St. Paul on the Discerning of Spirits

Finding a solution to the mystery phrase coined by St. Paul, the discerning of spirits.

These three words written by Paul have often caught the attention of theologians, church leaders, and Bible readers for almost two millennia.

What did Paul mean by it? How did later writers and leaders interpret it, and how does it apply to us today? Three questions that beg answers.

The short answer is first given. If one takes an in-depth look into the ancient usage, it suggests that it means something unextraordinary. It is somebody who has the knack to know when a person is altruistic, a fraud, a person speaking out of pain, or a combination of factors. It does not necessarily go into the bounds of good and evil. In crass language, it would be to spot a ‘bullshitter.’ Although this is an obscene word that is not recommended in common speech, it may be the closest to Greek usage. Nor does the word directly go into the supernatural, demonic, or angelic world. The supernatural elements are components of discerning of spirits but not the overarching emphasis.

The long answer is covered below. Of course, any work on this website always takes the technical and hard-to-read path. Many articles heavily depend on etymology and historical theology process. This document is one of them. For those readers who want to skip some of the details and get to the heart of the matter, the final two headers starting at Classical and early Ecclesiastical approaches on discerning of spirits, is where you want to begin.

The Key Text

Paul wrote this small snippet in I Corinthians 12:10:

ἄλλῳ δὲ ἐνεργήματα δυνάμεων, ἄλλῳ δὲ προφητεία, ἄλλῳ δὲ διακρίσεις πνευμάτων, ἑτέρῳ δὲ γένη γλωσσῶν, ἄλλῳ δὲ ἑρμηνεία γλωσσῶν1

To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:2

The critical word in all of this is the Greek noun, διάκρισις–diakrisis. If one can unlock this word in its historical state, it may unlock all the needed clues.

A look into the primary dictionaries on the Greek word for discerning

The first place to go to for a definition of this word is the primary dictionaries.

  • Bauer Arndt Gingrich has διάκρισις as distinguishing, differentiation of good and evil… ability to distinguish betw. spirits… critical examination of the miraculous signs.3

  • Liddel and Scott believe it to have this range: separation, dissolution, opp. σύγκρισις in concrete sense, resolved form, decision, determination, judicial decision, interpretation of dreams or omens, examination or revision of accounts, decision by battle, quarrel, dispute, space between the eyes in dogs, secretion, a bandage.4

  • Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon,5, Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary,6 also follows the same pattern as above.

  • The big dictionary, Stephanus Lexicon, takes a departure from the Greek and shows its heavy Latin influence: secretio, discretio, discriminatio, dissoluto, opp. σύγκρισις Judicium, interstitium, perfectio, dictum de infante, qui perficitur in utero, dijudicatio, de interpretatione somniorum.7 In reference to Paul’s work, the emphasis is on judging, deciding, or interpreting dreams.

A common theme not mentioned by most modern translators or analysts is the function of interpreting dreams. Lidell and Scott noted above, and Sophocles Greek Dictionary adds this to the definition.8 One must never underestimate the role of mysticism in the historic Christian faith. Dreams and visions were encouraged and desired. Διάκρισις was one of the means for validating such an experience.

Clues from early Bible translations on discerning

However, this only paints a partial picture of what Paul meant. A comprehensive look into early Bible translations is required to provide further clues.

The Latin Vulgate

The Latin Vulgate offers no additional clues with their translation, alii discretio spirituum.

The Syriac Bible

The Syrians spoke and wrote in Aramaic—very close, if not comparable to the language Jesus spoke in the first century. The following is the pertinent portion of I Corinthians 12:10 in the Syriac. You do not need to read it to follow the rest of this work. Just in case you do, here it is:

ܠܐܚܪܢܐ ܕܝܢ ܦܪܘܫܘܬܐ ܕܪܘܚܐ

The English translators of the Syriac used the existing English translations of Greek and Latin to come up with an English equivalent. John Etheridge has the discerning of spirits while James Murdoch has discerning of spirits and George Lamsa has the means to distinguish the true Spirit.

