Symposium Introduction

A friend of mine, an acquisitions editor at a prominent publishing house, recently polled his acquaintances on Facebook asking “What are the best books in Pauline studies written in the last five years?” It was no surprise to me that the most popular answer given was Barclay’s Paul and the Gift.1 In the short time since its publication this important monograph has widely been recognised as one of the most important works on the Apostle Paul since E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism.2 I am particularly delighted, therefore, to introduce this symposium in which a variety of leading scholars reflect on Barclay’s work, many of whom are critically engaged in the various related subject areas.

To locate Barclay’s proposal in terms of current discussion is no easy matter given the complexity of the issues involved. Indeed, part of Barclay’s project aims to resolve some of those complexities by presenting future scholarly work with a number of crucial taxonomies and distinctions. These are elucidated in the first part, to which we now turn.


Part 1 (“The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace”) contains three sections. The first examines the notion of “the gift,” building on Marcel Mauss’s famous Essai sur le Don.3 One of the most important upshots of this section is the call for renewed sensitivity to appreciating the development of notions of “the gift.” In particular, Barclay wants to make clear that contemporary notions of an “absolutely free gift,” that is to say, a gift with no strings attached, is a relatively modern development and should not be projected across all times and cultures. Rather, up until the modern period, gifts were given in order to create social bonds, such that certain rules of reciprocity implied the expectation of a return.

The second section of part 1 offers a taxonomy for understanding the way gift/grace can be conceptualised. Drawing on Kenneth Burke’s notion of “perfection” (drawing out a concept to its logical and extreme conclusion), Barclay proposes six potential “perfections” of grace. They are, crucially, not to be understood as a “package deal,” nor is Barclay suggesting that the addition of more perfections make grace more complete or superior. To speak of one perfection of grace is not necessarily to imply another. These six perfections are as follows:

  1. Superabundance. Grace or gift as “lavish and unceasing” (to borrow the language of Seneca, cited on p. 70).
  2. Singularity. This involves “the spirit in which the gift is given,” such that the perfection of singularity emphasises benevolence as the “sole and exclusive mode of operation” (71). Where notions of justice and punishment play a part in the textual data, this is taken to undercut the presence of the perfection of singularity.
  3. Priority. This perfection involves chronology or timing. It emphasises the initiative of the giver as prior to any reciprocation.
  4. Incongruity. This, as we shall see, will be the perfection Barclay finds most prominently in Paul. A gift perfected in terms of incongruity is a gift given “without regard to the worth of the recipient” (73; this phrase is found in multiple other places).
  5. Efficacy. This perfection emphasises the effect of the gift such that it “fully achieves what it was designed to do” (73).
  6. Non-circularity. Does a gift imply rules of return, come with certain expectations of reciprocity? The perfection of non-circularity, which came to prominence in the modern era, identified gift in terms of altruism or disinterest, such that the gift came with no strings attached, and with no expectations of return.

The first and second sections of part 1 facilitate an examination of the deployment of the language of gift/grace throughout church history, a task Barclay undertakes in the third and final section. Without focusing on all relevant figures (some will be disappointed that there is no engagement with Aquinas, for example), Barclay expertly engages the theologies of Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, then fast forwards to the modern period, examining Barth, Bultmann, Käsemann, Lou Martyn, then E. P. Sanders and the “New Perspective.” He finishes by analysing various proposals that have developed after the New Perspective, as well as the philosophical reading proffered by Badiou. This list of names highlights both the ambition and importance of Barclay’s work, and it is here that his sixfold taxonomy relating to the perfections of grace come into their own. Barclay’s claim is that different theologians are all theologians of grace, but that they all perfect grace in different ways.

This realisation, Barclay aims to show, clarifies some of the complex debates surrounding Old and New Perspectives on Paul. In a particularly illuminating move, Barclay shows that Sanders deploys an understanding of grace that emphasises the perfection of priority (and further that Sanders understood this perfection to necessarily entail another, namely incongruity). On this basis, a slew of scholars would claim that Paul did not have a problem with Jewish covenantal nomism, hence the multiplication of new perspectives on Paul following Sanders’s important publication, which sought to understand Paul in light of the collapse of the Judaism = legalism construct.4


Part 2 offers an analysis of divine gift in Second Temple Jewish texts, namely the Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, 1QHa, Pseudo-Philo and 4 Ezra. In these chapters Barclay decisively moves beyond Sanders’s “covenantal nomism.” One must bear in mind that Sanders’s “covenantal nomism” has functioned as the key analytical frame for “the last 40 years of scholarship on the soteriology of Second Temple Judaism” (39), which should give some sense for the importance of Barclay’s proposals. While all of these texts discuss grace, it would be decidedly unhelpful to describe them as all representing an undifferentiated “religion of grace.” Nor do these texts simply represent different degrees of emphasis on the topic of grace. Rather, and again referring to his sixfold taxonomy, these different textual traditions understand the divine gift to mean different things, which is to say that the concept is perfected in different ways. While all of these texts perfect the superabundance of divine grace and none of them perfect the non-circularity of grace, they differ on other matters, namely and importantly on the perfection of incongruity, which will be of central importance in Barclay’s exegesis of Galatians and Romans.

What this all shows is that the notion of grace was debated in Second Temple Judaism. To foist “covenantal nomism” over all of these texts by means of an undifferentiated notion of grace is to force the textual data into a hermeneutically unhelpful straitjacket. Barclay instead insists that texts that do not define grace in terms of the perfection of incongruity do not thereby cease to be about grace. By focusing on the perfections of grace, Barclay can also resist the claim that one perfection must lead to another (as Sanders does in claiming that priority necessarily entails incongruity). Hence Barclay writes:

When we disaggregate the possible perfections of grace, we can comprehend the diversity in Second Temple Judaism on this topic, a diversity that “covenantal nomism” not only masks but is conceptually incapable of grasping. (319)

Furthermore, and leading into part 3, these realisations allow us to understand Paul as an instance of Second Temple Judaism, not apart from it, and thus to understand the apostle’s own theological movements in this light.


Part 3 presents an exegetical overview of the “Christ-gift” in Galatians. After outlining some of the key issues in interpreting Galatians (such as clarifying the nature of Paul’s opponents, the various polarities throughout the text and so on), Barclay summarises four different readings of Galatians in these terms (namely, those penned by Luther, Dunn, Martyn and Kahl). This overview suggests to Barclay that Galatians can only be understood by properly organising the various Pauline polarities, which have been alternatively construed and prioritised in the history of research.

Although the following chapters (12–14) do not provide a comprehensive commentary on the whole of Galatians, they do attempt to penetrate the logic of the letter as a whole, and so proceed systematically through the text (Gal 1–2 is tackled in chapter 12; Gal 3:1—5:12 [with 6:11–18] is tackled in chapter 13; and Gal 5:13—6:10 is tackled in chapter 14).

The upshot is that grace, in Galatians, is understood in terms of its christological focus, which means that it is primarily grasped in terms of the perfection of incongruity, hence as functioning without regard to the worth of its recipients (see particularly his analysis of Gal 1:1–12). This is not to be understood as an abstract theological claim, but rather represents the manner of Paul’s missionary activity amongst the Gentiles. It means that no symbolic capital can be claimed as relevant in light of the unconditioned gift of God in Christ.

In order to negotiate the exegetically choppy waters of 2:11–21, Barclay outlines his key interpretive decisions that tend to guide these discussion, namely the meaning of “justification” (which he understands to mean “considered righteous” by God), the phrase “the works of the law” (which he understands to refer to the practice of the Jewish law) and the meaning of πίστεως Χριστοῦ (which he understands to refer to “faith in Christ,” and this precisely as rejection of all prior symbolic capital and as a “declaration of bankruptcy” [383]). This is certainly a rather traditional set of assertions that look behind the New Perspective and “apocalyptic” readings to Lutheran and Reformed exegesis. But it would be a mistake to think that Barclay therefore represents Reformed theology together with its (mis)understanding of Judaism as a religion of works righteousness. His analysis of grace in Second Temple Jewish texts is clear that grace is everywhere, simply not everywhere the same. Rather, Barclay understands Paul, throughout the letter, to emphasise the incongruity of grace, such that all claims to symbolic capital measured in human terms are to be rejected. After all, this is precisely how God encountered the Galatians by the Spirit (so Gal 3:1–5). Furthermore, this is the rationale behind Paul’s rejection of “works of the law.” It is not that Jewish works of law represent a legalistic attitude. The problem, rather, is the attempt to condition the Christ-gift by the values of Jewish ethnicity and Torah, which would be to refute the incongruity of grace (so Gal 2:21). For this reason, Barclay would see no ground for Paul objecting to the continued practice of Torah amongst Jewish-Christ followers. The problem revolves around the role of Torah observance in terms of its symbolic capital in view of the Christ grace-event.

Barclay, in making this case, is well aware that Paul leaves unresolved numerous tricky issues relating to the distinctiveness and special place of Israel. After all, the history of Israel, in relationship to the Torah, is decidedly undercut in Galatians. In what seems to be language directed against Wright, Barclay claims that while “the characters are shared with some of the varied narratives current in Second Temple Judaism, the plot [in Paul) is new; it is doubtful if it makes sense to speak of Paul’s inhabiting the ‘same’ story” (415, italics his). Barclay understands Galatians to be christologically determined to such an extent that nuance was not possible at this point. Issues that will become clearer in Romans are only in Galatians in seed form in a couple of verses (for example, 6:16).

Barclay is keen to observe how all of this has immediate ramifications for the concrete communal life of these groups. Based on the incongruity of God’s grace in Christ, any form of symbolic capital that operates apart from and before Christ is deemed irrelevant. On this basis, these “in Christ” communities are inclusive, which is to say that these new communities express the incongruity of God’s grace in Christ in social relations. What is more, in this light the polarity between the Spirit and the flesh, and notions such as “freedom for slavery” are to be understood. Because the perfection of grace in terms of incongruity does not necessarily imply a perfection in terms of non-circularity, Paul can also be quite firm about the necessity to keep in step with the Spirit, to sow to the Spirit and so on. For to fail to do this would potentially be to “lose all the benefits of the Christ-gift” (440; Barclay refers to Gal 5:21; 6:8 in this regard).


Part 4 offers a similar exegetical treatment of Romans, although Barclay bounces around the text with a little more freedom than with Galatians. Instead of the christological focus of Galatians, Barclay suggests Romans is decidedly more theological, and as such allows Paul to understand the place of Israel in the purposes of God in a way that was impossible in his shorter letter.5 I do not have space here to outline his numerous constructive proposals, even by way of summary. Instead, I will draw out three aspects of his argumentation, which corresponds to the three chapters he devotes to Romans (chapters 15–17).

First, because Barclay sees the incongruity of grace foregrounded in Romans, he claims to solve exegetical conundrums relating to language in Romans 2. Only by (illegitimately) perfecting grace in additional ways, particularly the non-circularity of grace, is it difficult to understand 2:7 (“those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life”). But this verse, he insists, is entirely consistent with an emphasis on the incongruity of grace (cf. 466–69). What is more, the redefinition of “the Jews” as something given (and “internal”), not inherited, naturally follows from an emphasis on the incongruity of grace.6 Much of this is developed with (perhaps somewhat more convincing) exegetical work on Romans 4, which elucidates the relationship between Abraham, “faith” and the perfection of incongruity.

