Susan Eastman on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift
In a remarkable movie called “The Fisher King” (1991), Robin Williams plays a homeless man who lost everything, including his mind, after his wife was killed by a deranged man who walked into a restaurant and started shooting. Jeff Bridges plays the radio talk show host whose insensitivity sent the deranged man over the edge. The two meet in an unlikely way and become friends, setting each of them on a life-changing journey. In one brief but telling scene, Williams and Bridges are sitting along the wall of Grand Central Station in New York, watching passers-by drop coins into Williams’ hat. All the camera shows is their faces, the dropping coins and the feet of the man walking by. Bridges is disgusted. He says, “Didn’t even look at you.” Williams shrugs and says, “Well, he’s paying, so he don’t have to look.”
This scene displays in a nutshell the modern notion of the disinterested gift: the gift is “free” in the sense that it is impersonal, with no strings attached and no relationship involved. The gift may even substitute for a relationship, thereby absolving the giver of any further involvement. Such anonymous giving is familiar to anyone in contemporary culture. It is this modern concept, so ingrained in us that we hardly notice it, that John M. G. Barclay attacks in his splendid study of the language of gift in the letters of Paul.
Among other things, Paul and the Gift displays how contemporary notions of gift in North Atlantic culture have been orphaned from their relational origins. In the ancient world gifts could not be divorced from relationship in which they occur. They were tied to and expressive of the bond between giver and receiver, and the character and status of each. Indeed, one reason gifts are often guarded by anonymity in contemporary culture is precisely to avoid such relational dynamics, which have a down side as well as an upside. On personal as well as larger social and political levels, gifts entail a sense of obligation toward one who has given us a gift, and the bigger the gift, the greater the sense of indebtedness. Covert or overt, such a sense of indebtedness can and often does breed resentment. If there is no way to reciprocate, the recipient feels inferior, of lesser status or worth, while the donor or benefactor is in a superior position with the power to give or to withhold. Transactions of giving and receiving are shadowed by this sense of debt and obligation; gifts have a way of accruing interest even without the demand to repay. In the light of such realities, Paul and the Gift packs considerable punch by offering new angles on the qualities and effects of the gift.
The Greek word translated as gift is charis, which usually is translated as “grace” in Paul’s letters. Paul is the biblical author responsible for introducing it into the vocabulary of Christian theology. Barclay situates his investigation of Paul’s gift language in four interacting realms of discourse: philosophical and anthropological investigations of the category of the “gift,” particularly focused on the seminal work of Marcel Mauss; the practices of gift and benefaction in the ancient Mediterranean world in which Paul and his converts lived; the history of interpretation of Paul’s own language; and the complex, rich and varied notions of grace in Second Temple Jewish texts roughly contemporary with Paul. Through this nuanced and multifaceted investigation, he is able to draw out the social dynamics of power and reputation involved in the giving and receiving of gifts, which in the ancient world were linked to matters of honor and shame. A moment’s reflection will highlight how such dynamics are unavoidable in social interaction, from the problems of global debtor and donor nations, to the intimate effects of family gifts and inheritance.
“Gift” is not a monolithic concept. Barclay distinguishes six different “perfections” of grace or gift. By “perfection” he means “the tendency to draw out a concept to its endpoint or extreme, whether for definitional clarity or for rhetorical or ideological advantage.” The six perfections of grace are: superabundance, denoting gift-giving as extravagant and unceasing; singularity, in the sense that “the giver’s sole and exclusive mode of operation is benevolence or goodness”; priority, because it depends solely on the initiative of the giver; incongruity, given “without regard to the worth of the recipient”; efficacy, such that the gift or giver accomplishes what the gift intends; and non-circularity, implying that there is no reciprocity or quid pro quo instantiated by the reception of the gift. Barclay insists that these six ways of thinking about gifts, and in particular about the grace or gift of God, can and must be “disaggregated” so that they are not mutually dependent. Any particular notion of grace may involve any particular combination of perfections, and certainly need not include all.
One of the many contributions of this book is the way in which Barclay discusses varied depictions of divine grace in Paul’s fellow Jewish thinkers. He dismantles unfortunate monolithic notions of Second Temple Judaism as either having no notion of grace, or as purely and completely about grace. As Barclay puts it pithily, “Grace was everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same.” For example, the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo, repeated emphasized the priority and superabundance of God’s mercy, but he saw divine mercy as given only to “fitting” or “worthy” recipients; for God’s beneficence to extend to unworthy recipients would upset the moral order of the cosmos. Grace is very present in Philo, but differently than in Paul. Paul’s unique language about grace is situated thus within a larger Jewish discourse about God’s gracious action in human history. For Paul, shockingly in his own context, God’s beneficence is given incongruously without any regard to worth of the recipients, thereby completely up-ending all prior calibrations of social status and value. This incongruity of grace is the key claim of the book.
