The danger of Lectio Divina: My Response

Last week a friend of mine shared a blog on his Facebook page about the discipline of Lectio Divina.  The blog was called “Is Lectio Divina really dangerous?”  The blog was written by Mark Moore and was a wonderful affirmation of this discipline.  Moore wrote the blog in response to another blog, written by Tim Challies, in which Challies argues that the practice of Lectio Divina is ‘dangerous.’  As a person who regularly practices Lectio Divina, both individually and within a group setting, I was obviously interested in Challies’ reasoning for why Lectio Divina should not be practices by Christians.   Moore did well to explain how Challies fundamentally misunderstands of just want goes on in Lectio Divina. If you haven’t read Moore’s piece, I suggest you take a moment to do so.

This piece is not written to take anything away from Moore’s blog.  Again, he did a wonderful job in describing the attitude in which we approach the Scriptural text in Biblical meditation.  I do, however, want to add my own voice to the mix, and highlight a subsequent point. As much as Challies misunderstands the nature of Lectio Divina, as detailed by Moore, Challies also misunderstands the relationship between study and meditation.  Here is what I mean.

Challies bases his blog on David Helm’s critique of Lectio Divina in Expositional Preaching. Helm, and Challies following him, believe that the flaw in Lectio Divina is that in runs contrary to a more rigorous biblical study.  The impression that is left is that Lectio Divina is nothing more than an overly gushy, mindless, sentimental reading of Scripture; a reading which cares nothing for authorial intent or critical scholarship.   Challies quotes Helm who 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 to the Holy Spirit.”

Firstly, if this is what actually took place in Lectio Divina, I would agree that this would be a problem. Obviously, approaching Scripture in such a careless attitude would have negative effects on our preaching, and our spiritual vitality.  Yet this would be a problem for any biblical practice regardless of what we call it.  Substitute the words Lectio Divina with the words Bible Study and you would still have a similar critique.  Any form of Scriptural reading, study, or meditation that does away with scholarship, intellect, reason, or investigation, choosing to rely solely on intuition, emotion, and feeling, will always be a fruitless process.

But again, this is not what Lectio Divina is, and as such, it does not run contrary to the discipline of study.  In fact, the discipline of Biblical meditation is only enhanced by methodical study.  The more we study a text, the more fruitful our meditations can be.

Take, for example, the passage commonly known as ‘The Reinstatement of St. Peter’, found in John 21.  Here we have Jesus asking Peter the questions ‘Do you love me more than these?’, ‘Do you truly love me?’, and ‘Do you love me?’  This passage is one that could lend itself to a variety of insights and meditations, if one chose to sit with this text and practice Lectio Divina.  Conceivably, as one lets the Word speak, one could easily ask him or herself questions like:  ‘Do I truly love Jesus?’  What are the ‘THESE’ that Jesus is referring to in Peter’s life?  What are the ‘THESE’ that Jesus may refer to in my life?  None of these meditations would be wrong, and I would hazard a guess that any sermon on this passage (prepared from the most rigorous of study) would probably include some of these questions or points.

There is, however, more to be gleaned from this passage.  As anyone who has done any study on this passage would know, an important point to note is the use of the word love. While we may read the same word six separate times in an English translation, the Greek includes a constant interplay between the words Agape (Divine, sacrificial love) and Philos (Human or ‘brotherly’ love).  For the first two questions, Jesus asks Peter if he agapes him, to which Peter responds, “I philos you”.

Let’s stop here.  What might Lectio Divina look like when we take this wordplay into consideration?  Well, conceivably one might meditate on the how Jesus calls us to embrace a love that is beyond us.  There is an element of call, of faith, of stepping outside of one’s comforts.  Similarly, one could meditate on how our humanness sometimes gets in the way of divine love.  God calls us to agape, but sometimes we act in philos.  We might ask ourselves, “How have I stepped away from Jesus’ love due to fear, worry, or anxiety?”

Of course, the text does not stop there, for in the last instance, Jesus humbles himself and asks Peter ‘Do you Philos me?’  Jesus, in grace and divine love, accepts the love that Peter is able to give in that moment.  Again, our meditations could take us several different places here.

Now is this the objective reading of the text, as is the concern of Challies and Helm?  Objective is probably the wrong word.  This makes is sound as if the text is utterly disconnected from human life.  So while I may not say this is an objective reading of the text, I would state that this is a correct reading.  Furthermore, assuming that one only needs to figure out an ‘objective’ meaning  runs the danger of making Scripture nothing more than a textbook.  One risks turning life-giving words into dry propositions; we ‘learn’ the words but are never changed by them.  Scripture always demands more of us than just verbal conjugations and an understanding of sentence structure.  God help any church where the preaching only takes this form!

But that isn’t the point of the above example.  The point was simply to say that the study of a Scripture only enhances our meditations.  Yes Lectio Divina is a meditative reading of Scripture, a way in which we attempt to listen to the words rather than merely read them, but this doesn’t presuppose that we never study a passage of Scripture.  Biblical study – thoughtful, scholarly, and rigorous – is an important spiritual discipline.  In fact, Martin Luther actually bridges these two concepts.  In his Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of his writings, he puts forward a method that appears very similar to that of Lectio Divina, and argues that such activity is the correct way to study theology.[1]

In one sense Challies is correct: Lectio Divina should never replace biblical study.  But this doesn’t mean that it is contrary to it.  Study and Meditation go hand in hand; they strengthen and inform each other. We need allow the Word to influence the fullness of our lives.  This holds true if we approach the text for the task of preaching, or if we sit with Scripture for a personal time of devotion. Ultimately, whether we side more with study or are more comfortable with meditation, it is dangerous to believe that one can divorce the head from the heart in our life with God.  We love the Lord with our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength.

[1] See Evan Howard “Lectio Divina in the Evangelical Tradition’ in “Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care”, 2012, Vol 5. No 1, 56-77

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