A Brief History of Christians in Psychology
Eric L. Johnson
Followers of God have always been interested in his creation. After citing the stars in the heavens, the bestowal of rain, the growth of vegetation and the feeding of wild animals, the psalmist cries out, “How many are your works, O LORD! / In wisdom you made them all; / the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24). But of all the things in creation, of greatest interest to most of us is our own nature, for we are fascinated with the wonder of ourselves. As John Calvin wrote, a human being is a microcosm of the universe, “a rare example of God’s power, goodness, and wisdom, and contains within . . . enough miracles to occupy our minds” (1559/1960, p. 54). It is not surprising then to learn that Christian thinkers over the centuries have thought deeply about psychological matters, long before modern psychology arose.
Yet Christian interest in psychology has exploded over the last fifty years. Countless books have been written by Christians that describe our personalities, our boundaries, our dysfunctional development, our relationships and their problems, how our children should be raised, and so on. However, in the midst of this explosion has been an intellectual crisis that the church has been wrestling with for even longer: over the previous 140 years, a complex and rich body of knowledge and practice has proliferated, which has understood and treated human beings in some ways that vary considerably from Christian perspectives on human life. Since this modern psychology is largely secular, there is considerable disagreement about how much the theories and findings of this type of psychology should influence, be absorbed into and even transform the way Christians think about human beings. Some Christians have embraced modern psychology’s findings and theories with uncritical enthusiasm, naively trusting that its texts are a perfect reflection of human reality. Others have argued that any appropriation of modern psychology is “psychoheresy,” since it necessarily poisons the Christians who imbibe it (Bobgan & Bobgan, 1987). This book will examine neither extreme but will consider the vast territory between them—specifically five well-thought-through views from evangelicals who offer a fairly comprehensive representation of the ways that most Christians (including nonevangelicals) understand psychology and counseling in our day.
Before summarizing the five approaches themselves, I would like to trace the historical and intellectual background for the present debate.
Christianity and Science
We ought to begin by noting that Christians have commonly understood that the natural order is the work of a wise Creator who continues to providentially guide it, and that it, therefore, possesses an intrinsic rationality and orderliness that can be investigated. Discovering evidence of this design brings God glory, thus its continued investigation is warranted (Hooykaas, 1972; McGrath, 2001; Stark, 2003). Indeed, it was mostly Christians in the West who founded the scientific revolution, and the main contributors to the early developments in the natural sciences— astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology—were Christians of various stripes, including Roger Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Francis Bacon, Newton, Boyle, Pascal, Descartes, Ray, Linnaeus and Gassendi. Throughout the history of Christianity, science has been seen, fundamentally, as a gift of God.
Christianity and Psychology
According to most introductory textbooks in psychology, psychopathology and counseling (and even some history of psychology texts), the founding of psychology occurred in the mid- to late-1800s. As we will see, though, that was the founding of modern psychology. A little more investigation reveals that there was a tremendous amount of reflection, writing, counseling, psychological theorizing and even some research going on during previous centuries (Brett, 1912; Klein, 1970; Leahey, 2003; Watson & Evans, 1991). Unquestionably, the form of this older psychology was different in many respects from the empirically and statistically oriented psychology of the past hundred years. In contrast, this older psychology relied much more on the philosophical and theological reflections of Christian thinkers and ministers. Nonetheless, this was genuine psychological work and it pervades the history of Christianity (and all the major religions; see Olson, 2002; Thomas, 2001), even if most of it was characterized by less of the complexity evident in modern psychology.
The first sophisticated psychologies in the West were developed by Greek philosopher-therapists like Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus. They attempted to describe human nature, including its fundamental ills and its reparation, on the basis of personal experience and rigorous reflection in light of prior thought (Nussbaum, 1994; Watson & Evans, 1991). These thinkers explored topics like the composition and “inner” structure of human beings—memory, reason, sensation, appetite, motivation, virtues and vices, and various ideals of human maturation. The Old and New Testaments themselves contain material of great psychological import, and in the case of Paul, we might say with Brett (1912), a strongly religious “protopsychology.” However, in contrast to the more rigorous writing of contemporary science, the reflections in the Bible belong to the category of “folk psychology” or “lay psychology,” since they do not constitute a systematic and comprehensive exploration of human nature generated for the purpose of contributing to human knowledge (Fletcher, 1995; Thomas, 2001). Nevertheless, because Christians believe the Bible to be specially inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16), revealing matters of essential importance, Christians have usually accorded the Bible’s teachings on human nature with a unique authority regarding how to think about psychological matters.
After the New Testament era, the Bible and the intellectual contributions of the Greeks both contributed to the psychological theorizing of Christians for the next fourteen hundred years. With only a limited grasp of the value of empirical study, the major teachers and writers of the early church and medieval periods were convinced that Scripture and rigorous reflection on it provided the surest route to psychological knowledge. Not surprisingly, then, the best psychological work by Christians was the result of biblical and philosophical reflection on human experience.
Though largely concerned with matters of faith and life, people like the desert fathers—Tertullian, Athanasius, Cassian, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Great—wrote with often penetrating insight into the nature of the soul and soul healing. However, Augustine, with his massive intellect, is widely recognized as the first great Christian “psychologist” (see Watson & Evans, 1991). Steeped in the Scriptures and the thought of the earlier church fathers, Augustine’s understanding of human beings was also flavored by the philosophical tradition inspired by Plato. Nevertheless, his work on love, sin, grace, memory, mental illumination, wisdom, volition and the experience of time provides a wealth of psychological insight and suggestions for further investigations.
