John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift– Part Two

John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift– Part Two October 19, 2015


Ben: The Greek term ‘charis’ does indeed have as a basic meaning gift, though the term can also be used to refer to the response of ‘gratitude’ to the gift. One linguistic question arises— can a response to a charis (gift) really be seen as a ‘gift’, since it’s not initiated without prior stimulus or conditions? Or should we say that ‘charis’ at least when predicated of humans responding to God has a different sense than it does when it is predicated of God?

John: As you say, Greek ‘charis’ has a range of inter-related senses (the Appendix to the book lays these out), including ‘charis’ from God (as in Paul’s letter openings) and ‘charis be to God’ (in the sense, thanks or gratitude, e.g. Rom 7.25; hence ‘eucharistia’ as ‘thanksgiving’). Certainly a response to a gift is still a gift (a return-gift): gifts have to be voluntary (not coerced or legally required, like tax or the repayment of a loan) but they are often a response to prior stimulus. The question I am pressing is whether divine (or human) gifts are given to fitting recipients, thus whether they are conditioned in the sense of being given with discrimination to worthy or suitable beneficiaries. Although most ancients believed that divine gifts are good precisely by being given discriminately, Paul takes the enormous theological risk of declaring that the Christ-gift bears no relation to human worth.

For Paul, human gifts are always inspired and enabled by divine giving, and the way that the divine gift cascades into human giving almost requires that the term ‘charis’ has the same sense in both cases: thus in 2 Corinthians 8.9, it is because the Corinthians know the ‘charis’ of Jesus Christ that they are equipped and energized to take part in the ‘charis’ of the Jerusalem collection (2 Cor 8.7-9) – though most English translations obscure this connection.

Ben: In your second chapter you bring to light several critical factors which have led to varying and even contradictory Christian interpretations of the ‘charis’ language in Paul, though most of the interpretations are grounded in one or another of the possible nuances of the term. In this book, you are concerned with divine ‘grace’ or gift giving. What is it, in your mind, about the character of God as revealed in the Bible that has led to attributing various of these perfections you list, to the concept of grace? Why does it seem to be necessary to stretch the terminology almost to the breaking point, or in a rhetorically hyperbolic manner, when talking about the ‘charis’ of God?

John: I think that diving giving is almost bound to stretch the concept of gift to an extreme, since God, as God, is a hyper-giver. Paul is not unique in that, and both Jews and non-Jews tended to regard God as the ultimate and most perfect giver of all and use hyperbolic rhetoric to describe that. Of course there are plenty of biblical resources for this. As the creator, God has given all things in abundance, but what catches Paul’s eye most of all, in the light of the Christ-event, are biblical descriptions of the mercy or benevolence of God that go beyond what is decent, fair or fitting – such as God’s mercy on Israel even after the Golden Calf (Exodus 33-34, echoed in Romans 9), or the calling of the unworthy and deficient patriarchs (Romans 4 and 9).

Ben: You stress in this chapter that the ancients, such as Seneca, did not seem to think that there was anything very normal or commendable about ‘giving with no thought of return’. Normally they saw it as setting up reciprocity of some sort. Furthermore, they often talked about making sure that the object of the gift was worthy of the gift, and likely to use it well and appropriately, including expressing the appropriate gratitude. Why do you think it is that so many moderns, including even non-Christian philosophers find these notions rather repugnant, if not inherently contradictory to the concept of gift/grace?

John: I think are two questions here: i) should the gift be given without regard to the worth of the recipient and ii) should a gift elicit a return of some sort? The two can run together (a worthy recipient might be one more likely to express gratitude), but they are also seperable. On the first, even we moderns generally choose to give to people or causes we consider worthy in some sense: Do we leave money in our wills to just anyone, or do we take care to leave it those causes we regard as fitting and appropriate? Should I give a Christmas present to my Departmental secretary as significant as what I give to my wife, or does the difference in value say something about who I value most in my life? So, we do normally give discriminately to people or causes who represent our values or what is precious to us. On the second, we are conflicted. On the one hand, we hope for gratitude at least in most personal dealings (we would be disappointed if our spouse did not bother to say ‘thank you’ for a carefully chosen present), but on the other we sometimes brush gratitude aside, or even try to avoid it, since we don’t want people to feel obliged to us: as good Kantians we think that individual autonomy is the most important thing in the world, and being obliged to a giver is to lose one’s individual freedom. On this basis we have created notions of ‘altruism’ and ‘disinterest’ that are distinctly modern (making disinterest and interest mutually exclusive). It feels like that is Christian, and there are certainly Christian reasons for risky forms of giving that may not elicit a response, but the core Christian tradition is that even God’s giving wants a response from humans, even if it does not and cannot require it. Does God give to us ‘with no thought of return’? Does not God give to us, without regard to our worth, but lovingly wanting the return that fulfils our human potential, that is the return of thanksgiving (see Romans 1) and faith (see Romans 4)? Jesus was not happy about the healed but ungrateful ‘lepers’ (Luke 17.11-19).

Ben: You are able to come up with six perfections of ‘charis’. I wonder if it would not be useful to cluster these as follows: 1) those that have to do with motives or intentions of the giver; 2) those that have to do with the character of the gift itself; and 3) those that have to do with the recipient and his or her response?

John: The six could roughly cluster in that way, since gift is a phenomenon that has at least these three facets. The six I have identified are: superabundance (the size of character of the gift); singularity (God’s character as giver and nothing-but-giver); priority (the timing of the gift before any initiative from the other side); incongruity (the mismatch between the gift and the worth of the recipient; efficacy (the ability of the gift to achieve the giver’s intentions); and non-circularity (gifts that escape any system of exchange or reciprocity). If it helps to group them a bit, that is fine, but the differences between these six are all important. The point of this analysis will become clear as the book proceeds. It helps to clarify the differences in the highly influential history of reception of Paul (e.g. the differences between Augustine and Pelagius, or between Luther and Calvin: they all believed in grace, but in significantly different ways) and it helps to clarify that while grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, it is not everywhere the same. Thus Paul may be agree with all his fellow Jews that God is gracious, but which of these perfections did they adopt, and which did he?

Ben: In a predestinarian system, it would seem one could argue that because God has pre-chosen particular persons (the elect), that bestows worth on them, so when God actually in space and time saves them and only them, the ‘them’ in question are deemed worthy of this salvation because of what God has already bestowed on them, naming them elect from before the foundations of the world. Does this make sense to you?

John: Yes, if one thinks that God has chosen/given without regard to worth, the question naturally arises: has he acted irrationally or randomly? Once answer to that is, no, because he had elected/predestined those he chooses beforehand, and that rendered them worthy, in his eyes at least. That is the move, I argue, made in the Qumran Hymns (see chapter 7), where the self-confessed unworthy hymnists talk a lot about the pre-creation choice of God. One can see hints of this also in the undisputed Pauline letters (Rom 8.29), and it becomes a major motif in Ephesians. There, where believers are said to be chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1.4) it is clear that their worth is found only because they are in Christ, not because of any inherent value or merit of their own. On the general point (of God bestowing, or creating in us, what is worthy), Luther put it well: the love of God does not find but create what is pleasing to him.

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