Is SOAP Evangelical? (Part 3B: Historical)

discipler's doctrine Oct 02, 2021

Meditative Reading of the Bible in Evangelicalism

Comparing the components of meditative Bible reading (e.g., Lectio divina), Howard (2012) recognizes the similarities of these features with evangelicalism. He states that:

“It is my conviction that the essential features—and even many of the particular components, of lectio divina—are not only kindred, but common in the evangelical tradition” (p. 57).

Howard extensively argues that evangelicals considered the devotional reading of the Bible as a valid spiritual practice that included reading, meditation, consideration, prayer, illumination and experience of the Holy Spirit and action. Engaging in devotional Bible reading promised transformation rather than simple gathering of information.

The Discipline of Reading

Evangelicals have consistently promoted the discipline of reading the Word daily. Howard (2012, p. 59) observes that “evangelicals of past centuries used the language of “duties,” “exercises,” or “means of grace” to identify recommended activities for the sake of fostering spiritual life. James Gordon, in a history of British evangelicalism, lists “Bible reading, prayer, meditation, the community of faith, Holy Communion and other spiritual disciplines” as “God given means whereby the Christian may grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ.” (James M. Gordon, 1991, Evangelical Spirituality from the Wesleys to John Stott, pp. 6-7).

British evangelical clergyman Charles Simeon (1759-1836) urged believers to “make a practice of selecting daily some portion of Scripture for . . . meditation.” Similarly, American Puritan John Cotton says of the duty of Bible reading, “To read the word and to meditate thereon, is a daily part of a Christian holy life.” Accordingly, Timothy Larsen, in his summary of the “biblicism” of evangelicalism, goes further, suggesting, “Devotional Bible reading is more foundational to evangelical piety than the rosary is to Roman Catholic piety.” (Howard, 2012, p. 60).

Howard (2012) explains that many manuals of devotion advised reading the Bible through while others, such as Philip Doddridge, in his classic The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, encouraged the reader to “read some portion of Scripture: not a great deal, nor the whole Bible in its course; but some select portions out of its most useful parts, perhaps ten or twelve verses, not troubling yourself much about the exact connection, or other critical niceties which may occur” (p. 66).

Reading for Meditation

Evangelicals have read the Bible meditatively since their early beginning. Meditation involved reading the Scripture slowly and repetitively. Readers dialogue with the passage engaging their thoughts, feelings, and imaginations. They allow the text to examines their motives and impact their views, practices and actions, leading to personal transformation.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Academic Dean and Professor of Christian history at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illiniois, summarizes the practice of Bible-reading among seventeenth-century Puritans, stating:

“Individuals ideally meditated after reading and before prayer. Meditation was the natural outcome of reading in that the substance of the exercise [meditation practice] often emerged from the passage read. In meditation the believer applied the written text to the soul. Meditation was linked with prayer, since the saint then slipped inevitably into conversation with God. (Hambrick Stowe, The Practice of Piety, p. 161; cited in Howard, 2012, p. 66).

The nineteenth-century Princeton Calvinist Charles Hodge (1797-1878), wrote:

We cannot make progress in holiness unless we devote much time to the reading, hearing, meditating upon the Word of God, which is the truth whereby we are sanctified. The more this truth is brought before the mind; the more we commune with it, entering into its import, applying it to our own case, appropriating its principles, appreciating its motives, rejoicing its promises, trembling at its threatening, rising by its influences from what is seen and temporal to what is unseen and eternal; the more we may expect to be transformed by the renewing of our mind so as to approve and love whatever is holy, just, and good.” (Charles Hodge, “The Way of Life,” New York: Paulist Press, 1987, p. 230. Cited in Howard, 2012, p. 68]

Howard also documents Charles Finney’s instructions regarding meditating on God’s Word:

“We must read that more than any or all other books. We must pause and pray over it, verse after verse, and compare part with part, dwell on it, digest it, and get it into our minds, till we feel that the Spirit of God has filled us with the spirit of holiness.” (Cited in Howard, 2012, p. 69).

Prayer-Enveloped Reading

Evangelicals have read the Bible prayerfully. Reading of the Word was combined with prayer from start to finish. Howard (2012, p. 70) lists diverse examples that affirm the emphasis evangelicals placed on combining reading and prayer. Prayer was used to begin the Bible reading. It was the spirit in which Bible reading was conducted. It was the outflow that resulted from the reading itself. Here are just a few examples:

Martin Luther encouraged believers to “kneel down” at the onset of Bible study, asking for enlightenment and understanding.

John Wesley urged that “serious and earnest prayer would be constantly used before we consult the oracles of God… our reading should likewise be closed with prayer, that what we read might be written on our hearts.”

Revivalist George Whitefield (1714-1770) spoke of “praying over every line and word” of the English and Greek texts as he read the Scripture.

Edward Bickersteth makes the statement, “Read the Bible in a spirit of continual prayer” his first rule of Bible-reading.

Application-Oriented Reading

Evangelicals have read the Bible for the purpose of application and transformation. According to Howard (2012), devotional Bible reading was “expected to instruct, to stimulate, and through the work of the Spirit, to effect, a Godward change of life” (p. 74). In fact, he lists a few examples that asserts the place of action/applications of the Word amongst evangelicals:

New Testament scholar Albrecht Bengel states, “Scripture teaches its own use, which consists in action. To act it, we must understand it, and this understanding is open to all the upright of heart.”

Augustus Herman Francke asserts, “To know Christ and the Doctrines concerning Christ, only in theory, is not the Soul of Scripture; it is faith in him, and that imitation of him which flows from faith.”

Evangelical pastor and Bible teacher G. Campbell Morgan (1863-1945) “understood Bible study as a means to an end . . . Bible knowledge which fails to make the connection between the gospel and human life is at best a form of spiritual self-culture, and at worst a muffling of the demands made by the Word of God. Bible study must always provoke action; hearing and doing are constituent elements of a Bible-centred obedience.”

Impact of Meditative Bible Reading

In doctoral research at Asbury Theological Seminary, Joyce Chen (2016) explored the dynamics of transformative change of lectio divina. The research used qualitative and quantitative research methods. Twenty self-selected Chinese Christians from both Los Angeles and Orange Counties participated in this research. The study concluded that the spiralling movements of lectio divina aid in the closing of the sanctification gap. Devotional Bible reading can have a significant impact on believers’ sanctification journey towards Christlikeness. Therefore, it is appropriate to conclude this historical overview with the Chen’s assertation:  

“Accurate exposition of Scripture is very important, but merely focusing on the academic and scholarly reading of Scripture without integrating that knowledge into our daily lives has been one of the reasons for the sanctification gap of Christians for centuries” (p. 3).

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