What is the general subject of 1 Corinthians 12-14?
“Spiritual gifts“? That seems to be the received rubric for the aspect of Christian life and ministry that Paul discusses there. I offer a mild objection. This is the phrase and concept people tend to use, but I wonder if it is quite adequate, and not a bit misdirecting.
Why do I say this? Well, for one reason, the phrase “spiritual gift(s)” occurs nowhere in 1 Corinthians 12-14. It occurs nowhere in 1 Corinthians at all.
Sure it does, you say: 1 Cor. 12:1 and 1 Cor. 14:1. All right, sure, but what I am referring to really is the underlying Greek phrase χάρισμα πνευματικὸν (charisma pneumatikon), “spiritual gifts.” It’s not there in 1 Corinthians. We do have “spiritual” and we do have “gift,” but not together as a phrase.
In fact that phrase only occurs one time in Scripture: Romans 1:11, and there I think it has a rather different meaning than we usually associate with “spiritual gift”:
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—
Perhaps it does correlate closer than I am thinking, but that’s not my point today. I want to look at the terminology that does actually occur in 1 Cor. 12-14, and see what this can tell us.
Here are the two verses I referred to above, as they read in the ESV:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. (1 Corinthians 12:1)
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)
As I observe above, the underlying Greek here for “spiritual gifts” is not the phrase charisma pneumatikon, but a single word, the adjective pneumatikon, used substantively in the plural: pneumatika. This is the rendering of the ESV, NIV, NASB, and KJV, though this has “gifts” in italics.
The supposition behind this rendering, I take it, is that the bare neuter plural adjective modifies an elided neuter plural noun, which being resupplied by the translators, turns out to be charismata, “gifts.” Maybe–I guess–if we do assume that “spiritual gifts” was the ready phrase in Paul’s day that it is in ours. I’m not so sure of it, however.
One note: in 12:1 this word appears in the genitive plural, the form being penumatikōn. Ostensibly this could be any of the three genders, though feminine being difficult to account for (sorry, ladies) that generally masculine and neuter are in the running. Paul does use the term in the masculine for “spiritual people” (of either sex). He even uses both masculine and neuter forms in the same sentence earlier in the epistle:
And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths (pneumatika, clearly neuter) to those who are spiritual (pneumatikois, clearly masculine). (1 Corinthians 2:13)
However, the 14:1 reference is unambiguously neuter: pneumatika.
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts (ta pneumatika), especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians)
In the context, I think it is reasonable to take these two instances, when he introduces the topic in 12:1 and reintroduces it in 14:1 as the same usage. Thus the latter informs us that the former is indeed neuter plural. That’s what the translation “spritual gifts” understands anyway.
But if the plural adjective pneumatika modifies an understood charismata, and so “spiritual gifts,” can we say that in the singular, a single spiritual gift would be a *pneumatikon? The asterisk is a linguistic convention to indicate a hypothetical form never actually found in the data. Of course, the adjective in that form does occur as we saw in Rom. 1:11, and elsewhere, but as a lone substantive, meaning a “spiritual gift” it occurs nowhere. In other words we have no evidence in the text of a “pneumatikon” being used to refer to prophecy or tongues or such.
Now not having an example does not disprove anything, but it also doesn’t confirm that we are on the right track with the rendering “spiritual gifts” for pneumatika.
Let me suggest something else. In both 12:1 and 14:1 the word is reasonably understood as a general category term. Greek has a well established usage which resembles these forms exactly. That is, frequently an adjective (especially formed with -ik-) in the neuter plural has an abstract sense which indicates a general subject or field of inquiry.
This is the origin of several of our English subject terms as well, those ending in -ics:
“Physics” from ta phusika. Not because of of some thing called a “phusikon,” but because it concerns things of phusis “nature.”
“Ethics” from ta ēthika, concerning things of ēthos “custom.”
“Politics” from ta politika, concerning things of the polis, “the state.”
Following in this line, ta pneumatika would simply be a general cover term for things concerning pneuma, “the Spirit,” rather than referring to a set of abilities or the instances of their use. I don’t know if “Pneumatics” has a future as a rubric here, especially as it is already used as a term for physical effects and related technology. But this would be consistent with similar terms.
2. Charisma, Diakonia, Energēma, Phanerōsis.
These four occur as rough synonyms in a sequence of four verses: 12:4-7, translated as follows:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
a. Charisma means “gift,” as in an object that someone gives you. Our sense of “gift” as a talent, as in a “gifted musician” presumably derives from the use here. I’m not sure it had that sense in Greek prior to this concept. It can also be an untangeable gift, a favor, as in “do me a favor.”
It is frequently tied to charis, grace, and indeed this is true, but it is more parallel to charis than derived from it, I think. Let me explain the derivation:
Both are derived from the verb charizomai, which has a variety of uses meaning to grant to give freely or generously, most especially to forgive. The etymology of this verb is also pretty clear, with the –iz– suffix (our –ize, Brit. –ise), suffixed to the root chara “joy.” To “joy-ize” someone is to perform an act which will immensely please or gratify them for its generosity. Thus charizomai (some kind of deponent middle voice).
