Book Review – Barclay, J.M.G., Paul and the Gift

Book Barclay Paul and the Gift“Gift” denotes the sphere of voluntary, personal relations, characterized by goodwill in the giving of benefit or favor, and eliciting some form of reciprocal return that is both voluntary and necessary for the continuation of the relationship. (575)

There is certainly a lot of hype given to this book. Some say it’s the most significant book on Paul written in the last twenty years. Which is quite the compliment and why I felt I had to give it some priority on my read-review list.

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 672
  • Difficulty: Heavy-Academic
  • Topic: Topical, Grace
  • Audience: Educated Christians
  • Published: 2015

In this book John Barclay develops a taxonomy for reading and understanding grace. He then applies this taxonomy to the reading of Paul’s theology, with respect to Second Temple Judaism and other significant Pauline thinkers across history.

Paul and the Gift centers on divine gift-giving, which for Paul, is focused and fulfilled in the gift of the Christ event. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

His readings of Paul concentrate on Galatians and Romans, where he presents detailed, eirenic and critical discussion of Paul.

In his own words,

What lies before you is a reconsideration of “grace” within the anthropology and history of gift, a study of Jewish construals of divine beneficence in the Second Temple period, and, within that context, a new appraisal of Paul’s theology of the Christ-event as gift, as it comes to expression in Galatians and Romans. (4)

This post is one of my book reviews.



Main points

I. The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace

1. The Anthropology and History of the Gift

Barclay tracks several philosophical viewpoints of gifts from ancient Greco-Roman times, Aristotle, Seneca, Judaism through to the Renaissance (including a brief treatment of the reformers), the philosopher’s Immanuel Kant and Derrida, then to modern times.

Thus, for our further study we should note: 1. It may be helpful to work with a broad definition of “gifts,” including favors, benefactions [donation or gift], and services [action of helping or doing work for someone] of many kinds. (22)

Barclay is right. His definition is broad. Almost any well meaning action from one party to another could be perceived to be a gift.

I realise word searches on ‘grace’ and ‘gift’ would be too limiting, but he should have developed a well defined method of distinguishing gifts from other actions. This actually gives him room to define actions under the rubric of gift that may not necessarily be a gift, and ignore other actions as a gift that may legitimately be a gift.

What distinguishes the sphere of gift is not that it is “unilateral,” but that it expresses a social bond, a mutual recognition of the value of the person. It is filled with sentiment because it invites a personal, enduring, and reciprocal relationship. (31)

Gifts are given in the context of a relationship. Relationships have a beginning, a period of existence and perhaps an ending.

Barclay says here gifts are used to invite and therefore create relationships. For later reference I think he should have made a distinction between gifts given to initiate a relationship and gifts given during a relationship.

He begins to identify a common pattern or set of factors associated with gift giving but observed different cultures have overridden earlier understandings.

As we saw from the anthropology of the gift and from the Greco-Roman evidence, the traditional role of the gift in creating and reproducing social ties entails that gifts create obligations and expect returns, mixing disinterest and self-interest in ways that confound modern categories. But the ideal of a pure “altruism” (a term created in nineteenth-century France) necessitates the suppression of these traditional elements. (59)

This opening chapter is foundational to the ways gifts were understood and used.

Regarding Judaism he says giving alms to the poor and expecting a reward from God fits the pattern of a gift. This is different from other gifts in that more than two parties are involved in the event. The giver gives to the poor and expects no return from them, rather from God. I’m not sure he recognises the prior action of God in establishing the covenant which promotes thankfulness on behalf of the giver who gives the gift.

2. The Perfections of Gift/Grace

In this chapter Barclay defines a multifaceted taxonomy of ways grace can be defined. He calls them perfections. I’ve drawn this table to distinguish between them and explain what they are.

Giver Gift Receiver Response
Singularity (motive, spirit), Superabundance (value),

Priority (timing)

Incongruity (worth), Efficacy (effect),

Non-Circularity (expectation of return)

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

In relation to the gift, one may perfect its superabundance in scale or permanence.

In relation to the giver, one might perfect the singularity of benevolence (that the giver is characterized by this, and this alone).

Concerning the manner of giving, the priority of the gift may be perfected, where its timing signals its freedom and generosity.

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.

In terms of its effect, one may speak of the efficacy of the gift, its perfect achievement of its ends.

And finally, as Derrida shows, the gift may be considered most “pure” in its non-circularity, its escape from recompense or reciprocation. (69)

Grace is deeply important to Christian theology and it is hard to be a disinterested interpreter.

Barclay helpfully explains disagreement about grace can be linked to people focusing on one of more perfections while neglecting others.

People can understand grace differently. Taking one perfection to its extreme can also hinder understanding others.

