Skip to main content

Reviving Christian Humanism: A New Conversation on Spirituality, Theology and Psychology

Don S. Browning
Published by Fortress Press in 2009

Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology.

John H. Coe & Todd W. Hall
Published by IVP Academic in 2010

A Peaceable Psychology: Christian Therapy in a World of Many Cultures

Alvin Dueck & Kevin Reimer
Published by Brazos Press in 2009

These outstanding and quite different contributions to the dialogue between faith and learning in the general area of contemporary psychology share the fundamental conviction that drives the faith/learning dialogue: that the grandeur and scope of Christian truth and of the Gospel of Jesus Christ defies any minimalist constraints to the merely spiritual or to the ethereal realm of values. This drives the thoughtful believer to engage broad dimensions of human experience on the basis of our Christian understandings and convictions. Yet the three volumes could hardly be more different from each other due to the unique, explicit, and profound convictions that each of the authors bring to their work, with the result that reading the three together sparked rich reflections for me, deepening my understanding of and vision for this great work.

Don Browning was the distinguished theologian, philosopher, and intellectual, formerly of the University of Chicago Divinity School, who recently died of cancer on June 3, 2010; his wise contributions will be missed. Browning worked for over four decades to foster a deeper conversation between theology and the social sciences, doing so as an explicit representative of the liberal or mainline Christian community. His work has consistently been a model of thoughtful engagement, and this new volume carries on that trajectory. John Coe and Todd Hall are representatives of the more conservative evangelical community (my own faith community), and are respectively a philosopher and clinical psychologist at Biola University. Alvin Dueck and Kevin Reimer are clinical psychologists at two respected evangelical institutions, Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University respectively, but come at their work differently from Coe and Hall, shaped as they are by their Anabaptist convictions toward a “peaceable psychology.”

Coe and Hall’s volume is unique in that, though it is presented as a co-authored work, every chapter designates its author or authors, with eleven chapters by Coe alone, three by Hall alone, and four by both. Hence, in the following I will cite the specific chapter author when quoting Coe or Hall (or both). All emphases in quotations are in the originals.

The three books share more than an orienting conviction—they also share an ambitiousness of objective in their writing that is bracing. Most ambitious are Coe and Hall, who aspire to transform and make obsolete the entire “integration” discussion by putting us all on an utterly new trajectory:

Ultimately, we are not merely arguing for a new model or way to relate psychology to Christianity; rather, we are arguing for a new transformational model for doing psychology and science, which inherently and intrinsically is already Christian and open to the Spirit. … We want to develop a single, unified, yet complex science or “seeing” of one another and ourselves in reality and in God. (Coe and Hall, 35)

Variations of this remarkable claim are repeated often, but lest we mistake their aspirations, Coe exclaims that “we think this transformational psychology not only is distinct from and is able to accommodate the best of the other models but, more-over, brings them to their telos or completion” (97). It is not common in academic circles to encounter a claim as bold as that one’s work is the “telos or completion”of an intellectual trajectory. I was saddened that the frequent emphasis on this claim in the book, most notable when Coe speaks as a solitary author, detracted from the many worthy contributions of the volume. However worthy their work, and it is of considerable worth, Coe and Hall have not arrived at the telos or completion of the Christian scholar’s work.

Dueck and Reimer are also ambitious. They seek to expose for the reader the limitations, even bankruptcy, of the Western psychological tradition in its individualism, pragmatism, secularity, self-serving professionalism, methodological fetishism for a “universalist rubric for knowledge” (50), and imperialism. They challenge Christian psychologists to reorient toward the professional and intellectual telos of peace. They challenge us to recognize and engage the indigenous psychologies of the varieties of human cultures. They seek to transform the process of people-helping, particularly cross-cultural efforts, by grounding our work in the resources inherent in the peoples we seek to help, in their indigenous psychologies, and in the resources of the particular social networks of which they are a part. They see the engagement of the peaceable psychologist with a wounded person as a Christian calling because doing so is participation in the sufferings of Christ himself. Their calling to this peaceable psychology is impassioned and moving.

Even so, it was with Browning’s grand vision for “reviving Christian humanism” that I resonated most fully. He begins by reminding us of the unprecedented impact one millennium ago of the rediscovery of the texts of Aristotle. These texts became the focus of an intellectual dialogue among Islamic, Jewish, and Christian scholars in Spain and Sicily, a dialogue marked by its breadth across all realms of human knowing as well as by the commitments of the various religious scholars to their particular religious traditions and their unique respective intellectual resources. This rich dialogue spurred forward the explosive progress of science and the humanities in the following centuries. Indeed, Browning’s “central argument is that Christian humanism in particular, and religious humanism in general,” (1) can and ought to be revived for the good of the specific religious traditions and indeed for the flourishing of all of humanity. He suggests specifically that Christian humanism “can best be revived if the conversation between science and religion proceeds within what I call a ‘critical hermeneutic philosophy’” (1).

