A History of Spiritual Discernment

This article is an excerpt from Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church, (Upper Room: 1997) by Danny E. Morris & Charles M. Olsen.

The practice of discernment has roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Human awareness of the presence of God prompts questions: God, what are you up to in the world? What is my part in it? The conviction that divine guidance operates in the human world invites us into a process of discernment.

Discernment was developed in the practice of the early church fathers and mothers and worked out in the experience of the faithful. In the 1600s, St. Ignatius put forth the now classical “Spiritual Exercises” on discernment. What emphases on discernment were occurring after the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 and before Ignatius presented the Spiritual Exercises? The tradition of discernment is remarkable.

Origen, in the third century, saw human thoughts coming from three sources: God, evil spirits, and good spirits. If people could trace their thoughts (discern the spirits), they could find a way to give themselves to the proper spirit, for people are moved by the spirits to good or evil. (2)

John Cassian, in the fourth century, followed Origen’s lead. His twenty-four Conferences presented a study of the Egyptian ideal of a monk. The subject of the second conference was discernment. He saw three sources of thought: God (illumination of Holy Spirit), the devil (who makes sin attractive), and ourselves (thoughts of what we have done or heard). “We must therefore keep a close eye on this threefold scheme of our thoughts and we must exercise wise discretion concerning them as they surface in our hearts. Right from the beginning, we will scrutinize their origins and their causes, deciding our necessary reaction to them in the light of who it is that suggests them.” (3)

Cassian said that discernment is the eye and lamp of the body; he referred to the biblical image of the sound eye that produces light for the body and the diseased eye that makes darkness. The monk who discerns:

  • is kept from veering to the left in carelessness and sin, sluggishness of spirit, and pretext of control;
  • is kept from veering to the right in stupid presumption and excessive fervor beyond restraint. (4)

Cassian also offered the image of the test applied by the money-changer who discerned true gold. We are to place thoughts on the scales of our heart and weigh them with exacting care.

  1. Is it filled with what is good for all?
  2. Is it heavy with the fear of God?
  3. Is it genuine in the feelings which underlie it?
  4. Is it lightweight because of human show or because of some thrust toward novelty?
  5. Has the burden of vainglory lessened its merit or diminished its luster?” (1:21) (5)

For Cassian, humility was the path for the search. A monk was to openly disclose his thoughts to his spiritual guide. Self-disclosure and obedience, which produces humility, leads to discernment.

John Climacus, in the sixth century, had great respect for the insights of Cassian. Climacus was selected to be the abbott at Sinai after living for years as a hermit in the desert. In an effort to be a wise abbott, he wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, presenting thirty steps for monks to consider. Step number twenty-six is on discernment. He cites Cassian’s work on discernment, which he calls a “beautiful and sublime” philosophy: “From humility comes discernment, from discernment comes insight, and from insight comes foresight. And who would not run this fine race of obedience when such blessings are there ahead of him?” (6) The steps in Climacus’ ladder were arranged in juxtaposition to one another. We should not be surprised to see that number four, “Obedience,” was matched with number twenty-six, “Discernment.”

In Ladder of Divine Ascent, Climacus presents three progressive stages of discernment.

  1. For beginners it is self-understanding;
  2. For intermediates, the spiritual capacity to distinguish the good from what is opposed to it;
  3. For the advanced, direct God-given light, which affects people and the world around them. (7)

The focus of discernment in the early church remained on individuals and on interpersonal relationships. Sensitivity to communal discernment had not yet been developed.

The church in the east and the church in the west developed different patterns of wisdom in discernment and decision making.

The eastern church looked to the wisdom of mystics and ascetics. Bishops sought communal wisdom for the good of the community. Desert fathers and mothers returned to villages where people looked to them for wisdom. The Philokalia (1782) pulled together important sources on discernment, from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries, which would guide the pilgrim in the spiritual life. (8) When God spoke through a spiritual ascetic, debate ended; the ascetic’s capacity to sway others was enormous because discernment was viewed as a gift of God.

Because of their emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox churches offer us a unique gift: an understanding of experience through trinitarian structures. The Orthodox see in threes, discerning the presence of God beyond, with, and in experience.

