Lectio Divina: Spiritual Formation #3

Imagination. Is there such a thing as a godly imagination in the life of a believer in Christ?

Lectio divina: An ancient spiritual discipline of “divine reading” of Holy Scripture that is being revived among evangelicals today. Yet some Christians fear that such practices could be dangerous.

Over the course of my spiritual journey, I have often had trouble reading the Bible. Not only do I find some things difficult to understand from what the text is saying, I also have struggled with something closer to home. Does God still speak through the Bible to people today? Am I trying to read the Bible merely to gain information, or am I reading it to try to meet with God in a personal relationship?

It has been said that the ultimate objective of reading Scripture is not simply to know the Word of God. Instead, it is to get to know the God of the Word, to move beyond the Sacred Page to have an encounter with the supreme Author of the text.

Yet for some Christians, there is a danger associated with moving beyond the Sacred Page. There is a temptation, critics argue, even for Christians to view the reading of Scripture as some sort of talisman, a type of magic book where merely reading the words of the text will somehow subconsciously restore our soul. The imagination of the reader can easily get caught up in inventing one’s own private, personal interpretation, thereby introducing confusion between understanding our own thoughts and wishes and desires with God’s supreme and objective revelation that calls us to face reality.

The critics are right to have their concerns. I have sat through innumerable Bible studies where people have brought forward a cacophony of opinions of “what the Bible says and means to me.” I even have known people who simply opened up to some random page of the Bible, put their finger somewhere into the page, and then read that verse believing that God might speak to them through that verse. I remember opening up my Bible once to Genesis 41:46. There I read that “Joseph served in Pharoah’s court.” As I was struggling with my tennis game at the time, I could have easily mistaken the words of Scripture as God’s way of coaching me on my backhand, but I sincerely doubt that this would have been the proper use of Scripture!

These are some of the issues that we can encounter when we think about spiritual formation, particularly in terms of developing spiritual disciplines focusing around Scripture. One of the classic spiritual disciplines in this area is something called lectio divina. Some might even call lectio divina … dangerous…

The Quiet Time and Other Devotional Approaches to the Bible

As a young believer, I was taught that I needed to have a daily time with God, a time of prayer and Bible reading. I was encouraged to carve out just a few moments, out of the best of my day, and focus on meeting with the Lord. It was something called a “quiet time.” Having a “quiet time” can be a struggle for some people. It was for me. I had heard about the idea of having a daily quiet time for about two years before I finally made it a point to incorporate it into my daily routine, and even then it was still a struggle. To complicate matters, it was not until several years later when I discovered that the term “quiet time” is not used in the Bible!

Now, does this mean that since the “quiet time” is not in the Bible that Christians should not have one? Of course not. Rather, the notion of having a “quiet time” has a long and varied tradition in church history. But it demonstrates the principle that if we really want to grow in a relationship with God, we need to be disciplined in making our private, devotional time with God part of each day. Such discipline requires that we be intentional about it. But the good thing is that once we work on that discipline, over time it can become a habit that helps to sustain us. Then whenever we miss that daily time with God, we become acutely aware of what we are really missing.

The “quiet time” concept in contemporary spiritual practice traces its origin back to college fellowship student groups in the early 20th century that encouraged students to spend at least a few minutes each day, preferably in the morning, to pray to God, praising Him for His attributes, thanking Him for His precious gifts, coming to God humbly with requests for prayer for yourself and others, and then reading a chapter or two of the Bible. But in the 19th century, college fellowship groups and various devotional writers associated with the popular Keswick movement in Britain used a different term for a variation of the modern “quiet time”: the “morning watch.” In his dissertation on the topic, Gregory O. Johnson observes that the shift from the “morning watch” to the “quiet time” in the early 20th century was partly due to a shift from a more activist approach to prayer, as in engaging in a type of spiritual warfare, to an approach focused more on listening to God.

The Divine Reading of Scripture

However, whether you call it “quiet time” or “morning watch,” the idea of spending time with God in prayer and Bible reading is clearly a biblical practice. Just read Psalm 1 for starters. If you go back even further in church history, you will find another spiritual discipline that has been making a comeback in recent years, “lectio divina.”

“Lectio divina” is a Latin phrase that simply means the “divine reading” of the Bible. Much like the “quiet time” or the “morning watch”, the term “lectio divina” is not in the Bible either. However, the concept has strong biblical roots and a great legacy in the church behind it. The history of lectio divina goes back to the early church, with such notables as Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine being practitioners. But it only became a formalized practice under the organized mind of Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-547? AD), the founder of Christian communal monasticism.

More details on the practice of lectio divina can be found elsewhere, but the spiritual discipline has four main components: lectio, to read, meditatio, to meditate, oratio, to pray, and contemplatio, to contemplate. The first three components are generally without controversy, but the last one, contemplatio, raises the most concerns for evangelicals.

