The Meanings of Grace

Grace is everywhere but not everywhere the same.

With insights from anthropology, leading New Testament scholar John M.G. Barclay explores the different meanings of grace in the world of the New Testament.

This 2013 paper Dr Barclay delivered would feature and be fully expanded two years later in his seminal work Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015) which is heralded by many as the most significant contribution to the study of Paul in the last 40 years. The last paradigm shifting contribution was the famous work of E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress Press, 1977) where he successfully refuted the Protestant notion that Second Temple Judaism, the Judaism of Jesus and the early church’s time, was a religion of works-righteousness as opposed to Paul’s theology of grace. (This caused a revolution in New Testament studies and spawned the New Perspective(s) on Paul.)

Sanders quipped “grace was everywhere” in Second Temple Judaism. Barclay has observed that while this is true, Sanders and subsequent Pauline scholarship has not paid careful attention to what grace is. Applying knowledge from the anthropology of gift, Barclay offers the important corrective that “Sanders is right that grace is everywhere; but this does not mean that grace is everywhere the same” (Paul and the Gift, p. 319). As he mentions there were different “perfections” i.e. idealised definitions of grace or gift, and saying one thing did not necessarily imply the other.

In fact, one may distinguish at least six common perfections of the gift.

(1) In relation to the gift, one may perfect its superabundance in scale or permanence.
(2) In relation to the giver, one might perfect the singularity of benevolence (that the giver is characterized by this, and this alone).
(3) Concerning the manner of giving, the priority of the gift may be perfected, where its timing signals its freedom and generosity.
(4) Regarding the choice of recipient, a perfect gift may be said to bear no relation to the worthiness of its recipient; it is therefore celebrated in its unconditionality or incongruity.
(5) In terms of its effect, one may speak of the efficacy of the gift, its perfect achievement of its ends.
(6) And finally, as Derrida shows, the gift may be considered most “pure” in its non-circularity, its escape from recompense or reciprocation. (Paul and the Gift, p. 69.) (Numbering and emphasis my own.)

The helpful diagram above is from Joshua Washington.

Continuing with our theme of examining key ideas of the Protestant Reformation, being the 500th anniversary year, grace was one of the central contentions of the period. What is so significant about Barclay’s work is that he ably and carefully demonstrates that the idea of a perfect gift being one without any personal interest, obligation, or expectation of return is completely foreign to Paul and the world he belonged to. Though grace is unmerited it is not unconditional. While Barclay does acknowledge and even praise Luther for his deft recontexualisation of grace for his time, particularly his emphasis on the incongruity of the gift which is consistent with Paul and later on Augustine whom he was also influenced by, we must not read back 16th century concerns into a 1st century text. The notion of the non-circular gift is a modern one which we can partially trace back to Luther himself. (Barclay looks at how Paul and Luther recontextualised grace and how it can be done for the challenges of the 21st century which you can find here.)

In the New Testament the great gift of God is Christ. In Paul there are five perfections of grace (excluding non-circularity) but the centre piece is the incongruity of the gift. This is something he saw in his own calling and his Gentile mission, that God gave the gift of Christ to those who were hopelessly unworthy, like him a former enemy and persecutor of Christ. Indeed, Barclay’s contribution is a significant one so as we read the New Testament and talk about grace we need to carefully pay attention to these nuances.

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