How the Past Can Rescue the Present

At the start of new year, most of our attention is focused on what lies ahead. It’s really one of the few times we take our eyes of the present moment and begin to imagine the future. My wife and I love praying and planning for the season ahead.

But I also love studying the past. I’m not a history buff, but I enjoy learning about previous eras, particularly of church history. As a pastor, I am often comforted in knowing that the Church has faced challenges and dilemmas like the ones in our day before. We can learn from both the mistakes they made and the wisdom they displayed.

There are two types of snobbery when it comes to a view of time. There is the snobbery of progress— what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. It is the belief that everything newer is more evolved, more enlightened, more advanced or sophisticated. This is a temptation precisely because there are aspects of it that are true: we know more about how the human brain works, how addictions occur, how spirituality integrates holistically with emotions and actions; and on and on. But not everything current is an improvement. The passing of time is not the same as progress. And, as Lewis pointed out, a culture or society may forget what it once knew.

The second kind of snobbery is the snobbery of nostalgia. This is the view that everything older is better; that the more historic the thing is, the richer it is. The way things used to be is automatically assumed to be better than the way things are. This view fails to account for the problems and flaws of every paradigm, or the challenges in every age, or even the way an allegedly abstract principle is actually deeply shaped by the context of its geography, politics, and more.

So, why does the past matter? Why study it if its not actually better than the present? Why can’t we just concern ourselves with the ‘now’ work of God? Once again, C. S. Lewis offers an insight:

“…we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.”

Just as a person “who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village,” so the person who “has lived in many times” is “in some degree immune from the…nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

We study the past so that we do not become prisoners of the moment.

We study the past so that we can call into question the assumptions of our age.

We study the past so that we can gain an immunity from the myths of our day.

And so I press on…backwards to go forwards, free of the myopia of the moment. My current quest for chronological context includes reading this gem from Larry Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh) on the unique qualities of early Christianity in the midst of both Jewish and pagan contexts.

Here’s one of the passages the struck me recently:

‘It is interesting that these pagan writers [in the first few centuries of Christianity] typically refer to Christians as dissonant and out of step, and as in tension with the larger culture of the time in some matters…Tacitus [the Roman writer around 112 AD who wrote on Nero’s accusations of Christians] claims that under Nero’s orders “an immense multitude” of Christians were arrested, who were convicted of “hatred of the human race,” and then were subjected to various forms of death.’

Huh. So, no matter how loving and kind Christians try to be, we still may be accused of being out of touch with the times (on the ‘wrong side of history’) and hateful? Well, now, that may challenge our paradigms.

But the rap on Christians in the first few centuries wasn’t all bad. Galen, a physician in the 2nd century, expressed ‘admiration for Christians, particularly for their courage in the face of death [not that the admiration for their courage was not a reason to rescind the death penalty!], their self-restraint in matters of sex, food, and drink, and their “keen pursuit of justice”.’ So, no need to tone down our admonishment of Christians today to embrace both a comprehensive view of justice and a temperate view of morality.

And yet, it may not be enough to keep people from viewing us– as Celsus the late second century pagan writer viewed early Christians– as ‘intellectually inferior people’.

There is so much more in Hurtado’s book that encourages and challenges me. And I think that’s the point: we need to study the past to see our own age more clearly.

We cannot compare the present to the future because we do not see the future clearly enough to know the implications of our theories and hypotheses. And we cannot live in the past as if the world remains unchanged. We must make two moves– the move to acquaint ourselves with the Church in previous eras, and then the move to see our own context with fresh eyes, and discern the Spirit’s work in us, here and now.

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Freedom and Vision: Building a Collaborative Team Culture

As leaders who care about the people we lead, we tend to vacillate between being empowering of our team and being directive with them. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but we sometimes view the two approaches as being on either end of a spectrum. Should I tell the team what I want them to do or should I let them create on their own?

What can be especially confusing in any organization is when we adopt one approach on some days, and the other approach on other days. People may wonder which leader they’re going to get—the one who says, ‘Go for it!’ or the one who says, ‘Not so fast!’

Taking my cues from Stephen Covey, Andy Crouch, and others, I believe that many of the concepts that we often lay on as opposites on a single line can be re-plotted on a 2×2 graph that shows what happens when both co-exist.

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1. Unclear Vision-Low Freedom
Beginning with the bottom left, when a leader has a low or un unclear vision and gives low freedom, the organizational culture is crazy. As in, it’s a madhouse. No one knows what’s going on, or why we’re doing anything, and worse yet, no one can speak up or change things. I doubt many of us could survive for very long in an environment like that.

2. Unclear Vision-High Freedom
Then, in the top left, when a leader has low or unclear vision but provides high freedom to the team, it is chaos. This is like how the writer in the Biblical book of Judges describes Israel: ‘Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ In an organization like like this, silos develop, people jostle for power and control, no one really knows who is in charge. People are unclear of the ‘why’ for any of their actions, so they only do the things they like or enjoy or believe in. There is freedom, but no vision.

