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‘Perfections’ of grace in Paul

20 January 2017

James Carleton Paget on a re-evaluation of a prominent theme


Paul and the Gift
John M. G. Barclay
Eerdmans £58.99
Church Times Bookshop £53.10



SCHOLARLY study of St Paul is an over-inhabited area. Pioneering books are rare. It comes as a shock to pick up a book that has innovative things to say about an old subject.

John Barclay’s book examines Paul’s language of gift (what is generally known as grace). His central claim, enriched by philosophical and anthropological interpretation of the concept, together with an investigation of understandings of gift in the ancient world, pagan and, especially Jewish, is that gift-giving in antiquity was never separated from the human relationships in which it took place.

Against modern notions of altruism (the pure gift that assumes no return), benefits were intended to foster mutuality, by creating or maintaining social bonds. “This expectation of reciprocity with its (non-legal) obligation . . . created cyclical patterns of gift-and-return, even where there were large differentials of power between giver and recipient.”

Against this background, Barclay differentiates between six different “perfections” of gift (the drawing out of a concept to its endpoint). These are superabundance (the ever-flowing nature of the gift), singularity (that the giver is characterised by this and this alone), priority (the initiative is taken exclusively by the giver), incongruity (the gift is given without regard to the worthiness of its recipient), efficacy (the gift or giver achieves his or its end), and non-circularity (the gift requires nothing in return).

Barclay shows how different Christian theologians used gift with a particular emphasis on one or more of these perfections. He is critical of some New Testament scholars who have understood either one of these perfections in particular, or a mix of them, without making it clear which is or are in view — a mistake that has led, in the traditional Protestant view, to using a definition of grace derived from Paul as the yardstick by which to evaluate Jewish theologies; or in another version, to concluding that Paul and Judaism both have grace, and so both understand them in the same way.

Barclay examines the divine gift in ancient Judaism, arguing that grace is everywhere, but is not the same. Philo, for instance, operates with a notion of the superabundance of grace, but a developed sense that it is given to those who are worthy and fitting, though such a state of affairs is not a cause of grace but a condition.

Others proclaim, like Philo, the superabundance of grace, but emphasise its incongruity. Through an appreciation of the diversity of understandings of the divine gift in ancient Judaism, “it becomes senseless to ask whether Paul represents ‘real’ grace, as opposed to its diluted forms in Judaism.”

Barclay then moves on to Paul’s understanding of the gift in Galatians and Romans. He emphasises the shocking incongruity of Paul’s understanding: grace, in Paul’s view, bound up with the self-giving act of Christ in crucifixion and resurrection, comes without reference to the worth of the individual who receives it, and leads to a complete transformation of previous ideas of social status and value, seen in the nature of the communities that Paul founds, where newness of life, derived from Christ, is experienced in new social relations and in the transformations of individuals.

Grace in Paul is also predicated on priority and superabundance, but it is not non-circular; for the recipient of God’s grace is expected to be obedient: there will be judgement at the endtime. Barclay denies that Paul’s understanding of grace is efficacious, i.e. that it effects God-driven change in the individual, in the way St Augustine assumed, though it is potentially transformative. The gift is incongruent, but it requires a response.

Barclay explores the different ways in which this reconfiguration affects Paul’s understanding of Israel and the Torah. While these concepts have been radically transformed, Paul is not engaged in a critique of them, as traditional Protestant readings claim. “Paul is neither anti-Jewish or post-Jewish, but his configuration of the grace of God in Christ alters his Jewish identity and makes him question his former allegiance to the Torah.”

This is a sophisticated book, which operates along a number of interrelated planes, biblical, theological, and philosophical. It reflects modern Pauline study, especially the so-called new perspective, with its emphasis on the continuing importance of Paul’s Jewish heritage for his theology; but it also emerges from a critical appreciation of earlier Christian understandings of Paul (e.g. Augustine’s and Luther’s), which the new perspective often dismisses. Barclay attempts to move beyond these dichotomies.

Questions emerge. In what does the incongruous gift consist, i.e. how does it relate to Christ’s death and resurrection? Could we not argue for the view, contra Barclay, that, on account of his own radical view of the gift, Paul did engage in a substantive critique of his former religious affiliations (see Rom. 4.3-4)? Here the fact of diverse versions of grace in Judaism is not relevant, but, rather, the way in which some forms of that understanding of grace might have looked in the light of the Christ-event.

Much more could be said, but the final note must be one of admiration and gratitude for a fascinating and stimulating book.


Dr James Carleton Paget is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Tutor of Peterhouse.


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