Sacred Reading (Lectio Divina)

(June/July 2012 – Volume 18, Issue 3)

As we have seen in the last two Think on These Things articles, “Spiritual formation is viewed by a growing number of evangelicals as an ancient ministry of the church, concerned with the ‘forming’ or ‘shaping’ of a believer’s character and actions into the likeness of Christ.” [1]   Spiritual formation is distinguished from biblical discipleship primarily by its source of authority and its methodology.  On the one hand, discipleship as defined by the Bible turns to the Word of God as the final and ultimate authority over all matters of life and godliness.  This means that if one truly desires to be a follower of Jesus Christ, he will turn to the inspired Scriptures to determine both truth and how to “observe all that I [Christ] commanded you” (Matt 28:20).  Spiritual formation pays lip-service to Scripture but the true source behind the movement is the extrabiblical teachings and experiences of those in the past who supposedly have discovered the “secret” of deeper intimacy with God. Bruce Demarest says it this way: “For our help, [in the context of growth in the Spirit] we can turn to our Christian past – to men and women who understood how the soul finds satisfaction as we grow in God, and how His Spirit finds a more ready home in us.” [2]   Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe concur: “Through their reflections, the great saints witness to the work of the Holy Spirit and, when we study them, guide our spiritual life as well.” [3]   While Scripture is referenced by spiritual formation leaders, it is Scripture filtered through the experiences and insights of the “spiritual masters,” as they are often called, that set the pace in spiritual formation.

From the above comments, and those of others with similar views, we clearly see that spiritual formation is different from the typical understanding of discipleship.  Professor Demarest informs us that the difference lies not only in divergent authoritative sources but also in methodology and technique.  He declares that some past saints have discovered “certain spiritual practices were highly effective in nurturing the inner man.  These practices came to be known as the art and ministry of spiritual formation, a form of discipleship we are rediscovering today.” [4]   These practices are usually called “spiritual disciplines” and are the supposed means by which we become more like Christ. There are dozens of these disciplines, drawn almost entirely from Roman Catholic mystics and contemplatives throughout church history, which are being touted as essential to our spiritual life; however, the two foundational disciplines as recognized by all spiritual formation adherents, are prayer and Scripture. 

No evangelical would ever question the value of prayer and the Word in the process of sanctification.  But, as we are seeing, when the spiritual formation devotees speak of these disciplines they mean something entirely different from what Scripture does.  Prayer to those promoting spiritual formation does not reference biblical prayer but contemplative prayer which we explained in our last paper.  Similarly, when spiritual formation enthusiasts promote the reading of the Bible they mean something very unlike the traditional actions of reading, studying and applying of the Word of God to our lives.  Foster agrees that “reading and studying and memorizing and meditating upon Scripture have always been the foundation of the Christian Disciplines.  All of the Disciplines are built upon Scripture. Our practice of the Spiritual Disciplines is kept on course by our immersion in Scripture.” [5]   I have no argument with Foster’s comment about the Word; it is what follows that is problematic.  The breakdown comes in a seemingly innocent remark that completes Foster’s quote, “So we must consider how we can ourselves come to the Bible.” [6] It is how we approach the Bible, what we believe is its purpose, and how we understand its interpretation that marks the distinction between biblical discipleship’s and spiritual formation’s use of Scripture. 

Briefly, conservative evangelicalism has taught that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant and sufficient Word of God whereby He reveals Himself, unfolds the drama of redemption through Jesus Christ, draws man to Himself and teaches him the truth necessary for godly living now and eternal life to come.  As 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 states, the Scriptures are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”  How the believer mines the treasures of Scripture is through the normal, literal (often called grammatical/historical) approach to its reading and study.  As God’s truth is understood through this process, it is then to be applied to our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is not the approach to Scripture recommended and promoted within spiritual formation.  As a matter of fact, this approach is often ridiculed as merely an intellectual process that does not reach the inner person and does not lead to transformation.  Instead, we are told that if our lives are to be truly reformed by the Bible we must turn to an ancient technique, never actually taught in the Word itself, known as lectio divina.