3. Clear Vision-Low Freedom
Over in the bottom right is a depiction of what results when a leader gives plenty of vision but provides little to no freedom: clones. When a leader functions like this, he or she will stop attracting innovative thinkers and creative leaders. They will only have good foot soldiers. Now, don’t get me wrong: everyone organization needs loyal people who are happy to execute the task. But organizations that renew themselves require a team of leaders who are not afraid to dream out loud, challenge the status quo, and re-imagine the future. Yet all this must be done within the organization’s culture and values. In short, there must be both freedom and vision.

4. Clear Vision-High Freedom
Which leads us to the box on the top right. When a leader provides a clear and compelling vision and a high degree of freedom, collaboration results. Strong leaders stop competing with one another because they understand their shared goal. Creative thinkers aren’t sidelined or bored because they are tasked not with simply executing a plan, but with imagining better ways to achieve their shared goal.

Applying this…
I think that there are different ways for leaders to provide clear vision and high freedom, ways that fit the leader’s strengths and personalities. (For example, think of the difference between a quarterback and a point guard. Both may call plays, but the amount of improvisation from the team differs.) Furthermore, each team member may differ in the amount of freedom or vision they need. Some people freeze with indecision when they are given the same of freedom that another person requires; other people may wilt under the amount of vision that another person loves.

I am grateful to work in a place where both freedom and vision are cherished. Though we don’t have it all figured out, a collaborative culture is something we strive to create and to steward at New Life. So, in my ongoing quest to grow as a leader, I am making it a goal to listen to my team better in order to make sure they feel they have the right combination and freedom and vision to thrive and collaborate.

Preparing for a New Year

For the past 6 or 7 years, Holly and I have done a prayer and planning retreat, usually at the end of the calendar year, or sometimes right at the beginning. We were inspired by some wise, older, mentors who talked about their rhythm of intentionally praying and planning for the new year. (Special thanks to my parents for watching our kids this year, as in recent years.) 

Each year, we’ve done it slightly differently, but there has generally been a progression from prayer to planning. Often, we start by listening, waiting upon the Lord, asking Him if He has a word for us for the new year. This year, to aid our listening, we began by sitting in the beautiful church at the Franciscan monastery near our house. Holly and I found separate corners in the quiet, empty sanctuary for about an hour or so. Holly used the ‘Prayer of Examen’ as a way of taking stock of the year [here’s a short article from Peter Scazzero on how Evangelicals can practice the Prayer of Examen]. I sat and quieted my heart, kneeling in silence. We both read passages of Scripture and journaled.


Over lunch, we talked about some of the things we heard from the Lord. Then we made our way to the retreat center in town where we would spend two nights, and took the afternoon to formulate a ‘Rule of Life’ for each of us [here’s a very thorough website from Steve Macchia on how Evangelicals can create a ‘Rule of Life’]. Many people do this as an exercise in solitude, but we found it helpful to discuss it with one another because it helps us to not be too ambitious or unrealistic. Plus, my wife is an external processor so everything is better when you have someone to talk it out with.

Here’s a sample of my Rule of Life (slightly redacted for the public):

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A new practice we did this year was to try to set morning and evening habits (or ‘liturgies’ in the very loose James K. A. Smith sense of the word– or in the sense Eugene Peterson called his ‘liturgical nap’ decades before Smith!). We are both rather poor at consistency, but we aren’t willing to give up because we believe in the formative power of spiritual habits (1 Tim. 4:6-16).* So we talked through the physical, habitual rituals for our mornings and evenings– from a consistent wake time, to work-out time, to prayer, Bible reading, and breakfast (and, dinner clean-up, bedtime prep, reading with the kids, and nighttime prayers). We tried to be realistic and not too ambitious. We also discussed a very simple ‘Sabbath’ practice to try– beginning with a walk, our evening meal, a candle and prayer for others as we gather at the table. We have four kids, so life is far from monastic– but rhythms even with the chaos and mess of real life– can make it feel like there’s music to our movements (and not just madness!).

Our first evening was mostly recreational: we went out to eat, came back and read, and relaxed. The next morning, it was time to go over the calendar for the new year. We tried to put in the things we know: from kids activities (basketball, soccer, dance, etc) to meal groups. Then we blocked out my travel and in-town special ministry events. With a year-at-a-glance, we talked about possible vacations, camping trips, and weekend getaways, circling dates on the calendar that would serve as placeholders until plans are actually made. We’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t ‘schedule first what matters most’, then whatever comes will fill the spots. Our goal was not to fill the calendar, but to allow ourselves to see what kind of margin we could create. All the wildness and goodness of life happens in the white spaces we leave, right?

