Ladd’s chart of charisms

Ladd put together this handy chart comparing the ordering of charisms in five separate New Testament lists – three from 1 Corinthians 12, one from Romans and one from Ephesians.

From George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Revised Edition, edited by Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmands, 1993), 579-580.

1 Cor 12:28 1 Cor 12:29-30 1 Cor 12:8-10 Rom 12:6-8 Eph 4:4
1 Apostle 1 1 1
2 Prophet 2 2 5 1 2
3 Discernment of spirits 6
4 Teacher 3 3 3 4
5 Word of wisdom-knowledge 1
6 Evangelists 3
7 Exhorters 4
8 Faith 2
9 Miracles 4 4 4
10 Healings 5 5 3
11 Tongues 8 6 7
12 Interpretation 7 8
13 Ministry 2
14 Administration 7
15 Rulers 6
16 Helpers 6
17 Mercy 7
18 Giving 5

The interesting thing, which I hadn’t noticed before, is that apostle is almost always mentioned first, followed by prophet and teacher, with the exception of Ephesians 4 which puts evangelist before teacher.   The list in 1 Cor. 12:8-10 is altogether different  from the other two lists, and the reason is because it comes in the context of Paul’s discussion of the “extraordinary” gifts which the Corinthians seemed so interested in.

I’m not suggesting Paul was sketching out some sort of hierarchy here, but it does not seem random that his normal ordering was apostle-prophet-teacher.

How does this apply in the post-apostolic church?

Well, I would suggest that, for us, the apostles and prophets continue to exercise authority in the church through the witness of scripture.  After all, it was common in the ancient church to refer to the scriptures as the witness of the apostles and prophets.   This is an entirely fitting description of the Bible for a Christian, since the New Testament is our record of the apostolic witness – the first-hand accounts of the people who knew Jesus – and the Old Testament is understood as characterized throughout by its prophetic anticipation of the coming of Jesus – even in books which are not explicitly called “prophetic.”   Of course, there is scriptural warrant for this, in the fact that both Moses and David are called prophets (Deut. 34:10 and 2 Sam. 23:1-2).

Therefore it would seem that the office of teacher remains a pre-eminent gift for the church, so long as it is remembered that it is less important than the apostles and prophets, that is, the scriptures.   The gift of teaching comes under the greater authority of the apostles and prophets, and derives its authority from them.  This fits with one of Paul’s main criteria for assessing the relative importance of charisms – do they build up the church (hence his prioritization of prophecy over tongues in1 Cor. 14:1-5).  It also lines up nicely with the description of scripture’s role in 2 Tim. 3:16-17:All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Am I suggesting there are no apostles and prophets in the church today?  I would definitely say there are no apostles.  Though one could go back to the root meaning of the word and argue that apostle simply means “sent one,” therefore allowing that there are similar functions in the contemporary church, the scriptural concept can’t be understood simply on the basis of a breakdown of the Greek word.   The Christian apostles are those who knew Jesus in person and were commissioned by the resurrected Christ to be witnesses to his resurrection.  Of course this is extended to Paul, as the “one abnormally born” (1 Cor. 15:8).

With prophets I am willing to consider a bit more leeway, though I would still maintain that the word should be used sparingly, and also with a clear differentiation between scriptural prophets and contemporary prophets.  I do not doubt that there are persons whom God chooses to use as his mouthpiece today, giving them special insight into the times in which we live.  However, all such prophecy must be tested against the canonical prophetic witness of scripture, and that is the difference between prophets in the age of the Church and the prophets of scripture.  Even in Paul’s day, his message was that prophets needed to be tested and placed under authority (1 Cor. 14:29).  Today we have the benefit of the established canon of the apostles and prophets as our standard for such testing.

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)