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Psychology and Christianity

“What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” That was the question of the great second century theologian Tertullian concerning the relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophy. Christians have often struggled to understand how their faith relates to the intellectual inquiries of the ambient culture. Some, like Tertullian, have been more skeptical of non-Christian philosophies. Others have been more willing to bridge the gap between philosophy and the Christian faith. The recently released second edition of Psychology and Christianity: Five Views asks a similar question to that of Tertullian: What hath psychology to do with the Christian faith? Or, if we were to put the question in geographical terms, what hath Leipzig (home of the father of modern psychology, Wilhelm Wundt) to do with Jerusalem?

This revision of Eric Johnson’s edited work improves upon an already helpful resource for understanding Christian engagement with psychology. As the back cover explains, “All of the essays and responses have been reworked and updated with some new contributors.” To the previous edition’s four views is added a fifth: the transformational psychology view defended by John H. Coe and Todd W. Hall. Stanton L. Jones has entirely rewritten the chapter on integration, and Paul J. Watson has joined Robert C. Roberts in defense of the Christian Psychology position. To round out the group, David G. Myers and David Powlison offer their revised chapters on the levels-of-explanation view and the biblical counseling view, respectively. It is fair to say that this updated version of Johnson’s book is a must-read for those wishing to understand the debates over psychology and counseling within the evangelical world.

Summary

The book is framed by two essays written by the editor. In the introductory essay, Johnson offers a “Brief History of Christians in Psychology.” In fact, Johnson does a bit more in this chapter than its title suggests. He also traces the history of psychology more generally, noting the special significance of the so-called “new psychology” that arose in the modern era. The main evangelical responses to the modern discipline of psychology are represented in the book’s five views: levels-of-explanation, integrationism, Christian psychology, transformational psychology, and biblical counseling.

The first position, the levels-of-explanation view, is represented by David Myers. According to this view, psychology and Christian theology are two separate disciplines that provide complementary perspectives on the human experience. Though complementary, each should retain its distinctive voice. For Myers, psychology is “the science of behavior and mental processes” (49). As such, the discipline of psychology must be allowed to pursue its own investigations according to its own methodology. Sometimes psychology will confirm aspects of Christian faith (e.g. psychological science that supports family values). Other times psychological science might cause Christians to question accepted theological perspectives and scriptural interpretations. Myers admits that he has revised his position on homosexuality because of psychological studies and genetic research. Though he once viewed homosexual behavior as a sinful choice, he is now inclined to see it as a “natural disposition, not a voluntary moral choice” (73).

Next, Stanton Jones defends the integration view. According to this perspective, while Scripture determines the fundamental beliefs and practices of Christians, “Scripture does not provide all that we need in order to understand human beings fully” (100). Therefore, Christian psychologists and counselors should seek to integrate psychological findings with their more fundamental Christian faith. Jones is not naïve about the conclusions of secular psychology. He acknowledges that science is not a pristinely objective enterprise: “all data are theory-laden” (113). Nevertheless, Jones does believe that Christians can engage “critically and constructively” with secular psychology. But this engagement has its limits. Like Myers, Jones uses the homosexuality issue as a test case for his approach, but with a very different result. For Jones, Scripture is clear that homosexual behavior is sinful and therefore no other data can be allowed to militate against the authority of Scripture on this issue. In any event, Jones has serious concerns about the studies that have reportedly “proven” that homosexuality is genetic.

The Christian psychology view is represented by Robert Roberts and P. J. Watson. This view points out that psychology-that is, critical reflection on “human psychic well-being and dysfunction” (150)-is ancient, not modern, in origin. Roberts and Watson maintain that there is not one universal psychology, but rather many rival psychologies. In this context, Christian psychologists wish to stake a claim for an approach to psychology that is explicitly based upon the Christian tradition. This recovery of a distinctly Christian psychology takes place in two stages: retrieving the “rich resources that lie within our own tradition” (155) and engaging in empirical research from within this framework. This latter step includes utilizing “well-established” social-scientific methods as well engaging in critical dialogue with psychologies that are based upon other worldviews. In short, Christian psychologists wish to produce a “worldview-explicit” psychology (175).

John Coe and Todd Hall seek to defend the transformational psychology view. This model, which is newly represented in the book’s second edition, maintains that “psychology is ultimately an act of love” (199). It focuses on the spiritual and emotional transformation of the psychologist. One of the key premises of the transformational view is its insistence that “quantification” (the methodology of the empirical sciences) is not one-size-fits-all methodology. Psychology should be open to investigating, as a unified field of knowledge, all of the phenomena of human experience, including the facts of “science” as well as the realities of faith. Therefore, the transformational model is critical of methodologies that are based upon naturalistic presuppositions. Like the Christian psychology view, this view seeks to make its Christian assumptions explicit. For the transformational model, the “transformed person [is] most fundamental” (213). It insists that “doing psychology truly is to do it in faith, in the love of God” (225).

