Book Review: Richard N. Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty (Second Edition)


Longenecker, Richard N. Paul, Apostle of Liberty. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 435 pp. Pb; $34.   Link to Eerdmans

Richard Longenecker’s Paul, Apostle of Liberty was first published in 1964. Much has happened in Pauline studies since 1964, not the least of which is E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Since the first edition of this book, Longenecker himself contributed a highly regarded Word Biblical Commentary on Galatians commentary (Word; 1990) and most recently the NIGTC volume on Romans (Eerdmans, 2016), along with many other monographs and articles on topics within the field of Pauline studies. This introduction to Paul’s theology can fairly be described as a classic text which has already served a generation of students as a classroom textbook and standard reference work on Paul’s theology.

The body of this introduction to Paul is essentially the same as earlier editions. Longenecker does not survey the letters of Paul or discuss “background” issues. His interest is in tracing the more important contours of Pauline theology. After a chapter on sources, Longenecker provides three chapters on Jewish backgrounds for Pauline studies (Paul as “Hebrew of the Hebrews”; Piety in Hebraic Judaism; Saul and the Law). Longenecker uses the Romans 7 as evidence Paul was indeed “kicking against the goads” when he zealously persecuted the church.

Longenecker has four chapters on Pauline teaching: Legality and the Law; The End of Nominism; Liberty in Christ; The Exercise of Liberty. For Longenecker, liberty in Christ is essential for a proper understanding of his theology. In the third section of the book Longenecker entitles “practice” although his interest in these three chapters is how Paul worked out his view of Christian freedom in Christ with respect to the Law. Chapter 9 discusses the Judaizers and Paul’s relationship with Jerusalem. Chapter 10 focuses on Paul’s mission strategy of “all things to all men.” Here Longenecker is interested in how Paul evangelized Gentiles, but also his response to the Libertenes, the Ascetics, the “strong” and the Ecstatics.

Finally, chapter 11 deals with the “problem practices” in Acts. Late in Acts, Paul claims to have a clear conscience with respect to the Law. If Paul is the Apostle of Liberty and believed the Gentiles were no longer under the Law, why does Paul continue to preach to the Jews? Why did he take a Nazarite vow in Acts 18? Why did he accept the Jerusalem decree in Acts 15 if he believed he was not under the authority of the Jerusalem church?

The new material in this book is a lengthy addendum tracing the reception of Paul and his letters through church history. Even in this 92 page survey, Longenecker cannot hope to present a comprehensive summary of all of the commentaries and sermons produced over 2000 years, so he provides a “Hall of Fame” intended to honor his own favorite commentators on Paul. Longenecker has divided his list into three periods: Patristic (including texts like the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Gnostics and Marcion, but also Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian,  Jerome, Augustine, and many others), the Reformation (beginning with Erasmus, but including all the expected reformers) and modern (Schleiermacher, Baur, Lightfoot, Barth, and James S. Stewart). For the modern period, he has purposely avoided scholars who are still active. This means there is nothing from N. T. Wright, for example, even though Wright has contributed a major Romans commentary and a massive book on Paul’s theology, nor is there any attempt to deal with the often visceral reaction against Wright’s views on Paul. Longenecker is not particularly swayed by the New Perspective, although in many ways the original 1964 version of this book anticipated some of the problems raised by Sanders and Dunn. Perhaps Longenecker’s recent commentary on Romans offers insight into his opinion of the New Perspective, but there is very little in more than 1000 pages of commentary which reflects the contributions of the New Perspective.

In addition to this hall of fame style survey of historic commentators on Paul, Longenecker offers a series of brief summaries of modern approaches to Paul. This section includes two or three pages on:

  • Rhetorical approaches to Paul which recognize the epistolary form of Paul’s letters
  • Reevaluation of the textual history of the New Testament
  • Reevaluations of Palestinian Judaism (E. P. Sanders)
  • The New Perspective on Paul (James Dunn)
  • Narrative approaches to the New Testament applied to Paul

Since this is a second edition, it is fair to evaluate the value of the book in contrast to the earlier edition. As Longenecker recognizes, the field of Pauline studies has gone through several major developments since 1964, but he has chosen not to update the body of the book to reflect these changes. Most readers of this new edition will be aware of the work of E. P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul as well as the reactions to Sanders and the New Perspective. Some of these responses were violently opposed to the movement, others took up the suggestions in Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism and developed them in detail. Longenecker does not attempt to integrate any of this massive secondary literature into the 1964 version of his book, but rather comments on Sanders and the New Perspective in the addendum (p. 345-50).

By way of conclusion, Paul, Apostle of Liberty, remains a classic of Pauline theology and ought to be read (and re-read) by anyone studying Paul’s theology. The addendum is an excellent primer for a seminary student who needs to “catch up” on two thousand years of thinking about Paul’s theology.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.