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The subversive power of grace

gift-givingThe latest Grove Biblical text is by John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham, and is a profound exploration of the meaning of grace, following his major work from last year Paul and the Gift.

John starts with a very helpful analysis of what might be called the taxonomy of grace: when we talk of ‘amazing grace’, what is it that is so amazing? Disagreements and misunderstandings here often arise from characterising grace in different ways.


Everyone knows John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace. It features a motif central to Christian thought from the very beginning, that God’s mercy reaches into human lives to transform them. ‘I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’ Of the New Testament writers, it is Paul who parades this motif most often and most prominently. All of his letters bear the greeting, ‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom 1.7; 1 Cor 1.3, etc.), and almost all finish with a grace-blessing (1 Cor 16.23; Gal 6.18 etc). In between Paul frequently highlights the superabundance of God’s grace (Rom 5.12–21) and celebrates ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 8.9)…

But what do we mean by ‘grace’ and, more particularly, what did Paul mean? Writing in Greek, Paul frequently used the term charis, the normal Greek word for a gift, favour or benefit. Charis is not a technical term, nor a special theological word, but was in regular, everyday use to describe all kinds of favours, gifts and good turns. In fact, Paul mixes it with other regular words for gift, as when he speaks of God’s ‘indescribable gift’ (2 Cor 9.15). Gifts normally induced the recipient to express gratitude or to give gifts in return, and chariscan also mean ‘thanks.’ Thus charis operated in a kind of circle, gifts circling back to the giver in one form or another. Not accidentally, the gift-relation was represented in antiquity by the image of the Three Graces, three young women dancing in a ring. Charis was translated into Latin as gratia, from which we get our English words ‘grace,’ ‘gratuity,’ and ‘gratitude.’ Thus when Paul speaks of the event of Christ as charis he describes it with the regular language of ‘favour’ or ‘gift,’ just as he speaks of God giving his Son (Rom 8.32) or of Christ giving himself (Gal 1.4; 2.20). He uses the same term for the generous gift he expects of the Corinthians (2 Cor 8.7).

It turns out that one may radicalize (or in literary terms, ‘perfect’) grace in several different ways. When we call grace ‘free,’ does this mean that grace is given without any reference to prior merit, or does it mean that it is given with no strings attached—or both of these things? A lot of Christian disputes down the ages, and still today, revolve around different meanings of ‘grace,’ and it is important to distinguish between them, and to be clear which facet of grace we are talking about. I think there are (at least) six:

  1. Almost every Christian theologian insists on the abundance of grace (that God gives hyper-generously), though not all have agreed that God’s grace in Christ was intended for all people.
  1. That God gives grace and nothing but grace (what we might call the singularity of grace) is a popular way to radicalize grace. Ever since the second-century theologian, Marcion, this has seemed to some to exclude the possibility that God could execute judgment or wrath.
  2. One may also emphasize the priority of grace, that God gives always in advance, before humans give to God. That is a notion allied by some with strong doctrines of predestination.
  3. Different again is what we might call the incongruity of grace, the notion that God gives to the undeserving, without regard to the worth of the recipient. As we shall see, that is a controversial notion both in the ancient world and today.
  4. Yet another radicalization of grace concerns its efficacy, its power not just to enable but to transform, and on some views even to replace, its human recipients as agents.
  5. Finally, one might claim that the perfect gift is characterized by non-circularity—it is given without requiring, or even expecting, a return. The idealization of a unilateral, non-circular gift is, I think, a product of the modern West (with roots in Lutheran theology and Kantian philosophy), but it exercises a powerful hold on Christian theology and on some interpretations of Paul.

So there are at least six different ways in which one can radicalize the notion of grace, because a gift of grace could be considered perfect in each of these forms. The important point is that these are not all the same, and that they do not constitute a package deal. One can radicalize the priority of grace, but not its singularity (Augustine); one can radicalize the efficacy of grace, but not its non-circularity (Calvin). Separating them out in this way allows us to see that many of the disputes about grace through Christian history—and there have been many!—are not about different degrees of emphasis on grace but about different forms of radicalization. Augustine did not believe in grace more than his theological enemy, Pelagius; he just believed in it differently. Even today, Christians may try to outdo one another in the ways they radicalize grace (we have theological movements labelled ‘hyper-grace’), but it is not necessarily the case that the more forms of radicalization, and the more extreme those radicalizations, the better the theology of grace. We may find some in Paul, but not all. In fact, in the history of Christian theology very few have wanted to tick all six points on our checklist.


