What Are Spiritual Gifts? – Book Review

In the past, I had decided to write some blog articles containing book reviews for specific books that I have read (since that does seem to be somewhat important in the blogosphere). Of course, I am not saying that too many people are searching high and low for my thoughts on particular books, right? I mean, if I think my critique is actually needed (both positive points and points where change might be needed), then why don’t I write the book?

Good question. And maybe I will get the opportunity one day. But still, I do want to share my thoughts on some books I have been reading. And, to be honest, I have gotten behind in some reviews. I have about seven different books sitting here on my desk in which I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

spiritual+giftsThe first is entitled What Are Spiritual Gifts? Rethinking the Conventional View, by Kenneth Berding, Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University in California.

The main premise of the book is Berding’s challenge of what he calls the conventional view of spiritual gifts. What he means by this term is that most people see spiritual gifts as latent abilities hidden within a person that we are to try to unearth and discover. I believe this is a fair summary of Berding’s understanding of the ‘conventional view’, as seen from his own words:

‘The difficulty arises because, in the conventional view, there is underlying the entire discussion the assumption that a latent ability has been discovered and should be used by the person doing the ministry.’ (p99)

Therefore, because of his disagreement with this conventional approach, author Kenneth Berding takes up the task of truly defining the words charisma, charismata and pneumatika (this task is directly undertaken in chapters 5 and 6, though this is relevant to the whole work).

In doing so, he sees spiritual gifts not as special abilities to be unearthed in a particular person, but he rather defines them as ministry roles or ministry appointments. This is evidenced in such words as:

‘Paul doesn’t encourage his readers to try to discover their special spiritual abilities; rather, he challenges and encourages them to strengthen the community of faith in whatever roles of ministry that God has placed them.’ (p77)

In all, he emphasises the function of the gifts, the outworking and serving with the gifts, not so much the gift being an inward entity itself to be discovered by the person.

I believe this is an amazingly healthy view and emphasis with regards to spiritual gifts. He, like I, is not a big fan of spiritual gift tests. For so many in the conventional approach, this is the place to start in helping one determine their spiritual gifts. But I am not so sure that is the best place to start. I always laugh when one of my friends refers to these tests as Christian horoscopes.

Now, I am not saying a spiritual gift test is evil. It might even be helpful. But my understanding, at least from the little bit of Scripture that addresses these things (i.e. Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:11-15; 1 Peter 4:10-11), we are not really encouraged to give a whole lot of time to ‘figuring out’ our giftings.

Rather, I see Scripture emphasising that we get on with serving one another, washing one another’s feet, and the specific giftings of God will become more evident through such serving activities. And, even more, as we stay connected to the body of Christ and its leaders, we will, in turn, be encouraged and stirred about the gifts and serving ministries to which God has called us. Thus, spiritual giftings are not something one discovers on their own, but rather within community, that being the body of Christ.

Not only that, I feel that most spiritual gift tests are too defined around the specific gifts. You must fit this mold for this gift. But it becomes too stuffy. Plus, as one who is a full continuationist, I believe all biblical gifts are still available. But most spiritual gift tests don’t give opportunity for one to consider apostolic and prophetic gifts, but that’s another story and series of posts

So, back to Berding’s book. As I said, I truly appreciate his emphasis on seeing spiritual gifts as the serving roles and ministry functions that God opens for His people. There is a healthy focus on the actual doing and serving, not the unearthing of some hidden ability.

Nevertheless, there are a few things I would challenge him on:

1) I am ok to refer to spiritual gifts as ‘abilities’, though he is not. I don’t generally agree with what he calls the ‘conventional view’ and it’s focus on hidden abilities to discover. But I think it is quite ok to recognise our giftings as actual abilities given to us by God, and thus that these gifts are within the believer.

Why? Well, the One who gifts us is resident within us – the Holy Spirit. Therefore, I believe it is fine to recognise that the gifts are actually within us, resident in the body of Christ. Again, I would emphasise functioning and serving with those gifts. It’s ridiculous to talk about something in you that you never walk out or serve the body with. But, for me, it is a little too nit picky to steer clear of the phrasing, ‘abilities within’, if we keep it in the true context of serving with our gifts.

2) Berding does not like using the word ability to speak of spiritual gifts. But he does like using the word enablement. Yet, when I read his work, many times he uses the two words as synonyms (i.e. p25). For me, it is a little inconsistent. I think he might be walking a fine line of semantics that, at times, leaves him falling on the side he says he doesn’t side with.

