Why ‘Prescriptions’ from God’s word?

The strapline ‘Prescriptions from God’s word’ on this website (under ‘Etheldreda.net’ above) reflects its main theme, which is about trying to see and apply scripture as medicine for the soul. This page explains a spiritual discipline that I find helpful in that regard, a fusion between puritan expository technique, traditional monastic lectio divina and a medical way of thinking, which I like to call ‘scripture-medicine’. I use this method to prepare (or formulate!) the website’s main content, a collection of short blog-like posts, which for similar reasons I call Rx (the medical abbreviation for a prescription, but here ‘from God’s word’).

Please note though, as much as making use of my little efforts on Etheldreda.net, I like to encourage other Christians to try this underlying method/discipline for themselves. Some might like to adopt elements from it at least, for use in their own approach to scripture. I’ve found it a source of blessing over the years, and I’m sure there are some readers out there, with particular gifts, who could make great use of this approach, blessing us all through what they might prepare with it.

First, in brief summary for any who don’t know, the puritans were keen to understand the meaning of scripture taken in its proper context. Always bearing that in mind, they would start by identifying the key truths in a text (doctrines), then think though the various implications of each (applications, or ‘use’, as they often called it). They did this expecting to discover a coherent expression of One mind in scripture, God’s mind, the revealed and gathered wisdom from which they referred to as the ‘body of divinity’ (essentially theology). They are remembered as great physicians of the soul, largely as a result of their thorough and thoughtful application of God’s truths to the human condition.

Likewise for any who don’t know, lectio divina is a monastic practice that simply means divine reading in Latin. Typically it involves prolonged reflection on a selected portion of scripture with a view to encountering God there. It has less emphasis on analysing the text, more on experiencing and absorbing it, with a view beyond that to resting in deep communion with God, through His word. Traditionally practised it has four ‘movements’: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

Obviously there’s much overlap between these two approaches, yet they have different emphases. It seems to me that both are potentially rather therapeutic spiritually, under God’s guiding hand, and that combined, plus blending them with a medical way of thinking, enhances this potential efficacy further, in a synergistic way. Like lectio divina, the spiritual discipline explained on this page goes through four stages, the second of which is most closely akin to that practice (although there are elements of it colouring the other stages too, especially the latter stages). Nevertheless, the analytical approach of the method presented here borrows even more from the puritans’ expository techniques, but with some obvious additional medical elements and frames, as detailed below.

The four stages of what I call ‘scripture-medicine’ could be summarised as follows:-

Select a Bible text, then…

– study the facts,
– prayerfully encounter God in His truth,
– reflect on our spiritual condition and vulnerabilities,
– apply the text (with others in support) to heal and protect.

The basic idea is first to study the plain background facts (a bit like anatomy, i.e. structure and form etc.), then prayerfully to meditate on the text, seeking the living truth(s) of God in the Bible (a bit like finding the life in the body of divinity – akin to physiology etc., i.e. function). Next, having seen that healthy state (i.e. the proper structure and function of divine truths as displayed in / conveyed by the living word of God), our spiritual pathology will become more evident, by way of contrast, on deeper reflection. Finally, given that greater insight into what might need healing or protecting against, we can prayerfully apply the scripture that we started with (and other related supporting texts) like medicine to heal us spiritually, &or to strengthen and protect.

So, to clarify this medical framework of thinking further, before doctors attempt to diagnose, treat or prevent disease, we (I am a medic) regard it essential to understand human anatomy, physiology and biochemistry etc. first, then pathology. Scripture-medicine is a method of understanding and learning from Bible texts that mirrors this medical approach. Although its overriding purpose is the personal application of scripture (treatment/prophylaxis), it builds up to that through three foundational stages: firstly, detailed analysis of a text’s composition (anatomy/histology); secondly, prayerful meditation on the text to understand what God is teaching through it (physiology/biochemistry); then thirdly, in the light of those findings, honest reflection on our spiritual condition and vulnerabilities (pathology/diagnosis).

To explain in more detail:-

First select a text to study, perhaps one that seems potentially especially therapeutic, or simply the next in a sequence (note this approach can be used with any size of text); then work though the following stages…

[Note: if you become familiar with practising this discipline, you’ll find that thoughts relating to later stages in the sequence come to mind during the earlier stages. That’s fine. Simply make a note of them, perhaps even dwelling on them for a time, then return to the stage that you’re on. This is intended to be a helpful logical sequence and guide, not a taskmaster. God, by His Holy Spirit, might want us to see something out of sequence, and He should be our Master and Guide!]

1. Scripture-anatomy/histology

In secular medicine, anatomy and histology (microscopic anatomy) are the study of bodily structure. They include defining the exact nature, shape and position of each part. Scripture-anatomy/histology involves the equivalent analysis of a Bible text. This includes defining any key words and phrases, examining the text’s layout (structural/grammatical etc.), and observing how that’s set in the wider passage/book. It also involves considering other relevant background information such as the historical context and literary genre etc. A basic framework is thus revealed upon which a more profound understanding of each text can be built.