John goes on to explore Paul’s language, and its significance in its social context, particularly in relation to the understanding of the meaning and significance of the giving of gifts.


91zlHM+udtLIt was very common in Paul’s world to speak of the worth of the recipient. Gifts should be given lavishly but discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients. ‘Worth’ could be defined in different ways, according to a number of criteria—ethnicity, social status, age, gender, moral virtue, beauty or success. Just as, today, prizes might be awarded on different grounds (for musical, literary, sporting or academic achievement) but keep their value only if they are given discriminately, to people worthy of them, so the good gift in antiquity was normally given ac- cording to some criterion of worth. And this was true also of the gifts of God (or the gods). God would hardly waste gifts on the unfitting, or confuse the moral or social order by giving to unworthy recipients. It was obvious to ancient philosophers that God’s best gifts would be given to those who are free (not slaves), to the educated, the male, the virtuous and the grateful. If you receive a divine gift, it is ‘because you are worth it.’

For this reason, the most subversive gift is the gift given without regard to worth (what I described above as the fourth possible radicalization of grace, ‘incongruity’). If you expect God to give the best gifts to the freeborn adult and educated male, but if you find that, in fact, these gifts are given both to the free and to slaves, both to adults and to children, both to the educated and to the uneducated, both to males and to females, your whole notion of worth, and thus your social values, is thrown into disarray. It might be thought exceptionally generous of God that his gifts go, as it were, all the way down these various scales of worth, but this would also make you wonder if God has any standards at all, or if God’s scale of values is different from your own. And if you find, in practice, that God has singled out people at the ‘bottom’ of your system of worth, it undercuts all that you have taken for granted as symbols of value. If the Pope takes time from meeting ‘important’ people to visit prisoners in a Philadelphia jail (as in September 2015), that challenges your assumptions as to who counts as ‘important.’ If an Oscar is given to an older actress, common notions of the superiority of youth are undercut. And if a literary prize is given to someone who has written only in Urdu, that overturns widespread assumptions about the cultural superiority of the West.


John draws on this understanding to map some of the recent and historical debates about first-century Judaism and our understanding of Paul’s theology of grace. He then follows the pattern of his longer book and explores the issue in detail in Paul’s writings, first in Galatians and then in Romans.


The normal grammar of gifts works by the logic of ‘because’ or ‘therefore.’ Because Samuel is my nephew, I give him a gift on his birthday. Jennifer got the best marks in her exams; therefore she was awarded the top prize. Because I rate human welfare high on my scale of values, I donate to a developing-world charity (and not to a sanctuary for abandoned dogs). That is what most people in the ancient world expected (and still expect) of the gifts of God. Because people are good, pious and generous, God will reward them with blessings or gifts, in this life or the next. Everyone gets their just deserts. This is not a mentality of works righteousness. It is simply how gifts normally and properly work. In fact, for God to act otherwise would not only seem bizarre, but would threaten the moral and social stability of the cosmos. If God gives to the unrighteous, has not the world become utterly chaotic?

Paul’s Letter to the Romans sets out, on a large scale, the scheme by which God has given his definitive gift (the gift of Christ), and its grammar is shockingly different. The grammatical structure here is not ‘because’ but ‘despite,’ not ‘therefore’ but ‘nonetheless.’ In the opening chapters Paul paints a picture of the human condition as deeply and universally infected by sin, marked by a wilful refusal to honour God and a relentless habit of egotistical behaviour…Nonetheless, God has acted in Christ, in a definitive gift that gives worth to the worthless, through the death of Christ (Rom 3.21–26). The divine gift in Christ has a peculiar and distinctive shape. It shows no match with the condition of its recipients. On the contrary, it creates something wor- thy and magnificent out of this worthless material. As Luther would say, ‘The love of God does not find but create that which is pleasing to him.’


Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 08.45.00After exploring this more fully, John then goes on to look at some of the consequences for the local church. John’s main book will shape the discussion of this issue for many years, and this Grove booklet is an excellent summary of and trailer for the longer book—it will be essential reading in this area, but also has profound implications for our approach to ministry and to mission. You can order it post-free (in the UK) at the Grove website.


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6 Responses to The subversive power of grace

  1. David Shepherd July 18, 2016 at 10:12 pm #

    This is an interesting explanation of grace contradicting merit. Perhaps, the next step is to understand why.

    By referring to Psalm 14 (re-iterated in Ps. 53), Paul makes it clear that, by God’s standards, there is no merit: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good,not even one.” (Rom. 3:10)

    Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin

    Yes, grace is subversive, but that’s not just demonstrating God’s transcendence of human expectations (Is. 55.8). Grace is also a necessity, since there really is no-one whose virtue has prompted God to decide to grant eternal life.

