Romans- Israel, the Gentiles, and God’s Creative Gift—Part IV: Paul & the Gift

The fourth and final part of Barclay’s book consists of a reading of Romans. He establishes the coherence of the letter; too often the letter is dissected as individual lessons which make up a collection (i.e. the righteousness of God in 3:1-26 or the contrast between Adam vs. Christ and what it means for the locus of believers in 5:1-8:39). For Barclay, however, the literary analysis necessitates approaching the letter as a whole. He incorporates a theological lens through which grace should be seen in its relationship to Israel and the Christ-event, versus the Christological lens with Galatians. There is an appreciable difference between Galatians and Romans which can be embraced by the reader. Barclay writes—

            “The Christological focus of Galatians placed emphasis on the novelty of the Christ-event, with no reference to Israelite generations between Abraham and Christ…Christ is not added to a prior human narrative, but is the hermeneutical center of a scriptural witness that ‘pre-preached’ the good news (Gal 3:8). The theological focus of Romans enables Paul to place the Christ-event on a historical line, with a past as well as a future: the origins of the Abrahamic family (Rom 4) and the means by which Israel was formed and preserved (Rom 9:6-29; 11:1-5) are here significant in themselves, and not merely as types of the present” (p. 558).

How does Barclay read Romans and which of the six perfections are revealed by his reading? Through exegetical and theological work, he shows us that Paul assumes the priority of God’s giving throughout the letter, but this is significant chiefly in underlining its incongruity—“God does not give in return, to match a prior gift: there is no correspondence in this or any other respect. It is that absence of correspondence that makes God’s mercy so unnerving, and at the same time pregnant with such promise for the future” (p. 556). Incongruity, however, is not the final word for the apostle’s letter to the Romans—“As we have seen, the motif of ‘wealth’ evokes the superabundance thematized in Romans 5:12-21, and there are statements here that emphasize the priority o God’s call or gift (9:11; 11:2,35) in a way that supports its lack of correspondence to human worth. There is a general sense of the efficacy of grace, in the fact that the Christ-event, and its preaching, elicit faith, but no reflection on the mechanism or means of that efficacy as many have developed this perfection” (p. 558).

What I found most interesting is even with Paul’s radical emphasis on the incongruity of grace by there is no implication for its non-circularity. From the conversations I’ve held regarding grace, non-circularity seems to be the characteristic associated the most to the western understanding of Paul’s grace.  with as much weight as its incongruity. This speaks volumes to the way we understand and preach grace today, bringing to question if we should level the playing field… Should our expression of grace reflect the proposed circularity as much as its incongruity?

Furthermore, the implications of grace/gift are profound for Paul’s vision of creating a new community, especially within an honor/shame culture where barriers are present and social hierarchy established.  Paul invites people into a community where these barriers are no longer present. Barclay writes, “Since God’s incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and united them in their common faith in Christ” (p. 566).

This concludes my four part series of Paul & the Gift by John Barclay. As was stated in my initial  review of the book, this was an eye-opener to my understanding of grace as Paul preached it, and I highly recommend it to anyone willing to be challenged by such.  It champions over any other literature I’ve explored, setting a new standard of excellence for Pauline scholars. This book has offered a new approach to the concept of “grace,” a new analysis of Second Temple Jewish theologies of divine beneficence, and a new reading of Galatians and Romans through the lens of Paul’s theology of grace; if any of these topics have intrigued you, then I urge you to grab a copy before reading anything else related. I promise it will encourage fruitful dialogue for you and your peers.

(click here to purchase). 

