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Book Review: Paul and the Power of Grace by John M. G. Barclay

December 9th, 2021 | 8 min read

By Matthew J. Thomas

It would be futile to try to hide my appreciation for John Barclay’s Paul and the Power of Grace, and this review will make little attempt to do so. Indeed, it is my recommendation that the reader of this review simply stop reading here and acquire a copy of the book for themselves. While Barclay’s prior volume, Paul and the Gift, was hailed by some as the most important work on Paul in our generation, Paul and the Power of Grace is an even greater achievement, somehow combining the seemingly exclusive principles of less is more and more is more: while condensing the main arguments from Paul and the Gift to a much more accessible size, Paul and the Power of Grace also adds some remarkable content and reflections, which make the overall product even richer than the original volume.

For those who have not yet left this article for the greener pastures of the book itself, this review will proceed in three sections. It will first offer a brief overview of the book’s contents and main argument, then a summary of what I regard as the book’s primary achievements, before closing with two questions for further reflection.

The prologue to Paul and the Power of Grace introduces this work in relation to Barclay’s previous volume, and offers a brief statement of his central finding: that “Paul took the Christ-gift, the ultimate gift of God to the world, to be given without regard to worth, and in the absence of worth—an unconditioned or incongruous gift that did not match the worth of its recipients but created it” (xviii). Chapter 1 (Grace as Gift) begins with an overview of the phenomenon of gift-giving through a broad anthropological lens, before focusing specifically on Paul’s Greco-Roman context. Gifts differed from payment or loans in that they established a relationship with the giver, one that would involve reciprocal gift-giving. As such, it was a general norm that gifts were to be given to the worthy, though Jews were culturally distinct in this context for giving gifts to the poor and unworthy, on the grounds that the reciprocal giving would come from God on their behalf (cf. Prov 19:17, Sir 12:2). These norms are contrasted with the modern Western ideal of the disinterested gift—exemplified by August Comte’s term “altruism” coined in the 19th century—which is non-circular and expects no return, but thus often becomes non-relational as well.

In chapter 2 (Perfections of Gift and Grace) Barclay outlines six ways in which gift-giving can be idealized: superabundance, stressing the scale or quantity of the gift; singularity, which idealizes benevolence as the giver’s sole mode of operation; priority, focusing on the gift’s timing before any initiative by the recipient; incongruity, which emphasizes the mismatch between the gift and the worthiness of the recipient; efficacy, stressing the gift’s ability to change things for the better; and noncircularity, the modern ideal of the giver receiving nothing in return. Barclay then applies this taxonomy to four influential Pauline interpreters—Marcion, Augustine, Aquinas and Luther—to show how each of them understands Paul to be a theologian of grace, but in ways that are distinct according to their understanding of these perfections. In chapter 3 (Paul, Grace and Second Temple Judaism), Barclay applies his taxonomy to four early Jewish sources: Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, the Qumran hymns, and 4 Ezra. This analysis shows that while E.P. Sanders was correct to insist that Judaism was a religion of grace—and thus that Paul’s writings were part of an ongoing Jewish tradition—Sanders’ observation is of limited value by itself, since the essential point is not whether grace is present, but how grace is understood to function.

Chapters 4–6 and 7–9 present Barclay’s analysis of grace in Paul’s epistles to the Galatians and the Romans using this taxonomy of the perfections of grace, which condenses his exegesis from Paul and the Gift into a more accessible length and format. While the details of Barclay’s exegesis will be left for the reader to discover, the application of his perfections of grace to the Pauline texts provides fresh and illuminating readings at every turn, and those who teach or preach on these epistles will find justification for purchasing this book from these chapters alone. In chapter 10 (The Grammar of Grace and the Gift of Christ), Barclay offers new content in applying his findings from Galatians and Romans to 1 and 2 Corinthians and Philippians, which serves both to further substantiate his conception of Pauline grace from the latter epistles and to provide new insights into the former. Chapter 11 (The Incongruous Gift) describes how Paul’s understanding of God’s incongruous, circular, effective grace sets the example that he commends to his readers for the embodied social practices in their assemblies, which are to be characterized by reciprocal support between their diverse members rather than any sort of one-way, disinterested giving. In chapter 12 (Grace and Other Perspectives on Paul), Barclay sets his exegesis in comparison with traditional Protestant, Catholic, “New Perspective,” and “Paul within Judaism” ways of reading Paul, showing both points of commonality and areas where his analysis would challenge or clarify certain aspects of each. Finally, Barclay closes with chapter 13 (Paul and the Dynamics of Grace Today), providing thoughtful and provocative reflections on how Paul’s understanding of grace differs from our modern ideal, and how the Pauline vision can be practically embodied within our contemporary world. The opening paragraph serves as an excellent summary of the book’s findings, and merits citation in full:

“Many people in the modern West think of God in something like the way they think of Santa Claus: that is, as a genial figure whom you address only when you want something, and then you hope he will be kind if he considers you sufficiently good. I have argued in this book that the pattern of Paul’s good news is very different, in fact, the inverse of this Santa Claus image. According to the well-known Christmas song, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” it is Santa’s task to keep a list of those who do right and wrong, and he will distribute his gifts accordingly. In other words, Santa’s gifts are conditioned: he gives to those who have been good. Like most responsible givers, he wishes to give only to worthy recipients, and he finds out who they are. However, once his gifts have been given, there is no resulting relationship, no expression of gratitude, and no expectation of a gift in return. (Children write requests to Santa, but does anyone ever write him a thank-you letter or ask him how he’s doing after Christmas?) In other words, Santa’s gifts are congruous but noncircular. They are given to worthy recipients but have “no strings attached.” They fit the moral ideals of modern, Western individualism.

