Psychology and Christianity: Four views

  • Eric L. Johnson, Stanton L. Jones
  • Jan 1, 2001
  • Series: Volume 4 - 2001

Johnson, Eric L. & Stanton L. Jones, eds. Psychology and Christianity: Four views. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

This edited volume makes a major contribution to the ongoing discussion of how the field of psychology and Christianity should relate to each other. This debate began when Christians started entering the field of mental health in the 1960s, and it continues to this day with as much energy as ever. Although the contours of the debate have shifted somewhat over the years, the greatest change, a change very evident in this volume, is in the level of sophistication with which the arguments are put forth.

The book consists of four major essays, each setting out a different vision for the relationship between these two very different fields. Following each essay are brief responses by the other contributors to the volume. The editors provide us with both an introduction and a conclusion to this lively exchange of views.

The span of views is wide enough to ensure that any reader who has thought very much about the issue is sure to find a lot to agree with and a lot to disagree with while working through the volume. Anyone who reads to the end without finding something irritating is and probably has been brain dead over the last ten to twenty years.

The quality of writing is generally good, although one can conclude that the four contributors seem to be at their best when critiquing the work of their colleagues. Perhaps it is always easier to critique than to create, to evaluate than to develop.

David G. Myers of Hope College in Michigan writes the first essay regarding the Levels-of-Explanation view, an approach popular among scientists and non-clinicians. The approach basically argues that psychology and Christianity both view the human scene but operate at different levels. Both levels are valuable and useful, and practitioners who work in psychology need skills in both fields. This approach is a variant of the parallels approach in the Carter & Narramore scheme of things. Scientists who approach their work utilizing this model, including Malcom Jeeves and Mary Stewart VanLeeuwen, regard their faith as an extremely important component of their professional work, and they pursue their scientific work with an awareness that they are serving God and giving him glory as they work toward excellence. Advocates of this approach have an admirable grasp of the field of scientific psychology. Unfortunately, critics of the levels-of-explanation view do not give evidence either of understanding scientific psychology very adequately or of being very familiar with current research. Their criticisms are almost fatally weak because of their limited awareness and knowledge of how psychological science operates and what it uncovers.

One approach in the volume is a relative newcomer to the discussion, the Christian Psychology view. Robert Roberts fittingly authors this essay in light of his extensive work over the past 15 years to develop this view. Roberts, a philosopher by training who has had a longstanding professional interest in psychology, has conducted some penetrating analyses of twentieth personality theories and has demonstrated that they pose many problems to Christians who seek to use them. His consistent conclusion is that twentieth-century personality and psychotherapy models are so fraught with anti-Christian problems that we have no alternative but to avoid them. In their place, he advocates building a Christian psychology utilizing the teaching of Scripture and the rich Christian tradition that serves as a commentary on it. If it is thoroughly Christian from the very beginning, no integration will be necessary. His one guideline appears to be that we should only use pre-twentieth century materials. Roberts writes as if he is almost allergic to twentieth-century psychology; he seems to be a person born at the wrong time. He finds almost nothing of value after 1900, and a great deal of value 1899 and before.

Readers will agree with his appeal to understand better Scripture and the rich Christian tradition that has followed it, but will be puzzled at three glaring inconsistencies in his methodology. First, he does not aim his powerful philosophical analysis at pre-twentieth century material (Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Thomas Acquinas among many others he admires) as if they do not pose any presuppositional problems for Christians seeking to use their ideas. Second, he does not admit (at least in this essay) that all previous commentators on the great themes of Scripture were in actuality integrators. They did not produce their theologies, novels, or histories using pure Christianity. Rather, they integrated their understanding of the Bible with the worldviews and philosophical systems of their day, systems that were not always perfectly aligned with our best understandings of Scripture. Why do pre-twentieth century materials escape his penetrating analyses? We do not know, at least from this essay. Third, if twentieth-century psychologies are essentially unusable because they are built on non-Christian presuppositions and are not rightly aligned with Scripture, why is it acceptable to use Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics?

David Powlison writes the biblical counseling position, the view that is the descendant of Jay Adams and his writings. Biblical counseling a la Adams has matured over the years. Gone is most of its strident style, some of its overstatement, and much of its ignorance of secular psychology. Powlison is at times eloquent in his exposition of scriptural themes; he and his colleagues deserve our thanks for enriching our understanding of the Bible and what it has to contribute to this discussion. However, many of the old conceptual problems attendant to Adams and his thought remain. Their insistence that only the Bible should be used in our ministration to the emotionally troubled is as rigid as ever. Their unrelenting dismissal of scientific, clinical, and counseling psychology is astounding. And their ever-improving capacity to reduce any and all human suffering to some form of idolatry or self-worship is amazing. This reductionism, in the name of faithfulness to the biblical record, winds up insulting the richness of scriptural thought and the complexity with which the authors of the Bible ascribed to the human experience.

The most disappointing essay was that of Gary R. Collins, the energetic advocate of Christian counseling. His essay is disappointing not because it fails to make a solid contribution to the discussion (he gives us a very fine analysis of present characteristics and future needs in the field), but because the essay does not contain information about how this viewpoint constructs and utilizes the integrative model. Students who are not familiar with previous work on the subject will have to look elsewhere for that material. The most established and widely used model for the relationship between psychology and evangelical Christianity thus gets the least exposure in this volume.

The debate has changed in recent years. Players on the field are young and full of energized concepts and approaches. This volume gives us a valuable glimpse of the current scene along with some glimpses as to what is ahead.

James R. Beck, Ph.D.
Professor of Counseling
Denver Seminary



Donny Martin

Dr. Beck,

I am currently reading the book Four Views book on which you are commenting. Can you help me understand the bottom line on the levels of explanation view? Is it basically a view that says, "let's take the best of both worlds, i.e.,scientific psycology and Christianity(keep a firm grip on both ropes at the bottom of the well)." If this is it, how is this different from an integrationist view?

James R. Beck, PhD


The Levels of Explanation view sees the two disciplines as dealing with the same topics but on different levels. They do not intersect. Both contribute to an understanding of the topic and both are useful. No integration of the two is possible because they are just too different from one another. Proponents tend to be scientists rather than theologians, and they often give psychological data priority.

Jim Beck