Reading Scripture for Transformation

by Peter D. Spychalla, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation

In last week’s blog, we introduced the ancient art of lectio divina (pronounced lex-ee-oh dih-vee-nuh), a slow, contemplative reading and praying of the Holy Scriptures in order to encounter God and be spiritually transformed.  This week, we reflect more deeply on the attitude toward Scripture that enables us to read for spiritual transformation.

The typical reading we do throughout the day can be characterized as reading for information, rather than for transformation.  Whether it is web pages, email, articles, books, or blogs, we often read quickly to get the data we need in order to accomplish the task at hand.  We could be solving a problem, seeking to understand a topic or issue, performing research, or simply keeping up with news, events, and weather.  This reading is approached in a somewhat objective manner, at arm’s length.  We perform informational reading in order to accomplish our goals and agenda.  We read selectively, analytically, critically, and principally “use” data for our own purposes.  We often read Scripture for information as well.  We may be seeking to answer a question, or understand a passage more accurately.  For example, we may ask what message a text communicated to its original audience in light of the text’s ancient historical, cultural, religious, linguistic, and rhetorical backgrounds and contexts.  We may be seeking to complete a Bible study or prepare for a sermon.  Informational reading is valuable and indispensible in our lives.

Reading Sacred Scripture for transformation moves beyond informational reading.  The goal is to have our soul, our inner person, shaped and molded by what we are reading.  Rather than controlling and using a text for our goals, we seek to let God use the inspired text for His divine purposes in our heart, mind, and character.  In our prayerful encounter with God in reflective reading of the text, we seek to let Him conform us more and more to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).  In transformational reading, we come to the text with a posture of humble, yielded openness to God’s agenda.  We come pliantly responsive to Our Loving Shepherd’s invitation to meet us in His Holy Word.  We read attentively, meditatively, and contemplatively in the belief that He actually is speaking to us in our prayerful reading of Holy Scripture.

It is certainly right to study the ancient writings of the Old and New Testaments in a rigorous, academic manner using the very best methods, approaches, and tools for historical research, linguistic investigation, literary criticism, and theological analysis.  All are essential for carefully interpreting each text of Scripture in its variegated and multi-faceted contexts.  However, we build upon and go beyond (not against!) this disciplined analysis in transformation reading.  We are not satisfied simply to understand a text of Sacred Scripture; rather, we seek “to stand under” it—be submissive to the text and let it have authority over us.  We are not content only to plumb the depths of a text; rather, we seek to have the text plumb the depths of our very soul, revealing the substance of what is there, or is lacking.  Not wishing merely to read a text, we wish the text of Scripture “to read us,” so to speak, by illumining the many ways that we do not yet fully conform to Christ in thought, word, or deed.  We seek to have the words of Scripture penetrate our heart and mind that we may be affected, stirred, and changed at deep levels.  Thus, we read for spiritual transformation, not merely for information.  We encourage you to consider exploring this approach to Sacred Scripture with us.

We invite you to join us at Urbana Theological Seminary this summer for the course “Reading and Praying Scripture for Spiritual Transformation (Lectio Divina).”   Our attitude in approaching Scripture will be that of Samuel, “Speak, for Thy servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).