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Psychology in the Spirit Review

September 14, 2011

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Truth for Life

Where do we find truth for life? What do we view as our authoritative, sufficient, profound, and relevant source for Gospel-centered living? Psychology in the Spirit by John Coe and Todd Hall seeks to address these vital questions.

It is a significant book released at a significant time when a new generation of Christian psychologists and biblical counselors are thinking deeply about what makes counseling truly Christian and biblical. The co-authors seek to position their model of “transformational psychology” as a new approach that offers the best of biblical counseling’s commitment to a scriptural approach to people, problems, and solutions, and the best of Christian psychology’s commitment to psychological study grounded in a thoroughly Christian world-view (without what they perceive as the weaknesses of each).

The Transformational Psychology Model: The Spirit, the Scriptures, and the Sage

Coe and Hall encapsulate their model as a combination of the Spirit, the Scriptures, and sage observation/reflection. “With God in heart and Scripture in hand, the sage or spiritual psychologist enters into the created world of things, particularly humanity, to understand the thing itself, especially as it relates to the human good and growth” (p. 135).

“God in heart” emphasizes their focus on the character of the counselor/psychologist—being Spirit-filled and Spirit-dependent through personal soul work and the practice of the spiritual disciplines. “We are interested in seeing how a focus on the character and life of the psychologist has implications for a whole model of relating psychology and Christianity” (p. 70).

“Scripture in hand” summarizes their stress upon the priority of a biblical theology of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. “We think this transformational psychology will encompass many of the central theses and insights of the Biblical Counseling model, particularly its emphasis on redemption, the fall, sin and sanctification by the Spirit in understanding the human condition” (p. 92).  

Authors Coe and Hall present the idea of sage observations by the Spirit-dependent person as their centrally unique contribution to the current discussion. In the most important chapter of the book—chapter seven—they use the book of Proverbs to develop the foundational thesis “…that there is a biblical model for gaining wisdom from observing and reflecting upon creation, particularly the human person and situation…” (p. 93).

For the authors, Proverbs illustrates what the Christian psychologist should be and do. The Spirit-filled sage takes God’s scriptural truth about humanity as the bedrock foundation and then in the fear of Yahweh humbly and carefully observes and reflects on life (the human person and situation) to glean wisdom for life. They have thus redefined psychology as the science of scriptural interpretation/application plus first-hand sage observation/reflection on creation (humanity) designed to discover prescriptive insight for living.

Among various passages from Proverbs, Coe and Hall highlight Proverbs 24:30-34. The sage passes by the sluggard, beholds his situation, and concludes, “When I saw, I reflected upon it; I looked, and I received instruction.” The sage then uses this “descriptive data of life” to draw prescriptive wisdom principles for living. “A little sleep a little slumber…then your poverty will come as a robber…” The co-authors draw the conclusion that, “Our Old Testament Wisdom model informed us that the budding psychologist studies God’s revelation in the Bible as well as that in natural law in creation, in order to understand and discern with the Spirit the path toward self-understanding, growth and assisting others in this” (p. 201).

It is here that their model impinges upon the oft-debated issue of the “integration” or “non-integration” of theology and psychology. In the past, this issue has been framed as whether or not one should blend or merge the findings of psychology—in particular secular theory of people, problems, and solutions, and their prescriptive models of cure and care—with the teachings of Scripture about life, spiritual growth, and progressive sanctification. Traditionally, many “biblical counselors” have valued the role of “scientific research” and “descriptive data” while not accepting the prescriptions for living and psychological theories developed from secular sources.

In theory, Coe and Hall are suggesting something different. Rather than “integrating” secular findings with biblical principles, they believe God calls the believing sage/scientist/psychologist to a “single, though complex, act of doing a science or psychology of values” (p. 155). They believe that we find truth for life both in the Scriptures (which are foundational and have priority because of their inerrant, inspired, propositional nature) and in “science”—defined as commonsense reflection and observation on the human condition (pp. 154-157).

