Nature and grace, ability and charism

The discussion of the charismata inevitably turns to the question of how we can distinguish charisms from natural abilities.  Some wish to make a very sharp distinction between the two, while others prefer to stress potential continuities.  It seems to me that one’s approach to this question is heavily influenced by one’s presuppositions about the relationship between nature and grace.

The diversity of views can be illustrated by comparing the perspectives of James Dunn, Gabriel Murphy, and Ernst Käsemann.

Dunn, taking a typically protestant oppositional view of the relation between nature and grace, is adamant that the charismata are of a completely different order from natural abilities, and is at pains to draw a clear demarcation between the two:

charisma is not be confused with human talent and natural ability; nowhere does charisma have the sense of a human capacity heightened, developed or transformed…Charisma is always God acting, always the Spirit manifesting himself.” (Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 255).

In making his point, Dunn references Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distinction” as support for his claim, before allowing that natural abilities may “chime in” with charisma.  Dunn further underscores his point by insisting that charisma has an “event” character:

charisma is always an event, the gracious activity (ένεργημα) of God through a man. It is the actual miracle, the healing itself, the particular experience of faith; it is the actual revelation as man experiences it, the very words of wisdom, prophecy, prayer, etc., themselves, the particular act of service as it is performed.” (Jesus and the Spirit, 254).

Gabriel Murphy, articulating a traditional Catholic (Thomist)  interpretation of charisms in the wake of Vatican II, draws upon a more complementary understanding of the relation between nature and grace in describing the Pauline concept of charisms, noting that at times it is difficult even to discern the difference between natural ability and charism:

“…in spite of the fact that it can be stated a priori that all the charisms are spiritual gifts, it is not always possible in practice to discern or recognize this character in a particular charism…A successful preacher of the Word of God may only seem to be using abilities of his natural personality.” (Murphy, Charisms and Church Renewal, 51).

Murphy explicitly locates the answer to this dilemma in “modern theological concepts,” according to which

“grace is either the intrinsic elevation of the natural man to a supernatural state, or the assistance given to his natural powers in order to be able to perform supernatural acts.  In either case, the supernatural is built upon the natural – it is an elevation of the being or actions of a natural man.  Thus it is possible for the special gift of the charism to be grafted on a natural aptitude already possessed by the individual, elevating the action of this natural ability so that that the resulting act will be supernatural.” (Charisms and Church Renewal, 51-52).

Käsemann brings a rather different approach to the question, in which “the charismatic” can embrace any aspect of human life, including natural abilities, not through a divine elevation, but through  human recognition of the lordship of Christ:

“My previous condition of life becomes charisma only when I recognize that the Lord has given it to me and that I am to accept his gift as his calling and command to me.  Now everything can become for me charisma.” Käsemann, “Ministry and Community in the New Testament,” in Essays on New Testament Themes, 72.

I’m not quite sure how to characterize Käsemann’s perspective, but in this scheme, “recognition” becomes the key transforming nature into grace.  The difference between the two seems to have been collapsed, outside the subjectivity of the individual.

This is an area where I think it is difficult to separate theological presuppositions from exegesis.  Of course, these authors, particularly Dunn and Käsemann, would claim that they are simply doing unvarnished exegesis – but somehow they all come to have very different interpretations.

I’m still working out my position on this (which I’ll hopefully put into a future post), but it seems to me that we might be asking a question which these texts do not set out to answer.   What I mean is,  I don’t think Paul is writing about the difference between “abilities” and “gifts” – he’s trying to underline the givenness of all things.   This givenness is discerned by those who, through the Spirit, have discerned the ultimate gift of salvation in Christ, and through him have become inheritors to a great wealth of gifts (including the charismata of 1 Cor. 12-14).

“For all things are yours,whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
(1 Corinthians 3:22-23)

One thought on “Nature and grace, ability and charism

  1. Pingback: On preserving the distinction between bewahren and bewähren when tested: A note on the translation of Ernst Käsemann’s book On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene | German for Neutestamentler

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