Book Review: John Barclay on Paul and the Gift

Book Review: John Barclay on Paul and the Gift March 25, 2017

John Barclay
Paul and the Gift
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2015
Available at

Reviewed by Tim Foster, Ridley College

John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is the most significant contribution in Pauline theology since E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). That’s a big call given the proliferation of books in the past 40 years amidst the ferocious debate on Pauline theology; not the least being N. T. Wright’s monumental Paul and the Faithfulness of God. What sets Barclay’s work apart is that he offers an approach that may make the debate less polarised and move scholarship beyond the present impasse.  His approach to Paul is fresh, bold and incisive, while his thesis is possessed of rigorous logic, clear methodology and great clarity. The result is a reading of Romans and Galatians which is coherent, consistent and compelling.

The premise of the book is that modern conception of “grace” – as “a gift given without expectation of return” (unreciprocated) is a recent cultural product that is very much at odds with Greco-Roman and Jewish assumptions about gift-giving. In particular, ancient conceptions of gift were never free from the expectation of reciprocation. Not only is Paul’s theology of grace incorrectly read through a modernist lens, but the exegesis of key Pauline texts and the theology that is constructed upon it lacks sufficient nuance to represent him adequately.

Far from being a singular concept assumptions that surround gift-giving are multi-faceted, being understood (or “perfected”) in six different ways:

  • Superabundance – the abundance and/or permanence of the gift;
  • Singularity – the giver is characterised by this trait alone, without any corresponding concern for justice/judgement;
  • Priority – the giver initiates the giving without any prior action on the part of the recipient;
  • Incongruity – the gift bears no relation to the worthiness of the recipient;
  • Efficacy – the gift achieves its purpose;
  • Noncircularity – there is no expectation of reciprocity (69).

Given the range of meanings that can be attached to grace Barclay examines more than a dozen theologians, from Marcion in the second century to Martyn in the twentieth in order to observe which aspects they highlight and why they stress those particular facets. He finds that Luther offers the richest interpretation of grace, perfecting five of the six aspects – superabundance, singularity (to a large extent), priority, incongruity and non-circularity; only efficacy is absent in Luther’s theology. His emphasis on non-circularity is especially significant because it gives Luther’s theology its particular character. As Barclay writes, “Against all possible misunderstandings, Luther insists again and again that these works will result from faith … but he refused to allow that they are integral to faith or to justification lest they become again a necessary means to salvation … Stripped of this conditionality, believers act out of love for God, not from self-concern” (114). As we will see, it is this understanding of grace, the non-circularity of the gift, that Barclay will claim is absent in Pauline theology.

While both Luther and Calvin emphasise the superabundance and incongruence of grace, along with the priority of God in salvation they differ in respect of non-circulatory. As Barclay explains, “Calvin’s task — and considerable achievement — is to position a life of good works within the scheme of salvation, without making these gifts instrumental in obtaining or ‘meriting’ grace, that is, without compromising the priority and incongruity of grace” (124). The purpose of salvation is regeneration (124), therefore Calvin maintains the strong prospect of moral progress (sanctification) (127). Grace “incites” the believers will towards obedience. Thus efficacy of grace a major emphasis, as the Spirit graciously works to bring about sanctification in the believer’s life (129). However, Calvin does not perfect the non-circularity of the gift. Barclay quotes Calvin: “In all covenants of his mercy the Lord requires of his servants in return uprightness and sanctity of life” (Institutes, III.17.5). Importantly for Calvin, “the believers’ return to God, which arises from God’s grace, is never instrumental in acquiring initial or subsequent grace from God. Nonetheless, believers’ active commitment to holiness is a necessary sign of the grace that activates their work” (130). Calvin expects the circulation of love towards the neighbour as part of their return to God.

Since the 1970s the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has challenged the Reformed consensus on Paul, in particular the characterisation of first-century Judaism as a religion of works, as opposed to Pauline Christianity with its emphasis on grace. According to NPP scholars like James Dunn, “works of the Law” were not performed in Judaism to gain divine favour, but were “badges” of belonging to the people of God. The problem with Judaism was not its understanding of grace, but its insistence that believers were marked by circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance and not faith in Christ. Against this Paul insists that faith in Christ and not works of the Law is the marker of being “in” salvation implying that salvation open to all without (ethnic) distinction, and that reconciliation among believers is the major implication of the gospel (cf. Gal 3:21). The “righteousness of God” (Rom 1:17), is not the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer, but God’s own faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant in bringing salvation to all the nations while remaining true to Israel.  According to E. P. Sanders Paul was in agreement with Judaism that “works are the condition of remaining ‘in,’ but they do not earn salvation” (157). This schema highlights the priority (and probably the superabundance) of grace, but its instance that works are necessary for remaining ‘in’ indicates that non-circularity does not figure.

The NPP has caused considerable disquiet among those who see it undermining the Reformers’ emphasis on grace. Barclay explains this angst: “if salvation is ‘by grace alone’… it is not sufficient that it is merely prior: it must be incongruous with the work of the recipient (even at the final judgement) and efficacious in one form or another (through the work of the Spirit) (169. Emphasis added).” However, Barclay makes the vital point in response to this critique that they have assumed “a particular definition of ‘grace’… and little attempt is made to distinguish between the different meanings of the term or (in our terms) the different perfections of this motif” (169). It is here that Barclay’s work offers the possibility of exciting new insight; applying his six perfections of grace to gain a more nuanced understanding of Pauline theology in the hope of moving beyond the simple dichotomies that have developed.

