Friday, January 16, 2009

A Review of What Are Spiritual Gifts? by Ken Berding

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.


Anonymous said...

How would he classify the broader happenings of the early church in Acts? I agree, i think, with what he has said thus far. Would tongues and healing not be a gift of the Holy Spirit? Would they be considered mini-miracles? How is the power of the Holy Spirit involved in the gifts that wouldn't be involved in unbelievers? The difference between an NGO and a faith based charity? Both are using similar "gifts". I don't know if he answers this, or it may not be the point of his discussion. It's just questions I had as I marinated on the subject.
On a side note, I think parents can do a great service by identifing the "gifts" their childern have and nuturing and pointing their kids in that direction when they are young. We are generally career oriented as parents rather then character oriented.
Thanks for the info

Anonymous said...

Also, if you read the Qualifications for deacons or elders, some of them would be considered gifts. For someone to become one or the other you would have to acquire those abilities to preform the "able to teach"
Another side note...

Anonymous said...

In reply to "anonymous," the qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are listed for the assessing of an elder's character, not his special abilities. This includes the requirement that he be "able to teach" in 1 Tim 3:2. The word in Greek is "didaktikos" which is translated in some of our English Bibles as "able to teach." But it would be a mistake to interpret this single Greek word in 1 Tim 3:2 as an inherent power that makes someone a good communicator, as the parallel qualifications list (Titus 1:5-9) makes clear. Titus 1:9 speaks of one who is "holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict." In other words, an overseer/elder must be one who knows doctrine, and, for that reason, is able to instruct in what is right and wrong doctrine. Furthermore, the only other time "didaktikos" is used in the NT is in 2 Tim 2:24, which is also about correcting those who err in their knowledge. So 1 Timothy 3:2 should not be appealed to as evidence for a special ability of the kind usually described in the conventional view of spiritual gifts. Rather, the "ability" referred to in 1 Tim 3:2 is none other than the knowledge of doctrine that is adequate to correct false teaching. Moreover, teaching is not described as an ability elsewhere in the NT and it would be remiss to base a theology of spiritual gifts upon a single Greek word that is found outside of Paul's list passages.

cat said...

You stated at the end of your article – ‘Throw out your spiritual gifts tests and take on your role as a gift to the church for the sake of its edification.’

No doubt this is a great concluding statement. We are to remember that we, ourselves, are even gifts to the body ourselves.

You also stated – ‘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 occurrences 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.’

While I do, or I think I understand Berding’s thesis, I don’t think we have to take it so far as to say the giftings of God are not actually given to us, latent in us, or within us. I think we just have to define what we mean by those words. Now, semantics is important to me, and so, the word ‘abilities’ might be awkward, because we can think of superpower abilities in an unhealthy sense. But, think about it, we have been given the Spirit of God who dwells within, all for the sake of building of the body of Christ, and thus can we not be given gifts of this same Spirit?

Also, consider this, the Spirit of God is referred to as a ‘gift’ in the book of Acts (2:38; 8:20; 10:45). The word used is dorea, not charisma, but He is still referred to as a gift given by God to the people of God. We actually have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. If we have the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, then should we not have those gifts within us that He operates in our lives?

As with a passage Rom 5:15-16, it’s interesting that the word charisma is used twice and the word dorea is used twice in describing the gifting of God. Still, with the use of the word charisma to describe the ‘free gift’ of salvation or redemption in that context, we can still see this as something we have laid hold of. We actually do possess this free gift of God’s life (yet, not doubting there is a day in which we will receive our full redemption). This gift of redemption is actually ours.

Thus, I am not sure that turning to other passages that use the word charisma, but not in the context of ‘spiritual gifts’, warrants us to claim that these are not actual gifts that we receive and possess. Again, I don’t want to box it in and take the route that says we need to take an exam to find out our gifts, and thus, those are the only things we ‘get to do’. That’s not necessarily healthy. Nor do we have to box it in and label everyone with what gifts they have – Suzy has the gift of prophecy and leading, Jake has an evangelistic gift and teaching gift, Bob has the gift of discerning of spirits, etc, etc. The reason we generally know what gifts people ‘have’ is that we see them functioning in them. Suzy will prophesy, speaking the heart of God, and we testify that it is true and even see such things take place. Therefore, we see her gifting, or one of them. We see Jake drawing people to Christ and helping others grow in reaching their friends, thus we realize he is an evangelist. Bob always senses when a person is in bondage to the enemy, thus we know his gift of discerning of spirits.

