Much has been written on the topic of spiritual gifts by both cessationists and continuationists. Enter Spiritual Gifts: What They Are & Why They Matter, written by a continuationist turned “nuanced cessationist,” Thomas R. Schreiner. Schreiner is a leading New Testament scholar and the James Harrison Buchanan Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Although Schreiner is a New Testament scholar, he writes Spiritual Gifts for the person in the pew who desires to gain more insight into spiritual gifts without having to wade into the exegetical minutia of an in-depth, scholarly treatment of the topic.
Schreiner begins Spiritual Gifts by stating he writes the book not only to support “a kind of cessationism” but also to “sketch in a theology of spiritual gifts.”1 He acknowledges that the issue of cessationism can easily become polemical and divisive, but as is typical for Schreiner, he desires to approach this topic humbly and irenically. It is not surprising then that he dedicates the book to Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and Sam Storms—three notable continuationists.
The book is divided into eleven chapters with an epilogue. In the first chapter, Schreiner briefly touches on the strengths and weaknesses of the charismatic movement. In this chapter, he borrows from J.I. Packer’s work, Keep in Step with the Spirit, to enumerate and expand on several things believers can learn from charismatics as well as several notable weaknesses of charismaticism.2
Schreiner’s Theology of Spiritual Gifts
In chapters two through five, Schreiner sketches out his theology of spiritual gifts. He begins by touching on the terminology used in Scripture for spiritual gifts, and then he defines the various spiritual gifts mentioned in Scripture.3 The only unusual definition he provides is when he discusses the gift of teaching. In his definition on the gift of teaching, Schreiner argues that the gifts “word of knowledge” and “word of wisdom” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 are not separate gifts but are referring to the gift of teaching.4 Next, Schreiner takes two chapters (chapters 3 and 4) to highlight ten truths about spiritual gifts. These truths include the proper exercise of the gifts, the assessment of the gifts, the diversity of the gifts, the source of the gifts, the purpose of the gifts, and the loving use of the gifts. One of the more notable biblical truths Schreiner addresses in detail in chapter four is that the baptism of the Spirit occurs at conversion.5 To end the sketch of his theology of spiritual gifts, Schreiner briefly answers six common questions about spiritual gifts. Perhaps the most helpful answer he provides in chapter five is to the question, “How do we discover our gift(s)?”
Schreiner’s Argument for “Nuanced Cessationism”
After sketching in a theology of spiritual gifts, Schreiner spends the second half of his book framing the argument for his “nuanced cessationism.” He begins by discussing the gift of prophecy in chapters six and seven, he transitions to discussing the gift of tongues in chapters eight and nine. Then, he addresses two specious arguments used to support cessationism in chapter ten. In his final chapter, Schreiner provides what he considers the best argument for cessationism.
According to Schreiner, the gift of prophecy is the reception and proclamation of spontaneous, authoritative, and infallible revelation from God. Thus, Schreiner rejects definitions of prophecy that seek to equate it with preaching, teaching, or charismatic exegesis. Prophets do not speak from already-written biblical texts, whereas preachers, teachers, and exegetes do.6 Further, he rejects definitions of prophecy that seek to bifurcate the gift of prophecy into infallible Old Testament prophecy and fallible New Testament prophecy. Schreiner insists, “New Testament prophecy is not mixed with error but is infallible and inerrant, just like Old Testament prophecy.”7 The issue of fallible prophecy, Schreiner admits, is what turned him from being a continuationist to a “nuanced cessationist.” Schreiner prefers to characterize what passes today as prophecy as really only sharing impressions. Biblical prophecy is always authoritative and infallible; however, one’s impressions are often a mixture of truth and error.
Schreiner moves from prophecy to discussing the gift of tongues in chapters eight and nine. According to Schreiner, the gift of tongues should be understood as the gift to speak (rather than to hear) other languages unknown to the speaker. After examining both Acts and 1 Corinthians 14, Schreiner finds unconvincing the argument that tongues speaking in Acts is different than tongues speaking in 1 Corinthians 14. Consequently, he rejects the argument that speaking in tongues refers to ecstatic utterance: “Virtually no tongue-speaking today fits the biblical depiction of tongues, since people are not speaking in discernible languages. The contemporary ‘gift’ doesn’t match what is in the Scriptures.”8 Further, Schreiner believes that many of the tongues speakers today at best misunderstand the biblical significance and purposes for tongues and at worst violate the rules for speaking in tongues given in Scripture.
In his last two chapters, Schreiner addresses two spurious arguments for cessationism and posits what he considers is the strongest argument for cessationism. The first spurious argument, and one often used by dispensationalists, is that the supernatural gifts will cease with the writing of the New Testament. This argument is based on a flawed understanding of the Greek verbs used in 1 Corinthians 13:8. The second unconvincing argument is that “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 refers to spiritual maturity. After demonstrating why both arguments are exegetically unconvincing, Schreiner rejects them both: “The ‘perfect’ doesn’t refer to the New Testament canon or to spiritual maturity but to the second coming of Christ. If anything, Paul teaches that the spiritual gifts persist and last until the second coming.”9
In his last chapter, Schreiner finally unpacks what he considers the strongest argument for cessationism: the foundational role of the apostles and prophets. In short, he believes that the gifts of the apostles and prophets are no longer functioning because the church’s foundation is now established (Eph. 2:20). Furthermore, there is no longer a need or purpose for the gifts of speaking in or interpreting tongues, especially if one views interpreted tongues as equivalent to prophecy.10 Instead of seeking out fallible impressions and ecstatic utterances, believers today should focus their attention on the apostolic and prophetic teaching in the completed canon of Scripture.
Overall, Spiritual Gifts is a biblically sound, practical, and helpful resource for the layperson in your church. Schreiner insists on using biblical definitions for the spiritual gifts, whereas most evangelical treatments today tend to use analogous definitions for the spiritual gifts. Schreiner insists on staying close to Scripture not only in how one defines the gifts but also in how one uses the gifts. He is not afraid to call out erroneous claims of prophecy and speaking in tongues, yet he is careful not to demonize those who claim to have these gifts. Schreiner is also careful to provide practical guidance in regards to the discovery and use of one’s spiritual gifts (hint: no more spiritual gift assessments). Finally, his humble approach to this controversial topic is helpful because it successfully communicates the truth of Scripture while demonstrating love for those who disagree. In doing so, he helps to model for your people how to interact with others who may share differing theological convictions on secondary or tertiary doctrines.
1 Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are & Why They Matter (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2018), 1.
2 J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God, revised and enlarged (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005).
3 This is perhaps the most technical aspect of the book as Schreiner briefly discusses several transliterated Greek terms.
4 Schreiner, 19–21.
5 Ibid., 51–60.
6 Ibid., 94–96.
7 Ibid., 121.
8 Ibid., 130.
9 Ibid., 153.
10 It should be noted that throughout his book, Schreiner does make an exception for what he calls “cutting-edge missionary contexts.” In other words, Schreiner leaves open the possibility that the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing could still be functioning in certain contexts where there is little-to-no access to Scripture. However, generally speaking, these gifts are not normative for the church today.
Tom Howard earned a BA in English from Pensacola Christian College, an MBA in marketing from the University of Dayton, and an MDiv from Baptist Bible Seminary (now Clarks Summit University). Tom has been married for 21 years and has four teenagers and two dogs to keep him active and young. Tom works full-time as a predictive analytics manager in the corporate offices of a national specialty retailer and serves as both an elder and the director of children’s ministry at his church in suburban Columbus, Ohio. When not working or serving at church, Tom likes to run, hike, read, or fly his Beechcraft Baron 58 in X-Plane.