The Synthesis Between Historical Inquiry and Divine Revelation

A summary of Gordon Fee’s Exegesis and Spirituality: Completing the Circle, an excerpt from Listening to the Spirit in the Text

To paraphrase the words of Gordon Fee: ‘The ultimate task of exegesis is spirituality,’ as he proposes the need for an interface between exegesis and spirituality which can be found in between the historical exercise of digging out the original intent of the text and the experience of hearing the text in the present terms of both its presupposed and intentional spirituality.

Accordingly if the goal of exegesis is spirituality it is crucial now for us to ask what spirituality is in the first place –for it is in framing it into a working definition that we start what Fee, portrays as the circle of approaching the Scripture from the vantage point of a serious exegete and a earnest followers of Christ that are seeking for a genuine encounter with the God who has revealed Himself in the Word.

He writes: “the proper aim of all true theology is doxology[1]

Fee orients the reader that in as-far-as theology is concerned —beyond the need for broad knowledge, sharp thinking, scholarly discipline, and intellectual creativity, lies a demand that is so much more than that because if we’re really to grapple with the significance of God’s self-witness in Christ as testified to in the Scriptures, we’ll also need to respond to that witness —and that response is worship. “For theology that does not begin and end in worship is not biblical at all[2].”

That is why Fee, offers a working definition of Spirituality that is altogether characterized in terms of the Spirit of God. “One is spiritual to the degree that one lives and walks by the Spirit; in Scripture the word has no other meaning and no other measurement[3]”.

Here Fee, pleads for a redefinition of ’spirituality’. He says: “…spirituality…a distinctively Pauline word in the New Testament, has the Holy Spirit as its primary referent. Paul never used it as an adjective referring to the human spirit; and whatever else, it is not an adjective that sets some unseen reality in contrast, for example, to something material, secular, ritual, or tangible[4].”

After laying the goal and essence of approaching Scripture, Fee, then moves to exegesis, as he writes that the Scriptures can only be properly interpreted on its own terms, which consequently leading us to the exegetical task itself.

He observes that:

These two (exegetical method and spirituality*) are seen as constantly at war with one another, with the result that the piety in the church is – for good reason – highly suspicious of the scholar or the seminar-trained pastor, who seems forever to be telling people that the text does not mean what it seems plainly to say. The result is a reaction to good methods as such, since such a way of looking at the text seems to run at cross-purposes with a more devotional reading of the Bible, where “the Word for the day” is received by one’s direct encounter with the text in a more free-floating, associative way of reading texts. The bottom line is that such people take their own brand of “common sense” approach to the Bible: read it in a straightforward manner and apply it as you can; and “spiritualize” (sometimes = allegorize) the rest.[5]

Keeping this observation in mind Fee, then argues that: “Exegesis by definition means that one is seeking an author’s own intent in what has been written. Such a definition implies that the authors are intentional and that good historical investigation can provide a reasonable approximation of that intent.[6]” Therefore signifying that meaning is located first and foremost in the author’s intentionality, which further means that God’s Word is very closely tied to the intentionality of the divinely inspired author, an argument which he reinforces with the example of Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians, where Paul with all honesty testifies: “not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:12 NIV)” after asking the Philippian believers to have an: “attitude that should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. (2:5)”

Fee, explains that: when we speak of intentionality, we understand that to include the form/style/genre upon which the biblical writer proposes to communicate. It is in keeping these things in mind that he now moves towards the intersection of exegesis and spirituality that is seeing it within the framework that: faithful biblical exegesis always takes into account the Spiritual purposes for which the biblical documents were written,[7] which then leads towards a genuine engagement that comes out of empathy wherein we see ourselves become passionate lovers of Christ, as we now see Scripture in terms that are not simply our own, because we have taken into account the text’s historical, cultural, geographical and grammatical milieu.

In expounding on the importance of good exegesis as complimentary to biblical Spirituality Fee, brilliantly writes:

“Because we believe Scripture is God’s Word, by which God addresses us, that means that Scripture is the subject and we are the object. During the process of exegesis we momentarily reverse these roles, so that we act as subject with the text as object. I would argue that the exegetical process is not completed until we return to the proper posture of objects being addressed by the subject.[8]

As a fitting conclusion to his essay Fee, then brings us back again to the beginning, which completes the circle that is completion so far as exegesis and Spirituality is concerned takes place only when we rise up and follow, when we who would be “spiritual” would recognize that true spirituality is not simply inward devotion but worship that evidences itself in obedience and the same kind of God-likeness that we have seen in Christ himself[9], for exegesis without spirituality is empty, spirituality without exegesis is blind.

It is only when we find the synthesis between historical inquiry and Divine Revelation that we complete the circle that binds exegesis with biblical Spirituality.


[1] Fee, Gordon D.  Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p.5

[2] Op Cit

[3] Ibid

[4] Op Cit

[5] Ibid p.8

[6] Ibid p.9

[7] Ibid p.10

[8] Ibid p.14

[9] Ibid p.15

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