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Abstract:

John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is one of the most important books on Paul’s theology in years. By setting Paul’s teaching on grace in the context of ancient conceptions of “gift,” Barclay is able to highlight the distinctiveness of Paul’s teaching while at the same time setting that teaching in the context of his Jewish environment. As Barclay himself claims, then, the book opens the way for a way of thinking about Paul that does not obviously fit in either the “old” or the “new” perspective.

John Barclay’s book Paul and the Gift, published late last year, has been receiving rave reviews.1 Paul Foster has called it an “absolutely splendid study,”2 while Tom Schreiner claims it is “stimulating and ground-breaking;” “one of the most important books in recent years on Paul.”3 I agree. I think it is one of the best books on Paul’s theology in the last twenty years. But why all the hoopla? One reason is the sheer quality of the book. It is wide-ranging. Barclay grounds his study of Paul in insights from cultural anthropology, provides a generally competent survey of the reception of the Apostle’s teaching in the history of the church, and puts Paul in conversation with selected voices from Second Temple Judaism. The research is broad, and at the same time well-focused on the key scholarly contributions. He sets forth his argument in logic easy to follow and in English that is clear and even elegant at times.

But the greater reason for the attention the book is receiving is its attempt to chart a course between the Scylla of the “old perspective” and the Charybdis of the “new.” In his conclusion, Barclay claims that his work on Paul and the gift opens a path beyond the dichotomies of the “old” vs. “new” perspective debate. Barclay is himself unsure about which direction his book ultimately leans, noting that it can be seen either as “a re-contextualization of the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition” or as a reconfiguration of the new perspective. A via media between old and new perspectives is a welcome development to many. To be sure, many scholars and pastors are pretty well entrenched on one side or the other. For many in our ultra-tolerant culture, however, the famous cry “Why can’t we all just get along” captures their basic impulse. They are tired of debates over doctrine. They are confused about the theological issues at stake. According to my wife, I myself lean too far in this direction, tending toward a Charlie Brown “wishy-washiness” that too easily sees truth on two sides of an argument. I am probably guilty as charged. So, on the matter before us, I applaud James Dunn and Tom Wright for many insights they have brought to the study of Paul. At the heart of the new perspective is a concern to make the issue of Gentile inclusion the driving force and ideological hub of Paul’s theologizing. While I think new perspective is guilty at this point of an over-correction, they are on to something. And when we put their work in the big picture of theological options for interpreting Paul these days, we should also thank them for propagating basic orthodox and even Reformation views. If we have to choose sides, I am cheerfully going to align myself with the “old perspective.” However, I am also uncomfortable with the black-and-white division of the Pauline theology game into two teams. On the one hand, the dual schema ignores some other teams in the game, some of which pose far more serious challenges to the Reformation view of Paul than does the new perspective.4 And, on the other hand, scholars who hold quite significantly different views on a spectrum of important issues are forced to choose sides by joining one team or the other. For myself, while I think the “old” perspective has on the whole reads Paul more faithfully than the “new,” I incorporate insights from the new perspective in my description of Paul’s theology (though it is probably fair to say that most of those insights are ones that scholars long before the new perspective had identified). Put another way, I see my own work as an attempt to re-state and mildly tweak basic Reformation theology in light of current research.

But I stray from my purpose, which is to briefly and very inadequately summarize the state of play in current interpretation of Pauline soteriology in light of Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. To accomplish this, I will survey the course of the new perspective, describe Barclay’s main argument, and make some guesses about its ultimate significance.

1. The Old and New Perspectives on Paul

First, then, a brief history. Committing the reductionism that I just criticized, the course of the new perspective may be plotted in three main stages.

