Paul and the Gift: Part 3, Liberality as the Seventh Perfection of Grace

In his book Paul and the Gift John Barclay suggests that grace can be "perfected" in six different ways.

Many reviewers of Paul and the Gift have said that this list of perfections is the most helpful thing in the book, worth the price of the book, as the list helps us focus on what, exactly, we mean by grace. Specifically, most of our debates about grace aren't about grace per se, but about a specific perfection of grace and if that perfection is central to the biblical vision of God's grace.

In the last post I gave a summary list 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 I've watched YouTube clips of John Barclay present this list to various audiences he's mentioned that he's open to people suggesting additions to this list. So in this post I want to argue for a seventh way grace can be perfected.

Here's my addition of the list:
7. Liberality
Grace is "perfected" if it is given to more rather than fewer recipients.
I'd like to suggest that liberality is a distinct idea from superabundance and incongruity, though there are relationships.

Specifically, where superabundance focuses upon the size of the gift liberality focuses upon the number of recipients. True, giving gifts to many people implies some abundance, you have to have more if you want to give to more people. But the two perfections are distinct. I can give an extravagant gift to one person (superabundance with no liberality). Or I can give small gifts to many people (no superabundance but much liberality).

God's grace, therefore, is perfected in that it is both superabundant and liberal, extravagant and given to many.

But just how many?

That question is why I think we need to introduce liberality as a perfection to Barclay's list. For example, when Arminians debate the doctrine of election in Calvinism their most passionate objections aren't about the perfections of efficacy and non-circularity (issues we discussed in the last post). The most passionate objections to Calvinism are about liberality, about how in Calvinism God's superabundant and incongruous gifts are poured out upon so very few--just the elect. Arminians, by contrast, argue that God's grace is liberal--universal in fact--poured out superabundantly and incongruously upon all of humanity.

As John 3.16 declares, for God so loved the world. As in, the entire world.

Liberality can also be contrasted with incongruity in the debates about universal reconciliation. If all of humanity is depraved and rebellious God's grace given to any one of us is incongruous. But that incongruous grace can be poured out upon few, many or all of humanity. By itself, as with superabundance, the perfection of incongruity doesn't get to the scope of grace. Incongruous grace can be given to the few or the many. Another perfection--liberality--is needed to get at this issue.

But there is a relationship between liberality and incongruity. If the gift of grace is incongruous when given to a single depraved human then that incongruity grows as that grace is poured out on more and more unworthy recipients. That scandal of grace grows with each new addition. And it's that scandal of liberality that many find objectionable to theologies of universal reconciliation. Is grace so liberal that it incongruously includes all of humanity? There has to be a limit to grace, right? A line in the sand where no more will be included, with the very worst of sinners left outside? Such questions are not about the incongruity of grace, but about the perfection of liberality.    

So, this is my suggestion for Dr. Barclay. There is a seventh perfection of grace--liberality--that captures the way we perfect grace by expanding its scope and universality.

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