[The following are the verbatim conclusions from John’s book,reprinted here by kind permission of Eerdmans]
Chapter 18: Conclusions
This book has offered a new approach to the concept of “grace,” a new analysis of Second Temple theologies of divine beneficence, and a new reading of Galatians and Romans through the lens of Paul’s theology of grace. We may summarize its distinctive contribution under five heads.
1. Grace as Gift: Since both Paul and his contemporaries used the normal vocabulary of gift, favor, and benefaction in speaking of (what we call) “grace,” we have located their discourse on this topic within the social domain that anthropologists label “gift.” This conceptual frame has provided no templates, but it has alerted us to features of ancient gift-giving which modern Western eyes are apt to miss or to misconstrue. It has also afforded some analytical distance from the special connotations that have become attached to the term “grace.” Several significant themes emerged from our study of the Greco-Roman (including the Jewish) practices and ideologies of “gift.” Against modern notions of “altruism,” we found that benefits were generally intended to foster mutuality, by creating or maintaining social bonds. This expectation of reciprocity, with its (non-legal) obligations, created cyclical patterns of gift-and-return, even where there were large differentials in power between givers and recipients. Thus throughout this book we have been suspicious of the modern (Western) ideal of the “pure” gift, which is supposedly given without strings attached. We have thus been able to make sense of the fact that a gift can be unconditioned (that is, free of prior conditions regarding the recipient) without also being unconditional (that is, free of expectations that the recipient will offer some “return”). Paul has provided a parade example of this phenomenon, since he simultaneously emphasizes the incongruity of grace and the expectation that those who are “under grace” (and wholly refashioned by it) will be reoriented in the “obedience of faith.” What has seemed in the modern world a paradoxical phenomenon – that a “free” gift can also be obliging – was entirely comprehensible in ancient terms.
But the study of “gift” threw up another important issue. We noted that benefits, because they expected a return, were normally given discriminately (even if lavishly) to people considered on some grounds fitting or worthy recipients of the gift. The adequacy or fit of the recipient might be variously judged, according to the value-system of the benefactor, but it was normal that gifts – especially rare or significant gifts – should be distributed with discrimination, and were good gifts only if so disbursed. Under these conditions, “gift” could be closely associated with “reward”: although gifts could be distinguished from calculable pay or actionable loans, there was no inherent conflict between gift and recompense, between the language of “grace” and the language of worth. It was certainly possible for some gifts to be construed as “unmerited” (as we have found both in Paul and in some other Jewish literature), but this was not a normal, and certainly not a necessary, connotation of the terms we generally translate as “grace.” In fact, an unmerited gift was theologically problematic, and could threaten the justice and the rationality of the universe. Although Christian theologians (and modern dictionaries) regard it as self-evident that “grace” means a benefit to the unworthy, in ancient terms this was a striking and theologically dangerous construal of the concept.
2. Distinct Perfections of Grace: Crucial to the analytical work of this book has been the notion of “perfection” (the drawing out of a concept to an end-of-line extreme) and the distinction between different perfections of grace. Grace, we have found, is no simple or single-faceted idea: the various aspects of gift-giving can each be perfected in separable forms. In chapter 2 we identified six possible perfections of grace, which we labelled superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, and non-circularity. Each of these configure gift in some maximal form, but none are necessary features of the concept, and, crucially, none requires or even implies another. They are distinguishable perfections and do not constitute a “package deal.”
This theoretical analysis has proved useful in understanding the different ways in which our texts, both Jewish and Christian, discuss this common concept, using identical vocabulary with very different connotations. It has suggested a new way to understand disputes about grace: what was for some the very definition of grace was for others an unnecessary or even unwelcome assumption. In analyzing the configurations of grace in the history of reception of Paul (chapter 3), we traced the differing perfections of this motif in the varied historical and theological contexts of key interpreters. This clarified the differences among our interpreters (e.g., between Marcion and Augustine, between Luther and Calvin, between Martyn and Dunn) who all variously emphasized grace. It also revealed the tendency to add one perfection to another, and the temptation to attribute to Paul our own perfections of this motif.