Lectio Divina – a Definition

Lectio divina is a method of biblical meditation on the Scriptures that has been practiced by some Christians as far back as the fourth century. It is important to note from the outset that nobody knowledgeable of lectio, which is sometimes called “sacred reading,” “divine reading,” or “spiritual reading,” claims that it is taught or modeled in Scripture.  Rather, it is a method created and first practiced by contemplative monks and hermits three to four hundred years after the time of Christ.  Only recently, through the efforts of Richard Foster and a host of others, has lectio gained a foothold among Protestants, but its popularity is growing rapidly. Foster documents that lectio is rooted in the allegorical interpretation of Scripture that reigned from the time of the early church fathers such as Origen until the Reformation. Foster believes the pre-Reformation church saw “interplay between God’s interpretive Spirit, our spirit and God’s inspiring Spirit that gave rise to the original text.”  Foster continues. “Eventually, this method became standardized and known as lectio divina, the oldest and most widespread method for reading and understanding both the literal and allegorical senses of Scripture.” [7]   This approach to reading Scripture was one of the main issues at the time of the Reformation, with the Reformers returning to the original grammatical/historical method of understanding the Bible. Foster believes the Protestant church was the loser in this return to sola scriptura because lectio “originated with the greatest minds in the history of the early and medieval church.  They were often sophisticated people with powerful intellects.” [8] Apparently the intellectual pedigree of the designers of lectio trumps the clear meaning of Scripture and how it was read through a normal, literal approach.

Lectio’s modern attractiveness in the West stems from recent departures within the fields of philosophy and theology from literal, didactic thinking in tandem with a resurgence of imagination and experience-based epistemologies.  Foster even defines lectio as the means whereby “sanctified imagination” is used most frequently, in the reading of Scripture. [9]

In fact lectio has little to do with the knowledge of Scripture.  Madame Guyon, well-known “Christian” mystic, writes, “[In lectio you are not reading the Scriptures to gain some understanding but to] turn your mind from outward things to the deep parts of your being.  You are not there to learn to read, but…to experience the presence of your Lord!” [10]   Paraphrasing Guyon, Foster continues to claim, “It is not that we think about what we have read…it is that we feed on what we have read.  Therefore we are to discipline our mind to be quiet before the Lord.  We are to allow our mind to rest.” [11]

Even Foster claims that Guyon’s instructions are out of his range of experience, so we turn to Ruth Haley Barton, formerly on staff at Willow Creek Community Church, who writes, “Lectio divina is an approach to the Scriptures that sets us up to listen for the word of God spoken to us in the present moment…Invariably he communicates his love for us in ways that we can hear and experience beyond cognitive knowing.  One of the reasons this approach is so powerful is that lectio divina involves a delicate balance of silence and word.  It is a very concrete way of entering into the rhythm of speaking and listening involved in intimate communication.” [12]   Lectio is viewed as a means of hearing the voice of God in experiential, non-cognitive ways, so that in an inexplicable manner the Lord speaks to our hearts rather than our minds.  In lectio one does not go to the Scriptures to learn about God, or His ways, or to find and apply truth, but to experience a feeling of the presence of God.  This is why Leighton Ford says that every morning as he “pray[s] the Scriptures” he “quietly sit[s] in the presence of my Lord, waiting for his voice.” [13]

Lectio is used not only with Scripture but also when reading the saints of the past.  The following quote by Richard Foster demonstrates how the contemplatives place on par with Scripture the writings of men and women. 

We can learn from the lives of the saints and the writings that have proceeded from their profound experience of God.  Humbly we read these writings because we know that God has spoken in the past…So whether through Scripture, icons or the lives of faithful Christians down through the centuries, we are ever seeking to “descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord.” [14]

Mike King trains young people to meditate on Scripture in order to experience the Holy Spirit speaking to them. He recommends they keep a journal of their encounters with the Holy Spirit while practicing lectio divina.  He instructs his students to listen “in quiet solitude for the Holy Spirit to speak to them individually.”  When their time of silence is complete they pair up to share what they sensed from the Holy Spirit. [15]   At this year’s Passion Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, John Piper, Beth Moore, Francis Chan and Louis Giglio led 45,000 college students through a modified guided lectio divina session.  After the different speakers read a chapter from the book of Ephesians, the participants were told to shut their eyes and listen to the voice of God. At the end of the experiment Giglio asked how many of the students (all under age 25) had heard the specific voice of God speaking to them.  From the videos apparently the majority claimed they did. [16] Through such means, young adult Christians are being subtly introduced to spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina.

