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Under Review: Listening to the Spirit in the Text

July 12th, 2005 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

(Note: I'm republishing this review as I am currently in St. Louis. Normal blogging returns Sunday).
On a recent foray into our library, I picked up Gordon Fee's Listening to the Spirit in the Text. A treasure trove of previously published (or delivered) essays by Fee, Listening is an excellent introduction to the role of the Spirit in the New Testament.

Fee is a scholar par excellance--I was first introduced to his work through his excellent commentary on Phillipians. Fee is an eminently careful exegete, but also writes with a sensitivity to the Spiritual life, which as Fee has taught us, in the New Testament means nothing other than "life in the Spirit." This, of course, is not surprising. Fee is a pentacostal scholar whose massive work on the Spirit is nothing less than authoritative. His ability to combine Spirituality with careful thinking makes his work as meditative as it is instructive.

That said, a few highlights from Listening:

  • In "Exegesis and Spirituality," Fee argues that the exegetical task is not complete until we have entered the "intended Spirituality of the text." Developing his thought out of Phillippians, Fee asks whether we have "truly engaged in the ultimate exegetical task" if we have not been "encountered by Paul's own Spirituality." Paul's words are "intended to call the Phillippians--and us--to the imitation of Paul." Amen!
  • Fee makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit is the experiential basis of the Christian life in Paul's thought. Fee attempts to destroy conceptions of Paul as abstract theologian by emphasizing the often heartfelt language and frequent references to praying continuously by Paul. Life in the Spirit is marked by prayer (including "speaking in tongues), praise and thanksgiving.
  • Whereas the first half of the book is concerned with Pauline Spirituality, the latter half is concerned with the role of the Spirit in the Church. Here again it is the Spirit himself who is the basis of the commkunal worship experience. Koinonia, or the fellowship of believers both with each other and with God, is a creation of the Spirit of God, God's empowering Presence.
  • In a simply superb essay on glossolalia (tongues), Fee contends that tongues are a Spirit inspired utterance that is unintelligeble to the one through whom they are uttered. However, given Paul's imperatives in 1 Corinthians 14:27-28 to regulate tongues in communal settings, it's clear the one who speaks in tongues does not lose control of themselves. They are not "possessed," as it were. Additionally, these tongues are directed toward God, not others--hence the command to remain silent if there is no interpreter around. This means that prophecy and tongues are very different experiences--the traditional Pentacostal understanding of tongues as revealing a message for someone else has no basis in Pauline thought. Finally, and most interestingly, Fee argues that because the Spirit is the guarantee of the end times final consummation, that it is the "already" of the Kingdom of God, tongues are a sign of this reality in our "not yet" existence. To quote Fee, "It is because our 'between the times' existence that we desperately need the Spirit's help in our present frailty...for Paul one does not 'pray in tongues' from a position of 'strength,' as though being filled with the Spirit put one in a position of power before God. Rather, one prays in tongues from a position of weakness, because we 'do not know how to pray as we ought...' By praying through us in tongues, the Spirit is the way whereby God's strength is made perfect in the midst of our weakness--which is where the ultimate strength lies for the believer." I find this interpretation ofglossolalia is extremely compelling--Fee's understanding of the Spirit as the realization of our eschatological future is spot on, and understanding the gifts of the Spirit (moving beyond tongues) fits well.
  • Fee addresses the issue of church government as well, arguing that (a) there is no mandated church government from Scripture. This doesn't mean that all structures are equal--only that there may be more than one. Leadership in the New Testament churches was either by itinerants, such as Paul, or by the elders (and Fee points out that in every NT expression this is plural). Additionally, leadership is driven by ministry, not authority. Not only that, Fee also contends that 1 Timothy is less about church government and more about defeating false teaching (as are 2 Timothy and Titus, I presume). On this point he is quite persuasive--Paul's emphasis on sound teaching in 1 Timothy is obvious, and Fee points out that the directives regarding the qualifications for leaders are in direct opposition to the description of the false teachers. This entails, however, that directives for church government contained in the Pastorals are not normative, as they are often thought, but rather are dependant upon the contingent situation Paul is addressing. The hermeneutic question of finding normative claims in contingent expressions is still alive and well in the Pastorals.

Fee consistently argues that there are fewer normative claims in Scripture regarding men and women, Church government, and church worship than we usually think. Rather, we need to read into the text to find the "(S)pirit of the text" and be consistent in our claims. For instance, he points out that those who accept 1 Timothy 2:11-12 as normative, often do not accept 5:3-16 as normative, a glaring inconsistency. He also questions, on this count, the requirement that the church leader be "the husband of one wife."

This is the great problem, of course, of hermeneutics, and it is a problem that has achieved increasing attention in recent years (see here, for instance). Fee doesn't attempt to formulate an answer here, though the question arises often in his writing. I disagree with his use of "finding the spirit of the text"--Fee fails to give boundary conditions for the principle--but the disagreement is slight. Furthermore, I am far more impressed by his exegesis than his discussions of method--his ear for the text and the Spirit is extremely well developed, and anyone interested in New Testament theology would be well served to train their ear under his, beginning with < Listening to the Spirit in the Text.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.