The Biblical Counseling Coalition recently posted a ten-minute conversation with David Powlison where he considers how a Christian should interact with “psychology.” In the video below, Powlison examines six different ways the term “psychology” can be used. In this post, I continue the conversation.
Connecting the Dots
Below I provide my summary of Powlison’s six uses of psychology as he wrote them in Psychology and Christianity: Four Views edited by Eric Johnson and Stanton Jones (2000, Intervarsity Press). I then embed my reflections as indented paragraphs under these definitions. I will use the simple analogy of “connecting the dots” to illustrate my summary of Powlison’s points.
One preface thought: I find these six definitions very useful, even if they are necessarily technical. It is easy to use the same word to talk about different things and create confusion. I believe this often happens in the conversation about psychology and theology. These kinds of distinctions are needed.
1. Powlison Summarized: Psychology Per Se
Psychology per se refers to the way people actually live. It is the “facts” that a psychological theory must explain. It is “simply ‘you,’ a being who functions psychologically” (p. 198).
- Hambrick’s Analogy: “There are dots to connect.”
It can be tempting for some to treat the word “psychology” like the word “unicorn.” A word that everyone understands, but also knows doesn’t really exist. People, relationships, emotions, maturational development, aptitude, intelligence, and group dynamics are real things. Psychology, therefore, should be recognized as more than the modern equivalent of Greek mythology.
2. Powlison Summarized: Psychology as Knowledge about Human Functioning
This category “refers to many sorts of close observations and descriptions of human psychological functioning, the ‘facts’ noticed and portrayed” (p. 199). This term refers to collected data obtained by research psychologists before any type of order or meaning is intentionally placed on it.
- Hambrick’s Analogy: “The dots do make a picture.”
We can collect information about people, emotions, and the other categories listed above. As a “hard science” we can have “hard facts” about people. This information can be useful. How are people and emotions affected by the absence of sleep? What colors make a product more desirable to consumers? What skill sets or personalities types find particular careers most fulfilling? While this general information can only cautiously be applied to a particular individual, it is useful and a legitimate form of psychological study.
3. Powlison Summarized: Psychology as Competing Philosophy of Life and Theories of Personality
This category refers to the “doctrinal core” of a psychology. “Each psychologies’ interpretive system is embodied in a set of standards, against which diagnoses are made and towards which therapies aspire in seeking to alter life into something more worth living. The schema guides counseling conversations towards whatever ‘image’ a human being is meant to be” (p. 205).
- Hambrick’s Analogy: “There is a right, biblical picture.”
This is where psychology becomes most subjective (largely leaving the realm of science) and most problematic for Christians. It is at this level that psychologies (Powlison’s use of the plural is an excellent point) can emerge from Scripture, compete with Scripture, or distract from Scripture. A counseling theory will either remind us that we are primarily made in God’s image to glorify God, broken by sin, and able to be redeemed by Christ; or it will define people, problems, and solutions in ways that point to some other source of ultimate hope.
4. Powlison Summarized: Psychology as Psychotherapy
Powlison defines “psychology as psychotherapy” as: “Counseling practices and strategies designed to facilitate change in belief, behaviors, feelings, attitudes, values, relationships, and the like” (p. 210). This term calls attention to all the methodologies utilized by the counselor.
- Hambrick’s Analogy: “Each picture leads to a process.”
Meaning leads to action. The same action (i.e., running) can be sparked by different interpretations (i.e., playing chase or being stalked). It is often assumed that if Christian and secular counselors ask people to do the same thing, then their counsel is equally valid. But this neglects that “practical helps” emanate from and reinforce pictures of the human condition. A child who fears being abused may be “effective” at playing chase, but that effectiveness is not healthy. The same can be said for “effective” counseling methodologies that emanate from misguided counseling theories.
5. Powlison Summarized: Psychology as a System of Institutional Arrangements
This definition refers to the educational systems, accrediting bodies, examining boards, clinics, hospitals, counseling offices, licensing laws, court systems, and referral networks. When an individual looks for a counselor, there is a system in place that directs that individual to an “acceptable” or “qualified” counselor.
- Hambrick’s Analogy: “Groups and systems form around pictures.”
This is why we have political parties. People see the “dots” of various issues a certain way and group themselves accordingly. These groupings have a way of becoming institutionalized. The same is true of artists, musicians, chefs, and offensive coordinators in football. Once these classifications of pictures become refined, then we develop ways of defining who is in and out, and create standards or ranks. These criteria are usually helpful at first for communicating with “the public” and then are regularly challenged as the field grows, expands, and interacts with neighboring areas of study.
6. Powlison Summarized: Psychology as a Mass Ethos
Powlison offers this definition: “Psychology in this final sense is the Zeitgeist of a therapeutic society. Terms such as alcoholism and dysfunctionality, a proliferation of syndromes, the explosion of Ritalin and Prozac use, and psychologized legal defense are among the most obvious signposts of the phenomena” (p. 217).
- Hambrick’s Analogy: “Pictures move people.”
The purpose of psychology is influence, just like the purpose of art, science, sports, and industry are to influence. We do the things we do because we want to change the world—for love or greed. People respond to pictures. This is why we love stories, illustrations, and metaphors. They give us understanding, meaning, and direction. Ultimately this is why this whole conversation matters.
The Biblical Psychology says that people are meaning-givers because we were created in the image of an intelligent God who wanted us to know Him, enjoy Him, and make Him known (Creation). The Biblical Psychology says sin entered the world, corrupted our lives, infiltrated our relationships, and created many kinds of suffering (Fall). The Biblical Psychology says God introduced the cure of the gospel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and called for the cure to be continually applied as people live in community with one another in the church (Redemption). The Biblical Psychology says that things will not ultimately be made right until Christ returns and the redemption He purchased is fully realized (Consummation).
To the extent a “psychology” is “true,” then it will explain the dots of our lives, the picture created as we examine our struggles will remind us of the gospel, the solutions will involve holistically applying the gospel to sin and suffering, the institutional framework will highly involve the local church, and those involved in the study of this psychology will gain a contagious affection for Christ. In this sense, I am “for” this kind of “psychology” at every level described. This is true even as I realize that there is still much work to be done for our theory (vivid word pictures connecting the dots of life in biblical categories) to become increasingly effective counseling practice (biblically-laden diagnostic language, processes saturated in subject-specific case wisdom, and systems/institutions designed to work in and through the local church).
On the other hand, if at any point a given “psychology” is “false,” then it will point us away from the gospel, solutions will not address life struggles in the categories of sin and suffering, the institutional framework will see the church as unnecessary or tangential, and those involved in the study of these psychologies will have contagious affection for something other than Christ. In these instances, I am “against” these psychologies like I am against anything that distracts from the gospel. Hopefully, that then means seeking to understand and engage others in a gracious way that humbly displays the superiority of Christ for anyone willing to see it.
Join the Conversation
How have you seen confusion over the different uses of the word “psychology” make conversations more difficult?
In which of the six areas of defining a fully biblical psychology do you believe biblical counseling is strongest and weakest?