Review: Paul & The Power of Grace

Paul & the Power of Grace, John M. G. Barclay. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Looks at the theology of Paul through the lens of grace, an unconditioned and incongruous gift for Jew and Gentile alike, personally and socially transformative.

John M. G. Barclay stirred up a conversation in Pauline studies in 2015 with the publication of Paul and the Gift, an analysis of what Paul meant by “grace.” This book represents both a distillation and extension of the ideas of the former book. It is less technical, expands the analysis beyond Galatians and Romans while summarizing the previous work in these texts well, and does more to consider the present implications of these ideas.

His central contention, based on analysis of charis in other Second Temple Jewish texts, and especially of Paul in Galatians and Romans, is that grace may be understood as God’s unconditioned and incongruous gift that is both personally and socially transformative. “Unconditioned” emphasizes that there is nothing the individual does to deserve the gift. It is not unconditional, because the empowering presence of God’s grace in those who trust in Christ, is meant to transform people who live new lives in dying bodies, and transforms social relationships, creating a new community making no distinctions by ethnicity, gender, or status. All this is redounds to the glory of God. It is also incongruous whether for the Gentiles as uncircumcised outsiders or for disobedient Jews. Indeed, Barclay points to Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 as an example of the incongruity of grace in saving all Israel.

In this work, Barclay extends his analysis to the Corinthian correspondence and Philippians. He notes Paul’s treatment of grace and power in Corinth, how the incongruity of grace overturns the power value system of Corinth. and what it means to be “in Christ,” as Christ’s gift of himself to the believer in Philippians. He then extends the significance of grace as gift in inspiring giving communities, generously given to one another where all are cared for, as well as to other communities, as in the offering for Jerusalem, from when the gift of Christ arose.

Barclay addresses the various “perspectives” on Paul and what his own contributes to each. To the traditional Protestant view, his unconditioned but not unconditional reconciles the free aspect of grace and the obedience of faith as the consequence of grace. To Catholics, there are not two stages of grace, but grace transforms, eventuating in good works. For the New Perspective folks, the incongruity of grace explains the inclusion of the Gentiles and the hope for the nation of Israel. For the “Paul within Judaism” people, the incongruity of grace reconfigures his understanding of the law in ways that offer hope both for Israel and the nations.

A concluding chapter considers contemporary implications. Incongruous grace doesn’t recognize distinctions when it comes to who is included. The generosity of giving is one that recognizes all are “gifted,” regardless of economic status. And we all need the gifts of each other as manifestations of God’s incongruous gift.

I appreciate the explicit focus on “grace” in Paul, both for the correctives Barclay brings to notions that smack of “cheap grace” while focusing on the incongruous, unconditioned initiative of God. I’ve often sensed that grace gets eclipsed in the covenantal nomism and focus on faithfulness in various renderings of the New Perspective. Yet Barclay draws on the wealth of learning about Second Temple Judaism to sharpen our understanding of grace such that we don’t read the Reformation back into the New Testament language of grace. And the material about how grace transforms in this volume casts a joyful vision of the possible of our life in Christ, where incongruent grace transforms us into people living congruently with that grace.

One thought on “Review: Paul & The Power of Grace

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2021 | Bob on Books

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