Studies in Galatians Episode II: John Barclay on the Social Dimensions of God’s Gift in Christ

galatians and christian theology

Last time, we began our series of posts exploring Galatians and Christian Theology by looking at N.T. Wright’s colorful entry on the prominence of Jesus’ messiahship in Galatians. This time, we are turning a few pages farther on into the book and working through John Barclay’s “Grace and the Countercultural Reckoning of Worth.”

Barclay completed both his undergraduate and doctoral studies at Cambridge and has taught at Durham University since 2003. He’s received quite a bit of attention recently thanks to the long-awaited publication of his book, Paul and the Gift, a systematic and multi-faceted consideration of Paul’s theology of grace. So, maybe it’s timely that we can get a taste of Barclay’s overall project by paying attention to his perspective on the intersection of theology and ethics in Galatians.

While most interpreters have come to agree that the warnings, exhortations, and ethical guidelines given by Paul in Galatians 5-6 are in one way or another integral to the meaning of the letter as a whole, Barclay notes that there is no corresponding consensus regarding exactly how these chapters are related to the ones preceding them (p.306). Finding a satisfying way of dealing with this issue is complicated since “any reading of these verses depends on a reading of the rest of the letter—and vice versa” (p.307). His general approach is to give a fresh consideration of Galatians as a whole, focusing especially on the social implications of the unconditioned nature of God’s gift in Christ (which he often refers to as the “Christ-gift”).

The Gift of Grace

In Paul’s theology, grace is clearly essential. Evidence of this can be seen in his impassioned summary in Gal. 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (NRSV). However, some readers take this point for granted without really giving it much detailed thought. Since Barclay understands grace, and more specifically grace as the divine gift of God in Christ, to be a bedrock foundation for Paul, he takes the time to give readers a broad brush description of what grace and gift-giving usually looked like in the ancient world:

[I]n the normal ancient configuration of grace, both human and divine, gifts or benefactions are properly given not to the unworthy but to the worthy. It is one thing to insist, as both Jews and non-Jews persistently did, that God is surpassingly generous and always takes the initiative in giving, since the divine Giver is never stingy or in debt. But it is quite another to hold that God gives gifts routinely, purposefully, or definitively without regard to worth. (p.307)

In contrast to his surrounding social landscape, Paul gives witness to something subversive in Galatians. He considers the Christ-gift to be “that dangerous and unsettling phenomenon, the unconditioned gift” (p.308). Paul had been called through God’s grace (1:15) apart from his worth, without regard to his faithfulness as a Pharisaic Jew or anything else that would make him conventionally worthy of honor. Barclay makes clear that for Paul, the gentile believers in Galatia had likewise been “called by grace, without regard to their ethnicity, their moral behavior, or their intellectual achievements… Here and elsewhere Paul insists that the Christ-gift is given without regard to ethnic, social, or moral worth” (p.308).

Since the Galatians were formed as a community of believers through God’s incongruous gift in Christ, a gift explicitly given to those far from any position to be reckoned worthy of it, it makes sense that the social fabric of their shared life should reflect this. It’s really not surprising to find that the context for one of the first explicit debates about the nature of “justification by faith” was the dispute in Antioch between Peter and Paul regarding circumcision and table fellowship. The “theology” and the “ethics” flow into one another:

By compelling gentiles to “Judaize,” Peter makes the Christ-gift conditioned by something outside and before itself. In this critical location of social practice, he betrays the gospel, which stands or falls with its revolutionary status as an unconditioned gift. Unless communities radically recalibrate their systems of worth, they fail to enact the good news: a failure here would nullify the gift. (p. 309)

Thus, Barclay argues that Galatians 5-6 is just that: an attempt to recalibrate the systems of worth held by the Galatian community in order to keep this kind of failure from taking root. In these chapters, Paul sets before them a vision of what a community faithfully reflecting the nature of the unconditioned Christ-gift should look like (p.309). Of course, forming such countercultural communities is not without challenges. Therefore, Barclay tells readers that, “Paul’s appeal for mutual love is no bland generality: it specifically targets habits of intracommunal rivalry that were characteristic of ancient Mediterranean society” (p.310).

