Redefining Spiritual Gifts I

The influence of the contemporary Charismatic Movement (CM) on global Christianity has been massive. The name of the movement comes from the New Testament Greek word charismata which is translated grace or gift. In the case of the movement it is a reference to the “spiritual gifts” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 notably speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy among other things.

A growing majority of churches are comfortable with there being some kind of charismatic continuity with the early Church on a supernatural level. As with many things in the CM there are a lot of differences and debates as to where to draw the line. What are the charismata, what do they look like, who qualifies to possess them, how do they function in Church life? Many other variations of these questions and other questions abound on this matter. It is not possible for me to address all these questions of contemporary pneumatology far less in a single post. I will zero in on a particular sub-question to provoke more nuanced discussion about how we define what the charismata are.

By my count, there range from around 5 to 27 named charismata. Many claim that 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are the spiritual gifts proper and classify other things differently even though they often admit they are related. Considering the range I have observed tackling the various schemes and configurations that have been offered, it is too complex to accomplish here. I am encouraged by the fact that the CM not only takes the existential evidence of the experience of the spirit of God. It tries to ground and measure these experiences in the Holy Scriptures. This is largely consistent with what you see in the Bible itself about how they judged supernatural experiences. I wish to focus in this article on the identity of the charismata as found in the scriptures.

The word charismata has a broad range of uses in the New Testament. The understanding of it must stand within the way charis, traditionally translated grace is used in the New Testament and how it relates to the Old. It is known that the ancient Greco-Roman society operated by an informal system of favours. Grace was understood as a favour. Now it wasn’t the case that once you repay a favour you are then even. Once you enter this informal system you establish a relationship. You gain certain things from your benefactor which ordinarily you cannot attain yourself. You in return supply certain services that your benefactor cannot readily get himself. In the end it functions as a working relationship. Not repaying favours was very bad indeed. In other words “grace” was an informal currency in an economy where goods were often hard to come by.

This understanding of charis helps us imagine why Paul used economic metaphors in explaining the grace of God in Romans. For instance when he contrasts grace and works in the fourth chapter. It is conceivable that in his world a favour could get you something that your job, with its set wages could never give you. In the case of Romans following the Torah could not vindicate you but God’s favour certainly can. This means we are put in God’s debt, so to speak, to live righteously for him all our days. Paul uses a familiar term and turns it on its head with a benefactor who needs nothing. Truly amazing grace that cannot be earned or lost because he is faithful.

Charismata roughly translates as ‘gift of grace.’ Following on with the understanding of grace as favour, charismata is a God given endowment, made accessible through faith in the Messiah, and effected by the Spirit in the Church, for the sake of ministry. The Church has a mission and the charismata is how the Spirit energizes us to accomplish that mission. He is supplying us with something we cannot receive on our own, even if we worked for it.

With this definition the charismata does not necessarily have to be “supernatural.” We have a worldview where God is constantly present and at work in the world, whether we notice it or not. Nonetheless the Bible has its own language for describing the more spectacular acts of God. Charismatic schemes founded on 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 generally exclude things that are not supernatural as spiritual gifts. As we have seen lexically, charismata is used for a broad range of things, supernatural and non-supernatural. Also contextually, when we read 1 Corinthians 12:28, which is part of the same discourse, Paul includes certain things that aren’t “supernatural” such as the ministry of helps and administrations. The phrase “spiritual gift” does not appear in the Greek anywhere in 1 Corinthians but rather in Romans 1:11. There it describes the more traditionally accepted ministries of preaching, teaching and serving etc. which he describes in his epistle. However, he certainly does not exclude the miraculous aspects of ministry from the repertoire of gifts (Romans 12:6; 15:19.)

Here we see too extremes regarding spiritual gifts. One extreme is where spiritual gifts can only be supernatural. The other they are not supernatural. The rich diversity of gifts means it is not an either/or but a both/and situation. However, this does not warrant us interpreting 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 to mean they are not supernatural. I have seen some commentators describe New Testament prophesy as inspired preaching of the scriptures or something similar. Of course preaching must be inspired by the Spirit but that is certainly not what the text is saying. Maybe people are motivated to read these texts that way because they do not see miracles happening in their vicinity and therefore interpret it to suit their circumstance. Paul does not exclude non-supernatural gifts. Though he does think supernatural gifts do work he argues that they don’t happen all the time (1 Corinthians 12:29-30.) Whatever be the case he admonishes them (and us) we should have a healthy desire for God to work in his Church through us, even by supernatural means.

Spiritual gifts, extraordinary or not, are not playthings. They are there to further the Church’s mission and confirm its identity. I argue in Shekinah Now that the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Hebrews 2:4 etc. demonstrate we are the people of God by extraordinary acts only he can perform because he lives among us.

The variable range of things considered charismata mostly appear in lists of some kind. Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11 are all major examples. We need to recognise that it was a common rhetorical device back then to make a list of things, especially of virtues. The purpose of these lists was not a shopping list where you need to get certain items or the provision of an exhaustive index. It was to convey greater ideas than the individual items could on their own.

For instance in Galatians we have two lists. One of vice, known as the works of the flesh, and the other of virtues, known as the fruits of the spirit. Paul is not trying to name a comprehensive checklist of sins to avoid. He is building a portrait of what a person looks like when they are not led by the Spirit. He is not trying to take a photograph of a sinner. He is like a forensic artist sketching what a suspect in a crime looks like using the various description a witness offers. He is similarly not making a list of character goals with the fruit of the Spirit. People often think they have may be have 4 out of 9 fruits of the Spirit and so they have to work on the rest. However, can a person be patient and not kind, or loving but not gentle? With these sketches we can see how we match or deviate from what God intends us to be or do.

Similarly these charismatic lists are sketching what Spirit-enabled ministry looks like. As with the virtues the purpose of the charismatics lists is not to tell us there are a discrete number of gifts. There are not only 5, 9 or even 27 separate spiritual gifts. For one the New Testament authors never pauses to go into detailed definitions distinguishing one gift from another. For instance a common source of confusion is the difference between a word of knowledge and a word of wisdom or even prophecy. However in real Church life the recipient of the gift of such a message is not too concerned with nomenclature but its meaning and impact. In 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul does go into detail he is far more concerned with how the gifts function to build the Church. Questions of number and how many gifts one can amass do not bother him. It’s about how God builds his Church.

I am not saying spiritual gifts are indistinct or vague. However, the distinctions are not as hard set as we may have previously imagined. There is enough ambiguity in how they are described to warrant a certain freedom in how the Spirit operates in the Church. In fact we do not have enough information about them individually to postulate with absolute certainty what most of them were. Recognizing the lack of hard distinctions is very important.

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