Interview with Thomas R. Schreiner, author of SPIRITUAL GIFTS: WHAT THEY ARE AND WHY THEY MATTER

Published on September 4, 2018 by Joshua R Monroe

B&H, 2018 | 192 pages

An Author Interview from Books At a Glance

 

Greetings, and welcome to another Author Interview on Books At a Glance. I’m Fred Zaspel, and we’re talking today to Dr. Tom Schreiner of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the new book, Spiritual Gifts: What they Are and Why they Matter. This is always a topic of interest, especially when it comes to the question of continuationism vs. cessationism. Dr. Schreiner has made an excellent contribution to the discussion, and we’re pleased to have him with us today.
Tom, welcome, and congratulations on another really helpful book!

Schreiner:
Well, thanks so much, Fred. It’s great to be with you again.

 

Zaspel:
How did the book come about?

Schreiner:
Well, I actually had no plans to write this book. Our preaching pastor, John Kimbell, asked me to speak at our men’s retreat, and he asked me to speak on spiritual gifts. I told him I didn’t want to; I wanted to speak on prayer instead. But then he asked me to pray about it, and as I prayed and thought about it, I just came to the conviction that that is what the Lord would have me do. So, I began the research for it in the Spring of 2017. I had no plans, still, to write the book, but my next-door neighbor, who teaches at Southern and Boyce and is one of our elders, Oren Martin, kept encouraging me to write it up. I told him I didn’t want to do that; but then in the Fall, I suddenly got the desire to write it up. It’s more of a semi-popular book; it’s not a technical book. Since I had done a lot of research, it didn’t take me long to write, actually.

Zaspel:
Well, we should give thanks to Oren then as well.

Schreiner:
Or blame him – either way.

Zaspel:
However it might be. By the way, your voice is weak. We should maybe mention something to the listeners. I understand you’ve had some trouble with your throat recently, right?

Schreiner:
Yes, I have a polyp on my vocal chord. It’s improving, but I’m still doing therapy and the polyp isn’t gone yet. I would appreciate prayers; that would be wonderful.

Zaspel:
Is it affecting your teaching schedule?

Schreiner:
I’ve dropped out of teaching Sunday School, and I’m not going out and speaking as much, but I am still teaching at Southern.

 

Zaspel:
Let’s start with basics, just briefly: What are spiritual gifts? And how are they important to the church?

Schreiner:
I think spiritual gifts are abilities that God gives to his people. The specific gifts are itemized for us in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14; Romans 12; Ephesians 4; and a very short description in 1 Peter 4:10 – 11. The gifts are given to build up and edify the church. The Lord doesn’t give us gifts to build up ourselves, but to build up his church.

Zaspel:
It was very popular, especially some years ago, to urge Christians to search out and discover their own spiritual gift. And to do that they were directed to discern their own particular abilities, their strengths and weakness, and so on. My own thinking on this has been simply to urge Christians to look for a place of service, whether in a speaking role or some other kind of serving role; and I’ve been fairly convinced that in looking for places where they can serve effectively, Christians will rather naturally discover their spiritual gifts. Do you think that is on track, or would you want to tweak that a bit?

Schreiner:
No, I’m in complete agreement with that, If you get involved in the life of your church, if you are committed to serving others, you will discover, or perhaps others will point out to you, what your gift is. I even say, in the book, what if you don’t know what your spiritual gift is? If you’re vitally involved in the life of the church, you’re probably exercising that gift without even knowing what it is. And that’s the most important thing of all.

 

Zaspel:
Before we move on to the question of cessationism, explain your categories. What are the “more miraculous” gifts (as you call them)?

Schreiner:
Well, I would say prophecy, certainly, is miraculous, the gift of tongues and the interpretation of tongues. The gift of miracles and healing. I think it’s a little bit harder to be sure about the gift of discernment and the gift of faith. Then I think the gifts that certainly continue, in my judgment, are the gifts of teaching, evangelism, service and helps – those gifts (and I may be forgetting a couple) certainly continue today.