In the first stage, the key figures in the movement, Tom Wright and James Dunn, began their invasion of the “old perspective” redoubt with seminal articles that appropriated E. P. Sanders’s “new perspective on Judaism.”5 Sanders’s reconfiguration of Jewish soteriology as “covenantal nomism” posed a significant problem for the interpreters of Paul: just who was it that Paul was attacking when he denied that a person could be justified by “works of the law”? Since, according to Sanders, Jews were not trying to be justified by doing the law, some other problem within Judaism had to be identified as the culprit. Building on Krister Stendahl’s stress on the importance of corporate thinking in Paul’s world, Dunn and Wright identified the Jewish tendency to confine salvation to their own nation as that culprit. I might just note here that this “new perspective” on Paul grew out of a profoundly conservative impulse. In contrast to some more radical scholars who accused Paul of arbitrarily misrepresenting Judaism in order to score polemical points, Dunn and Wright tried to find a way to match Paul’s polemic with the Judaism that Sanders described. And here, indeed, in my view, is the driving impulse of the new perspective. In all its diversity—and it is, of course, quite diverse!—the new perspective is fundamentally about re-reading Paul as a first-century “converted” Jew engaged in dialogue and dispute with covenantal nomism. Wright’s massive and impressive project establishes a certain version of the “story of Israel” as the metanarrative within which Paul did all his theologizing. Dunn is less concerned with story but also reads Paul against the structures of first-century Judaism.6 The result is a shift in the axis of Paul’s teaching from the vertical—sinful human beings and a just God—to the horizontal—the selfish Jewish people and estranged Gentiles. Paul attacks the law and its works mainly because it creates a barrier to Gentile inclusion; justification is a doctrine Paul deploys to offer Gentiles entrance into the people of God; Jesus—at least for Wright—is more the “second Israel,” fulfilling its role as the “light the Gentiles,” than the “second Adam,” whose obedience becomes the basis of salvation for those who believe.

In the years 1978–1985, then, the new perspective established a beach-head in the battle ground of Pauline studies. The next two decades saw the new movement consolidating itself and sparking serious resistance. Sanders’s view of Judaism quickly gained ascendancy in the scholarly world—albeit not without questions and caveats. The “new perspective” itself equally quickly established itself as the “new orthodoxy.” Scores of articles, dissertations, and books developed the new view and worked it out in terms of texts and issues. Wright and Dunn initially characterized their approach as a necessary corrective to “Lutheran orthodoxy,” their label for the academic establishment which for many years had read Paul as if he were a sixteenth-century Christian trying to assuage his conscience rather than a first-century Jewish-Christian apostle who was trying to incorporate Gentiles into the kingdom of God as full citizens along with Jews. No wonder, then, that the new view met strong resistance from those convinced that the reformers, indeed, had Paul right. Scholars began to look critically at both the “new perspective on Judaism” and “the new perspective on Paul.”

Sometime in the early 1980s—the exact date is lost in the fog of time—I foolishly agreed to debate E. P. Sanders on these issues. At one point in the debate, Sanders asked me, “Dr. Moo, have you read the entire Mishnah in Hebrew?” “No,” I replied—too embarrassed to admit just how much of it I had read. “I have,” he said, “and I don’t really think you have much standing in this debate.” He was right: early reactions to Sanders’s covenantal nomism were hindered by a lack of expertise in the Jewish literature. This was gradually corrected, as a number of scholars conversant with these Jewish works were able to confirm that “covenantal nomism” was not quite the monolithic soteriology that Sanders claimed it was. Other scholars, while often acknowledging lack of balance in some traditional approaches, argued in various formats that the “old perspective” gave, on the whole, a more faithful reading of Paul’s letters than the “new perspective.”

In the last decade, the battle lines between the old perspective and the new perspective have lost some of their sharpness at the same time as other movements have become powerful threats. As I have noted, most advocates of the “old perspective” recognized from the beginning, in various degrees, that the new perspectives on both Judaism and Paul contained some measure of truth. On the other side, new perspective advocates have appeared to back off from their earlier more polemical stance. Dunn now admits that Sanders’s view of Judaism errs on the side of stressing “covenant” too strongly in relation to “nomism.” Both Dunn and Wright insist that their focus on justification and Gentile inclusion is not meant to push out the truth that justification, which at least in its initial form is “by faith alone,” puts sinful humans in right relationship with God. Wright wants to dismiss the language of “new perspective” altogether, to be replaced with a “fresh perspective” that melds the best of the two.7 He even speculates that the new perspective movement might not have been needed if the Reformation teaching had followed Calvin exclusively.

