John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift– Part Nineteen

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BEN: On p. 471, you draw a helpful comparison between what Philo does in spiritualizing circumcision and what Paul does in interiorizing it I wonder, if one had interviewed Paul, if he would not say that he was most definitely a Jew inwardly well before he became a Christ follower. After all, he says in Philippians that no one could fault his keeping of the Law and the righteous standing one has from doing so when he was a Pharisee. Saul of Tarsus was no hypocrite. Indeed, as he says, he was advancing in Judaism beyond his peers in a positive way (Gal. 1). So, I don’t think the argument in Rom. 2 is about Christians. There is no mention of the distinctive feature of Paul’s discussion of Christians, namely the work of Christ and the Spirit. In fact, I would say that when you are dealing with a passage in which there is no mention of either Christ or the Spirit, for example in Rom. 7.7-25, there is no likelihood that Paul is talking about Christians, and that applies to Rom. 2 as well. The contrast between Rom. 3.21ff. and what comes before it can hardly be more clear. The ‘but now’ of Rom. 3.21 should be compared to the ‘but now’ of Rom. 7.6. How would you respond?

JOHN: I knew my reading of Romans 2 would be one of the more controversial aspects of this chapter (although I am in some good company in finding references here to believers). No mention of Christ? How about 2.16. No mention of the Spirit? How about 2.29. In fact, it is the mention of the Spirit (2.29) which I find most striking, especially as the Spirit-letter antithesis of 2.29 is echoed in 7.6, which is, as you say, very definitely about the experience of believers. I don’t think Paul ever traces the work of the Spirit to a reality before Christ (with the possible exception of 1 Cor 10.3-4). Could Paul have said of himself, before his encounter with Christ, that he was inwardly circumcised by the Spirit (2.29)? The contrast he sets up in Phil 3.3ff, between Spirit and (his former life of) flesh, suggests not. And of course Romans 7.7-25 (which, like you, I take not to refer to Christian experience), does not talk about the ‘I’ as enabled or altered by the Spirit.

My larger argument depends on how one reads the whole of 1.18-3.20. Most (like yourself) read it all as describing the condition before Christ. I think it is more nuanced and complex than that. It looks forward to the final judgement (with reference to Christ in 2.16), and it sets up the categories that will be filled in later (the two types of people at the final judgement, who do not divide along ethnic lines). There is certainly a clear before-after contrast between 3.10-20 and 3.21ff, but I don’t think it is necessary to see 3.21ff. as implying that everything after 1.17 has been discussing the ‘before now’ scenario. In fact, much of it manifestly does not.

BEN: One of the questions you are right to emphasise from the discussion in Romans is the issue of whether incongruous grace disables God’s ability to be the just judge of the world. If God ‘unfairly’ is going to have mercy on those who actually don’t deserve it, then how in the world can he be a fair arbiter of things at the final judgment? Explain how you see Paul answering such a charge in Romans? What do you mean by ‘the purpose of an unfitting gift is to create a fit’ so that Jews and Gentiles can fairly be judged on the basis of their behavior at the final judgment (p. 473)?

JOHN: I think Paul grapples with this question first in 3.1-8, but the issue runs right through the letter (cf. 6.1). The key fact is that God’s grace, though utterly undeserved and without match to any quality or status of our own, is transformative: it is not just a gift received but a gift that recreates those it touches, so they become different people: in the terms of Romans 6, they die and start again. So the gift is unfitting, given to the unholy and the unrighteous, but its intention and effect is to create righteousness and holiness, as Romans 6 makes clear. That means that what is in view in God’s judgement of the believer is both, from bottom up, the product of an incongruous gift, and a life transformed by the power of the Spirit which evidences the ‘good’ talked about in 2.10. We have got hung up about this only because we have forgotten that a) grace, like every kind of gift in antiquity, brings expectations, even obligations (believers are ‘under grace’ as 6.14 puts it); and b) that whatever may be said about the believers’ work and holiness is predicated on the fact that they are not just ‘aided’ by the Spirit, but recreated from the inside out, since their lives depend on the resurrection life of Christ (6.11).

BEN: It seems clear enough that many of Paul’s contemporaries would have seen incongruous grace as cheap grace, painting a picture of an indulgent God who gives salvation without first evaluating the worthiness of the recipient. I remember once hearing a testimony at Inter-Varsity from a young woman who clearly didn’t quite understand what Paul is saying in Rom. 3.21-5.11. She said ‘The way I see it, it all works out very well. I like committing sins and God likes forgiving sins. Hallelujah!’ What is missing in this testimony is not merely a failure to realize what it cost God to forgive sins, namely the death of Jesus, and also the nature of the gift— namely that it is transformative so that one will not want to carry on sinning. But there is the further issue of God’s justice as well. I can hear some saying ‘mercy to a sinner is unjust’. Justice is when we get what we deserve. Mercy is when we don’t get the negative consequences of what we deserve. And Grace is when we get a positive thing which is quite incongruous with what we deserve. Are you happy with that last formulation, and how do you see Paul escaping the charge of God being indulgent and unjust in having mercy on sinners?

