Book Review: Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter

Schreiner, Thomas R. Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2018. 172 pp.; Pb. $16.99  Link to B&H Academic  

Thomas Schreiner has contributed several major works, including a Romans commentary in the BENTC Series (Baker Academic, 1998), a New Testament theology, and a recent biblical theology of the whole Bible (Baker Academic, 2008, 2013). This new book from B&H is a popular-level work on the often contentious issue of spiritual gifts. The first half of the book is not controversial since Schreiner discusses gifts in general. Most readers will be interested in his discussion of prophecy, tongues, and cessation of these gifts in chapters six through eleven. Like most cessationists, Schreiner does not deny there are no miracles in the present age, and his view of tongues and prophecy does not imply anything about God healing people in the present age (165). However, he argues both prophecy and tongues do not continue in the present time.

Spiritual Gifts

The first chapter summarizes J. I. Packer’s observations of the strengths and weaknesses of the Charismatic Movement. In the following four chapters, Schreiner carefully defines spiritual gifts and clarifies what Scripture says about the gifts. He lists the various gifts found in Scripture and offers brief definitions of them, dividing them into “gifts of speaking” and “gifts of service.” The two chapters entitled “Five Truths about Spiritual Gifts” seem like ten more or less random topics; any of these ten observations might have made a short chapter by itself. For example, his discussion of “The Baptism of the Spirit at Conversion” is nearly as long as the other chapters in the book. The section is preceded by a few pages arguing the gifts are given for the edification of the church. It is followed by a section on edification coming through understanding one’s gift. The argument of the book may have benefited by separating the discussion of the baptism of the Holy Spirit into a full chapter since the meaning of this phrase is misunderstood, used, and abused in contemporary Christian culture.

Schreiner devotes two chapters to the gift of prophecy. He first defines prophecy as a spontaneous revelation from God rather than “Spirit-inspired exegesis.” Prophecy can instruct, encourage, or warn God’s people (99). He devotes twenty-one pages to Wayne Grudem’s suggestion that New Testament prophecy is different than Old Testament prophecy, specifically that New Testament prophets like Agabus made prophecies that were fallible. In the case of Acts 21:11, Agabus predicted the Jews would bind Paul, but when he is arrested in Jerusalem, it is the Romans who bind him. Grudem considered this a prophecy with an error, although virtually everyone else considers the prophecy accurate. The Jews were responsible for Paul’s arrest even if the Romans did the literal binding of his hands.

Unlike Grudem, Schreiner does not redefine prophecy in order to find a place for it in the church. Instead, he argues prophecy in the New Testament is consistent with prophecy in the Old Testament. Prophecy is not some private, internal guidance by the Holy Spirit but a foundational revelation given publicly to God’s people. Schreiner makes significant use of the phrase “foundation of the apostles and prophets” in Ephesians 2:20. If prophecy still exists, then the foundation has not yet been completed (108).

The following two chapters concern the gift of tongues. First, he argues the common distinction between tongues in Acts and tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 is unconvincing. The tongues are the same, but the situation is different: the Corinthian church lacked an interpreter of the tongues. As he argued earlier in the book, spiritual gifts are given to edify the church, and edification requires understanding. If the gift of tongues is not understandable, then there is no edification of the church. For Schreiner, biblical tongues are “speaking in other languages,” and “those speaking ecstatic utterances do not have the biblical gift of tongues” (132).

The final two chapters deal with the arguments for the cessation of the gifts, first by dispensing with unconvincing arguments and then offering a positive argument for the cessation of gifts. The key problem is Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 that “when the perfect comes,” tongues will cease. If the “perfect” can be defined as the completed canon or spiritual maturity of the church, then the verse can be used to argue for the cessation of tongues. Schreiner argues this is not at all what Paul meant. When Paul said we will see Jesus “face-to-face,” he was referring to the second coming of Christ.

Here, Schreiner more or less agrees with a charismatic exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is not saying gifts like tongues and prophecy will necessarily pass away at some point prior to the Second Coming, but the need for these particular gifts will cease. Schreiner’s argument for the cessation of gifts is based on his view prophets and apostles were foundational for the church. After the foundational period, Scripture is in the sole authority of the church. Certainly, God does miracles in the present age, but Schreiner says, “Christians can be as credulous and superstitious as unbelievers” (165). The foundation on which the church stands today is Scripture, not charismatic or ecstatic utterances.

Conclusion. Since this short book on spiritual gifts developed from Schreiner’s teaching in the church rather than the academy, it is written to a general church audience. Some elements lack the exegetical details expected from a scholar like Schreiner, and there are few pointers to more detailed studies (for example, the “perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13 requires more exegetical nuance than Schreiner is able to provide in this book). Schreiner does not make a distinction between revelatory gifts and other service gifts. He includes revelatory gifts in both his categories (“gifts of speaking” and “gifts of service”). This might have served his purpose since the revelatory gifts (prophecy and tongues) can be associated with the foundation of the church.

Some readers will approach this book with a fairly entrenched view of spiritual gifts and either find it affirming or unconvincing. Schreiner has provided a basic primer on a biblical view of spiritual gifts which will serve well in church Bible studies and small group discussions.


NB: Thanks to B&H Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.