Kenneth Boa has written at least four books, all published by the Navigators’ NavPress,  teaching and promoting lectio divina: Sacred Readings: A Journal, The Psalms: A Journal, The Trinity: A Journal, and Historic Creeds: A Journal.  Boa tells us:

Devotional spirituality revels in the glorious attributes of God and aspires to lay hold of God’s aspiration for us.  It prepares our souls for the “mystic sweet communion” of living entirely in God and in one another as the three Persons of God eternally live and rejoice in one another.  It instills in us a passion for Christ’s indwelling life and inspires us to swim in the river of torrential love that flows from His throne of grace. [17]

Besides the fact that “mystic sweet communion” is not a biblical category but rather a phrase found in the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” and despite the fact that “living entirely in God and one another” is indeterminate in meaning, and despite the fact that being inspired “to swim in the river of torrential love that flows from His throne of grace” sounds inviting but is nebulous and nowhere found in Scripture, Boa believes that “devotional spirituality” should be the goal of every Christian. Strangely Boa does not see spiritual formation as resulting in deeper insights into God, but just the opposite.  He writes,

The great pilgrims [i.e. the ancient mystics] along the way have discovered that progress from superficial to substantive apprehension of God is not so much a movement from darkness to light as it is a plummeting into the ever-increasing profundity of the cloud of unknowing. [18]

Lectio divina is, as Boa sees it, a formational reading as opposed to an informational reading of Scripture.  By informational he means a linear approach that seeks to master (understand) the text through careful analytical processes, as opposed to a formational approach which is an in-depth process allowing the text to shape us without much concern for its meaning.  Boa says, “The formational approach…centers on speaking to the heart more than informing the mind.” [19]   At best this division between heart and mind is an artificial one.  Biblically, the heart references the inner, immaterial part of mankind which includes the mind.  Besides, in no place in Scripture are we ever told to separate the heart from the mind or to attempt some form of nonintellectual pursuit of God.  Nevertheless, spiritual formation in general, and lectio divina in particular, is interested in experiences that cannot be explained or logically understood; in a word: mystery. [20]  

Boa explains that

Lectio divina centers on loving God through His Word.  It was introduced to the West by the Eastern desert father John Cassian early in the fifth century.  The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict that guided Benedictine and Cistercian monastic practice prescribed daily periods for sacred reading. Unfortunately, by the end of the Middle Ages it came to be seen as a method that should be restricted to the spiritually elite.  As time passed, even monastics lost the simplicity of sacred reading as it was replaced by more complicated systems and forms of “mental prayer.”  In recent decades, however, this ancient practice has been revitalized, especially by those in the Cistercian tradition.  Writers like Thomas Merton…[and] Thomas Keating…have been promoting sacred reading in Catholic circles, and Protestants are now being exposed to this approach as well. [21]

In summary, lectio is a method of reading the Bible designed to feed the soul with minimum use of, or impact on, the mind.  It was created by Catholic monks for those living in the monastic system and used almost exclusively within the monastic system for centuries.  It is never taught, alluded to or modeled by anyone in Scripture and lost favor even among Catholics at the latter stages of the Middle Ages.  It was revitalized among some Catholics in the mid-1970s and more recently has increasingly caught the attention of Protestants.  Eugene Peterson represents the attitude of many evangelicals in his endorsement of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which introduced spiritual formation, including lectio, to Protestants in the late 1970s, 

Like a child exploring the attic of an old house on a rainy day, discovering a trunk full of treasure and then calling all his brothers and sisters to share the find, Richard Foster has “found” the spiritual disciplines that the modern world stored away and forgot, and has excitedly called us to celebrate them.  For they are, as he shows us, the instruments of joy, the way into mature Christian spirituality and abundant life. [22]

With this description of lectio divina, along with the background of its origin and use, we need next to move to methodology. 

Lectio Divina – the Techniques

Sacred Reading proceeds in four stages: reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio).  It sounds good on the surface, but as we dissect the stages we find that none of the stages is what evangelicals have traditionally understood when they speak of Bible reading and study.

Lectio: Richard Foster recommends a time of preparation before beginning to read.  He writes, “Still yourself within by breathing deeply, quieting the clamor of demands and distractions.  Do not rush this part.  Inward stillness is as important to spiritual reading as muscle-stretching is to a workout.” [23]   After selecting a passage of Scripture, read it aloud, deliberately and slowly.  “When you alight upon a word, a phrase, or a sentence that speaks to your heart, pause in your reading.” [24]   It is important to note at this point that we are not reading the text looking for meaning, nor are we studying as “a ‘scholar,’ searching for information; instead come as a disciple who seeks insight from a learned mentor.” [25] Mark Yaconelli explains the process,

Read a short passage two or three times, listening for a particular word that seems to stand out for us, address us, disturb us, or comfort us.  We receive this word as if God were picking it up and handing it to us.  We then take this word and hold it within the deepest recesses of our heart.  We repeat this word over and over, noticing the feelings and thoughts that come to us as we repeat this word gently within.  We then allow ourselves to pray, to speak to God whatever words or feelings we have within us. [26]

Ruth Haley Barton adds that while reading we are to listen “for the word or the phrase that strikes us…we have a sense of expectancy that God will speak to us.  After reading there is a brief period of silence in which we remain with the word, savoring it and repeating it without trying to figure out what it means or why it was given.” [27]

