Wednesday, July 26, 2017

God for the Ungodly: The Incongruity of Grace

John Barclay's Paul and the Gift attempts (successfully I think) reframe the debate between the old and new perspectives, by recognizing the value in both. Barclay argues that while, indeed, St. Paul was a Jew among his fellow Jews, he was a radical Jew who offered a stunning interpretation of the Scripture to his contemporaries. Like the New Perspective, the Apostle Paul was not abnormal for his times, but he did not merely fit Jesus into a generally agreed upon reading of Israel's covenantal history. Rather, like the Old Perspective, St. Paul offered a radical interpretation, which was still strictly Jewish, but shocked his contemporaries. The revelation of Christ was thus not merely the crowning moment of Israel's history, but a stunning revelation of the whole, revealing the purpose of Israel definitively. Jews in the Second Temple period had no unanimous understanding of their own history and their own telos. The Messiah reveals this.

A major point in Barclay's work is that grace is a multivalent word, possessing a range of meanings. It's not enough tot talk about grace, you have to define exactly what this means. Thus, Barclay agrees with E.P. Sanders' seminal claim that Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace, but countering that this claim is insufficient as an explanation. A helpful part of the book is how Barclay utilizes anthropological studies on the idea of "gift" to recognize that giving does not negate reciprocity, in fact, it is only modern definitions that has fundamentally rewired the concept. As a general aside, I think this sort of thing is necessary to demystify some aspects of the faith. While there are clear paradoxes and miracles in Scripture, we ought to make sure that this is not a paradigm haphazardly applied.

This last point is crucial (pun intended) for Barclay, because he sees in Luther both a deep understanding and misunderstanding of the Apostle Paul. Barclay argues that for St. Paul, grace was most radically taken to its logical conclusion (perfected) in its incongruity. This is to say that God poured His favor upon the sick and the sinner, the weak and the powerless, the idolator and the gentile. This was the stunning revelation of the cross: God for the ungodly. The grace of God came to those who had nothing to offer, who were unworthy of anything but death. However, the gift of Christ, and all that entails (forgiveness of sins, adoption, eternal life, etc.), elicits an expectation of response, of living in Christ. Barclay interprets Luther as insisting that grace has no return, that it is purely non-circular, God gives and there is no expectation of return.

Now, Barclay is not a Luther scholar, and I don't really care if he gets Luther right, in himself. I'm sure there are quotes to the contrary that one could marshal. However, he does grasp a certain interpretation of Luther that became secularized and became a hallmark of the Modern world in Kant's ethics. This is how grace became an individualizing concept, where the gift was never to be recognized as such, being totally alien and anonymous. Unlike the near universal understanding of gift as formative of social bonds through immersion into a relationship, Kant shifts attention to the motive of the giver, and the pure gratuity of the act. Thus, we turn totally inward, towards our subjective experience of giving as the ethical grounds. This is the root of Santa Clause ethics, good for goodness' sake.

Barclay says to be mistrustful of any attempts to describe a "pure" gift in this way, and I think he's right. Not only is this not ever true (most times people expect something in return, even if it's gratitude or acknowledgement), but its conceptual priority masks selfishness. While our subsequent actions in light of being in Christ do not merit anything from God, there is an expectation of new life. Clearly, when a liberator comes to free slaves, he has an expectation that the slaves would go and live freely, not sell themselves back into slavery the first moment they can. If the liberator did not care, because all he cared for was the sheer fact of liberating, there would seem as if something were amiss. And, as Scripture testifies, God's Word never comes back void.

This incongruity, and not non-circularity, is the sheer gold of Luther's theology of the cross. Here we can call evil evil, recognizing the truth of things without plying a fiction. I was a sinner, totally worthless, powerless, and dead, yet the Father gave Christ for me to renew me in the Image of His Son. The crucifixion of God reveals the depths He will go, but not self-abnegation. Long ago, I wrote about the "Agapists", who pit a totally selfless love against a self-recovering love. When Scripture refers to agape, it is not a disinterested love, but rather a love that is willing to give in order to get, to sacrifice in order to save. The miracle in all of this is that the Son of God reveals that God is willing to do this even to the scum of the Earth, obliterating all our social hierarchies and categories of worth.

While Barclay's work is a good investigation of St. Paul, it has limited value with a theological reading of Scripture, which is interpreted and studied as a whole. However, it grasps the theological fact that God's love, in This Age, is a gift that goes to the depths, even for me. That's good news.

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