Paul & the Gift. By John M. G. Barclay. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015. 656 pp. Cloth, $117.99.
Barclay’s work will be foreign to those who are not familiar with the new perspective on Paul (hereafter, NPP). Barclay’s discussion of NPP (esp. pp. 151-182) presupposes that one is quite familiar with it.
The book is broken up into four parts: the multiple meanings of gift and grace (pp. 11-188), divine gift in Second Temple Judaism (pp.189-328), Galatians: the Christ-gift and the recalibration of worth (pp.331-446), and Romans: Israel, the Gentiles, and God’s creative gift (pp. 449-574).
I love the title and the discussion of the words gift and grace in Scripture.
Barclay makes the interesting point that gifts have not always been understood as something freely given with no strings attached (e.g., pp. 183-84). In the Greco-Roman world, it was not uncommon to expect the recipient of a gift to reciprocate in some way, even if it is just the expression of gratitude. Of course, in such a situation, the gift would still be free.
Barclay argues that it is a Western idea that gifts are non-reciprocal (that is, that they do not require the recipient to reciprocate). We might quibble that even in the West, givers expect something in return. Most I know in the Western world expect something in response to the gifts they give (a thank you card, a verbal thanks, a return gift, etc.). I learned in my family that when someone gives you a gift, you write a thank you note, or, if you receive it in person, you overflow with hugs and expressions of gratitude (even if I didn’t really want socks).
In the Scriptures, the gift of everlasting life (John 4:10; Eph 2:9) does not require the recipient to respond appropriately. However, it is a valid point that God expects the believer to respond with gratitude, worship, and a lifetime of service to God (e.g., only one healed leper returned to the Lord to give thanks, yet all were expected to do so by the Lord).
Second Temple Judaism refers to the Jewish teachings from the return from exile in 538 BC, when the second temple was built, until the destruction of the second temple in AD 70. There were five post-exilic canonical books (Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). Barclay, however, concentrates solely on non-canonical books (The Wisdom of Solomon, the works of Philo of Alexandria, the Qumran Hodayot, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, and 4 Ezra). The canonical post-exilic authors rarely used these words: grace occurs once in Ezra and three times in Zechariah; gift occurs once in Zechariah. (Barclay also does not consider what the thirty-four pre-exilic OT books say about grace and gift, which is surprising and disappointing.)
While it is true that the post-exilic Jewish writers cited by Barclay spoke of grace and gift, their concepts were not like those found in the NT. Most Jews misunderstood the OT and thought that entrance into God’s kingdom required a lifetime of perseverance in faithfulness to Yahweh. However, Barclay seems to favorably cite E. P. Sanders’s view that Jews did not believe in works righteousness (p. 151). Instead, he thinks that the OT and NT affirm that one remains in God’s covenant family by obedience (p. 153) and by repentance when needed in order to maintain or restore one’s status (p. 153). Barclay rejects the view of D. A. Carson that Second Temple Judaism taught “merit theology” (pp. 166-175, 379-80). But, of course, Barclay’s own view is a form of merit theology.
For people today, Barclay sees the initiation of salvation as “unconditioned…without also being unconditional” once one is saved (p. 562). He points out that Second Temple Judaism was not united in whether God’s grace is given “to the unworthy” or “to fitting recipients (pp. 562-65).
Barclay thinks that in Galatians and Romans, Paul was not expressing remorse over the Jewish view of salvation by works (e.g., p. 566-68). He wrote, “This is certainly not to return to the theologically pernicious contrasts between Pauline grace and Jewish works-righteousness; by contrast, we have demonstrated the significance of divine beneficence in a wide range of Jewish texts. Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism” (p. 572). But that does not explain many texts where Paul is doing just that (Rom 4:1-8; 10:1ff.; Gal 2:16; 3:6-14).
The best feature in this book—and it is outstanding—is Barclay’s repeated claim that “the gift carries expectations of obedience,” (p. 569; see also pp. 47, 56, 60, 114, 518). Free Grace people are sometimes so concerned that we do not give the impression that perseverance in good works must follow saving faith that we fail to acknowledge that God expects perseverance in good works to follow saving faith. However, we can and should make that distinction.
Barclay, however, sees what is expected, a life of obedience, as also the requirement for what he calls final salvation (cf. pp. 174-75, 320, 377). Concerning Paul’s writings on grace, he comments, “Judgment ‘according to works’ does not entail a new and incompatible principle of soteriology; it indicates that the incongruous gift has had its intended effect in embedding new standards of worth in the practice of those it transforms” (p. 569).
In passing, it should be noted that Barclay considers Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus as “deutero-Pauline,” that is, written by someone else who then put Paul’s name on the work (p. 571).
I recommend this book to NT scholars and those training to become NT scholars. Academically minded pastors might enjoy it as well. But most pastors, and certainly most laypeople, would find this book difficult to understand and a very slow read.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society