The afternoon was mostly reading and doing a bit of personal work– Holly did some homeschool planning, and I did some dissertation editing. Then, we had dinner, watched ‘The Crown’ on Netflix, and ran out to grab some hot chocolate. I’m telling you all these boring details not because I think you’ll find them compelling, but precisely because they are uninteresting: a prayer and planning retreat is not epic or other-worldly. It is the kind of space in the ordinary for you to breath, and for God to breathe in it.

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One final piece of our annual retreat is writing letters to our children. Years ago, we bought each of them a journal that we write in. Though we may write in it at different points in the year, we make it a point to write in it at this retreat. With some worship music going in the background, we pray for the Lord to give us a ‘word’ or a theme for each child. Then, we write them a letter in the journal, recapping some of what we have seen in them this year, and in what we sense for them in the year ahead. The plan is to give them each their journal when they graduate high school, or something like that. So, they won’t read their ‘word’ now. But, the mere act of journalling a word for them each year allows us to follow up with a personal conversation when we get home, shepherding them into the next season.

Anyway…our retreat is an amalgam of things we’ve learned from others along the way– from the Examen to the Rule of Life to the journalling idea. I’m quite sure none of this is original to us. And it certainly shouldn’t be unique to us. If this is inspiring or helpful to you in anyway, please, use it. If not, forget about it! 🙂


Even if you didn’t get days away to prepare for a new calendar year, here’s a little recap with some helpful questions to guide some reflection on your end:

Spiritual review:

  • Where did you feel God’s joy in your life last year?
  • Where did God’s grace show up in helping you give and receive love?
  • Where did you feel joy drain out of you last year?
  • Where did you fail to allow grace to flow through you by failing to give or receive love?

Spiritual preview:

  • Is there a word or a phrase or a theme from the Lord for this year?
  • What are some relationships the Lord is calling you to be attentive to this year?
  • Are there some projects that the Lord is leading you to step out and attempt this year?

Spiritual habits:

  • What are your repeated actions each morning and evening?
  • Is there a built-in rhythm for rest and weekly sabbath?
  • Are there times during the week where you can be free of your phone (Can you give it ‘office hours’?)?
  • What will guide your Bible-reading this year?

Planning for margin:

  • What activities have you already committed to?
  • What trips have you already planned for work or ministry?
  • Where can you mark out space for retreats and vacations– time for reflection and renewal, and for recreation?
  • Where can you leave margin– unscheduled space– in your calendar?

Paying attention:

  • If you have children, what is the Lord doing in their lives?
  • How can you co-operate with the Holy Spirit’s work in your children or in the lives of those around you?
  • What can you cultivate in your children or in the lives of those around you?

For any of you who have your own rhythm of prayer and planning for your lives and homes…do share so that this can be but the spark for the gathering of collective wisdom in the community of faith.

Cheers to you in 2017!


* For an illustration of how the Holy Spirit works in us to helps us ‘make every effort’ in the formation of character through the training of habits, here’s a 4-min clip from a sermon I gave in 2010! Excuse the scruffy look!

John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 3

[NOTE: This is a 3 part summary of Prof. Barclay’s book, “Paul and the Gift”. Read Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.]

4. Paul’s Theology of Grace in Its Original Social Context

In this section of the book, Barclay spends about 118 pages tracing Paul’s theology of grace in his letter to the Galatians, and another 113 pages doing the same in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

In both letters, Barclay finds the dominant motif to be the incongruity of grace. The gift, for Paul, is the Christ-event: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, in both letters, the implications of this gift are profound for creating and imagining a new community in which previous barriers are eliminated. The kind of welcome we have received from God in Christ requires believers to embody the same kind of welcome to one another—a welcome irrespective of previous measures of ‘worth’. Barclay writes, ‘Since God’s incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and united them in their common faith in Christ’ (p. 566).

The key features of Barclay’s reading of Galatians, drawing from his own summary remarks, are as follows:

  1. The theology of Galatians ‘drives toward the formation of innovative communities, which not only span the boundary dividing Gentiles and Jews, but practice a communal ethos significantly at odds with the contest-culture of the Mediterranean world’ (p. 443).
  2. The incongruity of grace ‘enacted in the Christ-event and experienced in the Spirit’ reconfigures reality, and represents a ‘ “human-level” disjunction’ and yet a ‘ “divine-level” continuity (p. 443).
  3. The contextual specificity of the letter means that by ‘works of the law’ Paul means ‘Jewish practices beholden to the Torah, not “works” or “law” in a generalized sense (contra-Luther). For Paul, the Christ-event subverted every other value-system or means of defining worth, even the Torah. This also adds ‘breadth to the canvas’ of Paul’s theology since any worldly definition of honor or worth is also struck down.
  4. Communal practice is ‘integral to the expression of good news’. Living by faith is ‘necessarily expressed in new patterns of loyalty and behavior’, with the Spirit as its source, director, and norm (pp. 444-5).
  5. No denigration of Judaism is necessary, whether as a religion of works or otherwise. Paul shows that the ‘demands of the good news surpass the authority of the Torah’ (p. 445).

