Paul and the Gift: Part 4, Paul's Incongruous Grace

As we've been discussing in the last two posts, John Barclay has argued in his book Paul and the Gift that grace can be "perfected" in six different ways. (And I've suggested a seventh perfection.)

And as we've noted, this list of perfections is handy because it helps illustrate how most debates about grace aren't really about grace but are, rather, about the centrality or importance of a particular perfection or component of grace. For example, Calvinists and Arminians agree that grace is incongruous--poured out upon the unworthy--but they have fierce debates about the perfection of efficacy.

Barclay makes a lot of interesting observations about how these debates about the perfections originated and have played out in church history. Specifically, one of the reasons grace gets "perfected," Barclay argues, is through the process of debate itself. As we debate positions the give and take of analysis tends to push our definitions and positions to the limit cases, if just to achieve logical and rhetorical clarity. Ideas get isolated and "purified" and, thus, more extreme. Positions start boiling down to either/or.

You can detect the legacy of these debate in our contemporary skirmishes. Faith vs. works. Justification vs. sanctification. Bondage of the will vs. free will. Monergism vs. synergism. Why these extreme, either/or positions? Why these polarities?

As Barclay shows, we argue about these polarities because we've inherited the debates of the past regarding the various perfections of grace. These debates forced the theologians of old to take extreme positions. And we've inherited those extreme positions.

For example, as Barclay points out, early on Augustine didn't seem all that worried about human agency being involved in responding to God's grace. But later on, in his debates with Pelagius and his followers, Augustine began to perfect the efficaciousness of grace. As these debates evolved any bit of human agency was increasingly deemed to be theologically problematic. Consequently, the debate between Augustine and Pelagius latched onto a particular facet of grace and the debate "perfected" that component, pushing the participants in the debate toward increasingly contrasting, and therefore more extreme, positions. And those extreme positions then cascaded down through the ages. We continue to debate these same either/or polarities.

All of which allows Barclay to make a pretty potent observation. Our understandings of grace have been warped by these church-historical debates. These debates have deformed grace, pulling grace this way and that-a-way, like a lump of taffy, with generations of debate tugging the facets of grace toward extreme, "perfected" viewpoints. The view of grace we've inherited from these debates is sort of like our reflection in a fun house mirror. The vision of grace reflected in the mirror of church history is deformed and distorted.       

And that sets up the main part of Barclay's project in Paul and the Gift. Yes, of course, we can't return to an unbiased and "objective" reading of grace as found in Paul. But we can try to discern, as Barclay does, which perfection (or perfections) of grace seemed to be on Paul's mind.

And one of the tools that can be used here in making this assessment is the tool Barclay uses: When we look at Paul's treatment of grace how did he compare to his peers, Greek and Jewish, in speaking about grace? More specifically, was there anything particularly novel, creative, innovative or shocking in the way Paul spoke about grace given his time and place?

According to Barclay, many of the perfections invoked by Paul were common among his contemporaries. For example, according to the ancients good gifts, given by humans or the gods, displayed perfections like superabundance. Lavishness and extravagance has always marked the best and greatest gifts.

But some of the perfections Christians have focused on when it comes to grace are notably lacking among the ancients in their conversations and conventions regarding gift giving. For example, in a point we'll come back to in a following post, the ancients didn't perfect the notion of non-circularity. Among the ancients, Greek and Jewish, when patrons gave gifts there was always some expectation of return, if only loyalty and gratitude. This expectation of return was the raison d'être of the ancient "economy of gift" and the practices of patronage. And this applied to the gifts given by the gods as well.

And interestingly, we don't see that expectation of return challenged in the letters of Paul. Again, this is a critical point I'd like to return to, but for now we can simply note, following Barclay, that throughout Paul's letters he assumes that God expects a return for the gift of grace. Gratitude, fidelity, righteousness. As we all know, after Paul's magisterial disquisitions on grace in the first parts of his letters there always comes the predictable pivot: "Therefore."

Grace has been given to us...Therefore. And what follows Paul's Therefore is a list of obligations and expectations. Like his contemporaries, Paul assumes that grace implies a return. Grace obligates us. Gifts--even God's gifts--have strings attached.

