By Andrew Faris
I have been really pleased with the interaction about spiritual gifts in the comments and over email from my posts last week on spiritual gifts (both the interview with Ken Berding regard What Are Spiritual Gifts? and my review of that book). A few related issues have come up in that time that I thought were worth discussing. If you have not read those posts (especially the interview), some of this will not make sense, so go read those first.
Isn't it unfair to separate the ability from the ministry at all?
No. The question at hand is this: according to the New Testament, what is a spiritual gift? The answer, I am convinced, is that what we call spiritual gifts are the actual ministries that God gives us to edify the body of Christ, not the abilities to do those ministries. So strictly speaking, if that is the issue at hand in the Pauline list passages (found in Eph. 4, Rom. 12, and two of them in 1 Cor. 12), then it is not unreasonable to separate them, because that is what Paul meant to talk about. I for one think it best to take him at his word as best as possible!
Further, while it is true that God sometimes must give us special abilities to carry out those ministries (esp. tongues, healing, and prophecy), it is not true that God always must give us a special ability (e.g. ministries of mercy, administration, or evangelism). On that note, one of the things that led me towards the spiritual ministries view is that it seems to me that most non-Christians could take a spiritual gifts inventory and discover their spiritual gifts. That's because some gifts don't require extra empowering, outside of the Holy Spirit being given us more generally.
Berding includes in his book the provocative charge that the conventional view of spiritual gifts leaves no room for Paul's theology of ministering out of our weaknesses as a way for God to show His strength. The conventional view is all about ministering out of strengths. This problem is eliminated when the gift is the ministry, and I do think it is a significant problem for the conventional view.
Does that mean that God never empowers our ministries?
No. Of course He does. Nothing in the spiritual ministries view suggests that this is a necessary corollary.
Can't we just eliminate the spiritual gifts tests but keep the conventional view?
I suppose you could, but I don't know why you would. Frankly, spiritual gifts tests make plenty of sense if spiritual gifts are conceived of as latent abilities. If I have special spiritual powers (and that is what the conventional view says they are), why would I not want to discover them? I certainly wouldn't want to find out that I don't have the gift of teaching by forcing congregations to sit through bad sermons, if that is indeed how the gifts work.
Thing is, it's easy to say, "Yeah, the gifts tests are dumb." But if you operate within the conventional view, why?
What about tongues and prophecy in particular?
Put simply, the actual prophesying (not the ability to prophesy) and the speaking in tongues and interpretation of those tongues (not the ability to speak in or interpret tongues) is the spiritual gift. God graciously gives His church messages for its edification.
The term "ministry" then does not have to denote something ongoing and long term. A ministry could be the 5 seconds it takes me to prophesy in the congregation.
What about the Greek words and their contribution?
Charisma is the Greek word that most associate with spiritual gifts. Thus the "charismatic" movement. Often we assume that charisma is Paul's technical term for what we call "spiritual gifts."
There a number of problems with that, both in terms of the semantic range of charisma in the NT generally and more direct contextual issues within the list passages. But what I really want to point out is the term's absence from Eph. 3-4.
The word translated "gift" in those two chapters is dorea. The important thing here is that most of the rest of the language in Eph. 3-4 is the same as the language in the other list passages, which raises a question: does the use of dorea instead of charisma mean that Paul is talking about something different?
Of course not. What it means is that we need to let the context decide the meaning of the words, not a supposed technical definition of one of them. If charisma alone means "spiritual gift as latent ability," then we would be hard-pressed to figure out how Eph. 3-4 could be talking about the same thing without using the term. Generally then, we are reminded to look at the context to define our words.
What about the fact that we seem to see people who have latent spiritual abilities?
Who's to say they aren't natural abilities? Or perhaps a special empowering that God has added to their ministry? Lee Strobel was apparently a great public speaker before he became a Christian. Does that mean he always had the spiritual gift of preaching? No. It means that he always was a good communicator.
Further, if a spiritual gift is an ability, you'd think some pastors (who apparently are supposed to be teaching weekly) would be better preachers, wouldn't you? The NT seems clear enough that elders (and I think this is the main biblical term for what we call pastors) are supposed to be teaching/preaching - check the qualifications list in 1 Timothy. Then does that mean that an elder has the spiritual gift of teaching? If so, apparently the Holy Spirit isn't that good of a preacher, because I've heard some good pastors preach some real bad sermons.
God works through natural abilities. But that does not make them spiritual abilities, per se.
What about church history? Haven't we always done it this way?
Nope. Berding noted in the interview that the conventional view appears to have arisen in the 70's, and that most older pastors he knows had never heard so much talk about spiritual gifts as abilities until then.
Check some older commentaries and systematic theologies: the abilities theology does not even appear to be in the authors' minds. Admittedly, some are vague on what a gift actually is, but they do not appear to assume an abilities theology.
Then how have we done it?
I'm not sure exactly, but I noticed something interesting in the Institutes recently. Calvin interprets the list passages as describes church offices (no reference to ability whatsoever). These passages that we so often correctly use to reinforce the priesthood of all believers, whether in official roles or not, he used to describe official roles.
Like I said, I think we're right and Calvin is wrong on this. But I bring it up because I got to thinking about Calvin's view, and figure that the only reason he did this, so far as I can tell, is because his ecclesiastical framework made it the obvious choice. Put another way, it looked that way on Sundays for him, and that's what he knew, so it was natural.
To those who question the ministries view on the basis of the exceptionally widespread abilities view I ask this: is it possible that we are committing the same fundamental error applied to a different aspect of spiritual gifts? We have gone to church and grown up with the preaching and teaching of the abilities view. It just seems so natural.
I suggest we take a fresh look at the passages.
One last thing...
I wrote a 30 page paper for my last class for my M. A. in the NT at Talbot and it was on this subject. If you'd like to read it, shoot me an email (email@example.com) and I'll send it to you.
It relies heavily on Berding's book, but most certainly interacts with other sources as well. As Berding said in the interview, his work has been to synthesize the individual contributions on various passages of many scholars, and in that sense he certainly didn't come up with it all out of nowhere.
But what you really should do is read Berding's book. It's not a difficult read and it's a lot better than my paper.