Volume 41 - Issue 1

Paul and the Gift: A Review Article

By Thomas R. Schreiner


John Barclay has written a stimulating and ground-breaking book on Paul’s theology of gift. He situates the meaning of gift in antiquity, noting that a return for a gift was part and parcel of what it meant to receive a gift in the ancient world. Barclay profiles the different conceptions of what it means to receive a gift in antiquity and explores the notion of a gift further in some Second Temple Jewish writings. He also provides a useful history of interpretation, concentrating on key figures. Finally, he explores Paul’s theology of gift, especially in Galatians and Romans. What marks out Paul’s understanding of the gift, according to Barclay, is its incongruity. Barclay’s work is a significant step forward, showing that there wasn’t a consensus in Second Temple Judaism as to what it meant to receive a gift. Different notions of grace and a gift were current. Nevertheless, some questions are raised in the review. Against Barclay, Paul’s theology of gift provides a platform by which other Second Temple notions of the gift can be criticized. Furthermore, evidence for a polemic against some form of works-righteousness is present in Galatians and Romans.

John Barclay has written one of the most important books in recent years on Paul, and it is the first of a proposed two volume work.1 In the second volume Barclay will continue to explore the Pauline letters. In a brief review I cannot rehearse everything and so will focus on what I found most interesting. The book is divided into four parts: 1) the multiple meanings of gift, 2) the divine gift in Second Temple Judaism, 3) gift and worth in Galatians, and 4) God’s creative gift in Romans.

1. Gifts in Antiquity and Today

In Part One Barclay sets forth the various meanings of gift and grace. As readers, says Barclay, we are prone to misunderstand grace and gift since we often define a gift to rule out a reciprocal response or a return of some kind. Those who are the heirs of Immanuel Kant think that gifts should be given without any hope of a return benefit. But in the Greco-Roman world it was expected that one would respond to a gift with some return, and such a return did not mean that the gift was not a true gift. Disinterested altruism did not characterize gifts in the Greco-Roman world. Jacques Derrida, following the train of Kant, maintains that any kind of return nullifies a gift. He thinks a pure gift is impossible since a response is always involved. But Barclay notes that Derrida’s definition of gift does not accord with how a gift was conceived in the Greco-Roman world. Gifts and reciprocity were not antithetical but complementary, for one was obligated to respond appropriately to a gift. Social bonds were strengthened and formed through both the gift and the response to the gift. Responses to a gift could be expressed in a variety of ways, but one way to respond is with gratitude. In fact, gifts were often given to those who were deemed to be worthy or fitting since to grant gifts to those who were not worthy to receive them was considered to be foolish. It was common to think that one should be discriminating and discerning in giving a gift so that the gift was not wasted on the unworthy. Even Jewish giving to the poor, Barclay argues, fits the paradigm of a return since Jews expected a benefit from God for their generosity.

2. Definitions of Gift

Chapter two provides a taxonomy of the meaning of the word gift. Barclay thinks that gift can be “perfected” (i.e., defined most clearly) six ways: 1) superabundance (the extravagance and scale of the gift), 2) singularity (the giver is always and only benevolent—there is no punishment for evil), 3) priority (the gift is given before there is any initiative on the part of the recipient), 4) incongruity (the gift is given regardless of the worth of the recipient), 5) efficacy (the gift empowers the one to whom it is given), and 6) non-circularity (there is no expected return for the gift). The notion that gifts are non-circular, as Barclay argues in chapter one, is a Western notion and was not present in antiquity. We must be careful, Barclay maintains, in using the word gift or grace since the notion is polyvalent, and one does not necessarily have all six ideas of gift in mind when using the term. Perhaps I should mention here that I found these two chapters fascinating and enlightening, and they alone constitute a major contribution.

3. History of Interpretation

Chapter three considers some notable interpreters of Paul in church history, including Marcion, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and others. I will not comment on everyone Barclay discusses here. Marcion’s reading of Paul tilts toward singularity—God is benevolent so that he loves and saves and delivers instead of judging his creatures. Augustine’s understanding of grace is incongruous in that it is given to sinners before they were worthy, but it is also congruous since the grace given to the ungodly transforms them. As Augustine’s thought develops he emphasizes that grace is prior, efficacious, and incongruous.