The act of charizomai or quality of one doing it, is thus charis, “grace” as we ususally render it.
The ending -ma signifies a result or object of an action. So take –omai off chariz-omai and you get charis-ma (mutatis mutandis): thing given: gift.
b. Diakonia is a very general word for service, and a diakonos is a servant. This has become transliterated and technicalized in our word deacon. In the NT we do see it used for this office (Phil. 1:1 ESV), but probably never really dissociated mentally from the menial sense of “servant.” Deacon has nothing of this feel. Much less does minister, also a frequent translation of diakonos (e.g. Col. 1:25 ESV). Our word minister, meaning either a professional clergyman or a state official has moved far afield from what the Greek would convey.
c. Energēma has at its base ergon “work” (an actual cognate, originally wergon). With the prefix en– “in” it is obviously the source of our word energy. The verb energeo means “to be operative, at work, active.” Therefore, with the suffix –ma, it signifies and effect, operation, or activity.
d. Phanerosis indicates that which is normally invisible becoming seen or otherwise perceptible to the senses, i.e. becoming manifest, a manifestation.
You will recognize here the common word for “spirit,” which has a range of uses, such as:
a. God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit.
b. the human spirit
c. another spiritual being, i.e. an angel
d. an evil spirit, a demon
I submit there is an (e) sense of pneuma which refers to an instance of one of these gifts, services, effects, or manifestations, not so much the potential or ability (as we tend to think of a gift) but its actual use. We can see this in comparing two similar statements from ch. 14:
1. Pursue love, and earnestly desire (zēloute) the spiritual gifts (pneumatika), especially that you may prophesy. (v. 1)
2. So with yourselves, since you are eager (zēlōteai) for manifestations of the Spirit (pneumatōn), strive to excel in building up the church. (v. 12)
Note that the Greek underlying the ESV’s “manifestations of the Spirit” is not phanerōsis as in v. 7, but simpy the single word pneuma (in the genitive plural). Now this is translated “spiritual gifts” by such versions as NIV and NASB and KJV, just as pneumatika is, but with rather less justification. This is particularly true if we conceive of “gift” as an ability rather than an act or perceptible phenomenon.
Based on what follows then, examples of a “spirit” in this sense would be an utternce in tongues or a spoken prophecy. Or v. 26 may be a list of such:
…a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.
Now based on this usage of pneuma, I’d like to look at a couple of exegetical applications.
1 Cor. 12:10 makes the following reference: “to another the ability to distinguish between spirits.” Frequently this has been understood in terms of demonology. In other words, the ability to have supernatural insight into evil spirits that may be afflicting someone.
The underlying Greek is diakriseis pneumatōn, often rendered “discernment of spirits” and the word for “distinguishing” or “discernment” here corresponds exactly with the verb in 14:29:
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh (diakrinetōsan) what is said.
“Discernment of spirits” then would not be so much identification of demons as it would be evaluating prophetic utterances. As such “distinguishing of spirits” in 12:10 would be the same as the “weighing” of prophecy is in 14:29.
This also impacts on our understanding of 1 John 4:1-3:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
(1 John 4:1-3 ESV)
I think this makes sense out of something that has bothered me. John says not to believe every spirit? We ought to believe the Holy Spirit, of course. What, are there a few others we should believe? Surely he doesn’t mean we might encounter an occasional demon who might be trustworthy.
But if “spirit” (pneuma) here be understood, for example as a prophecy, I think it makes rather more sense. And it explains why he mentions false prophets. So he’s not telling his readers to believe some demons and not others, but not just to accept every utterance of prophecy that someone speaks.
This may mean that the phrase which the ESV renders as “the Spirit of God” is not here actually a reference to the Holy Spirit. The phrase is to pneuma tou theou, and certainly does look as if it refers to the Holy Spirit, I grant. But John goes on to explain, referring to “every spirit” (pan pneuma), which certainly sounds like he means a plurality of spirits. And if this spirit confesses Jesus it is–now John doesn’t say THE Spirit of God, but “from God” (ek tou theou). By the flow of argument it seems to me he is rather saying:
By this you know a spirit (prophetic utterance) coming from God: every spirit (prophetic utterance) which agrees that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God. Every spirit (prophetic utterance) which does not confess Jesus is not from God. It’s a spirit (prophetic utterance) from antichrist which (neuter!!! i.e. antecedent is “spirit”!) you have heard was coming and is in the world already.
Understand, this is by no means my discovery (granted there’s even any truth to it), but I don’t think it is a well-known option.
I suspect though this is what lies behind the use of “private spirits” in the Westminster Confession. There is some controversy with this term. Some suggest it simply means “opinions.” Others do take it to refer to individual revelations, either accepted, tolerated, or else simply recognized as a claim by the Confession.
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (I.X.)
…with which I heartily concur.