Tag Archives: Psychology and Religion

One Definition of Christian Psychology

At a recent conference, Diane Langberg submitted the following definition of Christian Psychology. I present it below, verbatim, for your consideration. In some ways she doesn’t say anything new. However, it is quite different from our usual definitions.

Let me explain my seeming contradiction by first giving you C. Stephen Evans definition of Christian psychology,

 [It is] psychology which is done to further the kingdom of God, carried out by citizens of that kingdom whose character and convictions reflect their citizenship in that kingdom… (p. 132)

As you would expect, Dr. Evans offers a philosophically astute definition.

Or, consider Eric Johnson’s tome, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal. In this book of 700 plus pages, he explicates a Christian psychology framework as doxological, semiodiscursive, dialogical, canonical, and psychological approach to soul repair. If you are looking for a theologically and epistemologically rich entry point to Christian psychology, I can’t point you to a better place than this book.

Like these two examples, many of our current definitions focus on matters of epistemology, theology, and psychology. Many definitions also emphasize the work of critical evaluation of existing psychological theory and research.

Now turn to Dr. Langberg’s definition. Notice how she emphasizes the character, the preparation, and actions of the counselor. Notice further that the focus on outcomes is bidirectional–on counselee and counselor.

Christian psychology as practiced in the counseling relationship is a servant of God, steeped in the Word of God, loving and obeying God in public and in private, sitting across from a suffering sinner at a vulnerable crossroad in his/her life and bringing all of the knowledge and wisdom and truth and love available to that person while remaining dependent on the Spirit of God hour by hour. That work, no matter what you call it, will be used by God to change us into His likeness; that work will result in His redemptive work in the life sitting before us; that work will bring glory to His great Name.

What I take from Dr. Langberg’s definition is an emphasis on action, the Spirit’s work and the counselor’s work (in self and other). While the epistemological definitions are necessary if we are going to think critically about our work, so to is this action-oriented definition. It reminds us that for all our thinking and theorizing, it is God’s work in our private and public lives that is used to bring healing and hope to others.

Your thoughts?


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, Diane Langberg

Coming to Peace with Psychology 5

We turn to the last section of Everett Worthington’s Coming to Peace with Psychology (IVP, 2010) entitled, “What Psychological Science has to Offer Theology”.

Chapter nine has the goal of exploring psychological tools and what they can do. Worthington rightly points out that all sciences derive from philosophy. They are an attempt to conceptualize reality “by observing, measuring and quantifying life experiences.” (p. 149). He then summarizes Thomas Kuhn’s work on the concept of scientific revolutions–that is most of science is an effort to support existing hypotheses until the current paradigms no longer work at which point a revolution occurs in thinking. Then Worthington points out another way of looking at scientific progress–the creation (happenstance or not) of new tools results in massive new data that may change our perspective on reality.

Worthington seems to prefer this model and wants to explore the “new tool” of psychological science. In his mind psychological science is a new theological tool. Wait, you might say, how is it a theological tool? He would argue that it helps us understand humanity better thus it teaches us something about the God who created us.

Here are two of the “tools” he mentions for looking into the mind: Peripheral nervous system measures that get at subtle experiences of stress; face twitch recording that get at highly subtle psychological reactions. Both may help us understand reactions/behaviors that cannot be easily verbalized.

The remaining portion of the chapter defends the value of science in spite of its shortcomings. Yes, science is flawed, but to Worthington it is “still useful.” He wants to remind readers that science isn’t as cold and impersonal as it is often portrayed. It can teach about development of children,  about religious behavior, about human strengths, etc.

If there is a problem, says Worthington, it is that “we [scientific tool users] do not often refer back to the purposes of psychological science–to think the thoughts of God, to know the Creator by learning about the creation.” (p. 166)

I think it is helpful to remember that tools like these do produce data–data worth looking at and learning from. However, it appears we don’t do well with our approach to this data. Either we are too enamored with its glittering images as if it were spoken from the mouth of God or we reject it because it must be biased and a waste of time. Careful critical evaluation of self and data are necessary. What are our blind spots? Are we too enamored with data? Or do we think we already know all we need to know?


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized

Coming to Peace With Psychology 3

In my previous posts I have introduced Everett Worthington’s, Coming to Peace with Psychology: What Christians can Learn from Psychological Science (IVP, 2010). Dr. Worthington wants to explore a better conception of the relationship between psychology and Christianity—something better than ideas in conflict or even dialogue partners. Rather than being suspicious of psychology, he wants us to see that we can learn much about human nature and God from psychological science. He argues that use of scientific research can overcome some of our tendencies to use anecdotes and partially supported theories to explain behavior or predict outcomes.

