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Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous?

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First, not only am I a terribly inconsistent blogger, I do not read anyone else’s blog with any consistency either. I find that it is better for my anxiety not to have to keep up with the endless online debates. However, someone on my Twitter feed mentioned Tim Challies’ latest blog on the dangers of lectio divina and it peaked my interest. After reading his blog, I felt compelled to say a few things, not because I believe Tim (who I don’t know) will read this and change his mind, but because I want to express a different view for anyone who might be interested and/or confused.

Second, let me share a bit of my background. I was once considered very Reformed–one of those obnoxious Reformed guys who always wants to argue about the Five Points of Calvinism and question whether or not anyone who doesn’t accept all five points can even say that they accurately understand the gospel. Yes, that was me. Emphasis on the was.

Third, I have spent the last eleven years pastoring a church where I preached expositional verse-by-verse sermons through books of the Bible. I approached studying for a sermon series like I was studying for a dissertation defense at Oxford. I would read dozens of commentaries, monographs, journal articles, and just about anything else I could get my hands on. I would do exegesis in the original languages and I would consult with others who I felt were experts on matters within a particular book. Yep, for the most part it was overkill. I dissected a book until I felt that I knew it inside and out.

Fourth, I was accepted into a doctoral program in the UK to do a PhD in New Testament. My thesis proposal was on early Christian understanding of the birth narrative of Luke’s gospel in the context of the Roman Empire and the imperial cult. I’m a HUGE believer that historical context is crucial to correctly understanding and interpreting a book. Sadly, my mother-in-law entered into the final stages of her battle with cancer right when I would have begun this program, and so I put my pursuits of a PhD on the shelf until another time so that I could be present to her and to my family.

Why all this information about myself? I can assure you it’s not to impress you. There is nothing I have said that is impressive. So I used to be a Calvinist–big deal. So I studied hard as a pastor–I was supposed to. So I got into a PhD program–so did a bunch of others. No, there is nothing impressive about any of this.

I tell you this stuff because I want you to understand that I’m not one of those people who is comfortable getting in a circle and listening to everyone share their subjective reading of the text. I struggle with hearing someone say, “I think this verse means…” I’m usually the guy who in the back of his mind is saying, “What?! This text has nothing to do with that? Where did he/she get that from? That’s absurd!”

That said…

I regularly practice lectio divina and find that it is essential to my spiritual formation.

Side Note: I’m sure that those who are critical of lectio divina are equally critical of what is regularly referred to as spiritual formation. But that’s it’s own post.

Lectio divina is not dangerous. It is trusting.

This is where Challies, and others like him, are badly mistaken about the nature of lectio divina – lectio divina is not about interpreting the text; it’s about the text interpreting me.

When I approach the text in order to be formed by it, rather than simply informed by it, I am submitting myself to the text–the opposite of mastering it. Let me explain.

Here is an example of lectio divina using this morning’s Gospel text from the daily lectionary (Matthew 6:19-24).

Lectio (Reading) — I begin by simply praying, “Lord, speak to me through your word and form me into the image of your Son.” I then read completely through the passage. I then read it again, slowly and out loud. I then read it again. And again. And again. As I continue reading, I’m paying attention to where I feel apprehended by the text. I’m trusting that the Holy Spirit knows me well and wants to speak to me and wants to form me into the image of Jesus.

Now why would I believe that?

Because I prayed that he would. I am choosing to trust the Holy Spirit (if I’m not mistaken, this is part of the Christian tradition).

As I continue to read, I find that I’m continually drawn to the words in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This leads to the second step.

Meditatio (Meditation) — I now begin to meditate on this verse. I’m asking questions now.

What is my treasure? Where is my treasure? Is my heart divided? Is my heart with Jesus? In his kingdom? Or is my heart with my treasure, somewhere in the kingdom of this world?

My meditation upon the words of Jesus naturally evolve into a conversation with Jesus (again, if I’m not mistaken is part of the Christian tradition)…conversation with Jesus is what we would commonly refer to as prayer.

Oratio (Prayer) — I’m now praying in regards to my meditation.

Lord, I haven’t really considered how much I treasure _____________ and how it has divided my loyalty to you and caused me to often be at work against you rather than with you. Please continue to help me see that you are my greatest treasure and that my heart is most at home with you.

Rather than this being a typical perfunctory prayer, I now want to sit in the presence of Christ and trust his power in my life, through the Holy Spirit, to work in my heart in answer to my prayer.

Contemplatio (Contemplation) — I now simply sit in silence. What am I doing? Nothing. I’m resting in the presence of the One who loves me and longs to see my heart conformed. I’m trusting that my prayer has been heard. I’m simply being (this too is part of the Christian tradition — “Be still and know that I am God”).

And that my friends is it!