Equipped with the taxonomy developed here, we aim to identify how and why different interpreters of Paul have read his theology of grace in strikingly different ways. By examining the shifting pattern of perfections over time, we will attempt to locate such differences as historical constructs within their original contexts, while tracing their impact on recent readings of Paul and of Judaism. We will thereby also become more self-conscious regarding our own reading of Paul and of his ancient Jewish context. (77)

Barclay will be using these perfections throughout his book. It would be good to get a basic understanding of them now for the rest of the review.

3. Interpreting Paul on Grace: Shifting Patterns of Perfection

Barclay does an overview of significant theologies of grace from the early church onwards. In particular with Augustine, Luther and Calvin, he looks at their theologies surrounding salvation, justification, works of law and sin.

Here is a table with some of the people he has evaluated and the perfections he thinks they display.

Singularity Super-abundance Priority Incongruity Efficacy Non-Circularity
Augustine Priority Incongruity Efficacy
Luther Singularity Super-abundance Priority Permanent Incongruity
Calvin Super-abundance Priority Incongruity Efficacy
Barth Incongruity Efficacy
Sanders Priority
Campbell Singularity Super-abundance Priority Incongruity Efficacy Non-Circularity

I increasingly suspect Barclays understanding of grace in Paul is limited to and defined by Paul’s soteriology.

If this is the case Barclay neglects Paul’s understanding of gifts outside the realm of soteriology. E.g. vocational gifts and his letters introductions.

I’m sympathetic to the New Perspective on Paul and I’ve read and written a review of Sanders’, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. So I’ve written a topic (Barclay, Paul and the Gift vs. (New Perspective) Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism) specifically addressing Barclays portrayal of him.

Barclay does not spend much time with Sanders’ treatment of Paul. Rather he spends most of his time looking at his treatment of Palestinian Judaism. He tries to argue that when Sanders identified the priority of grace in Judaism he believed it also entailed other perfections with it. In particular incongruity.

Barclay finishes the long section reflecting on the results of his findings.

Our analytical work in chapters 1 and 2 allows us to clarify the different assumptions at work in this scholarly maelstrom and to understand what is going on in straightforward terms:

different scholars are assuming different perfections of grace.

The resulting controversies are partly, but not only, due to assumptions inherited from the Reformation. More profoundly, they result from a lack of analytical clarity concerning grace, the most significant concept in this whole post-Sanders debate. (174)

4. Summary and Conclusions to Part I

Barclay summarises in three main sets of points what he has covered so far. The ancient practice and philosophy underlying gifts, his six perfections of grace and his survey of what people have said about grace when interpreting Paul.

II. Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism

Barclay chooses five texts to represent different voices of second temple Judaism. He does compare his findings against Sanders’, but later on he continues using them to compare and contrast Paul’s understanding of grace.

Bear in mind second temple Jewish texts have a range of interpretations among scholars. Barclay is one interpreter among many.

I’ve put all on my discussion on part II (sections 5-9) in the topical post ‘Barclay, Paul and the Gift vs. (New Perspective) Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism‘ mentioned above.

10. The Diverse Dynamics of Grace in Second Temple Judaism

Barclays opens up this section with this statement;

I will first summarize the main findings from each chapter (10.1), before noting the different kinds of diversity involved and the intra-Jewish debates in which these texts are engaged (10.2). This will allow us to identify how and why we have moved beyond Sanders’s “covenantal nomism,” the analytical frame that has dominated the last forty years of scholarship on the soteriology of Second Temple Judaism (10.3). (309)

Barclays readings are in part intended to ‘move beyond’ the arguments surrounding Sanders’ ‘covenantal nomism’. In this chapter Barclay finds shortfalls in Sanders pattern of ‘covenantal nomism’ and the arguments about grace and ‘works-righteousness’ against him. Barclays primary argument is that they are confused about grace.

About Sanders he says;

Yet Sanders’s analysis of soteriology as stages in a sequence (first “getting in,” then “staying in”) meant that his focus rested on the priority of grace: grace precedes and grounds the subsequent demand for Torah-obedience, which is a means of staying in the covenant, not of earning or achieving salvation. Because priority constitutes the defining characteristic of “covenantal nomism,” Sanders found this pattern of salvation to be everywhere the same. (318)

To Sanders opponents he says;

We should resist the assumption that grace is by definition incongruous, and that the concept has become “diluted” or “corrupted” when it is not perfected in this form. That assumption is built into modern dictionary definitions of “grace” for historical reasons: it has become integral to Christian views of grace at least since Augustine, under inspiration from Paul. But incongruity is only one possible perfection of grace, and not necessarily present whenever grace-language is employed. (319)

As mentioned previously, see my topical post on Barclays treatment of Sanders.