Barclay offers no such neat summary of the key features of his reading of Romans. But each section includes a conclusion, and I am drawing from these to outline what is notable to me:

  1. Romans is concerned with relating the Christ-event to the story of Israel.
  2. The motif of the incongruity of God’s gift is its major theme. Barclay sees Paul as parading ‘not the match but the mismatch between the act of God and the value or condition of its human beneficiaries’ (p. 490). ‘When the narrative of the Abrahamic family is told in this incongruous shape, it emerges that all people, Jew and Gentile, derive their identity, in faith, from the God who gives life to the dead and has now raised Jesus as the source of new life’ (p. 492).
  3. The eschatological vision of God’s judgment is one where the gift of Christ will be the ‘fitting outcome of a life of “good work” (p. 492). This does not make the gift conditioned, but neither does it make it unconditional. God’s gift is ‘designed to produce obedience, lives that perform, by heart-inscription, the intent of the Law’ (p. 492). God, after all, gives His grace to sinners not because He is morally indifferent, but because He ‘intends to transform the human condition’ (p. 492). Paul’s phrase ‘obedience from faith’, used to bookend his letter, demonstrates that obedience is ‘the product of a life created through God’s incongruous gift’ (p. 492).
  4. As slaves to God who have an obligation to Him and to one another, our obligation does not gain grace or win another installment of grace (pp. 517-8).
  5. The essential incongruity of grace that continues in the life of the believer is not evidenced in the believer continuing to be a sinner (per Luther)—since ‘what began as a morally incongruous gift will be completed as a morally congruous gift’ (p. 518). Rather, the essential incongruity of grace is seen in the resurrection life of Christ (from which all holy living in the believer springs) co-existing in the believer’s own life, their mortal body. Playing off Luther’s maxim, Barclay creates his own: simul mortuus et vivens—at once dead and alive.
  6. Rather than paint Paul as monergistic or synergistic, Barclay simply asserts that for Paul the life of the believer is derived from Christ.
  7. The Christ-event is not simply the ‘latest episode in a story of grace’. Rather, it is the final, complete, decisive, and comprehensive enactment of incongruous grace. It is the moment that gives meaning to the whole narrative.

Summing up his reading of Paul in Galatians and Romans using his own taxonomy of the ‘perfections’ of ‘gift’, Barclay concludes:

‘The incongruity of grace does not imply, for Paul, its singularity (since God’s act of grace in Christ is predicated on his judgment of sin) or its non-circularity (since the gift carries expectation of obedience). Because it is incongruous, the priority of the gift is everywhere presupposed, but Paul rarely draws out predestinarian conclusions, as in the Hodayot or in the theologies of Augustine and Calvin. The superabundance of grace is also presupposed and sometimes explicit, but its efficacy is given less attention than the Augustinian tradition might suggest. While some Pauline texts suggest the efficacy of grace in the will and work of the believers (1 Cor 15:9-10; Phil 2:12-13), this perfection receives no special profile in Galatians and Romans. Everything that may be said about the believer is predicated on the resurrection life of Christ, as the source of new life in the Spirit: no one can “walk in line with the Spirit” unless they “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). But the efficacy of grace (in the sense of the present, causative agency of God within the agency of the believers) is not of central concern in either Galatians or Romans, and is not a necessary entailment of their primary perfection, the incongruity of the gift of Christ.’

5. New Contexts and New Meanings of Grace

What happens when Paul’s letters are read in new contexts? What happens when the criteria of worth is no longer the Torah but a ‘Christianized’ value-system? How should one make sense of Paul’s ‘works of the law’ then?

In every social context after Paul, his radical theology of incongruous grace has been read no longer as the ‘critical theology of a new social movement’, but rather as the ‘self-critical theology of an established tradition’ (p. 570). In short, ‘missionary theology is turned inwards’ (p. 571).

Augustine ‘interpreted “boasting” as the pride of believers who attribute merit to themselves, and not to God, directing the ‘critical edge of Paul’s theology’ against ‘Christian construals of virtue-acquisition’ (p. 571).

Luther’s achievement was to ‘translate Paul’s missionary theology of grace into an urgent and perpetual inward mission, directed to the church, but especially to the heart of each believer’ (p. 571). Paul’s theology of gift is ‘re-preached to effect the perpetual conversion of believers’, making the gospel a ‘mission to self and a daily return to baptism’ (p. 571).

Calvin used Paul’s theology to expose the ‘human incapacity to fulfill the law’s demands.

Barth (and Martyn) drew on Paul to subvert the ‘ “religious” movement toward God that is no more than a “human enterprise” ’ (p. 572).

The New Perspective on Paul understood the focus of Paul’s critique to not be merely achievement or performance of works, but the very criteria by which worth is measured—a criteria which served as an ethnic and social boundary (p. 572).

