A report on a paper given by Professor John M.G. Barclay (Durham) at the Senior New Testament Seminar of the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, 17 May 2011
In what was clearly amongst the best-presented papers of the senior seminar series of this academic year, Professor John Barclay focused on the relationship between the Christ-gift and God’s plan. He painted his argument on the backdrop of the views of N.T. Wright and J.L. Martyn on the Christ-event and time. Barclay criticised both of them, admitting, though, that his own view was closer to that of Martyn’s: whereas Wright sees the crucifixion as the event that shocks Israel and unveils God’s apocalyptic plan, Martyn holds that the Christ-event creates a new cosmological moment in which the whole cosmos is put to a halt by the cross. Barclay noted critically that behind Martyn’s thought lie traces of Karl Barth’s theology. In his paper, Barclay presented his own views on the basis of Galatians and Romans.
“The Grace of God is enacted in the Christ-gift” were the words in which Barclay summarised the topic in Galatians. “The Christ-event is the enactment of grace in history”, Barclay maintained, referring to Gal. 2:21. It replaces all pre-existing criteria, including the Torah. In the rhetorical context of the competition from the Judaisers, this kind of strong argument is what Paul needs, Barclay explained.
A key concept in Barclay’s argument was the “incongruity” of the Christ-gift of grace with both the history of God’s people and the sinful human condition. The Gospel is disjunctive in its narrative – not a development out of previous conditions but a radical reversal of them, “a new life arising from the gift of the old”. This is highlighted by how the old narratives of the Scriptures, such as that of Abraham, “pre-preached” (προευηγγελίσατο, Gal. 3:8) the gospel. The gospel is the interpretive frame in which these older stories can be seen rightly, Barclay argued. However, they (e.g. the covenant) must not be seen as preparation but as declaration and promise of what is to come with Christ, the Seed (Gal. 3:16). Barclay emphasised that Paul saw Israel’s history as a period of waiting instead of a process of maturation. The one who is under the παιδαγωγός in Gal. 3:25 is Israel (contra Martyn). The conception of time in Galatians points forward to Christ; even Paul’s language of proleptic grace in Gal. 1:15 and 3:18 takes its character as grace from the Christ-event. Similarly, Barclay held that Abraham’s faith before the coming of “faith” (Gal. 3:23) and the flesh-spirit dichotomy concerning Isaac (4:23, 29) only make sense in light of the Christ-event that utterly reverses everything.
However, Barclay also maintained that the argument of Galatians creates problems that are left unsolved in the epistle: it cannot explain why Israel’s history is somehow unique (Gal. 4:1-7 cf. 6:16) and how exactly it is that Abraham and Isaac relate to the time after the radical reversal of the Christ-event.
In Romans, in its turn, Barclay saw the following dynamic: “In the Christ-gift is enacted the Grace of God”. He held that Paul’s primary emphasis in Romans was on the “righteousness, faithfulness and grace of God”. The subject of the action is God in Christ (Rom. 3:25), just as the main topic addressed in the letter is God’s gospel and God’s πίστις (1:1). In so doing, however, Paul has not abandoned his concern for Israel (cf. Rom. 9-11; 14-15). Chapters 3 and 9-11 in Romans speak of Israel in a way distinct from Galatians. In Romans, Paul is under pressure to say that the word of God has not failed, as promised to Israel. The Christ-event is still the “hinge-point of history” as “pre-announced in the Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2), Barclay insisted.
Because of the Christ-event, Paul can use the phrase “but now” (Rom. 3:21; 6:22) to make the current time appear radically renewed in Christ, for instance with regard to the newness of life in baptism. Barclay aptly pointed out that it is the Christ-event that reshapes the interpretation of patriarchal stories for Paul: “the law and the prophets ‘bear witness’ to [God’s righteousness in] Christ”. Therefore: “The Christ-gift fulfils, and does not annul, the calling of Israel, but by the same token, Israel’s fullest identity is found in and derived from the Christ-event, and is not independent of it.”
Barclay spoke again of the Christ-gift as “incongruous, unfitting, undeserved gift” in his section on Romans. This is highlighted by Christ’s coming to the bleakness of humanity ruled by death and sin (Rom. 5:12-21) and by the cry to God through Christ of the “I” captive to those powers (Rom. 7:25). The Christ-gift is unlike any gift in antiquity in that it is independent of any human worth (Romans 4), Barclay summed. The portrayal of Abraham in Romans 4 conveys the message of God’s justifying the ungodly, which Barclay pointed out to be very different from the depiction of Abraham as an example of obedience in Second-Temple Judaism. Barclay noted that the message of God’s ability to create new life out of the infertile and old Abraham and Sarah is a tool for Paul to show the total mismatch between God’s grace and human capacity, which is also reflected in the current reality in Christ. Similarly, Romans 9 shows how the election of the patriarchs was incongruous with their worth. There, Barclay observed interestingly that Paul enters the field of double predestination only to exit it later, merely so as to show the lack of merit in men. All in all, Barclay’s reading of Paul emphasised that the righteousness of God is revealed in the justification of sinners.
In his conclusions, Barclay summarised his conviction that Romans is a solution to the problems evoked by Galatians, but that Romans, too, evokes further problems. It was clear to Barclay that Paul interprets Israel’s election in the light of the Christ-event and that the Christ-event is not added to previous historical events, but that rather it shatters and reorganises them. However, according to Barclay’s reading, Romans arouses questions about the pre-existence of Christ before time, the salvation of all believers before time, the nature of the Christ-event as possibly merely a milestone in a long continuum of history, and trinitarian theology. On the latter point, Barclay expounded in the discussion following his paper, saying: “Paul is redefining God christologically and redefining Christ theologically”. Barclay saw this as an impetus towards the theology of Colossians and a trinitarian theology.
Overall, Professor Barclay’s paper was intriguing and clearly presented. It is no wonder that the discussion that followed was most lively. Questions were raised for instance about the suitability of the term “incongruity” to describe the relationship of the Christ-event to the rest of salvation history, the meaning of κατὰ τὰς γραφὰς in 1 Cor. 15:3, and the role of Israel as God’s sphere of operations in Gal. 3-4.
University of Cambridge