When Catholics and Protestants Debate Grace: A Tribute to John M. G. Barclay

Last Summer, a special event was held at Durham University in which a number of prominent Protestant and Catholic theologians came together to (kindly) debate grace. The event was titled, “Reading Paul Today: Grace and Gift for Protestant and Catholic Theology,” and was sponsored by Durham’s Center for Catholic Studies. The impetus for this gathering was John M. G. Barclay’s paradigm-shifting work on charis, or grace, in Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans).

In what follows, I offer a brief synopsis of the main speakers’ critiques, accompanied by photographs from the historic debate. Here is a brief description of the impetus of the event:

In his book, “Paul and the Gift,” John Barclay presents a fresh reading of grace in Paul’s theology, studying it in view of ancient notions of “gift” and shining new light on Paul’s relationship to Second Temple Judaism. Paul and the Gift centres on divine gift-giving, which for Paul, Barclay says, is focused and fulfilled in the gift of Christ. Barclay offers a new appraisal of Paul’s theology of the Christ-event as gift as it comes to expression in Galatians and Romans, and he presents a nuanced and detailed discussion of the history of reception of Paul.


The event was held at Ushaw College, a former Roman Catholic training facility for priests near Durham City.

Paul Murray of Durham University opened the discussion by speaking of Barclay’s influence on Pauline studies, compared to other luminous Durhamites, including Lightfoot, Barrett, and Cranfield, amongst others.

Murray reiterated the impetus behind the meetings was to facilitate an ecumenical conversation, “To model a festival of good theological exchange and engagement,” whose ultimate purpose was to be a tribute to John Barclay as a person, not just to his ideas, but “to celebrate John.”

The lineup of presenters included Nathan Eubank (Notre Dame), Dorothea Bertschmann (Durham), Paul Murray (Durham), Jonathan Linebaugh (Cambridge), Simeon Zahl (Cambridge), and Karen Kilby (Durham). Responses were given by Lewis Ayres (Durham) and Simon Oliver (Durham) at various points in the meeting. John Barclay gave a final response in which he addressed each of the papers in turn.

The following summaries of each argument are meant to give a sense of each presenters main critique or otherwise of John’s work in Paul and the Gift, a book that many scholars consider to have effectively shifted the paradigm in which we talk about grace today. The implications for biblical scholars and theologians are potentially huge, including those on either side of the Reformation divide. Hence the purpose of this meeting of minds.

Nathan Eubank opened by thanking Barclay “for refining the dynamics of divine gift giving” by stressing the component of human reception of gifts. Whilst he noted John’s central concept of the incongruity of grace, in his view idea of a “demanding gift is perhaps the most explosive idea” in Paul and the Gift. Gift, in the Bible, obliges a response.

Eubank discussed four historical rival understanding of “human worthiness,” including: 1) the permanent relevance of human unworthiness, in which grace only exists in the absence of works; 2) the lack of any role for human worthiness in the age to come, where works are not instruments in achieving one’s final status as a believer; 3) human works are present by grace, and play a role in one’s final salvation, although entirely attributable to God; and 4) human worthiness is partially independent of divine grace, where the beginning of faith is met by God’s grace and works are done in response.

He proposed a view of grace that recognizes God’s initiative in giving life, where humans become agents of Christ without losing their own agency. “Energism” (Barclay’s term) is not an independent response, but a phenomenon in which the faithful are reconfigured to be pleasing to God. Eubank concluded by noting the “backwards ecumenism” possible through the influence of Paul and the Gift.

Dorothea Bertschmann noted how John’s reassessment exhibits grace as something that his not merely responsive, but that creates a new value system. This is “radical, violent grace, that strips the human recipient of anything worthwhile” and is saturated with the language of resurrection, including creatio ex nihilo (Rom 4.17). Grace is “not a slow healing, but life from the dead”, that results in an “explosion of hope.”

This calls for a fresh perspective on Romans 9–11, for example, which can now be understood not to be about whom God chooses but how. And yet, Paul struggled to hold together this concept of radical grace with the fidelity of God to his promise. The answer, expressed beautifully by Bertschmann, is “grace with a memory.” Paul cannot solve the tension between Israel and the church in God’s economy, but he “speculates that God will find another creative way to keep fidelity with his promise and his original recipients.”

In a memorable closing statement, Bertschmann offered this paraphrase of Romans 5:8: “God loves what he has created precisely where it has uncreated itself.”

