A Review of “Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God” by Gordon Fee

“The health of the contemporary church necessitates that its theology of the Spirit and its experience of the Spirit correspond much more closely than they have in much of the past” (1), so says New Testament scholar Gordon Fee. In fact, Fee believes that Paul’s theology of the Spirit, with its necessary experiential component, is often lacking in the church today. This emphasis on the experience of the Spirit, combined with theological truth, is what makes Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God such a valuable book.

Readers familiar with Fee’s other works will find many parallels between this book and other publications. Most notably, this volume is a focused, reorganized, condensation of Fee’s massive tome God’s Empowering Presence. The intent, he says, was to emphasize “Paul’s own urgencies” which were likely “buried under the sheer weight” of the previous work (VII). Yet, while it is a condensation, its goal should not be disregarded. The fact is that Fee does emphasize Paul’s pressing concern for the experience of the Spirit of God. This volume does a tremendous job of presenting an outline of Paul’s theology of the Spirit, but in a way that clearly connects it to the lived experience of the Spirit in the life of the believer. While surely academic in tone, it is not simply an academic work. It is a work of applied theology for Christian health.

The book could be broken down into two parts. The first five chapters discuss more directly the doctrine of God. Fee explores Paul’s theology of the Spirit in relation to the Trinity, the presence of God, and the future. The remaining chapters focus on the People of God and their interaction with the Spirit. Here Fee explores the Spirit’s role in conversion, sanctification, ethical living, spiritual warfare, prayer, worship, and community. The book doesn’t break down quite that neatly, but that represents the overarching approach of the work.

Fee gives a number of emphases across the books fifteen chapters which commend this work. For, starters he emphasizes the eschatological framework of Paul’s theology of the Spirit. The outpouring of the Spirit is the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises and an anticipation of the coming Kingdom. Fee states:

It is impossible to understand Paul’s emphasis on the experienced life of the Spirit apart from this eschatological perspective that dominates his thinking. (181)

Through the Spirit, the people of God “live the life of the future in the present as they await the consummation” (49). This eschatological perspective impacts the way the community lives in the present world, our ethical conduct, our worship, and our expectations of the power of God in daily life.

Secondly, Fee emphasizes the balance of the individual and the corporate. We tend to emphasize one over the other, more often in the modern west our individuality. Yet both are necessarily involved in Paul’s theology. In fact, according to Fee, Pauline teaching knows more of the corporate reality than the individual. This “eschatological people” is an eschatological community! Fee states:

Paul can hardly help himself: his focus and concern are always on the people as a whole. Though entered individually, salvation is seldom if ever thought of simply as a one-on-one relationship with God. While such a relationship is included, to be sure, “to be saved” means especially to be joined to the people of God. (64)

This community lives their life together because of their common experience of the one Spirit. They are an eschatological community of the Spirit. So, often the experience of the Spirit is found within the community, and Paul’s theology of the Spirit is directly linked to his understanding our communal relationship.

Thirdly, Fee emphasizes the dynamic of power and weakness in the Christian life. While denying any notion of carnal Christianity, Fee nonetheless sees in Paul the expectation of struggle in the Christian life. He acknowledges our weakness, but refuses to downplay the power of the presence of the Spirit in the believer. Contrary to many Pentecostals, Fee does not believe weakness and infirmity represent a lack of faith, but rather present an opportunity for the divine power to be displayed. He also believes, however, that experiencing the miraculous works of the Spirit ought to be the norm, not the exception. His chapters on the Charismatic gifts will trouble some, but as with all of his chapters, Fee works through issues with solid exegesis. Not all will be convinced – I, personally, found his arguments on Romans 7:14-25 unconvincing – but they will have to wrestle with the text in their disagreement.

This is a tremendously refreshing book. Fee avoids well the extremes of both cessationists and charismatics. He holds closely to what he understands Paul to be teaching in the text, and demonstrates his conclusions through good exegesis. His insistence of the experience of the Spirit, however, is what makes this such an important book. While the Evangelical church has never lost its conviction about the person of the Holy Spirit, nor even its belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we have lost our experience of the Spirit – or at least our language of that experience. The three major emphases of the book drive home the need and necessary reality of the experience of the Spirit of God. He is a vital piece of our Christian life and Fee gives us the clear theology to commend the pursuit of the lived experience.

I highly recommend this book for pastors and theologians. The theological and exegetical work necessary to make the arguments in each chapter will be cumbersome to some readers, but there is nothing technical in the language or discussions that makes this a difficult read. Fee writes in an accessible way and for the health of the church. Christians everywhere will benefit from Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, even those that disagree with some of its chapters.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the excellent review of this book by
    Gordon Fee. I shared it with others.

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