Spirituality is More Than Just Non-Physical Reality

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ListeningSpiritGodGordon Fee is one of the most gifted writers on how to read scripture in the last 30 years. He is probably best known for some of his New Testament commentaries and his book “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth“. I have been reading his book Listening to the Spirit in the Text and have found it very helpful on many levels. Fee is Pentecostal so there may be a few things in there many will disagree with when it comes to spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, etc. But there are still some nuggets of wisdom that I took away from this book.

The biggest thing that changed my perspective in this book was his discussion of the word “spiritual” in Paul’s letters. Fee wrote that in all his studies of Paul’s letters that he came to the conclusion that Paul’s use of the word “spiritual”/”pneumatikos” always refers back to the Holy Spirit. In other words, “spirituality” is not a blanket term for non-physical entities but is always related to the Holy Spirit. Here is what he wrote,

“The point that needs to be made is that the word pneumatikos, a distinctively Pauline word in the New Testament, has the Holy Spirit as its primary referent. Paul never uses 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.

In the New Testament, therefore, spirituality is defined altogether in terms of the Spirit of God (or Christ). One is spiritual to the degree that one lives in and walks by the Spirit; in Scripture the word has no other meaning, and no other measurement. Thus, when Paul says that ‘the Law is spiritual’ he means that the Law belongs to the sphere of the Spirit (inspired of the Spirit as it is), not to the sphere of the flesh…So also, when Paul says to the Corinthians (14:27), ‘if any of you thinks he is spiritual,’ he means, ‘if any of you think of yourselves as a Spirit person, a person living the life of the Spirit.’ And when he says to the Galatians (6:1) that ‘those who are spiritual should restore one who has been overtaken in a transgression,’ he is not referring to some special or elitist group in the church, but to the rest of the believing community, who both began their life in the Spirit and come to completion by the same Spirit who produces his own fruit in their lives…True spirituality, therefore, is nothing more nor less than life by the Spirit.” (Fee, 5-6)

This sheds light on what it means to engage in “spiritual disciplines”. It means more than just doing something that has a non-visible effect. It means we are engaging ourselves specifically in the work of the Spirit. When it comes to reading and interpreting scripture we realize that it is a “spiritual” event in that the Holy Spirit is at work when we engage ourselves in those activities. I don’t know how the Spirit does it and I can’t place my finger on how it works all the time but that doesn’t keep me from believing it is true. If I am limited to only accepting as true those things that I can fully understand, there is no room left for faith and I end up limiting the work of God within me. This should encourage us to be more and more immersed in the Word of God because it isn’t about getting it done. It is about partnering with God and God’s work in us and through us by His Spirit. That is exciting!

4 Responses

  1. Matt, it seems like this would take some heavy duty study to either confirm or reject. Given Fee’s predetermined views on the Holy Spirit this interpretation would give me pause. I guess the line that raised the biggest question was that Paul *never* used the word in any way other than in reference to the Holy Spirit. When I see the word *never* or *always* I get cautious. I have found that Fee is an acceptable scholar (although I do not care for him as much as some others seem to like him) but any time the Holy Spirit is even remotely in the picture, that is all Fee can see. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I would like to know how Fee’s academic peers have responded to this assertion, and just how thorough the linguistic and grammatical evidence is.

    1. Paul, one way to find this out fairly quickly would be to use BDAG to cross reference every verse that uses pneumatikos and see what gloss they give it and the context. That is where I would start. Maybe on Mo day I can give that a look.

      There are probably some fringe uses to his theory that his own biases might lead him to twist a bit back to the Holy Spirit. For the most part he is a careful scholar who knows exegesis but it is important to be aware of potential biases. That is why I mentioned his Pentecostal background in the post so people could be aware of that. Thanks for elaborating and voicing your concern!

  2. Thanks Matt – I guess I really should have added that I am not opposed to his conclusion if it is valid – in fact as you said it would open up a whole new idea for me as I then go back and re-read Paul’s letters. In a sense I would LIKE this to be true, but since it comes from Fee I am hesitant. Not dismissive, but hesitant. Now…if it had come from an F.F. Bruce or a J.R.W. Stott or similar author I would not have been so questioning. Funny how predispositions cut both ways in the interpretation business, huh? Thanks for the tip on the book – I am always in the market for another good book, and I appreciate bloggers sharing their reading lists.

  3. The other manner in which one could receive a spiritual gift was through the laying on of an apostle’s hands. In Acts 8, Philip the evangelist had successfully established a community of believers, baptizing them into Christ (vs. 16). However, none of those new Christians had received a spiritual gift. Though filled “with the Spirit” (Acts 6:5), Philip was apparently unable to bestow such gifts. Hence the apostles, Peter and John, journeyed to Samaria for the express purpose of imparting some gifts (Vss. 14, 15). The action involved in the impartation included prayer (vs. 15) and the laying on of hands (vs. 17). That it was through this manner that the gifts were transmitted is established by Luke’s testimony in vs. 18, “Now when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money.” If there had been another group of persons capable of bestowing the gifts or another means or manner for reception of the gifts, then Peter and John would not have come to Samaria. The work and writings of Paul (Acts 19:1-7; Rom. 1:11; 2 Tim. 1:6) confirm the conclusion that the apostles, that body of men possessing the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18), were the only ones capable of imparting the gifts.

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