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Grace deserved is not grace

04 March 2016

Jonathan Linebaugh explores the ‘grammar’ of Paul’s letters


Grace-full correspondent: the Apostle Paul by Rembrandt, c.1657

Grace-full correspondent: the Apostle Paul by Rembrandt, c.1657

“WHO am I?” When Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked this question in a poem from prison, he initially imagined two ways to answer it: am I “what others say about me, or am I only what I myself know of myself?”

If we put Bonhoeffer’s question to the letters in the New Testament associated with the apostle Paul, however, we find that “what others say” and “what I myself know” are not “who I am”. For Paul, the “source of the self” — a phrase I borrow from Charles Taylor — is neither reputation nor résumé; it is relation to the one Paul calls “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 1.3), a reality reflected in the final lines of Bonhoeffer’s poem: “Who am I? They haunt me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

Paul’s letters name believers (and the Church) with reference to their relation to God: “sons and daughters” (Galatians 3.5-7; Romans 8.23); “righteous” (Galatians 2.16-17; Romans 3.24-26; 2 Corinthians 5.21); “holy” (1 Corinthians 1.2); “free” (Galatians 5.1, 13); “at peace” (Romans 5.1); “loved” (1 Thessalonians 1.4). But herein hides a story of Pauline scholarship: the diversity of Paul’s language, and the range of cultural-religious backgrounds from which he seems to draw, have long invited questions about which image, which metaphor, and which background capture the “centre” of Paul’s theology.

The main rivals in this debate have been Paul’s talk of “righteousness by faith”, and of being “in Christ”. (This contrast is perhaps meaningless, since Paul says in Galatians 2.17 that one is “declared righteous in Christ”, but, alas. . .)

Here’s how the conversation has often gone: does the heart of the Pauline gospel lie in the legal imagery evoked by the language of “righteousness”? Or is this metaphor only a “subsidiary crater, which has formed within the rim of the main crater: redemption through being-in-Christ” (Albert Schweitzer in 1930)?

But even this well-known alternative between the “forensic” and “participatory” strands in Paul conceals metaphors that further complicate the matter. Schweitzer, in arguing for the centrality of being-in-Christ, makes reference to “redemption”. But this is another image from another background, in this case the world of slavery — and perhaps to Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.

So what is the centre: the legal language of righteousness (i.e. justification); or the participatory image of being-in-Christ? And doesn’t the further diversity of Paul’s letters force us to keep proliferating the options? The cultural and liberative metaphor of redemption; the legal and familial vocabulary of adoption; the political and military motif of reconciliation; the cultic language of temple sacrifice and atonement? A scholarly stalemate.


A REMINDER from the 18th-century critic Johann Georg Hamann may help to reframe the question: “Theology [is a] grammar of the language of Holy Scripture.” If we ask, not which image, linguistic register, or conceptual background is the governing centre of Paul’s theology, but rather whether he writes all of his diverse words and metaphors according to a common grammar, then the clouds begin to break.

The various vocabularies Paul employs throughout his letters are united in the single apostolic task of preaching “the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1.7). Different vocabulary does not imply a different gospel, for, as Paul seems to shout in Galatians 1.6-9, a “different gospel” is in fact “no gospel”. This, then, gives rise to a new question: what is the grammar of the gospel?

Here’s my (old) answer: the grammar of the gospel is the grammar of grace. In Paul, “grace” is a word written according to well-known grammar: “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11.6; cf. 4.4-5).

Once upon a time, readers of Paul thought it was this grace — this, not works — that defined Pauline Christianity, and distinguished it from the theology and practice of first-century Judaism. But that was before 1977. In that year E. P. Sanders published a comparison of Paul and Palestinian Judaism that sought to “destroy” this old view, and argue that, “on the point at which many have found the decisive contrast between Paul and Judaism — grace and works — Paul is in agreement with Palestinian Judaism.”

For Sanders, both Pauline Christianity and the various forms of Palestinian Judaism were “religions of grace”. But if that’s right (and in one sense it certainly is), then it seems unlikely that this shared understanding of grace can function as the Rosetta Stone that enables readers to decipher the unique grammar of the Pauline gospel.


THAT brings me to 2015. Sanders’s thesis has been discussed for a generation, and his basic claim has been complicated, but basically confirmed: though diverse in terms of thought and practice, the Judaism of the time of Jesus is rightly called a religion of grace. “Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism,” writes John Barclay in Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015), “but” — and here is the crucial point — the language and theology of grace that is “everywhere in Second Temple Judaism” is “not everywhere the same”.

Barclay’s basic contention is that Paul’s talk of grace stands out in a context in which most Jewish and Graeco-Roman authors insist that gifts or divine grace, while free and non-contractual, were good gifts precisely because their recipients were in some sense “worthy” (axios in Greek; dignus in Latin). Gifts were fitting; they matched the (variously defined) worth of their beneficiaries.

As part of this conversation about grace, the antithetical grammar of Romans 11.6 starts to sound distinctively Pauline again: “not on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace”. As Barclay argues, what characterises Paul’s grammar of grace is its consistent and contextually radical incongruity. Grace, for Paul, does not fit; it operates at the point of mismatch between gift and recipient. It is, in a phrase that reverberates through Barclay’s study, “a gift given without regard for worth”.

This is why, for Paul, the grammar of the gospel, as the grammar of this kind of grace, is always “out of the opposite” (as Karl Barth puts it). It is the declaration that the ungodly are righteous (Romans 4.5); it calls into being that which is not (Romans 4.17); and it gives life to the dead (Romans 4.17). Sin, nothingness, and death — these identify the site at which the God of the gospel does his giving. And his gift creates the opposite: salvation, existence, and life.


WHENCE this new definition of grace? The reference to life from the dead (Romans 4.17; cf. 4.24-25) is the Christological clue: Paul is not working with an inherited or contextually common-sense definition of grace. His definition is derived from the gift: “God did not spare his own Son, but gifted him for us” (Romans 8.32); Jesus is “the one who loved me and gifted himself for me” (Galatians 2.20); and it is this specific “grace” — this gift of Christ — that Paul does “not nullify” (Galatians 2.21).

It is this gift that defines grace for Paul, and its incongruity that provides the grammar in which Paul always proclaims the gospel — whatever the vocabulary: those in bondage are set free; the ungodly are declared righteous; slaves are adopted as children; enemies are reconciled; the dead are made alive.

So who am I? Whoever I am, “I” am not the answer to the question. “I no longer live,” says Paul to the Galatians (2.20); but, as he elsewhere confesses, “by grace, I am” (1 Corinthians 15.10).


The Revd Dr. Jonathan A. Linebaugh is Lecturer in New Testament in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. An ordained minister in the Episcopal Church of the USA, his writings include God, Grace, and Righteousness in the Wisdom of Solomon and Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Texts in conversation (Brill, 2013).

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