John Barclay’s ‘Paul and the Gift’ Part Four

John Barclay’s ‘Paul and the Gift’ Part Four October 27, 2015


BEN: In your lengthy third chapter reviewing what could be called the history of interpretation of Paul’s theology of gift and grace, you deal with Marcion, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, in what I will call the ‘historic’ treatments of Paul, but nothing on someone like Arminius or Wesley, both of whom had a great deal to say about Paul’s theology of grace and gift, and perhaps importantly on the notion of prevenient grace. While I realize you could not treat all the significant moments in the reception history, it seems strange that you only treat the more Augustinian side of the equation. Was there a reason for this, because both Arminius and Wesley had just as much to say on the subject as these others?

JOHN: Yes, I was only able to cover a part of the rich history of the interpretation of Paul on grace. I wanted to clarify how the six different perfections of grace have been variously developed over history, and I certainly hope this will help in the analysis of Arminius and Wesley. As far as I understand Arminianism (and I am not an expert), it represents a refusal to perfect the efficacy of grace as that had been developed in the later Augustine and in Calvinism. That is to say, while Arminians say much about the superabundance, the incongruity and the priority of grace (in the form of prevenience), they resist the strong notions of determinism or causation that became central in Calvinist understanding of the efficacy of grace. Hence, in Arminianism, the Spirit enables and helps us to respond to God’s grace, and frees our will to do so, but God does not determine our response: we are freed by grace genuinely to accept or reject salvation. Hence the Arminian resistance to predestination if that is understood as predetermination, to limited atonement (a doctrine that only makes sense if God has from the beginning already predetermined who will respond to the saving work of Christ), and to the perseverance of the saints (Arminians insist that apostasy is genuinely possible). Of course notions of the efficacy of grace are bound up with how you understand the relation between divine and human (believer) agency, and zero-sum calculations (the more God is at work, the less we are) are perhaps not the best way to figure this. Thus I hope my analysis will help those in the Wesleyan tradition to say: we believe fully in God’s grace, and maximise (like Paul) its incongruity, but we just won’t follow Calvinists in perfecting its efficacy in the way they do – but it is not clear that one has to do so in order to have a theologically adequate view of grace.

BEN: Realizing these things are difficult to sort out when we only have indirect evidence, I wonder to what degree Marcion is actually indebted to Paul for his great antitheses pitting the God of the OT vs. the God of Paul and Luke, law vs. grace, salvation vs. judgment and so on? Sometimes Marcion sounds a lot more like an ascetic Gnostic than like Paul. And on top of all that he is anti-Semitic unlike Paul. Interestingly, Tertullian actually seems more like Marcion, especially in the ascetical tendencies, than does Paul. What are your thoughts on Marcion’s more dominant influences, especially when it comes to a ‘judgment-free’ theology of grace?

JOHN: I think a number of things coincide in Marcion and it is hard to calculate which have the dominant role. The label ‘Gnostic’ is slippery and I think most now avoid using it in connection with Marcion, but there is a certainly a strong distaste towards the world as presently constituted. There were strong ascetic impulses right through early Christianity, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla show that 1 Corinthians 7 was one influence on that with regard to sexual asceticism. I hesitate to use the word ‘anti-Semitic’ of anyone in antiquity (it is a modern category) and Marcion could be read as affirming the Jews’ belief in the coming Messiah, as predicted in the OT – he just thinks that they serve the Creator God and not the recently revealed God of Jesus Christ. Marcion’s ‘Apostolikon’ (letters of Paul) was clearly important to him, and it is no accident that it starts with Galatians, which talks straight up of ‘the present evil age’! I suggest in the book that the grace vs.judgement antithesis is shaped by the Platonic tradition (if God is good, he must be absolutely good and thus cannot be held to cause any sort of harm). I think Judy Lieu backs that up, in much greater detail, in her recent big book on Marcion. Of course, no-one just reads Paul. We all put Paul in a larger canonical/theological/philosophical framework. We just see that more clearly when we find someone like Marcion putting Paul in a frame so very different from our own.

