PAUL AND THE GIFT, by John M. G. Barclay

Published on July 19, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

Eerdmans, 2015 | 672 pages

Reviewed by Mark Baker

John Barclay’s ten-year project Paul and the Gift is a significant contribution to Pauline studies. If Paul is sometimes hard to understand, which even the apostle Peter claimed to be the case (2 Peter 3:16), then it appears Pauline scholarship is even harder to understand. Whether it is in pastoral or scholarly circles, it seems as if people often talk past one another instead of talking with one another while discussing Paul’s theology. Alleviating this problem is one of the main goals of Paul and the Gift.



The thesis of the book is that the concept of “gift” or “grace” (charis) has multiple or polyvalent connotations; therefore, theological investigation of this term should not primarily seek to determine whether varying theologies have more or less grace, but rather the kind or nature of grace in the subject at hand. Any given theological work (i.e., Galatians or 4 Ezra) does not necessarily portray more or less “grace” than another work; rather, it displays a different kind of grace that then leads to different theological conclusions. In keeping with this realization Barclay has provided a six-fold taxonomy of grace that can be employed to discern the kind of grace that is evident in various texts.

Barclay uses the terminology of “perfections” for his taxonomy of grace. A “perfection” of grace means the drawing out of a concept to an end-of-line extreme. Barclay claims that none of the perfections are necessary features of grace, nor does the existence of one perfection imply or require another one (p.70). The result of this taxonomy is that “rival claims to maintain or defend the principle of ‘grace’ may turn out to constitute not different degrees of emphasis, but different kinds of perfection” (p.70, emphasis original). One of the strongest benefits of this volume is that these six perfections of grace provide a somewhat neutral vocabulary for the comparison of various theological writings, not just to indicate that they are different, but also why they are different.

Barclay describes the six perfections of grace as follows. “Superabundance” designates the extravagance of the gift. “Priority” indicates that the gift was given before any initiative of the recipient. “Singularity” notes that gift-giving is the giver’s only mode of interaction with the recipient. “Incongruity” refers to a gift that is given without any regard to the worth of the recipient. “Efficacy” signifies that the gift produces the desired response in the recipient.Finally, “non-circularity” suggests that the gift is given without any regard to the response of the recipient (see pp.70–75). Though Barclay admits that there may be more perfections of grace, his six are undergirded with significant research of the socio-political context of the Greco-Roman and Jewish frames of reference, therefore providing a strong foundation for moving forward to an in-depth analysis of the texts themselves.



The book is divided into four parts. The first part contains two chapters which cover the introductory matter summarized above as well as a chapter tracing the history of the development of grace from Marcion and Augustine to modern scholarship. In Part 2, Barclay applies his perfections of grace to important texts in Second Temple literature. Parts 3 and 4 turn to Paul, respectively analyzing Galatians and Romans through the perfections of grace.

Chapter 3 invests over one hundred pages in tracing the development of the perfections of grace from early church history to the present day. Here Barclay models how his taxonomy of grace clarifies the emphases of the major theologians in church history. For example, Barclay shows the differences between Augustine and Pelagius by noting that Pelagius perfected the priority and superabundance of grace, while Augustine perfected priority, incongruity, and efficacy. Barclay notes that because both Augustine and Pelagius perfected the priority of grace, many of their contemporaries thought there was no essential difference between them (p.92). However, as Barclay’s taxonomy of grace shows, there remained significant differences between them even though they both agreed that God’s grace was a crucial part of the Christian life.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this section pertains to Barclay’s treatment of Martin Luther. He begins with the claim that Luther’s major break with Augustine was in his emphasis of “pure altruism”—a new “perfection” that Barclay says was not present in the Greco-Roman world, but that has become widely influential after Luther (p.97). This claim, as well as others in this section, is based primarily on Barclay’s wholesale acceptance of the New Finnish interpretation of Luther, a view which remains disputed (p.107, n.64; see Thomas R. Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015], 49–52 for a critique of this view). In addition, at other key points on Luther’s theology, Barclay cites only secondary sources (e.g., see p.107, n.63; p.113, n.85). These concerns aside, many valuable points remain in this section, but readers should proceed with caution here.

