I want to bring Jon Levenson’s The Love of God and John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift into some kind of relation.
Although both books talk about the love of God, they are different, not just because one is by someone with concern for Jewish theology and the other by someone whose concern is Christian theology. Jon Levenson’s book is mostly about our response to God’s love as we take up the command to love God with heart, soul and might. Barclay’s book is mostly about God’s love for us expressed in the gift of Christ, which he says was incongruent and without regard for worth.
Barclay plans a future book about our response to the gift. That one will probably more closely parallel Levenson’s. It is worth noting that both authors see love as reciprocal. Levenson is not only concerned with legalistic obligation. And Barclay is not advocating cheap grace free of obligation.
It might be well to think about each book as a kind of counter theory.
Levenson seems to write his book over against a modern attitude that sees love as mostly eros, All the imagery that we have around Valentines Day and Cupid/Eros tend to make love a matter of attraction and chemistry. Levenson is at pains to show that love was used in some ancient treaties to mean loyalty and service apart from attraction or sentiment. This treaty language then became the base for the biblical idea of covenant love.
God chooses and favors Israel. This puts Israel in a position of obligation to serve and worship God. This love is not devoid of sentiment. The Psalms, for instance, certainly express love for God in an emotional way. And the metaphor of marriage between God and Israel allows for some passion as part of this love. However, the modern over-romanticizing of love tends to let obligation depend on the ebbs and flows of feeling. Levenson warns against this tendency.
Although Levenson would disagree with Barclay when he lumps Torah-keeping with other systems of human worth devalued by the Christ event, Levenson has some appreciation for Paul.
In the 16th chapter of his Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son is an interpretation of Paul. There Levenson takes Romans 8:32 (“God who did not withhold his own son, but gave him up for us”) as a reference to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Christians might object that Jesus was unique and so not like Isaac. Levenson understands this Christian objection, but cautions Christians not to “overstate” it (DRBS p. 223). After all, Paul seems to draw the parallel himself.
Levenson takes the New Testament imagery about God as a father giving up his son very seriously as a way of talking about the love of God.
So both Levenson and Barclay take the idea of God’s sacrificial gift as something powerfully drawing out a human response.
However, Barclay’s book is to counter a different trend. Barclay sees some of the discussion about the New Perspective on Paul as shallow because it ignores the radical nature of the gift or charis Paul proclaims. It is not just that Paul defended his converts against proselytism and the adoption of ethnic markers. Paul’s gospel was about a superabundant, undeserved gift that challenged the assumptions of both Jewish and Gentile cultures.
I hope that in his next book (and the lectures from it that may end up on YouTube), Barclay takes up the question of just how this grace of God is effective in life. Paul talked about the presence and gifts of the Spirit. This is hard to pin down and will often lead to subjectivity. Does law, biblical or natural, have a role?
Both Levenson and Barclay believe that the gift of God’s love causes us to change the way we live. But if it isn’t our emotional response to the gift, what is it that changes us? And why can some people sing “Amazing Grace” and yet not seem to become changed people?