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Should Protestants Practice Contemplation?

A Biblical-Theological Assessment

We live in an extremely distracted environment; we have a world of amusements at our fingertips. If so desired, one could spend hours a day on a screen scrolling through various social media or streaming platforms, and many of us do. While not altogether bad, these virtually endless entertainment options can easily have us wasting our time away while more important matters are neglected or forgotten. Not the least of those matters for which we need to account as Christians is time spent with God and the way in which we think about Him.

A.W. Tozer famously wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”[1] The question that arises as we consider our current topic is, do we actually think about God? Further, John Webster said as we go about the task of theologizing (if you will), all of the tasks involved, “are preparatory, contributory, or dispositive, serving to conduce the mind to contemplation of the infinite excellence of the divine being.”[2] As we investigate the Lectio Divina (LD), contemplation is the final stage of practice. Only after we have read, meditated, and prayed should we then contemplate, by way of “silent resting in the love of God,” as Hans Boersma describes it.[3] The LD itself, not to mention the practice of contemplation in general, has come under scrutiny in recent years. A certain sector of evangelical authors has questioned whether Protestant Evangelicals should practice LD or contemplation.[4] We should, of course, weigh any practice against the teaching of Scripture, so faithful Christians will be weary of adopting any practice without careful exegetical consideration. However, just as with anything, we are not and should not be isolated from the history of the church when it comes to practices, so we must also be careful to consider such practices from church history and also the “whom” of that practice. We should as well, agree that the definition of contemplation is not entirely agreed upon amongst those who seek to describe it. Therefore, let us press forward into these matters, looking to Scripture and the history of understanding contemplation, as well as formulating some theological conclusions.

Scriptural Silence

As we consider Boersma’s idea of “silent resting in God’s love,” as the final stage of the LD, perhaps a verse that comes to mind is Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” It’s ironic that this is such a well-known and oft quoted verse that likely falls easily from the lips of those who question the validity of silently resting in God’s love as a protestant Christian practice. Of this verse and similar Psalms, Evan B. Howard rightly states, “While these psalms do not describe a particular discipline of devotion, they do promote a mood of devotion, a mood of setting aside anxious thoughts to rest in trustful stillness within the care of the Almighty.”[5]

It is fair to say that unlike the New Age concept of emptying one’s mind, LD rather commends the filling of one’s mind with truth, hence: reading and meditating. Click To Tweet The previous quote comes from a contemporary volume addressing the issue at hand aptly named Embracing Contemplation. The book’s editors admit that articles found within do not present a “unified view on the topic,”[6] which leads to a question we must consider for the current article, which is: what are the definitive bounds of contemplation? The editors of EC divide contemplation in to two categories: supernatural and natural. Briefly, they argue that natural contemplation is something of which all humanity (even the unregenerate) is capable. Therefore, supernatural contemplation is that which only the regenerate is capable, and it is due to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This reality, they state, is the reason that Christian contemplation does not fall into the trap of New Age thought, as some criticize.[7] It is fair to say that unlike the New Age concept of emptying one’s mind, LD rather commends the filling of one’s mind with truth, hence: reading and meditating. Therefore, if the definition of contemplation can vary, then we must at least settle upon the fact that a Spirit-driven and biblical form of contemplation is viable for Protestants. The burden is to prove that there is Biblical grounds, which not only rests upon exegesis solely but also upon appropriate historical interpretation.

Biblical Evidence

As we have already noted, Psalm 46:10 furnishes evidence of stillness accompanying knowing God. As one considers the context of Psalm 46, the call to Israel is a familiar one in which God is said to be His people’s refuge amid troubles, whether from nature or from enemies. This comfort is extended as within the heart of such tribulations there would be anxiety and fear, and yet stillness is invoked, stillness accompanied by a call to reflect upon what one knows to be true of God. Specifically, the Psalmist calls God’s people to recall His might, His rule, and His judgement. Within this context we could perhaps recognize the pattern of LD as listed above. Israel would recite these words and this fits “reading.” As they perhaps sang these words they would “meditate” upon the meaning of these words. Meditation leads to prayerfulness, calling upon God to keep His promises, and then the call to be still, to rest in the knowledge of God. These exercises do not rid Israel of natural occurrences or the coming enemy, but it does bring peace during the storm.

Anxiety is not met with the frenzy of “what do I do now?” but rather resting and being still in the presence of Almighty God who has done it all already. Click To Tweet A well-known NT parallel to Psalm 46:10 it seems would be Phil 4:6-7, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” One might notice that the reading portion of LD is absent from Paul’s instruction here, but one might argue that reading is exactly what one is doing as they “hear” what Paul states. The governing principles of Paul’s commendation are the words “anything” and “everything.” All of life is subsumed under the idea of the anxiety of life and the way in which the Christian is to address such concerns. What we know about God is what He has revealed about Himself in His Word, and as we meditate upon what He reveals we are to bring our concerns to Him in prayer and supplications which gives way to a peace (a stillness) that surpasses all understanding. This silent resting is from God, not something that the believer conjures up, but is truly of Him and from Him. The tyranny of anxiety gives way to resting contemplation in who God is. Anxiety is not met with the frenzy of “what do I do now?” but rather resting and being still in the presence of Almighty God who has done it all already. Additionally, as we shall see, this practice does not leave us unmoving but rather stokes action in the life of the believer. As the Apostle John states, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling” (1 Jn 2:9-10).

Since there is not enough space here to unpack all the passages that might relate to stillness in God’s love, it is pertinent that we move on to historical ideas of contemplation next. 

Historical Evidence

Clearly in an article of this size we cannot give full attention to the breadth of the history of contemplation so we will proceed with two examples.

