A Christian Interface Approach to Psychology and Clinical Counseling

The following is a paper submitted to Dr. Rev. Stephen Greggo in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course 6710 Counseling in Theological Perspective: Faith & Practice at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, November 2014.

[You should note, we were required to select a doctrinal statement as a starting point in laying out our theological convictions.]


This paper seeks to present a distinctively Christian interface approach to counseling and psychology. It will (1) begin by presenting relevant theological convictions, (2) tease out interface implications, and (3) conclude with brief ministry applications.

Theological Convictions

I have selected the London Baptist Confession of 1644 as my doctrinal statement. As a Reformed Baptist, this confession faithfully represents my theological convictions. However, due to its brevity, this section elaborates upon certain theological topics that are central to my interface approach.

Revelation. Christian theology speaks of two modes of divine revelation. ‘General’ or ‘natural revelation’ refers to God’s revelation of truth “to all persons at all times and in all places” (‘general’) through ‘natural’ means such as “nature, history, and the constitution of human beings” (e.g., conscience).[1] ‘Special revelation’ is that which is communicated to particular persons (‘special’) through supernatural means such as divine speech, unique events of divine intervention, and the divine incarnation.[2] Due to man’s fallen condition, general revelation’s efficacy diminishes as man suppresses truth known through general revelation (the noetic effect of sin; see Rom 1:18-32), intensifying the need for special revelation. As God’s direct and explicit revelation, Christian scripture (special revelation) holds the place of highest authority (sola scriptura).[3]

Anthropology and Hamartiology. Humans are psychosomatic unions—physical and spiritual beings.[4] Relatedly, sinfulness and sin have both spiritual as well as physiological effects on humans.[5] Humans are inherently relational, finding identity in relationship with others and having an intrinsic creation-Creator relationship.[6] Men and women are God’s image-bearers, granted the distinct task of reflecting God’s reign by extending their dominion over all of creation (‘the creation mandate’; Gen 1:26-28; Ps 8). This designation of humans as God’s image bearers, as well as Christ’s proclamation of the values of God’s kingdom, offers a distinctive view of human flourishing.[7] And finally, concerning human freedom, “God hath indued the Will of Man, with that natural liberty, and power of acting upon choice; that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.”[8] The entirety of scripture, with its binding obligations placed of man, presumes the notion of human responsibility.[9]

Soteriology. Ultimate God-honoring change is salvific, a product of ‘special’ (i.e., particular to the elect) or ‘saving grace.’ This change is expressed in sanctification—progressive, deep-seated growth in holiness effected through the work of the Holy Spirit by nature of union with Christ.[10] The perquisite for and ‘entry-gate’ into sanctification is regeneration, whereby believers are granted spiritual life.[11] However, the doctrine of special grace in no way denies the reality of ‘common grace’—that “grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation.”[12]

Ecclesiology. Soul care is a corporate project (Eph 4:15-16) and its primary locus is the local church. God calls members to counsel/disciple one another (Rom 15:14) and equips the church with ample means to do so by granting the church spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12) and various means of grace (e.g., preaching, ordinances, church discipline, etc.).

Interface Applications

The interface approach I present and advocate here is eclectic. In terms of my personal counseling ministry, given my Biblical, theological, and pastoral training, I will practice Biblical Counseling while implementing insights and techniques gained from the fields of psychological and clinical counseling. In terms of my theoretical position, having significant implications for how I plan to relate to the field of psychology in ministry, I propose an eclectic position drawing from the integration, Christian psychology, and transformational psychology views. This section presents this eclectic interface position according to its corresponding theological categories discussed above.

Revelation. The doctrine of God’s general revelation of truth through natural modes validates the endeavor of psychological science.[13] Christians affirm that all that is in scripture is true. But equally valid is the concession that all that is true is not necessarily in scripture. Scripture is at the same time absolutely sufficient yet limited in scope.[14]

With that said, some sort of theoretical relationship between psychological science and Christian theology[15] must be worked out. The principle of truth’s unity—“all truth is God’s truth,” as the common adage goes—necessitates compatibility among all legitimate truth-claims. But because psychology and theology make overlapping true-claims about the same reality (i.e., human existence) and shared concerns (e.g., human nature, the human predicament, the resolution to this predicament, and the goal of human flourishing), [16] their content cannot be neatly separated into compartmentalized truth-claim categories or distinct ‘dimensions of reality.’[17] Thus, integration (more than mere compatibility) is needed.

