Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review: Understanding Spiritual Gifts

I need to start by saying that I am not a big fan of this kind of "Bible study". It is not that I haven't used them in my years pastoring, but I find that they tend to be quite directive in their approach and assume that scripture readings will present self-evident and uniform truths. Despite my misgivings about the format, I thought it would be interesting to look at popular Evangelical Kay Arthur's offering on spiritual gifts called Understanding Spiritual Gifts.

This book is intended for a small group with a facilitator (she calls this a leader). I'm not sure why she makes the assumption that there needs to be a single facilitator, but I'm not that familiar with the structural paradigm in which Arthur ministers. The lessons are pithy and focus heavily on working through various texts that Arthur feels will illuminate her topic. To her credit Arthur recognizes that spiritual gifts are not a major theme in scripture so she does not have a huge range of text to draw from. (p.37) And she does ask good contextual framing questions about the passages she highlights - following the five Ws sometimes called the journalism method. (p.4) Also her subject matter is one that I, as a neo-pentecostal minister and theologian, can appreciate: the role of spiritual gifts in the life of the believer.

The book falls into several traps that are common with this format. It shows a poor understanding of Scripture and Scripture studies. It fights against foes, such as cessationism, which it does not directly name. It has shallow theology, especially in this case her pneumatology. Let us look at each of these.

The history of Christianity, even just of modern Evangelicalism, shows that Scripture is always read contextually. Any adequate method of Biblical study must bring our attention to the biases that shape our readings and expectations on the text. What really is being done here is a devotional reading, not a Bible study, and as such it can be a valid tool for developing faith shaping insights. But such readings need to always be done with a critical eye - lest our particular personal insights are elevated to being the direct communication of God. On page 3 Arthur makes the claim that by reading Scripture, following her methodology, we are letting God "explain the gifts." This is highly uncritical and such methodology has been used to support horrendous heretical claims. A better approach is to hold these things lightly, allowing God to continue to lead us into truth but recognizing that our grasp on truth is always provisional because it is mediated through our expectations and desires. The idea of "straight-forward truths of the Bible" is a myth that Biblical study must always be wary of. (p.3)

Part of the context in which we read scripture are those assumptions to which we want to counter. Arthur begins the study with an odd attack on "seeker-friendly" churches. (p.1) She at least names this foe, but quickly shifts into her topic leaving the reader to wonder what the point of her jab was? Does she see these churches as abandoning spiritual gifts? I'm not sure such a generalization will hold up and it is really quite puzzling how her study seeks to address this initial attack? A foe more directly related to her task is cessationism, or the belief that the spiritual gifts are no longer functioning in the church or that if they do function it is not a normative feature of the modern church. She would be right to tackle this theology as it opposes her thesis. But, while she does address the fundamental complaint of cessationism, she does not really address it, instead she relies on the supposed straight-forward interpretation of the text to show the validity of spiritual gifts for the church today. (p.12) She might have been well served to at least point the readers to resources that do diligent and critical work on dismantling the arguments of cessationists. She also would have been better off leaving out the initial jab against the seeker-sensitive movement and started instead on a positive note and affirmation of the validity of spiritual gifts for the church today.

Theologically Arthur presents only one view of the passages on her subject. Her view is quite mechanistic and depicts a God who deposits specific gift mixings (she will further dichotamize these into serving and speaking packages) into individuals and that our role is to figure out what package we have and walk that out. The problem I have with this is that it conflates the gifts with the giver. Another view of the same readings she proposes is that the gift is the Spirit and that we should not expect that the Spirit will act uniformly through each of us, but, rather we would, by partnering with the Spirit, do amazing things to the glory of God. I am sure there are other readings as well, but why does Arthur favour her simple compartmentalized view? and what kind of Spirit is at work in her view of spiritual gifts? These are important questions. Arthur seems to have an operative structural expectation on the text even though the very passages she has chosen show that Paul saw different structural realities for different ministry contexts. There is no uniform view presented, they cannot be harmonized without doing violence to the texts. Arthur would have done well to recognize that 1 Cor 12:1 does not use the word Charisma but a word that might be better translated as matters of the Spirit. It is not the gifts we need to focus on - but the character and working of God, by God's Spirit, with and through the church.

I have other concerns with the content and structure of this book, but this analysis is enough for my evaluation. While I do think that such books can be useful for small groups, they must not be equated with Biblical study. Rather, they can provide a springboard into wonderful discussions about our interpretations of Scripture. They can let us question that perhaps the apostles in Acts 6:2 were simply abusing their authority and creating the same problematic dichotomy of serving vs. speaking that Arthur seems to promote. (p.7) After all Stephen did turn out to be quite a gifted orator. If a group is willing to do the work, this kind of study can be beneficial. But not in the form we are given here. I'm not sure what Kay Arthur's credentials are, but it is evident she is doing a simplistic reading of scripture to advance her particular read of that same Scripture. I believe her topic is worth pursuing, but I do not buy her way of framing her findings. But, as I stated in the beginning, I am not a fan of this type of "Bible study" and this study did little to change my attitude.


Ed Gentry said...

Good review. But I'm curious. Why did you spend time to review this book? Is it being widely used in your circles?

What would you recommend on this topic? Volf did a piece on this once "a pneumaticological understanding of work." which was interesting but not unproblematic. (I've read his article but not all of the the book 'Work in the Spirit').

This is difficult in part because Paul is not providing a prescriptive comprehensive taxonomy; his lists are mostly illustrative given in support of another point. (in Corinthians for example the list given to say that the Spirit does more than just allow you speak in tongues).

More interesting for me though is whether there are there are different 'classes' of gifts. In my younger days I was taught that there were three kinds of gifts: spiritual, motivation, and vocational. Spiritual gifts were seen as dramatic operations of the HS through me. Motivational gifts (like paster, teacher, administrator ... etc) were understood as how I was wired. Finally vocational gifts (also know as the five-fold ministry from Ephesians) described the few at the top of God's organizational chart. (In this understanding prophets/prophecy actually appears an all categories but works differently in each).

Now ... This understanding had some explanatory power and some exegetical support. But I'm no longer sure its so helpful, but I've not found another model I like.

The big question is about the working of the HS. Some gifts are clearly creational - this is how God made me. I think we could agree that the I Cor 11 gifts are not creational in the same (or perhaps any) sense.

Perhaps we just invoke the inbreaking KoG and see dramatic moves to the HS as a taste of the eschaton. But I wouldn't want to thereby suggest that there is not a pneumatological element to normal gifting (agreeing with Volf).

I do wonder if it works the same way (here I think I differ with him).

One of Freedom said...

I am part of the Early Reviewer's club at Kay Arthur had a number of these little studies up and so I chose this one to ask for on the off chance it might be an ok pastoral resource.

I also had issues with the way that the passages are detached from the context and possible purposes for those contextual uses - much like you have pointed out.

I don't really have something to point to as a better framework. I think my understanding is a patchwork that I'd like to explore sometime if I had a chance.