 

Zaspel:
What is the gift of prophecy? There’s been so much discussion on that and I thought your treatment of it was very helpful. Describe for us what the gift of prophecy is and may be what it isn’t.

Schreiner:
I have a section in the book where I talk about 10 practical truths about spiritual gifts. Those chapters are very important to me; but in terms of the issue of cessationism, what drove me to write this book is the nature of prophecy. I think that is the key question to resolve. What is New Testament prophecy and does it still exist, today? There are really two main options out there, and they are that the gift of prophecy is the speaking of God’s word, infallibly and inerrantly; or, conversely, the New Testament gift of prophecy (we are not talking about Old Testament prophecy here, by the way) is mixed with errors. So, is prophecy a gift where one speaks God’s Word as the Old Testament prophets did, without error, infallibly, or is New Testament prophecy of such a nature that those who exercise the gift also make mistakes? They say things that are true, and yet they are still prophets. I’m sure most of your hearers know this, but the latter view, that New Testament prophecy includes errors, is quite popular today. I would argue that that view is unconvincing and leads us in wrong directions. And a right understanding of New Testament prophecy verifies that New Testament prophets spoke without error. I could defend that a little bit, but maybe you want to ask a follow-up.

 

Zaspel:
Yes, maybe you should. I think you give a good analysis of some of the prophecies in Acts that are generally claimed to be fallible. Could you clarify some things there that are helpful?

Schreiner:
Okay, so, here’s the question – do we have any examples in the New Testament of prophets making errors? And some point to Agabus’s prophecy in Acts 21, where he says the Jews will bind Paul and hand him over to the Romans. Well, if you read the story in Acts, the Jews don’t tie up Paul, literally, and hand him over to the Romans. Instead, what happens is the Romans rescue Paul as the Jews are about to beat him to death in a riot. So, many have argued that Agabus’s prophecy was mixed with error, because the Jews didn’t literally tie him up and hand him over. My response to that is in several points. First, I think that’s an overly literal way of understanding the fulfillment of prophecy. I’d say, secondly, if we apply that standard to Old Testament prophets, even, I think (although no one on the other side would claim this, that I know of) but I think, in principle, that would call into question how we defend the inerrancy of Old Testament prophets, which is a huge problem. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, in Acts 28, when Paul was in Rome and was speaking to the Jews and describing to them how he ended up a prisoner in Rome, he actually uses the very word that Agabus used in describing what would happen to Paul. That is, Paul says, “I was handed over to the Romans.” That’s very important, that word, handed over, in Gree, paradidomi, is the exact word that Agabus used to describe what would happen to Paul. Paul does not say, “Agabus made a mistake; I wasn’t handed over.” He sees Agabus’s prophecy as fulfilled, and in essence he was handed over by the Jews. Now, the way it happened, Agabus didn’t specify, but that doesn’t mean that the prophecy was wrong. So, why is this important? I would argue we have no example in the New Testament where a New Testament prophet erred. No example, at all.

 

Zaspel:
And in 1 Corinthians 14, which is one of the few passages where the New Testament gift of prophecy is addressed, it is spoken of clearly as a revelatory gift, right? And that would seem to be problematic if we viewed a revelatory gift as fallible.

Schreiner:
Yes. And another problem, along with what you’ve just stated, Fred, is in the New Testament in 1 John 4, and other passages, as well, we think of 2 Peter 2, of the danger of false prophets. Jesus mentions this danger as well. How in the world are we going to discern true prophets from false prophets, which New Testament writers warned us against, if true prophets’ prophecies are mixed with errors? Because, if a person is prophesying falsely, and you say, “you’re a false prophet,” they could reply, “well, that part’s an error.” I think that’s a nightmare situation, really, for those who say prophets speak with errors.