Perhaps one of the reasons “old” and “new” perspective advocates are “kissing and making up” is because they recognize the need to present something of a united front against more radical threats to traditional Pauline doctrines. The easiest classified of these threats is the so-called “radical perspective on Paul,” or, as some of its advocates are now labelling it, “Paul within Judaism.” While some of its basic arguments are not new, this movement has gained increasing momentum over the last ten years. As the Jacobins of the French Revolution were not content with a constitutional monarchy but pushed a more radical agenda, leading to a republic, so some scholars today view the new perspective as an ultimately unsatisfactory way-station in reconfiguring relationships between Judaism and Christianity. The problem is that new perspective advocates continue to think that Paul criticizes Judaism and in that respect are no better than the “old perspective.” Judaism is still faulted, the fault simply being relocated from “works righteousness” to “ethnocentrism.” These scholars read Paul as fully affirming Judaism. Paul’s polemic is limited to attempts to force Judaism on Gentiles. For all their differences—and I don’t want to ignore or minimize them—“old” and “new” perspectives are united in insisting that, for Paul, salvation is to be found in Christ alone. Wright has been particularly eloquent on this point. And, if I might just make here an observation that is probably obvious to all of us: it is precisely because Wright is close to what we might call “evangelical orthodoxy” that his views can attract such a following from among evangelicals.

Another trend in recent Pauline scholarship is a renewal of the Augustinian/Roman Catholic view of justification as more than forensic. Scholars from a wide variety of theological postures, including evangelical, are reviving the old criticism that standard Reformation teaching has at its heart a chasm between the believer’s standing with God and his or her living for God. Noting the Finnish school revision of Luther’s own teaching and often appealing to the unitive eastern orthodox doctrine of theosis, these scholars argue that justification is transformative, not simply forensic. Here again, Dunn and Wright have made common cause with old perspective advocates. For all his differences with the usual Reformation view, Wright, for instance, has been very clear about denying any transformative element in justification.

It would be interesting, and potentially helpful, to look here at some other recent emphases in the study of Paul that have the potential to shift both his theology and our preaching of his letters—the expansive view of what “gospel” means for the apostle, the degree to which his teaching may be seen as directed against the idolatry of empire, a focus on the power of sin and rescue from it at the expense of the problem of sins and their forgiveness, a prioritizing divine agency to the point that human agency almost disappears, and the question of how the clear focus on the corporate may be brought into correct balance with the equally clear focus on the individual. But these issues, though a prominent part of the program of new perspective advocates—one thinks here again of Tom Wright—are not really part of the “new perspective” per se. So it is time—finally—to assess Barclay’s contribution to this continuing discussion.

2. Barclay’s Contribution to Pauline Scholarship

First, I will briefly summarize the argument of Paul and the Gift. As the title of the book signifies, Barclay situates his discussion of Paul’s teaching on grace within the larger context of “gift.” Only by setting Paul’s grace in the wider context of “gift,” particularly in his own day, will we be able rightly to appreciate its place in his theology.

