A Confused Colloquy in the Land of the Mystics

A Confused Colloquy in the Land of the Mystics

In his article, Greg Peters says that “historically lectio divina was just the way to read the biblical text” (emphasis original), and that it was “not a unique way of reading but the common way of reading the Word of God.” In Credo’s book awards they went so far as to say that it is “what spiritually serious Christians have always done.” But in an article by Seth Brill we find contradictory dates for its origin: “Eugene Peterson cites that the practice of Lectio Divina originates in the twelfth century with Guigo the Second . . . Evan Howard finds reference to the art of spiritual reading as far back as St. Benedict of the sixth century.” And in an interview with Hans Boersma, whose work is the inspiration for this issue (he is mentioned in half the main articles), we read that “the twelfth century was a period in which lectio divina flourished perhaps like never before.” The best answer to these contradictions is that somebody is simply wrong, whether by historical inaccuracy or irresponsible hyperbole. 

Credo magazine has released its latest number on the topic of lectio divina, an approach to reading scripture that emphasizes accompanying reading with prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Rightly defined, all of those things are commendable and necessary to a true, healthy walk of faith. But there is reason to think that lectio divina does not always involve a right definition or practice of such things, and that it proceeds upon notions that are grievously mistaken. The following are several areas of concern in this latest edition.

Divergent Definitions

In the first case, there is no agreed definition of lectio divina, either as a whole or as regards some of its elements. Most contributors regard it as having four elements – lectio, oratio, meditatio, contemplatio (reading, prayer, meditation, and contemplation, respectively) – but contributor Greg Peters regards only the first three as certain, saying the fourth “is never promised nor should it necessarily be expected,” because “contemplation only comes about by the grace of God for it cannot be earned.” Southern Baptist spirituality professor Donald Whitney regards contemplation with suspicion, saying “if some of the forms of contemplation suggested by proponents of LD become necessary to experience the highest forms of communion with God, then we have gone beyond that which is specifically mentioned or clearly implied in Scripture,” and he settles instead for a three-part lectio. Thus lectio is either a three-part or four-part approach we take, or a three-part one which is sometimes abetted by a fourth element given by God.

In this matter of contemplation the lack of agreement becomes especially plain. For where Peters considers it an uncertain divine response to our reading, prayer, and meditation,  and Whitney passes it over entirely, contributor Jason Alligood’s entire article purports to defend contemplation as a viable practice for Protestants, and in so doing conceives it as an intentional practice on our part (e.g., “Only after we have read, meditated, and prayed should we then contemplate”).  His article proceeds largely on the thought of a book, Embracing Contemplation, which commends the practice, but which does not have an agreed definition itself, as Alligood admits:

The book’s editors admit that articles found within do not present a “unified view on the topic,” which leads to a question we must consider for the current article, which is: what are the definitive bounds of contemplation?

He admits this two other times (“the definition of contemplation is not entirely agreed upon amongst those who seek to describe it,” “the definition of contemplation can vary”), and in a footnote says “the article will not seek to defend a particular definition of contemplation, but rather explicate the biblical, historical and theological data as such.” Notwithstanding this, he speaks as though his analysis has arrived at a definition, beginning his conclusion with “given the definition and examples we outline above,” after two sections on biblical and historical analysis.

The divergent conceptions are acknowledged elsewhere, Whitney saying “Lectio Divina [LD] turns on the definition of the term and the description of its four elements,” and that “controversy almost inevitably arises over what is meant by the fourth step in LD, ‘contemplation.’” Speaking of the differences between evangelical exercises in piety and the mystical flavor of many notions of lectio he says:

Some advocates describe LD in a way that places very little emphasis on the Bible. Others do so in a way that sounds almost identical to what I have published in Praying the Bible.

Such wide and admitted differences suggest there is an ecumenical aim here: Credo is commending lectio in general but leaving it to readers to determine which conception to follow according to their own consciences or the teachings of their respective communions. But far from being helpful, this leads us to regard the whole edition as being of doubtful usefulness. For there is a great difference between an evangelical conception of lectio’s elements and a quietist/mystical one, as will be seen below; and where the same term is used for contradictory practices, the result is just as likely to be confusion as mutual aid.

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