3) He is continually adamant that the giftings of God are not God-given abilities. Yet, when it comes to the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 (which Berding still believes are active today), he is willing to concede that they are Spirit-given abilities. Here are his words (sorry for the longer quote):

‘The conventional approach views the list in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 as a list of Spirit-given abilities, and in one sense that is a valid perspective – at least for this list. But there are two aspects of this particular list that stand out as different from Paul’s other lists. First, for all the items in this list, the power of the Holy Spirit is obvious when these activities occur. For this reason, these items are grouped together and are referred to as the “manifestation of the Spirit.”

Second, for the items in this list, enablement is a prerequisite for the activities. In some of the other ministries found in Paul’s other lists (for example, administration, service, teaching), enablement is not as noticeable and the activity can be done, at least to some degree, through the employment of natural abilities.’ (p112-113)

Now, no doubt discussion exists around whether there is a difference between the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and those listed elsewhere in the New Testament, at least with regards to their enabling, as Berding hints at in the quote above. But, for me, things get a little hairy when you start saying that the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 need Spirit enabling and empowering, but the other lists do not. Interestingly enough, Romans 12 includes prophecy and Ephesians 4 includes prophet. So, maybe only those need Spirit enabling from those lists. The others don’t.

Of course, non-Christians can serve and give (those being two specific gifts found in Romans 12:6-8). But that isn’t necessarily the problem. What we are trying to do is to consider all of these giftings as empowered by the Spirit for the believer. I was administrative before I became a Christian. But that does not negate the Spirit-enablement I need in my administration now. The past 12+ years, I utilise, or should utilise, all my giftings in the power of the Spirit for the expanse of God’s kingdom and building up the body of Christ.

So, in all, I would say Berding’s separation of the differing lists of gifts is not helpful. He might say he is not trying to separate them, but it leaves one feeling that is what he is doing. To that, I cannot agree. I believe all spiritual gifts are, or should be, enabled and empowered by the One who dwells in us and gifts the body – the Holy Spirit.

4) Even when I go back into the Old Testament and read the account of people like Oholiab and Bezalel (the two main craftsmen of the tabernacle), I get this sense that the gifts of God are abilities within us. Read Exodus 31:1-11. Specifically look at what it says in vs3 and vs6. I am left believing the gifts of God are actually given to us. And, of course, they are given so that we might function in them and serve the body of Christ (Berding’s emphasis). I don’t want to walk down the full path of the conventional approach. But, again, I am ok to recognise that these gifts are given to and, therefore, are within the Spirit-indwelt believer.

5) Finally, if spiritual gifts are simply the serving and ministry roles we have, then this might give precedence for just about everything to be considered a spiritual gift. Remember, for Berding, spiritual gift = ministry role. So, you then have the ministry role of ushering, worship leader, church building cleaner, secretary, gardener, etc. Thus, since ‘ministry role’ is synonymous with spiritual gift, you then have the spiritual gift of ushering, worship leader, church building cleaner, secretary, gardener, etc. For me, I am not convinced it works like that.

Now, what you could have is those people especially gifted in serving (maybe even appointed as deacons) who serve in some administration, serve as an usher or greeter, etc. You might have someone who is gifted as a leader, and with prophetic insight, who is also regularly leading the time of corporate worship. But, I think Berding’s definition of spiritual gifts as ministry roles or ministry assignments might just lead down the path of recognising everything as a spiritual gift. Yes, I believe spiritual gifts are probably broader than the four passages in the New Testament. But I think a lot of our serving roles fall under some of those gifts listed in the Scripture.

In all, as I have said, I really appreciate Kenneth Berding’s emphasis on serving and functioning in our gifts. I am not too high on this idea of ‘finding our gifts’, especially through 100-question tests. I think the Scripture gives better ways to know the gifts of God that He has given us: 1) get on with serving and 2) stay connected to the body of Christ and its leaders. But, I do think it is ok to recognise the gifts, all gifts, as within us, even abilities within us, since the Spirit of God has taken up residence within us Himself.

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6 thoughts on “What Are Spiritual Gifts? – Book Review

  1. Great thoughts, Scott!

    Don’t apologize for the longer quote—the longer, the better! =D It’s always nice to hear an author in their own words, good review.

    But most spiritual gift tests don’t give opportunity for one to consider apostolic and prophetic gifts, but that’s another story and series of posts…

    You could add a hyperlink at this spot to your other series of posts on apostolic giftings.

    As far as the whole debate as to whether the gifts are WITHIN us or not… We would have to start getting our hands dirty into some metaphysics ;-D. I think I would be open to both options, it just depends how we break it down. I agree with your summary though: the gifts are given by the Spirit, and the Spirit indwells the believer; therefore the gift is in the believer. But is the spiritual gift inherent to the believer, perhaps “infused” with the human spirit or some such thing? Or does the Holy Spirit bless the believer with the gift upon each activity requiring it? etc. But of course, this is all (silly) conjecture. The end product is the same—gifts are about service.