Luther, on the other hand, questions the Augustinian understanding of the efficacy of grace as a substance granted to the soul. Like Augustine he features the incongruity of grace—grace is given to those who are ungodly. In fact, Luther’s theology stands out since grace remains incongruous for the entirety of one’s life. I would dissent from Barclay, however, in his apparent endorsement of the Finnish view of Luther (p. 107). I think the sources point in another direction as I have argued briefly in my recent book Faith Alone.2 In any case, Luther teaches the superabundance of grace and its priority, but what stands out in his thought is the incongruity of grace. Barclay also thinks grace in Luther is non-circular since grace is not granted so that we will return it in some fashion. I wonder if Barclay is right here, but he thinks that grace is non-circular in Luther since the response of gratitude does not benefit God. The word “benefit” is ambiguous. Luther may have meant that we do not add in any way to God’s being and greatness since God is self-sufficient. However, in another sense, gratitude brings God glory. It would be interesting to see Luther scholars weigh in on this matter. Barclay also says works in Luther are not “integral to faith or to justification” (p. 114). The notion is disputed, however, for as Barclay says (p. 114n87) works may have functioned as necessary evidence of faith. In that sense, then, they can be considered as integral to faith and justification in Luther.

In Calvin’s theology, according to Barclay, the grace of God is not singular since God also predestines the wicked to damnation. On the other hand, the priority of God’s grace in the life of believers is emphasized repeatedly. God’s grace, as is the case with Luther, is understood to be incongruous, though Calvin also teaches emphatically that good works follow as a result of God’s grace. In Calvin’s system believers are transformed and made holy by the grace of God, and hence grace in Calvin is circular in the sense that there is a return. What is most striking in Barth, and here he is quite like Luther, is the incongruity of grace. Rudolf Bultmann’s view is more complex. He trumpets the incongruity of grace and its priority but does not follow Augustinian and Calvinist views of predestination, and hence he has a different notion of the priority and efficacy of grace. He is also distinguished from Luther in emphasizing the obedience of faith, and so he rejects the idea that grace is non-circular.

E. P. Sanders’s covenant nomism focuses on the priority of grace in Second Temple Judaism so that obedience was a response to God’s covenant love. Barclay rightly notes, however, a crucial mistake in Sanders’s work, for Sanders understands the priority of grace as if it also entails the incongruity of grace. But, says Barclay, it is clear that the Rabbis believed grace was given to those who were worthy (in accord with the view of gift in antiquity). Sanders operates as if the Augustinian view of grace is shared by the Rabbis. Since he fails to define carefully what grace means, he lumps together priority with incongruity. Sanders rightly dismantled a caricature of Second Temple Judaism, as if grace was non-existent. At the same time, his insistence on the uniformity of grace was overly simplistic, blinding some scholars to the diversity of ways in which grace was understood in the ancient world.

Barclay takes scholars such as D. A. Carson, Simon Gathercole, and Timo Laato, to task for criticizing the notion of grace in Second Temple Judaism. Such criticisms fail since various understandings of grace circulated in Second Temple Judaism. Carson, for example, operates as if incongruous grace is the only way to define grace, but other conceptions of grace were present among Jews. Douglas Campbell is also indicted since he assumes that genuine grace precludes the necessity of any human response. Campbell heralds the singularity of grace by saying that God’s grace is benevolent, while rejecting the notion of God’s judgment. Campbell stands out, says Barclay, because he sees all six notions of grace in Paul. In this respect, he is closest to Marcion. At the other extreme stands Chris VanLandingham who makes the mistake of thinking that grace is only incongruous. VanLandingham observes that Paul requires obedience for eternal life and concludes that grace is lacking in Paul’s theology. But this is not necessarily so, warns Barclay, since the notion that grace has no return was not the view of most in the Greco-Roman world. One major conclusion Barclay draws (and it is one of the signal benefits of this work) is that interpreters often disagree because they do not realize that they are operating with different conceptions of grace. Hence, when it comes to Paul and Second Temple Judaism, we are not faced with a stark alternative says Barclay. They both proclaimed grace. It is not as if Paul believed in grace and Second Temple Judaism denied it. Different Jewish writers mapped out and profiled grace in various ways.

