Theologian Kenneth Samples has written an important book for the Church, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction. It’s important because Ken (a scholar at Reasons to Believe) makes the rich legacy of Christian thinkers accessible in a compact, powerful apologetics resource. It’s a true beginner’s guide, offering a concise but meaningful look at nine “timeless truth-seekers” as it outlines how these historic Christians can help all of us defend the truth of Christianity. I recently had the opportunity to ask Ken a few Questions about his new book:
J. Warner: Ken, what made you decide to write a book about these historic Christian thinkers? Why should every Christian want to know more about them?
Many evangelicals know little about church history and historical theology so they are often at a loss about how Christendom came to affirm such critical doctrines as the Trinity and the Incarnation. I decided to introduce key elements of church history and historical theology through biography. So my book introduces theological, philosophical, and apologetics ideas through revealing the lives of the people who presented and defended them.
Contemporary Christians stand to learn a great deal from Christendom’s past thinkers in such areas as doctrine, apologetics, and evangelism. These past thinkers have also written classic books that are masterpieces of both Christianity and Western civilization that today’s believers can greatly benefit from reading.
J. Warner: Why did you pick these particular thinkers? What is unique about them historically?
The nine men I write about are some of the most influential scholars in both the history of Christendom and Western civilization. They span the different eras of church history through the centuries (church fathers, middle ages, reformation, scientific age, modern). They are also some of my personal favorites who are strong in such fields as theology, philosophy, and apologetics.
J. Warner: What, in general, did you learn from this collection of thinkers?
I view these scholars as Christian teachers, mentors, and even my friends in the faith. They uniquely speak to me about the great truths of the Christian world-and-life view. In my book I discuss their most influential books, quotes, spiritual insights, as well as their theological and apologetics contributions.
J. Warner: Why should the Church be interested in thinkers?
Christians should be interested in their faith’s great thinkers because Christians hold truth to be sacred. Embracing truth and loving God with one’s mind involves interacting with the best and most challenging ideas. Fortunately church history is filled with some of the brightest minds to ever live on planet earth.
J. Warner: Which is your favorite historical Christian thinker and why does this person stand out for you?
There are several historic Christian scholars and writers that I hold in high regard. But St. Augustine (354-430) clearly stands out. I think outside the biblical authors, Augustine is arguably the most influential Christian thinker in history. His books Confessions and The City of God are both theological and literary classics. Augustine has probably influenced Protestants as much as he has Catholics.
J. Warner: Where can people go to find out more about you and your work?
Ken: Reasons.org provides information about me and lists many of my apologetics articles and books.
Critics of Christianity sometimes ridicule the faith as un-thoughtful or anti-intellectual. Ken’s new book will help you answer that objections and misconception, even as it prepares you to defend the truth of Christianity in a manner befitting our rich intellectual tradition. Get Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction, and be sure to follow Ken at Reasons to Believe.
J. Warner Wallace was interviewed by Stelman Smith of the Unapologetic Apologists and addressed the nature of the atheistic worldview, including the claim that atheism ought to be our default position as investigators, and the charge that Christians default to God as a “God of the Gaps” reflex whenever they are unable to explain “natural” phenomena. Be sure to visit the Unapologetic Apologists on YouTube.
Is Atheism the Default Worldview? Responding to the “God of the Gaps” Challenge - YouTube
In this episode of the Cold-Case Christianity Broadcast, J. Warner offers a number of brief, rhetorically powerful responses to the objection: “Moral Truths Are a Matter of Personal Opinion.” How are moral truths “grounded”? Are they simply a matter of personal opinion or cultural consensus? If they aren’t grounded in this way, are they evidence of Gods existence? These Quick Shot responses are designed to help you remove intellectual obstacles when talking about God with your friends and family members. They are also available on the Cold-Case Christianity Phone App so you can access them as you are interacting with others.
Quick Shot Responses to “Moral Truths Are a Matter of Personal Opinion” - YouTube
J. Warner Wallace answers a question from an audience member at the Grounded Youth Conference: You talk about how Christianity fits as far as taking it from a ‘science’ point of view, so why don’t other religions work – why is it that Christianity is the only one that works – as opposed to other religions? For more information about the Grounded Youth Conference, visit their website at: http://groundedyouthconference.com/.