Barclay sets the table by analyzing the general concept of “gift,” which, he argues, is a potentially ambiguous and multifaceted concept. With the help of seminal studies in cultural anthropology, he sets out to disambiguate the idea of “gift,” or perhaps more accurately, to display its conflicting definitions. One of his key claims is that the idea of a “pure gift”—a gift given freely and without any expectation of return—is a modern notion. In the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, gift-giving took place within a nexus of reciprocal relations. Gifts cemented existing relationships and were given in expectation of some kind of return. He concludes this initial discussion by setting forth six ways that “gift” could be “perfected”—that is, six characteristics that might define the essence of “gift”:

  1. Superabundance—gift-giving is extravagant, lavish; as when one “showers” gifts on someone.
  2. Singularity—gift-giving is unmixed with other postures; as when one relates to another solely as gift-giver and not, e.g., as judge.
  3. Priority—gift-giving comes before the response it might be intended to evoke; as when parents give gifts spontaneously and freely to their children.
  4. Incongruity—gift-giving “without regard to the worth of the recipient” (p. 73); as when God causes his rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
  5. Efficacy—gift-giving is powerful, accomplishing its purpose; as when parents give the gift of life to their children.
  6. Non-circularity—gift-giving is unconditional, expecting no return; as when one gives food coupons to a homeless person.

Barclay concludes this section with the observation that debates about grace often involve “perfecting” grace in one way and then criticizing those who perfect it another way as not really believing in “grace.”

With the scaffolding put in place, Barclay next turns to church history, looking at the way key theologians have analyzed grace. He treats Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, several modern theologians, and concludes with Sanders. Generally, he argues that these figures “perfect” grace in different ways. Thus, for instance, “Augustine did not believe in grace more than Pelagius; he simply believed in it differently” (p. 77, emphasis original). Particularly important for our purposes is his claim that Sanders, and most new perspective advocates who follow him, make the mistake of treating “grace” too simply. By focusing on one “perfection” of grace—its priority—Sanders irons out the wrinkles in first-century Judaism, failing to discern just where the similarities and differences among Jewish works, on the one hand, and between Jewish literature and Paul, on the other, are to be found.

Jewish literature is Barclay’s next port of call. He analyzes Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, the Qumran Hodayot, Pseudo-Philo, and 4 Ezra and, in a pattern we should recognize by now, concludes that these writings “perfect” grace in different ways—but they do all perfect grace. Barclay’s view that “gift” can be perfected in different ways allows him to claim that Judaism was as a whole characterized by grace—even the rabbis, who often tied God’s grace to human worth, perfect grace in a certain way. As he says, “Those who deserve gifts are still the recipients of gifts, given voluntarily and without legal requirement. They do not cause the gift to be given (that is always a matter of the benefactor’s will), but they prove themselves to be its suitable recipients and thus provide the condition for its proper distribution” (p. 316). Barclay’s general conclusion on this section is nicely put: “Sanders is right that grace is everywhere; but this does not mean that grace is everywhere the same” (p. 319).

With the framework of analysis established, some historical perspectives in place, and Paul’s Jewish environment established, Barclay can turn finally to Paul. But Paul in a limited sense. He chooses to analyze only Galatians and Romans. He carefully works through most of both of these books, naturally focusing on occurrences of “gift” language. His interpretation takes account of recent academic discussion, is informed by history and theology, and often insightful. Two brief examples. In the ongoing battle between apocalyptic and salvation history in Paul, Barclay contests, on the one hand, the continuous progression from Abraham to Israel to Christ that marks the work of Dunn and Wright while at the same time faulting J. Louis Martyn’s “apocalyptic” view as failing to do justice to the continuity at the level of God’s plan and story (pp. 411–14). On a related point, he again criticizes Wright and Dunn for insisting that Galatians be interpreted within the framework of the OT and the Abrahamic story in particular. Paul, insists Barclay, gives hermeneutical priority to the Christ event, reading the OT stories in light of this epochal event. Barclay captures his view in another nice turn of phrase: “Paul finds echoes of the gospel in the Scriptures of Israel” (p. 418, emphasis original).

Two general points emerging from Barclay’s exegesis are worthy of note here.

