Why You Can’t Explain the Gifts of the Holy Spirit


GaggedYesterday's post landed with a dull thud. I can tell that already. I know why, too.

If you wish to, you can label this post as "Dan Edelen Surrenders."

The problem of trying to explain anything that deals with the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that the apostles themselves never tried to provide a rationale for why they were. They simply accepted the gifts as they were given.

This is where cessationists will always have folks who believe in the charismata today under their thumbs. They're asking for a rationale for something the apostles themselves never tried to rationalize. The apostles took the gifts at face value—end of story. Yes, rules for using those gifts properly were written down by the apostles, but they never questioned the operation and existence of the gifts themselves.

I enjoy cryptozoology, the study of "hidden animals"—those that may exist but have not been formally "discovered." One of the classic stories of cryptozoology is the Giant Panda. The Chinese absolutely accepted that this animal existed despite the fact that Westerners said it was a myth. Even when some proof of pelts was offered by the Chinese, most Westerners still did not believe the Panda to be a real creature. The common opinion was that the pelts were clever hoaxes. To the Chinese, the Western scientists themselves were an enigma. The Giant Panda simply was. Thousands of Chinese had seen Pandas with their own eyes, so why did the Westerners not believe their testimony? It took more than seventy years after the pelt evidence was offered for Westerners to actually capture (in 1936) and therefore scientifically prove the existence of the Giant Panda—a creature the natives had known about all along.

Sometimes it feels like this whole issue of the gifts has become another Westerner hunt for Giant Pandas. The Biblical testimony for the gifts is there. God did not setup two New Covenants, one with the gifts and one without. The Book of Joel does not testify to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and then the withdrawal of some of that promise. As A.W. Tozer said, no one who comes to the Scriptures initially will finish reading them thinking the gifts have ceased.

Personally, I can't give any better rationale for the gifts than the apostles did. I can't divine their essence beyond what God has chosen to reveal. I think that too many people are trying to squeeze charismatics into trying to explain something that even the apostle Paul didn't attempt to answer.

And don't ask me what was glimpsed in that third heaven, either.

14 thoughts on “Why You Can’t Explain the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

  1. “This is where cessationists will always have folks who believe in the charismata today under their thumbs. They’re asking for a rationale for something the apostles themselves never tried to rationalize. ”

    All I’ll say on this, Dan, is that mere observation tells us that modern man can work himself up into a sincere frenzy over anything (football game, anti-war protest, any brand of “church” service, etc), but the fact that it is irrational does not make it truth. Yes, God’s wisdom is beyond anything we will ever comprehend. However, what the heck is the purpose of Scripture if you can pull any emotional experience or anecdote out of a hat and label it a “gift” or “revelation”? The very reason God 1) gave the inspired Word, 2) finalized it, 3) warned against adding or subtracting from it and 4) instructed the early church to try every teaching against it is to make sure that true believers lived by faith, using the Bible alone as the guide for that faith. So, yes, gifts may still exist today, but I’m asking you – by what authority do you get to redefine them? It seems very much like you want an “anything goes” approach to worship and practice – so long as it’s labeled “gift” in the end. “Oh, Mrs Smith just threw herself off the platform – she must be filled with the Spirit.” On one hand, it seems Charismatics want to be as libertarian as they can be amongst themselves (“If you say that’s an expression of the Spirit, God bless you. Who am I to argue?”), and on the other hand they want to be quick to judge other Christians who dare to raise the slightest objection (“Obviously, your faith isn’t mountain-moving”).

    Perhaps I’ll leave you alone, Dan, at least for a little while. I seem to have perched on your blog for the last few days, mainly because of your recent subject matter. I do believe you love God and seek to know Him, so let no reader say otherwise.