There is a lot more I could say about why I feel that it is EXTREMELY misguided to say that lectio divina is dangerous, not to mention the fact that it is a VERY narrow way of understanding Scripture. But that too is another post.

Let me conclude by saying that Tim Challies does have a good title to his post,The Danger of Lectio Divina.

Lectio divina is dangerous.

There is a dangerous risk to your comfort when you begin submitting to Scripture rather than trying to master it.

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34 responses to “Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous?

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this wonderful post. I wonder…it seems to me as if the folks who bash spiritual formation and/or things like the practice of Lectio Divina are often the same folks who appear to have a diminished emphasis on/weariness about the Holy Spirit in daily practice? Thoughts? I’m not trying to be divisive…merely seeking to understand what might be behind their reticence (as someone who has gotten much out of the practice).

    1. I cannot answer for others, but I can answer for myself. I once had very little room for the Holy Spirit in my engagement with Scripture. My view probably wasn’t much different than this…the Son accomplished his work on the cross and the Spirit accomplished his work in the inspiration of the text, now I need to accomplish my work in rightly interpreting the text so that I can rightly interpret the work of the Son on the cross. Can’t say that’s how others view it (by admission or practice), but that’s how I once saw it. I’m thankful that’s not still the case.

    2. I think you are correct. My own tradition has experienced this kind of problem–to the point that one divergent thought was the Holy Spirit could only communicate through the written text–to the point that some even equated the Spirit with the text itself.

      I still worry a bit, though about being too subjective with scripture. I’ve been part of a study group that watches a video. The pastor in the video–who is very into the Spirit’s regular communication with him–is also very much into “types and shadows” where it gets into some very strange exegesis. Of course, while he believes the Spirit led him into this direction it seems to me he is following not the Spirit, but a methodology that was very popular in the mid-20th century.

      So I do understand the concern. However, from my reading of Mark’s blog here and from my own practice of lectio I don’ think that’s a real danger. This is not so much how to preach a text–but how does the text confront me?

  2. As Kurt Willems, over at Pangea blog, has observed, most Christians, even those who criticize lectio divina (as you’ve beautifully described it), faithfully practice lectio divina. They just call it something else: a quiet time.

  3. Thanks for writing this. I was only introduced to Lectio Divina last year, but I found it meaningful and worthwhile. I was surprised to see it come under attack in such a way as it was yesterday.

  4. I am really grateful for this post. Not only is my path similar to Mark’s (fundamentalist Calvinist to moderate/progressive Reformed), I also appreciate that one can hold in fruitful tension intellectual rigor and spiritual formation through practices like lectio. Thanks!

    1. Yes, far too often we run from that tension. The best biblical scholarship happens in conjunction with deep spiritual formation and it is not easy to embrace the tension that sometimes exist. Lack of ease doesn’t absolve us from the task.

  5. Mark, really enjoyed your points regarding Lectio Divina. In reading Challies, I kept wondering if the two of you were talking about something different. I think it’s possible to read Challies as saying that he objects to LD as a method of sermon preparation vs. “quiet time” (as mjk states above). Challies is, after all, quoting a homiletics text (expositional preaching). I suppose my question is whether you think Tim is throwing out LD altogether, or as a method for prep? I would reject the former, but tend to agree (with significant qualification) with the latter. Thoughts?

    1. Thanks, Mike. I obviously cannot speak for Challies, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying whether or not he is throwing out lectio divina altogether or not. The parts I can speak to, in regards to sermon prep, I have addressed above in my response to John B. Hope that’s helpful.

  6. I HIGHLY doubt that the members as a whole of the early church were well-learned in the art of exegesis or systematic study theory. Even when you throw in any rabbinical Jews who converted – who would have had years of experience studying the Torah/Talmud – I submit the majority of the Church didn’t have that kind of educational background. Lectio Divina would have been all the early believers had in the absence of preachers like Paul who did have such training.

    Peter was a fisherman; I doubt he had the ability to study the Scriptures in the same in-depth manner as Paul. Peter would’ve therefore had to rely on the Holy Spirit for interpretation – not systematic study – yet we see him as the main leader of the early Jews within the Church. So obviously a firm grasp of systematic exegesis isn’t a prerequisite for positions – central positions – of church leadership and/or preaching.

    That’s my first beef with the “Lectio Divina is dangerous” position. The second is this:

    By stating that the only proper way to interpret Holy-Spirit-inspired text is through the use of systematic study, one is stating that the Spirit works systematically, which I don’t believe is the case. How does the Spirit announce his presence? Tongues of fire? Believers speaking in languages they didn’t know? Who could’ve guessed any of that? That’s not systematic or formulaic; those are completely unexpected kinds of shenanigans. Every time the Spirit moves in the Scriptures, it’s by using methods no one sees coming. The Spirit’s M.O. is not one of systematic predictability; as any student of the Bible should be able to see, and as any fan of U2 knows…the Spirit moves in mysterious ways.

