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.