Perhaps no church father is better known for his commendation of contemplation than Gregory of Nyssa. Diane Chandler writes, “Gregory…likened contemplation to the soul’s entrée into light, cloud, and darkness, drawn from Moses’ seeing God in the light (burning bush), then the cloud (at Mt. Sinai), followed by ‘thick darkness where God was’ (Ex 20:21). To Gregory, this divine darkness connoted the incomprehensibility of God.”[8] It was the contemplation of the revelation of God that brought both light (God revealing something about himself like holiness at the burning bush) and darkness (the incomprehensibility of God in the cloud on Sinai) that captures Gregory’s thoughts. We might compare our understanding of God’s transcendence and imminence to this example. There are matters about which God accommodates us to help us understand Him and yet the depth of His essence remains unknowable. Contemplation is not the act of seeking to know the unknowable, but rather a settled quietness as our minds are filled with both truths. These truths inspire awe of our Triune God, and contemplation instructs us that as we read, meditate, and pray through these realities, it is a good for us to rest in them as well.

However, it is not as if Gregory desired only contemplation that did not lead to action. Gregory’s view of the ascension of Moses leads to a vision of the incarnation, in other words a descent of God, “who created all things and who became incarnate out of love for a wayward creation.”[9] This becomes an imitable way for the Christian who, after the ascent to contemplation of the Triune God, follows the descent of love and service to neighbor.[10] Therefore, for the Christian who contemplates God there is not a static awe that leads to nothing but rather an action that that leads to worship (awe) of God which further leads to the love of God manifested in the second commandment like unto the first – the love of neighbor (Mt 22:35-40).

As well this contemplation leads us to consider our ultimate communion with God in the Beatified reality of our dwelling with Him. Click To Tweet The second figure is the more mainstream Augustine of Hippo. Likely most are familiar with Augustine’s Confessions which one could aptly describe at least in part as his contemplation of God. Similar to Gregory, Augustine finds that there must not merely be an ascent as with contemplation, but also a decent to love of neighbor stating, “No man has a right to lead such a life of contemplation as to forget in his own ease the service due to his neighbor; nor has any man a right to be so immersed in the active life as to neglect the contemplation of God.”[11] We find in both the example of Gregory and Augustine that there is no need for the accusation that contemplation of God is some sort of monastic escapism from the real world or New Age mystical glomming of the Christian life. As well this contemplation leads us to consider our ultimate communion with God in the Beatified reality of our dwelling with Him. We must then consider what the theological conclusions are for the modern protestant when it comes to the practice of contemplation.

Theological Conclusions

Given the definition and examples we outline above, there are certain theological outcomes that we ought to expect from contemplation. What follows is certainly not exhaustive, but I pray helpful from what we have discussed above.

Our God is incomprehensible, yet also knowable. Ronni Kurtz helpfully shows that there are imperatives in Scripture to know the Lord, but as well, indicative statements that the Lord cannot fully be known.[12] He gives the example of Psalm 145:3, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable.” When we seek to read about, meditate on, pray to, and contemplate our Triune God through His Word, we must keep this tension in mind. We will not comprehend now what we will comprehend in the eternal state, but we continue to press on into what God has revealed about Himself until that day. Along with Paul we say, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

Contemplation as we have defined it above seems to implicitly lead to a stillness (a peace) that comes from the first three steps of the LD. As we read the divinely inspired Scriptures, as those who are in Christ and therefore indwelled by the Spirit who inspired the very words we read, as we then meditate (go over in our mind again and again) the truths with which we are faced, and as we thankfully pray through God’s Words of revelation to us, we are communing with our Triune God in the way He prescribes so that the end result is a peace that surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:6-). We are filling our minds, rather than emptying them, we are contemplating not just static words, but the very active word of God and the God of the Word (Heb 4:12).

Lastly, contemplation is not a practice that leads to immobility, but rather as one contemplates the love of God that drove the incarnation and the earthly mission of Jesus, one is also driven to love of God and neighbor. Unlike the inward look of so-called New Age contemplation, the contemplation of God leads to an outward action commensurate with the idea of seeking to comprehend the immense love of God to His creatures, especially as seen in the incarnation of the eternal Son of God and His perfect life, death, resurrection, and ascension, calling us to the active life of the believer as we await our own true ascension to His presence, in which we will experience the Beatific Vision or perhaps we might say the final and fullest contemplation of His essence.


[1] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 1.

[2] John Webster, God Without Measure, 214.

[3] Hand Boersma, Pierced by Love, 7.

[4] See “The Controversy Over Contemplation and Contemplative Prayer,” by John H. Coe in John H. Coe and Kyle Strobel, ed., Embracing Contemplation (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019).

[5] Evan B. Howard, “Is Thoughtless Prayer Really Christian?” in Embracing Contemplation, ed. John H. Coe, Kyle Strobel, 23 (emphasis added).

[6] Coe and Strobel, Embracing Contemplation, 7.

[7] Ibid. To this point, the article will not seek to defend a particular definition of contemplation, but rather explicate the biblical, historical and theological data as such.

[8] Embracing Contemplation, 47.

[9] Steven L. Porter, “” in Embracing Contemplation, 60.

[10] See “Episode 112: The Medieval Era: Christian Mysticism with Charles Rennie,” Theology In Particular,”

[11] As quoted by Dian Chandler in Embracing Contemplation, 52.

[12] Ronni Kurtz, “Unapproachable Light: Divine Incomprehensibility and Theological Method,” ETS Presentation, 2022.

Jason B. Alligood

Jason B. Alligood (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Peoria, IL. He is a fellow at The London Lyceum, serves on the editorial board for the organization’s journal Theologia Viatorum, and is an Adjunct Professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His book Raised in Splendor on the hope of glorification is forthcoming from B&H Publications. He and his wife Amber have three grown children who are all happily married.

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