Paul and the Gift: Part 1, The Personality of Grace

One of the books published in 2015 that got a lot of attention and praise in theological and biblical studies circles was John Barclay's book Paul and the Gift. Paul and the Gift is a book of Pauline scholarship that analyzes Paul's understanding of grace.

Obviously, grace is a hugely significant doctrine for the Christian faith. Everything in the faith rests upon what we mean by "the grace of God."

Because of the attention the book received and the importance of its subject matter, I thought I'd devote a few posts to share what I found helpful, interesting and important in Paul and the Gift. These posts aren't intended to be a thorough book review but a gleaning of insights from the book that I want keep and share.

To start, one of the big, central ideas behind Paul and the Gift is easily stated: When we speak of grace we aren't just naming one, simple thing. Rather, grace names many, many things and you have to keep track about what you're talking about.

As a psychologist I appreciate this point. Whenever psychologists seek to assess and study a construct in the world the first thing that has to be decided is if the construct in question is uni-dimensional or multi-dimensional, whether the construct is one simple thing or a composite of many different things.

Consider personality. We tend to think of personality as a multi-dimensional construct, a composite of many distinct traits. Consequently, to assess personality we have to assess each personality trait separately. Traits like extroversion or conscientiousness.

The traits themselves we tend to think of as uni-dimensional. We don't usually break a trait like extroversion down into component parts. We tend to measure extroversion as extroversion, with a person being "high" or "low" on that single dimension.

One of Barclay's big points early in Paul and the Gift is that grace is less like a trait and more like personality. Grace isn't one simple thing, grace is a composite of many different things.

It's a simple idea, but one rarely recognized, often with sad results.

As Barclay describes in his book, many of the historical and on-going debates about grace are rooted in ignoring the fact that grace is multi-faceted and complex. For example, Barclay points out, to say that Augustine believed in grace whereas Pelagius did not misses the point that Pelagius very much believed in grace. In a similar way, to say that Luther believed in grace and that the Catholic Church did not misses the point that the Catholic Church has always believed in grace.

What's going on in these debates, Barclay points out, isn't a debate about who does or does not believe in grace. These are debates, rather, about a particular feature, part, facet, dimension, piece, or component of grace. More specifically, these aren't debates about grace per se, but about what facet or feature is believed to integral to grace or, at the very least, what features should be included in the personality profile of grace.

In the next post I'll review the various features and components of grace that Barclay describes. You can think of these as being the "traits" that combine to make up the "personality" of grace.

But for this post let's simply appreciate the important point Barclay is making right out of the gate, a point that can help us in our debates about grace. If grace is many things rather than one thing then when we debate grace with people--and a debate about grace sits at the heart of a lot of our arguments, from total depravity to election to merit/works to the perseverance of the saints--the debate isn't about who does or does not believe in grace. Catholic and Protestant. Augustinian and Pelagian. Calvinist and Arminian. Everyone in these debates believes in grace.

The debate is actually about what traits we think should or should not be included to make up the personality of grace. The personality of grace varies from theological tradition to theological tradition, but everyone has a relationship with grace.

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