Browning is clear, as are the other two volumes reviewed here, about the broadscope of Christian thought:

By Christian Humanism, I have in mind various historic expressions of Christianity that were concerned with the spiritual goods of salvation and justification as well as the finite and inner-worldly goods of health, education, and sufficient wealth to sustain a decent life in this world. (1)

Indeed, the remainder of the book is notable for its breadth of concern. Browning advocates for the intellectual engagement of Christian thinkers with all facets of the human intellectual quest. In the course of this relatively brief volume, Browning models this for us well, examining and engaging in substantive and enriching dialogue on a variety of topics with contemporary positive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and with psychotherapy theory. In someways, this volume is a condensation and highlights reel of Browning’s many contributions in the past (the book is worth a read on this basis alone), but it is also an extension and continuation of those contributions.

As one among many examples, Browning critiques the individualism to which western psychology is prone (a criticism echoed persuasively by Dueck, Reimer, Coe, and Hall as well). But rather than this critique leading to vagaries, Browning draws our attention persuasively to the powerful role of social institutions as they impact human flourishing:

If we want to improve human welfare, we may do better to “put less emphasis on moral education and on building character and more emphasis on trying to arrange social institutions so that human beings are not placed in situations in which they will act badly.” (84-85)

He develops an argument, one I found convincing, that contrary to the prominent emphasis in the social sciences on free-floating and individualistic spirituality, “Spirituality must have religious institutional embodiment to have a genuine and long-lasting impact on the lives of individuals in society” (107-108). This will have implications for scholarship in psychology and all of the social sciences, namely that “institutional theory should be a part of the science-religion discussion, especially if it is to contribute to a revived and socially effective religious humanism”(109).

It may surprise some readers that in addition to such institutional arguments as urging the formulation of a public philosophy for the discipline and profession of psychiatry, that Browning, the self-proclaimed representative of liberal Christianity, spends considerable energy in his last several chapters defending the institution of the “traditional family”—the married father and mother of biological children raising and nurturing those children together—as a fragile institution in need of buttressing and support. This topic received no attention from Dueck and Reimer, and little from Coe and Hall, though they would no doubt be supportive.

Browning is an advocate of a “point of view called critical hermeneutics or hermeneutic realism” (22). His approach is resonant and compatible with that of Dueck, Reimer, Coe, and Hall, but more elegantly and richly, if briefly, developed. Browning is indebted to the work of Paul Ricoeur, whose

hermeneutic phenomenology has four core ideas. The first core idea is Gadamer ’s important theory of “effective history” [that] …points to the situated character of all thinking and investigation….Second, this effective history shapes what Gadamer called our “pre-understanding….” The third concept is…[that] all understanding is like a dialogue or a conversation….[And fourth] that moral interests shape the understanding process from the beginning. (20-22)

Browning notes rightly that one notable aspect of Hans-Georg Gadamer ’s view is that rather than setting up a hermeneutic of suspicion toward science by deconstructing any possibility of scientific objectivity, Gadamer is ultimately a realist (or perhaps better, a critical realist) who proposes the possibility of true, progressive science. Gadamer does so by constructing a more modest understanding of objectivity as “distancing.” Thus, for Gadamer and for Browning,

the explanatory and distancing objectives of science do not stand on their own foundation. They evolve out of a prior understanding of the effective history that shapes us all and then returns to that history with refinements and adjustments to the massive funds of wisdom and insight that tradition delivers to us from the tested, and sometimes not-so-tested, experience of the past. (23)

This view allows for a substantive science, but one that can and does benefit from true engagement with religious thought, and indeed with all of the realms of non-scientific inquiry and reflection. This is Browning’s vision for a meaningful dialogue that is truly enriching to all of humanity and includes the implications that

on the other hand, the religions themselves can contribute to the sciences by offering hypotheses about how social and religious ideas, behaviors, and rituals can shape experience, even neural processes, often for the good but sometimes not. The religions can offer a more generous epistemology and ontology than science is inclined to find useful for the tight explanatory interest of the laboratory or scientific survey. (14)

The resulting benefits, however, are experienced on all sides, as from such dialogue:

Psychology would be broadened and theology would be refined. What do I mean by the two terms broadened and refined? I mean that psychology will develop new objects of study and new hypotheses to test, and that theology will receive refinements in its efforts to reconcile certain tensions, especially regarding its views about the rhythms of nature, that exist within complex traditions full of diversity and competing interpretations. (27)