Second, in chapter 16 Barclay (with reference to Rom 5:12—8:39; 12:1—15:13) explains the way in which his account of incongruous grace overlaps neatly with Paul’s emphasis on the development of “a Christian habitus.” Particularly in Romans 5:12–21, the Christ-gift is “not morally vacuous, an unconditional gift that winks at human sin: it contains transformative power” (497). As such God’s grace is not to be understood as unconditional (by which he means carrying no subsequent demands—see 500), but as unconditioned (based on no prior conditions). Because this is so, the Christ-event liberates humans to participate in an eccentric existence, grounded in the life of Christ,7 all of which resonates well with his emphasis on the perfection of incongruity. Barclay also highlights the perfection of superabundance in his exegesis of Romans 5.

Third, and arguably the main exegetical success of Barclay’s engagement with Romans, he presents a reading of Romans 9–11 (in chapter 17). He powerfully weaves a way through the complexity and apparent contradictions of the text. Once again, by emphasising particularly the perfection of incongruity, Barclay aims to resolve exegetical conundrums. If Romans 9:6–29 is traditionally understood to highlight God’s selection within Israel, and thus the ever-narrower focus of inscrutable divine election, Barclay helpfully understands these chapters to clarify, rather, “the grounds on which Israel as a nation was created and selected,” namely by incongruous benevolence (528, italics mine). These verses are not primarily about whom God has chosen, nor simply that God has exercised choice. Rather, in Barclay’s reading, the chapter is very much about how God has chosen Israel, namely incongruently.

This relates rather well with the difficult section (9:30—10:21) in the centre of these three chapters. Rather than “swerving off track,” as some have thought Paul does at this point, Barclay’s reading once again foregrounds the centrality of the perfection of incongruity in Paul’s argumentation throughout. This is all finally taken, then, to ground both the metaphors (first fruits, and root and branches) of Romans 11 as well as Paul’s confidence for Israel’s future towards the end of Romans 11.8


The exegetical promise of Barclay’s taxonomy is thus established. Apart from the inevitable debates that will follow certain exegetical decisions (I hope particularly that cluster of decisions relating to the interpretation of Galatians 2:5–21 and his reading of Romans 1–3) I wonder if Barclay’s sixfold taxonomy is sufficiently alert to necessary conceptual nuance to carry the day (in particular, do they adequately clarify the relationship between different perfections and correlating topics, in Paul, such as time, and justice and familial metaphors?). One may also wonder, because of this, whether his taxonomy facilitates a fair engagement with some of his contemporary interlocutors.9 Others may also question the extent to which the spectre of some kind of supersessionism hangs over the project (with the portrayal of the practice of Torah as—not wrong but—ultimately irrelevant),10 while still others may worry about the (largely debilitating) ramifications of his proposals for certain forms of modern identity politics.11 Finally, I expect some will wish to press for further nuance and subtlety specifically when eschatological moral congruity is directly paired with the moral incongruity of the gift at the beginning of a believer’s life (see, e.g., 518). Other concerns and debates I now leave to our panel of respondents to take up with Barclay in the forthcoming discussion. But without a doubt this book represents a major publishing event such that it may be that students forty years from now will speak of the period between Sanders and Barclay.


Barclay, John M. Paul and the Gift. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Studies. Translated by Ian Cunnison, with an introduction by E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Norton Library. New York: Norton, 1967.

Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.

  1. John M. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

  2. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

  3. English translation: Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Studies, trans. Ian Cunnison, introd. E. E. Evans-Pritchard (New York: Norton, 1967).

  4. This is to over simplify matters, admittedly.

  5. That said, he is not always particularly clear exactly why a theological, as opposed to christological, focus readily facilitates this greater nuance.

  6. Paul’s language, in these opening chapters of Romans, also speaks against Paul’s perfecting of grace in terms of singularity and non-circularity.

  7. For reasons I have not yet fathomed, which is to say they may be clear to others, Barclay seems anxious to downplay the efficacy of grace at these points. See, e.g., 503n17.

  8. Again, it is not obvious to me why Barclay resists speaking of the perfection of efficacy in this section.

  9. Here I think primarily of his engagement with Douglas Campbell. For some of my initial worries, see

  10. He claims to offer “a reading that requires no denigration of Judaism, while clarifying how Paul’s allegiance to the truth of the good news necessarily questions the ultimate authority of the Torah” (445, italics his). Some may wonder if questioning the ultimate authority of the Torah is necessarily also the denigration of Judaism. See in this regard also his exegesis of Romans 2–3.

  11. An emphasis on the incongruity of grace functions, in my view, as a timely and important corrective of aspects of the contemporary political landscape. Others, however, particularly those in the North American system and who are deeply invested in such identity-focused political discourse, may not always find Barclay’s proposals comfortable.



Paul’s Gift

A Legacy of Sublimation, Surplus Value, and Social Antagonism

First, thanks to John Barclay for an important and timely book on Paul and gift exchange which is sure to spur important discussions in several fields. From where I stand, it is difficult to overestimate the issues addressed, touched upon, or implied by this book, and I will only scratch the surface here of what this book provokes in me.

These days we are all trying to stay afloat in an ocean of discursive histories—about gift, debt, debt forgiveness, and economic life as a form of promise which is hard to place and impossible to guarantee. These topics, so many genealogies we are inheriting, sketch the coordinates in which we must now find ourselves and from which we must project futures in which we actually believe. It’s not an easy task.

As always—and certainly more than most New Testament scholars are currently addressing (John is here exceptional and agenda setting)—Paul is a crucial historical and comparative barometer of what these complex inheritances are becoming in and through our ongoing work and investment of belief in economy. Inherited historical and theological disciplines or ecclesiastical identities do not begin to own the boundaries, limits, or potentials of these conversations, and I appreciate very much John’s efforts here to gesture beyond them.

For me, philosophical and political discussions are the best indication of this loss of a clearly defined “limit” (which is to say also of a dramatic expansion) of the Pauline legacy. For example, philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s great lifework, his homo sacer project, concludes with yet another of his calls for the creation of a new account of “economy” as a hidden theology, a new story of God (cf. Agamben, The Use of Bodies; The Kingdom and the Glory). (How else to account for economy’s sovereignty, the enabling pressure or enthusiasm of pistis in which our economies traffick, not to mention the obedience with which we seem to play our respective roles in this apparently sacralized economic leitourgia?). Agamben’s new story of a surprisingly theological history of economy, moreover, has—as a subversive loose end (and dramatic conclusion to The Use of Bodies), the image of a repressed and forgotten Paul as that classic Jewish messianist who became, instead, remembered by this tradition as the first Christian. Agamben’s implication in these books is therefore entirely clear, namely, that there is an economic story wrapped up in what we usually narrate as an anti-Jewish or supersessionist legacy. Recent work on Paul, the New Perspective, and philosophical readings of Paul have begun to articulate the ongoing legacies of Christian supersessionism (cf. Paul and the Philosophers)—but to date little has been done to show why there is evidently such a close link between a supersessionist Paul and, precisely, the Paul which seems useful to revolutionary or anti-capitalist readings of Paul. Any answer to that question will need, for a start, to wend its way through some of the genealogies John develops in Paul and the Gift.

Another indication of the dramatic contemporary moment of Paulinism in which we are living might be summarized in this similar question. What are the intensive struggles between philosophers like Peter Sloterdijk, Slavoj Zizek, and Alain Badiou but an explicit variation of questions of gift exchange and universal, global, or post-nationalist solidarity which have—for all of these thinkers—been crystallized around the question of what is to be done with the Pauline legacy? Note the way Sloterdijk’s consistent tweaking the nose of post-Frankfurt School Critical Theory so often situates itself as a critique of the Paulinism of figures like Alain Badiou (cf. Sloterdijk, Nietzsche, Apostle; Was geschah im 20. Jahrhundert?). If there were in recent generations a useful moment for biblical scholarship to grasp from its comparative resources the articulation of our time in its openness to transformation, this is certainly it.

Toward that end, I want to focus my attention on John’s engagement with a “philosophical Paul” and a theological one around the question of a so-called “pure gift.” Just to begin, it is, I think, a testimony of the important and still emerging processing of biblical studies’ encounter with the work of Jacques Derrida (instigated in no small part by Yvonne Sherwood and others at the 2002 SBL/AAR) that there seems to be emerging now almost a kind of cottage industry criticizing Derrida (particularly the Derrida of Given Time) for failing to understand ancient, non-modern economies of gift. In addition to John’s thoughtful criticisms here, see also Thomas R. Blanton, A Spiritual Economy (cf. 1–9), or David E. Briones, Paul’s Financial Policy (cf. 53–57).

Derrida (the criticisms run) is obsessed with a purity of gift exchange which exceeds the horizon of ancient gift exchange or, indeed, gift exchange as such. Derrida is therefore, it is argued, insensitive to a more everyday ancient sense of solidarity and reciprocity in gift exchange, a series of obligations which Derrida denigrates as mere transactions or calculations rather than the free or self-grounding economy of a pure gift. At a hermeneutical level, though John doesn’t say so in his articulation of this type of argument, one could expand this criticism of historical sensitivities into a more wholistic philosophical critique. After all, what is at stake here is Derrida’s late career making gesture proclaiming that everything is deconstructable except the undeconstructable demand of and for justice itself, a justice which is therefore always futural or to-come rather than something which might be actualized or made simply present. Read this way, John’s criticism of Derrida’s “perfecting” of the Pauline legacy is very similar to the Marxist criticisms of Derrida’s “perfecting” of justice in such a way that (some of the Marxists argued) it always eludes the horizon of an actual transformative politics (cf. Matthew Sprinker, ed., Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Derrida’s Spectres of Marx).

Will the return to a de-perfected, de-sublimated Pauline gift afford another path toward a more robust contemporary critique of capitalism like the one for which the Marxists seem to be searching? The structural sharing in these criticisms of Derrida (John’s historical one, the Marxists’ political one) eventually deserves further reflection, and here I note only John’s very interesting initial comments about how it was wonder at money, about solidarity, and about new experiments in economic solidarity within a Christian church which provoked some of his early reflections on the Pauline texts about gift. Perhaps we could add, too, that the book is dedicated to John Riches, another Paulinist possessed by his experiments in a fair trade internationalism. No doubt any and all zones of such experimentation are precious experiences today, and no doubt we should rather share than sequester what we feel we are discovering in them. I mention this in light of the Marxist critique only to point at the shared hope in experimentation and to indicate potentially fruitful comparisons around John’s book.

For his part, John expands his criticism of Derrida into the theological and especially modern reception of Paul more generally, attempting to show how interpreters from, say, Luther and Calvin to Käsemann and Badiou, have lost the vision of Pauline reciprocity or gift exchange in their very desire to discern a kind of pure gift beyond the determined space of gift repayment. Read this way, the genealogical issues here are, potentially, both striking and massive: the Pauline legacy, mirrored in the history of theology and philosophy alike, is losing sight of a kind of everyday solidarity of gift obligation precisely in its valorization of a gift beyond calculation or exchange.

In a section of the book I found to be crucial in this regard, Barclay draws from Kenneth Burke the notion of “perfecting” a concept. Burke describes, for Barclay, a drive to perfection, to purity, to the thing itself, to a kind of ultimate end-game version of a category, a dynamic of perfectionism which, once named, could of course be found in many cultural spheres. Barclay uses Burke to inflect the history of interpretation of Paul, attempting to show how this sublimating or exceptionalizing tendency of perfectionism consistently warps the field of vision around Pauline tropes of gift, effectively reducing its polyvalency by limiting it to a kind of pure “beyond” or perhaps to an overly “private” sphere. (Here we might highlight the similarity between Derrida’s interest in the pure gift as a subset of the singularizing “secret” and Luther’s inflation of salvation into a purely fiduciary/singularizing affair, a link Mark C. Taylor has consistently noted in relation to the genealogy of modern market economies—cf. Confidence Games; Speed Limits.)