What is for sure, is that he read these texts much differently to Sanders and the majority of contributors in JVN. Throughout his readings I found he ignored the theme of covenant, it’s significance for how people relate with God and instead focussed on the perfection of incongruity.

In light of these five second temple Jewish texts Barclay introduces Paul. Focussing on Romans 9-11 he shows some similarities between Paul’s understanding of grace and theirs. He does this to introduce is to the next two sections.

III. Galatians: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Worth

11. Configuring Galatians

Barclay gives a brief introduction to Galatians commenting on some aspects of the letter which refer to gifts. He says the gift of God is the Christ event.

He gives a brief survey of the readings of Luther, Dunn, Martyn and Kahl. He intends to use them as dialogue partners during his own reading.

We are forced to ask ourselves again what Galatians is truly about, with specific interest in how the divine gift in Christ structures the theology of the whole.

Was Luther right to conclude that Paul here perfects the incongruity of grace, and if so, did he draw from this the right deductions?

Is Dunn correct in making ethnic division the focal point of the letter, and has he identified a way to connect Paul’s resistance to Gentile “judaizing” with the impact of the gift of Christ?

What does Paul imply by the polarity between God and humans, and is Martyn right to make agency and “line of movement” the central issue of the letter?

How does Paul shape a communal ethos in this letter, and has Kahl correctly grasped its social and political dimensions? In what follows I will argue that Paul’s theology in Galatians is significantly shaped by his conviction, and experience, of the Christ-gift, as the definitive act of divine beneficence, given without regard to worth. (349)

12. The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Norms (Galatians 1–2)

Note: Generally I’ll be spending more time in his exegetical sections.

In this chapter Barclay comments on these following passages Gal 1.1-5; 6-12; 13-24; 2.1-10; 11-21; 15-16 and 17-21. I’ll quote the verses in those sections which mention the word grace.

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, (Gal 1.3-4)

Gal 1.1-5: Barclay argues Paul defines the gift as the Christ-event, focalised in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection (352).

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel [man’s gospel] (Gal 1.6)

Gal 1.6-12: He then considers the origin of the gift. The gospel message comes from a divine source. Thus it countermands other values defined in human terms. (353)

15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles. (Gal 1.15-16)

Gal 1.13-24: In the next section Barclay begins to focus more and more on the perfection of incongruity, but seemed to neglect other perfections. He argues;

Paul had lived enthusiastically in accordance with the well-established norms of “Judaism,” but God’s “calling in grace” had nothing to do with his success in those terms.

As in 1:6, χάρις signals the fact that God’s call is unconditioned by the social worth of the recipient — without regard to superior ethnicity, status, or cultural prestige, or to negative worth in sinfulness, ignorance, and tooth-and-nail opposition to God.

As a result, previously self-evident norms are suspended, relativized, or recalibrated: in the newly generated life in Christ, they are subordinated to a superior norm, “the truth of the good news” (2:5, 14). (359-60)

The Galatians text also highlights the gift had the expectation of reciprocity (‘that I might preach him’). Something Barclay does not mention but it’s clearly one of the perfections.

Further to this, I suspect Paul’s prior life, particularly his persecution of the church did have strange counterintuitive social worth. Paul comments on the value of his former life in 1 Tim 1.16,

16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Tim 1.16)

Paul received mercy for a specific reason. His witness to Christ would be taken more seriously than others precisely because he did persecute the church. Those who are forgiven much give a better example to those who would believe.

9 When James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (Gal 2.9)

Gal 2.1-10: Again Barclay focusses on God’s regard for human systems. The Christian leaders had no authority over God. God pays no attention to entitlement or symbolic capital measured in human terms. (364)

To get a good understanding of how Barclay understands incongruity it’s good to realise he does not simply equate it with human sin and evil.

It certainly includes these, but also covers other aspects of worth including nationality, status, wealth and gender in addition to morality and achievement. He applies this understanding of incongruity and worth throughout his book.

Barclay seemed to miss other aspects of the gift. James and Peter would have seen or heard of all the believers in Paul’s wake. They ‘perceived the grace given’. The text hints at an outward signs of God’s gift giving. That is Paul’s calling and success as an apostle and evangelist. This hints powerfully of the efficacy and reciprocity attached to God’s grace.

21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Gal 2.21)

Gal 2.11-21: Barclay gives a brief overview of the context of this important passage. I had general agreement with what he said.

It seemed to me he is trying to be eirenic.

Gal 2.15-16: Barclay said a number of things I found interesting and agreeable. Setting the context of the two verses he describes the situation of Peter and Paul among Gentiles.

