30 October 2002

Spiritual Gifts

I probably should say something more about late medieval nominalist thought or the Braaten and Jenson book, but I lack the mental energy at the moment. So instead I'll say something more off-the-cuff and only partially thought through: some reflections on the gifts of the Spirit. Now, I'm not a charismatic, but I get the sense sometimes that, for a Reformed guy, I probably think about the gifts of the Spirit more than is usual.

The primary gift of the Spirit, it seems, is the Spirt himself, who was poured out upon the Church at Pentecost and who the Apostle Peter invited to his hearers to share through repentance and baptism. This is the Spirit who rested upon and filled Christ, who in his own baptism set him on the way of the cross, and who raised him from the dead, vindicating him as God's righteous one. As the Spirit of Christ, he unites us to Christ, within the Church, and in doing so gives us himself as he has given himself to Christ--as the Spirit of adoption, the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of justification, the Spirit of holiness, and so on. This is all offered to us and received in faith and through the sacrament of baptism as the seal and gift of the Spirit.

The Spirit particularly indwells the Church as the baptized people of God, the Body of Christ. Thus the locus of the Spirit's presence, work, and gifting of God's people is in their relationships with one another, particularly forms of evangelical service that embody the Spirit of Christ and the way of the cross. Thus the various "gifts" of the Spirit mentioned in the New Testament--teaching, counsel, encouragement, service, discernment, faith, hospitality, evangelism, healing, prophecy, tongues, mercy, generosity, knowledge, wisdom, interpretation, governing--are ways in which every Christian is to serve others after the image of Christ and are all contained within the one gift of the Spirit himself.

This basic giftedness of God's people is ours in our baptismal identity as those who have received the one Spirit. Thus, we all teach when we discuss the Scriptures together. We all counsel when we advise others. We all show mercy when we meet others in their need. We all heal when we care for the sick in body or spirit. And so on. We do this in the Spirit of Christ, living out the way he has shown us and as he gives us opportunity to exercise our fundamental baptismal giftedness.

Yet the New Testament is clear that each of us is specially gifted by the Spirit in particular areas, as the one gift of the Spirit himself is refracted through the Body of Christ in differing modes and intensities (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Thus some are especially gifted in certain areas--and perhaps more than one. This particularized gifting is something that must be discerned through one's own prayerful self-awareness, sense of calling, the counsel of others, and the opportunities God grants.

Moreover, I see no reason to think that such gifts are necessarily permanent and unchanging or inalienable. While various incidents in Acts indicate that such specialized gifts often emerge immediately in connection with the reception of the Spirit and baptism, Paul exhorts his readers to seek higher gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31) and elsewhere writes to Timothy of the gift he received through the laying on of Paul's hands (2 Timothy 1:6). Every specialized gift is an intensification of and call to a form of gifted service that was already received and possibly exercised within the one gift of the Spirit himself. Thus particular gifts may emerge and pass from use at different stages in one's Christian pilgrimage as God calls us to new and different service among and within the Body of Christ.

It also seems that the particular gifts of the Spirit may be exercised in more and less focussed and dynamic ways, for instance, when the Spirit chooses to work through a person in a situation of great need, filling that person with the Spirit unto a specific powerful exercise of his gift. One thinks here of various healings, or Peter's word of judgment against Ananias and Sapphira, or the especial effectiveness of some apostolic sermons. The effective excerise of one's gifts also, it seems, depends upon whether one is diligent to "fan into flame" that gift, seeking to be filled with the Spirit (2 Timothy 1:6; Ephesians 5:18).

Perhaps some examples would be helpful here.

I've known a pastor who had clear gifts of healing, both of body and mind, and who exercised this gift through weekday eucharists and private ministrations both involving the rite of anointing the sick. Often those physically ill eventually returned to full health, but in connection with the rite itself, he was able to minister powerfully, bringing the Spirit of Christ to those in need, comforting, encouraging, and healing them emotionally, relieving psychological suffering, easing physical pain, and granting spiritual succor, even where other Christians had not been effective.

He entered each situation with the expectation that God was present in his Gospel ordinance and, in the grace of Christ, willing and ready to show mercy. And on some rare occasions, the extraordinary would happen and bodily healing would occur immediately and (medically-speaking) inexplicably. This is a gift of the Spirit, one we all have some share in, but especially granted to this pastor at some point after his ordination to ministry and regularly exercised, on occasions in a powerful way.

I provide this as one example, though I know of many others: a friend with unusual gifts of evangelism, a monk who provides spiritual direction, a woman who shows caring hospitality, a person who can oversee others effectively, and so on. Extraordinary healings may seem a bit "showy," but there is nothing any less extraordinary about the woman with the gift of hospitality who can make an agitated, bitter, lonely person feel suddenly at ease and, for the first time in many years, at "home" and with a sense of belonging and connection in Christ.

Two worries about the gifts of the Spirit particularly trouble me. The first is the isolation and concentration of certain gifts within certain denominations or congregations. Since we live in a culture where homogenized affinity is prized highly, we tend to form Christian communities with others very much like ourselves and so where certain gifts are ignored and others are highly prized. Thus teaching of doctrine comes to the fore among some Reformed, while others may prize evangelism or healing. The problem here is that we are failing to serve the Body effectively within the context of local Christian communities as that seems to be envisioned by the New Testament.

Moreover, there is the danger that some gifts may be distorted and abused when left unchecked in an unbalanced context. Thus some Presbyterians may be so enamoured of doctrine that they verge into a proud sectarianism or use teaching to exclude and control, so that the gift is virtually destroyed by the abuse. Some Pentecostals, on the other hand, may abuse gifts such as healing, using it manipulatively and arrogantly, sometimes even questioning the degree of faith of those who don't seem to be claiming God's promises, blaming those who are already hurting.

A wider variety of gifts, present and enacted within a community of faith, would tend, I think, to balance out these distortions and bring God's people into more effective Christ-like service to one another and their wider communities.

My second worry is that in some theological circles (often including my own), the gifts of the Spirit are nearly ignored. While an unhealthy interest in ostentatious spirituality is an opposite danger, the danger of suppressing the Spirit's work is also profound (the way the doctrine of "irresistible grace" is sometimes framed perhaps eclipses this danger from view for some). We are to desire the gifts of the Spirit, seek to be filled with him, and fan into flame those gifts he has poured out on us. The gifts of the Spirit are nothing to fear and find their proper context within the life of God's people, particularly as that is rooted in the Word and Sacraments within their liturgical context.

Thus the gifts of comfort and encouragement have a touchstone in the general confession of sin and the word of absolution we receive in faith. Teaching is rooted in the way Scripture functions in the worship of God's people. Hospitality flows from the generous Table from which we receive. Proper governance is seen in the liturgitcal coordination of the faithful. And so on. Within their proper baptismal context, following the pattern set by Christ, and flowing from the community of believers gathered in prayer, the Spirit's gifts are to be received and excerised in faith, expecting Christ to be present with his Spirit to act powerfully among his people and for the sake of his world.