In short, when we look at Paul's treatment of grace he often looks more like the ancients than many modern Christians who have perfected attributes of grace like non-circularity, where human moral effort as a response to grace is deemed perverse, illegitimate and impossible. According to the perfection non-circularity, grace cannot be repaid. To even try is foolish. To think you can is prideful and therefore sinful. What we see in this is how in perfecting non-circularity we create the "faith vs. works" and "justification vs. sanctification" debates that are hard to map onto Paul's writing.

Again, when it comes to grace Paul didn't perfect non-circularity. We did.

So in many ways, when it comes to grace Paul looks more like the ancients than modern Christians. But that raises the question, in what ways, if it all, did Paul break with his contemporaries on the subject of grace?

According to Barclay, in his close reading of Galatians and Romans, Paul did make a distinctive break with his ancient context when he came to emphasize the incongruity of grace. On this point, that God poured out grace upon unworthy recipients, Paul's gospel made a radical break with his culture, making the gospel shocking and scandalous.

Specifically, both Greek and Jewish sources were in agreement that gifts should only be given to the worthy. This notion was related to the issue of reciprocity. If you expect a return on your gift it makes sense to give that gift to people who can, in fact, make that return. According to the ancients, gifts should be given to worthy recipients, people who merited the gift in their ability to respond. That's what made the patronage and the gift economy work.

And critically, this was also believed to apply to the gifts given by God. As shown by Barclay, there was broad agreement among Second Temple Jewish sources that God is gracious to the righteous in the land, to the faithful, to the loyal remnant. To the worthy.

As a theologian of grace Paul's shocking break with both Greek and Jewish culture was to insist that grace was incongruous, that God gave the Christ-gift to those who were not worthy. And while that notion is commonplace to us, in Paul's day that idea was totally out of left field.

As Barclay goes on to point out, Paul's surprising gospel of incongruous grace was critical to his mission to the Gentiles. The distinction between Jew and Gentile was a distinction of moral worth, the Jews being worthy and the Gentiles being unworthy. Paul's scandalous message was that God's grace had been poured out upon both Jew and Gentile, irrespective of worth. In being given to the Gentiles, to the depraved and unworthy, in Paul's gospel proclamation grace was declared to be incongruous.

Now, like I said, the fact that grace is incongruous, that we are unworthy of grace, is a banality for us modern Christians. What was once a scandal has become tame.

But before we yawn at Paul we have to reckon with what I think is the most powerful part of Barclay's Paul and the Gift, what I consider to be the most profound argument of the book.

Specifically, Barclay argues that we have to understand the missionary context of Paul's gospel of incongruous grace.

Paul's gospel of grace wasn't an abstract theological argument about God's universal love. Paul's gospel had a revolutionary sociological objective. In Paul's hands grace was a destructive force that demolished the "wall of hostility" that had existed between Jews and Gentiles so that new social arrangements could be imagined and realized, Jews and Gentiles living in community together. Grace had sociological implications. Grace brought new modes of community into existence. Grace changed how people treated and lived with each other.

In short, we have to understand the missionary thrust of Paul's gospel of grace, how grace facilitated the unprecedented formation of Jewish and Gentile communities. Exactly how grace created these novel social experiments will be the subject of the next post, and it's the part of Paul and the Gift that I think has the most contemporary and practical relevance for us today.

And lastly, the other reason we need to attend to the primacy of incongruity in Paul's gospel of grace is how Paul ignores or assumes things about grace that just don't jibe with the perfections of grace that have preoccupied Christians for centuries. For example, as Barclay notes, Paul just doesn't seem interested in the details about how human and Divine agency work together in salvation. The debates we inherited from Augustine and Pelagius were not on Paul's radar screen as he contemplated practical social problems like Jew/Gentile table fellowship. Paul simply wasn't interested in perfecting the efficacy of grace the way we have been.

In addition, and of even greater practical relevance, is how, as I mentioned above, Paul didn't seem interested in perfecting the non-circularity of grace. Where Paul rejected the views of his contemporaries in preaching incongruous grace, Paul agreed with his peers that grace obligates us and demands a return. As I read Paul and the Gift I found this insight to be very important. So I'd like to devote a post to this as well.

So, to conclude this series there will be two more posts. On Monday (Part 5) we'll talk about how Paul's gospel of incongruous grace facilitated social experimentation. And on Tuesday (Part 6) we'll end with a discussion about how our inherited tendency to perfect the non-circularity of grace has created enormous problems for the modern church.

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