John Barclay on grace in Paul’s letters

In a recent interview with Wesley Hill of Christianity Today (31st Dec 2015), John M. G. Barclay talks about his latest book, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), and explains his understanding of the grace of God. In many ways Barclay speaks of my own understanding of grace, based on what I have learned in recent years through my engagement with the poor, cross-cultural mission, and my study of the issues around poverty and culture. It seems to me that, to a large extent, our understanding of the meaning of grace, the gospel, and the Scripture determines how live out our Christian life.


Barclay said many amazing things in the interview, and here are some of them (emphasis added).

Paul talks about Christ as the gift of God, the grace of God. What is striking about this is that this gift is given without regard to the worth of the people who receive it. God doesn’t give discriminately to seemingly fitting recipients. He gives without regard to their social, gender, or ethnic worth. Nothing about them makes them worthy of this gift.

Think of someone who sits with a homeless man on the street and listens to him, . . . or those who give up “good jobs” in order to spend their lives with people with severe learning difficulties . . . When he talks about the grace of God in Christ, that is the kind of gift Paul is talking about.

Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries.

[S]ome Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace . . . However, that can lead to notions of cheap grace . . . While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.

What I find so profound is the capacity of grace to dissolve our inherent and inherited systems—what we might call social capital. What counts before God is not what we pride ourselves on—or what we doubt ourselves on. What counts is simply that we are loved in Christ. This is massively liberating, not only to us as individuals but also to communities, because it gives them the capacity to reform and to be countercultural.

That’s why some of the most exciting churches today are not necessarily the big ones, but rather the small, multicultural, urban churches where you discover that different ethnicities and languages don’t count before God. Our education, our age, our job, the kind of music we listen to, the books we read—these do not ultimately define us. What defines us is who we are in Christ. We all are on the same level together and are therefore able to form countercultural relationships despite our differences. And that opens up the possibility for hugely creative Christian communities.

Source: Accessed on 13th Jan 2016

The Cross Shatters All Norms

Beautiful quote from John Barclay’s new book.

Faith Improvised

I am thoroughly enjoying John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. He has developed a unique vocabulary and grammar to articulate the shape of Paul’s theology.

Barclay, Paul and the Gift

It’s simply beautiful to read and I find myself re-reading and savoring many of his paragraphs. In his discussion of Galatians 6:11-16, he powerfully captures Paul’s argument regarding the power of the cross:

The cross of Christ shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly “natural” order of “the world” (cf. 4:3). In form (as unconditioned gift), in content (as death), and in mode (the shame of crucifixion), the cross of Christ breaks believers’ allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right. Whereas Philo took “the world” (ὁ κόσμος) to be the properly ordered gift of God, whose stable values were reinforced by gifts to worthy beneficiaries, Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm…

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Some thoughts on giving to the poor and Shepherd of Hermas

Some years ago a respected minister and scholar gave a talk on the church’s giving to the poor. He listed how the church was involved in some of the best charity work in history.

Most of the audience loved his message. But I was somewhat uncomfortable with the lack of discussion on what the church is doing now in Australia. I don’t mean that the church is doing little for the poor today (because it does do a lot for the poor). But the tone of the talk seemed to be more about how well the church did in the past, rather than a thoughtful evaluation of what the church in Australia is doing now.

More importantly, I am not sure whether the speaker successfully described the sacrifice of the early Christians when they gave to the poor. As a result, the message was more about how charitable Christians were, rather than challenging us to learn from the sacrificial giving of the early church.

Some months ago (April 2015), John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor Divinity at Durham University, UK, gave an excellent talk at Houston Baptist University, USA, on a similar topic. He surveyed how the early church gave to the poor sacrificially. (Click here to watch the lecture.) Prompted by some of the things he said, I looked up an early church writing, Shepherd of Hermas, and found the following.

This fasting,” he continued, “is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.” (Emphasis added)

Source: Shepherd of Hermas, Fifth Similitude, chapter 3 accessed on August, 17th, 2015.

I also found the following quote regarding Shepherd of Hermas.