Here are the links to the first 3 parts of this series:

Part I: The Multiple Meanings of Grace and Gift
Part II: Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism
Part III: The Christ-Gift in Galatians



The Christ-Gift in Galatians—Part III: Paul & the Gift

In Part III of Paul & the Gift John Barclay exegetically and theologically analyzes The apostle’s letter to the Galatians. Barclay’s treatment requires four chapters, weighing it in at just over one hundred pages. In addition to his exegesis, he compares a reading of Paul’s letter to that of Luther, Dunn, Martyn, and Kahl by drawing attention to the numerous locus of debate that are associated with it such as Faith, Christ, Works, Law—pistis Christou (πιστις Χριστου) vs. erga nomou (εργα νομου)—and several others. What Barclay reveals is Paul’s desire for new communities to form as a result of the gospel he proclaims:

“The truth of Paul’s gospel has to be both recognized and enacted–in fact, recognized in its enactment. It is only as communities are remolded in exclusive allegiance to ‘the law of Christ’ that they may be said to affirm the baptismal confession, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Rom. 10:9). Social practice is not, for Paul, an addition to belief, a sequel to a status realizable in other terms: it is the expression of belief in Christ, the enactment of a ‘life’ that can otherwise make no claim to be ‘alive'” (p. 439-440).

As Barclay demonstrates, grace, for Paul, is unconditioned (incongruous) but not unconditional (rejecting non-circularity).  The gift, then, is the Christ-event: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul’s theology, incongruity is the dominant of the perfections; it is because of this that the gospel “stands or falls” (p. 370). Based on his exegetical analysis, Barclay crafts the below rendering of Galatians 2:15-21—

You and I, Peter, are Jews, used to thinking of ourselves as categorically distinct from “Gentile sinners.” But we know (though conviction and experience) that a person (whether Gentile or Jew) is not considered of worth (“righteous”) by God through Torah-observance (“living Jewishly”), but through faith in (what God has done in) Christ. We look to God to consider us valuable (“righteous”) in Christ, not through obeying the Torah, and this is so even if (in situations like Antioch’s) our resulting behavior makes us look like “sinners” (“living in a Gentile fashion”). Does that mean that Christ has led us into sin? No way! Only if one were to reinstate the Torah as the arbiter of worth (“righteousness”) would “living like a Gentile” in Christ be classified as “transgression”. In fact (taking myself as a paradigm), I have died to the Torah—it is no longer what constitutes my standard of value—because I have been reconstituted in Christ. My old existence came to an end with the crucified Christ; my new life has arisen from the Christ-event and is therefore shaped by faith in the death of Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. This divine gift I will by no means reject: if “righteousness” were measured by the Torah, the death of Christ would be without effect (p. 371). 

Barclay’s translation is directly in line with what is conclusive of the whole letter of Galatians.

  1. The theology of Galatians ‘drives toward 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’ (p. 443).
  2. The incongruity of grace enacted in the Christ-event and experienced in the Spirit. Because the Christ-gift neither recognized nor rewarded the worth of Paul’s life “in Judaism,” and equally was given irrespective of the worth of Gentiles, it jolts its recipients into a new construal of the cosmos (p. 443).
  3. The contextual specificity of the letter and the breadth of the canvas on which Paul depicts issues.  For Paul, 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. And neither does it conform to quest for honor or the definitions of capital that are regnant in the “world” on human terms (p. 444).
  4. We are able to appreciate in a new way how communal practice is ‘integral to the expression of good news, because the issue of the Law in Galatians is not law-as-demand or law-as-means-to-salvation. Living by faith is ‘necessarily expressed in new patterns of loyalty and behavior’, with the Spirit as its source, director, and norm (p. 444).
  5. Clarifying how Paul’s allegiance to the truth of the good news necessarily questions the ultimate authority of the Torah, there is no denigration of Judaism required with this reading of Galatians (p. 445).


As these points reveal, Barclay’s argument is boiled down to understanding the missionary context of Paul’s gospel as the perfection emphasized is incongruity.  Paul’s gospel as he preached it was missional and reflects his social context. He destroyed the hostile disunity that existed between Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s motive was to tear down the walls built by the social order, and the only way to do it was with a gospel that was new and unique. Jews and Gentiles living in community together was the new model for community that is made possible under the umbrella of the Christ-event, that is, the grace-gift. This completely changes how they would interpret community and what it means to do life together; free of social hierarchy for a “Community of Different’s”, reflecting the title of Scot McKnight’s book on the subject.

My final installment of Barclay will be published within a week, and it will reflect his findings for Paul’s letter to the Romans.

