Spirituality is still a huge topic with evangelical Christians, and increasingly practices such as lectio divina are encouraged even for Reformed Christians. But is this practice helpful? And how can it be used by Christians in the Reformed tradition?
Lectio divina (or, divine reading) as described by Kenneth Boa in his book Conformed to His Image, (Zondervan, 2001), 96-97.
The ancient art of lectio divina, or sacred reading, was introduced to the West by the Eastern desert father John Cassian early in the fifth century.
It consists of four elements.
- Lectio (reading). Select a very short text and ingest it by reading it several times. Normally, one chooses a verse or a brief passage from the chapters read from the Old and New Testaments in morning Bible reading.
- Meditatio (meditation). Take a few minutes to reflect on the words and phrases in the text you have read. Ponder the passage by asking questions and using your imagination.
- Oratio (prayer). Having internalized the passage, offer it back to God in the form of personalized prayer.
- Contemplatio (contemplation). For the most of us, this will be the most difficult part, since it consists of silence and yieldedness in the presence of God. Contemplation is the fruit of the dialogue of the first three elements; it is the communion that is born out of our reception of divine truth in our hearts.
I think there is much to appreciate about lectio divina, especially its Agassiz-like focus on a text. Further, that Scripture ought to bid us pray and that our prayers ought to be filled with Scripture is an axiom of this discipline, so to the extent that the lectio divina encourages this is a boon. I would even go so far as to say – due to the importance of prayer in the Christian life – that anything that encourages prayer in the life of believers is a good thing. But having said all of this, let me turn to a few concerns.
Just because a saying, idea, or practice originated from less-than-reputable sources doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea, saying or practice is itself tainted. That is a logical fallacy (see genetic fallacy). However, it is still a generally good idea in most things to “consider the source.”
The practice of lectio divina came from Eastern Orthodox spirituality. It was brought to the West by John Cassian (360 – 435), a monk who codified the ascetic, Eastern spiritualities and the monastic lifestyle associated with them. Cassian, with his monastic disciples, also waded into the Pelagian controversy between Augustine and Pelagius, articulating what would come to be known as a semi-Pelagian view. These views are generally at odds with a Reformed theology, piety and practice.
Further, it is becoming increasingly popular to mention mystic, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox writers in spirituality and spiritual discipline circles, thanks in no small part to Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Again, this doesn’t necessarily invalidate everything that comes from these sources. But it is fair to compare these with Reformed spiritualities and piety, and Don Whitney has shown the importance of considering how spirituality plays out.
Bypassing the Mind
One aspect that seems typical of mystical spirituality – especially as it differs from more Reformed emphases – is the emphasis on experience at the expense of understanding. Often, it seems like the mind (and thinking) is sacrificed for the heart (and feelings). Some aspects of lectio divina could fall into this trap. For example, when a person is encouraged in meditatio to use their “imagination,” it isn’t entirely clear what kind of baggage this imagination brings with it. Why is a short text selected (and not a longer passage), when a short passage is so easily turned into a “mantra-like” prayer that was censored by Christ in Matthew 6:7?
In contrast to spiritualities that strive for an immediate, direct encounter to behold God, Scripture reminds us that no one can see God, and it is only in Jesus that God is “exegeted” (revealed, explained) to us (John 1:18). So if we want to behold the glory of God, where do we go to find that? In the glorious gospel of the Son. But this just pushes the question back a step. Where do we go to find that? We behold the glory of Jesus’ Good News when the Holy Spirit illuminates the Word of God to us. So ultimately: to the Word → to the Son → the glory of God. We mustn’t bypass “the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:1-2) en route to “experiencing” God.
God reaches our hearts through our minds
At the end of the day, there is a “silent piety” that Scripture enjoins on believers. Psalm 37:7; 46:10; Habakkuk 2:20 all point to an obedient, patient waiting on the Lord that shuts the mouth in our Lord’s presence. But this seems different than the contemplative mysticism advocated in some circles. The silent piety advocated in God’s Word emphasizes knowing God through His Word and crying out to Him through prayers that are full of propositions, logical connections, and emotional realities derived from Scripture.
If you enjoy lectio divina prayer methods, please don’t take this caution as an excuse to stop praying! On the contrary! May we all “pray without ceasing.” But may we also reform our prayer life to match God’s Word, and to be on guard against anything that would hinder our piety before the Lord God Almighty.
Want some great resources on Reformed piety, prayer and spirituality?
In the Face of God by Michael S. Horton. A great read on the problem with much of American Christian spirituality, especially our under-the-surface Gnosticism.
Puritan Reformed Spirituality by Joel Beeke. A historical and pastoral collection that emphasizes Reformed concepts for living for God.
The Valley of Vision. See and read how Reformed saints of the past have prayed, and pray along with them!