Is SOAP Evangelical? (Part 3A: Historical)

discipler's doctrine Oct 01, 2021

Throughout my ministry years in evangelical church contexts, I have met numerous individuals who refuted the appropriateness of reading the Bible meditatively (e.g., through the method of SOAP or lectio divina).

Listening to some well-meaning evangelical teachers, churchgoers, and bloggers theorize about meditative Bible reading may give the impression that SOAPs are either heretical or at least invalid approach to evangelical spirituality.

However, in a study of the historical practices of evangelicalism, Evan B. Howard, affiliate Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary, examines the alignment of meditative Bible reading (lectio divina) with Protestant practices. In his extensive enquiry, he investigated practices of Protestant Reformers, Anglican devotional writers, Puritans, Pietists, revivalists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, and other similar expressions. He concluded:

“Devotional Bible-reading was important and that, given the portraits of lectio divina presented in classic and popular literature and given the descriptions of Bible reading found in the broad history of evangelicalism from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, evangelical Bible reading in pen and practice bore a great resemblance to lectio divina.” (Howard, 2012, p. 76).

Accordingly, in this blog and the next, I hope to humbly argue that meditative reading of the Scripture is consistent with evangelicalism, and essential for Christian transformation.

In this endeavour, I summarise findings from researchers who have provided an extensive study of meditative Bible reading in evangelical tradition. Leaning on their scholarly work, I will focus my argument on three main parts: 1) history of meditative Bible reading, 2) meditative Bible reading in evangelicalism and 3) impact of meditative Bible reading on evangelical believers.

History of Meditative Bible Reading

Meditative Bible reading has a time-honoured history in the Christian tradition.

The primary method for meditative Bible reading is known as lectio divina. This practice has been practised in the church from the days of Benedict of Nursia (480-543). Known as the founder of Western monasticism, Benedict established a monastery at Monte Cassino (529) and developed a set of standards to regulate the activities of the monks. These involved three main occupations: worship, study and manual labour. Lectio divina was articulated in the Benedictine Rule:

lectio was termed divina because it was the reading of Scripture. Meditation in antiquity was conceived essentially as an effort to digest and assimilate the biblical text through repeated recollection of it. And contemplation was to attain the steady vision of those realities presented by Scripture.” (Howard p. 58).

Lectio divina is defined in the New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality as: “a holy reading of the Scriptures . . . requiring prayerful reflection on the text leading to communion with God in prayer. Lectio divina is thus distinguished from scientific exegesis, hermeneutics, and the study of Scripture for specifically theological purposes.”

Distinguished from academic study, this practice of meditative Bible reading, includes: lectio (reading), meditatio (meditating), oratio (praying), and contemplatio (contemplation). This practice aims to bear fruit in the spiritual growth of the reader.

In the Christian Orthodox tradition, meditation is “closely linked to profound and heartfelt Bible reading. Such reading leaves an indelible impression upon one’s memory, emotions, and tongue.” (Matthew the Poor, 2003, Paryer, p. 43). In the patristic tradition, meditation involved reading the words of the Scripture slowly, soaking them in, and repeating them in an audible voice. Additionally, such reading extended where believers read the words silently and inwardly over and over “until the heart [was] ablaze with divine fire” (p. 45).

This practice of meditative reading of the Bible enabled these ancient believers to treasure and comprehend God’s Word. “When man [or woman] advances in the practice of meditation with the help of grace, [s/]he begins little by little to understand the mystical subtleties in the word of God and in the psalms” (Isaac the Syrian, 613-700 AC).

Could this ancient tradition of meditative Bible reading be evident in the spiritual practices of evangelicals over the centuries?

That's exaclty what we will address in our next blog!


The article I refer to in these two blogs comes from The Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care (2012).

Also Howard co-authored with James Wilhoit: Discovering Lectio Divina: Bring Scripture into Ordinary Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).

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