Millard Erickson on Spiritual Gifts

Spiritual-Gifts-SermonIn his chapter on the work of the Holy Spirit Erickson surveys the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament and in the life of Jesus, before turning to the work of the Spirit with respect to the commencement and continuation of Christian life. In the Old Testament the work of the Spirit is predominantly understood in terms of the Spirit’s anointing whether for leadership, service or prophecy, and as a sanctifying presence producing the moral and spiritual qualities of holiness and goodness in the lives of those upon whom his presence comes. This work continues in the Christian experience of new covenant believers where the key aspects of the Spirit’s work include illumination, sanctification and empowering. Erickson concludes the chapter with an unconvincing and somewhat ambivalent discussion of the contemporary manifestation of the miraculous gifts.

In my judgment it is not possible to determine with any certainty whether the contemporary charismatic phenomena are indeed gifts of the Holy Spirit. … What we must do, then, is to evaluate each case on its own merits (801).

Erickson’s cautious approach to the topic is not inappropriate though it does require the work of the Spirit to exhibit a degree of rationality and proof that seems unwarranted. Because the kinds of religious phenomena associated with charismatic spirituality can also be explained by appeal to psychological or even demonic causation, caution is in order; nevertheless,

No conclusive case can be made for the contention that such gifts are not for today and cannot occur at the present time….In fact, it may be downright dangerous, in light of Jesus’s warning regarding  blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, to attribute specific phenomena to demonic activity (802).

Nevertheless Erickson immediately continues,

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 determines the recipients (1 Cor. 12:11). If he chooses to give us a special gift, he will do so regardless of whether we expect it or seek it (802).

I find this statement to be quite unlike Erickson and assume that he can make it only by granting his experience priority over the biblical testimony which he is so scrupulous to follow elsewhere. I cannot imagine him using this rationale with respect to conversion or the preaching of the gospel. No, indeed! Erickson will passionately and persuasively exhort people to believe, to preach the gospel, etc. Paul, of course, does tell the church to earnestly desire spiritual gifts and especially that they might prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1, 39). He exhorts them to seek to excel in the building up of the church for it is precisely for this reason that the Spirit gives the gifts (1 Cor. 14:12; cf. 12:7).

If the Spirit intends that every believer experience his manifestation for the benefit of all, then surely it is something we should prayerfully, humbly and diligently expect and seek. Might it be that we do not experience as much of the manifestation of the Spirit as we might wish precisely because we do not prayerfully expect or seek his presence and activity?

4 thoughts on “Millard Erickson on Spiritual Gifts

  1. Interesting.
    Have you considered Kenneth Berding, What are Spiritual Gifts?
    I am surprised that this book is so over looked by the academy.

  2. I thought that might be the case. That’s why I mentioned it.
    He is not a big name like Erickson, (my first comments might have given that impression?) but I’m not aware of another book that says what Berding says, which is saying something in field that is overloaded with too many like minded books.
    I think many others should read it, & I’d like to see more interaction with his book. The most likely reason scholars have neglected it is because he has not written it for scholars, but for lay people. That does not mean scholarly work has not been done in the back ground, it has; he is a NT scholar.
    It’s a shame it’s been ignored. (or it seems to me that it’s been ignored)
    The conventional way of talking about spiritual gifts has always troubled me.
    Berding says what I was think (& feeling) but could not put into words myself, and then he says a heap more that is helpful. (It’s not an issue of cessationism or not)
    His book is comprehensive, persuasive, & focused on the text of scripture; it has heaps of end notes (I don’t like end notes but because there are so many it does makes sense not to use footnotes)
    Any time you find someone that agrees with you, you know they are good, right?!
    Finally, I cannot imagine Paul walking around with a suitcase full of personality tests so people can find their spiritual gifts. That does not sound like Paul or the NT to me.
    I’d be interested to know what you think of the book, if you get the time.

  3. Thanks Jamie,
    I have just bought the Kindle edition, though not sure when I will get to read it – so much reading of books and assignments at the moment!

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about personality tests 😛

    Berding is a Westminster graduate, so I assume he will be quite Reformed and so not overly amenable to Pentecostalism. From what you’ve said, however, he is probably reacting more to contemporary Evangelical approaches than Pentecostalism. Is he cessionationist with respect to the miraculous gifts? Warfield was; I am not sure about Machen, the founder of Westminster.

    I saw a synopsis of his argument online which adds weight to the idea that he is reacting against Evangelical approaches, and the idea of spiritual gifts as “special abilities.” I, too, reject that idea, especially if they are seen as natural abilities, a la talents. I will be interested, though, to see what he makes of the “manifestation” of the Spirit, something I take to be quite distinct from the “ministry” language later in 1 Cor. 12.

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