I know, I know. The blog title sounds like an overstatement. Maybe—but it’s at least the best essay I’ve read on the subject.

Written by Vern Poythress and published in JETS in 1996, it’s called “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit.”

Here’s the thesis:

I maintain that modern spiritual gifts are analogous to but not identical with the divinely authoritative gifts exercised by the apostles. Since there is no strict identity, apostolic teaching and the biblical canon have exclusive divine authority. On the other hand, since there is analogy, modern spiritual gifts are still genuine and useful to the church. Hence, there is a middle way between blanket approval and blanket rejection of modern charismatic gifts.

On prophecy he says, “If charismatics and noncharismatics could agree on these points, I think that the debate on modern spiritual gifts would be largely over.”

Here’s an outline of the sections:

  1. Christocentricity of gifts
  2. A pyramid of giftedness
  3. Awareness of basis for words and action
  4. Distinctive focuses for content
  5. The question of modern charismatic gifts
  6. Circumstantial content received through nondiscursive processes
  7. Predictions
  8. Commands
  9. Welcoming spiritual gifts
  10. The debate about the cessation of prophecy
  11. Modern speaking in tongues
  12. Historical accounts of extraordinary events

The following diagram might not make a lot of sense without reading the essay, but it does a helpful job of pulling together the way in which Dr. Poythress sees spiritual gifts functioning in biblical times and today:

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31 thoughts on “The Best Essay Ever Written on Spiritual Gifts Today”

  1. Justin,

    I agree with your title with the same caveat; the best I have read. Well worth the read!

    Jude

  2. Bill Higley says:

    Thanks for pointing us to this article Justin, very informative and thoughtful.

    Bill H.

  3. Brad says:

    “If charismatics and noncharismatics could agree on these points, I think that the debate on modern spiritual gifts would be largely over.”

    Agreed, but asking both sides to fuse into a “middle way” on this issue seems pretty optimistic. God can do anything, but it would take a miracle to bring both sides together – please forgive the pun.

    Brad

  4. Bruce Russell says:

    The Charismatic gifts pointed the church to the authorized apostolic witness and gave supernatural punctuation to the end of the Torah age and beginning of the New Covenant. Any resumption or claimed resumption of Charismatic gifts diminishes the authority and influence of the apostolic witness and brings confusion to the church. This middle way is an attempt to minimize the confusion. Eliminate it completely by removing the rock music induced mysticism which is the Charismatic movement.

    1. J.Clark says:

      This seems rather simple. Could you give some Biblical support that the charismatic gifts were a signal of the end of the Torah age and the beginning of the new covenant? And could you show us what date or with what person it ended? I don’t remember that verse.

      1. Bruce Russell says:

        J. Clark:

        Breaking down the wall of separation was a huge change for the people of God.

        The renting of the veil, the resurrection, Pentecost, the destruction of Jerusalem, these were historical facts. The calling of the Jews and Gentiles to the New Covenant in the church required similar supernatural signs to the host generation.

        Supposed modern Charismatic signs divert people from the treasures revealed in the Greek New Testament and to the unique unrepeatable redemptive history of the 1st century.

        1. J.Clark says:

          I actually agree with everything you say here. But what I don’t see is any evidence that God commanded some kind of stoppage. The Supernatural didn’t stop after the red sea. And your argument is actually hitting on the very reason why gifts still exist: to point to the glorious and powerful working of Jesus Christ in the life of all those who believe. But if we take the argument as you leave it then we are left with nothing. Have not Christians used the church, offering, positions, theology, doctrine, preaching, teaching,etc. in a way that diminished the Glory of God? So do those cease as well? And after all, no history is repeatable but God’s Spirit comes as it wills on every generation. So the charismatic gifts exist to point to the glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

          1. Bruce Russell says:

            J. Clark:

            Unfortunately, the put the focus on the person exercising them, who gets outsized influence from the gullible and naive who believe he is a divine channel. These gifts are self-centric and non-falsifiable, until it’s too late.

