Psychological Hermeneutics

February 20, 2010 — 2 Comments

[This post is part of the Adventures in Psychology series]

In their book Modern Psychotherapies, Stanton Jones and Richard Butman are confident they is no unifying philosophy undergirding the various approaches to counseling derived from the field of psychology (see pg 30-31ff). My question here is, “Is this an accurate assessment?”

Much of what I might say here in this post can be accurately applied to other disciplines as well, so this shouldn’t really be viewed as an attack on psychology. Rather, I am simply pointing out how the discipline proceeds in some ways. Psychology, like another other field of study, has basic assumptions about the context and nature of its study. Rarely though do the individual psychologies make explicit their presuppositions. Most of the time it is because the assumptions are so thoroughly embedded into the field that they have become the very air that the practitioners breathe and so making them explicit would seem insulting.

Back to Jones and Butman’s observation though with respect to psychology (or specifically with respect to theories of counseling). Interestingly, theology, when viewed from the outside, could be seen as fragmentary, given the breadth of theological perspectives and writing out there. One might wonder the same thing about theology, “Is there any significant unifying philosophy that under-girds them all?” From a historical orthodox perspective though, individuals that do not adhere to certain baseline assumptions would be considered outside of Christian theology in a technical sense, but they can still produce writing that qualifies as “theology” (when used in the broadest sense possible to mean “talk about God”).

The baseline assumptions could be summarized in several core doctrines or beliefs that unify true Christian theology (in the historic, orthodox sense) and to deny any one of these is to place oneself outside of the realm of true Christian theology and into some other aberration. I would say the vital elements are these:

  • the Trinity
  • the full deity and humanity of Christ
  • the spiritual lostness of the human race
  • the substitutionary atonement and bodily resurrection of Christ
  • salvation by faith alone in Christ alone
  • the physical return of Christ
  • the authority and inerrancy of Scripture

I might want to nuance each of these a bit further to clarify what they each mean (the first one is particularly non-descriptive) but for now, one might consider an affirmation of these points to be the boundaries of a truly Christian theology. To deny any one of these is really to deny a clear teaching of Scripture (which usually starts with denying the last item in the list). The point here is not so much the exact content of the doctrines, but rather that there are specific assumptions that are vital to Christian thinking.

Now back to psychology again, and to Jones and Butman’s observation again. I admire their effort to evaluate the various secular approaches to counseling out there from a Christian perspective. However, I think they are demonstrably wrong in their assumption about the unifying philosophy of mainstream psychological studies and approaches to counseling. As hinted at earlier, the unifying philosophy is a denial of the 7 doctrines listed above. The other assumption is that impersonal matter is more fundamental than personal beings. None of this is usually stated in a direct sense, but it is seem as so manifestly untrue that it goes without saying.

Both Jones and Butman received extensive psychological training for their education, Jones completely at state schools, Butman though through Wheaton and Fuller. Butman it would seem should at least pick up on this idea, but this level of thinking it not generally taught outside of strongly Reformed circles, most of it going back to the apologetic/philosophical method of Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary. Since the 7 points above rarely, if ever, would surface in say Albert Eliss’ RET or Rollo May’s existential therapy, it probably never occurred to either Jones or Butman that every theory they examined was implicitly denying the distinctives of Christian theology.

The other possibility though, and this may actually be more or less the case, is that Jones and Butman took it for granted that the various psychotherapies they would examine implicitly deny the core assumptions of Christian theology. In this sense then, it is one of their assumptions (we will come back to why they might have not bothered to make this assumption explicit in the next post, which will deal with the myth of objectivity). However, it seems to be an assumption that should at least have bearing on the course of their book. It is exceedingly significant that the various approaches to counseling that they examine spring out of theories of personality that deny or ignore the core truths about humanity and its relation to the Triune God.

In other words, all the various psychologies out there that do not start with the nature of man as creature in relation to a Creator are epistemologically defective. Every personality theory that ignores the Biblical revelation about the nature of man is conducting a study of man out of context. Man is taken out of the creature/Creator, fall/redemption context and then studied from a non-Christian perspective. The nature of God as Trinity and the person of Christ are no longer paradigmatic for understanding man. Man is then interpreted wrongly from the start.

From this perspective then, the basic task of psychology is essentially hermeneutics of the soul. What Christian theologians do with the study of the Scriptures, psychologists do with the study of man. A product of that hermeneutical task is a theory of personality. That theory is what gives rise to the practice of counseling. Every psychotherapy examined by Jones and Butman is then derived from a study of man that is hermeneutically defective. It ignores the true context and instead eisegetes (imports from without) its own context into the study, one that is derived from humanistic thinking and evolutionary naturalism.

By ignoring the context, psychologists are looking for a building in the midst of the rubble, to borrow Calvin’s phrase, rather than recognizing that the rubble is what they have to work with and only when centered on the person and work of Christ can a building even being to be built (Eph 2:19-22). They instead create man in their own image work toward a model of psychological wholeness that is not derived from the person of Christ and is not achieved by dependence on the work of Christ. This defect thorough infects every aspect of non-Christian psychological thought, and even in some cases “Christian” thought about the matter.

The problem then, to come full circle, is that individuals that are psychologically astute (like Jones and Butman) do not seem to recognize this very well. Their hermeneutics with respect to the human soul seem already watered down with non-Christian thinking on the matter. The appraisal that follows is then skewed somewhat (although not fully bad or lacking insight). In short, they are missing the clear dividing line between Christian and non-Christian thinking on the matter. This line is just as present in psychology as it is in other disciplines like biology or mathematics or logic. To see how this works, we will need to examine the idea of neutral thinking when conducting scientific or other scholarly work. And that, is exactly what we’ll do in the next post.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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