There are some good books in Biblical studies that most folks just aren’t going to read. Fortunately, more scholars are choosing to write shorter versions of their more extensive, academic work for a wider audience. Such is the case with John Barclay’s important and influential book Paul and the Gift. He has recently written a condensed version called Paul and the Power of Grace. I want to share with you some of the big ideas from this book for your consideration.
The first thing to note is this: gift and grace are the same word (charis) in the common Greek of the New Testament era. There isn’t anything special at all about the word grace. It, in and of itself, is not amazing. It’s not special. Grace / gift is can be any common favor or benefit given.
This isn’t the way that we normally talk about grace, is it?
Further challenging our loaded understanding of the word grace is that for the most part, in the ancient world, gifts were given to recipients judged worthy of the gift.
In Christian theology, however, grace came to take on a certain strong additional meaning. This is more in line with our common understanding today. We think of grace as given to utterly unworthy recipients (the opposite of what we deserve.)
Grace, it would seem, is a rather simple term – gift – that can take on a whole potential range of meaning.
In his writing, Barclay explores six major potential modifiers to the basic concept of grace/gift. Again, none of these are part and parcel of grace. These six aspects he terms ‘perfections’. They are ways that people have sought to modify grace to make it ‘the perfect gift.’ And different writers, including Paul, may choose to highlight some of them and not others. They are NOT a package deal.
Let’s take a quick look at them.
- Superabundance – perfected in scale, significance, or duration: it is huge, lavish, unceasing, long-lasting, etc.
- Singularity – here attention shifts from the gift to the giver and by singularity I mean that benevolence or goodness is the giver’s sole or exclusive mode of operation. What matters is the singular devotion of this given to do nothing other than what is beneficial. (never judging, destroying, etc.)
- Priority – concerns the timing of the gift, which is given before any initiative taken by the recipient. The prior gift is not a response to a request, and is thus spontaneous in generosity; it is not obliged by a previous gift, and is thus (in this sense) ‘free.’ God is the first giver.
- Incongruity – concerns the relationship between the giver and the recipient, and maximizes the mismatch between the gift and the worth or merit of its recipient. To give lavishly and in advance is one thing, but it is quite another to give to unworthy or unfitting recipients. The perfection of incongruity figures the gift as given without condition, without regard to the worth of the recipient.
- Efficacy – Gifts that achieve something, that change things for the better, might be regarded as better than gifts with limited positive effect.
- Non-circularity – a gift with no expectation of return. Western modernity is inclined to perfect the gift as ‘pure’ only when there is no reciprocity, no return or exchange.
In his books, Barclay takes us on a journey through several different writings from the time period to show how grace is used. These include the Wisdom of Solomon, Philo of Alexandria, The Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls), and 4 Ezra.
Each of these texts talk about grace, but they all highlight different aspects. Sometimes it is given only to the worthy, sometimes superabundance is highlighted. But these texts don’t use gift/grace in the same way.
Here’s the point Barclay makes: “We may conclude: grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same.” pg. 36
So, as we approach Paul’s writings, we should put aside all of our assumptions about the way we think grace ought to work and look with fresh eyes at what Paul actually says about God’s grace. Which aspects (perfections) does he highlight?
Barclay focuses primarily on Paul’s Letters to the Galatians and Romans, but includes other New Testament letters briefly as well.
Allow me to share one quote from his reflection on each of these two letters. I will trust that you can go back through these Scriptures and see whether or not his assessment of Paul bears out in your reading.
“As depicted in this letter (Galatians), the grace of God is unconditioned (without prior considerations of worth) but not unconditional, if we mean by that the noncircular perfection of grace that expects nothing in return. Grace, for Paul, is not a gift from a disengaged benefactor who would rather be left alone; it is not a donation ‘with no strings attached’ To the contrary: personal and social practice aligned with the good news is integral to what Paul means by ‘faith’ or ‘trust.’” pg. 73.
Already here, Barclay is showing that one of the ways we often think of grace (given to those who are unworthy / apart from the worthiness of the recipient) while simultaneously challenging another of our assumptions – ‘no strings attached.’
Barclay is bold in asserting that the concept of a pure gift involving no expectation at all from the recipient (no strings attached) is a modern Western notion that would have been foreign to most the ancient world. The general cultural expectation is that gift given would draw one further into relationship as part of the expectation of the gift.
Regarding Romans, he says this: “If Galatians stresses the value of God’s grace irrespective of worth, Romans clarifies that it operates in the absence of worth: it is given to “the ungodly” (4:5; 5:6), to those who are utterly unworthy.” pg. 76
So, in Paul’s thinking and writing, God’s grace/gift is given apart from worth and indeed in the total absence of worth (to the sinner, ungodly, etc), but God very much expects it to have an effect in the lives of its recipients.
“The purpose of this grace is to remake it’s recipients, to transform them as they draw new life out of a reality that is not their own but in which they share. By this gift, always undeserved, they are molded into a holiness that accords with the will and character of God, such that the unfitting gift is designed to create a fitting outcome.” pg. 78
In short, a transformed life , Barclay claims (from Paul), isn’t an extra thing, but rather the result of the gift of God’s grace having been received.
I will end this longer than usual post with two longer than usual quotes that summarize his findings.
“This gift of God is, and remains always, incongruous – a gift created out of human nothingness and received in trust. But it is designed to produce obedient lives that, by a transformative heart-inscription performed by the Spirit, produce what is pleasing to God. This grace justifies the ungodly but it’s purpose is not to leave them that way. In this sense, the grace of God is unconditioned (given in the absence of merit or worth) but not unconditional, if by that we mean without expectation of alteration in the recipients by the gift. It is free in the sense that it is without prior conditions; and it remains always a miraculous, unconditioned gift, forged out of human incapacity. But it is not free (or ‘cheap’) in the sense that it expects no transformative result. Viewed in this way, we can understand why the opening chapters of Romans emphasize both the grace given without regard to works (Romans 4:1-5) and the expectation that those who have been transformed by the gift will have something to show for it on the day of judgement, something described in outline as ‘doing the good’ (Romans 2:10)”
“Across Paul’s letters we have found grace to be defined consistently as an incongruous gift. It is given ‘freely’ in the sense that it is given without prior conditions and without regard to worth or capacity. But that does not mean that it comes with no expectations of return, no hope for a response, no ‘strings attached.’ A gift may be’ free’ in one sense (given irrespective of worth or desert) but not in another (with no expectation of response). In fact, as we have seen, the Christ-gift carries strong expectations because it is transformative: it remolds the self and recreates the community of believers. The social effects of this divine gift in human gift-practices are, therefore, a necessary component of grace. But these effects are not instrumental in winning some final or additional gift of grace, but they are the necessary (inevitable and proper) expression of grace in human lives.” pg. 125
My motivation for this post is two fold. First, I really do think that we need to be aware of Barclay’s work (almost every New Testament scholar I’m aware of has said so), whether we agree in full, part or not at all. Second, I happen to find his argument compelling and helpful in understanding that God’s expectation of the transformed lives of his people as his intention in Christ.
What are your thoughts? What further questions do you have?