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(Some of) you should read John Barclay’s new book

I’m hesitant to recommend many books published in the field of New Testament studies as must-reads for people outside the field. Recent NT scholarship has a penchant for books that are long and intramural, on the one hand, or narrowly focused and technical, on the other. So be it; this is probably necessary, but these tendencies result in relatively few books that repay the effort for those outside the guild. John Barclay’s latest, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2015, $75.00 [or 50% less than a book from Brill]) manages to be a sterling exception, even though it features a lively engagement with Pauline scholarship and, at 600+ pages — some of it technical — is not beach reading.[1] In what follows, I offer less a review than a recommendation, hopefully scanning just enough of the argument to whet the appetite.

Paul and the Gift is, as the title suggests, a book on grace. This itself is worthy of notice, since Barclay is stepping into a remarkable lacuna in Pauline scholarship. One can think of dozens of major works on Paul and just about anything — the law, justification, covenant, ethics, his use of Scripture, rhetoric, his milieu — but as it concerns the theme of “grace,” the cupboard is surprisingly bare. The reasons for the gap are unclear to me, but perhaps it is this simple: we “know” what grace is, yet scholarship is drawn to controversy. Now Barclay asks that we not presume to know so much about grace before we get started. The sort of meta-thesis of the book is that theological discourse, including biblical studies, uses the word “grace” as a bucket for anything it will hold, and only too late do we learn that we were using the same word to talk about different things.

Barclay’s starting place is not the de rigueur survey of Jewish sources to detect Paul’s theological inheritance, but rather cultural anthropology, specifically, a classic study on the social function of “gift” in ancient society by Marcel Mauss. Gift, according to Mauss and now Barclay, is a voluntary beneficence, to be sure, but not necessarily with no-strings-attached or designated for the undeserving, as we are wont to think when gift is affixed with the theological descriptor “grace.” Gift, broadly conceived, yields a variety of fruits: loyalty, gratitude, social cohesion, and even sometimes responses in kind, depending on the beneficiaries. Such responses are neither required nor quite optional, but rather the desired and expected response, yet no less free for that. Thus, in default, non-theological mode, “gift” naturally seeks worthiness, that is, a receptive and productive employment of the gift. And Barclay shows that the worthy recipient and reciprocity are basic to virtually any ancient intuition about gift.

I’ve probably tempted you to guess or assume where this might be going, but it is important that we not get there faster than Barclay lets us. The argument of the book largely pivots on his next move: Barclay proposes that gift (i.e., grace) is capable not of one but of several various “perfections;” that is, there is not one but, in fact, six possible “perfections” such that gift might be most gift-like or grace its most gracious.

  1. superabundance: the supreme scale, lavishness, or permanence of the gift;
  2. singularity: the attitude of the giver as marked solely and purely by benevolence;
  3. priority: the timing of the gift before the recipient’s initiative;
  4. incongruity: the distribution of the gift without regard to the worth of the recipient;
  5. efficacy: the impact of the gift accomplishes that for which it was designed, whether engendering gratitude and fealty or enabling response.
  6. noncircularity: the escape of the gift from an ongoing cycle of reciprocity.[2]

Tempting though it is, I’ll not try to unpack these and hope instead that some of the blog readers will engage Barclay directly in greater detail. However arrived at, it is not hard to see the point of these kinds of distinctions. Barclay is pressing us to describe rather than to presume what is meant when someone speaks, say, of “pure” or “sheer” or “unconditioned” grace — that the adjectives are ambiguous but not necessarily otiose. To demonstrate the utility of the scheme, Barclay surveys the reception-history of Paul in Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, J.L. Martyn, E.P. Sanders, the “new perspective on Paul,” and even Alain Badiou. Convincingly (although I imagine more expert readers will have quibbles), he shows that all of these read Paul as an Apostle of Grace but that they differ, sometimes profoundly, precisely because they presuppose different “perfections” of grace. So, for example, in theological speak, we could say that grace could be, say, prevenient (iii) but still not irresistible (v), or a gift to the unworthy (iv) but not therefore non-reciprocal (vi), and so on. Plenty of toes to step on.

This heuristic in place, Barclay goes on to survey a very diverse (Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, Qumran, Pseudo-Philo, 4 Ezra) sampling of Second Temple Jewish literature, once again proving the utility of his “perfections” scheme. Of all the books’ chapters, non-specialists might be most inclined to skip these, but the concluding chapter is a must-read. Here Barclay shows that ambiguous presumptions about “grace” have afflicted the mainstream conversation around Second Temple “soteriology.” In particular, Barclay shows that Sanders, who famously championed Judaism of the Second Temple as “a religion of grace,” was not wrong but imprecise, frequently confusing the priority of grace with a presumed incongruity, smuggling in one perfection of grace under the cover of another.

If 330 pages of prolegomena before we finally get to Paul seems excessive, I can only say that the argument is admirably concise and perfectly clear and that the stimulating insights therein are already worth the price of admission. But we do get to Paul finally, in the form of exegetical surveys of Galatians and Romans under the figure of grace (a sequel is forecasted, dealing with the remainder of the Pauline corpus). And by situating Paul with respect to grace, these final 250 pages are not only rich with exegetical insight, perhaps more significantly, they manage to untie various Gordian knots, transcending well-known impasses. Thus, “by the grace of Jesus Christ,” Barclay negotiates a notorious set of interpretive cruxes — “works of the law,” the “faith of Christ,” salvation history vs. apocalypticism, law and freedom, Israel and election, and so on — with nuance and enviable skill. Somehow he manages creativity and sure-footedness in equal measure. Creative “readings” of Paul are a dime a dozen, equally inexpensive and unpersuasive, Paul being an opportunity for self-expression, a scourge, or a proxy for either. But Barclay’s creativity is disciplined, usually persuasive, and always stimulating, having no stock in novelty for its own sake. The highest commendation I can offer for this section of the book is that I plan to re-read it soon to see what I missed the first time.

Again, I hope that some readers of Covenant will become readers of Barclay, so I will resist all but one heartening plot spoiler, perhaps already telegraphed above. It will perhaps not be surprising — though it could be revolutionary — that the Apostle of Grace heralds a divine gift in Jesus Christ that is apocalyptic because radically incongruous, super-abundant but not singular, unconditioned but not unconditional. This is, thus, an accidentally ecumenical Paul, whom Catholics and Protestants should both immediately recognize but the rendering of whom neither can claim. Moreover, this is a Paul whom for the Church to read is to “reveal her unity.”

Garwood Anderson’s other posts may be found here

[1] John Barclay is the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University.

[2] Barclay, Paul and the Gift, pp. 185-86, summarizing pp. 66-78.


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