Theology 101

What Is the Precise Definition of a “Talent”?

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The parable of the talents describes what our work should look like while we wait for the return of Christ and the final consummation of his kingdom.

But, what is the precise definition of a talent, and how might knowing this definition broaden our understanding of the parable of the talents?

According to the Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, whatever its exact value, in the New Testament a talent indicates a large sum of money. The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament says that this sum was maybe even as much as a million dollars in today’s currency. No wonder the master was so upset with the servant who buried his one talent in the ground!

Among theologians, John Calvin has shaped much of our understanding of the word talent. However, many contemporary theologians have offered alternative views. It’s a fascinating discussion.

John Calvin’s Interpretation of  the Word “Talent”

According to Paul Marshall in his book A Kind of Life Imposed on Man: Vocation and Social Order from Tyndale to Locke, Calvin helped shape the modern meaning of the word talent by his revolutionary change in the interpretation of the parable of the talents. He defined the talents as gifts from God in the form of a person’s calling or natural ability, as Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens relate in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity.

Calvin made it clear that the use of our talents is not restricted to the church or to its pious duties. It encompasses the whole of creation. Marshall reports that Calvin challenged believers “to work, to perform, to develop, to progress, to change, to choose, to be active, and to overcome until the day of their death or the return of their Lord.”

Biblical scholars have expanded on Calvin’s definition of the word talent, while also expressing caution to avoid reading current meanings of the word back into the parable.

Contemporary Interpretations of the Word “Talent”

Contemporary biblical scholars have expressed concern that if we equate talents with gifts and abilities throughout Jesus’s parable, the conclusion is difficult to justify. Ben Chenoweth argues this in his article, “Identifying the Talents: Contextual Clues for the Interpretation of the Parable of the Talents,” saying,

The first two servants double their “talents;” this implies that using one’s gifts and abilities will result in the gaining of more gifts and abilities rather than improving the gifts and abilities one already has, which is the usual understanding.

Additional difficulties arise when the one talent of the lazy servant is taken away and given to the first servant. It is unclear how that part of the parable could refer to gifts and abilities.

Taking this caution into account, other scholars have offered expanded definitions.

  • John B. Carpenter gives a more open interpretation in his article, “The Parable of the Talents in Missionary Perspective“: “Parables are about principles, and this parable is about faithfulness of endeavor.” He goes on to say the money was used as an example of everything with which we have been endowed by God and that we cannot identify the talents more specifically.
  • R.T. France’s commentary on Matthew argues that talents refers to “the specific privileges and opportunities of the kingdom of heaven…to be faithfully exploited before the master returns.”

D.A. Carson agrees that we cannot pin down the precise definition of talent:

Attempts to identify the talents with spiritual gifts, the law, natural endowments, the gospel, or whatever else, leads to a narrowing of the parable with which Jesus would have been uncomfortable. Perhaps he chose the talent or mina symbolism because of its capacity for varied application.

In the most general sense, we can conclude that the talents are, as Banks and Stevens remind us, “creational, deriving from the creative activity of God, who invites us through their use to be co-creators with God to make God’s world work and to build up the body of Christ.” They are the tools God gives us to carry out the cultural mandate. In this context, we can be assured that whatever the Lord gives us now he will ask us about later, expecting us to diligently work with these resources for the furtherance of his kingdom.

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  • Hugh, you state, “Additional difficulties arise when the one talent of the lazy servant is taken away and given to the first servant. It is unclear how that part of the parable could refer to gifts and abilities.”

    Simple: have you ever seen a sports player have a career ending injury (you’ve lost your gift, someone else is now given your spot)? How about being fired from a job (Steve Jobs fired from a company HE created) and not able to get another in the career you so loved? Or a person dies and has to be replaced because the work must go on?

    Reading Job, it’s not hard to imagine losing something that was once yours.

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