First, on the critical issue of Paul’s polemic against “works of the law,” Barclay steers clear of both the ethnocentric view of the new perspective and the human doing focus of the old perspective. Paul does not suggest that works of the law are inadequate because sinful humans can’t do them well enough; nor does he argue that they are wrong because Jews, relying on an outmoded Torah, were using them to keep Gentiles out of the kingdom. Rather, what Paul is resisting is “the ‘objective’ (socially constructed) value systems that make works, and other forms of cultural or symbolic capital, accounted worthwhile or good.” What Paul objects to is “the enclosure of the Christ-event within the value-system of the Torah, because for those whose lives are reconstituted in Christ, the supreme definition of worth is not the Torah but the truth of the good news” (p. 444).

Second, Barclay insists that grace is central to Paul’s theology. He faults Wright and Dunn for not giving Paul’s teaching on grace the fundamental importance it deserves.8 But, of course, it is not just grace as a generalized idea that is important for Paul but the particular way that he “perfects” grace. Paul, Barclay claims, clearly views the Christ gift as superabundant, prior, and incongruous. Paul does not perfect the singularity of grace since he maintains that God judges as well as saves. He does not perfect its efficacy, because taking divine efficacy to its logical conclusion would undercut human agency. Nor does Paul perfect the non-circularity of grace. God gives generously, prior to human response, and without regard to the worth of its recipients. But while the gift is unconditioned, it is not unconditional. That is, God’s grace is not given after the fulfillment of prior conditions, but it is given in expectation of a response. Indeed, Paul teaches that response is absolutely necessary, since the salvific goal of God in giving the gift is not attained without appropriate human response. Barclay here reminds us that no one in the ancient world would have expected a gift to be given without thought of subsequent obligation.

Barclay lays particular stress on the significance of incongruous grace in Paul’s life and theology. Paul is not unique in seeing grace as incongruous; Barclay thinks that the Qumran hodayot, Pseudo-Philo, and at least the voice of Ezra in 4 Ezra, also perfect grace in this way. But Barclay appears to suggest that incongruous grace has an especially significant role in Paul. “It is the incongruous grace that Paul traces in the Christ-event and experiences in the Gentile mission that is the explosive force that demolishes old criteria of worth and clears space for innovative communities that inaugurate new patterns of social existence” (pp. 498–99). Barclay agrees with new perspective advocates in locating the context of Paul’s theology in Gentile mission. But he does not think the Gentile mission generated Paul’s distinctive theology. “Paul’s radical policy in his Gentile mission is not a protest against ‘nationalism’: it is the disruptive aftershock of the incongruous gift of Christ” (p. 361).

Since this is not a book review, I will forego the usual list of pluses and minuses. Rather, I will mention several concerns related to our topic this evening and then conclude with an attempt to estimate the significance of the book for continuing debates about Paul’s theology.

An initial question—and it is a question more than a criticism—is whether the framework Barclay uses in investigating “gift” is the right one. As a matter of fact, I find his heuristic model very helpful as a tool to analyze the similarities and differences among ancient interpreters of “gift.” But we perhaps do need to keep in mind that Barclay’s description of the contours of gift in Paul’s day has its starting point in insights from modern cultural anthropology. Moreover, while Barclay cites ancient texts to support each of his six “perfections” of gift, the scheme itself appears to be his own attempt to characterize the different ways gift was understood in Paul’s world.

I also wonder about the decision to treat Paul’s teaching on grace within the semantic concept of “gift.” Of course χάρις often means “gift”; it is one the semantic categories the lexicon of Louw-Nida uses to define the word. But it might be instructive that Louw-Nida list the semantic concept “gift” second, after “kindness.” BDAG lists “gift” within the third definition they give; the first is “a winning quality or attractiveness that invites a favorable reaction”; and the second “a beneficent disposition toward someone.”9 I don’t want to make the mistake of over-analyzing the lexicons. But I do wonder if the sequence of their analyses might point to an underlying issue in Barclay’s discussion. An analysis of Paul’s teaching of “grace” within the general framework of “gift” might miss, or at least fail to do full justice to, the way Paul seems to ground the Christ gift in God’s own character and disposition. In my reading of Paul, the character of the Christ event as sheer gift is the necessary manifestation of God’s utterly unqualified posture of benevolence toward his creation, rooted in his nature as a One whose own will is the only cause of his actions. Barclay does not ignore this dimension of grace, but by making “gift” the overall semantic category of χάρις, Barclay may not fully account for this important aspect of Paul’s teaching on grace.

