Everybody has been raving about John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. Peter Leithart’s given the work some extended attention and my Mere Fidelity podcast compatriot Andrew Wilson has been blogging through it with his characteristically incisive analysis. The word on the street is that this is the book that’s going to blow up a number of paradigms in New Testament studies, especially studies in Paul, for the next couple of decades, upsetting (or delighting) advocates of both Old and New Perspectives on Paul. As someone who originally cut his teeth theologically on these debates, and has long had the intuition that something of a “middle way” was likely closer to the truth than has been typically granted by advocates, I was immediately intrigued.
Thankfully, Eerdmann’s heard my plea for a review copy (yes, I was provided one, though without the requirement of a positive review or anything like that). As soon as a clear bit of space opened up this last weekend, I dove in. And, well, after the first hundred pages or so, the hype appears well-deserved. Barclay’s thesis about the nature of grace in Paul is surprisingly unique, nuanced, and extensively well-researched. What’s more, for all the heavy footnoting and sourcing, as of yet, the writing is clear, elegant, and the argument flows quite naturally, even intuitively once the lines have been drawn out. When you hear what Barclay’s up to, you almost begin to think, “Well, of course, how come we haven’t framed it like this before?”
Which raises the question some of you may be asking, “Well, what is Barclay up to?” At this point, there have been a number of helpful summaries of some of the key moves that Barclay makes, but as it happens, Barclay himself cleanly lays out his three main moves, sections, or theses (however you want to put it), early on in the work. I figured I’d just let the man clarify the project on his own behalf:
- “Grace” is a multi-faceted concept best approached through the category of gift. It is susceptible to “perfection” (conceptual extension) in a number of different ways, which do not constitute a unified package. Some who discuss this theme will maximize the superabundance, the priority, or the efficacy of grace, and others its incongruity with the worth of the recipients (as gift to the unworthy). Others again will urge the singularly of grace (that God is nothing but gracious), and some that God’s gifts are given “with no strings attached.” These are not better or worse interpretations of grace, just different, and it is perfectly possible to speak of grace without defining it, for instance, as gift to the unworthy. These perfections have been various deployed in the history of reception of Paul, though some are better supported than others by Pauline texts themselves. Much in Jewish interpretations of grace, and in the history of interpretation of Paul, can be clarified by distinguishing between these six perfections.
- Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same. Instead of uniformity, a careful examination of the texts indicates diversity in their representations of divine beneficence; they differ, for instance, on whether God’s mercy is properly applied without regard to worth. Paul stands in the midst of this diversity. His theology of grace does not stand in antithesis to Judaism, but neither is there a common Jewish view with which it wholly coincides.
- Paul’s theology of grace characteristically perfects the incongruity of the Christ-gift, given without regard to worth. This theology is articulated within and for Paul’s Gentile mission, and grounds the formation of innovative communities that crossed ethnic and other boundaries. This incongruous gift bypasses and thus subverts pre-constituted systems of worth. It disregards previous forms of symbolic capital and thus enables the creation of new communities whose norms are reset by the Christ-gift itself. Grace took its meaning in and from Paul’s experience and social practice: the nature of the gift was embodied and clarified in novel social experiments. In the subsequent interpretation of Paul, within and established Christian tradition, this motif has played a number of other roles, but has generally shifted from undermining the believers’ previous criteria of worth to undercutting their self-reliance in attaining to Christian norms or their understanding of this effort as necessary for salvation. (6-7)
Again, I’m only a little over 100 pages in, but so far he’s delivering up the goods. I’ll make a few observations early on, all the same.
First, his literature review on the subject of the gift in modern anthropology and philosophy is, as I said, extensive, though, without the sense of being overwhelming. Actually, for those interested, it pairs well with Leithart’s work in Gratitude: An Intellectual History that I just noted last week. This conversation sets up his analysis of, not only contemporary Western thought on the nature of the gift and the way that it has shaped our interpretation of Paul, but also sets up his discussion of the Greco-Roman milieu into which Paul would have been preaching.
Which brings me to a point that’s worth highlighting on the relationship between biblical studies and theology in general. There are times where it seems that biblical scholars beholden to philosophical categories and presuppositions–whether in the Medieval, Reformation, or Enlightenment period–have distorted and misread the text. We’ve imposed our own culture’s categories and read binaries that simply don’t apply to the text, or blurred lines that should have been kept sharp. Barclay’s use of the anthropological and philosophical nature of the gift, though, appears to be one of those cases where we see that extra-biblical conceptual analysis can help us cut through our own cultural fog in order refine our reading of Scripture in ways that highlight and clarify the text, rather than obscure it.
Second, before actually tackling Paul Barclay devotes a little over 100 pages to analyzing the reception history of Paul’s theology of grace throughout a diverse series of historical figures such as Augustine, Marcion, Calvin, and down on into recent critical scholars. What’s more, as Wilson noted, he does it as someone who actually seems to have read the historical sources and not simply resorting to hackneyed, caricatured, hand-waving about them. And guess what? It seems also to have paid exegetical dividends in allowing him to engage in finer conceptual analysis of the nuances of the various “perfections” of the concept of grace. This is but one more area where we can see that a solid grasp and greater engagement with historical theology have salutary effects beyond mere antiquarian interest. Modern exegetes can learn from the readings (and misreadings) of the past for today.
Well, I’ll wrap things up here for now. Suffice it to say, I don’t imagine I’ll agree with everything Barclay has to say–that rarely happens with anybody in NT scholarship, I’m excited to engage it nonetheless. I plan on offering up at least a couple more posts related to Barclay’s work and the the Mere Fidelity boys have already committed to having an episode (or two!) on the subject. So keep an eye out for that.
Soli Deo Gloria