In chapter five, Dr. Worthington begins by saying, “I want to see God more clearly. Psychological science can help” (p. 75). Without denigrating God’s self-revelation through the Bible he focuses on the human side of the relationship, “…I have a part in this two-way relationship. I must try to discern what God has revealed to us….The more I consult, the greater chance I have of knowing God better” (p. 76). Just how does he consult? He reads the Word, he listens to the Holy Spirit, he consults with fellow believers, reads theologians, and uses spiritual disciplines to reflect (think) on truth. “To see God more clearly, know God better and love God more, I might supplement God’s special revelation (and associated practices in the church ) by consulting God’s general revelation…as revealed by clinical psychology, sociology…or psychological science” (p. 77).

Thus, Worthington states that though Scripture is sufficient for the “necessities of salvation,” it does not answer all the questions we ask and so is not the only resource we need for certain subjects. So, can psychological science teach us about human nature (and by extrapolation, God)? Yes, says Worthington. Using the example of self-control he argues that scientific method can teach you about your “moral muscle and how to strengthen it” (p. 81). Now, readers of this blog will quickly point out that sometimes psychology seems to develop answers/descriptions to human problems that seem in opposition to the answers/descriptions given by Christianity. In response, he focuses on two problems: the failure of some in psychology to use rigorous scientific methods (thus encouraging biases) and the failure to discern the difference between description of human corruption and prescription (of who God is or what he wants).

Finally, he concludes this chapter by stating that though psychological science and theological inquiry speaks different languages (scientific methods vs. literary analyses) from different perspectives (human vs. divine), we ought not believe that the two ways of knowing are unable to “enrich and cross-pollinate each other.” Instead, they perform checks and balances on each other’s findings and interpretations.

Those of you familiar with the Levels of Explanation theory of integration will note that Worthington’s view is a bit more relational (hence that is what he calls it) and interactive than merely consigning the two methods to opposite corners of the ring. In my next post, I’ll give more of his detail regarding his “relational model.”

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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling science

Coming to Peace with Psychology 1

In the first chapter of Coming to Peace with Psychology: What Christians can Learn from Psychological Science (IVP, 2010) Ev Worthington makes this point: We’re not as good at predicting human behavior as we would like to think. Science can help us. Or, the flip side, we are really great at formulating post hoc explanations (after we read scientific data) that help us think that we knew it all along (p. 28). You know, like when you get the answer of some piece of trivia, you feel you knew it all along. He provides several examples of surprising data that prove that we aren’t that good at predicting human behavior. Why is this important? We humans need help understanding our world. We don’t always make good choices even though we have massive data about humanity (biblical, experiential, etc.). So, he asks at the end of chapter one, how does psychological science relate to theology given that theology looks not to “thin slices” of large amounts of data but to Scripture?

In chapter two, Ev shows how his approach to the scripture/science relationship differs from previous attempts. He starts with the origin of the debate, makes an allusion to the Renaissance but quickly turns to the issue of counseling because it is in counseling where Christians are most concerned about whether they are receiving godly or ungodly wisdom. He points to usual suspects: secular models, rejection of Christian worldview, especially in academia, rejection of traditions and authorities. These cultural phenomena lead many Christians to be wary of liberal, free-wheeling, therapists. The call for “Christian counseling that was centered on biblically consistent beliefs and values was answered by Christians trying to integrate current counseling theories with Reformed theologies.

While there are variations on this theme, Worthington thinks one belief ties them together: Scripture and our human interpretations of it provide a clearer picture of reality than do human attempts to read general revelation. And, those disciplines that cover the nature of person (vs. “harder” sciences) have more distortion to them. Thus, there is a need to develop Christian filters to get rid of distortions in psychology.

He then singles out a few individuals who have diverse but generally favorable takes on the filter model: Robert C. Roberts, Eric Johnson, and David Powlison. Each has a different take on the problem of psychology and theology but all agree that there needs to be some critical evaluation of the underpinnings of psychological science. Interestingly, he dismisses each view (gently) for not being able to survive mainstream psychology.

Following these three, he points to three scientists who happen to be Christian: Malcolm Jeeves, David Myers, and Fraser Watts. Each, says Worthington, uses some form of a perspectivalist approach: two disciplines looking at overlapping data from different points of view (and asking different questions).

He ends the chapter saying that psychological science (Not psychotherapy) can be the bridge between science and theology–though I’m not sure he has spelled that out yet. Further, instead of just making Scripture trump (filter model) or Psychological research trump (Myer’s approach), we need a longer dialog when there seems to be conflict between Scripture and psychology.

He will take up “who do we trust during a conflict” in the next chapter.

Some thoughts. For those looking for deeper philosophy of science dialogue, you will need to look elsewhere. This is not Worthington’s focus. Rather, he wishes to give scientific endeavors some room at the table so that it can be taken seriously. To do so, he needs to show how both the filter and the separate-but-equal approaches miss the mark.

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Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized

Coming to Peace with Psychology I (Review)

I’ve arrived as a blogger! No, I’m not getting paid to write and I’m not getting millions of hits each day. But I am getting a new perk. Someone has seen fit to send me complimentary books just in case I might wish to review them here. Free books! Do you know how cool that is? To an academic and book lover, it is just about the best perk ever.