It may be informative to illustrate Browning’s approach by briefly summarizing a line of thinking that I found fascinating. Browning explores how the social sciences (inclusive of positive psychology, developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and personality and psychotherapy theory) can help us understand morality. Unfortunately, secular writers in all of these traditions often adopt contemptuous, reductionistic stances toward moral and religious phenomena, and claim to have explained (away) religion and morality. Further, psychology, and particularly the applied psychologies, often errs in supposing that their elaborations about this or that formulation of human needs, emotions, motivations, and so forth somehow resolve the moral complexities of human life. In its most primitive form, psychologists sometimes advocate for a naïve formulation that simple awareness of one’s “true needs” as revealed by psychological science will somehow result in the person flourishing as one self-actualizes in harmony with one’s social and physical world.

Browning politely challenges such thinking. He draws on an array of thinkers to establish that psychology can helpfully contribute to (but not exhaust) our understanding of morality because it can “illuminate the category of the premoral and the range of empirical realities within which moral action is both constrained and made possible” (56). For example, “health itself is a basic nonmoral or premoral good, as are wealth, knowledge, comfort, agency, and a raft of basic human skills. But nonmoral or premoral goods are not necessarily fully moral goods” (60). Why?Because

we do not necessarily call the healthy, wealthy, knowledgeable, agentive, or skillful person a morally good person. This is because there can be conflicts between nonmoral or premoral goods; my claims for health may conflict with yours, my wealth may compete with yours, and my skills may displace yours. I contend that the moral good reconciles conflicting premoral goods, both within the individual self and between self and others. (60)

Thus, psychology and the other social sciences can assist us in understanding the basic premoral building blocks of human character by enriching our understanding of such realities as emotions, motivations, and cognitive processes. But the social sciences cannot by themselves manage and resolve the conflicts that inevitably occur both within each of us (as different premoral goods contest with one another), and between persons (as satisfaction of my wants potentially deprives you of satisfaction of yours). Clearly, a conversation at a level above that of the premoral goods, one focused on resolution of conflicts between conflicting goods, persons and communities, is needed. Only through extended dialogue between psychology, philosophy, and theology can we truly advance in our understanding of morality in its fullest form.

Morality…builds on, tries to fulfill, yet properly orders and critiques our ethical striving toward the premoral goods of life. In other words, morality assumes our ethical strivings toward the goods of life but also tries to adjudicate between conflicting expressions of the premoral good. (62)

For Browning, the tensions between how various religious traditions formulate these matters may never be resolved, but thoughtful conversation will steadily deepen our understanding. He further posits the legitimate role of such institutions as religious bodies, professions, and governments to contribute to the common good by “institutionalizing” their best resolutions of these matters: “Many of our moral decisions or moral directions are more gradually arrived at in response to a series of situations or on the basis of a synthesis of more specific situations. This is why…human beings rely so heavily on institutions” (84).

Finally, Browning contests the notion that science can ever explain religion, or resolve perfectly questions, tensions, or conflicts within religious traditions. Too often, secular commentators (and sometimes religious protagonists within religious traditions) fail to grasp the complexities existent within traditions. Social scientist critics of religion often seize on one facet of a religion’s teachings as the focus of withering critique, and in the process fail to manifest an accurate, deep, and sympathetic understanding of the religious tradition. Browning urges more respectand humility among secular commentators on religion. He suggests that the science-religion dialogue

will be most successful when the religious traditions that have shaped our effective histories are first of all understood and interpreted with care. When this happens, these traditions will be seen as complex conversations or dialogues with many different accents and tensions. More times than not, science will help refine opposing positions within a spiritual tradition rather than correcting or even dismantling the tradition as such. (93)

Browning’s Reviving Christian Humanism is a remarkable achievement in such a slender volume. As an evangelical, I find myself resonating with the contours of Browning’s approach but see its limitations flowing directly from the author ’s stance as a Christian in the liberal tradition. As such, he simply draws less on the substantive particularity of Christian truth than I think possible and indeed most appropriate. Browning’s faith commitments as articulated in a volume like this soar at a fairly high level of theological abstraction above the issues he engages, providing interesting and worthy points for reflection but leaving the evangelical reader wanting to plunge deeper into the resources of the scriptures, Christian theology, and the Christian pastoral tradition for even more “particular” conceptual resources. Such a deeper plunge is what marks our other two books.

