Academic and Devotional Reading: A False Distinction!?!

man-reading-bibleI am assuming that if you were given any advice upon entering seminary, this phrase may have come out: “guard your devotional time with the Lord!” I am not writing to suggest that this is poor advice by any means. It is great advice! Yet, I am wondering whether or not our notion of “devotional time” is too narrow? Are we not constantly communing with the Lord when we open up His Word? He is now speaking to us through His Word and through His people when rightly handling the word of truth. Are we aware of Him? Am I?

Before starting seminary, I interpreted that advice as a call to guard my quiet times by reading the Scriptures apart from my “academic study” of them. Now, less than two months into my studies, I have been on several occasions, including this morning, questioned by my professors, “Why can’t our academic study be devotional?” In raising this question, they are challenging a false distinction that locates worship of the Lord in our private, quiet, reflection on the Scriptures and not in the public academic reflection of Scripture–namely, corporately assigned reading and lecturing. When we are presented with exhortations, such as 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:17, showing that all of life is for the glory of God, why would we not approach our classes and assignments as opportunities to worship as well?

One of my Covenant Theology professors suggested a possible reason for this common separation between “academic” and “devotional” reading of Scripture. He noted that we often view the Scriptures as a collection of truth statements for the purpose of doctrine. And while there are certainly propositional truths in Scripture, the Bible is primarily a story. While there may be a time and place for systematic theology, we must be aware that all of these “truth statements” fall within the context of narrative. In separating doctrine from narrative, we also begin to make distinctions in our reading of Scripture.

Often our “devotional reading” becomes focused on the narrative portions of Scripture, while doctrine falls in the realm of “academic inquiry.” In the words of my professor, “We should always bring our whole self whenever we open up Scripture!” In Proper Confidence, Lesslie Newbigin writes, “The revelation of which we speak in the Christian tradition is more than the communication of information; it is the giving of an invitation” (p.65). That invitation is not relegated to our “quiet times.”

Let us bring our whole self when we come to Scripture, whether in public or private, whether at home or in the classroom, whether the reading is assigned or not! As the author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). This sword is not placed into a sheath in the classroom. The Lord is constantly engaging our hearts, I pray that we would be more aware of this!

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  • Great stuff Steve. This is something I was always thinking about in seminary. Getting it in your first semester is important… keeping it all the way though is the trick.

  • Gotta agree with Ryan! I have struggled with this myself but have managed to find a balance. I do work at guarding that balance but it is worth the effort.

  • This is a great point. And honestly, I feel like my “academic” study of scripture is enhanced by approaching it as an act of devotion. For far too long in Western culture we’ve lived on these artificial, unhealthy easy dualisms between flesh and spirit, text and meaning, sacred and secular, etc. To me, the division between “academic” and “devotional” is just one more of them. And when I am able to find something in “academic” study that corrects an error that was present in my prior understanding of the Bible, it has a positive effect on my “devotional” life as well, so the correction goes both ways – not only should the “academic” study be approached as a devotion, but the “devotional” reading should be informed by good study.

    Just my $0.05 (inflation, you know).


  • I find that my devotional reading and my academic reading serve me in different ways. I have found that my learning at seminary has affected my devotional times. However, I also know that when I have an assignment to read the whole Psalter in a week it will not sink in like when I read just one Psalm each day as part of my reading schedule. I find that when I am reading for assignments I am looking for content or for how I can teach the material.

    I know that teaching has to start with the preacher. However, I also know that my academic reading does not impact me in the same way as my devotional reading does.

    • Jason, you offer a good clarification. I hope that my words have not belittled the need for private one-on-one communion with the Lord through Scripture or the ways in which He speaks to us in those times. You are right in saying that they serve in different ways. The thrust of my words were not that these reading/learning environments should work in us in the same way all time, but rather we should not ignore the working of the Holy Spirit on our hearts in those times of academic inquiry. Please, let me know if I failed to communicate that. Thanks again!

      • Stephen,

        I don’t think that you failed at all. I just have found that I am much less sensitive to the Spirit when I’m trying to get through the whole Psalter or all of Jeremiah in a week. For me anyway there is something about reading for a class that puts me in a different frame of mind. Perhaps that is something that I need to prayerfully work on.

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