Review of Gordon Fee's "God's Empowering Presence"

I recently finished reading Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee’s tome God’s Empowering Presence. I benefited much from his thorough exegesis of all the explicit and implicit references to the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters. Fee, who belongs to the Assembly of God, is a welcome guide to me, a United Methodist, on the Holy Spirit and on Spirit phenomenon in Paul. Here are some things that I took away from reading most of his book.

 

The Charismata

Fee argues the Greek word charismata, often defined as spiritual gifts (think prophecy, miracles, healing, speaking in tongues, etc.), would have been more understood to original readers/hearers as “grace bestowments” or “grace endowments,” not primarily as "spiritual gifts.” The only passage that designates them “spiritual gifts” is in 1 Cor 12, in other passages there is no explicit mention of the Spirit in relation to the charismata (see Romans 12; Ephesians 4; 2 Cor 8:7; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6-7 and others), though it’s not wrong to see the Spirit under the surface in these other passages. John Wesley’s use of the terms “gifts and graces” for ministry may be nearer the mark of the language of the early church. Arguments against God giving charismata to people today (commonly called cessationism) are extremely exegetically weak and would have been foreign to Paul.

Prophets and tongue-speakers are in control of themselves (1 Cor 14). There is nothing to indicate they are out of control, for Paul believes them capable of speaking one at a time, whether speaking in tongues or prophesying (14:26-33). Glossolalia (glossolalia is the Greek term for speaking in tongues) was a regular part of Paul’s own spirituality (14:18). Tongues speakers should pray for the ability to interpret their own glossolalia (14:13). Fee makes good case that the “inarticulate/wordless groanings” of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:26-27 are very likely a reference to speaking in tongues, and he also sees it as a possibility for “praying in the Spirit” in Ephesians 6:18. If Fee is right in seeing glossolalia in Romans 8 and Ephesians 6, then glossolalia, though unintelligible to its speakers without interpretation, encourages their spirits and can encourage the church when interpreted (1 Cor 14), the Holy Spirit intercedes through glossolalia to conform people to God’s will (Rom. 8:26-27), and glossolalia helps people wage spiritual warfare through effectively sharing the word of God (Ephesians 6:17-18).

Prophecy seems to be the chief charisma that Paul lifts up in his writing. It is not necessarily what we think of as modern day preaching, but a spontaneous utterance or word that comes from God for the community or for an individual. It needs to be tested (prophets are not immune to mistakes–1 Thes 5:19-22; 1 Cor 14:29). Some potential ways to test it are to run the message against what we know to be the content of the Christian faith, and Paul also gives a further the suggestion that prophecy should be done to encourage (1 Cor 14:31). I can't remember if I experienced this or just heard a story about it, but I have heard of prayer meetings that left an open mic for someone to speak a prophetic word, but there were people on either side of the mic who made you tell them what the prophetic message you were about to give was. Once they heard it, they would either give you the go-ahead to speak that word to the group, or they would say that might not be a word for this group. Such is one way of "testing" prophecy. Not allowing and despising the gift of prophecy actually serves to quench the Spirit (1 Thes 5:19-22).

 

The Holy Spirit and the Trinity

Salvation is Trinitarian in that it is initiated by the love of the Father, accomplished and demonstrated historically in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and applied to the believer in the Holy Spirit. Christianity is Christocentric–everything centers on and revolves around Christ. We should not lose that focus as we learn about and grow in the Holy Spirit. Preaching is made effective by the Holy Spirit, who uses our words to point people toward Christ (per Fee’s comments on 1 Thes 1:4-7). The Spirit drives us toward the character of Christ (see the fruit of Spirit in Galatians 5) and leads us to embody a cruciform lifestyle of God’s power displayed in weakness and love, not in triumphalist power apart from suffering (see especially 2 Corinthians, where Paul makes this point again and again). The Spirit is a “down payment” (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5 and Eph 1:14), a foretaste of God’s future and of the resurrection life we will have in Christ when he returns. The Spirit is also God’s seal–think of the seal of a signet ring pressed on wax, God’s official mark on his children connoting his ownership over those sealed by the Spirit.

 

The Flesh vs. the Spirit

Fee has great reflections on the flesh vs Spirit in Paul. The flesh represents our mindset and desires before we come to Christ; the Spirit is God’s future come into the present era and empowers us for a Christlike life. Both Spirit and flesh influence us, and we are not immune to temptation, but the Spirit is sufficient to overcome the flesh. We get no hint that the Spirit is weaker than the flesh in Paul–the Spirit is sufficient to live the life of Christ. Interpretations of Romans 7 and Galatians 5 that would give the flesh the “upper hand” in our struggles with sin have some significant exegetical problems, as Fee demonstrates in his work.

 

Baptism in the Spirit

Fee argues, I think convincingly, that baptism of the Holy Spirit is not a second work of grace subsequent to conversion, but rather refers to what happens to us at conversion. That’s not to say that we don’t grow after conversion by walking in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25) and being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18-21), only that in Paul, baptism in the Holy Spirit is referring to conversion.

