Philosophy of Addiction
Written as a philosophical treatise of the subject of addiction, Dr. Kent Dunnington has conducted exemplary research in a well-thought-out manuscript that any biblical counselor will benefit greatly from reading. The author provides great insight into the inconsistencies of the disease model of addiction and constructively critiques some of the simplicities of the choice model of addiction.
He declares that addiction is not a disease or a choice but a habit which seems very good at first glance. However, I must caution readers to consider his neglect of the rational, personal choice in his construct of “habits” as I will explain. He is to be commended for his final chapter (8) which is a must read for anyone in the church who understands that the hope of this world for the problem of addiction is in the people of God and that addiction truly is a worship disorder.
Addictions: A Controversial Subject
The topic of addictions is controversial in the church today, but that must not stop the church from addressing this challenging subject. The church is desperately needed to address addictions as a personal ministry of disciple-making to bring real transformation into Christ-likeness. I applaud Dr. Kent Dunnington’s work in Addiction and Virtue because he recognizes the answer is the local church.
He attempts to bring clarity to what he labels as two polar views of addiction: “disease” and “choice.” According to his perspective, he lands in the middle of the two and calls this middle: “habit.” However, in my assessment, his attempt to bring clarity and “avoid the disease/choice dichotomy” falls short as he places the habit of addictions in a special kind of habit category, describing them in a continuum of “baffling” complexity (pp. 88-89) rather than clearly in the realm of responsibility.
While I completely agree that addictions are a byproduct of habitual addictive-thinking, I disagree with the premise that “habits” develop divorced from personal choice. Because God holds us responsible for all of our thinking, speaking, and behaving, we cannot be excused from any thought, word, or behavior simply because it has been practiced enough that it becomes a habit. A volitional choice precedes a habit. Thus, I disagree with Dr. Dunnington’s foundational idea that choice is not causal for the acquisition of habit formation.
Truth is not always found in the middle of two extreme ideas; truth is always found in the Word of God. It is true that Christians who attempt to address the crucial topic of addiction tend toward extremes. Dr. Dunnington attempts to avoid both extremes of “disease” and “choice,” yet where do habits come from? They do not just happen. We are responsible before God for our choices that lead to habits which can be either righteous or unrighteous.
Why the Disagreement?
In chapter 3, Dr. Dunnington writes about habits. I read this chapter several times on different days to analyze his ideas. I want to be careful to give grace to him as I have not met him and I am grateful for the solid research in this book. For these reasons, I concluded that the reason that he and I disagree is likely due to the foundation of our sources for truth in defining the word “habit.” Since Dunnington’s work is a philosophy book, he relies upon Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle as his source of truth. My source is my interpretation of Scripture.
Chapter 3 is a pivotal chapter in understanding his conceptualization of habits. He places habit in the middle of two extremes and does so in three separate categories.
First, Dunnington places habit between instinct and disposition (p. 68). Basing his ideas upon Aquinas, he says that habits have been misunderstood as “instincts” which happen without responsive reasoning. He says that habits have been misunderstood as “dispositions” which are patterned behaviors that are not as entrenched emotionally as a habit would be. He says: “If the behavior is not (yet) deeply entrenched and can be rooted out simply by recognizing that it is problematic, it is likely not a habit but a mere disposition” (p. 66) He uses the comparison of picking one’s nose frequently (disposition) to smoking cigarettes (habitual). However, he admits that the language for dispositions is “plagued by a certain vagueness” (p.66) and I agree. Dispositions are an idea originating with Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas developed an extra-biblical construct for “dispositions” that sound similar to less ingrained habits.
Second, Dunnington places habit between determinism and voluntarism. He says: “Habitual action is like autonomous free will in that it connects up at some level with reason. On the other hand, habitual action is like determinism in that the actions performed by habit do not issue directly from the process of deliberative reasoning that is constitutive of free will” (p. 68).
Third, Dunnington places habit between the voluntary and the involuntary. He does not explain this in detail other than to say it exists. Throughout chapter 3, there seems to be a hint of the behaviorism of Skinner as he discusses the acquisition of habits from responses to the environment, etc. However, at the end of the chapter, he addresses a biblically accurate view of the heart and explains the war between existing old habits and learning new habits: “Thus in the most perplexing cases of addictive behavior, we are confronted not with reason struggling against appetite or emotion, but rather with free-floating reason struggling against reason as rooted in habits of the imagination and the cogitative estimation” (p. 81).