How Can We Be Sure if Christianity is the True Description of God? - YouTube
Our “Quick Shot” series offers brief answers to common objections to the Christian worldview. Each response is limited to one paragraph. These responses are designed to (1) answer the objection as concisely as possible, (2) challenge the objector to think more deeply about his or her claim, and (3) facilitate a “gospel” conversation. In this article, we’re offering “Quick Shot” responses to the objection, Quick Shot: “As a Christian, you dismiss all the other gods of history for the same reason I reject the God of Christianity. As an atheist, I believe in just one less God than you.”
Response #1: “That would be a powerful statement if all the other gods of history were equally reasonable, similarly documented or equally supported by the evidence. But that isn’t the case. If you examine the evidential support or the manuscript accounts related to every other god described in history, you’ll find the evidence for Yahweh is vastly superior. I don’t blame you for rejecting the case for the mythological gods of history. I also reject those claims. But make no mistake about it, the case for the God of the Bible is dramatically different and considerably more reliable. Have you examined all the evidence that validates the claims of the Bible?”
I don’t blame people for rejecting the case for the mythological gods of history. But make no mistake about it, the case for the God of the Bible is dramatically different and considerably more reliable. Click To Tweet
Response #2: “Imagine I’m investigating a homicide and based on the evidence I conclude that a certain suspect is the killer. At the trial, the defense attorney asks the jury to reject the evidence pointing to his client as the killer by saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you dismiss all the other citizens of our community as the killer for the same reason I reject my client. As his attorney, I believe in just one less suspect than you.’ Can you see how silly this response would be? Yes, there are many possible candidates for the suspect in the case, but only one is evidentially reasonable. It doesn’t matter how many other possible suspects there are – it simply matters that one of them is implicated by the evidence. Can you see why the evidence for the God of the Bible would matter more than the number of alternative ‘suspects’?”
It doesn’t matter how many possible suspects there are – it simply matters that one of them is implicated by the evidence. The evidence for the God of the Bible matters more than the number of alternative ‘suspects’. Click To Tweet
Our “Quick Shot” series was written specifically for the Cold-Case Christianity App (you can download it on Apple and Android platforms – be sure to register once you download the App). When confronted with an objection in casual conversation, App users can quickly find an answer without having to scroll beyond the first screen in the category. Use the App “Quick Shots” along with the “Rapid Responses” and Case Making “Cheat Sheets” to become a better Christian Case Maker.
Creeds (formal statements of Christian belief) have fallen on hard times. Many Christians are uncomfortable with such objection proclamations of the exclusive Christian truth claims. But, the Christian worldview has always been a “confessional” worldview. It has been grounded in the reliable record of eyewitnesses who confessed what they saw related to the person of Jesus Christ, advanced by believers who repeated the testimony of the apostles, and continues to flourish based on the confession of those who believe. Christian Scripture reiterates the importance of confessing the truth about God and the truth about Jesus:
That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise-the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.
The Bible repeatedly affirms the existence, role and value of objective truth as it calls on believers to openly proclaim this truth to the world around them. Even when we informally think about what we believe and share this we others, we are developing and confessing creeds (statements summarizing what we believe). From the very beginning (from the earliest days of the apostle’s and their writings), Christians have always held the concept of creeds in high regard, and that really shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the Bible is filled with examples of believers who proclaimed what they believed. The scriptures contain many examples of believers who made short, concise statements of belief, and these statements are actually miniature creeds of a sort. Here are just a few:
1 Kings 18:39
And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.”
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.”
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
Believers have proclaimed their belief over the centuries, and when they did this, they were proclaiming short creeds; short statements of truth. The writers of scripture (and the first leaders of the church) valued these statements enough to document them for all time, and they understood their value to the Christian community. It’s important for us to understand the value of proclamations such as these, because they demonstrate believers have always been concerned about having the correct object of faith (as described in the Bible). The writers of scripture believed it was not only important for believers to have faith, but to place that faith in the God accurately described in the scriptures. The Biblical authors understood that a saving faith must be placed in the God specifically and uniquely described in the scriptures.