For me, the key methodological question to ask of Barclay’s book concerns the status of “perfection,” as a drive, as an economic actor, or as a comparative topic of economic self-understanding. Put bluntly, John’s assertion is that “perfecting” is a kind of sublimating gesture which, while promising to resolve the antinomies from which it emerges, is also liable to lose the sense given by precisely those antinomies. Yes, in everyday life we recognize the difference between merely calculating or merely tactical exchange and a sphere which seems, by contrast, freer and more spontaneous. But there is a way we can press this distinction too far, as if we were escalating a conflict into a total war, and that is just what John finds in the reception history of the Pauline discourse on gift.

As these broad conversations progress, I hope more will be said by the critics of Derrida—and indeed of a massive genealogy of the “perfecting” of Paul’s gift-talk—about why this sublimating investment (or this escalation of category conflict) is a danger. I suspect we all need further development of what, precisely, agitates us about the dynamic in question. Here (again, all too briefly) it may be that the philosophers are ahead of the biblical scholars in such articulations about the (rising) stakes of precisely this element within the Pauline legacy. Notice how Simon Critchley, for example, suggests that it is such a logic of perfectionism which drives the Paulinism of Zizek and Badiou to a rhetoric of violence and revolutionary catastrophe (Faith of the Faithless). In other words, the revolutionary violence tolerated (at least rhetorically) by Zizek and Badiou is a function of the way they understand Paulinism—especially his wage-gift distinction—in relation to world history.

In response, Zizek has frequently enough responded to Critchley by claiming that Critchley must necessarily fail to contest capitalism as the contemporary imperial order. Without the “perfected” critique, escalated beyond all mere reformisms into a demand for which (as Zizek likes to say) we would “go to the end” we will never escape our subservience to the current order of things. To limit myself to one other example, the very interesting debate between Sloterdijk and Badiou about the nature of twentieth-century political violence is of precisely the same order, and it is no surprise that efforts are underway to stage this debate directly in terms of a question of the Pauline legacy (cf. Sloterdijk, Was geschah im 20. Jahrhundert; Badiou, The Century).

In a word, tell me what you think about the social function of sublimating or utopian “perfecting” and I will tell you what you think of contemporary anti-capitalism. Or, differently, tell me what you think of “Christian origins” and I will tell you what you think about contemporary revolutionary breaks in the historical continuity of capitalism. Such are the times in which we write, times in which the Pauline legacy is attaining unprecedented levels of expansion, escalation, significance. Importantly, however, to date one of the only books to tackle this issue directly is Concetta Principe’s excellent Secular Messiahs and the Return of Paul’s “Real. The comparative interests of this book jump directly to the fact that it is precisely as a subset of the (surplus, excessive, or sublimated) “real” (in a psychoanalytic sense) which has generated philosophical fascination in the Pauline legacy. Principe’s book deserves more attention than it has received, and alongside John’s study should provoke important new directions in comparative research about the function of utopian “surplus” in and around Pauline discourse.

On that score, one of the things that I don’t like (there are several others which I won’t mention) about the contemporary cottage industry of denouncing “perfected” gift-talk as we have it in Derrida is that these criticisms often name “modernity” as the source of a misrecognition of the pre-modern exchange aspect of gift-giving. Once, the story goes, we knew that a gift was imbricated into a grand order of reciprocal solidarity. With modernity, the realm of exchange was so debased and calculating that the sphere of gift-giving had to flee to a remote, transcendent, otherworldly sphere of fantasized purity. That story may well be important, as far as it goes. Certainly it is a tried and tested topos of anti-capitalist discourse from Marx onward. I am concerned here more specifically with the way this epochal distinction between pre- and post-modern “gift” economy obscures something that is, increasingly, important to me, namely, that Pauline (and Senecan) discourses of the free gift were already utopian, already “perfecting”—which is to say sublimating, counter-factual, fantasized images which funded a cultural critique, or which fueled an antagonism, toward everyday life. I grant John’s fascinating use of Burke, but I don’t want to limit those insights about the role of “surplus value” or “perfecting” to a post-Pauline misrecognition of his gift-talk. For me, everyone in this genealogy is wrestling with excessive or counter-factual energies and promissory invitations. We cannot escape it and, indeed, one of the ways to take Marcel Mauss on the gift is as an exploration of the fact that these social energies, while differently managed at different times, are in fact inescapable.

To read Barclay, Briones, or Thomas Blanton one could be forgiven for thinking that Paul was some sort of hard-nosed everyday accountant of our social belonging compared to the otherworldliness or promise-oriented “purity” of the Derridean gift. But isn’t it clear, rather, that Paul and Seneca alike looked to tales of the free gift as, precisely, counter-factual and utopian critiques of an everyday life which they painted—by contrast to this utopian counter-factual—as rapacious, miserly, and debased? Were their writings about gift not also, in important respects, escalations of social antagonism, utopian provocations of the naturalized or habituated everyday? Historians like Barclay, Briones, and Thomas Blanton are frequently criticizing a philosophical Derrida for failing to recognize the historical aspects of Paul (with its gift exchange rather than a “perfected” or transcendental gift). What I find myself wishing for in all this discussion is, precisely, a comparativism which does not oppose a naturalized reciprocity in Paul to a “perfected” or extra-historical gift in the modern philosopher. Rather, I want to see more nuanced comparative tales of what is—in both cases—a tale of a sublimated, utopian, and counter-factual “gift.” Otherwise we fail to develop important new reflection on the topic which seems essential for the ancient or contemporary moment, namely, the question of surplus value as, paradoxically, the ground of these conversations rather than their simple disfiguration. We need a kind of Pauline rapprochement to the earlier arguments of a book like Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology.

Seneca, for example, is frequently clear that the distinction between a gift and a wage or “mere” transaction is a kind of polite forgetfulness of obligation in the former category of action. Yes, we owe the debts we owe, to our superiors, to our benefactors, to divinity—but the tacky thing, for Seneca, the socially destructive thing, would be to name this obligation, to say it out loud or directly or in too much specificity about what, precisely, is owed or accounted for in the act of gift-giving. In Seneca, life-giving and socially beneficial giving of gifts occurs as a kind of willful repression of social obligation. Or, differently put, in Seneca proper gift-giving is another name for the repression of social antagonism. To be too explicit about the drama around a gift is, already and from the very start, to express antagonism and aggressivity toward the social space one inhabits. No wonder that, for Seneca and Paul, the language of praise is so crucial around the topos of the gift, praise being so often that great “let it be” of acquiescence to a given state of affairs one cannot even calculate, much less change. Perhaps what interests me most in this respect is the way that the force of social antagonism emerges out of repressive forgetfulness easily to shift either into sublimating excess (as a counter-factual utopian critique of the—by-contrast—debased present) or into a de-sublimating specificity about the obligations that polite society does not say aloud.

I don’t mean to imply that Seneca and Paul are situating their cultural criticism or their respective invitations to the philosophical life in the same way—far from it. But I do mean to say that we understand their protreptic invitations to the renewed mind as of the same order as a contemporary utopian discourse that we get in someone like Derrida. Both are trafficking in the delicious possibility of an impossibility, both provoking the everyday with a sense of what it is not. Or, to put it more provocatively, both are inviting others to find the solidarity which is a singularizing “secret,” that buzzy energy of the unexpected and even unnameable. That the infrastructural demands or financial obligations of these respective movements (Paul’s or Derrida’s) would—soon and quite obviously enough—become routinized and readily recognizable, goes without saying. But, against Derrida’s historical-critical detractors, I think it is clear that we miss something very important in both authors if we imagine the logic of “perfecting” to be only a modern failure to recognize a naturalized wholism in Pauline gift-exchange.

To put it more provocatively in order to highlight the social function of “perfecting,” neither Derrida nor Paul—not to mention ourselves—get very far without the gesture toward that which escapes the everyday, a kind of sacrality, or even a kind of promissory or entrepreneurial bullshit, that figure which is structurally never clearly distinguishable from the “pure gift” as a kind of secret or unjustified hope.

Finally, the reason I want to challenge what seems to me an inappropriate epochal distinction (between Pauline gift and Derridean “pure gift”) is because I think we need to keep our comparative wits about us precisely when the question touches upon how we should live at a moment when it seems that a brutal capitalist economy of exchange so seamlessly integrates the excesses or an-economic zones of the “promise.” Here, too, my sense is that our experience is much closer to a Pauline theology of work (for free, without contract, beyond usual exchange values) than we dare to admit to ourselves. How many people reading this blog are out of work or permanently underemployed scholars who are, in every respect, funding their own careers? How many of us wonder at our own investments (again, in every sense) in a game which seems increasingly almost entirely about an extra-historical “promise” which cannot be reduced to work-and-wage, to contract, to actual exchange? Do our very souls, our very world-mediating enthusiasms, not indicate an almost monstrous—a properly divine—pistis in an economy which seems to elude us, to evade our challenges? Are we not all Paulinists now, not because we have a blueprint to change the world but, precisely, because we do not, because we are trying—heart and soul, our “souls at work” as Bifo Berardi likes to say—to bear up at a moment when “economy” is the divinity whose machinations are unreadable and in fact apparently unsustainable, whose imposed austerities are unquestionable, and whose demands for sacrifice are almost impossible to resist?

John Barclay puts before us a very important intervention about the Pauline legacy which is, quite clearly, not simply reducible to the past or to a couple of contemporary academic disciplines. In solidarity and sympathy with the project, I conclude with the question therefore: what is to be done with the Pauline legacy? More specifically, how are we to situate the historically Pauline ambiguous and ambivalent reliance on sublimation, on perfecting, on the post-contractual promise, in a world in which such dynamics indicate at once our greatest hopes and our most profound destitutions? To read Paul today is perhaps one of the most exhilarating and disconcerting of entrees into fundamental struggles of our time.

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    John Barclay


    Response to Ward Blanton

    Ward Blanton’s comments on Paul and the Gift are both welcome and challenging. His concern to read Paul afresh in the midst of our economic dysfunctions and injustices (indeed, as a hidden voice in our economic history and theory) is an inspiration to me and to many others. As in his A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), Blanton’s voice in this discussion is properly both provocative and demanding. It is extremely valuable to be reminded of the subtle dependence of economics and economic theory on certain configurations of theology, and the engagement of some contemporary theologians in the economic sphere (Kathryn Tanner; John Milbank; even Justin Welby) is surely to be hailed as a welcome development. I am only at the beginning of my reflections on this topic, as I explore early Christian economics in the next phase of my project on gift, but I hope what follows will serve to further our discussion.

    I realise that my critique of Derrida’s “pure gift” could sound like a neutering of Paul’s potential for radical rethinking of gift. But this is where the distinction between different kinds of perfection could come to our aid. Derrida perfected the non-circularity of gift, seeking to free it (even if only in a utopian state) from all systems of reciprocity and exchange. But this is not the only possible perfection of gift, and I have argued that Paul radically perfects not this but another dimension of gift, with striking social consequences, and that is the incongruity of the gift (more on that below). I am not seeking to denude Paul of his investment in surplus, excess, and counter-factual possibility; I am only (but still significantly) challenging the particular perfection that was so important to Derrida. And my critique is not just that Derrida draws from a peculiarly “modern” conceptualization of gift, but that the perfection of the “pure,” one-way gift results in a denial of solidarity and collective mutualism, and turns out to be complicit in the idealization of individualized autonomy which is so basic to late capitalism. The gift with no return not only reduces or denies the mutuality of friendship, but it all too frequently leads to toxic forms of patronage and dependence, and to expectations of “self-sacrifice” that have been so damaging to women down the centuries and (as Blanton points out) might contribute even now to the exploitation of the employed and under-employed on “adjunct” or zero-hours contracts. There are times when non-exchange equals injustice.

