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Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter

Cessationism is the belief that certain spiritual gifts in the New Testament—namely the more miraculous gifts—have ceased. However, far from concentrating on controversy Dr. Tom Schreiner’s approach is conversational, compassionate to those who hold a different conviction, and compelling in his unpacking of the Biblical text. Schreiner seeks to remind his readers that while he holds a nuanced cessationism (a term he fully explores in the book) this is not a first-order issue; we are not discussing the person of Christ or justification by grace alone through faith alone. At the same time, I appreciate the seriousness with which he approaches the matter of spiritual gifts. There are many churches today that either seek to quench the Spirit through a strict liturgy that allows little room for remembering that our religion is one of relationship, while others engage in hyper-spiritualised ecstatic experiences that have little or nothing in common with the spiritual gifts as they were practiced by the apostles and the early church.

So this is an important book.

Schreiner begins by defining spiritual gifts as “gifts of grace granted by the Holy Spirit which are designed for the edification of the church”. This definition is important, because it immediately builds a framework which is corporate and not focused on benefit to the individual. All spiritual gifts are given to believers so that we would equip and strengthen other believers, thus the gifts are others-centred and not self-centred. Edification comes through understanding; thus Schreiner argues that gifts like tongue-speaking without interpretation is useless and should not be permitted in the congregation (more on this later). We are only edified if we can understand what is being said. Most importantly Schreiner reminds us that all the spiritual gifts are nothing without love. Paul makes clear that love is the wellspring from which all our doctrine and our practice flows.

In the second half of the book, whole chapters are dedicated to the gift of prophecy (chapters 6 and 7), understanding the nature of the gift of tongues (chapters 8 and 9), and exploring the arguments for and against the cessation of the gifts (chapters 10 and 11). These chapters are captivating, and deserve the length and breadth that Schreiner has given them.

The Gift of Prophecy

Those who prophecy communicate spontaneous revelation from God. God communicates his word directly to the mind of the prophet. Prophecy isn’t always predictive; it can also be regarding present circumstances. These words are always intended to instruct, encourage, and warn the people of God. Schreiner argues convincingly that both Old and New Testament prophets were infallible when functioning in their gift—that is, when they spoke what God gave them to speak it was completely free of error and communicated precisely what God intended. The main text for his position comes from Ephesians 2:20 which says that the church “is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” First, Schreiner argues that we must hold New Testament prophecy (just like Old) as authoritative and infallible. With regard to exercising the gift of prophecy today, he writes

If prophecy still exists today, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the foundation established by the apostles and prophets hasn’t been completed”

So, in Schreiner’s judgement what most call prophecy in churches today isn’t the New Testament gift, because that gift is always inerrant. Rather, we could rightly categorise what is happening today as the sharing of impressions; God may impress something on the heart of a person, and they may share that impression to help others in their spiritual walk. This does not diminish the encouragement the impression can provide, or the love the person shares it in; it’s merely a better definition of terms (and one that separates it from infallibility, so that the hearer can be discerning in the reception of it).

The Gift of Tongues

Arguing from Acts and 1 Corinthians, Schreiner makes a compelling case that the gift of tongues is the divinely-given ability to speak in other human languages, and not the ecstatic utterances today that lack both cognitive content and linguistic pattern. When it comes to arguments for ecstatic speech from verses such as 1 Corinthians 14:2 Schreiner shows them unconvincing, for tongues cannot be interpreted without a structure or code to be deciphered (something not present in random vocalisation) indeed the very word for tongue points to discernible language. In short, there is no compelling evidence from Acts or 1 Corinthians that different kinds of tongues-gifts are referred to. Rather, in both instances it was a human language and could be interpreted in order to function as spiritual gifts are intended. It logically follows then that the overwhelming majority of tongues-speaking which takes place in church today does not fit the New Testament’s description of the gift. Schreiner re-emphasises (as he did with prophecy) that this does not mean that those who would speak in ecstatic language are necessarily doing anything wrong, but that it should not be claimed that this is the same as the gift found in Scripture.

A Nuanced Cessationism

1 Corinthians 13:8-12 tells us that the gifts will not persist into the new creation. Schreiner suggests that simply because this text tells us that gifts will end when Christ returns, this does not require that they all continue right up until that point. When it comes to apostleship, the foundation of the church has been laid; we no longer have (or have need of) apostles functioning today. Apostolic authority is enshrined in the Scriptures, and we need not add to it. When James died in Acts 12, he wasn’t replaced with a new apostle, showing that the gift of apostle did not continue into subsequent generations. Paul too saw himself as the last apostle to be appointed (1 Corinthians 15:8). Those who believe apostles continue today open themselves up to a range of dangers and even potential heresies and abuse. Schreiner writes

Most evangelicals agree that no human beings have the authority of the original apostles, and the distinctive authority of the apostles is preserved in the New Testament.

The same is true for the spiritual gift of prophecy as it functioned in both the Old and New Testament. The infallible foundation of the church has already been laid (past tense) by the apostles and prophets, and as such there are good grounds to conclude that this gift as it functioned in the pages of Scripture has also ceased. The very authority of Scripture is threatened if people believe they are functioning in the infallible, Biblical role of prophet today.

Miracles and Healing

Finally, when it comes to gifts such as miracles and healing Schreiner recognises that God can and does still heal and perform miracles according to his will, and we praise him for this. His nuanced cessationism doesn’t mean there are no miracles or healings, but this is counter-balanced by the belief that these things don’t exist as “gifts” in a person today. Miracles and healings may happen, but they are not normative and regular in the weekly experience of churches everywhere, and certainly not to the blind-seeing, dead-raising degree that the New Testament church saw. This is why his position is “nuanced cessationism”; because while Schreiner holds that these gifts are not persistenly displayed in any individuals to the degree that it would be considered equal to the New Testament gift, he keeps open the possibility that God may continue to grant great signs and wonders in certain “cutting edge missionary situations.”

Why This Book?

I found Dr. Schreiner’s writing to be compelling, kind, and a valuable contribution to the way Christians think about what they see and hear of the practice of spiritual gifts in the church today. It is important to be reminded that these gifts are given by the grace of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of building up the church. They are not primarily intended for evangelism, for building a personal platform, nor are they proof of the salvation or greater spiritual maturity of an individual. I also appreciated Schreiner’s point that the great theologians whom God used to bring about the Protestant Reformation were themselves all cessationists; not because they wouldn’t have loved to see God move in the miraculous in their day, but because of their conviction developed from studying the Scriptures. Schreiner’s nuanced cessationism leaves me with much to think about (and certainly his presentation of arguments against the cessation of gifts helps me to form a solid position). There are many more conversations to be had, and Schreiner’s work will inescapably be a part of those discussions moving forward.

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