4. The Gift in Second Temple Judaism

Part Two of the book considers the divine gift in Second Temple Judaism. Barclay examines The Wisdom of Solomon, Philo of Alexandria, the Qumran Hodayot, Pseudo-Philo’s Liber antiquitatum biblicarum, and 4 Ezra. Here I will sum up briefly the conclusions drawn from each author investigated. In Wisdom the superabundance of the gift and God’s benevolence come to the forefront. Grace for Wisdom is congruous instead of incongruous since the latter would call into question God’s wisdom and discernment. Granting gifts to those who waste them is not a mark of goodness for the author of Wisdom. Turning to Philo, we find that in his expositions God’s gifts are superabundant and lavish. Philo tends toward singularity in emphasizing God’s love and benevolence instead of his justice. God’s grace is given to those who are worthy and fitting, but their worth and virtue are not a cause for God’s grace but only a condition. God’s grace is prior in the sense that God elects beforehand those who are especially worthy and excellent, for to do otherwise would suggest that God is arbitrary and whimsical. In Philo grace is congruous with the worth of the recipient, but, Barclay notes, such a view did not mean in antiquity that Philo did not believe in grace. As he has already demonstrated, gifts and the worthiness of the recipient were a common theme in the ancient world.

The Qumran Hoyadot proclaim the abundance and lavishness of God’s grace, but what is most striking is the incongruity of grace since the writer often confesses his worthlessness and shame. In this respect, he is quite similar to Paul. The efficacy of God’s grace also is a hallmark of the hymns. Barclay observes that both Philo and Wisdom would have rejected the incongruity of grace proclaimed in the Hoyadot. We see plainly that grace was not parsed in the same way by every Second Temple Jew. Barclay adds that we should not say one form of grace is purer or higher; instead, we should recognize that grace is defined and understood differently by various Jewish writers. Sanders’s attempt to lump virtually all of Second Temple Jews under the rubric of covenant nomism does not do justice to the complexity of the evidence, and to the various conceptions of grace which were circulating.

Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, like the Hoyadot, reflects an emphasis on the incongruity of grace. In fact, no book in Second Temple Judaism emphasizes God’s mercy as much as this one, for God will keep his covenant promises to his people, even after they sin and experience divine judgment. God’s grace is incongruous toward Israel because they are his elect people. Fourth Ezra moves in another direction. God’s mercy is reserved for the righteous who keep God’s commands. Barclay says we should not label such as works-righteousness since in doing so we reflect Protestant and Augustinian views that true grace is incongruous.

Barclay remarks that all of these Second Temple works emphasize the superabundance of God’s grace. At the same time, none of them define grace in terms of non-circularity—some return for grace is expected, even if that return is thanksgiving (this makes me wonder as noted above why Barclay thinks Luther’s notion of thanksgiving does not reflect circularity). Only Philo tends toward the singularity of grace. Some writers stress the priority and efficacy of God’s grace, but the major difference emerges on the incongruity of grace, which is celebrated by Pseudo-Philo and Hoyadot and denied by Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, and 4 Ezra. Many in antiquity believed that God’s gifts should be given to the fitting, to those who are worthy. Hence, says Barclay, we should not say that those who hold to congruous grace deny grace; they just espoused a different notion of grace. Barclay rightly adjusts Sanders’s work, showing that there is more to say about grace than its priority. Sanders was on target in saying that grace was prior but failed to see that there were other dimensions of grace, and hence it is not sufficient to lump all Second Temple Jews together as if they held to the same theology of grace. What stands out is that some Second Temple Jewish writers think grace is congruous, while others think it is incongruous. Once we see the diversity of grace in Jewish thought says Barclay, “it becomes senseless to ask whether Paul represents ‘real’ grace, as opposed to its ‘diluted’ forms in Judaism” (p. 320). He also says about Paul, “It would make little sense to say that he emphasizes grace more than other Jews of his time, but it is also clear that his views are not identical to those of the others surveyed, just as they disagree among themselves” (p. 328). Scholars indebted to the Reformation criticized Sanders when they detected congruous grace, thinking they had shown that grace was not present where it was conditioned. But says Barclay, such a notion misfires if we recognize that grace was understood in multiple ways.