Finally, Barclay gives us his own suggestions for where one might locate this book in terms of these other readings of Paul (bold type are my additions for emphasis):

‘Thus, the reading of Paul offered in this book may be interpreted either as a re-contextualization of the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition, retuning the dynamic of the incongruity of grace to its original mission environment where it accompanied the formation of new communities, or as a reconfiguration of the “new perspective”, placing its best historical and exegetical insights within the frame of Paul’s theology of grace. I have disagreed in significant ways with interpreters on both sides of this divide, and the reading offered here does not harmonize the two interpretative traditions but reshapes them both. Thus it opens a path beyond current dichotomies, placing their respective strengths within a frame that is responsible both to the Paul’s historical conditions and to the theological structures of his thought.’

And therein lies Barclay’s gift of ‘Paul and the Gift’.

 

For more, read Wesley Hill’s review of it HERE, Reformation21’s review HERE, and the Christianity Today interview with Barclay HERE.

John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 2

[NOTE: This is a 3 part summary of Prof. John Barclay’s book, “Paul and the Gift”. Read Part 1 HERE.]

2. Distinct Perfections of Grace

Barclay then borrows the term ‘perfection’ from Kenneth Burke’s work to refer to the ‘tendency to draw out a concept to its endpoint or extreme’, sometimes to clarify a definition, other times to gain a rhetorical or ideological advantage (p. 67).

Barclay then identifies six ‘perfections’ of the concept of grace over the course of Pauline scholarship (pp.185-186):

  1. superabundance: the supreme scale, lavishness, or permanence of the gift;
  2. singularity: the attitude of the giver as marked solely and purely by benevolence;
  3. priority: the timing of the gift before the recipient’s initiative;
  4. incongruity: the distribution of the gift without regard to the worth of the recipient;
  5. efficacy: the impact of the gift on the nature or agency of the recipient;
  6. non-circularity: the escape of the gift from an ongoing cycle of reciprocity.

Barclay is quick to add a few qualifiers, which may be outlined in the following way:

  1. even though each ‘perfection’ configures gift in some maximal form, none of these can be claimed as the essence of grace;
  2. don’t assume that the ‘more perfections of grace, the better’;
  3. be wary of the ‘tendency to pile perfections on top of each other’;
  4. be wary of the tendency ‘to extend single perfections to a greater and greater extreme’ (p. 187).

These cautions are not against hypothetical situations, for, as Barclay demonstrates, the history of Pauline scholarship shows these tendencies to be powerfully present.

In what is one of the most illuminating chapters of the book, Barclay outlines how Marcion, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin ‘perfected’ the notion of ‘gift’ in their reading of Paul’s theology of grace. (He also surveys Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, Martyn, and most notably E. P Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul.) The contribution of this chapter is significant. Because a thorough and accurate representation of just one of these theologians would be impossible for one individual to do, Barclay relies not only on his own substantial scholarship but also on the best scholarship on each theologian, identifying the core themes and avoiding dubious theories.

Here are a few of his key insights:

  • Marcion perfected grace in its singularity, making it difficult to associate the God of the New Testament with any sense of judgment.
  • Augustine perfected grace in its priority, incongruity, and efficacy. It was Augustine’s drive to perfect the priority of grace to what some may deem an extreme end late in his life that gave rise to his doctrine of election and predestination. But while that is well-known, what is often missed is his emphasis on the efficacy of grace—its power to make believers fitting and deserving heirs of eternal life (p. 88).
  • Luther perfected grace in its superabundance, priority, incongruity, and non-circularity. In his famous use of the poles of ‘law’ and ‘gospel’, Luther also tended to perfect the singularity of grace, naming Christ only as Savior and not as judge. The main feature of Luther’s theology with regard to his understanding of ‘gift’ is his belief in the permanent incongruity of grace—the believer always remains a sinner unworthy of grace (seen in his famous maxim, simul justus et peccator—‘at once righteous and a sinner’). The righteousness present in a believer is an ‘alien’ righteousness that belongs to Christ. This, in one sense, gives Luther’s theology a sharply Christological focus. Yet the lack of any emphasis on the efficacy of grace for fear of its encouraging a propensity toward ‘works’ destroyed the reciprocal structure of a gift and unwittingly gave rise to the Western ideal of a pure gift. (It was Kant who took Luther’s theological reading of grace and universalized it to refer to the ‘horizontal’ dimension of giving to one another as a matter of duty, not relational reciprocity.) In Luther’s mind, ‘good works’ to a neighbor is now ‘horizontalized’—done for the good of the other, and not as a service owed to God that God might also recognize and reward.
  • Calvin perfected grace in its priority, incongruity, and picked up key Augustinian strands in its efficacy. For Calvin, it is the gift of the Spirit from which ‘every valuable feature of the believer’s new life arises’ (p. 129). Grace achieves its goal and does not leave the believer with a life that is perpetually incongruent to the righteousness of God. In the terms often used regarding the ‘agency’ of works, Calvin is neither ‘monergistic’ nor ‘synergistic’, but rather ‘conceives of believers’ actions as both wholly God’s and wholly their own’ (p. 129). Influenced by Augustine, Calvin drew the priority of grace to an absolute, resulting in what Barclay calls Calvin’s belief in the ‘omnicausality’ of God.
  • The New Perspective on Paul perfects grace in its priority and incongruity. The great contribution of the New Perspective is its refusal to read Paul’s ‘works of the law’ as generic ‘law’ or ‘good works’, but rather as a specific Torah-shaped righteousness that gave a sense of national identity to Israel. This prevents a reading of Paul that seeks to avoid the efficacy of grace and to embrace instead the non-circularity of grace (Luther). But its missteps, to Barclay, are its assumption that the priority of grace implies its incongruity. Not everyone who believed that God chose Israel believed that Israel was unworthy of the choice. In short, ‘grace is everywhere in the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same’ (p. 565).