These passages in the Shepherd of Hermas reflect the common attitude of Christians towards property in the early Church. It has its dangers: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Too much wealth makes a believer vulnerable in time of persecution. On the other hand, wealth can be used generously, for the good. No one need give up all their possessions, but they should not have too much and should use what they have for the benefit of others. So Hermas urged his readers to give indiscriminately to all in need: ‘give to everyone, for God wants his gifts to be given to everyone.’ Almsgiving was linked particularly to fasting; Hermas advised his readers to use the money they have saved on a fast day and give it to the widow, the orphan or the needy person. Hermas even goes so far as to depict the poor and the rich in a relationship of mutual dependence. The prayers of the rich are weak. They need the prayers of the poor, which are so much more powerful before God, and their almsgiving makes up for the inadequacy of their prayers. The poor, meanwhile, need the rich to support them in their need and they pray for the rich in thanksgiving. (Emphasis added)

Source: Bernard Green, Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 116–7.

We do need to study the Bible itself on these issues. Also, we should not be legalistic about giving. Nor should we give to the poor because of guilt. But I think the Shepherd of Hermas does leave us with a challenge.

John Barclay on the social practice of the Christ-community in Galatians

The following quotes are from the concluding remarks of an article written by John Barclay, “Grace and the Countercultural Reckoning of Worth,” in Galatians and Christian Theology, edited by Mark W. Elliott, Scott J. Hafemann, N. T. Wright, and John Frederick (Grand Rapids: baker, 2014), 306–17. It is about the social practice of the Christ-community according to Galatians.

The gift of God in Christ is articulated as an unconditioned gift in the creation of a community that neither mirrors nor endorses the regnant systems of value . . . By its strategic indifference to preconstituted evaluations of worth—ethnic, social, sexual, or other—the community declares and enacts its freedom. By its “crucifixion of the flesh” (5:24)—it demonstrates an alternative allegiance derived from an alternative source of “life.” In resisting the tendencies to intracommunal rivalry, it affirms its special identity as a community beholden to “the law of Christ” (6:2). (Page 316; emphasis added)

In theological terms, the new creation presses toward the formation and flourishing of a community in which the truth of God’s self-giving in Christ is expressed in love, strongly resistant to the normal contest for honor . . . it is the Christ-event that gives meaning and shape to communal practice, while it is in social practice that the nature of the Christ-event is realized, or is not realized. (Page 317; emphasis added)

Here is the best part, I think.

The truth of Paul’s gospel must be both recognized and enacted—in fact, recognized in its enactment. It is only as communities are remolded in exclusive allegiance to “the law of Christ” that they may be said to affirm the baptismal confession “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9). Social practice is not, for Paul, and addition to belief, a sequel to a status realizable in other terms: It is the expression of belief in Christ, the enactment of a “life” that otherwise can make no claim to be “alive.” (Page 317; emphasis added)

John Barclay on Roman imperial claims

I really appreciate John Barclay’s scholarship and insights. Here is something from his article, “Why the Roman Empire Was Insignificant to Paul,” in his Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 363–87.

For these reasons, Paul’s gospel is subversive of Roman imperial claims precisely by not opposing them within their own terms, but by reducing Rome’s agency and historical significance to just one more entity in a much greater drama. To oppose the Roman empire as such would be to take its claims all too seriously: to upstage or outdo Rome would be to accept its terms of reference, even in surpassing them. Even turning Roman values on their head entails a form of confinement within the ideological system in which those values are defined. Paul, more radically, reframes reality, including political reality, mapping the world in ways that reduce the claims of the imperial cult and of the Roman empire to comparative insignificance. Confronted by temples and statues of Caesar (as he undoubtedly was), Paul makes no special mention of them, not because he was politically naïve but because they represent for him the power of δαιμόνια (1 Cor 10.14–21) – the same δαιμόνια operative in other cults, with the same delusion and bankruptcy and the same incompatibility with the Lordship of Christ. From Paul’s perspective, the Roman empire never was and never would be a significant actor in the drama of history: its agency was derived and dependent, co-opted by powers (divine or Satanic) far more powerful that [sic] itself. There was nothing significant about it being Roman – nothing new, nothing different, and nothing epoch-making. (Page 386)

I think, instead of saying that Paul opposed the Roman Empire, it is better to say that Paul envisioned an alternative community that would embody the crucified Christ and the values of God’s kingdom. The value system and practices of such a community, by nature, are set in sharp contrast to those of the Roman Empire.