Thus equipped and rendered self-aware, we could ask afresh what was meant by “grace” (in its varied lexical expressions) in Second Temple Jewish texts, including the letters of Paul. An immediate gain was the capacity to clarify a confusion arising from the work of Sanders on Second Temple Judaism. Sanders’ model of “covenantal nomism” laid stress on the priority of grace, while implying that grace is also incongruous with the worth of its recipients (chapter 3.6.1). He thus found Paul’s theology of grace indistinguishable from a uniform Jewish view, a thesis that continues to be disputed among interpreters who spotlight different perfections of grace (see 3.6.1 and 3.7.2). By disaggregating perfections, we insisted that priority does not imply incongruity: a common Jewish commitment to the priority of grace in election did not imply uniformity on a separable matter, whether God distributes grace without regard to worth. Thus, the aspect of Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” that has proved most theologically potent was found to be conceptually confused. By clarifying this matter, we have been able to understand both how Sanders unwittingly created a spurious uniformity within Judaism, and why interpreters have been variously satisfied or dissatisfied with his conclusions.
The analytical distinction between various perfections has, in fact, opened new ways of construing the theologies of grace in Second Temple Judaism. Each of the texts analyzed in Part Two made divine grace (God’s goodness, mercy, or beneficence) a central theme, but in notably diverse ways. Alongside differences in frame, horizon, and historical circumstance, we identified different perfections of this motif. In particular, we highlighted the difference between texts that emphasized the congruity between God’s beneficence and the worth of its recipients (e.g., Wisdom of Solomon and Philo), and those that represented God’s grace as given without regard for worth (e.g., the Qumran Hodayot and LAB; see summary in chapter 10.2)
This disaggregation of perfections made it possible to ask afresh what Paul meant by “grace” and whether or in what ways he perfected this motif. Against the tendency to trace in Paul a traditional set of perfections, or as many perfections as possible, we have approached Paul with as few pre-formed assumptions as possible, open to the possibility that he may perfect this motif in certain respects, and not at all in others. What this means for our reading of Paul, and for its relation to the history of interpretation, will be clarified below.
3. Paul among Jewish Theologians of Grace: Our theme has long been significant in attempts to place Paul among, or against, his fellow Jews. A theological reading of Paul’s antithetical expressions has produced an image of Judaism as a religion of “works-righteousness,” with the conviction that Paul, and Paul alone, grasped the meaning of “grace.” On this reading, fostered by Reformation interpretations of “works” (chapter 3.3; 3.4; 3.5), other contemporary Jewish configurations of grace were judged self-contradictory, mixing grace with soteriologies of recompense or achievement. In reaction, Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” represented Second Temple Judaism as a uniform “religion of grace,” with Paul on this point indistinguishable from all his fellow Jews (chapter 3.6.1). Our analysis of selected texts has suggested a different conclusion: grace is everywhere in the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same. On the critical question of the congruity of grace, we have found not unanimity but diversity. Some of our texts correlate God’s mercy with his justice, such that God’s beneficence is generally, or at least finally, accorded as a reward to fitting recipients (e.g., Wisdom of Solomon; Uriel in 4 Ezra). Others perfect the incongruity of grace, tracing the mismatch between the goodness of God and the worthlessness of the human (1QHa) or the sinfulness of Israel (LAB). The dialogues of 4 Ezra suggest that this subject was a matter of debate in Second Temple Judaism. It would be a mistake to regard the incongruity of grace as ubiquitous in Judaism, but equally wrong to consider this notion uniquely Pauline. Paul’s is one Jewish voice in a chorus of divergent opinions, distinctive in certain respects, but not qualitatively or quantitatively more distinct than the voices of other Jews. Paul stands among fellow Jews in his discussion of divine grace, not apart from them in a unique or antithetical position. At the same time he stands in the midst of a debate, and none of our Jewish authors can be taken as spokesmen for a single, simple, or uncontested notion of grace.
