What Are Spiritual Gifts? – Book Review


by Scott

In this article, I specifically want to share some thoughts on a book about spiritual gits that I read about six months ago. It 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…

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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