            –Bruce

    2. Brad says:

      “Eliminate it completely by removing the rock music induced mysticism which is the Charismatic movement.”

      See what I mean? As long as arguments like this one is attached to the debate, there is simply no hope for any middle way. This is not to slam Bruce’s view, but to point out the obvious..,that the division on both sides is much deeper than Mr.Poythress intimates in his essay.

      Brad

  5. sae says:

    I have always wondered–if tongues today are not from God, where are they from? Just our imagination, Satan, or ???? And why do certain churches have all the tongues speakers and some have none? You would think if tongues were from God and were active today, at least someone in a non-tongue megachurch, for example, would be speaking them.

    1. J.Clark says:

      I think there are many who do speak in tongues (other denominations, megachurches, etc.) but believe that many charismatics apply it wrongly.

  6. Michael says:

    How does a charismatic who believes in the continuation of prophecy (or tongues) hold to sola scriptura?

    – If prophecy and tongues add to scripture, then you cannot hold to sola scriptura.
    – If prophecy and tongues do not add to scripture, hence adding no new revelation from God, then they are unnecessary and just add confusion.

    1. @ J.T.

      Spon on. This is a great article and one that helped me develop a better understanding of subordiante gifts. Cheers, Jesse

    2. @ Michael

      Great question. I believe the Scriptures hold-up a subordinate “revelation” to that of the Scripture without conflict.

      You can check this post out to see what I’m saying http://reformedandreforming.org/2009/12/05/reformed-continuationist-why-the-gift-of-prophecy-does-not-undermine-the-authority-of-the-bible/

      Cheers, Jesse

    3. Justin Taylor says:

      Michael,

      The article attempts to answer this question.

      JT

    4. J.Clark says:

      Yet the New Testament figures held to the scriptures and practiced such gifts. Maybe there is a misunderstanding of what the gifts are for? Namely, that tongues and prophecy do not add to the scriptures but affirm them.

    5. Kim Noble says:

      Hi Michael–excellent questions and they address, precisely, some of the most basic, yet crucial, questions I have regarding the charismatic movement. Even under the guise of “affirmation” vs. “addition”, I still take issue with some of these exact definitions.

      I can’t speak authoritatively, on an academic level, but I can speak experientially (for what it’s worth) from church and (big, regional) church camps about the environment. I was explicitly taught affirmation, but the tones of addition were there. They were adding to Scriptural commands and commentary on life (not just generally, but specific to people’s current needs, as well) through perceived prophecy, tongues and miracles. “God saith this” and “… thus saith the Lord.” or “God told me…” were common. Words spoken generally to the congregation and/or specifically to someone’s life situation(s) vs. the Scriptures containing the authority and sufficiently/completely “equipping for every good work.” (cf. II Tim. 3:16-17)

      I don’t want to be pegged as the “anti” Charismatic. I’m so thankful for many who are in the movement who have personally fed me, spiritually, some deep, theological truths. But I also recognize that many who are in the movement can and are confused about exactly whose spoken authority they should be following, as if there’s some sort of authoritative pyramid.

      I also know, experientially, confusion from trying to reconcile my own lack of faith with God’s gift of faith–which one is more powerful concerning specific situations in my life starting with salvation? The answer: With man everything! is impossible, but with God nothing! is impossible. (my own exclamation!) :) God will finish what He started.

      IMHO, trying to find a middle ground to appease both sides is a slippery slope away from Sola Scriptura.

      Michael–excellent questions and, IMO, address the crux of some challenges a Charismatic might face, at least based on my experience. :)

  7. This is great stuff. With regard to cessation/continuation, I’ve come to consider both inadequate and I would tend to agree with Dr. Poythress. There are cessationists who deny as valid any nondiscursive spiritual gifts and continuationists who accept nondiscursive spiritual gifts today as being inspired. Both need to be tempered. God has closed his canon, but does wonderful things like appear to people directly in closed countries to bring his people to faith and cause people to know languages that they have not studied. One lady in my church in doing missions in South America was suddenly functionally fluent in Spanish and one South American lady we were working with was suddenly functionally fluent in English. Poof – Just like that.