The Dueck and Reimer and Coe and Hall books manifest striking similarities and contrasts. Their most striking similarity is that both projects are driven by impassioned commitments to a practical, ethical, experiential dimension of the faith and learning call. Both, as is appropriate for serious Christians, call for radical devotion to Christ, and both claim that the focus of our efforts must include, indeed be driven by, the development or maturation of the person of the psychologist. In a sense, these are both transformational psychologies.

Dueck and Reimer argue that “our peaceable psychology is less about a rational system of beliefs and more about the concrete life of the Christian community”(202), and call for transformation into the likeness of the peaceable Jesus.

If a peaceable psychology is tradition-sensitive, then the foundation that will shape the Christian mental-health worker is the person of Jesus Christ. No other foundations are adequate.There are no universal, absolute truths that can substitute for the truth of Jesus’ life in shaping our imagination, our convictions and our actions. (226)

It is peace that marks the life of Christ: peace through reconciliation, peace through self-giving, peace through service, peace through yielding and submission, peace through suffering and death. They urge, even insist that we follow the same path: “Within the Christian tradition there are those who have asserted that the death and resurrection of Jesus should be understood as an expression of self-giving for his followers. We do well to follow his example” (24), and “Peace is ultimately achievable not through a universalizing ethic of democratic plurality, tolerance, or relativism, but rather in the deepest commitment to follow Christ’s example” (183).

Coe and Hall also call for radical transformation, but formulate that call in terms more familiar to traditional evangelicals and perhaps to those of charismatic sensibilities—they call for sanctification of the believing psychologist through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. “This transformational model attempts to make it clear that the transformation of the person is the determinative and foundational element for the process and product of doing psychology” (Coe, 82). They are quite explicit about the personal dimension of their argument; Chapter 2 details their journeys through spiritual dryness, induced or at least complicated by their engagement with psychology and therapy, into a new, fresh experience of the Spirit.

Expressing similar sentiments to Dueck and Reimer, though pointing in a somewhat different direction, Coe and Hall argue that it is vital to put the person of the psychologist before theory:

Our transformational model of psychology insists that there is something about the nature of the person and the process of doing psychology that is more epistemically and ontologically fundamental than the theoretical product. Although prior models have pointed in this direction, we want to build a whole theory of relating psychology to Christianity that is grounded in the person and process of doing a holistic psychology in the Spirit. (Hall and Coe, 71)

Neither of these two sets of authors are contemptuous toward theory, but they intentionally and explicitly frontload our attention to the person of the psychologist. Nevertheless, both volumes manifest considerable theoretical and conceptual sophistication, and show remarkable theological depth. Dueck and Reimer, though, are deeply committed to personal engagement in their approach. “Our approach is premised upon incarnation—an encounter between two human beings who each live within stories of existential and transcendent significance” (13). Hence, their volume is marked by frequent presentations of cross-cultural narratives intertwined with their more conceptual discourses. Coe and Hall are also committed to a deeply relational psychology, with the chapters by Hall containing a number of clinical narratives, but the volume overall manifests the conceptual rigor and discursive sophistication of its philosopher first author.

Reading Dueck and Reimer deepened my understanding of the limitations and blind spots of our inherited western psychological tradition, and of the potential for nonwestern voices to enrich our psychological and religious understandings. They document more than mere limitations and blind spots, however, arguing that western psychology has become complicit in imperialism. The early part of their book is peppered with reports, many previously unknown to me, of the use of psychological methods and knowledge to advance the aims of the United States in our quasi-colonial world neighbors. They rail at psychologists participating in interrogations of detainees in a number of international conflicts, and report a number of other similarly embarrassing, shameful applications of our science and profession.

Dueck and Reimer sound a clear alarm that it is not just the economic and military might of the West that is jeopardizing the social structures, languages, and environments of indigenous peoples around the world, but that western psychology itself is perhaps equally virulent. Under the rubric of our commitment to universal knowledge, western psychology has the potential (too often realized) to be as destructive to indigenous peoples as the devastation of their local environments wreaked by the West’s pursuit of natural resources. They argue that “the hegemony of Western psychology is rapidly eroding the remnants of indigenous Christian understanding of the self, community, politics, and tradition” (12-13); they provide both anecdotes and broader evidence for their thesis. Their argumentation gave me pause as we shape students to put their professional skills to work in service of the ”underserved,” persons embedded in their own unique linguistic, familial, and ethnic cultures.

