The Charismatic Gifts Debate
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The Church as a whole debates many concepts that are in the Bible, in both theology and in practice. One of these debates surrounds the gifts that are spoken of in the Bible. In one corner are those who believe that charismatic gifts are alive and well in the church today. The Continuationist view believes that the gifts have continued on through Biblical times and are still relevant for today. In the other corner are those who believe that particular gifts have ceased to be used in the modern church and that they were only given for a particular reason in Biblical times. This view is called the Cessationist. Today each view, and other views in between, and the practice of the gifts in the current culture will be examined for truth, validity, and application by searching through each view and holding fast to the scripture as the final word of authority.
It would do well to understand what exactly is being debated before the journey is taken to explore who believes what. Charismatic gift are the central issue but that in itself does not say a lot. What exactly is a charismatic gift? Paul gives several lists of gifts in his epistles. There are two distinctive lists that come from First Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 among others. At the heart of the issue is not the all the gifts in general for they include preaching, teaching, and administration. There are not many that would disagree that there are those in the body who have these gifts. The gifts that are in question are more of the super natural gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, interrupting tongues, and healings. Also within the argument one must also have to agree that the gifts are given for different purposes based on their presumptions.
Gifts in Current Culture
Body says that these gifts were given by the Holy Spirit to carry out ministry. However there are those who believe that speaking in tongues is a private communication with God, therefore there would have to be a slightly different position on why they were given. Continuationist with this view often use First Corinthians 13:1 to support this view in speaking of tongues of men and angels, however in context his view has no solid basis. Hodge says that Paul is speaking of a language defined as a known meaning of expression weather divine or human, the main point being that these are worth nothing without love.
A clear teaching on the importance of love over gifts not an endorsement of a secret language used in private communion with God.
The type of misuse that was being corrected by Paul in the New Testament is still continuing today. There are many bodies of congregations who use the gift of speaking in tongues exactly in the manner that Paul warns against. That would be gibberish which is being spoken in an unorganized manner, in no way building up the church but instead exalting themselves. The use of unbiblical tongues if often a reason why some take the view of open but cautious. This theological position is not theologically opposed to the use of the gifts of tongues but have extreme concerns with the importance placed on the gifts and some unusual practices that sometimes accompany these gifts like being slain in the spirit.
Cessationist often use this point as one to support their argument that the gifts are not real or that those who are claiming to have the gift are being deceived. Deere counters with the Ceassationist always looking for abuse or doctrinal error within the group where the gifts appear, however just because there are misuse of the gifts or bad doctrine in the church can not immediately disqualify them as fakes or one would have to conclude that the gifts at Corinth were not real either. This is a Continuationist making this argument which when pondered on makes one think about that very statement. It is interesting to observe the use of gifts in application over the words that are written about them. If there were time, it would be worth while to explore several of the charismatic gifts in the way they were used in the New Testament. For example speaking in tongues in Acts is seen three times and none of these times were anything like that which is written about in Corinthians. In personal contemplation about the question was the tongues being used in Corinth real, it has crossed the mind that they were not.
Paul was writing them to correct misuse of the gifts. This would mean that some that did not have them were trying too claim them, that they had power over the gifts which they were not using correctly, or that he is correctly the Holy Spirit by telling him how to act. Bray points out in verse three of First Corinthians two that gifts are of no human effort but that they are visible signs that the Holy Spirit is at work in a believer. The later of the three would be a venture to say is not what he was teaching and also he specifically asks the question if the same gift was given to each member. At which he was making the point that no they are not all given the same gift, but are apparently either wanting the gift or acting like they had the gift.
Active Gifts or Past Gifts?
Now instead of stating one entire view then the other as Boyd does in his book Across the Spectrum, it seems well to examine each of the points simultaneously while also consulting the scripture for ultimate authority. The point that will be examined from both views is; are the charismatic gifts for today? The Cessationist say that the charismatic gifts are no longer in operation This is based on the presumption that the purpose of the gifts were to build the foundation of the church; once the New Testament was complete there was no longer need for the gifts. On the opposite side the Continuationist argue that “charismatic gifts were meant for today as much as any other gift given in the New Testament”. They also argue from the presumption that Cessationist are wrong and there is no basis for believing that the charismatic gifts ended with the close of the cannon.
Now three of the supports and objections will be examined from both views. The first argument that Cessationist use from scripture is based on Ephesians two where the readers are told that the church has been brought together to God by Christ’s work which was built upon by the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone. The emphasis here Boyd says is that the first generation Christians were given apostles and prophets and were to build the foundation for the church therefore making Christians today only to build on the foundation already laid; making the need for charismatic gifts which were a sign of their authority no longer needed In response Continuationist consider this to be of weak biblical basis. First, no where in this passage is there a mention of gifts along with the fact that just because the church is build upon the foundation of the apostles work does not mean that no others will have the gift of being a prophet or apostles and certainly does not entail that other charismatic gifts will cease. It appears that the Continuationist have firm footing for saying that this is weak in evidence. The context is so important in unclear passages, putting them in context makes them become clearer when put into their appropriate place. In reading the general context of Ephesians two it is clearly seen that the immediate context has to do with the gospel of Christ and bringing unity to the body. In a larger context of Ephesians it is seen that there are two themes. The first being the importance of living to a high moral calling as Christians have been called too and the second being that the gentiles can not deny the Jewish heritage of the gospel without severing the gospel from its historical roots. The author wrote with an intention and a purpose. Reading the passage in supposed support of the Cessationist view does not have support from the context of Ephesians.
