Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God
Paul, The Spirit and The People of God
By Gordon Fee
Hodder & Stoughton. 207 pages. ?7.99
ISBN 0 340 69425 4
Anyone who has looked at the bulk (not to mention the price) of Gordon Fee's major work on the Holy Spirit, God's Empowering Presence but balked at both can breathe a sigh of relief with the appearance of this more manageable volume.
Fee's prefatory remarks express his desire to present the material covered in the larger tome at a more accessible level and with emphasis on what he perceives as the 'urgencies' arising from Paul's theology as it impinges upon the church in the Western world today. These he outlines in seven paragraphs, covering the ineffectiveness and perceived irrelevance of the church, the fruit/gifts dichotomy in some evangelical theology, the eschatological nature of the Spirit in the New Testament, the corporate character of life in the church and in the Spirit and the role of the Spirit in the worship of the people of God.
Preface gives way to 'Overture - an invitation to read Paul anew'. Here he sounds the note being sounded by many today, namely that the 'post-modern' world of the late 20th century looks remarkably similar to the pre-Christian world of apostolic times. He argues that the hope for the church in our depressing times is to be found in a recapturing of the understanding and experience of the Spirit of God which enabled the New Testament church to make the impact it did. The key feature of this he sees as being the Spirit as the experienced, empowering presence of God. He is critical of that great swathe of theological reflection on the Spirit from the post-New Testament period right down to the present century which he sees as having a truncated understanding and appreciation of the Third Person of the Trinity. He thus invites the reader to make a fresh discovery of the genius of Paul's Spirit theology.
What follows, in the course of 15 chapters plus appendix, is a concise, but comprehensive, analysis of the theology of the Spirit in the letters of Paul. He provides many rich theological insights, for example emphasising that the Holy Spirit is a Person, highlighting the corporate character of salvation and recognising the significance of the 'already, but not yet' tension in Christian experience. He also provides numerous tantalising exegetical conclusions that one would love to see fleshed out in more detail - the assumption that the Spirit's groanings (Romans 8.26-27) are tongues is an obvious example. There are other issues, such as Fee's understanding of 'flesh' and 'law' in Pauline theology, which are bound to raise a few eyebrows. There are as well, however, some significant concerns which penetrate to the very heart of a theology of the Holy Spirit and the way it impinges on other biblical doctrines.
What are the assumptions?
These emerge largely in the context of the assumptions he makes about the continuity of signs, wonders and charismatic gifts as norms of church life in every age. Fee cites two things which, for him, suggest that such things should be regarded as normative in the life of the church today. One is the 'matter-of-fact' way that he perceives Paul to be speaking about the gifts - this he takes to be an acceptance of them as a feature of realised eschatology in New Testament experience. The age of the New Covenant is the age of the Spirit and its hallmark is the ever-present supernatural activity of the Spirit of God. The other is the fact that Paul does not overtly use such phenomena to try and authenticate his ministry. (In this he is dismissing the view which has prevailed in historic reformed theology that such supernatural happenings are generally clustered around times when God is giving fresh revelation and serve to authenticate it.) It is disappointing that Fee does not see it as being necessary to interact with these other concerns - perhaps this is because he feels the centre of gravity of contemporary evangelicalism has shifted so far towards Pentecostal-style theology that such effort is superfluous.
These concerns which relate directly to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture are far too significant to be lightly brushed aside. Quite apart from whether or not the author's point is proven from within the confines of Paul's theology, it is impossible to extricate the theology of Paul from the theology of the other biblical writers - all of whom have something to contribute to an overall theology of the Spirit.
Gordon Fee is arguably the most significant exegete and theologian to emerge from the Pentecostal/Charismatic axis and anyone grappling with the theology of the Spirit and its effect upon Christian unity cannot afford to overlook him. However, the description of this book by the publishers as being 'a defining and highly accessible book on the Holy Spirit' is something of an overstatement. It is certainly an appealing book - Fee presents the Holy Spirit and his work in a way which is both biblical and experiential, but the theology he presents lacks sufficient definition and accessibility at critical points to make it the widely accepted handbook on Spirit theology that Fee no doubt would like it to be. His work has a significant contribution to make in this area, but it cannot stand in isolation from or without the criticism of an older theology of the Spirit which has permeated reformed and evangelical theology for much longer than barely a century.