John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift– Part Twenty

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BEN: On p. 497 you discuss the synkrisis in Rom. 5.12-21. Focusing for a moment on 5.18-19 it seems to me that Paul is not merely saying that one group was considered sinners and then as a result of the grace gift, considered righteous. No, Paul wants to say more than that. He wants to say the act of Adam constituted human beings as fallen creatures, sinners, inherently so. And the grace gift, by contrast constitutes people as righteous, or to use Paul’s own terms they are ‘made righteous’. Now to me, this is a way of Paul talking about the transformation of the person themselves—righteousness is imparted to them. I would compare this to 2 Cor. 5.21— ‘we become the righteousness of God’. Not merely reckoned, become. I suspect that Paul has in mind the sanctifying influence of the Spirit in a person’s life, and he is willing to label such a person actually righteous in some sense (and not as Luther thought ‘simul Justus et peccator’. The grace gift actually changes the condition not just the position of a person in relationship to God. Does this make sense of Paul’s logic in your mind?

JOHN: I think this is best approached if we get beyond the dichotomies of ‘status’ vs. ‘behaviour’, or ‘imputed’ vs. ‘imparted’, or ‘legal’ vs. ‘actual’ righteousness. To be under sin or to be a sinner is to be ‘out of order’ in relation to God, misaligned with the proper ordering of reality. To be ‘righteoused’ (to use a deliberately awkward verb, as we have no good equivalent in English) is to be (from God’s perspective) ‘back in order’, realigned with God’s purposes and God’s will. As Romans 6 shows, that happens when believers are reconstituted (through baptism) by sharing in the death and the resurrection life of Christ: they are suddenly now ‘in line’ with God, which means both that they are at peace with God, having once been God’s enemies (Rom 5.1, 11) and that they are aligned to God in the orientation and practices of their daily lives, including their bodies (Rom 6.11ff.). To use an over-mechanistic simile, it is like a watch, that has been badly out of sync with the true time, being reset so it runs on time: that is both about its state (it is in sync) and its operation (it tells the right time from this point on, continuing to be aligned to true time). Paul could not imagine one without the other: righteousness as a way of life is only possible if the person is ‘reset’ in relation to God/the truth of the gospel; but that state of being ‘reset’ is only meaningful, and a continuing reality, if the behaviour follows and matches the state. Both concern the Spirit, who is the source of new life and also the power that works in the life of righteousness (see Gal 5.25). Paul does not expect sinless perfection. But a Christian who claims to be ‘set right’ with God but consistently and wilfully lives at odds with God is, for Paul, a contradiction in terms.

BEN: On p. 498 n. 7 you comment on the reason why Paul doesn’t accept fees, namely that he doesn’t want to be seen as ‘the donor of the Gospel’. I would say I doubt this is the reason. He refuses to become someone’s paid orator/teacher in Corinth, which is to say he refuses patronage. He is perfectly happy to receive support from the Philippians when he is in Corinth (2 Cor. 11.9-10), and in fact he tells us at the end of Philippians he was in a relationship of giving and receiving with the Philippians, a parity relationship not a patron and client relationship. In other words, Paul did not always refuse monetary support for the work he did. At the same time, he was cautious when planting a church in say Philippi or Thessalonike not to set up some kind of patronage system, with himself as the client. Note that in Philemon Paul directly says he is the benefactor of Philemon— the latter owes his very spiritual life to Paul’s sharing of the Gospel with him. How would you respond to these observations? (I’ve not read Briones).

JOHN: Well, this is a side point in this context, but one I will develop in the next book. I am influenced by David Briones (a former student of mine) whose fine PhD thesis-book, Paul’s Financial Policy (2013) shows, I think, four things relevant here: a) Paul has a consistent policy of not accepting money when he founds a church (as you say, in some contexts he is quite happy to take it later, from Philippi or others), because in that context it would look like pay; b) this is not about refusing his churches’ patronage (as the initial giver of the gospel, Paul might be easier viewed as the patron), but about the Corinthians or others thinking of themselves as paying fees (as people in Roman cities paid fees for tuition by a teacher of philosopher); the person who pays the fees in the ancient world is not always the patron, and in circumstances like these are more the client. The mere payment of money does not make you a patron; Paul does not picture the Corinthians’ paying money to his rivals as acting like patrons (2 Cor 11.19-21); c) Paul does not want to be seen as giving his own goods for which payment/fees might be expected, since the grace he imparts is not his but God’s; as Briones puts it, he is a mediator or broker of God’s favour/grace, so the thanks should go to God, not to Paul; d) when his churches have got this (as Philippi did), Paul is happy to accept money as it is not a return gift to him, but a sharing in divine grace, which circulates between its beneficiaries (Phil 1.7); when they don’t (as Corinth did not, as witnessed by their attitude to the other apostles), he still refuses to take money from them.

