A Brief History of Christian Thoughts on Discernment


Caravaggio-Inspiration-Saint-MatthewThis is a post in our series exploring the ancient Christian Practice of Discernment.

In the last post of this series, I went through the short history of how decision-making had been done outside of a church context. I said that the main thing that unified all of these approaches was that they were all fairly impersonal. They appealed to abstract “forces”, “principles”, chance, or even technology help make difficult decisions. I concluded by saying that Christianity gives a very different approach to Discernment and decision-making; one that is personal, intense, risky, and terrifying.

Today I want to talk about that. The history of Discernment in the Christian Church has had a very interesting story. Hopefully you’ll see, along the way, the incredibly different ways Christians have approached this; but hopefully, you’ll also see the deep ways in which it has stayed constant throughout our history.

The Bible

For much of the Old Testament, Discernment was exercised through wise, prophetic leaders and chance events. This seems like the same place we started the “secular” history, but this was different–even different from the contemporary cultures of that day. The words of wisdom, prophecy and even chance, were seen not as dispatches from a distant God or abstract “principle”, but actual mediations of the presence and Person of that God Himself.

In the New testament, Christ comes, lives, dies, rises again, and tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they are “clothed with power from on high”. And so they wait.

The last time God’s people are shown using chance in order to discern God’s will is found just two verses before that Power falls upon them, when they cast lots to discern who will replace Judas among the Twelve. Right after this, the Spirit falls and indwells believers.

This God that had only been mediated to His people in fleeting moments, now permanently resides in and among His People. And with this, the biblical idea of Discernment seems to shift. Discernment is no longer found outside oneself, but within the movements of one’s own Spirit-filled and -attuned soul, and in Christ’s Body itself.

The rest of Church History as it relates to Discernment has been a process of finding disciplines and practicalities to tap into this quiet and gentle guiding of the Spirit within and among us.

The Church

In the development of Discernment in the Church, the differences of opinion among Christians have mainly surrounded differing ideas about the “Will of God” and how Christians relate to it.

After Pentecost, the phrase “will of God” is hardly ever used to refer to anything outside of the sanctification of the individual believer. The “Will of God” gets redefined as what God is accomplishing in the believer herself rather than some external “plan” that God intends.

Because of this, the early church, and even Catholicism through today, has stressed the kind of person one is to be when Discernment is needed, more than how to do that discerning when the time comes. Historically, they have focused on developing the virtue of Prudence in one’s soul—and living life with those that are more prudent than you—in order to be sensitive to God’s Will once a decision needs to be made.

With the Reformation, and especially with John Calvin’s influence, the Will of God becomes more absolute and, especially due to the heavier emphasis on human limitations and self-deception, there is a subtle move away from subjective Discernment practices with the Spirit and more of a reliance on Scripture, obedience, and community. In discerning His will, Calvin writes that God uses “the arts of taking counsel and caution, by which to comply with his providence”.

Today, the typical Evangelical view seems to mirror many of the more rationalistic secular approaches. Quite often in these Protestant circles, there is a belief that God has a “perfect plan” in every individual situation and Christians must weigh all of the contingencies and variables. In this, “Wisdom” (more than Prudence) is seen as the highest virtue.

Some more recent developments…

In the past century, there seems to have been some important shifts in the Reformed engagement with Discernment (this is the tradition I’m coming out of).

Reformed theologians are returning to emphasizing the Spirit’s work in guiding the believer (not just Scripture and obedience), but there is less of an emphasis on discerning some sort of external plan that God intends. Instead, they are focusing on shaping one’s desires to be closer to the Spirit’s desires so that the believer can simply follow these “sanctified” desires and trust that whatever they choose is indeed God’s will. You can see this most quite explicitly in the Evangelical Calvinistic pastor John Piper:

“If we are going to do what pleases God, most of the time it will be reflex, not reflection…. [In making decisions,] we are to do what we do 90 percent of the time when being led by the Spirit of God. We are to let our Spirit-shaped desires be our guide. We are to discern by desire. In other words, when we have narrowed down the choices into a small circle enclosed by biblical principle and spiritual wisdom and careful observation, then inside that circle we prayerfully ask: In which choice to do we delight? …Our great need is to be people whose delights are the very delights of God.”

And yet, though I love this relocation of the will of God from outside of us to within, and find it incredibly freeing and helpful (who wants to think that every decision will make or break some magic plan?), we still need more help. We need practical ways and helps when decisions come our way.  

So most recently, in the midst of postmodernism’s love of eclecticism, thinkers in the Church have felt free to advocate many diverse means to cultivate these practices in our lives, especially ancient or cross-cultural means. You see writers returning to these ideas of Prudence, and also taking on ancient practical processes of Discernment. People are using art and meditation to bring us in sync with the Spirit of God. There is a definite “whatever works for you” sentiment among much modern Christianity. And personally, I find it very helpful and freeing.

With our history and progression in our minds, our next post will focus on how Discernment functions in the midst of community, and how this seemingly individual practice, is intimately personal and interpersonal.

[image credit: “the inspiration of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio]

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