3. Paul among Jewish Theologians of Grace

Where earlier theologians have viewed Judaism as the ‘foil’ to Paul’s notion of grace, the New Perspective on Paul made nearly the equal and opposite error of asserting that Judaism is a religion of grace in the same way that Paul preached grace. The particular perfection of grace in its incongruity is not ubiquitous in Judaism, but neither is it unique to Paul (p. 565).

What is unique to Paul is how he related the incongruity of grace (a) to the ‘Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely’, and (b) to ‘the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based observances of value (“righteousness”)’ (pp. 565-6). Barclay argues that this theology of grace ‘reshaped Paul’s understanding of the identity of Israel’, thus making it a mistake to read his theology as being against Judaism or as seeing the new Jew + Gentile communities of believers as a replacement of Israel (p. 566). Rather, Paul’s hope is for Israel to return to the very root of their faith—a dependence upon the unconditioned mercy of God, something that can be done fully and definitively by putting their faith in Christ.

Read Part 3 HERE.

John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 1

There has been a buzz among New Testament scholars about John Barclay’s recent book, ‘Paul and the Gift’. Barclay is the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the department of Religion and Theology at Durham University, where I am in the process of completing research for a doctorate in theology and ministry. Naturally, I had to see what the fuss was about, and being on sabbatical gave me the time to engage in the kind of long, sustained reading required.

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During my week of residency at Durham last Fall– ‘summer school’– Prof. Barclay gave a lecture. Since he didn’t use his name tag,  I ‘nicked’  it from the registration table.

Barclay’s work is stunning, a gift in itself to Pauline studies. Barclay approaches grace as ‘gift’, and develops a frame of six possible ‘perfections’—aspects taking to an extreme emphasis. He then applies his taxonomy of the various ‘perfections’ of the ‘gift’ concept to historically significant Pauline scholars such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Rather than providing us another ‘perspective’ on Paul, Barclay gives us a framework for analyzing all other perspectives—and a compelling and clear way for making sense of Paul in his own context as well.

The book is outlined as follows:

Part I: The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace

Chapter 1: The Anthropology and History of the Gift [65 pages]

Chapter 2: The Perfections of Gift/Grace [13 pages]

Chapter 3: Interpreting Paul on Grace: Shifting Patterns of Perfection [115 pages]

Chapter 4: Summary and Conclusions to Part 1 [10 pages]

Part II: Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism

Chapter 5: The Wisdom of Solomon [17 pages]

Chapter 6:Philo of Alexandria [26 pages]

Chapter 7: The Qumran Hodayot [26 pages]

Chapter 8: Pseudo-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum [13 pages]

Chapter 9: Ezra [28 pages]

Chapter 10: The Diverse Dynamics of Grace in Second Temple Judaism [21 pages]

Part III: Galatians: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Worth

Chapter 11: Configuring Galatians [19 pages]

Chapter 12: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Norms (Galatians 1-2) [36 pages]

Chapter 13: The Christi-Gift, the Law, and the Promise (Galatians 3:1-5:12, with 6:11-18) [34 pages]

Chapter 14: The New Community as the Expression of the Gift (Galatians 5:13-6:10) [25 pages]

Part IV: Romans: Israel, the Gentiles, and God’s Creative Gift

Chapter 15: The Creative Gift and Its Fitting Result (Romans 1:1-5:11) [43 pages]

Chapter 16: New Life in Dying Bodies: Grace and the Construction of a Christian Habitus (Romans 5:12-8:39; 12:1-15:13) [16 pages]

Chapter 17: Israel, Christ, and the Creative Mercy of God (Romans 9-11) [41 pages]

Chapter 18: Conclusions [16 pages]

Even those casually interested in Paul’s teaching on ‘grace’ will find Barclay’s ‘gift’ framework immensely insightful and illuminating. But at nearly 600 pages, it can be a challenging read. Not every section will benefit the preacher. One of the helpful features of the book is how clearly focused Barclay is in articulating his thesis and in outlining the flow of his argument. The conclusion sections at the end of each chapter and major sections are also tremendously helpful for readers who—like me—may want to read more deeply in some sections than others but don’t want to miss key developments of the argument.

