Wednesday, September 20, 2006

To Cease or Not to Cease

Many thanks to Peter Lumpkins for his link to the paper, "Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts," by Vern Sheridan Poythress. I am quite frankly excited about it. Dr. Poythress may call himself a cessationist, and I may call myself a... continuationist, I guess, but I think there's actually only a hairsbreadth of difference in our actual positions.

Poythress argues that while the apostolic gifts were inspired and therefore authoritative, there is room within cessationist theology for modern gifts that are not inspired or authoritative, but nonetheless may be genuine and used by the Holy Spirit. He makes a helpful distinction between discursive gifts (like teaching) that use rational thought processes and direct inferences from Scripture, and are generally accepted by cessationists, and nondiscursive gifts (like words of knowledge) that use non-rational thought processes and are generally not accepted by cessationists. The general concern among cessationists is that if we allow for nondiscursive gifts, we're setting up an authority parallel to (and thus infringing upon) that of the Bible. Poythress writes:
The crucial error is to confuse the involvement of God with lack of involvement of human creatureliness and human sin, and in addition to confuse involvement of God with full divine authority in the product.
What I understand Poythress to be saying here is simply what responsible pentecostals and charismatics have always said: that revelatory gifts such as words of knowledge and prophecy do not have the authority of Scripture, are to be evaluated against Scripture as a test of veracity, and are not to be thought of as infallable. My only quibble with Poythress would merely be over termonology: he appears to associate inspiration with authoritativeness, and thus calls modern gifts "noninspired." One could therefore read the early part of his paper to mean that nondiscursive gifts are simply psychological phenomena, but phenomena that may have a legitimate place in Christian life. However, by the end, he seems to make clear that actual divine revelation may form a part of the nondiscursive gifts, as long as it doesn't contain doctrinal information apart from what is already revealed in Scripture. So once again, regardless of terminology, Poythress comes to a position more or less equivalent to what responsible pentecostals and charismatics have always held.

It would be uncharitable and incorrect for me to argue that Poythress isn't "really" a cessationist, because he allows for modified use of the gifts for today, just as it wouldn't be right for him to argue that I'm not "really" a continuationist, because I believe that modern uses of the gifts are not authoritative in the same way that Scripture is. It's a matter of balance. Charismatics and pentecostals should be cautious not to invest modern prophecies and words of knowledge with the authority that belongs to Scripture alone; cessationists should be open to more of the workings of the Holy Spirit in the present day than they traditionally have done.

1 comment:

  1. Keith

    Glad you got the link and even more glad it was helpful. I think, if Poythress is taken seriously, while surely not ending the debate, his proposition is like a bucket of cold water on a hot flame.

    Grace. I am...