22 July 2010

Vern Poythress and the modern sorta-gifts (Part One)

by Dan Phillips

Preface:  Justin Taylor titled an article The Best Essay Ever Written on Spiritual Gifts Today. Eye-catching, eh? Rare, too, to see Justin so giddy; so of course I looked closer.

Have to admit I was a bit disappointed to find that the title referred to a fourteen-year-old article by Vern Poythress, published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1996 (and now happily available online). I say I was "disappointed," because I was aware of Poythress' argument and (frankly) had thought it very low on merit.

But I like Justin, think very well of him, and decided that if he found it so epochal, I should give it another, closer look.

So let's do.

I'll do this in two parts... unless I end up doing it in three. The first part will summarize Poythress' argument, and the second will evaluate it. My summary will be inadequate; I encourage you to wade through his entire article.

Comments will be closed on part one, because (A) I don't see any way comments won't jump the gun on the second half; and (B) this topic always attracts USers (Unreflecting Spewers). This is my way to make them marinate, at least a little, at least briefly. Think of it as a ministry. Comments should be opened up on the second post.

Poythress' position. Poythress says, in the opening Abstract (bolding added):
The Book of Revelation is inspired. Modern visions, auditions, and “prophecies” are not inspired, because the canon of the Bible is complete. However, these modern visions and auditions may be analogous to the Book of Revelation, just as modern preaching is analogous to apostolic preaching. Like modern preaching, modern intuitive speech has authority only insofar as it bases itself on the final infallible divine authority of Scripture.

A key distinction here is the distinction between rationally explicit processes, such as those involved when Luke wrote his Gospel, and intuitive processes, such as those involved with the Book of Revelation. One type of process is not inherently more “spiritual” than the other. Both the Gospel of Luke and Revelation were inspired.

Modern preaching is analogous to Luke: in composing a sermon rationally explicit processes dominate. Modern “prophecy” or intuitive speech is analogous to Revelation. Intuitive processes dominate. The general analogy between apostolic gifts and lesser gifts of the present day suggests that rationally explicit processes and intuitive processes can both be used by the Spirit today.

Cessationists argue that New Testament prophecy was inspired and has therefore ceased with the completion of the canon. But there are still noninspired intuitive gifts analogous to prophecy. Therefore, in order not to despise the gifts of the Spirit, cessationists must allow for a place for intuitive gifts in their ecclesiology.

The fact that we have analogy rather than identity means that we must respect certain restraints. Modern intuitive phenomena must be subject to the same restraints that are placed on preaching. Everything must be checked for conformity to Scripture.
I maintain that modern charismatic gifts are analogous to inspired apostolic gifts. Hence it may or may not be appropriate to call them by the same terms as those used in the NT. Rather than get bogged down in disputes about terminology, I move directly to a consideration of what the modern gifts actually do.....
What Poythress does. I urge you to read Poythress' article. If in my summary I don't reproduce every tiny step, Poythress' devotees will dismiss my argument as oversimplifying and un-nuanced. However, if I do interact with every step, thousands of sets of eyes will glaze over. And well they should: Pyromaniacs is not an academic journal. But if that happens, my Mission will be Unaccomplished.

So I give a very sketchy summary.

Poythress divides all Biblical spiritual gifts into those that operate with God's own authority (i.e. apostolic and Messianic gifts), and those that are under authority (i.e. pastors and teachers, etc.). Poythress says that the revelatory, fully-binding gifts ceased to function as such with the completion and dissemination of Scripture, while other non-revlatory gifts continue their function as-is... or as-was. In this way, Poythress distinguishes "gifts with full divine authority and subordinate (uninspired) gifts" (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 39, 1, 74).

Then Poythress invents a division between "discursive" and "non-discursive" gifts. The former are those in which the gifted person bases what he does on Scripture — as a pastor preparing a Biblical sermon, or a counselor using Scripture to help or warn someone. The "non-discursive" are more intuitive processes, arising directly rather than as a result of analysis or reflection. Prophecy was an example (I'd cite 2 Peter 1:21 to make Poythress' point, though he doesn't), particularly seeing visions and hearing voices.

Then Poythress notes that certain modern activities are (to him) like those revelatory activities. They are reminiscent of them, they are (he argues) in the same general category as they, though without the inerrantly-revelatory and morally-binding nature of those prophetic/apostolic gifts.

Again and again, Poythress insists on the sufficiency of Scripture, and the non-continuation of the apostolic gifts. But he wants to grant status to hunches, intuitions and notions as being — not merely hunches, intuitions and notions, but — spiritual gifts analogous to the Biblical gifts of prophecy and words of knowledge and wisdom. They may be situational applications of Scripture, prompted by the Spirit but errant and non-binding except insofar as they echo Scripture itself.

Poythress tells cessationists that "some noncharismatics need to learn to value nondiscursive gifts. Instead, they have subtly [seemed?] to say, 'I don’t need you.' Their basis, supposedly, is that nondiscursive gifts ceased with the completion of the canon of Scripture. What they have actually shown is merely that inspired nondiscursive gifts ceased with the completion of the canon."

So, they're the same gifts (prophecy, words of wisdom and knowledge), but not inspired? Poythress mentions the controversy between those (like Richard Gaffin) who think NT prophecy was inerrant, and those (like Wayne Grudem) who think it was not — but he shrugs it off as inconsequential.
Suppose Gaffin is right. Then “prophecy” ceased with the completion of the apostolic era and the completion of the canon of Scripture. Modern phenomena are fallible and hence are not identical with New Testament prophecy. But modern nondiscursive processes with teaching content is analogous to prophecy, just as modern preaching is analogous to apostolic preaching. Hence the general principles concerning spiritual gifts, as articulated in 1 Cor 12-14 and elsewhere, are still applicable. What charismatics call “prophecy” is not really the “prophecy” mentioned in the New Testament. Rather, it is a fallible analogue. It is really a spiritual gift for speaking fallibly through nondiscursive processes.
But is this different modern activity "prophecy," still? Poythress doesn't seem to care. He says both agree that it is fallible; Gaffin "needs only to take the additional step of integrating the modern phenomena into a theology of spiritual gifts." Remember, Poythress had earlier said that "it may or may not be appropriate to call them by the same terms as those used in the NT," but we should not "get bogged down in disputes about terminology."

Poythress closes with a bunch of stories which, if that's how you do exegesis, well, there y'go.

In sum: modern activities that Charismatics call "prophecy" and such are not the same as the inspired NT gifts, but they are analogous, are gifts, are manifestations of the Spirit (albeit flawed and errant), could be given the same names, and should be "integrat[ed]... into a theology of spiritual gifts."

Thus far Poythress.

Next time, Lord willing, my thoughts.

In the meanwhile: if you'd like to beef up on your Biblical thinking regarding this area, read posts tagged Charismaticismda Gifts, and sola Scriptura.

Part Two
Part Three

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