Present beliefs

paul and the giftReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | Paul and the Gift | John M G Barclay

The main argument of this large, scholarly book is actually quite simple: if we are to understand what Paul says about salvation as a gift we need to understand what the concept of gift meant in the culture of the day. As such, this book makes a perspective-changing contribution to Pauline studies as significant as Tom Wright’s arguments about Paul’s understanding of covenant and James Dunn’s work on the oral culture of the early church.

A gift in ancient cultures meant that something was expected in return. It was a means of strengthening community. The recipient’s status was also taken into account, as someone not able to return the favour was not worth giving to.

In Second Temple Judaism there were competing ideas about God’s grace. Was it consistent? Universal? Conditional?

The Israelites’ history of apostasy prompted questions about their worthiness. There was consensus that God gave generously, but how did that fit with divine justice?

Paul’s surprising argument, in the light of his mission to the gentiles, is that God gives despite the unworthiness of the recipients, and that previous measures of worthiness, such as observance of Torah laws, are now irrelevant. This doesn’t rule out good works as a response, but it does rule them out as condition.

Over millennia, the interpretation of God’s generosity ebbed and flowed with the tides of biblical scholarship.

Barclay takes various theologians, from Augustine to Karl Barth, and points to which aspects of gift they prioritised. Different theological emphases explains much differing opinion over grace and works, law and gospel. The ongoing arguments may be clarified by heeding Barclay’s advice that the meaning of gift is not as simple as we might assume.

Available from RRP: $55

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