BEN: On the basis of 2 Cor. 4 I have often stressed that the physical body is the weak chink in the Christian’s armor, the one part of them that is not yet renewed until the resurrection (hence all the warnings in the NT about sins of the flesh). Paul says that the inner self, presumably the mind, the will, the emotions are being renewed by the internal work of the Spirit day by day. But outwardly, we are wasting away, we endure a body tending towards decay and death. I would say Paul is committed to a limited and temporary dualism, temporary because at death the person goes to be with the Lord, but this only lasts until the resurrection of the body (2 Cor. 5). This body comes up for renewal in the resurrection. The person is not actually a ‘soma’ but he or she has a ‘soma’ and since it is part of a psychosomatic whole, I take what you say about the habitus involving the whole self seriously. Could you unpack this idea of habitus as applied to Paul’s thought a bit for us?

JOHN: The habitus is an Aristotelian term used by the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu to talk about those habits of mind and practice that we simply take for granted, and don’t have to think about. Bourdieu points out how important the body is for this, because the way we use and arrange the body encapsulates so much about the taken-for-granted features of our culture: how do we dispose our bodies when we eat, or pray? What is implied by standing up straight, or by a weak handshake? Thus how we behave with our bodies becomes a part of us, or an expression of us. Paul is very aware of the mortality of the body, but rather than saying ‘it does not matter what you do with your perishable body, all that matters is the inner spirit’, he insists on ‘presenting your bodily organs as weapons of righteousness to God’ (Rom 6.12-13). That is, alongside the new ‘mindset’ (Rom 8.6) is a new set of bodily commitments and bodily practices which embody and act out the new alignment of the self before God.

BEN: While I find it interesting on p. 510, that Goodrich thinks the phrase ‘metron pisteos’ is epexigetical and means ‘a measure, that is a trusteeship’, and thinks it refers to a measured role each has in the community, I have to say I find this unconvincing on a host of grounds. For one thing, Paul certain talks about quantities of faith—it can be great, it can be weak., if its great it can move mountains. For another thing, Paul is talking about the exercise of a spiritual gift that an individual Christian has—in this case prophecy. The point is that one should only exercise that gift in proportion to the faith one has. It’s not about figuring out how to play one’s part in the community calculating where one can best put his oar in the water, so to speak. It’s about figuring out the limits of what one can do with the gift in good faith. So far as I can see, Paul nowhere else uses the term ‘pisteos’ to refer to a ‘trusteeship’ and considering how many times that word and its cognates have already come up in Romans, the listener to this discourse seriatim would certainly not have leapt to this interpretation of the word which is unprecedented in what comes before, without further explication. How invested are you in Goodrich’s interpretation? I find it only marginally more likely than the traditional Protestant ‘analogia fidei’ use of this phrase to refer to some red thread theme in all of Scripture— namely justification by grace through faith used as a measuring rod of all else.

JOHN: Nothing hinges on this for me (it plays no significant role in the argument), but I find Goodrich’s attempt to solve this really difficult exegetical conundrum very intriguing (CBQ 74, 2012). I agree Paul can talk of more or less faith, or of faith growing (2 Cor 10.15) in other contexts, but I don’t see how that works in this context; it is not clear to me that any of the gifts in the Romans 12 list require more, or less, faith in their operation. I agree that pistis has a fairly stable meaning in Paul, so this one would stand out, but a) the meaning of pistis is often trust, rather than belief; b) the verb pisteuo is used in the passive to mean ‘entrusted’ (e.g. Rom 3.2); and c) Goodrich has some very good parallels for pistis being used in this sense in the Graeco-Roman world. His reading is at least as good as anything else I find in the commentaries.

BEN: One of the interesting features of this whole study of yours is that you are analyzing Paul using the language of social discourse, or social history, or even the social sciences without neglecting the theological or ideological aspects of the discourse. If you were to be asked what social historians, or social scientists or applications of such methods to Paul have been most influential in your thinking, what would you say? I ask because on the socio- side of my socio-rhetorical analyses I have found Judge and his followers very helpful on the social history, but its more folks like Meeks and Horrell and others of that ilk that I find most helpful when it comes to the social sciences. Less helpful is Malina and various members of the context group because their tendency is to use some anthropological model as a sort of procrustean bed, in which Paul has difficulty lying, much less getting any sleep.

JOHN: I agree that social analysis is not the same as social history: Judge is a first rate social historian, but he refuses to use sociological or anthropological tools to analyse what he is studying from the past. There clearly are dangers (of anachronism etc.) in doing that, but the fact is that a) we all use some analytical tools all the time, whether we recognise it or not, and it is better to be open and clear about what we are using (I have commented on this in the introduction to my Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews); b) for NT studies some tools are better than others, if they are historically appropriate to the ancient world – not specific to modernity – and if they are used to ask questions, not to predetermine answers. In general, my rule is not to trust New Testament scholars to tell us what the sociological or anthropological tools are, but to go and read the social scientists themselves. A lot of descriptions of tools or models given by members of the Context Group I have found potentially misleading, and like in everything my rule of thumb is to go back to source (including to the original French or German, where appropriate). In the case of this book, I have been using the anthropology of gift, a huge discussion that began with Marcel Mauss nearly 90 years ago and has been running ever since (see chapter 1). The advantage of this is that it does not presume a single or stable view of ‘gift’, but alerts one to watch out for differing cultural practices and assumptions over time and place; and thus it raises very good questions which enable us to break from our very particular modern Western notions of gift and which we can then take to the Graeco-Roman (including Jewish) world of Paul, and to Paul himself. We can then ask good questions about what Paul does with the notion and practice of gift, when we are aware of the cultural connotations and practices of his time. In other words, social theory bleeds into analysis and observation of social practice, and together they set good questions with which to investigate Pauline theology and pratice.