The Biblical authors were also concerned their young converts might stray from the truth of God described in the scriptures, and as a result, walk away from the correct object of their faith. These writers repeatedly warned the faithful not to confuse the truth of the world with the truth of the Christian Worldview:
Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings.
As important as it was for individual believers to understand and hold on to the truth, the Biblical authors were even more concerned that teachers would retain the truth passed on to them. That’s why Paul emphatically told church leaders such as Timothy and Titus how important it was to hold on to the objective truth that they were taught:
2 Timothy 1:13
Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Jesus Christ.
…hold fast the faithful word which is in accord with the teaching, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.
Paul makes this request of Timothy and Titus because he knew how important it was for them to make sure the truth he taught them was not corrupted over time. But how was this to be accomplished? One good way to maintain the truth was simply to (1) State it as clearly as possible, and then (2) Restate it as often as possible:
Proclaiming the Truth in the Bible, As Clearly As Possible
Maybe that’s why we find several proclamations of doctrinal truth in the Bible. Paul, for example, took the time to delineate some of the doctrinal truths of our faith as he wrote to the Corinthian church (who apparently struggled to resist the outside influences of their culture):
1 Corinthians 8:6:
…yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
1 Corinthians 15:3-6:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
The Biblical authors, in an effort to help young believers maintain the truth, did their best to state this truth in the pages of scripture.
Restating the Truth in the Bible, As Clearly As Possible
But it wasn’t enough to simply state the truth. The earliest Christian communities also developed the habit of repeating these truths in the form of recited creeds. It even appears some of these creeds are recorded in the scriptures themselves. In the following two passages, Paul wrote to Timothy and then to the church in Philippi and recorded two early confessions of faith. These were, in essence, simple creeds familiar (or about to be familiar) to the early readers of scripture. They were (or were about to be) recited and practiced by the early church:
1 Timothy 3:16
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion:
He was manifested in the flesh,
Vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
But made himself nothing,
Taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to death –
Even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
And gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.
If you open your own personal Bible and look at these two passages, you will find the modern translators have formatted the creeds in a manner that isolates them within the larger passage (they are usually indented). This is because these two passages are perhaps the earliest of creeds (statements of belief). Scholars and historians believe these creeds were either introduced to readers so they could recite them in the context of their group meetings, or were recorded by Paul because they were already being used. In either case, it is clear creeds were an early part of the Christian faith and an early part of the practice of the Christian Church.
The Apostles Issued Statements of Faith (Creeds)
That really shouldn’t surprise us, because there is historical evidence early church leaders would occasionally convene in order to determine the Biblical truth related to a particular matter. History reveals early leaders of the church came together in “councils”. I’m not talking about the history of the Church and the early councils formed under the Roman Empire; I’m taking about the councils described in the Bible. One such Council is described in the Book of Acts, Chapter 15. In this passage of scripture, a council of Church leaders is called to settle the debate about whether or not new believers should be circumcised according to the custom of Moses. Paul and Barnabas joined the Apostles in Jerusalem, and with James overseeing the Council, they formulated a creed related to this issue and sent it out to the local congregations:
And they sent this letter by them,
“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
The early leaders of the Church took the time to address a growing error in belief developing within the Church. Pharisaic Christians were attempting to require new believers to be circumcised, and the leaders of the Church now had to clarify the truths of the faith. As a result, a statement of truth was developed serving as a creed describing the essential truths related to this issue. Even within the apostolic era, and within the timeframe chronicled in the New Testament, councils were already a part of the Christian tradition and creeds were an important part of the fabric of our faith.
The Early Church Issued Statements of Faith As Well
This early creed, as recorded in the Book of Acts, is not the only statement of faith developed by early believers. As the Apostolic age came to a close and the words of scripture were recorded for eternity, subsequent believers and church leaders formed their own doctrinal statements in order to clarify and define the truth of the Biblical teaching.
Irenaeus was one such early church leader. He was born in the second century and became a follower of Polycarp (who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John). Irenaeus eventually became the regional church leader of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France). His early written work was highly influential to believers at the time, and he was an excellent apologist for the faith. He found himself battling with a number of false teachings within Christendom, and as a result, he developed a statement of faith designed to affirm a number of Christian truths:
Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” (Late 2nd Century)
“…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; And in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; And in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race…”
You may have noticed Irenaeus was starting to describe the Biblical truths related to the virgin birth of Jesus and his death, resurrection and ascension. He also affirmed Jesus’ role in the future judgment and resurrection of all mankind.
