What Are Spiritual Gifts? An Interview with Dr. Ken Berding
Almost exactly 4 years ago, I published an interview at my old blog with Dr. Ken Berding, professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, about a book he wrote entitled What Are Spiritual Gifts? Rethinking the Conventional View. Berding’s proposal in the book, as you will see below, is to rethink what a spiritual gift actually is. I was privileged to take some classes from Dr. Berding at Biola University when I was an undergrad Biblical Studies major, and his view on this issue has stuck with me ever since. So I’m pleased to run this interview at this blog again now with a little updating at the end. Enjoy.
The title of your book is What Are Spiritual Gifts? To most of us who have been around evangelical churches, this seems like an easy question to answer. Maybe you could start then by introducing us to the issue and summarizing your major thesis.
The subtitle of the book is “Rethinking the Conventional View.” Though many people think they know what spiritual gifts are, there are good biblical reasons to rethink their assumptions. The conventional view claims that the so called “spiritual gifts” (those items listed in Ephesians 4:11-12, Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and 28-30) are special abilities (what one of my colleagues refers to tongue-in-cheek as “super-powers”) possessed by every Christian that have to be discovered and used in ministry. The book “What Are Spiritual Gifts” vigorously argues that both charismatics and non-charismatics have misunderstood Paul’s basic intention in the lists he drew up and the contexts that surround them.Paul’s lists are lists of ministry-assignments that are given by the Holy Spirit. The “spiritual gifts” should not be thought of as fundamentally the abilities to do ministry; they should be thought of as the ministries themselves.
One way to grasp what I’m trying to say is this: Suppose the Apostle Paul visited your church.While chatting with you after a church service he asks: “What ministries are you involved in at this church?” You reply, “Well, I teach a weekly youth Bible study, regularly deliver meals to our elderly shut-ins, and participate in the evangelism ministry in our church.” Paul then would probably respond, “That’s great! Those are the ministries God has given you to do at this point in your life. Those are the types of ministries I was listing in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12.”
It would come as a huge surprise to Paul if you came back with, “But, I thought those items you wrote about were special abilities that I had that I had to discover and use.” Paul, I’m convinced, would look at you quizzically and reply, “Whatever gave you that idea? Just read the passages. I was listing the ministry roles that build up the body of Christ.”
Could you summarize some of the reasons you think the spiritual ministries approach is correct—as opposed to the special abilities approach?
1. Many people assume that the Greek word charisma means special ability. This is a misunderstanding of how words work and confuses the discussion.
2. Paul’s central concern in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12-14—the “spiritual gifts passages”—is that every believer fulfills his or her role in building up the community of faith. That’s what he’s writing about; that’s what he cares about. The Corinthians, not Paul, were the ones who were interested in special abilities.
3. Paul doesn’t use any ability concepts in his extended metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. His illustration is all about the roles—or the ministries—of the various members of the body.
4. The actual activities that Paul lists in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12 can all be described as ministries, but they cannot all be described as abilities.
5. The idea of ministry assignments is a common thread that weaves its way through Paul’s letters. The theme of special abilities is not an important theme in his writings.
6. In approximately 80 percent of Paul’s one hundred or so lists, he places a word or phrase that indicates the nature of the list in the immediate context. There are such indicators in all four of Paul’s lists. This is significant because indicators such as the words appointed, functions, and equipping instruct us that we must read these lists as ministries.
7. When Paul uses the words grace and given together, he’s discussing ministry assignments—either his own or those of others—in the immediate context. This combination appears in two of the three chapters that include ministry lists.
8. Paul talks in detail about his own ministry assignments and suggests that, just as he had received ministry, all believers have also received ministry assignments.
9. The spiritual-abilities view suggests that service should flow out of our strengths; Paul says that sometimes—though not always—we’re called to minister out of weakness. The weakness theme in Paul’s letters does not work with the idea of spiritual gifts as strengths.
10. Neither Paul nor any other New Testament author ever encourages people to try to discover their special abilities; nor is there any example of any New Testament character who embarked on such a quest.
You mentioned the notorious Greek word “charisma.” A lot of people seem to assume that the word charisma is pretty important in this discussion. How important is it?
Monolingual speakers of English often assume that individual words on their own—like the word charisma in Greek—are technical theological words that carry the entire weight of a theological idea. As any linguist will tell you, this is not the way words work. Meaning is communicated at the sentence and paragraph level. Sentences and paragraphs are set in broad literary contexts framed by particular literary genres. You can read Moises Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning if you want to study this issue more. But anyone—even if he or she cannot read biblical Greek—can open up an exhaustive concordance or use Bible search software and search out the verses where the Greek word charisma appears in the New Testament. A person doing such a search will discover that 16 out of 17 uses of the word in the New Testament are by Paul, and that many of his uses of this word cannot possibly mean “special ability.” (Just look up 2 Cor 1:11, Rom 6:23, and Rom 11:29 if you doubt me here.) My point is that the words on their own (such as charisma) are not going to resolve the issue of what Paul is listing in his “list passages.” You will figure out what Paul is getting at in these passages by reading all the words together in the contexts in which they are found.
