The Spiritual Gifts: Understanding the Views (Part 1)

Understanding the valid options before us is an important starting place in any venture. That is certainly true as we wrestle with important theological concepts and practices. With regard to the Spiritual Gifts four dominant views have been widely accepted within Evangelicalism. A quick survey of the views will help us think carefully about the strengths and weaknesses of each view.

Of course no theological system is perfect. Each has strengths and weaknesses because they are systems developed by man in order to explain the divine. The issue is not which perfectly and faultlessly explains the Bible’s conceptual and practical teachings on the gifts, for no view does that. The question is, rather, which one does the most justice to the overall presentation of the Scriptures. Recognizing their strengths will allow us to affirm one another, and recognizing their weaknesses will allow us to nuance our own views as well as sharpen one another’s.

We may look at the views along a spectrum. On the one end of the spectrum is the theological position that denies the continuance of the charismatic spiritual gifts. On the other end we may note the view which teaches the full continuance of the gifts today. In between these two views are a host of varied positions leaning closer to one or the other of the extreme opposites. For the sake of brevity and clarity, however, it will be best to think of four dominant views which reflect the majority of theological debate within Evangelicalism. Those four views may be stated as: The Cessationist view, the Open but Cautious view, the Third Wave view, and the Pentecostal/Charismatic view. A brief look and critique of each will provide a good starting place for the study of the spiritual gifts.

The Cessationist view – this view denies the continuance of the miraculous or charismatic spiritual gifts for today. Advocates of this view believe such gifts “ceased” with the passing of the Apostles. This view contends that the gifts such as healing, tongues, and prophecies were the gifts which substantiated the message of the apostles, but with the completion of the canon of Scripture these gifts are no longer required. The miraculous gifts substantiated the authority of the apostles as God’s chosen spokesman for the establishment of the church. Since we do not have modern-day apostles with an identical authority or role, the gifts are no longer necessary. Part of their contention of the continuance of the gifts is their relationship to the Scriptures. If the Word of God is the finished, authoritative, and sufficient Word, then what do we make of gifts that seem to add to those Scriptures. This is not a small concern. The Word of God, not experience, is our ultimate source of authority, so this issue is a dominant one in the debate over the continuance of the gifts.

The Open But Cautious view – Next along the spectrum is this view which holds out the possibility for the continuance of these miraculous gifts. This view attempts to hold in tension two important issues of the debate over the continuance of the gifts: (1) there is no explicit statement denying their continuance; and (2) the apostolic era, with its corresponding demonstrations of the Spirit, was unique in the history of the church. Holding to these two features allows the advocates of this position to affirm the continuance of the gifts in principle while questioning the legitimacy of much of what passes today for demonstrations of the Spirit. Much like the previous position, this one views apostleship as a spiritual gift and since the era of the apostles was unique and has since ended, it is not likely that we will see identical demonstrations of the Spirit’s power today. They do not rule out the possibility entirely, because they do not see a specific Scriptural teaching on the continuance of the gifts. Nonetheless, the uniqueness of the role and time of the apostles causes them to be very cautious about claiming the miraculous for today.

The Third Wave view – Moving away from the Cessationist position we come first to the Third Wave view. Third Wave is a particularly strange label for this group, but the title is reflective of the position’s temporal location. The belief in the continuance of the gifts has developed in America Christianity across three stages. The firs stage, stemming from the Second Great Awakening, has been identified as Pentecostalism (see below). The second stage, developing in the 1960s, was seen as a Charismatic renewal movement, which spread through Protestantism in America, and England, and eventually even impacted the Roman Catholic Church at large. Within the third stage, or Third Wave, the belief and practice of the Charismatic gifts began to impact Evangelical churches in more pronounced ways (Pentecostalism was largely rejected by many Evangelical denominations, though it found a home in mainline churches at the time). Third Wave Charismatics believe in the continuance of the Spiritual gifts, seeing no Biblical defense against their continuance. Unlike their counterparts in Pentecostalism, however, they do not believe that the experience of these gifts come upon a select few by means of a “baptism in the Spirit” post-conversion. The Spiritual gifts belong to the whole church, all believers, since all are “baptized into the Spirit” at the moment of conversion. This is their unique and distinct feature as a system.

Pentecostalism – Finally, we reach the other end of the spectrum. Here we find those who represent both the First and Second stages of the continuastionist movement. Those in this camp believe in the continuance of the full range of spiritual gifts given to the church in the New Testament. These gifts, however, are experienced by those select few believers who have had a second outpouring of the Spirit of God after conversion. The doctrine of subsequence, as it is called, is to be desired and pursued and it is confirmed by a believer’s ability to speak in tongues. Speaking in tongues, then, becomes the significant sign of Pentecostalism and much of the Charismatic movement at large.

Each view has strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand we recognize the desire of the first two views to protect the sufficiency and completion of Scripture. No further “word from the Lord” is required. We have all we need for “life and godliness” within the canon. On the other hand, the latter two views encourage us to use the text of Scripture as the guide for our expectation of walking in the Spirit. If the Bible describes the New Testament believer’s experience of the Spirit as it does, then we would be wrong to come up with some other standard or expectation. Both, it may be said, then, have a commitment to the Scriptures as authoritative, thought clearly their emphases are different.

The first two are also highly concerned with guarded against spiritual abuses in the church. There is much that passes for spirit work in the church today that is contrary to Scripture. Name-it-and-claim-it theology is diametrically opposed to Scriptural teaching, and any “word from the Lord” which teaches something out of step with God’s Word is false. Submission to the Word of God is of the utmost importance.

The latter two views, however, do have a high level expectation of experiencing the Spirit. The language of Scripture commends the believer’s relationship with and empowerment by the Spirit of God. We are foolish and perhaps even sinful to deny this, ignore this, or minimize this. Far too many Christians live impotent spiritual lives because they have a poor theology of the Spirit. These latter two views challenge that perception.

Each view, also has weaknesses, however, and it will be worth it next week to explore those issues in more detail. As we come to wrestle with the nature of the Spiritual Gifts, and assess their continuance we want to think carefully about both strengths and weaknesses of each view. Only then can we begin to make informed, theological, and Biblical decisions about their place in our individual and corporate lives.

1 Comment

  1. You really know how to take on a challenge. Long ago (senior year in High School?) I had attended classes in a non-denominational Charismatic Movement church in Detroit that some of my Christian friends were a part of. I wanted to understand them better, so went through their membership classes where they presented their position pretty thoroughly. Upon completion, I asked if it would be possible to meet with the elders to speak with them regarding their teaching that “the ‘Gift of Tongues” was for every Christian, and was the signature proof that you were indeed a Christian. I was quite fearful as I was quite young, only four years as a born-again believer, and there were something like 6-8 of them. I quite humbly was able to show from scripture where this was not so from my lay understanding of Scripture. To my astonishment, they stood corrected on their beliefs, and announced such the following week to their church body. I wish I still had my notes from that, but they are long gone. My wife insists that I have received the “Gift of Tongues” — ENGLISH, because I experienced an instantaneous healing of a grossly stammering tongue (about the same time as the above).

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