If you haven’t read them yet, check out my other posts regarding Barclay’s book Paul & the Gift by clicking the links below!

Paul & the Gift: Book Review and Introduction
Part I: The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace
Part II: Divine Gift in Second Tempe Judaism

Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism: Part II—Paul & the Gift

Related imagePart II of John Barclay’s Paul & the Gift examines “grace” and the various ways it has been presented in Second Temple Judaism. He examines five texts in his analysis—Wisdom of Solomon, the Qumran Hodayot, Philo, Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum and 4 Ezra; arguing that grace has been, as Part I revealed, “perfected” differently during the Second Temple period. Barclay argues that as a result the Augustinian reading of Paul (gift-giving being absent of reciprocity) was adopted by westerners is only one of the perfections in order to understand grace. This historical analysis shows that one should look for the similarities and differences of perfected grace between Paul and the writers of Second Temple Judaism. Once seen, “it becomes senseless to ask whether Paul represents ‘real’ grace, as opposed to its ‘diluted’ forms in Judaism,” and interestingly enough, the question turns to, “how does Paul perfect the theme of divine beneficence and how does his voice compare with others in his diverse Jewish context?” (p. 320).

Barclay examines the Second Temple writings using the backdrop of the six perfections model from chapter 2 (you can get a brief overview of them in my previous post). What he finds is all five embrace the superabundance of God’s grace; at the same time, not one of them embraced the non-circularity. Remarkably, this is just another nail in the coffin of the modern idea of grace/gift-giving’s coffin; meaning that reciprocity is present in some way of all the writings…

Much like Part I, the careful treatment of these texts is carefully done and worth the price of the book alone. As I summarized the presence/absence of the six perfections in the second temple texts and the historical texts I came to a realization: explaining the nuances of these perfections was confusing, repetitive, and could potentially be an entangled mess for readers to follow (it was difficult for me and I typed it out!). However, thanks to Andrew Wilson, I found the table below; I’m sure you’ll find it more helpful than if I attempted to recapitulate with my repetitive rambling.

My apologies if the image appears distorted; I had some difficulty with it for whatever reason… The names listed in the left hand column are Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, Pseudo-Philo, The Qumran Hodayot, 4 Ezra, Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Bultmann. Though the names are distorted, the Yes/No in each box is clear. As you can see, grace was not understood the same way by every Second Temple Jew. Barclay’s analysis shows why we should not say one form of grace is purer or higher than another because grace clearly was understood differently throughout history. Don’t get me wrong, grace is still grace, but not all grace is understood the same.

O’Brien and Richards demonstrate this aspect analogously with the word “know” in their book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012); using the example of a police officer pulling someone over for speeding. When the officer asks, “do you know how fast you were going?” when pulled over for speeding. Answering “yes” is understood differently in western culture than it is in eastern cultures. Westerners hear this as a self-awareness question—“are you aware of the speed you were going?”; whereas in eastern culture it is assumed they clearly don’t know the speed limit, otherwise they’d obey it. Asking whether or not they know would be redundant in an eastern context because it is culturally nonsensical.

Barclay’s conclusion to this component is that each writer’s depiction of gift and grace should be appreciated for what it is. He says, “It would make little sense to say that he (Paul) emphasizes grace more than other Jews of his time, but it is also clear that his views are not identical to those of the others surveyed, just as they disagree among themselves” (p. 328). I am grateful for his historical and descriptive approach, as well as the clarity he provides for each figure’s take on grace in the Second Temple period.  Barclay helps the reader conceptualize that grace is not an “all in or not at all” mentality we often assume it to be. Everyone he observes believed in grace, even if they understood it differently. The question remains, then, is should all conceptions of grace be accepted equally?  Much like Greg Boyd’s “Cruciform Hermeneutic” introduced in Part I of Crucifixion of the Warrior God (click here for my review of it), the historical framework can sometimes appear in tension with Biblical theology, which raises several interpretive questions regarding authority and inspiration. This is not to assert the two are perpetually at odds with one another, though the dynamic of each camp’s position appears as “either/or” instead of “both/and”… All one can do from here is look at Paul’s understanding of grace/gift and hold it in light of these other writings. Questions of Authority and Inspiration aside, we do know that Paul was a product of his time and culture; it would be foolish to think this had no affect on his understanding of grace and gift, as well his literary use of them. How Paul understood grace is a question Barclay attempts to answer in Part’s III & IV.

