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Basic Biblical Principles of Discernment

Discernment Principle 7: Note Examples and Lessons from the Past

Can we find similar precedent in teaching, practice, or manifestation in church history? (Green light if the answer is “Yes”; Red light if the answer is “No”; Yellow light if there are continuing questions or the answers are mixed.)

This combines the four elements of spiritual knowing, what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. God frequently teaches or authenticates by example through the lives of Christians throughout the history of the church. As someone has quipped, “History is HIS-Story.” Hebrews 11 cites the biographies, history, and events of men and women of faith both inside and outside of Scripture as “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), examples or testimonies of living faith. A basic biblical principle of discernment is to learn from the past:

“Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls” (Jer 6:16).

“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).

Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11).

Image: Aaron Burden

Spiritual discernment is not new. A strong emphasis on discernment can be found throughout the history of God’s people both biblically and in church history. We can learn from the ancients and avoid mistakes of the past. This includes both the gift of discernment of spirits and the collective discernment of the Church through the centuries.

A.J. Gordon explains the principle of capturing the Spirit of the Word in the church and the working of the Holy Spirit throughout church history: “The Spirit is in the Word; the Spirit is also in the Church, the body of regenerate and sanctified believers. To follow the voice of the Church apart from that of the written Word has never been safe, but on the other hand, it may be that we need to be admonished not to ignore the teaching of the deepest spiritual life of the Church in forming our conclusions concerning the meaning of Scripture.” [v]

How Do We Discern the Ancients? The church fathers do not always agree with each other in their interpretations of Scripture. How then do we discern which of the church fathers we can trust? Some guidelines we can use include the following:

  • How faithful are they to the original intent and context of the Scriptures?
  • How close in time are they to the first century church? It is more likely that the earliest church fathers following the apostles and apostolic church more faithfully continued apostolic teaching and interpretation. The farther we get from the apostolic church, the more likely we are to have reinterpretation, novel thought, and watering down of apostolic truth.
  • Therefore, as we look at later fathers, how closely do the follow or how far do they diverge from earlier fathers? Do they build upon and further explicate earlier teaching or do they diverge from earlier teaching? Do they retain the early Hebrew-Gentile Christian flavor, or are they more influenced by other thoughts and philosophies? For instance, while Origen in the third century taught much that we glean from, his theology is greatly influenced by Alexandrian Greek thought—especially his allegorization and his universalistic divergence from both the Scriptures and the apostolic fathers.
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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2019

About the Author: Paul L. King holds a D.Min from Oral Roberts University and a D.Th. from the University of South Africa. He served for 16 years on the faculty of Oral Roberts University as Coordinator of Bible Institute programs and Adjunct Professor in the College of Theology and Ministry. Author of 12 books and more than 60 articles, he was ORU 2006 Scholar of the Year. He has also served as Scholar-at-Large for the D.Min. program at Alliance Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry Mentor for the Randy Clark Scholars program at United Theological Seminary and Global Awakening Theological Seminary, Leadership and Church Ministry Consultant and Trainer, an ordained pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Interim Consulting Pastor for the Plano (Texas) Chinese Alliance Church, and Faculty Director of Purdue Ratio Christi/Christian Faculty and Staff Network. His books include God's Healing Arsenal: A Divine Battle Plan for Overcoming Distress and Disease (2011), Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in the Christian & Missionary Alliance (2009), Only Believe: Examining the Origin and Development of Classic and Contemporary Word of Faith Theologies (2008), Genuine Gold: The Cautiously Charismatic Story of the Early Christian and Missionary Alliance (2006), Binding & Loosing: Exercising Authority over the Dark Powers (1999), and A Believer with Authority: The Life and Message of John A. MacMillan. Twitter: @PaulLKing.

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