Paul’s letters (notably, Rom 9-11) indicate Paul’s engagement with common themes in the Jewish discussion of our topic, but they also displays the distinctive configuration of his thought. Paul, we have found, explores the incongruity of grace, which he relates to the Christ-event, as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely, and to the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based definitions of value (“righteousness”). In fact, this theology of grace, Christologically defined and articulated both for and from the Gentile mission, reshaped Paul’s understanding of the identity of Israel. Paul’s distinctive retelling of the Abrahamic and patriarchal origins of Israel (Rom 4 and 9) is patterned by the incongruous gift, which he finds integral to Israel’s existence and destiny. Paul’s theology is not directed against Judaism; neither does he consider assemblies of Jewish and Gentile believers as the replacement of Israel. On his reading, Israel is most truly itself when it is solely dependent on the root of the God’s unconditioned mercy; and that is fully and definitively the case when it draws on the “wealth” poured out to Jew and Gentile in Christ.
The way Paul radicalizes the incongruity of grace, and the distinctive way he connects that grace to the Christ-event and practises it in his Gentile mission, relativizes the authority of the Torah in a fashion unparalleled among his Jewish peers. His claim to have “died to the law in order to live to God” (Gal 2.19) signals a shocking devaluation of Jewish symbolic capital (cf. Phil 3.2-11) just when he embraces the Jewish ideal of “living to God.” Paul is neither anti-Jewish nor post-Jewish, but his configuration of the grace of God in Christ alters his Jewish identity and questions his former allegiance to the Torah. Our reading of Paul has provided a new angle of vision on this perennially fascinating and controversial phenomenon.
4. Paul’s Theology of Grace in its Original Social Context: Paul’s notion of the incongruous Christ-gift was originally part of his missionary theology, developed for and from the Gentile mission at the pioneering stage of community formation. Since God’s incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and uniting them in their common faith in Christ. The starting-point is the framing of the Christ-event as gift. Christ’s death “for our sins” (e.g., 1 Cor 15.3-4) is interpreted by Paul in the language of gift (God’s gift of his Son, or Christ’s gift of himself). The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are thus, for Paul, the focal point of divine beneficence: the witness of Scripture and the history and identity of Israel are interpreted in this light. Grace is discovered in an event, not in the general benevolence of God, and its focal expression lies not in creation or in any other divine gift, but in the gift of Christ, which constitutes for Paul the Gift.
This gift is experienced and interpreted as an incongruous gift. The Gentile mission is formative: non-Jews, wholly unqualified for divine beneficence, are found to be “called in grace” when they receive the good news of Christ, and gifted with the Spirit. Paul’s own experience matches this disregard of worth, since he too was “called in grace” irrespective of his Jewish privileges and despite his persecution of the church. Paul thus identifies a divine initiative in the Christ-event that disregards taken-for-granted criteria of ethnicity, status, knowledge, virtue, or gender. In a dialectical fashion, Paul’s theology justifies the formation of norm-violating communities, while his missionary practice clarifies and radicalizes the incongruity of the gift of Christ.
Paul understands the single event of Christ to bring into question every pre-existent classification of worth. In figuring believers as “dead to the world” and as expressions of a “new creation” (Gal 6.14-15), he articulates the birth of dissident communities which are capable of disregarding distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female (Gal 3.28). Such social identities continue to exist, but they are declared insignificant as markers of worth in a community that is beholden to Christ and operates “at a diagonal” to the normal taxonomies of value (Gal 1.10-11). Ancestry, education, and social power are subordinated to a common “calling” that disregards previous assumptions of worth (1 Cor 1.26-31). Novel communities are encouraged to relativize their differences in culture, welcoming one another on the unconditioned terms by which each was welcomed in Christ (Rom 14-15).