It is not just academic or theoretical psychology that is guilty, but therapeutic psychology as well. If it is the rallying cry of universal knowledge that can foster and justify academic or intellectual imperialism, the more hidden values embedded in the practice of western therapy can be equally toxic, for “the language spoken in therapy between client and clinician carries liberal democratic commitments that assume value neutrality, but in reality represent a morally significant conversation” (32). Dueck and Reimer provide a thoughtful analysis of the sorts of autonomous, individualistic assumptions that pervade western therapy. Given that therapy is necessarily value-laden, it is always a morally significant interaction. In therapy, we always run the risk of displacing the particularities of the hurting person’s indigenous culture, language, self-understanding, traditions, and social structures with the therapist’s “overarching vision of the human good” (48).

Dueck and Reimer critique western psychology from an explicitly Christian perspective. They do so, as I noted earlier, from a vantage point that sees the breadth and depth of the Gospel.

Jesus is a political figure and that by implication Christian psychologists are to be sensitive to the political nature of their work. [Thus,] the Christian psychologist must treat [each cross-cultural contact] with attention to the particulars of his political situation and his ethnic and religious tradition. (13)

How are Jesus and the Gospel political? “To say Jesus is Lord means there are no other sovereigns” (219), and in a world that demands that we bow the knee to any number of first priorities (or gods), proclaiming Christ as Lord is necessarily a political act of broad import. Thus, “secularity and Christianity are not only two traditions, they are competing social projects with different cultural aims and practices” (84). Amen.

And now we arrive at the beating heart of this work. How are we to work with hurting people across cultures? First, according to Dueck and Reimer, we listen. Engagement begins “with particular, local stories reflective of a commitment to indigeneity” (22), with understanding the world of the other in and on their own terms, and if possible in their own language.

But understanding is not enough; we must affirm or legitimize the other.

We propose that therapists honor the client’s thick cultural particularity by eliciting, legitimating, and extending it. This does not mean…that we accept the client’s tradition uncritically. We do, however, interpret the client’s presenting problem emically, from the perspective of their ethnic or religious community. Health is interpreted in terms of the virtue grammar of the client’s community. (124)

Their peaceable psychology “begins with the particular web of beliefs the client brings to therapy and elicits the religious resources the client may possess” (73).

I was disappointed, however, to discover that where therapy goes from there was, well, quite unclear. Dueck and Reimer describe what happens next as “ad hoc”: “we function in an ad hoc manner….We proceed by taking help from wherever we can find it” (212); conversations “of therapists with clients will be a more ad hoc affair” (213); “we are stating confessionally that Christ is our point of departure, and that our dialogue with clients will thereafter be influenced in an ad hoc way” (214). It was hard to know what to make of ad hoc therapy.

Reading Dueck and Reimer, I was struck again by the tensions within the Anabaptistic communities and traditions between those for whom a commitment to peace and justice is one among several key distinctives versus those for whom a commitment to peace and justice is the key distinctive. Specifically, we face the inescapable and practical question of whether one engages in works of justice, peace, and compassion in concert with affirming theological orthodoxy and engaging in evangelism, or in contrast one engages in works of justice, peace, and compassion instead of affirming theological orthodoxy and engaging in evangelism (or perhaps works of justice, peace, and compassion subsume theological orthodoxy and evangelism on the putative basis that such works are intrinsically and effectively evangelistic and the essence of orthodoxy). I do not understand Dueck and Reimer ’s resolution or stance on this, and was troubled by their lack of closure.

On the one hand, they make numerous assertions that would seem to affirm that those of other cultures, including other religions, have everything they need as they are, if only the oppressed persons can be released: “we assume no single community should dominate or be given preference” (67); [we seek] “a genuine conversation in the public square that recognizes the legitimacy of traditions and their differences” (70); “Jew, Christian, Muslim, and agnostic could all speak from within their tradition, with their unique vocabulary and grammar of values, and be held accountable to the ethical charter of their tradition” (70); “[in the] tradition-sensitive approach to psychotherapy … clients are assisted to rediscover the craft of living from within their own moral tradition” (135); and perhaps most forcefully, “we argue that not recognizing the integrity of ethnic and religious particularity is countertransference, if not violence; to not validate the communal convictions of clients is to do psychological harm” (74). Their emphatic insistence is on complete validation.

But in other places, Dueck and Reimer affirm the ultimate “incommensurability between different religious traditions” (109) and that traditions are “relativized by the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14)” (77); assert a telos to people-helping that seems universal or absolute in scope, namely “a psychology that presumes to be Christian envisions a Christian culture as its goal and is constructed on the confession of the early church and its evolving tradition” (81); affirm an accountability of the peaceable psychologist to an authority, specifically that “the church is called upon to test the consistency of our strategies against how Jesus is represented to us in scripture” (212); and seem to suggest that Christ’s sovereignty, which they have affirmed, entails somehow seeking to facilitate client movement toward allegiance to Christ, as when they say “ethnic and religious differences can be accommodated in a manner that anticipates the reconciliation and healing of persons in a suffering Christ” (76). Indeed, the “peaceable therapist as Christian is witness to the covenantal work of Christ, who mediates healing” (207).