    Gift-exchange does not need to be calculating or contractual, as Derrida and others make out: indeed, because it is voluntary and non-contractual, it is open-ended and never guaranteed, leaving plenty of space for the development of creative forms of interdependence and co-interest. For that reason, Paul is far from the “hard-nosed everyday accountant” that Blanton fears he may become. Observing Paul’s expectations of reciprocity between the Corinthian assembly and the “saints” in Jerusalem (in 2 Cor 8–9) one senses his hopes for a long-distance friendship of mutual commitment, but nothing like a contractual exchange. “It is a question of a fair balance (or equality: isotēs) between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (2 Cor 8:13–14).

    Exchange is not the problem: the problem is a structural (and therefore psychological) commitment to property “rights,” a commitment Paul undercuts with a theology of (God-supplied) “abundance.” When Paul caps off this point by citing “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little” (8:15), one thinks immediately of the corporate bosses on salaries-with-benefits 145 times the size of the wages of their cleaners, who cannot afford to feed their children. Derrida’s perfection of the one-way gift is not the only, and in my opinion not the best, way to critique capitalism. But if we attend to what Paul does perfect in relation to gift, we may find a better way. Second Corinthians 8–9 is replete with what seems to us a fantastical, utopian assumption of superabundance: “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). Paul does not mean necessarily material abundance (he knows about poverty, from his own experience), but he conjures an outlandish image of excess (in one kind of beneficial gift or another) which circulates around a community in fluctuating and flexible patterns of exchange. Talk about surplus! And combined with that “perfection” is another, of incongruity, whereby no limits of “worth” (social, ethnic, moral, or economic) are placed around the distribution of the gift. This is an economy where communal benefits are shared, non-selectively, for the good of all (cf. 2 Cor 9:13), not rationed or delimited according to one’s ability to pay or to articulate one’s rights. This is gift “for free” in the sense of imposing no prior conditions, but not in the sense that it carries no expectations of return, because the purpose of this universal distribution is that all should be active participants in the benefit-sharing dynamics of the community.

    That is surely a revolutionary vision which subverts our “natural” ownership rights, our increasing practice of discrimination in granting access to high-quality resources, and our revealing celebration of the adjective “exclusive” (since when did it become a virtue to exclude?). That provocative theological vision has, of course, been influential in marginalized social visions, from the co-operative movement through to modern forms of socialism. The question is whether it can be sustained in a non-theological form, that is, without reference to a God whose creator-ownership of all that we possess relativizes and destabilizes our claims to private ownership. Paul’s vision is, as Blanton rightly insists, thoroughly material, but only, I think, because the material is framed by a theological vision in which all things come from God. In this sense, our increasingly brutal and exploitative capitalism is not unrelated to the processes of secularization by which it is becoming harder and harder to give convincing grounds for any values beyond what is convenient to the powerful.

Michael Cover


Philo and the Gift

John M. G. Barclay’s Paul and the Gift has been received as one of the most important historical and sociological studies on Paul’s theology of grace to emerge since E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism.1 In a work that disrupted centuries of discourse on Paul’s soteriology, Sanders claimed that Judaism was also a religion of grace,2 and thereby sought to dispel certain “Pauline” misperceptions of Judaism’s severe legalism that animated Protestant dogmatics. Barclay’s work picks up where Sanders’ left off, and in an appreciatively critical spirit, seeks to refine and correct certain imperfections in Sanders’ work that have dogged the New Perspective(s) on Paul’s soteriology by demanding a more nuanced definitional discussion of what is meant by “a religion of grace.”

One of the major improvements that Barclay makes on Sanders is the inclusion of Philo of Alexandria amongst the religious figures populating Paul’s religious terrain. Sanders famously excluded Philo from his Second Temple comparandi, putatively for reasons of geographical circumscription (Sanders was focused on “Palestinian Judaism”). The unintended result of this decision was to eliminate from the discussion the figure who might be called the second Jewish theologian of grace in the first Christian century. By including Philo, Barclay has fruitfully re-centered the discussion of Paul’s soteriology, widening the field to include a more representative sampling of the various patterns of Jewish religion potentially informing Paul’s theology.

But does Barclay characterize Philo’s soteriological emphases correctly? That is the critical question for this reviewer—and one which has been raised before. In a generally appreciative 2017 assessment of Paul and the Gift published in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Margaret M. Mitchell raises the caveat that she “would have expected more attention to free will in Philo than is given in this account.”3 Taking a cue from Mitchell, I should like to ask whether Barclay’s assessment of Philo’s “perfections of grace,” which he uses to drive a wedge between Pauline and Philonic Judaism, represents the Alexandrian’s position accurately, or whether it stands in need of refinement. It is my sense that Mitchell is right to query whether Paul’s soteriology can be “generically” distinguished from Philo’s and Seneca’s on the basis of their theologies of grace alone.4 To make this case, I proceed first by summarizing the structure and achievement of this major monograph in Pauline studies, and then turn to Barclay’s treatment of Philo in chapters 2 and 6.

Barclay advances his argument in three basic movements. The first (part 1: The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace) begins with a fascinating sociological study of the history of human gift-giving, its inextricable embeddedness in cultures of reciprocity, and the rise of the problematic concept of the “pure gift” in modernity. This first chapter leads into a constructive second chapter, in which Barclay offers a new typology for mapping theologies of grace/gift in terms of six spectra, which Barclay dubs “perfections.” By “perfect,” Barclay means not “ideal,” but “complete” (i.e., “perfect babel”). Barclay’s perfections are: (1) superabundance (how much grace is given?); (2) singularity (is the gift given for good or benevolent ends); (3) priority (does the gift temporally precede the initiative of the recipient); (4) incongruity (to what extent does the offering of a gift depend on the worthiness of the recipient); (5) efficacy (to what extent does a gift achieve its designed ends?); and (6) non-circularity (does the gift stand outside the “the system of exchange or quid pro quo,” 70–75). Barclay’s “perfections” provide a sharp critical vocabulary by which to clarify Sanders’ largely unrefined notion of religions of grace (covenantal nomism notwithstanding). Part 1 closes with a long but selective reception history of Paul’s understanding of grace in Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, theologians “from Barth to Martyn,” in “Sanders and the New Perspective,” and in “Recent Discussions on Paul and Grace.” Origen, the Cappadocians, and later Byzantine theologians (with the exception of John Cassian) are not mentioned. Although this is not the major focus of this review, it seems worth pointing out that the omission of the Eastern Christian voices as well as Thomas Aquinas in Barclay’s reception history seems to steer his discussion of Paul in a decidedly Protestant direction. I will return to this point (briefly) below.

In the second major movement of his argument (part 2: Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism), Barclay returns to the sources and studies antecedent, contemporary, and later Jewish theologians of grace, including Wisdom of Solomon, Philo of Alexandria, the Hodayot, Ps.-Philo’s LAB, and 4 Ezra. The third major stage of the argument (parts 3 and 4) offers readings of Galatians and Romans, respectively. While Barclay admits that there are certain differences of context and emphasis between the two letters, he finds in them a fundamentally identical construal of grace. Paul stands out from all other voices in the field in his maximizing the perfection of incongruity. Galatians sets forth “a shocking lack of match with the worth of [the divine gift’s] beneficiaries, in ethnic, cognitive, moral or other terms” (446). Shifting contextual emphases in Romans “reflect not the weakening but the expansion of Paul’s central perfection of grace—its incongruity with the worth of its recipients” (454).

A full assessment of Paul and the Gift exceeds the scope of the present review. Here, I limit myself to Barclay’s treatment of Philo. There is much to commend about this aspect of study. Barclay reads Philo carefully, recognizing the difficulty of interpreting the Alexandrian’s variegated corpus, with its “different modes,” “different exegetical methods,” “different kinds of treatise,” and different philosophical influences (212). He prudently seeks “amidst Philo’s diverse and even contradictory expressions, the signs of maximum emphasis” (ibid.). Barclay makes Philo a major touchstone in his construal of the perfections in chapter 2, and offers a fair and balanced reading of him in chapter 6.

Where Barclay perhaps overstates his case and fails to follow his own interpretive principles is with regard to Philo’s perfection or non-perfection of incongruity. According to Barclay, Philo maximizes almost all of the perfections other than incongruity. The Alexandrian “wax[es] eloquent” about the (1) superabundance of God’s gift; he defends the (2) singularity of God’s beneficence (which is a corollary of his transcendence); he “emphasizes the [3] priority of grace” by way of asserting God as first cause. Philo also, according to Barclay, perfects the (5) efficacy of God’s gift: “Even while stressing the ascetic effort of virtuous persons . . . in certain remarks to the philosophically initiated, [Philo] will render the human agent entirely passive.”5 He “normally figures thanksgiving as the proper return to God” and thus only partially perfects (6) non-circularity. This leads us to Philo’s hallmark difference from Paul: “Philo is not generally concerned to perfect [4] the incongruity of the gift” (237). Thus, Barclay concludes: “If we rid ourselves of the assumption that divine grace is, by definition, given to the unworthy . . . it is perfectly possible to hail Philo as a profound theologian of grace, even though he does not perfect its incongruity” (238).

Barclay himself admits that he developed the perfections as a means of describing the difference between Paul’s and Philo’s views of grace.6 Any attempt to use Barclay’s perfections to draw Philo and Paul more closely together runs the risk of futility, wielding a critical instrument toward an end antithetical to its original purpose. Nevertheless, I wish to raise a critique of Barclay’s construal of Philo’s understanding grace on his own terms, vis-à-vis the perfections of incongruity and efficacy. In particular, one passage, Leg. 1.34, deserves greater emphasis in Barclay’s analysis. Here, in the programmatic beginning of the Allegorical Commentary, Philo answers the question “why did God deem the earth-born and body-befriending mind worthy (ἠξίωσεν) of the divine spirit?” Philo gives two answers, the first of which is most pertinent:

[To this question] it must first be answered that God, because he loves to give gifts (φιλόδωρος ὤν), graciously gives (χαρίζεται) good things to all, even those who are not perfect (τοῖς μὴ τελεῖοις), inviting them to a zealous participation in virtue. . . . God has fashioned no soul bereft of goodness, even if some should be unable (ἡ χρῆσις ἀδύνατος) to use it.

Barclay is aware that this passage complicates his thesis, but suggests in several places (73n12; 222, esp. 228) that this and several similar loci in the Allegorical Commentary (see Sacr. 124; Migr. 186) are not the main thrust of Philo’s thought. Here we ought, as Mitchell suggests, to “push a bit harder” and ask why Barclay has marginalized this and related passages. Philo strategically locates this statement on God’s indiscriminate, incongruous gift-giving at the programmatic beginning of his Allegorical Commentary in his foundational account of moral agency in the molded mind. He explicitly states that God, in his love of giving gifts, graciously attributes worth (ἠξίωσεν) to all souls regardless of moral potency. In Leg. 1.34, superabundance, singularity, priority, and incongruity are all perfected. In Leg. 1.34, it is the efficacy of God’s gift which instead remains unperfected.