Every psychology has a theology. As Kevin Vanhoozer states, “Everyone has a set of doctrines that they accept, ideas and values on the basis of which they act. The only question is ‘Which set?’ or ‘Where does it come from?’”[18] The question is not if psychology has a theology, but “what theology?” Likewise, as David Powlison notes, the “Christian faith is a psychology” and “Christian ministry is a psychotherapy.”[19] Christian theology makes claims about and gives answers to issues that are considered within the sphere of psychology.

However, one might ask, if science is purely objective, as has often been assumed, how is integration possible? How can Christian theology critique, shape, add (integration) to something that is objectively true? Various concerns with psychological science establish this need for a distinctively Christian approach to psychology.

First, one must consider possible faulty presuppositions within theories of or approaches to psychology and psychotherapy. Here the concern is not just with faulty anti-Christian conclusions that can be sifted out, but also with non-Christian foundational assumptions that may systemically taint an entire theory or approach. Second, one must attend to the subjective nature of psychological science.[20] Values, philosophical assumptions, and socially constructed concepts determine what is researched, how it’s researched, the interpretation of data, how findings are reported, the language used to label phenomena, and the development of theories.[21] As such, a Christian approach to psychology goes beyond merely examining conclusions. It involves investigating the methodology used for reaching such conclusions. Christian values and convictions will affect the method for ‘getting’ truth, not just what one does once the truth has been ‘gotten.’[22] Third, secular psychology is inherently limited in its study of humans due to the a priori assumption of modern, naturalistic science that all that is really real is the physical-material. Because, according to Christian theology, human nature also includes non-material components (e.g., emotion, will, spiritual conditional, etc.), a holistic investigation of humans is by definition beyond the reach of modern, naturalistic scientific inquiry which is limited to the physical-material.[23] Rather than presupposing a method of study, thereby limiting what can be studied and what counts as knowledge (methodology determining ontology), Coe and Hall propose that a Christian approach allows the object of study (i.e., humans as physical and spiritual beings) to determine the method of study (ontology determining methodology).[24] Fourth, secular psychology, with its modern scientific approach as purely descriptive, lacks the prescriptive capability to provide statements of values (good or bad), morality (right or wrong), health (adaptive or maladaptive), etc. that psychotherapy requires.[25] Christian theology and ethics provide this prescriptive element. Fifth, the ‘is’ of general revelation (e.g., psychological science) does not necessarily equal ‘ought.’ “Because all of creation, including all the data of general revelation, is fallen and is tainted by the effects of sin,” McMinn and Campbell argue, one “can never conclude that some finding of science is the way God intends for things to be.” More succinctly, “God’s law is higher than natural law.”[26] And finally, due to man’s finiteness, the noetic effects of sin, and the fact that general revelation is not self-explanatory, general revelation is not adequate. Special revelation is needed.

In light of these limitations and concerns, this distinctively Christian methodological and integrative approach grants special revelation the highest place of authority (sola scriptura).[27] This approach advocates employing a Christian theological framework to evaluate the assumptions, values, theories, methodologies, etc. of psychology and critique, shape, and supplement that material where needed. The remainder of this section deals with three areas of particular importance for this sort of approach.

