[An abbreviated version of this post appeared earlier on EerdWord.com.]
by James Ernest, editor-in-chief
Most Eerdmans readers probably know by now that Gordon Fee died Tuesday, October 25, in New York City. My predecessor, Jon Pott—veteran of many meals and many pages with Dr. Fee—told me and Anita Eerdmans later that day. Then Wednesday Regent College announced the news in a memorial post that many of you have no doubt already read.
Gordon—or as I am still more comfortable saying, Dr. Fee—was related to Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing both as author and as series editor. But to many of us he was much more than author and editor.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT, 1987) established his reputation as a first-rate exegete not only among evangelicals but in the wider world of biblical scholarship. It also earned him an invitation to succeed F. F. Bruce as editor of the New International Commentary on the New Testament three years later; more on that below.
With Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Studies and Documents 45, 1993), coauthored with his dissertation director, Eldon Jay Epp, he stepped back into his core original academic specialty, but a second NICNT volume, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, appeared in 1995.
In 1999, Eerdmans published a Festschrift for Dr. Fee, Romans and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, edited by Sven K. Soderlund and N.T. Wright, with contributions by a number of his former colleagues at Gordon-Conwell and Regent College along with peers in New Testament studies: Rikki E. Watts, N. T. Wright, Ralph P. Martin, Richard N. Longenecker, J. I. Packer, James D. G. Dunn, J. Ramsey Michaels, Craig A. Evans, Edith M. Humphrey, Philip H. Towner, I. Howard Marshall, Michael W. Holmes, Marianne Meye Thompson, L. W. Hurtado, R. T. France, Robert H. Gundry, Barbara Aland, Eugene H. Peterson, and R. Paul Stevens.
Listening to the Spirit in the Text (2000), a small collection of his essays, was followed in 2001 by a larger collection, To What End Exegesis? Essays Textual, Exegetical, and Theological.
In 2009, another NICNT commentary, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, appeared. A large collaborative reference work, The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible, coedited with NICOT editor Robert L. Hubbard and largely written by his former student Connie Gundry Tappy, was published in 2011. Finally, in 2014, a revised edition of The First Epistle to the Corinthians, was published.
Apart from his own teaching and writing, Dr. Fee contributed monumentally to New Testament interpretation as the third editor of the New International Commentary on the New Testament, succeeding Ned B. Stonehouse (1946–1962) and F. F. Bruce (1962–1990), and preceding the current editor, Joel B. Green (2013–).
After learning of Dr. Fee’s passing, I drove to the Eerdmans office and dove into the archive. Some of you may understand how elated I was to find a fat dossier of correspondence from the 1980s and 1990s.
One of the gems that I found was a letter from F. F. Bruce to Bill Eerdmans Jr., dated October 30, 1981. Professor Bruce had first signed the letter formally (“F. F. Bruce”) and then remembered who he was writing to, covered his signature with a piece of tape, and wrote “Fred.” In a postscript, he wrote, “Gordon Fee, you will recall, has offered to do a replacement volume for F. W. Grosheide’s 1 Corinthians, and I think his offer should be accepted.”
Bill Eerdmans, trusting Professor Bruce’s good judgment, soon wrote to Dr. Fee offering to send a contract.
Dr. Fee, in return, promptly wrote back, accepting the offer, provided that he be allowed around five years to complete the work. As an editor, I especially admire the end of the first paragraph: “I should be able to complete [the commentary] by the end of 1986. That target date is an honest attempt to be realistic, and I have a pretty good track record in this regard.” Indeed.
The quality of the First Corinthians commentary, and Dr. Fee’s efficiency in completing it, made him the press’s choice to succeed F. F. Bruce as series editor, as announced in a May 1990 memo from Bill Jr. to authors of works in progress in the series. (Professor Bruce died the following September.)
For many who knew him, Gordon Fee was not only, and not even mainly, a renowned author and series editor. To his children, of course, he was a beloved father; we extend our heartfelt condolences to Mark, Cherith, Brian, Craig, and their families. But to I know not how many scores or hundreds more, he was—well, how to say it? When I heard of his passing, the biblical phrase that came to me instantly was this sentence, uttered by Elisha when his teacher Elijah was taken from him: “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel!” I am no Elisha. But for me and many others, Dr. Fee, whom we eventually learned to call Gordon, was indeed teacher, prophet, and spiritual father.
I was a student at Wheaton College around 1979 when Dr. Fee, who had taught at Wheaton before moving on to Gordon Conwell, came to campus to deliver Staley Lectures. I remember sitting in the large lecture room in Edman Chapel listening, spellbound, to Dr. Fee’s account of the significance of the work of B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort—names previously unfamiliar to me—and realizing that so much more than I had imagined remained for me to learn about the origins and history of the New Testament. So off to Gordon-Conwell I went. Between 1981 and 1984 I think I took every class that he offered.
I learned from him in the classroom, certainly, how to read a text with scrupulous care, allowing the text to speak for itself. But I learned much more. This is an odd thing to remember, perhaps, but one of the moments that was somehow seared indelibly in my memory is attending a chapel service, and thinking—oh, are we really going to sing that dull old chestnut?—and then, as we sang “I Need Thee Every Hour,” suddenly spotting Dr. Fee across the room, and seeing, from the movement of his face and his hands as he sang, that my teacher knew that he deeply needed God’s presence every hour. I have loved that hymn ever since. Whenever I sing it, I sing it with my old teacher.
I remember being in one of his classes, and listening as his voice rose and fell as he expounded some minute textual detail; and when it was time for the mid-class break one of my close friends—another Greek-teaching fellow who was in that class with me, and who was a fellow member with Gordon of the Assemblies of God, and knew him better than I—leaned over to me and said: “Sometimes, I want to say: Gordon, not everything is really that exciting.” But my friend was wrong! It was all gripping, all electrifying. Every jot and tittle. The more closely you look, the more the glory flashes out. (My friend knew that too.)
I will not indulge myself by writing out here all my memories of what I learned from this most remarkable of teachers. Many of you, perhaps, have memories of your own. I will just end by noting that I am writing on the eve of All Saints, and that in church yesterday morning—an Evangelical Covenant congregation in West Michigan where my wife was the guest preacher—I heard a fine sermon on Ephesians 1 that worked its way around to inviting congregants to reflect on the communion of the saints, on the people in our own lives who have been called and transformed by God in ways that have in turn catalyzed our own transformation by the Spirit of God. And then I saw projected on the screen the face of my old teacher.
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.