Should they maintain their Jewish self-differentiation (following a Torah-based definition of “sin”), and thus withdraw from the meal-company of Gentile believers? Or should they eat with non-Jews, out of loyalty to “the good news,” even if that results in being labeled “sinners”? (371)

Barclay explains the critical Gal 2.16 thus;

What they know is that a person (ἄνθρωπος, any person, Jew or Gentile) is not considered “righteous” on the basis of Torah-observance, but on the basis of faith directed toward (and arising from) what has happened in Christ. Jewish believers (“we”) have demonstrated this alternative construal of “righteousness” in putting their faith in Christ: they know they are considered “righteous” by God not on the basis of Torah-observance, but on the basis of their faith in Christ — that is, on the basis of their new existence created by the Christ-event (2:19-20). (372)

He believes works of law is Paul’s shorthand for observing the whole law of Moses. I disagree. These works may well point towards Torah observance in general. But Paul does not react against the imposition of the commands to love God and one’s neighbor, to honor one’s parents or to prohibit idolatry, sexual immorality or sorcery. Each of these are in the law of Moses. Each of these Paul requires of his Gentile audiences. None of these are ‘works’ or included in his definition of works of law.

Regarding the definition of ‘justified’ I was pleasantly surprised.

What Jewish believers have come to realize, through their “calling” in grace and their experience in Christ, is that the saving gift has already been given in Christ, without regard to worth, and that God considers “righteous” those whose new lives, evidenced in faith, have been generated from the Christ-event (2:19-20). To be “considered righteous by faith in Christ” is thus the result of the Christ-gift, not the condition for it. (377)

[Footnote 73] We should therefore resist the suggestion that the verb δικαιοῦσθαι takes on a new meaning in Paul, becoming a transfer term for “getting into the body of the saved” (Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp. 470-72, 544-46). Westerholm rightly notes that the application of this term in Paul is extraordinary (Perspectives Old and New, pp. 273-84) but this is not because its meaning shifts, but because people are regarded as “righteous” on the basis of an extraordinary, incongruous gift. The verb does not change in meaning from “consider righteous” to “make righteous”; it applies to people who have been changed.

I’m in full agreement with these statements. He is disagreeing with the Sanders in favour of the OPP (Westerholm) here. But note, he is in agreement with Dunn and particularly Wright here (faith is the evidence ‘badge of covenant membership’ of those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit).

faith is the evidence that one’s life is incorporated into the saving, transformative dynamic of the Christ-event, which is nothing less than the death of the self (2:19) and the emergence of a new life more properly described as “Christ in me” (2:20). “Torah-practice” and “faith in Christ” are in one sense parallel: they are both evidenced in human lives and could be taken as grounds for being considered “righteous.” (377)

Barclay interprets pistis Christou as ‘faith in Christ’ (not ‘faithfulness of Christ’). Again, agreement in this passage, but not necessarily others. Basically I’m my opinion he is in agreement with New Perspective positions regarding ‘justified by faith in Christ apart from works of law’. I thought he would dogmatically stick to reformed interpretations. I’m pleasantly surprised.

Gal 2.17-21: Barclay further explains himself in light of what Paul says about being incorporated into Christ’s death and resurrection. He summarising his former arguments.

13. The Christ-Gift, the Law, and the Promise (Galatians 3:1–5:12, with 6:11-18)

Barclay begins by bracketing a section of text between a reference to Christ’s crucifixion (his self giving) (Gal 3.1) and the warning against circumcision (Gal 5.4).

3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5.3-4)

He continues repeating the theme of incongruity throughout his letter. The Christ event (Christ’s crucifixion and death) circumvents all human systems of worth.

The cross of Christ shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly “natural” order of “the world” (cf. 4:3). In form (as unconditioned gift), in content (as death), and in mode (the shame of crucifixion), the cross of Christ breaks believers’ allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right. (394)

Barclays argument made more sense to me when he made the following statement to explain the significance of Gal 3.26-28.

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3.26-28)

What is altered, however, is the evaluative freight carried by these labels [Jew,Greek, Slave, Free, Male, Female], the encoded distinctions of superiority and inferiority. In common solidarity with Christ, baptized believers are enabled and required to view each other without regard to these influential classifications of worth. (394)

Barclay has some strange stuff to say about the irrelevance of human history. Advocating the apocalyptic way of viewing the Christ event, he downplays salvation history and the significance of the story of Israel.

If we maintain this distinction between the purpose of God and the development of human history, we can see that the Christ-gift is both entirely congruous with the promise of God and wholly incongruous with the prior conditions of human (including Israelite) history. (412)

I disagree. I’m not so sure the promises of God or Jesus’ Davidic genealogy, which establishes his Christology, can be separated from Israel’s history.