The Continuationist also uses a verse from Ephesians in support of their view. The verse that is used is Ephesians 4:11-13 where Paul tells the Ephesians that some were given to be apostles, some prophets and so on, cumulating until all have come to unity and to the measure of the full stature of Christ. They intrepid this to mean that until the Lord returns, the gifts are to remain in operation. The first thing the Continuationist can argue is that this passage is speaking directly about gifts which is clear from the text. In reading the immediate context of the passage however the support becomes less clear that this is the intended point or teaching of the passage. One of the debated things here is what does the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ exactly mean? The Continuationist as seen above says it means until Christ’s return. However in the immediate context and the overall theme of the book the support dwindles. Keeping in mind a theme is a calling to a high moral standard, in the next few verses it becomes more obvious that Paul is talking about spiritual maturity not the return of the Lord. Elwell comments on these few verses saying so that all attain unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son which will make us truly mature, not by our standard but by Gods. At the same time this does not support the Cessationist view either. It actually has no support for them either way. “In context the time of their cessation is not a point he (Paul) is concerned with.”
Purpose of Gifts?
It appears that at the heart of the argument is what are the Charismatic gifts for? For the Cessationist there are three reasons why the charismatic gifts were given. “They provided supernatural attestation to the apostolic authority of the early church; they helped lay the foundation for the church; and they provided guidance to early believers at the time of the New Testament, the final revelation of God, was not yet complete. Boyd in his work gives only hints to what Continuationist believe is the purpose which he states; they are beneficial to the church. Schmitt declares that the church can be more effective if it utilizes these gifts and goes on to state that they can bring more effective ministry to and in the body of Christ. More specifically he gives purposes for the gifts inside and outside the church. “The purpose of the Charismatic gifts in the Christian congregation is to maximize harmony and mutual ministry for the benefit for all the glory of God in Christ.”
What does scripture say to credit or discredit either of these presumptions? The first passage that will be looked at that is First Corinthians 12. In the context of the given scripture one of the purposes of the whole book was to try to encourage unity within the body because of the problems threatening the church. This goes well with the point of the Continuationist. However this is the purpose of the book not necessarily the reason or purpose of the gifts that are being spoken about. There are also other purposes to the writing which one was disorderly conduct in worship and personal lives. Graves gives a specific problem that was prevalent which was the misuse of spiritual gifts that lead to great disorder. Paul is writing to correct the misuse of the gifts and he concludes that one should desire higher gifts, then he goes on to describe the kind of love one should have, which is never even mentioned as a spiritual gift. This is not an encouragement to continue using spiritual gifts in the same way the church had been using them, but to change to desiring love over gifts.
What does the scripture say about the purpose of spiritual gifts? There are many passages that give purposes of gifts such as First Corinthians 12:7; the spirit is given for the common good; Ephesians 4:12; to prepare people for works of service to build up the body, and 1 Peter 4:10 which says each should use his gift to serve others. However in context it is more complex than just saying that these gifts were given for this or that purpose. One must examine the passage in context and compare that to the larger context of the teaching. In each of these examples the context does not give rock hard evidence for either position presented.
In a larger overall view in light of the evidence from scripture and the evidence from supporting camps, the personal opinion is that you can argue either way, but scripture is not 100% crystal clear about the issue. A sounder reading of the passages (speaking of several used to support either view) is to realize that they do not address whether or not prophecy or any other gifts will cease before the Lord returns, but that question is left open for debate.
The charismatic gifts debate is on that is argued in theology and in practice. There are those who say that the gifts are still in use today, and those who say that they stopped at the close of the New Testament or shortly after. These views have been looked at today along with how our culture uses them in order to gain a clearer understanding of what exactly these gifts were given for in practice and theory.
Baxter, Ronald E. Charismatic Gift of Tongues. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1985.
Boyd, Gregory A., and Paul R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
Bray, Gerald Lewis. 1-2 Corinthians. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn Press, 1999.
Deere, Jack. Surprised by the Power of the Spirit. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, 2006.
Elwell, Walter A. Baker Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.
Gaffin, Richard B., and Wayne A. Grudem. Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: Four Views. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1996.
Hodge, Charles, Alister McGrath, and J. I. Packer. 1 Corinthians. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995.
Martin, Ralph P. Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991.
Schmitt, Harley H. Many Gifts, One Lord: a Biblical Understanding of the Variety of Spiritual Gifts among Early Christians and in the Church Today. Fairfax, VA: Xulon Press, 2002.
Wagner, C. Peter. Discover Your Spiritual Gifts. Ventura, CA: Regal, 2005.