 

Critiques

I am vastly in agreement with Fee’s work and interpretation, and have been greatly instructed by him. That being said, I have a couple minor quibbles and one major criticism of his work.

 

Minor Quibble #1: This book is not accessible to most people. Fee claims he is trying to speak to two groups: “pastors, students, and other church leaders; and the academic community” (p. xxii). I’m part of his intended audience, and I was struggling to stay engaged during the exegesis. I’d recommend you try another book on the Holy Spirit for those who haven’t been to seminary and who don’t have a great grasp on Koine Greek–about 800 pages of this book is in-depth exegesis, which isn’t always the most excited reading. This book is written mainly for Bible scholars.

 

Minor Quibble #2: I think I’m about 80-90% in agreement with Fee on how Paul understood and used the Law. Fee is right in letting us know that there is continuity and discontinuity in how Paul understood the Torah’s relevance for those who are in Christ. It seems to me he is too negative in his treatment of the Law in Paul. I tend to side more with some of the proponents of the "New Perspective" on Paul, salvation in OT and NT has always been by grace through faith. The Law is good (Rom 3:31; 7:7-12) and not totally done away with, but what Paul often is principally arguing against when he takes the Law to task are certain “works of the Law” and identity boundaries (circumcision, dietary laws, special days, animal sacrifice, Temple worship, etc). The coming of Christ and the work of the Spirit are foreshadowed in these works of the Law and are fulfilled by Christ and the Spirit, so they do not apply to Christians. Still, we are called to fulfill a “righteous requirement” of the Torah (Rom. 8:4). Fee seems to want to get rid of all Torah observance, but I rather think we should systemically reevaluate Torah and find which parts are in the “righteous requirement” we are called to fulfill.  Calvin’s demarcations of the Torah into three parts (moral, judicial, and ceremonial) are a step toward this systemic reevaluation of the Law in light of Christ and the writings of the NT. The OT is still Scripture, helping us see what God has fulfilled in Christ and the Spirit. It's useful in drawing out principals for how to live in Christ, and some of its commands very much still apply. After all, the Torah that commands circumcision and animal sacrifices is also the same Torah that commands love of God (Deut. 6) and of neighbor (Lev. 19), which Jesus made the heart of his teaching (Mark 12:28-34) and Paul makes the heart of his ethics (1 Cor 13; Gal 5:6; Rom. 13:8-10). So Fee making comments like Paul telling us to follow Christ “Torah-free” seems imprecise to me and unfaithful to what Paul is saying.

 

Major Concern: Fee is bent on trying to disconnect Spirit baptism from water baptism in this book. I’d like to hear his beliefs on what actually happens in water baptism, because he spends so much time arguing for what he doesn’t believe happens in water baptism: receiving the baptism of the Spirit. Baptism is tricky in the New Testament, since, as John Wesley says, there is an “irreconcilable variability” when it comes to what happens in baptism. While there are definitely instances of Fee’s view in the NT (Cornelius’ house in Acts 10 is the big example of people receiving the Spirit before getting baptized), I still believe baptism is the primary way God saves and gives his Spirit to people, and wouldn’t be so strong in disconnecting water baptism from Spirit baptism. I think Fee totally ignores some of the connections in Paul’s own language on water baptism and Spirit baptism (dying to sin and having Christ’s new life through baptism in Rom 6 connects with Rom 8:1-6 where the Spirit is “the Spirit of life” and we put the flesh to death by the Spirit; also circumcision made without hands by baptism in Col 2:11-12 and its connection with the Spirit circumcising the heart in Rom. 2:29; being made one in Christ and receiving adoption as sons through baptism in Gal. 3:26-29 connects with receiving the “Spirit of adoption” in Rom. 8:12-17 and being part of one body and “baptized into one Spirit” in 1 Cor 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4-6.) Paul seemed to believe that something happens in baptism–it’s not just a nice symbol. Also, as Fee repeatedly notes, the Holy Spirit is the “applicational” member of the Trinity, applying God’s grace experientially into the life of the Christian. Why wouldn’t we expect that when people undergo water baptism in faith in Christ (or a family member believes on behalf of an infant getting baptized), the Holy Spirit wouldn’t do the very thing signified by the washing/immersion in water? I agree with Fee that the Spirit is the reality that baptism points toward, that it is the Spirit who unites us in Christ and gives us new life, but Fee seems bent on disconnecting the Spirit from the sign of water baptism. Further, what would Fee make of other passages outside of Paul that connect water baptism and the Spirit, like Acts 2:38-40, water baptism and salvation in 1 Peter 3:21, or the Spirit descending on Jesus when he was baptized by John in the Gospels? I wouldn’t get my sacramental theology on baptism from Fee.

 

Conclusion

Fee’s encouragement is for us not to burn down existing traditions and denominations if they have crowded out the Holy Spirit in their theology, worship life, and/or personal spirituality. Rather, he encourages us to find ways to embrace the work of the Spirit today that were so obviously a part of the life of Paul and his churches. I am grateful for Fee’s exhaustive work, and pray the ministry of the Spirit will be more evident in my own life and in my own tradition, the United Methodist Church.

Stephen Fincher

Pastor in Tanner, AL with my wife Laura.