5. Some Reflections on Barclay’s Contribution in Part One and Two

Barclay’s work represents a significant advance in qualifying and correcting Sanders’s monolithic reading of Second Temple Judaism, though others have gone before him. We can think of a number of works here: the first volume of Justification and Variegated Nomism, Simon Gathercole’s Where is Boasting?, Mark Elliott’s The Survivors of Israel, Andrew Das’s Paul, the Law, and the Covenant, and Friedrich Avemarie’s Tora und Leben.3 Barclay also distinguishes himself from other scholars in saying that we cannot say that there is purer or higher or better grace in Paul. The incongruous grace of Paul is not superior to the congruous conception of grace in Wisdom of Solomon. Grace is still grace; it is just a different kind of grace. Barclay helpfully delineates that the dispute between Paul and other Jews of his day was due, at least in part, to different conceptions of grace.

Barclay approaches the matter descriptively and historically and thus concludes that each writer’s depiction of gift and grace should be appreciated for what it is. Fair enough. His historical work is invaluable and helps us demarcate more carefully how Paul stands over against other contemporaries. We get a much sharper profile from Barclay than we did from Sanders. At the same time, Barclay brackets out in advance another standpoint—one that is at least implicitly at work in Carson and others. Let me put it straightforwardly. For those who think that Paul’s writings are the inspired word of God, the Pauline conception of grace is superior to construals of grace that depart from his understanding. Obviously, there is not space to defend here what I am suggesting. Still, it is questionable to think that a strictly historical framework is to be preferred over a theological stance that accepts Paul’s theology as the word of God. Most recognize that there is not any neutral place to stand in doing history or exegesis. Of course, that does not mean that our philosophical starting point is arbitrary. If Paul and Wisdom disagree on the nature of grace, we follow Paul (as Protestants) instead Wisdom. Wisdom propounds a particular theology of grace, but Paul rejects Wisdom’s construal of grace, and as believers we confess and believe that Paul’s theology of grace is superior to what we find in Wisdom or Philo.

If we consider history, the matter being disputed here is hardly new. No knowledgeable Protestant denies, for instance, that Roman Catholics believe in grace. The problem is that the Roman Catholic definition of grace, according to Protestants, does not conform to the biblical witness, and hence the Roman Catholic conception of grace is judged to be substandard. I am grateful for Barclay’s clear delineation of the various conceptions of grace and for his recognition of various strands in Second Temple sources. The typology he uses represents a helpful advance and clarification. On the other hand, his work does not change the landscape dramatically. Others recognized, even if they did not use the same terminology, that there were different conceptions of grace in Second Temple sources. Barclay helps us see that all players in Second Temple Judaism believed in grace, even if they understood it differently. But it does not follow from this that we should accept all conceptions of grace as equally valid, for that is a theological question that cannot and should not be decided by history.

6. Gift in Galatians

In Parts Three and Four, Barclay studies both Galatians and Romans, and for the sake of this review I will limit myself to a few observations since there is much that he says exegetically and theologically which is of great value, but there is not space to comment upon all of it. Barclay focuses in Galatians on the new communities Paul wants to form with his gospel. Barclay focuses on the incongruity of the gift in Paul. God’s grace is granted to the unworthy and the undeserving. What Paul says accords in part with Hoyadot and Pseudo-Philo, but by way of contrast Paul celebrates the grace of God given in Jesus Christ.

Barclay argues in Galatians that works of law refers to the entire Torah, but we should not conclude that the Pauline rejection of works of law signals a defective soteriology on the part of the opponents. If Paul were waging war against works-righteousness, says Barclay, he would not speak negatively of uncircumcision as well (Gal 5:6; 6:15). The problem is not doing, according to Barclay. Instead, the Torah is not normative for believers any longer; the new community is not demarcated by the Torah.

I am not persuaded that there is no polemic against doing in Galatians. Faith is set against doing, even if the doing is circumscribed by Torah (Gal 3:1–9). The contrast is particularly strong in Gal 3:12 where the law, in contrast to faith, is characterized by performance. The reference to uncircumcision does not negate what is said since people can boast in what they do (get circumcised) or what they do not do (uncircumcision). That is why Paul trumpets the cross as his only boast (Gal 6:12) and the new creation is the rule by which all should live (Gal 6:16). Additionally, Barclay does not reflect enough on the difference between promise and law. Law does not avail since it focuses on what human beings do (or more precisely fail to do), while the promise stresses what God in Christ does for believers. Of course, this last point fits with Barclay’s emphasis on the incongruity of grace in Galatians, and he rightly features that theme. He also correctly says that we see both the incongruity and congruity of grace in the letter; it is incongruous since it is given to the unworthy, but it is also congruous in that it fits and shapes believers so that they are transformed and become worthy. Barclay does not see much evidence of the efficacy of grace in Galatians, but I wonder if his own work on the transforming power of the Spirit points in the other direction.