    The only thing that makes me a little cautious about Dr. Poythress’ observations is the distinction between level 3 and level 4. I don’t think he means to say that we need super-spiritual human intermediaries between God and ordinary people, but it seems like he’s saying that there are two categories of people today within the set of all believers: the exceptionally gifted and the mostly useless masses. It seems to provide an excuse for spiritually immature Christians to remain so or for the ministerially competitive overachievers to not equip others for greater ministry.

  8. Ted Bigelow says:

    What about Wilkerson’s prediction of 1,000 fires engulfing New York. Why, he says some of these fires will devastate Connecticut, where I live. They will also engulf parts of New Jersey. Well, depending upon which part, could that be a good thing?? ;)

    He says he was compelled by the Holy Spirit.

    Here’s the link: http://davidwilkersontoday.blogspot.com/2009/03/urgent-message.html

    But with Poythress’ methodolology, we have to wait to see if Wilkerson’s predictions come true before we can reckon them as mistaken. How long should we wait?

    Poythress writes:
    “Once we realize that predictions based on nondiscursive processes are not in some special “divine” category, and are just as fallible as predictions based on discursive processes, we are ready to practice sanity. We neither totally reject nor credulously accept these predictions.”

    Well, I for one, as a cessationist, can totally reject Wilkerson’s words. Not because New York City can’t go up in fire, it can. Its just that Scripture explains how to recognize strange fire when it comes our way.

  9. Another excellent article on this topic, and much shorter than Poythress :-)

    http://www.grantedministries.org/articles/cessation_vs_continuance_c_l.pdf

  10. Clarification Dave says:

    Let’s add some more insight from Terry Scott Taylor and Daniel Amos

    Theo’s Logic

    from the album “BibleLand”
    Words and Music by Terry Taylor
    ©1994 Twitchen Vibes/B-1 Music/ Chenka-Chenka Music/ Word Music, ASCAP

    He said I wasn’t going to heaven
    then I’ll see him down in hell
    I thought I was going to heaven
    Now it’s very hard to tell

    I hold these views but I get no respect
    Theo says that’s not theologically correct

    My grandmother’s up there waiting
    She spoke to me one night
    She said “there are millions of us praying
    that you will be alright.”

    I hold these views but I get no respect
    Theo says that’s not theologically correct

    Jesus spoke to me only once
    audibly for sure
    When I was down on my luck,
    He offered me the cure
    He said “This trial is over”
    I haven’t heard that voice since then
    We both agree I’m a sinner,
    and what happens in the end

    I hold these views but I get no respect
    Theo says that’s not theologically correct

    I had a quarter in my pocket
    I pumped way too much gas
    and like those bread and fishies
    my little quarter turned to cash

    I said that God’s a mystery
    so much that’s hard to tell
    Theo said I wasn’t going to heaven
    then I’ll see him down in hell

    I hold these views but I get no respect
    I guess that we just don’t philosophically connect
    aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh, aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh, aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh…

    1. Ted Bigelow says:

      Hi Dave,

      My dear friend, salvation is even easier than Theo makes it out to be

      Romans 10:8-13 But what does God say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART “– that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”

      Even Theo couldn’t have imagined that God Himself would do the saving, and that it wasn’t dependent on Him.

  11. Marv says:

    I have to agree that it is perhaps the best essay on the topic I have read also. A few things to say. His title says “within cessationist theology.” Sorry, I think he is quite close to nailing Continuationist theology on the head. With allowance for some minor variation in expression, it fits almost exactly with what Scott Lencke and I have been getting at in our posts at http://Continuationism.com.