I read the book the way I suspect most students would—selectively and strategically. I read all of chapters 1 and 2, most of Chapter 3, all of Chapter 4, the summary and conclusions to chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17, and all of Chapter 18. I skipped the section on Second Temple Judaism, relying on Barclay’s own summaries of the sections, and treated his lengthy readings of Galatians and Romans like a compact commentary—catching the central thread and distinctive features, and making notes to return to sections in depth in the future.

This reading strategy notwithstanding, the commitment to work through Barclay’s frame can require more time than a pastor may have in the course of a given week. My hope is that by leveraging my time while on sabbatical, I can create a succinct summary of the essential features of Barclay’s book without having done violence to his careful and methodical work. The final chapter in the book is Barclay’s own summary of the book’s ‘distinctive contributions’ under five headings. I will use his same headings, adding my own commentary and including significant excerpts from relevant sections of the book.

1. Grace as Gift

Barclay’s premise is that Paul (and his contemporaries) spoke of ‘grace’ not as a new or esoteric theological concept, but rather in the ‘normal vocabulary of gift, favor, and benefaction’ (p. 562). Thus Barclay employs an anthropological frame to note the key features of ‘gift’, such as reciprocity, power, and obligation, stopping short of arriving at single definition. He then surveys ‘gift-giving’ in the Greco-Roman world and in ancient Judaism.

In his conclusion to Part 1, Barclays offers two lists summarizing his observations (pp. 183-4). Here are some notable points, the last from his list of observations from gift-giving between the gods in the Greco-Roman world (bold type are my additions for emphasis):

  1. ‘gifts are generally given in order to create or reproduce social bonds; they foster mutuality’, and thus were not typically given ‘unilaterally’, ‘anonymously’, or as a ‘-one-way’ donation;
  2. ‘the rules of reciprocity raise the expectation of return, even in unequal social relations and even if the return is generally different from the gift in quantity and kind’;
  3. ‘the recipient of the gift is under a strong though non-legal obligation to reciprocate’;
  4. the gift is often associated with the person of the giver, and is therefore, to some degree, “inalienable”;
  5. ‘…gifts are usually construed as voluntary and expressive of goodwill, even if they arise from pre-existing bonds of obligation’;
  6. ‘because gifts created ties and expected returns, donors generally ensured that gifts were distributed discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients’ (that ‘worth’ can be defined in various ways on the basis of various systems becomes a key point later on as Barclay unpacks the ‘works of the law’ as a Torah-based system for defining worth).

The most notable conclusion from Chapter 1 of the book is that the modern (Western) notion of altruism—the ideal of the “pure gift” with allegedly no strings attachedis strikingly absent from the ancient world. (This may be one reason why Derrida called the notion of a pure gift a necessary collective fiction which a society embraces!)

Furthermore, Barclay lays the groundwork for demonstrating that a gift can be unconditioned—‘free of prior conditions regarding the recipient’—without also being unconditional—‘free of expectations that the recipient will offer some “return”’ (p. 562).

Read Part 2 HERE.

Sabbatical Summary and Reflections

When we set our plans for my pastoral sabbatical, Holly and I wrote out three key themes, each becoming a banner under which we could design travel, activities, and rhythms. These themes were rest, recreation, and renewal. We mapped out the six-week sabbatical in three successive phases. Of course, since we have four children under the age of 12, these lines blurred a little, and we needed to include more recreation into each day in order to keep them occupied and us sane. But to keep the theme of rest—true soul rest—going throughout the sabbatical, I deleted all the social media apps from my phone and iPad, deleted my work email from my phone and iPad…and used a completely different not-so-smart phone for much of sabbatical The freedom and lightness of being that I experienced was remarkable.

Here are some of the highlights of our time…

Phase 1: Rest
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We cashed in some airline miles, left our kids with my parents, and headed for the beach! It was the perfect way to kick off sabbatical, and to commemorate our 15th wedding anniversary year. Holly and I spent nearly every minute together, eating, talking, reading, and even running on the beach. We both brought a big novel—she read All the Light We Cannot See, and I read, or at least began reading, The Count of Monte Cristo.

But the book that became the highlight of our few days was a marriage book called, How We Love. The authors draw from attachment theory (how we experienced comfort and bonding with our parents) to explore how each spouse brings a pattern of relating and of building attachment and intimacy (or not building it) into the marriage. It sparked some amazing, soul-baring conversations for us. Though we have known each other for nearly 20 years, and have had deep conversations consistently during that time, this helped us go even further in understanding what lies behind our own patterns of relating to each other, particularly in those all-too-familiar patterns that married couples can sometimes get ‘stuck’ in. We highly recommend the book—special thanks to our dear friends who know the authors well and who recommended the book to us.