JOHN: Well, Paul of course faces the question of God’s injustice in Romans 9.14 and the ultimate answer is that God is not beholden to a standard of justice that we might impose, but his ‘righteousness’ is his own ordering of things, not ours. But we can unpack that a bit, and not just leave it in mystery. I am happy with the formation that grace, evident in the Christ-gift, is a positive gift which is quite incongruous with what we deserve (and, I would add, what we are worth, or who we are). And Paul has two ways of heading off the charge that this leaves God simply indulgent and thus leaves the world in chaos (see the debate on this between Uriel and Ezra in 4 Ezra). First, as Rom 3.21-26 makes clear, God justly forgives former sins by the atonement that took place in the death of Christ: the sacrificial language evokes the idea that the death of Christ deals with former sins once and for all. But secondly, the creative work of the gift means that believers are not just left as they were (enemies, weak, ungodly etc. in the terms of Romans 5): by the obedience of Christ, ‘many are made righteous’ (5.19), which means ‘in order’ with God. I think this includes, but is more than just ‘right in status’: it involves ‘walking in tune with the Spirit’ by which the ‘just requirement of the law’ is fulfilled (Rom 8.1-4). So God’s ‘righteousness’ rectifies us, and will rectify the world: it is teleological (looking to a goal) and is actively at work to change and not just to judge reality.

BEN: Paul’s atonement theology has often been debated. Clearly enough he sees Christ’s death as somehow atoning for the sins of the world, and as such the greatest expression of God’s love for and mercy on sinners. Do you think Paul believes that Christ’s death was absolutely necessary in the divine economy for God to be able to forgive sins, and if so, what does this tell us about Paul’s view of the character of God that he ‘cannot forever pass over sin’?

JOHN: Yes, I think Paul regards the disorder in the relation between God and the world (Rom 1.81-32) as outrageous and requiring solution. There are two options: either God wipes it out (as he wipes out all but the few bits of gold dust in 4 Ezra) or he alters and rectifies the sinful and alienated world. If I read Romans 3.21ff aright, Paul thinks God has wiped the slate of the past clean in the death of Christ, an extraordinary gift to be received by faith. The urgency of the present situation in Paul’s mind was this: if you ignore this and carry on sinning after this point there is not another atonement act to come. There is only Christ’s, which has taken place: so everyone needs to appropriate that (accept it as given for them) by faith. It was not an option for Paul that God would simply not care about sin and pretend it never happened.

BEN: Obviously, Abraham is hugely important to Paul’s arguments about incongruous grace, both in Galatians and in Romans, though in somewhat different ways. Help us to understand what is wrong with Hays novel re-reading of Rom. 4.1 to mean ‘ What shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?’ Were that the correct reading (which seems grammatically very unlikely) wouldn’t the answer of a Jew like Paul be — ‘Yes, he is!” ? And where does Wright’s modification of the Hays proposal go wrong? In what sense does Paul think Abraham the forefather of all believers in Christ, Jew and Gentile, or is he?

JOHN: Hays notes the oddity of the long question (Paul normally just asks, ‘What then shall we say?’) and takes the question to come from Jews. The main grammatical problem is that ‘forefather’ in that sentence as construed by Hays is a predicate (‘have we found X to be Y?’, with Y as predicate) and in Greek the predicate does not have an article. But in Paul’s sentence ‘forefather’ does have the article (Greek ton), so on purely grammatical grounds that reading does not work. Wright reads the Greek the same implausible way, but thinks the question comes from Jewish and Gentile beleivers. But as far as we know, no Gentile, and that includes even proselytes, ever thought that they could claim Abraham to be their forefather according to the flesh (by physical ancestry). Wright reads the whole chapter as focused around the question of Abraham as forefather (of Jews only, or of Jews and Gentiles). I think that the forefather question is, and can be, answered by Paul, only when one also asks: what sort of relation with God can we trace in this programmatic figure? When we see that he was called and constituted by an undeserved grace, then we can see that his ‘offspring’ are also defined by the same incongruity and therefore without regard to their ancestry or ethnicity.