    Those who warn against Lectio Divina seem, to me, to want to replace the mysterious with something a bit more…manageable.

    Now, I suppose I should stick this addendum in here: I’m not advocating PURE Lectio Divina all the time, simply because there are people out there (including me, a lot more of the time than I’m comfortable admitting) whose bias or preconceptions of Christianity or whatnot sometimes clouds their ability to hear and interpret exactly what the Spirit is saying to them.

    I mean, it took a couple of times of God repeating Himself before Peter learned not to call unclean that which God had made clean, or before Paul realized that God’s grace was sufficient for him, since His power is made perfect in weakness. These were leaders of the Church, and they still had trouble figuring out what God was saying to them.

    A thorough study of Scripture would be very helpful then, especially in times where that “still small voice” seems to be losing something in our mind’s translation.

  7. Such an excellent read. I would love to see more from Mark Moore.

    I’ve sat queasy in groups where we were told to share what God told us after spending the last half hour alone with the scriptures. I suppose the idea was to discern the voice of God in a matter, by sussing out major themes in the remarks. Very often though, “God revealed to me: ______” was a conversation stopper. Folks would say they were open to hearing other viewpoints, but they really wouldn’t listen to it. And who can argue with “God told me so”?

    I saw a similar thing when folks began by saying “To me, I feel the passage is saying…” and no amount of exegesis could sway their core belief in what it really meant (…to them, of course! …they’d concede it meant something else to the broader church…).

    Would that be a ‘danger’ of the practice of lectio divina?

    1. Jim, thanks for sharing your experience and for your question. We typically overreact in the church, or at least I’ve been prone to. When I don’t like something because of a bad experience with it, I simply dismiss it. I think many of us had/have grown so weary with subjective Bible sharing groups that we’ve overreacted by not allowing an opportunity for such “I feel this passage is saying…”conversations to ever take place.

      As leaders we must lead people to more informed approaches to lectio divina (or any other spiritual practices). Last year I was invited by a church to come and lead a weekend workshop on how to engage in lectio divina and contemplative prayer. I’m thankful that churches are at least recognizing that we have to teach people how to do some of these things because a) they don’t know how, and b) there are helpful ways of doing them and some not so helpful ways of doing them.

  8. I tried to comment previously but it looks like it was lost in cyberspace. When I read Mark’s piece (which was excellent) and then re-read Tim’s, I wondered if they were really discussing the same thing. Tim seems to be talking mostly about sermon preparation (quoting a homiletics textbook) and Mark seems primarily to be speaking about personal “quiet time” or study. I read Tim as believing that Lectio is dangerous for sermon prep (which I would think BY ITSELF is true…when used in conjunction with other methods…less so), rather than rejecting LD altogether. Could this be the case or is it too gracious a reading of Challies (or an ungracious reading of Moore)?

  9. This is brilliant Mark! I love how you give us a specific glimpse into how lectio leads you into the presence of Christ.

  10. Thank you for this excellent post about lectio divina, and your backstory about you/your reasons why you initially thought lectio divina was complete nonsense.

    Personally, I come from much the same place as you. My heart quickened when I read Calvin’s Institutes for the first time in my early 20’s (when my former husband was taking a course on Calvin in seminary), and I realized I had found a theological center! Even now, several decades later, I still am nurtured by the good, orderly, theological direction I find in Calvin. Moreover, I love what Calvin says about prayer (III, xx, 1-16; esp. sections 1 and 2): yes, prayer “is the chief exercise of faith.”

    Even though when a teen, I questioned the place of prayer in people’s
    lives myself . . . even though at first I did not know anything at all about the centuries of prayer tradition . . . I–too–have been won over by lectio divina and
    Benedictine rumination! And, I even blog about prayer, on occasion. Cheers! @chaplaineliza

  11. Beautiful, Mark. The way you live in submission to the Word and write from that humble place is a testimony to the danger of lectio. Thanks for writing this.

  12. The Challies article’s context was it’s dangerous to use as preparation for preaching, you might even agree with that.

    1. Actually I completely disagree with Challies on this. Let me explain. First, I believe that pastors and other teachers should seriously engage with Scripture in the way I describe above–through rigorous scholarship. Second, I believe that pastors and other teachers should also serious engage with Scripture by submitting their own lives to it through trusting that the Holy Spirit is concerned not only with their understanding the text, but also in their obedience to it. Having done historical and exegetical work in a text, I always then approach it through lectio divina. I want to marry informative reading of a text with formative reading of the text. I want to study a text and then meditate on a text. Exegete a text and then pray the text. Work with the text and then rest with the text.

      I hate to say it, but I’m convinced that removing lectio divina from the preparation of sermons is directly related to the number of pastors whose lives look nothing like the message the preach. Studying a text helps me explain it with words. Meditating on a text helps me explain it with my life.

