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Paul and the Gift
by john m. g. barclay
eerdmans, 672 pages, $70


ith the publication of E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, scholarly readings of Paul’s theology dramatically shifted. No longer was Paul’s gospel of “grace alone” to be held up against a legalistic Judaism that advocated salvation by “works of the law.” This older, so-called Lutheran reading was put away (though, as many have now realized, this characterization did not do justice to Luther himself), and New Testament scholars took on a “new perspective.”

As Sanders argued, Jewish texts showed a religion of grace (with the single exception of 4 Ezra). In and through his grace, God made a covenant with Israel. The Torah, or law, was given as a way to keep this covenant. The Torah itself was evidence of God’s prior grace since the law enabled Israel to maintain its relation to God despite sin and defection. First grace, then Torah: salvation was not by merit. Against this background, the Lutheran reading no longer made sense. Paul was still a theologian of grace, but so were other Jews. Paul’s distinctiveness was simply that he believed that Jesus was the true Messiah and Lord. The way one “got into” the salvation offered through Jesus was through faith in him as Messiah and Lord. Sanders’s analysis has not been significantly challenged for more than thirty years. There have been modifications of this or that point, developments of this or that theme, and so on, but no work that has made any enduring smudge on Sanders’s canvas. The old Lutheran reading was gone, the new perspective here to stay.


hat may be about to change. Paul and the Gift, by John ­Barclay, the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University, is one of the more important books on Paul to appear in many years. It reopens the question of the theology of grace in the Judaism of Paul’s time and carefully redescribes his ­construal of the God of Israel’s gift in Jesus Christ. Barclay draws on historical and anthropological analyses of gift-giving in a range of cultures to broaden the conventional understanding of giving and receiving gifts. Where moderns typically have in mind a “pure gift”—one given without regard to the worthiness of the recipient and with no strings attached—previous societies ­understood the giving and receiving of gifts as a way to create or continue mutual social relations. The “pure gift” is not the timeless meaning of “gift” but a specifically modern idea. Judaism itself was not “structurally distinct in its understanding of gift-relations” from other ancient societies. In antiquity, gifts were always relational things.

Because the history of the gift shows many different ways grace has been understood, Barclay develops a taxonomy of six “perfections” of grace: superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, and non-circularity. “Perfections” are the extension of concepts to their “endpoint or extreme.” A perfect storm, for example, is one in which “storm” means most everything that goes into any given storm. In this case, the perfections are six in number because, taken together, these concepts of gift cover more or less the whole range of what grace has meant. We call a gift perfect in superabundance because of its sheer scale or permanence. The perfection of singularity shows that the giver is wholly benevolent. Priority is when a gift is given freely, generously, before any claim to it could be made. ­Incongruity indicates that the r­ecipient does not deserve the gift as a reward for merit but instead receives the gift unconditionally, quite apart from his worthiness. An efficacious gift fully accomplishes its purpose. And, finally, a gift is non-circular when it is entirely free of the need for reciprocation. These perfections are not exclusive: They can coexist and overlap. But recognizing the differences in the way grace has been conceived helps to clarify the arguments for, about, and over the proper understanding of grace. For Barclay, grace cannot be reduced to one simple thing. It has six distinctive facets.


arclay eschews the typical New Testament scholar’s presumption that we can return to the sources without attending to the history between them and us. Most New Testament scholars proceed merrily on their exegetical way without thinking twice about how St. ­Augustine, say, or Calvin or Barth read the New Testament. Such later figures, it is implied, don’t have all that much to teach us about Christian origins. We can skip right over them. Barclay counters such presumption by attending carefully to interpreters ranging from the arch-heretic Marcion through Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bultmann, Käsemann, J. Louis Martyn, E. P. Sanders, and beyond (e.g., new-ish appropriations of Paul in secular philosophy, such as in the work of Alain Badou).

In each case, Barclay examines Paul’s interpreters through the lens of the six perfections of grace. Augustine perfected grace in three dimensions at once: priority, incongruity, and efficacy. Luther, on the other hand, was a theologian not so much of grace alone but of grace’s incongruity. What so possessed him and made him so hard for his opponents to understand was not a new or different concept of grace but a resolute focus on this particular dimension. Sanders, however, emphasized priority: Wherever he saw grace, he asked what comes first, grace or law. And wherever he saw priority, he assumed incongruity. A religion was a religion of grace if the gift preceded the demands and if the grace was unmerited: The unmerited covenant preceded the law (hence Sanders’s well-known term to describe Judaism, “covenantal nomism”). The purpose of Barclay’s historical narrative is not only to illustrate the usefulness of his scheme. It is also to make us better readers of Paul and his Jewish compatriots. By paying close attention to the unfolding of grace’s conceptual history, Barclay sensitizes us to a much broader range of grace’s grammar in the ancient sources.

