What’s so dangerous about grace?

INTERVIEW | Wesley Hill
Eternity #68 April 2016

John M. G. Barclay, Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University, UK, is recognised by his peers as one of today’s most influential New Testament scholars. Barclay began his academic career focusing on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Since then, he has published widely on Second Temple Jewish texts and social history. His book Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora is widely regarded as the definitive treatment of the topic. In the past few years, Barclay has turned his attention back to Paul, most recently with his monumental 2015 book, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans).

For nearly four decades, scholarship on Paul has operated on the assumption that what makes Paul unique is not his view of grace. In fact, many scholars believe he had nothing new to contribute on the topic. Since the advent of the “New Perspective on Paul” in the late 1970s—which shifted attention away from “justification by faith” as the centre of Paul’s theology to the social, ethical dimensions of his missionary efforts—many interpreters of Paul have neglected the topic of grace. Barclay’s new book opposes this scholarly trend, and proposes that Paul’s radicalism lies precisely in his view of God’s grace—and of its potential to transform both individuals and communities.

Barclay recently had a series of conversations with Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, about his new book.

You argue that Paul’s view of grace is bizarre and unsettling, even “dangerous.” Why was Paul’s view of grace so radical?

Professor John Barclay

Professor John Barclay

Paul did not have a special word for “grace,” so he used the common language of “gift” [charis in Greek, sometimes translated as “grace”]. Gifts in his day—and in most cultures throughout history—were given to people who, in one way or another, were worthy recipients. People gave gifts in order to create a relationship, most often with people like themselves.

We do this today. We give money to causes that represent our values. Or we give prizes to people we deem worthy recipients.

Paul talks about Christ as the gift of God, the grace of God. What is striking about this is that this gift is given without regard to the worth of the people who receive it. God doesn’t give discriminately to seemingly fitting recipients. He gives without regard to their social, gender, or ethnic worth. Nothing about them makes them worthy of this gift.

To deny any match between God’s gifts and the worth of recipients was, in Paul’s day, a theologically dangerous idea. It made God seem arbitrary and unfair. It meant that grace was unpredictable and that the world might become disordered.

And this view of grace breaks all sorts of social norms and expectations. The gift of Christ is larger than it should be. It is undeserved forgiveness.

Think of someone who sits with a homeless man on the street and listens to him, or the pope taking time from his official engagements to visit prisoners, or those who give up “good jobs” in order to spend their lives with people with severe learning difficulties. These are all “gifts” that seem inappropriate or risky by cultural standards. When he talks about the grace of God in Christ, that is the kind of gift Paul is talking about.

So what was distinctive about Paul’s message was not grace per se, but how he talked about it?

Yes, Paul was not the only Jew of his day who talked about God’s grace. We need to shy away from caricatures of [first-century] Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness or legalism that knew nothing about divine grace. Language of God’s mercy and grace was everywhere, but it was not everywhere the same. People understood God’s goodness, generosity, and mercy differently. Compared with his fellow Jews who also talked about divine grace, Paul emphasised grace given without regard to worth. This is the root of Paul’s radical social policy.

Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries. This is what made Paul so controversial in his day. His mission to the Gentiles involved telling them that they didn’t have to fit within the cultural boundaries of the Jewish tradition. In his letter to the Galatians, for instance, he strongly criticises other Jewish Christians who say you have to fit in the Jewish cultural box in order to be Christian. Paul says no—God has not paid regard to that cultural box.

You write that what bends Paul’s theology in this direction is Christ. What is it about Christ that requires Paul to radicalise the concept of grace and thus distinguishes him from fellow Jews?

At the core of Paul’s theology is not some general notion about God, but a discovery of the gift of God in Christ. And this gift, given in the death and resurrection of Christ, works against all the categories according to which we expect God to act.

God gives Christ, who confounds our notions of wealth, wisdom, and power. And then God brings life out of death, in Christ’s resurrection. According to Paul, everything about our former systems of value is destroyed. Paul discovered that God’s act in Christ transforms the conditions of reality.

Is it fair to say that Paul’s view of grace arose, in part, from personal experience?

Yes, experience is an integral part of Paul’s theology. Before his conversion, Paul was absolutely committed to a certain set of norms and values. He was persecuting the churches of God. Then he encountered the truth about Christ. And this experience subverted everything he thought about right and wrong. He thought he was 100 percent right and found he was 100 percent wrong. Christ’s grace reached him despite his being completely wrong.515noacnv-L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

And he finds the same [phenomenon] in his mission to the Gentiles. These people have the wrong ancestry, the wrong ideas about God, and the wrong practices. Yet God gives his Spirit to them. By Jewish standards, they had no worth at all. But God’s grace overlooked their lack of worth.

Some aspects of what you are talking about seem to align with what has been called the “New Perspective on Paul.” Yet other elements seem to resonate with the traditional Protestant view. How does your work fit within the debate between the New Perspective and the traditional perspective?

It is unfortunate how polarised the discussion has become. Ever since the 1970s, the New Perspective has set itself against Reformation readings of Paul. It has criticised Luther especially for fundamentally misreading Paul. But what I see in Reformers like Luther and Calvin is a brilliant rediscovery of Paul’s theology of grace. Of course, they had to re-contextualise Paul’s theology in order for it to take maximum effect, so they directed it against the notion that we can make ourselves favourable to God by doing good works.