It would be a mistake, then, to suggest that the story of Christ is simply “superimposed upon the story of Israel,” if that is understood to mean that the Christ-story is added to a pre-shaped narrative. To the contrary, the narratives of Abraham and of Israel are refashioned around Christ. If the characters are shared with some of the varied narratives current in Second Temple Judaism, the plot is new; it is doubtful if it makes sense to speak of Paul’s inhabiting the “same” story. (414)

Ouch! Pre-shaped narrative? Pre-shaped by who? God. It’s the same God shaped predestined story, only now properly understood in the light of Christ. The veil has been lifted and taken away (2 Cor 3.14-16). I wonder how he interprets Paul’s telling of the Christ event in Acts 13.16-39 without reference to the story of Israel?

14. The New Community as the Expression of the Gift (Galatians 5:13–6:10)

Barclay spends some time with the what community looks like when shaped by the gospel. He pulls in a lot of Mediterranean historical context.

His language is shaped by an apocalyptic view of Paul.

The Christ event has introduced a new cosmic reality. Previous human norms have been superseded. Christians have been crucified the world and are now new creations.

He has an interesting stand out the flesh and spirit language in Paul. I’m pleased to report he dies now expect Christians to live in the flesh. Rather the spirit. If he saw someone walking in the flesh he would think they did not believe.

Largely he argues against any kind of social barrier. He argues Christian communities should be shaped by love.

Here are a few comments from his summary.

The above reading has attempted to give weight both to the contextual specificity of the letter, in disputes about circumcision and Torah in the Gentile mission, and to the breadth of the canvas on which Paul depicts these issues.

With the “new perspective” (Dunn), it has offered an interpretation of Galatians attuned to the historical realities of the early Jesus-movement and of Second Temple Judaism. It has accordingly emphasized that by “works of the Law” Paul means Jewish practices beholden to the Torah, not “works” or “law” in a generalized sense.

At this point, my difference from the Lutheran reading runs quite deep.

If Paul is not attacking a life-hermeneutic that looks to works to secure the favor of God, he is not countering an erroneous soteriology dependent on the good works of the devout.

Thus, his foil in this letter is not works-righteousness (either Jewish or other), and his purpose is not to rescue the proud (or anxious) conscience in its pursuit of this goal. (443-4)

I can’t imagine this is publicised as well as his noted differences with the NPP.

He eventually gets to evaluating his reading in the light of his perfections of grace.

Paul puts no particular stress in this letter on the superabundance of grace, nor does he perfect this motif by taking God’s beneficence to be singular, excluding the possibility of divine judgment or curse. The emphasis, I have argued, lies on the incongruity of grace — its shocking lack of match with the worth of its beneficiaries, in ethnic, cognitive, moral, or other terms.

I have identified here the primary root of the creativity of this letter — its ability to define new taxonomies of reality, new configurations of history, and new patterns of social life.

It is important to Paul that this new creation has already been enacted by God in the form of the Christ-gift; it is not a goal yet to be attained or a favor yet to be gained from God. In that sense, the priority of grace is presupposed behind the “call” of believers, though this is not developed in the language of “predestination.” He does not perfect the efficacy of grace, its causative role in believers’ response, to the degree expected by some of his interpreters. (446)

He has not yet addressed the issue of reciprocity.

IV. Romans: Israel, the Gentiles, and God’s Creative Gift

15. The Creative Gift and Its Fitting Result (Romans 1:1–5:11)

Here is a list of the verses which include ‘grace’ in Rom 1.1-5.11

1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, (Rom 1.1-6)

11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, 12 that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Rom 1.11-12)

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace [lit. ‘freely’, ‘without cost’] as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Rom 3.23-25)

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (Rom 4.16)

5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Gal 5.1-2)

Barclay starts off giving a brief overview of Romans with respect to grace and mercy. He comes out and expresses the ‘intermingling’ of thought between the two.

The gift-language continues in Romans 9–11, but is supplemented here by reference to the mercy of God (ἔλεος, ἐλεέω; cf. Gal 6:16). … The semantic fields of “gift” and “mercy” are not identical, but we have found them mixed elsewhere in Jewish literature of this period (e.g., Wis 3:9; 4:15; 4 Ezra 7.132-40), and their intermingling in Romans 9–11 suggests that they are mutually interpretative. (450)

I might have missed it. But I felt he had been using these terms synonymously. Only now has he spelled out some sort of distinction between the two.

Barclay continues comparing Galatians with Romans. Romans is the later letter and reflects a greater development in Paul’s thought and sensitivity to his audience.

Like many commentaries Barclay investigates the occasion and purpose of the letter. Like Galatians he notes the usage of grace at the start and at the end of the letter, using these to frame the letter between two bookends.

He says some nice stuff about the resurrection.

And the resurrection of Jesus is that explosive moment when the power of the Spirit was unleashed, creating the life from death on which the believers’ faith is pinned (4:24-25) and out of which their identity is formed (6:1-12; 8:9-11). This trio — power, Spirit, resurrection — constitutes the mode by which the Christ-gift takes transformative effect in the human sphere. (460)

In explaining the significance of Rom 2.7-11 Barclay hits the nail on the head for me.

