Stop Turning “Devotions” into Dogma: reflections on how we read the bible

As a high school student, after a dramatic turn-around toward the end of my sophomore year, I began to engage with God through devotional readings (or “quiet times”). Such was encouraged by mentors and camp speakers as a way through which to grow in Christ. The ebb and flow of my devotional journey yielded significant moments with God, while other times legalism crept in. Many folks in my life would tell of similar experiences.

One of my favorite times with fellow Christians was getting together for a good ol’ fashioned bible study. I can remember the flow of the night well. First, we’d show up at a leader’s home. Second, we’d eat homemade iced cream and catch up. Third, we’d gather together and be told what our text of study was going to be that evening. Fourth, we’d have a few minutes to read the passage on our own and ask God to speak to us. Then, we’d have a discussion (often 10-25 of us) about the “meaning” or interpretation of the text. Honestly, these nights were some of the most positively formative in my spiritual journey as a teenager.

Reading the bible in this way led many of us closer to Jesus. My friends and I would often challenge each other in our faith, even in bible memory. The more we read, prayed, and interpreted – the more we sensed the presence of God. At the time I had no idea what this pattern of reading and listening to God through the Scriptures actually had a name – lectio divina.

Similarities between Lectio Divina and Evangelical “Quiet Times”

Lectio divina is an ancient spiritual discipline that involves listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit through the words of the Scriptures. After carefully reading a biblical passage a few times through (slowly and intentionally), the next step is to ask God to make a word or phrase stand out. After this word/phrase has become clear, the reader then meditates upon it, asking the Spirit to illuminate the meaning and application of such. If a person is doing this by themselves, then the next step might involve deep reflection and possibly even journaling. In the context of a group, like in my example above, everyone would have a time to share what they sensed God saying and how that might apply to their lives.

What evangelical youth culture has called “devotions” or “quiet time,” the church has called “lectio divina” for generations. Certainly, in my experience, I’m convinced that lectio divina helps to focus us on the inner-world of a discipleship – more so than some of the conservative Christian versions of the practice which often get caught up in the head instead of the heart (I’m thinking here of the contemporary church’s obsession with fill-in-the-blanks, etc.). Often, this sort of head-knowledge approach is exactly what leads folks to believe that their interpretation of a particular passage is worth forming a theological worldview around. “God revealed this to me so it must be Truth and universally apply,” one might say. Usually these interpretations are subjective and based on surface level or wooden-literal approaches to the Scriptures. Thus, we end up turning devotions into dogma.

Interestingly, this sort of reading of the bible could arguably be the source of such doctrines as dispensational theology (and various other “apocalyptic” varieties), distorted versions of penal satisfaction atonement (God the Father portrayed as having no other choice that to pour wrath on God the Son [here there’s plenty of room to disagree J]), women being silent in the church whilst sportin’ head coverings, and legalism of various stripes (think here of the person who senses God calling them to something but then makes it dogma for all).

My contention is that we need to do a better job in the church in making a radical distinction between theological readings and devotional readings of the bible.

Theological Readings – This is the work of hardcore biblical studies and theological reflection. These readings of the Scriptures rarely settle for simply reading the sacred texts – not because the bible isn’t sufficient or of ultimate value as a source for knowing God – but because the interpreter recognizes the importance of doing theology for the church. Interpreting the bible includes:

  • researching the historical situation into which the author speaks (i.e. Babylonian Exile, First Cen. Rome, etc.),
  • recognizing the way in which a particular text fits into the narrative of the Scriptures (I like the 5 Act drama approach: Creation, Crisis, Covenant w/ Israel, Christ, Church [which leads into the Consummation of all things in the renewal of creation]),
  • discerning the particular genre the text falls into and how that affects the intended meanings involved (historical narrative [story], didactic literature [straight forward language], wisdom literature [timeless truths], prophetic literature [fore-telling or forth-telling], apocalyptic literature [imagery soaked], and poetry),
  • noticing creative usages of words and phrases often unique to ancient times (metaphors, word-pictures, hyperbole, humor, and various other rhetorical devises),
  • moving with the “thrust” of the Scriptures (how we build theological bridges from “their” culture to “ours”)
  • and listening to the ever-speaking voice of the Holy Spirit for fresh insights in the context of community (in continuity with the above-mentioned interpretive approaches).

The task of performing Theological Readings is not one that should be taken lightly, yet at the same time is not merely for the “professionals.” Anyone can utilize resources available to grow in learning how to interpret and apply the bible theologically (I recommend: How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, New Testament for Everyone, and Old Testament for Everyone). We must be careful to not “over-intellectualize” the bible while also understanding that much that it contains must be handled with care as we are thousands of years removed from its original authorship. The bible is too holy not to honor it in this way.

