A Review of “Showing the Spirit” by D.A. Carson

carsonSo much of the discussion about spiritual gifts is tied up in an emphasis on practice. Arguments on demonstration of the Spirit’s power and criticisms of excessive drama abound. Lost in much of this current conversation is the actual exposition of Scripture. The emphasis must always be placed on what precisely does the text of Scripture say regarding the use, practice, and continuance of the Spiritual Gifts. Enter, D.A.  Carson. The world-renowned New Testament scholar offers readers great insight into the discussion as he works his way meticulously through the three relevant chapters of 1 Corinthians (12, 13, and 14). In Showing the Spirit Carson offers a balanced critique to both sides of the spiritual gifts debate, rooted in the actual exposition of Scripture.

The debate over the continuance of the spiritual gifts for today is often more heated than helpful. The hyperbolic rhetoric that both sides tend to use does not help the average person discern the truth. On the one side we hear that if you don’t speak in tongues you do not possess the Spirit, and on the other we hear that if you speak in tongues you are following strange spirits instead of the Spirit of God. If anyone is able to help readers navigate through this haze of smoke it is Carson.

Carson’s emphasis on what Scripture says is a breath of fresh air to the debate, and helps to clear away some of the smoke. The book is simple and straightforward in its layout. Carson uses four chapters to break down, section by section, the primary divisions of the three chapters in 1 Corinthians that make up his foci. Obviously the Scriptures speak about the spiritual gifts in more places than just 1 Corinthians, but these three chapters do serve as the foundation for much of what is discussed on the subject, so Carson limits himself to these chapters – making some references to other relevant passages throughout the book. In the first four chapters, then, he covers some of the major issues of the debate: the nature of the “charismata,” “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” when does the “perfect” come, the relationship of prophecy and tongues, and the restraint of the spiritual gifts in corporate worship. He interacts, necessarily, with many of the leading voices on both sides of this debate. In the concluding chapter he offers something of a “theology of spiritual gifts,” though humble in its articulation.

The great benefit of the book is Carson’s meticulous attention to the text. He takes careful time to notice every nuance, word, and structure of the relevant passages. When he interacts with other scholars, theologians, and practitioners he is able to point back to the text to demonstrate how they have missed something or rightly understood something. His whole emphasis centers around what the text actually says. In this regard some readers will find the book tedious. Carson wrangles with the Greek, with seeming contradictions in the text, and with various nuances of reference. All these details matter, he says, and he demonstrates quite ably how they matter. A faulty understanding of these details will lead us to draw wrong conclusions, a misinterpretation or presupposition will take us a direct that is contrary to the context of the passage, as he shows. I was personally struck afresh at just how important every “jot and title” of the text is. The words matter and they matter particularly for this debate.

Carson, surprisingly to this reader, argues for a continuationist position. How he argues for that position is important to note. For, he argues for the continuance of the gifts without emotion, or triumphalism. He argues not from personal experience, but rather from exposition of the Holy Scriptures with intense attention to the details of the text. He offers correctives to Pentecostals and Charismatics where he sees departure in practice from the teaching of Scripture, and he offers challenge to the cessationist who argue simplistically from the text to termination of the gifts. Obviously Carson will not persuade everyone, but he will have to be acknowledged even by his opponents for what he does in this book. Showing the Spirit is a tremendous guiding work both in theology and methodology, and I highly commend it.

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