Review of Richardson’s Paul’s Ethic of Freedom

by John M. Frame

Associate Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology

Westminster Theological Seminary in California.


Paul’s Ethic of Freedom by Peter Richardson (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1979) 181 pp., $6.95 paperback.


Peter Richardson argues that the apostle Paul taught and lived a concept of freedom only described in his own writings.  This concept includes the freedom of Gentiles from Jewish law and customers (40ff.), freedom of women from male domination (57ff.), freedom of believers to be “inconsistent” in their ethical behaviour (90; cf. 79ff.), freedom of the church to follow the Spirit without a fixed order or structure in its worship or government (142ff.).  Richardson finds this concept most clearly expressed in the earlier writings of Paul.  Later on, he thinks, Paul compromised these principles under the pressure of various practical problems in the churches.  He developed a greater concern for order, structure and principles as he came to realize that the return of Christ would not be imminent.

The scholarship of the book is sophisticated and subtle, but the formulations are not overly technical.  Most helpful to me were (1) the discussion of Paul’s principle of ‘adaptability’ (79ff.), especially Richardson’s account of the quarrel between Paul and Peter (90-97); (2) the description of the ‘Corinth radicals’ and the possible relation of these to Gnosticism (99-108); (3) Richardson’s discussion of the ‘mutuality’ of concern and service between slave and master (51-55), husband and wife (68-70, 117); (4) his analysis of the Pauline contrast between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ (126-141).

On the concept of freedom itself, however, I find the book rather confusing, perhaps confused.  Sometimes it seems that this freedom excludes any authority relationship:  Richardson thinks Paul is not fully consistent when he gives commands to the churches (78-82, 115) and when he tells wives to obey their husbands (70-78).  Sometimes, though, it seems that Pauline freedom permits an authority relationship as long as ‘in Christ’ the difference between parties ‘does not matter’ (49 – the discussion of slavery).  Sometimes Richardson argues as if Christian behaviour is to be totally unprincipled except for its evangelical goal (87: Does he reallymean to suggest that for Paul the end justifies any means whatsoever?)  At other times, it seems that Christian freedom is subject to all sorts of limits: love (80), the ‘law of Christ’ (80), the content of the Gospel (95, 139), the ‘territorial imperative’ (96) and others (e.g. 122f.).  At times, even the principle of adaptability itself becomes an absolute principle which limits freedom (90ff.).  Richardson’s frequent mention of the Spirit as the one who ‘directs the Christian life’ (79) is not much help.  He assumes a kind of antithesis between Spirit and law (79, 97, 171) which is by no means obvious.  (Why cannot the Spirit motivate us to obey the law?  Note how Paul speaks of obedience to commands as a test of spirituality in 1 Cor. 14:37).  Much more care must be devoted to the meaning of freedom and the relation of freedom to law, limits, Spirit, and authority.

I am not persuaded that Paul’s concept is as unique in Scripture as Richardson says.  His analysis of the Old Testament background (17ff.), says nothing about the Abrahamic covenant, even though he concedes that that covenant was basic to Paul’s thinking (a5f.).  He does recognize fundamental agreements between Paul and Peter (90-97) in this area.  Nor does Richardson do justice to the Gospels and Acts.

I can mention other problems only briefly for lack of space:  (1) A tendency to infer far too much from what Paul does or does not emphasize or mention in a certain context (instances of this problem on 70, 77, 144, 164); (2) a tendency to draw historical conclusions from inadequate data (22, 23, 91, 146, 163) – but Richardson is moderate in this respect compared with other liberal new Testament scholars; (3) a tendency to make gratuitous value-judgments (55f., 66, 73, 115, 118, 165, 167, 169).

Sign up to receive new posts via e-mail