Devotional Readings (Lectio Divina) – Reading the bible “spiritually” or devotionally is excessively helpful for growing in Christlikeness. God can shape our inner-life so that we become the kind of people who naturally live out love. This requires a healthy theological framework but does not require intense study. Study without engaging God can lead to intellectualism. Lectio divina without a concern for careful theological tasks often leads to sloppy theology. When this happens, our perception of God and God’s mission easily becomes distorted.

Devotional readings of the Scriptures, then, matter greatly but must be balanced by a theologically engaged church.

Devotions Should Never become Dogma

I’m convinced that we Christians should be passionate about emphasizing both devotional readings and theological readings of the bible in the context of the church. Both benefit a person individually and the church corporately. When appropriated in a way that only emphasizes devotional readings to the exclusion of solid biblical studies. Devotions should not be dogma and theology should not limit the voice of the Spirit. We need to allow these two ways of reading the Scriptures to complement each other appropriately while simultaneously emphasizing the ways in which they are distinct. Then, when a person hears from the Lord in their devotional reading time, we can affirm it while cautioning that such a word differs from the art of biblical interpretation. This keeps the church intellectually honest and engaged while guarding the church from spiritually draining intellectualism. Thus, the head and the heart work together.

  • Yvonne Shek

    Thanks Kurt! Awesome! I am going to share this with my home church peeps. At TMH, our sermons are pretty much of the first variety (theological readings) while our home church discussions are of the latter (devotional readings). This back and forth seems to work well for us. It also gives our HC leaders some great guard rails so we don’t fall off the cliff.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Awesome! Yep… we need both for sure.

  • http://www.kellyjyoungblood.com/ Kelly J Youngblood

    I’ve written a couple of posts similar to this; it’s a topic that definitely gets my attention and one that is important to me. Too often the “application” of the text “for me” ends up being how *everyone* must understand and apply it, without any context.

  • Suzanne Burden

    Well-articulated, my friend. Especially for those of us who grew up with “daily quiet times.”

  • CherilynClough

    The Lectio Divina style study is a refreshing break from the proof texting devotionals of my teen years. I found listening to God as opposed to collecting verses to prove something to my neighbors to be much more enlightening. However, I agree with you that the Bible (and actually God) deserve our respect to not take scriptures lightly and to ascertain where, when and how these events occurred and apply them with the help of the Spirit. You’re right, we need both. We want to actually get to know God more–not just put Him into our little boxes.

  • pastordt

    Love this, Kurt. I, too, was struck by the parallels between lectio and some of the devotional Bible readings I did in groups as a kid growing up. And I love it a lot. I have a good friend who is an NT prof at a Christian college. After her intro semester (which often sent some students diving for cover because they had nothing in their backgrounds to help them deal with what they were learning about what you call theological reading (study/critical thinking, etc.), she asked me to come in and do one class session on lectio. This was intentional on her part, to remind her students that the Bible – even after it’s been dissected in the classroom – is still a primary place where we meet God personally and communally. The distinction is important and helpful. Thank you.

  • MorganGuyton

    Cool. I was just about to write something about reading the Bible for knowledge versus reading the Bible for relationship. Jonathan Martin preached a really provocative message at Renovatus this past weekend on how making knowledge the centerpiece of our approach to scripture is basically eating the same fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. I think of course there’s a place for the theological/technical stuff, but I would say that not only do we need to distinguish between the two, we also need to give priority to the devotional reading lest we substitute ideology for discipleship.

  • RT

    First, welcome back to your blog Kurt.

    This is pretty good stuff. I guess the question that some of us wrestle
    with is if we should spend our time strengthening our personal theologies or if
    our time is better spent in devotional readings of the bible. You did a good job of pointing out that the two should work in concert for both the individual and the church to have growth.

  • Jean Bergen

    I am a late comer to Lectio Divina, introduced to it in my early forties while in Biblical studies. I practice and enjoy this way of approaching Scripture. However, I have noticed that just as Theological reading may lean to the intellectual side of the spectrum, Lectio Divina can tend to lean to other end of heart and feeling. The message of the Scripture becomes so personal and about a word for ‘me’ that the overall meaning of the text can become obscured. So, I very much agree with your comment on allowing both Theological reading and Devotional reading to complement one another. Thanks for the post!

  • frjohnmorris

    In your list of how to interpret the Scriptures, you forgot the most important thing; how has the text been interpreted through the centuries? It is a serious mistake to ignore the wisdom found in the study of how the Holy Fathers of the Church interpreted the Bible. After all, they are the ones who chose the books to be included in the canon of the New Testament.

  • http://nathanrhale.com/ Nathan R. Hale

    Lectio makes much more sense and it much more disciplined than the typical “quiet time” as I experienced them growing up. Lectio changed the course of my spiritual journey drastically by forcing me to listen to the Holy Spirit in a reasonable way, dealing and discerning thoughts as they come. The repetitive nature of the reading was also an eye opener.


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