‘What the Bible Means for Me’: Devotional Readings of the Bible

In this series, we’ve seen that Christians throughout history have read the Bible with different sets of questions and expectations. For the Apostles, it was ‘How do the Scriptures (i.e., Old Testament), help us understand what we experienced in Jesus?’ For the Church Fathers, it was ‘How do the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) proclaim the Rule of Faith?’ In the Medieval world, it was ‘What have the Scriptures meant?’ For the Reformers, it was ‘What do the Scriptures say?’ For those engaging with higher criticism, it was ‘Where did the Scriptures come from?’ And, for Fundamentalists, it was and is ‘What does the Bible have to say (about everything)?’ All of these questions show a lack of intentional engagement with the individual reader. With the exception of the Apostles themselves, the upper left quadrant of the integral map is only involved accidentally; the individual experience of reading the Scriptures is, in theory, irrelevant. But of course, even if this were possible, it is not how most Christians read the Bible. Even if we’re committed to reading the Bible in community, our personal experiences and circumstances always colour how we interpret the text. Moreover, most of us read the Bible not as an academic or intellectual exercise, but as a sacred practice. In the next two posts, I’d like to look more closely at this phenomenon, whose guiding question is ‘What does the Bible mean for me, today?’ Today, I’ll look at devotional practices that emerged from medieval monasticism in the West. And in the next post, I’ll turn to Protestant devotional readings, and particularly how they manifest in the related traditions of Pentecostalism and the American Black Church.

Devotional interpretive methods emphasize the encounter of the believer with God in Scripture. Bible reading is expected to be a place of spiritual illumination and edification, directly applicable to the life of the reader. This approach assumes that a) there is an individual with the agency and will to read the Bible regularly, b) that this person is literate, and c) that this person has ready access to a Bible. It makes sense, then, that these interpretive practices originated in monasteries, one of the few contexts in the Middle Ages where literacy was widespread. It later received a bump in popularity, especially within Protestantism, with Modernity’s increased literacy rates and mass publication of Bibles in vernacular languages.

The first devotional approach I’ll touch on is the tradition of lectio divina, or ‘sacred reading’, which was listed as one of the three main elements of monastic life (along with prayer and manual labour) in The Rule of Saint Benedict (6th C). This seems generally to have involved the intentional, slow, meditative reading of the Scriptures to encourage reflection on the meaning of the passage and so as always to have the words of the Scriptures on one’s lips. A specific methodology for lectio divina was later developed by a Carthusian monk named Guigo II (12th C). From him, we get the four step methodology recognizable by people today: lectio (reading), meditatio (reflection), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation, but perhaps better understood as ‘silent wonder’ or ‘witnessing state’). The Goal of lectio divina is not so much to understand the Bible as to allow it to speak into our life and transform us. This is the Bible not as a text to be studied, but as a place of encounter with Christ. Lectio divina remains a common feature of most monastic orders in the West, and in recent decades has become a popular practice among the laity as well. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI commended the practice to the faithful, saying: “The diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart.”

A second strand of monastic devotional Bible reading is the tradition of Gospel Contemplation, which is the use of the imagination to place oneself in a story from the Bible, especially the life of Jesus. As far as I am aware, the first person to discuss such a technique was Aelred of Rievaulx in the twelfth century. It was later picked up by St Bonaventure (13th C) and Ludolph of Saxony (14th C). Through Ludolph’s writing, it came to St. Ignatius Loyola (16th C), where it became a much beloved part of his Spiritual Exercises. There, St. Ignatius writes:

… it is helpful to pass the five senses of the imagination through the first and second Contemplation [of the story in question], in the following way:

        1. The first Point is to see the persons with the sight of the imagination, meditating and contemplating in particular the details about them and drawing some profit from the sight.
        2. The second, to hear with the hearing what they are, or might be, talking about and, reflecting on oneself, to draw some profit from it.
        3. The third, to smell and to taste with the smell and the taste the infinite fragrance and sweetness of the Divinity, of the soul, and of its virtues, and of all, according to the person who is being contemplated; reflecting on oneself and drawing profit from it.
        4. The fourth, to touch with the touch, as for instance, to embrace and kiss the places where such persons put their feet and sit, always seeing to my drawing profit from it.

This is an intentionally imaginative and deeply personal approach to the Scriptures, in which one is encouraged to project oneself into the text and engage with it with all of the senses and faculties. St. Ignatius’s approach has been popularized in recent decades in the West and is now quite common in retreats, prayer circles, and individual practice.

Placing these practices on our Integral grid, we see here the recovery (almost exclusively) of the upper left quadrant of personal experience. While monastic practices are always understood to occur within community, which provides a context for and constraint on any personal interpretations of the text, they occur entirely within the heart and mind of the individual reader and are oriented entirely towards the edification and transformation of the human person.

Because of this upper left orientation, devotional readings are often viewed to be out of scope for hermeneutics proper. For, after all, these practices are oriented not toward interpretation but transformation. Hermeneutics is about understanding, and understanding, it’s widely believed, is about the knowledge — the intellect, not the heart. But, I find this an unsatisfying situation. On this count, I think Reader-Response Criticism (developed in the 1960s and 70s) was on to something. It insisted that a text is a meeting place between an author and a reader. The author has goals and intentions that may or may not be fulfilled. When it comes to the Bible, it’s clear that there is an intention beyond the simple conveying of information. The intended response to the Old Testament sagas or the Gospels is not learning but faith; the intended response to prayers is not learning but prayer; the intended response to the Psalms is not learning but worship; and the intended response to Prophets and Epistles is not learning but change. The texts of the Bible are intended to inspire us, confound our expectations, and open our hearts to new wonders. These are matters of the heart, not just the mind. And so to properly understand what the Biblical text is trying to do, we cannot close off the heart.

This idea will come up again in the next post, but it’s an important starting point in assessing the practices discussed today. For, as integral theory reminds us, in order to understand something, we need to look at it from all four quadrants; the intention of ignoring the upper left quadrant of personal experience does not eliminate it (as we saw in the assessment of classical Protestant hermeneutics), but only hides it, pushes it into shadow. Devotional practices such as lectio divina and Gospel Contemplation can help to restore the balance by bringing personal experience intentionally into the hermeneutical frame. This also means, however, that they are not on their own sufficient to ‘understand’ the Scriptures, for they focus only on personal experience and ignore the other quadrants. So, in addition to their spiritual benefits, devotional readings of the Bible offer a needed corrective to the other hermeneutical traditions we’ve discussed in this series, even if they aren’t successful strategies on their own.

The next post will look at how devotional readings work in the Pentecostal and American Black Churches. There we will see a more conscious effort to integrate a personal, immediate, application-oriented reading of the Bible into the broader hermeneutical world.

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