So stage 1 = study the facts – i.e. plain background facts.

2. Scripture-physiology/biochemistry

The body can be dead and yet retain its anatomy/histology. In contrast, physiology and biochemistry are the sciences of how the body functions as a living organism. Similarly, scripture-physiology/biochemistry seeks by prayerful, faith-led investigation/meditation to find God’s word alive with divine truths – indeed, to meet God Himself there (important not to miss!). It seeks to understand what God taught in the original historical setting of each text, then considers what He’s still saying through the text today, identifying eternal truths.

In secular medicine, physiology and biochemistry are understood more easily when studied in the context of the body as a whole. The same is true with scripture-medicine. Scripture-physiology/biochemistry includes considering how any teaching derived from a specific text integrates with the truths taught by God in the Bible as a whole.

So stage 2 = prayerfully encounter God in His truth.

[Note: often it’s not until we’ve seen God in His truth, as above, that we start to see our pathology, cf. Isaiah 6:1-5. Be sure to dwell here, in prayer, not racing on. It will prepare the ground for the next stage.]

3. Scripture-pathology/diagnosis

Pathology is the study and classification of disease. In secular medicine, disease arises when a defect occurs in the body’s anatomy/histology or physiology/biochemistry etc. to cause abnormal bodily structure or function. This, in turn, produces symptoms and signs of the disease. In a similar way, spiritual pathology often springs from a defective internalization of scripture-anatomy/histology : physiology/biochemistry – i.e. an inadequate mental absorption of the Bible and its teachings (a sub-optimal knowledge of / relationship with God through His word). This causes an unbiblical and therefore un-Christ-like mindset (attitudes and beliefs), which may express itself as symptoms and signs of spiritual ‘dis-ease’. These can involve the thoughts, emotions or will, which in turn determine actions and behaviour. Scripture-pathology/diagnosis attempts to identify and diagnose afflictions of our souls that may result from an inadequate grasp of eternal truths identified by scripture-anatomy/histology : physiology/biochemistry.

So stage 3 = reflect on our spiritual condition and vulnerabilities.

[Note: sometimes a text is actually about pathology, with the healthy state in stage two of this discipline either expressly stated as well, or inferred from it. However, having seen that underlying truth, often further realised or potential distortions and malfunctions of it become evident, on reflection, in the above third stage too.]

4. Scripture-treatment/prophylaxis

Physical disease can be treated medically or surgically. Alternatively it can be anticipated and prevented (prophylaxis). Likewise, the Holy Spirit can apply scripture as a potent remedy to heal our ailing souls, a scalpel to cut and needle to repair un-Christ-like hearts and minds, or vaccine to immunize against future spiritual attack. Scripture-treatment/prophylaxis considers how the study text, reinforced by other parts of the Bible, could be used to heal or protect against the spiritual conditions identified by scripture-pathology/diagnosis.

So stage 4 = apply the text (with others in support) to heal and protect.

¶ It’s of note that the pathogen (cause of pathology) ultimately behind all of this, is that identified in Ephesians 6:11-12.

For the word of God is living and active,
and sharper than any two-edged sword,
piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow,
and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’
(Hebrews 4:12)

‘Don’t be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,’
(Romans 12:2)

[Note: you’ll see that I don’t write up the Rx on this website in four sections, rather I use the findings from practising this discipline to write each one, as a fifth stage, or to prepare a Bible study for use elsewhere, or a speaker might prepare a sermon, etc. It’s not likely that the best form of such expressions would be this four stage underlying engine.]

Crib sheet

Anyone interested in trying this approach might find the following outline helpful (please feel free to cut, paste and print out this sheet, as with anything else on Etheldreda.net).

Anatomy/histology – study the facts…

– historical context / literary genre etc.,
– layout of the text and its wider setting,
– key words/phrases.

Physiology/biochemistry – prayerfully encounter God in His truth…

– original teaching,
– eternal truths,
– balanced theology.

The above two stages usually result in a list of key truths to consider. I find it best to then work through both stages below with each truth in turn. Normally I create a table, with the truths listed in rows down the left hand side, and the five bullet points below in columns across the top.

Pathology/diagnosis – reflect on our spiritual condition and vulnerabilities…

– problems with underlying attitude/belief,
– effect on thoughts, emotions and will,
– effect on actions and behaviour.

Treatment/prophylaxis – apply the text (with others in support) to heal and protect…

– therapeutic/prophylactic use of the text,
– therapeutic/prophylactic use of other supporting texts.

That can be the end of the exercise, but it’s possible to add a fifth stage, such as using the findings to write a post, prepare a Bible study, or plan a sermon, etc…

‘from God’s word’ – here defined as the Bible, the inspired word of God.

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