Anthropology and Hamartiology. First, “The creation mandate” given to mankind “of exercising dominion over the entire creation in ways that express God’s reign (Gen 1:26; Ps 8) implies mitigating the effects of sin” such as disorders, mental illness, life distress, etc.[28] Second, the psychosomatic nature of humanity necessitates evading a reductionism of treating individuals in either a purely spiritual or physical dimension. The physicality of human nature and sin’s effects legitimizes addressing matters physiologically (e.g., through psychotropic medication). However, the spiritual essence of humanness resists treating any matter as non-spiritual.[29] Third, the intrinsically relational nature of humans means that truly holistic care must involve attending to their relationship with God and others as well as the societal effects of sin. Fourth, Christian theology offers a distinctive view of what human flourishing looks like. With its goal of client health and well-being, all psychotherapies unavoidable offer certain views of human flourishing. Christian theology defines human flourishing in terms of fulfilling the task of fully bearing God’s image, a goal ultimately realized in Christ, the perfect image of God.[30] Therefore, the goal of counseling “is spiritual, relational, and personal maturity as evidenced in desires, thoughts, motives, actions, and emotions that increasingly reflect Jesus.”[31] Relatedly, the values of counseling ought to reflect the values of the kingdom, values that are potentially rather subversive to cultural norms.[32] And finally, in contrast to the rigidly deterministic or libertarian views of human freedom embedded in some psychotherapies,[33] a Christian view of human freedom promotes a balanced, soft-deterministic compatibilism. Furthermore, avoiding the tendencies of some psychotherapies, a Christian approach must maintain the notions of sin and human responsibility.

Soteriology. This approach makes a distinction between the salvific change of sanctification and that change which is common to regenerate and unregenerate alike (e.g., symptom relief).[34] However, this does not deny the potential goodness of non-salvific change resulting from psychotherapy or psychotropic medication. The doctrine of common grace validates such care. Furthermore, such non-salvific change is not to be seen as necessarily mutually exclusive with sanctification.[35]

Ecclesiology. As the confessional statement of the Biblical Counseling Coalition states, the “fullest expression of counseling ministry is meant to occur in local church communities where pastors effectively shepherd souls while equipping and overseeing diverse forms of every-member ministry.”[36] This does not to exclude psychological institutions beyond the local church. But such institutions are properly utilized in partnership with and in support of what is primarily the local church’s call to soul care.

Ministerial Practices

As a pastor, I plan to implement this interface approach in various ways. First, I will develop professional relationships with individuals in the field psychology (e.g., clinical counselors) whose own positions are compatible with the interface position presented in this paper. I will establish these relationships based on interviews with local practitioners. Second, when deferring congregants to these practitioners, I will maintain active involvement in their care by partnering and having consistent communication with practitioners as well as offering simultaneous pastoral counseling to the congregants. Third, if possible, money will be allotted in the church budget for the purpose of funding such care for congregants in need.

Fourth, as a pastor of a local congregation, I will seek to equip the church to be the primary soul care provider by discipling members, administering means of grace (e.g., ‘word and sacrament’), exercising church discipline, personally offering Biblical Counseling, and training others do likewise. Fifth, in order to maintain a healthy practice of church discipline while avoiding potential legal repercussions, I will implement the use of confidentiality contracts between congregants and the church’s counselors.

Sixth, in terms of my personal development, I have determined a reading plan that will include continual (weekly) education in the field of psychology, counseling, and theology. This will help me further develop my interface approach, utilize knowledge from the field of psychological in my own counseling, and increasingly know when to defer and partner with practitioners. And finally, I will daily practice the spiritual disciplines of scripture mediation and prayer to promote my own spiritual development that I might be best equipped to offer soul care to others.


Notes

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), 153–154; see also 153-174. See Ps 19:1-6. Acts 14:15-7; 17-22-31; Rom 1:18-32; 2:14-16.

[2] Ibid., 175–198. See Jn 1:1-18; 14:9, 26; 16:13; Acts 13:16-41; 1 Cor 2:13; 1 Thes 2:13; 2 Tim 3:15-17; Heb 1:1-2; 2 Pet 1:19-21.

[3] Jn 17:17; 1 Thes 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19-21.

[4] Deut 6:5 (cf. Mt 22:37; Lk 10:27); 2 Cor 4:16; 1 Thes 5:23.

[5] See Gen 2; 17; 3:19; 8:21; Jn 8:34; Rom 1:21; 3:10-18; Rom 5:12; 6:12-13, 23; 1 Cor 15:21; Js 1:15. As “The “The Assembly or Second London Confession, 1677 and 1688” states, fallen humans are “wholly defiled, in all the faculties, and parts, of soul, and body” (in William J. Lumpkin, ed., in Baptist Confessions of Faith [Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969], 258).