In a manner similar to Irenaeus, another early church leader named Hippolytus also attempted to affirm several Christian truths in order to make sure that the young believers under his care had a correct understanding of the nature of God. Hippolytus was actually a disciple of Irenaeus and you will hear a distinct similarity between Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” and Hippolytus’ Baptismal instructions. Hippolytus used this instructional statement to prepare his new converts for baptism and to confirm they had a correct understanding of the Christian Worldview:
The “Interrogatory” Creed of Hippolytus (approximately 215 AD) Do you believe in God the Father All Governing? Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, Who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died (and was buried) and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church and in the resurrection of the body?
Much like Irenaeus, Hippolytus affirmed certain truths as he questioned his candidates for baptism. Like Irenaeus, he made propositional truth claims about the virgin birth of Jesus, His death, resurrection and ascension, and His future role as the judge of the living and the dead.
Within years of the closing of the Canon of Scripture, early believers and church leaders were quickly developing statements of faith and pressing these statements into practice as they interviewed and initiated new believers. These statements of faith were regional and individual in nature, yet they are strikingly similar, affirming the unified content of the New Testament documents from which they were derived.
The First Widely Accepted Creed
The Apostles were careful to teach the doctrines that eventually found their way into Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” and Hippolytus’ “Interrogatory Creed”. So, even long after the death of the Apostle’s, as the truths they taught began to appear in creedal form, a statement of faith took on their name and became known as the Apostle’s Creed. As you read it, notice the similarities to the two prior statements of faith:
The Apostle’s Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen
This foundational creed, as short and as simple as it is, describes the most basic beliefs of early Christians. While it is far from complete and fails to capture the important details of the nature of Jesus and the Nature of God, it does provide believers with a simple foundation for faith in Jesus. More importantly, this creed is further evidence of the fact the first believers affirmed the existence of objective truths about the nature and identity of God.
This effort to articulate objective theological truth was not limited to the earliest believers. In fact, creeds and statements of faith have always been an important part of the tradition and fabric of the Christian Church. Christianity has always been creedal. From the earliest days right up to (and through) the Post-modern age, Christians have tried to understand and articulate the truth of the Christian Worldview, and their efforts have often taken the form of creeds. Here is a list of some of the major creeds Christians have used in an effort to define what they believe:
The Apostle’s Creed
The Nicene Creed (325/381AD)
The Definition of Chalcedon (451AD)
The Athanasian Creed (5th-6th Century AD)
The Creed of Gregory of Neocaesarea (Mid-Third Century AD)
The Canons of the Second Council of Orange (529AD)
The 95 Theses Posted by Luther (1517AD)
The Edict of Worms (1521AD)
The Schleitheim Confession of Faith (1527AD)
The Augsburg Confession (1530AD)
The Confession of Trent (1545-1556AD)
The Scot’s Confession (1560AD)
The Belgic Confession (1561AD)
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563AD)
The Second Helvetic Confession (1566AD)
The Thirty-Nine Articles of (Anglican) Religion (1571AD)
The Epitome of the Formula of Concord (1576AD)
The Formula of Concord (1577AD)
The Five Articles of the Remonstrants (1610AD)
The Canons of Dordt (1618-19AD)
The Confession of Cyril Lucaris, Eastern Orthodox (1629AD)
The Dordrecht (Anabaptist) Confession (1632AD)
The Westminster Confession (1646AD)
The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647AD)
The (Eastern Orthodox) Confession of Dositheus (1672AD)
The Orthodox (Ukrainian) Confession of Faith (1662AD)
The (Twenty-five) Articles of (Methodist) Religion (1808AD)
The General Rules of the Methodist Class Meetings (1808/1868AD)
The Eastern Orthodox (Russian) Catechism (1830)
The Thirty-five Articles of (Reformed Episcopal) Religion (1875AD)
The Barmen (German Evangelical) Declaration (1934AD)
The Vatican II Proclamation (1962-1965AD)
The (Evangelical United Brethren Church) Confession of Faith (1963AD)
The (American) Mennonite Confession of Faith (1963AD)
The Lausanne Covenant (1974AD)
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978AD)
The Manila Manifesto (1989AD)
The (Church of the Nazarene) Manual (1998AD)
The Holiness Manifesto (2006AD)
Now that’s quite a list; two thousand years’ worth of creeds and statements of faith. If nothing else, this list demonstrates the fact Christianity has always been creedal in its nature. The Christian worldview makes a number of objective truth claims. When believers begin to organize and communicate these truths, they often find themselves forming summaries of minimal essential truths: “creeds”.
