A Summary of Vern Poythress’ Article “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit Within Cessationist Theology”
Vern Poythress’ article “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit Within Cessationist Theology” is by far the most helpful, enlightening thing I have read on how to understand things like impressions, seeming modern-day prophecy, a sense that something is going to happen (and then it does), and other such extraordinary forms of awareness that do not seem to have a natural explanation.
For one of my classes back in seminary, we had to summarize 20 journal articles having to do with the Holy Spirit and his work. Poythress’ article is the first one I chose to summarize. After seeing Justin Taylor’s post on Mark Driscoll and Douglas Wilson’s discussion on spiritual gifts and extraordinary happenings where he mentions Poythress’ article, I thought it might be good to post my summary here. Since the original article is fairly long, this summary might help you get the gist of his article in about 1,000 words or so.
Poythress’ thoughts relate not simply to understanding spiritual gifts and strange happenings, but also general guidance in the Christian life. For example, I don’t think that God has an “individual will” for us to discover and follow (rather, when the Scriptures do not mandate one way or another, we are free and responsible to choose our own course of action). But how should we understand it when we have an impression that God would have us do this or that? Are we stuck with either concluding that such things are to be utterly disregarded as not from God or, on the other hand, that if they are real that they are authoritative and as binding on us as Scripture? Poythress’ framework gives us a third way, which is incredibly helpful.
I’ll let you see his answer below. So, enough introduction — here’s my summary:
Poythress’ thesis cannot be stated any better than he himself has worded it: “Modern spiritual gifts are analogous to but not identical with the divine authoritative gifts that are exercised by the apostles Since there is no strict identity, apostolic teaching and the biblical canon have exclusive divine authority. On the other hand, since there is analogy, modern spiritual gifts are still genuine and useful to the church. Hence there is a middle way between blanket approval and blanket rejection of modern charismatic gifts” (71).
He begins by providing a biblical framework for thinking of the gifts, and suggests that all gifts can be classified as prophetic, priestly, or kingly. A pyramid structure in turn helps illustrate the functioning of the gifts. The top level is messianic, which only Christ has and which is of infallible authority. The second level is apostolic, which only the apostles and “apostolic men” had, and is also divinely authoritative and unrepeatable. Third is the level of special, prominent gifts such as pastor, teacher, and so forth. The gifts on this level are ongoing and repeatable. The final level is that of every believer’s involvement, which is also repeatable.
The main distinction being made here is between “gifts with full divine authority and subordinate (uninspired) gifts” (74). The gifts in level one and two have unqualified divine authority. The gifts in levels three and four are not inspired (the speech of these people is not identical to the speech of God such that it carries unqualified authority), though obviously we can still say that God is at work in them and they come from the power of the Spirit.
Gifts with unqualified divine authority have ceased with the apostles; all gifts today have qualified authority, and thus although they are analogous to apostolic gifts (we preach today, for example, as the apostles did), they are not identical (they differ in authority). There are three reasons for concluding that unqualified divine authority ceased with the apostles: “the finality of revelation in Christ (Heb 1:1-3), the foundational character of the teaching of the apostles (Eph 2:20), and the fact that the canon of Scripture is complete” (74). Both charismatic and non-charismatic sides agree here, he points out.
Building on this, we can distinguish gifts based upon the “awareness of the basis for [our] ideas or actions” (75). Some gifts are discursive, and some are nondiscursive. Ideas have a discursive basis when they have in mind a conscious basis, such as a biblical text. Preaching falls into this category. Ideas are nondiscursive when we are not consciously aware of their source. Hunches, feelings, and intuition fall into this category. Third, some ideas fall in-between these groups in that we have a partial awareness of their basis.
He then makes the crucial point that there is no reason to think an idea is authoritative simply because it is nondiscursive (76). Just as modern preaching is only authoritative insofar as it is derived from biblical truth, so also modern nondiscursive extraordinary events (like visions and prophecies, or less vivid impressions and hunches) are authoritative only insofar as they repeat and apply what is already in the biblical text (78; see esp. 79.7).
So far Poythress has been focusing on the process by which an idea comes about. He now moves on to make his final distinction, which concerns “content rather than process.” There are three distinctions here: attempts to say what the Bible teaches, called teaching content; attempts to speak about circumstances, called circumstantial content; and a combination of the two, called applicatory content. A biblical example of all three is 2 Chr 25:3-4, where Amaziah applies Deut 24:16. In this vein, we need to remember that all knowledge, whether about everyday life or recorded in Scripture, is ultimately from the Lord (Prov 2:6).
All of this is brought together in the following way. The controversial gifts (prophecy, word of knowledge, tongues, etc.) are nondiscursive. As discussed earlier, this does not therefore make them divinely authoritative. But neither does it make them useless. If teaching content is involved, arising nondiscursively, it is to be believed if it is biblical, and disbelieved if it is not (84). With circumstantial content, the level of authority is the same whether it is gained through discursive means (a telephone call) or nondiscursive (an impression). Information received in a telephone call can be in error, and so can information received nondiscursively; conversely, both may also be true.
Some may think that God is more involved in nondiscursive processes; but that doesn’t make such processes infallible. It is wrong “to confuse involvement of God with full divine authority in the product” (86). For example, God is involved in making the grass grow (Ps 104:14), but “growing grass is not inspired.” God is involved in the information gained from a friend through a phone call, but that doesn’t make it inspired and infallible. Likewise, God is often involved when information is gained nondiscursively, but that doesn’t make the nondiscursive information any more infallible or authoritative than a telephone call.
How can we judge the accuracy of nondiscursive circumstantial content? If we cannot directly check out the facts, we judge the content the same way we would a long distance telephone call from a friend. Although the friend is to far away for us to seek immediate confirmation, we can ask ourselves if our friend is generally reliable, if we are hearing him clearly, and so forth. So also if one’s nondiscursive processes have generally checked out, there is a greater reason to believe them.
After specifically discussing within this framework predictions and instances involving commands, Poythress then explains how this understanding allows us to welcome extraordinary spiritual gifts without being slavishly obedient to them. He argues that the best exponent for the continuance of the gifts (Grudem) and for their cessation (Gaffin) actually are at the same place in substance since Grudem agrees that modern day gifts are not divinely authoritative, and Gaffin agrees that God can work through nondiscursive means. The main difference is simply whether the prophecy of today is that which Paul discussed in 1 Cor 12-14, or whether it is a “fallible analogue.” The other difference is that Gaffin needs to integrate more fully these modern phenomena into his theology of gifts, and Grudem needs to be more clear about the status of prophecy. But these are only practical adjustments; the substance is the same. Finally, Poythress concludes by giving accounts of extraordinary events throughout history (post-biblical times) to prove that his conclusions are not novel (94-101).
In sum, Poythress has sought to provide us with a framework that affirms the work of God in modern day nondiscursive events while still upholding the sufficiency and finality of Scripture.
Poythress, Vern S. “Modern Spiritual Gifts Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit Within Cessationist Theology.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39/1 (March 1996): 71-101.