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our Scattered Spiritual Lives.
A Review of
Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Andrew Stout
Theological interpretations of Scripture are very much in fashion. These methods emphasize the Church’s interpretive role through typology, creeds, and liturgical use. Plenty of good books are available that call for reappropriations of premodern and precritical interpretive methods (in addition to a host of individual authors, book series like the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Intervarsity Press’ Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and Baker Academic’s Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality could be mentioned). However, as Rowan Williams notes in the Foreword to Lectio Divina, “We have plenty of good scholarship and plenty of good popular summaries of that scholarship – but very little on the actual theology of reading the Bible, very little on reading the Bible as a central form of our discipleship” (vii). Enzo Bianchi understands the scholarship, and he provides a helpful orientation for the layperson. More than this, however, Bianchi shows that proper interpretation requires the faithful entrance into an active dialogue with the Word.
Bianchi is the founder and prior of the ecumenical Monastic Community of Bose in northern Italy. He is a product of Vatican II, embodying the council’s key themes of ecumenism and lay engagement with the Bible. In advocating the medieval practice of the lectio divina, or “divine reading,” Bianchi encourages the kind of total saturation with the Bible that begins to naturally draw out the diverse senses of Scripture: “When we read prayerfully, we draw out of the biblical text the living word that calls us to live full and rich Christian lives, even if that word’s work in us remains mysterious” (xiii).
The first part of the book, entitled “Bible and Spirit,” emphasizes the way that the biblical text is centered within the life and liturgy of the Church. Scripture draws connections between the Church’s liturgy, preaching, theology, and the daily lives of the faithful (10). Bianchi asks the important question, “What is the relationship, exactly, between God’s word and the Bible, between Word and Scripture?” (23). In answer to this Bianchi delineates the sacramental character of Scripture. He draws out the “perichoresis or circular movement between Word and Scripture” (27), suggesting that while Word and Scripture are truly present in one another, neither is reducible to the other. This perichoretic principle is expanded to include the mutual indwelling of the Word and the Eucharist, as well as the interdependence of the Old and New Testaments. By drawing out the liturgical and canonical unity of the Bible, Bianchi identifies the sacramental character of Scripture. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “Scripture has ecclesial status and can rightly be called a sacrament” (38). Through this sacramental and perichoretic emphasis, it becomes clear that the propositional and experiential elements of Scripture, the letter and the spirit, mutually indwell in one another.
One of the most important elements for the type of “spiritual” reading that Bianchi advocates is listening. He notes that “A dialogical structure is built into Scripture” (64) and this dialogue between text and reader requires faithful listening. This sort of invested listening to the text, a listening with a view towards obedience, is how we receive the sacrament of Scripture. It is telling that the chapter on listening is where Bianchi choses to discuss the medieval categories of the four senses of Scripture: “the literal, the allegorical (or tropological), and the anagogical” (75). It is only through prayerful listening and meditation that these multiple sense begin to unfold.
In part two, “Lectio Divina in the Church,” Bianchi briefly surveys the various ways that Scripture has been read in the Church, including the modern emphasis on the literal sense of the text in historical criticism. Many of these approaches have tended to focus on one sense of the text to the exclusion of others. The lectio divina is a way of incorporating these diverse senses through four basic steps – lectio, meditato, oratio, and contemplatio. These stages roughly correlate to the four sense of Scripture, mediating the whole presence of Christ to the reader/listener. The four steps are not techniques (as evidenced by the simplicity of Bianchi’s description of each step) but a basic description of the stages that are moved through when we come to Scripture in faith and with quiet, patient attention. The lectio divina begins and arrives at prayer.
One point that Bianchi makes throughout the book causes concern – or at least calls for further explanation. Bianchi speaks of the ladder of meaning that the text ascends through the lectio divina, an ascension that reflects the four-fold sense of Scripture. Based on this, he says “that exegetical and hermeneutical efforts tend to locate a text’s deep truth in its hidden inner nucleus” (19). Later he refers to the literal sense of the text as “the tough ‘husk’ of human discourse” (114) which must be grappled with to get at the message of a passage. While Bianchi insists on the importance of the literal meaning of Scripture, the language of a “husk” that must be shed to get to the “inner nucleus” of truth can easily give the impression that the literal meaning is simply a stepping stone to get to Scripture’s real meaning. However, this would undermine the Incarnation analogy that Bianchi makes earlier, in which the Word of God comes to reside in the literal words of the text.
Bianchi’s remarkable accomplishment in Lectio Divina is reconciling recent scholarly trends in biblical interpretation with a devotional use of the Bible. As scholarship that draws from pre-critical hermeneutics proliferates, Bianchi shows how the insights of such scholarship can only be fully accessed through Spirit led engagement with the text. Some books that seek to revive ancient spiritual practices get bogged down in technique. Bianchi offers a broad theology of Scripture. He never dictates the minutia of how spiritual reading is to be achieved. Instead, he charts the basics of a path through the Bible that reads along the grain of the text, respecting the unity that the Spirit creates from a diverse set of books. Bianchi’s prescription of the lectio divina is sorely needed as a way of bringing coherence to our scattered spiritual lives.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com