Paul’s discussion of “justification” and his antithesis between “works of the Law” and “faith in Christ” are formulated in and for the Gentile mission. Paul declares that the ethnic distinction between Jew and Gentile, which was foundational to his “ancestral traditions,” has been dissolved by the incongruous gift of Christ. His mission experience, his controversies with other Jewish believers, and his own calling as apostle to the Gentiles make these themes central to Galatians and Romans. Here “works of the Law” mean Jewish practices; the “Law” in question is the Torah. In declaring that God counts worth (“righteousness”) by reference not to Torah-observance but to faith in Christ, Paul subverts the normative authority of the Torah, which is no longer to shape (“enslave”) the common life of believers. Jewish believers are by no means prohibited from observing the Torah, but even for them its authority is subordinate to “the truth of the good news.” They are required to acknowledge that it is not the common cultural framework of believers, and thus not to be imposed on Gentile converts. Although aspects of the Torah are “fulfilled” in Spirit-led conduct, it is not the believers’ ultimate norm; to accept it as such would be to deny the grace of God in Christ. Believers are united by faith in Christ – the mark of their orientation to the event of Christ, which is the source of their “newness of life.” Paul opposes those who think Torah-observance is the essential expression of faith not because “law” or “works” are problematic principles of soteriology, but because the Torah – like every other pre-constituted norm – has been dethroned as a criterion of worth by the unconditioned gift of Christ.Two intersecting features of Pauline theology place this gift in a wider theological context – his theology of calling (his version of covenant-theology or “salvation-history”) and his theology of sin (his anthropology). The Christ-gift is interpreted as the fulfilment of the promises to Abraham, but at the same time clearly distinguished from the Torah-covenant. In accord with this peculiar disjunction, Paul re-interprets the whole of Scripture, which grounds his theology where it resonates with echoes of the good news. In Galatians Israel’s history is accorded no positive significance; the emphasis in that letter on curse and enslavement underlines, rather, the incongruity of grace. Romans does recount elements of Israel’s story, but only where they bear the distinctively Pauline marks of disjunction: right from the start, and up the present (and projected into the future), Paul traces the pattern of life from the dead, the justification of the ungodly, and mercy without regard to worth. The scope of this narrative is significant to Paul, since the new assemblies of believers have come into existence only by being grafted onto the root that has created and sustained Israel from its beginning. Paul is not citing scriptural episodes to illustrate abstract principles of soteriology. But the story he tells is not a common Second Temple narrative with a Christological conclusion: it has a new plot-line, shaped by the incongruity of grace.
The other context for the gift is Paul’s theology of sin. Paul’s pessimism regarding “the present evil age” (Gal 1.4) is radicalized by the conviction that the Christ-gift is given in the absence of worth, to the “ungodly” and the “weak.” There are no exceptions: all (Jew and Gentile) are under the rule of Sin, which holds the cosmos in subjection. Even the Torah is frustrated by this enslaving power (Rom 7), a further reason why there can be no justification within its terms. This grim anthropology forms the foil to Paul’s news of freedom and reconciliation in Christ; his contrasts between before and after, outside and inside, reflect the experience of his converts. The drama of their movement from death to life, from flesh to Spirit, and from sin to righteousness is encapsulated in baptism, whose “newness of life,” derived from Christ, is experienced in new social relations and in the reconstitution of each individual self (Gal 2.19-20).
The Christ-gift thus provides the basic soteriological shape for Paul’s theology of calling and of sin – his configuration of the story of Israel and his representation of the plight of humanity. The integration of these theological matrices is Paul’s distinctive achievement. Together they contextualize the Christ-gift, identifying its significance on a map that encompasses all of history and the whole of the cosmos. But because their focal-point is the gift of Christ, each bears the mark of the incongruity of grace.
