An Orthodox Perspective on the Nine Gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8-10)

Dear Dr. Todd,

Thank you very much for your very eloquent and informative contribution to our Conversation.

You may be interested to hear about my own experience regarding Pentecostalism.  In the midst of my involvement in the Charismatic Movement in the 1970s, I entered the Master of Divinity program at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and immediately encountered the history of the Early Church in both my Church History and Systematic Theology courses.  In learning about Montanism, the late second century proto-Pentecostal movement, arising in central Asia Minor under the leadership of Montanus and his two prophetesses, I at first thought the established, hierarchical Church had mistakenly condemned the movement, not truly understanding about the gifts of the Spirit.

But when I learned that for the Montanists, the prophecies of Montanus and the two prophetesses carried more weight than the Gospels and the letters of Paul (as they forbade flight in the time of persecution, and prohibited all possibility of second marriage), I came to understand that there was no way to control such a situation; for who knew what they would prophesy next and make obligatory that would be contradictory to the Gospels and the letters of Paul.  So when the Montanists, after much negotiation with them, refused to stop relying on their prophecies, the established Church had to condemn the movement, in order to protect other Christians from its influence, and to protect both the doctrinal and moral content of the “faith which was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

My accepting the verdict of the Early Church regarding Montanism was the definitive first step for me in eventually becoming an Orthodox Christian, as I came to learn that of all the myriad of Christian groups today, only the Orthodox Church has maintained the spirituality, the worship, the teachings, and the hierarchical structure of the Early Church.  As such, the Orthodox Church has always accepted it as Christ’s own mandate to preserve, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the purity of the doctrinal and moral content of “the faith once delivered to the saints” – which was delivered by Christ Himself to the Apostles and all the faithful, who comprise His Body, the Church, and which has been faithfully passed down (see 2 Tim. 2:2), from generation to generation to the present day.  The Orthodox Church believes, accordingly, that Christ has delivered to His Church, and has overseen their faithful transmission through the centuries, the teachings and moral way of life that He knows are best for human flourishing in this life, leading to entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven on the Last Day.

In later years I continued to reflect on my Charismatic background, through the lens of Orthodoxy.  So as part of my teaching in our America and Orthodoxy course at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary, I developed a hand-out called “An Orthodox Perspective on the Nine Gifts of the Spirit.”  In the hope that there might be some interest in our group in this topic, I’d like to share with you the main part of that hand-out:

Because the danger of spiritual pride and delusion is very real, we see in the Lives of the Saints the very clear general pattern that they are usually granted “supernatural” gifts of healing, clairvoyance, and discerning of spirits after many years of rigorous ascetic effort to overcome and control the passions, and to become grounded in deep humility.  St. John Chrysostom (late fourth century; Antioch and Constantinople) says,

“If we all lived as we ought to live, we would be admired by the children of the heathen more than they would admire workers of miracles.  For miraculous signs often carry with them either a notion of mere fancy, or another such evil suspicion, even though our miracles are genuine.  But a pure life cannot admit of any such reproach; yea, all men’s mouths are stopped by the acquisition of virtue” (Homily 33 on St. Matthew, NPNF 1, vol. X, p. 218).

His words here can remind us that miraculous signs and wonders, including all ‘supernatural’ manifestations such as the nine gifts listed in I Cor. 12:8-10, while they often are bestowed through the Holy Spirit, they also can be counterfeited by dark, deluding spirits.  Sometimes they can be exhibited sheerly through the mental, psychic, and/or spiritual powers of man, apart from any reference to Jesus Christ or to the Holy Spirit.

            Bearing this in mind, I think we could go on to suggest that most of the specific nine gifts of the Spirit of I Cor. 12:8-10 can be found in the ongoing life of the Orthodox Church:

  1. the word of wisdom – sound spiritual teaching, preaching, pastoral counseling
  1. the word of knowledge – basically the same as the word of wisdom, though perhaps with a more specific, narrow focus; both these gifts are most readily seen in the incisive words of clairvoyant elders, who see/perceive/understand by the Holy Spirit exactly what a certain person needs to hear at a certain moment in his or her life; this could occur as a particularly appropriate insight given in the Sacrament of Confession
  1. the gift of faith – an extraordinarily fervent appeal to Christ for His help, most typically perhaps in an emergency situation; many of the Martyrs probably were granted an “extra measure of faith” to help them endure their tortures
  1. gifts of healing – in the Sacrament of Holy Unction; through prayers to the Saints, who often had such gifts during their earthly lifetimes, and who often continue such wonder-working after death – often through their relics, and through their appearances in dreams and visions
  1. working of miracles – abounding in the Lives of the Saints
  1. prophecy – clairvoyant holy elders have this gift; and historically, we see that the role of the traveling prophets in the first two centuries of the Church was gradually assumed by the bishops (see the Didache 15:1 – “Appoint for yourselves, then bishops and deacons who are worthy of the Lord – men who are unassuming and not greedy, who are honest and have been proved. For they also are performing for you the task of the prophets and teachers”).  Certain Saints, such as St. Nilus, St. Cosmas the Aitolian, and St. John of Kronstadt, have made notable, accurate prophecies concerning future historical events.
  1. discerning of spirits – in the Sacrament of Confession and pastoral counseling; and again, often seen in the work of clairvoyant elders
  1. different kinds of tongues – facility in languages for missionary work; or in exceptional circumstances, the gift of speaking and/or understanding a language not previously known; St. Paisios, on Mt. Athos, for instance, once had a conversation in French with someone, yet he did not know French!

     The private prayer language mentioned by St. Paul in I Cor. 14:2, 4, 14, 15, and 18 (see I Cor. 13:1, Romans 8:26, and Jude 20), basically seems to die out, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by the end of the second century (probably as part of the Church’s condemnation of Montanism); no Saint or Father of the Church has ever espoused speaking in a private prayer language.  The Jesus Prayer has been found by many former Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians to take the place of the private prayer language in a deeply fulfilling way – and with a much more secure feeling, since you know what you are praying!

  1. interpretation of tongues – in missionary work, perhaps specifically for translation work; in regard to the private prayer language, the interpretation of tongues dies out along with speaking in unearthly tongues