Paul Murray sought to rectify the lack of engagement with Aquinas in John’s work by looking to the great theologian for help in the resuscitation of Catholic theology and practice. According to Aquinas, a theology of grace must be respondent to and in service of the scriptural witness. “All of the Christian life is grace initiated, situated, drawn, held and impelled.” This is no theology of “do what you can and God will help,” as some incorrectly attribute to Aquinas.

Murray highlighted three emphases in Aquinas to help reawaken Catholic theology. 1) The primacy of grace/Spirit. Indeed, “Grace is the means of talking of the Spirit’s diverse activities,” which refers not merely to prior cause, but to absolute, transcendent priority. 2) The continual renewal of the effective gift of grace. Habitual grace is “operative, given entirely without merit, and alters our natural state of being.” Human creatures have a need for evermore quality of effective grace. 3) The place of prayer, and purification and the transformation of desire. “Prayer leads us to know better that God loves us.” The life of the believer involves constant awareness of our permanent frailty and need of God’s continual grace.

Jonathan Linebaugh presented a selected reading of Luther, and compared the great Reformer’s statements on law and grace to Barclay’s work in Paul and the Gift. For the Reformers, the Law is first and foremost a fixed word, not a now-rejected standard of worth, as Barclay suggests.

For Luther, we are condemned and killed through the law, and the law itself has a ministry to reduce all humanity to a single common denominator. Melanchthon agreed, that grace cannot be preached without the law. “God’s word is really two words: reveal and work, terrify and console, wrath/death and peace/life.” Indeed, the law is preached for the sake of grace, not set aside as having lost its value.

Linebaugh posed an important question, that he suggested the Reformers might ask: what is the difference between a gift given regardless of worth and a gift intentionally given to the unworthy? In other words, is indiscriminate grace actually incongruous? Linebaugh went on to press Barclay on the concepts of Creation and New Creation, suggesting that “Luther would push Barclay back to creation and forward to the creative gift in Christ.” In fact, in the first catechism, Luther confesses creatio ex nihilo with grace alone; creation is understood in terms of giving, and contradicts nothingness by calling into being. Where the gift is given at the site of sin, we then are speaking of creatio a contrario.

In sum, Luther would praise Paul and the Gift, for he and Barclay both read grace in terms of the same perfection: incongruity.

Lewis Ayres offered the first response of the day by presenting two ways in which grace is incongruous for Augustine. 1) Grace always accords with the divine plan, which is unknown to us. “The idea of a plan in which sin factors is incomprehensible” to human agents. 2) Grace is always given aligned with the needs of those chosen to be saved. Augustine understood conversion as the process by which God shapes you by interior and exterior means, so in the moment of conversion true human freedom is affected.

Ayres asked the difficult question, “Can we see the results of grace (in us)?” Augustine thinks “yes, but you don’t trust yourself to do this reliably.” The goal is to “find somebody who lives like Christ, and follow them around,” yet never forget that everybody still sins. Ayres went on to suggest that the difference between grace in Augustine and Aquinas is due to context: Thomas lived in a monastic environment which depended on diagnostic asceticism, where the soul can actually be diagnosed and treated.

Ayres also pushed back against Linebaugh’s discussion of creatio ex nihilo by pointing out that “there is a fundamental difference between creating from nothing and finding nothing and creating.”

John Barclay taking notes during one of the papers.

Simeon Zahl focused on the theological/sociological implications of Barclay’s work, that connection that exists between gift and community that together shapes Christians. He praised Barclay’s work for its help in revealing Paul’s thinking about the contrast between sin (Rom 1) and Christian praxis (renewing of the mind, new orientation, new mindset; Rom 12, 15).

His critique centered on Barclay’s use Pierre Bordieu’s concept of habitus, which in Zahl’s view is best for broad, slow changes in a community over time, and is unable to explain alternative norms (Christianity in a first-century context, for example) becoming attractive to us in the first place. “The radical dynamics of grace do not cohere with the slow process of habitus.” The freedom experienced in conversion, through the Spirit, indicates more an “affect,” an encounter, a release from slavery, fear, and death (where the Spirit is, there is freedom).

Zahl closed with a suggestion of the ecumenical potential of grace as described in Paul and the Gift, since across confessional boundaries, there are similar patterns of experience when sinful human beings encounter incongruous grace.


