For those who are not familiar with it, impartation, at least in charismatic circles refers to passing on a gift, or even on occasion a calling or anointing when one person or persons lays hands on another. I’m not going to try to summarize the various views on this. First, I’m not fully acquainted with them. Second, that’s not my purpose.
Bottom line is that the whole concept of things passed on via laying on of hands with prayer or blessing is something that I have not liked very much from the first time I heard of it. It sounded too much like people treating the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts as a personal possession, sort of like that pair of socks one received for Christmas and then passed on, hopefully before it got holes in it. On a more serious note the conflict is really between an idea of complete divine sovereignty over the gifts and the idea of human involvement.
What I have believed and taught up until now has tended to focus on divine sovereignty. God decides who to give the gifts to, and if anything human action is required at all it is simply a recognition of what God has already done. Similarly I would maintain that God does healing with or without any particular action on our part, and thus would not recognize a continuing gift of healing as such. We take action; God heals; the two don’t relate a great deal.
Two things have combined to change my view. The first was our Sunday School study using Bruce Epperly’s book Healing Marks. I cannot point to just one place, but with support from the healing stories of Jesus, Bruce emphasizes the way in which God works with and through people. It may seem to “protect” God to emphasize how little control we have, but it doesn’t reflect the way in which scripture speaks of God’s activity in the world.
I’m not going to go through all of the arguments here. They involve multiple chapters in the book. I think both the ideas involved with healing and of impartation share a common element, in that in both we have God’s gifts, and in both we have a danger both of losing the divine and the human elements.
I think my way of expressing this over the last few years has tended to lose the human element.
This coalesced in reading Numbers a couple of days ago. An amazing amount of my thinking has developed while reading the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In this case I was reading the story in Numbers 11 in which Moses complains to God, and God tells Moses to bring 70 elders from the tribes. Numbers 11:35 reports that God took some of the spirit that was on Moses and gave it to the 70. (We later find out that two more receive the spirit, which brings up some interesting thoughts.)
There are even some commentators who believe this “taking” of the spirit from Moses was some kind of punishment for his complaining, but I think this is contradicted by the rather vigorous way in which the complaints of Miriam and Aaron are dealt with in chapter 12. There’s some important material there I will incorporate in my comments on Hebrews later. There the special position of Moses as one who spoke with God face to face is strongly re-emphasized.
Now this story is in no sense a proof-text for my change of view. In fact, one could read this story either way. I read it in the context of what I learned of Leviticus when studying Jacob Milgrom’s three volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. God moves the people of Israel in the ceremonies he commands from the idea of some sort of magic or human manipulation of God to an understanding that God acts. It is not the ceremony that makes God act. For example, one offers a sacrifice, but God forgives.
What this story did for me was outline the ideas that are in conflict. It is the spirit that is on Moses (the human) that is taken and imparted to the 70 who are gathered. We are not told of any ritual or ceremony, but there may well have been. Then at the same time God touches two people who aren’t actually there. (I commend to your attention Numbers 11-14, with particular emphasis on how divine and human action combine. It’s interesting reading!)
God is always working, but he in scripture he is continually presented as working in and with human beings. It is possible that when you touch someone and pray for their healing, a healing “power” will go out of you and help the person for whom you are praying. It’s the “out of you” with which I have been uncomfortable. I think I’ll have to learn to live with it!