Book Review – Showing the Spirit (D A Carson)

This is the second time I have read and reviewed this book. The first review was fairly short, so this will be the “in depth” version, giving me opportunity to interact with some of Carson’s observations. For the most part, it is a study of 1 Corinthians 12-14, reading in many ways like a commentary, but with a specific intent of shedding some light on the issue of the charismatic movement. Carson does go into a fair amount of exegetical depth, and expects readers to be comfortable with frequent discussions of the Greek text.

The introduction is brief and is aimed at explaining the current tensions in evangelicalism over the “charismatic” gifts. Carson briefly introduces the charismatic and noncharismatic positions, and somewhat humorously (and sadly also very accurately) explains the stereotyped opinions each of these two polarised groups hold with concerning the other.

The key to understanding the second half of 1 Corinthians is finding out what the issues they raised in their letter to Paul were. He proposes that one of their key concerns was “what are the signs of a spiritual person?”, with each faction (maybe even a charismatic and noncharismatic one) wanting him to answer with their own particular shibboleth (tongues speaking, prophecy, working miracles, giving to the poor or whatever). Into this situation Paul responds by emphasising that gifts are given by grace (charismata), and that gifts are diverse yet all given by the one Spirit.

As he moves onto the second half of chapter 12, where Paul uses the body to illustrate the importance of valuing all the diverse gifts, Carson goes on the offensive against two views held by some charismatics. The first is that of baptism in the Spirit as a “second blessing” – that is, an experience entered into some time after conversion. He argues that it is not taught in this text – it has to be read into it. He spends some time on verse 13, to show that this refers to baptism in the Spirit (as opposed to say Lloyd-Jones’ view that it is baptism by the Spirit into the body) and that Paul thought that all Christians had received it. Therefore he concludes that it must be coincident with conversion.

Unfortunately he doesn’t interact with the view of Pawson that the baptism in the Spirit was normally a distinct element within conversion (like water baptism), but could sometimes be missed out due to defective teaching. Thus the idea that there were Christians who had not received the baptism of the Spirit would have astonished Paul. Carson only mentions a variation on this view which is dismissed as “special pleading”. He concludes the brief discussion on the idea of the baptism in the Spirit as a secondary experience to conversion by simply telling us that the view has been refuted comprehensively elsewhere (e.g. Stott on Baptism and Fullness).

The second view Carson rejects is the common Pentecostal teaching that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is always evidenced by the gift of tongues. He argues that this is precisely the sort of imbalanced esteem of one gift above the others that Paul is countering in this passage.

As he arrives in chapter 13, he demonstrates that this section on love is not an irrelevant excursus but integral to Paul’s overall argument. He first takes time to cast doubt on some ingenious interpretations of 12:31 which turn Paul’s comments about eagerly desiring the greater gifts into a rebuke. Much of chapter 13 is thankfully not contentious in terms of its application, but as he reaches the verse on the future cessation of tongues and prophecy he sets out the variety of interpretations in some detail. He strongly argues against the traditional cessationist position that sees the charismatic gifts as ceasing upon completion of the canon (or at the end of the apostolic age). Rather, “that which is perfect” refers to the parousia. He does however point out that while 1 Cor 13:8 does not teach cessation it does not deny it either, and he also notes that it is the prophetic gifts that remind us most clearly that we are still living in the “not yet”.

There are two chapters on 1 Corinthians 14, and the first deals with the controversial issue of defining the gifts. Tongues are treated first and Carson asks whether they are to be understood as cognitive (that is they are real languages) or simply verbalisations of inward feelings. He reports that linguistic studies of tongues detect no grammar or syntax is detected in the modern phenomenon, which is not in itself particularly controversial, but when he states that the evidence is in favour of tongues being cognitive languages, he realises that this casts doubt on the contemporary charismatic claim to have this gift. Perhaps then in charity, he suggests a somewhat ingenious third option that tongues is like a coded message.

As for modern charismatic interpretations of tongues, Carson seems distinctly unimpressed, quoting some very unfavourable assessments and documents some tests where the same recorded tongue was interpreted differently. He even seems quite pleased with the story of someone deliberately embarrassing a charismatic church by posing as a tongues speaker but actually reciting John 1 in Greek. I found this approach to the gift of interpretation rather unusual, as though it should be ‘provable’ with scientific experiments. He does however raise an important point that charismatics are reluctant to address. What criteria are there for determining whether a tongue or an interpretation are indeed genuine, or do we simply accept everything unquestioningly?

