In the pages of Christianity Today, I ran across Wesley Hill’s interview of Biblical Scholar John Barclay. Barclay is promoting his new book on Pauline scholarship, “Paul and the Gift”. I have not read the book but found the excerpts of the interview enlightening on the concept of Paul’s view of grace.
Most of the interview is centered around Barclay responding to the “new perspective of Paul” scholarship which arose in the 1970s. This effort focused attention away from justification by faith alone, not by works and more toward the social and ethical dimensions of Paul’s message. Viewing Paul only in terms of social and ethical dimensions seems excruciatingly narrow in contrast to his body of work in the epistles. Barclay doesn’t seem to be rebuking this scholarship as trying to form a hybrid between the “new perspective of Paul” and the traditional protestant understanding of justification by faith which Martin Luther and other reformers rediscovered during the Reformation.
Toward the end of the interview, an excerpt jumped out to me related to how the church can respond to a perspective of grace that will constantly allow us to question and challenge our norms by which we evaluate ourselves and others:
“First, it means there are no limits to the reach of God’s grace. Both Paul and Jesus stood alongside people who were not at all respectable. In doing so, they took big social risks. God’s grace operates beyond our norms of what is civil, proper or fair. And it challenges our hidden prejudices. Why do we distrust immigrants, stigmatize the poor, or disdain certain socioeconomic groups? Why are we tempted to think that people who do not have a spouse or a job, or who do not have a physique matching cultural ideals, have somehow failed? Whose values are we applying?
Paul learned that God’s gifts did not follow the values he had always assumed were right. The gospel has its own value system, which may not match our inherited values as much as we think.
What we take for granted as having worth- our place in a hierarchy, our class, our wealth, our education, you name it- does not count for anything when we are encountered by Christ. In Paul’s day, the main forms of hierarchy were built around gender, ethnicity, and legal status. Men were considered more important than women, Jews were considered more valuable than non-Jews, and a free person was considered more valuable than a slave. Paul says that in God’s eyes, none of these social boundaries matter. ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’ (Gal. 3:28).
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…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.”
**This is my 100th blog post. I guess I should celebrate.