    Re. #3, it’s definitely perhaps a bit of exegetical acrobatics to differentiate between the lists. They’re broad and synonymous, not particular and distinct.

    Excellent! Hopefully Prof. Berding will offer some thoughts =).

  2. So I added in the link about my articles on apostles today, though I am hoping to post quite a few articles in the near future on apostles and prophets, plus spiritual gifts. But that will take some good time to get it all out. I actually did some teachings at our church back in May on Ephesians 4 ministries (more apologetics for the ministries today). Those messages can be found at our podcast site. They can also be found on iTunes by searching for Cornerstone International Church.

    As, per your comment here: But is the spiritual gift inherent to the believer, perhaps “infused” with the human spirit or some such thing? Or does the Holy Spirit bless the believer with the gift upon each activity requiring it? etc.

    Yes, that is something to ponder ‘metaphysically’. I suppose Berding would be willing to lean towards the latter, in that the Holy Spirit blesses, or allows, the believer to function in the gift at the time of need. But, I know he and I would agree that the end goal is about serving and functioning in the gifts, as you also highlight. And that is my great heart and desire, not to mention that we move towards ‘finding out our gifts’ in a more healthy way (as I hint at above), instead of the take-a-test method.

  3. Yeah, absolutely =D.

    I actually am quite interested in the metaphysics of it all. I’ve been dipping a bit into “philosophy of mind” and theological anthropology on and off this past year. A professor at Calvin College is a proponent of the view “Christian Physicalism” or the “constitution” view of human persons. They argue that the body/soul dualism is inherited from Plato, and not from the Bible—but rather, that the human person is simply one constitutional component. I think under this position, the “soul/mind” is merely a function of the body, but I could be wrong. For the Christian, this would entail “soul sleep” for the intermediate state at death rather than “paradise/heaven,” etc.

    But do humans have souls? If yes, is the spiritual gift inherent in the regenerate soul—a part of the “new creation,” as it were? etc.

    Again, silly theological conjecture, but interesting =).

  4. Scott,

    Thanks for sending alone the review, but I still disagree with your approach. Most of this is the stuff that you said back when I first wrote all this on my blog.

    What is especially apparent in this review is your lack of interaction with the main part of Berding’s exegesis. His definitions of charisma and pneumatika only establish the point that these words cannot carry the whole theology of the conventional view. They are essentially negative arguments.

    The positive arguments come in his work with the four lists as wholes and the detailed exegesis therein. Where is he wrong in how he understands those passages? In all of our interaction on these points, you have never addressed that.

    Instead you have repeatedly insisted on this connection between the Spirit’s indwelling us and the gifts. The thing is, the Bible simply does not make this point. Further, your logic, if I understand correctly, is this:

    The Holy Spirit lives in us.
    The Holy Spirit gives gifts.
    Therefore, the gifts are internal to us.

    But the conclusion just doesn’t necessarily follow from the premises. The Holy Spirit also lives outside of us- he is not limited to us. So who’s to say that the Spirit’s gifts are necessarily coming from inside us? Does the Holy Spirit only give gifts from his location within us? And does he necessarily give them by us having an ability first?

    Paul never says so. You’re right, sometimes we do need special enabling. Berding doesn’t deny this, and neither do I. But just because we need it sometimes doesn’t mean that we need it all the time. Again, go back to the text: it simply doesn’t say otherwise.

    The biggest problem with all of this is that, frankly, you just are not careful. I don’t like throwing the baby out with the bathwater either, but in this case, there is no bathwater.

    Andrew Faris
    Christians in Context

  5. Hi Andrew,

    “His definitions of charisma and pneumatika only establish the point that these words cannot carry the whole theology of the conventional view.”

    I’d be interested to hear more on this point.

    “Where is he wrong in how he understands those [four list] passages? In all of our interaction on these points, you have never addressed that.”

    I haven’t read the text, but I thought this was one of Scott’s main points: that Berding says one list is Spirit-given, others are not, etc. (point 3 in the post).

    “…the conclusion just doesn’t necessarily follow from the premises.”

    I agree on this point, as I stated above. Just because there are other possibilities doesn’t mean Scott’s suggestion wrong, but it does mean there are other possibilities (cf. my “metaphysics” comments).

    The technical question as to whether the gifts are from within or without, in my opinion, goes beyond the scope of scripture’s intent and purpose.