7. Gift in Romans

When it comes to Romans, Barclay sees a pronounced emphasis on the superabundance of grace. In Romans, like Galatians, Paul sees God’s grace as incongruous so that it is granted to the unworthy, and fitting, in that it changes those who are its recipients. The incongruous grace of God continues to be given in Jesus Christ. At the final judgment there will be evidence that those who have received God’s grace have changed. Hence, God’s grace is unconditioned (given to the unworthy), but not unconditional (those who have received such grace are transformed). Barclay helpfully maintains that the discussion of Abraham in Romans 4 engages in a polemic against works and emphasizes the inclusion of the Gentiles; there is no reason to opt for an either-or. Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles and his Gentile mission accords with his theology of grace.

On the other hand, he is not convincing when he says that there is no polemic against a Jewish conception of works in Rom 4:4–5. Has not Barclay already shown that some would not agree with Paul’s notion of an incongruous gift? In these verses we see a different conception of grace. Some Jews certainly depended on their works for vindication; otherwise, the boasting of the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9–14) does not relate to anyone. Barclay thinks Paul has an exegetical but not a polemical purpose in Rom 4:4–5, but that is a very unlikely splitting of categories. Paul writes about matters present in people’s lives. In the same way, it seems as if Barclay strains to deny any sense of trusting in one’s own righteousness in Rom 9:30–10:8. In Barclay’s reading of Rom 10:3, Paul speaks of confirming or validating one’s righteousness instead of establishing or achieving righteousness. He does not think Paul criticizes an attempt to be righteous by works or human achievement. The issue is that some believed that Torah observance made one a fitting recipient of God’s kindness. Paul does not criticize works-righteousness “but the criteria by which worth is defined” (p. 541n46). This is a possible reading, but it is a very fine distinction. It seems likely that people would boast about meeting such criteria. Indeed, Paul sets boasting and works over against faith in Rom 3:27–4:5.

Surprisingly (at least to me), Barclay argues that the post-Pauline writers of Ephesians (2:8–10), 2 Timothy (1:9), and Titus (3:5) indict “pride of achievement” where there is “the human tendency to self-congratulation in the attainment of worth” (p. 571, italics his). So, according to Barclay, the post-Pauline writers actually subscribe to a view of works and faith which most Protestants have thought was in Romans and Galatians. I think all these later letters are authentic, but let us follow Barclay’s argument a bit further. Presumably these post-Pauline writers were interpreting Romans and Galatians for their generation. I would suggest that we should follow their interpretation (if they are post-Pauline) instead of Barclay’s. They were closer to Paul in time and culture than Barclay, and they understood Paul to criticize works-righteousness. Of course, if these letters are Pauline (as I think they are), they constitute further evidence for the notion that Paul engaged in a polemic against works-righteousness.

8. Conclusion

I have probably concentrated too much on places where I disagree with Barclay. His study of gift in antiquity is of great value. Barclay demonstrates clearly that grace and gift were conceived of in a diversity of ways in Second Temple Judaism. All Jews in the Second Temple period believed in grace, but they conceived of it in various ways, and thus Barclay’s work represents a real advance over Sanders’s construal. Barclay also demonstrates that one of the goals of Paul’s ministry was the unification of Jews and Gentiles in the church, and Paul’s theology of the gift was the basis for this new community. The incongruity of God’s gift of grace stands out in Paul, and Paul emphasizes that gift is given in the Christ event. Finally, the book is full of profound and thought-provoking exegetical insights, and hence this book is sure to be discussed for years to come. And a volume two is promised, which is sure to enlighten us all.

[1] John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 49–52.

[3] D.A. Carson, Peter O’Brien, and Mark Seifrid, eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001); Simon J. Gathercole, Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1–5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Mark A. Elliott, The Survivors of Israel: A Reconsideration of the Theology of Pre-Christian Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); Andrew A. Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001); Friedrich Avemarie, Tora und Leben, TSAJ 55 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996).

Thomas R. Schreiner

Tom Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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