BEN: As you say the bedrock of Augustine’s reading of Paul is ‘the incongruous gift to the undeserving’. Augustine manages to balance God’s justice and God’s mercy, his righteousness and his grace in a way that Marcion didn’t. I wonder what you think about the suggestion that it is Augustine’s tendency to focus on ‘interiority’ when it comes to sin (e.g. primal sin is pride) which leads Luther down the very same path emphasizing ‘the heart turned in upon itself’. At least on this emphasis Luther seems like a good Augustinian monk.

JOHN: Yes, I do think Augustine’s reading of ‘boasting’ in Paul as pride in one’s own achievements is a crucial interpretative step (though Eph 2.8-10 may certainly lead in that direction). That Augustinian move shaped a lot of the Medieval tradition, but you are right that it had a foundational role in Luther’s thought as he became steeped in Augustine at an early stage of his theological development. Luther adds many elements to that, and has a very subtle appreciation of the way that our motivations and our understanding of what we are doing, when we do good works, can lead to either pride or despair. It is when he uses this to challenge key practices in the church, like indulgences, monastic vows, and the understanding of the Mass, that he begins to look very different from Augustine.

BEN: Your succinct assessment of the early and later Augustine I think is right on target, and ironically, it seems like the early Augustine is more nearly followed by Calvin (in the latter’s emphasis on a place for sanctification, good works etc. as essential to the Christian life) whereas Luther in the main seems to be following the later Augustine, especially in regard to things like Rom. 7. Would you agree?

JOHN: The relationship to Augustine is complex, and Calvin is certainly critical of Augustine at times, even though he draws very heavily on him (explicitly so) at others. They both think, in agreement with the later Augustine, that Romans 7 describes the tension in the Christian life, partly because, following Augustine, they cannot imagine how the unregenerate human heart could be said to delight in the law (7.22). Luther is reluctant to speak much about predestination, because he doubts this will help much in the preaching of the good news; Calvin thinks it is important to get that straight, partly because he is concerned to construct a whole systematic theology. But another key point of difference, as you suggest, is that Calvin, like Augustine, wants to take seriously the NT language of sanctification, whereas Luther wants to preserve a sense of the permanent mismatch between the righteousness we have in Christ, and the sin we have in ourselves (he is trying to give an account of the Spirit-flesh antithesis, as he reads Gal 5.17). Luther thinks good works will follow from justification, and are essential to salvation as a whole (just not to justification itself), but he does not really espouse a notion of progress in the Christian life (increase in holiness). Calvin’s notion of double grace (grace in justification and grace in sanctification) is a very significant step beyond Luther, but one, as you say, that certainly picks up aspects of the Augustinian tradition.

BEN: As you say on p. 91, it is the stress not only on the incongruous nature of grace and God’s prior effective choice that makes God appear inscrutable if not arbitrary on Augustine’s view. Yet the earlier Augustine doesn’t seem so eager to press the ‘mystery’ button when it comes to why God chose whom he did. What do you think led him down this road in the end? I ask especially because Augustine seems to be quite aware that God’s foreknowledge is not the same as God’s foreordination, and I don’t see him doing the thing that Calvin did, namely saying God knows it because God already willed it— making God’s will the final place where the buck stops when it comes to explanations of God’s salvific plan.


The early Augustine (pre 396) was content to say that God knows beforehand that we will have faith. But it was the absence of the word ‘faith’ in Romans 9, and the seemimgly relentless emphasis in that chapter on the will of God (‘so he has mercy on whom he wills, and hardens whom he wills’, 9.16) that led Augustine to a stronger view of God’s predetermining election, though he arguably ‘perfects’ that still further as time goes on right up to his death in 430. The emphasis on ‘mystery’ in Augustine is partly exegetically driven (responding to Romans 11. 33-36) and partly because he had no way of explaining the justice of God’s election, but could only assert that it must be just. Calvin is not that far from Augustine, in my reading, though it is characteristi of Calvin to put special emphasis at this point on God’s power and ‘soverignty’ – i.e. his divine right to determine exactly what he wills.

