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The Highly Relational First Century Context of Grace and Faith
And why we'd do well to think beyond our rigid theological categories and technical details
Welcome back to Hermeneutics Huesday (but on a Wednesday, because I’m going with the flow these days and the flow said that Tuesday wasn’t going to work 😜). I’m excited to continue working through the book Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes. We are picking up in chapter 8 with a discussion of patronage in the greco-Roman world of the New Testament and how it informs the concepts of grace and faith. Enjoy!
You can access the audio version here or on your favorite podcast app (just search for “Her God Speaks,” subscribe, and scroll to Season 8, Episode 1).
If you prefer to read, here’s the transcript:
One of my all-time favorite sitcoms is Big Bang Theory. It chronicles the everyday lives of four Cal Tech super-nerds, one of whom falls in love with his gorgeous neighbor named Penny who is obviously way out of his league. An unlikely friendship forms between the guys and Penny, and the collision of their two worlds feeds the hilarious plot-line of each episode. My favorite character is Sheldon Cooper, a genius theoretical physicist with a fundamental lack of social skills and a consistent ineptness at reading and expressing emotion. He’s high on arrogance and low on empathy, but somehow you don’t hate him for it because he’s just so stinking funny. Endearing, even.
In season 3 Sheldon meets his perfect match, Amy Farrah Fowler. Their transition into a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is marked by the signing of an official relationship agreement, a 31-page contract drawn up by Sheldon with all manner of wild stipulations. For instance, the second Thursday of every month, or the third Thursday in a month with five Thursdays, is date night, the details of which are carefully spelled out and regulated. The agreement also requires that Sheldon take Amy to dinner on the anniversary of their first date, where upon he must ask about her day and engage in casual physical contact that an onlooker might mistake for physical intimacy. In one episode, Amy tells Penny that the relationship agreement prohibits her and Sheldon from having plastic surgery unless it’s to look like a Klingon. When Amy finds out that Sheldon has had a falling out with his childhood friend, Sheldon invokes “section three, article five of the agreement: beeswax, none of yours” so that he doesn’t have to talk about it. Just about everything that Amy and Sheldon do is governed in some way by this relationship agreement, which perfectly reflects Sheldon’s genius-level knack for technical details and aversion to emotion. The fact that Amy doesn’t seem to mind is the ultimate proof that she is Sheldon’s soul mate.
A highly technical relationship agreement generates hilarious sitcom content, but I don’t think any of us would actually want that. We tend to place contractual relationships in the realms of law and business, not friendship or family.
One thing I’ve discovered about theology, is that the deeper you go, the more technical things become. You might start out seeing your relationship with Jesus as a familial connection rooted in love and joy-filled affection, but then you get your hands on a systematic theology textbook and before you know it, salvation is reduced to an accounting transaction or legal ruling. There’s the imputation of this and the crediting of that and the setting of it all is a cold, sterile courtroom. Once your account has been credited and the judge has declared you righteous, you are then given a highly detailed code of conduct, which will prove over time that the transfer of Christ’s righteousness into your account did in fact go through.
I see the world through a distinctly post-enlightenment Western lens, which means I love carefully organized theological rules and categories as much as anyone. Forensic language makes the lofty and overwhelming concepts that I encounter in the Bible make a lot more sense in my brain. And they help protect me from blatant heresy, which is a nice bonus. But these rules and categories have a way of reducing salvation to a highly technical, emotionally benign relationship agreement that can literally be reduced to a Power Point presentation if you wanted to. God forbid there be an outlier, or a contradiction, or something we can’t quite explain.
One of the points that Richards and O’Brien make in chapter 8 of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is that our forensic, rules-oriented, highly technical way of making sense of the Bible, and specifically salvation would have been utterly foreign to the biblical authors. They lived in a pre-scientific, collectivist culture driven by relationships. One type of relationship in particular – the patron/client relationship - deserves special attention, because it forms the cultural backdrop for salvation concepts like grace and faith (which are kind-of a big deal).
In the ancient world of the Greek and Roman periods, there wasn’t easy access to goods and services. Most of the property, wealth, and power was possessed by the privileged few. For simple, everyday needs, you could buy and sell in the local market. But anything beyond daily necessities required the use of personal connections via the giving and receiving of favors. We would call this nepotism, but that’s because we’re post-enlightenment Western individualists obsessed with rules and equal opportunity. For the people living in the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament seeking relationships for the purpose of giving and receiving favors was the normal way of managing resources and meeting needs. Here’s how it worked: a person would have a need. This could be a need for money, property, influence, advice, debt relief, an appointment to political office, protection – a whole range of things. This need would drive them to seek out a patron who could supply that need, or who could connect them to someone else who could supply that need. What’s interesting is that the relationship formed from seeking help and granting help did not typically end when the need was met. Rather, a long-term relationship between the patron and client would be established. New Testament scholar David DeSilva describes it this way:
“This relationship would be marked by the mutual exchange of desired goods and services, the patron being available for assistance in the future, the client doing everything in his or her power to enhance the fame and honor of the patron, remaining loyal to the patron, and providing reciprocal services as the opportunity arose.”
