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A review of The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians. By Gordon Fee.

Sep 14, 2009

Eerdmans, 2009. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

Gordon Fee has long been one of our finest New Testament scholars. His numerous works in the field, including some fine commentaries along the way, have made him a much-respected expert in the area. Thus any new work by Fee is always worth obtaining.

He does not disappoint here, with another fine commentary in the NICNT series, of which he is currently the editor. He had already penned an outstanding work in the series, his 1987 commentary on 1 Corinthians. At the time it was the largest and most substantial English-speaking commentary available on the book. Also in this series he penned the commentary on Philippians (1995).

The NICNT series was started in the late 1940s, and is near completion. All that remains is the 2 Peter/Jude volume. The two Thessalonian epistles were actually covered way back in 1959 by another great NT scholar, Australian Leon Morris. But a number of these volumes are now being replaced by more up-to-date commentaries. Thus Fee’s replacement volume.

It joins several other recent conservative/evangelical commentaries on the letters, including Green (PNTC, 2002) and Witherington (2006). He is sparing on introductory matters (utilising only six pages on each epistle), and assumes Pauline authorship from around 49-50 CE. for both letters.

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The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) by Array Amazon logo

As to the commentary itself, it of course follows the format of the series, using an English text with more technical matters relegated to footnotes. Controversial sections, such as 1 Thess. 4:13-18 are dealt with in a careful and gracious manner. Fee argues that this passage is not about a secret rapture, as Paul was not concerned about “eschatological speculation” here.

In Paul’s discussion of election in 1 Thess. 1:4-7, a corporate view is in mind, not an individual one, argues Fee. Other often difficult passages are not shirked. Fee explains 2 Thess. 2:11 (God sending a strong delusion) by noting the present tense of the verb: the failure of the people to love the truth “results in a divine response”.

As with many scholars, Fee notes the “healthy tension between divine activity and human responsibility”. And as a Pentecostal pastor, Fee lays heavy emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, as does Paul himself. The indicative and imperative must go together.

Concerning those who are idle and disruptive (2 Thess. 3:1-15), Fee follows Paul’s pastoral emphasis here, which includes a very high Christology. The aim is to bring glory to God, harmony in the community, and restoration of the wayward. While Fee reminds us that the exact circumstances being addressed here are simply unknown to us, the practical treatise on church discipline is of value to all believers.

All commentators are of necessity interpreters as well. Not every direction Fee travels along in this commentary will resonate with readers. But as a model of exegetical precision, intellectual clarity and theological sensitivity, this commentary is top rate. If you can only afford to purchase one new commentary on these letters, this volume will be well worth getting.

[500 words]

4 Responses to A review of The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians. By Gordon Fee.

  • Thanks Bill.
    Although I have not read the volume, from the comments you make a number of observations are in order:
    1. The “election of God” in 1:4-7 as explained by Fee has become in recent years a fairly typical stratagem to attempt to escape the doctrine of individual election to salvation. But will it work? Election elsewhere in the NT is presented as part of the believer’s assurance (e.g. Rom.8:29-30 and following). Is there any assurance in belonging to an elect group while one’s membership of the group remains contingent? Moreover, does the Word of the Gospel come with power and conviction on the group but not necessarily on the individual members of the group? (v.5) I fear that this sort of stratagem merely muddies the waters in trying to find a way of escape from God’s firm decree. I could say more, but I’ll leave it at that.

    2. I rejoice that Fee rejects the error of a secret or silent rapture as alleged to be derived from 1 Thess.4:16-17, but to base his rejection on the idea that Paul was not concerned with “eschatological speculation” here is hardly the point. Surely the issue is whether by serious principles of exegesis the passages in fact teaches this. It either does or does not. A Dispensationalist would not be impressed at all with this dismissive reply. What does Fee mean by “eschatological speculation”? I have heard this kind of terminology bandied around by commentators of a certain school, and it comes over as disdainful, even conceited. Now I am not a Dispensationalist. I oppose that system. However, we need better replies than this.

    3. The attempt to escape the mystery of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in 2 Thess.2:11 will not do. Yet again it is an attempt to play off one side against the other, and just like the old argument about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, ‘if we can just get man in first and have him make the first move then we can salvage (it is believed) God from being some sort of monster.’ Well, the sovereign, Almighty God does not require these pathetic human ‘salvage attempts’ Let God be God! Let the text speak as is does. And verb tenses are hardly the issue: has not Fee heard of the “futuristic present”? We even use it at times in english, but it is a well-known use of the Greek present. Then there is the clear purpose-result construction, using the articular infinitive with “eis”. No, I may not have read Fee’s commentary at this point, but I have seen this attempted evasion of God’s absolute sovereignty elsewhere more than a few times, and it won’t do.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Thanks Murray

    But in all fairness to Fee, it may be a bit presumptuous to judge him too severely based on a mere 500-word review of mine. Whether I have faithfully represented Fee and his thoughts here is a moot point, but it might be preferable to in fact read his 366-page commentary in order to see if your concerns are still justified. They might be, but we won’t know that until the book is first properly digested.

    And even then, your concerns may need revision. For example, I too am concerned about those who would seek to divest Scripture of the concept of individual election. But Fee was simply commenting on one text. Whether he is right in his assessment of that particular verse can be debated. But his discussion there does not necessarily mean he rules out individual election elsewhere in the Bible.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill.
    Point taken – to an extent. But from what you relate, and from what I have read of Gordon Fee’s other writings the prospects don’t look all that promising to me. I will certainly get hold of his commentary, as I am interested in the Thessalonian epistles. However, Leon Morris will take some beating! Likewise, several of the replacement volumes in the NIC series have not inspired my confidence.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Hi Bill,

    I enjoyed your review on Fee’s work. I look forward to obtaining a copy of it.

    In response to Murray’s concern about “eschatological speculation” it would seem to me(from what I know of his other work) that Fee is suggesting that the various disputes surrounding these passages are missing the point and therefore that arguing whether they are supporting or not supporting the idea of a secret rapture is irrelevant.

    Given the Apostle Paul’s earlier warnings in chapter 2, “that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed” and his earlier appeal for calmness concerning the day of the Lord, as with most of Fee’s work, he seems to be providing a holistic perspective when addressing the controversies that the text implies were evident at the time. Of course, many of these same controversies remain in much of the modern discussion regarding eschatological matters.

    Just my two cents worth.

    Mihael McCoy

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