Reflections on the Theory of Transformational Psychology

At the theoretical level, there are important questions to ponder about Coe and Hall’s proposal that we can glean facts about values from facts about creation. A few such sample questions for further exploration include:

  1. Depravity and Gleaning Values from Creation (The Fallenness of the Observer): What is the impact of the fall and human depravity on the ability of the unregenerate person to glean facts and make applications from observation and reflection? Coe and Hall conclude that there is “biblical justification for dialogue with the unbeliever and their partially distorted views” (p. 93). Because, “Fallen human beings retain the image of God and, thus, retain their human nature and capacity-ability (though partly corrupted) to discern what is natural and good from what is unnatural and bad” (p. 164). Is this a robust enough understanding of depravity as it relates to the fallen mind’s ability or inability to understand truth about wise, successful living in a fallen world (see point 2 below)?
  2. Corruption and Gleaning Values from Creation (The Corruption of the Things Observed): Even for the regenerate sage, what are the implications and potential limitations of observations and reflections on a fallen planet where “things are not the way they are supposed to be?” As Dallas Willard notes about secular psychology, “For those who must rely upon a strictly secular viewpoint for insight, such questions are especially tough. Why? Because we do in fact live in a world in ruins. We do not exist now in the element for which we were designed. So in light of that truth, it’s essentially impossible to determine our nature by observation alone, because we are only seen in a perpetually unnatural position” (Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 45). How trustworthy is the information gleaned from reflections on the human condition in a fallen world?  
  3. Depth and Gleaning Values from Creation: What level of depth of insight about life issues does the wisdom literature genre support? How robust and sophisticated can we expect generalized observations about life to be? Beyond common sense natural law and proverbial thinking about cause and effect, how would one develop comprehensive models of healthy living? What might someone anticipate finding in their observations from creation that they would not find more richly nuanced in Scripture—given Scripture’s inspiration, inerrancy, propositional form, and specific purpose of revealing God’s truth for godly living for God’s glory?   
  4. Prescriptive Confidence and Gleaning Values from Creation: Once we reflect upon generalized principles from creation, how confidently prescriptive can we be? Job’s miserable counselors observed the general principle that God blesses His faithful servants. However, apart from God’s special revelation (contained in the first two chapters and the final chapter of the book of Job, and a theology of suffering contained throughout the Bible), their prescriptive counsel was unbiblical and unloving. 

Reflections on the Practice of Transformational Psychology

In theory, Coe and Hall address several of these vital questions. In actual practice, the authors at times seem to do the very thing that they critique the classic “integration” model for doing. “A criticism against this view [integration] is that, despite the theory, in practice, integrationists tend to start with the categories of contemporary secular psychology and integrate the Scriptures into this already existing system, rather than allow the Scriptures and observation-reflection to come together in union and harmony with psychological categories” (p. 65).

For example, after a chapter where Coe shares his systematic theology of our relational nature, Hall then writes, “What I want to do in this chapter is attempt to flesh out the contours of a relational theory of human nature” (pp. 235-236). It is instructive to ponder where Hall heads in this chapter to flesh out Coe’s theory.

Given the focus of the theoretical portions of the book on the Spirit-dependent, Yahweh-fearing, regenerate sage, and upon the Scriptures as the bedrock foundation for understanding life, we might expect Hall to provide examples of his own sage-like reflections/observations. Or, he might have shared examples of other believers, either ancient or current, doing sage-like reflection. Or, we might have anticipated that Hall would flesh out Coe’s relational theology with profound, relevant, robust, nuanced examples from Scripture.

Instead, we read, “Recent developments in multiple fields (e.g., attachment theory, developmental psychology, affective neuroscience, relational psychoanalysis) are converging on a theory of implicit relational meaning” (p. 236). Most of the chapter then focuses on secular attachment theory.

This is not a lone example. In another chapter, Coe turns to object-relations theory to flesh out his understanding of biblical relationality. In those chapters and others, the authors do not address the related issue of whether those theories were built upon observation and reflection on creation, or upon secular theory-building impacted by depraved presuppositions. Even if they were built upon Proverb-like observations, the broader question remains: Why use “non-sage” (unregenerate) observation as primary examples in a book that bases its thesis on Spirit-dependent, Yahweh-fearing, regenerate sage wisdom?

