It seems this is often interpreted as a gift of wisdom or discernment and doesn't take into account a cultural context that believes in the existence of real spirits.

But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:7-10. NASB).

  • Hi @MatthewMorley. Can you please edit your post to remove any ambiguity as to what you mean? Are you asking if it should read "discernment BY spirits" as opposed to "discernment OF spirits"? Also, could you phrase this as a question? As written it seems sort of like a blog post rather than a question. Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 22:17
  • can you please cite some relevant evidence of the particular kind of "spirit" you see in the "cultural context"? Otherwise your "question" is predicated on an assumption. Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 22:25

2 Answers 2


If you are suggesting that the "discerning" or "distinguishing" of spirits in verse 10 refers to something along the lines of divination, I don't believe that this is how the verse was understood. It simply means the ability to discern false teachers and false prophets.

John Chrysostom, a 4th century Greek, explains the verse:

What is discerning of spirits? Knowing who is spiritual, and who is not: who is a prophet, and who a deceiver: as he said to the Thessalonians, despise not prophesyings but proving all things, hold fast that which is good [1 Thes 5:20,21]. For great at that time was the rush of false prophets, the devil striving underhand to substitute falsehood for the truth.1

A similar interpretation is given by another Greek Christian writer, Gregory of Sinai:

You should go only to one, to someone who has been entrusted with the guidance of others as well, who is radiant alike in his life and in his words, and who although poor makes many rich (cf. 2 Cor. 6: 10). For people lacking spiritual experience have often done harm to foolish questioners, and for this they will be judged after death. Not everyone is qualified to guide others: only those can do so who have been granted divine discrimination - what St. Paul calls the 'discrimination of spirits' (1 Cor. 12: 10) - enabling them to distinguish between bad and good with the sword of God's teaching (cf. Eph. 6: 17).

It is hard to find a guide who in all he does, says or thinks is free from delusion. You can tell that a person is undeluded when his actions and judgment are founded on the testimony of divine Scripture, and when he is humble in whatever he has to give his mind to. No little effort is needed to attain a clear understanding of the truth and to be cleansed from whatever is contrary to grace, for the devil - especially in the case of beginners - is liable to present his delusions in the forms of truth, thus giving his deceit a spiritual guise.

1 Homily XXIX on First Corinthians
2 *On Delusion and Other Subjects", The Philokalia

  • +1. But, I wonder if there are any earlier examples, or explanations. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 17:06
  • Elika - there don't seem to be. I looked through the Greek Patristic writings back to the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Chrysostom seems to be the first Greek to address the meaning of this phrase directly.
    – user33515
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 17:26
  • Just more ideas : In Scripture, "Spirit" seems always to refer to emotions, and there is casting out of "unclean spirits". I wonder if this is ever seen in a "Psychological" sense in Greek literature. διακρίσεις in Greek, is to judge, not necessarily "discern". Hebrews 4:12 may also has a reference to judging thoughts and intents, soul and spirit. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 18:37
  • The book Orthodox Psychotherapy, by Met. Hierotheos Vlachos, talks a lot about how various Greek terms were used during the time of the New Testament and in antiquity and how he sees them relating to aspects in modern psychology. I offer the link in case the book might be of interest. The book was published in Greece, but the link is to an English translation.
    – user33515
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 18:44

Surely the preceding verses give sufficient context?

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is accursed"; and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given ...
(1 Cor 12:1-8a, NASB)

The "therefore" in v3 indicates a connection between the fact that the ex-pagans used to be led astray and the explanation as to how to distinguish between someone speaking by the Spirit of God and someone who isn't. The passage then goes on to explain that there is one Spirit who gives all the charismata. It seems fairly clear that Paul is concerned that some in the Corinthian church may be producing ecstatic utterances under the influence of pagan spirits or may have carried over the pagan idea of many gods each with their own particular speciality.

If we take v3 then to be about distinguishing between utterances produced under the influence of the Holy Spirit vs other spirits, the gift of v10 is simply a supernatural extension of an ability which all Christians should have. (Cf. 1 Cor 6:3: if the saints will judge angels, they should be able to distinguish the Holy Spirit from other spirits!)

Anticipating a possible objection, there's no contradiction between "all Christians can do it" and "there's a specific gift of the Holy Spirit to do it, which only some Christians have". Compare what Romans says about charismata:

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: ... he who gives, with liberality...
(Rom 12:6a, 8b, NASB)

and then within a couple of verses

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love... contributing to the needs of the saints... (Rom 12:10a, 13a, NASB)

All should give, and those who have a gift of giving should exercise it. Similarly in 1 Cor 12, all should know how to distinguish utterance in the Holy Spirit from utterance in other spirits, and those who have a gift in that area have received it for the common good.

  • +1 I think your answer would be strengthened by noting Paul's emphasis on "one Spirit" and the "same Spirit" which serves to further differentiate the pagan many spirits from the Holy Spirit. Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 17:29

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