Authored by: John M. G. Barclay
Reviewed by: Kevin Miller
Keyword: Grace; Mosaic Law; Paul; Theology; Church History
The Essence of the Book:
Dr. John Barclay’s extraordinary work Paul & the Gift is simply the best overarching, comprehensive book available about God’s gift that is called “grace”—an amazing dissection of what Paul meant by the all-important topic of God’s grace. If you want an unparalleled, multi-faceted exposition on “grace”—one that impacts both personally and theologically—this book is an absolute must for your library.
Do you want a breathtaking, comprehensive discussion of God’s grace? Read Paul and the Gift.
Do you want a very useful six-part framework laid before you for analyzing the various assumptions when people say or teach “grace”—a framework that flushes out the crucial differences that can cause two people who seriously discuss the concept of grace to easily talk past and misunderstand one another? Study Paul and the Gift.
Do you want a workmanlike, inherently-contrasting survey of key historic figures’ (e.g., Luther’s, Calvin’s, Bultman’s) thinking, for better or for worse, about grace? Research Paul and the Gift.
Do you want a book very readable to the lay-Christian that still functions at the highest levels of study and is quite important to the theologians’ world? Acquire Paul and the Gift.
Do you want a book that proves spiritually gratifying to the mere Christian who is rightly awestruck anew each day at God’s grace? Enjoy Paul and the Gift.
Barclay simply equates gift with grace because “gift” is translated grace in the Bible.
If you read nothing else apart from the Bible about grace the rest of your life, read the twelve pages comprising Chapter 2, “The Perfections of Gift/Grace,” of Barclay’s book. Barclay defines a taxonomy of six “perfections” of grace (in reality, the six are often constructed together in different combinations): lenses through which teachers of God’s grace and we as readers view Paul’s epistles. Barclay’s crisp layout of these six particulars will, without doubt, work to establish a deeper foundation in your thinking…worth the price of the book alone.
Then, go back and read Barclay’s Prologue and his essential Chapter 1, “The Anthropology and History of the Gift.” This writing is indispensable to Paul’s writing about the gift of grace: what would Paul have meant by “gift” as a first century writer, and in what ways does it differ what a twenty-first century reader thinks of a “gift”? The prologue and first chapter create a foundation for the book itself. (Don’t be put off by the word “anthropology” in the title: throughout the book, Barclay writes in an engaging, narrative fashion quite readable to the lay-student of the Bible.)
The remainder of Part 1 of the book, Chapter 3: “The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace,” is spent fleshing out interpreters of Paul and grace—Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, etc. Barclay’s condensation of these theologians’ key positions is very helpful for comparing, contrasting, edifying, and understanding.
Then read the book’s “Conclusions,” where Barclay:
- summarizes “Grace as Gift” (“…throughout this book, we have been suspicious of the modern (Western) ideal of the ‘pure’ gift.”);
- recaps “Distinct Perfections of Grace” (“This disaggregation of perfections made it possible to ask afresh what Paul meant by ‘grace’…”);
- discusses “Paul among Jewish Theologians of Grace” (“the gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based definitions of value (‘righteousness’)”);
- summarizes “Paul’s Theology of Grace in Its Original Social Context” (“[The gift of grace] creates new modes of obedience to God, which arise from the gift as ‘return’ to God, but without instrumental purpose in eliciting further divine gifts.”)
- wraps with “New Contexts and New Meanings of Grace” (“Paul’s theology of gift is re-preached to effect the perpetual conversion of believers, who need to learn over and again to receive the gift of God and to banish the false opinion that their works will merit salvation.”).
Part 2 of the book is largely a framing for theologians about the nature of “Second Temple grace” and the “New Perspective” debate. Skip this for later reading/perusal.
But Part 3’s four chapters on Galatians (and grace) and Part 4’s first three chapters on Romans (and grace) will only deepen your appreciation for Barclay and challenge your personal construction of grace-understanding.
A rare book to read, ponder, cherish, and re-access. Bravo, Dr. Barclay!
A highly-Barclay-complimentary and helpful book review from theologian Thomas R. Schreiner. However, Dr. Schreiner writes, “Barclay also distinguishes himself from other scholars in saying that we cannot say that there is purer or higher or better grace in Paul. …For those who think that Paul’s writings are the inspired word of God, the Pauline conception of grace is superior to constructs of grace that depart from his [Paul’s] understanding. ….as believers we confess and believe that Paul’s theology of grace is superior to what we find in Wisdom or Philo.” (section 5 of the review) This reminder by Schreiner about the veracity and supremacy of Scripture is a key anchor well worth remembering.
What’s So Dangerous about Grace? A good interview with Dr. Barclay about the book by Wesley Hill in Christianity Today.
Reviewed by Kevin Miller