Moving Away From Classic Orthodox Christianity
We now live in a culture that is rather suspicious of any claim related to objective, transcendent truth; especially exclusive truths like those found in Scripture. In what has been described as the “Post Modern” age in which we live, all truth is thought to be personal, subjective and ‘perspectival’ in nature. In this environment, any creedal list of objective, transcendent truth is going to become unacceptable to the culture at large, and even Christians are beginning to move away from their own traditions as they lose confidence in the objective nature of truth.
History, however, demonstrates Christianity has always been creedal, from the days recorded in the New Testament to the history of the early church. To move away from a creedal form of the faith is to move away from the faith altogether. While some within the Christian community may desire an anti-creedal form of Christianity (as they attempt to reconcile the philosophic ideas of the culture with the exclusive truth claims of Christianity), they do so at their own peril. To deny the role and importance of creeds is to deny the essence and history of Christianity.
J. Warner Wallace discusses the evidence for Christianity with apologist, Sean McDowell, as part of the “Advocates” series from Awana. In this clip, J. Warner talks about common objection to the Resurrection of Jesus. Did the disciples, driven by their strong desire to see Jesus alive and well, imagine or hallucinate the Resurrection of Jesus? How can we respond to this claim? If you’re interested in this great series for high school students, visit the Advocates webpage.
How Do We Know the Disciples Didn't Hallucinate the Resurrection? - YouTube
In this episode of the Cold-Case Christianity Broadcast, J. Warner offers a number of brief, rhetorically powerful responses to the objection: “Christianity is Anti-Science.” Is belief in Christianity (or God’s existence in general) anti-scientific? Does the Christian worldview devalue science? Is there an irreconcilable divide between faith and reason, or faith and science? These Quick Shot responses are designed to help you remove intellectual obstacles when talking about God with your friends and family members. They are also available on the Cold-Case Christianity Phone App so you can access them as you are interacting with others.
Quick Shot Responses to “Christianity is Anti-Science” - YouTube
Doreen Virtue (DoreenVirtue.com) and Melissa Dougherty interview J. Warner Wallace to talk about the challenges facing young Christians and the importance of developing an evidential view of the Christian faith. For more information about Doreen and Melissa, be sure to visit their YouTube page.
How Can We Help Our Kids Communicate the Truth of Christianity in an Evidential Way? - YouTube
In the many years before I was a Christian, I used to hear believers talk about their “spiritual gifts”. They would describe their ability to sing or teach or perform a certain task, and for the life of me, these abilities merely sounded like “natural talents”. I came to the conclusion those wacky Christians just had a language all their own and a strong desire to see everything as a gift from God (when it could more easily be described in natural terms). When I became Christian myself, I began to recognize a number of abilities emerging or blossoming in my own life. Were these just latent talents, or was there something to this “spiritual gifting” stuff? Maybe it was time to take a second look at the issue of “spiritual gifts” and compare them to what I used to think of as “natural talents”.
Even before I started to look at the differences between “gifts” and “talents”, I recognized they all came from the same source. If we accept the premise that an all-powerful God is the creator of all matter and life, it is reasonable to conclude our abilities (even if we are inclined to attribute them to genetics or environment), must ultimately come from the source of genetics and environment: the God who created everything in the first place. We can squabble over whether something is a talent or a gift, but we need to be careful, as thoughtful Christians, not to exchange the two words as if they had identical meaning. They don’t.
Everyone has some sort of innate talent. You may not think that you are particularly talented, but if you take a closer look at yourself, you’ll discover there is some ability you possess in more abundance than others. Sure, there may be someone out there who is even better at this particular ability, but that’s not the point; you also have an increased ability in this area relative to your other skills and aptitudes. Maybe you’re a better athlete than musician, or maybe you’re a better artist than mathematician. You know where you are talented and where you are not. But how do you know if this particular ability you’re considering is a “natural talent” or a “spiritual gift”? Well, maybe we should start by looking at what the Bible has to say about spiritual gifts. Paul describes spiritual gifts in three places:
1 Corinthians 12:7-11
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.
