Reflection on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift

Reflection on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift August 19, 2019

I’ve now finished a second reading of John Barclay’s superb volume Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

This is certainly one of the most significant books in Pauline studies, up there with N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and E.P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism as a monumental and must-have book.

The genius of Barclay is that he offers what I take to be a nuanced apocalyptic perspective on Paul that cuts through the dichotomy of Reformed and New Perspective debates, he offers an exegetically rigorous analysis of Galatians and Romans, with compelling theological commentary for the most part.

Barclay’s mini-commentary on Galatians and Romans 9-11 alone is worth five times the price of the book. Plus, along the way Barclay makes some very sober and mostly convincing judgments about things like Paul within Judaism (p. 357 n. 20; 359-60 n. 26; 521 n. 2), the pistis christou debate (pp. 340-41, 476-78), and (less convincing for me but still a worthwhile read) Paul and empire (p. 456 n. 15). There is an analysis of Greco-Roman benefactions, the sociology of gift-giving, second temple Jewish texts, Augustine and Luther, and of course Galatians and Romans. Virtually every page drips with exegetical insight, evidences wide reading, exhibits clarity, rigor, and sound reasoning.

I’ve taken notes from just about every chapter and added them to my research notes on Paul. Statements like: “It matters greatly to Paul that there is a successful mission to Jews. What he desires is not the formation of a Gentile church, independent of Jewish believers, but an interdependent fellowship of Jews and non-Jews in Christ” (pp. 363-64), which would have been a nice supporting quotation for my An Anomalous Jew, chapter 2 about Paul as apostle to Jews and Gentiles. Similarly, Barclay’s discussion of Rom 2:25-29 about how Paul is referring to Christian Gentiles is also compelling (p. 466), and will help a second edition of my Saving Righteousness of God. Or just wonderfully sublime comments: “There is no neutral zone in Paul’s cosmos, no pocket of absolute freedom, no no-man’s land between the two fronts. The gift of God in Jesus Christ has established not liberation from authority, but a new allegiance, a new responsibility, a new ‘slavery’ under the rule of grace” (p. 497). And: “If Paul cannot make sense of what is happening to Israel through the Christ-event, he cannot make sense of history, Scripture, or Christ at all” (p. 523).

Barclay notes that there are different cultural ways of conceiving of gifts and therefore different ways of construing grace in terms of its priority, superabundance, singularity, incongruency (i.e. the worthiness of the recipient), efficacy, and non-circularity. According to Barclay, Paul for the most part emphasizes the incongruency of grace, so that the Christ-event ends or subverts all system of calculating and determine one’s worth before God. In the end, he seems to resonate more with Martyn than Dunn or Wright, but he does not absorb Martyn uncritically (see pp. 360 n. 27, 412 n. 50; 559-60, 413-14, 443-45).

When it comes to Judaism, Barclay points out that grace or divine gifts are never conceived of in a monolithic and uniform fashion, but there are different accounts of how divine grace and beneficence operates towards the nation and individuals within it., i.e. different perfections of grace, so grace is a polyvalent symbol in Judaism.

It is incorrect to say that all Judaism was legalistic (e.g. Bultmann) just as it is incorrect to say that all Judaism was based on a macrostructure of covenantal grace (e.g. Sanders). I enjoyed this because in my Saving Righteousness of God, I pointed to where Philo discusses Deuteronomy 9 and seems to note a debate among Alexandrian Jews as to whether God’s graces are deserved or whether they are in fact undeserved, and Philo clearly favours the latter:

And he who conceives that he was deserving to receive the possession and enjoyment of good things, may be taught to change his opinion by the oracle which says, “You do not enter into this land to possess it because of thy righteousness, or because of the holiness of thy heart; but, in the first place, because of the iniquity of these nations, since God has brought on them the destruction of wickedness; and in the second place that he may establish the covenant which he swore to our fathers.” [Deuteronomy 9:5.] Now by the covenant of God his graces are figuratively meant (nor is it right to offer to him anything that is imperfect), as all the gifts of the uncreated God are complete and entirely perfect, and virtue is a thing complete among existing things, and so is the course of action in accordance with it. (Philo, Sac. 57, which Barclay discusses on p. 228, in fact, Barclay’s discussion of Philo is truly exemplary).