BEN: Energism, if I understand the concept rightly, is an effort to say that while human beings in Christ have agency, because their efforts at obedience, service etc. are energized, enabled, made possible by the life of Christ within them rules out the notion that they on their own are contributing to their own salvation or earning their eventual everlasting life. Right? They have to continue to rely on the grace of God and the inner work of the Spirit day by day to respond appropriately to the Gospel, so… even though Paul can talk about believers working out their salvation, they are not viewed as independent agents making their own independent contributions to the process, but rather are just working out what God is daily work in them, and in the community as a whole. Have I got it right?

JOHN: Yes, I have tried to find a word that avoids setting divine and human agency into opposition or zero-sum calculation (the more of one, the less of the other) and that avoids the normal, and often problematic, associations of the terms ‘monergism’ and ‘synergism’. ‘Monergism’ can suggest that it is all God and not at all us (leaving believers more like puppets than agents); ‘synergism’ can suggest that we have independent, autonomous agency that works alongside God’s, as if the two were somehow comparable and could be added one to the other. ‘Energism’ (reflecting Paul’s use of the verb energeo, as in 1 Cor 12.6; Gal 2.8; 3.5 etc.) is a way of talking about God’s agency as within (creating and enabling) our agency, not playing one off against the other, but taking seriously that Paul describes believers as responsible agents who do things and can be held to account for so doing, while insisting that their very agency is itself created by their new life in Christ and is inhabited by the Spirit.

BEN: Talk to us a bit about the concept of adiaphora, as applied to Paul. What Paul is saying is that no pre-existing norms are incumbent on Christians because with incongruous grace, there is the erasure of all pre-existing obligations and norms, unless they are re-instated as part of the new life in Christ and as a response to the initiative of grace in Christ. So, it’s o.k. for Jewish Christians to keep kosher so long as they don’t see it as a necessary obligation for any Christians? Is this why Paul calls such people who feel obliged to do it, the weak, because it seems to compromise the fact that God’s gracious saving act in Christ is completely incongruous and sets up a new situation, not a continuation of previous covenants and previous obligations? What might count as ‘things indifferent’ that Gentiles would practice or do, that was a part of their past, but which, in terms of principle, they should no longer see as an obligation, merely an option?

JOHN: Yes, I think that Paul has a way of relativising the unimportant (but not wrong) in comparison with the non-negotiable matters of value, rather like the Stoic notion of adiaphora, even if what he considers of value is very different from theirs. I have argued in this chapter (16) and at greater length in an article (ZNW 104, 2013) that Paul labels people ‘weak’ if their faith is vulnerable (not lesser, but vulnerable) and that happens when they do not disentangle their faith in Christ from the cultural assumptions of their past sufficient to relativise the latter at moments when they need to be flexible. Thus it is not wrong for Jewish believers to keep pratising kosher, so long as they do it to the Lord (Romans 14), but this is only one way of honouring the Lord, which can be done equally well by not keeping kosher. This depends on recognising that ‘the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 14.17): that is what really counts, and the other things are fine, if they serve the purpose of the Lord, but disposable if they do not. Paul says circumcision and uncirumcision are in this category (Gal 5.6; 6.15; 1 Cor 7.19) – so that relativises (and renders adiaphoron) the Gentile assumption that the unblemished and uncircumcised male body is superior. Is wealth a token of value? No, says Paul, one can be wealthy and one can be poor, whichever is useful for the Lord (Phil 4.12-13). Is it better to be married (universally assumed to be so in the Gentile world)? No, says Paul, married and single are neither here nor there, although he thinks one can normally serve the Lord better if not married (1 Cor 7). More controversially, does it matter if one is free? Both slave and free can serve the Lord, says Paul (1 Cor 7.17-24): both conditions are of only relative importance, and either is only preferable if it enables one better to serve the Lord in that condition. Is it good to eat meat (1 Cor 8.13)? Nothing wrong in itself, says Paul, but if it causes harm to a fellow Christian, and thus to the Lord, one should refrain. So everyone has the duty to reconsider their taken for granted cultural habits – and they are enabled to do so by the fact that their ‘calling’ in grace was given without regard to their cultural ‘virtues’, which are thus rendered no longer of ultimate value.