Strongly influenced by Augustine but much more systematic (and, therefore, more directly helpful for developing psychological theory) was Thomas Aquinas (Watson & Evans, 1991). This meticulous thinker devoted his life to relating the Christian faith to the thought of another brilliant but mostly nonreligious philosopher, Aristotle. Aquinas unified the best of the Augustinian and Aristotelian traditions and produced an influential body of psychological thought, covering the appetites, the will, habits, the virtues and vices, the emotions, memory, and the intellect.
It is worth underlining that the two greatest intellectual lights of the church’s first fifteen hundred years, Augustine and Aquinas, drew heavily in their theological and psychological work on the philosophical traditions of the two greatest (non-Christian) Greek philosophers—Plato and Aristotle respectively. And the distinct approaches of Augustine and Aquinas contributed to genuine differences in thought and orientation, though these differences have sometimes been exaggerated (MacIntyre, 1990). In a very real sense, the works of both represent an “integration” of Christian and non-Christian psychology, though Aquinas was engaged in such integration more self-consciously than Augustine, who was more explicitly working out the differences between Christian and pagan thought (between the “City of God” and the “City of Humanity”).
Many Christians in the Middle Ages in addition to Aquinas wrote on psychological and soul-care topics, including Bernard of Clairvaux, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, Anselm, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, William of Ockham and Thomas á Kempis. The more philosophically inclined writers typically focused on concerns like the structure of the soul and knowledge, whereas the more spiritually inclined focused on the love and experience of God and spiritual development. The latter was the special focus of the monasteries and the priests, and the healing of souls was understood to be central to the mission of the church—long before modern psychotherapy came on the scene (McNeill, 1951; Oden, 1989).
The Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation released a new psychological curiosity in the church. For example, Reformers like Luther and Calvin reflected deeply on sin, grace, knowledge, faith and the nature of the Christian life, and Catholics like Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola described spiritual development with unparalleled clarity. However, similar to much of the work of earlier Christians, the main focus of this quasi-psychological writing was more pastoral than scientific: the cure and upbuilding of the Christian soul. It was, according to Charry (1997), aretegenic, directed toward the shaping of one’s moral and spiritual character and the enhancement of the believer’s relationship with God, and in some cases, it addressed what would be considered “therapeutic” concerns today (such as the resolution of severe “melancholy”).
In the Reformation traditions this pastoral psychology reached its zenith in the Puritan, Pietist and evangelical movements. Writers like Richard Baxter, John Owen, George Herbert, William Law, John Gerhardt, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and John Newton developed sophisticated and nuanced understandings of psychospiritual problems—like sin, melancholy, assurance and spiritual desertions—and how to promote spiritual healing and development in Christ.
In addition, Christian philosophers after the Middle Ages continued to reason carefully about human nature in works of great psychological significance, including such luminaries as René Descartes, Giovanni Vico, John Locke, Bishop George Berkeley, Thomas Reid, Bishop Joseph Butler, Gottfried Leibniz and Blaise Pascal—some of these are recognized as figures who influenced the later founding of modern psychology.
Possibly the most significant Christian psychology author since the Middle Ages was Søren Kierkegaard, who used the word psychology to describe some of his works, and who wrote some profound psychological works. Over the course of a decade, he brilliantly described (in sometimes deliberately unsettling ways) the nature of personhood, sin, anxiety and despair, the unconscious (before Freud was even born!), subjectivity, and human and spiritual development from a deeply Christian perspective. Kierkegaard is, as well, the only Christian thinker who can be considered a father to a major, modern approach to psychological theory and therapy—existential psychology (though he would have vigorously rejected its secular agenda).
So if we define psychology broadly as a rigorous inquiry into human nature and how to treat its problems and advance its well-being, Christians have been thinking and practicing psychology for centuries. Believing that God had revealed the most important truths about human beings in the Bible, they learned there that God created the world and that human beings were specially created in his image. But they also learned that something was terribly wrong with human beings—they were sinners and needed to be rescued from their plight, for which they bore responsibility. Because humans were created in God’s image, they were endowed with reason, so they could apprehend truth in the Bible and in the created order. In the Bible, they found God’s norms for human beings and his design for the flourishing of human life through the salvation obtained through faith in Christ on the basis of his life, death and resurrection. Using this worldview, Christians were able to contribute novel and significant psychological insights in such areas as the nature of human reason, sensation, memory, attention, the appetites, the emotions, volition, the unconscious and the experience of time. In addition, Christians developed hypotheses about moral, spiritual and character development; the role of God and grace in human and spiritual development; the nature and impact of sin; techniques for overcoming sin and brokenness (the spiritual disciplines, as well as herbal remedies and common-sense helps); the psychology of religion; the relation of free will and determinism; biological and social origins of psychopathology; body-soul relations; and even some of the bases for scientific research. Thus, Christians had a broad and rich tradition of understanding human beings and treating their problems long before modern psychology came on the scene.
Late Modernism and the “New Psychology”
Modernism is generally considered to be ...