The western church adapted itself to the patterns of the Roman Empire. Early on, Roman law and styles of deliberation were introduced in the church. The great councils of the western church had their roots in the Roman senate, a deliberative body. As the senate debated issues of state, the church argued over issues of doctrine. Participants stood one at a time and presented their arguments, citing authorities who would support them. Then members of the council voted to agree, disagree, or abstain.

The Roman Catholic Church was hierarchical. Cardinals, the great princes of the church, were primary authority figures. The unity of the church was grounded in the authority of the pope. In the western church, discernment was focused by the importance of authority, tradition, unity, and continuity.

Even the monasteries reflected the decision-making patterns of the church in Rome, but with some adaptations. Each monastery had a chapter room where discussion and debate took place. The abbot or abbess may or may not have made final decisions, but the wisdom of the community played a significant role. For Saint Benedict, for instance, the “narrow way” meant walking in another’s discretion and wisdom.

The Dark Ages cast more light on discernment than we are prone to admit. In addition to monastic expressions of faithfulness, the piety of the common people found expression in the mystics of the period. Meister Eckhart and the Friends of God embraced a practical piety that people could understand. Thomas à Kempis, in Of the Imitation of Christ, presented a practical style of discernment that centered on following Christ. (9)

The dawning of the Renaissance took place in the century between the two great councils of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Council of Constance (1415-1418), the powers of the state were present and the schism of the papacy ended. In the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Catholic dogma was formalized in reaction to Protestant tenets of faith, which were considered anathema. The Roman Church defined the authority of Scripture in relationship to tradition and the authority of the pope. Reform, which could have drawn on the practices of discernment, was not included in the agenda of either meeting.

One of the most dynamic centuries in history appeared between these two bookend councils.

During the Council of Constance, John Huss was burned at the stake for invoking the authority of the Bible for discernment. He was the spiritual father of what we know as the Moravian Church.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, in Spiritual Exercises, outlined “Rules for Discernment of Spirits.” (10) The list of rules was extensive and unique. Though many of the rules were drawn from time-honored traditions of discernment, others were new. The rules included the importance of imagination, reason, biblical connections, experience, testing the spirits, and feelings. The affective influences were central. People involved in spiritual discernment put matters to the test-resting them in the heart, looking for consolation, which leads toward God in peace, or desolation, which leads away from God in distress. Rules for discernment of spirits were applied primarily to matters of individual discernment, but could be expanded for the purposes of communal discernment.

The writings of the mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, presented another dimension to the process of discernment by introducing the aspect of human desire. Our deepest longings and desires are for God. All other desires are stripped, sometimes painfully, as we find true satisfaction in God and in doing God’s will.

In the Protestant Reformation, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli brought forth the evangelical principles of grace alone through faith and the centrality of Scripture. Scripture was seen as the divine spectacles through which one could discern God’s leading.

The Protestant Reformation, and influence of John Calvin, in particular, with his emphasis on decency and order, planted seeds that eventually grew in the parliamentary culture in England. Calvin, who found himself in a chaotic setting in Geneva, tried to bring about both order and piety while fashioning Geneva into a city of God. A reading of his Institutes of the Christian Religion reveals how western his thinking was. (11) Without question, he bought into the Greek and Roman methods of rational debate. The voting practices of the Swiss Cantons were followed in the church. Indeed, he stretched the meaning of Acts 14, in which Paul and Barnabas appointed elders, to suggest that the people voted on the appointments with a show of hands.

Calvin was a lawyer by training, relying on rules and ordinances to insure that everything was done decently and in order. Calvin both contributes to and limits our inquiry into discernment by placing emphasis on:

  • The importance of church government. “Each church, therefore, had from its beginning a Senate, chosen from godly, grave, and holy men, which had jurisdiction over the correcting of faults. This office of government is necessary for all ages.” (12)
  • The importance of God’s calling those who lead and decide. “In order that noisy and troublesome men should not rashly take upon themselves to teach or to rule, especial care was taken that no one should assume public office in the church without being called.” (13)
  • The place and importance of Christ as the actual Presider. “Now it is Christ’s right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity. But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit.” (14)

“If one seeks in Scripture what the authority of councils is, there exists no clearer promise than in this statement of Christ’s: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’ (Matt.18:20). But that nonetheless refers as much to a little meeting as to a universal council. Christ will be in the midst of a council only if it is gathered together in his name. I deny that they are gathered in his name who, casting aside God, ordain anything according to their own decision; who, not content with the oracles of Scripture, concoct some novelty out of their own heads.” (15)