Unfortunately, Dueck and Reimer ’s affirmations or validations of the indigenous religiosities of their clients are consistently absolute and clear, while their statements that might be taken to affirm the need for persons to come to Christ (and for the therapist to somehow be a conduit of some sort for presenting the good news) are ambiguous. At one point, they even seem to affirm a (potentially) syncretistic dialecticism, claiming that “within the multiple manifestations of God’s light is a dialogue in which the various dimensions of God commingle to give birth to deeper truth” (184). There may be ways to understand such a statement charitably within Nicean orthodoxy, but the ambiguity is unfortunate.

There were other points in this work at which I registered theological concerns. In discussing the plight of indigenous Guatemalan peoples oppressed by a U.S. supported regime, they assert “Christ’s suffering is relevant because he, like the Guatemalan Indians, suffered innocently” (21; see also 25). Human suffering may be unjust, evil, and in some senses undeserved, but who among us is innocent? Such an assertion clouds our proper understanding of the human condition and risks blurring Christ’s uniqueness.

At several points they dismiss substitutionary atonement and Christ’s status as a propitiation for our sins, but in a sloppy way: “A theology that emphasizes that ‘Jesus died for my sins,’ while a healing balm for the individual soul, has also been used to defend slavery and colonial oppression,” (27) and “the focus here is not on a retributive God who demands the death of Jesus as propitiation” (30). And while a strong theological defense for pacificism can be articulated, it certainly was not in the casual and confused syllogism they manufactured:

This reconciliation is the work of a peaceable God. If Jesus is the full revelation of God, as is declared by the Council of Nicea, then God must be nonviolent. If Jesus is fully the revelation of God, then God cannot be violent while Jesus is nonviolent. (29)

As context for my review of Coe and Hall, I note that I have already responded1 to a summarization of their approach as one of five sets of contributors, with Coe and Hall, to the recently revised Psychology and Christianity: Five Views (IVP, 2010). My criticisms of their approach should not overshadow my appreciation for this rigorous contribution to the dialogue of faith and learning, as well as my basic affirmation of much of their approach, including their aspiration to do “psychology and science that is intrinsically Christian in the Spirit” (72–73); their clear commitment to biblical authority; their articulation and grounding in a biblical view of persons; their affirmation of a reasonable version of a critical realist ontology and epistemology; their stated willingness engage, learn from, and contribute to all of psychology, a commitment exemplified by engagement with a wide literature in this volume; their embrace of the Old Testament “sage” as a model for Christian psychologist; their concern for the person of the psychologist and their embrace of the classic spiritual disciplines as enduring means to a bet spiritual transformation; their affirmation of love as the final and appropriate end for all of our efforts; their fundamental commitment to a psychodynamically-grounded relational psychology; and their remarkable attempt at comprehensiveness as they move from the most fundamental matters of metaphysics and epistemology to clinical application and personal spiritual transformation. Their expanded definition of the person is worthy of specific mention, namely that

a human person is an embodied spirit (a “soul”) whose nature has numerous bodily, affective, cognitive, volitional and gender capacities, the expression of which may lead by freedom to flourishing in harmony with one’s nature or dysfunction against one’s nature, ultimately shaped by and finding their relational telos in the love of neighbor and union with God, relationships made possible by our nature but realized only by the ministry of the in dwelling Spirit of God. (Coe, 220)

This book is, in many ways, a fine, thoughtful contribution to the arena of Christian scholarship. The objectionable aspects of the Coe and Hall volume seem particularly unfortunate because they seem so unnecessary and incidental to the core content they commend to their readers. At bottom, their oft-repeated insistence on the uniqueness, novelty, and superiority of their approach was a distraction and a bother (as I noted at the start of this review). Now, I hesitate a bit as I make this criticism, because Coe argues, as I will soon document, that spiritually transformed persons see reality (more) correctly, that their Transformational approach is the right way to understand reality, and therefore that people who disagree with them might do so because they are not properly attuned with the work of the Holy Spirit. So in addition to my intellectual and scholarly limitations, my criticisms might be off-base because I am carnal!