The key word in the Syriac ܦܪܘܫܘܬܐ paruoshuta point to some potential clues. The Syriac lexicons provided no additional information than the traditional translation traditions on this verse as discernment, but the word itself pointed to some history in its Hebrew or Rabbinic Aramaic form. This noun has a rich history in Jewish tradition. פָּרָשָׁה which is described by the Morfix online dictionary as, matter, affair, issue ; (Jewish ritual) section of the Torah read on Sabbath in the synagogue ; pericope.9

Marcus Jastrow’s ספר מלים Dictionary, continues the same theme as the Morfix, plus adds this one word definition: interpretation10. Now, this is still not enough information to build a solid case of a Jewish liturgical background to the idea of discernment of spirits. Another step required is to see if this idea has existed in other Jewish publications.

A later Hebrew translated New Testament

Another step is to look at Franz Deilitzch’ translation of the New Testament into Hebrew sometime in the 1800s. He was a revered Protestant-Hebrew scholar. He might have some insights. He translated discerning of spirits as:

ולְאַחֵר לְהַבְין בִּין הָרוּחות

for another to distinguish between the spirits.

The Hebrew Delitzsch utilized did not link a Jewish historical antecedent. Neither does his work provide any additional clues.

Online Hebrew and Aramaic word searches on their words for discerning

The best place to start is to do some online word searches. They would be both in Hebrew and Aramaic, פרשתה רוחות or in the Aramaic פרשתא רוחות. The search provided nothing of specific interest.

Classical and early Ecclesiastical approaches on discerning of spirits

Paul was a Messianic Jew from an orthodox background. His writings are full of Jewish tradition and thought. There may be a correlation between the reading or interpretation of scripture here when he refers to discerning of spirits, but it is not satisfying. Thus far, the information does not give enough Jewish background to make a strong case.

Perhaps a more thorough definition can be found through Aristotle or other classical Greek writers. Church authorities have a well-known reputation for adapting classical Greek philosophy to Christian principles. However, on this occasion, they are very silent.

The next logical step is to look in the historical Christian interpretations of this thought, which leads one directly to a writing by Joseph T. Linehart, called, On “Discernment of Spirits” in the Early Church. He documents the various interpretations on this subject throughout the centuries and starts with Origen:

From this we learn to discern clearly when the soul is moved by the presence of a spirit of the better kind, namely, when it suffers no mental disturbance or aberration whatsoever as a result of the immediate inspiration and does not lose the free judgment of the will. Such, for example, were the prophets and apostles, who attended upon the divine oracles without any mental disturbance.11

He later continues:

I conclude from this that it is no small grace to recognize a mouth which the devil opens. It is not possible to discern a mouth and words of this sort without the grace of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the divisions of spiritual graces, there is also added this: that to certain men is given discernment of spirits [“discretio spirituum”]. The grace, therefore, by which a spirit is discerned is spiritual, as the apostle says in another place: “test the spirits to see if they are from God.”12

Origen was one of the earlier writers to make a theology out of this. The emphasis is on discerning the person’s moral character concerning what they are speaking. It is a skill of trusting the person and legitimizing whatever words they spoke.

He also added this interesting definition to discernment:

In the Apophthegmata patrum, then, discernment is, in some sayings, one of the monk’s virtues or tools; in others it is the one virtue or ability which enables the others to flourish. But further, discernment is also a kind of superior insight, an ability to see beyond single rules and practices and comprehend the total effect of an action.13

Linehart strings together this intricate weave of history and concludes:

In considering any passage on discernment of spirits, it is useful to ask three questions: Who has this gift, or should have it? What is meant by “spirits”? What criteria, if any, are proposed for the discerning or distinguishing.