What should stand out to us there is the reciprocity that marked these relationships. The person of higher status gives the gift of money, property, connections, etc. In return, the person of lower status gives the gift of public honor, praise, respect, loyalty, and service. Guess what word was commonly used for both the generosity of the patron and the honor and gratitude of the recipient? The word is charis, which is translated into English as grace. The Greek word pistis was the common word for the ongoing loyalty the client offered in response to the patron’s generosity. Pistis is all over our English New Testaments. It’s translated faith.
I bet you thought that grace and faith were exclusively Christian words, or at least exclusively religious words. They seem that way for us, but not for Paul. Not for any of the New Testament authors. They borrowed these terms from the social norms of their day and tweaked them for their purposes.
There are two things about the patron-client background of grace and faith that I want to hit home. The first one has to do with reciprocity. In the thought-world of the first century there was no such thing as an isolated act of “grace.” Here’s De Silva again:
“The modern ideal of the ‘pure gift’ that seeks no reciprocity – indeed that is marred somehow if there is any return – is entirely foreign to the ideal of giving in the first century world. In that context, the gift that achieves its purposes is the one that creates, solidifies, celebrates, and deepens relationships of trust, loyalty, and mutuality.”
This does not fit our rules, which has led to some unfortunate distortions of grace. Perhaps you remember the “free grace” movement of the 80’s and 90’s promoted by guys like Zane Hodges, Charles Ryrie, and Chuck Swindoll who taught that behavior has no factor in salvation at all. All a person has to do to be saved is believe that Jesus died for their sins.
What we need to understand is that the idea of grace needing to be free of any reciprocation to still be grace is not native to the Bible. Matthew Bates is a scholar that has done extensive work in this area. Here’s what he has to say:
“In the ancient world, if a gift was given, some sort of return gift must be given. If not, it sends a social signal that that initial gift has been rejected. Grace required a reciprocating response. It is nearly impossible to overestimate the importance of this for understanding the Bible’s view of salvation. For God’s specific grace (the gospel) to be accepted, a return gift was necessary. What is the return gift? The Bible’s consistent answer is pistis (usually translated as faith in our English Bibles) . . . In antiquity, grace could be unmerited and still require bodily reciprocation. Merit and reciprocation are separate dimensions of grace, emphasized in different degrees by various ancient authors.”
In other words, grace and reciprocity are not mutually exclusive and the concept of “free grace” is a modern invention.
The second thing I want to hit home has to do with the meaning of faith. Again, the patron-client background needs to inform how we think about this word, because that is the background the authors of the New Testament were working from. Because of our modern, Western aversion to the idea of grace requiring a reciprocating response, most of us are taught to see faith as an inward conviction that what God says to us in the gospel is true; an interior attitude, a mental or emotive posture. External actions of any kind are relegated entirely to sanctification, which is sharply distinguished from justification. I completely understand the impulse to do this. Humans have a tendency to think they can earn God’s favor, and the Bible makes it undeniably clear that we cannot. Ridding faith of any connotation of enduring loyalty or allegiance to Jesus (both of which are very active and outward) is a safe bet that keeps us far away from the heresy of works-based righteousness.
But at the end of our day, our job is as careful readers and interpreters of the Bible is to discern as best we can what the biblical authors had in mind when they wrote what they wrote. And what they had in mind when they wrote about faith is the way it was widely used in their context. Faith in its New Testament context is embodied allegiance to Jesus, the oh-so-generous King and ultimate patron. Michael Heiser used to always say that faith is believing loyalty to Christ. I think that’s my favorite definition because it captures both interior and exterior aspects of faith, neither of which should be downplayed.
Chapter 8 of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes also covers the influence of naturalism on how we read and interpret the Bible. I am going to tackle that part of the chapter next time. If you want to dig a little deeper into the patron-client world of the New Testament David DeSilva’s book Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity is the gold standard. If you want to think more deeply about the reciprocal nature of grace and the embodied aspects of faith, Matthew Bate’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone is well worth the effort. (And it does take effort. You’ve been warned. 😉)
What I hope you take from this episode is that the forensic language and rigid categories of systematic theology can be extremely helpful, but let’s make sure we don’t get stuck in some old musty courtroom or accounting cubicle trying to explain salvation as if it’s a math equation. The thought-world of the biblical authors was multi-faceted, dynamic, emotive, and deeply relational. The words they chose did not come from some divine theological word bank that mysteriously appeared on their scrolls. They flowed from their own lived experiences that form a rich and fascinating context.
I’m excited keep on exploring that context together next week as we look at how our unspoken assumption of naturalism can lead us to misread the Bible. See you then!
Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, 2nd Edition, 98.
Gospel Allegiance, 146.