      1. Helpful corrective, Mark. Thanks very much. I like the approach of “both/and” over and above the “either/or” that I think too many of us hold on to.

  13. When I started PhD work, I was pastoring a small church in south Dallas county. I was determined to preach the most historically grounded sermons possible; I did the kind of background work you describe, translating the Greek etc. I preached paragraph by paragraph. I did this for at least two years, through the gospel of John and several of Paul’s letters, Ruth, Job. And those twenty-four months were the driest months of my preaching ministry.

    The problem with ONLY reading the text historically is that it ignores the fact that our minds (our capacities for reason) are fallen, along with the rest of us. (The idea that we relate to scripture through reason alone is Platonic, isn’t it?) This is one of Francis Schaeffer’s errors, a naive trust in rationality.

    This kind of reading, if it’s all we do, puts us in intellectual judgment over the text (rather than making us submit our reason to the text.)

    It makes our preaching arid and redundant. We’re trying to love God with our minds, but leaving out the heart, soul, and strength.

  14. Thanks for the wonderful clarifying explanation of Lectio Divina. Now I’m curious about your side note above. so, get busy and write that post addressing “those who are critical of lectio divina are equally critical of what is regularly referred to as spiritual formation.”

  15. Thanks for your post, I am thankful for the words you’ve spoken here! It’s funny how when challenged in Christian thought, we so often divert back to the ground that advocates the Bible only as a focus of study (surely this is one important way we should approach the Word). But, the Word is also meant to be a place to go for nourishment, comfort and interaction. Without this latter perspective we run the risk of being Pharisees, to which our Lord challenged, “You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me…” (John 5:39-40a). Our Lord means for the Word to be our source to which we come amidst this dry and dusty sojourn and find Him!

  16. If you don’t mind me saying it less eloquently than you did, you are saying that lectio divina is about application, not interpretation. Is that right? Lectio is the application of the meaning (head) to the heart (i.e. significance). Am I understading you?

    1. Yes, but I would take it further than that. If lectio divina were nothing more than application we would be able to pick up a copy of the Life Application Study Bible and the work would be done for us. I would say that lectio divina is an intimate act of communion with God where I am reading the text in order to be formed by it through meditation and prayer as the Spirit speaks to me. So in a sense, yes there is application of the text, but it is more than simple application. Hope that helps!

  17. I was disappointed I couldn’t comment on the original blog by Tim Challies (comments were closed). I think your description of lectio divina is difficult to argue against. I also can’t help but wonder, if one has been deeply entrenched in exegesis and handling scripture responsibly, how in the world could lectio be a problem or danger?

    I have done both and I have never had an impression from scripture meditation that conflicted with what I understood the basic intent of scripture was!

    I was a little tickled when I read one person say how concerned they were because they saw it creeping into their seminary–it was suggested they could pray the Psalms as if they were their own! This shows how fear rapidly gets out of hand. (Last time I looked praying the Psalms was a perfectly legitimate thing–I mean Jesus did it, right? And not necessarily the same thing as lectio).

    Thanks for a great article!

  18. I don’t usually like trendy terms and disciplines for their own sake and appreciate this very helpful taking apart of the term, what it is and what it isn’t. Well done.

  19. For those focusing on Challies’s concern re: sermon prep, I’d take a different angle. After his absurd attempted take-down of Theresa of Avila in his previous post in this series (“False Teachers,” because we need always to be on alert against the threats that constantly surround us, right?), it’s clear that he’s most concerned about mysticism. He’s a die-hard rationalist, so he distrusts anything where there’s allegedly Spirit activity present without cognition being central to the activity. Yet, his extreme modernism gets in the way even of his own cognition by preventing him from appreciating the history of the universal church, where such mysticism was an important part of discipleship and teaching.

  20. No malice intended. The author describes himself as so thorough—“approached studying for a sermon series like (he) was studying for a dissertation defense at Oxford,” and one who wouldn’t leave a book until he dissected it, etc. Just wondering: why did he leave behind this “overkill” when it came to his research on Lectio Divina?  I have only done a brief research on the subject myself and already have discovered that this is NOT all there is to it!  There is so much more ; in fact, I see a web of issues on this that need to be researched for a proper understanding/perspective.  I also have found that the “gurus” of L.D. have made statements (all available in their books and online) that would alert any reader to the fact that they have forsaken the authority of Scripture and its claim to inerrancy and to absolute truth. The danger is placing  personal experience ABOVE the authority of Scripture which alone is profitable for doctrine…..that the man of God may be COMPLETE, THOROUGHLY EQUIPPED…”  The danger of L.D. is not in the initial Christian lingo, but in “the rest of the story.”  He who has ears to hear, be a Berean and research for yourself.

  21. I really like your final comment:  “There is a dangerous risk to your comfort when you begin submitting to Scripture rather than trying to master it.”

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