On the first question: for the Antiochene exegetes, some Christians in Corinth in Paul’s time had discernment of spirits. For the Latin exegetes who follow the Ambrosiaster, it is the clergy who have it, and that ex officio. Origen leaves the question open. For Athanasius, there is a clear answer: Antony received the gift after thirty-five years of intense asceticism and of personal struggle with various kinds of demons; discernment, therefore, is a gift which an advanced ascetic may receive. After Antony, discernment of spirits is seen as more and more necessary for the monk. Gradually it ceases to be viewed as an exceptional gift or charism and is treated as a virtue, even a necessary virtue. As this change is taking place, the phrase is shortened from “discernment of spirits” to “discernment.”

On the second question, the identity of the “spirits”: the Antiochene exegetes thought primarily of the demons who were believed to inspire soothsayers, who had to be distinguished from prophets in the Church. Origen thinks of the good and evil spirits who inhabit the sublunary air. Athanasius is concerned with the highly individualistic, personal demons who plague the ascetic with all kinds of tricks and deceptions. After Athanasius, there is a quickly growing tendency to identify the demons with the passions, or even more specifically with the eight capital sins.

On the third question, the exegetes offer no criteria. For Origen, and all the ascetical writers who offer a specific criterion, that criterion is some form of mental or psychological experience: for Origen, calm and freedom; for Athanasius, joy and confidence; in the life of Pachomius, absence of doubt; for Diadochus, unmixed consolation which leads to love. Some of the works surveyed, however, have implicitly a very different criterion. For the Apophthegmata patrum, Cassian, and Benedict, discernment (not discernment of spirits) is a form of superior insight exercised in acting or deciding, which is then recognized and acknowledged by other persons, usually subjects or younger or less experienced monks.

. . .One final observation: the term “discernment of spirits” was in use as long as the spirits were understood to be personal; in this period, too, discernment of spirits was looked upon as a charism given only to some, not to all. Once attention was turned to the working of the psyche, particularly by Evagrius Ponticus, the phrase was shortened and discernment became a virtue or technique needed by every ascetic to prevent him from falling victim to excess or bad judgment. This distinction may well be worth preserving.14

His work is quite convincing on the definition.

Alex Poulos, a student at the Catholic University of America, has uncovered many pieces to the puzzle on this subject. One of them being the seventh century Church Father, Maximus the Confessor, which he translated from the Greek:

The “type of gift which requires another for interpretation,” according to this great teacher is prophecy, I think, and speaking in tongues. For prophecy requires the gift of distinguishing spirits, so that one may know the nature of the prophecy, where it comes from, what it carries, what spirit it belongs to, and for what reason it comes. Otherwise, it may simply be idle talk, proceeding only from an offense which the speaker has suffered (thus from his own mind)[1], or it may be self-caused impulse from the one prophesying, which comes from wide experience and a natural shrewdness about the nature of things, or even from an evil and demonic spirit, like the “marvelous” sayings in Montanus and those like him, which, it is said, are in the form of prophecy, or someone may take the words of others and speak with great airs because of vanity, declaiming with great pomp learning which is not their own, lying so that others would marvel at them. For some shamelessly make themselves into the deadbeat fathers of orphaned words and ideas by espousing and then abandoning them so that others might think them wise. Thus the divine apostle says, “let two or three prophets speak, and the others judge.”15

John of Damascus wrote in his commentary on I Corinthians that The discerning of spirits is the ability to know what is a genuine spiritual substance and what is not of a spiritual substance. What is a matter of prophecy, and what is a matter of fraud.16 The Greek ἀπατεὼν for fraud, or as Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary declares, a deceiver, seducer, imposter, cheat17 is an interesting word choice here. Perhaps charlatan is a better English equivalent.

A ninth-century work attributed to Oecumenius, Bishop of Trikka, quotes from an earlier writer on the subject and it says, “Discretion of spirits” that is the ability to know who is classified as a prophet, who is a false prophet, who is spiritual and who is not of such things.”18

Thomas Aquinas found that there is a simple explanation of Paul’s words:

“Others discretion of spirits,” namely that a man has the ability to discern anyone who should be moved by the spirit for the purpose of speaking or doing works. For instance whether by the spirit of love or by the spirit of hatred.19

According to Aquinas, it is a person with the ability to discover what the real motivation is behind people’s words.