Barclay bases his claims on close analysis of two Pauline letters, Galatians and Romans, that have been extremely influential in the history of Christian thought. In addition to emphasizing the incongruity of grace, he concludes that Paul assumes the priority and superabundance of grace. But the gift is not singular, insofar as God’s attributes and actions are not reducible to grace and grace alone. And counter to a long tradition of Pauline interpretation, the gift is not non-circular; rather, grace as divine gift brings with it an expectation of obedient response and return, indeed a quid pro quo. Furthermore, in Barclay’s view grace is not particularly efficacious, insofar as “efficacy” denotes “the present, causative agency of God within the agency of believers.” An emphasis on the effective power of divine action in the individual believer is not intrinsic to the incongruity of the gift, nor, apparently, to its circularity.
The content of the gift is precisely Christ’s own self-donation in the crucifixion and resurrection, and the presence of God through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of believers. Barclay refers to this as the “Christ-event” taking place at a singular moment in history as well as generating faith in the lives of believers, and as the “Christ-gift.” Thus the gift is embedded in and expressive of a divine-human relationship with transforming power for the human participants.
Barclay’s argument is textured, detailed and nuanced, hedged about with clarifications and qualifications. It raises many questions that are not only intellectually interesting but also existentially compelling. I will focus on one conundrum that increasingly comes to the fore in Barclay’s analysis of Galatians and Romans. He states it with admirable clarity: “Paul is perpetually conscious of the incongruity of grace as gift to the ungodly and disobedient; but his goal is not their continuing disobedience, but ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5). … What begins as an unfitting gift founds the fit between the lives of believers and the final outcome of salvation. Does this mean that grace is operative as incongruous gift only at the start of the believer’s life? Does it disappear thereafter or turn into something else?”
Barclay’s answer to this crucial question is yes and no. On the one hand, the answer is yes. Barclay sees Paul as proclaiming and requiring a shift from moral incongruity to moral congruity on the part of believers: “[W]hat began as a morally incongruous gift will be completed as a morally congruous gift.” Furthermore, such transformation occurs under the threat of judgment. Not only will this moral transformation by free and obedient human agents be the basis of God’s judgment at the last day; without such obedience, “grace is ineffective and unfulfilled.” It is indeed possible for human agents to render grace ineffective.
On the other hand, the answer is no: grace never becomes congruous, but rather exhibits a permanent incongruity with human life. This incongruity does not take place on a moral level, however, but on the level of the contrast between mortal embodied human life and the “resurrection life of Christ” at work in believers. It is the resurrection life of Christ, not the believer’s own life, that funds the holiness that will be recognized on the judgment day. Here is a divinely, extrinsically funded source of transformation and new life; in this sense grace is both efficacious and permanently incongruous.
The paradox raises issues about the action of grace or gift in real human lives: how are God’s action and human action related? How do people change, and how do the dynamics of grace and judgment figure in the daily lives of newly constituted human agents? Is a depiction of incongruity between mortal human bodies and divine life adequate to address the existential reality of continuing moral incongruity in Christian lives? To say that people should be different does not address the problem; it does not in fact change people. Paul himself surely was aware of this, as is evidenced by his repeated instructions to the churches he founded. To his great credit, Barclay is deeply concerned with transformation that is existentially real in human lives. It is precisely in this regard that I want to raise questions for further discussion.
First, the question about divine and human agency concerns both the efficacy of the gift, and the constitution of a new self in relationship to Christ. Barclay repeatedly (and correctly) speaks of the “powerful effect” of grace in “forming heart-obedience and holiness, whose fruit is eternal life (Rom. 6:15-23).” He speaks eloquently of a transformation from being ‘unfitting’ to being ‘fitting’ recipients of grace, and says that such transformation is generated by the Spirit as “its source and energy.” Is not Paul here assuming an effective divine agency at work within believers, just as he makes explicit in Philippians 2:13: “God is the one working in you the willing and the working”? Barclay appears to be anxious lest such talk of divine agency lead to a kind of singular and exclusive divine action that denies the effectiveness of human action; he wants to maintain the vital importance of human agency set within the framework of the gift as both incongruent and as requiring a human response. Perhaps Barclay is a bit more anxious about this than Paul is; in my view, Paul everywhere assumes the efficacy of God’s continual self-giving presence among God’s people, enacted decisively in the “single Christ event” but also given daily. And yes, for Paul such divine presence and action in no way cancels, but rather establishes, human agency. There is no need to argue against the efficacy of grace in order to establish human agency or to avoid a kind of competition between divine and human action. Perhaps the issue is not ultimately efficacy, but the question of whether grace can be resisted or refused, and whether the human agent thereby can be judged on the basis of disobedience. Questions of responsibility and judgment lurk behind Barclay’s concerns about the efficacy of the gift.
That issue leads into the second matter of concern: how do the dynamics of grace and judgment operate in the daily lives of newly constituted human agents? The classic Protestant answer has been that people change when they experience life in a gracious relationship that nothing can sever, that they are unable to destroy, and that is not contingent in any way on their good behavior or moral congruence. Such a gracious relationship deconstructs every aspect of the self in terms of self-justification, defensiveness, boasting, fear or despair; such deconstruction creates an arena of truth-telling that makes possible a kind of radical accountability—precisely because there is no threat of final rejection or expulsion. There is judgment, yes, in the sense that there are consequences for actions, and certainly a naming of wrongdoing and an expectation of change; but final rejection, no. Such gracious relationships have transforming power in deeply counter-intuitive ways, as demonstrated, for example, in the work of Alcoholics Anonymous. Similarly, when Paul repeatedly tells the believers in Rome not to judge one another, he depicts a communal quality of interaction that seems linked to the holistic cognitive transformation that he expects to happen among them. Implicit here is the recognition that change is about liberation from distorting and lethal systemic sin, which is not so much bad individual choices as an oppressive supra-human power that operates through harmful human relationships. The hope for liberation itself may provide ample motivation for change apart from any fear of judgment.