When some evangelical Christians think about contemplation, a whole set of images can come to mind. One can think of Eastern mystics, mindless chanting, and fuming incense, or monastic people who isolate themselves away from the rest of society. The danger of religious excesses become pronounced when some think about contemplation.

For example, popular blogger, Tim Challies, finds that there is a danger in the contemplative practice of lectio divina. Challies is concerned that this spiritual discipline would have us replace an objective approach to the biblical text with a more subjective one. The danger is that the act of contemplation encourages us to empty our minds and thus allow a more intuitive approach to spiritual understanding to distort our ability to comprehend what God is saying to us. We dare not insert our own wishes and wants over and against God’s clear Word to us that confronts and challenges us from outside our own experience.

Challies does have a point here. The practice of lectio divina is no substitute for thoughtful, concentrated study that seeks to understand and properly interpret God’s Word. There is clearly a danger of projecting our own desires and wants onto the Bible. But I would argue that there is equally another, more prevalent danger involved. If we fail to move beyond the Sacred Page to encounter the Sacred Writer of Scripture, we risk having a faith that consists of mere information but no real experience of a transcendent God.

In other words, as other bloggers who responded the Challies pointed out, yes, lectio divina is indeed “dangerous,” but not for the reasons that Tim Challies is worried about. Lectio divina can be “dangerous” because as blogger Mark Moore stated,There is a dangerous risk to your comfort when you begin submitting to Scripture rather than trying to master it.”

(UPDATE: April 4, 2016, Apparently, Tim Challies has re-edited this post and taken some of the harsher edge off of it. He originally titled the post “The Danger of Lectio Divina,” and now he titles it “A Danger of Lectio Divinia.” Kudos to Challies for making the correction)

A Balanced Approach to Scripture and Meeting with God

So while you could find dangerous excesses with some forms of lectio divina, it is really no more dangerous than certain excesses of the quiet time or the morning watch. The “Scripture roulette” I mentioned earlier of simply opening up the Bible at some random page to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to you is simply one example. I suppose God could indeed use a random verse of the Bible to reveal something to us, but if that becomes our basic and dominate mode of reading Scripture, then we will soon find ourselves in trouble spiritually.

I was listening to a sermon just last night that echoes the same type of concerns brought forward by Tim Challies.  Southern California pastor John MacArthur was criticizing what he saw as excesses in evangelical spirituality in a message entitled “The Authoritative Nature of Truth.” MacArthur, an outspoken opponent of charismatic-oriented Christianity, was rightly showing how many Christians today essentially try to make the Bible to say whatever they want it to say. Instead of the Word of God coming to us and confronting us in our sin-leaning subjectivity, many Christians tend to look inside themselves for Truth. Sadly, I would agree with much of MacArthur’s assessment of today’s church. But MacArthur then goes on to make some rather astounding statements:

So many people open a Bible and then they’re being taught, “Listen to the voice of God and try to hear what God is saying to hear you through this Bible.” I’ll tell you what He’s saying to you through the Bible. Put your head down, look at the words and read them. That’s what He’s saying. Biblical truth is objective.

and then a little later:

The objective revelation of God in Scripture is to be understood rationally…rationally. For years I’ve read so much about listen for the voice of God, listen for God to speak in your mind, listen for God to speak in your heart and show you what He wants you to do and show you the meaning of Scripture, etc., etc. That is mystical. That is irrational. I don’t even know what they’re listening for.

What John MacArthur is saying is this: Either we read the Bible for objectively presented information concerning God, or we are simply giving ourselves over to mindless “mysticism.” Either we seek to rationally and objectively understand the text, or we get lost in the morass of our own subjective experience. Unfortunately, Pastor MacArthur is presenting us with a false dichotomy with his either-or propositions.

While I greatly appreciate the wonderful expository preacher ministry of John MacArthur, such an either-or proposition doe not reflect the teaching of the Bible itself. When Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to teach the disciples the things of God and remind his followers of what He said (John 14:15-31), was this promise only applicable to the original hearers of Jesus’ words, that first apostolic generation that produced for us the New Testament text, or is this promise of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit applicable to the follower of Jesus today? John MacArthur is surely right to say that the Holy Spirit today will not contradict what He said through the original sacred writers of the first century. We do need well-grounded Bible doctrine to keep us on track. But is MacArthur correct in his other assertion? Is a lectio divina-approach to the Bible necessarily incompatible with the objective, “rational” meaning of the original Bible text?

My concern with MacArthur’s aversion to a so-called “subjective” reading of Scripture is that he is overreacting. By emphasizing an exclusively objective, “rational” approach to Scripture, this leaves the student of the Bible in control. We must be careful lest we put our trust solely in our human “rational” processes of our own understanding instead of God’s Holy Spirit, who can not be confined and placed into a box. We should not abuse the prophetic wisdom of the Holy Spirit to justify whatever we want. But equally on the other side, we must be careful not to quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).

