- Paul and the Gift by John M. G. Barclay
The publication of John Barclay's Paul and the Gift has already proven to be a major event in Pauline studies. A high-powered panel was promptly organized around the book at the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, and since then it has continued to find an energetic and very positive reception. For many, this creative and clearly written study promises to break through a stubborn gridlock in the field, dating back to E. P. Sanders's publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism forty years ago and opposing the "Old" and "New Perspective." The text certainly represents a major effort to re-center the academic discussion around Paul's theology of grace. To this extent, it is already pushing scholarship toward a different—and I believe—better agenda. This is not, however, to endorse the construction of grace that Barclay advances.
In the author's own estimation, "the reading of Paul offered in this book may be interpreted either as a re-contextualization of the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition, returning the dynamic of the incongruity of grace to its original mission environment where it accompanied the formation of new communities, or as a reconfiguration of the 'new perspective,' placing its best historical and exegetical insights within the frame of Paul's theology of grace" (573). This formulation is helpful yet hides somewhat the extent to which the book remains a hefty Lutheran counterpunch against Sanders—albeit more civil, supple, and clever than the hardline resistance heretofore, but standing within an unambiguous "Augustinian-Lutheran" pedigree. Barclay thus inscribes himself within a selective and revealing history of research dominated by Reformation voices: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, and J. Louis Martyn. Sanders and the New Perspective enter the picture principally as an obstacle for this tradition to overcome.
Barclay keenly appreciates that since "Paul and Palestinian Judaism, it has become problematic to identify 'grace' as a matter of dispute between Paul and any of his fellow Jews" (159). In response, Barclay makes two key moves. First, he differentiates a range of possible positions on grace unrecognized by Sanders's monochrome analysis (i.e., homogenized Jewish "covenantal [End Page 287] nomism" as uniformly a religion of "getting in" by grace), using these variegated perspectives as a grid against which Paul's specificity can better be seen. "Grace is everywhere but not everywhere the same" thus recurs as a major leitmotif of the book. Second, within this variety of perspectives Barclay traces a single, common construal of grace—its radical incongruity, the absolute disconnect between God's gift and the (un)worthiness of the receivers—across two massively divergent social locations: Paul's first-century missionary church and Luther's sixteenth-century, long-Christianized society. This hermeneutical alignment aims implicitly to answer the fundamental New Perspective charge of anachronism, by reinserting Luther's (purportedly fundamentally accurate) take on Paul within its original social frame, namely, the ad extra Gentile mission. In that setting, Barclay contends, the incongruity of God's grace upends the value systems of both Jews and Greeks, thereby forging countercultural, even "dissident" communities. The open connection that Barclay makes between such "innovative" and "boundary-erasing" firstcentury cells and present ecclesial experience "in cultures where what it means to be 'church' has become radically uncertain" (573-74) indicates that, in the end, the project's rendition of grace has a very ambiguous relation to classical (i.e., sacramental, magisterial) forms of Christian existence. It is Lutheran but not Missouri Synod.
In the process of his reappropriation of a particular Lutheran perspective, Barclay is careful to excise one major accretion from the Reformation view: the noncircularity of grace, that is, the modern, Western notion that grace is "pure gift," a no-strings-attached present that escapes the dynamic of an obliged return. This has nothing, in fact, to do with first-century ways of thinking, as he convincingly shows. "Unconditioned but not unconditional" is...