For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
Now some Christians look at these verses and wonder if the “gift list” described here is exhaustive. Are these the only abilities that are actually “spiritual gifts”? Are there any more? Well, considering the fact Paul wrote these three letters to three different groups of believers and did not routinely repeat the same list of gifts, it’s probably safe to assume there are additional spiritual gifts unlisted here. So the question is: “What are the differences between natural talents and spiritual gifts, and how might we recognize a spiritual gift when we see one?” Theologians might disagree with each other when talking about talents and gifts, but there are a number of seemingly obvious differences:
Talents Are Inherited / Gifts Are Received
This is perhaps the biggest and most important difference. Natural talents are those abilities inherited from one’s parents and nurtured in the context of one’s family. We all know people who are talented and come from a long line of family members who share the same talent (consider, for example, the Matthews family in the NFL). If one member of such a family does not possess this shared talent, they typically will say something like, “I didn’t get the (insert talent here) gene”. Natural talents are just that: “natural”! They can be attributed to the natural genetic material existing within all of us, passed down from generation to generation. Spiritual gifts, on the other hand, come directly from the Spirit of God; that’s why they are called “gifts” in the first place! The “Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” Natural talents are imparted at our natural birth; spiritual gifts are given when we are born again.
Talents Are Possessed by the Saved and Unsaved / Gifts Are Possessed by the Saved
Everyone, whether they are a believer or a non-believer, has some sort of talent, but only believers have spiritual gifts. The Spirit of God resides in each and every believer, and “God has allotted to each a measure of faith,” and an ability transcending our natural talents. Because the Spirit of God is the source for spiritual gifts, we shouldn’t be surprised those who have God’s Spirit residing in them (those who are saved), would have more than natural talent; believers also have gifts of the Spirit:
The word of wisdom
The word of knowledge
Faith (extraordinary trust and surrender)
Gifts of healing
The effecting of miracles
The distinguishing of spirits
The interpretation of tongues
A number of spiritual gifts listed here sound a lot like natural talents. After all, don’t you know a non-Christian who is a talented leader or teacher? Non-believers can be very talented in some of these areas without having been given a gift of the Spirit. But in addition to the gifts that sound like talents possessed by non-believers, there are others on the list that seem specific to the lives of believers. Believers have many natural talents, but in addition to these talents, they are also gifted by God.
Talents Are Developed and Expected / Gifts Are Matured and Surprising
Let’s say you are a talented leader and you then become a Christian. If God decides to use you in some role of leadership, you just may find your talent is greatly multiplied when God also gives you the spiritual gift of leadership. You may now discover your leadership skills are above and beyond anything you were capable of doing prior to being saved. God has a tendency to surprise us in this way. We can all develop our natural talents with hard work and perseverance; we practice and train and along the way we can achieve the expected results. Spiritual gifts, on the other hand, are increased as we mature in our relationship with God:
As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
When we have been gifted by God to accomplish something, we should expect the unexpected. As we mature in our relationship with God, he will surprise us by gifting us beyond our natural talent.
Talents Can Be Used Selfishly / Gifts Are Used to Serve God’s Purposes
The Bible clearly tells us that spiritual gifts are given to us for a specific reason. While we may find ourselves using our natural talent to serve our own selfish interests and desires, spiritual gifts have been given to us by God “for the common good” and to the glory of God; they are given to us so we can give them back to God as we serve His purpose of building the family of believers. Spiritual gifts are given to us so all of us can perform “the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ”. That’s why all of us are gifted in some way by God. We’re not supposed to sit and watch the pastor do the work, we are supposed to get out and use the gifts God has given us.
Natural talents are the result of our genetic inheritance and the training resulting from our family environment. They are possessed by both believers and non-believers, and they can be used to serve God or serve ourselves. Spiritual gifts are given to us by the Spirit of God once we have been saved. They blossom as we mature in our faith and they are used to glorify God as we serve others and build the family of God.