The goal of Paul’s mission is the formation of communities whose distinct patterns of life bear witness to an event that has broken with normal criteria of worth. Paul expects baptism to create new life-orientations, including forms of bodily habitus that express the reality of the life of the resurrection in the midst of human mortality. The gift requires to be realized in unconventional practice or it ceases to have meaning as an incongruous gift. It creates new modes of obedience to God, which arise from the gift as “return” to God, but without instrumental purpose in eliciting further gifts. The transformative power of grace thus creates a fit between believers and God, which will be evident at the eschaton. Judgment “according to works” does not entail a new and incompatible principle of soteriology; it indicates that the incongruous gift has had its intended effect in embedding new standards of worth in the practice of those it transforms.
The incongruity of grace does not imply, for Paul, its singularity (since God’s act of grace in Christ is predicated on his judgment of sin) or its non-circularity (since the gift carries expectations of obedience). Because it is incongruous, the priority of the gift is everywhere presupposed, but Paul rarely draws out predestinarian conclusions, as in the Hodayot and in the theologies of Augustine and Calvin. The superabundance of grace is also presupposed and sometimes explicit, but its efficacy is given less attention than the Augustinian tradition might suggest. While some Pauline texts suggest the efficacy of grace in the will and work of believers (1 Cor 15.9-10; Phil 2.12-13), this perfection receives no special profile in Galatians and Romans. Everything that may be said about the believer is predicated on the resurrection life of Christ, as the source of new life in the Spirit: no-one can “walk in line with the Spirit” unless they “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5.25). But the efficacy of grace (the prior and present agency of God within the agency of believers) is not of central concern in either Galatians or Romans, and is not a necessary entailment of their primary perfection, the incongruity of the gift of Christ.
5. New Contexts and New Meanings of Grace: Paul’s theology of grace has been influential only because it has proved fertile in historical and social conditions beyond its original context. Its meaning has necessarily been altered in the process. Originally, as we have seen, it was integral to Paul’s mission at the start of the Christian movement: it served to disjoin converts from their previous criteria of worth, scoring a line between their past and their present, between insiders and outsiders. After this initial generation, in a post-missional context and within Christian communities whose boundaries were already established, this same theology played a different role and acquired a different focus. Even where the incongruity of grace was re-emphasized, it served not to establish but to refine the Christian tradition, drawing lines of demarcation not around the Christian community but within it, and even within the subjectivity of believers.
This change of focus is related to the fact that the originating context of Paul’s theology – the Gentile mission that dissolved the distinction between Jews and non-Jews and relativized the Torah – became a matter of merely historical interest to later theologians, who sought more contemporary relevance in the Pauline language of “works” and “law.” But a more fundamental shift was at play: the language of grace that had once served to detach new communities from their previous cultural attachments was now applied to believers with little or no consciousness of a break with their past (since their primary socialization was as Christians), and to communities whose external boundaries were either non-existent (in a solidly Christian culture) or already obvious. Their criteria of worth (what counted as honorable or righteous) were already strongly “Christianized.” In such contexts Paul’s theology of grace became a tool for the inner reform of the Christian tradition, its critical edge turned against believers, undermining not their pre-Christian criteria of worth but their pride or purpose in gaining Christian worth. Grace remained the means of access to the community, but the critical dissolution of pre-constituted norms (“what accords with human values”, Gal 1.11) became an attack on the believer’s confidence or independence in adhering to Christian norms. In a context where “the law,” once passed through Christian filters, was granted full authority as divine law, it was impossible to imagine that the believer should challenge its authority as Paul had challenged the normative role of the Torah. Paul had placed “grace” and faith in contrast with righteousness in the Law, but it was inconceivable that he should have questioned the Law’s normative criteria, and more likely that he intended to criticize a deficiency in the believer, either in measuring up to the Law or in construing its intention. The shift that takes place here is not from the particular to the universal (Paul himself covers both, working from the particularity of the Christ-event to its universal implications), nor from the specific to the abstract (like Paul, his interpreters have specific targets for their theology), nor from the social to the individual (Paul’s own theology of grace has both social and individual dimensions). What changes, rather, is the social context. The critical theology of a new social movement, by which it formulated its identity and clarified its boundaries, becomes the self-critical theology of an established tradition: its missionary theology is turned inwards.