[I guess this is a good time for a disclaimer. I only review books I find interesting. And even if the book comes wrapped in Ben Franklins (this one wasn’t for some reason), I promise to tell you what I really feel about the book]

Today, I received Ev Worthington’s new book, Coming to Peace with Psychology: What Christians Can Learn From Psychological Science (IVP, 2010). You may be familiar with Dr. Worthington’s work on marriage enrichment, marriage and family therapy, and forgiveness. This is my first experience with him writing about the relationship of psychology and Christianity. Here are a few of his thoughts from the introduction and the enclosed “Author Q & A” about why we might need a new book on this topic:

  • “In this book I will claim that we can know people better, and even know God better, by heeding psychological science.” (p. 11)
  • “People have been integrating theology and psychology for years, but a vast majority of the integration has come from psychotherapists. Only a small minority of integrators have been psychological scientists…. While psychotherapists try to generalize about human nature on the basis of the clients they have seen and the models of helping they were trained in, psychological scientists measure the whole range of people–those 15 percent who were clients with some psychotherapist and about 85 percent more who are not.” (Author Q & A)

Wow. He lays down the gauntlet. The problem with previous integration has been the emphasis on anecdotes from therapists. If only we had more integration models by scientists. In fact, he is right–to a degree. Much of integration is highly theory driven. But is that bad?

[Rabbit trail: What are the common “sins” of theologian integrators? Clinician Integrators? Research Integrators? Theologians put far too much emphasis on their constructs and exegesis; clinicians put too much emphasis on “what works”; researchers put too much confidence in p values. In fact none have the corner on the market of truth. But again, Worthington’s book may be very helpful. He is right that both clinicians and biblical counselors fail to interact deeply enough with psychological research. Either they dismiss scientific methods by pointing out its weaknesses or they generalize from a small data point into a grand theory even though the data cannot bear the weight of the theory.]

Let’s hear some more from Worthington about the direction of his book:

  • His theses: Psychological science helps both Christians and non-Christians (a) understand God’s creation in human beings, (b) know about God more because the study of image bearers points to God, and (c) live more virtuously. (p. 13)
  • So, he sees psychology as a common grace to refine us all. This is very interesting. Usually integrative literature has cited common grace as what allows humans to rightly perceive. Here, the discipline IS common grace.
  • The relationship between psychology and Christianity is an “emerging marriage”– one that has possibilities of conflict and yet greater intimacy.

Finally, you might be interested in just what approach Ev Worthington will take in connecting psychology and Christianity. In the past some have described integration as a recycling project, a filter to get rid of non-Christian worldviews, a recasting effort, or a perspectival or level of explanation project. He mentions two: filter and perspectival approaches. The filter tries to have theological/biblical constructs as interpreting science. He finds this problematic. The perspectival model tries to separate the two disciplines as different ways of knowing.

So what does Worthington suggest? A new model he calls a relational approach.

That’s enough for this post. Next post I’ll make some comments on his first section (where he addresses some of the problems in previous integration by pointing to some psychological science).


Filed under biblical counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, philosophy of science, Psychology

Integrating Faith and Psychology: Listening to God

Having read chapters by L. Rebecca Propst, Everett Worthington, and Siang-Yang Tan (in Integrating Faith and Psychology, IVP 2010), I am seeing an initial pattern–how important experience of God is in the development and outlook of the person–especially through the trials and tribulations of life. Worthington points to it in his work on the  topic of forgiveness (his mother was violently murdered). Propst speaks of integration as the product of her daily struggles and walk with God. Tan points to a burnout experience plus subsequent healing that led to his move toward psychology.

As one who reads and sometimes writes about the relationship between faith and psychology (and the fact that we cannot separate these two concepts–faith and psychology are always linked for everyone), I find these stories useful. They remind me that much of our practical integration is seamless and emanates from the gut. It doesn’t mean that we ought not have critical thoughts about our gut or that we ought to supply theory to our practice. But, try as we might to focus on the logic of our work, our integrative work is in the moment affective work I think.

Tan and Propst are right. You want to do good integration? Don’t make it your primary focus. “Instead, seek the Lord and his kingdom first (Matthew 6:33), and always see the bigger picture of God’s will and God’s kingdom with loving obedience to him, even as we are graced and blessed by him.” (Tan, p. 88) “Follow hard after God. Cultivate a daily habit of prayer and Bible study. As much as possible, understand and try to grasp a truly supernatural view of the universe.” (Propst, p. 64)

Let us be reminded that there is something more important than getting the right view of Christian counseling–that of knowing and being sensitive to the Spirit of God. It is possible, to be right in one’s view of psychology and theology and fail to be sensitive to the Spirit of God.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, church and culture, education, Psychology