While it is true that the notion of contemplation could easily be twisted in a subjectivist and narcissist manner, there is also a healthier way of looking at it, too. As J. I Packer and Carolyn Nystrom describe in Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight (pages 90-91), contemplation is simply “a time of peacefully resting in God, waiting in silence in the divine presence with alert, hopeful expectancy. A new sharpness of focus on something may not be given, but then again it may.

Following Packer and Nystrom, a more responsible approach to something like lectio divina is that such a practice should be used to complement, rather than replace, a serious approach to objectively-oriented Bible study.  We do not need to choose between rational, objective doctrine as given in the Bible with listening to God  speak to us through his Word, penetrating our hearts and drawing us into communion with Him. We still need to grasp and understand the meaning of Scripture in its original context as the original human author and the Holy Spirit intended to convey. But the Spirit of God still continues to speak to us, leading us into a deeper understanding of His Word. We need not receive this at the expense of ignoring informed, critical study of the biblical text.

Misunderstanding: Spiritual Formation is Too “Catholic”

This prompts us to consider another criticism of so-called spiritual formation. Some complain that practices like lectio divina should be avoided because they are too closely associated with Roman Catholicism.

The critics do make a good observation. As the Protestant movement has spread, a number of practices that have historically been associated with Roman Catholicism have fallen by the wayside among evangelicals over the centuries.  However, as interest in spiritual formation has grown in more recent years, the Benedictine approach to spiritual formation has become more widely known in today’s Protestant evangelical circles. Long before the Protestant movement emerged 400 years ago, Christians through the ages had been engaging in various spiritual disciplines to help guide their spiritual formation, including lectio divina.

But amazingly, there is a rich treasure store of spiritual discipline practices that have been neglected for years within the Protestant tradition itself. You do not need to go back solely to the Medieval or Early church to find people who took spirituality seriously.  If we look closer to Protestant evangelical history, you can find a great wealth of spiritual discipline promoted by the Puritans. Classic writers such as John Owen, Paul Bunyan, and Jonathan Edwards may be neglected by some today, but it would do well for contemporary evangelical Christians to recover those treasures, a point that Minnesota pastor John Piper makes abundantly clear.

I particularly appreciate how John Piper speaks of  the necessity of both a rational and supra-rational approach to spirituality.  Neither is mutually exclusive of the other.

We would do well to remember to avoid the guilt by association commonly attached to popular criticisms of lectio divina. A Protestant evangelical tradition need not reject an ancient practice of spiritual discipline simply because Roman Catholic monasteries in the early medieval church used it. Do we really think that there were no evangelically minded Christians prior to Martin Luther?

Lectio Divina and Serious Bible Study Go Hand-in-Hand

Instead, if one understands that the purpose of divine reading is to grow deeper in one’s relationship with God, then the practice of lectio divina might be a useful aid or tool to help accomplish that. Furthermore, while the differences in Protestant and Roman Catholic theology are still important (and not something worth going into here), when it comes to spiritual disciplines like lectio divina, a particular theology does not necessarily indicate that a particular spiritual discipline is bad.  Instead, it should encourage us to think about how our theology actually impacts, or in many ways, is formed by the very spiritual disciplines we practice.

God may speak to us in a tender way through a quiet time, or in practicing lectio divina, but a more mature approach will also prod us to read the Bible in a more studious manner.  Thankfully, for many Christians, there is a wealth of resources available to help us do just that, ranging from the Blue Letter Bible, to obtaining a good study Bible, to even reading academic commentaries. Nevertheless, a merely academic and rationalistic approach to the Bible is insufficient. In the worst case, the quest for a solely “rationalistic” appropriation of Scripture can serve as an ill-founded justification for trying to control or master God’s Word with our own mental powers of human understanding.

It is worth stating again Mark Moore’s quote from earlier: There is a dangerous risk to your comfort when you begin submitting to Scripture rather than trying to master it.

The point is that we should seek to balance any contemplative experience involving the Bible with good, solid teaching that helps us to understand God’s Word in its original context to make sure we are not just simply making stuff up as we go along in our encounter with Scripture. Yet as we seek this balance, let us remember that the ultimate goal in reading the Bible is not simply to gain information, but rather it is to gain an entrance into life and communion with God.

