Gordon Fee once told his students on the first day of a New Testament class at Wheaton College that they would—someday—come across a headline saying “Gordon Fee Is Dead.”
“Do not believe it!” he said, standing atop a desk. “He is singing with his Lord and his king.”
Then, instead of handing out the syllabus like a normal professor, he led the class in Charles Wesley’s hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
Fee, a widely influential New Testament teacher who believed that reading the Bible, teaching the Bible, and interpreting the Bible should bring people into an encounter with a living God, described himself as a “scholar on fire.” He died on Tuesday at the age of 88—although, as those who encountered him in the classroom or in his many books know, that’s not how he would have described it.
Fee co-wrote How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary colleague Douglas Stuart in the early 1980s. The book is now in its fourth edition and has sold around 1 million copies, becoming for many the standard text on the best way to approach Scripture. Fee also wrote a widely used handbook on biblical interpretation, several well-regarded commentaries on New Testament epistles, and groundbreaking academic research on the place of the Holy Spirit in the life and work of the Apostle Paul.
“If you had asked Paul to define what a Christian is,” Fee once told CT, “he would not have said, ‘A Christian is a person who believes X and Y doctrines about Christ,’ but ‘A Christian is a person who walks in the Spirit, who knows Christ.’”
In the same way, Fee argued that studying the form, history, and context of Scripture is worthwhile because it is not “mere history.” Done correctly, biblical interpretation is a touch of lightning.
“We bring our exegesis to fruition when we ourselves sit with unspeakable wonder in the presence of God,” he wrote. “We must hear the words with our hearts, we must bask in God’s own glory, we must be moved to a sense of overwhelming awe at God’s riches in glory, we must think again on the incredible wonder that these riches are ours in Christ Jesus, and we must then worship the living God by singing praises to His glory.”
As news of his death spread on social media, ministers and seminary professors from across the evangelical spectrum shared which of Fee’s books meant the most to them. Western Theological Seminary New Testament professor Wesley Hill said God’s Empowering Presence was one of the most influential texts he had read. Greg Salazar, a Presbyterian Church in American pastor, wrote that he is using Fee’s commentary on Philippians for a sermon series. Peter Englert, a minister at a nondenominational church in New York, praised Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Denny Burk, who disagreed sharply with Fee on the issue of women in ministry, said Fee was “one of the most influential New Testament scholars who has ever lived.”
Fee was not a household name for most evangelical churchgoers, but that may only underscore the significance of his contribution.
“None of my church members could tell you who Gordon Fee is,” wrote Griffin Gulledge, pastor of Madison Baptist Church in Madison, Georgia. “But every one of them has benefitted from his work. I bet that’s true in tens of thousands of churches.”
Handling Scripture with care
Fee was born to Donald and Gracy Jacobson Fee in Ashland, Oregon, on May 23, 1934.
His father Donald was a skilled carpenter and an expository preacher in the Assemblies of God. Fee grew up noting the difference between his father’s careful sermons, unpacking the meaning of the Bible, and some of the more wild and free-form approaches taken by other Assemblies of God ministers.
Many Pentecostals seemed to think that planning and study would inhibit the Holy Spirit, Fee later said. They would grab one phrase of Scripture and then speak off the top of their heads, trusting God could guide their words if they were flexible and spontaneous. Some would not even choose their sermon text ahead of time, flipping open the Bible and asking God to lead them in the moment.
The results did not always testify to the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fee’s father, on the other hand, believed God honored preparation and the Scripture, just like a fine piece of wood, should be treated with skill and care.
“My father was the first scholar I had ever met,” Fee wrote, “even though in those early years I didn’t recognize it. Still, his passion for truth and determination to dig down deep into the Scriptures … rubbed off on me.”
Fee decided to follow his father into ministry. He went to Seattle Pacific College (now University), where he met and married Maudine Lofdhal, who was also the child of an Assemblies of God pastor. After graduating with a masters, Fee took a pastorate in the growing suburbs south of the Seattle-Tacoma airport and, to make ends meet, also started teaching English at Northwest College (now University), the Assemblies of God-affiliated school in Kirkland, Washington.
Fee discovered he loved teaching. He loved it so much, he said, that it made his teeth ache.
