Paul and the Gift (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 30 Nov 2015)

Neil Glover recommends John Barclay’s ‘blockbuster’

One of the big themes of the first Ascend publication is “Grace”.  In the past two years discussion of Grace in Pauline scholarship has been reshaped by John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift” – a book that has become something of an academic blockbuster.  In his introduction, Barclay – a former Church of Scotland Session Clerk who taught hundreds of Scottish ministers during his time in Glasgow – states that he hopes that the book will be of use in the Church.  I believe that this is indeed a rare gift to ministers: a work of scholarship which will readily inform preaching, a technically brilliant achievement which remains highly readable; a long book which sustains its energy and surprises all the way through.  It is a grand tour through much recent scholarship, as well as a comprehensive survey of Grace in the work of Augustine, Calvin and Luther.

Barclay demonstrates that we don’t all mean the same thing when we talk about Grace.  In particular we can be too easily influenced by contemporary dictionary definitions when reading the New Testament.    Rather, surveying the literature of antiquity and Jewish writing around the period of the New Testament he notes six “perfections” which are emphasised differently when different authors are using the same word “grace” : superabundance (the size and significance of Grace), priority (does Grace come before human action or respond to it? – something Peter Donald refers to in his article), singularity (does the giver dispense only Grace, or also sometimes judgement?), efficacy (how much are we changed by the Gift? – an aspect of Grace essential to understanding why Romans 2 does not stand in contradiction to the rest of the letter), incongruity (how worthy is the recipient of the gift – in the ancient world it was demeaning for a benefactor to give gifts to those who were not thought worthy of them, just as now a grant giving body should only make awards to those fit their criteria) and non-circularity (to what extent is a return gift expected – something we moderns pretend to eschew but an essential aspect of gift giving in the time of Paul).

For Barclay, it is Paul’s emphasis on the incongruity of God’s gift in Christ which sets him out as unique – Paul’s writing gospel scandalously undercuts all notions of worth and demonstrates God’s gift to those who patently do not deserve such generosity.  This is the complete absence of “just deserts” as Marjory Maclean puts it in her article.  Incongruous Grace is not simply a general aspect of God’s character, but is demonstrated supremely in the gift of Jesus.  An emphasis on the incongruity of Grace leads to Barclay’s finale – an inspirational reading of Galatians and Romans.

“Paul and the Gift” is available in two forms – the full length version from Eerdmans and a 10,000 word version from Eden.  Much has been said of this book’s impact within the academy.  As a resource for ministers – both in study and as an aid to devotion – it is also hugely recommended.

John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 30 Nov 2015)

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