BEN: One of the questions that begins to arise is whether or not the attempt at ‘perfecting’ grace in too many ways at once, leads to exegetical and experiential problems. For example, in the Philo chapter you show how he struggles to reconcile the idea of God’s gracious relationship with Israel with the idea of whether they were worthy or unworthy recipients of God’s election compared to everyone else, with his tending towards the ‘worthy’ idea. The idea of incongruous grace doesn’t seem reconcilable with the idea of a ‘worthy’ recipient. The Philo chapter led me to remember your earlier comment on the work of Campbell who seems to be trying to perfect grace in a whole lot of ways at once…. At the expense of exegesis.
JOHN: Yes, sometimes Philo seems to have the text on his side (why did God choose Noah? The Geneisis text says he was righteous) and sometimes he struggles to make the text say what he wants. Why did God choose Jacob not Esau; not easy to find any clue in the text, so Philo says that by giving them their names before they were born, the text indicates that God knew their character and thus what would make Jacob worthy of election. Thus in both cases, there is no incongruity, and Philo is understandably wary of that notion. As you say, the more perfetions one piles up, the more there is the danger of having to force them through against the text and Campbell is, to my mind, a good example of that: where things don’t fit he has to say either that Paul did not mean them (they are voicing someone else’s opinion) or that Paul was inconsistent. Before we reach either of those conclusions, we have to ask whether we are bringing the right expectations to the text.
BEN: Explain a bit more about your distinction between a ‘fit’ recipient of grace, and a meritorious or worthy one. Do you think that Carson and others have confused or fused these two ideas, and so reject both notions because it seems at odds with ‘incongruous’ grace?
JOHN: I think ‘fittingness’ is a sub-species of worthiness, because I take worth to mean not just moral worth but also the worth of status, social proximity, gender, capability etc. By limiting the issue to moral worth (and thus achievement or works) we miss the breadth of the issue in Paul, and in the ancient world. Why did Wisdom save Adam (Wisdom 10.1)? Because he had the status of the first-born human and the first is always pre-eminent (that makes perfect sense in the ancient world). Why were Gentiles of lesser worth? Because they had the wrong ancestry and the wrong ideas about God. Only in our modern ‘meritocracy’ do we think worth is only about achievement: in most cultures, and in ancient culture as a whole, people are judged worthy (or not) on all kinds of criteria, not just moral criteria. One aspect of worth might be the fit (e.g. the inherent capacity) of the recipient. Because Carson (like most Protestants) assumes that ‘grace’ means incongruous gift, he does not consider the gift to the worthy or fitting a form of grace: but in ancient terms it certainly was (they use the same terminology). In ancient terms a prize (given to the winner of a race) is a gift/grace (charis): it is only because of our intellectual heritage that we say, that is gift, but not grace.
BEN: If you were to sum up how Philo’s views on God’s grace most differ from Paul’s what would you say?
JOHN: Philo says even more than Paul about the superabundance of grace. Because of his philosophical interest in divine causation, he also says more than Paul about the priority of grace. But he is reluctant to allow that God gives to the unworthy: that would make God look arbitrary. But the incongruity of grace is the heart of Paul’s understanding of the Christ event, and of his practice of the Gentile mission.
BEN: I like your suggestion that while right-standing with God (justification) involves people who are unworthy, even enemies of God, in Paul’s thought because it is by grace through faith, nevertheless, final judgment which involves an evaluation of human works and can lead to rewards, or the lack thereof, takes into account the fitness of the recipient for such rewards, but salvation itself, even final justification is not a reward, not earned or merited. This suggests to me, that the Reformed idea that initial justification is nothing more than final justification retrojected back to the beginning of the believers life (so that God’s ‘no condemnation now’ guarantees no condemnation later) is probably an over-reading of Paul at several crucial points. Can you say more about the nuances of Paul’s views on these things (as you do in your excellent eschatology article)?
JOHN: We will come to that more in the chapters on Romans 1-8 (chapters 15-16), but in a nutshell: the unfitting gift (to the unrighteous and enemy) creates the believer in the life of the resurrected Christ, and it is only out of that new self that any believer agency can arise. But the purpose of that gift is the new, transformed self, who acts in holiness (and not continuing unrighteousness or enmity to God), and at the eschaton Paul pictures God scrutinising, judging and rewarding that holiness. This is not a second justification, because it recognises that what is good in the believer’s life is the product of the new life created by God in Christ, but it makes sense of the fact that Paul can still talk of the judgement of believers and even their rewards. That there is no condemnation means that as long as I stand in Christ and draw on him (in the terms of 1 Cor 3, rest on the foundation that is Jesus Christ), God is committed to vindicate the work he has begun in me. But that leaves open the possibility that I might be separated from Christ – the possibility of apostasy, as mentioned several times by Paul.
BEN: On p. 237, where you sum up Philo’s view of grace you stress that he emphasizes the superabundance of God’s grace, the priority of grace, to some degree the efficacy of grace, but not the incongruity of grace. Is this because Philo is operating with the ancient notion, taken for granted, that a gift is an overture to a relationship, and expects a response of some sort? The gift is not singular, and it can in fact be rejected, but at a cost.
JOHN: Yes, because gifts create or cement relationships, one does not just give them to anyone at all: they express who you want to be associated with and thus your value system. Even today, think of who we leave money to in our wills: that directly says what causes we hold dear to our hearts, and thus what we value most of all (perhaps abandoned dogs; perhaps the poor in the developing world). If we give while we are still alive, we are tying ourselves to someone (and them to us), and God would hardly tie himself to the disreputable and the ungodly, would he?