Sunday, January 22, 2006

Amazing Grace

Last week I read a book entitled "Honor, Patronage, Kingship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture," by David A. deSilva. He discusses at length the social-context of the word grace as well as the importance of honor, kinship, and purity in the first century culture. The book is incredibly accessible and readable yet is powerfully academic and provides much needed insight into the usage of grace in the New Testament.

We tend to think of the word grace as being a uniquely religious word. When we speak of grace it virtually always has overt religious overtones. But in the first century, and for the writers of the New Testament, grace was not primarily a religious word. In fact, grace was a word that was used in everyday life and one which found its most important significance for us in the system of patronage and reciprocity. A patron was a person who provided gifts to a client. Usually, but not always, a client was a person who did not have access to the means which the patron did. At times the client would seek a patron for help financially, other times a client would seek a patron in order to communicate with an even greater patron. The patron in between would act as a mediator between his client and the greater patron.

There were certain societal rules that dictated how the patron-client relationship operated. While there weren’t any legal ramifications for breaking these rules, there certainly were social consequences. Many ancient philosophers discussed in length how such a relationship was to be conducted. It is within this relationship that we find the usage of the word grace. A patron was to give a gift without expecting anything in return. The gift was to be given solely for the benefit of the client. If the patron gave with ulterior motives he gave dishonorable. Showing such generosity meant the patron was showing grace. He gave grace to a client. The client was expected to receive the gift, or grace, and respond in gratitude. This gratitude was called grace. The patron gave grace and the client who received this grace was expected to return grace to the patron. Of course, the return of grace would be different than the gift from the patron himself. The client was expected to spread the name and honor of the patron and also seek to repay the patron in whatever manner possible. An honorable patron would “forget” that he had given a gift and the client was to never forget, always knowing that he would never be able to repay the gift of grace from the patron.

If the client did not show gratitude he was deemed an ingrate and this was something to be greatly avoided in that culture which operated by means of honor and shame. It also meant that the client may have difficulty developing a relationship with a future patron. Patrons were advised by the philosophers to avoid entering a relationship with a client who had a history of ingratitude. The philosopher Seneca wrote, “Ingratitude is something to be avoided in itself because there is nothing that so effectually disrupts and destroys the harmony of the human race as this vice. For how else do we live in security if it is not that we help each other by an exchange of good offices? It is only through the interchange of benefits that life becomes in some measure equipped and fortified against sudden disasters. Take us singly, and what are we? The prey of all creatures.”

The New Testament authors use grace in such a way as to view God as our patron, and we as his clients. Grace, for the New Testament authors, does not operate differently than in the patron-client relationship, but rather it differs in degree and quality. God’s grace is wholly grander than any earthly patron could ever give. As clients, we are expected to return grace for grace.

Layman, pastor, professor, or student, all should read this book. Seriously, go buy it right now.

So what do you think? How does the social-context of grace illuminate the manner in which the New Testament authors used and understood the concept?
Is there any connection in our current doctrines of grace that resemble this context?
In what ways has the development of the doctrine of grace been beneficial or perhaps erroneous?


Kevin K. Wright said...

Quick question. When I read DaSilva, I find that he puts a lot of emphasis on the etymology of words. For instance, when writing on Hebrews, he says that the "Polumeros" in the opening lines should be translated "in many parts" which is of course the literal meaning of the conjunction. I think it's far fetched and the exegetical conclusions he draws from his parsing prove that. Have you found that in his writing at all?

Keith.Drury said...

Great questions Ben! One presumes that understanding what St Paul et. al. meant in that culture is important for us to understand what "grace" meant when he wrote it/when they read it. At least that is the assumption of the entire industry of Biblical interpretation.

I've noted that a curious thing happens sometimes to students of the Bible. The more we (seriously)study the Bible the further removed it becomes from modern life—that is, finally we either say “it’s impossible to know for sure what it meant—we can only get a contiguous meaning.” Thus we know “better” than the novices what it means but can’t say absolutely, for there is too much distance between the culture of the first century and ours. Or, on the other hand, after much study we determine we DO know what grace (or anything else) actually meant and we then try to help others understand it rightly(what we often do as preachers).

What I've been thinking about is this: is there too much distance between our culture and the culture of the first century for the average person to access these deeper meanings? And, if so should the ordinary person even try to read thje Bible? Or, if they should, how then should they then read? If it is almost hopeless for the ordinary person to attain the actual meanings in a first century context (debatable--I know, if they'll study) then who then becomes the authorized interpreter to the ordinary person? Does the guild of Bible scholars serve as this sort of Protestant papacy? ..these are things I'm thinking asbout triggered by your excellent writing... -coach d

Ben Robinson said...

Kevin -
To be honest this is the only deSilva text that I have read. As far as this book is concerned there are not the etymological problems that you mention are present in some of his other work. There are places where he over-categorizes the data (i.e. the firm distinction he creates between personal and public patronage), but in large part he simply lays out the concepts as best understood in the historical context.

Have you and Bounds been talking? He brought this very problem up in class on Tuesday (we were talking about Augustine's hermeneutic).

Your questions are almost identical to ones I have been sifting through as well. Is interpreting the biblical text within its cultural-historical context necessary in order to best understand its meaning? The exegete in me wants to say yes, but then the issues you describe arise. What about the average layman?

Is it possible for us to bridge the gap between the scholar and the layman? Christianity certainly does not operate with an ideological elitism, so it seems that if the work of the scholar is important then this supposed or actual gap must be closed.

I wonder if a restoration of effective discipleship may be a partial solution. A person who went through the catechismal process within the Early Church entered the waters of baptism as biblically and theologically trained. They possessed knowledge that would rival our seminary graduates. Is it possible to bring the Church to this state of intellectual maturity? Before we begin to answer that question we must first determine if it is even necessary. Is it just enough to "know and love Jesus" or should we be expecting more from our kin? Are we as effective as we could be? hmm....