Confusing Word And Concept In “Spiritual Gifts”: Have We Forgotten James Barr’s Exhortations? -- By: Kenneth Berding

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 43:1 (Mar 2000)
Article: Confusing Word And Concept In “Spiritual Gifts”: Have We Forgotten James Barr’s Exhortations?
Author: Kenneth Berding


Confusing Word And Concept In “Spiritual Gifts”:
Have We Forgotten James Barr’s Exhortations?

Kenneth Berdinga

I. Introduction

“Spiritual gifts” have generated more discussion, both popular and scholarly, than any of us could (or would want to) read. But where did we obtain our idea of what a “gift” is? Is it from exegesis of the relevant Biblical texts or from a widespread conception which has gone unchallenged for too long? In this essay it will be argued that systematic and popular theology (almost entirely) and Biblical scholarship (to a lesser degree) are still influenced by a pre-James Barr conception of the word χάρισμα.

In his revolutionary book, The Semantics of Biblical Language, Barr insisted:

I now would wish to reaffirm this much more forcibly, with especially the insistence that lexicographic research should be directed towards the semantics of words in their particular occurrences and not towards the assembly of a stock of persuasive and distinctive terms which could be regarded as a linguistic reflection of the theological realities. 1 This distinction between theological concept and the actual function/meaning of a word in a given passage has received wide acceptance among exegetes. It is now understood that a major problem with Kittel’s massive set 2 is that it is in fact “not lexicography at all, but rather the study of concepts on the basis of the terms used to express them.” 3

Some patterns, however, die hard, particularly when they are widespread and deeply entrenched. The study of the so-called “spiritual gifts,” the focus of this paper, is just such a concept. “Spiritual gifts” are often treated as a theological category in their own right. In a day of explosive growth among “charismatics” 4 and popular evangelicalism’s emphasis on “spiritual gifts” in body life, plus the continuing influence of Käsemann’s thesis that “charismatic gifts” rather than offices held sway in earliest

Christian communities, 5 it is no wonder that a reorientation of perspective on this subject has been difficult to introduce.

I will argue that NT scholarship has not adequately appropriated Barr’s concerns to distinguish word and concept in relation to the term χάρισμα.

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