  • The importance of reason. “The same thing happened to them [councils] that Roman senators of old themselves complained of – senatorial decrees were badly framed. For so long as opinions are counted, not weighed, the better part had often to be overcome by the greater.” (16)
  • The importance of organization, structure, form, and law to bind us together. “We see that some form of organization is necessary in all human society to foster the common peace and maintain concord.” Therefore, if we wish to provide for the safety of the church, we must attend with all diligence to Paul’s command that “all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

“Yet since such diversity exists in the customs of men, such variety in their minds, such conflicts in their judgments and dispositions, no organization is sufficiently strong unless constituted with definite laws; nor can any procedure be maintained without some set form. (Nor can Paul’s requirement – that ‘all things be done decently and in order‘ – be met unless order itself and decorum be established through the addition of observances that form, as it were, a bond of union.” (17)

  • The danger of spirituality. Calvin held a basic distrust of the ascetic. This created a division, a split between spirituality and administration. “But in these observances one thing must be guarded against. They are not to be considered necessary for salvation and thus bind consciences by scruples; nor are they to be associated with the worship of God, and piety thus be lodged in them.” (18)

As much as the fathers of the early church speak of it, discernment did not appear in Calvin’s vocabulary. He rightly feared that devotion to the observances could create a kind of salvation system. (Note the devotion and passion with which some people participate in parliamentary process.) But he also erroneously feared associating the observances, or practices, of communal discernment with worship, lest worship be contaminated. Neither did he want to associate piety (spirituality) with church governance because spirituality moves into an area that is beyond the control of reason. Calvin did not demonstrate any practical awareness that the same Hebrew words are used for worship and work. He would have difficulty with a model of worshipful-work. The separation of governance and administration from spirituality – which is the malady of many church boards, councils, and assemblies today – is therefore solidly rooted in the Reformation!

The Anabaptists tried to model their churches on the New Testament church. They involved the whole faith community in decision making. Because of persecutions, Anabaptists were left with a deep distrust of the state and felt that too many churches had compromised discernment by cooperating with the powers of the state.

Following the Reformation, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Quakers made noteworthy contributions to the practice of discernment. They looked to the presence of the Spirit to provide guidance, listened to the promptings of the Spirit in the gathered community, and followed the Spirit’s lead. Listening in silence fostered the intuitive capacity of the community of Friends.

The communal character of Friends’ understanding and practice of discernment was evident from their beginning and is still the character of Quaker meetings today.

In addition, the Friends brought to discernment the practices of coming to a consensus, the clearness committee, making a minute, and registering non-concurrence.

In the Methodist tradition, discernment has played a role in the spiritual growth of individuals and communities. The Methodist movement created for spiritual nurture and guidance three types of small groups: classes, bands, and the select band.

1.     The class was a small group of people who sought a personal relationship with God. The class leader was appointed by the Wesleys or their assistants and was a person with common sense, an experience of saving grace, and the ability to interpret the Bible to the members of the class. Each week, the leader would inquire about the spiritual state of class members, then offer prayer and guidance suited to the needs expressed by individuals. Spiritual discernment came through interaction with the class leader, who asked questions that led people to think about and to listen for what the Spirit intended for their lives.

2.     The Methodist bands were for people who had experienced new birth or saving faith. While the focus of spiritual formation in the class meeting was “to flee from the wrath to come” and “to watch over one another in love,” the focus of the band meeting was to deepen the participants’ discipleship through obedience to the scriptural command to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Members of the bands and the select bands were accountable to one another, and the will of God was discerned through dialogue, prayer, and experimentation. (19)

3.     The select society or select band provided guidance and support for people who had either the desire or the experience of perfect love: love of God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind. All members of the select band (including the Wesleys) were peers. There were no membership restrictions based upon gender or marital status. The group’s focus was on understanding and experiencing perfect love toward God and neighbor. Spiritual discernment was found in the interaction of group members.

In Puritan New England, during the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards was concerned about the excesses of the Great Awakening in which he participated. He wanted to provide people with a way of processing their experiences. In particular, he wanted to help pastors deal with members of their congregations who had been awakened. Believing that most experiences of the Great Awakening were valid, he sought to help people look for signs that would separate the wheat from the chaff and identify experiences that were genuine.