And another thing I would say, that I think is very important – the burden of proof is on those who would say New Testament prophecy is of a different nature than Old Testament prophecy. On what grounds could we say that prophecy is of a different nature? And it’s very clear, in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 18, that a true prophet’s prophecies always come to pass. I think it’s 1 Samuel 3, none of Samuel’s words fell to the ground. True prophets always speak the truth. And do we really have grounds for saying New Testament prophets speak error?

Another point I would make is: what they argue is from 1 Corinthians 14, that you don’t judge the prophets, (now this is the other side) but you judge the prophecies. So, those who say there can be errors in prophecies say the gift is different because in 1 Corinthians 14:26 and following, that we are judging the prophecies instead of the prophets. And therefore, they argue, prophets can make errors. My response to that is this: the only way to judge whether a prophet is true is by the prophecies. That is no different from the Old Testament. As I say in a lighthearted way, you couldn’t discern whether a prophet is a prophet by looking at their face. Do they have a nice smile? Do they seem sincere? The only way to discern the validity of a prophet is by their words. So, I don’t think that’s a very good argument.

 

Zaspel:
Yes, the distinction is hard to maintain.
The gift of tongues is often considered a subset of the gift of prophecy. Do you agree?

Schreiner:
I actually do. I think that’s clear in 1 Corinthians 14, in the first five verses, that an un-interpreted tongue is equal to prophecy. That is not a big part of my book, because I didn’t want to stake my book on tongues; I wanted to stake it on prophecy. But, since you asked, I agree.

 

Zaspel:
I’ll ask you to survey your arguments for this in a minute, but first, just explain for us what “cessationism” is and what exactly you are advocating in this book.

Schreiner:
Cessationism is the notion that the gifts have ceased. Or, at least some of the gifts have ceased. Some of the gifts, particularly the more miraculous gifts, I would argue, especially the gifts that convey revelation, have ceased, have come to an end, particularly apostles and prophets. A key verse for my thesis is Ephesians 2:20, the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And, incidentally, that’s clearly the New Testament prophets. In context, you can look at Ephesians, chapter 3, verse five, and it would make it very clear that we are talking about the New Testament prophets. So, that foundation has been laid with the apostles and prophets and there are no new revelatory additions to that foundation. I think it’s very clear that there are no apostles, today, in the technical sense of that word, and there are no inerrant prophets, today. And I would argue that that goes for tongues, as well.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, are there other lines of biblical teaching that lead you to the cessationist position?

Schreiner:
The primary line is Ephesians 2:20; and then my second line is the very nature of prophecy. What I would say here, is if I’m right on the gift of prophecy, and I think I am, that it’s inerrant and infallible, and if that gift exists today, then we have, today, prophets who are speaking inerrantly and infallibly. And, what I would argue, is that that threatens the once-for-allness, Jude 3, of the faith given to the saints. Or Hebrews 1:2, in these last days, God has spoken to us in his Son. God has spoken to us definitively, and finally, in the Son; and if there are prophets out there speaking infallibly and authoritatively, which of course I don’t think there are, I don’t know how that can accord with the faith being delivered to us once for all in Jesus Christ. I would argue, therefore, that most likely, miracles and healings have ceased as gifts, as well, because their primary function was to accredit and validate and ratify the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the ministry of the early apostles and prophets who testified to Jesus’ person and work. And we don’t need, any longer, such miracles and signs and wonders to accredit his ministry. Now, let me be very quick to say, I think God can do miracles, today. I pray for healings; I pray for miracles; but, they are rare; they are not commonplace. Can God do miracles? Yes. Does he do miracles and does he heal? Miraculously, sometimes, yes. But it is not of the same nature which we find in the New Testament. And why do we find the miracles, signs and wonders to the degree that we do in the New Testament? It’s to verify and ratify and accredit Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Zaspel:
I’ve often thought that in the continuationist argument for the continuation of miracles, the miraculous gifts and the gift of healing, often the gifts are (I hate to say it this way, it’s pejorative) but often the definitions of the gifts are dumbed down a little bit, so that the gift of healing is what we would call an answer to prayer, that sometimes God answers positively and sometimes he does not. That’s not the gift of healing that we see in the New Testament.

