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Book Review

November 24, 2015

Paul and the Gift Paulandthegift

by John M. G. Barclay

If you think you know what ‘grace’ means you probably need to read this book. Top New Testament scholars are raving about it. It opens up a whole new approach to the language of gift in Paul and in the literature of First Temple Judaism. It also provides a powerful tool to analyse the tradition of theological interpretation of Paul down the ages.

My own summary of John Barclay’s conclusions will probably fall far short of the beautiful precision and clarity with which Barclay himself summarises his arguments as he goes along. This clarity means that, although the book draws on an immense depth of scholarship, it will also be very accessible to a lay audience.

New Testament scholars will no doubt argue over particular points, but I suspect that the framework Barclay offers will provide the terminology for debate for some time to come.

Some of the key conclusions are as follows.

The idea of grace finds expression in Paul and in First Temple Judaism in range of terms associated with gift giving. One key aspect of this language is that it arises within a culture in which gift giving is normally and normatively reciprocal. A return is expected and this does not undermine the fact that it is a gift. Hence the cultural world of gift giving is very different from the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ untainted with expectations of reciprocity.

There is no uniform notion of ‘grace’. Barclay’s close analysis of the literature shows a family resemblance between the various ways the terms are used but also clear differences. He distinguishes six ‘perfections’ of grace. By this he means six ways in which the notion of grace is stretched towards an idealised notion of perfect grace. Many writers use several of these ‘perfections’ in their understanding of grace, but there is interesting diversity which means that debates between different writers which do not pay attention to these differences end up falling into considerable confusion.

Barclay’s six perfections are: maximizing the abundance of grace; absolutizing the priority of grace; emphasising the efficacy of grace; stressing the incongruity of grace with the worth or character of the recipient; emphasising the singularity of grace as the unique characteristic of the giver, and finally defining grace as unconditional or non-reciprocal with ‘no strings attached. This last perfection, Barclay argues, is a peculiarly modern perfection.

It strikes me that singularity is a little of an oddball in the list as it is a descriptor of the giver rather than the mode of giving. Moreover Barclay spends little time discussing this perfection with its suggestion that God only gives and does not take.

The perfection of priority provides a backdrop to Barclay’s devastating engagement with E P Sanders ‘new perspective’. For Sanders grace, understood almost exclusively in terms of the notion of priority, does not distinguish Paul from his Jewish counterparts. Barclay shows that Paul’s account of the gift is highly distinctive once you pay attention to the many different ways First Temple writers perfect the understanding of grace.

To show this Barclay offers comparative readings of The Wisdom of Solomon, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, The Hoyadot (Thanksgiving Hymns) from the sectarian Qumran community, Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Bibicarum and 4 Ezra. As a newcomer to these writings I found this section particularly fascinating.

From here Barclay offers his own readings of Galatian and Romans (in turn) as representative of Paul’s distinctive use of the language of gift. Although there are interesting differences between Galatians and Romans – the latter offering a fuller account and developed account of the relationship between this history of Israel and the gift that is the event of Jesus Christ – both letters demonstrate how Paul emphasised the perfection of the incongruity of grace (to the undeserving) because of his focus on the Christ-event as divine gift and because of his concern for and experience of Gentile mission. It is not that Paul does not perfect the idea of grace in other ways (he does) but it is the radical incongruity of the gift of grace in the Christ event which reshapes the life of the communities Paul writes to, most importantly in relativizing the authority of the Torah in  a novel and revolutionary manner. Significantly, Paul does not perfect the non-reciprocity of God. Grace to the undeserving does indeed have strings attached. For Paul incongruous grace is unconditioned (by the recipient) but not unconditional. This incongruous Grace is, however, also efficacious and in Paul eschatological framework is effective to render some kind of final congruity.

Another interesting aspect of this book is Barclay’s comparative readings of significant interpreters of Paul. He uses his ‘six perfections’ as a grid to look at the assumptions about grace present a long line of thinkers. The following summary hardly does justice to the distinctive takes that each of the thinkers has on the various ways of perfecting grace, however, this chapter is well worth the price of the book. Barclay discusses, in order: Marcion (emphasising singularity and incongruity), Augustine (priority, incongruity, efficacy), Luther (superabundance, tendency to singularity, priority, permanent incongruity, non-reciprocity), Calvin (priority, incongruity, efficacy), Barth (strong emphasis on incongruity, grappling with efficacy), Bultmann (incongruity, priority, reticent about efficacy), Kasemann (incongruity, not inclined to perfect efficacy, opposed to non-reciprocal ‘cheap’ grace), Martyn (incongruity, priority, efficacy) and more (including a range of ‘new perspective’ and ‘post new perspective scholars’)

I struggle to recommend this book highly enough. It is must read, especially for students of the New Testament and for preachers and teachers in the church.



One Comment leave one →
  1. November 24, 2015 9:30 am

    Many thanks for posting this review, Bruce.

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