What warrant can we find in the model in Proverbs of a believing sage observing life under the fear of Yahweh that would suggest that the unregenerate psychologist in rebellion from Yahweh can derive moral wisdom for living? This seems a particularly relevant question given the passion of the authors. “The character of the psychologist is at the heart of doing psychology well in God” (pp. 105-106). “We want to make this point explicit as the foundation for the entire model” (p. 106). Speaking of the fall, “This explains why a secular psychology that rejects God’s revelation about the nature of sin and redemption is doomed from the outset, for it is a theoretical and psychological defense against dealing with the major issues of life before God” (p. 208). Their practical applications seem inconsistent with this sound theology. 

It is when we move from theory to practice that we clearly demonstrate whether or not our stated confidence in the authority, sufficiency, profundity, and relevancy of God’s Word fleshes out. The issue of “integration” or “non-integration”—the relationship between extra-biblical information and special revelation—is often framed in terms of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. It also needs to be framed in terms of the profundity and relevancy of Scripture. If we are confident in the profound depth of the treasure of God’s wisdom contained in His Word, then it seems curious to turn to object relations theory and attachment theory (which are not examples of sage-like, Spirit-dependent observation) to “flesh out” human relationality. Given the authors’ emphasis upon how profound are sage-like observations by Yahweh-fearing psychologists, the dearth of first-hand examples of such regenerate observations is equally intriguing.

Perhaps it can be explained in part by the mindset that at times seems to diminish the work of theologians while maximizing the work of psychologists. “It is interesting to note that it has often been psychologists and not theologians who have been most helpful in understanding the recalcitrant nature of psychopathology. Theologians and philosophers may have much to say about the origin, etiology and radical nature of sin, but it is psychologists who have excelled in providing an insightful understanding of how sin and psychopathology work in the human heart, and why many of the sins and vices we participate in will not go away by merely wishing them to be gone” (p. 297). Earlier the authors spoke of biblical counseling’s lack of attending to how the Scriptures “apply to real dynamics of human experience” that “tend to make some of their discussions a bit superficial, overly cognitive, behavioral, and not adequately integrated with how change and growth really work in human existence” (p. 62).

One wonders who Coe and Hall have and have not been reading. Certainly the great theologians, pastors, and soul physicians of church history offer ample evidence of insightful understanding of how sin works in the heart and how Gospel-centered ministry addresses the complex process of dealing with such sins and vices. And certainly, many pastors, theologians, and biblical counselors today are writing about and ministering from a robust, nuanced understanding of the depths of sin and the complexity of the change process. Other than a brief mention of David Powlison’s biblical counseling work, all of Coe and Hall’s references to biblical counselors either are to people who are actually anti-biblical counseling (Bobgan) or to writings from over a generation ago. Perhaps it would be helpful if the authors had further exposure to these new writings which evidence confidence in the profundity of Scripture and demonstrate the relevancy of Scripture for specific life issues.

The authors believe that “psychologists need to give these principles [of what makes psychotherapy work] away to the church, and seminaries, pastors, and ministry leaders need to plunder these truths to the fullest insofar as they provide insight into the psychospiritual growth process” (p. 338). Is it possible that it may need to be the other way around? Christian psychologists need to plunder the comprehensive progressive sanctification principles learned from a profound spiritual theology applied in real life to real people with real problems by compassionate Gospel-centered theologians, pastors, and biblical counselors?

The Indicative and the Imperative

Psychology in the Spirit is a watershed book that deserves careful attention. Its “indicative” sections (theory/theology) in particular point to Gospel-centered solutions. “Only the forgiveness available in the cross of Christ, and the love of God infused into the heart of the believer…” enable us to “see and reflect upon what is real and true” (p. 34). “Thus, it is in redemption, and not creation alone, that we find our fundamental identity” (p. 35).

However, the “imperative” sections (practice/methodology) fell a little flat. It would be like the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1-3 providing the indicatives of who we are in Christ through the Spirit, but then moving in Ephesians 4-6 to imperatives that focused on principles from the world and power from the flesh. For Paul (and us) that would have been tragic. From Coe and Hall, it is disappointing because the core of their model (Spirit/Scripture/Sage Scientist) has great merit. And they appear to have a deep allegiance to the role of the Bible in the Christian life. Perhaps this introductory volume will lead to further works that demonstrate a greater focus on first-hand, Proverb-like, sage observations done with God in heart and Scripture in hand. 


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