Discerning the Spirits: Theological and Ethical Hermeneutics in Paul

Discerning the Spirits: Theological and Ethical Hermeneutics in Paul

by André Munzinger


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How did Paul determine ethical and theological truth? Were all believers expected to be able to 'discern the spirits' (1 Corinthians 12.10)? This 2007 study shows that discernment must be understood against the backdrop of an extensive hermeneutic, by which Paul inherently relates ethical and theological knowledge. Understanding the will of God requires noetic and existential transformation, in short, the 'renewal of the mind' (Romans 12.2). Munzinger argues that Paul implies a process of inspiration in which the Spirit sharpens the discerning functions of the mind because the believer is liberated from a value system dominated by status and performance. The love of God enables all believers to learn to interpret reality in a transformed manner and to develop creative solutions to questions facing their communities. For Paul authentic discernment is linked to a comprehensive sense of meaning.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521168564
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 02/17/2011
Series: Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series , #140
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

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Discerning the Spirits
Cambridge University Press
9780521875943 - Discerning the Spirits - Theological and Ethical Hermeneutics in Paul - by André Munzinger

Part 1


A.   Why Discernment?

Modernity has struggled into the twenty-first century, sharply aware that its previously self-confident profile cannot be taken for granted anymore. Complex questionsrequire immediate and attentive scrutiny: how can the looming worries of a ‘clash of civilisations’ be avoided? Wherein does the dignity of human life lie with respect to its beginning, its end and its relationship to other creatures? How can we evaluate such diverse phenomena as the changing expressions of sexuality, innovations in biotechnology or complex procedures of globalised interdependence? These pressing questions with their universal implications are accompanied by concerns of more personal and spiritual significance for believers of the Christian faith: does the Lord lead individuals in every detail of their lives? Is the will of God clearly defined? Is it easily accessible? How does the Spirit guide each believer personally?

   These questions illustrate the interest in and need for discernment in a time far removed from Paul’s. So can andshould scholarship answer these questions with the aid of Paul? Is he a reliable guide for issues he had not foreseen? If we agree that Paul should be consulted, how concrete or abstract will that help be? Paul has intrigued scholars and believers for centuries with the gift he introduces in 1 Cor. 12.10, the ability to discern the spirits. What did he mean? Is it a secondary issue or a central part of his theology? Is it a gift for all believers or for a few gifted members of the church?

   E. Käsemann, P. Stuhlmacher and J. C. Beker offer a basis for dealing with this gift in a comprehensive manner. All three situate discernment at the heart of Paul’s theology, yet without clearly substantiating their claim. For Käsemann, ‘rechte Theologie’ is neither scholastic repetition of tradition nor is it defined by religious or enthusiastic experience. Rather, he claims, it occurs in the discernment of spirits (1 Cor. 12.10).1 Likewise, Stuhlmacher describes true Christian thought between the cross and the parousia in precisely the same terms: διάκρισις πνευμάτων.2 And J. C. Beker has giventhe discernment of spirits a crucial role in his incisive presentation of Pauline theology: ‘the locus of the interaction between coherence and contingency [the details of which we shall return to] is the Holy Spirit, which has the function of the διακρίσεις πνευμάτων (1 Cor 12:10)’.

   If the assessment of these scholars is correct, then this gift needs to be embedded in a broader discussion about the nature of Paul’s theologising generally and the structure of epistemology in his letters more specifically.4 Recent work has highlighted the need for this broad perspective. J. G. Lewis proposes that Paul ‘theologizes by practising spiritual discernment, engaging in theo-ethical reasoning’.5‘Theo-ethical reasoning’, according to Lewis, implies that Paul engages in ‘reasoned ethical reflection’.6 But what does this mean epistemologically for discernment? It is remarkable that, while Käsemann and Stuhlmacher appear to imply a process of human thought, Beker assumes that the Holy Spirit is the subject of discernment. Do these assumptions contradict or complement one another? I. W. Scott has presented research on Paul’s theological knowledge, which highlights both the rational and spiritual aspects of Paul’s epistemology.8 According to Scott, Paul’s reasoning is structured as a story: Paul expects his audience to be ‘emplotted’ in the ‘theological narrative’ of Christ, which transforms believers and ‘does not allow for the . . . gulf between religious dogma and lived experience’.9 But this raises further questions: if theology and ethics are interdependent, what implications can we assume for the structure of Paul’s hermeneutics?10 If spiritual discernment is the ‘center of his religion’, can we establish a theory of how Paul believed it functioned?11 How do mind and Spirit work together?