Another way in which Barclay may fail to describe the breadth of Paul’s teaching is noted by Tom Schreiner in his Themelios review article. Following the “critical orthodoxy” of the academy, Barclay dismisses Ephesians and the Pastoral epistles as “deutero-Pauline,” further arguing that their perspective on grace is somewhat differently focused than what Barclay has found in Galatians and Romans. Now, on the one hand, limitations of space and time make the decision to focus on the two Pauline letters most important for his teaching on grace hard to quarrel with. However, this limitation does mean, as Barclay acknowledges, that his conclusions about grace in Paul might have been slightly different if he had taken into account all thirteen letters ascribed to Paul.

Barclay’s robust discussion of historical theology is very welcome and, from the perspective at least of this rank amateur, generally accurate. I do fault him at one point, however. He argues that Luther and Calvin differed somewhat in their way of characterizing the problem of the law. While Luther stressed that the problem was the boastful attempt to use the law to gain status with God, Calvin focused on the sheer inability of humans to meet the demands of God’s law. I worry a bit that this distinction might fail to capture the nuances of both reformers’ views. More important, however, is Barclay’s tendency to cite the Lutheran subjective posture of seeking to secure righteousness as the Reformation perspective that he contrasts with his own view (e.g., p. 444). Focusing more on the human inability issue—which, in my view, is the more fundamental issue for Paul—might have shifted the contours of these exegetical discussions.

These questions and criticisms are not fatal to the basic argument of Paul and the Gift. And, on the other side, the book contributes significantly and usefully to the continuing debate over the basic thrust of Paul’s theology.

First, the analysis of gift in terms of its various perfections provides us with a tool to more accurately characterize Second Temple views on grace. In place of a definition of grace in terms of prior divine action that was so general that Paul and virtually all Second Temple Jews could be lumped together, Barclay has given us a tool which we can use to chart more accurately similarities and differences among these writers. To be sure, Barclay is not the first to point out the differences in the way Paul and his Jewish contemporaries understand grace; but his framework enables us to describe with greater precision just where these similarities and differences lie. Moreover, while Barclay is concerned to stress that it is wrong to think that Paul believed in grace more than other Jews of his day, he also suggests that there was something about Paul’s teaching on grace that made his view distinct. “The way Paul radicalizes the incongruity of grace, and the distinctive way he connects that grace to the Christ-event and practices it in his Gentile mission, relatives the authority of the Torah in a way unparalleled among his Jewish peers” (p. 566).

Second, Barclay’s book has the very great merit of putting grace at the center of Paul’s theology. This is a word Paul uses 100 times and which he uses as a distinctive characterization of what God has done in Christ. Paul nowhere defines χάρις, but he everywhere assumes it and often puts it at the center of the new realm that Christ has inaugurated. “Grace” has “appeared” and “teaches” us (Titus 2:11–12); we “stand in grace” (Rom 5:2) and live under its reign (Rom 5:21; cf. 6:14, 15). Whether Barclay’s claim that Dunn and Wright underplay the role of grace in Paul is justified or not, it can be said, I think, that they tend to limit its significance by tying it so much to Paul’s concern about overcoming ethnocentrism. Barclay, in contrast, gives Paul’s “incongruous grace” a vital role in the apostle’s self-understanding, in his analysis of the human condition, and in generating the sequence of Paul’s argument in letters. For instance, commenting on the Antioch incident (Gal 2:11–14), he says “the good news is good precisely in its disregard of former criteria of worth, both Jewish and Gentile: the gospel stands or falls with the incongruity of grace” (p. 370). Similarly: “Paul’s radical policy in his Gentile mission is not a protest against ‘nationalism’: it is the disruptive aftershock of the incongruous gift of Christ” (p. 361). To be sure, in an excess of enthusiasm for his subject, Barclay perhaps occasionally over-emphasizes the role of grace. I am not convinced, for instance, that incongruous grace is the main point Romans 9 is making or that it can in itself explain the flow of thought from chapters 9 to 11 (cf. pp. 521–26). But, while recognizing that the Gentile mission was the context in which Paul developed much of his theology, Barclay is to be applauded for locating the generation of that theology not in Jewish nationalism but in a more fundamental and broadly human factor: the incongruous grace that Paul himself experienced when God “revealed his Son” to him.

