The Spiritual Gifts: Understanding the Views (Part 5)

Theological viewpoints, like so many things in life, run along a spectrum. Inevitably what happens is that our lack of nuance tends towards extremes and over-corrections. On the one end of the spectrum regarding the continuance of the spiritual gifts we have the Cessationist viewpoint, which argues that the gifts have ceased completely. On the other end we have the Pentecostal view, which argues for the continuance of the gifts in the same identical manner as they existed among the apostolic church. It is the latter viewpoint I want to consider in this post, and give careful attention to its weaknesses. The great weakness of this view is tied to its misunderstanding of the “baptism of the Spirit.”

Pentecostalism has done much good for the church. Through its emphasis on the Holy Spirit there has been a great resurgence of interest in studying, writing on, and celebrating the third person of the Trinity. In addition there are things about the broader Pentecostal/Charismatic view that are worth wrestling with and which offer fruitful challenge to my theology. Yet, the focus of this post is to express concern primarily over this system’s view on the “baptism of the Spirit,” which sits at the center of this system’s view on the spiritual gifts. The fundamental flaw is its failure to see baptism of the Spirit as part and parcel of conversion, not as an extraneous work post-conversion.

Pentecostalism is not simple to define. Within this theological camp there are variations and nuances that lead to divergent subgroups. So, there are some strong differences between what is termed simply Pentecostal and what is identified with Pentecostal-holiness. Whether it is called, strictly speaking, a “second blessing” or not, most Pentecostals understand the Baptism of the Spirit as something that happens post-conversion and is connected to empowerment for ministry or filling by the Spirit. The “Initial Physical Evidence” of this baptism is speaking in tongues, and so this particular gift of the Spirit is highly valued and elevated within the Pentecostal community.

There are only seven passages in all of Scripture that speak of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Four those passages reference Christ (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; and John 1:33). These passages do not tell us anything in the way of specificity about this baptism. Two of the passages are located in Acts (Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16) and reference the events of Pentecost in 2:14. Baptism in the Spirit, then, is certainly something, whatever it is, that happened at Pentecost. The final reference is 1 Corinthians 12:13, which is debated. Here we read:

 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

When Paul speaks of being “baptized in one Spirit” is he referencing the same idea as these other passages? This is a much debated text. As New Testament scholar D.A. Carson says, “Almost every word and syntactical unit in this verse is disputed…” (Showing the Spirit, 43). Pentecostals have argued, over the years, for varying interpretations. Some have argued that the phrase “into one body” should be translated “for the body.” The argument is that baptism of the Spirit does not introduce people into the body of Christ, but rather prepares them for service to the body of Christ. It is maintained, then, that this is a post-conversion experience and that the “we…all” is referring not to all believers, but to those who have this special experience. This interpretation falls flat, however, because it does not read verse 13 in context. The whole of chapter 12 is dealing with the theme of the united body of Christ. Paul’s emphasis is that “we all belong together.

It is this emphasis on the unity of the church that ought to determine our interpretation of the phrase “baptized into one body.” The focus for Paul is on the incorporation of all believers into the church. There are no one member churches, they are only many member churches. It is our mutual baptism in the one Spirit of God that makes us one body. This means too, then, that speaking in tongues is not intended to be some significant sign of a special class of Christians.

Returning again to Paul’s dominant theme of unity in the body, we can see how the context of 1 Corinthians 12 undermines the elevation of the gift of tongues. Through chapter 12 Paul is arguing that we cannot do without one another. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you” (v. 21). We are all a necessary part of the same body and our unity is important. The problem within the Corinthian church seems to have been an overestimation of certain spiritual gifts, namely the gift of tongues. At the end of chapter 12 he argues that there is a “more excellent way” to build unity in the church: love. This is the driving point behind chapter 13 which begins with these words:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Tongues, in other words, do not distinguish Christians. Rather, “love” is their identifying marker. In chapter 14 Paul shifts the focus to stress that tongues are not even the most valuable gift to the church. They have value to be sure, and he can say, “I want you all to speak in tongues” (v. 5a). Yet, he says tongues should not be prefered to prophecy (v. 5b), nor even to basic words of instruction (v. 19). Tongues are not a sign of a special class of Christian, not for Pauline theology. They do not evidence, then, some special baptism of the Spirit.

All Christians have been baptized in the Spirit, which is the act of regeneration. There is room for a distinction between Baptism in the Spirit and “filling with the Spirit,” perhaps, but that lack of nuance hurts the Pentecostal system. Furthermore, the view’s elevation of the very gift which Paul downplays in these texts seems to miss the point of the 1 Corinthians 12-14. The most significant weakness within Pentecostalism is really an exegetical weakness. By failing to justify adequately their interpretation they have set the center of their system on very weak ground.

Each view, as we have seen, has its weaknesses. No system is without error, no system is perfectly and flawless in formulation. So, as we approach our understanding of the spiritual gifts, and especially the question of their continuance today, we want to pay close attention to Scripture. No system or theology is going to perfectly explain this doctrine, we want to formulate our conclusions first and foremost from Scripture and so, as we move forward in our study we spend a great deal of time looking at actual texts and wrestling with what they say.

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