John Barclay in Maynooth: the incongruity of grace

John Barclay , Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University was speaking in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth this evening on ‘Grace as Free Gift: Freedom from What?’ This was the opening keynote address of the Irish Theological Association Annual Conference.

His 2015 book Paul and the Gift is one of those very big books a top scholar writes at the peak of his / her career. I don’t mean in big in size (although at over 600 pages it ain’t small) but in significance. It is the fruit of many years of research and has caused a substantial amount of reaction and debate, most to my knowledge very positive.

If you are keen you can read two substantial reviews at Books & Culture by Scot McKnight and Wesley Hill  Others of a more Reformed persuasion can be found here  (Thomas Schreiner) and Alistair Roberts here. Ben Witherington (as he is wont to do) did a mammoth blogging review in dialogue with John Barclay – like a mini-book in itself.

img_20161104_225105And if you are really keen you can always buy and read the book – I’ve a copy (here’s a pic) and plan to read it over Christmas if all goes well.

All to say is that this post isn’t yet another review (which would be a bit difficult since I’ve only glanced through it as yet and have read reviews). But it is some observations and thoughts on tonight’s lecture.

First, Barclay developed his argument with clarity, brevity and good humour in four sections.

1. GRACE IS IN THE FIELD OF GIFT

This is talking about grace in general. Remember when someone gave a you a nice gift? Or invited you to dinner? What is going on? The act of grace you have experienced is a free, voluntary act. You are not legally obligated to respond! Neither (I hope) are you eating the dinner and working out a budget of what it cost your host in terms of time and money so that you know exactly how much to ‘pay back’ when you invite them around in return – the gift is non-calcuable. But note the sense of obligation to reciprocate often created by a gift. But the main thing a gift is doing is building relationship – they are personal. They are also ‘discriminatory’ in the sense that you have received that invitation because the person likes you – they haven’t invited a total stranger or someone they don’t like.  Barclay gave the example of a will – you leave money to people and causes you have affinity with. You might not leave money to the local dog shelter because you believe that your money is better spend helping humans .. this is discriminatory grace.

In the ancient world, the expectation was that the gods gave favour in this sort of discriminatory fashion – to people of value and worth. So the qualifying factors – perhaps your ethnic identity, gender (usually male preference), your moral superiority etc – determined the giving of grace. For God / gods to do otherwise would be to cause upheaval and social chaos – where is justice and social order if grace is indiscriminate?

2. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM PRIOR CONDITIONS OF WORTH  (the incongruity of grace)

This is where Christian grace becomes revolutionary and truly shocking. God’s grace is given without regard to ethnic, moral, gender or any other conditions. In fact ‘Christ died for the ungodly’. Repeatedly in the NT  (but also foreshadowed in the OT – I think more could have been said here on texts like Deut 10:14-22, Isaiah 58:6-7, Job 29:12-17 which make clear that God’s impartial love and grace is intrinsic to the OT and simply carried on a climax in the NT) it is stressed that God’s grace is unconditioned – Jesus and the Prodigal Son, Paul telling the Corinthians that it was exactly that they were NOT rich, wise, clever and powerful that they were chosen by God – it was in this choice that God was demonstrating his ‘foolishness’ (Paul is not into building false self-esteem here!).

This is Barclay’s important notion of the ‘incongruity’ of grace – it does not make logical sense – it is a misfit between the gift and the worth of the recipient.

This radical notion of grace has been central to all Western forms of theology – Catholic and Protestant. But there are struggles and differences in how the incongruity works out in the life of a Christian.

Famously, for Luther is it ‘simil iustus et peccator‘ – simultaneously justified and a sinner. This does NOT mean that Luther is thinking introspectively that he in himself is both a sinner and righteous person. He means that he is a 100% a sinner and that he is 100% righteous only because he is united with Christ and his righteousness. In other words, for Luther, grace was permanently incongruous.

Others, in different ways have wanted to square God’s incongruous grace with the expectation that grace will be transformative – and therefore effective in making the changed sinner more congruent with God’s final justice. Augustine, Aquinas  and Calvin all wrestled with this.

Barclay referred to Therese of Lisieux who, near death, said that if she was to be judged according to works then she would have no works – all she would have were the works of Christ in her (very Lutheran indeed!).

