Paul: Libertine or Legalist?

Written by J. W. Drane Reviewed By Graham Stanton

Most readers of Dr Drane’s book will be expecting him to assure us that Paul was neither a libertine nor a legalist. And so he does. But this is not a book with a series of reassuring conclusions, but a fresh stimulating examination of some of the most difficult problems posed by the Pauline Epistles. The author argues that Galatians is a true, though extreme, representation of Paul’s thought at a time when he was facing Judaizing opposition in an especially vehement form. But the situation behind 1 Corinthians was quite different, involving Paul with gnosticizing opponents. ‘This also necessitated an about-turn in his own theological expression so that whereas in Galatians he often appears to be a libertine of the worst sort, in 1 Corinthians he operates under a cloak of pseudo-legalism’ (p. 3). The author is well aware that he is advancing a bold hypothesis; he concedes that he is not fully convinced himself by every detailed part of the evidence. Dr Drane sets out his case carefully and vigorously. Future scholars are unlikely to be completely convinced, but the author’s arguments will be taken seriously for he has raised a whole series of issues which cannot be quietly ignored.

Most of the first half of the book is taken up with a helpful discussion of the main themes of Galatians. The author then turns to the ethical teaching of 1 Corinthians, where ‘we move in what at times seems to be a different world from that of the Galatians’ (p. 62). 2 Corinthians is discussed more briefly; it is seen as marking an important stage in the logical synthesis Paul finally reaches in Romans. A thorough discussion of Romans is left aside for a future book in which the author will extend the arguments of the present book and interpret Romans as a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of Galatians and 1 Corinthians.

In a particularly interesting chapter Dr Drane discusses the identity of Paul’s opponents in Galatia and Corinth. He defends (with some modifications) the traditional view that Paul’s opponents in Galatia were Judaizers, and argues that several pieces of evidence point very strongly to the presence of some kind of gnosticizing tendency in the background of 1 Corinthians, though he rejects firmly W. Schmithals’ basic positions. The question of gnosticism is such an important and difficult problem that some readers will wish that Dr Drane had provided an even fuller discussion, for he is clearly rather more at home in this area than many New Testament scholars.

In his final chapter the author discusses several implications of his hypothesis under the general heading of ‘Theological Diversity in the Pauline Correspondence’. This is perhaps the least satisfactory chapter, for the author discusses rather too many hotly disputed issues too briefly. The whole problem of Jewish Christianity needs to be examined more thoroughly, as does the relationship between gnosticism and trends within a very diverse first-century Judaism; Dr Drane will undoubtedly make a significant contribution to the discussion of these topics in due course.

On the whole Dr Drane’s central arguments are convincing, but he does tend to overstate his case. His basic position is rather more closely related to his dating of Galatians than he suggests. In a brief appendix on the date of Galatians he suggests that his conclusions would tend to support the early date for Galatians (the so-called South Galatian hypothesis). But if we were to date Galatians later—within the same period as the Corinthian and Roman Epistles—we should find ourselves much less inclined to see such a striking contrast between Galatians and 1 Corinthians.

Dr Drane’s book raises several thorny problems for all who are concerned with the interpretation of the New Testament. He reminds us that as we read Galatians we must not link up with other rather different statements in Romans but must try to understand it in its own terms. Which Paul do we use today—the Paul of Galatians, the Paul of 1 Corinthians, or the ‘mature’ Paul of Romans? If Paul’s Epistles are related as closely as Dr Drane suggests to Paul’s debates with different groups of opponents, what do we do today when we find that none of the groups has a counterpart in our own churches? How do we apply Paul’s ethical principles to contemporary problems? If, as Dr Drane suggests, at almost every point in Galatians there is the possibility of a genuine misunderstanding on the basis of ‘gnostic’ thought (p. 111), how do we avoid reading our own cultural and theological heritage into the text?

Dr Drane is to be thanked warmly for a well-written and well-argued book which sheds fresh light on the vigour and power of Paul’s Epistles.


Graham Stanton

King’s College, London