As if that were not enough, they explicitly argue that integrationists (like me) have been so socialized into the dominant professional paradigms that we simply cannot escape our Egyptian captivity

There are many integrationists whose theories are very insightful and helpful….However, we cannot help but wonder for some of them what their theory building and experience in training and teaching could have been, had they more consciously studied and developed behind the veil, and not primarily within the context of accepted categories of various traditions in psychology in which they were trained. (Coe, 79)

Well, Martin Luther urged us to sin boldly, and so away we go…

I was troubled by Coe’s insistence that psychology is properly done anew by each new individual and each generation that engages the field. “According to our transformational model, doing science within a tradition is secondary to the primary task of doing it anew in the Spirit” (77); “our transformational approach is a mandate to do psychology anew; that is, to do the firsthand work of discovering a psychology of the person in faith” (78-79); “each generation and psychologist, though working in a tradition, must discover anew the contours of the process, the product and the kind of person capable of doing a science of psychology that best fits within reality and the realities of the Christian faith” (79–80).

This seems inefficient, unwarranted (is not the scholarly motive to produce stable, enduring truth?), and inconsistent with both any reasonable understanding of science as a progressive enterprise (at one point, Coe mentioned “contemplating the atomic structure of Argon” [102] and I could not help wondering why science in the Spirit would not require one to toss out the periodic table and reconstruct atomic structures anew) and with any reasonable understanding of Christian theology and reflection that is inherently conservative (as in seeking to conserve the apostolic tradition as a set of enduring convictions).

At the broadest level, I also found this admonition to do scholarship anew as inconsistent with the content of the book itself. Meritorious as this book is, there was not much here that has not been said reasonably well by others in other places. As an author myself who rarely says anything new that has not been said well by others, I would argue that novelty is often overrated; better to say something true previously said by others in some other context (and be honest about one’s appropriation) than to reach for novelty which by itself posses no virtue.

Second, their appropriation of the ancient Hebrew social role of the “sage” is commendable, but it is not new as Coe claims. As I wrote elsewhere (Jones, “An Integration Response”), I argued 20 years ago for the felicity of modeling ourselves as psychologists after the model of the sage, and did so indebted for this idea to others that came before me.2 Further, the work of the sage is not as consistent with this transformational approach as is claimed. Coe argues that

the Old Testament sage’s psychology is not an act of integration; rather, it is one single, though complex, act of doing a science or psychology. … What is clear, however, is the fact that the sage’s own experience of discovering wisdom as exemplified in Proverbs 24 is grounded in his own personal observations and reflections and not merely from direct divine intervention. (Coe, 155-156)

What are we to make of the claim that the work of the sage is not an act of integration but rather that it is one single act of doing science? Careful attention to the parallel to Proverbs 24 is instructive. Coe seems to invoke the point that the text of Proverbs 24 is “not merely from direct divine intervention” in order to steer us away from a naïve dictation view of the production of Scripture. So far, so good. He wants us to see that sage-produced passages like Proverbs 24, in addition to being divinely inspired, are also the sage’s “single act of doing science;” that is, the result of the sage’s own direct engagement with and deduction from empirical experience (broadly understood).

But are they? I know from my Old Testament colleagues that Proverbs is a complex book adapted in part from existing, more ancient compilations of wisdom literature including those produced by surrounding pagan cultures of the Ancient Near East. The sage/author is indeed inspired, and may be a good ancient scientist as well, but is also a discerning editor and compiler, an integrationist who appropriated good ideas from secular literature and builds upon them. Proverbs 24 is a particularly instructive passage, as recognition that this passage is indebted to pagan literature is so widespread that it has made its way into the notations in several evangelical study Bibles. The ESV Study Bible notes that Proverbs 22:17-24:22 or “The Thirty Saying of ‘The Wise’” reflects “an awareness of the Egyptian wisdom text, The Instruction of Amenemope, dated to about 1250 B.C. Clearly [the sage/author] did not slavishly copy Amenemope, but there are many affinities in content”(ESV Study Bible, 1173). The NIV Archeological Study Bible concurs.

So if the marks of the transformational psychologist are those of doing anew ingle acts of science, and the marks of the integrationist are those of engaging pagan literatures for worthy wisdom to incorporate into Christian learning, I am afraid that the best evidence seems to indicate that Coe’s model Old Testament sage was more of an integrationist than a transformational psychologist. Indeed, the authors themselves veer with some regularity into the very methodologies attributed to integrationists, and for the very same reasons often voiced by the integrationists. For instance, they argue that despite the fact that secular psychology “is doomed from the outset,” “there is still much to learn from these secular psychologists. … However, as said before, all their insights will need to be baptized back into a proper worldview that takes into account the reality of God, sin, and redemption” (Coe, 208). If that is not “integration,” I do not know what is.