Meditatio: the next step is meditation but not meditation as we normally would understand it.  Boa describes meditation as “a spiritual work of holy desire and an interior invitation for the Spirit to pray and speak within us (Romans 8:26-27).” [28]   Two brief thoughts before we move on.  First, note the misinterpretation of Romans 8:26-27 which is virtually universal in mystical literature.  The text does not promise that the Holy Spirit will speak to us in prayer but that He will intercede with the Father for us as we pray.   This is an important and often overlooked point. Secondly, the emphasis throughout all four stages of lectio is on God speaking to us in the process.  Foster writes,

Like the joyful awareness of a loved one whispering softly into our ears, we become aware of the intimately personal voice of God.  We cannot pinpoint where it is coming from because suddenly it is within us, sounding with a heightened clarity and immediacy, reverberating in the chambers of our heart.  We know without a doubt who is speaking to us.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and his sheep know his voice. [29]

Rather than turning us to the Word of God to hear the Lord’s voice, lectio turns us inward to attempt to listen to a subjective thought that is being interpreted as coming from the Lord.  In addition, Barton cautions her readers not to think too much about the passage at this stage, rather “keep coming back to the word that we have been given.” [30] The word “given” to one of the students of Yaconelli, while reading about Jesus sitting in a boat, was “cushion.” After repeating the word “cushion” over and over “for the longest time” until he started to remember his grandmother lying on a pillow just before she died, the youth felt so peaceful he nearly went to sleep. [31] This was supposedly the message that God was speaking to this young man from Mark 4:35-41.

Oratio: Most evangelicals understand reading of the Word as God speaking to us; in turn we speak to Him through prayer.  But oratio is more complicated than that: “Oratio is a time for participation in the interpenetrating subjectivity of the Trinity through prolonged mutual presence and growing identification with the life of Christ.” [32] If this statement by Ken Boa leaves you scratching your head join the club. Richard Foster uses the language of mystical romanticism to describe the same thing,

We want to turn to the Lover who is whispering in our ear and look in the divine face, trace with our fingertips the beloved features while speaking softly in return, and rejoice to see ourselves reflected in Jesus’ gaze and feel our very existence affirmed by his intimate awareness of us. [33]

This erotic description of what one is supposed to experience when encountering the Lord in lectio is virtually blasphemous. Nevertheless it fits well with the subjective desires of the mystic, who in oratio is listening for the voice of God as much as actually praying to the Lord.  But more importantly, prayer in lectio divina is “part of the path that leads to contemplation” [34] – the actual goal of lectio.

Contemplatio: Tricia McCary Rhodes writes,

The final step in lectio divina is contemplation, which means to focus on being aware of God’s presence, drawing near and loving him.  If we speak at all during this time, it is to offer words of gratitude for what we’ve seen or to express the love we feel in our hearts toward the Lord.  Often we will sit quietly, even if only for a moment or two, musing over the wonder that the God of the universe has broken into our day with a personal revelation. [35]

This is the Holy Grail in lectio divina in which the Lord provides a personal revelation to those who have taken the four steps. Boa describes this fourth step as “a mysterious territory in which the language is silence and the action is receptivity.  True contemplation is a theological grace that cannot be reduced to logical, psychological, or aesthetic categories.” [36]   This same author clearly distinguishes meditation and contemplation.  Meditative prayer involves speech, activity, discursive thought, vocal and mental prayer, natural faculties of reason and imagination, affective feelings, reading and reflection, doing, seeking, and talking to Jesus.  Contemplative prayer is described as silence, receptivity, loss of mental images and concepts, wordless prayer and interior stillness, mysterious darkening of the natural faculties, loss of feelings, inability to meditate, being receiving, and entering into the prayer of Jesus. [37]

As can be seen, contemplation within the spiritual formation movement is entering into a mysterious, virtual trance-like state in which one believes he has achieved union with God.  Boa frames it this way: “When we enter into the numinous territory of contemplation, it is best for us to stop talking and ‘listen to Him’ in simple and loving attentiveness.  In this strange and holy land we must remove the sandals of our ideas, constructs, and inclinations, and quietly listen for the voice of God.” [38] Modern mystic Thomas Merton adds, “The life of contemplation…is the life of the Holy
Spirit in our inmost souls.  The whole duty of contemplation is to abandon what is base and trivial in (your) own life, and do all (you) can to conform…to the secret and obscure promptings of the Spirit of God.” [39]

It should also be noted that the contemplatives believe lectio divina should be used with other literature outside of the Bible.  God will speak to us in the creeds, Boa believes.  Demarest tells us that “God also graciously speaks to His children through Christian books, hymns, and religious art.” [40]


