Reviews of

Paul’s Teaching on the Pneumatika in 1 Corinthians 12–14

In 1 Corinthians, Emanuel Conțac, Mohr Siebeck, Paul, Soeng Yu Li, Spiritual Gifts on February 9, 2019 at 3:33 pm
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2019.2.3 | Soeng Yu Li. Paul’s Teaching on the Pneumatika in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament II 455. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. pp. xx + 543. ISBN 978-3-16-155146-8.

Review by Emanuel Conțac, Pentecostal Theological Institute of Bucharest.[1]

The 84 verses that comprise the largest thematic subsection of 1 Corinthians have generated countless monographs and other studies. The latest substantial contribution to this corpus is a book by Soeng Yu Li, written in the form of a doctoral dissertation. It was defended in 2016 at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, under the supervision of professor Reimund Bieringer.

In order to make the complex structure of her volume clear, Soeng Yu Li has divided it into four parts. The first focuses on the verbal noun χάρισμα, and the second at length on the term πνευματικά; the third, which is also the longest, consists of successive readings of Chapters 12–14 from a “meronymic point of view” (explained below). In the fourth and final part, the author focuses on prophecy—which she describes as “the paradigm of τὰ χαρίσματα τὰ μείζονα”—in the whole of 1 Cor. 12–14.

It seems clear that Paul’s general intention in those verses is to bring order to the meetings of the Corinthian Christians and to divert their passion for ecstatic speaking in tongues towards things beneficial for the whole community. Soeng Yu Li, however, approaches this understanding by a long and indirect route. She takes a fresh look at many of the fine points on which scholars have disagreed and admirably attempts to categorize more precisely the relation between χαρίσματα and πνευματικά, the two hinges on which those three chapters turn.

Having demonstrated that χάρισμα is not a specifically religious term in non-Christian Greek literature, Soeng Yu Li looks at its 17 occurrences in the New Testament and concludes that, according to Paul’s understanding, it can be either a personal or a communal gift. When received as a personal gift, a χάρισμα can be used, she says, “for the personal benefit of the believer.” By contrast, as a communal gift, it becomes an “Aufgabe” (i.e., a task in relation to others) and therefore has to be used for the benefit of the whole community (p. 101).

In Chapter 2, we are told that certain occurrences of χάρισμα (e.g., in 1 Cor. 1:7) have undergone specialization (p. 74), but it is not clear what the referent is in cases like 1 Cor. 7:7 (“each has his own χάρισμα from God”). Being of the opinion that at the beginning of chapter 7 Paul merely intends to lay out a general principle, the author disagrees with those who understand χάρισμα as the gift of celibacy or sexual abstinence. While admitting that “it is not exactly clear what Paul is referring to with χάρισμα” (p. 89), Soeng Yu Li suggests that the Greek term refers to “the gracious gifts that are given by God to pursue and to be engaged in the affairs of the Lord” (p. 90). However, this goes against Paul’s precise wording: ἕκαστος ἴδιον ἔχει χάρισμα ἐκ θεοῦ, ὁ μὲν οὕτως, ὁ δὲ οὕτως, “each has his own χάρισμα from God, one in this fashion, the other in this fashion.” Is it plausible to construe Paul as saying: “I wish that all were as I myself am (i.e., non-married), but all people have gracious gifts given by God which enable them to pursue the affairs of the Lord”? Rather than ascribe to Paul a general principle, one can argue that a more nuanced idea fits the context better: “I wish that everyone was as I am, but not everyone has this particular χάρισμα and/or calling.” Since much of 1 Corinthians 7 is dominated by the opposition “married” – “non-married,” a point granted by Soeng Yu Li herself (p. 76), the traditional meaning of χάρισμα as celibacy or marriage (ὁ μὲν οὕτως, ὁ δὲ οὕτως) in 1 Cor. 7:7 can be maintained.

