Spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12

We’re looking at a hypothesis set forth by people who understand New Testament Greek much better than I do. (“I know a little Greek… he runs a deli downtown!”) The hypothesis is that most of the discussion about spiritual gifts in the New Testament is not about special abilities but about specific ministries that Christians are called to.

In the last post, we looked at passages in Romans, Ephesians, and 1 Peter, noticing that this hypothesis fits those passages very well. Today we’ll look at 1 Corinthians 12, which introduces a section about miraculous gifts. This is a good text to really put this hypothesis to the test.

1 Corinthians 12 begins by saying:

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.” (1 Corinthians 12:1)

Well, it kind begins that way. The problem in this verse is that the word “gifts” isn’t in the original text. Apparently in Greek, as in Spanish and numerous other languages, it’s quite common to use an adjective as a noun. We do that at times in English, talking about “the land of the free and the brave,” where we never specify what free and brave are referring to.

So Paul is talking about “the spirituals.” It’s very possible that he means spiritual gifts, though he could mean something else. For the sake of our discussion, the important thing to note is that this is not the word charisma. It’s pneumatikon, which comes from the word Spirit (pneuma).

We find charisma in verse 4.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;” (1 Corinthians 12:4)

When we read this verse in conjunction with verses 5 and 6, we find an interesting parallelism:

“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.” (1 Corinthians 12:4–6)

This structure should seem familiar to those who know a bit about poetry in the Bible, particularly the use of parallels. In this case, God the Spirit, God the Son, and God the Father are seen as giving three things: gifts, services, activities. If we see gifts (charisma) as special abilities, then we play the old Sesame Street game: “One of these things is not like the others.” But if we interpret charisma as ministries that God graciously gives to his children, then we see that Paul is saying the same thing in three ways. Spirit-given ministries, Lord-given services, and God-given activities all describe the same thing!

I’m largely convinced at this point, though I’m open to hearing different positions. Barring any mind-changing discussion, I want to look at the implications of this shift in interpretation of the word charisma, including having to relook at some things I wrote in Church Inside Out!

So come, persuade me with your powerful reasoning and show me why I shouldn’t accept what is a new concept to me.

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