Barclay’s case that Philo generally perfects efficacy of God’s gift (and reduces the efficacy of human moral agency and ascetic discipline to a mere linguistic fiction) depends largely upon a single, fragmentary passage from Leg. 4 and runs counter to the general impression given by Philo’s moral paraenesis throughout the Allegorical Commentary. Barclay’s claim that Philo perfects the efficacy of grace thus violates his own principle of seeking “signs of maximum emphasis” in Philo. A fairer assessment of Philo’s theology of grace would be that Philo alternates between perfecting incongruity and efficacy. In far more cases than Barclay admits, Philo apparently leaves the efficacy of God’s gift unperfected and dependent upon the free will and moral agency of the recipient. The root problem for Philo, in other words, is not why God gives good things only to the worthy (see, e.g., Migr. 18, where all “Israel,” the seeing race, stands on the brink of enslavement to blind Ignorance), but rather why some souls do not have as great a capacity to receive God’s gracious gifts as others (see Opif. 23).

If the imperfection of efficacy opens Philo to the charge of “synergism” by some Protestant scholars (238), one might respond by asking why this is a problem. Philo was received and transmitted by theologians of the Orthodox East, whose soteriologies from Origen onward have been characterized as synergist rather than monergist. Many theologians in the Western tradition, including (e.g.) Thomas Aquinas, Melanchthon, Luis de Molina, and reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga, potentially succumb to this “critique” as well.

Philo’s perfection, at key moments, of the incongruity of God’s gift destabilizes the foundation of Barclay’s differentiation between Pauline and Philonic Judaism. One need not argue that Philo and Paul had identical patterns of religion to recognize a closer generic proximity between their theologies of grace and thanksgiving than Barclay allows. Where Paul and Philo do part ways more consistently is with regard to their varied perfections of the efficacy of the human will; their differing perspectives on the external appearance of lives of virtue; and, most importantly, their highly divergent relationships to apocalyptic Messianism—the particular means by which God’s grace is given.

  1. See, e.g., Joel Marcus, “Barclay’s Gift,” JSNT 39 (2017) 324–30; Margaret M. Mitchell, “Gift Histories,” JSNT 39 (2017) 304–23.

  2. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 422.

  3. Mitchell, “Gift Histories,” 311.

  4. Mitchell, “Gift Histories,” 311.

  5. Among these “certain remarks, Barclay consistently singles out a fragment of Leg. 4 in J. R. Harris, Fragments of Philo Judaeus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1886), 8.

  6. Barclay (“The Gift and Its Perfections: A Response to Joel Marcus and Margaret Mitchell,” JSNT 39 [2017] 331–44, esp. 339) notes in his response to Mitchell that he “first hit upon the idea . . . of the six perfections in reading not Paul or Augustine, but Philo.” In reading Philo, he first articulated to himself that “there is a difference between priority and incongruity, and that the two need not combine.”

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    John Barclay


    Response to Michael Cover

    I am grateful to Michael Cover for “pushing back” on some aspects of Paul and the Gift, and in particular on my reading of Philo. As we are agreed, Philo’s corpus is so huge, and his contextual emphases so varied, that it is hard to represent well the “balance” of his views. In Cover’s view, however, I overstate my case regarding Philo such that (a) I underestimate the significance for Philo of the incongruity of grace, and (b) I overstate the efficacy of grace with regard to human agency in virtue. Thus in both respects I misrepresent the relationship between Philo and Paul.

    Let me take each point in turn.

    I tried to nuance my reading of Philo regarding the congruity and incongruity of grace, giving due weight to each side of this matter, and I am certainly concerned not to repeat Protestant caricatures of Philo on this point. The best discussion of this matter has recently been provided by Orrey McFarland, in his book God and Grace in Philo and Paul (Leiden: Brill, 2016), and I will refer to his work here. As I hoped to make clear, and as McFarland emphasises, it is absolutely basic to Philo that, as Creator, God is the cause of all (good) things: his gift of creation, and of all its natural goods, is given to all, without limit and therefore without any consideration of worth. The passage from Legum Allegoriae 1.33–34 that Cover cites is indeed one of those passages where Philo insists that created goods pass to all, God here breathing into the body-embedded mind, so that none are bereft of the potential for virtue. Philo is also insistent that whatever “worth” we might talk about does not represent any commensurability between humans and God, since they are radically asymmetrical, as creatures to Creator. All of that must indeed be said to hedge about what we also find very frequently in Philo, which is the claim that when God gives his select and discriminate benefits (such as in blessings to the patriarchs, to Israel, and to those souls whom they represent), this is very much a gift to the fitting or worthy, for the good reason that no discriminating gift could be given well if it were given in an arbitrary or haphazard way. But then again, this worth (of virtue or whatever) is not humanly generated, but was already planted by God, because for Philo it would be the height of impiety to attribute any good to ourselves, even the virtue by which some are deemed worthy of God’s superior gifts. Worth is, as McFarland says, only ever the condition and not the cause of God’s gifts (God and Grace, 63).

    But what about human agency in this matter, and the efficacy of divine grace? I think “efficacy” is probably under-defined in my Paul and the Gift, and the looseness of meaning may have led me, or my readers, astray at this point. If we mean by this that God somehow bypasses the human agent, or supplants their agency with his own, then that would indeed be too strong for most passages in Philo. (There are a number of texts that do say something like this with regard to the final steps to the ultimate vision of God, and not just in the fragment from Legum Allegoriae 4, but we don’t have space to discuss those here.) But what is clear in Philo is that even when he speaks most fulsomely of human agency in virtue, he is still anxious, for the sake of piety, not to give the credit to the human, but insists again on the causative power of God, who anticipates human virtue, draws it upwards, and completes it: “It is necessary that the soul should not ascribe to itself its toil for virtue, but that it should take it away from itself and refer it to God, confessing that not its own strength or power acquired nobility, but He who gave also the love of it” (Legum Allegoriae 3.136). There is here no zero-sum game (more of God, less of us), and no portioning out of agency, a bit to God, a bit to us. All human agency, both the love for virtue and the toil to achieve it, is here placed within the agency of God, who is always, for Philo both origin and cause. (As McFarland puts it, “Any virtuous action is located within, aligned with, and thus constituted by divine agency; any evil action is outside,” God and Grace, 66.) If we may speak of “free will” (not, I think, Philo’s own language), we find that the will to seek virtue is itself given and motivated by God. And it would be unhelpful to apply to Philo the language of “synergism,” if that suggests the cooperation of two commensurate agencies. Monergism and synergism are both inadequate categories in speaking about the relation between God and us, at least if we acknowledge (e.g., with the Thomist tradition) the categorical distinction between these two kinds of agency. I have argued in Paul and the Gift that for Paul it would be better to speak of “energism,” and such language might perhaps fit Philo as well.

    So I am not convinced that Philo and Paul are as far apart as Michael Cover maintains on the “efficacy” of grace, though perhaps we need to provide each other with greater clarity on what we mean by that word. However, as Cover says, their greatest difference concerns where they consider the grace of God to be most evidently present—for Philo in creation, for Paul in the Christ-gift that brings the mercy-based history of Israel to its point of definition and fulfilment. But it still seems to me striking that, when he speaks of this gift, Paul makes self-conscious digressions to highlight its incongruity, whether given to Abraham (Rom 4:1–6), to the patriarchs (Rom 9:6–13), to the Gentiles (Rom 9:25–26), or to all (Rom 5:6–11). At this point, in contrast to Philo, all language of worth is missing; and that, it seems, is neither accidental nor insignificant.

    • Michael Cover

      Michael Cover


      Rejoinder to Professor Barclay

      Two initial notes: first, I am very grateful to Professor Barclay for engaging my response to his book so thoughtfully. He has given me much to ponder. Second, I regret that I will be traveling (in England, no less!) during the time immediately following the posting of my review and Professor Barclay’s response; hence, while I am able to offer a prepared “rejoinder to Barclay’s response to my review,” I will not be able to engage further dialogue in real-time as I would have wished.

      First, then, I wish to highlight again what Professor Barclay and I are in agreement on: that Philo is an essential interlocutor for future discussions of what Paul means by grace (and a good number of other things as well—including New Testament exegesis of the LXX). However one might construe the different emphases between their theologies, let us hope that the time of ignoring Philo in Pauline studies, and in NT and EC scholarship more broadly, is over and done.

      Second, as Professor Barclay responded to me in turn, so I will address, in turn, the issues regarding 1) congruity-incongruity; and 2) the efficacy of the gift, which I take as including the human capacity to receive it.

      1) I appreciate Professor Barclay’s clarifications about incongruity in Philo. We are, I think, very close in our understandings of this, although some important nuances remain. As recent scholarship on Philo makes clear (and here I am thinking especially of the work of Carlos Lévy on Philo and Academic skepticism) Philo throughout his works—and especially in the Exposition of the Law—wishes to emphasize human “nothingness” or oudenia. Professor Barclay rightly reminds us that there is also language of “worth” in Philo’s account of this gift-giving “such as in blessings to the patriarchs, to Israel, and to those souls whom they represent”; I would hasten to add that in the Allegorical Commentary, this almost always means the latter (a point which is often missed). Thus, in Philo we are already speaking of a grace potentially available beyond narrow ethnic boundaries (as also in Paul). If anything, on this understanding of worth, one might say that Paul espouses a more particularist or “worth”-based understanding of grace—even though he does not employ that vocabulary—in his maintenance of a strong concept of election, insisting that it is really the seed of David (Rom 1:3; Rom 9:5) through whom God’s grace is extended and that the Jews are in fact loved on account of their fathers (Rom 11:28). This, as opposed to Philo’s rather more open model of philosophical participation in the virtues of patriarchal exemplars by way of paideia or askēsis, through which a gentile might graciously follow in the train of Abraham, the way a platonizing Christian might follow the literary example of the wise Odysseus or Socrates. (I would admit that Philo may be more of a particularist than this, but exactly how remains an open question.) For Philo, in other words, Moses and Plato are saying nearly the same thing so far as ethics and perfection are concerned; for Paul, Plato is clearly missing something.

      The point about vocabulary is critical and raises a broader methodological question: whether the absence of the language or “worth” in Paul really means that his theology of grace operates with no similar notion to Philo’s (taking into account the secondary-causality, responsive reciprocity, and “condition not cause” caveats). A similar question may be at the heart of Susan Eastman’s forthcoming contribution to this symposium (readers, stay tuned). Given their different educational and regional backgrounds, might we expect that certain ideas, which Philo expresses in one way (i.e. “worth”), would be expressed by Paul differently, though still essentially identical? As an example of such an approach—and on a topic not inconsequential to the discussion at hand—I would point to the recent study of Gudrun Holtz, Die Nichtigkeit des Menschen und die Übermacht Gottes (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017). Holtz argues that Philo’s notion of philautia (self-sufficiency) has its religious and ethical counterpart in Paul’s concept of kauchēsis (p.88). Whatever one makes of this particular argument, Holtz’s recognition that Paul and Philo may call a rose by slightly different names (and sometimes, I would add, use the same word for different concepts, e.g. doxa) is important to register. So, for instance, when Paul says in 1 Cor 6:9 “do you not know that the unjust (adikoi) will not inherit the kingdom of God,” might we have something similar to Philo’s notion of anaxios, both semantically and in terms of the overall gift-giving / inheritance schema (registering the different moments at which, Barclay notes, grace is offered in each schema)? Obviously, further exegesis of the surrounding pericope in 1 Cor 6 would be required to answer this question, for which we don’t have space here.

