With the new year comes a heightened interest in Bible reading plans. The turn of the calendar gives people a renewed sense of opportunity—a moment to make new resolutions and set fresh goals. For believers, this resolve often focuses on more ambitious plans to read God’s Word. This is to be expected, for we are a people defined by a Book.
Although reading more of God’s Word is always commendable, the quality of one’s reading will always outweigh the quantity in terms of impact. Recognizing this reality, readers of the Bible should not only consider how much they should read, but—more importantly—they should consider how they should read. Prioritizing the manner of reading above its quantity helps Christians steer clear of the rut of reading as a mere formality.
When it comes to manners of reading the Bible, one approach deserves careful scrutiny—and a serious warning. In the attempt to rescue Bible reading from mere formalism, an increasing number of evangelicals are prescribing a practice known as lectio divina.
What is lectio divina?
Lectio divina is Latin for “divine reading” or “sacred reading.” The origins of this approach can be traced back to the sixth century when Benedict of Nursia (A.D. 480–547) established it as a monastic discipline. The purpose of this kind of Bible reading was to promote contemplative prayer, with the goal that those who practiced this method would experience a heightened sense of union with God. It gained popularity in the Roman Catholic Church—especially among Benedictine monastics—and gradually evolved into the four-stage process it is today known for. While specific practices vary, these four stages can be summarized as follows:
- Lectio (reading): The reader begins with a simple prayer along the lines of, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” A text from Scripture is chosen and then read repeatedly, in a very slow manner. As the text is read, the reader looks for certain words or phrases to resonate in his being, as if God himself is speaking these words anew. Once this resonation occurs, the reader turns his focus more specifically to these selected words and begins to recite them with greater emphasis and interest. What he seeks is not the meaning of these words according to their customary usage at the time when they were written or according to the influence of their broader literary context. What the reader seeks is the voice of God speaking intimately to “the ears of his heart.”
- Meditatio (meditation): With these words of the text highlighted and the voice of God recognized therein, the focus moves to meditation. Now that God has supernaturally brought these words into focus, the reader must reflect on how the deep, personal meanings of these words relate to his own life. The text is no longer a mere object on a page but living and active in the reader’s mind as he ponders its significance for him. In fact, even the special words of the text are no longer the focus. The intention here is to rise above them to receive a feeling, perception, realization, image, or perception about God as he speaks to the reader. The reader is encouraged to insert himself directly into the text itself, becoming as it were the writer of the text, its recipient, or the character about which the words were written. Experiencing the text through imagination and visualization is key.
- Oratio (prayer): The third stage of the process involves dialoguing with God. Having had his heart opened by God’s voice coming through the text, the reader responds by communicating back to God about what he is learning, and hearing back from him his affirmation or correction. The reader is even encouraged to record these messages that come from and to his heart—whether it is a word, image, or feeling.
- Contemplatio (contemplation or action): In the final stage the reader rejoices to have heard God afresh in what he has received. As he enjoys this union with God, the reader lets go of previous preunderstandings, convictions, and behaviors which he now recognizes as contrary to the living and active word of God. He embraces the new perspective and rests in a state of peace and contentment. He concludes by pondering how to live in the newness of life this experience has produced.
For a growing number of evangelicals, especially those in the “spiritual formation” movement, the lectio divina approach to Bible reading contains numerous benefits.
- It is old in origin. It predates the era of rationalism and cold, impersonal exegesis. Practicing it establishes the connection to an ancient tradition that is often felt lacking in our era of rapid change and individualism.
- It uses the Bible. In our busy and distracted culture, and in an age when believers have so many Christian books and commentaries beyond the Bible, this approach of sacred reading challenges readers to shut out all these distractions, put away all the Christian books, and instead focus solely on the Bible.
- It treats the Bible as the living word of God, and not a mere artifact of history. This approach to reading believes God is there, and he is not silent—speaking freshly and intimately in and through his Word even thousands of years after it was recorded.
- It emphasizes communion with God. This approach to the reading of Scripture is promoted as the direct solution to the problem of dry, uninterested reading. It places union with God in the center and attempts to cure the reader’s natural-world myopia by enabling his spiritual eyes to see the supernatural.
- It elevates the reader’s level of participation. He is not a mere member of the audience of the biblical text, but a direct recipient and participant in it. Lectio divina invites the reader to encounter God for himself.
Why is lectio divine dangerous?
With such a list of supposed benefits, could there possibly be any dangers with it? The answer is yes, and they are significant.
- Its historical origin and development. Many evangelicals believe it is entirely harmless—even beneficial—to “plunder the Egyptians” when it comes to interpretive methodologies. So long as a practice with suspect roots is enshrined in an evangelical façade, the presuppositions which originated the practice in the first place are automatically neutralized. This naïve optimism is evident elsewhere in evangelicals’ embrace of higher critical methodologies and critical race theory. They acknowledge the creators of these so-called “tools” to be heretics, but employ them nonetheless. Yet despite claims to the contrary, the fruit is always determined by the roots. The anti-biblical presuppositions which gave rise to the practices are never overcome.
The same is true for lectio divina. Its roots cannot be ignored. To cut them off would be to kill the practice itself. Moreover, it is no coincidence that the practice found strong support among the Benedictine ascetics and the Roman Catholic mystics. If we do not agree with their doctrine, how can we freely employ the methodologies that they used to produce it? Ideas beget consequences, and consequences cannot be dissociated from their ideas.
- Its alienation of the human writer. While many evangelical proponents of lectio divina contend that careful study of the biblical text in its original literary and historical contexts is still necessary, they nonetheless create a different category of reading that searches for additional meaning beyond these parameters. When reading the text “sacredly,” the voice of the human writer is almost completely—if not fully—muted. What is sought is the “divine” meaning—the meaning that is fresh, personal, and intimate to the reader himself. As “sacred,” this kind of reading cannot help but be treated as superior to the kind that struggles over such “natural” things as authorial intent, the customary usage of words and grammar, and the events of history. And when the voice of the human writer is muted, the reader is set afloat on a sea of subjectivity.
- Its reader-centric approach to meaning. Despite the claim that lectio divina is the best way to allow the text to master the reader, the practice actually leads to the reverse. The approach is extremely individualistic and subjective, which is why it thrives among ascetics and mystics who prefer isolation and independence. As one proponent stated, “Lectio divina is not about interpreting the text; it’s about the text interpreting me.” Indeed, with this methodology the self becomes the object of study and interpretation. In this approach, objective truth takes a backseat to personal encounter. What matters is not necessarily that God be worshiped for who he is in the beauty of his majesty, but that God be experienced by the reader. David Helm points out this serious flaw when he writes, “Lectio Divina advocates a method that is spiritual as opposed to systematically studious. It substitutes intuition for investigation. It prefers mood and emotion to methodical and reasoned inquiry. It equates your spirit with the Holy Spirit.”
- Its lack of accountability. As a form of Bible reading that is extremely subjective, lectio divina includes no requirement of validation that incorporates the analogy of faith principle (a survey of the rest of Scripture to ensure that no contradictory claims are espoused), the catholicity principle (that what is claimed as from God cannot be something that has never before been affirmed among God’s people in the history of the church), and the community of faith principle (that no interpretation is believed that is not subject to the correction or affirmation of the local church and its elders). Private, novel interpretations thrive where lectio divina is practiced. Not only is there little perceived need for accountability among its proponents, but there is no actual way to provide it. By its very nature, this “sacred reading” of the text downplays the importance of propositional truth statements and exalts the experience of an encounter. The exercise of discernment quickly falls by the way.
- Its caricature of grammatico-historical exegesis. Proponents of lectio divina commonly describe the reading of Scripture that takes pains to study words, grammar, and history as cold, analytical, and lifeless. True spirituality, they claim, must come from something superior to these elements. Methodical Bible study leaves little room for the Holy Spirit and the vibrancy of a life in communion with God.
Indeed, there are many in the church at large—and in academia in particular—who approach the Bible as anything but the Word of God. To them the Bible is a historical document to be questioned, scrutinized, and doubted. But it is a fallacy to suggest that careful investigation and methodical study necessarily eliminate dependency on the Spirit, the role of prayer, and the desire for communion with God. For instance, Robert Thomas carefully defined the grammatico-historical method as “a study of inspired Scripture designed to discover under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the meaning of a text dictated by the principles of grammar and the facts of history.” Similarly, in response to the supposition that prayer is better than exegesis, B. B. Warfield stated, “Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. ‘What!’ is the appropriate response, ‘than ten hours over your books, on your knees?’”
Careful study is not antithetical to hearing and loving God in and through the biblical text. In fact, diligent, exacting study goes hand-in-hand with God-exalting worship. This is seen most succinctly in the apostle Paul’s command to Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
While more reasons could be listed, these suffice. Lectio divina—the “sacred reading” of the Bible—is not just one more instrument that the Christian can add to his spiritual toolbox to better read the Word of God. Inherent to its practice are elements that lead the reader away from the meaning of the text and toward the reader’s own subjective intuition. A reading of Scripture that is truly spiritual is one that will be submissive to the voice of God as he has delivered it once-for-all through the intention of the biblical writer.
For more on everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our free guide: Handling Scripture.
- For just one example, see the popular evangelical textbook on Bible interpretation written by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). For their commendation of lectio divina, see p. 231.
- Mark Moore, “Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous,” Missio Alliance, May 22, 2014 www.missioalliance.org/is-lectio-divina-really-dangerous/(accessed 1/18/2021).
- David R. Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 31.
- Robert L. Thomas, Introduction to Exegesis (Tyndale Seminary Press, 2014), 24; emphasis added.
- Benjamin Warfield, “The Religious Life of Theological Students,” in The Princeton Theology, ed. Mark Noll (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 263.