John Barclay on Paul, grace, and human worth

Editor’s note: noted New Testament scholar John Barclay lectured on campus on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Concordia Seminary’s own noted New Testament scholar Professor Mark Seifrid offers some introductory thoughts below, followed by the video of Dr. Barclay’s full lecture.

John Barclay once commented to me that he had spent much of his career working through the issues raised by E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism—the work that spawned the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” That long period of reflection (which included numerous publications) came to full fruition in his Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015). His argument re-calibrates the entire discussion of Paul that has taken place over the last 30 years or so: while there certainly were various understandings of “grace” in the early Judaism Paul knew, his encounter with Christ brought him a new understanding of God’s “grace” as incongruous grace, grace given to the undeserving in Jesus Christ.

In his address to us on campus, John offered a “translation” of Paul’s message of God’s grace in Christ into terms that speak to our contemporaries, just as Luther once “translated” Paul into his context (and did so “brilliantly,” as John says). Our contemporaries may have forgotten God and do not worry about what will take place at the final judgment (which they do not in the least expect). But they do have expectations of “worth” based on privilege and performance that place destructive burdens on them that for some are finally unbearable. Here there is an opportunity to speak the Gospel afresh in terms that our contemporaries understand and, I think, to announce to them the larger message of Scripture, that God in Christ loves them not only apart from any standards of worth, but also despite their own unworthiness and guilt.

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