  6. Hi Andrew. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, after you’ve probably moved on from this topic long ago. 🙂

    I will address some points in your comment above and do it in a numbered format, just for clarity sake for my own mind:

    1) No doubt I could not address every point in my review. I feel the article was already pretty long, so of course I cut out addressing a few things. Nevertheless, I am typing out a long comment. 😦

    2) Thus, I chose not to look specifically at Berding’s exegesis of charisma(ta) and pneumatika. In chapter 5, Berding does show 6 specific places where charisma could not mean ‘ability’. He then gives 4 examples of where it probably doesn’t. That is fine. There are a few subpoints to make on this:

    a) All 6 of those places where Berding says that charisma is not about ability, some of them don’t really deal with ‘spiritual giftings’ (i.e. at least Rom 5:15-16 and Rom 6:23). This might seem to undergird his case, but this is where point b below comes up for me.

    b) This is where I would ask us to consider that a specific word can be used in varying ways. Even in ch.4, Berding takes time to express the importance of use of words and noticing particular things about words. So, for example, the word pop in English could refer to: i) coke (up in the north of the US); ii) a slang word for dad; iii) even a punch, as in someone ‘popped’ him in the nose with his fist. Now, this language thing I bring out does not relate fully to Berding’s exegesis of the 2 Greek words at hand. But I simply point out such differing uses of words to get us thinking about whether charisma (and pneumatika) could be utilised in varying ways – one to speak of a gifting ‘ability’ by the Spirit and then in another way to speak of a ‘gift’ but not in an ability since. It’s possible and I don’t think you can just easily dismiss such. Even Berding’s second list of where charisma probably does not refer to abilities suggests he cannot put forth a locked case for his thesis.

    c) In the 4 places he says charisma probably doesn’t mean ‘ability’, well this is where discussion exists and will continue. With regards to the use of the word in both 1 Tim 4:14 and 2 Tim 1:6, as I pointed out in my comments on your blog, the phrase ‘in you’ is used in both passages. Not only that, but Berding’s argument that the use of the word in Rom 12:6a is not about ability, well we have this problem where prophecy shows up in that Rom 12 list. For some reason, Berding believes the 1 Cor 12 gifts need the Spirit’s enabling (which includes prophecy), but not the other lists. But do we go to Rom 12 and say that none of those need His enabling within, except for prophecy (as well as prophet in Eph 4)? It seems inconsistent. Which leads to my fourth point below.

    4) I do believe it unhealthy to pit the gifts of 1 Cor 12 ‘against’ the other giftings listed elsewhere (ok, ‘against’ is not a helpful word, but you hopefully understand my point). As Berding mentions, which I quote above in my article, one doesn’t need a Spirit enablement to serve or give or administrate. Even a non-believer can do that. But we are not focusing on non-believers here. Of course, a non-believer can be helpful and serve someone. But we are talking about the Spirit-indwelt, Spirit-enabled, Spirit-empowered people of God and the work of God in them to bring out certain giftings, or ministries. I think we do an unfair job to the charisma of God when we say certain ones don’t need the Spirit’s enablement. I’ll boast in Him in regards to my serving and giving and teaching. And even with ‘administration’, Gordon Fee, in his treatise God’s Empowering Presence, points out that the word ‘administration’ should be more faithfully translated as guidance, which would involve the giving of wise counsel to both individuals and the community as a whole. This, from my own understanding and personal experience as a pastor, calls for the Spirit’s enablement. So I don’t believe it helpful to say, ‘You’re right, sometimes we do need special enabling.. I’m thinking I need His enabling in each ministry opportunity.

    5) Go back to Oholiab and Bezalele (in Ex 31:1-11). These guys were simply building a tent in the desert. But wait, that was very important. This was a ‘craftsmanship’ needed and given by God alone. Vs3 & 7 from the passage – ‘and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmenship…And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.’

    One could very well argue that non-believers could build tents as well. Yes, they can and still do. But here is where some good ol’ craftsmen were in need of the Spirit’s power and enabling to build such a tent. It’s not fully out of the question to say that the Spirit gives these abilities to people. Even if it is only for that moment to accomplish the task, there is a Spirit-enablement.

    6) You say my logic is this: The Holy Spirit lives in us. >> The Holy Spirit gives gifts. >> Therefore, the gifts are internal to us.

    I would say that’s fair. But you would say that does not necessarily follow from the premises as outline in Scripture (and with Berding). You are correct. But as Aaron stated above, this does not disprove such a logic, as I did not randomly come up with that by some conventionalist persuasion. I am thinking through things in Scripture, and even conjecture that falls outside of Scripture. I haven’t built a sloppy case (well, you might see that I have, but I am really trying to faithfully consider all things, as I painstakingly typed out in an article and in this stinking long comment).

    So, in all, for me, there is some ‘bathwater’ here that I believe is being throw out. Again, the conventional approach does not excite me in 1) talking about these hidden abilities within, 2) how they usually suggest finding those abilities and 3) the lack of focus on serving and functioning in the gift/ministry, as Berding so helpfully emphasises. But I don’t think, at this point, we can fully conclude that it is unbiblical to state that the gifts of God are within, given by the One who is within, so we can faithfully fulfil the ministries He has opened for us.

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