Archive for February, 2011

17
Feb
11

Pentecost as a Firstfruits Festival

The Pauline teaching on charisms comes, canonically speaking, after the story of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, which occupies a key place in the biblical narrative, marking the fulfilment of the promise given by Christ (Acts 1:8, Luke 12:2; John 14-16), and harkening back explicitly to the prophesied eschatological outpouring of the Spirit in Joel 2:28-32.  Pentecost signifies the dawning of the age of the church, a new era in which the Spirit’s gifts, previously limited to particular people and situations, are distributed liberally to all the people of God, young and old, male and female, slave and free.

Lest one take this Lukan theme of “fullness” in too far, the canonical significance of the feast of Pentecost as an Israelite festival must not be forgotten.  I am indebted to Howard Snyder for pointing out the significance of Pentecost as a feast of first fruits.  You can find his discussion of this theme in his chapter on “The Pentecostal Renewal of the Church” in the forthcoming book, Yes in Christ: Wesleyan Reflections on Gospel, Mission, and Culture, Tyndale Studies in Wesleyan History and Theology 2 (Toronto: Clements Academic, 2011). Pentecost, or the Festival of Weeks, was one of the three great festivals in Israelite worship, coming between Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, and in Jesus day it remained one of the three festivals which included pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Pentecost concluded the Feast of Weeks, which began with a day for the offering of first fruits on the first Sabbath after Passover (Lev. 23:10-11), and ended fifty days later, with what came to be known as the primary celebration of firstfruits (Num. 28:26, Lev. 23:17).  Firstfruits were offered both as a thanksgiving for the faithfulness of God in the past, a celebration of God’s provision in the present, and as a promising sign of the future harvest which was to come.

While the New Testament writers do not explicitly link Pentecost with a harvest of first fruits, it is difficult not to see the significance of interpreting it as such.  First of all, there is the important eschatological harvest imagery which runs throughout the New Testament, and is particularly strong in the teaching of Christ concerning the final judgment.

Secondly, though the Feast of Weeks per se does not feature prominently in the New Testament, the concept of firstfruits is used a number of times. Paul refers to the resurrection of Christ itself as the first fruits of the coming general resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23. In Romans 8 he speaks of Christians having “the first fruits of the Spirit” (8:23) and thus joining with all creation in groaning for the fullness of the coming bodily redemption.  James 1:18 identifies those who have experienced the new birth as “a kind of first fruits” of God’s creatures, and Revelation 14:4 identifies the 144,000 as those who “have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and for the Lamb.”

Finally, recalling the Johannine identification of the cross with the feast of Passover (John 13:1), Pentecost, as the first fruits festival which caps off fifty days of firstfruits celebration, evokes a sense of anticipatory harvest, looking toward the final reaping which is to come at the eschaton.  Christ’s resurrection, then, coming on the first Sunday after Passover, is the initial offering of first fruits, to be followed by the main celebration of firstfruits on the day of Pentecost fifty days later, when the firstfruits of the new creation are harvested in the outpouring of the Spirit.  As Ephraim Radner notes, the traditional Jewish understanding of this time in their liturgical calendar was that the fifty days in the Feast of Weeks marked the wanderings of the people in the desert, and the day of Pentecost was seen as the entry into the promised land, “where all that is enjoyed is given by God” (Leviticus, 247).

We see in Pentecost, the culmination of the Feast of Weeks, the celebration of the first fruits of the great and wonderful day of the Lord, prophesied in Joel 2:28-30.  The outpouring of the Spirit, then, on this day of first fruits, should be seen, not as a complete “fullness” of the Spirit, but as an anticipatory offering of young fruit which is to mature and yield a much greater harvest in the promised future.  The pneumatic firstfruits of Pentecost are a proleptic anticipation of the complete fulfillment of Joel 2, in which the Church experiences in itself the outpouring upon “all flesh,” which is to come, at the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (Joel 2:28, 31).

It is important to stress, then, that the charisms, as first fruits of the Spirit, are not to be seen merely as divine acts of “mercy” and “life,” bestowing blessings upon their recipients, but also as anticipatory acts of “judgment.”  This is consistent with Jesus own description of the work of the Spirit as convicting the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment – each of which finds its meaning in the saving work of Christ (John 16:8-12).  Divine mercy and judgment cannot be separated from one another, and this two-sided character of the Spirit’s work as seen in the Church in history ought to be a fundamental theme in the theology of charisms. For if the Spirit participates in God’s acts of judgment as well as God’s acts of mercy, then the Church, as people among whom the kingdom is already breaking in to the present age by the Spirit’s work, will manifest the eschatological judgment just as surely as they will manifest eschatological life and renewal. Judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter. 4:7).

08
Feb
11

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. 




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