Scholarly treatments of early Christian conceptions of ‘grace’ typically revolve around either New Testament texts or the Pelagian controversy. This state of scholarship owes much to the influence that Augustine has had on later Christian generations and, in particular, to the legacy of a Protestant Reformation that has tended to dismiss pre-Augustinian patristic appropriations of grace as stale deviations from “genuine” Pauline theology.
Over the past decade an emerging body of New Testament scholarship has highlighted the fundamental resonance of Paul’s usage of grace with the ethos of reciprocity and cultural institutions of patronage that pervaded the ancient Mediterranean world. Indeed, the intelligibility of Paul’s theological employment of grace seems to presuppose his audiences’ conversancy with this concept as inhabitants of a gift-giving culture. Within the context of such studies, Paul’s theology of grace takes on a much more complex and nuanced character than one finds in most post-Reformation formulations of doctrine. These lines of research suggest that Reformation characterizations of Pauline grace are anachronistic and reductionist. It also renders suspect the marginalization of patristic articulations of grace, which these mischaracterizations of Paul have helped to foster.
This paper is an attempt to reassess patristic understandings of grace in the light of the ideology and practices of Graeco-Roman patronage. In particular, we will examine the ways that African Christians employed the concept of grace in their apologetic engagement of “pagans” and Jews during the second and third centuries. Through this examination, we will shed light on the theological understanding of grace operative among early Christians such as Tertullian and Cyprian. We will ponder how such authors invested this common socio-religious concept with new meanings—or at least new nuances. Finally, we will analyze the creative ways that these early Christians integrated the concept of grace into their polemical representations of the Church over and against the broader religious landscape.