Your book mentions in a few places that English translations confuse this issue for us some. I know that you probably don’t have space for an especially detailed discussion here, but it’s an interesting point that I think begins to show us some of the problems. Any chance you could introduce our readers to that here?
Dr. Brian Asbill co-authored with me an appendix at the end of the book entitled: “How Bible Translations Influence Readers Toward the Conventional View.” In that chapter, we demonstrate in detail that modern translations (we evaluate twenty-two modern translations!) often translate passages ways that makes the special abilities view seem more plausible. Since many people don’t know the biblical languages and are dependent upon translations, they find themselves assuming that the special-abilities view is correct in a large part because the translations they are using nudge them in that direction. For example, many translators in an attempt to make things clear frequently add in the word “gift” when nothing corresponds to it in Greek. Or translators add in words such as “can,” “able,” “ability,” or “power” even when such words do not exist in Greek. They thereby subtly influence people to accept the conventional view. Now don’t misunderstand me…the way I just stated it sounds like they are intending to lead people astray(!); that is not the case. But translators themselves are sometimes under the influence of the paradigm I’ve called the “conventional view” and so can unconsciously read their assumptions into their translations even when the Greek doesn’t suggest such nuances.
How did you get started thinking about spiritual gifts and in particular your rejection of the “conventional view”?
This journey began during my sixth semester of Koine Greek at Multnomah Bible College (now Multnomah University) in Portland, Oregon. I was in class one day reading a verse in Greek that included the word charisma. I thought, “Wait a minute, I thought charisma meant ‘spiritual gift’ (which I at that time assumed to be a special Spirit-given ability). I continued my thought, “…but it cannot possibly mean that in this particular passage!” So, after class I looked up every use of charisma in the New Testament and studied it in context. Once I realized that charisma did not itself carry the theology of “spiritual gifts,” I was launched on a more than twenty year journey to understand Paul’s intended meaning in the passages he wrote. The result is that I came to understand that Paul’s central concern in these “list passages” was to write about the activities that build up the body of Christ, that is, the ministries given to each believer as an aspect of God’s grace. His central concern was not latent abilities that need to be discovered.
Who is this book written for?
This book is written for all thinking Christians. Though some of the topics involve the types of issues New Testament scholars wrestle with, I decided to write it at a level that anyone—not just NT scholars—could access. The issues discussed in the book influence everyone, not just NT scholars, so I decided to write the book for everyone.
Your book mentions only in passing something I’m quite curious about: historically speaking, how did we get started down the apparently wrong path of the conventional view of spiritual gifts?
This question is separate from what I was trying to do in the book, which was to get us back into the biblical text. Nor is historical theology my specialty. But as far as I can tell, the special-abilities view began to get traction with the flowering of Pentecostalism in the early 20th century. An emphasis on spiritual gifts as abilities that have to be discovered and used in ministry took deep root in non-Pentecostal churches in the 1970s, particularly with books like Body Life by pastor Ray Stedman. Since then the spiritual-gifts-as-abilities movement has been an unstoppable force in evangelical circles. But I have asked a number of people older than myself about when they started hearing preaching and teaching about spiritual gifts. Many of them do not remember ever hearing any teaching about this topic until the 1970s.
So why has the conventional view done so well?
There are doubtless a number of factors (sociological and otherwise), but here let me just focus on one issue concerning the English language. I think that one of the main reasons that the special-abilities view has done so well is that the English word “gift” is confusing. In English the word “gift” only means one of two things: either 1) something transferred from one person to another without cost (like a birthday gift), or 2) a special ability (like a “gift” for playing the piano). When translators use the word “gift” in our translations, they are intending the first, that is, something transferred to us by a gracious God. But it is difficult—well nigh to impossible—for English speakers to keep in mind that something is a gift from God (which could be anything that God gives—including the ministries he assigns) without their minds inadvertently gravitating toward the second meaning of special ability. In other words, the English language’s (and other related languages’) word “gift,” perhaps more than any other single influence, that makes the conventional view seem correct to people.
Does your approach to spiritual gifts have any bearing on the cessationism vs. continuationism debate? Or perhaps put another way, does it matter which of these positions I hold for my evaluation of your view?
Before I respond to this question, let me say that this isn’t really my view of spiritual gifts. Many—perhaps most—of the insights I draw upon have already been made by other biblical interpreters.Most of what I’ve done in the book is to pull them all together. In other words, if what biblical interpreters are saying is true here, and here, and here, then perhaps our overall understanding of spiritual gifts needs to be adjusted.