My point is that we know God’s giftings within people because we see people walking them out, functioning in these. They are still gifts given to people to serve the body of Christ, and the world. These people, in their giftings, become ministries, or servants, in these areas. God gave the charisma of redemption; God gives the charisma of the Spirit. God gives the gift of His Spirit to His people; God gives gifts of the Spirit to His people. Whatever the context, God is still giving gifts to His people of which they possess.

And though Eph 4:11-12 does not specifically use the word charisma, it does use the words charisma and dorea back in Eph 4:7, which is the full context. Still, I would agree that these are all ministries, functions and roles (God forbid that we see them as titles or positions). But these people function as ministries, or servants, in these because Christ has gifted them in these areas. We don’t have to pit ‘gift’ against ‘ministry/function/role’. We can see ‘gift’ as part of the same family as ‘ministry/function/role’.

Thanks for these articles.

Scott said...

For some reason, the last comment came up under my wife's name. Sorry :)

Jeffrey Bruce said...

Hey Scott,

I'm sure Ken can give a way better response than I can, but I think the crucial question is whether "latent abilities" ever falls within the semantic purview of charisma/pneumatika. God certainly gives us gifts that we possess, but these gifts appear to be ministries we function in rather than abilities to do these ministries. The notion of empowerment is an implication (i.e. God empowers all his people to do minsitry), but it's tough to substantiate the notion that Paul uses "gift" language to speak of abilities.

Andrew Faris said...


Thanks for the thoughtful interaction.

I'd respond specifically, but because you and others have raised thoughtful objections, I'm planning on posting on Friday to tie up some loose ends on the subject.

In the mean time, I think that Jeff is on the money: we do need to be sure we're asking the right questions, and I think distinguishing between the main point of a Scriptural teaching and an implication of it, in this case, is really helpful.


Scott said...

Hey all. Thanks for the feedback.

Please know that I don't think what Berding refers to as the 'conventional way' is fully helpful. Most Christians see the gifts as abilities, and never understand the importance of functioning in them, using them for ministry (which simply means serving). But I don't know if we have to throw the baby out with the bath water on this. What I find in many Christians who get a fresh revelation of something, which it seems Berding has really received something fresh in regards to giftings, is that they tend to react against the current view and in a desire to form something completely opposite. This has happened all throughout church history - reacting rather than responding to God. I think there might be a difference. We have to be careful not to be reactionary. I don't know Berding, and I am in no way trying to speak negative of him. I am just aware that many Christians who are decidedly disappointed with the 'status quo' of the church as a whole will react and try and swing the pendulum too far. No doubt, the pendulum does need swinging at times, even in this area, and sometimes it even needs swinging to a completely opposite side. But we have to be careful. Thus, we don't just need the doctrines of what the gifts are, we need the praxis of walking out these, which are ministries given to serve the body of Christ and the world.

To take a regular life example, let's consider a boy who is hired to do a paper route. For him, at 10 years old, it's almost like a 'calling'. What does he need to complete it? A bike. So, his parents spend $50 and buy him a decent bike as a gift. Now, the boy is actually functioning in the role of paper boy, but he still has the gift of the bike to get it done. The bike is the gift given, that the boy actually possesses, to help him function in what he desires to do. Another gift he has hanging over his shoulder is a sturdy, rain-proof bag to carry the papers in, which was given to him also by his parents. And with the gifts of the bike and the bag, he is able to function and serve in the role of paper boy.

No doubt this example does not transfer completely, but my heart is that we not try and dichotomize something that I am not sure is necessary here. The gifts of God (charisma or dorea) are given to us. We possess them by the one who indwells us. But here is where we need to go further - knowing that God has gifted us so that we may serve and function in those things. A prophet will serve by prophesying, an evangelist will draw those to into Christ, a leader will lead, a shepherd will pastor. So, yes, they are functions, and those functions flow out of the giftings given. Gift, ministry, function, role, service are all helpful synonyms.

