January 18, 2008

Gordon Fee, Paul's Letter to the Philippians

Paul's Letter to the Philippians by Gordon Fee is in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT) series published by Eerdmans. In this important commentary on this gem of a letter, Fee delves deeply into Paul's thought and Paul's world. I deeply enjoyed reading Fee's exposition, and was continually challenged by Paul's deep faith and his unflagging focus on Jesus Christ.

Fee surveys the important issues in the interpretation of Philippians, in constant dialogue (mostly in the notes) with other important commentators, and especially with O'Brien (NIGTC on Philippians), Silva (BECNT on Philippians), R. P. Martin, and Karl Barth, to name a few. But his commentary never gets bogged down in scholarly minutia. While he engages the pertinent issues, he almost entirely leaves his thoughtful technical discussions for the notes, where interested parties can easily find them, but where they can be left to the side to keep the focus on Philippians itself.

Fee looks at the question of the setting of the letter, and leans toward the more traditional view of Paul's Roman imprisonment as the setting (as opposed to either Caesarea or Ephesus, the latter of which has gained a good bit of attention in recent years), though the decision doesn't have much significance for understanding the letter itself. Of the more substantive matters in the letter, the "Christ Hymn" in Phil 2:5-11 has gained a mountain of scholarly attention, and Fee's careful discussion of that passage is insightful and fresh. He argues, against the tide of most modern scholarship, that the "hymn" really isn't a hymn at all, but a Pauline composition integral to the letter, even if poetic in form. And above all, he stresses that regardless, it should be treated as fully endorsed by Paul and integral to the letter, wherever one stands on its origin: Paul included it here for a reason, and it wasn't merely to give us a window into earlier hymnody.

With regard to the interpretation of the letter as a whole, Fee argues that it is a letter of friendship, and that this designation illumines many of the discussions throughout the letter, and especially the more "formal" elements at the beginning and end. This friendship can also be seen throughout in what he describes as a three-way bond between the Philippian believers, Paul, and Christ, which informs many of Paul's discussions and admonitions. As to the content of the letter itself, Fee sees steadfastness (in face of persecution and trial), unity (in face of challenges both within and without), and the unswerving focus on the gospel (living in Christ through the Spirit) as the three recurring themes and ongoing emphases throughout the letter.

There is far too much to comment on in a short review, but this great book deserves reading from cover to cover. Philippians, though not often seen as integral to understanding Paul's theology, is a very important window into Paul's heart. This volume is a great study of this short letter. It also reminds me that I really enjoy the NICNT series. It has great in-depth study of the text and the important exegetical issues, while keeping the discussions of Greek words to the notes. And the authors usually include a relatively brief reflection on the continuing significance or application of a passage to today at the end of each section. This volume, by the current editor of the series, shows why this tends to be the first place I go for NT scholarship.

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