Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology

  • John H. Coe, Todd W. Hall
  • Jul 12, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010

 Book: Psychology in the Spirit

Coe, John H., & Todd W. Hall.  Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010. 446 pages.  Paperback, $30.00.  ISBN 978-0-8308-2813-5. 

The authors of Psychology in the Spirit, John Coe and Todd Hall, represent the very integration of disciplines that they argue for in their new text. Coe’s background in philosophy and theology merges quite well with Hall’s practitioner background in clinical work and research, making them the perfect team to write a book on the transformational integration of psychology, theology, and philosophy. This is the hallmark of this text, which is a part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series.

Their vision for integration is one of an individual engaging in the study or practice of psychology, theology, and philosophy, through the Holy Spirit, with equal focus on the person, the process, and the product of this endeavor. They argue that when the Spirit is involved in the integrative process, the work itself becomes intrinsically and uniquely Christian, with proper respect paid to the tradition the work is done under. They argue that this type of integration is inherently relational, grounded both in reality and faith, open to the contributions of alternative traditions, and flexible enough to accept the application of the process by unique individuals.

It should be noted that the authors state that the book is primarily written for those who have a Christian worldview and that the intent of the authors is not to provide an apologetic response to non-Christians. There are several core realities that the authors state underlie the theory presented in this textbook. These include the realities that God exists, that we are created in the image of God, and are fundamentally relational beings who are created to love our neighbors and to love and glorify God, that we are sinners saved by grace and are now new creatures in Christ, and that our relational purpose is only accomplished through transformation into the image of Christ with the help of the Holy Spirit. These are the fundamental truths that Coe and Hall believe are the core foundations that their theory is based on.

The authors review the other models of integration that currently exist, and they state that they both have training and experience in several of these models, including Biblical Counseling, Integration, and Christian Psychology. They describe the basic tenets of the Biblical Counseling approach, the Integration approach, and the Christian Psychology approach, clarifying what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of each. However, they ultimately state they 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.”

Coe and Hall identify three specific reasons that they feel this new theoretical approach to integration is needed. First, they argue that the character of the practitioner must be factored into the theory, as it is the character of the individual who does the work that determines the accuracy and honesty of the work that is produced. Second, they posit that the process and methodology of the work is more central to the connection between psychology and Christianity than the product that results from the work, believing that many Christian practitioners have created a problematic and unnecessary split between the scientific and the religious. Third, they endorse a model that includes the uniquely Christian values and realities in the actual methodology of the work itself, rather than leaving them to the purview of theology and philosophy. In their words, “our transformational model is less about relating psychology to Christianity and more about doing psychology and science that is intrinsically Christian in the spirit.”

This book revolves around a new model that the authors feel improves on the previous theories of integration. Coe and Hall present several levels in their model which they refer to as “contours.” At Level 1, they posit that the transformation of the psychologist when working in the Spirit occurs at the foundational level of spiritual-epistemological disciplines and virtues, setting the tone for the higher level work. Level 2 involves doing the work of psychology, whether application or science, with a realistic approach to exploring God’s world, accepting that there is an external world that can be known.

At Level 3 of this new model, the psychologist creates a new body of knowledge through theorizing and conceptualizing in the Spirit, especially as it relates to human relationships and the transformation of character in areas such as loving yourself, loving your neighbor, and loving God. Level 4 involves the actual praxis of psychology in the Spirit, focusing on the acting out of this transformation in areas such as psychotherapy and soul care. Lastly, at Level 5, the ultimate transformation of the individuals themselves occurs, through the Spirit, so that they love God and their neighbor differently in their church, their family, and their world.

Coe and Hall make unique use of the Old Testament sage as the image and face of their new model of transformational psychology. Through the use of many Wisdom literature passages and images, they present a picture of a practitioner who is open to learning from the world around him or her, reflects on what he or she learns, integrating that knowledge with objective and knowable Biblical truth, ultimately creating a value-driven psychology that incorporates both science and theology.

Specifically, the authors indicate that there are three premises that the Old Testament sage subscribes to. First, the Old Testament sage believes that objective Biblical and extrabiblical sources of values and wisdom exist in nature and humanity that can be known through observation and reflection. Second, values and wisdom for living can be found in the Scriptures and nature, leading to a science of psychology and values. Third, the objective science of values is grounded in the a creation theology that endorses that original creation was good and that humans created in God’s image retain that nature and can discern it through study and analysis even after the Fall.

Throughout the book, the authors critique other models of integration, describing them clearly and giving generous amounts of comparison and contrast between their model and those previously suggested. Within this context, they focus on the nature of the person and the soul and how vital relationships are to our understanding and experience of both psychology and theology.

Being a clinical psychologist myself, I especially appreciated the chapter on attachment and the integration of the relational aspects of both psychology and theology in the understanding of the nature of the person. The authors state that we are created with a desire and a need to relate to other human beings and to God, but they also posit that we are predisposed to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and to relationship with the Spirit. Hall incorporates many case examples from his practice throughout the book to illustrate the working out of this theory in practice. These case studies serve to show the transformation that occurs in the clinical work, but the authors' personal stories of their own transformation through this process are especially touching and enlightening.

Coe and Hall also deal with some specific issues in this book, which I will not review in depth here. They address the relationship between their transformational psychology model and psychopathology, sin, the demonic, health and wellness, and specific applications to both soul care and psychotherapy. Specific chapters deal with methodological problems, the relationship between mind and spirit, understanding the person as spirit, and applying this new theory in Christian universities and seminaries.

The theory presented in this book is fairly complex and does require a degree of both theological, psychological, and even philosophical sophistication, and I believe this text is best suited for graduate level study. Undergraduate students could certainly benefit from the theory presented, but it would seem that a solid grounding in psychological and theological knowledge would greatly improve the student’s understanding and internalization of the information presented in this text. The text would also be very valuable for both psychotherapy/soul care providers and scientific research professionals, as readers would probably benefit most when they have contextual examples from clinical or scientific work and their own development as a practitioner to apply these principles to.

This book presents a creative, new relationship-based approach to an intrinsically Christian process of doing the work of investigating and understanding God’s world. Coe and Hall have done an outstanding job of describing how conducting this work “in the Spirit” would involve changes within the person who serves as the practitioner, transformation of all the individuals involved through the process itself, and the resulting creation of a uniquely different end product. This textbook is a welcome addition to the literature on integration of theology, psychology, and philosophy, and I highly recommend it to my colleagues in the field.

Ronald D. Welch, Psy.D.
Associate Professor of Counseling
Denver Seminary
July 2010