  2. King of Pop,

    I am the last charismatic on the planet to endorse the kinds of things you hint at me endorsing. No charismatic blogger on the Web is more against charismania than I am. Even anti-charismatic groups cite me for my stand against charismania! I also noted in a previous post this week that I believe the gifts are rarer today than many charismatics make them out to be. (See my post “How Not to Be a Charismatic Headcase” and the link within it called “Charismatic Churches and the Cult of the New”—I think those are fair enough proof that I don’t stand for any kind of charismatic impropriety.)

    I no more endorse frenzy than Paul did. Nor do I disagree with you on your four points. I simply don’t agree that the four points mean that the gifts have passed away. They are defined by the Scriptures and by the Holy Spirit attesting to their veracity. That is the whole point of discernment.

    I don’t understand your thought processes when you say that you might allow for the gifts, but then have made the arguments you’ve made on your last several posts. If you allow for the gifts, then you have to deal with the revelatory nature of all the word-related gifts: knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, and the interpretation of tongues. Who is speaking to the believer (and how) so that those gifts operate? If those gifts still exist, then how do YOU acount for them in the light of the closed canon? How would YOU keep them in check?

    I am not for “anything goes” in worship. Just last week I wrote on the worship wars and how I don’t like the trends in modern worship music.

    If you’ve read enough of this blog you know that I am an extremely conservative person in my theology. I’m more of a relic from the Keswick conferences than anything else. I have stood against many modern trends in the Church, but I have also questioned some of the entrenched mindset on a few issues, too. Still, the trend is conservative. I think that is one of the reasons why a very broad base of people consider Cerulean Sanctum to be a decent blog that attests to the truth of Jesus Christ.

    We don’t disagree on the veracity and authoritative nature of Scripture. We may have to disagree on the gifts and how you and I view them. That’s no shock considering the entire blogosphere lit up this week on this topic.

    Thanks for reading. I hope you stick around.

  3. I made an assumption as to what you might be about, and I apologize. I didn’t read some of your other posts mentioned in your comment, so I don’t have a full grasp. I was merely making assumptions based on your last two posts and how charismatics in my experience have represented themselves.

    My belief about gifts is that, yes, they are still around. God has outfitted each local Church with the talents needed for everything to work together smoothly. What I don’t believe is that you can point to some modern charismatic practices and equate them with gifts. I also don’t see gifts then or now as a miraculous, superman-type working of the Spirit. Those with the gift of knowledge are simply those who the Spirit has given a greater intellect to. Those with the gift of wisdom might understand better what the will of God is and might be better suited to be procedural leaders in the church. Those with the gift of prophecy may be good teachers. Those with the gift of tongues may pick up languages better and be better able to minister cross-culturally. Basically, I see the gifts of the Spirit in Scripture as basically talents that God gives each man for the betterment of the Church.

    I also don’t think that gifts are always recognizable to other people or even to oneself. A love of learning may lead to teaching a Sunday School class, but there may be no obvious red flag that goes up and says “gift of knowledge.” Yet, it would appear that the Spirit had given that gift and used that individual to teach others the truth of Scripture.

    It just seemed as if you were mysticizing what is an everyday occurance in the Church. God gives us all gifts. It is, in fact, a very rationale and definable topic, not some vague and mystical thing that God chose to keep from us.

  4. Well, I see, Dan, you’re getting push back, but not surprisingly. I won’t say “Ah toldja so.”

    Dan: “They’re asking for a rationale for something the apostles themselves never tried to rationalize.”

    �Which, I guess, would cause some people, who always demand an excruciatingly exhaustive, philosophical analysis of everything, to accuse the apostles of being “anti-intellectual”. They would say something like “unless you can explain absolutely everything in what I deem a completely rational manner, I won’t believe.”

    Dan, you’ll have about as much success as trying to talk to a crowd of German Kantians.

  5. Dan, due to deadline fever, I’ve had to read fast to play catch up with your posts and some of other bloggers. I did a 9 month Systematic Theology study (Sept ’04 thru May ’05), and when we got to the topic of the Holy Spirit and the gifts, it was an interesting discussion between the people of different denominations and theological persuasions. But it was always conducted in love. As it should be.

