I have reviewed John Barclay’s outstanding new book, Paul & the Gift, over on Reformation21.
This anthropological treatment of ancient and modern understandings of gift paves the way for Barclay’s central thesis: gift/grace is a concept that can legitimately be ‘perfected’–drawn out into some pure or ultimate form–in a number of ways. No perfection of grace should be regarded as its sine qua non, nor is it the case that the more perfections we have the better off we are. He enumerates six perfections of the gift, which provide the basis for a taxonomy of theologies of grace:
- superabundance: the supreme scale, lavishness, or permanence of the gift;
- singularity: the attitude of the giver as marked solely and purely by benevolence;
- priority: the timing of the gift before the recipient’s initiative;
- incongruity: the distribution of the gift without regard to the worth of the recipient;
- efficacy: the impact of the gift on the nature or agency of the recipient;
- non-circularity: the escape of the gift from an ongoing cycle of reciprocity (pp.185-186)Barclay immediately puts his taxonomy to work, describing the various ways in which different theologians over church history perfected the concept of grace. With such a sensitive and discriminating framework for understanding grace, the inner logic of various theologies of grace, as well as the causes of friction between theologies, are rendered more explicable. For instance, a primary impetus for Marcion’s theology was his perfection of the concept of grace in the direction of singularity, seeking to distance God from any form of judgment. Augustine–a towering figure in the history of Western theology’s developing understanding of grace–dwelt on the perfections of priority, incongruity, and efficacy. Luther does not stress efficacy, but introduces an emphasis on non-circularity. Calvin does not perfect non-circularity in the manner of Luther, but profoundly accents the priority, incongruity, and efficacy of grace in a manner that would prove scandalous to many of those who perfect the singularity of grace.