      2) As to the question of the efficacy of the gift, including the human capacity to receive the gift proffered (which is surely a part of the gift-giver’s obligation): I appreciate Professor Barclay’s notes about the term “energism.” I find the concept intriguing, particularly as a description of causality in Paul, but in the end, I’m not convinced that it doesn’t tilt the scales in favor of monergism. The term, while potentially useful in helping readers avoid the difficulties of dual causality, may in its commendable bid to cut the Gordion knot ultimately muddy the waters more than clarify them. In Philo and in the majority of Greek Christian authors, one has to deal with the co-presence of human and divine energeiai, however one categorically differentiates them. If the point is that Paul uses energeia and its cognates predominantly or most properly to refer to the activity of God (1 Cor 12:6; Phil 2:13; but cf. 2 Thess 2:9, 11, for clearly created “energies” in later Pauline tradition), one still has to reckon with statements like Rom 12:1–2, wherein Paul exhorts an offering of the human soma and a renewal of the human nous and all its capacities. This was, I think, the substance of Erasmus’ rhetorical critique of Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will: that exhortations are linguistic and social indicators of the existence of something like a human efficacious—if also enslaved—will, akin to the thought of the early Augustine. In sum, while intrigued by this term, I am not convinced that “energism” solves these issues. I want to be clear, however, that when I speak of synergism, I by no means am thinking of “the cooperation of two commensurate agencies.” God’s role in the perfection or imperfection of human energeia—or indeed, thelēma and nous—remains to my mind a respect in which Philo and Paul might usefully be distinguished.

      As an example of Philo’s imperfection (on human side) of a divine gift’s efficacy, I would point to the Alexandrian’s controversial doctrine of the creation of the human being by way of the help of angels or lesser powers. Philo has borrowed this doctrine—that God did not create alone—from Plato’s Timaeus as a mode of theodicy, so that God cannot be accounted culpable for human evil. Although his most famous adaptation of this Platonic myth comes in De opificio mundi 72–76, it is likewise present, in an intriguing variation, in the Allegorical Commentary at De mutatione nominum 31. There, Philo notes (in an allegorical interpretation of Gen 1:26) that souls which, like wax tablets, have been insufficiently stamped according to the divine image, or cannot perfectly receive a good molding (dexetai…kalon [tupon]), may properly be thought to result from the “craftsmanship of others” (heterōn…dēmiougēma). For Philo, then, God’s gift (or restoration) of the divine image remains imperfectly efficacious, depending on the degree to which the soul of each human recipient was fashioned (or restored) by either God or a lesser craftsman.

      The potential affinity of Philo’s statement with later Gnosticizing or dualist interpretations of Genesis led one of Philo’s first modern commentators, the Augsburg humanist David Hoeschel, to note on Mut. 31 that “in truth, here as in many places, Philo writes as one still uninitiated in the teachings of the Gospel.” Paul, according to Hoeschel, would have had no truck with this kind of mythic anthropology, as it reduces God’s power to render his gift efficacious. For Paul, it is God and not some lesser craftsman, who hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Rom 9:16–18) and renders it stony rather than pliant wax—and for his own inscrutable ends.

      In closing, I wish to thank Professor Barclay again for this stimulating study, and to apologize for not being able to respond to any further responses in real time (I hope to get back to them eventually). I am sure Paul and the Gift will remain an important touchpoint for my own work in this and related areas.

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      John Barclay


      Continuing the Conversation with Michael Cover

      I am glad to continue the conversation on Paul and Philo with Michael (we have never met, but I hope we may move now to first-name terms!).  In keeping with our focus on the incongruity and efficacy of grace, let me make some further remarks on each.

      Congruity/Incongruity is not, I think, the same as particularity/universality. Michael rightly points out that Philo presents the soul’s journey of virtue as, potentially, accessible to anyone, Jew or non-Jew, so long as they have sufficient education and moral training.  Of course, for Philo proper education will eventually require the abandonment of “idolatry,” since Jews and proselytes are the only ones who truly understand, and truly worship God (Spec. 2.162-67).  As far as Philo is concerned, the Jewish tradition just is, as a matter of fact, the best and most rigorous path to virtue (Spec. 4.179).  But God has sown in everyone the capacity for virtue (except, as Michael points out, where God’s subordinates did a poor job in creation), and humans can be expected to respond appropriately.

      Paul sees in everyone the incapacity for virtue: if Scripture has shut up all things under sin (Gal 3.22), it is the case that all, Jew and Gentile, have sinned and lack the glory of God (Rom 3.23, drawing from Rom 3.9-20).  That universal pessimism in Paul is, of course, the inverse of his conviction that an event has occurred, in Christ, that makes redemptive grace possible for all (Rom 5.12-21): “God has shut up all people into disobedience, in order that he may have mercy on all” (Rom 11.32).  The language of election indicates that what is operative in this insurgency against the universal reign of sin is the grace/mercy of God, but it is clear that that election follows no reckoning of worth (Rom 9.6-13).  If Paul looks, from one angle, more “particularist” than Philo in his theology of election, that is not because he has a “worth”-based understanding of grace.

      Or, Michael asks, does Paul have the same structure of thought as Philo, just different vocabulary for expressing it?  In some contexts Paul can use the language of worth (e.g. for believers walking “worthily” of God, or of the gospel, 1 Thess 2.12; Phil 1.27; cf. Col 1.10; Eph 4.1), and he certainly sees, as I have argued, some congruity between the life of the believer and the final verdict of God (1 Thess 3.13; Rom 2.6-10, etc.).  But that congruity is not the qualification for a gift, and not the means by which anyone comes to be in Christ.  As Michael points out, Paul is clear that “the unrighteous” will not inherit “the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6.9; cf. Gal 5.19-21).  But does that imply that God has selected “the righteous”?  No.  “Such [in the above categories of the unrighteous] were some of you; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6.11).  God did not find, but create those whom he would consider “righteous,” and that is only as they participate in Christ and are remade by the Spirit.  This scandalous mismatch between grace and its recipients is, I have argued, a persistent theme through Romans, colouring the way Paul presents Abraham, Israel, and the calling of the Gentiles.  Its opposite is a choice according to worth: “one would scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one might be daring enough to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5.7-8).  The emphasis in this context on Christ’s death for “sinners, “the weak,” “the ungodly,” and “enemies” could hardly be stronger.

      The appeal to the “fathers” in Rom 11.28 brings out further the contrast with Philo.  Like other readers of Scripture, Philo notices how often God’s patience with Israel is “for the sake of the fathers.”  The special value God puts on Israel is, Philo says, because of “the priceless righteousness and virtue of the founders of the nation,” virtues that survive and bear indestructible fruit for their descendants, so long as the latter are not incurably sinful (Spec. 2.181).  Paul thinks everyone is (apart from God’s intervention) incurably sinful and, when he traces the history of God’s people back to the patriarchs, what he finds is the absence of virtue (Rom 4.1-6; 9.6-13).  Israel is beloved “on account of the fathers” (Rom 11.28) because the gift and the calling of God are irrevocable (11.29), not because of the fathers’ indestructible virtue and righteousness.  Theologically, Paul is treading a far more dangerous line than Philo, and he knows it (Rom 9.14).

      And what of efficacy?  For the sake of clarity, let me suggest five different levels at which we may speak of the efficacy of God’s grace, moving from the minimal to the maximal in terms of its perfection:

      1. God’s grace creates the capacity in the soul to receive his gifts, and sows the seed of virtue, which we may subsequently foster or destroy.
      2. God aids the development of that virtue by instruction, example and encouragement, boosting our virtuous effort with divine support.
      3. God creates a newly configured self, oriented and continually induced to virtuous behaviour, but with the capacity to refuse that orientation and to choose the opposite.
      4. God creates a newly configured self (as above), which does not have the capacity to choose a destiny other than that already determined for it by God.
      5. God replaces human agency with the agency of his grace, such that God alone can be said to act in acts of virtue (a strong form of monergism).

      Michael may have other ways of ‘spreading out’ the category of efficacy, but this might help our discussion a little. I would place Philo’s normal language in i) or ii), since for reasons that go deep in the Greek tradition (see Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness), some human responsibility for virtue must be retained if justice is to remain a meaningful concept.  But Philo’s insistence that God must always be acknowledged as Cause can lead him to make statements further up this scale, including some that sound like v).  Paul sees the normal human will as enslaved (Rom 7.14-25) – not thereby guiltless, but caught up in a power-sphere that continually perverts and frustrates any proper exercise of virtue.  What is needed is a creative gift (“new creation,” 2 Cor 5.17; the gift of the Spirit, Gal 5.15-25), by which the self, newly sourced, oriented, and responsive, is able to will the good from the heart, and to do what is willed.  The Macedonians gave willingly – because of the grace of God given to them (2 Cor 8.1-5); Titus was enthusiastic to help, of his own accord – thanks be to God (2 Cor 8.16-17).  This sort of doubling language – acknowledging the believer as an active and responsible agent, while attributing even their agency to God – is what I mean by “energism” and what might be placed at level iii) above.

      Paul’s theology is conversionist – predicated on a change in the life of a believer effected by the Christ-event; Philo’s is a theology of creation, and life-long human development.  That leads Paul to make strong statements about the intervention of grace, while his ethical instructions also imply the newly created and responsible agency of the believer.  In his generous introduction to this Syndicate dialogue, Chris Tilling wonders (in his notes 7 and 8) why I seem concerned to play down efficacy in Paul’s letters.  The answer lies in many hours of fruitful dialogue with J. Louis Martyn, a friend and scholar I admired immensely and greatly miss.  Lou’s proper concern was to underscore the agency of God, and that led him sometimes to interpret Paul in a way that seemed to downplay, or over-anxiously qualify Paul’s assumption that he was addressing responsible moral agents. Perhaps I reacted too strongly, but I have often wondered whether he was inclined to push Paul towards a perfection of efficacy that ran against the grain of Paul’s letters.  God’s agency and ours are not in the same category of “agency” and cannot be entered into the same equation.  Instead of “dual agency” (God’s and ours), we might speak of two dimensions in which Paul can describe the agency of believers led by the Spirit: they themselves act, with full responsibility and accountability, but their acting is created by and encompassed within the agency of the Spirit.  That second (divine) dimension is always present, I think, beneath Paul’s discourse, even if it comes to the surface only in some contexts, and for certain rhetorical purposes.

      Both Paul and Philo establish some parameters within which to understand these two dimensions and the relationship between them; but neither has a fixed way of articulating this matter, nor well-developed tools for its theological analysis.  At this point, interpretation requires theological resources, and I am glad to recommend here two that offer some aid: John Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Susannah Ticciati, A New Apophaticism: Augustine and the Redemption of Signs (Brill, 2015).

Susan Grove Eastman


Love and Reciprocity

One of John Barclay’s key claims in Paul and the Gift is that the Christ-gift is given incongruously, but that Paul expects the recipients of grace to become congruous. Put provocatively, the gift is unconditioned, given without regard to prior worth, but not unconditional. Indeed, to receive the gift of grace is to become obligated to obey Christ, and subject to judgment for resisting the gift and its effects. Paul expects his converts to change, so that their social practices are “the realization of the gift.”

This essay raises some critical questions about how this realization happens and what it looks like experientially, particularly in regard to Barclay’s insistence that the gift is unconditioned but nevertheless comes with a quid pro quo. In part because Barclay has promised a further volume sketching out the social implications of the incongruous gift, I want to press for further specificity; what is the character of the community shaped by the unconditioned gift? What are the qualities of personal interaction in which “the incongruity between the gift and the recipients’ previous worth is designed to bring about a deep and lasting congruity between the character of the gift and the ethos of its recipients”? Indeed it is abundantly evident that Paul expects his converts’ lives to be no less transformed than his own. Nonetheless, it seems to me that by using the language of conditionality and reciprocity, perhaps Barclay subverts the transformation he rightly attributes to “the incongruity between the gift and the recipients’ previous worth.”