    I would describe myself as a conservative Charismatic. I love the title of the book about the founding of the Vineyard Church: In Search of the Radical Middle. I love it because it describes me. I’m in the radical middle. I’m passionate for God. I believe in the Gifts of the Spirit and that they are active today. I love the written Word and need it to guide my life.

    This I know. God is speaking all the time. He is revealing Himself all the time. And the best way to discern (and discernment is a must, as you stressed in one post) if what I hear is truly of God is to hold it up against the written Scriptures. Whatever God tells me will never be contrary to the Bible.

    Thanks for the courage to tackle these deep discussions. Thanks for the tone of brotherly love as well.


  6. brian

    I read back over the comments on your previous post and I didn’t see anyone claiming to be a cessationist.

    What I do see is people trying to clarify some unclear language in your post and disagreeing over the manner of the operation of the gifts.

    You’re “dull thud” conclusion is uncalled for and is an inaccurate generalization. “KingofPop” perhaps disagreed with you the most and even he is not demanding that you “rationalize” the gifts.

    I questioned a very specific application of “specific revelation” but did not even come close to a search for the giant panda.

    All the other commenters were definitely on your side, so this “they” that you(and Oengus) keep referring to seems to be non-existent.

  7. Brian,

    The dull thud I was referring to was the lack of diversity among commenters on what I thought would be a post that would draw a lot of people in. I’m not against people disagreeing with me, nor do I discourage it. But I was surprised on that post that a lot of the usual commenters took a pass. I think the very nature of the post was one that made people shy away. That’s too bad—it’s a topic that has to be discussed if one is to contend that the gifts still exist. Like I wrote to King of Pop, if they still do exist, then at some point you have to grapple with the fact that there is a revelatory nature to some of them that necessitates some kind of revelation from God.

    If I speak out a word of knowledge, I don’t believe I’m merely saying something intelligent based on my accumulated knowledge. I’m saying something that requires that God put that knowledge there exclusively by the Holy Spirit. By definition, that’s a revelatory gift. If we say the gifts still do operate today, then sooner or later we have to come to grips with this truth and how it is intended to work in light of the closed canon. I attempted to do that yesterday as best I could, but I am perfectly willing to admit I am not a theologian and the scope of the topic is one that even theologians have a hard time with.

    I’ll cite a perfect example from a long time ago. I once had a terrible verbal battle with a teacher that I admired deeply. The whole incident left me crushed. I told no one about it, not even my parents. That evening, I went on a long trip to this town where I had a chance to talk to this very gifted individual, who upon seeing me immediately related everything that had happened several hours before and counseled me on how to deal with it. But how did he know? I never told him a thing! There was no information that he could conjure up from his own wealth of knowledge to speak specifically to the level that he did. He also had info on some girl trouble I was having, and I hadn’t shared that with anyone, either. I wasn’t even wearing a hangdog expression, but I was laughing when he came in the room. And yet he knew all those issues going on with me and addressed specifics in them that no one but me knew. Only God could have revealed those things to him. And best of all, what he said to me was exactly what I needed to hear. Those words were a balm to my soul.

    I’m not citing you as a “Giant Panda debunker,” rather I’m going back to the whole argument that has raged for as long as I know on the issue of the gifts, especially as it relates to the closed canon.

    Hope this helps.

  8. brian


    Thanks for the clarification. I have to admit that the scope of what(and who) you were talking about was not immediately obvious to me.

    As always, I appreciate the gracious way you participate in the discussions.

  9. I echo brian’s appreciation for your gracious manner. Many bloggers post something they believe to be absolute truth and will not lower themselves to address any concerns.