  2. Andrew Godsall July 21, 2016 at 9:27 am #

    As always, Richard Rohr has some extraordinary insight into this area.

    “In effect, most Christian groups and individuals lowered the bar of perfection by emphasizing achievable goals usually associated with embodiment (attending church on Sunday, not committing adultery, not being a thief, etc.)–goals which we could accomplish and for which we could take credit. These accomplishments only inflated our own self-image, not our love of God. Jesus never emphasized such things at all, because they could be achieved without any foundational love of God or love of neighbor–in other words, without basic conversion of either consciousness or identity. We could achieve this limited perfection through willpower, by “thinking correctly” about it, or by agreeing with a certain moral stance. This appeals to the grandiosity of the small self.

    The real moral goals of the Gospel–loving enemies, caring for the powerless, overlooking personal offenses, living simply, eschewing riches–can only be achieved through surrender and participation. These have often been ignored or minimized, even though they were clearly Jesus’ major points. We cannot take credit for these virtues; we can only thank God for them: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory because of your mercy and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).”

    • Jamie Wood July 21, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

      That’s a powerful quote by Rohr. In “Jesus never emphasised…” I think he overstates his case. Remember “These you ought to have done..” which refers to mint and dill and cumin!

      So we should go for both-and. Goals associated with embodiment are not to be despised; after all, embodiment is just another word for incarnation.

    • Brian July 23, 2016 at 8:13 am #

      “The real moral goals of the Gospel–loving enemies, caring for the powerless, overlooking personal offenses, living simply, eschewing riches–can only be achieved through surrender and participation. These have often been ignored or minimized, even though they were clearly Jesus’ major points.”

      – Dividing Jesus ‘moral goals’ into ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is a division he never made and show what we think, not what he does. ‘Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ seems to sum up his goals, along with the disturbing warning that if our ‘righteousness’ does not exceed the scribes and the Pharisees, we ill not enter the Kingdom of heaven.

      What you haven’t foregrounded is Jesus’ radical insistence on purity of heart and life (no adultery in the heart; ‘If thine eye cause thee to sin’ etc) and the call to persistent forgiveness, which doesn’t overlook offences but releases the sinner. The corollary of eschewing riches is a radical, day to day trust in God. Ethics and a childlike dependence on the Father are inseparable in the teaching of Christ.

  3. Andrew Godsall July 22, 2016 at 9:35 am #

    Jamie: I’m reminded of a scene in the wonderful film ‘A Few Good men’. A lawyer is asking a marine officer whether one of the troops can determine which orders are more important, or whether they should follow them all equally without discrimination.

    Kaffee: Lt. Kendrick, was Lance Corporal Dawson given a below average rating on this last report because you learned he had been sneaking food to Private Bell?

    Capt. Ross: Object!

    Judge Randolph: Not so fast. Lieutenant?

    Lt. Kendrick: Lance Corporal Dawson was given a below average rating because he had committed a crime.

    Kaffee: A crime? What crime did he commit? Lieutenant Kendrick, Dawson brought a hungry guy some food. What crime did he commit?

    Lt. Kendrick: He disobeyed an order.

    Kaffee: And because he did. Because he exercised his own set of values, because he made a decision about the welfare of a Marine that was in conflict with an order of yours, he was punished. Is that right?

    Lt. Kendrick: Lance Corporal Dawson disobeyed an order!

    Kaffee: Yeah, but it wasn’t a real order, was it? After all, it’s peace time. He wasn’t being asked to secure a hill or advance on a beachhead. I mean, surely a Marine of Dawson’s intelligence can be trusted to determine on his own which are the really important orders and which orders might, say, be morally questionable? Lieutenant Kendrick, can he? Can Dawson determine on his own which orders he’s going to follow?

    Lt. Kendrick: No, he cannot.

    OR, as Ian Paul himself puts it: It is clear to any intelligent person that lapse in obedience to some canons has more consequence than lapse in obedience to other canons, and therefore, in a context where bishops need to ‘pick their fights’ carefully, they are not going to pursue the more trivial breaches when there are weightier matters to focus on.

    Complicated, isn’t it?

  4. Christine Quinn-Jones August 28, 2016 at 8:58 pm #

    Hi Hi Ian, I have now received two copies of this booklet – one for myself and one for a family member. It is a really good read, and written in a way that I can follow easily as a lay Christian. Thank you for drawing our attention to it in your fine article 🙂
    Christine
    I

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