Discovery Bible Study and 'Lectio Divina': Combining Old and New Approaches to Scripture (Part 2)

ID-100247673And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Matt. 13:52

In my previous article, we looked at Discovery Bible Studies (DBS), a relatively new approach to small group Bible study that has been used for evangelism and discipleship in many places in the global south and increasingly in the United States. While often suitable for personal study, DBS’s focus on obedience to the text can sometimes make using it in devotions a challenge, since not all passages have immediate applications in a particular individual’s life. (Besides, for most people I know identifying applications in Scripture is the hardest and most frustrating part of Bible study.)

Fortunately, there is an ancient approach to Scripture known as lectio divina (divine reading) that complements DBS and can address the difficulties raised by the method, particularly for personal devotions.

Lectio Divina: History

Lectio divina (or just lectio for short) grew out of the work of the second-century church father Origen. Origen urged people to read the Bible in such a way that they could discern its innermost meaning, which was found in Christ. He saw the Bible as a kind of sacrament in which we could encounter God and hear His voice in more than a merely intellectual way.

Origen’s approach influenced Ambrose of Milan, who passed it on to St. Augustine of Hippo; Augustine, in turn, influenced St. Benedict of Nursia, and thus an early form of lectio became part of the western monastic tradition in the Middle Ages.

In the 12th century, the methodology of lectio divina was formalized by Guigo II, a Cathusian monk. Lectio became the backbone of Benedictine, Cistercian, and Carthusian spirituality in the Middle Ages and remained popular among Protestant reformers, including John Calvin and the influential Puritan Richard Baxter.

The Practice

Lectio divina is an approach to reading Scripture prayerfully, connecting with God, and hearing Him speak to you directly through His Word. It has four facets:

  • Lectio (Read): Read through the text slowly several times to put it in short-term memory. In monasteries, whenever possible, this reading was done out loud. This engaged the body in the practice and helped implant the Scripture into the subconscious.
  • Meditatio (Meditation/Reflect): Think about the text. What word, phrase, sentence, or concept catches your attention? Focus on that. Do you understand it? If not, try to uncover its meaning. More importantly, why is that particular point important for you to hear right now? The object is not intellectual understanding or theological analysis, but discerning what point or points the Holy Spirit wants to communicate to you through the text.
  • Oratio (Prayer/Respond): Turn the things God has spoken to you about into a prayer. This may be a prayer of praise, confession, affirmation, thanksgiving, or specific requests for yourself or another.
  • Contemplatio (Contemplation/Listening/Rest): Spend time in silent (i.e. nonverbal) prayer, listening for God’s voice and simply resting in him and in his love. God’s voice tends to be very quiet (think Elijah’s “still, small voice”), so silence and learning to discern the movement of the Spirit are essential to this facet.

Historically, there have been two ways of approaching lectio divina. The scholastic approach treats them as four sequential steps, so you first read, then meditate, then pray, then contemplate. The monastic approach moves back and forth freely between the different facets, so you may for example read, then pray, then meditate, then pray some more, then contemplate, then return to meditation, then pray, etc. In this approach, you let the Holy Spirit guide you through the facets. Both approaches have value, and you may find one more helpful than the other. Personally, I tend to use the more freeform and spontaneous monastic approach, but you may find the other more helpful.

Like other spiritual practices, learning to do lectio divina takes time. Contemplation is particularly difficult for those of us in the modern world, where we are so used to noise and words that waiting in silence can make us very uncomfortable, as if we are wasting time. But with practice, this can become one of the most valuable aspects of lectio.

Combining Lectio Divina and DBS

Lectio divina is a powerful approach for devotions, but it does have some potential weaknesses. Its overall focus is on our inner life. This is a good thing—we are to live our lives from the inside out, and our thoughts, words, and deeds are to flow from our heart. But it is easily possible to take this too far. One of the biggest problems in the church today is compartmentalization: We do not live a truly integrated life but view life as a series of compartments that don’t have a lot of influence on each other. We have our jobs, our families, our recreation . . . and our faith. Yet Scripture tells us that our faith should be the overarching principle that ties all of our life together. Because of its inward focus, lectio can reinforce our tendency to think of our “religious life” as something that is exclusively inward and separate from the other areas of our life.

Further, the more introspective among us can overdo the inward focus of lectio, seeing our inward life as who we really are and thus as more important, more fundamental than external actions. After all, if we obey without really wanting to or without our heart in it, isn’t that hypocritical? Will God see that kind of obedience as a good thing?

There is an element of truth here. God wants us to live our lives from our hearts, and He wants our hearts to be filled with love for Him and for our neighbors. But that does not mean reluctant obedience is wrong. Obeying God when we don’t feel like it shows a commitment to God that transcends our commitment to our own will and desires. Jesus talked about this when He said that whoever would save his life (the Greek is actually “soul”) must lose it, and whoever loses his life (“soul”) will find it, or when He tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Him. He is talking about dying to our own desires and obeying God instead of ourselves.

This is why DBS can be a useful supplement to lectio divina. By its very nature, DBS is focused on action, on doing, and far less on interiority. It thus forces us away from compartmentalization or too deep a focus on ourselves and onto obedience. DBS and lectio can easily be integrated together into a powerful approach to our devotional life that simultaneously helps us to develop our inner life but at the same time pushes us to action.

Using lectio divina as a base, the two approaches fit together like this:

  • Lectio: column 1 (read the text)
  • Meditatio: in addition to the traditional approach to meditation, ask what you need to do in light of the passage (column 3) and if there is anyone you need to tell about what you’re learning (column 4); you may also find it helpful to rewrite the text in your own words (column 2) as part of your meditation.
  • Oratio
  • Contemplatio: this might lead to additional insights about points of obedience or sharing with others as God speaks to us in the silence.

I also recommend writing down at least the meditation and prayer facets of the exercise. It is a good record of what God is teaching you as well as a reminder of the points of obedience you are committing yourself to.

This approach is neither pure DBS nor lectio divina—in particular, the meditation facet includes more of an intellectual focus than would normally be the case in lectio, and it emphasizes finding points of obedience and sharing—but by combining the two many of the potential pitfalls of each can be avoided.

We can thus become like the scribe trained for the Kingdom of God who brings forth treasures, old (lectio divina) and new (DBS).

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