27 July 2010

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

by Dan Phillips

SORRY. Really, I am. I was afraid this would happen, which is why I built in some wiggle-words to Part One ("unless...should be...."). This post is too long, so I'm breaking it into two. Comments still closed, for the same reasons I explained previously, until the conclusion — which is already pretty much written, so don't fear. Much.

In the first word, O Pyrophilus, we set out a sketchy view of the view of sorta-cessationist Vern Poythress, who tries very hard to achieve real respectability for the sorta-gifts that mesmerize not-really "continuationists" today and set them off from plain-ol' really-Sola-Scriptura Christians. I briefly summarized Poythress' position, and urged you to read Poythress.

Many folks, including the estimable Justin Taylor, are quite smitten with Poythress' argument. As you have surmised, I am not among that number. This puts me in an uncomfortable  position, because while I doubt I'm alone in my view, I have not found anyone else on whose shoulders I can stand (or behind whom I can hide). Neither Googling the intrawebs nor Logos-ing scores of academic journals turned up critical responses. Dissents to Poythress, if they exist, eluded me. This is disappointing, since (A) Poythress' argument has been influential enough to warrant a sound takedown, and (B) far better men than I could surely disassemble it like a Lego toy with unchanged pulse rate.

So I'm stuck giving my own evaluation, which, recalling the adage about pioneers, is a daunting prospect.

Too bad, too, because I think Poythress' article is easily deconstructed. Everything depends on two factors:
  1. How desperate the reader is to invent a way to achieve respectability for "continuationism"/Charismaticism.
  2. Whether the reader is willing to make a specific leap with Poythress.
The second depends on the first. Without that urge, there is no motivation to take the leap.

The leap is everything. There is a point early-on in the jaw-dropper movie The Sixth Sense (NOTE: I will delete spoilers, period), where everything depends on the viewer making a particular assumption. Make that assumption — which I did — and what follows becomes an amazing experience. Otherwise, it simply does not work.

Poythress' assumption is that we are warranted in calling things what they aren't. (In fact, he actually tries to argue that we are obliged to do so.) More specifically, Poythress assumes we have the right to (A) take revealed gift-name labels, (B) affix those labels to non-identical activities, then (C) demand that those non-identical activities [1] be accepted as legitimate, under the revealed gift-names, and [2] be worked into actual theologies. I could make a syllogism:
  • A has something like (analogous to) characteristic 14
  • ξ has something like (analogous to)  characteristic 14
  • Therefore, ξ can be called "A"
It is as if I were to take a Maine Coon cat, argue that it is analogous to a dog, then demand that Maine Coons be included in textbooks on dogs as kinds of dogs. To do that, I could make a much better case than Poythress does. After all, cats and dogs both walk on four legs, have tails, have sharp teeth, are usually covered with fur, are mammals, have sensitive noses, and are founds in hundreds of thousands of homes. So there y'go: cats are analogous to dogs, therefore cats are (in a Poythressian sense) dogs. People who argue that cats and dogs are different really "need to cool down," as Poythress scolds us.

Prophecy, for instance, is one thing only in the Bible: it is morally-binding direct revelation, inerrant in both bestowal and communication (Exodus 4:15-16; 7:1-2). Preaching, teaching, other forms of communication are in no way prophecy, unless they are instances of the reception and communication of inerrant, direct, morally-binding revelation.

Now, it is legitimate to try to argue (A) that modern "prophecy" is legitimate because it is the same as NT prophecy, since NT prophecy actually was weak, erring, trivial and pathetic — as modern "prophecy" is. Or it is legitimate to argue (B) that modern "prophecy" is nothing like NT prophecy, because it is not the reception and communication of inerrant, direct, morally-binding revelation. Wayne Grudem and others desperately try (and fail) to make the former argument; others (your humble correspondent among them), the latter.

But what is not legitimate is to say yes, the modern activity lacks the defining characteristic of the Biblical activity, but we can just go ahead and call it the same thing because it is analogous to the Biblical activity.

Yet Poythress does insist in calling modern imitations "spiritual gifts." What is his direct authority? He argues that they're "gifts" because all knowledge is a gift. He insists that they are nonauthoritative — yet Poythress grants legitimacy to giving them name of gifts that are definitionally authoritative.

I think this is illegitimate. We cannot apply the same name without applying the same authority. The name "prophecy" is an authority-name. It is as if we were to begin calling deaconesses "pastors" because they are in some ways analogous to pastors, while trying to argue that we do not thereby mean to attribute any authority to the office. The title is a designation of authority within a church, and one cannot grant the title without granting the authority.

Poythress tries to say "piffle" to all this fuss (as he seems to see it) about labels, naming Gaffin and Grudem as proponents of competing positions. No need to quibble, just do the Poythress-thing and get along.

Poythress insists most emphatically on the sufficiency of Scripture, and argues that his position is no challenge to that truth. "Not so fast," say I. If these are spiritual gifts, then are they the ones described in Scripture, or are they not? If they are not, if Scripture does not describe them as gifts, yet if we must accept them as spiritual gifts, and must (as Poythress insists) "take the additional step of integrating the modern phenomena into a theology of spiritual gifts," then it is clear that Scripture is not actually sufficient, since God left this crucial bit of information out. Shouldn't a "theology" be restricted to what Scripture actually teaches, if Scripture is in fact sufficient? Yet if I must do as Poythress argues, is that not premised on the de facto insufficiency of Scripture?

Put another way: Poythress argues on the basis of 1 Corinthians 12 that non-charismatics must accept charismatics' pale imitations of the Biblical gifts. Yet this begs two questions:

First, can we just make up a gift, or its meaning?

Second, if these activies are not the gifts described in 1 Corinthians 12, then how does that passage compel the mislabeling of activities it does not affirm?

If what charismatics call "prophecy" is in fact prophecy, then it must be inerrant and binding, as Poythress affirms. However, if the activity is not in fact what the Bible calls prophecy — and it is not — then is it not critical that they stop calling it such?

If these are what Scripture describes, all agree that we must accept them.

But if they are not, does it not best serve God and man for us plainly to say "Knock it off, grow up, and get back to focusing on what God does say to do in His sufficient Word"?

(To be concluded)

Part One
Part Three

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