The first signs of this contextual shift may be traced in the deutero-Pauline letters where “works” are refocused as moral achievements (Eph 2.8-10; 2 Tim 1.9; Tit 3.5) and “boasting” indicates not the cultural confidence of the Jew in the Torah (or of the Greek in wisdom), but pride in achievement (Eph 1.9). Grace is a marker of the divine source of worth (“not from you, but the gift of God,” Eph 2.8). Augustine, as we saw (chapter 3.2), interpreted “boasting” as the pride of believers, who attribute merit to themselves, and not to God. He took Paul’s theology of grace to subvert not the standard human criteria of worth, but the human tendency to self-congratulation in the attainment of worth. The critical edge of Paul’s theology is directed against Christian construals of virtue-acquisition. The incongruity of grace, which Augustine perfected together with its priority and efficacy, is taken to represent the axiomatic principle that God’s healing aid is the necessary and effective source of all moral or spiritual achievement. The distinction between life “in the flesh” and new life “in the Spirit” (Rom 7-8) – a contrast for Paul between the former and the present life of a convert – is taken to represent the inner duality of the believer. To speak of grace is to speak of the believer’s dependence on the agency of God.
The achievement of Luther (see chapter 3.3) was to translate Paul’s missionary theology of grace into an urgent inward mission, directed to the church, but especially to the heart of each believer. Luther recaptured both the incongruity of grace in Paul and its origin in the event of Jesus Christ; the challenge was to make this significant in communities of believers long socialized in the Christian tradition. The subversive dynamic of Paul’s theology is directed against a different target – not the old normative systems which believers are struggling to shed, but a faulty understanding of their own good works as necessary to gain God’s favor. Paul’s theology of gift is re-preached to effect the perpetual conversion of believers, who need to learn over and again to receive the gift of God and to banish the false opinion that their works will merit salvation. The gospel constitutes a mission to the self and a daily return to baptism, since the old nature persists in its tendency to arrogant self-sufficiency and must be countered by reminders that Christ has already given all. Thus grace here scores a line through the life of the Christian, who is simul justus et peccator, both a believer and a human being, and a believer only as he/she becomes one repeatedly in faith. Paul’s polemics against “works of the law” are taken to be directed not against an external (and no longer valid) definition of worth (Torah-practice) but against the subjective evaluation of one’s own good works as effective for salvation. This change in focus fostered a regrettable tendency to figure “Jews” as examplars of human self-righteousness, but it constituted a brilliant re-contextualization of Pauline theology in the conditions of the sixteenth century church.
As we have seen, the twentieth century saw several notable developments in the reading of grace as a rebuke to the church or a judgment on the self-understanding of every individual (chapter 3.5). For all their differences, these have generally continued the tradition in which “works” are the target of Paul’s polemic against “works of the law.” In this tradition, Paul’s theology is taken to expose the human incapacity to fulfil the law’s demands (Augustine; Calvin), or the “religious” movement towards God that is no more than a “human enterprise” (Barth; Martyn), or the false and subtly idolatrous opinion that one can rely upon oneself for salvation (Luther; Bultmann; Käsemann). In all cases, the object of Paul’s critique is not the content of the works but the “doing” of them, not the criteria by which worth is measured, but the purported achievement of worth.