   It is my aim in this book to attend to these questions. In order to establish an accurate understanding, I propose to broaden the scope of the study. I will include other terms which imply discernment (evaluation, interpretation and judgement) and other passages which highlight the epistemological, psychological and theological background of the process of verification and understanding, thereby offering an investigation into the concept of discernment in the Pauline literature. Such a conceptual approach stands in contrast to an exegetical thesis or a concentration on a word study, since it broadens research in a linguistically justifiable manner to include features (words, passages, discourses) which elucidate, but are not semantically tied to, discernment.12

   The following introduction will delineate the scope of this book. While this will include an overview of the state of research, my primary aim is to substantiate the focus of my argument and the nature of my conceptual approach. In the course of the study, I will present more details of the history of research into the relevant aspects of Pauline theology and when we encounter them.

B.   Delineating the Conceptual Approach

In the three points that follow I aim to outline the concept of discernment. First, I shall propose a semantic definition, secondly an elucidation of the epistemological focus on the sources of discernment and, finally, a structural and theological classification.

1.   Semantic Overview and Definition

The three terms which have been at the centre of attention with respect to Pauline discernment are διακρνω/δι▤κρισις and δοκιμ▤ζω. The debate about δι▤κρισις πνευμ▤των13 (1 Cor. 12.10, and διακρ▤νω in 1 Cor. 14.29) has focussed on its role as a regulative force within the charismatic community. Should it be understood exclusively as the interpretation of prophecy or also more generally as an evaluation of spiritual manifestations? While this discussion continues to require our detailed attention, it is notable that it has not, in any significant manner, been related to the broader depictions of Pauline theology noted at the beginning.15 A similar deficit applies to the detailed studies on δοκιμ▤ζω.16 Since O. Cullmann designated this verb as ‘the key to all New Testament ethics’, its significance has been noted primarily with respect to the ethical dimension of Pauline thought and, more problematically, has been tied to the word and its cognates. G. Therrien’s study is misleading as his focus on δοκιμάζω and cognates does not do justice to his conceptual title (Discernement) and therefore offers partially incorrect theological conclusions.18

    Excursus: The Conceptual Inaccuracy of G. Therrien’s Study

Gérard Therrien has presented a detailed study of δοκιμ▤ζω and its cognates δοκιμ▤, δ▤κιμος and ἀδ▤κιμος (the latter three provide twenty of a total of thirty-seven occurrences he investigates). He takes this approach because he follows the traditional method of a word study. This is inaccurate because, while the title and intent of his study presupposes a conceptual study, he offers an investigation of lexically related words.20 On the basis of an etymological argument, he identifies the basic/proper meaning of δοκιμάζω as ‘accepter ou être accepté après épreuve’.21 However, such an approach does not do justice to the synchronic use of the terms and can be rejected as linguistically inaccurate.22 While δοκιμ▤ζω is linguistically linked to δ▤κιμος23 and both may belong to the same semantic domains (‘to learn’, ‘to think’), not all references relate to discernment. What terms are not relevant then for this discussion? Except for the word play with δοκιμ▤ζω, δ▤κιμος and ἀδ▤κιμος in 2 Cor. 13.4ff., the related terms (δ▤κιμος, δ▤κιμ▤, ἀδ▤κιμος) can all be eliminated from this study. They do not refer to my concept of discernment.26 It is not justifiable to relate the ‘worthiness’ of the believers’ or apostle’s work to their discernment.27 This criticism also calls into question the inclusion of those instances of the verb δοκιμάζω where God tests his people (1 Cor. 3.13; 1 Thess. 2.4).28 Linking this aspect with the discernment that believers undertake is only supported on the basis of the same word-form being used in both contexts. For one, there is no contextual evidence that these two aspects are to be correlated.29 Further, it is unthinkable to apply a similar logic to other verbs, such as πειράζω. For instance, Therrien would surely not explain Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to test themselves (cf. 2 Cor 13.5 where πειράζω is used synonymously with δοκιμάζω) in the same way as Satan tempts (cf. πειράζω in 1 Cor. 7.5). It is also hard to conceive that he would see a parallel with those that tested God and were destroyed by serpents (cf. πειράζω in 1 Cor. 10.9).30 But what references of δοκιμάζω are applicable to my concept of discernment? It is helpful to organise these according to the objects of δοκιμάζω. The believers are to:

