Perfecting Grace

Perfecting Grace September 14, 2015

In his recently-released Paul & the Gift, John Barclay argues that the concept of “grace” is multi-faceted and “susceptible to ‘perfection’ (conceptual extension) in a number of different ways” (6). He takes the notion of “perfection” from Kenneth Burke, who describes it as the inclination to “draw out” a concept to “logical conclusion” and “ultimate reduction,” so as to isolate the concept in its pure form (Barclay, 67-68).

Barclay is working out the Pauline notion of grace under the rubric of anthropological treatments of the gift, and he argues that the notion of “grace” can be perfected in regard to the giver, the gift, or the reception of the gift. He enumerates six “perfections” of grace: superabundance; singularity, the notion that benevolence is the giver’s exclusive attribute; priority, in which the gift of grace is seen as always prior to the initiative of the recipient; incongruity, the notion that a gift is given “without regard to the work of the recipient”; efficacy, which highlights the fact that the gift “fully achieves what it was designed to do”; and non-circularity, the notion that the gift does not demand a response (70-75).

Barclay emphasizes that these perfections do not entail one another: “To perfect one facet of gift-giving does not imply the perfection of any or all of the others” (75). It would, for example, be possible to perfect the priority of grace without perfecting its incongruity; not only possible, but actual, since this is pretty much late medieval soteriology in a nutshell. Yet this non-entailment is often forgotten, and discussions of grace slip from one perfection to another, or assume that perfecting grace in one dimension implies perfection elsewhere. A lack of clarity about these varieties of perfection produces confusion. For those who define grace in terms of one perfection (say, incongruity), a congruent grace is no grace at all. Lack of clarity also means that different conceptions of grace are viewed as differences in emphasis on grace. 

This sixfold typology provides Barclay with a powerful tool to examine conceptions of grace in Christian theology, in contemporary Pauline studies, and in Judaism.

He commends, for instance, that “Pelagius held firmly to the superabundance of divine grace, which was prior to all human activity.” Pelagius emphasizes grace just as much as Augustine. But Augustine defined grace differently, perfecting incongruity. In short, “Augustine did not believe in grace more than Pelagius; he simply believed in it differently” (77).

He argues that confusions about different perfections of grace have dogged Sanders and the New Perspective. When Sanders claims that Judaism was a “religion of grace,” he is claiming essentially that Judaism perfected the priority of grace: One gets in by grace.He also argues that Judaism taught that grace is also incongruous. But then he has some trouble with texts that appear to teach a congruence between grace and worth, apparently operating on the assumption that “if grace were shown to be congruous with the worth of its recipient, it could not be considered grace at all” (155). Sanders appears to think that incongruity is inherent in the notion of the priority of grace, which is not the case (157).

Barclay strikingly argues that for Douglass Campbell grace is only grace if it is perfected in all six registers: “for him, grace is not only superabundant and prior (originating), and not only incongruous (undeserved) and efficacious (God’s agency being all-sufficient), but also singular (God is benevolent and not just) and non-circular (there is no necessary human response, no ‘strings attached’).” This leaves Campbell’s Paul sounding like a cross between Marcion and Luther (173).

Barclay deploys his typology effectively in examining second temple Judaism as well. He argues that characterizing Judaism simply as “a religion of grace” is nearly meaningless unless “grace” is more closely analyzed. All the texts he examines emphasize the “abundance” of grace,” but none perfects non-circularity: Philo for instance “presupposes that God’s gifts are not unilateral; for him, as for others, ‘grace’ elicits thanksgiving, worship, and obedience” (314). For his study of Paul – and for assessing the post-Reformation reception of Paul – his finding that some Jewish writers “stress the incongruity of divine mercy, while others . . . do not” is an important discovery. It would be a mistake to claim that the former have a “purer” idea of grace than the latter; they simply perfect grace differently. What is important, thought, for a study of Paul is the prospect that “the congruity or incongruity of grace was one of several related issues that were debated among Second Temple Jews” (315). In any case, the more nuanced exposition of grace in Judaism undermines any effort to set Paul’s views simply over-against or simply consistent-with Judaism. It is rather a matter of locating Paul on a complex map of options.

I’ve been waiting eagerly for Barclay’s book for some time. I haven’t even gotten to his treatment of Paul, and its already proving to be well worth the wait.

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