Paul’s message of grace was the opposite: incongruous and circular. The Christ-gift was given to the “ungodly”—in the absence of worth—and it was given to all, without regard to any preconstituted worth of gender, ethnicity, status, or success. There was no “list” and no selection determined by “who’s naughty or nice.” But it was given in order to transform the human recipients and to establish a permanent relationship: the receipt of this gift is necessarily expressed in gratitude, obedience, and transformed behavior. This grace is free (unconditioned) but not cheap (without expectations or obligations). Those who have received it are to remain within it, their lives altered by new habits, new dispositions, and new practices of grace.” (149)

Readers of Barclay’s much-hailed Paul and the Gift will find that the praises given to it apply equally here, and those who wish for additional detail after reading Paul and the Power of Grace will be able to consult the (much larger) previous volume with greater ease. Barclay notes his hope that the understanding of Pauline grace as unconditioned but not unconditional—given in absence of merit, but carrying future obligations precisely because of its transformative nature—would mean that “some of the longstanding disputes between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants themselves, concerning Paul’s theology of grace and works can be reduced or even resolved” (87). My own sense is that Barclay is correct about the ecumenical significance of his exposition of Pauline grace, and the commendations and caveats he offers for contemporary schools of interpretation in chapter 12—a risky enterprise, to be sure—are very constructively presented. Beyond this ecumenical convergence, the reader of this book will find that Barclay’s academic analysis often contains surprising devotional power as well. For those in ecclesial contexts, the brevity of the thirteen chapters is such that the book would be well suited to a two-week study, allowing for each chapter’s insights to settle and build as readers reflect on the Pauline texts.

I will close with two brief questions that I found lingering at the end of the book, one of clarification and the other for further exploration. The first is on the nature of justification. Nearly every page of this book speaks powerfully of the transformative nature of God’s gift in Christ, which we may illustrate with a handful of passages: “the purpose of this grace is to remake its recipients, to transform them” (78); grace creates lives that, “by a transformative heart-inscription performed by the Spirit, produce what is pleasing to God. This grace justifies the ungodly” (87); “the grace of God in Christ is transformative. Believers are not left as they were, altered only in their legal status before God. They are reconstituted and reoriented by their receipt of grace” (142; italics are Barclay’s).

The reader is thus surprised to find Barclay opt for a non-transformative translation of dikaioō (“to justify”) in his brief comments on the question, preferring the legal “consider righteous” instead of the creative “make righteous” (48). Of course, this has been a historic Shibboleth of sorts between Protestants and Catholics, who respectively lean towards the former and the latter interpretations. Nevertheless, I wonder whether Barclay’s presentation of God’s transformative gift already seems to imply new creation as an aspect of God’s justifying work, even if this is not necessarily the sole or even primary sense. Such a reading would not forestall Barclay’s broader ecumenical discussion; after all, it was the Protestant Sanders who famously concluded that Paul means “make righteous” by his use of dikaioō in Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Nor does it lack historical support: as one illustration, the recent revision of Alister McGrath’s magisterial study on justification (Iustitia Dei) now acknowledges that this is what Paul’s early Greek readers understood him to mean as well. A transformative aspect of justification would also solve the puzzle that Barclay presents in Romans 4:5 (84), where God is described as “justifying the ungodly”—a flat contradiction of Exod 23:7 and Isa 5:23, as Barclay rightly notes, unless Paul is here describing how God’s grace makes the ungodly just (cf. Rom 5:19).

The second question relates to the scope of the book, which here is expanded to engage with more epistles in the “authentic” seven-letter collection, but which largely bypasses the “later” Paulines. Works such as Benjamin White’s Remembering Paul have done well to remind us that these categories of “authentic” and “inauthentic” emerged from Protestant-Catholic polemics in the 19th century, with academic biblical studies largely following the Protestant side in sidelining these latter epistles as representative (to varying degrees) of “early Catholicism.”

My question is this: if Barclay’s reading of Paul is as ecumenically significant in reconciling Protestant and Catholic perspectives as he hopes—and I believe it is—then does the division between “authentic” Protestant Paulines and later ones (with supposed Catholicizing tendencies) carry the same significance? Let me state the question another way, by means of an anecdote. At the 2018 SBL session on Paul and the Gift, our respondent Margaret MacDonald commented that Barclay’s interpretation of Paul was far easier to reconcile with the theology of Ephesians than many modern Protestant ones, which led back to the question of authorship. As the moderator, I commented (half-jokingly) that perhaps Barclay’s book was going to lead to a revised new edition of her Ephesians commentary. Now with three years further reflection, I wonder, less than half-jokingly: if Barclay’s reading removes the theological tensions between earlier and later Paulines (as he briefly illustrates on p. 150), in what sense does there remain a necessary distinction between the two categories? Or might the surprise ending to Barclay’s work be that it leads not just to a fuller understanding of the Power of Grace, but eventually, to a fuller view of what constitutes Paul as well?