Unlike 4 Ezra, what he finds there is not a tiny quota of righteous Jews, but an unspecified number of Jews and Gentiles who, despite being equally corrupted by sin, have been transformed in their inmost being (“the hidden things” of “the heart”) by divine power. This power is incongruous in its impact on sinful human material, but its transformative results are finally congruous with the just judgment of God. (466)

[Paul] insists that there will be a distinction between good and evil, a fit between the praise of God and the “good work” that it acknowledges (2:6-11). But — and this is the crucial Pauline point — the basis for that fit, the foundation and frame of the patient good work that leads to eternal life, is an act of divine power, an incongruous gift to sinful humanity whose transformative effects will be evident at the judgment. (473)

Though in later discussion I found he gave little credit to the Spirit in the transformation of the believer.

Barclay weighs in on the pistis Christou (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) debate in Romans. Here, as in Galatians argues for the objective genitive (476). His argument is based on the assumption that Paul uses pistis to mean the same thing everywhere. Personally I go with faithfulness of Christ because of its association with the verbs describing the ‘righteousness of God’. See my Simply Romans post.

In Rom 5.1-11 Barclay finds more to speak on about the incongruity of the gift. ‘While we were still sinners Christ died for us’. He does not seem to focus on the ‘now that we are justified much more will we be saved through His life’. Again see another post.

Barclays reading of Romans 4 I feel is similar to my own. See another Simply Romans post.

Our task is to integrate Paul’s dual portrayal of Abraham, as both believer in God and father of a multinational family.

It will be argued here that the calling of both Gentiles and Jews into the Abrahamic family is central to Paul’s argument, not an illustration or a polemical addition. This is the critical feature of the good news that characterizes Paul’s work as apostle to the Gentiles; …

But the mode of Abraham’s relationship to God (faith), and the means by which his seed has come into being (by creation ex nihilo), are also objects of central attention (4:2-8, 16-22). What integrates these concerns is the fact that the Abrahamic family is marked by a peculiar trait. (480)

I think however, he summarises Paul’s chapter better than I do.

Once again his chapter did not recognize Paul’s calling as an apostle as part of the grace he received (Rom 1.5).

16. New Life in Dying Bodies: Grace and the Construction of a Christian Habitus (Romans 5:12–8:39; 12:1–15:13)

Here is a list of the verses which include ‘grace’ in Rom 5.12-8.39 and Rom 12.1-15.13

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5.15-21)

6 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom 6.1-2)

13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Rom 6.13-14)

22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6.22-23)

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8.31-32)

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Rom 12.3)

Barclay continues through Romans commenting on the abundance of Lamartine referring to grace in Rom 5.12-21. He refers to Christ’s act of obedience as his whole life, not simply his death on the cross. I suspect this might please advocates of the imputation of Christ’s obedience as righteousness.

It’s when we get to Romans 6 does Barclay introduces the theme of reciprocity.

Although the phrase ὑπὸ χάριν may have been coined by Paul (to match his regular expression, ὑπὸ νόμον), the idea that gift establishes a relation of obligation is very common in ancient sources. When the historian Manetho noted that the king of Ethiopia was beholden to Amenophis, king of Egypt, out of gratitude (χάριτι ἦν αὐτῷ ὑποχείριος, apud Josephus, C. Ap. 1.246), he expressed the common assumption that gifts or favors create obligations and expect a return. As we have seen (chapter 1), the presumption of reciprocity was ubiquitous in antiquity, in both pagan and Jewish worlds. In the continuous cycle of gift, the recipient is obliged to make a return, in one form or another: if not in a counter-gift, at least in honor or gratitude. This expectation might make potential recipients reluctant to accept a gift, especially if it was large and difficult to return or from a person to whom one would not wish to be beholden (see Seneca, Ben. 2.18-21). But the notion of a gift “with no strings attached” was practically unimaginable in antiquity; it is a product of the modern era (see above, 1.3.3).

None of Paul’s hearers would have been surprised to learn that as recipients of the divine gift they were placed under obligation to God. That Paul develops the motif of gift-obligation under the figure of slavery (6:16-23) is somewhat striking, and is perhaps a result of the way he has figured the Adamic condition as slavery to sin (6:6; cf. Gal 3:22; 4:1-7). (497-8)

Barclay discussed the relationship between incongruity and reciprocity.

Paul perfects the incongruity of the gift (given to the unworthy) but he does not perfect its non-circularity (expecting nothing in return). (499)

By this he seems to mean, while the theme of reciprocity is important, we are free and yet we feel a strong sense of obligation. Overall it is the incongruity of the gift that dominates the relationship and the receiver’s perspective. I find myself increasingly sympathetic to this view in light of how he explained incongruities effects on community relationships.

