- A Thomist Reading of Paul?Response and Reflections
I am enormously grateful to all five of my respondents and to the editor for commissioning this enriching dialogue. I am truly honored to have my work read in such depth and with such generosity by this range of experts, who genuinely advance the discussion that I had hoped to evoke. The theological interpretation of Scripture is as important to me as its historical elucidation, and the interdisciplinary nature of these exchanges is a delight. Since many of these responses represent a distinctively Catholic approach to Paul, I will focus on that dimension of our dialogue. Both the agreement and the push-back in my response spring from my deep appreciation for the thoughtfulness that has gone into this symposium.
A theme running through these essays is appreciation of the way that Paul & the Gift disaggregates meanings and "perfections" of grace, and in particular the distinction I make between incongruity (gift to the unworthy) and non-circularity (gift that expects no return). As Isaac Morales notes, there is a touch of the scholastic distinguo in my method, and if that serves to clarify confusions and to challenge the modern idealization of the "gift with no return," so much the better. I am glad to receive Bradley Gregory's endorsement of my thesis that even gifts to the poor in Second Temple Judaism operated by a kind of circularity, so long as one factors in the promise that the return will come not from the poor themselves, but from God. I would hesitate, however, to put so much weight on the notion of charity as loan to God. Proverbs 19:17 is, I think, unique in using that particular striking metaphor, which could be taken to suggest that God is indebted by our giving and under contractual obligation to make a repayment. Widespread through the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Sirach, etc.) and on through Tobit into the New Testament, one finds the notion [End Page 235] that God will ensure that gifts to the poor are reciprocated, in one form or another, in this life or in the next. This is normally expressed in metaphors of harvest (you will reap what you sow), of return gift (what you give will be given back to you), of pay (there will be reward/wage [misthos] in return for work), or of investment (gifts constitute treasure laid up in heaven). In all cases, God is the overseer and guarantor of this return. But the particular concept of the loan (where one gives directly to God, who is then figured as a debtor, under legal obligation to give us what is owed by right) is rarely, if ever, carried through in our Second Temple or New Testament literature, even where Jesus says that those who give to the least give, in effect, to him (Mark 9:37; Matt 10:40; 25:31–46). In other words, one can have a robust sense of a proper and fitting return that is underwritten by God without the specific metaphor of the loan. But, on the fundamental point, we are fully in agreement: our texts factor God into human systems of gift, and promise divine reciprocity for gifts that are not, or cannot be, reciprocated on a human level (Matt 6:4 and Luke 14:14 are classic cases in the Gospels). And as some of the other essays note, at the deepest level, both John and Paul figure this divine return not merely as "payback," but as the fulfilment of human potential that derives from participation in God's generosity toward the world.
Several of my interlocutors highlight the extent of resonance between my reading of Paul and that offered by Thomas Aquinas, both in his Summa and in his commentaries on Paul. At times, my readers may be a little over-eager to find (or inclined to exaggerate) these resonances, but they certainly include: the transformative power of grace that is designed to turn its unworthy recipients into fitting, congruous children of God; the coinherence of faith and love, by which the trusting receipt of grace finds its necessary expression in recalibrated values and reordered...