Paul and the Gift: A Brief History of Grace image

Paul and the Gift: A Brief History of Grace

Paul did not reject the grace of God, because if righteousness came by the law, then Christ died for nothing (Gal 2:21). No controversy there. But what exactly Paul meant by "grace", particularly in light of the six possible "perfections" of grace John Barclay has already expounded, is much more difficult. So the largest chapter of Barclay's excellent Paul and the Gift is devoted to showing how Paul's language of grace has been interpreted through history, from Marcion to Lou Martyn. What is fascinating about this survey is not just the light it sheds on how different interpreters have understood grace in Paul, but the light it sheds on how we understand grace in Paul, often without realising how much of it we have taken from others. So, in roughly chronological order:

Marcion, whose view of grace we can only establish by reading Christian refutations of it, apparently has a reading of Paul which “not only emphasises Paul’s association of the Christ-event with the grace and mercy of God, but perfects this association in the direction of singularity, distancing the God who is purely and entirely good from any hint of the exercise of judgment.” Marcion’s God, newly revealed in Jesus, is not only good (bonus) but supremely good (optimus), and in fact good and nothing else (tantummudo or solummodo bonus); in this he is famously distinguished from the Jewish God of the Old Testament, who as judge, cannot be a God of grace in the sense of that word understood by Marcion.

In contrast, the “incongruous gift to the undeserving forms the bedrock of Augustine‘s theology of grace.” Barclay traces the development of Augustine’s theology, from his early works on Romans, in which he “advances a theology of grace that precedes all merit, enabling moral virtue but not in any sense dependent on it,” through his work on Romans 9 in Ad Simplicianum, where he puts a much greater accent on grace in predestination, and finally to the Pelagian controversy and beyond, after which he regards grace as not only prior and incongruous, but also efficacious, since if it were not, then salvation would not be of grace. “Pelagius clearly believed in the priority and superabundance of grace,” he remarks, “but those perfections were not nearly sufficient for Augustine,” for whom priority, incongruity and efficacy were all vital. “Henceforth it would prove difficult to unpick Augustine’s tightly woven bundle of grace-perfections without appearing ‘Pelagian,’ while its close connection with the routines of prayer made this definition of grace seem ‘obvious’ and proper to the Christian faith.” Whether this is Paul’s view of grace, of course, remains to be seen.

Luther, so often the bogeyman in contemporary discussion about grace and works in Paul, is treated with such care and depth that, were I not predisposed to believe it impossible amongst New Testament scholars, I might almost imagine Barclay had read him. The nominalism of Gabriel Biel and its impact on the early Luther is summarised, and the similarities between Luther and Augustine are drawn out, but with the important difference also noted: Augustine regarded grace as making the ungodly godly, whereas for Luther, “God’s grace is not only initially incongruous with the worth of its recipients, but remains perpetually so, as a structural characteristic of the Christian life” (clear in Luther’s oft-quoted phrase simul iustus et peccator). As such, Luther regards grace not only as superabundant and singular (in the Christ-event), but also continuously incongruous, prior, and even non-circular, since “we love and obey God only because, nor in order that” (which helps explain why he regards all works and vocations as of equal value: they are not meritorious before God at all). He does not, however, like Calvin, develop the efficacy of grace in the heart of the believer.

Calvin saw the grace of God not just in the gospel but also in creation and providence, and consequently “there is a strong drive to attribute every virtue, and every ‘drop’ of it, to God, and God alone, in pious recognition of God’s omnicausality.” This is what draws him to an Augustinian view of predestination, and the superabundance, priority and incongruity of grace. Because of his understanding of sanctification and union with Christ, Calvin does not develop the idea that grace is non-circular, since the divine gift brings about obedience and holiness, even though God does this by working in and through the believer; “Calvin conceives of the believers’ actions as both wholy God’s and wholy their own.” He does, however, stress its efficacy, since it is entirely God’s work that shines through when we act righteously, and entirely ours that shines through when we sin. In a superb summary sentence, Barclay remarks, “If agency itself is not a zero-sum game in Calvin’s construal of believers’ relation to God, any goodness (i.e. perfection) that results from their doubled agency most certainly is.”

Barclay then moves to discuss twentieth century writers, whose influence today is no less significant for being more recent. Barth stressed the incongruity of grace, seeing the Christ-event as an absolutely free and unconditioned act of God, and insisting that “God’s action is never ‘Consequently’ but always ‘Nevertheless’”; he did not however perfect its singularity, and struggled endlessly with how to speak of its efficacy. Bultmann made the incongruity of grace the center of Pauline theology, and emphasised its priority, but did not perfect its efficacy, in line with his strong emphasis on freedom, decision and obedience, nor its singularity, since the gospel is precisely the work of a righteous judge, nor its non-circularity, since grace carries the demands of obedience. “Kasemann also makes the incongruity of grace the hallmark of Pauline theology,” joining Bultmann and Luther in not perfecting its singularity or efficacy, but resisting the Lutheran tendency towards non-circularity in fear of “cheap grace.”

In his final section, Barclay brings the discussion up-to-date with summaries of Lou Martyn (including a fascinating sidebar on his conception of divine and human agency), E. P. Sanders, the New Perspective, and post-NPP writers like Francis Watson, Simon Gathercole and Douglas Campbell. This is where Barclay’s taxonomic chickens really come home to roost: in distinguishing between the different perfections of grace, he is able to show how (say) Sanders’ emphasis on the priority of grace, which he rightly finds in Second Temple Judaism, in no way requires either incongruity or non-circularity, for all that these three tend to get lumped together in the work of Sanders, Dunn and Wright. “It seems that Sanders, like Braun, assumed that God’s grace, if ‘free’ and ‘pure’, must be ‘unmerited’ and ‘groundless’. This assumption - that incongruity is an essential characteristic of grace - reflects the influence of the Augustinian and Reformation traditions, but would have seemed peculiarly one-sided in ancient discussions of gift or grace.” When these different perfections are disentangled, it is possible to see how cloudy some of the generalisations about Paul and Second Temple Judaism are: “Paul and his fellow Jews agreed on the priority of grace, but disagreed on its incongruity, at least in relation to ethnic worth.” Perhaps the most egregious example of the various perfections of grace all being bundled together comes in the work of Douglas Campbell, in whom “the motif of grace is drawn out on all fronts to logical conclusions and end-of-the-line extremes that rhetorically disqualify alternative construals as inadequate or misleading definitions of the term. Indeed, of all the authors we have surveyed in this chapter, Campbell is the only one to insist on all six possible perfections of grace.”

So, in a nutshell: “different scholars are assuming different perfections of grace.” If I’d started with that, this post would have been a whole lot shorter.

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