In my opinion there is a growing consensus on Romans 7.7-25 that Paul is not describing Christian life. Barclay goes against Luther’s famous statement ‘simul justus et peccator’ instead opting for a different kind of paradox in Paul’s thought. Dead, yet alive.

Luther attempted in several ways to express the permanent, and structurally basic, incongruity of grace in the life of a believer, most famously in the phrase simul justus et peccator. The strongest exegetical base for that notion comes from Romans 6–8, but it draws on what now seems to most a faulty reading of Romans 7–8 as a dialectical depiction of two dimensions of the Christian life.

If, to the contrary, 7:7-25 describes life “in the flesh” before becoming a believer (cf. 7:5), not a continuing aspect of the believer’s life, Luther’s simul … peccator looks less convincing. Yet Romans 6–8 does express the permanent paradox of grace in the life of the believer, only in a different form. The believer is here described as both mortal and eternally alive, simul mortuus et vivens. On the one hand doomed to death, in a body that is bound by mortality, believers are also and at the same time the site of an impossible new life, whose origin lies in the resurrection of Jesus and whose goal is their own future resurrection (8:11). (501-2)

[Footnote 14] The later Augustinian view, shared by the Reformers, that Romans 7:7-25 expresses in certain respects the continuing experience of the believer, is carried forward in the Romans commentaries of Cranfield and Dunn. This derives some weight from Christian experience,

but the antithesis of 7:5-6 (whose terminology corresponds to the contrast between 7:7-25 and 8:1ff.) and the language of enslaved captivity under sin (7:14) identify 7:7-25 as a description (from a believer-viewpoint) of life “when we were in the flesh” (7:5). This post-Kümmel near-consensus among scholars is ably discussed and developed in S. J. Chester, Conversion at Corinth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2003), pp. 183-95.

Barclay goes on to give a philosophical understanding of a person’s mindset and self identification and awareness as their body. Both these themes are significant in chapters 6-8.

Beginning his section of Romans 12-15 Barclay says;

When Paul renews his appeal for a new embodied habitus, it is not surprising that its foundation is located in “the mercy (lit. “mercies”) of God” (12:1). The plural echoes the Hebrew (cf. 2 Cor 1:3; Phil 2:1), while the content is supplied by the preceding chapters, which had mixed the language of “gift/favor” (11:5-6, 29) with that of “mercy” (9:15-18; 11:28-32; see chapter 17, below). Like the gift, the mercy of God bears no relation to the preceding status, achievement, or worth of its recipients (9:6-18; 11:32).

Paul thus calls for a way of life recalibrated in disregard of whatever ethnic, social, or individual characteristics had previously constituted the believers’ cultural or symbolic capital, whatever had formed their grounds for distinctive or superior value. On the basis of this act of divine mercy, believers are to present their bodies in exclusive orientation to God (508)

We see here again how Barclay shapes his understanding of Paul through the theme of incongruity.

The discussion continues through to chapters 14-15 where Barclay explains how three new value system determined by the gospel event shakes understanding of right and wrong. Particularly with regard to the Sabbath and food restrictions.

17. Israel, Christ, and the Creative Mercy of God (Romans 9–11)

Here is a list of the verses which include ‘grace’ in Rom 9-11.

2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Rom 11.2-6)

28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11.28-36)

Barclay explains many interprets struggle to understand the assumed change in Paul’s thought before and after Rom 11.11. His introduction gives a brief statement of his intentions for this chapter.

The burden of this chapter is to show that Paul makes sense of Scripture, of Israel, of the present crisis, of the Gentile mission, and of God’s purposes for the future by finding in all these interlinked phenomena the paradoxical operation of God’s incongruent grace. (523)

Barclay steps through Romans 9-11 with respect to Israel and the promises of God. Throughout his readings he comments on traditional readings. Sometimes rejecting, sometimes modifying. Like before he focusses on grace and mercy.

Late on while discussing Rom 10.1-4 Barclay makes an interesting point against the ‘New Perspective’.

Once again, it is the Gentile mission that both catalyzes and clarifies Paul’s theology; the “new perspective” is correct to locate Paul’s theology of Law and righteousness in this social and historical context. However, “their own righteousness” is criticized by Paul not for its restriction to “Jews and Jews alone” (Wright); in 10:3, its opposite is not a “non-Jewish righteousness” but “the righteousness of God” (cf. Phil 3:9). Because God has acted in Christ in unconditioned grace, the value of “their own righteousness” must be discounted as the Gentile mission makes unmistakably clear. If Paul disregards ethnic distinctions, this is because God’s righteousness recognizes no preexistent criteria of worth. (540-1)

I find this quite helpful. Barclay pushes beyond a simple Jew Gentile argument to explain why Paul believers that in the first place.