Karen Kilby opened by praising Barclay for paving a middle ground between the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and traditional readings of Paul, and for providing a tool, the six “perfections” of grace, that “will perpetuate in future theological literature.”

After a gentle nudge that there were no Catholic scholars in Barclay’s history of reception treatment, Kilby offered an insightful schematic of grace comparing the Catholic and Protestant traditions. Catholics pair grace with Nature, where grace takes us beyond the gift of nature. Protestants pair grace with Sin, where sin is the problem for which grace is the solution.

For Catholics, grace is certainly remedial (a response to sin), but Sin is not the primary framework for understanding grace. Indeed, Creation itself is a superabundant gift (one of Barclay’s perfections), and all that is created is good. Thus the recipient of the gift of grace is herself a gift, so the question of congruence (or incongruous grace) simply doesn’t apply. In Catholic theology, grace brings a wholeness, even while there is a yearning for something more. Nature itself longs to transcend nature (Rom 8).

Protestants, on the other hand, rely on three principles: 1) antithesis, which must be maintained between sin and grace to the maximum extremes possible; 2) dependence on grace can never be a thing of the past; 3) grace is always outside of our control, neither sacraments, techniques or anything else. For Protestants, “sanctification is a recurrent source of ambivalence accompanied by nervousness,” and grace is needed today as much as it was yesterday.

Having offered this schematic, she then turned to Paul. Admittedly, she said, the nature/grace pattern is less resonant with Paul’s thinking than the sin/grace pattern, thus, it shouldn’t be held against Barclay that he focused on Protestant theologians. But then she asked an important question: “Is Catholic theology then less biblical, and more philosophical?” In response, she noted that Paul need not be the beginning and end nor the ultimate source of our theological thinking. On the other hand, however, to domesticate Paul’s thinking would be to destroy it, which, she suggested, is exactly what somebody like Barth fought hard against.

Simon Oliver offered the second response of the day, focussing on both Zahl and Kilby’s critique of Paul and the Gift. He noted that habitus, while certainly a slow phenomenon, matches the reality of life; organisms “are in the habit of acquiring habits,” and there is a difference between objects and living creatures. These new habits drill down into you to form a second nature. Oliver suggested that grace can be both incongruous and congruous, following Bertschmann’s proposal, since congruity is an expression of the divine nature.

Addressing Kilby’s schematic of nature/grace, sin/grace, Oliver noted that in the Protestant tradition there is never a time where grace is not needed, never a time where grace has completed its work as long as the eschaton lies on the horizon. Indeed, “sin is the denial of a fundamentally receptive nature. Sin is the refusal of the gift”, that says, “You are sufficient of yourself. You can be as gods.” So what is the reversal of that refusal? Reception, which Paul speaks of in terms of gratitude.

Thus “reciprocity is the fundamental contribution” of Paul and the Gift to our understanding of grace, over against a sense of “trade.” In other words, rather than equate grace to a mere exchange of goods, Barclay has brought back into the discussion the concept of reciprocal agency. Genuine reciprocity is the denial of trade.

John Barclay responded briefly to each of the papers in kind. His responses included such gems as, “for Paul, one is either led by the Spirit or by the Flesh,” and that “one can’t be a Christian and show no signs” of transformation. In response to Bertschmann he noted that in Romans 9–11 the gift is unconditioned and not random, and that this passage stimulated much thinking for him about God’s faithfulness to Israel. He thanked Murray for the discussion of Aquinas, and hinted that in his next book, the follow-up to Paul and the Gift, he will be engaging with that great theologian. Barclay thanked Linebaugh for zeroing in on the weak points of his book, and suggested that there is a dual sense of the law in Paul, where on the one hand it is relativized, but on the other hand it retains its relevance.

To Zahl, Barclay noted that he is currently working further on the concept of habitus in 1 Corinthians. The new habitus of Christian community, he said, is “always patterned around the death and resurrection of Jesus.” Responding to Kilby, he thanked her for her “beautifully clear distinction between Protestant and Catholic thinking on grace and nature.” He noted that it is correct to say that Paul doesn’t mention creation or nature often, and rather speaks much about soteriology and sin. But Paul also asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul means to indicate “everything!”, which means all of creation. Indeed, “all of reality is a gift.” Barclay closed by suggesting that the strength of Catholic social teaching is the transformation to perfection that yet remains in a Christological frame.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Barclay was honored with a standing ovation, and the participants were treated to a wine reception for further discussion of grace, and the legacy of John Barclay.


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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger