Paul and the Power of Grace

Nijay K. Gupta

In 2015, Pauline scholars were eager to read the much-anticipated study by John M. G. Barclay entitled Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans) and it did not disappoint. It quickly became a widely influential study, critiquing both the “New Perspective on Paul” as well as the Reformation perspective on Paul. I continue to hear my colleagues dub Paul and the Gift the most important work on Paul since E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress, 1977). Paul and the Gift was written for scholars and offers academic arguments in favor of Barclay’s “gift perspective” on Paul (which we will explain below). At over 600 pages, though, Paul and the Gift was rather technical for non-specialists. Thus, Barclay has now written a simplified and condensed version called Paul and the Power of Grace. Not only does he cover the same ground, but he adds some further reflections on and responses to some criticisms of his earlier book. Paul and the Power of Grace is about a third of the size of Barclay’s original tome and much easier to consume for pastors and students interested in his discipline-shaping work.

What is Barclay’s “gift perspective”? It’s all about grace. Sanders, over forty years ago, argued that Christian scholarship had largely misjudged Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period. It was common in the early and mid-twentieth century for Christian scholars to label Jewish literature as legalistic and oriented towards works-righteousness. Sanders presented a thorough reexamination proving the opposite—God’s grace was a significant factor. This insight catalyzed the New Perspective on Paul, with N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn, for example, carrying Sanders’s insights into fresh studies of Romans and Galatians.

Barclay desires to reconsider grace language. As he wrote in Paul and the Gift, “Grace is everywhere; but this does not mean it is everywhere the same” (319). What is unique about Paul’s concept of grace? Barclay approaches this through six possible “perfections” of gift-giving. These are distinguishable connotations or nuances of grace: superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, and non-circularity. Today, we sometimes think a true “gift” is one that expects no return (non-circularity). But Barclay shows that we might call someone gracious for other reasons, such as the size of their gift (superabundance). When it comes to Paul, Barclay argues that he focuses on the perfection of incongruity, the idea that God gives gifts and grace to mortals without regard to the worth of the recipient. From there, Barclay develops, what we might call a social economics theology.

The Reformation perspective analyzes Paul’s theology through questions about atonement, imputation, and how salvation “works.” The New Perspective has concentrated on the mission to Gentiles. Barclay’s approach is distinctive. Like the Reformation perspective, Barclay concentrates on the nature of God, but unlike the Reformation perspective Barclay also focuses on the social effects of God’s graciousness. Like the New Perspective, Barclay does not present Christianity as the opposite of Judaism. Unlike the New Perspective, Barclay seeks to connect Pauline sociology more closely to a theology of divine grace. It is hard to sum up Barclay’s “gift perspective,” but he comes close to it towards the end of Paul and the Power of Grace:

Paul’s message of grace was the opposite of [modern Western individualism]: incongruous and circular. The Christ-gift was given to the “ungodly”—in the absence of worth—and it was given to all, without regard to any reconstituted worth of gender, ethnicity, status, or success …. [I]t was given in order to transform the human recipients and to establish a permanent relationship: the recipient of this gift is necessarily expressed in gratitude, obedience, and transformed behavior. This grace is free (unconditioned) but not cheap (without expectations or obligations). Those who have received it are to remain within it, their lives altered by new habits, new dispositions, and new practices of grace. (149)

To aid non-specialist readers, Barclay has divided this short book into thirteen short chapters. After agenda-setting introductory chapters on the nature of gift-giving (ch. 1), his “perfections” approach (ch. 2), and the historical context of Paul and Second Temple Judaism (ch. 3), Barclay gives special attention to Galatians and Romans (chs. 4–9). In ch. 10, he expands his outlook to examine 1–2 Corinthians and Philippians briefly. While one may have hoped for a more balanced and comprehensive coverage of the Pauline canon, it was beneficial to have Barclay’s thoughts on Galatians and Romans, almost like his own running commentary on these texts.

Chapter 11 looks at how the life of the church reflects grace and gift-giving. Barclay then quickly compares his “gift perspective” to major readings in scholarship (i.e., Protestant, Catholic, New Perspective, and “Paul within Judaism” perspectives [ch. 12]). The thirteen chapter wraps up with his concluding thoughts.

I concur with the many Pauline scholars who have found Barclay’s work refreshing and insightful. He has offered a new approach to many of the tired, old debates about the apostle’s theology. One quibble: Barclay seems to pitch his “gift perspective” as an alternative to the New Perspective on Paul. I don’t think it is. I view them as complementary. Barclay’s summary of the New Perspective was a bit reductionistic. If someone read Paul and the Gift alongside Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 2006), I think they would see far more agreement than not. In any case, Paul and the Power of Grace is a must-read book of 2020 and John Barclay has gifted us with a book that will impact a wider audience. For that, we are in his debt!

Posted Jan 20, 2021

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