The Danger of Lectio Divina (As A Sole Source Of Biblical Interpretation)


Following close upon the heels of my most recent post, I came across another curious article concerning The Danger of Lectio Divina. (If you are unacquainted with this practice, the Wikipedia entry actually provides a fairly decent overview.) Using selected passages from David Helms’ Expositional Preaching, Challies attempts to develop a critique of the method as opposed to a more systematic approach to studying the scriptures:

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 Challies’ view (here quoting Helms), the lectio divina is fraught with danger because, in his understanding, it tempts those who engage in it (he has preachers in mind specifically here) to take a more subjective approach in that they

“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.”

One immediately is led to inquire as to what would thus constitute an objective approach over-against the ‘subjective’ approach which, in its usage here, carries a pejorative connotation. Are we to understand the historical-critical method (as an example) as constituting the an objective reading? Some other method?

Further, a dichotomy is erected between a subjective reading (presumably something that characterizes the lectio divina) and an objective reading, as if the two could not occur in the same act or method. In fact, the ‘lectio’ portion of the method carries with it the practice of looking at the text and understanding the literal meaning of the text first and foremost; what the text actually says. In 2010 Benedict XVI offered this explanation of the initial phase of the methodology:

It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas. (Verbum Domini 87)

Thus, the lectio divina as actualized within the fullness of its methodology is not simply an intellectual or emotional free-for-all, but rather an attempt on the part of the reader individual to allow the meanings of the scripture (both literal and spiritual) to draw him further into communion with God.

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.

Helms’ description here, while accurate, carries with it a somewhat pejorative flavor, in that the ‘familiarity with the bible’ is relegated to secondary importance and understanding the Scriptures as the Living Word is set over-against them being ‘words to be studied.’

Now, Helms’ main concern is the expositional efficacy of any particular method, rather than the devotional intent, but one mighty justly question whether or not an unfortunate dichotomy is once again being erected. There is nothing about the lectio divina which precludes a contextual understanding of the scriptures to be a part of it, nor is there anything about the lectio divina that precludes any other method of Bible study as existing alongside it. Helms again:

“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.”

Several difficulties immediately emerge. Firstly, as aforementioned, there is an unfortunate and uncritical dichotomy erected between what are presented as polar opposites. Secondly, the dichotomies presented intend (as far as I can tell) to cast certain things (spiritual reading, intuition, mood and emotions) as necessarily pejorative rather than allowing they might have some legitimate role in one’s approach to scripture. By doing so Helms (probably unintentionally) effectively neuters human nature in that some of our faculties are precluded from engaging the scriptures on any meaningful level.

Sure, emotions and intuition and a ‘spiritual’ reading have the potential to lead us astray; that is obvious. But they are also integral to human nature and something that we simply cannot turn off. Since humans are rational animals the reason is of course meant to hold a place of primacy, but it is intended to do so by ordering the other faculties rather than shutting them out. I would imagine that Helms and Challies would agree with this particular explication, but unfortunately the language employed can lead to other conclusions.

As far as equating one’s spirit with “the Holy Spirit;” it bears asking whether this is descriptive of lectio divina as it has been traditionally understood or whether it might be more indicative of modern applications within traditions disattached from that of its origins. As traditionally understood the lectio divina is not primarily a method of scriptural interpretation but is rather a method of reading and prayer whose ultimate goal is to come to know God more and grow in communion with him. Thus, while in the lectio divina one is listening for the Holy Spirit to speak, it is not intended to be understood as necessarily comprising the ‘right’ understanding of the text, but is rather looking for what God might speak through the text being meditated upon. Benedict XVI again:

Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged. (Verbum Domini 87)

Challies takes up the final sentence of Helms’ previous statement and restates it:

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.

I actually have no objection to this conclusion in and of itself. However, it bears pointing out that the lectio divina and “a close and studious reading” have markedly different purposes. If the ‘danger’ intended by the article is using the lectio divina as a sole means of interpreting the scriptures, one would be hard pressed to disagree. However, it bears pointing out that the title of the post in question is not The Danger of Lectio Divina As A Sole Means Of Scriptural Interpretation.

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.’”

It also bears pointing out that this snippet is actually not a good description of lectio divina. The ‘lectio’ portion is not merely a ‘devotional’ reading of the text but is meant to entail an engagement with the literal level of the scripture; what the text is saying, what the words mean, etc. This, of course, builds upon the ancient notion of the different senses of scripture, with the literal level forming the ground upon which the others arise. It is after the literal reading (the lectio) that the meditation on the passage begins, the meditatio portion of the lectio divina. Here the point is to engage with the spiritual meaning of the text which, while not identical to the literal meaning, does not exist in isolation from it. Helms’ caricature may very well describe some approaches to scriptural study and sermon preparation, but it is not clear that such a scenario is describing the lectio divina, except perhaps as poorly understood and practiced.

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.

The key word here is ‘exclusively,’ which would meaningfully apply to any method which is used in an exclusive sense. For example, an exclusive use of the historical critical method would make any form of exposition on the spiritual aspect of any passage untenable. The real question, however, is why must the practice of lectio divina be understood as comprising some kind of exclusive sense?

Further, it is not clear how the ‘hard work of understanding the words’ (by means of study, reason, etc.) would preclude one from becoming “the final authority on meaning.” Why is this form of study somehow immune?

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.

This is simply question-begging, since there is absolutely no reason to assume that lectio divina as method either presumes to be beyond biblical critique or even necessarily leads one to unbiblical “truths.” Within its original historical tradition, the lectio divina was subject to the doctrines and dogmas of the church; thus, listening for the Holy Spirit was understood within the strictures of those same doctrines and dogmas.

Helms may be right that, as practiced in traditions outside of such strictures, there may be an inherent danger, but that would seem to be as applicable to any other methodology. After all, a historical-critical methodology is just as liable to stepping outside of “orthodox doctrine,” as a cursory examination of the method and its practitioners would make immediately obvious. Unknowingly, Helms seems to be developing a critique of sola scriptura rather than lectio divina.

Concerning the preaching aspect of it, Challies (quoting Helms) offers the critique that

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.

On some level this is no doubt an accurate critique; however, we are once again presented with a dichotomy between the devotional reading/understanding of the text and a more ‘objective’ or studious approach. Nowhere, however, are we presented with evidence that there is something peculiar to lectio divina which excludes any other form of study/reading/preaching/etc. The real critique seems to concern a certain lack of maturity and understanding in how one approaches the scriptures rather than in the lectio divina itself.

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.

Again, as it stands I would not necessarily disagree, but it also bears pointing out that other methodologies are just as liable to being about preaching one’s own interpretation of the text. It is hardly self-evident that this is something which is unique to lectio divina as a way of reading scripture.

Challies raises another point by means of a selection from Helms:

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?

There is much to agree with here, but for the umpteenth time this critique seems, for whatever reason, to assume that the practice of lectio divina somehow necessarily precludes other methodologies from being employed. Why this unspoken assumption is the case is (at least not in the selections Challies offers) not explicated.

Is it not possible that the Spirit works through both research and meditation?

Exactly. Helms here seems to understand that lectio divina is not a necessarily exclusive approach, which leads me to suspect that Helms’ critique is actually far more limited in scope than Challies’, and that Helms’ critique has been appropriated beyond its original bounds. I could, of course, be wrong about that.

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.

If used exclusively, fair enough, but perhaps the takeaway from this critique should be Helms’ more limited critique that there is room in the life of the expositor for both meditation and study. In other words, lectio and meditatio are not mutually exclusive but rather two sides of the same coin.

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