Apostles are next up, and he simply claims that there were special apostles (the 12 plus Paul) and all other people who are referred to as apostles in the New Testament are cases of the word being used in a non-technical sense. He may be right, but it seems to me to be a case of choosing the meaning of apostle in each case it is used based upon a prior commitment to a particular view, something he is normally careful to avoid. He does not address the issue of whether some kind of apostolic oversight, particularly in the realm of church planting, might be desirable today.

In dealing with prophecy, Carson readily acknowledges Grudem’s significant contribution in this area, and indicates that he broadly agrees with it. In particular, the perceived threat to the canon is dealt with by arguing for a lesser authority on the part of New Testament prophets than that which the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles enjoyed. He does not however discuss the surely fact that these people also said and prophesied much that was not Holy Scripture in their lives.

Getting back to the text of 1 Cor 14, Carson argues that Paul’s concern is to evaluate the relative, not absolute, merits of prophecy and tongues (which the Corinthians may have thought of as simply two forms of prophecy). He makes some good points on “I would that you all spoke in tongues” (14:5), noting first that this implies some non-tongues speakers in the church and secondly, drawing a parallel with 1 Cor 7:7 should not be taken to imply that in an ideal church everyone would speak in tongues. He also shows from verses 18 and 19 Paul’s strong endorsement of the private use of tongues alongside his intention to rarely if ever use it in public – two points that are seldom put together by either charismatics or noncharismatics.

The second chapter Carson writes on 1 Cor 14 is dominated by surveying the options in some extremely difficult passages. He discusses no fewer than seven possible meanings of tongues being a sign for unbelievers, and there are a similar variety of possible understandings of the instruction that women to be silent, where he indicates his preference for the idea that this prohibition relates to the oral weighing of prophecies.

Carson closes this section of the book with some useful observations on how the prophetic gift, whilst being revelatory, was still subject to the authority of apostolic teaching. He also discusses the tension between the ideas of meetings full of contributions and those where recognised leaders and teachers provide a substantial part of the public speaking. He suggests that both models are biblical and we should seek to provide avenues for both to be expressed.

Carson’s final chapter is the most ambitious. He attempts to develop a theology of spiritual gifts based not only on the preceding exegesis but also on the accounts in Acts of baptism in the Spirit, tongues and prophecy. He concludes that the tongues in Acts 2 were real languages, and the command to wait is not to be considered as normative, nor can it be deduced that everyone baptised with the Spirit must speak in tongues. Carson follows many noncharismatics in detecting special and non-repeatable circumstances in Acts 8, 10 and 19, arguing the need to forge a link with the Samaritans, the demonstration that the Gentiles didn’t need to become Jewish proselytes, and falling through a gap between two dispensations. The underlying assumptions of Paul’s question in Acts 19:2 are not discussed, and I couldn’t help feeling that having accused the charismatics of “special pleading” in 1 Cor 12:13, now it is Carson himself who is allowing himself a good deal of freedom.

He is particularly concerned to show that baptism in the Spirit as a secondary experience to conversion is not normative (though forced to acknowledge that it did happen on more than one occasion). He laments the charismatics’ “uncontrolled” hermeneutics in the book of Acts, but does concede that for Luke “the Spirit does not simply inaugurate the new age and then disappear; rather, he characterizes the new age”. Carson does briefly take his eyes off the Pentecostal view of the baptism in the Spirit to engage with Lloyd-Jones’ view, acknowledging that his emphasis on seeking to encounter God was helpful, but rejecting his exegesis.

The final section evaluating the charismatic movement makes painful reading for charismatics. The negatives far outweigh the positives, although he indicates a more generous attitude to the Vineyard movement. The anecdotes chosen typically reveal charismatics as either mean-spirited and divisive, or gullible and self-deceived. In his view the charismatics are characterised by seriously defective theology on healing, abuses of authority, inane prophetic utterances, sensationalism and triumphalism. For the record, the positives he does find are increased expectation for God to act, commitment to evangelism, and promotion of lay ministry. He is quite gracious about it, but essentially the charismatics have nothing to offer that a good noncharismatic church does not already have.