When he turns to the theme of gift and grace in the Jewish sources around the time of Paul, Barclay discovers that “grace is everywhere” but it is “not everywhere the same.” This is one of Barclay’s crucial points. Sanders was right, he thinks, and Luther wrong: Judaism was a religion of grace. But the way Jews spoke about grace was more complex than Sanders’s covenantal nomism allowed. Through a careful exegesis of the Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, Qumran, Pseudo-Philo, and 4 Ezra, Barclay demonstrates that the Judaism of Paul’s time was remarkably diverse in its conception of grace. All the texts speak about grace; all the texts emphasize the importance of grace. But they differ “in the forms of perfection with which they articulate it.”

We cannot, therefore, place Paul in agreement or disagreement with Judaism on grace, because there was no one Jewish view on grace. Instead, there was “an ongoing Jewish dialogue in which the motif of grace was perfected in various ways, with no single or predominant form.” Paul’s historical position on grace is thus neither for nor against Judaism but within it. His is one argument within a tradition whose view of grace was multiform.


fter a long but worthwhile wait, Barclay brings Paul himself into view. The order and substance of Paul’s letters are complicated things for scholars, but almost no one would really disagree with Barclay: If we want to find the heart of Paul’s view of grace, we should read Galatians and Romans above all. The remaining 240 pages of Barclay’s book consist of a careful and detailed exposition of these two letters. Galatians is the letter in which Paul most clearly argues for what he thinks God’s grace is and what it amounts to in human life. For Paul, says Barclay, God’s utterly unmerited gift in Christ is what grace is about. There are no criteria of human worth that add up to the gift of Christ. When God acts in Christ to reconstitute human life, his action is not a “recognition or reinforcement of a human narrative of worth.” There is nothing human beings have done or could do, have been or could be, to merit the gift. God simply gives. Thus does Paul perfect the incongruity of grace.

Luther, too, believed this about Paul. So did J. Louis Martyn, to take a recent example. But where Luther saw grace primarily in relation to the individual and Martyn in relation to the cosmos (new creation), Barclay sees Paul’s argument about grace in Galatians primarily in relation to human community. God’s incongruous gift in Christ amounts to a radical social innovation. The aim of grace is “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.”

If this is the aim of grace, it is no small wonder that Paul vehemently objects to anything that would compromise it, even—and, in Galatians, especially—the Jewish law. For Barclay’s Paul, the threat in the Galatian church was not works-righteousness, or a guilty conscience stemming from the inability to produce enough good works, but rather the “value-systems that make works, and other forms of cultural or symbolic capital, accounted worthwhile or good.” Barclay explains:

What Paul objects to is the enclosure of the Christ-event within the value-system of the Torah, because for those whose lives are reconstituted in Christ, the supreme definition of worth is not the Torah but the truth of the good news. It is because the Christ-event has subverted every other regime of value that it cannot be repackaged within the taxonomies of the Torah without losing its character as ­incongruous gift.

Since the concrete life of a community cannot be imagined without behavioral norms of one sort or another, it is unsurprising that Paul believes certain kinds of communal conduct follow from God’s gift in Christ. From the Reformers until now, some Christians have worried that saying God’s grace requires certain behaviors as its condition amounts to saying that grace is merited. Barclay, on the other hand, uses his schema of six perfections to distinguish between earning grace and the expectation of Christian behavior that clearly marks all of Paul’s letters. To be sure, God’s gift was unmerited—and in this way entirely independent of any condition whatsoever—but like all other ancients, Barclay argues, Paul thought the gift should evoke a relational response. In Barclay’s terms, the perfection of non-circularity belongs to Derrida, not Paul. “Without . . . obedience, grace is ineffective and unfulfilled.”

Galatians is an explosive letter that raises an explosive question: If God’s gift in Christ is the sort that annuls all other ways of establishing human worth and vocation, what was Israel’s history all about—the election of Abraham, the rescue from Egypt, the giving of the Torah? In Barclay’s view, Romans provides the answer to this question.

If Galatians leaned hard on God’s incongruous gift, Romans shows that this emphasis runs a serious theological risk. Without some connection to Israel’s life, the incongruity of God’s gift-giving looks rather arbitrary, his character capricious and ultimately unworthy of our trust. One minute he elects and establishes the Jews, the next he casts them off in favor of some other way of doing things. Throughout Romans, Paul energetically argues against such a conclusion. Whereas in Galatians Paul establishes the radical novelty of the Christ-event, in Romans he anchors this novelty in the past.