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, recent research efforts suggest that the majority of social interactions were both “ordered and threatened by the competition for honor” (p.311). Part of the social fabric of Greco-Roman culture is that it was a contest culture. We can get a glimpse of this way of thinking in the words of Cicero, who wrote that a thirst for honor is present “by nature” and that “once we have glimpsed, as it were, some part of its radiance, there is nothing we are not prepared to beat and suffer in order to secure it” (Tusculanae Disputationes 2.24.58.) (p.311). On the upside, this could result in feats of heroism and even sacrifice, but honor contests could also quickly spiral into social destructiveness. In Roman Honor, Carlin Barton vividly describes this aspect of the Roman world, commenting that, “Every tiff is a tumult, every wrangle a war” (p.66).

According to Barclay, one of the main aspects of Paul’s strategy for countering the destructive forces of “the flesh” present in Greco-Roman honor culture is to build up in them an alternative system of value based on the Christ-gift, a gift given specifically to the unworthy (p.312). Yes, the countercultural nature of the Galatian community will still have systems of worth, but ideally it will be quite different from their surrounding world:

[T]he hallmark of this alternative system of value is that it is directed specifically against rivalry: the greatest honor is for those who work against the competitive spirit of honor itself. Nearly all the characteristics cataloged as “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22-23) are directed toward the construction of community, from love downward. “Spirit-people” are so designated because they work with sensitivity to repair the community (6:1-2). What counts among believers, according to Paul, is precisely the antithesis to arrogance and competition. (pp.312-313)

Barclay notes that when Paul insists in Gal. 6:3-5 that, “if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves” (NRSV), he is not advocating a stance of personal loathing, especially in light of Gal. 2:20 where believers are meant to see that, like Paul, they can all personally confess that Jesus Christ “loved me and gave himself for me” (NRSV). Instead, the Apostle is warning against “arrogance that delights in its own self-appraisal” (p.314). Rather than competing for honor in the eyes of others, the Galatian believers are to “through love become slaves to one another” (5:13 NRSV).


Near the end of the essay, Barclay summarizes his basic argument by speaking of social practices as ways in which the gift of God in Christ is defined and realized (p. 316). Precisely by crucifying “the flesh” and growing in the fruit of the Spirit, the Galatians demonstrate that they have entered into a new way of life, that they march to the beat of a new tune as a result of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Barclay tells his audience that, “In resisting the tendencies to intracommunal rivalry, it [the Galatian community] affirms its special identity as a community beholden to ‘the law of Christ’ (6:2)” (p.316).

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that we would be looking at Barclay’s perspective on the intersection of theology and ethics in Galatians. On the final page of the essay, he makes his perspective on the matter quite clear:

The relationship between “theology” and “social practice” is mutually constitutive: it is the Christ-event that gives meaning and shape to communal practice, while it is in social practice that the nature of the Christ-event is realized, or is not realized… This dialectical relationship between the Christ-gift and social practice undermines the categorical distinction between “theology” and “ethics,” without in the least reducing theology to ethics. (p.317)

In the end, Barclay’s essay in Galatians and Christian Theology does much to whet the appetite of those considering whether or not to dive into his larger work, Paul and the Gift. Though nobody has the last word on Pauline theology—that is surely something that won’t happen anytime soon—Barclay’s deliberate placement of grace as a central, if sometimes misunderstood, element in Paul’s theology should spark the imaginations of many and hopefully foster constructive engagement, affirmation, and critique in the months and years to come from those across the theological spectrum. I, for one, am excited to eventually read it.


1 thought on “Studies in Galatians Episode II: John Barclay on the Social Dimensions of God’s Gift in Christ

  1. Pingback: Studies in Galatians Episode III: Mariam J. Kamell on Reading Galatians and James Together | Tabletalk Theology

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