But the Christian tradition as a whole have agreed that God’s grace truly is a wonderful and life-giving freedom from being in some way good enough to be chosen by God. (Again a text like Deuteronomy emphasises similar themes – Israel is specifically told she was chosen exactly NOT because she deserved it).

3. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM OBLIGATION?

Here we get the crux of popular distortions of grace among a lot of contemporary Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant. These distortions are shaped by a Western notion that grace is not really grace unless it is ‘unconditional’. In other words, there is absolutely no expectation of reciprocity or return.

There is a key difference between ‘unconditioned’ grace and ‘unconditional’ grace. One is the basis on which grace is given, the other is the expectation of return in light of grace.

Barclay mentioned Kant (grace is grace only if there is no obligation) and Derrida here – who said that creating any sense of obligation in the recipient destroyed the sense of gift. It was better to give anonymously. Indeed the best gift would be given when you are dead – then there is no chance of obligation of a return gift! This is typical of the idea of unobliging gift – no strings attached at all.

Yet the Bible has little difficulty in the idea of obligation in light of God’s grace. For Paul, the grace of God is revealed in Christ. That gift places believers under the lordship of Christ (literally slavery to Christ) – Christians are under new ownership and are ‘to live to the Lord’ and ‘live a life worthy’ of the gospel.

But a key qualifier here is that the gift of grace created relationship. There is a new status – beloved son, adopted by the Spirit, abba Father .. out of which the believer is to live a new life in love and thankfulness to God. And this is a social context – worked out in community

It is only because of our radical individualism that we can imagine there is no obligation of a gift of grace given.

4. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM PRE-CONSTITUTED CRITERIA OF WORTH

Barclay has been forging a path that is between Old and New Perspectives on Paul. In this section he sounded distinctly ‘New Perspective’ in that his concern is that grace too often has been interpreted in narrow individual categories – John Newton’s Amazing Grace captures wonderful truth but is detached from the social implications of unconditioned grace.

Take Galatians (on which Barclay did his PhD): the real issue is not works-righteousness he says, but WORTH. The pagan Galatians were not deemed worthy by the Judaizers until they were circumcised. But says Paul, any pre-conditions of worth are utterly destroyed by God;s grace – so Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In Corinthians, God’s grace subverts human ideas of worth – they are simply not worthy by standards of the ancient world. This is actually God’s point in choosing them. There is an intentionality in God’s grace to turn human ideas of worth on their head. This is why the early church was socially revolutionary (again a New Perspective feel to this, although he did also say that while NP got the social dimensions of justification well, it tended to lose the theological motive for how and why Jews and Gentiles were brought into one new community – that theological basis being God’s grace). Justification by grace alone created new communities formed only by people who were recipients of grace and not on any other criteria at all.

The context for Paul was missional – grace dissolves existing value systems regarding age, education, social status, gender, ethnicity, wealth etc.

APPLICATIONS

Here Prof Barclay was interesting and pastorally very helpful. Note the title of part 4 – it is not guilt or merit but WORTH. Grace tells us that the gospel is for all regardless of their worth.

Two areas of application:

First, chatting to him afterwards, he made a very interesting point about ageing – old age is the hardest time of life: you are losing friends, status, work, health, strength, social mobility, and maybe even your mind. This is where the gospel really impacts at a deep level for it speaks of a worth that is not measured by any of these things – a worth that is only dependent on God’s grace and this gives hope beyond loss of all we hold most dearly and that which currently gives us value and esteem.

Worth asking ourselves a question – how would you cope do you think if all that currently gives you a sense of worth was taken away?

Second, in a ‘sinless’ society with little notion of guilt this is another way of talking about the good news. He commented that numerous students and young people are under enormous pressure to measure up in a social media saturated society – cyber bullying, internet shaming, constant criticism, hierarchies of acceptance, pressure to perform and conform are more intense in a globally connected world.

Here God’s grace remains revolutionary good news – there is life and acceptance and welcome in a new community of brothers and sisters who gather around the Lord’s table solely on the basis of grace – nothing else.

This is why it is so important to work towards churches where there is real diversity – across gender, social, money, culture and ethnic lines. For this is a living breathing community of grace where we are reminded that this is what Christianity is all about – it’s not a narrow culturally specific religious club, it is about God’s unconditioned grace in Jesus Christ.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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