By Andrew Faris
On Wednesday I posted an interview that I conducted with Dr. Ken Berding about his 2006 book, What Are Spiritual Gifts? and I now turn to review that book. I will not bother re-summarizing his thesis here, as he has done that succinctly in the interview, and he is, after all, the book's author! Hopefully these two posts will get you on the subject matter and encourage you to get the book.
Which leads me to my first point: if you are in church leadership you should read this book. Especially if you are a pastor. Especially if you are a pastor who assumes or teaches what Berding calls the "conventional view" of spiritual gifts, i.e. that spiritual gifts are latent abilities that each believer should seek to discover as a basis for his ministry.
And I say that for this reason: Berding's thesis (i.e. that what we call "spiritual gifts" are actually the ministries that God gives us, not the ability to carry out those ministries) is near bulletproof. And please note that I use such strong language sparingly.
The book develops in three main stages. First, there is a fictional conference on spiritual gifts where the keynote speaker introduces the problems with the conventional view and begins to propose a solution (which of course is Berding's thesis). Second, the bulk of the book is the exegetical defense of the thesis, including discussions of Paul's use of lists generally, the Greek terms charisma and pneumatikon, and the major "spiritual gifts" passages in question (including 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4, and Rom. 12). Berding concludes with other implications and applications, which is helpful considering how practical of an issue this is.
What becomes clear from the beginning is that the conventional view is almost always assumed and almost never defended. The anecdotal evidence alone is compelling: for as often as you have read the passages, taken the spiritual gifts tests, and heard the preaching and teaching on the subject, when have you ever heard anyone actually say, "This is why I think that a spiritual gift is an ability." I never have, and in my own reading on the subject outside of What Are Spiritual Gifts? (which is fairly considerable, if I may say so), the same is true.
And indeed it only takes a quick look at the texts to realize that there are problems. Aside from the fact that charisma alone simply cannot carry the weight of the "latent ability" theology (its occurences in Rom. 5:15-16; 11:29; and 2 Cor. 1:11 are proof positive), the term does not even occur in Eph. 4:11-12 (or anywhere in its context). Further, how can "the one who leads" (one of a number of easy examples) in Rom. 12:8 be a latent ability when it clearly describes a person in his function? For that matter, Eph. 4:11-12 lists people in roles, not abilities to do those roles. The only way that one comes to a different conclusion is if he imports an assumed abilities theology into the text- the text itself simply does not suggest it.
I will not argue the position any further here as this is already longer than I first expected, though I hope that you are beginning to see some of the issues. It is worth noting also that the book certainly does have faults. For one, the writing often feels clunky, probably owing to the difficulty of simplifying arguments for a broad audience. Adding to this clunkiness is its division into 22 chapters despite only being 205 pages (plus 3 appendices). Worst of all, it is formatted with Satan's greatest attack on theological writing: endnotes. For some writers this would not be so bad, but Berding often uses his endnotes for detailed discussion. The amount of page turning is painful.
Regarding the content more specifically, there is little to take issue with exegetically. The most difficult passage for Berding is 1 Tim. 4:14, where Paul says that the charisma is "in" (Gk. en) Timothy. That said, his solution is reasonable (he appeals to the "laying on of hands" which appears to be a ministry anointing and the incredibly broad range of the Greek preposition en) and there is no major problem.
Finally, a section on the historical development of the conventional view would have really helped: since the conventional view really is not argued, how in the heck did we get to such a confused modern state?
However we did, it is time we got away from it. God has graciously saved us into a body- a body that cannot function properly if its members aren't doing what they are supposed to. How do we serve that body? We learn how we can best serve the church wisely and biblically, then we serve it and trust that God's Holy Spirit will empower us as needed. Throw out your spiritual gifts tests and take on your role as a gift to the church for the sake of its edification. Berding has done a great service to the church with this excellent book.