Lectio divina is the counterpart to contemplative prayer within spiritual formation. As contemplative prayer is a mystical, non-cognitive method of prayer which has as its goal an inexplicable union with God, so lectio uses the same approach with the same goal in regard to Scripture.   The motivation behind this system is the often expressed concern that Christian living in the West has been reduced to mere mental activity.  Morton Kelsey observes that “in Protestantism, God became a theological idea known by inference rather than a reality known by experience.” [41]

In analyzing Kelsey’s concern it is important to understand that it is largely a straw man. There are exceptions to be sure, but I know of no one who desires or teaches that the Christian life should be only cerebral, or simply a theological knowledge of a set of facts.  Rather, biblical Christianity teaches that our lives are to be shaped by truth – truth that forms us into Christ-likeness.  Without the application of truth, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will become spiritually stunted, but that is neither the goal of Scripture nor the teaching of the vast majority of evangelical leaders and churches.  The distinction between contemplative spirituality and conservative evangelicalism lies first of all in the dominate or controlling factor.  For the spiritual formation movement the dominate factor is experience and imagination.  For the evangelical it is truth emanating from the Scriptures. 

This leads naturally to the source of truth.  Conservative Christians believe that the final authority for life, doctrine and experience is the Word of God, which we cherish and guard (2 Tim 3:16-17; Mark 7:6).  If the Bible teaches something then we trust it, put it into practice, and live it. But if a claim or teaching aimed toward spiritual life and development is not found in the Scriptures, it is at best an opinion and certainly not a dogma to be cloned and distributed among God’s people.  Spiritual formation leaders, however, do not find their teachings and practices in Scripture but in the writings of ancient mystics that have been revitalized by modern mystics.  This is what separates biblical Christianity from spiritual formation and should be able to convince any tempted by spiritual formation to reexamine carefully the claims, experiences, and methodology of the movement.


[1] Bruce Demarest, Satisfying Your Soul, Restoring the Heart of Christian Spirituality, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1999), p. 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe, Longing for God, Seven Paths of Christian Devotion, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 15.

[4] Demarest, p. 23, (emphasis his).

[5] Richard J. Foster with Kathryn A. Helmers, Life with God, Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation, (New York: Harper One, 2008), p. 8-9.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe, Longing for God, Seven Paths of Christian Devotion, p. 134.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard J. Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul, Journey into Meditative Prayer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), p. 42.

[10] As quoted in Richard J. Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul, Journey into Meditative Prayer, pp. 73-74.

[11] Richard J. Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul, Journey into Meditative Prayer, pp. 74-75.

[12] Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2006), pp. 54-55, (emphasis mine).

[13] Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life, Discerning God’s Presence in All Things, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 93.

[14] Richard J. Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul, Journey into Meditative Prayer, pp. 46-47.

[15] Mike King, Presence-Centered Youth Ministry, Guiding Students into Spiritual Formation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p. 149.

[16] The video can be viewed at:

[17] Kenneth Boa, Trinity: a Journal, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), p. 7.

[18] Ibid., p. 8. Some trace the roots of the Spiritual Formation Movement to 1974 when Father William Menninger, a Trappist monk, found an ancient book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing in the library at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.  This 14th century book offered a means by which contemplative practices, long used by Catholic monks, could be taught to lay people.

[19] Kenneth Boa, Historic Creeds: a Journal, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2000), p. 10.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Kenneth Boa, The Trinity: a Journal, pp. 12-13.

[22] Quoted in Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, the Path to Spiritual Growth, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 206.

[23] Richard Foster, Life with God, p. 64.

[24] Bruce Demarest, p. 136.

[25] Ibid., p. 139.

[26] Mark Yaconelli, Downtime, Helping Teenagers Pray, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), pp. 113-114.

[27] Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 57 (emphasis mine).

[28] Kenneth Boa, The Trinity :a Journal, p. 16.

[29] Richard Foster, Life with God, p. 67.

[30] Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 57.

[31] Mark Yaconelli, Downtime, pp. 117-119.

[32] Kenneth Boa, The Trinity: a Journal, p. 19.

[33] Richard Foster, Life with God, p. 68.

[34] Kenneth Boa, The Trinity: a Journal, p. 19.

[35] Tricia McCary Rhodes, Sacred Chaos, Spiritual Disciplines for the Life You Have, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 70.

[36] Kenneth Boa, The Trinity: a Journal, p. 20.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Quote in Bruce Demarest, p. 157 (emphasis mine).

[40] Bruce Demarest, p. 138.

[41] Quoted in Bruce Demarest, p. 96.


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