Phase 2: RecreationIMG_0035While we may have liked the ‘rest’ phase to go on, we had to get back to our kids, and we were excited to make some memories together as a family. After a few days at home, we loaded up the car and headed on a two-week road trip. We drove up to Rapid City, South Dakota, to spend a few days seeing Mt. Rushmore and few other notable attractions in the area. That was a blast—and quite a spectacle to behold. From there, we drove through the Badlands to South Dakota (including a stop to the Wall Drug store) to the northwest corner of Iowa, where Holly is from, and spent just under a week at the farm. The kids loved playing outside all day long, holding kittens, and practicing their driving skills on the riding lawn mower. Holly and I went for a walk everyday, and found time in the afternoons to journal.

On the road trip, we listened to an audiobook recommended by a good friend of ours, called Essentialism. It is mostly a business/leadership book, but has some significant applications for every area of life. (You can find reviews/summaries here and here and a reflection from Michael Hyatt on it here.) The book was catalytic for Holly and I to clarify what is truly essential to each of us in terms of both life purpose and daily focus. We spent time talking and journaling about what to whittle away from our activities, what matrix to use for saying yes and no when deciding on a variety of things, and what things/relationships we need to spend more time investing in. I think the Holy Spirit used this to bring clarity of focus for church, and for our work and home life in the season ahead. It was a way of helping us act on a few things spoken over us in a few prophetic words before we left on sabbatical.

After the farm, we drove down to Kansas to meet Holly’s sister and their family for a couple days. Lots of fun and play. Then, the long, monotonous drive home on I-70!

Phase 3: Renewal
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After unpacking, doing laundry, and repacking at our home, we headed up to the mountains, courtesy of some generous friends who allowed us use their vacation home. Our time was shaped by a daily rhythm that usually included morning devotions, a family activity (a hike or bike ride), and afternoon quiet hours to read. We also met a few friends for a camping trip, which was renewing in a special way—though not at all restful!

Midway through week 4, I picked up a theology book for the first time all sabbatical. I read the classic work on sacramental theology from Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. The book as a whole is tremendous, but the first two chapters alone are stunning. Next, I moved on to John Barclay’s excellent new book, Paul and the Gift (a 3-part summary is coming on my blog next week).

After coming home from the mountains, I left the next day on a silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Sedalia, Colorado. It is an amazing place, set in a beautiful area. Silence was difficult—I made it 8 hours before caving and calling Holly from my car!—but I persevered, spent the night and came away the next day at noon with 12 pages of journaling prayers and reflections! I heard the Lord speak on some crucial things in my life. Though I was asking for a few specific answers, the Lord only gave Himself as the answer, calling me more to Himself than to any particular task. Like Peter after the resurrection, I sense that the Lord wants me to follow Him not a particular task or assignment. I read some written prophetic words that had been given to us, prayed over them, and over our family.

During the final week of sabbatical, I felt ready to create. Not toil, but create. To bring to order the work the Spirit had been brooding over in my heart and soul over the summer. Words have the power to bring order and meaning; this is the essence of the logos. So, for me, it was time to write. I began by writing a summary of Barclay’s book. Then, I began working on a project which I hope to share more about soon. Unexpectedly, I also wrote new worship song, capturing—I hope—bits of what I had read and what the Lord had highlighted to me. I’ll share that at some point too.

Reflections and resolutions
Much of the work the Lord did in me personally, in our marriage, and in our children is too sacred to share publicly. One of our children had a key moment in their journey of faith, inviting Jesus into their heart to make them new and to reign. It was a beautiful and powerful moment. There are choices we are making and rhythms that we are building into our lives for the Fall that we hope will reinforce the ‘target’ the Lord has set before us.

If I were to pick a word or two to sum up the work of the Spirit in me, it would be focus and intimacy. Focus, because of the need to clarify, to unite my heart, to simplify my pursuits; intimacy as in, with Jesus as my first love, with my wife as her covering and husband, and with my children as their shepherd and father.

But in order to nurture these things, other things must be removed or thinned out. As I mentioned, I was completely off all social media. Other than a few glances in at the beginning of week 1 (detox is real!), and in week 6, I did not check Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram at all. And I learned some things. I learned how little time I give myself to think and create without the noise of other voices. I learned how quick I am to offer opinions and commentary. I realize that I had been turned into a press secretary and not a priest, feeling the need to comment on social issues rather than to be present and to listen. I want to return to these social spaces differently. But I am nervous to even re-enter. I know how easily obsessed I can become. I may leave the apps off my phone. I may limit the times of day to check. I want my mornings and evenings to be different. No big public declarations or manifestos; I’m just going to quietly make some changes and trust the Lord to help them take root.

I want my life to bear fruit. That means nourishing the roots—intimacy. It means taking time to prune, not investing time and energy in things that will not be fruitful—the grid of ‘essentialism’, and a necessary nervousness about social media engagement. I want personal attentiveness and deep engagement in reading and writing to mark this next season.