It’s become a regular practice of mine to open class with my students each week by exploring Scripture through guided meditations based on ancient practices of the church. Feedback from my students indicates the opportunity to engage Scripture through lectio divina, Ignatian contemplation, and breath prayers is generally a positive experience. I can regularly rely on several enthusiastic responses indicating the selected passage examined was something they needed to hear, or that they were personally ministered to in significant ways by Scripture. I am grateful for these testimonies. They affirm my hunch that sometimes the best words needed before launching into course content aren’t necessarily words from me. Just as I can rely on positive responses to the devotional exercise, there are students who share a sense of unease with or even suspicion of the practice engaged. And I am grateful for their testimonies. They are equally affirming that engaging Scripture as a means of spiritual formation is what students need before launching into course content.
Often, less-than-enthusiastic reactions are because students are new to or unfamiliar with the practice. Mostly, they express surprise or dismay because they’ve never read Scripture as a means of encountering God. New as it might be to them, many students are glad for the opportunity. Still others express feelings of inadequacy because they wonder if they are doing it correctly. Some question the validity of studying Scripture in these more devotional ways without prior, deeper knowledge of the passage we are reading. A few will say they hesitate to fully engage the practice because they worry about doing it wrong now and would need to be corrected when they get to a real Bible class that does some proper exegesis!
I appreciate their honesty because they remind me of the inherent scholastic tendency to approach Scripture for the information we can get out of it rather than for the formation it offers. It is to be expected after all. We are products of socio-historical critical schools of biblical interpretation. Many seminary students enter formal theological education to learn interpretive tools, to be equipped that they might exegete Scripture and unpack it for sermons and pastoral work. Paul’s words are a resounding admonition: it is imperative to understand the inspired words of God in order to use them for “teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16–17). “Certainly,” I can hear my students thinking, “there is a right way to study Scripture. And, if there is a right way, for which I have come to seminary to learn, other methods must be wrong. How can this method of praying my way through Scripture be legitimate? Is this what I came to seminary for?”
I have empathy for my students. I reassure them that their Bible professors will help them learn how to use all sorts of interpretive tools. But the Bible doesn’t just sit around waiting for persons armed with concordances, commentaries, and knowledge of ancient languages, waiting to be exegeted. The Bible, as popularly paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, is meant to be eaten (Jer 15:16; Eat This Book: A Conversation on the Art of Spiritual Reading [Eerdmans, 2009). When we engage these ancient methods of reading the Bible, we ask the Holy Spirit to dine with us. The biblical text can and should be savored like a gourmet meal. The opportunity to meditate on Scripture is like chewing and swallowing food, prompting digestion. Just as food morsels release nutrients into our bodies, forming and strengthening us, the living Word, when consumed, seeks to form and strengthen us that we might grow in Christlike character. What better way can we be taught, reproved, corrected, or trained in righteousness than by feasting on God’s word in company with the Holy Spirit?
Certainly, meditating on Scripture, even under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, does not guarantee correct knowledge regarding context and meaning. Academic study may prove previous understandings needs revision. If we wait until we have all the right answers, we miss the opportunity of letting Scripture form us. Both approaches are valid and are not in opposition to each other. Being trained in biblical languages and interpretive methods provides tools and skills that will inform sermon prep and provide insights needed for pastoral leadership. To diminish or ignore the ways countless saints down through the ages have sought the Holy Spirit that they might be formed as they read and prayed their way through the Psalms, Gospels, and the rest of Scripture impoverishes our faithful discipleship — even as scholar-pastors. We need not simply study the Bible for what we can get out of it, but also allow Scripture to get inside us, that through our devotional meditation on it, the living Word might get something out of us.