BEN: Moving on to Luther, on p. 98 you make the very interesting point that Luther removes grace entirely from the ancient gift and return reciprocity system of thinking. This made me wonder if Paul, had he read Luther, wouldn’t have objected to this move. After all Paul is perfectly capable of talking about reciprocity (‘be reconciled to God as he is reconciled to you’) and so on. This in turn leads me to think that Luther got Paul’s theology of grace wrong at certain key points, and set Protestants off down a rabbit trail of ‘gift with no thought of return’ and ‘permanent incongruity’ and so on. Would you agree?


Luther can talk about our ‘return’ to God, but largely in terms of faith (recognizing God as God), and he is certainly very nervous of any implication that what we do in response to grace has any role in influencing God’s further grace or final verdict on us. In other words, at most there is one turn of the circle in Luther (God to us, then us to God) and certainly no more. As I suggest, the effect of this is to undercut the core dynamic of reciprocity that dominates notions of religion in the Middle Ages (and indeed in most eras) and notions of human reciprocal gifts. What I trace in Luther at this point is an impulse that did not change everything at once, but was picked up within Kantian ethics and has been hugely influential on modern Western notions of ‘altruism’, the gift ‘with no strings attached’ and wholly ‘disinterested’. There are social and economic factors that encourage that notion, as I point out in the book (chapter 1), but I do think that some of the problems we have with human reciprocity (quid pro quo) owe more to Luther than to Paul. As I point out in the Paul chapters in the book, Paul speaks of obedience ‘under grace’ and obligation in a way that does not match some Lutheran anxieites on this score, though Paul would insist that there is no way of performing that obedience except from a new self created by grace and sustained by the Spirit. In that sense, there is a kind of permanent incongruity in Paul (between the new self and the old existence represented by the ‘mortal body’), which I try to explain in chapter 16 on Romans 6-8.

BEN: Imputed righteousness seems to be something equally important to both Luther and Calvin. But I would argue that Paul basically doesn’t affirm imputed righteousness, if by that one means something that rules out imparted righteousness through the internal work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. Surely sanctification is precisely about the replication of the character of Christ in the life of the believer, not a mere suggesting that Jesus’ righteousness counts for ours. To me it is especially striking how Luther and Calvin do such a tap dance when it comes to texts like Rom. 4 and Gal. 3 which says that Abraham’s faith/trust was reckoned as righteousness or reckoned for right standing with God, which is a very different matter than saying Christ is righteous for the believer and in his place. Was it their perfecting of a theology of incongruous grace that drove them to this sort of theology about righteousness do you think? I realize that Luther gets around the dilemma by suggesting that the believer is in union with Christ and so he rejects the legal fiction idea (p. 107), but he is adamant about no infused grace or righteousness within the believer, because of his reading of Rom. 7 and his simul justus et peccator theology. To me this seems like solving one problem by creating two other ones.


The notion of Christ’s righteousness ‘imputed’ to us is an attempt to spell out the ‘imputed’ (‘reckoned’) language of Rom 4.5 etc. as combined with verses like 1 Cor 1.30 (‘Christ became our righteousness’ etc.) and 2 Cor 5.20 (‘so that in him we become the righteousness of God’). Theologically, it represents an insistence that whatever is said about our righteousness can be said only on the basis of our union with Christ: it is not (or not just) that grace is infused to aid us in our path of righteousness, but that everything ‘righteous’ about the believer is founded on Christ. Personally I don’t find the language of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us the most helpful (or an exegetically necessary) way of spelling that out, but the theological concern is real, and we certainly need to find ways of talking about the believer’s righteousness that continually refers back to the gift of their new self and new agency by grace. Luther’s simul justus et peccator scheme is one way to do that, though as will become clear in chapter 16 I prefer something like simul mortuus et vivens (because I do not read Romans 7 as about Christian experience). Calvin puts more stress on our righteousness, but then insists that that is always imperfect and stained with sin, and its imperfections constantly require to be covered by Christ’s righteousness. As I say, perhaps the language itself is less important than the anxiety not to let the Christian faith become another kind of moralism, and to keep insisting that who we are as well as what we do is always dependent on the unmerited grace of God.