[6] Note the inherent relational aspect in bearing God’s image as well as the fact that God’s creation of humanity in his image involved creating humanity in plurality—male and female (Gen 1:26-27).

[7] See the following examples of Jesus’ proclamation of kingdom-values in Matthew: ch. 5-7; 13:44-46; 19:30; 20:16, 20-28; 23:11-12; etc.

[8] See Deut 30:19; Mat 17:12; Js 1:14. Lumpkin, “The Assembly or Second London Confession, 1677 and 1688,” 263.

[9] Rom 3:19; 14:12; Heb 4:13; Js 2:10; 1 Pet 4:5; etc.

[10] Rom 6:1-7:6; 8:3-4; 2 Cor 3:18; Gal 5:22-23; Phil 2:12-13; Col 3:1-11; Heb 12:1, 14; etc.

[11] Ezek 36:26; Jn 1:13; 3:5; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 2:5; Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 1:3, 23; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:19; etc.

[12] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 657; see also 657-668.

[13] The epistemological validity of science is often assumed without question. However, it should be noted that science’s assumptions of (1) the uniformity of nature and (2) man’s ability to obtain knowledge through observation are properly grounded in a Creator who (1) is a God of order and (2) created man with the ability to know. Thus, the Christian faith affirms and provides an epistemological basis for scientific enterprise, e.g., psychological science.

[14] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), 153–154.

[15] The reader may notice a deliberate attempt from here on to speak more narrowly of Christian theology or Christian convictions rather than to speak more broadly of scripture. This is because, as Stanton L. Jones points out, in addressing integration with psychology, one cannot refer to scripture as something somehow abstracted from the specific Biblical interpretations and convictions of the individuals or ecclesial traditions seeking to do the integration. “An Integration View,” in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (ed. Eric L. Johnson; 2nd ed.; IVP Academic, 2010), 106.

[16] John D. Carter and Bruce S. Narramore, The Integration of Psychology and Theology: An Introduction (The Rosemead Pscyhology Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 49–70.

[17] This is claim is a deliberate a rejection of the “Levels of Explanation” approach as proposed by David G. Myers in “A Levels of Explanation View,” in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (ed. Eric L. Johnson; 2nd ed.; IVP Academic, 2010), 49–78.

[18] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Forming the Performers: How Christians Can Use Canon Sense to Bring Us to Our (Theodramatic) Senses,” Edification: The Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology. 4, no. 1 (2010): 6.

[19] David A. Powlison, “A Biblical Counseling View,” in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (ed. Eric L. Johnson; 2nd ed.; IVP Academic, 2010), 245.

[20] The subjective nature of the discipline of psychology is further evidenced by the plethora of divergent models of psychotherapy, absences of consensuses regarding theories and interpretation of data, and the potential non-conclusive nature of conclusions as evidenced by the existence of abandoned consensuses.

[21] Myers, “A Levels of Explanation View,” 53–54, 57; Jones, “An Integration View,” 113–115.

[22] Robert C. Roberts and P. J. Watson, “A Christian Psychology View,” in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (ed. Eric L. Johnson; 2nd ed.; IVP Academic, 2010), 149–78.

[23] John H. Coe and Todd W. Hall, “A Transformational Psychology Response to Christian Psychology,” in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (ed. Eric L. Johnson; 2nd ed.; IVP Academic, 2010), 190.

[24] Ibid., 191–192.

[25] Ibid., 190.

[26] Mark R. McMinn and Clark D. Campbell, Integrative Psychotherapy: Toward a Comprehensive Christian Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 25, 47–49. Here McMinn and Campbell’s argument implies that in the work of integration special revelation is not merely a helpful supplement to general revelation, but necessary.

