes evil, for example).
  3. Priority. We might say that God is gracious because he gives to us first, before we have given anything to him.
  4. Incongruity. We might say that God is a gracious giver because he gives to the undeserving.
  5. Efficacy. We might speak highly of God’s gift because it is given with some purpose in mind, and because it ‘fully achieves what it was designed to do’ (p. 73).
  6. Non-Circularity. We might speak of God’s give as a gracious gift because it expects nothing in return.

It is not difficult to see how some notions of ‘gift’ will display some of these characteristics and not others. For example, our modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ is characterised by non-circularity, but not by efficacy. In contrast, most gift-giving in the ancient world was characterised by efficacy but certainly not by incongruity: you carefully choose the recipient of your gift, because you want your gift to produce a good response. For a modern comparison, think of awarding someone a Nobel Prize. It is a gift, but the recipient is chosen very carefully indeed (no incongruity), because you want the money to be used for good purposes (efficacy).

The remainder of Part 1 of the book consists of a masterful survey of the history of interpretation of Paul, identifying which of these ‘perfections’ the interpreter identifies as being characteristic of Paul’s concept of grace.

And here are the results (everyone would describe the God’s gift as ‘superabundant’, so this is not included below)…

Marcion Singularity    Incongruity    
Augustine    Priority  Incongruity  Efficacy   
Pelagius   Priority      
Luther   Priority Incongruity   Non-Circularity
Calvin   Priority Incongruity Efficacy  
Barth     Incongruity    
Bultmann   Priority Incongruity    
Käsemann   Priority Incongruity    
Martyn   Priority Incongruity Efficacy  
Sanders   Priority (Incongruity?)     
NPP   Priority (Incongruity?)    
Campbell Singularity Priority Incongruity Efficacy Non-Circularity

In a bit more detail…

  • For Marcion, the Creator God is a bit nasty but the supreme God is ‘purely and totally good’ (singularity, p. 82), and ‘gives gifts to those he neither created nor owned’ (incongruity, p. 84).
  • For Augustine (at least from Ad Simplicianum onwards), God’s grace ‘precedes merit’ (priority), ‘and is given to the sinner’ (incongruity), but is also effective in making the sinner godly (efficacy, p. 88).
  • For Pelagius, God sets things in motion by giving us ‘the ability to do the good’ (priority, p. 92), but then it’s up to us what we do with that gift.
  • For Luther, God takes the initiative in giving to the undeserving (priority and incongruity), but this incongruity remains, because we are simultaneously and permanently ‘righteous’ and ‘sinners’ (p. 108). But the grace of God ‘is given not in order to elicit a return or benefit for God, but for our sake alone: this non-selfish love is both in intent and motive non-circular’ (p. 113).
  • For Calvin, as with Augustine, God gives his grace in justification to the undeserving (priority and incongruity), but God’s grace in sanctification produces good works in the life of the believer (efficacy).
  • For Barth, in his Römerbrief (The Epistle to the Romans), the emphasis is almost entirely on ‘the absolute incongruity between divine grace and inherent human possibility’ (p. 134).
  • For Bultmann, grace ‘is the polar opposite of “works”’ (p. 138), so ‘Bultmann makes the incongruity of grace the center of Pauline theology’, while also emphasising its priority (p. 140).
  • For Käsemann, the basic shape is similar to that of Bultmann, but with more emphasis on ‘God’s anticipated victory over the powers’ (p. 142) in place of Bultmann’s existentialism.
  • For J. Louis Martyn, grace is seen in the ‘prevenient act of God, a liberating invasion of the cosmos prior to any human movement’ (priority, p. 149). This grace is also incongruous (or ‘uncontingent’), and triumphant in the transformed lives of believers (efficacy).
  • For E. P. Sanders, God’s grace (in Paul and in Second Temple Judaism) precedes good works (priority), but it is unclear whether this grace is always incongruous, or whether it is in some cases given in response to some kind of ‘merit’.
  • For the NPP (New Perspective on Paul), there is (again) a strong emphasis on the priority of grace, but the comparison between Paul and his contemporaries is is hindered by a lack of clarity on the incongruity of grace.
  • More recent interpreters are given a shorter treatment, but notable among them is Douglas Campbell, who somehow manages to employ all six of the perfections. God’s grace, for Campbell, ‘is not only superabundant and prior (originating), and not only incongruous (undeserved) and efficacious (God’s agency being all-sufficient), but also singular (God is benevolent and not just)’ – Campbell is a universalist – ‘and non-circular (there is no necessary human response, no “strings attached”)’ (p. 173).

The remainder of the book will explore the meaning of ‘grace’ in Second Temple Judaism (Part 2), and then compare that notion with Paul’s understanding of grace in Galatians (Part 3) and Romans (Part 4). Don’t hold your breath; I haven’t read those bits yet…