BEN: One of the things I have pointed about the discussion of Abraham is that the language Paul is using (including the terms ‘credited’ and ‘pay’ etc) is not in the first instance legal language, it is business language. This is hardly surprising since Paul was in business, making tents. He was never a judge in a law court so far as we know. The significance of this is that Paul is not, or at least not mainly, talking about a legal declaration about Abraham or anyone else when he says ‘Abraham’s faith was credited as Abraham’s righteousness’ (which is very different from saying Christ’s righteousness was credited for the believer’s). Paul is saying— set up the ledger of credits and debits. On the credit side is Abraham’s faith/trust, and God in his mercy credits that as righteousness (whatever we think that term means). Now it is not surprising to me that one could go on and point out that the way God is viewed in this transaction is as the benefactor or patron, who surprisingly gives gifts to the unworthy. He is like the master in Jesus’ parable who generously writes off a debt, or alternately pays a worker more than he has earned out of sheer generosity. I think that it would ‘pay’ us all to pay closer attention to all the many ways Paul uses business language in his letters, for example when he talks about ‘a workman is worthy of his hire’ or when he talks about ‘he who will not work should not expect to eat’ or when he talks about ‘each one carrying their own load’ or when he talks about being in a relationship of ‘giving and receiving’ with the Philippians. Notice as well Rom. 4.5—‘but the one who does NOT work’. I also think this business framework helps us to understand Paul’s use of the phrase ‘works of the Law’ which simply means doing the whole Law. Sinners are debtors (see the Lord’s prayer) and sin is seen in the NT often as a debt (see the award winning Yale book entitled SIN, by Gary Anderson). In your judgment, what would happen if we read the Abraham story more along business lines than along legal lines? Does this help us make better sense of Paul’s argument in some respects?

JOHN: The language of ‘reckoning’ (logizomai) is certainly used in business, but I think it has a wider field of use as well (see Rom 6.11), and can mean reckoning or assessing more generally. I agree that it is not a distinctive or even common term in the field of law. I read Paul as setting up here a distinction between pay and gift: it was well known in antiquity that there is a difference, since pay is contractual, legally enforceable, limited in time, and often impersonal, while gift is undefinable, potentially unlimited and personal. But then, what is characteristic of Paul is that he also defines the ‘gift’ here as an incongruous gift – not given to the fitting sort of people but to those who are wholly unfitting (like Abraham, and like David, 4.7-8). It is that peculiarity, matched by the incongruous gift of life to the as-good-as-dead Abraham-and-Sarah, that is the hallmark of the people of God from the beginning, and thus now in Paul’s mission to Gentile as well as Jew.

BEN: One of the more important statements in this chapter is “Because God acts in incongruous grace, and thus without regard to worth, there is no possible limit on the membership of this people, no ethnic frontier that would keep some nations out.” (pp. 488-89). To me this would seem to mean that therefore when we are talking about grace and righteousness by faith etc. Paul is not really talking about ‘covenant faithfulness’ even when it comes to Jews, if all are to be saved by grace through faith in Jesus. God doesn’t owe covenant faithfulness to anyone since ‘all have sinned…etc.’. So in turn God’s ‘righteousness’ expressed in the purely merciful act of Jesus dying for sins’ probably doesn’t have to do with God’s covenant faithfulness. It has to do with his incongruous grace. Am I reading the implications of your argument correctly at this point?

JOHN: It all depends on what we mean by ‘covenant faithfulness’. Romans 9-11 (see chapter 17) shows, I think, that Paul reads the covenant (or better, promise) from beginning to end (from Abraham, 9.6ff. to the future redemption of Israel, 11.25ff.) as constituted by undeserved mercy and inongruous gift: Israel never deserved God’s mercy and never will. Thus the very structure of the ‘covenant’ with Israel (what Paul calls the promises to the fathers, 15.8) was founded on grace and undeserved calling (11.28). It is thus not a change but in a sense its final fulfilment that that same mercy now includes undeserving Gentiles as well as undeserving Jews. It is important to Paul that God is faithful (15.8), but what he is faithful to is his own purpose and promise of undeserved mercy.

BEN: On the last page (p. 492) of Chapter 15, in the summing up, you stress that God’s incongruous gracious gift of his Son is not a ‘gift given with no thought of return’. On the contrary while unconditioned it is not unconditional. ‘God’s grace is designed to produce obedience’ which flows from genuine faith. In other words, God doesn’t just want gratitude for grace, he wants changed lives, changed behavior, which is why at the judgment behavior will be evaluated. Why do you think it is that modern discussions of God’s grace have had such difficulty in seeing grace as both incongruous and also demanding!!! ? Is it, to put this in theological terms, because there has been a tendency to see salvation as just a matter of position rather than condition, attitude rather than action, trust rather than obedience, when in fact it involves all these things enabled by grace and the Spirit?

JOHN: I think the Lutheran stress on status, and anxiety about building in again a conditionality of works has been a part of this (see my analysis of Luther’s perfections of grace in chapter 3). That has been one root of the distinctively modern notion (to which Kant contributed; see chapter 1) that a gift should be given, and is best given, ‘with no strings attached’, without putting anyone under obligation and even without return. There are deep philosophical and social factors that have gone into that modern understanding of gift, which is mirrored in modern understandings of grace, as I have briefly outlined at the end of chapter 1. They are certainly linked to individualistic and existential notions of salvation, as you suggest (I think Kierkegaard is important here), which have put the focus on the interiority and self-understanding of the believer, rather than their concrete activities. Part of what I do in this book is to draw attention to the ways in which modern theological notions of grace are part of modern, Western, changes in the understanding of gift – and to show that Paul does not share some of our modern configurations of such things, and is all the better for not doing so!