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.