Apostle Paul’s Gift-Grace and the New Perspective on Paul

Douglas Moo, whose commentaries on Romans and Galatians are among the best recent writings on Paul has just written a superb review essay, John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift and the New Perspective on Paul in the free online journal Themelios.* Barclay’s book has also been acclaimed as “one of the most important books on Paul in recent years.”

The excerpts of the review given below give a glimpse into his surefooted and balanced assessment of the controversy between the Reformation and the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).

Moo welcomes Barclay’s book as a via media between the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition and the reconfiguration of the NPP. He recapitulates the history of the controversy:

“In the first stage, the key figures in the movement, Tom Wright and James Dunn, began their invasion of the “old perspective” redoubt with seminal articles that appropriated E. P. Sanders’s “new perspective on Judaism.” Sanders’s reconfiguration of Jewish soteriology as “covenantal nomism” posed a significant problem for the interpreters of Paul: just who was it that Paul was attacking when he denied that a person could be justified by “works of the law”? Since, according to Sanders, Jews were not trying to be justified by doing the law, some other problem within Judaism had to be identified as the culprit. Building on Krister Stendahl’s stress on the importance of corporate thinking in Paul’s world, Dunn and Wright identified the Jewish tendency to confine salvation to their own nation as that culprit. I might just note here that this “new perspective” on Paul grew out of a profoundly conservative impulse. In contrast to some more radical scholars who accused Paul of arbitrarily misrepresenting Judaism in order to score polemical points, Dunn and Wright tried to find a way to match Paul’s polemic with the Judaism that Sanders described. And here, indeed, in my view, is the driving impulse of the new perspective. In all its diversity—and it is, of course, quite diverse!—the new perspective is fundamentally about re-reading Paul as a first-century “converted” Jew engaged in dialogue and dispute with covenantal nomism. Wright’s massive and impressive project establishes a certain version of the “story of Israel” as the metanarrative within which Paul did all his theologizing. Dunn is less concerned with story but also reads Paul against the structures of first-century Judaism. The result is a shift in the axis of Paul’s teaching from the vertical—sinful human beings and a just God—to the horizontal—the selfish Jewish people and estranged Gentiles. Paul attacks the law and its works mainly because it creates a barrier to Gentile inclusion; justification is a doctrine Paul deploys to offer Gentiles entrance into the people of God; Jesus—at least for Wright—is more the “second Israel,” fulfilling its role as the “light the Gentiles,” than the “second Adam,” whose obedience becomes the basis of salvation for those who believe.”

“[E]arly reactions to Sanders’s covenantal nomism were hindered by a lack of expertise in the Jewish literature. This was gradually corrected, as a number of scholars conversant with these Jewish works were unable to confirm that “covenantal nomism” was not quite the monolithic soteriology that Sanders claimed it was…On the other side, new perspective advocates have appeared to back off from their earlier more polemical stance. Dunn now admits that Sanders’s view of Judaism errs on the side of stressing “covenant” too strongly in relation to “nomism.” Both Dunn and Wright insist that their focus on justification and Gentile inclusion is not meant to push out the truth that justification, which at least in its initial form is “by faith alone,” puts sinful humans in right relationship with God.”

“However, there seems to be a rapprochement between the “old” and “new” perspectives “because they recognize the need to present something of a united front against more radical threats to traditional Pauline doctrines. The easiest classified of these threats is the so-called “radical perspective on Paul,” or, as some of its advocates are now labelling it, “Paul within Judaism.”

“This new “radical perspective” rejects the NPP as it “advocates continue to think that Paul criticizes Judaism and in that respect are no better than the “old perspective.” Judaism is still faulted, the fault simply being relocated from “works righteousness” to “ethnocentrism.” These scholars read Paul as fully affirming Judaism.”…For all their differences—and I don’t want to ignore or minimize them—“old” and “new” perspectives are united in insisting that, for Paul, salvation is to be found in Christ alone.”

“Another trend in recent Pauline scholarship is a renewal of the Augustinian/Roman Catholic view of justification as more than forensic. Scholars from a wide variety of theological postures, including evangelical, are reviving the old criticism that standard Reformation teaching has at its heart a chasm between the believer’s standing with God and his or her living for God. Noting the Finnish school revision of Luther’s own teaching and often appealing to the unitive eastern orthodox doctrine of theosis, these scholars argue that justification is transformative, not simply forensic. Here again, Dunn and Wright have made common cause with old perspective advocates. For all his differences with the usual Reformation view, Wright, for instance, has been very clear about denying any transformative element in justification.”

Moving on to Barclay, Moo agrees that hermeneutical priority be given to the Christ event in reading the OT stories:
“In the ongoing battle between apocalyptic and salvation history in Paul, Barclay contests, on the one hand, the continuous progression from Abraham to Israel to Christ that marks the work of Dunn and Wright while at the same time faulting J. Louis Martyn’s “apocalyptic” view as failing to do justice to the continuity at the level of God’s plan and story (pp. 411–14). On a related point, he again criticizes Wright and Dunn for insisting that Galatians be interpreted within the framework of the OT and the Abrahamic story in particular. Paul, insists Barclay, gives hermeneutical priority to the Christ event, reading the OT stories in light of this epochal event. Barclay captures his view in another nice turn of phrase: “Paul finds echoes of the gospel in the Scriptures of Israel” (p. 418, emphasis original).”

