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.
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.