Paul and the Gift: Part 2, The Six Components and Perfections of Grace

In the last post I pointed out that John Barclay argues in his book Paul and the Gift that grace is a complex and multi-dimensional construct. Consequently, when we talk about grace we have to be specific about what part of grace we are talking about. Because you and I both might be using the word "grace" but mean very different things by it.

So what are the components of grace?

According to Barclay, as he reviewed biblical and historical sources, grace involves six components, what Barclay calls "perfections."

Barclay uses the word "perfections" because that's how he identified the six components of grace. Specifically, as the ancients and the church debated the nature of grace and gift-giving they would latch onto a particular aspect of grace and gift, identifying this feature as the essence. This essence was undiluted, pure grace. The perfection of grace.

Surveying these historical sources Barclay has identified six different ways grace has been "perfected," features believed to be the essence of grace.

Here is a summary of Barclay's six perfections of grace:
1. Superabundance
Grace is "perfected" if it is lavish and extravagant.

2. Singularity
Grace is "perfected" if it flows out of a spirit of benevolence and goodness.

3. Priority
Grace is "perfected" if it is unprompted, free, spontaneous and initiated solely by choice of the giver.

4. Incongruity
Grace is "perfected" if it ignores the worth or merit of the recipient.

5. Efficacy
Grace is "perfected" if it accomplishes what it intends to do.

6. Non-Circularity
Grace is "perfected" if it escapes repayment and reciprocity, if it cannot be paid back or returned.
As you read through this list you likely felt a lot of it as familiar. Obviously, if God is giving the gift we expect that gift to be "perfect." Consequently, we expect a lot of these perfections to be applied to God's gift of grace. For example, God's grace is extravagant and a product of God's love for us. That is, God's grace displays superabundance and singularity.

We also believe that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. In this grace displays priority (God loved us first) and incongruity (while we were undeserving sinners).

You don't get a whole lot of debate about the first four perfections. By contrast, there has been a lot of debate about the last two, the perfections of efficacy and non-circularity.

For example, does grace accomplish what it sets out to accomplish?

That perfection--efficacy--is at the heart of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. In Calvinism God's grace can't be resisted or renounced. God's grace is perfectly efficacious: if God decides to save you you're going to be saved. God elects you and you can never fall from grace.

Notice how the perfection of efficacy is at the heart of debates regarding election, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints.

Notice also how debates about the perfection of non-circularity fit into these same debates. Does grace demand a human response? If just our free will assent? According to some Calvinistic positions any response at all from the human person--even the assent of free will to "accept" the free gift of grace--contaminates the perfection of non-circularity. According to these Calvinistic views, even the act of accepting grace must be the initiative and act of God (a view called monergism). No human agency whatsoever is allowed at any point. Not even the choice of a free will.

The debates between Calvinism and Arminianism about the perfections of efficacy and non-circularity are just one example to consider. As Barclay points out in Paul and the Gift, many of our famous church-historical debates have been debates about one or more of the six perfections.

But here's the super important insight, the same point we made in the last post: Everyone in these debates believes in grace.

To stay with our example, both Calvinists and Arminians believe in grace, they agree that grace is extravagant (superabundance), free and unprompted (priority), loving (singularity), and poured out upon a rebellious, depraved and undeserving humanity (incongruity).

Again, both Calvinists and Arminians believe in grace.

Now it could be argued here that in accepting all six perfections that Calvinists have the more perfected vision of perfect grace. And I guess you could make that argument. Except for two things,

First, when it comes to a perfection like non-circularity, did the ancients--Jewish and Greek--perfect their notion of gift in this way? Specifically, when the ancients talked about the practices of gift giving did they praise and elevate gifts that couldn't be repaid or reciprocated?

This issue is important because, to our second point, how did the apostle Paul perfect grace is his gospel? That's what Barclay is really after in Paul and the Gift. How did Paul perfect grace?

So the historical backdrop is important here as Paul was working with ancient Jewish and Greek notions of grace and gift and working out his own vision of perfection.

So what perfection or perfections did Paul focus on? And are these the same perfections that we moderns focus on in our contemporary debates about grace?

To be specific about it, while Calvinists might insist upon the perfections of efficacy and non-circularity did Paul? How biblical are the six perfections? How central are the six perfections to Paul's gospel of grace?

So that's the big question in Paul and the Gift. The question isn't all the different ways grace can be and has been perfected, but about how Paul perfected grace.

We'll take up that issue shortly--Paul's perfection of grace--but before we do that I'd like to suggest in the next post that Barclay consider adding a seventh perfection.

Can you guess what it is?

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply