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A Danger of Lectio Divina
May 21, 2014
Over the past few years an old form of Bible reading and interpretation has resurfaced and made quite an impact. It is known as Lectio Divina. I appreciate David Helms’ critique of this method in in his little book Expositional Preaching. Where others have, I think, come up with novel ways of critiquing it, Helm heads straight to the Bible. Essentially, he says that Lectio Divina often leads us away from the right meaning and right application of a text instead of toward it. Let me explain.
In one of the early chapters he writes about ways preachers can unfairly contextualize a biblical text. Preachers “are increasingly appealing to their subjective reading of the text as inspired. More and more, Bible teachers are being told that whatever moves their spirit in private readings of the Bible must be what God’s Spirit wants preached in public.”
He goes on to say,
One example of this kind of reading strategy has a long history. It goes by the name Lectio Divina. This traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural interpretation was intended to promote communion with God and, to a lesser extent, familiarity with the Bible. It favors a view of biblical texts as “the Living Word” rather than as written words to be studied. Traditional forms of this practice include four steps for private Bible reading: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. You begin by quieting your heart with a simple reading of the text. Then you meditate, perhaps on a single word of phrase from the text, and in so doing intentionally avoid what might be considered an “analytical” approach. In essence, the goal here is to wait for the Spirit’s illumination so that you will arrive at meaning. You wait for Jesus to come calling. Once the word is given, you go on to pray. After all, prayer is dialogue with God. God speaks through his Word and the person speaks through prayer. Eventually, this prayer becomes contemplative prayer, and it gives us the ability to comprehend deeper theological truths.
As Helm says, this sounds wonderfully pious. It even appears to come with solid Scriptural support in a text like 1 Corinthians 2:10 which says, “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” Stating his objection broadly first, Helm says, “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.”
Of course many will object to that final sentence, but from Helm’s perspective, conclusions based on inner contemplation cannot be trusted in the same way as conclusions based on a close and studious reading of the text.
This method has gained popularity in recent years, first in private devotions and increasing in sermon preparation. “And even where it is not practiced by name, it is remarkably similar to the way a lot of young preachers are taught to prepare. They are told to read the Bible devotionally, quietly, waiting upon the Holy Spirit to speak. For you can be assured that what God lays upon our hearts from a text in the quiet of the moment he will use also in the lives of others. So ‘Preach it! It must be inspired.’”
What is the heart of the problem here? It is that the method leads to subjective, rather than objective, conclusions.
When we stop the hard work of understanding the words that the Spirit has given us and work exclusively in the “mind of the Spirit,” we become the final authority on meaning. We begin to lay down “truths” and “advice” that are biblically untenable or unsupportable. We may do so for good reasons, such as our sense of the moral health of our people or a genuine desire to renew the world we live in. But, nevertheless, we begin operating outside of orthodox doctrine. We confuse “thus sayeth the Lord” with “thus sayeth me.” We ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.
Let me repeat that final line: “We may ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.” That may just be the long-term consequence of this kind of preaching. Of course it has begun with the pastor allowing himself to trust himself in place of the Word.
Here is how this sometimes happens:
A lot of preachers—particularly young preachers—go to the text first for their own edification or spiritual growth. This is not an inherently bad practice, and devotional preaching is not inherently a bad thing. We all should be spiritually convicted by and conformed to the image of Christ in the text. The problem is that we are easily tempted to jump from the way the Spirit impresses the text upon us to how the Spirit must be working among our people.
In other words, if we follow Lectio Divina from personal devotions to sermon preparation, we may not preach the text, but preach our interpretation and appreciation of the text. We preach the text as it impacted us, not the text as it is.
The Holy Spirit is undoubtedly trustworthy and can, miraculously, implant his intent in us intuitively. But does this possibility absolve us from doing the hard work of exegesis? Why would he have bothered inspiring Scripture in the first place? Is it not possible that the Spirit works through both research and meditation? By pursuing such a subjective approach to interpretation as “inspired” preaching, are we not at risk of ignoring what God intended in his Word in favor of preaching our own? Are we not conforming ourselves to the spirit of the age (of which we are necessarily a part) rather than to the depth of his Word?
This, then, is a danger in Lectio Divina, that it may teach us to approach the text subjectively rather than objectively, and that in this way it leads to unstable, unsupportable conclusions. Though it appears to elevate piety, it may just train us to preach badly.
(Note: Helm anticipates a critique. It is important to note that rejecting Lectio Divina in personal study or sermon preparation is not the same thing as rejecting the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching, and especially expositional preaching. Far from it. “The word of the gospel must be wedded to the Spirit’s work in order for conviction of sin, regeneration, repentance and faith, and lifelong perseverance to come.” Expositional preaching is still fully reliant upon the Holy Spirit, though in a very different way.)
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