Discerning the Spirits: Theological and Ethical Hermeneutics in Paul

By Meadors, Gary T. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Discerning the Spirits: Theological and Ethical Hermeneutics in Paul


Meadors, Gary T., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Discerning the Spirits: Theological and Ethical Hermeneutics in Paul. By André Munzinger. SNTSMS 140. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, xv + 239 pp., $95.00.

The discipline of biblical epistemology has been enhanced by several major studies in recent years. In addition to Munzinger's work, Lee S. Bond's dissertation "Renewing the Mind: The Role of Cognition Language in Pauline Theology and Ethics" (Aberdeen, 2005) and Stephen E. Witmer's dissertation "Taught by God: Divine Instruction in Early Christianity" (Cambridge, 2007) provide much food for thought.

Munzinger's revised and updated dissertation for Brunei University and the London School of Theology in 2004 provides a disciplined study probing the nature of discernment in Pauline thought. Munzinger is a model of organization reflecting the processes and style of a dissertation. Part 1 introduces the need for the study, provides a modest literature review, and proposes how the issue is advanced by the project. Part 2 addresses "What Requires Discernment? The Objects of Evaluation" (chaps. 2-4), and part 3 seeks to answer "How Can and Should True Discernment Take Place?" (chaps. 5-6). Part 4 wraps up Munzinger's findings and answers the "so what?" question. He claims (pp. 1718) his work is "novel" by (1) providing a semantic domain study of discernment rather than limiting the study to a few key words; (2) showing the "interdependence of ethical and spiritual discernment"; (3) arguing that Paul formulates truth (discernment) by using the Christ event to retheologize (renewed mind) our personal and community identity; and (4) observing certain Hellenistic (perceptual set ethical transformation) and Jewish ("new heart") themes in Paul's thinking. He eventually concludes "that discernment is existential theologizing in which the 'renewed mind' (or 'mind of Christ' or 'mindset of the Spirit') takes on a constitutive role in constructing and verifying meaning" (p. 191). One macro contribution from Munzinger is that he provides a way of thinking that avoids the extremes of a static application of biblical material written for a different time and space and of a non-critical mystical process of discernment. Discernment, especially for the many issues not addressed directly in Scripture, is for Munzinger an objective task of interpreting our world from the basis of a conversion "world-switch" that provides (via process) a "renewed" mind that the Spirit utilizes in individuals and communities to achieve God's will in the world.

Munzinger is particularly interested in investigating how mind and Spirit integrate for the work of discernment. What does the gift in 1 Cor 12:10, "discerning of spirits," mean? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the discernment process? How does the objective adjudication of ethical issues relate to discernment? What is the NT's vocabulary of discernment and how are these terms to be interpreted within their contexts? How did Paul view mind and Spirit working together (e.g. 1 Cor 2:6-16)? Is Christian epistemology pneumatic or ethical in nature? How did Paul's Jewish and Hellenistic worldview affect his epistemology? How does the "renewal" of Rom 12:1-2 relate to discernment? How does God make known his will in a post-Scripture setting? These three Pauline texts mentioned above regularly recur in Munzinger's analysis and particularly drive his research. He claims that his research shows "the interdependence of spiritual, theological and ethical levels of Pauline thought" (p. 16) in a "natural" holistic process of worldview shift that results in a retheologizing of ourselves and our world.

Munzinger criticizes Therrien's work on discernment as limited by a too narrow linguistic field. He agrees, however, that Paul's use of ..., especially in Romans 12, is a mandate for Christians "to answer questions not addressed by Paul" (pp. 22, 41). This is set in contrast with Schnabel's work on wisdom and claiming that the will of God has been sufficiently revealed in previous Scripture and created order. …

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