In his summary of the chapter Barclay evaluates his findings in the light of his perfections.

18. Conclusions

Barclay gives a helpful overview and summary of the main sections of his book.

He gives a description of his study into the anthropological concept of gift giving. Reminding us again that the ancient practice of gift giving may challenge our preconceptions of grace.

He then runs through his six perfections of grace and using them gives a brief historical survey of significant Christian scholars who have written about Paul and grace over the last two thousand years.

He does not cover each of the second temple Jewish texts, but he does summarise his interaction with Sanders work and discusses the confusion regarding grace that has arisen afterwards.

He then gives a brief overview of his readings of Paul shaped into thematic sections.

His understands the gift to be the Christ event.

The starting point is the framing of the Christ-event as gift. Christ’s death “for our sins” (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3-4) is interpreted by Paul in the language of gift (God’s gift of his Son, or Christ’s gift of himself).

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are thus, for Paul, the focal point of divine beneficence: the witness of Scripture and the history and identity of Israel are interpreted in this light.

Grace is discovered in an event, not in the general benevolence of God, and its focal expression lies not in creation nor in any other divine gift, but in the gift of Christ, which constitutes for Paul the Gift. (566)

In saying this he also makes the inference the gospel is the story of Jesus.

Regarding the incongruous nature of the gift he says.

This Gift is experienced and interpreted as an incongruous gift. The Gentile mission is formative: non-Jews, wholly unqualified for divine beneficence, are found to be “called in grace” when they receive the good news of Christ, and are gifted with the Spirit.

Paul’s own experience matches this disregard of worth, since he too was “called in grace” irrespective of his Jewish privileges and despite his persecution of the church. Paul thus identifies a divine initiative in the Christ-event that disregards taken-for-granted criteria of ethnicity, status, knowledge, virtue, or gender. (566)

Remember as I said before Barclay’s understanding of incongruity is not simply equated with human sin and evil. It certainly includes these, but also covers other aspects of worth including nationality, status, wealth and gender in addition to morality and achievement. He applies this understanding of incongruity and worth throughout his book.

He describes his position in regard to the Lutheran and New Perspective takes on Paul. He finds positives and negatives with both.

Thus, 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.

I have disagreed in significant ways with interpreters on both sides of this divide, and the reading offered here does not harmonize the two interpretative traditions but reshapes them both. (572-3)

Finally he suggests ways in which the work of his book could be extended into further study into Paul, mission and church.


Generally the book reads well and I didn’t find it too hard to understand. It was interesting and reading it was not as much a chore for a book with so many pages to cover. It was long, but not stupidly long (e.g. NT Wright’s, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, D Campbell, Deliverance of God).

If one were to divide readings of Paul up into Reformed, New Perspective, Jewish, Apocalyptic and Diatribe.

His overall framing and use of language seems to reflect an apocalyptic mindset.

Especially with regards to the Christ event, his opposition to salvation historical readings and interpretation of the Old Testament. I’m not sure with Wright he would agree Paul was a Jewish thinker.

The best thing about his book is his six perfections of grace.

This is a very helpful tool for analysing grace in people’s writings and being careful with their own. I’m surprised, two thousand years after Paul’s writings and so much discussion on grace that something like this hasn’t been done before.

The book of course has extended discussion on second temple Jewish texts. (After reading the book I don’t think reading these is necessary to understand his treatment on Paul.) As mentioned with my post on his treatment on Sanders I believe his readings of these texts have their own shortcomings.

He has challenged the notion of ‘getting in by grace’ in second temple Judaism.

More research has to be done in light of more precise understandings of grace and particularly incongruity. His work has, in my opinion, left Sanders pattern of ‘covenental nomism’ untouched. It still stands as the best way of understanding first century Judaism. Overall I don’t think his book has corrected New Perspective readings.

His interpretation of ‘justification’ by faith apart from works of law’ is virtually the same as NPP.

His attention to the social context of Paul’s letters is part of what led him to make this conclusion.

In his sections on Galatians and Romans he quotes Greek frequently. But I found I didn’t have to know Greek to understand what he was talking about. Nothing an interlinear translation can’t help.

His discussion on Paul was dominated by the perfection of incongruity. With much less emphasis on the others.

His insights into the implications of this perfection I found quite helpful and stimulating. I’ll be thinking upon this for some time, especially when I read and blog through Paul’s letters. That being said I found he did not comment on the other perfections to the extent he should have. Especially the perfections of efficacy or reciprocity. Even at a surface level, Paul’s description of his calling and received grace reflect these.

For those interested in engaging with Paul at a serious level, this is necessary reading.

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