Viewed from this angle, the “new perspective” constitutes a break in the mainstream history of reception. Locating Paul’s letters within first-generation conflicts over the Mosaic Torah, it construes the issue to lie not in the believers’ performance of good works, but in the differentiation of the community of believers from (some of) the Jewish rules of Torah-observance (see chapter 3.6). In agreement with the “new perspective,” we have found the context for Paul’s theology of justification to be the Gentile mission and the construction of communities that crossed ethnic (as well as social) boundaries. Moreover, these social effects are not just the context of Paul’s theology, mere illustrations of soteriological principles, but its goal, since the calling of Jew and Gentile in Christ is the fulfilment of Israel’s calling in mercy, and thus at the centre of God’s purposes in history. However, I depart from the “new perspective” in the identification of the theological root of this Pauline mission. Shaping Paul’s appeals to the Abrahamic promises, to the experience of the Spirit, or to the oneness of God, is his theology of the Christ-gift. This is certainly not to return to theologically pernicious contrasts between Pauline grace and Jewish works-righteousness; by contrast, we have demonstrated the significance of divine beneficence in a wide range of Jewish texts. Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism. But the incongruous grace that Paul traces in the Christ-event and experiences in the Gentile mission is the explosive force that demolishes old criteria of worth and clears space for innovative communities that inaugurate new patterns of social existence. It is because grace belongs to no-one that it goes to everyone – and not because of a political or philosophical preference for the broad over the narrow, or the universal over the particular. Paul’s ecclesiology has its roots in his soteriology of grace, which also shapes his understanding of the human plight at both a cosmic and an individual level and has theological significance and social implications quite beyond its original context.
Thus, the reading of Paul offered in this book may be interpreted either as a re-contextualization of the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition, returning the theme of the incongruity of grace to its original mission environment where it accompanied the formation of new communities, or as a reconfiguration of the “new perspective,” placing its best historical and exegetical insights within the frame of Paul’s theology of grace. I have disagreed in significant ways with interpreters on both sides of this divide and the reading offered here does not harmonize the two interpretative traditions but reshapes them both. But it opens a path beyond current dichotomies, placing their respective strengths within a frame that is responsible both to Paul’s historical conditions and to the theological structures of his thought.
This reading of Paul may also create resonances today. Because the Christological event of grace is both highly particular and impacts on any criteria of worth that are not derived from the good news itself, Paul’s theology does not remain encased within its first-century context. One does not have to find “timeless principles” by extracting general truths from particular historical debates: Paul himself saw the general relevance of a theology of grace that reconfigured the map of reality. As we have seen, that theology fitted its original context of an inaugural mission, and is necessarily re-focused when used in the reform of an established Christian tradition. Today, however, the Christian tradition is anything but stable and established. In fact, one might be struck by the similarities between Paul’s missional context and the social context of many churches today. Not only in pioneer mission, but even (in fact, especially) in a pluralist or secularizing context, churches now find themselves needing to rediscover their social, political, and cultural identity. Taken-for-granted criteria of value regarding age, ethnicity, social status, education, gender, or wealth become in such circumstances the object of critical re-evaluation, and churches identify anew what it is about the good news that makes them socially and ideologically distinctive. This new missional context makes Paul’s theology of grace most relevant not in the re-contextualized forms in which it has become familiar (as an individualized theology of “amazing grace”), but in its original dynamic accompanying the creation of innovative, counter-cultural communities of faith. By starting from the Christ-event, and by clarifying with radical sharpness the unconditioned grace that was given in Christ, Paul provides resources for the dissolution of pre-formed assumptions and for the construction of boundary-erasing communities. Those resources could prove vital for churches as they renegotiate their identities in cultures where what it means to be “church” has become radically uncertain.
We have focused here on the divine gift of grace, the gift in its theological sense. As we have noted, this has its necessary embodiment in the life of transformed communities, but we have not had space to explore in its wider dimensions the significance of gift in Paul’s configuration of human relations. The construction of community through the reciprocity of gift, the extension of gift-relations beyond the normal range of social relationships, the renegotiations of power and obligation that accompany the giving and receiving of gifts in Christ – all these remain Pauline topics barely touched upon here. Other Pauline letters beyond those addressed here (e.g., 1 and 2 Corinthians; Philippians) would need to be added to the discussion. It may be that in these matters also Paul’s thought and practice, once contextualized in the economic conditions of the first century, have significant implications for a contemporary social and political ethic. But that will be the agenda for another book!