Charismatics and Circumstantial Content

Some time ago, Vern Poythress published an article in JETS on the spiritual gifts entitled: “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts.” Two decades later, these matters are still hotly debated. Just last week I attended a village crusade where the prosperity preacher promised that many in the audience would be given a managerial position in government, “regardless of qualifications. Qualifications do not matter with God!” 

How does one judge circumstantial content if prophesy still exists today? Below, let me interact a little with some of Poythress’s arguments.

Let us now consider the second kind of content, namely, circumstantial content. In this category we have statements like the following. In an American church someone says, “I feel that our sister church in Shanghai is spiritually struggling and undergoing attack.” During a sermon Charles H. “Spurgeon pointed to the gallery and said, ‘Young man, the gloves in your pocket are not paid for.’ ” On another occasion Spurgeon said, “There is a man sitting there who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays; it was open last Sabbath morning. He took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit on it: his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!”  

But how do we know if Spurgeon was correct? Was this ever confirmed? And how do we know he wasn’t meaning something akin to what many preachers say: “There are husbands here today who disrespect their wives with their tone of voice.” Or, “some of you love TV more than your kids.” Are we really to equate this with the nondiscursive revelation John received in Revelation? We shall see below the negative implications of the Shanghai illustration,

[Judging] situations like these [is] not as difficult as we might suppose. Many times it does not much matter what we believe. We are free to remain in doubt. And we are well advised to remain in doubt, by virtue of the fallibility of all modern nondiscursive processes. In the cases from the life of Spurgeon, the congregation gets an illustration of the general lesson that all the assembled people are being addressed by God concerning their particular needs and sins. If Spurgeon is right and there is a young man with stolen gloves, the young man knows it and gets addressed very particularly. If Spurgeon is wrong (which he may be in his fallibility), there is no one who is so addressed, but the general lesson for the whole congregation remains. 

So if he is right, the people are helped and  if he is wrong, it was at least a nice story. But just think of the negative ramifications of being wrong. When we pray, it doesn’t end there. We pray for Bob to be saved and hope people will be prompted to give him the gospel. We pray for Sarah’s recovery and expect people to visit her. And, to use Poythress’s example, if we pray for the church in Shanghai that is struggling, we hope it doesn’t end there either. Suppose three widows come up to you after the service and have checks written out to help them in their peril. Now is it as easy to say: “Well, I could be wrong”? This is exactly how so many of the prosperity preachers rake in the dough. “Kojo and his wife will have twins this year!” If he’s wrong, the people were entertained. If he’s right, his bank account gets bigger.

In actuality we are accustomed in many types of situations to respond to doubtful information. After all, a long-distance call is not infallible either. There may be static on the line. The person on the other end of the line may have misunderstood the situation in Shanghai. Or he may be lying about the situation. Or he may have gone insane. Or the voice we hear may be faked by an impersonator. In spite of these problems of fallibility, it is possible to respond properly to a long-distance call. 

This is exactly the point. The man in Shangai, say, is asking for $10k to help his church under fire. But if there is static on the line or questions about his character, sanity and identity, then we do not move ahead. Our confidence is proportional to the information that we have. This is called wisdom and discernment.  All information is vetted, and doubtful information all the more. And since all revelation in the dream, prophecy, tongues category belong in the latter department, is Poythress willing to vet all such revelation to the furthest degree? Is he willing to call the person in error a liar? A false prophet? 

Poythress suggests that Gaffin (cessationist) and Grudem (continuationist) are not that far apart, but after reading this article, I remain unconvinced. 

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