[27] The unity of truth—“All truth is God’s truth”—leads one to the conclusion that all that is truly true is equally true and therefore equally authoritative. However, it does not follow that all acclaimed sources of truth are able to provide one with such truth infallibly and authoritatively. One must distinguish between sources of knowledge and the authority of those sources; multiple sources of knowledge does mean equal sources of knowledge. Thus, the question is not, “What truth is more authoritative, general or special revelation?” since the unity of truth is acknowledged, but, “What source of truth is more authoritative?” because not all truth-claims are created equal.

[28] Kirk E. Miller, “Medicine or Discipline: Biblical and Theological Foundations” (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL, October 10, 2014).

[29] Ibid.; Jeremy Pierre, “Psychiatric Medication and the Image of God,” The Gospel Coalition, September 24, 2012, n.p. [cited 1 November 2014]. Online: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/psychiatric-medication-and-the-image-of-god; Michael R. Emlet, “Listening to Prozac . . . and to the Scriptures: A Primer on Psychoactive Medications,” J. Biblic. Couns. 26, no. 1 (2008): 16, 21.

[30] Gen 1:26-28; Ps 8; Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 4:17-5:2; Col 1:15; 3:10.

[31] “Confessional Statement,” Biblical Counseling Coalition, n.d., n.p. [cited 19 November 2014]. Online: http://biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/about/confessional-statement/.

[32] For example, Roberts and Watson note that a psychotherapy based on the values in the Sermon on the Mount would not likely seem very therapeutic to most nor coherent with established and accepted psychotherapies. This is because, as they state, “the Christian psychology is a different psychology” (in “A Christian Psychology View,” 158).

[33] McMinn and Campbell, Integrative Psychotherapy, 119.

[34] “[Good] works done by unregenerate men although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use, both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner according to the word, nor to a right end the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and cannot please God; nor make a man meet to receive grace from God; and yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.” (Lumpkin, “The Assembly or Second London Confession, 1677 and 1688,” 272.)

[35] Kirk E. Miller, “Medicine or Discipline.”

[36] “Confessional Statement.”


Bibliography

Carter, John D., and Bruce S. Narramore. The Integration of Psychology and Theology: An Introduction. The Rosemead Pscyhology Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979.

Coe, John H., and Todd W. Hall. “A Transformational Psychology Response to Christian Psychology.” Pages 188–93 in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views. Edited by Eric L. Johnson. 2nd ed. IVP Academic, 2010.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990.

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

Jeremy Pierre. “Psychiatric Medication and the Image of God.” The Gospel Coalition, September 24, 2012. No pages. Cited 1 November 2014. Online: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/psychiatric-medication-and-the-image-of-god.

Jones, Stanton L. “An Integration View.” Pages 101–28 in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views. Edited by Eric L. Johnson. 2nd ed. IVP Academic, 2010.

Jones, Stanton L., and Richard E. Butman. Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1991.

Kirk E. Miller. “Medicine or Discipline: Biblical and Theological Foundations”, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL, October 10, 2014.

Lumpkin, William J., ed. “The Assembly or Second London Confession, 1677 and 1688.” Baptist Confessions of Faith. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969.

McMinn, Mark R., and Clark D. Campbell. Integrative Psychotherapy: Toward a Comprehensive Christian Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007.

Michael R. Emlet. “Listening to Prozac . . . and to the Scriptures: A Primer on Psychoactive Medications.” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 26, no. 1 (2008): 11–22.

Myers, David G. “A Levels of Explanation View.” Pages 49–78 in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views. Edited by Eric L. Johnson. 2nd ed. IVP Academic, 2010.

Powlison, David A. “A Biblical Counseling View.” Pages 245–73 in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views. Edited by Eric L. Johnson. 2nd ed. IVP Academic, 2010.

Roberts, Robert C., and P. J. Watson. “A Christian Psychology View.” Pages 149–78 in Psychology & Christianity: Five Views. Edited by Eric L. Johnson. 2nd ed. IVP Academic, 2010.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “Forming the Performers: How Christians Can Use Canon Sense to Bring Us to Our (Theodramatic) Senses.” Edification: The Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology 4, no. 1 (2010): 5–16.

“Confessional Statement.” Biblical Counseling Coalition, n.d. No pages. Cited 19 November 2014. Online: http://biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/about/confessional-statement/.

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