Schreiner:
I think that’s exactly right. And I think this happens all down the line. Sincere Bible readers read the Bible (and I’m not trying to criticize anyone here, I know good people who disagree with me that I respect) but they read the Bible and they want to experience what’s in the Bible, so they will say there is healing like in the New Testament. But honestly, we don’t see people, at least with any regularity, being healed of blindness or lameness and we don’t see people being raised from the dead like we did in New Testament times. Prophecy is redefined so it includes mistakes. Tongues is redefined so it’s ecstatic utterances instead of speaking in foreign languages. So, I think that happens right down the line, and when you redefine what those gifts are, well then, you can say they still exist today.

 

Zaspel:
Going back to your Ephesians 2:20 argument, is all this related to the idea of a completed canon? And if I could expand a bit, I was curious that you did not spend much time exploring the more usual cessationist approach that understands the miraculous gifts as signs of true apostles and therefore as tied or restricted in some respect, at least, to the apostolic company. That of course was Warfield’s famous argument. Do you find that line of argument useful?

Schreiner:
Well, I think it’s there, implicitly, in my argument that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets; and therefore, the signs, wonders, miracles, the revelation is tied to apostolic ministry. I was trying to restrict myself more to exegetical arguments, but I think that theological argument is correct. I wrote this book as a kind of semi-popular book that you could just hand to someone and they could read it in an evening. It’s really pretty short and non-technical, but I think you could expand upon that. Incidentally, at ETS this year, Lig Duncan and I are going to have a discussion with Sam Storms and Andrew Wilson on these things. I haven’t communicated with Lig, but Lig will argue along the lines, more theologically, of Warfield. And I’m in substantial agreement with that argument.

 

Zaspel:
You’ve not always held to a cessationist view, so you’re a good person to ask this question: How is this question of cessationism vs. continuationism important … and not so important?

Schreiner:
Maybe I’ll say first why it’s not important. I’m not calling into question the evangelical credentials of those with whom I disagree. I dedicate my book to John Piper, who was my pastor for 11 years, who is a continuationist, Sam Storms, and Wayne Grudem. They are all dear friends of mine, have very high views of Scripture, and theologically we are on the same page. We have to be careful as evangelicals when we have a disagreement on something, that we rightly adjudicate how important the issue is. I would say this is a second or third order issue. It’s a second order issue in the sense that each local church has to decide what to do on this matter. I’m not calling into question, at all, the orthodoxy, the Evangelicalism, the good work that God does in those with whom I disagree, and I praise God for them. But to look at the other side of the question, is it important? You have to decide what to do in your church. For example, are you going to allow people to prophesy and speak in tongues? Or do you think there are apostles, today? So, you have to make a decision on those matters.

 

Zaspel:
Before we sign off, give us just a brief overview of your book so our listeners can know what to expect.

Schreiner:
I begin by talking about strengths and weaknesses of the charismatic movement. Here I pick up on JI Packer’s discussion. Then I define what all of the gifts are. I share 10 truths, very practical truths, about the spiritual gifts and I have some typical questions and answers on the spiritual gifts. Then I talk about basically cessationism and non-cessationism, prophecy, tongues, and whether the gifts exist today.

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Dr. Tom Schreiner of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the new book, Spiritual Gifts: What they Are and Why they Matter. It’s a very well-informed work that is easily accessible for any Christian reader. It’s strikingly clear, very profitable, and we are happy to commend it. It’s a wonderful book to read and give to your friends. Get a copy and enjoy!
Tom, thanks so much for talking to us again.

Schreiner:
Thanks so much, Fred, it was great to be with you again.

Buy the books

Spiritual Gifts: What they Are and Why they Matter

B&H, 2018 | 192 pages

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