A third area in which Barclay provides a more satisfactory interpretation than the typical new perspective approach is his explanation of the “works of the law” vs. grace and faith contrast. This contrast lies at the heart of interpretations of Paul’s soteriology. It occupies a central role in general reformation theology. Although the reformers recognized that Paul’s “works of the law” referred to obedience to the Jewish Torah, they were convinced that the phrase ultimately should be interpreted as including any kind of human obedience. They therefore identified in this contrast a basic anthropological contrast between “doing” and “believing.” Because Paul therefore excludes all human “doing,” the appropriation of Christ by “faith alone” is the necessary corollary. And they also grounded this claim in grace: if God by his nature relates to humans only by grace, then justification must be by faith and not by works of any kind (see Rom 4:4–5). I think that Barclay may be closer to the reformers than to the new perspective on this point. Yes, he is very clear about distinguishing his view from the typical Reformation concern about “good works” becoming a basis for salvation. But he is equally concerned to distance himself from the usual new perspective view that Paul polemicizes against a Jewish concern to confine righteousness to the possession and performance of the Jewish Torah. For Barclay, rather, as we noted earlier, Paul resists all “‘objective’ (socially constructed) value systems” (p. 444). The good news of God’s grace in Christ, he claims, “brings into question every pre-existent classification of worth.” I wish Barclay had spelled out more clearly just how we move from the phrase “works of the law” to “value system,” but his view represents a move away from the new perspective and some distance back to the old. On Barclay’s reading, one can move, it would seem, pretty directly from Paul’s “works of the law” to any human value system. To be sure, it is still the system rather than human attempts to meets its standards that are the problem. In other words, a person might fully meet the demands of their own value system and fall short of God’s approval because the system itself is at fault. On the one hand, then, Barclay is closer to the new perspective in insisting that it is “law” and not “works” that is the key word in Paul’s debated phrase; but he is closer to the old perspective in finding in the phrase a universal condemnation of human systems of worth. It should be acknowledged that Dunn and Wright find a broad criticism of human works in Paul’s polemic against “works of the law.” The problem is that I am sometimes not sure how their exegesis in terms of “covenant markers” leads to these conclusions. Barclay provides a more secure foundation for this broad application.

Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, then, raises significant questions with both the “new perspective on Judaism” and the “new perspective on Paul.” As someone who has raised similar questions over the years, I appreciate these criticisms—even if Barclay ends up somewhere between “old” and “new” perspectives on the spectrum of Pauline interpretation. His book is truly a gift to the academic study of Paul’s theology—though not, in his own terms, a “singular” gift.

3. Concluding Exhortations

As something of a postscript, let me conclude with a series of exhortations to fellow teachers and preachers. The balance they embody is nothing new; the best of the old perspective has insisted on these same kinds of balanced approaches for centuries. Yet it is perhaps worth restating them in an attempt to remove caricatures of the old perspective in some quarters and at the same time to warn those of us who identify with the old perspective about an excessive zeal in defense of our view that can result in imbalances and distortions.

