Friday, May 2, 2014

Grace and Gift according to Professor John Barclay of Durham University

There are others who take much better advantage of educational videos and lectures on youtube than I do. However, every now and then, I do stumble across a lectureship series by Tom Wright or other New Testament scholars that catch my attention. The biblioblogosphere has made several mentions of Prof. John Barclay's highly anticipated two-volume magnum opus on "Grace and Gift in Paul's Thought" (I have yet to see the definitive title for the work to be published by Eerdmans). 
   I had the pleasure of visiting Durham University back in 2010 for post-doctoral work, and Prof. Barclay was my patron and supervisor for a project on Philo of Alexandria (funded by the Lilly Theological Scholars Grant). Though my stay was short, I learned a great deal from him, Prof. Francis Watson, and Prof. Walter Moberly and am forever grateful for the warm welcome I received and the insights I was able to glean as I studied, wrote, and presented my work to them and others at the NT Seminar held by Durham's Department of Religion and Theology. 
photo credit:
Needless to say, when I heard that John recently gave a lecture summarizing some of the basic tenets of his work on χάρις (translated as either "gift" or "grace"), I "youtubed" it (is this a verb?) and enjoyed the lecture thoroughly. His basic tenet: we in a North American and European context often associate with grace false/wrong/distorted notions on how gift-exchange operates. 
   Barclay attempts to outline a more nuanced understanding of how in the ancient world the complex relationships between giver, gift, and receiver operated from which Paul drew his own description of salvation as a divine gift to believers. The youtube link to the video is below:

   Quick highlights: after a fairly thorough explanation of his methodological (social-scientific) approach to understanding how gift exchanged worked in the wider Greco-Roman world, starting at 34:08 into the video, he explains the core of his argument: What constitutes the perfection of grace? Grace or gift has six common perfections or ideal components by which an ancient giver and receiver can measure the quality of the gift. 
  1. Superabundance: the scale or size of the gift: The larger the gift, the more important the gift is.
  2. Priority: manner in which the gift is given: the gift-giving is initiated by the giver without having received a previous gift from the recipient
  3. Singularitymotivations behind the gift: the goodness / benevolence of the giver is what motivates him/her to give the gift.
  4. Incongruency: relationship between the recipient and gift-giver: the more undeserved the gift is, the more perfect the gift. Or, in other words, this category focuses on the unworthiness of the receiver
  5. Efficacy: goal of the gift-exchange: that gift accomplishes what the giver has set out to do for the receiver
  6. Non-Circularity: the response of the receiver: this category does not mean that there are not expectations made of the recipient. This category means that no material response, or gift of equal value, was expected from the recipient. However, there were non-material expectations. Often this meant the loyalty of the recipient to the giver.
What do we mean by "unconditional gift" or "pure grace" depends on the interpreter. The challenge, then, is to de-aggregate the umbrella category of gift into its constituent parts so we can identify the particular emphases of a given interpreter. Barclay argues that the great 16th century German reformer, Martin Luther, focused on the feature of non-circularity: that is, God's grace is freely given to the believer without any expectation of receiving back anything from the recipient. It is arguably Luther's emphasis on free grace as non-circularity which has dominated Protestant views of justification, especially those from the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.
    Barclay provocatively insists, however, that Paul's emphasis lies elsewhere. Paul focuses on the incongruity of grace rather than the non-circularity. In fact, Paul expects the believer to respond to grace in concrete ways. Paul, for example, expected the Corinthians to participate in the offering to Jerusalem as a response to their having received God's grace (2 Cor 8:1-14). 
    Here, I break from Barclay to offer my own thoughts and reflections on this initial presentation. I, for one, never thought of grace as being "free" in the modern sense of the word. To me, this is just "cheap grace" to quote Bonhoeffer. Grace is costly. We can never earn salvation so it always remains a gift. But the response to the incongruity of the gift should be complete surrender. Faith is an absolute trust in God that is costly, not cheap. 
    If Barclay is correct in arguing that the Lutheran/Reformed emphasis of grace as non-circularity is incorrect, and this is not what Paul has in mind when the apostle talked about salvation as a gift (Rom 3:24 δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι), then Barclay has done us a great service in helping us to understand the particular emphases of gift language used by Paul. He has given us tools by which to evaluate past interpreters of Paul as well. I wonder how many Pauline interpreters have attributed to Paul a feature of gift-exchange that Paul himself did not emphasize. 
   Of course, we all have to read Barclay's work to see if he is correct in positing that Paul's focus was on incongruity (vs. non-circularity). I'm also curious to see how Barclay interacts with a previous study on grace and benefaction by James R. Harrison (Paul's Language of Grace in its Graeco-Roman Context - 2003). Nevertheless, even before the book is out, John has given us plenty to ruminate over. I, for one, cannot wait until his 2-volume work is published by Eerdmans. Hopefully, it will happen before this 2014 year ends. 

Anecdote: When I was in Durham, to my chagin, I never took a photo with John, Francis, or Walter. Hence I borrowed the above photo from John's time in New Zealand when he was working on his "grace and gift" project. Next time I'm in Durham, I'm going to remember to take more pictures. 

Postscript 02/20/15: Eerdmans announced the book's release date. Click here for more details.

Postscript 06/13/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post. 2) I suggest listening to the lecture directly but start at 34:08 minutes into the video and finish to the end. 3) Go to the bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of library and learn more about "grace" or "gift" in the Greco-Roman world (in Greek charis/χάρις). 4) Interpret 2 Cor 8:9-15 ("For you know the grace (χάρις) of our Lord Jesus Christ...") drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding how grace was expressed, or gift-exchange operated, in the Greco-Roman world help you to understand Paul's message/exhortations in 2 Cor 8:9-15? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section.

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