BEN: Calvin seems to have a big problem with the notion of God limiting his own freedom so humans may have a modicum of the same. So, as you say (p. 128 n. 122) for Calvin the freedom of God’s mercy and grace is more important than its universality. This in turn leads to some really interesting exegetical gymnastics when it comes to discussing how ‘God’s mercy is over all his works’ or how ‘God desires all persons to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth’, or to quote the relevant text in 1 John 2.2 “for Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not only ours but for the sins of the whole world”. So much for the notion that God intended Christ to die for and provide atonement only for the elect. I suppose that any system of theology has its strengths and weaknesses, but for me anyway, when I see certain texts stretched in directions that don’t fairly represent what the author seems to have in mind, that causes me to suggest maybe there is something wrong with the system, rather than with Paul or another NT writer. Do you think Paul would have been happy with Protestant attempts, old and new, to systematize his theology of grace?


One of the tasks of theology is to draw out the coherence of the various voices in the Bible, and that will mean a certain amount of systematization (or, alternatively, selection). I don’t think that the effort to show connections or logical coherence is the problem so much as the inclination to draw out a theme more and more along a certain trajectory (in my terms, perfecting it to the nth degree). Where that perfection ends up contradicting the biblical texts (as in the examples you cite with regard to ‘limited atonement’) one has to ask whether that perfection (in this case the efficacy of grace) is really necessary or helpful theologically, or whether it is following a problematic form of logic. As you hint, one of the problems is that we tend to place God’s agency and ours into a competitive relationship (the more of one, the less of the other). In my view, the transcendence of God’s freedom does not require that our freedom is constrained in the way that is often supposed (‘if God willed this to happen, I can’t have had real freedom to choose’). I have tried to address this is in the Introduction to the volume of essays Simon Gathercole and I edited, called Divine and Human Agency in Paul and his Cultural Environment (London: Continuum, 2006).

BEN: I like Calvin’s distinction between reward and merit, and think it may be grounded to some degree in the teaching of both Jesus and Paul. But even reward is a response to something done, however unobliged the donor may be to give it. In other words, it seems to me you can’t escape an element of reciprocity when you talk about rewards (see e.g. 1 Cor. 3). In this regard, I would say both Jesus and Paul are far closer to early Jewish discussions of such matters than either Calvin or Luther. What do you think?

Calvin was trying to take account of the fact that the biblical texts, OT and NT, speak of God’s reward, such as the ‘crown of righteousness’ for Paul and for those who long for Christ’s appearing (2 Tim 4.7-8). But Luther and Calvin also wanted to give decisive weight to the truth that Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5.6), so that salvation is by no means simply a reward for the righteous who merit it. They therefore wanted to draw a distinction between what, following Paul, we may call the foundation (which is Jesus Christ, the unmerited gift, 1 Cor 3.11) and the various things that believers build up on that foundation, which might be hay and stubble, or silver and gold (1 Cor 3.12-15). The important thing is that even the silver and gold would be worth nothing at all without the foundation on which they stand. But inasmuch as they are the sorts of things (actions and characters) that delight God, one can imagine God’s delight in welcoming them (for which one might use the metaphor of reward). I have tried to explore this in the chapter on Romans 1-4 (chapter 15), where I argue that the incongrous gift of grace is designed to produce, at the last, a kind of congruity between the holiness of the believer and the holiness of God. So I think Luther and Calvin absolutely got what Paul was talking about with regard to the incongruity of the Christ-gift, and that is important to maintain. But in my view Calvin gave a better account than Luther of the reward language of the New Testament which is not, however, about salvation as reward, but about God’s welcome of the alignment of our lives to his character and will, inasmuch as it arises from the new self whose very being is gifted by grace.

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