What do I mean? I have titled this essay “Love and Reciprocity.” Readers will note the shift from speaking about the gift to speaking about love. But for Paul, love above all is the “ethos” that expresses best the character of the gift, as he repeatedly tells the Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumsion is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6); “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be slaves of one another. For the whole law has been fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:13–14); “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22).

If the communal realization of the unconditioned gift is love, what is the character of this love? Does it operate without prior conditions yet require subsequent reciprocity? Does it begin with an unconditioned gift but then become conditional, and if so, when does such a shift occur? How is its efficacy to be measured, if indeed it is? Does it create a new system of worth, or so radically undo even the idea of such systems that questions of worth become irrelevant? At issue is the way in which Spirit-indwelt human agents express the character of the gift in their interpersonal interactions. Because that is where, as Barclay repeatedly and rightly insists, the gift becomes existentially real.

To illustrate the point, I quote from Ken Carder, a retired United Methodist bishop who now serves as chaplain in a memory care facility; Carder’s wife Linda has advanced Alzheimer’s and is herself a patient in this facility. Observing that dementia offers tremendous lessons in Christian living, Carder highlights “love without reciprocity.” In his words, “Linda can no longer express love to me in the way she has for most of the 55 years we’ve been together, but I can love her without any expectation of return. . . . I do that imperfectly. God does it perfectly. That’s what agape love is.”1

Carder’s story and comments illustrate the creative power of persistently non-circular love that is itself an expression of the unconditioned, incongruous gift. Love in the face of non-reciprocity is the basis on which Carder ministers to dementia patients, precisely because such love does not require a return. In this sense it is radically free and thereby radically sustainable over time. Furthermore, in Carder’s view this “love without reciprocity” is precisely how God loves, and in that sense the permanently unconditioned love of God is the fount of Carder’s love. He is passing on what he continually receives. In a nutshell, the ethos shaped by the unconditioned gift is itself unconditional.

There is a deep paradox at work here. What Carder demonstrates, even as he acknowledges his own imperfection, is congruity between the gift and his own life. That is, the certainty of God’s self-gift in the face of incongruity funds his extension of love to non-reciprocating recipients. Therefore, such expression paradoxically finds its fulfillment in “love without reciprocity”—that is, a gracious relationship that does not require an obligation of return or depend on the transformation of the relational partner into a “fitting recipient.” This is the paradox that must, I insist, characterize the existential reality of the outworking of grace in the life of faith.

The issue is how the incongruous gift is mediated interpersonally. Is it mediated through human relationships that begin with unconditioned grace but develop through the imposition of conditions and obligations? Or does it persist despite incongruity? Might there be a sense in which the incongruity of grace undergirds and sustains the change Paul anticipates in his converts? And might there be a sense in which the goal of such change is a kind of permanent incongruity in the interpersonal enactment of the gift? That is, Paul wants his congregations to become communities in which the incongruity of grace is the norm that subverts all systems of worth and generates genuinely new social realities—not just once, but on a daily basis. This promise and expectation of transformation is intrinsic to the liberation Paul proclaims.

Thus the question is not whether participation in Christ’s faithful death and resurrection changes believers, but rather, how and to what end. What are the dynamics of change in the life of faith? How, that is, do believers become fitting recipients of grace who persistently extend unconditioned grace to others? Or does conditionality subvert that practice?

Any attempts to answer this question will have to take account of two aspects of Paul’s thought, both of which Barclay discusses: the notion of the person as a self-in-relationship, and Paul’s judgment language. First, the person. I suggest that talk about change in the Christian life has been hampered by an unexamined either/or veering between autonomous individualism on the one hand, and purely communal identity on the other. Paul himself seems to be more nuanced. He speaks easily and not infrequently in the singular first and second person, with a strong sense of himself as a unique agent, and a clear address to others as discrete individuals. Yet persons do not exist in isolation and they certainly are not autonomous in a modern sense. Rather, they are selves-in-relation. If this is so, then to talk about change is to talk about a reconstitution of the relational matrix in which persons live.

Barclay is aware of this; his focus, like that of Paul, is on the social transformations effected by life in the realm of gifts bestowed on unfitting recipients rather than on the basis of achievement or honor. In this regard, then, what changes is the quality of the relationships in which persons are held and constituted and interact, and here it is giftedness rather than achievement or other criteria of worth that forms the basis for the life of faith. Thus Paul’s harshest criticism falls on those who require normative behavior that undercuts the incongruity of the gift of Christ himself. To be sure, the demand for congruity is based on something other than the singular gift, such as observance of the Mosaic law, but as Barclay himself has argued elsewhere, the Christian missionaries requiring such observance saw it as completely congruous with faith in Christ. That observation bears further attention: it is not always clear when the obligation to respond to the gift in a “fitting” way becomes unfitting. In theory, the incongruity of the gift deconstructs all prior norms and requirements; in practice, the way in which a new communally constituted identity is formed is less clear. Put simply, as soon as the obligation to become a “fitting recipient” of the gift is imposed, it subverts the incongruity of grace on an existential level. Those being circumcised in Galatia may think they thereby are become fitting recipients, but in fact they have “cut themselves off from Christ.” It is crucial to note the paradox here: human beings do not change in a vacuum; if they do indeed begin to become “fitting recipients” of grace, they do so as those who know themselves to be unfitting yet welcomed in a community that does not impose criteria of worth.

There is a complex interplay between individual and social transformation at work here, and it is related to the complexities of Paul’s judgment language. Paul does warn those who subvert the incongruity of grace, yet he also tells the Roman Christians not to judge one another, but to leave judgment to God. Indeed, the certainty of God’s eschatological judgment is the basis for suspending mutual human judgment. Paul even tells the Corinthians that he does not judge himself (1 Cor 4:4–5). Ultimately judgment is in God’s hands, and the community of faith mediates grace in part, at least, by acknowledging that reality. Even the disciplinary action of turning the incestuous man over to Satan (1 Cor 5) is not for the purpose of exclusion, but rather salvation.

So while Barclay rightly insists that Paul’s letters are full of warnings of eschatological judgment, it is not always clear that those warnings function in a conditional way. The certainty of divine judgment in Gal 6:1–10 grounds Paul’s instruction to restore those who have gone astray, “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1). As in Romans, divine judgment does not find expression in human judgment, but in a deeper extension of incongruous benefaction. Perhaps judgment is everywhere in Paul, but not everywhere the same. It seems to me there is judgment, but not ultimate condemnation; because God condemned sin in the flesh on the cross, the promise that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ grounds the transforming power of the Spirit in the community (Rom 8:1–3, 32–34). Discipline is one thing, condemnation is quite another. There is communal discipline in Paul’s letters, but final judgment is a divine prerogative.

Now all this limns the qualities of a community of believers in which change happens. The transformation of which Paul speaks occurs primarily in relationships between people, not in isolate, discrete individuals. That communal interaction does not impose systems of worth on its members, but rather extends unconditioned grace interpersonally over time. In this sense it is marked by the absence of criteria about who qualifies as “worthy” of belonging. Members of such a community expect to be judged by God, and live with the humility and openness that such expectation may foster, precisely because final judgment belongs to God and not flawed human beings.

Is the ethos of such a community “conditional” or “unconditional”? Insofar as Christ’s self-gift is, I suggest, permanently unconditioned, the ethos of a communal realization of the gift is unconditional. It never depends on the recipients’ capacity to respond appropriately. Yes, Paul expects transformation in his converts, as in his own life. But he leaves room to speak truthfully about the fragility of change this side of the eschaton, and therefore also about the ineluctable limits of human judgment. In this fleshly existence anyone might lose evidence of a transformed life—faith, love, the fruits of the Spirit—at any time. That loss does not gainsay the reality of the transformation Paul envisions, because it is enacted through the relationships that uphold each member of the community. But it does gainsay any conditionality imposed on individual believers, whose judgment is finally in God’s hands. Rather, as Rowan Williams puts it, “What happens in Jesus is that we are drawn into a community in which our engagement in the fate of human beings acquires something of the same exposure and unconditionality as God’s.”2

  1. Sam Hodges, “Retired Bishop Serves Memory Care Unit as Chaplain,” UM News, June 30, 2016,

  2. Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 235.

  • Avatar

    John Barclay


    Response to Susan Eastman

    Susan Eastman poses some sharp and profound questions. Words like “obligation,” “conditionality,” and “judgment” sound alarming, and when she portrays reciprocity as a relation of quid pro quo and speaks of the “imposition” of “systems of worth,” what she critiques seems unattractive, even socially destructive. Have I offered a vision of incongruous grace only to subvert it by introducing condition, return, and criteria of worth?

    “What, then, shall we say? Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound? Not at all” (Rom 6:1–2). Paul seems to think that the incongruity of grace is not the same as its non-circularity: believers “under grace” are to present their bodies as weapons of righteousness because their allegiances have been changed (Rom 6:14–23). When I dared the formula, that in Paul’s theology grace is unconditioned but not unconditional, I meant by the latter that it is not free of demand, or at least of an expectation of responsive change (Paul and the Gift, 492, 500, etc.). God’s love is unconditioned in the sense that it never ceases to stream towards its objects, and is not delayed or limited by their fittingness or worth. But if it is not received in gratitude, it is unrecognized and its purpose incomplete, because the purpose of that love is to transform its recipients into fulfilled and complete human beings, loved so they may love, and given so they may be givers. According to Paul, God’s love does not delay until humans respond, or expect anything like a complete or adequate transformation of its recipients, but it cannot be said to be effective or actualized where the Spirit makes no difference. That would be to receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1). Branches are cut off if they do not “continue in his kindness” (Rom 11:22; note the conditionals in Rom 11:22–23). They are not to continue in their own efforts, but in God’s kindness, and if they are cut off they can always be grafted back in (Rom 11:17–24), but a believer who continues only to “sow to the flesh” is, for Paul, a contradiction in terms, or a disaster in the making (Gal 6:7–8).

    So is God’s love perfect precisely because it operates “without any expectation of return” (so Ken Carder, cited by Susan Eastman, in an echo of Anders Nygren)? I have argued that this Lutheran-Kantian perfection of grace, while attractive to us in the modern West for many social, economic, and political reasons, is at best a half-truth. God does not cease to love in the absence of a return, but since the “return” (that is the grateful, fulfilling, and transformative reception of the love of God) is what God’s love aim towards, it would hardly be love if there was no expectation that we would grow in some degree closer to the good for which we were made. Given the weakness of our condition, there will be times when God’s love, and our love which flows from it, has to bear with the absence of response, and will be willing to sacrifice much (up to death) in the hope of eliciting it. Love will endure all things, even the temporary impossibility of return, but always in the hope of the mutuality and reciprocity of the eschaton. A unilateral gift may be necessary at some times and for some purposes, but (with John Milbank and others) I am bold enough to claim that it is not the most perfect form of gift, and never an end in itself.1

    So is the Pauline desire for reciprocity (his command to love one another in the body of Christ) the imposition of conditions on love? No, it is the hope that all will be so graced that they will channel to each other the gifts that each needs, that the divinely sourced love without which one is incomplete will come to him/her via another. To perfect the unilateral gift subtly reinforces our desire for autonomy, as if we are at our best only in giving, and not also in receiving from others. Our relationship be unfulfilled if there is no response (can we conceive of a marriage that was only and always, from the start, fixed in a pattern of one-way giving?). But, more importantly, the other will be unfulfilled if their telos as a giver, and thus as a co-participant in grace, is never realized. To look at this as the “imposition of criteria of worth” is to view things upside down. What I want for the good of the other (but can never force upon them) is that we each be transformed by the Spirit enough to contribute to a relation of mutual, two-sided, benefit. If that does not happen, we are both impoverished. I do not thereby give up the hope that this might yet transpire, but until it does our relationship can never progress beyond well-wishing (and prayer) from one side. And my hope for that mutual good has a certain shape (Paul calls it the fruit of the Spirit); the Christian community certainly has values (criteria of worth) by which we attempt (imperfectly) to measure whether we and others are “walking worthily of God” (1 Thess 2:12). If there is to be any “discipline” at all (as Susan Eastman admits there must be), it must act by some criteria: certainly, those include the application of gentleness and love, but if there is correction, one must be able to judge what is “transgression” (Gal 6:1). To be sure, none of this is final or decisive, as our capacity for error and self-deception is endless, and, as Eastman rightly insists, it is God alone who will finally judge. But a Christian community that cannot call out lovelessness (e.g., child abuse) in itself and others can hardly claim to be Christian, and what are Christian justice, honesty, love, and peace, but a “system of worth”?

