Beckett: Meditating on Scripture

Luther wrote that everyone is a theologian, and one becomes a good theologian through oratio, meditatio, and tentatio—that is, prayer, meditation, and temptation respectively. Because “the Holy Scriptures constitute a book which turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness” since “not one teaches about eternal life except this one alone… you should straightway despair of your reason and understanding. With them you will not attain eternal life, but, on the contrary, your presumptuousness will plunge you and others with you out of heaven (as happened to Lucifer) into the abyss of hell.” Therefore, “kneel down in your little room [Matt. 6:6] and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that He through His dear Son may give you His Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding” (LW 34:285-286).

This is just as we confess in the 3rd Article of the Creed, that “I believe that I cannot by y own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts,” etc. Therefore, every meditation of Scripture should begin with oratio—that is, prayer—since everything depends on what the Holy Spirit reveals therein rather than our meagre human understanding. This is especially true for pastors. Before I begin sermon preparation and the Divine Service, I always begin with Luther’s sacristy prayer.

In meditatio, “you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe” (LW 34:286).

If you read your Bible every day, for example, it is not enough to read the passage just once in the day, but twice, maybe thrice, and maybe even four times (especially if you don’t comprehend it upon your first time reading it). Read it out loud too, especially if it’s a psalm, which is meant to be vocalised anyway. And even should you study a text so closely with careful exegetical skill—if you possess such abilities—never walk away thinking you have complete understanding. It can never be repeated enough that catechesis is from the womb to the tomb. We are perennial students of God’s Word. Our meditations never end even on the deathbed. Indeed, such meditations are most vital and necessary there.

Lastly is tentatio, or the German word Luther uses, Anfechtung, which is being used in terms of spiritual affliction, or challenge. This “teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom… For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word” (LW 34:287).

In other words, suffering makes a good theologian because it drives us back to oratio and meditatio (prayer and meditation on the Word), which teaches us the excellencies of Christ, just as David often found in his own sufferings as he wrote about them in the Psalms, for example, “O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me,” and then, “But You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head… I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (Psalm 3:1, 3, 5-6). Or as Paul writes, we know “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

The Blessed Virgin Mary is also a most great example of this threefold pattern. Bonhoeffer writes,

As Mary “pondered in her heart” [Luke 2:19] the things that were told by the shepherds… so in meditation God’s Word seeks to enter in and remain with us. It strives to stir us, to work and operate in us, so that we shall not get away from it the whole day long. Then it will do its work in us, often without our being conscious of it… [T]here will be times when we feel a great spiritual dryness and apathy, an aversion, even an inability to meditate. We dare not be balked by such experiences. Above all, we must not allow them to keep us from adhering to our meditation period with great patience and fidelity.

quoted in Schumacher, 6

Such meditations on Holy Writ go where our bodies go. That is why we call such daily meditations devotions, after all—for, devoting ourselves to Scripture, it operates within us all day long to improve our thinking and behaviour, and therefore devoting ourselves to pious (= godly) thinking and actions—that is, to improve our theology, which literally means “God talk” (thus, theology is how we talk to, for, and about God; and a good theologian does these things correctly, that is, with orthodoxy). As Bonhoeffer notes, there will be times when we feel apathy toward such devotion and lack any desire to read the Word at all on a daily basis, yet we mustn’t allow such apathy to drive us away from this most necessary daily bread. Therefore, when such apathy arises, let us still read the Word even though apathy may be present. For only the Word can drive out such tentatio.


Schumacher, Frederick J., and Dorothy A. Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume I, Year 1: Advent to the Day of Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2003.


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