Charisms and sanctification

A classic question in the theology of charisms focuses on the relationship between spiritual gifts and sanctification. Are the charismata sanctifying gifts of grace?  In the history of interpretation, this question arises from Thomas Aquinas, who classified charisms as gratiae gratis datae (gratuitously given graces), as distinct from gratia gratum faciens – sanctifying grace. For Thomas, sanctifying grace effects our participation in the divine nature and brings us to union with God, gratuitous graces are ordered to sanctifying grace, in that they are given to enable others to receive sanctifying grace. This is summarized well by Serge-Thomas Bonino:

Sanctifying grace (or grace gratum faciens) is a created participation in the divine nature, as much at the level of being as of acting.  It brings about one’s union with the last end, which is God.  Graces gratuitously given (gratis datae) – or charisms – are given to some so that they may dispose others to receive sanctifying grace…Charisms are thus wholly ordered to sanctifying grace (from “Charisms, Forms, and States of Life (IIa IIae, qq. 171-189),” in The Ethics of Aquinas (Washington  D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 341).

The charisms, then, “pertain especially to certain men” (Summa Theologica, 2a 2ae, q. 171, prologue). Since they are given “for the utility of the Church,” their purpose is not to unite the soul of the bearer of the charism with God, hence they can exist “without goodness of conduct” – evidence that they are not sanctifying.

For prophecy like other gratuitous graces is given for the good of the Church, according to 1 Cor. 12:7, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit”; and is not directly intended to unite man’s affections to God, which is the purpose of charity. Therefore prophecy can be without a good life, as regards the first root of this goodness (ST 2a 2ae q. 172, a. 4).

Karl Rahner suggests that this distinction, while not completely inappropriate in some cases, is foreign to Paul, who does not differentiate between gratuitous and sanctifying grace, but “only envisages the case where the charismata both sanctify the recipient and redound to the benefit of the whole Body of Christ simultaneously and reciprocally” (Rahner, The Dynamic Element in the Church, 55). Rahner rightly suggests that anyone truly fulfilling their function in the body of Christ must be doing so as the result of the Spirit’s sanctifying work, and that such service will surely further one’s sanctification.

For how else could one truly sanctify oneself except by unselfish service to others in the one Body of Christ by the power of the Spirit?  And how could one fail to be sanctified if one faithfully takes up and fulfils one’s real and true function in the body of Christ? (The Dynamic Element in the Church, 55).

In connection with this question, Gabriel Murphy makes the obvious point that the charismatic, as “a member of that Church which is built up by the Holy Spirit through the influence of His gifts,” will surely participate in the fruits of those gifts, even though the charisms “are not given primarily for the sanctification of the receiver, but rather for the good of his neighbour.” (Murphy, Charisms and Church Renewal, 56).

There are specific New Testament texts which lend support to the notion that charisms are not sanctifying gifts, in that they indicate the exercise of extraordinary gifts by those who are not in Christ. Chief among them, cited by Thomas, would be Matthew 7:22-23:

On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

We might also look to the question of discernment addressed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, noting that there would be no need for such a test if charismatic gifts were only given to the sanctified. For Rahner and Murphy, such cases should be treated as the exception, rather than the rule.

However, James Dunn raises some important questions about the potentially divisive character of charismata, notably, that in Corinth,

far from expressing the unity of the Spirit, charismatic phenomena in Corinth had in actual fact expressed lack of love, lack of faith, lack of hope; far from building up the Corinthian community, charismata constituted one of its chief threats (Jesus and the Spirit, 267).

Indeed, the attention that Paul gives to charisms in 1 Corinthians 12-14 indicates the extent of the challenge that proper exercise of these gifts was posing of the church in Corinth at that time.  While some might object that anything which destroys unity is necessarily not a genuine charism, Dunn points out that Paul does not question the genuineness of the Corinthian charisms, but rather notes the dangers inherent in the charismatic phenomena when exercised without love.

Paul does not dispute that the Corinthians experienced genuine charismata, including prophecy, faith, giving. But even genuine charismata of the most striking nature when exercised without love made for strife within the community and stunted the growth of the body (Jesus and the Spirit, 271).

The apparent immaturity of the Corinthian Christians, coupled with the fact that Paul treats their charisms as genuine, underlines the point that, while we might expect charisms, properly exercised, to be sanctifying, even genuine charisms provide no guarantee of sanctification.  Therefore, charisms should be taken as  potentially, but not necessarily sanctifying.  This has important implications for the recognition of ecclesial charisms: a claim to a charism by a particular group within the church should not be treated as equivalent to a claim to sanctity on the part of that group. 

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)