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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 66, 2018

JOHN M. G. BARCLAY, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). Pp. xvi + 656. Hardback.

This ambitious book seeks to clarify Paul’s theology of grace and gift, an area much debated over the centuries. Barclay takes a highly systematic approach which produces some fresh and valuable perspectives.

Barclay attempts to redefine the language of gift and grace in the light of ancient and modern discussions, in particular the rather extreme interpretations of “pure” gift in postmodern discourses. Anthropological studies and studies of ancient civilisations and literature have both established that there was never such a thing as a totally pure free gift that is one with absolutely no expectation of reciprocity or one given without any regard to the worthiness of the recipient. Even ancient Judaism, while it extended the category of worthy recipients to the poor and insignificant, retained at least the expectation of reward from God (39–45). Hence in spite of Derrida, “the modern ideology of the ‘pure’ gift is the construct of a specific historical and cultural configuration—an invention of the modern West” (59).

After this analysis, which alone would make this book worth reading, Barclay lays down a fresh definitional foundation in his shortest but most important chapter (Chapter 2). This is based on the concept of “perfection,” drawn from Kenneth Burke, which “refers to the tendency to draw out a concept to its endpoint or extreme, whether for definitional clarity or for rhetorical or ideological advantage” (67). In the case of grace, signs of such perfecting are found when authors say that, “God operates in ‘pure grace’ or by ‘sheer grace’: his gifts are ‘utterly free,’ ‘totally gratuitous,’ or ‘by grace alone’” or when divine grace is seen as “unmerited, unalloyed, indiscriminate, unstinting, or unconditional” (69). Barclay wants to co-test this tendency to extreme views of grace and the ambiguity they bring to study of Paul in particular.

To do this, he distinguishes “six perfections of grace” (70), that is, six aspects that can be pushed to extreme limits and need to be distinguished from each other: superabundance (“the size, significance, or permanence of the gift”); singularity (the motivation of the giver in terms of benevolence); priority (the gift is made before the recipient has done anything to deserve or even request it); incongruity (giving without regard to the worthiness of recipients); efficacy (the ability of a gift to achieve the giver’s ends); and finally non-circularity (“it escapes reciprocity” or does not expect any return) (70–75). Barclay emphasises that grace is a “polyvalent symbol” because “to perfect one facet of gift-giving does not imply the perfection of any or all of the others” (75, emphasis in the text).

The rest of the book applies this “analytical tool’ (77) to historical interpreters of Paul, from Marcion to the New Perspective (Chapter 3), to analysis of divine gift in selected Second Temple Judaism literature (The Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, 1QHa from the Qmran documents, Pseudo-Philo and 4 Ezra; Chapters 5–10) and to Galatians and Romans (Chapters 11–17). Sometimes the analysis is quite complex and readers need to keep returning to Chapter 2 for help. However, the overall strategy is clear: Barclay insists that the language of grace and gift does not entail the “perfection” of all six aspects; God’s grace may be extreme in one respect but not in others.

In his concluding chapter, Barclay sums up his argument regarding Paul in the light of his contention that E. P. Sanders’ concept of “covenantal nomism” was confused precisely because he failed to make the distinctions Barclay insists on (564). The Gift of God is the Christ-event, especially Jesus’ death for our sins (566). This gift is perfectly incongruous in that its recipients are unworthy, superabundant and prior (even though Paul does not make this explicit very often), but is not singular (since the context is God’s judgment on sin) and not non-circular (“since the gift carries expectations of obedience”); its efficacy is also not stressed, in spite of Augustinian and Calvinist claims. Paul’s main emphasis is on “the incongruity of the gift of Christ” (569, emphasis in the text), and this point is strongly derived from Paul’s experience with leadership of the Gentile mission which “dissolved the distinction between Jews and non-Jews and relativized the Torah” (570), a point underemphasised by later interpreters (like Luther) who did not have a non-Christian background and used Paul’s teaching on grace to promote inner reform within the Christian church (570–72). There is an appendix on gift language in Greek, Hebrew, Latin and English (575–82).

Much more could be said. Some readers may find this book pedantic and given to a scholastic style of definitions. I wonder if the analytical tool is too complicated. However, by the end of the book, the key points are clear and mostly convincing. But even if readers don’t agree with Barclay, their own thinking on “Paul and the gift” will be challenged and clarified in the effort of interacting with him.

Review by
Jon Newton
Alphacrucis College, Melbourne