Over the last two weeks (week 1, week 2) we have been running a mini-series by Peter Orr on the New Perspective. This week we finish our series with an Appendix – a review of an important new (hot off the press!) book on the topic.

Review: John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I think John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift will be the most significant book on the apostle Paul since E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism – the book which laid the foundation for the ‘New Perspective’ (see earlier posts).

One of Sanders’ central contentions was that, since first century Judaism was actually a religion of grace, Paul’s problem with it could not have been that it was works-based. New Perspective writers argued that the apostle was really objecting to Judaism’s ethnic exclusivity.

Barclay addresses this point by observing that, while grace “is everywhere in Second Temple [first century] Judaism [it is] not everywhere the same.”[1] It is superficial, he argues, to flatten the distinction between Paul and his Jewish context because they both believe in “grace.”

Instead, Barclay seeks to show that the concept of “grace” (or “gift” – the same word in Greek) had connotations in the Graeco-Roman world that we miss when we hear it through our modern Western ears. In the Graeco-Roman world, gifts were distinguished from reward or pay, yet they were also generally given to create a relationship between giver and recipient. Often this relationship was one of obligation.

In the ancient world, gift giving could also be “perfected” (i.e. distilled to its purest form) by one or more of six additional characteristics:

  • superabundance – the essence of a gift is that it must be excessively extravagant;
  • priority – the essence of a gift is that it must be given prior to any initiative by the recipient;
  • singularity – the essence of a gift is found in the fact that gift-giving is the giver’s sole mode of interaction;
  • incongruity – the essence of a gift is that it is given without any regard to the worth or otherwise of the recipient;
  • efficacy – the essence of a gift is that it produces the desired response in the recipient;
  • non-circularity – the essence of a gift is that it is given without any regard to the response.[2]

Barclay observes that readers of Paul have tended to assume their own understanding of the perfection (i.e. essence) of grace and then read this back into Paul’s concept of grace – so that anything else without this “perfection” is not regarded as grace. He notes, for instance, that Pelagius emphasized the superabundance of divine grace, which was prior to all human activity. Augustine defined grace differently, emphasizing its incongruity i.e. God’s grace is for undeserving sinners who have done nothing to merit it. It is not that Augustine believed in grace and Pelagius didn’t – they simply defined it differently. Similarly, both Rome and the Reformers believed in grace but they “perfected” it differently. For Rome the emphasis was on the efficacy of grace i.e. grace given to the sinner transforms the sinner. For Luther, like Augustine, the emphasis was on the incongruous nature of grace.

In the literature of Second Temple Judaism, Barclay shows that the general emphases are on the divine superabundance and the expectation of return (the reciprocity of grace). Yet what is significant is that, although there are texts which posit the incongruity of grace (i.e. divine gifts given to unworthy recipients), these are always qualified by some deeper rationale. By this, Barclay demonstrates the difference between Paul and Second Temple Judaism. Both emphasise grace, but only Paul makes incongruous grace an unqualified centrepiece.

For Paul, writes Barclay, God’s activity in Christ is the ultimate gift which overturns and reconfigures all concepts of worth: all conditioning of God’s gift in Christ is ruled out – whether human works to earn salvation, or ethnicity, or gender, or social standing (Galatians 3:28). The grace of God in Christ is shockingly incongruous because it is an incredibly significant gift (the death of God’s son) given to people who are morally unworthy (Romans 4:5).

Here Barclay manages to encapsulate both New Perspective insights and classical Augustinian-Lutheranism. The New Perspective concern over Jewish exclusivism is legitimate, but so is Reformed interest in the moral plight of the individual. The apostle wants to defend the incongruity of God’s grace from all qualification: ethnic and moral; corporate and individual.

In making this case, Barclay demonstrates that the New Perspective on Paul is overly narrow and reductionistic. That does not mean that the academy will return to a classical Reformed/Lutheran reading of Paul. But Barclay’s focus on worth, I think, actually shows a closer affinity with this earlier reading. It reinstates the issue of individual salvation to the heart of Paul’s concerns.

Further, we should note that Barclay, in line with much academic scholarship, regards Ephesians, Colossians and the Pastoral epistles as pseudonymous works. He sees Ephesians 2:8-10; 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 3:5 as the beginning of the shift where the Pauline critique of worth turns into a more developed critique of works as human achievement. Yet, if we regard these letters as authentically Pauline, then what Barclay regards as a “shift” is actually further evidence of Paul’s own interest in works and personal salvation.

Finally, in line with this suggestion, we might conclude with a verse that Barclay refers to, but does not perhaps give as much weight as he could: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace,” (Romans 11:6). This verse defines grace against its antithesis – not worth but works. Barclay is correct to see Paul’s understanding of grace as exploding and overturning any human conception of worth, but for Paul, it seems that the most significant of these conceptions was the one that tried to earn salvation by human effort or works.

Works, it seems, lie very much at the heart of human conceptions of worth – an emphasis that Reformed readings of Paul have continued to emphasize.

Barclay’s book has just come out and we wait more extensive responses. But this is a tremendously important book that makes a significant contribution to academic debates concerning Paul’s soteriology.

Photo: Romans 1 from Codex Alexandrinus, courtesy Wikipedia

[1] John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 6

[2] Despite the common modern conception of gifts/grace along this line, Barclay notes that this is rare in antiquity. The idea of unconditional grace, Barclay argues, is rare in antiquity.