If you haven’t read my previous posts regarding Paul & the Gift ; click the following links for each:

Paul & the Gift: Book Review and Introduction

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


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.

Paul & the Gift: Book Review and Introduction

If asked to describe John M. G. Barclay’s new book Paul & the Gift, only one word comes to mind—groundbreaking. So groundbreaking in fact, that one may hear the rallying of anti-fracking activists upon reading. All joking aside, this is the next pillar to the foundation of Pauline Scholarship. John M. G. Barclay holds, arguably, the most prestigious chair (Lightfoot Professor of Divinity) of the University of Durham. This hardcover book weighs in at 656 pages in length and is published by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2015), as well as a paperback version scheduled to be released this September (available for pre-order here if that’s your preference).

I first heard about this book from my New Testament Exegesis professor during our Pauline literature course. He described it as the New New Perspective on Paul, it goes beyond the New Perspective. This description was surprising to say the least; it was the first time I had heard anyone endorse a Pauline perspective that wasn’t the New Perspective since learning about what it was two years ago. Now having read the book, I understand exactly what my professor meant by New New Perspective. For those who are unfamiliar with what I’m referring, below is a summary taken from the prologue describing where research regarding Paul and grace currently resides, as well as the starting point for readers to understand where there is harmony and discord with Barclay’s arguments. Though there are several aspects that cannot be seen from the following excerpt, it is assiduous nonetheless:

“In the Christian tradition, Paul’s theology of grace has often been interpreted as the antithesis of Judaism, as if by Paul’s day Judaism had corrupted its biblical theology of grace with a soteriology of “works-righteousness” and reward. Paul’s language, laden with nuances derived from internal Christian disputes, has been conscripted to differentiate Christianity from Judaism on these terms, and to diminish the latter. On this reading, Paul was the premier theologian of grace who resisted the “legalism” of “late” Judaism, a works-based religion that amounted to auto-salvation. In recent decades this negative image of Judaism has been challenged with a counter-image, presenting Judaism as a “religion of grace.” Students of Judaism have traced grace everywhere in Second Temple literature, as the foundation of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and the frame within which the Torah was observed. Thus, for many, Paul says nothing remarkable about grace, and if his theology departs in any respect from his Jewish tradition, this has little if anything to do with grace.” (p. 2)

Concluding the prologue Barclay gives a three point framework of grace from which the reader consistently encounters throughout the book (p. 6). The first being that “Grace” is a multi-faceted concept best approached through the category of gift. Though this is susceptible to “perfection” (conceptually extended) in a number of different ways, their validity is not contingent on being a unified package. The package Barclay is referring are the six most commonly understood perfections of grace, which he elaborates on in Part 1 of the book (p. 70-76).  Secondly, grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same. Paul’s theology of grace does not stand in antithesis to Judaism, but neither is there a common Jewish view with which it wholly coincides. Basically, grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same. Lastly, Paul’s theology of grace hinges on his emphasis on the incongruity of the Christ-gift—it is given freely with no regard to a person’s worth. It should be noted that incongruity is very different unconditionality.

Paul & the Gift is a benchmark contribution to ongoing debates in Pauline theology, refocusing the conversation in important ways and offering critical needed analysis that goes beyond perspective, old and new. Barclay has truly provided any student of Paul with a timeless reference that is, dare I say—a remarkable gift; so remarkable, in fact, that this book review simply won’t do. My solution? Over the next few weeks I will post four Paul & the Gift installments, one for each component of the book. This book is loaded with a wealth of research worth pondering that it seemed appropriate, nay, necessary to expound on it further. I will post Part 1 sometime next week.

If you are a fan of making good decisions, than I suggest you click here and purchase a copy of this book.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts and opinions regarding the book.