    I think it’s interesting at best that your strongest proof for “an audible voice from God” comes from a personal anecdote. Your cheerleaders like to help you qualify your arguments by saying “never in contradiction to Scripture.” What I see, though, is that the very thought that God speaks to believers in an audible voice is contrary to Scripture. You can justify much by saying “Where does it say this is wrong?” The tenor of the Bible, though, seems to tend toward “Where does it say this is right?”, at least in matters of theology and belief. Did you ask the person in question if God had spoken to him directly? If so, what was the answer? If God did speak to him directly, it seems the only purpose served was to make you feel better about your circumstances. Is that not the Spirit’s job (comfort)? And don’t the examples in the Bible of unique revelation tend toward benefitting more than just one person’s bruised feelings? Again I come back to the thought that you are making God into a genie who speaks to man only to grant wishes. Again I ask, what purpose does the finalized canon serve then? Should it not still be open with each of us adding the unique revelation that’s given to us to it? After all, God chose to include some of these individual-specific, task-oriented examples in the canon to teach the rest of us lessons from them. Why not include them all?

    Part of believing in the inspiration of Scripture is believing that it is unique – that it alone is meant to be regarded as inspired. I don’t want to become too repetitive here, but Revelation 22. I still don’t understand how you fit what you’re saying into the clear command to add nothing to Scripture. This is not a discussion of gifts. We both agree that gifts exist today. We also both agree that God reveals Himself today – through His Word. The Spirit does draw men to God, but it’s not by using special, new revelation. It’s through enlightening the mind and heart to the truth of the Bible. The Spirit does comfort and teach believers, but it’s not by speaking directly to them outside of Scripture or by speaking directly to one of their buddies to impart special knowledge. Again, it’s through giving understanding of Scripture. No man is more special than another that God would speak to Him directly and impart new information. Again, using Bible examples of special revelation to prove it happens today makes no sense to me, since all those examples were included as part of general revelation, just as the recording of them as events was included by the Spirit-inspired authors. There was never any indication that those things would continue. Those examples were both witnessed and verified by other believers and by God Himself (they’re included in the canon, aren’t they?). And how is God speaking in an audible voice even a discussion of gifts?

    God does speak to us today through the inspired Scriptures. If you must have audible, maybe try the Bible on CD?

  10. Gayla

    Dan, I love reading your blog but don’t comment too often, as I’m certainly not on the same intellectual playing field as you guys!

    I will say this about that, there is most definitely a mystery to God. I don’t see how we can discount that. He is supernatural, He is sovereign and He can do whatever He wants to!

    I don’t see how we can say that God will never do this or He won’t do that. He can certainly speak audibly if He so desires.

    As I posted here (or maybe on Rob’s blog), I love where God has me now! I’m in the reformed theology camp, and I believe the gifts are alive and well today. If it’s in His word, then it’s applicable today.

    Thanks so much for your insight into so many things!

  11. Gaddabout

    KingofPop wrote:
    f God did speak to him directly, it seems the only purpose served was to make you feel better about your circumstances. Is that not the Spirit’s job (comfort)? And don’t the examples in the Bible of unique revelation tend toward benefitting more than just one person’s bruised feelings?

    What a strange challenge to an argument. I fail to see how the example given is not directly in line with the Bible’s command to exhort each other.

  12. Ronni

    I so wanted to comment Dan, and I have alot to say on the subject but I’m working doubles and trying to balance life, so sorry about that but know that there is someone on the “other side” of this reading and wanting to comment. I feel as though something of this sort deserves a well thought out and written response and I just can’t devote the time right now. Just note that I fully agree with your view, and that people need to stop trying so hard to disect God apart. If people would get close to God instead of the theology circling around him like a windstorm, things would be much clearer. Sometimes theological debates are a distraction to keep us from God. Not all the time but I’ve known quite a few people that use theology as a defense to exploring the relationship. (I’m not saying anyone here has, don’t misconstrue that).

  13. Jeri

    I’ve just started reading your website since the discussion began on the gifts of the Spirit, and I want to let you know that I appreciate your writing and your point of view and will try to keep reading. Don’t be discouraged…may be that the Lord is stirring something up among His people. God bless you,

    Jeri Tanner

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