The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace: Part I—Paul & the Gift

I’m willing to bet if you were to ask a random person how they define grace, their response would include either (a) someone/something possessing elegance, poise, finesse, etc., or (b) the “christianese” understanding of God’s unmerited favor for all through his son, Jesus, and a reference to Ephesians 2:8-10 (let me know if there’s a third cliche I’ve missed) In part I of Paul & the Gift, Barclay researches how the words grace and gift are used historically. His findings I found to be surprisingly diverse—Surprising in a beneficial sense for my own misguided contextual understanding. Though this increased my very empty bank of historical theology, it nevertheless exposes my lack of awareness influenced by reading with Western eyes (sigh…).

Starting with Chapter 1, Barclay observes the operation of gifts anthropologically by exploring contextual factors outside and before modern Western culture. Today, Barclay contends, we often define a gift to rule out a reciprocal response or a return of some kind. We assume it to be integral to the character of gifts, insofar as to be given without any hope of a return benefit as the core to gift-giving. But in the Greco-Roman world it was expected that one would respond to a gift with some return, and such a return did not mean that the gift was not a true gift (p. 12). Disinterested altruism was not ascribed to gift-giving in the Greco-Roman world. Quoting Barclay, “An anthropology of gift doesn’t provide any single ‘model’ or ‘essence’ of the gift, but it suggests that gifts may have important roles in creating or producing social ties” (p. 63). This historical perspective, then, is necessary for contextualizing the practice of gift-giving and exchange. Concluding chapter 1, gifts entail expectation and even obligation of reciprocity, however, they are never distributed based on the equal status of the giver and receiver of the gift.

In Chapter 2 the focus shifts to the six perfections of grace. With meticulous observation, Barclay asserts the perfections to be the most common characteristics of grace historically:

1. Superabundance– The size, significance, or permanence of the gift. This excessive, boundless, and illimitable divine wealth is befitting to Paul’s language as used in Rom. 5:12-21 and 2 Cor. 9:8, 11 (p. 70).

2. Singularity– the focus with this perfection is on the giver rather than the gift; the mode of operation or spirit as Barclay says, is solely exclusive to benevolence or goodness (p.71)

3. Priority– The timing of the gift is perfect. The gift is the initiating move that is given in “spontaneous generosity” without prior demand, reaction, obligation, or request of the recipient, which simultaneously displays the superiority of the giver (p.72).

4. Incongruity– The perfection of a gift as supremely excellent because it does not regard prior conditions of worth. This distinguishes the Christ gift from how gifts in antiquity were typically understood (p. 72-73).

5. Efficacy– A perfect gift may also be figured as that which fully achieves what it was designed to do (p.74). The development of this perfection is associated most famously with Augustine’s theology of grace.

6. Non-Circularity– This perfection focuses on reciprocity, which is a more modern concept. Is a gift only a gift if it escapes the system of exchange? If this is true, than the gift is a one-way gift establishing no relation, creating a permanent and potentially humiliating dependency, and freeing the recipient of all responsibility (p. 74-75).

What should be noted about these six perfections is that they are not dependent on one another, nor are all needed for grace’s “true” meaning. In laying them out like this, Barclay’s point is relatively straightforward: “to perfect one facet of gift-giving does not imply the perfection of any or all of the others.” Simply put, these perfections are the most common traits of grace; there is neither hierarchy in their significance, nor added value for how many perfections are central to one’s interpretation. This point is Illuminating the marquee paragraph that follows:

“To speak of “pure grace” may mean its singularity (God is nothing but benevolent) or its non-circularity (God’s grace seeks no return) – or some other of its six perfections. To describe God’s grace as “free” could mean many things: that it is unconstrained by the previous circumstances (in our terms, prior), that it is given irrespective of the recipients’ worth (in our terms, incongruous), or that it is given without subsequent expectations (in our terms, non-circular) – or, indeed, some combination of these three. Similarly, the epithet “unconditional” could mean at least two things: without prior conditions (thus, incongruous) or without resulting obligations (thus, non-circular), or both” (p. 76).

It can be seen that the six perfections have enormous implications surrounding the ongoing grace debate within the church. In Chapter 3, Barclay begins an in-depth overview of select, but pivotal, interpreters of Paul throughout history up to present day. Including figures such as Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Martyn, E.P. Sanders, as well as several others, his historical canvas is widespread to thoroughly cover as much as possible. I will save comparison of the figures for Part II: Divine Gift and Second Temple Judaism; where I will hold all figures/writings against the six perfections backdrop.

Concluding Part I, Chapter 4 summarizes the conclusions from Barclay’s analysis. He shows that Anthropology offers no exact model of “the gift” and proves no single definition. However, it does alert readers to the dynamics of reciprocity, power, and obligation that are common in gift-relations, but easily misconstrued. Part I achieves several goals, which can be summarized below (p. 185-187):

(i) Reaching into the past has clarified several current debates because their historical roots were not being fully articulated as they ought (p. 186).

(ii) Part I demonstrates the varied ways in which “grace” has been perfected in the history of interpretation can be disentangled with the six perfections framework—an analytical tool explaining not only that each theologian’s interpretation is different, but also why. What is revealed is it is neither necessary nor common to perfect grace in all six dimensions (p. 186).

(iii) The historical analysis of Part I is the foundation from which readers can now efficiently peruse the meaning of grace in Second Temple Judaism (Part II). They can now observe different Jewish perfections of grace without presuming that any one is necessary or proper, or that all will be the same (p. 187).

(iv) Paul’s relation to Second Temple Judaism should not be confined to two current but overly simplistic options: either Paul advocated grace against a grace-less and “legalistic” Judaism (Old Perspective), or Paul was in full agreement with all his fellow Jews on the character of grace (New Perspective). Paul needs to be placed neither over against his fellow Jews, nor in total agreement with them (p. 187).

(v) Every interpreter of Paul is in agreement that the apostle was the bearer of some “essential” meaning.  However, as Part I has revealed, this can lead to ideological tendencies; there is no reason to think that the greater the number of perfections, the better the concept of grace (p. 187).

(vi) History teaches hermeneutical self-consciousness. Part I displays exactly how historical and polemical contexts have fostered the varied perfections of grace we see today (p. 187).

Aside from the several citations and quotes, this part can be summed up as such—grace is a multifaceted pillar essential to Paul’s theology. It has been interpreted differently by different scholars in different contexts throughout history.

You can check out my introduction post to Paul & the Gift by clicking here. I will post Part II by next Wednesday.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace: Part I—Paul & the Gift

  1. Pingback: Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism: Part II—Paul & the Gift | Finding Rest in the Haven

  2. Pingback: The Christ-Gift in Galatians—Part III: Paul & the Gift | Finding Rest in the Haven

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s