The New Perspective has tried to rediscover the original historical context in which Paul himself was ministering. And this context is completely different from the 16th century.

I’m also trying to unearth the root of Paul’s theology. The New Perspective has said that the theme of grace wasn’t at the core of Paul’s theology. The New Perspective also believes that Paul’s theology was formed in his historical context, in and for his mission among non-Jews. As a result, the New Perspective has focused more on the social dimensions of Paul’s thought, and has sidelined grace. But grace really was at the centre of his theology.

When you understand Paul’s view of grace, then you see how it informs his social practice. So while I disagree with the New Perspective in its sidelining grace within Paul’s thought, I agree with its emphasis that Paul was fundamentally concerned with creating new communities that crossed ethnic and social boundaries.

So in moving away from caricatures of first-century Judaism, we need to be careful not to diminish Paul’s radical stance.

Yes. The New Perspective rightly insists that Judaism was not simply a religion of works-righteousness and legalism. Scholars like E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright have insisted that Judaism was a religion of grace. But what do we mean by grace? There are many different understandings of it. What is distinctive about Paul is his emphasis that grace is not just a gift given generously or in advance, but a gift given precisely without considering [the recipient’s] prior quality or worth.

Various Protestant groups contrast themselves with others based on their understanding of grace. Do some Protestant traditions interpret Paul better than others?

A good theological interpretation, in my view, never just repeats the biblical text. Rather, it gets to the heart of the text and makes it real in a new context. So what unites Protestants is our understanding that Paul speaks of grace as an unmerited gift. That was the genius in Luther’s rediscovery of Paul, I think, and has obviously influenced the whole Protestant tradition. But Luther was incredibly anxious about any notion of circularity—that we give back to God so that God can give further again to us. Luther was anxious about any language of obligation or obedience if it implied trying to win favour with God.

As a result, some Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace. They believe a gift should be given without any expectation of return. However, that can lead to notions of cheap grace—that God gives to us and doesn’t care about what we do. On the other hand, the Calvinist and, in different ways, the Methodist–Wesleyan traditions have rightly understood that the gift of God in Christ is based on conditions, in a sense. While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.

What have these interpreters missed or downplayed in regards to Paul?

Paul talked about grace in a missionary context. In that setting, God’s gift in Christ pays no attention to human worth, and that meant that Paul’s churches could break free of the destructive norms of aggressive competition, status hierarchy, and ethnic division that governed their social context in the Greco-Roman world. But once Christianity became more widespread, this missionary theology became focused inward and turned against attempts to achieve Christian merit.

So the message of grace became less about converting people and more of a point of dispute within the church itself?

Yes. Paul’s theology of grace has become directed at the internal motives and self-understanding of people who are already Christians. But in its original context, Paul’s theology of grace was more socially radical. That is what I think needs to be activated again today.

Could rethinking Paul’s understanding of grace help Protestants achieve more unity than they have had?

We can at least begin to understand each other better. We all use the word grace. And many of us think we all mean the same thing by it. But as we discuss it, we find that we actually disagree about certain aspects of it, and we tend to think we believe in grace more than the other person does. In reality, we simply hold different understandings of what grace means.

In the book, I spell out six ways grace has been understood. We can at least understand why we use the same language yet disagree about the concept.

At the end of your book, you suggest that Paul’s view of grace should constantly question the norms by which we evaluate ourselves and others. What does that mean for churches today?

First, it means there are no limits to the reach of God’s grace. Both Paul and Jesus stood alongside people who were not at all respectable. In doing so, they took big social risks. God’s grace operates beyond our norms of what is civil, proper, or fair. And it challenges our hidden prejudices. Why do we distrust immigrants, stigmatise the poor, or disdain certain socioeconomic groups? Why are we tempted to think that people who do not have a spouse or a job, or who do not have a physique matching cultural ideals, have somehow failed? Whose values are we applying?

Paul learned that God’s gifts did not follow the values he had always assumed were right. The gospel has its own value system, which may not match our inherited values as much as we think.

What we take for granted as having worth—our place in a hierarchy, our class, our wealth, our education, you name it—does not count for anything when we are encountered by Christ. In Paul’s day, the main forms of hierarchy were built around gender, ethnicity, and legal status. Men were considered more important than women, Jews were considered more valuable than non-Jews, and a free person was considered more valuable than a slave. Paul says that in God’s eyes, none of these social boundaries matter. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Gal. 3:28).

What I find so profound is the capacity of grace to dissolve our inherent and inherited systems—what we might call social capital. What counts before God is not what we pride ourselves on—or what we doubt ourselves on. What counts is simply that we are loved in Christ. This is massively liberating, not only to us as individuals but also to communities, because it gives them the capacity to reform and to be countercultural.

That’s why some of the most exciting churches today are not necessarily the big ones, but rather the small, multicultural, urban churches where you discover that different ethnicities and languages don’t count before God. Our education, our age, our job, the kind of music we listen to, the books we read—these do not ultimately define us. What defines us is who we are in Christ. We all are on the same level together and are therefore able to form countercultural relationships despite our differences. And that opens up the possibility for hugely creative Christian communities.

The following interview with John. M. G. Barclay is reproduced from Christianity Today, with permission.

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