Gifts

 John Barclay, professor of New Testament at Durham, has written a reconsideration of grace in Paul. To understand his contribution, two words of background are helpful. First is the seminal work in modern anthropology called The Gift by Marcel Mauss. His argument (in Paul and the Gift) was that pre-modern societies operated on a different basis, one that was in contrast to a modern, commercial self-understanding. In gift societies people of importance enhance their status with their lavish gifts, which in turn place the recipients in their debt. Social relations are not bought and sold, but they are strengthened by generosity and gratitude. In my own ministry, I witnessed an example of the logic of gift in a visit to the Inuit above the Arctic Circle. They lived in a ‘mixed economy.’ They would sell paintings or groceries, but the blubber of a seal or whale was brought to the town hall, where anyone could take out their ullu (small pizza cutter-like knife) and take a piece. The latter was based on an older and different kind of relation

       Secondly, the Christian tradition was strongly influenced by Luther’s reading of Paul, according to which all sense of debt and repayment were to be banished from the concept of grace. For Luther we are in no way able to repay the omnipotent God - such an idea led to the corruptions of the medieval Church. The direction of the divine economy is, for Luther, all downward, from God to us. However there has been a reaction against these ideas in modern scholarship. To the new Pauline scholars, it has seemed too individualist, too derogatory of rabbinic Judaism, too anachronistic. The idea of grace was not unique to Paul, and the real center of the latter’s theology was the relation of Jews and Gentiles rather than justification.

     Along comes Barclay, who offers us a series of distinctions, based on his research into how Hellenistic thinkers of Paul’s era talked about gifts. How might a gift be special, in his term ‘perfect’? how might it be uniquely special as a gift from God Himself? It might, says Barclay, be unique in size (e.g. eternal life) or in attitude (born of pure love) or in timing (preempting all others) or in `incongruity’ (directed to one who seems least deserving) or effectiveness (sure to accomplish its goal) or in ‘non-circularity’ (expecting no return). In other words, when we see ‘free’ or ‘sheer’ grace, Barclay points out that we could be saying a variety of things, if we consider the matter more carefully.

   This all has a considerable cash-out. Thinkers who seem to be contradicting one another, they may simply have been answering different questions or making subtly different points.   Barclay thereby manages to incorporate some of the insights of the ‘new Paul’ while he keeps hold of important aspects of the traditional view. Critics of the Reformation approach are right, Barclay says: Paul shared with his Jewish interlocutors an emphasis on grace. But the emphasis on its priority, and more importantly, on its ‘incongruity’ (toward Gentiles) was indeed unique to God’s work in Christ. And while this does not allow a crude payback response, it doesn’t mean, says Barclay, that the forgiven were not understood to be beholden to God, at least in gratitude and devotion. There could be, in keeping with ways of thinking of the time a certain kind of reciprocity of heart, he claims. When it comes to the recent debates about Paul, Barclay essentially says that all have won and all shall have prizes.

    I think that a scholar who can say something fresh and illuminating on grace and Paul after all these centuries is remarkable! My only question in reply is this: there are, as Barclay says, a variety of ways in which a gift might be perfect. But insofar as God is God, wouldn’t His gift be perfectly perfect? In other words, wouldn’t His gift be unique, and his grace gracious, in every imaginable sense? If this is true, the old debates would reappear, which is what old theological debates have a way of doing.

GRS+

Alfred's Advice

Several weeks ago I subbed in for Dean Michell in his medieval English Church history course at the Stanton Centre. I reread a book by Venerable Bede and crammed with a textbook or two. Within the first five minutes of class I cited the example of St. Aidan, whereupon a woman in the class raised her hand and said, ‘I think it’s St. Cuthbert, actually… .’ I was pleased: I was dealing with a sharp group, and the bar of my competence had been set appropriately low!

My homework reminded me of the importance of the medieval period. Obviously it was of paramount importance to the Anglo-Catholics of our tradition, intent on finding an identity not pinned to the Reformation. It also matters to understand the challenges of war and poverty faced by our Anglican brothers and sisters in the Global South. The great Anglican mission scholar Stephen Neill once commented that the medieval period, and not the early Church, was the better analogy for the challenges faced by these churches.

But it speaks to our cultural situation as well. As I reread the history, it brought to mind, as the most fitting image of their life, the scenes of battle and distress in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies (Tolkien was, after all, a scholar of that period). And to be sure, hordes of Vikings or Danes with broadsword were not about to descend on the diocese. But, increasingly, we do confront, in a manner more subtle but no less real, a secular and postmodern culture no less foreign to the traditional assumptions and spiritual aspirations of traditional Christianity. We, no less than Cuthbert, need to see that our tradition is preserved and passed on. Furthermore, in the later centuries of that period, Christians were trying to make sense of their similarity and difference, and hence their relation to, Islam. We need better answers than those forebears of ours came up with!

The key figure in the ninth century, for the preservation of our faith, was King Alfred, though his territory was sorely diminished in the face of the invaders. Moorman, in his excellent survey of the history of the English Church, points out that the king had a clear and distinct strategy. The survival of the Church required two things: schools and cathedrals (let us expand the latter by saying ‘strong parishes’). Handing the faith on required that it be remembered. And the laity needed a place to see the fullness and coherence of the Christian life, moral, diaconal, theological, sacramental, spiritual and practical. This same question, how the faith can be incubated, so as to be preserved, and propagated, in an era and culture such as ours, is one of the pervasive and insistent questions before us.      

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