Chapter 3 contains beneficial interaction with many other key players in church history and all the way into contemporary scholarship. Barclay’s assessment of the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP) stands out as another highlight. Here again it is evident that Barclay’s perfections prove to be an effective way to gauge many different theological systems. The NPP has been notoriously hard to explain in a succinct yet careful way, but Barclay has provided an effective way forward in bringing much clarity to the conversation through the perfections of grace.

Part 2 contains a noteworthy analysis of Second Temple Judaism(s) (STJ) through the lens of Barclay’s perfections. Barclay has two primary goals in this section: first, he aims to show that while grace is everywhere in Judaism, it is not everywhere the same. Barclay states that Sanders brought a worthwhile corrective to legalistic caricatures of STJ, but “at the heart of his project is a lack of clarity concerning the very definition of grace” (p. 157). Using Barclay’s terminology, Sanders wrongly asserts that one perfection of grace (priority) necessarily entails another (incongruity; p. 158). Second, Barclay concludes with a section showing where Paul fits in the milieu of STJ.

Barclay’s conclusion to the second goal illuminates the significance of the first. He says, “If Paul’s voice is consistently distinctive, that difference concerns the Christ-event and the Gentile mission, and the relation of both to the incongruous mercy of God” (p.328). The Christ-event and the Gentile mission show the incongruity of God’s grace. Barclay’s conclusion, then, is that Paul is similar to but not the same as his contemporaries in STJ. This point, then, illuminates Barclay’s comparison between the texts of STJ. Some texts, such as the Qumran Thanksgiving Hymns (1QHa) and Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, do perfect incongruity, while others, such as Wisdom of Solomon and Philo’s works, do not. Grace has a polyvalent nature in STJ, yet Paul remains at least somewhat distinct from all of the texts surveyed. While the impact of Barclay’s challenge to Sanders’s thesis has yet to be fully realized, it seems quite probable that these conclusions will change the landscape of Pauline scholarship. It seems probable that when Sanders’s name is mentioned in subsequent scholarship, Barclay’s name will quickly follow and possibly overshadow Sanders.

Part 3 contains Barclay’s treatment of Galatians. Barclay employs four conversation partners for his analysis: Martin Luther, James D.G. Dunn, J. Louis Martyn, and Brigitte Kahl. Most of Barclay’s treatment of Galatians consists of his explanation of his agreements and disagreements with these four paradigmatic interpreters. In addition, Barclay shows the significance of the many polarities of Galatians (God/humanity, Spirit/flesh, freedom/slavery, Christ/law, faith in Christ/works of the law): “Every reading of Galatians is determined by the way it construes and organizes the polarities of the letter” (p.338). There is much to glean from these rich insights.

For Barclay, Paul’s focus of the incongruity of grace is central to Galatians: “Paul’s theology in Galatians is significantly shaped by his conviction, and experience, of the Christ-gift, as the definitive act of divine beneficence, given without regard to worth (p. 350, emphasis original). This conclusion resonates with both Luther and Martyn. Luther made a similar claim by emphasizing salvation sola gratia with a focus on the individual. Martyn’s claim emphasizes his apocalyptic reading of Galatians with a focus on the cosmos. Barclay describes a similar theme through the lens of the social ramifications of gift that disregard and, as a result, undermine normal categories of cultural systems of worth. Such emphases that resonate with Luther and Martyn are contrasted with adherents to the NPP. Though Dunn remains Barclay’s main NPP conversation partner in this section, there are clear points of contrast with N.T. Wright as well, though Barclay rarely interacts with him. Such an omission is a significant oversight, especially for evangelical readers who probably interact with Wright the most when engaging with the NPP.

There are other places in Galatians where Barclay’s theology has a significant overlap with Dunn and other NPP proponents. A chief example is his interpretation of “works of the law”(erga nomou) as “Jewish practices beholden to Torah, not ‘works’or ‘law’ in a generalized sense”(p.444). Barclay goes on to note that “[a]t this point, my difference from the Lutheran reading runs quite deep” (p. 444). Here it becomes evident that Barclay has not pledged his allegiance to any of his four paradigmatic conversation partners; rather, he is blazing his own trail, though often on the shoulders of giants.