One only has to read Deuteronomy 9, Psalm 51, Ezekiel 16, 1QH, and m.Sanh. 10.1 to see that Judaism was hardly a religion devoid of grace. However, as I’ve argued elsewhere (see “What if Martin Luther Read the Dead Sea Scrolls”) Judaism could be legalistic under three circumstances:

  1. Amidst sectarian debates concerning who’s precise interpretation of the law avails before God.
  2. In relation to eschatology concerning who will and will not enter the eshaton.
  3. Concerning debates about rites of entry for outsiders to become insiders such as Gentile proselytes.

There are different ways of trying to conceive of this soteric diversity in Judaism. Someone would argue that covenantal nomism is a broad category indeed flexible enough to include many different emphases on law, in-group status, and eschatology (B. Longenecker). Some would argue for a variegated nomism with different types of nomistic emphases (D.A. Carson). Other would focus on diverse notions of human agency in salvation (J. Maston). And it is here that Barclay’s notion of perfections of grace offers yet another way of conceiving of the soteric diversity within Judaism and explaining what Paul is arguing against in Galatians and Romans. In other words, everyone believed in grace, but differences pertained to its priority, incongruency, efficacy, and reciprocity (the same is true for Pelagius and Augustine, both believe in grace, but conceive of its operation differently). Barclay regards Sanders’s covenantal nomism as “too flat to be useful” and its “homogeneity” fails to reflect the “diversity and complexity” of the perfections of grace in Judaism (191). Covenantal nomism focuses only on the priority of grace and is therefore “one dimensional” (319). Soteriology in Judaism is “irreducibly diverse” (313). For more on this, people really should read an under-read yet brilliant collection of essays edited by Daniel Gurtner called The World and the World to Come: Soteriology in Early Judaism (2011).

When it comes to Paul, Barclay contends that Paul sees grace perfected principally in terms of how it functions without regard to the worth of the recipient (p. 354).

For me, a highlight is how Barclay combines Paul’s soteriology (justification by grace through faith) with sociology (equality of Jews and Gentiles in the church). Barclay provides a great summary of Paul with these words: “Social practice is, for Paul, the necessary expression of the Christ-gift, and it will now become clear that non-competitive communities, ordered by a new calibration of worth, realize and help define the Christ-event as an unconditioned gift” (p. 425). He notes how “The relationship between ‘theology’ and ‘social practice is mutually constitutive: it is the Christ-event that gives meaning and shape to communal practice, while it is in social practice that the nature of the Christ is, or is not realized … The truth of Paul’s gospel has to be both recognized and enacted – in fact, recognized in its enactment” (p. 429). Similarly, he is able to transcend Reformed vs NPP debates in his sober analysis: “This congruity between divine action and human status is the unifying theme of Paul’s argument [in Romans 4]: it is the theological rationale for the calling of Gentiles, and also the calling of Jews, into the single family of Abraham” (p. 481). Also, Barclay argues that Paul has a view of human reciprocity that is not synergistic but what he calls “energism” (p. 442) so that “God’s grace is designed to produce obedience” (p. 492) and “The divine gift in Christ was unconditioned but it is not unconditional (p. 500) and “The gift is entirely undeserved but strongly obliging: it creates agents who are newly alive, required to live the life they have been given. This obedience is not instrumental … but it is integral to the gift itself, as God wills newly competent agents who express in practice their freedom from sin and slavery to righteousness” (pp. 518-19).

My one question or critique of Barclay would be whether he has reduced Judaism to a system of calculating worth: “Paul is free from human criteria of value” (p. 428); “regnant systems of value” (p. 439); “a critical distance from both Jews and non-Jewish traditions of value” (p. 442); “regime of value” (p. 444); “every system of worth established on other grounds” (445); Judaism as “pre-existing capital” (539); works mentioned in Rom 11 “are not culturally specific” and the inability of works “can hardly be limited by culture or time” (p. 546). In which case, by regarding Judaism as merely a system of calculating worth, are we back to the Barthian/Martyn critique of Judaism as an example of “religion”? Now Barclay explicitly says that Paul vis-à-vis Judaism and Torah is not simply the context for Paul’s discussion of the Christ-event nor merely an illustration of soteriological principles, but part of a particular goal since calling Jews and Gentiles in Christ is the fulfillment of Israel’s calling mercy and thus at the center of Gods redemptive purposes in history (p. 572). Even so, I still think stress falls on Judaism as a soteriological system, not totally unlike a Roman system of benefactions and beneficence, that Paul opposes because it is not the system of the Christ-event.

Otherwise, we look forward to Barclay’s next volume on Paul, and pray that Barclay would do a new ICC volume on Romans!

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