/ Apologetics / Is the Lectio Divina Safe for Christians to Practice?

Is the Lectio Divina Safe for Christians to Practice?

Craig Smith on September 4, 2014 - 1:36 pm in Apologetics, Christian Living, Craig Smith

This ancient practice is, unfortunately, a muddled mess in today’s Christian culture.  The historic practice itself is both biblical and orthodox, and was employed as such at least as far back as Augustine (4th century)[1].  In its original form as developed by early church theologians,[2] it consisted of four steps - reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation – each of which, as originally intended, correspond quite closely to modern Evangelical practices with regards to Scripture:

  • Reading/Reading the text of God’s Word
  • Meditation/Thinking carefully about the meaning of the passage read (informed by study)
  • Prayer/Praying that God would enlighten us to the meaning of His word that we might have missed (not because it is hidden or “spiritual” in some mystical sense but simply because we have failed to discern what God intended us to understand).  Prayer is also focused on asking God to convict us of areas in our lives where the truth of His Word needs to be brought to bear.
  • Contemplation/Resting in God’s presence and listening for His voice.

Certainly each of these elements is rooted in Scriptural teaching and, for this reason, the practice of lectio divina can appear quite “safe” to modern Christians.  However, the modern practice of lectio divina has, in many instances, morphed from a biblically grounded practice into a questionable one that is more rooted in eastern mysticism than in orthodox Christian theology.  For instance, in the historic practice, the fourth step, contemplation, was only undertaken after careful apprehension of the intended meaning of Scripture; that is, a right understanding of a particular passage of Scripture was the ground and control of the contemplative exercise so that this necessarily more subjective part was governed by the objective truth of God’s Word.  However, in many modern versions, the lectio divina focuses primarily on the fourth step, thus elevating subjective experience (largely ungoverned by careful study of Scripture) above objective truth.  For what are, hopefully, obvious reasons, this inversion of Augustine’s practice is potentially quite dangerous.  Apart from the measure of carefully-understood Scripture, how can one evaluate the significance – and even source – of a supposed “experience” or “word” encountered in contemplation? 

It is my opinion that this inversion of emphasis from careful-understanding-of-Scripture as primary to contemplation as primary is the root of much that is problematic in the Contemplative Spirituality/Mysticism movement.  While I agree that allowing time for God to speak to us (the original intention of contemplation in the lectio divina) is an important thing for Christians to do and that Evangelicalism has often been deficient in this regard, the correction is not to make contemplation the paramount practice but simply to give it more emphasis (and always in its proper biblical context) than it has been afforded in recent church history.  Unfortunately, the CSM over-emphasis on contemplation has sometimes spilled over into the other steps of the lectio divina, radically altering them from their original, biblical intentions.  For instance, the CSM movement often advocates a contemplative approach to reading Scripture, encouraging participants to “experience” God’s Word existentially by creative reading techniques, rather than understanding God’s Word, with this proper understanding forming the foundation and control for the subsequent three steps of the lectio divina.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to tell whether an advocate of the lectio divina is promoting a practice that is consistent with the historic practice employed by Augustine and other orthodox early-church theologians or if he/she is promoting a practice that is essentially indistinguishable from eastern mysticism.  For this reason, many Evangelicals vehemently reject the lectio divina entirely (though, I would argue, often following the historic steps in their own devotional lives) and are deeply suspicious of any author or speaker who advocates the lectio divina.  This suspicion is understandable since many modern practioners of the lectio divina are advocating an unbiblical and potentially dangerous perversion of historic Christian spirituality.  However, as the historic steps of the lectio divina are not inherently connected to eastern mysticism or to Roman Catholicism, one ought to be careful not to too quickly dismiss the entirety of an author/speaker’s teaching simply because they say something positive about the lectio divina.[3]  Instead, one should seek to understand precisely what the author/speaker means by advocating the lectio divina and to see where this practice stands relative to the entirety of his/her teaching; saying something positive about the lectio divina does not automatically make one a heretic…though depending on the version, it could be a sign of a larger issue which should give Evangelicals concern about that individual’s orthodoxy.

 

[1] Note however, that while Augustine’s understanding of the practice seems quite orthodox and would be comfortable for most Evangelicals, there were early versions (such as that by Origen, 3rd century) that already had hints of Gnosticism and ungrounded mystical reflection (reflected in his interest in “the hidden sense which is present in mot passages of the divine Scriptures”; Origen’s letter to Gregory of Neocaesarea).

[2] It is, in my opinion, a mistake to categorize the lectio divina as a Roman Catholic practice as its development predates the formal beginning of the Roman Catholic church.  The lectio divina properly belongs to the Early Church period rather than to the Roman Catholic period.

[3] For instance, Reformed Evangelical teacher John Piper has been denounced as heretical by some watchdog groups because of a Desiring God (an organization which Piper leads) article which promoted the lectio divina.  In response to this criticism, the Desiring God organization issued the following note, presumably with Piper’s encouragement:  "Formerly I listed Lectio Divina as a third system for prayer. I've since removed it for the confusion it has caused. We do not endorse contemplative spirituality. The main point I'd like to recommend is using the text of Scripture as an organizer for our prayers — prayers that are exegetically faithful and gospel rich. I'm sorry for introducing the category."; http://www.solasisters.com/2012/01/john-piper-encouraging-lectio-divina.html.  Beth Moore has also been criticized for similar reasons though it seems clear that her understanding of the lectio divina is orthodox.

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  • September 6, 2014

    It appears to me that a pedantic, lifeless, and intellectualized reading of scripture has done far more damage to the lives of Christians that lectio divine ever will. Further, I do not concede that contemplative spirituality and mysticism pejorative terms as the article presents them. Paul writes of the “mystery” of Christ in us (Colossians 1:27) which means that anyone with Christ in them contains a mystery and is a “mystic,” like it or not. According to Paul there is a way of knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19), which is, in fact, the goal of lectio divina. Of the many vices that are infecting the church and deserve suspicion, I wonder why aspersions are being cast on an ancient and historic practice of mainstream Christianity. It was not clear what was meant by the “contemplative spirituality/mysticism movement.” Does that intend to include well respected evangelical contemplatives along with Buddhists and New Agers? Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book is wonderful and clarifying work on the subject of lectio divina that will eradicate unfounded suspicion.

    Howard Baker
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    • September 12, 2014

      This article was not intended to be an attack on the lectio divina or on evangelical contemplatives in general. On the contrary, this article was intended to be a balanced and nuanced assessment occasioned by numerous questions I have received lately about the lectio divina given that watchdog groups like Apprising Ministries (apprising.org), Lighthouse Trails Research (lighthousetrailsresearch.com), First Plumbline Apologetics (firstplumbline.net), The Christian Thinker (thechristianthinker.com), et al. are quite vicious in their denouncement of the practice as occultish, Catholic, heretical, et al. The sad truth is that by saying anything positive at all about the lectio divina I will probably be categorized as heretical by these groups who in general seem to lack the capacity for nuanced assessment. On the other hand, by cautioning that there are versions of the lectio divina (both ancient and modern) which are more Gnostic than orthodox, I run the risk of appearing inflexible and anti-“spiritual”, more comfortable with dry academic versions of Christianity than with dynamic spirituality, which is not true. In my opinion there is much that is good and needed in CSM, but it is sometimes mixed with a bit of Buddhism, Eastern Mysticism, Open Theism, et al., and careful discernment is therefore necessary.

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  • May 23, 2016

    Thank you Dr Smith for your clarity in assessing both sides of this argument. I admit that I was alarmed by the criticism leveled at Dr Piper but I decided to dig deeper by searching for a different point of view and gaining an independent understanding of what lectio devina is and what it is not. Thus, I find your explanation is both rational and scriptural.

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