Final thoughts on discerning of spirits

What does it all mean for a Christian today? It is the ability to discern the motivation behind a person’s words. It may not necessarily indicate truth from falsehood. For example, a person may have a dream and inspired by good intentions to publicly announce and claim that it is God’s message for the community. However, a person with the ability to discern may interpret the person’s dream as an expression of personal pain expressed in the form of imagery. It may be a valid outlet for the person, but it is not a message from God to the congregation or people surrounding the person. It is a circumstance where the discerner has to gracefully deal so as not to shame the initiator.

Even if one excludes the spiritual perspective altogether, the gift of discernment is active today. Most of us know of people who are not overly critical of others but have a nose for quickly discerning whether a person’s motivation for saying or doing something is altruistic or has alternative ambitions. Business leaders succeed in many respects because of their people acumen. Pro sports teams thrive by their leaders rightly judging potential athletes’ physical and mental characteristics.

Ministers and Church leaders use this skill extensively in the various church paradigms that exist out there. However, it is a delicate balance.

Discerning of spirits is specially reserved where a mystical event occurs. This office is necessary when someone has a dream, heals somebody, goes into a catatonic state, or has a prophetic word imprinted on the mind for another person or groups of persons, or other supernatural events. The function of discerning of spirits is to identify the motivation; whether to affirm, correct, or redirect the intention to its true place.

The type of person eligible for such a role must have conquered their inner problems, have a sense of peace, and have no ulterior motives. This outline is a person with a broad portfolio of working with people over the years, if not decades. We all do it to varying degrees, but this person is exceptional in discerning or judging matters.

What would be a modern equivalent for discerning of spirits? One who is a good judge of character comes to mind, but this may be too shallow. First impressions come to mind but the discerning of spirits goes beyond first impressions.

The word judge or judging are strong words in contemporary English. It denotes a critical or specific process of examination. It usually infers an institutional, clinical, or professional evaluation. It may not be a good word for explaining a discerning of spirits. Paul is referring to a positive character trait more than an office.

The main problem with discerning of spirits is translating it within its historical context. It is a term that cannot be updated to contemporary language because no modern English terms exist that fit this one. It has to be left as is, but readers must be aware of its purpose.

Hopefully, this short investigation into the subject clarifies the meaning behind discerning of spirits. Perhaps someone reading this has found an improved English equivalent. Your suggestions would be appreciated.

  1. I Corinthian 12:10 as found at Elpenor’s website
  2. I Corinthian 12:10, KJV, as found at Bible Gateway
  3. BAC. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1979. Pg. 185
  5. Lampe Pg. 354
  6. Pg. 362
  7. Steph. Vol. 2 Col. 1197
  8. Pg. 364
  10. Marcus Jastrow. Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, and Midrashic Literature. New York: Judaica Press. 1985. Pg. 1244
  11. On “Discernment of Spirits” in the Early Church. pg. 512
  12. On “Discernment of Spirits” in the Early Church. pg. 513
  13. On “Discernment of Spirits” in the Early Church. pg. 521
  14. On “Discernment of Spirits” in the Early Church. pg. 528
  15. Alex Poulos translation taken from
  16. My translation of MPG Vol. 95. S. Joannis Damasceni. In Epist. Ad. Corinth. I. Col. 665
  17. Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary Pg. 194
  18. My translation. Oecumenii Triccæ Episcopi. Comment. In Epist. I Ad. Corinth. MPG Vol. 118. Col. 817. The MPG text attributes this quote from Theophylactus of Achrida. The New Advent website believes that Theophylactus took it from Andrew of Caesarea
  19. I Corinthians 12:10 This is my own translation.

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