In England, the political advent of rule by law and parliamentary procedure had a powerful impact on the church. The Church of Scotland was run by parliamentary rules. In fact, when the powers of state were consolidated in London, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland took over administration of the city of Edinburgh. Scottish leaders who had practiced and refined parliamentary order in Scotland made their presence felt in the Royal Parliament. When the Presbyterian Church in America was embroiled in new school/old school controversies, it needed procedures by which to conduct meetings. The Scots readily provided the manual.

Church history shows that discernment in Europe was made by a body of elite equals, but the parliaments and town meetings that cropped up in every village in America led the church to embrace a culture of argument and persuasion. From about 1820, many churches adopted a faith that common people would discern the truth if they had the facts. The church’s theology of sin and evil fit in with democracy; government by the people would hold in check the evil intentions of a few.

As denominations developed in the United States, rules and procedures for church assemblies gradually became standardized. In 1871, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church sent a short set of general rules to the presbyteries. The rules were uniform, so there would be no regional variation.

Prior to this, an officer in the United States Army, Henry Martyn Robert, had given thought to the deliberations of religious assemblies. He had been frustrated by the inept ways that meetings were conducted in his American Baptist church. When asked to preside over a church meeting in 1863, he drafted a brief statement of rules of order based on Thomas Jefferson’s rules for the United States Congress. The experience prompted him to expand on the effort, producing what we know as Robert’s Rules of Order. (20) General Robert wanted to standardize them for use in various religious and civic settings so that people would be familiar with a consistent method of making decisions. The effort was calculated to show that the ways religious bodies make decisions is no different from the way other organizations make decisions. Robert’s rules have been widely used in the church. But they are designed as rules for combat useful in any arbitration. (21)

Historian Michael Cartright points out several other interesting developments that occurred at the same time Robert’s Rules of Order was written. Francis Lieber wrote General Orders 100 on the rules of conduct in war. The methods of fighting created so many casualties (note the casualties in the Civil War) that rules were offered to limit casualties and to make war more humane. Lieber’s rules of combat in war have significance for the concept of just war and for restraint in modern wars.

Cartright also related that a friend of his had been appointed pastor of a church in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. On her arrival at the church, she learned that the two previous administrative council meetings had come to an end when council members started throwing chairs at one another. Everyone felt that a significant transition had been made when the first meeting of the council during her pastorate ended without violence. In that case, Robert’s Rules of Order actually did limit combat!

The rules of order are helpful in handling different points of view on designated subjects. The rules are most helpful in highly charged situations and with large groups; although some of the principles – considering one matter at a time, protecting the rights of the minority, assuring the will of the majority – are important, the rules cannot, in and of themselves, provide the structure for spiritual discernment.

Recent developments in leadership theory, not-for-profit board development, and conflict resolution have influenced church administration. Coupled with a resurgence of interest in spirituality and general dissatisfaction with the present operation of church boards and assemblies, they have led to greater interest in the practice of discernment, both personal and communal. The church can now draw on its traditions of spiritual discernment and order its life and ministries according to the will of God.

Additional Resources: Defining Discernment and Some Basic Assumptions About Spiritual Discernment

Endnotes:
2. Origen, On First Principles (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).
3. John Cassian, Conferences (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 1:20, 54.
4. Ibid., 2:3, 62.
5. Ibid., 1:21, 57.
6. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 114.
7. Ibid., 229.
8. Kadloubovsy and Palmer, Early Fathers from the Philokalia (London: Faber & Faber, 1954).
9. Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ (New York: Mentor Bock, 1957).
10. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1964).
11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
12. Ibid., 4.3.8.
13. Ibid., 4.3.10.
14. Ibid., 4.9.1.
15. Ibid., 4.9.2.
16. Ibid., 4.9.8.
17. Ibid., 4.10.27.
18. Ibid., 4.10.27.
19. The Book of Discipline (The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 71.
20. Henry M. Robert III, Robert’s Rules of Order, Revised (New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1979), iv and v.
21. James Turner Johnson, Just War Traditions and the Restraint of War (Princeton University Press, 1981), 62-63, 297-322.

One thought on “A History of Spiritual Discernment

  1. Pingback: 2017: The Year of Discernment – Nicole Conner: Reflections of a Mugwump

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