Friday, March 9, 2012

Carl Trueman on "Divine Reading" of Scripture

I am often asked what I think about the so-called "Lectio Divina" or "Divine Reading" of Scripture.  Lectio Divina is a way of reading Scripture in the Catholic tradition that involves working through four steps: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate.  My reaction has always been the same: slow, meditative reading of the Bible is always to be encouraged, but the practice smacks of an irresponsible mysticism in which what God says can be—and in practice almost invariably is—divorced from the text's historical meaning as intended by the human author.

Enter Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  This morning I came upon his post over at Reformation 21, in which he articulates the same concerns, albeit better than I could have.  Particularly important is what he says about the mystical impulse at work in this practice:
More concerning is the underlying incipient mysticism the practice seems to involve. At first glance, it might seem good to 'set aside analysis and what [we] know about the passage, seeking instead to open [ourselves] to God's word.' I appreciate the underlying idea here: that we always need to be open to having our understanding of a text checked, corrected and improved; but the suggestion here seems either to go further than this or to express this thought rather ineptly. To set aside analysis and prior knowledge seems to presuppose that what we know already is a hindrance rather than a help to understanding what the passage is actually saying. That is problematic both in the context of how we are to understand discipleship (surely in part a process by which we grow in our knowledge of the bible and our competence in reading the same) and in the simply common sense terms of how we actually read texts. Humanly speaking, I can hardly read John 3:16 in a personal or biblical vacuum, isolated from the other parts of the Bible I have read and the many sermons I have heard. Even if I could, such a reading would scarcely be advisable, given the nature of the Bible as canon. To let go of my preconceptions, if such were possible, would almost certainly lead to me missing much of the richness of what is being said in the text and finding myself with a solipsistic and by definition incorrigible understanding of the verse or verses in hand. While the instructions do not say this explicitly, they would seem to offer little to counter an understanding of scripture as the occasion for God to speak to me and as not carrying an intrinsic, objective horizon of meaning in itself. That is not what is believed, I am sure; but such a practice as outlined seems vulnerable to being taken in such a direction.
Mysticism is not a tendency to which I am constitutionally prone.  I also was privileged to be the son of a theology professor who instilled in me the belief, to which I remain committed, that the Bible is God's authoritative word to us only insofar as we understand it in accordance with the intent of both the human and divine authors of the text (i.e., we can never ascribe "divine" meaning divorced from that of the human authors)—hence the need for academically-trained teachers and clergy in the church.  By all means, let us meditate day and night on Scripture.  But let us never forget the more difficult first step of studying the text to understand what it meant when it was written.

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