    As Eastman and I agree, Paul aims for the flourishing of communities, whose quality of relationships is essential to their identity. Forgiveness, patience, long-suffering, and hope in the face of constant disappointment are certainly essential to such communities, but their aim and their ultimate flourishing are not in such containment of the negative but, more positively, in the formation of mutual solidarity, where gifts are given, received, shared, and (directly or indirectly) returned. While it is often necessary and proper to bear with “non-reciprocating recipients” (Eastman), that is hardly the final Christian vision of love. Even in “self-sacrifice,” love aims at more: its goal is surely a fulfilled koinōnia, in which each gives from themselves to the other, as they have been given from God. To seek reciprocity is not a calculation of quid pro quo: it is to seek the fulfilment of the other inasmuch as they are enabled to give (Phil 4:10–19; 2 Cor 8:13–15).

    1. John Milbank, “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” First Things (1999):

    • Susan Grove Eastman

      Susan Grove Eastman


      Response to John Barclay

      John Barclay’s book on Paul’s proclamation of divine grace is a gift that keeps on giving, not least through the gracious conversations it continues to instigate. Foundational to John’s exposition of the notion of the gift is its relational quality. Contrary to some anonymous practices of giving, in which the gift forestalls or substitutes for interaction between giver and receiver, in Paul’s letters as in his ancient context, a gift enacts and instantiates relational bonds between the recipient and the giver. We are all recipients of Paul and the Gift, and the present conversation hosted by Syndicate Theology is an instantiation of the interaction that gift generates.

      So first, a hearty thank you to John for continuing the conversation. In reply, let me begin by emphasizing the views we hold in common. To illustrate, I highlight here a few quotes from the book, with which I find myself in congruence. In Gal 2:20 there emerges “a perfect homology between the narrative shape of the Christ-event and its character as incongruous gift” (p. 387); this gift “grounds a life that is ‘not in accord with human norms’ (ou0 kata a1nqrwpon)” (p. 387); the new life in Christ “is an ‘eccentric’ phenomenon, drawing on the ‘life from the dead’ that was inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection” (p. 501); thus as those who are at once “dead and alive,” believers live “in a state of permanent incongruity” (pp. 501-502); “the incongruity of grace, wholly contradictory to Adamic existence, has rendered human lives in tune with the Spirit of God” (p. 503). These are simply a few examples of our fundamental points of agreement about the priority and incongruity of divine grace, extended to unfitting recipients, and about Paul’s expectation that this divine gift will result, paradoxically, in transformed human lives. In my review, and again in this response, I am pressing for more precision in describing the quality of relationship in which such transformation occurs. This comes down to fine-grained questions about semantics.

      The central question in my review of Paul and the Gift is whether the language of conditionality and reciprocity, “subverts the transformation [Barclay] rightly attributes to ‘the incongruity between the gift and the recipients’ previous worth’.” Accompanying this question is the issue of time, as Chris Tiling perceptively notes in his introduction to this symposium. Just when does the gift move from being “incongruous” to being “congruous”? When do recipients move from being “unworthy” to being “worthy” recipients? I note the telling caveat in John’s precise formulation of “the incongruity between the gift and the recipients’ previous worth.”

      So let me begin by pushing back on the term “conditionality.” I understand the word to mean the imposition of conditions on love, on the giving of the gift, and thus, ultimately, even on the divine giver. When pushed, John replies that this is not what he means by “not unconditional,” but rather “not free of demand, or at least of an expectation.” Similarly, he qualifies the desire for reciprocity as, not “the imposition of conditions on love,” but rather “the hope that all will be so graced that they will channel to each other the gifts that each needs.” Indeed. I am all for such expectation and hope, and I would even contend that the divine gift will, in the end, effect such transformation, precisely through its interaction with human agents (see here John’s comments on efficacy in his reply to Michael Cover). But the language of hope and expectation and even demand does not carry the same freight as “conditionality,” which certainly implies “the imposition of conditions” that must be met for grace to continue. John has made clear that is not what he means; why, then, continue to use a term that misleads?

      John concedes, “a unilateral gift may be necessary at some times and for some purposes.” Perhaps he and I are talking about the same thing from different angles of vision. I would say “a unilateral gift will almost always be necessary at some times and for some purposes.” Such unilateral giving is necessary, not as the goal or perfection of the gift, but as its sustaining power in the face of non-reciprocity. That’s the story of God’s dealings with Israel, and God’s dealings with all Adamic humanity short of the eschaton. And it is also frequently the case in human interactions, for periods of time in almost all human relationships. Of course one hopes for reciprocity, but the extension of love is not dependent on reciprocity. Otherwise it would be very short-lived indeed; love, to the contrary, is patient, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never ends (2 Cor 13:4, 7-8). The perseverance of such love in the face of non-reciprocity is not a subtle reinforcement of the desire for autonomy, as it is impossible apart from the continuous gifting of the Spirit and the outflowing of divine, incongruous love. This side of the eschaton it is sometimes the farthest the gift gets on the way to the desired reciprocity; it is not the perfection of grace, but it may be the form grace takes in an imperfect world. After all, it is not as if “we” (whoever “we” are) are never ourselves “non-reciprocating recipients”; coming to realize the nuances and depths of our own non-reciprocity is part of the necessary truth-telling entailed in learning to love as God loves.

      John asks, “what are Christian justice, honesty, love, and peace, but a ‘system of worth’?” Well, they are many things. They are, first and always, divine gifts that take place in the bodily actions and interactions of believers. They are the outworking of the presence of the Spirit indwelling the Christian community. As such, they are guidelines for evaluating behavior in the community, and for fostering a healthy and life-giving common life, yes. But they are not thereby a “system” by which the members of the community are accounted “worthy” or “unworthy.” When I talk about the incongruity of grace as “the norm that subverts all systems of worth and generates genuinely new social realities,” I am resisting the language of “criteria of worth” as applied to some human beings over against others. I am not rejecting the necessity of guidelines, expectations, and hopes, precisely in service of a communal life where the gifts of the Spirit flourish. I am saying, however, that because the unconditioned gift of grace grounds the worth of every member of the community, that unconditioned grace creates a space where those guidelines, expectations, and hopes can be enacted and bear fruit.

    • Avatar

      John Barclay


      Response to Susan Eastman

      Thank you, Susan, for the further push. We have had many conversations over the years around this topic, and I learn something new each time.

      In Paul’s theology, the life of the believer is sourced in the resurrection life of Christ, an incongruous gift that gives life out of death.  Everything that can be said about the believer from this point onwards is sourced and framed by this gift, and is marked by this fundamental and permanent incongruity.  “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4.6).  The inner effect of this gift is transformative: believers are “changed from one degree of glory to another” as the “inner person is renewed day by day” (2 Cor 3.18; 4.16).  The grace of God takes effect, for instance, in the eagerness and simplicity of heart that is operative in generous giving (2 Cor 8.1-5).  Even this quality is sourced, augmented, and rendered effective by the “enriching” of God (2 Cor 9.6-10), such that the “indescribable gift” of God (2 Cor 9.15) continues to be incongruous with the capacity of believers even while they mirror that gift in their generosity.  In this sense, the gift never ceases to be incongruous, even while it turns human self-centredness into an open-handed generosity congruous with the character of God’s gift in Christ (2 Cor 8.9).

      Within these terms I find it appropriate to speak of God’s incongruous gift changing its recipients into patterns that are “congruous” with the dynamic of the gospel.  I recognise that it was dangerous to use the formula “unconditioned but not unconditional,” and I can understand Susan’s concerns on this matter.  I think I always glossed “not unconditional” with phrases like “in the sense of expecting no alteration in the recipients of the gift” (Paul and the Gift, 492), but the reason I dared this expression was because of a common problem with the word “unconditional.”  I often encounter it being used in a double sense: a gift given both without any form of payment or qualification and without any subsequent expectations or requirement. (“Free gift” is also often used in this double sense.)  On this usage, if God’s gift is “unconditional,” why do we have to change?  Paul himself was aware of this possible misunderstanding of his language of grace, and was careful to insist that the unconditioned gift of God in Christ does not sanction the continuation of sin (Rom 3.8; 6.1).  That is why I use the term “unconditioned,”, rather than “unconditional,” in relation to the incongruous gift, and why I attempt to guard against “cheap grace” or “easy believism” by calling attention to the possible dangers in the use of the word “unconditional.”

      Does “not unconditional” (in the sense outlined above) mean the “imposition of conditions” on the continuation of the love of God and on the welcome of the community founded in that love?  Paul is quite clear, I think, that there are no conditions on the extension and continuation of God’s love, but its fulfilment is only possible “if you remain in his kindness” (Rom 11.22). The “kindness” will not go away: the question is whether one remains within it.  If the love of the Christian community is rejected, it does not cease, but it does not achieve its goal; if it is unreciprocated, it is stalled.  When Paul urges the Corinthians to “affirm your love” for their repentant brother (2 Cor 2.8), that love (which had never gone away) can now be activated and thus fulfilled in a way that was not possible for a while.  This is not the imposition of conditions, simply the recognition that a relationship cannot be mended from only one side.  Susan is acutely aware of the pastoral complications in this, and rightly so.  We are both insistent that Paul is talking about relationships, not the offering of a gift that is unconcerned with its reception and the response it is intended to create.

      Is there, then, in Paul a “system of worth”?  If by that we mean, a value-system in which some things (and people) are honoured for the way they match the pattern of the gospel, absolutely so: the Macedonians can be praised for their Christ-like generosity (2 Cor 8.1-5), just as Epaphroditus and those like him are to be held in honour (Phil 2.29).  If by “system of worth” we mean that some members of the community are counted worthy and others unworthy, the question is: worthy of what?  Worthy of belonging to the community? We are all in the same boat on that, given worth without distinction and without condition by being ones “for whom Christ died” (1 Cor 8.11).  Worthy of honour, of particular responsibilities and roles: so long as these are measured by what counts in the gospel, Paul certainly uses such language (Phil 1.27; 1 Thess 2.12; Rom 16.2; 1 Cor 16.4; cf. his use of “unworthy” in 1 Cor 6.2; 11.27).   I recognise that the language of “worth” is laden with baggage from history and political misuse, and may be now too dangerous to employ; “fitting” might be, in some cases, a better translation.  But we should not lose hold of the conviction that grace both gives us, incongruously, ourselves in Christ, and reshapes us into new patterns of behaviour, based on gospel criteria of value.