However, before we get to Paul, Barclay examines in detail five Jewish texts from the Second Temple period (530BC to AD70) that reflect on the beneficence of God. What he discovers is that “grace is everywhere in the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same” (565). Surprisingly perhaps, Paul’s answers “stand in close proximity” to these voices, though with his own unique perspective (328). Where Paul is distinctive is not in his belief in a gracious God but in the significance of the “Christ-event,” its implications for Gentile mission and his emphasis on the incongruous nature of the mercy of God.

In his final section, Barclay proceeds to exegete closely Galatians and Romans. He hopes that the preceding 328 pages of work will allow him to do so wary of preconceptions concerning the meaning of grace, and in particular, allow him to dispense with the modern Western notion of grace as “pure” gift that is given with no strings attached. Barclay’s exegesis is scintillating providing a clarity to the structure and argument of these letters that is rare. He is at pains to provide an explanation that gives equal weight to every section and every verse, not sublimating those which do not sit comfortably into his reconstruction of Paul’s argument.  As a result — and this is the real benefit of this whole volume — we are able to see the argument of these letters, the theology of Paul and these important doctrines with far greater precision and nuance than before.

So what did he find concerning grace? In both Galatians and Romans he finds that “Paul figures God’s gift or favour as incongruous with the worth of its recipients.” Paul’s emphasis on the incongruity of God’s gift is seen, for example, where Paul argues,

The righteousness of God is revealed in Christ in the justification of sinners (3:21-26); Christ does not for the good, but for the ungodly (5:6-8). Paul parades not the match but the mismatch between the act of God and the value or condition of its human beneficiaries: divine faithfulness is displayed in human faithlessness (3:1-8), life is created out of human death (4:16-22) (490).

Paul “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’)” (565–566 ). Because everyone without distinction, including the Jews, are unworthy of grace we receive this gift irrespective of worth meaning that it belongs to no one race and is for every person regardless of ethnicity.

If incongruity is radicalised by Paul and the preeminent way he understands grace, what of the other perfections? Barclay argues that grace in Paul is not non-circular. That is, there is an expectation of reciprocity in God’s gift of Christ. “God’s grace is designed to produce obedience, lives that perform, by heart-inscription, the intent of the Law” (492). God intends to transform the human condition as he brings about the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) which is the life created through God’s incongruous gift. God judges sinners according to their obedience that arises out of faith and not their ethnicity. Importantly, Barclay adds, “it is the act of God that produces the necessary human obedience … This power is incongruous in its impact on sinful human material, but its transformative results are finally congruous with the last judgement of God” (467). Moreover, the good work that leads to eternal life “is an act of divine power, an incongruous gift to sinful humanity whose transformative effects will be evident at the judgement” (473).

Some will protest that grace with reciprocity is not grace at all; leaving an approach that is not sufficiently reformed and opens the door to works. However, this is where Barclay’s taxonomy and historical perspective are so useful. His view of Paul is largely at odds with Luther (and also modern notions of gift requiring no reciprocity), but entirely consistent with Calvin’s reading of grace. It is reformed in promoting the priority of grace, its efficacy and, most of all, its incongruity. Where it differs is in respect of singularity and non-circularity, which makes it different to Luther, but not unreformed.

Barclay entertains the hope that his approach might bridge the NPP and Reformed view of Paul providing a basis for some kind of consensus.  My view is that his approach is too similar to that of the NPP (closer than Barclay seems prepared to admit) to form a bridge. His understanding of “works of the law” may be broader than Sanders’s, and his analysis of Second Temple Judaism far more nuanced, but in both of these he remains well inside the NPP camp. His understanding of the righteousness of God as subjective, and his apparent rejection of imputation also place him in the NPP orbit. Like the NPP he interprets Paul against the background of the Gentile mission, and understands the doctrine of justification as being more about the constitution of the people of God than personal salvation. This approach is a considerable step forward overcoming many of the objections that have been levelled at the NPP, and his taxonomy clarifies several aspects of the debate, but it will not be understood as a “third-way” or “bridge” between the various perspectives.

No doubt Paul and the Gift will spawn further debate rather than bring it to any conclusion. Are the six aspects of grace he identifies adequate? Should they be conflated? Are there other aspects he has missed? Are the labels given to the various scholars, Second Temple texts and in particular to Paul the right ones? But such questions will only fine-tune Barclay’s analysis. The central thesis, methodology and framework are likely to survive close scrutiny.

It is not necessary to read every one of the 656 pages of Paul and the Gift. The one hundred page analysis of Second Temple texts can be missed, and the excellent summary chapter read instead. The same could be said for the historical survey – except that he offers such a helpful refresher of historical theology that it is a worthwhile read. Moreover, this is not a dry book of purely academic interest. Pastors and lay people will find a great deal of fresh and accessible material that will stimulate their thinking on key Reformation doctrines and greatly enhance their preaching – especially of the Reformation, Romans and Galatians.

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