The final position, the biblical counseling view, is presented by David Powlison. Powlison argues that “Christian faith is a psychology,” and “Christian ministry is a psychotherapy” (245). Biblical counseling attempts to work out “biblical faith into the particulars of our time, place, problems, and persons” (245). As such, biblical counseling is a distinctive approach to the psychological task, one explicitly oriented by Christian belief. Powlison develops the word “psychology” along six lines (Psych-1 to Psych-6): the raw experiences of life, organized descriptions of those experiences, interpretive models, the practical application of those models (psychotherapy), professional and institutional arrangements, and the ethos of the culture. He then provides a test case of how a biblical counseling approach would work through these six aspects in a particular counseling encounter. According to Powlison, biblical counseling is just one example of “practical theological work”: it seeks to apply Scripture to the complex circumstances of life (245).

Eric Johnson closes the book by suggesting some ways in which his readers might gain understanding from the five views (chapter seven). He argues that “it would be a serious mistake to assume that there is only one correct position among the five such that the others are wholly in error” (292). Johnson encourages his readers to remain “conscientious objectors” in the internecine warfare that has taken place in the Christian counseling world over the last several decades (311). Instead, Christians should incorporate the best of each view into their own “metasystemic” approaches to psychology (308-09).

Three Important Questions

It would be beyond the scope of this review to provide a full evaluation of each of these views, noting their respective strengths and weaknesses. For the sake of full disclosure, my own sympathies lie with the biblical counseling view, but all of the chapters contain valuable insights. In any event, the contributors themselves have provided helpful responses to each others’ perspectives. So, instead of providing five responses of my own, this review will address three of the most important questions that are raised by the book that hopefully will serve as a guide to the reader in evaluating the views (Johnson himself provides a similar list of key issues on page 40).

First, what is the nature of psychology? Some of the authors speak of psychology primarily in terms of the science of psychology, that is, evidence provided by psychological and social-scientific research. Others speak of psychology primarily in terms of the practice of psychology, that is, the practices of psychotherapy and counseling. Which facet of psychology one has in mind could potentially shape how one answers the question, “What does psychology have to do with Christianity?” On the one hand, some of the observations of secular psychological science might prove helpful for Christian counselors (though we would be well-advised to acknowledge the theory-ladenness of all scientific observations). On the other hand, many of the prescriptions of secular psychotherapy are based upon unbiblical assumptions about human beings, their fundamental problems, and the solutions to these problems. Christian counselors ought to approach both secular psychology and psychotherapy with a healthy dose of skepticism and ought to be shaped most fundamentally by biblical assumptions about God, man, sin, salvation, and the change process.

Second, what is the primary context for Christian engagement with psychology? For some of the contributors, psychology is primarily an academic enterprise to be conducted in the context of higher education. For some in this category, Christians ought to engage the discipline of psychology as they would any other academic discipline, employing the accepted methods in the field (levels-of-explanation). For others in this category, however, Christians ought to carve out their own niche in the discipline, opening the field up to methods that move beyond the naturalistic presuppositions that have prevailed in the modern era (Christian psychology and transformational psychology). If Christians are to engage the discipline of academic psychology, it seems that the latter course is to be preferred, because it rightly calls into question the naturalistic dogmatism that characterizes much of the field of psychology and taps into the psychological resources inherent in Scripture and the Christian tradition.

For David Powlison, the context for Christian engagement with psychology seems to be a bit different. While he doesn’t diminish the importance of academic psychology, Powlison seems to place more emphasis on putting psychology into practice in the course of Christian ministry-as he puts it, “Christian ministry is a psychotherapy” (245). In other words, it seems that, for Powlison, the primary context for Christian engagement with psychology is in the church-in “communities of increasingly wise counsel” (272). Some of the other perspectives also seek to apply their methods to Christian ministry, but none more forcefully than Powlison. His proposal for biblical counseling should prove to be a helpful resource for pastors and lay people who are engaged in Christian ministry.

Finally, what is the role of Scripture in a Christian appropriation of psychology? All of the contributors to this book confess that Scripture is the final authority for Christian faith and practice. All would admit that Scripture provides, in some sense, the boundaries for Christian engagement with psychology. But for some of the contributors, Scripture is insufficient to explain all that we need to know about humans, their problems, and the solutions to these problems. In one sense, this observation is trivially true. No one can deny that there are many matters about human beings which Scripture does not address. Scripture is silent, for example, about non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the prescriptions used to treat it.

But in another sense, this insistence on Scripture’s insufficiency can lead to a diminishing of Scripture’s practical authority. In other words, it seems that some Christian appropriations of secular psychology are too quick to move beyond Scripture and too ready to assign an almost equal authority to secular psychological science. The obvious example in this book is David Myers’s shift on the issue homosexuality. But even some of the other approaches can be in danger of silencing Scripture by espousing views and practices that presuppose unbiblical perspectives. The strongest views represented in this book are those that give Scripture pride of place throughout the process of engagement with psychology. God’s powerful Word provides more than a few preliminary theological assumptions for the psychological task. It also provides “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).

So what does Leipzig have to do with Jerusalem? How should Christian pastors, counselors, and academicians engage secular psychology? Well, the debate continues. But one thing is certain: Eric Johnson and the other contributors to this volume have provided a resource that those engaged in this debate cannot ignore.

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