Friday, 23 November 2007

Gordon Fee and Textual Criticism

(This is the text of my successful argument that Gordon Fee should be given the 2006 Hall of Fame/Lifetime Achievement Award by the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.)

Perhaps the student can be forgiven for nominating, from his limited experiences, his own favorite professor to an award. Perhaps, despite the student's own experiential limitations, that professor really is deserving. Let me argue such on behalf of Gordon Fee in regard to the highly esteemed and world renowned Evangelical Textual Criticism Hall of Fame/Lifetime Achievement Award.

First, let me explain that as a student of Prof. Fee, amazingly, I actually never read a single textual critical work of his. I came to study with him well after he had established his reputation as text-critic-turned-exegete, and my work with him was exegetically oriented, with only sideward glances at text criticism. What I know of his tc work comes from informal readings after my graduate degree.

In this light, I was surprised to find in my first real tc research paper how often I resorted to citing Prof. Fee's various works. The variety and scope of his writings and their strategic importance necessitated such frequent citation.

With a few exceptions, scholarship in textual criticism is not so much reflected in tomes, but in shorter research articles (Colwell and Birdsall, for example, had but two tc books published between them). Prof. Fee has written two volumes on tc, but his research articles are of such importance that we recall them as quickly as we recall the names of the few larger, important books in the field. These works are often definitive, and future scholarship will not be able to avoid prefacing their work with reference to Prof. Fee's works.

One example of this is William L. Petersen's 2002 article, "The Genesis of the Gospel" (in A. Denaux's New Testament Textual Exegesis) wherein he argued for a closer look at the early Fathers to determine gospel texts which look quite different from our canonical gospels. Despite his recognition of the cautions expressed in Prof. Fee's article, "The Text of John in Origen and Cyril of Alexandria" (Bib 52 [1971], 357-394), one wonders if the phenomena Petersen observed in citations from Theophilus (40) and the Didache (51-53) may be explicable in terms proffered by Prof. Fee thirty years earlier. Prof. Fee's passionate cautions regarding Patristic evidence were such as to have spilled over even into his introductory exegesis courses. One suspects that the radical revision of the Patristic evidence in the apparatus of NA-27 had a portion of its impetus from Prof. Fee's own writings (see also "The Text of John in The Jerusalem Bible: A Critique of the Use of Patristic Ciations in New Textament Textual Criticism" and "The Use of Greek Patristic Citations in New Testament Textual Criticism: The State of the Question").

Prof. Fee has had a knack for publishing strategically important articles for the discipline. This was true of his debunking of the myth that the "Alexandrian" text form was a recension. To a large degree, this work confirmed the basic Hortian program of reconstructing the NT text largely on the basis of the strict text form behind B, at a time when such confidence was beginning to lag.

Prof. Fee has been in the frontlines on issues which have been polemical. At a time when some Christian conservatives (Evangelicals and Fundamentalists) were being swayed by a revival of the Majority Text, Prof. Fee entered the arena and published several articles and debates on the issue. The same is true over the issue of eclecticism; his arguments for a reasoned eclecticism have seemed to have won the day against the rigorous eclecticism of Kilpatrick and Elliott.

Prof. Fee's work still speaks to current issues in tc. The last two decades have seen an increasing interest in the relationship between tc and gospel formation prior to 180 CE. Much of this scholarship would undermine our confidence in our critical text and in the "original text." Prof. Fee has probably written the definitive work looking at the implications of synoptic harmonization for the Synoptic Problem ("Modern Textual Criticism and the Synoptic Problem: On the Problem of harmonization in the Gospels"). Also, he himself has recognized the first 300 years as the "Period of Confusion," yet gives an analysis of this period which is far more sympathetic to Evangelicals and to the issue of biblical authority than is often given ("Textual Criticism of the New Testament;" cf. Koester, Petersen, Ehrman). In a short review of Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of the Text, Prof. Fee politely and with some subtlety shreds methods and conclusions so thoroughly that the book needs to be re-read with great reservation (Critical Review of Books and Religion, Aug 1995, 203-206).

I wonder if Prof. Fee has made his own contribution to the canons of criticism. He argues that "one criterion above all others superintends the scholar's choice at any point of textual variation: the variant that best explains the origin of all the others is most likely original." This probably is not original to Prof. Fee, but in my own limited experience, I have not seen the criterion stated so lucidly elsewhere.

A word should be said in regard to Prof. Fee's relationship to evangelicalism. As a Pentecostal, he admits to having some tensions within his evangelical world. One of these tensions is his emphasis on the Spirit's role in interpreting the text. He is more concerned with what, for example, Paul meant than what the text actually said. As such, he has been a little outside of the issue of inerrancy, and one wonders if maybe his emphasis on the Spirit has more in common with Prof. Parker and the living text approach than the earlier comment may suggest.

More importantly, however, Prof. Fee's evangelicalism can be seen in his far-reaching exegetical work. In an era when the Pastorals were considered not even deutero-Pauline, but trito-Pauline, Prof. Fee argued for their authenticity, and his tiny commentary on the Pastorals (New International Bible Commentary) rocked liberal scholarship way back on its heels. The same is true in regard to Paul's Trinitarianism; while it had become commonplace to dismiss orthodox Trinitarianism as a later Church development, Prof. Fee has boldly argued that the Trinitarianism of the later creeds is latent in Paul's writings, and largely assumed in his theology (God's Empowering Presence, 898; cf. Pauline Christology, 2007).

One important exegetical insistence of Prof. Fee's has import for some recent developments in tc. In the attempt to reconstruct primitive forms of the gospels prior to 180 C.E., a number of scholars have argued that the early Fathers and texts seem uninformed in regard to Jesus' life and teaching. They point out that this is a feature of the earliest Christian writings, and surmise that the four canonical gospels must not have been widely received by the Church in the first two centuries. In so doing, they point to the Pauline writings which have little to say about Jesus' life and ministry, suggesting that Paul knew little of Jesus' life. Prof. Fee would cry foul to this line of reasoning, arguing first of all the ad hoc nature of the Pauline epistles, and that they were task oriented, not treatise of theology or ethics. Typically, Paul wrote to fix problems, and the situation rarely would have required Paul to cite sayings or deeds of Jesus. In this regard, Prof. Fee was fond of pointing out that overly skeptical scholars would assume that Paul knew nothing of the Lord's Supper, except that, quite incidentally, observance of the institution had become a problem in Corinth, requiring Paul to address the situation. Likewise, in our attempt to push the text beyond the 180 C.E. barrier, we should remember this admonition, and ask whether a writing or a writer really had the occasion to refer to Jesus' life and ministry.

But for Prof. Fee, the goal of exegesis is hermeneutics…how one applies what was said back then to our lives today. I think if this is not the essence of evangelicalism, it is very close to its core. For it is only the appropriation of the text into our lives that we are truly Christian. And this is clearly evident in Prof. Fee's life's work.

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