Home > Brian's Blogs, Prayer > Reading & Praying the Bible Formationally, part 6

Reading & Praying the Bible Formationally, part 6

One more on the topic of reading the Bible for formation.  Eugene Peterson, as he usually does, provides an exceptional summary on the need to balance the traditional informational approach with lectio divina.

This is important because the most common criticism against lectio divina is that it becomes a subjective reading that loses sight of the original meaning and intention of the author.  This is a legitimate concern and hence the need for balance.

But first, an important defense of lectio divina comes in the form of the Reformation doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, an insistence that “God’s word is simple and clear, and no-one should let himself be turned from a direct uninhibited contact with the word, or allow his contact with it to be dimmed and dulled, by problems and mental reservations aroused by the thought that scholars interpret a text quite differently and more accurately than he can” (p. 52).  In other words, this is what Wayne Grudem calls “the clarity of Scripture.”  This is the idea that most of Scripture (certainly not all) can be understood by ordinary believers.

That being said, even ordinary believers must learn to read the text appropriately.  Here is where Peterson’s words of balance are helpful:

“Each book has its own way about it, and generally, a careful reader begins to learn how to read a book by slowly and carefully poking around in it for a very long time until he finds his or her way.  A careful reader (an exegete!) will proceed with caution, allowing the book itself to teach us how to read it.  For it soon becomes obvious that our Holy Scriptures are not composed in a timeless, deathless prose, a hyper-spiritual angel language with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of local history and peasant dialect expunged.  There are verbs that must be accurately parsed, cities and valleys to be located on a map, and long-forgotten customs to be comprehended.

This is an enormous inconvenience, particularly to those of us who feel an inclination and aptitude toward the spiritual.  It is almost impossible for those of us who have picked up the word “spiritual” from hanging around church parking lots or clicking on the internet not to feel that our attraction to the spiritual confers a slight edge of privilege to us, exempting us from the bother of exegesis.  We sense that we are insiders to the ways of God; we get intuitions that confirm our ideas and insights.  After that happens a few times, we feel we’ve graduated from tedious recourse to lexicons and grammars.  We are, after all, initiates to the text who cultivate the art of listening to God whisper between the lines.  It isn’t long, as newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman once put it, before we’re using the Bible more as a Rorschach test than a religious text, reading more ink into the text than we read out of it.  It isn’t long before we’re using the word “spiritual” to refer primarily to ourselves and our ideas, and only incidentally and by the way to God.

But, inconvenient or not, we are stuck with the necessity of exegesis.  We have a written word to read and attend to.  It is God’s word, or so we believe, and we had better get it right.  Exegesis is the care we give to getting the words right.  Exegesis is foundational to Christian spirituality.  Foundations disappear from view as a building is constructed, but if the builders don’t build a solid foundation, their building doesn’t last long…the more “spiritual” we become, the more care we must give to exegesis.  The more mature we become in the Christian faith, the more exegetically rigorous we must become.  This is not a task from which we graduate.” (Eat This Book, pp. 52-53).

Peterson goes on to explain the necessity of consulting commentaries (which he suggests reading from cover to cover, yikes!) and other resources to help us along the journey.  All these things, he says, keep spiritual reading from becoming “sappy” and “soupy.”

So for those of us who want to connect with God and lead others to do the same, we need to teach and model good exegetical skills.  Basic hermeneutics should be required and recurring in every church.  However, we must remember the other side of the coin: we don’t read simply for information to master the text.  The text must take us to prayer.  The text must lead to transformation.  The text must master us.  The discerning leader will practice and promote both the informational and formational methods of reading and praying the Scriptures in order to achieve a mature understanding of God and a mature love for God and others.

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