But in answer to your question, my understanding of this issue really does not have much bearing at all upon the cessationism vs. continuationism debate. Actually, the thesis I argue has been well received by many cessationist scholars (one of the positive reviews of the book was done by a professor at Moody Bible Institute) and by continuationist scholars (another positive assessment was given by a professor at Assembly of God Theological Seminary). Really, I am taking on the assumption of both charismatics and non-charismatics that the spiritual gifts are latent abilities that you have to discover so as to be able to do ministry. As a result, it can be adopted by charismatics or non-charismatics.
At this point the conventional view is so widespread that I’m curious how you think we should go about changing it if we agree with you. Any thoughts?
I think that we need to graciously express our disagreement with people who assume the conventional view by pointing them back to the Bible. In particular, we need to communicate that it is no longer acceptable for someone to assume that the conventional view is correct without producing positive biblical arguments for it. I have produced numerous, contextually-rooted arguments for the spiritual ministries position. If the conventional special-abilities view is going to continue to be used as a theological paradigm, someone out there is going to need to make a vigorous biblically-rooted case for it. But I have yet to see a sustained argument for the conventional view. It is rarely argued at all; in most cases it is merely assumed.
But whatever you do, approaching people with a contentious and quarrelsome attitude is not the right approach. You should gently but confidently point people back to the Bible, which is our source of authority. And those who are younger need to be careful how they relate to pastors and elders on this (and any other) subject. Pastors don’t always have enough time to read every new book that comes out as soon as it comes out! So, demonstrate that you are trying to be wise by discussing this issue in a gentle and humble manner. Still, interpreting the Bible correctlymatters immensely, so it is not something that you can simply let fall by the wayside.
In the 4 years since we first did this interview, I have taught the spiritual ministries view to undergrad students at Biola in my Theology 2 class as well as to people in the churches where I’ve pastored. I get a few consistent reactions, normally including, at first, real frustration/anger (“You’re telling me I don’t have any spiritual gifts?!?!?!?!”), and second, a deep sense of freedom because so many students never felt like they had a great handle on what their “spiritual gifts” were, and thus worried a lot about where and how they should minister. Any comments about this sort of thing? What reactions have you gotten now as the book has been out there for longer, both in the academic and church worlds?
My own experience has been the same as yours, Andrew. I almost never get any biblical push-back from people. Once they start looking at the texts themselves they realize that some sort of readjustment of their theology is necessary. I do sometimes encounter people who can’t seem to wrap their minds around a different paradigm no matter how often it gets explained to them. And I do occasionally encounter people who are downright defensive–usually because they assume that I’m trying to overturn some sort of consensus that has been shared throughout church history. Since that assumption about church history is the most common negative response I’ve received, I’m currently working on an academic article tentatively entitled “‘Gifts’ and Ministries in the Apostolic Fathers” that seeks to answer this question via the first Christian authors who wrote after the age of the apostles (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, Didache, etc.). I’m far enough into the study to be able to confidently assert that the Apostolic Fathers at least don’t hold to the conventional view of spiritual gifts. And if those guys don’t, it becomes harder and harder to take people seriously who might hold a different view after them…
Actually, the most common responses I receive are “relief,” “freedom,” “ah-ha!,” and “I’ve always felt that something was wrong in this discussion…”. Perhaps the most encouraging of all responses recently came out of the east African nation of Uganda. My former student Trey Allen was teaching a group of pastors a course on 1 Corinthians. Oh, let me allow Trey to explain what happened in his own words from his blog post Friday, November 30, 2012:
“One of the coolest experiences was when I taught through 1 Corinthians 12-14, most often referred to as the ‘Spiritual Gifts’ section. I have a very different view of ‘spiritual gifts’ than most people. In fact, with the way most people define gift in relation to this, I don’t think they are ‘spiritual gifts’ at all. I don’t have space to explain it here, and you probably don’t want me to, but if you are interested read this book by one of my Biola professors Dr. Ken Berding….
“Anyway, I was really nervous about teaching it because many of the students have been pastors for years in churches where the traditional view of Spiritual gifts is a foundation. I didn’t like the idea of telling a group of older men that I think one of the core tenants of their ministry was wrong. So I was very nervous all day. I kept running through the scenario in my head of how they might react…
“Instead of being faced with angry or defensive students, I saw a room full of joy and relief. It was amazing. Because so many pastors in Africa are still rooted in the idea of the chief or big man of the village, many times they are the one and only authority for a church. They exercise every spiritual gift because they are pastors. And if you disagree with them they get you out of the way. So in this kind of climate, these students loved hearing that God empowers all of His people to do His work and that no role is more significant or spiritual than another (the real thrust of 1 Cor 12-14). It was amazing how they expressed the implications of this view on their ministries once they understood it. You could see their love for the Church as they expressed why this view was better and more Biblical than the traditional view
“Their reaction completely blew me away. They left worshiping God for His grace toward all believers to build up the church. I left worshiping God because he can use a young, foreign, and nervous man to teach His people…”
My own prayer is that more and more people will carefully engage with God’s Word in this area so as to be released to carry out the ministries that God has given to them by his grace!
Thanks, Andrew, for allowing me to join you and your readers at Someone Tell Me the Story.