Psychology and Christianity Review

May 17, 2011

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The Challenge of Understanding People

Psychology and Christianity: Five Views is organized into three sections. In the first section, editor Eric Johnson presents a brief history of how Christians have engaged the discipline of psychology as part of their efforts to understand human beings and human experience. In the second section, five different perspectives on how Christians might interact with modern secular psychology while remaining true to the teachings of Scripture are laid out and critiqued by the contributors. In the third section, Johnson returns with a suggested way of navigating through the points and counterpoints raised in the second section of the book.

How are Christians supposed to understand the people to whom they minister the grace of God? That issue occupies the authors assembled for Psychology and Christianity: Five Views. Clearly, one of the strengths of the book is the way the different understandings of how Christians should use the findings of contemporary psychology are packaged in “bite-size servings.” The critiques of the authors on their colleagues’ perspectives help readers to think more thoroughly about what each perspective has to offer or not offer for ministry. Each viewpoint in the book approaches the whole discipline of psychology in a slightly different way. This arrangement can remove “blinders” that both authors and readers might have about their views of the relative worth of psychology.

It is important for biblical counselors to recognize that the scope of this book is well beyond just “counseling.” It considers the broader discipline of psychology, of which counseling or psychotherapy is a small component. Of course, though there are superficial similarities between psychotherapy and biblical counseling, biblical counseling is unique in its framework for conceptualizing problems of living (with reference to God’s will), its goals for responding to those problems (the spiritual growth of counselees), and its means for pursuing those goals (the application of scriptural principles). Biblical counseling is a form of discipleship always in reference to Christ. Psychotherapy typically is an attempt to help people understand themselves and their problems in reference to their current life situation and personal goals.

Underlying Philosophy of Psychology

Each of the five perspectives in the book offers readers an underlying philosophy of psychology which the author(s) think adheres to the Bible’s teaching about humanity. By “philosophy of psychology,” I mean a framework for making sense of how psychological theories and research should be developed, interpreted, and evaluated. The presenters dip into church history, epistemology, philosophy of science, and research design. None of the presenters goes so deeply into these topics that the chapters are “inaccessible” to the diligent reader, but some readers might be caught “off guard” by such content.

Two presenters, David Myers (“Levels of Explanation”) and Stanton Jones (“Integration”), were trained in “establishment psychology.” They have high expectations for what empirical psychological research can undercover about human behavior, attitudes, motivations, relationships, etc. According to Myers, Christians in psychological research should “explore God’s creation and submit their ideas to testing. Whether searching for truth in special revelation (the book of God’s Word) or natural revelation (the book of God’s works), they viewed themselves in God’s service” (p. 50). Jones adds: “The integrationist also surmises that Scripture does not provide us all that we need in order to understand human beings fully, and that there is a legitimate and strategic role for psychology as a science and as a profession in giving us intellectual and practical tools for understanding and improving the human condition” (pp. 101-102).

Four of the other presenters, Robert Roberts and P. J. Watson (“Christian Psychology”) and John Coe and Todd Hall (“Transformational Psychology”) take more historical and philosophical approaches. They do not deny the value of modern psychological research per se, but Roberts and Watson, for example, “wish to develop a psychology that accurately describes the psychological nature of human beings as understood according to historic Christianity” (p. 155). They say that the task will require using the Bible as “the fountainhead of Christian ideas” in the light of “great Christian psychologists of the subsequent past” (Augustine, Aquinas, etc.) (p. 155). In a similar vein, Coe and Hall write: “Our goal is to argue for a spiritual formation approach to psychology and Christianity, which takes the spiritual-emotional transformation of the psychologist as the foundation for understanding, developing and preserving the (1) process, (2) methodology and (3) product of doing psychology in the Spirit …” (p. 200).

Finally, David Powlison (“Biblical Counseling”) “deconstructs” the notion of psychology to clearly lay out the term’s different meanings in modern conversation. He endeavors to show how these uses of the term compare with several key orienting biblical themes. He further illustrates how these different meanings of “psychology” get fleshed out in a case study. Whereas the other presenters focus on the value of psychology for uncovering broadly applicable insights about people in general, Powlison is more interested in using biblical insights to understand and assist the individual.

Biblical counselors reading this book might be unprepared for Powlison’s opening words, “Christian faith is a psychology. … Christian ministry is a psychotherapy.” Yet they should not miss his follow up, “This care and cure for the soul systematically differs from how other psychotherapies deal with the same problems in living” (p. 245). Powlison does a masterful job of showing how a detailed assessment of the six different uses of “psychology” in contemporary Western society can reveal the many ways secular psychological reasoning deviates from a biblical worldview.

Value for Biblical Counselors

Of what value is this book to biblical counselors? Several responses come to mind:

(1) Myers and Jones describe how psychological scientists do what they do in a way that should help non-scientificially trained biblical counselors better grasp the assumptions and methods of scientific inquiry. Readers should beware, however, of the authors’ overriding view that “psychological science” is basically quantitative. Although the quantitative approach (involving statistical analyses) is still dominant, in recent decades qualitative approaches (involving observations and interviews to assess meaning in people’s experiences) have been growing in credibility and acceptability among psychological researchers. Combined qualitative/quantitative studies often can shore up the deficits of either individual design. Here some of the Transformational Psychology and Biblical Counseling concerns are addressed. Having a clearer view of how psychological research is conducted is critical for any biblical counseling evaluation of psychology to be received.

(2) All of the authors acknowledge that Christians can learn from psychological research. Where they differ is why and to what extent this is true. Yet, the theological rationale for learning from the psychological research literature could be developed further. Scientific researchers assume that regular patterns characterize what we know as “creation.” Such patterns exist not only in the weather or the animal kingdom; they also exist among people. These regularly sustained patterns are actually the outcome of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen. 8:21-22; cf. 2 Pt. 3:3-7). It’s the Noahic covenant that makes scientific research a reasonable source of knowledge about creation.

(3) Biblical counselors can also benefit from reconsidering if psychological research qualifies as “general revelation” (as presented by Myers and long-held by integrationists). In reality, equating “psychological research” and “general revelation” is exegetically problematic. General revelation is information from God about Himself through the medium of creation. It has been a complete and perfectly functional source of information about the Creator ever since Adam became a conscious being. The fall did not change this; what changed was the “heart” of humans. According to Psalm 19 and Romans 1:18-32; 2:14-15, God’s general revelation still is effective for its purpose.

Psychological research can be valuable—not because it is general revelation—but because it can uncover patterns in human experience sustained in God’s providence. Coe and Hall recognize this in their discussion of Proverbs. They correctly point to the value of such observed patterns for wise living. However, they do not fully recognize the significance of Proverbs’ own interpretive grid for distinguishing wisdom from folly: “the fear of the LORD”—nor its New Testament equivalent, “being in Christ” (Matthew 12:38-42;1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; Colossians 2:1-8). Without the fear of the LORD and being “in Christ,” even correct formulations of providential patterns will not yield the wisdom for which all humans will be held accountable by their Creator.

Understanding people will always be difficult. Psychological science will always be potentially and only partially useful for this task. Biblical counselors need not shy away from this conclusion; they should accept it in the light of several biblical themes: general revelation, the Noahic covenant, and providence. Moreover, this in no way detracts from the unique nature of biblical counseling, because the biblical counselor's goal of spiritual formation remains ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit using His Word.

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