Moo outlines how Barclay’s view of  Paul’s grace set in the wider context of “gift” could be a via media between the “old” and he “new” perspective. Barclay sets forth six ways that “gift” could be “perfected”—that is, six characteristics that might define the essence of “gift”:
1. Superabundance—gift-giving is extravagant, lavish; as when one “showers” gifts on someone.
2. Singularity—gift-giving is unmixed with other postures; as when one relates to another solely as gift-giver and not, e.g., as judge.
3. Priority—gift-giving comes before the response it might be intended to evoke; as when parents give gifts spontaneously and freely to their children.
4. Incongruity—gift-giving “without regard to the worth of the recipient” (p. 73); as when God causes his rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
5. Efficacy—gift-giving is powerful, accomplishing its purpose; as when parents give the gift of life to their children.
6. Non-circularity—gift-giving is unconditional, expecting no return; as when one gives food coupons to a homeless person.

Several implications on the relationship between works of the law and grace may be drawn from Barclay’s view of God’s grace-gift:
“[O]n the critical issue of Paul’s polemic against “works of the law,” Barclay steers clear of both the ethnocentric view of the new perspective and the human doing focus of the old perspective. Paul does not suggest that works of the law are inadequate because sinful humans can’t do them well enough; nor does he argue that they are wrong because Jews, relying on an outmoded Torah, were using them to keep Gentiles out of the kingdom. Rather, what Paul is resisting is “the ‘objective’ (socially constructed) value systems that make works, and other forms of cultural or symbolic capital, accounted worthwhile or good.” What Paul objects to is “the enclosure of the Christ-event within the value-system of the Torah, because for those whose lives are reconstituted in Christ, the supreme definition of worth is not the Torah but the truth of the good news” (p. 444).”
“Barclay insists that grace is central to Paul’s theology. He faults Wright and Dunn for not giving Paul’s teaching on grace the fundamental importance it deserves…God gives generously, prior to human response, and without regard to the worth of its recipients. But while the gift is unconditioned, it is not unconditional. That is, God’s grace is not given after the fulfillment of prior conditions, but it is given in expectation of a response. Indeed, Paul teaches that response is absolutely necessary, since the salvific goal of God in giving the gift is not attained without appropriate human response…“It is the incongruous grace that Paul traces in the Christ-event and experiences in the Gentile mission that is the explosive force that demolishes old criteria of worth and clears space for innovative communities that inaugurate new patterns of social existence” (pp. 498–99).”

“Whether Barclay’s claim that Dunn and Wright underplay the role of grace in Paul is justified or not, it can be said, I think, that they tend to limit its significance by tying it so much to Paul’s concern about overcoming ethnocentrism. Barclay, in contrast, gives Paul’s “incongruous grace” a vital role in the apostle’s self-understanding, in his analysis of the human condition, and in generating the sequence of Paul’s argument in letters. For instance, commenting on the Antioch incident (Gal 2:11–14), he says “the good news is good precisely in its disregard of former criteria of worth, both Jewish and Gentile: the gospel stands or falls with the incongruity of grace” (p. 370). Similarly: “Paul’s radical policy in his Gentile mission is not a protest against ‘nationalism’: it is the disruptive aftershock of the incongruous gift of Christ” (p. 361).”

Conclusion
Moo affirms that Barclay provides a more satisfactory interpretation than the typical new perspective approach is his explanation of the “works of the law” vs. grace and faith contrast.

“It occupies a central role in general reformation theology. Although the reformers recognized that Paul’s “works of the law” referred to obedience to the Jewish Torah, they were convinced that the phrase ultimately should be interpreted as including any kind of human obedience. They therefore identified in this contrast a basic anthropological contrast between “doing” and “believing.” Because Paul therefore excludes all human “doing,” the appropriation of Christ by “faith alone” is the necessary corollary. And they also grounded this claim in grace: if God by his nature relates to human only by grace, then justification must be by faith and not by works of any kind (see Rom 4:4–5).”

“On Barclay’s reading, one can move, it would seem, pretty directly from Paul’s “works of the law” to any human value system. To be sure, it is still the system rather than human attempts to meets its standards that are the problem. In other words, a person might fully meet the demands of their own value system and fall short of God’s approval because the system itself is at fault. On the one hand, then, Barclay is closer to the new perspective in insisting that it is “law” and not “works” that is the key word in Paul’s debated phrase; but he is closer to the old perspective in finding in the phrase a universal condemnation of human systems of worth. It should be acknowledged that Dunn and Wright find a broad criticism of human works in Paul’s polemic against “works of the law.” The problem is that I am sometimes not sure how their exegesis in terms of “covenant markers” leads to these conclusions. Barclay provides a more secure foundation for this broad application.”

In short, John Barclay has given us a compelling book on how Paul’s teaching on grace-gift provides the necessary corrections to NPP. You may read the full review essay by Douglas Moo in latest August issue of the free online journal Themelios vol. 41, issue 2, John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift and the New Perspective on Paul.

*Download and read as much as possible all the journal articles from Themelios: On a personal level, Themelios was my Ariadne’s Thread/Compass to navigate through many radical theological challenges to Biblical authority. The journal kept me from straying into theological liberalism when I began my theological studies in the 1970s.