In a comment on another site, on the subject of the mass state-censorship of Twitter comments recently exposed by Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger and others, I happened to speculate that it may not be the bigotry of random individuals that fosters “hate,” as in “hate-speech.” Rather, historically it seems to be that it is when governments and others in authority organise that bigotry, by Jim Crow laws or state propaganda, that lynchings and pogroms occur. Does the anonymous idiot who posts “Everything is a Jewish conspiracy” actually cause synagogues to be flamed, or is it not more the case that ideologically-motivated political leaders making blanket condemnations of Israel and the Jewish community encourage those idiots to think violent action is a legitimate public good?
I got a number of “upticks” on my comment, but one person replied with a string of hate-speech against me for, supposedly, denying the existence race-hatred and even the Gulags. He, she or they clearly didn’t read what I’d actually written. Or more probably, he, she or they already knew what I’d written before they read it, because their thought follows tramlines set in advance by particular topics or vocabulary. It looks as if the gist of my comment triggered some standard category such as “holocaust denier” or maybe just “racist,” provoking a formulaic and emotional response.
It reminds me of when, on Peaceful Science a few years ago, I presented some facts contradicting David Attenborough’s false story of walruses falling off cliffs because “climate change.” One working biologist who replied, in just the same way as the recent guy/gal/non-binary, instantly categorised me as a “climate-denier” and challenged me on whether I really thought CO2 levels have not risen. New facts did not impact his ideological mindset one jot.
Christians, sadly, are just as prone to viewing things through pre-formed standard “narratives.” I’m not just thinking about the swallowing of state propaganda by believers that has been so depressing over the last three years, nor even of the necessary set of acquired assumptions called “world-view” through which, inevitably, we filter evidence.
Regarding the latter, one example of such a legitimate a worldview assumption might be the conviction that Scripture is inspired by God and truthful. So that when reading, say, the account of the Spirit descending like a dove upon Jesus, a Christian might question whether the experience was visionary, literal, or something in between, but will not even bother to consider that it’s just a tall story. The worldview itself is defensible, but not in the context of exegesis.
But at a recent Bible study we were studying Hebrews 5, which teaches how the ability to discern good and evil is a mark of Christian maturity, acquired by “constant use and training.” This, as the subsequent chapters show, comes over time from digging deep into Scripture (and specifically, in this context, the apparently esoteric story of Melchizedek the king of Salem in Genesis).
One brother remarked that this is a different kind of discernment from the spiritual gift mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10. That, he said, can be exercised even by a new Christian through sudden supernatural insight. But actually 1 Corinthians doesn’t say that, so where did it come from?
In fact it comes from a standard narrative constructed around the Corinthians passage by the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement of the twentieth century. The emphasis of this is to make charismata (literally, little bits of grace) once-for-all supernatural endowments following on (in the original Pentecostal model) from the gift of tongues, interpreted as a personal prayer language, that was at first held to be the necessary sign of having the Holy Spirit. On this interpretive model, all the “gifts” mentioned in the list are classified as “sign gifts” entirely divorced from any natural accomplishments, training, experience and so on.
Over time, despite the frequent under-performance of this theological model, each of the items on the list has acquired a fixed “supernatural” meaning in Charismatic circles. So a “word of knowledge” became a sudden insight into what disease or problem a particular person in the assembly was undergoing, with all reference to actual knowledge (such as the teaching of the Bible) excluded. “Gifts of healing” became, rigidly, an endowed ability to heal miraculously, whereas the text might equally mean the one-off gift of being healed by the power of God after prayer.
The “gift of discernment of spirits” in question is only mentioned in two other places. The first is at the beginning of this very chapter, where Paul teaches the Corinthians a distinguishing mark based on what people say when speaking under the influence of a spirit. The other is in 1 John 4, in which once again all his readers are urged to distinguish the Holy Spirit from false spirits by whether they acknowledge that Jesus came in the flesh. The gift, at least in part, includes the spiritual insights of the apostles Paul and John imparted through writing.
Indeed, reading 1 Corinthians 12 carefully reveals that Paul’s message is that whatever good ministries occur in the church are through the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. How do I know? Because Paul introduces the subject in vv4-6 by a Trinitarian statement that all gifts come from the same Spirit, that all forms of service come from the same Lord (Jesus), and that all forms of “working” come from the same God (the Father), in everybody. Only a fool would try to prove that the Father exclusively gives working, the Son gives service, and the Holy Spirit gives gifts. His point is that the whole life of the church of Christ is a united work of the triune God through diverse saints of equal value in God’s sight.
Since the Spirit is the “final common path” of all God’s actions in us (because it is he who indwells all true Christians), all that happens in church may be said, as in v7, to be “a manifestation of the Spirit given for the common good.” Paul is thinking of “gifts,” “service” and “working,” all three, in what he says. And that would include the pastoral wisdom of an experienced preacher; the applied Bible knowledge of a trained teacher; the prayer offered with an unusually focused faith regarding some matter; the answered prayer for healing; the occasional miracle (as opposed to feeding golden powder through the air-conditioning!); the prophecy from someone whose deep knowledge of Scripture and the times enables them to speak as boldly and accurately, through the Spirit, as did the Old Testament seers; and that gift of discernment which may well, as far as the context dictates, be the product of the training of constant use mentioned in Hebrews 5. And following on at the end comes the under-specified use of tongues and their interpretation.
Granted, the passage does not exclude the Charismatic understanding. But in my view the purpose of the passage – to show the worship service to be, in its totality, a gift of God in his fullness to all through each and every worshipper – militates against it, if it is heard carefully. And after half a century of experiencing Charismatic practice first-hand, I have to say that the number of reliable prophets, healers and miracle-workers I have encountered has been, shall we say, disappointing.
Perhaps the least manifest of such “sign gifts” in my time has been that of discernment, because in my experience manifestly false prophecies have hardly ever been called out as 1 Corinthians 14:29 mandates, at the time or after the prophecies fail. One reason for this is that the Charismatic model I have described encourages the immature to speak off the top of their heads, in the belief that spontaneity is a sign of spiritual gifting. But the mature believer, with a lifetime of experience of God, Scripture and the world mediated by the indwelling Spirit of Christ, lacks the chutzpah to think off-the-wall thoughts and declare them in church as divinely inspired.
Because of this, paradoxically, the Spirit is quenched.