In Romans and Galatians, Paul does not correct views about the merit of one’s works as much as he challenges the measure of one’s worth.
This conclusion stems from John Barclay’s recent work Paul and the Gift (which I introduced in part 1 of the series). This post begins to explain Barclay’s distinction and the difference it makes for our message and mission.
He forces us to rethink why the Bible contrasts grace and works. Works are not attempts to “earn” salvation (like a “wage”); instead, they are social symbols of worth.
1. Paul opposes the worth of our works
“We can’t earn salvation.”
This is the basic message many of us are taught (or teach), especially when talking about Romans or theological topics like justification and salvation. Even though this statement is true, it’s simply not a major idea in Paul’s thinking (if it actually ever existed at all).
Barclay helpfully navigates a way between the so-called “Old Perspective on Paul” (OPP) and the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). Whereas traditionalists think Paul rebuts Jewish moralism, the latter claim that Paul criticizes Jewish ethnocentrism.
Barclay rightly introduces a third category –– worth. He writes
Thus, the problem was not simply about doing or not doing moral works. What makes works problematic is when they become the basis of one’s worth. Stated this way, we get a greater view of “works.” Someone can regard “works” as ethnic markers (the NPP) or as moral achievements (OPP); yet whatever nuance one uses, the key issue is still worth.
In declaring that God counts worth (“righteousness”) by reference to Torah-observance but to faith in Christ, Paul subverts the normative authority of the Torah, which no longer shape (“enslave”) the common life of believers. . . . Torah––like every other pre-constituted norm––has been dethroned as a criterion of worth by the unconditional gift of Christ. (567–68)
2. Paul opposes the measure of our merit
It’s not exactly correct to say that Paul’s Jewish opponents sought to “merit” salvation via good works. That emphasis still draws more from the thinking opposed during the Reformation. So, what is his goal?
Paul challenges the measure that people used to assess their worth.
In Barclay’s words,
Since ethnicity, status, and gender are no longer criteria of superior worth (Gal 3:28), and since God pays not regard to the “face” (Gal 2:6) but distributes his grace without regard for the worth, the normal grounds for competition have lost their significance. The assembly of believers forms a new community of opinion, constituted by the gift to the unworthy. Within this community arises, of course, an alternative system of worth, a new form of “social capital” . . . . (435)
What precisely is that “social capital” will be explored more in a coming post.
Every community uses various measures to estimate a person’s relative value or honor within God’s people. That measure could be individualistic (i.e. based on personal achievements and failures) or communal (i.e. based on one’s group identity or position).
The OPP tends to reduce Paul’s concern merely to individualistic works righteousness. The NPP veers more towards a collectivistic orientation. Barclay goes deeper by looking at how “works” and “grace” functioned (regardless of the nuance given to works).