•   test themselves and their ‘work’ (Rom. 14.22; 1 Cor. 11.28; 2 Cor. 13.5; Gal. 6.4);

•   test ‘everything’ (1 Thess. 5.21);
•   discover ‘the things that are important or pleasing to God’ (Rom. 2.18; 12.2; Phil. 1.10; cf. Eph. 5.10).
•   The Gentiles did not see fit to acknowledge God (Rom. 1.28).31

These objects call into question a further point of Therrien’s study: his focus solely on ethical discernment.32 My argument in this book will give evidence that such a focus does not do justice to Paul’s thinking. At this point it must suffice to note that Therrien misses that δοκιμ▤ζω is partially synonymous with other verbs denoting discernment. In 1 Cor. 11.31 διακρ▤νω is used as an equivalent term to δοκιμ▤ζω.34 And, in 1 Thess. 5.21 it could be interchanged with ἀνακρ▤νω, which is used in a similar manner in 1 Cor. 2.15, where Paul also claims that all things can be evaluated. Nevertheless, not all occurrences of δοκιμ▤ζω should be used identically. Some of the occurrences emphasise the process of examination (1 Cor 11.28; 2 Cor. 13.5; Gal. 6.4; 1 Thess. 5.21), others stress the result of the examination (Rom. 1.28; 14.22) and others combine both aspects (Rom. 2.18; 12.2; Phil. 1.10). Gérard Therrien’s approach is too narrow and too broad at the same time. It is too narrow because, as my thesis will demonstrate, it misses the breadth of Paul’s view by neglecting all the other terms denoting the concept of discernment. It is too broad because the information he does offer has in part no thematic link to discernment but only a lexical connection to δοκιμ▤ζω.

   Having clarified the inadequacy of a focus on certain words, what does my conceptual approach entail? While for analytical purposes I will study the evaluation and interpretation of ethical and spiritual (πνευματικ▤, 1 Cor. 2.13, and πνε▤ματα, 1 Cor. 12.10) matters separately, my argument will be concerned to give a coherent depiction by interrelating the terms in a more extensive theological manner.37

   This kind of extensive picture emerges when we position ‘discernment’ within the general semantic domain of intellectual ability, which includes the more specific domains ‘know’, ‘learn’, ‘think’, ‘understand’.38 The acquisition (‘to learn’)39 and possession of information (‘to know’) or understanding (‘to understand’)40 form the essential backdrop to my discussion. However, it is the manipulation and processing of thought to achieve certain ends (‘to think’) which more narrowly defines the term discernment.41 Hence, I offer the following working definition of discernment: the process of reflective thought leading to decision and choice on the ‘correctness, meaning, truth, or value of something or someone’.42

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Preface; Abbreviations; Part I. Introduction; 1. The conceptual approach; Part II. What Requires Discernment? The Objects of Evaluation: 2. The discernment of ethical questions; 3. The discernment of spirits; 4. Discerning all things: the structure of Paul's epistemology; Part III. How Can and Should True Discernment Take Place?: 5. The context and background of Paul; 6. How does Paul believe true discernment can and should take place?; Part IV. Conclusion: 7. Recapitualtion and implications for theology; Bibliography; Indices.

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