Additional Resources:

Doing lectio divina in a group.… and here is an example of how lectio divina is done at Tim Keller’s church in New York City.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

5 responses to “Lectio Divina: Spiritual Formation #3

  • jriddett

    I think if we contemplate it’s a contemplating on God and His character. Maybe mediating is the best word, not contemplating. Meditate was used in psalm 1. His character is shown through the miracle , amazement and mystery of the trinity. Which incorporates the gospel in the cross. If we get sidetrack to not contemplate that , maybe there is something damaging. I think He holds us close , “seek yee first the kingdom of God.”…
    When we are doing that things fall in place. We don’t need to get wrapped up in the unnecessary or think about if we are reading the bible correctly. I heard someone use this word “unnecessary ” recently. Psalm 1 clearly says “meditate on His Law”.
    I enjoy having the structure of a bible study ( precepts study by Kay Arthur ). I mostly like how the bible is printed out on paper , spaced out and clearly laid out for reading and marking. We take notes and really delve into other studies in life. I remember really looking up words , marking and deciphering a cardiologist report on my daughters heart test. I like how I have that clear way of marking and getting into scripture with Arthur’s study. Their worth those printouts alone. The study focuses on observing , interpreting and application. I need the structure and it immerses me in the Word. No matter what I’m reading what text and context the bible can speak to me. What is being spoken mostly is the awareness of the greatness of God , His character and His Power. Knowing God through His Word , To know and Love. One can know a lot of things and Love them. However what or whom is the object of your Love ? If you Love God you Love His scripture. “Love The Lord your God with all of you heart mind soul. “. ” All Law hangs on this , with the 2nd commandment “. That in Gods Word certainly keeps the unnecessary out. That did not say Love with all the tools that some spiritual person laid out. Let’s keep it simple without the unnecessary. Let’s meditate on His Word , His Will. It’s not about us, as it is about Him. ” your will be done “.
    His Word has given us enough. We take it beyond the sacred page when We live and apply , and that’s with the Holy Spirit. We can waste time looking at other people’s notions on how to read the bible and that can jumble our heads with the unnecessary.

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  • jriddett

    However saying all of what I just said :
    I also appreciate the way you’ve presented these spiritual findings on various leaders. They are very influential and should be looked at. I appreciate the wealth of knowledge on them. It’s an outstanding amount of knowledge. I just try not to jumble my head too much , especially when life is difficult.

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Janet,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      There is a certain amount of overlap between meditation and contemplation. They both involve reflection and thought over a long period of time. But as I have read a number of spiritual writers, there is a difference between the two: meditation has a particular focus, generally a particular verse or passage of Scripture. Contemplation has less focus. It is more about a posture of being open to the leading of the Spirit. You could say that meditation is more of an active process, concentrating your thoughts on trying to understand: “What does this Bible text or Bible doctrine mean?” Whereas, contemplation is more passive, asking “Lord, is there something more you wish to tell me?

      I would not want to press the differences too much though. For many believers, it is clearly understandable why thinking in terms of meditation only, and not contemplation, is better. There is a sense that meditation is “safer.” As I have hopefully tried to convey, contemplation without sufficient grounding in rational understanding of the text can easily lead people into all sorts of trouble. I do get very nervous when someone boldly claims that “God spoke to me and said such-n-such,” when it becomes clear that whatever “revelation” that person supposedly has had clearly shows that they have not studied their Bible very well.

      Having said that, what I find helpful about contemplation as being a valuable addition to meditation is that it serves as a reminder that God continually surprises us. When we meditate, we must be careful that we do not rise up afterwards and think that “now, I have everything figured out!” Meditation can surely give us better understanding of His Word, but that understanding is never exhaustive. God is continually there to teach us new things, even through the text we have so recently focused on. Contemplation reminds us that just as soon as we think we have God all systematized and understood that He comes along and breaks out of the box we have put Him in.

      As I have studied Scripture, I think that is a good thing!

      I found the following blog post that addresses some Scriptural concerns that Christians have about contemplation fairly helpful:

      http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Contemplation-and-the-Bible-Carl-McColman-04-11-2012

      Clarke

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  • dhrudy

    Another great post, Clarke – very interesting and informative, as always.

    In an interview about his forthcoming book on prayer
    (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tim-keller-on-prayer), Tim Keller makes the following observation on lectio divina:

    . . . we see lots of people talking about lectio divina—which can be defined in a lot of ways. But I’ve often heard it described as reading the Bible not for theological truth, but in order to “hear a personal word from God.” The trouble is that you hear what God is saying to you in any particular place by discerning the text’s theological meaning. You can’t be sure that anything that happens to hit you that day is God speaking to you in the Bible.

    He then goes on to say

    I’ve concluded that most people should set aside regular time in which we are studying the Bible, seeking to understand its meaning. Then, out of this study, we should choose passages to meditate on during our times of prayer. Martin Luther and John Owen believed (rightly) that before prayer it was important to meditate on biblical truths until our affections and hearts were as deeply engaged as possible. I find that their instructions on communion with God fit in with neither the typical evangelical “quiet time” nor the new emphasis on lectio divina.

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  • Clarke Morledge

    Thanks, Dave. Your approach is very balanced and encouraging!

    Like

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