He struggled for several years with a conflict between a calling to ministry—he and Maudine discussed becoming missionaries to Japan—and a calling to academia. The turning point came, Fee later recalled, when a colleague said, “Gordon, just because you want to do it doesn’t mean God is against it.”
Fee realized that “of course this too could be a calling of sorts.” He decided to go to the University of Southern California to pursue a doctorate in New Testament studies, focusing on textual criticism. He wrote his dissertation on Papyrus 66, a nearly complete copy of the Gospel of John that is believed to be one of the oldest surviving New Testament manuscripts.
Even as he embarked on an academic career, though, he felt some tension between his identity as an academic and a Pentecostal. He got a teaching position at Wheaton College, and found he was the first Pentecostal that many of his colleagues had ever met—and certainly the first who had a doctorate in biblical studies.
Influence on the NIV
His fellow Pentecostals in the Assemblies of God, meanwhile, did not always celebrate his success in academia. He once told an older man about his academic research only to receive a warning about the spiritual dangers of scholarship.
“Better a fool on fire,” the man said, “than a scholar on ice.”
As he prayed about it, though, Fee realized that was a false choice. He could be “a scholar on fire.”
He taught at Wheaton for five years and then took a position at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He was there for more than a decade before moving to Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he taught New Testament until he retired.
Fee wrote academic and popular commentaries on 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Revelation. He wrote in-depth studies on the Apostle Paul’s Christology and pneumatology. He edited the influential New International Commentary series and also worked with the Committee on Bible Translation, the team of scholars responsible for the New International Version of the Bible, for more than 30 years. According to Wheaton biblical studies chair Douglas Moo, NIV readers “encounter his translation suggestions on almost every page.”
Fee’s most significant contribution, however, may have come out of teaching Sunday school. He found that many adult Christians, some of whom had spent their whole lives in church, didn’t know how to read the Bible. They understood chapters and verses, and may have even memorized some passages, but often didn’t understand significant differences between different parts of Scripture.
“What’s the difference between a short story and a poem?” Fee asked. “You don’t read a poem the way you read a short story, or a short story the way you read a poem…. Why anyone would ever want to level that out as if it didn’t make any difference…. It makes all the difference in the world! God chose to do it this way. This isn’t Gordon’s discovery. God did this.”
He and Old Testament professor Douglas Stuart published How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth in 1981. Fee, slightly exaggerating, said his editor at Zondervan sent it to every Bible teacher in North America. “I don’t know how many hundreds of copies he sent,” he said, “but within a year the sales went off the charts.” The fourth edition was published in 2014.
Gifts of the Spirit
Fee’s position as a leading Pentecostal Bible scholar at prominent evangelical institutions meant he was occasionally embroiled in theological controversies. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was drawn into a Pentecostal argument over whether speaking in tongues was the “initial evidence” of the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Some accused him of “throwing out” the founding doctrine of Pentecostalism.
“I do not throw out initial evidence,” he said. “I throw out the language, because it is not biblical, and therefore irrelevant.”
Fee also supported women in ministry, based on his reading of the New Testament. He supported the Christians for Biblical Equality and was a contributing editor to the collected volume, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, writing commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:2-6 and Galatians 3:26-29.
Fee also wrote about the role of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament church: “The New Testament evidence is that the Holy Spirit is gender inclusive, gifting both men and women, and thus potentially setting the whole body free for all the parts to minister and in various ways to give leadership to the others. Thus my issue in the end is not a feminist agenda—an advocacy of women in ministry. Rather, it is a Spirit agenda.”
That position brought him more criticism than anything else he wrote. Fee said he was “blacklisted” in some evangelical circles.
“I’ve put up with a lot of balderdash,” he told Charisma magazine. “I just can’t get over that some people think gender comes before gifting.”
Fee mostly tried to avoid controversies, though, focusing on his classes and teaching people to read the Bible so it changed them.
“Gordon’s rigorous classes were even more singularly known for their encounters with his Lord,” said Regent New Testament professor Rikk Watts. “He taught thousands of students around the world that one could be a ‘scholar on fire.’”
Fee died at home in New York. He was predeceased by his wife in 2014. He is survived by his children Mark, Cherith Nordling, Brian, and Craig. Memorials are being planned for New York and Vancouver.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Christians for Biblical Equality.