Paul and the Gift: Six Perfections of Grace image

Paul and the Gift: Six Perfections of Grace

Grace is both an incredibly important and an incredibly difficult concept, explains John Barclay in Paul and the Gift. When boiled down to its purest form, or "perfected" as Kenneth Burke puts it, we can distinguish between at least six common "perfections" of grace, and no one of them necessarily implies all the others:

1. The superabundance of grace. This is entirely to do with “the size, significance or permanence of the gift.” Seneca talks of the “lavish and unceasing” benevolence of the gods (De Beneficiis 1.1.9), Philo speaks of God’s grace as comprising “boundless and illimitable wealth” (Legum allegoriae3.163-164; De sacrificiis Abelis et Caini 124) which God “pours forth from a continuous and inexhaustible spring” (De posteritate Caini 32, 127-128), and of course Paul refers to God’s indescribable gift (2 Corinthians 9:8-15).

2. The singularity of grace. This is the idea that “the giver’s sole and exclusive mode of operation is benevolence or goodness,” especially when applied to God, and is found in this form particularly in Plato (Timaeus 29b-d; Republic 379b-d), although also in Philo, Seneca and (perhaps ominously) Marcion.

3. The priority of grace. “As the initiating move, the prior gift is not a reaction to a demand or request, and thus is spontaneous in its generosity.” This, again, emerges in Philo, where God is the sole, primal and original cause of all things, such that even when human agency is emphasised, God is already at work (e.g. Quis rerum divinarum heres sit 102-124; De virtutibus 185). The echoes of prevenient and/or predestining grace here should be obvious.

4. The incongruity of grace. As we have already seen, gifts in antiquity were given with careful consideration to the worthiness of the recipient, lest the gifts be wasted. But it was always possible, Barclay explains, to argue such a gift was “less than fully generous: a perfect gift could be figured as one given without condition, that is, without regard to the worth of the recipient. He finds hints of this approach in Seneca, but otherwise, it is more a theoretical possibility than a practical likelihood - at least until Paul, that is.

5. The efficacy of grace. Looking now at the effect of the gift, “a perfect gift may also be figured as that which fully achieves what it was designed to do.” Unsurprisingly, Seneca is brought in again here (De Beneficiis 2.11; 3.29.3; 4.6.4-5), along with Philo’s intriguing comment that the human capacity to conceive of God was “inbreathed” at creation (Quod deterius potiori insidari soleat 86). “In some form or another, everyone can agree that God’s gifts are effective: the extent to which they are the sole and sufficient cause of the human response is the degree to which this facet of grace has been perfected.” Again, the spectre of Augustinianism/Calvinism looms large here.

6. The non-circularity of grace. This, unlike the other “perfections” of grace, is more of a modern concept: “the one-way gift establishes no relation, creates a permanent and potentially humiliating dependency, and frees the recipient of all responsibility.” Both Philo and Seneca speak of gifts which cannot be reciprocated materially, but these nevertheless require a response of gratitude (most tellingly pointed out when Philo figures eucharistia as the proper return of charis for charis (Quis rerum divinarum heres sit 104).

In laying them out like this, Barclay’s point is relatively straightforward: “to perfect one facet of gift-giving does not imply the perfection of any or all of the others.” He elucidates this point in a crucial paragraph:

To speak of “pure grace” may mean its singularity (God is nothing but benevolent) or its non-circularity (God’s grace seeks no return) - or some other of its six perfections. To describe God’s grace as “free” could mean many things: that it is unconstrained by the previous circumstances (in our terms, prior), that it is given irrespective of the recipients’ worth (in our terms, incongruous), or that it is given without subsequent expectations (in our terms, non-circular) - or, indeed, some combination of these three. Similarly, the epithet “unconditional” could mean at least two things: without prior conditions (thus, incongruous) or without resulting obligations (thus, non-circular), or both.

This, of course, has huge implications for subsequent debates about grace in the church. Pelagius, Barclay explains, certainly believed in grace, and perfected it in terms of both superabundance and priority, but he disagreed with Augustine on its incongruity. Or, more pithily: “Augustine did not believe in grace more than Pelagius; he simply believed in it differently.” We could presumably make similar observations about Luther and Tetzel, Calvin and Arminius, Barth and Brunner, or even Campbell and Barclay.

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