The History of 'Charisma'

From Ancient Greece to the modern Charismatic Movement, from the Apostle Paul to twenty-first century politics and Pentecostalism -- Two excellent books are available at our own State Library on the history of charisma: John Potts' A history of charisma and Philip Rieff's Charisma. Rieff's book came first: Apparently quite an original work and three decades in the making, Charisma has the telling subtitle, "the gift of grace, and how it has been taken away from us." Rieff traces the evolution of charisma as a theological concept to it's transformation into a political force within modern culture.

Pott's book followed only two years later, and seems to be a completely parallel work. He specifically tracks the history of the word 'charisma' from the first century right through to the twenty-first century. The Apostle Paul first borrowed the word from Greco-Roman culture to coin a brand new term 'charismata' in his effort to re-frame first Christian thought about their various abilities, particularly those of the Corinthians. But the word has had various meanings assigned to it since then, leaving behind its original use in Christian theology, evolving into its brand new manifestation within current politics and culture. However interestingly, Pott shows that its current use by modern Charismatics, who claimed the term as their own, shows significant disparity with Paul's own thought and emphasis. Nonetheless elements of it's original meaning do continue within the contemporary secular understanding, but just fragments.

I found Pott's work particularly easy to read and quite exciting. He is insightful both for understanding the place and influence of charisma within our culture, but also for his helpful analysis of Pentecostalism and the development of the Charismatic Movement. This read is great for unravelling the distinction between modern developments in belief about spirituality and spiritual gifts, and the original New Testament teaching and emphasis of the Apostle Paul.


Potts, John. A history of charisma. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 

Rieff, Philip. Charisma: the gift of grace, and how it has been taken away from us, 1st ed, New York : Pantheon Books, 2007.

No comments: