Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Do You Have the Gift of Discernment?
08/19/2012 - James SwanI've been in a number of conversations with Christians convinced that the Holy Spirit has endowed them with the gift described in 1 Corinthians 12 as "the distinguishing of spirits," or, sometimes referred to as the gift of discernment. Sometimes I wonder if the claim to such a gift is simply a ploy for recognition. Or perhaps it's a type of hubris or spiritually immaturity. I'm often tempted to simply dismiss such people as violating Paul's exhortation in Galatians 6 to boast only in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is possible, though, that sincerity is that which motivates such an assertion. Couldn't it simply be zeal for the purity of doctrine or the protection of the church that leads someone to claim this supernatural gift? Perhaps they've heard a sermon or been to a Bible study exhorting the seeking out and nurturing of spiritual gifts. Perhaps friends have noticed and encouraged their seeming ability to rightly discern spiritual issues. Perhaps a church leader has blatantly told them they have the gift of discernment. If any of these positive scenarios are true, if someone indeed has the gift spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12:10, the fault would not be admitting to it (whether boastfully or not), rather it would be not using the gift for the benefit of the church.
How should such claims to spiritual discernment be understood in the church today? Can one know if the claim is Biblically valid today? These questions cannot be addressed until related issues are scrutinized. How has the church understood this gift, and is there a consensus view? Is this gift something particular only to the infant church or has it been given throughout the centuries? What role did it play in the early church, and if still extant, what role would it play today?
What is the "Distinguishing of Spirits" According to the Early Church?
Paul doesn't explain what this gift is, nor do the Scriptures elsewhere explicitly offer any divine commentary as to what it entails. That is, the Bible doesn't say elsewhere, "This is what Paul means by the distinguishing of spirits." One may be tempted to think the earliest extra-biblical writers could provide the needed illuminating commentary or explanation. Weren't they closest in historical position to the divine authors? This is a fallacy. Simply because one is nearer in history does not mean an interpretation is necessarily more accurate. The writings of the church fathers do not provide any determining clarity. From these extant writings, often the gift is simply mentioned along with the other gifts without detailed elaboration or interpretation. (1)
In an obscure letter, Augustine refers to it as an ability to answer extra-biblical theological questions. In responding to questions related to how martyrs are able to help those who make requests of them, Augustine is convinced martyrs have abilities from the grave but he does not know exactly how these powers work. He explains that simply because he lacks understanding, this does not mean there isn't someone given the discerning of spirits who could address the issue with precision. (2) In a secondary way, Augustine argues elsewhere that knowing Scripture will put Christians "on the alert for discerning of the spirits" in regard to false doctrine. (3) Chrysostom blatantly speaks of the cessation of the supernatural gifts of 1 Corinthians 12. The gift of the discerning of spirits functioned to tell God's Word apart from "soothsayers... addicted to Grecian customs." (4)
Luther and Calvin on the "Distinguishing of Spirits"
During the Reformation period, Luther saw the supernatural gifts as "necessary in the primitive church, which had to be established with visible signs on account of the unbelievers... But later on, when the church had been gathered and confirmed by these signs, it was not necessary for this visible sending forth of the Holy Spirit to continue." (5) Some of these gifts, though, have been transformed and still function. (6) Tongues became the public reading of Scripture. Prophecy became "the ability to rightly interpret and explain the Scriptures, and powerfully to reveal therefrom the doctrine of faith and the overthrow of false doctrine." (7) He similarly alludes to 1 Corinthians 12:10 as demonstrating the ability of the early Lutherans to "handle and interpret Scripture skillfully." (8)
Similar to Luther, Calvin held there was a sense in which certain gifts still functioned even if not in the precise way they did at inception. In The Institutes Calvin admits to a cessationist view of miracles (IV:19,18). (9) Elsewhere he refers to 1 Corinthians 12:10 as the active gift of interpreting God's word and something not to be surrendered to the papists. Calvin explained, though, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians that the discerning of spirits during the apostolic age was "a clearness of perception in forming a judgment as to those who professed to be something." Calvin states:
"It was a special illumination, with which some were endowed by the gift of God. The use of it was this that they might not be imposed upon by masks, of mere pretences, but might by that spiritual judgment distinguish, as by a particular mark, the true ministers of Christ from the false." (10)
The "Distinguishing of Spirits" Post-Reformation
Likewise admitting cessation after the apostolic age, John Owen (1616-1683) held, "the gift of discerning spirits has ceased, since no pretense to prophetic gifts is any longer asserted 'unless by some persons phrenetical and enthusiastical, whose madness is manifest to all.'" (11) John Gil (1697-1771) saw the gift as the previous ability to "discern the hearts of men, their thoughts, purposes, and designs, their secret dissimulation and hypocrisy" (12) and no longer functioning. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) likewise understood the gifts had ceased. In his The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God he exhorts his readers to test the spirits, noting the Spirit was now working differently:
"However great a spiritual influence may be, it is not to be expected that the Spirit of God should be given now in the same manner as to the apostles, infallibly to guide them in points of Christian doctrine, so that what they taught might be relied on as a rule to the Christian church. Many godly persons have undoubtedly in this and other ages, exposed themselves to woeful delusions, by an aptness to lay too much weight on impulses and impressions, as if they were immediate revelations from God, to signify something future, or to direct them where to go, and what to do." (13)
John Wesley (1703-1791) likewise held the gift of discernment was "The discerning - Whether men be of an upright spirit or no," (14) but held this gift along with the others only ceased later in history when "a general corruption both of faith and morals infected the church- which by that revolution, as St. Jerome says, lost as much of its virtue as it had gained of wealth and power." (15) John Darby (1800-1882) on the other hand contrarily held "The discerning of spirits is not that of a man's condition of soul - it has nothing to do with it. It is the knowing how to discern, by the mighty energy of the Spirit of God, the actings of evil spirits, and to bring them to light if necessary, in contrast with the action of the Spirit of God." (16)
Echoing back to Owen and Edwards, B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) held the apostolic gifts were given for the authentication of the apostolic message. After the deaths of those imparted with these gifts, the gifts ceased. Warfield considered the discerning of spirits "among the extraordinary items." (17) He states,
"How long did this state of things continue? It was the characterizing peculiarity of specifically the Apostolic Church, and it belonged therefore exclusively to the Apostolic age- although no doubt this designation may be taken with some latitude. These gifts were not the possession of the primitive Christian as such; nor for that matter of the Apostolic Church or the Apostolic age for themselves; they were distinctively the authentication of the Apostles." (18)
The "Distinguishing of Spirits" in the Present
The rise of Pentecostalism (including both heretical and orthodox factions) breathed new life (and confusion) into the notion of the continuation of the gifts in their fullness. Jack Hayford holds, "Discerning of spirits is the ability to discern the spirit world, and especially to detect the true source of circumstances or motives of people." (19) Derek Prince says the gift gives the ability to "lift the veil that covers the unseen spiritual world," "enables us to see as God sees," "protect us from deception," and to "diagnose people's problems and so help them." (20) Joyce Meyer says some people believe the gift is "the discerning of divine spirits, as when Moses looked into the spirit realm and saw the 'back' of God, or when John was in exile on the isle of Patmos and had a vision of the resurrected Jesus." (21) Examples of such sentiment, differing in scope and content, have ample representatives.
Contemporary non-Reformed conservative voices tone down their interpretation of the extent and efficacy of the gifts. Billy Graham denies that prophecy in the sense of new revelation is occurring today, but explains, "We are to exercise the gift of discernment because many false prophets will appear... Thus the Christian must have those who can distinguish between false and true prophets." (22) For Graham, certain people are singled out by the Holy Spirit and gifted specifically with discernment. Contrarily, in his book Living the Extraordinary Life, Charles Stanley avoids citing 1 Corinthians 12 entirely while confidently laying out an entire method for any Christian to develop discernment. One need only regularly practice a few simple steps. (23) Discernment ceases to be an extraordinary gift despite the title of the book.
There is therefore no shortage of explanations in broad Christendom as to what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 12:10. The explanations produced by the church throughout the centuries run the theological gamut. In summary, at least three basic explanations have been given throughout the centuries. First, the gift was only given to the early church to discern true and false prophets before the completion of the canon. Second, the gift functioned as the first view suggests, but now post-canon completion functions differently. Third, the gift functions today supernaturally to those whom the Spirit gives it.
Exegetical Considerations of 1 Corinthians 12:10
The feminine noun "discernment" in 12:10 is found also in Hebrews 5:14 and Romans 14:1. In each of these verses, it functions along the lines of "differentiation." (24) It is related to the verb "judge" used in 1 Corinthians 14:29. There Paul gives instructions for what the Corinthians were to do after a prophet spoke: "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment." Paul does not explicitly say that those who "pass judgment" are gifted with the discerning of spirits, nor does his comment exclude such a gift among specific people in the Corinthian church. All Christians are responsible to listen to the prophet discerningly (1 John 4:1), but, as Leon Morris states, "the ability to distinguish between spirits shows that to some was given a special discernment in this matter." (25)
To what does the word "spirits" refer, to a prophet, the message of that prophet, or both? In 1 Cor. 14:32 the word refers to the prophet being in control of his prophecy. It was not uncontrolled supernatural ecstasy. The person with the gift of discerning of spirits in 12:10 is someone who can discern the truthfulness or deviousness of that prophecy, or "spirit" of the prophet and prophecy. This has led some commentators to hold that false prophets were not simply false on their own accord. Rather, they were false because of either demon-possession or evil spirits ("the spirit of antichrist" as described in 1 John 4:1). (26) In 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 Paul describes these people as Satan's servants masquerading as servants of righteousness. The person who was gifted with special discernment therefore, could recognize the actor behind the mask.
VII. The Canon and 1 Corinthians 12:10
Some explicitly link the gift of discerning spirits to the forming canon of the New Testament. The function of the gift was to determine which writings were actually theopneustas:
"[T]hese New Testament prophets certified to the congregation what was and what was not a divinely inspired document. In the interest of clearness let us visualize a congregation of Believers assembling in a remote, out of the way village. Into that assembly comes two manuscripts, both purporting to be written by Paul but one of them a forgery. What means would they have of detecting a cleverly written forgery? Did God leave them to their own discernment? Fortunately this was not the case otherwise they would have been open to all manner of deception. Apparently what would have happened in that congregation was that the local prophet would hear both manuscripts read. The document that was written by Paul would, by the prophet, be declared as from Paul and the forgery would be branded a forgery." (27)
While this anonymously published interpretation is certainly neat and tidy, it is read into the text rather than exegeted from the text. The factor of the canon, though, must be placed somewhere in this discussion. If indeed the canon is closed, the purpose of particular revelatory gifts becomes crucial. Richard Gaffin insightfully reminds his readers that the continuation of prophecy beyond its foundational period "would necessarily create tensions with the closed, finished character of the canon." (28) If the discerning of spirits is linked with the gift of prophecy, then it either does not now function as it did during the period of Inscripturation or it does not function at all.
VIII. Strengths and Weaknesses of Taking a View on 1 Cor. 12:10
The gift of the discerning of spirits had the same goal as the other gifts described: the common good of the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 12:7). While all the gifts were different, they each individually served to unify the church and protect the apostolic message 1 Cor. 12:1-7). If Paul intended the gift of the discerning of spirits to be linked with prophecy, the gift no longer would have any use, even if it still did exist. One difficulty for those taking this view is navigating through 1 Corinthians 12: Have all the gifts mentioned in verses 7-11 ceased? Perhaps one could almost argue affirmatively, save the one hurdle of the "gift of faith" mentioned in verse 9. On what basis does one determine that an entire listing of gifts save one no longer functions today? This isn't an impossible problem to overcome. Exegetes distinguish it from the gift of faith given to every believer (Eph. 2:8-10). Perhaps some would be so bold to conclude this extra measure of faith in 1 Cor. 12 is no longer given by the Spirit. Was it something special related to the forming church that is no longer needed? Perhaps though, the easiest solution for someone taking this view is to simply affirm it as an exception to the list of gifts.
For modern-day charismatics believing the gift still functions today as it did when first given, that there's such diversity as to what they posit the gift entails should provoke suspicion. Because these representatives see the gift as pointing to something beyond the mundane, there are no rules as to the function of a supernatural gift in a charismatic paradigm. If the Spirit is understood to be working in an extraordinary way, the gift can refer to whatever one wants it to.
Perhaps the most attractive view are those who attempt to navigate a middle path seeing the gift as being transformed into something other than it's original function. They likewise face a similar problem to those who think it ceased entirely: on what basis does one determine that a gift functions differently later in history? Have some of the gifts been transformed, and why only some? Can it properly be designated the same gift in its transformed state?
God has expressly stated that He does not want the church to be ignorant on the issue of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:1). The gifts were not Biblically described as optional add-ons for the Church. Rather, the gifts demonstrated the work of the Spirit in the church and helped build her. Despite her gross sin, even the Corinthian church was described as not lacking any of the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 1:7). Paul wished to visit the Roman church to impart to them a spiritual gift to strengthen them (Rom. 1:11). The question therefore as to the identification, existence, nature, and purpose of the gift of the discerning of spirits is of no little importance. If God has gifted the church with the discerning of spirits and the gift still functions presently, we would do well to vigorously seek it out. If it was something specific to the apostolic church, a gentle response to those claiming its service needs to be prepared with either rebuke or gentleness, depending on the person.
Given the scope of interpretations throughout history, the exegetical difficulties of 1 Corinthians 12:10, and the logical problems of consistently maintaining any of the views briefly outlined above, what sort of response may be formulated to someone claiming the gift of discerning spirits?
The first response would be to point out the difficulties as to the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12:10. In essence, this is an exhortation to humility. One can appreciate a desire to discern and stop error or heresy from entering the church. This though need not be rooted in a supernatural ability. It can just as easily be the result of Christian maturity. The response therefore is to point out that humility in regard to difficult passages coupled with Christian maturity is enough to look at spiritual situations appropriately.
In this age of post-inscripturation, the second response should be to direct people back to the Scriptures. That is, if one wants to have a certain Holy Spirit-driven discernment of truth from error, savingly knowing and believing the Bible itself would be the means of accomplishing this goal. This places our faith back into God's word rather than any sort of subjective experience as the determiner of truth. Such passages as Acts 17:11 and 1 Peter 3:15 serve as a solid basis to build discernment on. Here discernment becomes a result of sanctification rather than a sudden supernatural experience or feeling of special knowledge given by God to an individual.
This would mean that those in the ministry would primarily and typically have the most discernment on spiritual matters. This does not though rule out that laymen can likewise attain a healthy level of spiritual discernment. One need not be a minister or even an apostle to say in the face of error: "Even if we or an angel from heaven preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" One need only be faithful to placing the supernatural word of God into the heart and allow it to transform and renew the mind.
1.See Origen's (184-254) comments in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament VII, 1-2 Corinthians, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove: Intervaristy Press, 1999), 122, "It is a spiritual gift, therefore, by which the spirit is discerned, as the apostle says: 'Test the spirits, if they are from God.'" Clement of Alexandria (150 ? 250) refers to it as an attribute describing "the perfect man or those who have experienced an aspect of deep Christian truth" [The Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 2, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 433-434]. Henceforth all references to the Ante-Nicene Fathers are designated ANF. Tertullian (160-225) describes how the Spirit and His gifts were taken from the Jews and given to the church [ANF 3, 445-446]. Gregory Thaumaturgus (213-270) mentions the gifts as describing the orthodox faith [ANF 6, 47], though this writing may be spurious. Augustine simply mentions the gift in passing [The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 197, 346; III, 63, 94; IV, 267; VII, 98]. Henceforth all references to the Nicene and Post-Fathers are designated NPNF.
2. NPNF III, 549-550. Augustine recommends John the Monk who was purported to have extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.
3. NPNF VII, 499.
4. NPNF XII, 168-169.
5. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 26, ed. J. J. Pelikan (Philadelphia: fortress Press, 1955), 374. Henceforth, all references to Luther's Works are designated LW.
6. LW 14,36.
7. Martin Luther, The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther vol. 4.1-2, John Nicholas Lenker, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 213.
8. LW 40, 250.
9. "Calvin sets forth an embryonic cessationism. Conceiving of prophets as those who have a 'particular revelation,' he observes that '[t]his class either does not exist today or is less commonly seen.' However, after provisionally holding out the possibility that there could be contemporary prophets, Calvin slams the door shut by pointing out in regard to the offices of apostle, prophet and evangelist that '[t]hese three functions were not established in the church as permanent ones, but only for that time during which churches were to be erected where none existed before, or where they were to be carried over from Moses to Christ.'" [Philip A. Craig, "And Prophecy Shall Cease, Jonathan Edwards on the Cessation of the Gift of Prophecy," Westminster Theological Journal Volume 64 no. 1 (Spring 2002): 164.
10. John Calvin, Calvin's Bible Commentaries: Corinthians Part One (Forgotten Books, 2007), 326-327.
11. John Owen, The Works of John Owen vol. 4 (London: Richard Baynes, 28, Paternoster Row, 1826), 302. "These gifts are not saving, sanctifying graces?those were not so in themselves which made the most glorious and astonishing appearance in the world, and which were most eminently useful in the foundation of the church and propagation of the gospel, such as were those that were extraordinary and miraculous."
12. John Gil, Commentary 1 Corinthians 12:10.
13. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (London: J.R. and C Childs, Bungay, 1835), 265.
14. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 448.
15. Benjamin B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918), 8.
16. John Darby, The Present Testimony and Original Christian Witness Revived in Which the Church?s Portion and the Hope of the Kingdom vol. VIII (London: R. Groombridge & Sons, 1856), 154.
17. Warfield, 5.
18. Warfield 6-7. Warfield also discusses and refutes the view that the gifts gradually died out around the time of Constantine, thus lasting for three centuries (6-21).
19. Hayford, J. W., & Curtis, G. Pathways to Pure Power: Learning the Depth of Love's Power, a Study of first Corinthians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994), Libronix electronic edition.
20. Derek Prince, Called to Conquer: Finding Your Assignment in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2010), 50.
21. Joyce Meyer, Knowing God Intimately: Being as Close to Him as You Want to Be, (New York: Time Warner Book Group, 2003).
22. Billy Graham, The Holy Spirit: Activating God's Power in Your Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 146-147.
23. Charles Stanley, Living the Extraordinary Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 175-178.
24. Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 949.
25. Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 169.
26. F.W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), 267.
27. Anonymous, "The Angels of the Seven Churches (Rev. 1:20)," Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 91 (October 1934): 439-440.
28. Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979), 100.