    Personally, I prefer to reserve “inspired” for the Scriptures. I don’t think either people or gifts fit here, but the distinction Poythress makes between Christ and the apostles and everyone else is very significant. Also (accepting his terminology for a moment) I don’t think it is exactly a matter of chronology, that gifts prior to the close of the Canon were “inspired” and modern ones not. Even in NT times gifts exercised by non-apostles were non-“inspired.” I’m not quite sure it completely makes sense to speak of “apostolic gifts.” Also Scott might want to say something slightly different from Poythress about the word “apostle.”

    Anyway, I intend to post a link to the article on our blog and see if I get get it added to our available materials.

  12. Dan Phillips says:

    Justin, it’s so endearing to see you all giddy like this.

  13. Jack says:

    Friends,

    Regardless of the theological truths at stake in this article and discussion, I am having a bit of trouble accepting Poythress’ argument in its most basic form.

    The author relies rather heavily on the Luke-Revelation analogy, as you well know.

    His premise, to the best of my understanding, is that because there is a modern ecclesiastical practice that correlates analogously with the inspired formation of Luke, there must also be a modern ecclesiastical practice that correlates with the inspired formation of Revelation, namely, a Spirit-induced vision.

    This logical flow, (perhaps wrongly inferred from the article at hand by me), is simply invalid. It is like arguing that because humans have one analogous trait to a fish (say swimming), it makes sense to claim any another analogous trait as our own, (say dwelling in the ocean). We cannot claim the second biological analogy as fact simply because the first is abundantly clear.

    I happen to attend a church staunchly committed to the continuation of the more “miraculous” NT spiritual gifts such as prophesy and tongues. So I’m certainly not trying to slam Poythress’ intent by any means.

    This assumed correlation between the composition of Revelation and our modern experience in the church is hanging me up though.

    Am I misconstruing the author’s premise? I would love feedback; I’ve been wrestling through this topic lately so I was very happy to see this post. Thanks!

  14. Kevin says:

    A useful contribution to a debate that will continue to rage on and test the unity of believers. I wonder about some of Vern’s framework, but I agree with his conclusions, and I appreciated the anecdotes.

    I am Reformed in outlook, but am uncomfortable with strict cessationism. Like so many doctrinal positions, the Reformed creeds and confessions tend to reflect something of a reaction to the excesses of the practices of the charismatics of their day. We find ourselves in a similar position today.

    The middle road proposed in the essay is, in fact, very difficult to negotiate from a pastoral and practical point of view in a single congregation, which is why people tend to flee to other churches that not only accept, but celebrate their respective positions and leads to the polarization we so often see.

    In my experience, and despite the anecdotes, it seems like the only people happy with Vern’s position are Reformed people who agree in principle, but have never experienced the “show” gifts of the holy spirit personally. Once an average believer has “an experience” they believe is from the spirit, they tend to dive all the way in, and the friction begins immediately.

    Sometimes good fences make good neighbors.

  15. I appreciate this subject area quite a bit, for therein lies some of the success and folly of the Church. I am curious as to the demarcation between apostles vs. prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, though. I believe that the authoritative text would be Ephesians 4. Where does the distinction between “divine authority” and “under biblical authority” arise? I do not know of any such text from scripture.

  16. David Houston says:

    It’s a very interesting essay but Dr. Poythress seems to be pushing the concept of analogy pretty far between the gifts during the early church and the phenomena we witness today. Can we find one aspect of a worship service condoned in scripture which has something in common with another activity and bring that activity into the worship of the church and apply those rules to the new activity? For example, could we pass around a hamburger to the celebrate the Lord’s supper because the meat is analogous to the body and the juice is analogous to the blood? I am not saying that Dr. Poythress would ever condone this sort of thing but without some clear limits to his concept of analogy it seems that anything goes. Although I think that a lot more people would appreciate communion if we did it this way… just something to pray about… :P

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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