In Chapter 3—which is the briefest—the author argues that the term πνευματικῶν should be understood as neuter, rather than masculine, but disputes the notion that it means “spiritual gifts,” while also reserving the discussion of its meaning for a later section. A substantial chapter (the 4th) is allotted to investigating the possible semantic relationship—synonymy, hyponymy or meronymy—between πνευματικά and χαρίσματα. Since synonymy does not need much comment, I will focus on the other two. Hyponymy is defined as the hierarchical relationship between a hypernym (e.g., musical instrument) and several hyponyms (e.g., strings, brass, percussion). By contrast, meronymy describes a part-whole relationship (e.g., room is part of house). After evaluating and classifying a wide range of exegetical contributions, Soeng Yu Li suggests that the relationship between πνευματικά and χαρίσματα is best explained as meronymy (p. 189).

Chapters 5 through 8 (covering almost 200 pages) consist of a “meronymic reading of 1 Corinthians 12–14.” This means that πνευματικά should be taken as a “holonym,” a whole, a thing which by definition comprises multiple parts. Among the meronyms of πνευματικά are the three categories Paul discusses in 1 Cor. 12:4–6: χαρίσματα, διακονίαι and ἐνεργήματα. It is noteworthy that the Soeng Yu Li avoids giving a precise definition of the πνευματικά; taking her cue from a paper authored by John M. G. Barclay, she repeatedly describes the term as having “the potential meaning of things that characterize the life of the πνευματικοί” (p. 394, 398). The author first describes the πνευματικά in terms of “aspects and characteristics of the πνευματικοί” (p. 398), and in the same breath writes that “the term πνευματικά does not only refer to things but also to persons who belong to the Spirit, who confess Κύριος Ἰησοῦς, and who are called by God” (p. 398).

The final part of the book (Chapters 9 and 10) identifies prophecy as the gift best exemplifying the manner in which gifts ought to be manifested within the Church for the edification of the community. While the conclusions of the two chapters will probably meet with the agreement of most readers, a few ideas may spark dissent, and these deserve mention: For instance, we are told that the prophet can communicate inauthentic elements, that is, “words that are neither from the Spirit nor pointing towards the promised eschatological future” (p. 477). Or again, “For Paul prophecy is a communal activity that exists in two parts, namely the actual prophesying by the prophet and the evaluation of the prophetic words by the community” (p. 483). However, it is possible to keep the traditional understanding and see prophecy as an individual activity that, like all other gifts of the Spirit, is community-oriented. Given the spiritually effervescent church in Corinth, Paul introduces a healthy counterbalance in the shape of a subsequent “discernment” process. The request that “the others” evaluate the prophetic words (οἱ ἄλλοι διακρινέτωσαν, 1 Cor. 14:29) is in effect part of the “checks and balances” that Paul deploys throughout chapter 14, both for speaking in tongues and prophecy (cf. the caustic εἴ τις δοκεῖ προφήτης εἶναι in 14:37). That such a counterbalance is not always required for prophecy is evident from the ideal scenario that Paul envisages in 14:24–25: if an unbeliever or an ἰδιώτης enters one of the meetings and “all prophecy,” the newcomer is challenged and convicted by the prophetic messages and comes to the realization that God is present in the assembly. In this case, prophecy is not a two-step process; it does not need to be evaluated by the community because its effectiveness is evident from the reaction of the outsider.

Needless to say, it must have been a daunting job to edit such a book. Many trivial but annoying mistakes were bound to slip in, for example, the chronological turnabout in: “Paul mentions first the noun χεῖλος and afterwards the adjective ἑτερόγλωσσος” (p. 458). In fact, in 1 Cor. 14:21 the two occur in the opposite order. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld’s surname is repeatedly written as “Sakenfield” (pp. 33–36, 39). The Hebrew verb yeḏabbēr appears on p. 459 (line 14) without its final resh. And the book would surely be better without trendy abstractions like “competiveness” (p. 398). While peccadillos of this sort need not detract from the value of a work of scholarship, they are blemishes which ought to have been removed from the published form.

Emanuel Conțac
Pentecostal Theological Institute of Bucharest

[1]Special thanks are due to Paul Leopold for the editorial suggestions made to the author of this review.


  1. […] Mi-a luat multișor până când am reușit să-mi adun gândurile ca să scriu recenzia la acest volum. În final, textul a apărut recent pe RBECS (AICI). […]

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