Is the Lectio Divina a Practice to Be Encouraged?

Recently, there has been some attention drawn to the advice of Dr. Bruce Hartung of Concordia Seminary to a reader’s comment as published in a recent edition of the Reporter:

[Reader:]I have prayed in the Lectio Divina process for a number of years. This involves reading a scriptural text, focusing on a particular word or cluster in the text, meditating on the text, prayer in response to the text, and silent resting as the meaning of the text really impacts you. Following this is the development of how all this moves into my daily life. This is the classic lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio and, for some, operatio. Most important for me is that this is not so much reading the Scriptures to gain more factual knowledge about what is in them, but rather the use of the Scriptures in a way that forms and changes me.

[Response:]This is a process dating back to the ancient church. Its focus is on a deeper reflection on the Scripture, with specific application to one’s personal formation. If our readers wish to consider this method, one reading to seek is Lectio Divina: Contemplative Awakening and Awareness by Christine Valters Paintner and Lucy Wynkoop (Paulist Press), for both theory and practical application. This is a venerable method of spiritual reflection, formation and support.

If you haven’t heard of Lectio Divina, it is a method of reading Scripture combined with prayer and meditation. Its root is in ancient monasticism and is generally mystical in nature — that is, that though the Word is the starting point, the Christian is looking for a special revelation apart from it. This is especially true of how Lectio Divina is taught and practiced in its revival of the past several decades. Consider the following from the blog of one of the authors of the above book:


The first movement is to read the sacred text and listen for a word that shimmers or catches my attention. I do this as I sit to pray each morning with my scripture reading, but also as I move through the day I find that there are moments that shimmer forth: a friend offers me an unexpected insight, I gaze upon my sweetly sleeping dog, I go for a long walk and find the gathering of crows cawing stirs something in my heart, my husband reaches for my hand and in that moment I feel so deeply loved. We all have these shimmering moments calling to us each day if we pay attention. Through lectio I cultivate the capacity to notice these and honor them as important, as sacred.

Luther was exposed to Lectio Divina in the monastery, and like so much else he had been taught, he reformed it into a practice which encouraged reading the Word for its actual content and not for a personal mystical experience. For a well-done examination on the practice of Lectio Divina, its history, goals, structure, and reform by Luther, the Rev. Jeffrey Ware has put together a great resource in his 2007 paper “A Lutheran Perspective on Lectio Divina.” From this paper:

John Kleinig has shown that Luther‘s life in the monastery most certainly exposed him to the practice of Lectio Divina.

“Luther distinguished his own practice of spirituality from the tradition of spiritual foundation that he experienced as a monk. This tradition followed a well-timed, ancient pattern of meditation and prayer. It‘s goal was ‘contemplation,’ the experience of ecstasy, bliss, rapture, and illumination through union with the glorified Lord Jesus.” (Kleinig, 4-5)

This “pattern of meditation and prayer” was none other than Lectio Divina. Luther’s reformation discovery of the Gospel led him, finally, to reject this brand of spirituality.

Luther‘s theological breakthrough was his discovery that the word of God is the reality in itself. “That the linguistic sign is itself the reality, that it represents not an absent but a present reality, was Luther‘s great hermeneutical discovery, his ‘Reformation Discovery’ in the strict sense” (Bayer). Luther had discovered that the word “does what it says” and “says what it does” (Bayer). It is clear that Luther‘s fully developed understanding of the word would have conflicted with the basic premise of Lectio Divina. Kleinig proposes that Luther‘s Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio was his corrective to Lectio Divina.

In contrast to this rather manipulative method, Luther proposed an evangelical pattern of spirituality as reception rather than self-promotion. This involved three things: prayer (oratio), meditation (meditatio), and temptation (tentatio). All three revolved around ongoing, faithful attention to God’s word (Kleinig, 258).

Luther’s reforms of this practice, like so many other of his reforms, sought to restore the authority and centrality of God’s Word to the life of the Christian. If Lectio Divina is lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio, (and sometimes) operatio, can we still refer to Luther’s formulation of oratio, meditatio, tentatio as Lectio Divina? If not, what do we call it? (I usually just call it oratio, meditatio, tentatio.) Assuming Luther’s practice is beneficial to the Christian life, how do we encourage Christians in their practice reading of Scripture? And why was an LCMS seminary professor pointing readers to the clearly more mystical understanding in the Paintner/Wynkoop book when there are fine non-mystical Lutheran books available on the subject?

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