John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift—- Part Seven

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BEN; One of my very favorite early Jewish books is the Wisdom of Solomon. I have argued at some length that it influenced both Jesus and Paul in some of their teachings in my book Jesus the Sage, though I was not focusing on the possible influence on their theologies of grace. Do you see evidence of some influence of Wis. Sol. on Paul’s theology of grace?

JOHN: There are well known parallels between Paul (esp Romans 1-2) and Wisdom of Solomon, and it is possible that Paul has actually read this text. He certainly knows lines of thought that run very close to what we find there. In terms of his theology of grace, what is striking is that where Wisdom strives to maintain the match between God’s (or Wisdom’s) gracious intervention in human affairs and the fittingness or worth of the recipients (to ensure the world is properly ordered), Paul parades the mismatch at this point, with all the theological risks that that involves. Thus if he echoes Wisdom 13-15 at Romans 1-2, he finds no exception to the human story of sin and idolatry – whereas Wisdom insists that ‘we are yours’ and ‘we would not be idolaters like them’ (hence no reference to the Golden Calf!). All this has been brilliantly explored by Jonathan Linebaugh in his *God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul’s letter to the Romans: Texts in Dialogue* (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

BEN: I’m very intrigued by your analysis that the reason Wis. Sol.’s author couldn’t much argue for the incongruity of grace, is precisely because God is a God of justice and fairness. God couldn’t simply pass over sin forever, or for that matter reward people who manifest nothing but wickedness. Perhaps also, one could say the author does not think it makes sense to suggest that God blesses or benefits someone for no good reason (i.e. because that would make God totally arbitrary). To what degree do you see these motifs also cropping up in Paul, and so as not to be redundant since you treat those texts in detail later, in Paul’s writings outside of Galatians or Romans?

JOHN: Yes, I do think Wisdom is addressing the problematic of the relation between God’s justice and God’s mercy (very explicitly in chapters 11-12), and Romans 2-3 and Romans 9 are the most obvious places in Paul where we find Paul having to wrestle with precisely this problem. As you say, I get to that in the later chapters on Romans. I don’t see him address that quite so explicitly anywhere else, though his insistence that God’s grace to him is not in vain (1 Cor 15.9-10; cf. Phil 2.12-13) is a way of saying: I didn’t deserve this (quite the opposite) but his grace does not leave me as I was, but transforms me. As we will see, Paul’s thinking is teleological: there is no prior fit between God’s grace and human worth (that is what makes Paul’s theology and practice so radical) but the aim of the gift is to refound human existence and reorient it, so we end up as fitting worshippers created by an unfitting gift. I try to trace this dynamic through Romans in chapters 15 and 16.

BEN: On p. 211 you say “If we can distance ourselves from the prejudice that ‘grace’ means by definition a gift to the unworthy, we can see that this second temple text has a strong theology of grace, perfected in its superabundance, but it does not and cannot perfect its incongruity without undermining its sense of moral and rational equity. This fittingness of punishment and reward does not signal the absence of grace, or its dilution by works righteousness, but expresses a basic theistic presumption that the universe is fitly and morally ordered.” Several OT commentators, such as K. Koch, used to talk about God’s redemptive judgments (which usually meant God judged his people, they repented, and then he redeemed them), and sometimes this meant the same act that judged the wicked redeemed the righteous (e.g. the Exodus). Wisdom of Solomon does some serious wrestling with justice and mercy, trying to affirm both strongly. Do you think Paul wrestles with this balance in the same ways, or does he approach it differently?

JOHN: For Paul there are no ‘righteous’ to be separated and saved, by being plucked out of the mass of the unrighteous; thus he does not recount the story of Noah or Lot, and has no ‘one grape out of cluster’ like 4 Ezra. So for Paul the same act of judgement on all is also at the same time the act of redemption: we are exposed as without worth (and brought to nothing) in the cross, and remade and redeemed in the resurrection. So God’s fitting judgement does not enable us to repent (a very rare word in Paul) so much as cause us to put our only trust (or boast) in Christ, so that everything that is said about positively from then on is dependent entirely on the recreative work of God in Christ (‘if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation’, 2 Cor 5.17).

BEN: BONUS QUESTION Is God’s gift of salvation purely aebitrary, or does God give the gift to those he knows will respond positively?

JOHN: Paul occasionally speaks of God’s foreknowledge (Rom 8.29; 11.2) or uses similar language (Rom 9.11; cf. Eph 1.4) and this is one way of resolving a dilemma: God’s gifts are not arbitrary but given to those he has foreordained to be saved and knows in advance would be fitting.

However, I think the main way Paul addresses this is by reference to God’s purpose and the end result: the gift is given to all (without regard to any prior considerations of worth) and thus seems arbitrary if one is looking for prior criteria by which God should act. But it is not arbitrary in the sense that God has no concern for what accords with his character and will, since the gift is transformative, and creates believers who are able to live lives that fit his will. So there is no prior fit but the gift is given with a view to a future fit, since the Spirit powerfully reorients those who do not deserve God’s love and melts and remakes them until they walk worthily of God (1 Thess 2.12). As Luther said, the love of God does not fit but creates that which is pleasing to him.