In chapter 3, no Bible reference or appeal to Scripture was made. Every philosophical argument was based upon Aquinas and Aristotle. While it is a legitimate exercise to study the work of others, the building of a theological framework must be founded upon Scripture first. I think Dr. Dunnington reversed these two in this book’s third chapter. I would have preferred him to have either based his understanding of habits upon the Scriptures alone, or to have critically evaluated the theological reasoning of Aquinas regarding “habit”—with the Scriptures as the assessment tool. His study of Aquinas’ ideas was a good one and provoked me to thought, yet I had a difficult time reading and comprehending the content of this particular chapter until I discovered what Dr. Dunnington omitted: the Word of God.
Another omission I noted is that no reference is ever made to Dr. Jay E. Adams who has spent a lifetime discussing, describing, teaching, and proclaiming the subject of habitual sin from a biblical perspective based upon Ephesians 4:20-24: “But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (ESV). Biblically, habits are found in the “old self” of verse 22 and can be in thought, word, or deed. Those habits are to be replaced with new habits in the “new self” of verse 24 since sanctification is historically viewed as synergistic—meaning it is our responsibility to work out our sanctification in conjunction with the Holy Spirit’s working in us (Philippians 2:12-13). “To be renewed in the spirit of your minds” in verse 23 only occurs as a work of the Holy Spirit when one reads and obeys the Word of God in a practical way. Though Christians are given the Holy Spirit to indwell them at salvation (2 Timothy 1:14), it is possible for a Christian to quench the Holy Spirit of God (1 Thessalonaians 5:19) by living according to the flesh (Ephesuabs 4:17) rather than in the Spirit like a Christ follower (Galatians 5:16-18). In this way, good habits must be created to replace the old ones for the glory of God alone.
Truly Excellent Arguments
Other than this one foundational difference about the cause of habits, Dr. Dunnington’s book is an excellent resource for addiction counselors because of his exceptionally thorough research on the history of what is now known as “addiction.” His arguments against the disease model of addiction are outstanding. His research on remission rates (i.e. people who quit using drugs without medicalized help) demonstrate that this problem is not being effectively treated through medical treatment models. His research alone is worth the read.
Finally, the concluding chapter is a wonderful call to believers not to fear the world’s ideas and to begin addressing addiction issues with the Gospel. Chapter 8 personally challenges the family of God to place their faith in Christ as the answer to addiction when an addicted person presents himself to the body of Christ:
“To the church that is laid open to the power of the Holy Spirit, addiction is not a threat to be feared but an opportunity to be welcomed. For the good news is that the gospel is powerful to redeem and transform, to break the shackles of every sin, and to liberate us for lives of abundant joy and peace. Because it is so powerfully destructive and death-dealing, addiction provides the church with its most profound invitation to witness to the gospel it proclaims, to make manifest in its own life the resurrection that is its own origin and end. There is therefore no idolatry so potent, no sin so entrenched, no despair so deep, no addiction so inveterate that it is beyond the reach of the Love that has finally and forever triumphed over sin and death.”
After these remarks, he quotes Romans 8:37-39 to end the book—a powerful way to end any book, and especially so, one about addiction: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us…Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Other than chapter 3 and several other references that minimize the impact of personal choice in the problem of addiction, reading this book provides great insight into the inconsistencies of the secular disease model of addiction. The research into addictive literature (like the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous) is excellent and consistent. I would contend that it is a book written to the counselor and not the counselee.
My great concern about this work is that personal responsibility is displaced in the idea that habits are not birthed out of personal choice. Many of his descriptions of habit are accurate and helpful; however, if a person divorces personal responsibility from habit, then there is a foundational disagreement with the Word of God according to passages of Scripture like Proverbs 23:19-21: “Hear, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way. Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (ESV). Dr. Dunnington’s assessment of the problem of drunkenness and idolatry as being rooted in habit concurs with the Bible completely; however, denying personal responsibility for the choices that lead to habits is in conflict with the teachings of the Word of God (Matthew 15:18-19; James 1:14-15).
Read this book carefully and thoughtfully and you will find solid research, helpful insights, and a call to the faith family to trust in Christ as the only answer for the problems associated with the sin of addiction.
 p. 194