Paul & and the Power of Grace (Book Review)

John Barclay’s Paul & the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015) has been widely hailed as “the most important book” in New Testament studies in 40 years. Now, for the benefit of many, Barclay has published an accessible and practical version—Paul & the Power of Grace (Eerdmans, 2020, pp. 159).

According to Barclay’s reading of grace in Paul, God gives his gifts without regard to prior worth. Grace is incongruous, given freely to all regardless of their social worth. However, the gift of God is circular or conditioned. In other words, it “has strings attached.” God’s gift transforms and reconfigures the human recipient so that new value and habits became inevitable. That is a summary of Barclay’s thesis. For more, read Barclay’s prior post, “The Meaning of God’s Grace.

For readers involved in Christian ministry, Paul & the Power of Grace is a valuable book in three key areas: relationships, theology, and ministry.

  1. Relationships. In simple terms, the concept of “honor-shame” explains how relationships work (at least in collectivistic societies, which are the historical and global majority). Barclay’s lucid insights into the nature of gift-giving and reciprocity generated numerous ah-ha moments and fresh insights about the nature of my own relational experiences with people. The Western notion of a “pure,” unconditional, and even anonymous gift simply did not exist in the first century and does not exist in Majority World cultures. People give gifts for the purpose of relationships. Gifts make friends, and friends make gifts. Barclay recognizes gifts as “complex, multi-dimensional, and culturally shaped,” and so provides some helpful analytical tools for discerning “how relationships work.” Barclay then applies his insights about gift-giving and reciprocity to Paul’s relationship with the Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians. However, most readers will be able to better understand their own (reciprocal) relationships.
  2. Theology. In general, missionaries are long on noble intentions and short on theology. This is quite understandable because there is “so much to do” and, well, much theological discourse is hardly enjoyable. However, Paul & the Power of Grace offers ministry practitioners an entry point into current theology conversations and biblical scholarship. Barclay not only expounds on his ideas through biblical exegesis, but also interacts with historical and contemporary interpretations of Paul. With clarity, he explains where (his interpretation of) Paul’s theology of grace both supports and critiques Augustine, the Reformers, Catholic theology, the New Perspective on Paul, and other prominent interpreters. If you are looking to supplement your theological diet, this book will help you swallow and digest a good number of theological pills.
  3. Ministry. The most surprising and impactful section of the book was the final chapter, wherein Barclay discusses the dynamics of grace today. In his letters to the Christians in Galatia, Rome, and Corinth, Paul articulated his theology of grace to develop communities based on new paradigms of worth and honor, as expressed through new social practices. God’s grace has an inherent ethical and behavioral dimension because it defines human worth and identity in counter-cultural ways. Communities today must express God’s grace pronounces a person’s true worth, especially in a time of deflated self-esteem. Barclay offers fresh, new theological resources for ministry today, whether they take the shape of counseling, church-planting, or community development.

For people involved in Christian ministry, Paul & the Power of Grace is an accessible and practical primer on recent biblical studies, as it provides valuable insights for relationships, theology, and ministry.

Disclosure: I received this book for free from Eerdmans to write this review post, and Prof. Barclay is my doctoral supervisor. Yes, I recognize the irony of that sentence concluding a post about gifts and reciprocity. J

resources for Majority World ministry

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