Paul and the Gift: A Reading of Galatians image

Paul and the Gift: A Reading of Galatians

The treatment of Galatians in John Barclay's Paul and the Gift runs to four chapters and over a hundred pages, and comprises a reading of the whole letter in dialogue with four interlocutors in particular: Martin Luther, James Dunn, Louis Martyn and Brigitte Kahl. Barclay begins by drawing attention to a whole host of Pauline polarities in Galatians - God/humanity, Spirit/flesh, freedom/slavery, Christ/Law, pistis Christou/erga nomou, new creation/world, and so on - and showing that, for Paul, they marginalise the polarities that would otherwise characterise the Galatians (circumcision/uncircumcision, male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free). His clarifying next move is to argue that "every reading is determined by the way it construes and organises the polarities of the letter" (emphasis original), and he then uses his four interlocutors as examples.

For Luther, of course, the central polarity is between faith and works, with works being understood generically (things we do to avail before God) rather than specifically (works of Torah). For Dunn, erga tou nomou are ethnic boundary markers that separate Jews from Gentiles, in contrast to pistis Christou, which is the true mark of those in Christ, whether Jewish or not. For Martyn, the central polarity is between divine and human agency - faithfulness of Christ versus works of Law - which itself is rooted in a deeper cosmic antinomy between “apocalypse” and “religion”. Kahl, who reads the polemic against law against an imperial backdrop, sees chapters 5-6 as the climax of the letter, and sets peace-making and inclusion against boasting, aggression, segregation and “othering”. Each reading chooses a primary polarity, and reads the rest of the text in that light.

For Barclay, the polarity is between the divine gift, given without regard to worth, and human appraisals of honour, status or value. “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 ... This incongruous gift has subverted previous measurements of symbolic capital, establishing its own criteria of value and honour that are no longer beholden to the authority of the Torah. The Christ-event as gift is thus the foundation of Paul’s Gentile mission, in which Paul resists attempts to reinstitute pre-constituted hierarchies of ethnic or social worth, and forms alternative communities that take their bearings from this singular event.”

The incongruity of the Christ-gift is first highlighted in the greeting (1:3-4), in which the grace of God is said to have “decisively altered the cosmos, effecting a ‘rescue from the present evil age’ that elicits, in return, a human ascription of glory to God.” In the opening rebuke (1:6-12), contrasts are drawn between divine and human origins for the gospel (1:6-9, 12), approval (10) and grounds of value (11): Barclay translates verse 11, “I want you to know that the good news announced by me is not in accord with human norms,” and argues that this negation is “of central significance to the theology of the letter.” As Paul tells his own conversion and call story (1:13-24), it becomes clear that the incongruous gift of God in Christ has made him revisit everything he once regarded as signifying value before humanity, and “since no one is granted this gift on the grounds of their ethnic worth, no one of any ethnicity is excluded from its reach.” If the norms of Judaism still prevailed, Paul should have been in Jerusalem for this key period. But they don’t, so he wasn’t (1:18-24).

Because human norms are nothing as a result of the Christ-gift, then neither circumcision, nor uncircumcision, nor the reputation of being a “pillar” in the church, add anything to the gospel (2:1-10); “God takes no account of human, external status” (2:6), and the paragraph culminates with the insistence that the “worthless” (the poor) be “accorded countercultural attention” (2:10). In the rightly famous second half of chapter 2, Paul shows that “both Jews and non-Jews are ‘called’ by incongruous grace into common belonging to Christ. Their previous evaluations of one another and of their traditions, based on the cultural norms of ethnic distinction, are subverted by an event that has paid no regard to pre-constituted criteria of value.” Distinguishing himself from both Luther and Martyn, Barclay reads erga nomou as referring specifically to “the practice of Torah as though it were the authoritative cultural frame of the good news,” dikaiousthai as “considered righteous,” and pistis Christou as “faith in Christ,” defending the last of these exegetical decisions at some length (and, in my view, convincingly). As the chapter concludes, Paul explains how his self, and hence his agency, has been reconstituted (2:17-21) by the Christ-event, and how, in consequence, the insistence that believers live Jewishly would mean that Christ had died for nothing.

Interestingly, it is not just circumcision that counts for nothing, but uncircumcision as well (3:26-28; 5:2-6; 6:11-16), and this (for Barclay) gives the lie to the arguments of both Luther and Dunn: neither self-reliant works (Luther) nor nationalistic imperialism (Dunn) would give rise to uncircumcision being devalued here, whereas Paul “subverts any form of symbolic capital that operates independently of Christ.” Both Greeks and Jews regarded their status as superior to the other, and rather than defending one and giving the other a punch on the nose, it is punches all round. “Baptism ‘into Christ’ provides a radically new foundation for communities freed from hierarchical systems of distinction, not because of some generalised commitment to ‘equality’ but because of the unconditioned gift of Christ, which undercuts all other reckoning of worth.” The Torah is an interlude in God’s plan, rather than a destination in itself, and is associated with curse rather than with blessing, which means that the gift of Christ cannot have been given because of any worthiness established through observing it. Torah, like all the other stoicheia tou kosmou (“physical elements of the world”), cannot confer value.

As such, “the communal life prescribed [in chapters 5-6] is integral to Paul’s ‘good news’ ... Social practice is, for Paul, the necessary expression of the Christ-gift, and it will now become clear that non-competitive communities, ordered by a new calibration of worth, realise and help define the Christ-event as an unconditioned gift.” In an illuminating analogy, Barclay explains that, “at 5:13 the camera does not pan across to a different object; it pulls back to reveal the larger context in which the Torah-debate is sited ... From the perspective of the Christ-gift, which is unconditioned and therefore unaligned to previous norms, everything is either beholden to God-in-Christ or beholden to human tradition (1:10-11), either “new creation” or passé cosmos (6:14-15), either Spirit or flesh (3:3).” This accounts for the otherwise surprising vice list in 5:19-21, which includes not just the standard Jewish denunciations of Gentile practice (sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, magic) but a long list of communally damaging activities (hostility, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, and so on). Building communities like this is not an additional extra to the gospel, or even an important consequence of it, but an integral part of its expression and demonstration in the world: so, for example, “the continuation of ethnic distinctions at meals in Antioch is not just a communal malfunction, but an outright denial of justification by faith.” This, significantly, opens some new avenues of discussion in the long-running debate about justification, faith and works in Paul.

In Galatians, then, Paul does not stress the superabundance or singularity of grace particularly, but strongly emphasises its incongruity. He presupposes its priority, but does not perfect its efficacy, and seems clearly to reject its non-circularity. Grace, for Paul in Galatians, is unconditioned but not unconditional.

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