You already referred to 1 Tim 4:14 in which a spiritual gift was imparted through laying on of hands. This is also seen in Rom 1:11. These are things given, ultimately by the Spirit, though maybe through the agent of man.

Salvation, a charisma and dorea, is 'latent within'. The Spirit, a dorea gift, is 'latent within'. Why not the other giftings of God?

In the end, though you may disagree, I suppose it is semantics with us. I really believe we are on the same page in general in believing that people need to see that God has gifted us in service ministries, rather than just see them simply as abilities. But I am not sure this extreme dichotomy has to be taught.

Thanks for the interaction.

Andrew Faris said...

1 Tim. 4:14 and Rom. 1:11 are far from certain. The only way that they must be latent abilities would be if charisma on its own carried the whole conventional view theology, which there is good reason to doubt. Laying on of hands (which by the way is not present in Rom. 1) sounds more like an appointment to a ministry than the transfer of a latent ability- where else does laying on of hand refer to something like a spiritual gift in the conventional sense? Rom. 1:11 is notoriously ambiguous (just check the commentaries), and I had one prof who argued that it might refer to a financial gift.

Charisma, it appears to me, probably refers to any concrete gift of grace from God. I think describing salvation as "latent" confuses the issue, because when we use the term for spiritual gifts, we mean it to refer to something that may or may not be exercised at any given time that is within us - a power, of sorts. Salvation is clearly a concrete gift of grace, but calling it latent is confusing.

Again, where do you get the idea from the text that what we call a spiritual gift is a latent ability? Certainly things like prophecy and tongues require God-given abilities to exercise, but that does not mean that they cannot primarily be described as ministries.

More importantly, to your point on reactions, I agree in principle- we shouldn't just react. So would Berding (I know him personally). But reactions are characterized by shoddy exegesis and poor articulation, and you'll get none of that from him. Even if you disagree, you would not say that after reading his book. He is, in fact, one of the most careful thinkers I know (anyone who has gone through every list in the letters of Paul to try to learn how Paul uses lists cannot be considered reactionary- that takes too much work).

In fact the conventional view (not a derogatory term, just a way of classifying the view) appears to only be some 35 years old. So while I appreciate you point in general, church history actually is not really on the side of the conventional view. Read older systematics and commentaries and you'll see what I mean.

More tomorrow.


Scott said...

Hi Andrew, and thanks again for the interaction. I still believe it might just be semantics here. To say spiritual gifts are 'latent abilities', can be somewhat of a misnomer. But what I do see is that the gifts of God are actually given to people - even if it were for specific function or for all of our lives. Gifts are given to us, and thus, we possess them.

Again, I believe the goal is to see people serving in their gifts, being ministries to the body of Christ. But I am not sure we have to swing the pendulum too far and say these are not gifts given to us, that we actually possess, since we possess the One who gifts us, or better yet, He possesses us and dwells in us.

Rom 1:11 referring to a financial gift? Do you mean like a special financial offering to give them that another church took up for Rome? Is there some hidden meaning in the Greek that I need to study? Is finances a 'spiritual gift'? Maybe you could argue giving is, but financial gift as a 'spiritual' charisma gift. Still, it is peripheral compared to the bigger discussion. :)

With Rom 1:11, the use of the word 'impart' could refer to laying on of hands. Laying on of hands was not just for appointing/recognizing someone in a ministry, but for impartation. It was a statement of 'receive what I have in God' - whether full health, authority, a gift, etc, etc.

Again, I believe we are headed down the same path. I just felt necessary to encourage you not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys. I wanted to post a link to my blog with an article also reviewing Berding's book. I first found out about the book through your blog, and I put up some comments above (as Scott).

So I bought the book soon after reading your articles and finished it quite a few months back but, with so many other things going on, I never got around to posting a review myself. So I have just been able to do that now. So, if you are interested, since I believe he was Andrew's (??) professor, then you can check out

Thanks guys, and I do welcome any interaction and comments.