Friday, January 23, 2009

One More on Spiritual Gifts - Tying Up Some Loose Ends

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 ( 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.


Scott said...

Andrew, thanks for the new article. I really think I am beginning to understand your heart. I do believe the gifts are actual ministries/services/functions to the body of Christ, and the word. I still don't think we have to pit this completely against an understanding that sees us possessing gifts, but I think I really understand your heart (and Berding's). I hope to get the book one day, as I have so many I am trying to read right now. :)

A couple of things, very small:

I believe 'charisma' is used in Eph 4:7 (without having any Greek resources here in front of me). Our English translations use the word 'grace'. Later on in that same verse, Paul does use 'dorea'.

You mentioned the spiritual gift of preaching? Not sure about that one. :) Teaching, yeah. Preaching just means to proclaim publicly, right?

Andrew Faris said...


It's not a baby and bathwater issue- it's a "what does the text actually say?" issue.

Regarding Eph. 4:7, charisma is not there. Charis and dorea both are, but no charisma.

Regarding Rom. 1:11, the reason it is plausible that charisma could indicate a financial offering is because the semantic range of that term is broad. I think that all it means is "a concrete, gracious gift from God." Why do you think that charisma must mean "spiritual" gift, other than the fact that English Bibles take it that way. On that note, Rom. 12:3-8 actually lacks any mention of the Holy Spirit in the list of "spiritual" gifts.

Regarding a gift of "preaching," I wonder: if the gifts are abilities, do you think that the list passages, taken together, present an exhaustive list of spiritual gifts? Or are they ad hoc, allowing for the possibility that there are more that Paul does not mention?

I very appreciate your thoughtful and irenic interaction.


Anonymous said...

In dealing with the re-education of our minds you may need to expand on how to implement this reading of the scripture. It is going to break the hearts of the superstitious folk who wished they had a super hero lying within waiting to be found. It is also going to call lay folk to become diligent in pursuing ministry because before the excuse was "I didn't have that gift". Thanks for the these posts.

Scott said...

Andrew -

Thanks again. Yes, it is the word charis, and not charisma, in Eph 4:7. I could not remember.

Charisma doesn't have to be translated 'spiritual gift', but probably 'grace gift'. Pneumatika/on should probably always be translated 'spiritual gift'. And Rom 1:11 might refer to any gift larger than spiritual gifts, but from reading the context, I find it hard to conclude it was a financial gift.

I don't think every 'gift' is listed in Scripture. But, in general, I think Scripture contains the best start (and, of course, you would agree). People want to claim they have the gift of prayer, and I am not closed to this statement. But I read Scripture and it seems as if prayer is every Christ follower's calling. Yet, no doubt, some give more time and heart to it. Or someone might say I have the gift of worship leading. What? Maybe they have more of a leading and prophetic gift, also given a 'creational' gift with music, and thus they are leading worship in the church gathering. But the gift of worship leading?

So, preaching might be a 'spiritual gift', but the Scripture refers more to teaching as a gift (outside of possible 1 Tim 5:17). Scripture also refers to exhortation, and thus, I think preaching could be a longer sort of exhortation, coupled with teaching. I don't want to box this in, but I know many who hold the idea of preaching as an evangelist on the corner 'preaching' the gospel or what the pastor does on Sunday. And they see it as their spiritual gift. But I don't know if this is so laid out in Scripture.

Yet, again, I am not going to box it all in too much. I think many Christians don't know what the Scripture teaches on gifts. Still, I don't think Scripture gives an exact exhaustive list. But I do think we need to start there. And the ministries and gifts God does give us will generally link in with the many listed in Scripture.

Also, re-reading Rom 12, I see more the idea of gifts being the actual functioning in them, not latent powers. (I already saw this from Eph 4.) I do think it beautiful to continue to teach people that the giftings of God are what He has called us to walk in, function in, the ministries we serve the body of Christ with. Still, I am ok to see these as things actually given to us, and if they are given to us, then I would think we possess them, but not to form some unhealthy idea about having them in us.

But I do believe we are on the same page more than we (or I) first thought.

Thanks again.

Andrew Faris said...


Why do you think pneumatika/on should be translated "spiritual gifts" at all times? I thoroughly disagree, and think it should probably be more broadly "spiritual things." Part of the reason for my saying that is because 1 Cor. 12-14 are not primarily about spiritual gifts- they are about the functioning of the body of Christ and the Spirit's role in that, especially with respect to edification.

If Eph. 4 and Rom. 12 both refer to functions rather than abilities, why do you insist that an abilities concept is in the term?

Also, it seems to be arbitrary to distinguish between a spiritual gift of preaching and of teaching, wouldn't you say? The two are so closely related, that why would there be an empowering for one and not the other?

Which again reveals the inconsistency of the conventional view. If the gift is the ministry, then there is no longer any such problem.

I think we are roughly on the same page in some ways too, but I just don't understand why, from Scripture, other than the indwelling Spirit argument, you think that a spiritual gift is a latent ability.

Thanks for the thoughtful interaction throughout!


Scott said...

Hi Andrew.

You are correct - pneumatika/on does not have to be rigidly defined as 'spiritual gifts'. No doubt some people see it as simply translated as 'spirituals', which I believe your idea of 'spiritual things' is helpful as well. Still, these 'spirituals' are given to God's people. 1 Cor 12-14 is actually about gifts, but with an emphasis on how to faithfully function in the gifts, or at least mainly how prophecy and tongues should faithfully function in the gathering of the saints. So, I still don't think we have to move away from seeing the things of 1 Cor 12:4-11 as not being gifts of the Spirit (or 'spiritual gifts'), since they are given by Him to the body. Also, I can't remember off hand, but I think the word charisma is used in 1 Cor 12-14 in places, but my memory fails me.

I will continue to stand with you and agree that the gifts are about being used and functioning in them. This is beautiful. But I still don't think this means that we cannot recognize these charismata, these pneumatikon, as gifts that are actually given to us, that we possess, because the One who gives them dwells in us. Again, it is about walking them out. That is the emphasis of Scripture, as you and Berding have so faithfully pointed out. But I am not convinced we are to not see these as actual gifts given to the people of God. When a gift is given, the receiver now possesses that gift. It is not to be set aside and never used, it is to utilized, but we still received from the one who gave to us, especially if that Giver dwells within us as the Gift-giver.

Maybe it is semantics, and I'm glad we see the main purposing in giftings as the service and function in those gifts, blessing others. That is the reason we are gifted, whether they are within us or not.

Thanks again.