Paul’s longest letter displays not only the substance of his argument but also the means. Paul does not merely consult his own mind or reflect on his spiritual experience or rummage around in his theological anxieties. Instead, he returns to Israel’s Scripture again and again to work out how God’s incongruous grace is congruous with God’s character and historical action from creation on. This is who God is and how he has always acted, argues Paul. “Throughout Scripture,” Paul traces “the pattern of incongruity that is basic to God’s calling of Israel.” Of course, Paul is no simpleton and sees in Scripture the truth that the history of Israel is complex, “full of contradictions, reversals, and paradoxes.” But such dynamics, Paul thinks, are intelligible only on the basis of “a persisting narrative of election, calling, and grace.” The Christ-event and the history of Israel substantively cohere—they are “mutually interpretative”—because both things are animated by God’s gracious gift. The death and resurrection of Christ is not, however, “simply a stage in Israel’s history, even its final stage; it is the moment that gives meaning to the whole.”

Barclay is aware that other dimensions of grace show up in Galatians and Romans—priority and superabundance, for example—but incongruity is the perfection that is Paul’s, the framework that holds together all his talk about grace. God’s gift in Christ is utterly unmerited, unwed to any human scheme of worth. It is this gift that is so radical, so reorienting and renewing. With the gift of Christ, God sets human community on a new foundation and calls us to lives of responsive obedience. What Barclay sees that Luther also saw is that incongruous grace is no respecter of human “values.” It comes to us without taking account of our schemes of weighing and measuring, in abundant richness, to one and all. What Barclay sees that many others have missed is that responsive obedience is not and never could be a precondition of grace. It is our return of a gift that God has first enabled us to give. The Christian life is itself gift all the way down.

Barclay’s attention to history, his taxonomy of grace, and his subtlety of mind allow him to avoid endorsing one interpretation while dismissing another. When it comes to Paul on grace, Augustine was right and wrong; Luther, too, was right and wrong; Calvin, Sanders, Martyn, and the “new perspective”—all right and wrong. Here the question emerges: and Barclay himself?

Perhaps it is too early to tell. (Barclay plans to follow this book with another volume on Paul.) But a provisional judgment would be that Barclay is right in crucial ways. Grace is a multidimensional thing. It is not only about God’s prevenient work but also about a whole range of other matters that tie directly to the fullness of human experience: social dynamics, behavioral norms, unintended waywardness or backsliding, pursuit of holiness, and so on. Speaking about grace in only one way ignores the complexity of the ancient sources’ gift-language. It also fails to reckon with the density of Jewish and Christian life.

Sanders’s model did excellent corrective work, but it now needs some correction itself. What comes first, grace or law—or how you “get in” and “stay in” the covenant—are not the only ways to think about the matter. Judaism was a diverse religion with various ways of speaking about grace. So, too, with Luther and the new perspective. The argument Paul had with his fellow Jews was not so much about grace and works or the boundary markers of Torah. It was about different ways of construing grace in relation to a specific event: the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Paul’s faith in Christ resulted in an uncompromising insistence that God had revalued human life through a gift. All prior human measures were out; God’s measure was in. The God-measure was that all people stood equally before God as the recipients of his gift.

This revaluation created innovative and countercultural communities of Jews and Gentiles worshiping together and trying to discover the shape of their new, common life. Paul’s letters reflect this social innovation and display his missionary attempt to found this life in light of the gift of Christ. Paul does not finally oppose God’s innovative work in Christ to God’s work in the long history from creation to Christ. True, Paul discovers the depth of God’s incongruous grace in light of the Christ-event, but we would greatly misread the Paul of Galatians and Romans were we not to take his point that this is the way God has always been—in Israel’s history no less than from eternity. Who God is in Christ is who God was. And who God was is who he is in Christ. New Testament scholars who have opposed the history of the covenant to the gift of new life in Christ have missed the dialectical reasoning of Paul’s theology.

What this book does above all is show that the mainstream of Christian tradition is in fact a reasonable exposition of the heart of Paul’s writing. God’s grace in Christ is unmerited, given abundantly to all without reference to our worthiness or lack thereof. This grace simultaneously calls into being a community with particular disciplines and behavioral norms as the public, social expression of and response to the gift. The community of Christians shows—or is called to show—the gift of God to the world. To say that Barclay is wrong about all this would be to say that Christianity itself is wrong. There are those who think this, of course, but since I am Christian, I cannot.

C. Kavin Rowe is professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School.