  1. We must preach the good news that Jesus has been enthroned as Lord in all its Pauline breadth—without in any way blunting what was clearly for Paul its cutting edge, the offer of new life through Christ’s death and resurrection.
  2. We must preach the lordship of Christ in all its dimensions, including its implications for the totalizing claims of the state and other institutions.
  3. We must proclaim that God in Christ breaks the power of sin but that he does so by providing forgiveness for our sins in the substitutionary death of Christ.
  4. We must preach that God draws people to himself through his incongruous grace—without shying away from insisting that people must themselves respond in faith to God’s offer.
  5. We must proclaim that God in Christ justifies the ungodly individual, at the same time as we make very clear the way that God’s justifying action is the spring board for the breaking down of ethnic, racial, and gender barriers.
  6. We must reiterate the great Reformation truth that God’s justification is an entirely forensic act at the same time as we make clear to our people that no one can receive the gift of justification without at the same time receiving the gift of sanctification.
  7. We must proclaim that people are justified by faith alone with all the vigor we can at the same time as we warn people that they will not go free in God’s judgment without works.

[1] John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015). This article was first delivered as a paper at The Gospel Coalition Council Meeting in Deerfield, IL (May 17, 2016).

[2] Paul Foster, “The Concept of ‘Gift’ in Paul’s Thought,” ExpTim 127 (2016): 340.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Paul and the Gift: A Review Article,” Them 41 (2016): 52–58.

[4] By “Reformation view,” I refer to the common soteriological concerns of Luther, Calvin, and their heirs.

[5] See James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” BJRL 65 (1983) 95–122 (republished with additional notes in Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990] 183–214); and N. T. Wright, “The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith,” TynBul 29 (1978) 61–88.

[6] N. T. Wright notes that narrative framework is what is lacking in Dunn (Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015], 98).

[7] Wright: “In particular, there is no need to perpetuate the battle between things that call themselves the ‘new perspective’ or the ‘old perspective’ on Paul. Both were, in any case, misleading in their singularity: there are many ‘new perspectives’ on the loose by now, and a good many significantly different ‘old perspectives’ as well. Insofar as the ‘new perspective’ ran the risk of collapsing into ‘sociology’ or ‘comparative religion’, it of course needed to be rethought theologically to take account of, and to give the central place to, Paul’s emphases on the divine act in the cross of the Messiah and its appropriation by faith. Insofar as the ‘old perspective’ continued to base itself on a caricature of ancient Jewish beliefs, forcing old Jewish texts as well as Paul himself to give answers to questions they were not asking while ignoring the ones they were faced with, it of course needed to be rethought theologically to take account of, and give a central place to, the Jewish and Pauline emphases on the surprising and freshly revelatory divine act in fulfilling the covenant with Abraham and completing (balancing both meanings of telos in Romans 10.4!) the covenant with Moses. But I hope that the discussion in this book has given a quite new set of angles of vision—perspectives, I almost said—on the false either/or of the last generation. Protests are often necessary, even if sometimes overstated. Reactions are sometimes appropriate, even if sometimes shrill or merely nostalgic. Fuller integration, fuller reconciliation, is always the Pauline aim, and I hope we have gone a good way towards achieving it.” In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 1513–14. See also Dunn: “It also follows that the ‘new perspective’ should not be defined or regarded as an alternative to the ‘old perspective’. The ‘new perspective’ does not pretend or think or want to replace all elements of the ‘old perspective’. It does not regard the ‘new perspective’ as hostile or antithetical to the ‘old perspective’. It asks simply whether the ways in which the doctrine of justification have traditionally been expounded have taken full enough account of Paul’s theology at this point.” In “A New Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul,” Early Christianity 4 (2013): 157.

[8] Although Dunn would appear, at least in his explicit claim, to escape this criticism. He argues that “charis joins agape at the very centre of Paul’s gospel. More clearly than any other, these two words, ‘grace’ and ‘love,’ together sum up and most clearly characterize his whole theology” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 320).

[9] BDAG 1079–80.

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