Overall in Galatians, Barclay claims that Paul perfects incongruity, priority, and efficacy, though he has significant qualifiers for the last two. For priority, he states that the priority of grace is presupposed behind the language of God’s “call” to believers, but he does not develop such a call in the language of predestination. Second, Barclay asserts that while Paul does perfect efficacy, it is not in the way expected by most interpreters. For Barclay, the perfection of efficacy does not deny the possibility that believers could lose the Christ-gift, namely, their salvation. Reformed readers will take issue with these two points, although these qualifications are not the main point of Barclay’s treatment of Galatians; they simply illustrate his own analysis of the six perfections.

Part 4 contains Barclay’s assessment of Romans and a concluding chapter. Though Paul’s letter to the Romans is more than double the length of Galatians, Barclay’s treatment of Romans is a few pages shorter than that of Galatians. One of Barclay’s strongest points in this section is his claim that Paul does not perfect non-circularity in Romans. This point brings up the interplay between faith and works that in many ways is central to both Pauline theology and pastoral concerns. Barclay explains that God’s gift is “unconditioned” but not “unconditional,” meaning that God does expect obedience as a result of his incongruent gift: “God’s grace is designed to produce obedience, lives that perform, by heart-inscription, the intent of the Law” (p.492). He goes on to clarify that this obedience comes as a result of the believer being a new creation. This description of the interplay between grace and works is far afield from semi-Pelagianism but rather reflects a carefully nuanced Pauline ethic.

Though there is much to commend in this section, it also raises some questions and points of contention. First, Barclay notes that, unlike Galatians, Romans perfects superabundance. Barclay’s evidence for this point is that in the span of three verses (Rom 5:15–17) Paul uses “grace” or “gift” terminology at least eight times, leading to the perfection of superabundance. While such an observation proves somewhat helpful, it makes the assessment of the perfection of superabundance seem much more subjective than the other perfections. Perhaps superabundance would be better seen as a subcategory of another perfection in order to solidify the objectivity of the perfections.

Evangelicals will also disagree with Barclay’s view of Scripture. In terms of the differences between Galatians and Romans, he states: “Romans displays a notable development beyond Galatians, expanding, adding, modifying, and even apparently reversing aspects of the earlier letter” (p. 453, emphasis added). While observations concerning the diversity in Scripture often illuminate the nuances of individual letters, Barclay’s claims for irreconcilable diversity between Galatians and Romans lack convincing evidence and undermine the divine authorship of Scripture.

Similarly, Barclay holds Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus to be “Deutero-Pauline.” However, Barclay’s minute comments on these letters end up providing more support, albeit unintentionally, for the “Lutheran” or “Old Perspective” on Paul. Barclay notes that “works” in these letters (i.e. Eph 2:8–9; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5) refers not to “boundary markers” but to moral achievements (p. 571). It is interesting to observe someone who has no vested interest in defending the “Old Perspective” in these letters make claims that so clearly challenge the NPP conclusions on “works” in Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus.


Final Evaluation

In conclusion, there is much to be gleaned from Barclay’s monumental Paul and the Gift. Though readers from any theological position will doubtless find points of disagreement throughout its pages, any number of differences will not spoil the value of the book. The real value is that Barclay has provided a common language that will bring much-needed clarity to Pauline scholarship. Because of this volume, Barclay has surfaced as a major player in the conversation, and those who want to stay in the conversation should do their best to become familiar with his six perfections of grace. In addition, pastors will no doubt receive great benefit from careful reflection on the perfections of grace and how they can be used as a lens for understanding and communicating Paul’s theology. The perfections of grace can be used to shape categorical thinking and to guide church members to a biblical understanding of grace that avoids both legalism and antinomianism. Paul and the Gift is certainly a welcome addition to Pauline scholarship that should not be overlooked.


Mark Baker is a PhD student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at Christ Church and Instructor of Humanities at Paideia Academy, both in Knoxville, TN.

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Paul and the Gift

Eerdmans, 2015 | 672 pages

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