Was I fair earlier in claiming that these authors argue that spiritually malformed individuals will see reality improperly, that is, differently than this view sees it? “This transformational psychology argues that the state, experience and character of the person doing psychology determine the quality of the process”(Coe, 86). “Determines” is strong language, and it is crystal clear that Coe understands the implications of what he is arguing, as he soon moves to the following:

This challenges a simplistic view of the ad hominem (“against the person”) fallacy, in which any attack on the character of the person as a reason to reject or question a viewpoint is thought to be irrational or fallacious. This needs to be reevaluated, for it turns out that the character of the scientist has a great deal to do with the person’s “relatedness to reality,” that is, to his or her epistemological openness to what is true, to what one is willing to see and to the manner in which one does his or her science—open to the Spirit or not. (Coe, 88–89)

In classic logic, ad hominem arguments are seen as invalid on an a priori basis, but Coe is saying, essentially, “not so fast—malformed people see reality poorly, so an argument ‘against the person’ may be valid.” As I argued in “An Integration Response,” Romans 1 and various passages in the epistles require some basic acknowledgement of the influence of our sinful spiritual state corrupting our capacity to see reality correctly. But this is balanced by an affirmation of common grace in Romans 1 as well, whereby the sinful see some realities about God and nature correctly. This perhaps should lead us to back off from Coe’s use of “determine.”

Making this argument in an academic context certainly complicates dialogue (such as this review). Coe takes this argument into the positive formation of knowledge, arguing that “the believer assents with full epistemic warrant, insofar as the warrant is the fact that the creator God in reality moved our will in love to assent to some truth; we assent in love to what the Creator knows to be true” (Coe, 204). Though a complex assertion, Coe seems to be arguing that when we believe something that is true, it is because God made us (“moved our will”) to believe. Coe strongly asserts that the transformational approach is true, so am I speaking against God in questioning the uniqueness of the approach?

There are other limitations of the Coe and Hall volume. Reading it as I did after reading Browning and Dueck and Reimer, the leaning of Coe and Hall toward evangelical individualism was striking, despite their occasional criticisms of individualism. Of course, as I argued in “An Integration Response,” individualism is both a strength and weakness of evangelicalism. Positively, individualism challenges us to take personally the call to follow Christ and to take seriously individual piety. Coe and Hall are implicitly indebted to classic Protestant orthodoxy (mostly a good thing), to the western philosophical and intellectual tradition, and to the individual personal psychology of the growing individual, and as such they mentioned culture only twice in their book (163 and 296). They infrequently spoke of the Church either as an institution or as an axis of accountability or responsibility. They did not often draw on the wealth of Christian psychological insight from great Church figures from the past such as Augustine, Pope Gregory the Great, Richard Baxter, or Soren Kierkegaard. They did not manifest Browning’s sensitivity to the role of institutions, nor Dueck and Reimer ’s passion for understanding the manifold complexity of the Gospel and of Christian truth when seen through a variety of nonwestern eyes.

I reiterate that the Coe and Hall volume is a worthy contribution to the broader discussion of Christian psychology. If this is so, and if as I said earlier the limitations be labored above are truly incidental, then why focus on these problems? I do so because Coe and Hall go to such great lengths to argue that the very problems are as I delineate are utterly foundational to and definitive of their transformational approach. Doing psychology anew, doing it in the tradition of the sage, and emphasizing the spiritual transformation of the psychologist—all three are termed primary distinctives of the approach. In the end, they are not really—the value of the content of their book in the end bears little relationship to these distinctives.

Reading these three volumes together was a rich experience, resulting in a sort of three-dimensional vision of the field. Each of the three volumes are worthy of careful reflection. The Browning volume is an inspiring introduction to the broadest consideration of the Christian’s engagement with the broad realm of ideas, and provides many, many intriguing examples of fruitful interchange of religious and scientific thought. The Dueck and Reimer volume has great potential to stretch us to consider the role of non-western psychologies in deepening the Christian psychologist’s understanding of persons. The Coe and Hall volume presents well many of the philosophical background beliefs that should shape the Christian’s engagement with psychology, and offers many compelling insights into the contours of a thoughtfully Christian relational psychology. All three signify the continuing vibrancy of the faith and learning conversation.

Cite this article
Stanton L. Jones, “Psychology and Christianity in 3-D—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:3 , 267-281


  1. Stanton L. Jones, “An Integration Response,” Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, rev.ed., E. Johnson, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 101-147; subsequent references in text.
  2. Derek Tidball, Skillful Shepherds: An Introduction to Pastoral Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 1986).

Stanton L. Jones

Stanton L. Jones is Provost at Wheaton College.