On our ReachGlobal yammer site, someone recently posted an article by Tim Challies that criticizes a Lectio Divina approach to reading Scripture and then someone else posted a response article by Mark Moore that roundly criticized Challies’ criticisms. So I decided to enter the fray by explaining that even though I once used a ‘Lectio Divina‘ approach in a Bible Study I led (and would do it again), I still agree heartily with Tim Challies and find Mark Moore’s response to be logically fallacious and quite unhelpful.
What is Lectio Divina?
I once led a Bible study on the book of Proverbs using a “Lectio Divina” approach. That is, we began with reading the text, followed that with meditation on the text, then prayer, then contemplation (these are the four classic parts of Lectio Divina) followed by imitation (a more recent addition).
In evangelical circles this approach can be very helpful if we stick to other evangelical convictions. For example when reading the text we don’t read in a way that is disconnected from the author’s original intent. So for us that first part, the reading, is a matter of interpreting the text with the goal of understanding what the author wanted to say. I think if we hold to these and other evangelical commitments then a Lectio Divina approach can be quite valuable and add some dimensions that evangelicals sometimes overlook.
Unfortunately, however, Challies is pointing out what Lectio Divina sometimes is (I think “sometimes” is too soft but at least I’m not exaggerating). So for lack of a better resource at my fingertips, here are some David Benner quotes via, sorry, Wikepedia…
It [Lectio Divina] does not treat the Scripture as a text to be studied but as the “Living Word.”
When the passage is read, it is generally advised not to try to assign a meaning to it at first, but to wait for the action of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the mind, as the passage is pondered upon.
If you assume evangelical convictions, then even these statements can be read in a positive sense. However, these statements in fuller context and in actual practice mean that what we have here is an effort to receive a more immediate revelation than what has been given to us in Scripture.
That is to say, it does not seek to understand the author’s original meaning which was inspired by God and is the message he chose to reveal to us through that text. So we do not study how the passage fits into the larger literary context, the historical context, or the grammar/syntax of the text, etc. In fact, we purposefully avoid that kind of attempt at understanding the original intent in the text. Instead, Lectio Divina sometimes teaches us to ask the Holy Spirit for a new revelation to come to us directly from the Holy Spirit and not through the mediation of the text in a way that texts actually function to convey meaning.
At best we are asking for the Holy Spirit to reveal the meaning of the text without all the ‘dangerous’ academic study and at worst we are asking for a new revelation that has nothing to do with the text itself.
Two Reasons Lectio Divina and not just Lectio Divina is a Real and Present Danger
First, I once heard the testimony of a believer who was sharing about a time when he and his wife were waiting for the birth of their son. Doctors said their son would have serious birth defects and would not live long and may not even be born alive. One day, when reading Isaiah and praying about his son, that believer read Is 66:9 and felt the Holy Spirit speaking to him.
Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?” says the LORD; “shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?” says your God.
This believer felt that God was telling him that he would not have allowed the son to be conceived without also bringing the baby to the point of birth. Now, this text is about something else. It is talking about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. Would He start something by creating a covenant with Israel and then not follow through on his promises? But this believer took that passage as a personal revelation for his situation in a way that misconstrued the text.
Here’s the question: if the child were not born alive, does that mean the Word of God failed? Of course not! The Word of God cannot fail! And that points to a problem with the Lectio Divina as sometimes practiced. Lectio Divina is not seeking what God intended to give us when he inspired the Biblical authors to write these texts—it does not seek the infallible word of God but another word altogether.
And let’s not forget what Peter said in 2 Peter 1:20-21
…no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
The point is, we can’t just read the text however we want. The goal of reading is to find the meaning that God intended when he inspired the text.
Now some people will say, couldn’t God reveal a message or word to us through methods like Lectio Divina? Well, I suppose, yes. God is God, who am I to say there’s something he can’t do? But let’s take this argument ad absurdum to get to my second point.
Let me point out that the Holy Spirit does not really need the Bible in order to reveal a message to us using this particular form of Lectio Divina. If I am looking for an unmediated revelation from the Holy Spirit then I can pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal his message to me while I’m reading the newspaper. Why not?
And in fact, as long as it’s the Holy Spirit I’m talking to, I know he would never lead me astray, so why can’t I also be reading the Quran or tea leaves? Surely you won’t say that God couldn’t reveal himself to me in the Quran or in tea leaves?
Now I know that sounds hyperbolic and offensive but I don’t actually mean it to be. I just mean it to be offensive because I think it’s offensive to God. Why would God reveal his will to us through a human language that can be understood by regular human means, intending, in doing so, to make it available to anyone willing to take the time and effort to try and understand it, and then turn around and circumvent the whole thing by providing textually unmediated revelation through that same text?
That is absurd. I don’t mean it’s absurd that God might once in a while provide a special message to someone for a particular purpose by using the Scripture in this way. I mean it is absurd as a regular practice of reading Scripture to expect God to reveal himself in a way that circumvents the text.
Yeah, But is it Really Dangerous?
So if this is just sometimes what Lectio Divina means, then is it really dangerous? Well, first of all, to say that something is dangerous, as Challies does, is not to say that it is not sometimes or even often or usually good. It is to say that it is dangerous. That’s it. And that’s why Mark Moore’s response is so utterly unhelpful as a response to Challies.
It’s true, I used Lectio Divina in a very specific, evangelical, positive way with positive results, constrained by authorial intention. But that does not mean that Lectio Divina is not dangerous. The Internet is wonderful and powerful and useful. It’s also dangerous. So are guns, cars, dynamite, knives, fire, sex, and just about everything else on the planet—and, come to think of it, off the planet.
But is it really so bad as to write an article warning people about it? Isn’t that an overreaction? Is Lectio Divina a real and present danger that we need to warn people about? Yes! Because as a matter of fact, pastors do take short cuts in sermon preparation and they preach something other than what the passage teaches. Homiletics is “to say the same thing.” We are to preach what the text teaches. I’m afraid that in my experience, preaching something other than what the text says is the norm rather than the rule.
In the EFCA equivalent here in Slovakia, every New Year’s the denomination prints up Bible verses and people draw a Bible verse from a basket and that’s their verse for the year. That’s fine if you read the verse in it’s context, figure out what it means and try to focus on applying the revealed message of the text to your life. But in fact, people treat these as horoscopes with a special message/revelation from the Holy Spirit that is very often completely disconnected from the meaning of the text (as can be seen from their testimonies at the end of the year when they share concerning the verses they received). This is exactly the same as praying to receive God’s revelation from the newspaper horoscope or looking for a sign from the gods in the scars on a sacrificed ram’s gal bladder as the pagans did in the ancient Near East.
There is an evangelical movement here in Slovakia that started as a pietist movement in the Lutheran church. It eventually gave birth to the denomination we now work with. That parent movement emphasizes the importance of “praying a living word out of Scripture.” In their view, it’s not good to study the text and try to understand its meaning (theological education for them is suspect). Instead, you have to pray and pray until the Holy Spirit reveals to you just what God wants you to understand by this verse. It’s supposed to have a very specific message for something that you are supposed to do. For example, take that new job you have been offered even though you’re happy with your current job. This word from Scripture will tell you whether or not you should take that job.
All of these are examples of evangelical tendencies to apply a method for regularly seeking God’s will from Scripture that is out of line with God’s revelation through the inspired text of Scripture. These methods are ingrained in us and they are unhealthy.
So I don’t think Lectio Divina is necessarily bad. It can be practiced well. But I do think that Challies’ article is spot on in identifying a danger that is very real AND prevalent in evangelicalism and it goes way beyond Lectio Divina.