Thursday, October 24, 2013

Millard Erickson on Spiritual Gifts

I've been reading sections of Millard Erickson's Christian Theology for a theology class I'm taking.  This the third edition (2013) so it is his most update version.  I've written a bit about chapter 21 "The Origin of Humanity" HERE.

Chapter 40 is titled "The Work of the Holy Spirit" and on pages 798-803 he addresses the issue of "The Miraculous Gifts Today."  I didn't find his presentation particularly enlightening.  Here are a few reasons.

1.  As with other sections this chapter shows no awareness of developments in this arena over the past 30 years.  The most current bibliographic entry is 1972.  This is important because Erickson is attempting to engage with linguistic arguments to overturn those who affirm tongues-speech today.  There has been a great deal of research into this since 1972 and Erickson doesn't address any of it.  He could have interacted with Vern Poythress' research even for the first edition of Christian Theology (1983).  Poythress published "Linguistic and Sociological Analyses of Modern Tongues-Speaking: Their Contributions and Limitations" in 1980.  This essay was subsequently republished in Speaking in Tongues: A Guide to Research on Glossolalia. Watson E. Mills. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986. Pp. 469-489.

2.  This chapter betrays a preoccupation with the "Charismatic movement" as it was expressed in the 1960's and 70's.  During this time a major focus was on the gifts of "tongues" (glossolalia).  Erickson writes:
Most frequently mentioned are faith healing, exorcism of demons, and especially glossolalia or speaking in tongues. (p. 798)
I would argue that the 1980's brought about a focus on the gifts of prophecy and healing.  Particularly among those who aligned with the "Third Wave" these were the gifts that were stressed.  Erickson does interact a bit with this view of prophecy in chapter 41 but his discussion here in chapter 40 needs to be updated.

3.  Erickson writes:
The question that has occasioned the most controversy is whether the Holy Spirit is still dispensing these gifts in the church today, and, if so, whether they are normative (i.e., whether every Christian and should receive and exercise them.  (pp. 798-799)
The way that Erickson has set this up is a bit reductionistic.  Why should we think that normativeness of the gifts (of a more "supernatural" kind) should be seen in such an individualistic manner?  Perhaps they are normative for the church without necessarily attaching normativeness to every individual believer.

4.  Erickson makes a methodological decision at this point that is suspect.  He writes:
Because glossalalia is the most prominent of these gifts, we will concentrate on it.  Our conclusions will serve to evaluate the other gifts as well.  (p. 799)
First, there is no reason to suppose that glossolalia is the most prominent of the gifts currently among those who espouse their continuation.  Second, it doesn't follow that conclusions relevant to the gift of tongues necessarily can be used to evaluate other spiritual gifts.  Paul spoke of tongues being of lesser value than prophecy (1 Corinthians 14) so there may be unique features for other gifts need special discussion.

5.  On page 801 Erickson discusses the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" in his discussion of tongues.  This, however, is a conceptually distinct issue from the continuation of the gift of tongues.  Classical Pentecostalism is different from the brand of evangelicalism known as the "Third Wave."  Erickson seems to be conflating what should be distinguished.

6.  Erickson writes:
In the final analysis, whether the Bible teaches that the Spirit dispenses special gifts today is not an issue of great practical consequence.  For even if he does, we are not to set our lives to seeking them.  He bestows them sovereignly; he alone will do so regardless of whether we expect it or seek it.  (p. 802)
There is a great deal to take issue with in just these three sentences.  First, are we really to think there are no "great practical consequences?"  What a person or church decides on this issue can have profound practical consequences for what church will attend, how that service could be conducted, and how one might pray--all very practical consequences!  Second, Erickson's use of language is vague when he talks of how "we are not to set our lives to seeking them."  What does this mean--"set our lives?"  Is this indicative of a person's sole pursuit in life?  If that is the person being considered then he has set up an easy target to refute.  Of course, the pursuit of spiritual gifts should not the main or sole pursuit of Christians.  In speaking this way it seems that Erickson may be against any seeking of spiritual gifts.  This doesn't fit with Paul's thinking in 1 Corinthians 14 where we are told to "desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy" (1 Corinthians 14.1).  [Sam Storms has a good discussion of this passage HERE].  Erickson seems to come dangerously close to using the fact of God's sovereignty as an excuse for passivity and inattention to these gifts.