He makes an important point in suggesting that actually some of the so-called charismatic gifts may be more in evidence in noncharismatic than we might expect. I would agree that there are examples of healings, faith and prophetic preaching in noncharismatic circles. However, when discussing how a church might deal with having members of both persuasions, the solution seems to be mainly in terms of the noncharismatics promising not to be unkind to the charismatics if they in turn will promise to keep their gifts to themselves. This seems to fly in the face of all Paul has said in 1 Cor 12. A theoretical door of opportunity is of course open for them to be used, but in reality most Christians will not feel free to prophecy or speak in a tongue in a church that never uses these gifts and never teaches on their benefits and how they are to be exercised.

So what has Carson achieved in this important book? He has dealt powerful (and in my view, decisive) blows against both a cessationist view on one hand, and a second blessing always attested by tongues view on the other. I am disappointed though that he did not deal with the idea that the baptism in the Spirit might be a distinct element within conversion, and particularly surprised that he does not discuss the evidence for a definite experience of the Spirit – which is not exclusively found in Acts.

There are few meaningful correctives to noncharismatics – he doesn’t even entertain the possibility that such a church might consider seeking God for the gift of prophecy. For the charismatics, there is much to learn. The need for greater exegetical care is urgent, although I suspect that this point is not questioned by any charismatics who have taken the trouble to read a book like this. The chief lessons are in the areas of tongues, prophecy and healing.

First, charismatics repeatedly emphasise tongues well beyond the Biblical warrant, and if they were to get this in check could well win over a lot more noncharismatic friends. As Carson points out, the Holy Spirit has undeniably moved in great power many times in history without this particular gift being prominent. Also, the tendency to endorse the teaching of any minister simply because he is a tongues speaker is ridiculous.

Second, there needs to be a determination to seek to test prophecy, and curb the “anything goes” tendency where people’s “visions” and “words of knowledge” turn out to be bizarre, inane, or downright wrong. There is also an urgent need for for being abundantly clear on its subordination to Scripture (both in terms of authority and emphasis).

Finally, a charismatic doctrine of healing is needed that does not make preposterous claims or ignore the substantial teaching of the Scriptures on suffering. False and exaggerated claims of healing should be considered absolutely unacceptable.

In conclusion then, this his a highly significant work that Christians of all persuasions would do well to read. Carson has researched his subject matter thoroughly, as is attested by the comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book. Charismatics who approach this book humbly will learn a lot from it, and maybe one day will be able to respond with some similarly biblically grounded exhortations for their noncharismatic brothers to consider.

8 thoughts on “Book Review – Showing the Spirit (D A Carson)

  1. Thanks to a recent post by Dan, I stumbled across some MP3s on the Bridge Community Church Bristol website. Their sermons page features two talks by John Hosier (the unofficial newfrontiers theologian), from Church of Christ the King (the unofficial newfr

  2. I zeroed-in on the comments you made regarding Carson’s issue with tongues: that charismatics focus on this more than they should. What charismatics does he cite, and during what time period? In the charismatic circles in which I’ve traveled over the past 30 years (non-denominational US churches that emerged from the 70s revival — not AG, CoG or others birthed at Azusa St), tongues were a big deal in the 70s and early 80s, but I haven’t heard a tongue uttered publicly (not under the breath as part of personal prayer or worship) since 2000 or so.

    The 90s revivals were, in my opinion (after having experienced both the 70s and 90s infillings), more powerful than than the 70s’, yet tongues were definitely not a primary focus of what the Spirit was doing then. So I’m confused and have to ask: Who are these people fixated on tongues? Do they even represent today’s charismatic churches?

  3. I would guess that Pentecostals, or charismatics heavily influenced by Pentecostal teaching are in his sights here. In a typical Pentecostal church, if you do not speak in tongues, you are considered not to have yet received the Baptism in the Spirit, and people will offer to pray for you until you receive it.

    Some charismatics however do not see baptism in the Spirit as secondary to conversion, so the issue of speaking in tongues as an evidence is less acute for them. Carson is happier with this flavour of the charismatic movement.

    I think that you are right that tongues are being emphasised less now in many charismatic circles. This may show a growing maturity, but we must beware that we do not begin to despise this somewhat strange gift.

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  7. Excellent review–very clear and organized. It helps that I seem to be tracking with you theologically as well. I’m glad to hear that Carson is mostly fair and gracious on this topic; I’ve been impressed by his other writings.

    Thank you for putting in the work for this review.

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