In Paul’s terms, this counter-intuitive reality is set forth in Romans 8, which begins with the stunning statement, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and concludes with a paean of assurance of God’s indestructible love: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” Nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This confidence then brackets and sets the stage for Paul’s talk of the Spirit indwelling the community, empowering transformed lives, and giving life to mortal bodies. The transformation so clearly envisaged in Rom. 8:4-30 happens in a context from which the threat of judgment has been removed. To put it more precisely, the threat of condemnation has been removed because God’s judgment and condemnation have fallen on “sin in the flesh” through Christ’s crucifixion. That assurance of “no condemnation” extends from the cross into the future without any sense of an ending or time limit.
Barclay completely accepts moral incongruity in the initial giving of the gift; Christ died for the ungodly. But he rejects it in relationship to a demand for moral transformation that in turn becomes the basis for divine judgment. The question at hand, and it is an urgent question, is this: just when or how does one cross the line to becoming a “fitting recipient” of the gift? When does one no longer need morally incongruous grace? If the gift becomes congruous, does it also become conditioned? Barclay claims that for Paul, grace is “unconditioned” but “conditional.” By “unconditioned” he means there are no prerequisites for the gift of grace, whereas “conditional” means there are subsequent expectations and requirements. An analogy would be a school that accepts all applicants regardless of their abilities or background, but then threatens them with eventual expulsion if they do not perform adequately in class. But the line between “conditional” and “conditioned” is thin in practice, particularly when placed on a timeline of some kind of moral progression. So when is the line crossed? Is there a time limit on the morally incongruous gift? The answer to that question deeply affects the “existential reality,” to use one of Barclay’s terms, of the life of faith. One of the key pastoral insights of the Reformation is that a life lived under the threat of condemnation or expulsion is one in which grace ceases to have transforming power. This, indeed, might be the point of Paul’s warning that the Galatians who want to be justified by the law have fallen away from grace (Gal. 5:4). On this view, there is a sense in which the moral incongruity of grace sources a life of transformation at every minute of every day, particularly insofar as the gift is precisely the fully righteous yet non-condemning presence of the giver.
To be sure, Barclay is attempting to do full justice to Paul’s language, and that language includes warnings about judgment. A fuller analysis of judgment itself is called for. Like grace itself, not all judgment is the same. Paul can speak of divine condemnation falling on sin itself, such that human beings may be freed from both condemnation for sin and the power of sin distorting and defeating human striving for the good (Rom. 8:1-4). Paul also can speak of divine judgment falling on the deeds of believers, but not so much in the sense of ultimate condemnation and rejection as in the sense of a purifying fire (1 Corinthians 4:12-13). Like Barclay’s careful disaggregation of grace, perhaps a corresponding disaggregation of judgment language in Paul would help in adjudicating the question of how grace might remain permanently unconditioned, and thereby powerfully effective in transforming human lives.
Along these lines, the witness of Israel’s Scripture comes again to bear on Paul’s thought. As Barclay notes, God’s faithfulness to Israel in spite of Israel’s unbelief and wrongdoings grounds Paul’s assurance that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Israel’s prophets repeatedly announce God’s judgment, and at the same time, they proclaim and enact God’s persistent love and commitment to God’s people in the midst of that judgment. This divine faithfulness surely displays a permanent moral incongruity between God and Israel that in no way lessens the reality of God’s righteousness in divine judgment.
These are difficult and complex issues, and readers will find in Paul and the Gift a nuanced and complex discussion of them. They are also urgent questions for anyone who takes the life of faith seriously, or who simply cares about the ways in which gifts may be freeing and life-giving, or conversely may entangle their recipients in destructive relationships. The giving and receiving of gifts is built into the fabric of human interaction, and shapes individual and communal identity in ways that are rarely brought to awareness. This book is itself a gift that heightens our awareness of the dynamics of giving and receiving between persons and communities, and between God and humanity. Barclay is keenly aware of the issues involved in any talk of change, agency, and social transformation, so my questions aim at a continued conversation. Happily he has promised a second volume that will explore how recalibrations of human worth, as effected by the operation of grace in Paul’s own communities, may have currency in contemporary social issues as well.
For the present, Paul and the Gift is a stunning invitation to consider deeply, broadly and creatively the tremendous power of grace as divine gift, and its implications for every aspect of human life, from intimate family relationships to global politics. It certainly will change the work of Pauline scholars, but it deserves a wider readership as well. Anyone interested in Jewish as well as Christian theologies of grace and in the dynamics of human transformation, will benefit from the riches of this book.