A High View of Scripture

As Christians have considered the best way to care for people with mental health concerns, there has been a divide between those who believe that Scripture is sufficient for the purposes of counseling those with these concerns and those who integrate a Christian worldview with the contemporary fields of psychology and counseling. These two positions (and many others along a continuum of sorts) have been discussed now for many, many years. Not too many people in my day to day world really debate this, so I was surprised to be invited into a discussion about all of this recently.

I was invited, I suppose, because I represent what some people would refer to as an “integration” or “integrationist” position because I pursue the integration of Christian theology and worldview with the field of psychology. As I shared in a recent colloquium of biblical counselors, this is not a position I have argued for or defended, as others have. I have written textbooks from that perspective, but I don’t really spend a great deal of time justifying the position itself to critics. I think our worlds are sufficiently different and our approaches are sufficiently different that I have not engaged in that debate. My sense is that we would likely speak past one another. In any case, I think others have done a good job explaining the rationale for an integration perspective on this and there are other things I have been led to focus on in my work.

In any case, I was recently interviewed by a leading figure in the biblical counseling movement about all of this. He asked me what biblical counselors get wrong about integrationists. What I said was that I think biblical counselors view someone like me as having a low view of Scripture. The contrast, as I see it, is that biblical counselors often see themselves as having a high view of Scripture because they assert that the sufficiency of Scripture entails deriving treatment protocols from Scripture for various mental health concerns. In contrast to that position, I would think they would assume I then have a low view of Scripture. The opposite is actually true from my perspective. That is, I would say I have  high view of Scripture, and that it is precisely because I have a high view of Scripture that I do not derive treatment protocols from the Bible for panic disorder, eating disorders, sexual dysfunctions, and so on.

In that same venue I also discussed role integration, which is another distinction between the groups. In the work I’ve done with a colleague at Regent University, Bill Hathaway, we have discussed different types of integration (i.e., worldview, theoretical, applied, personal, and role integration). Role integration refers to times when a Christian serves in a role that entails serving the public good in some capacity. This might be simply being licensed to practice as a psychologist or counselor, as it involves being under the board of psychology or board of counseling in a given state. It could entail serving on a task force with the American Psychological Association or being a consultant to the National Institute of Corrections. That is, you are serving the public and not just providing services to the church or to a Christian.

It was interesting to me that many of the biblical counselors I was speaking to were pastors. I also serve the Body of Christ in a related capacity. I am an elder in my church. In that capacity, I have a different role in the lives of people who are members of our church, as they place themselves under the spiritual oversight of the pastoral staff and elders. But when I function as a licensed clinical psychologist, I enter into a role as I enter into the fiduciary space of public trust that is broader than what one might take on when providing spiritual direction to a congregant. I consult with the National Institute of Corrections, for instance, to serve all incarcerated people, not just Christians.

Are there tensions in role integration? Absolutely. There are potentially many tensions as a Christian psychologist considers his or her responsibilities in serving the public and in bringing honor to God. I won’t elaborate on those tensions here, but you see me write about them or speak about them often. But I think these tensions have been good for me in some ways. They have certainly kept me in prayer!

As I mentioned above, these exchanges with biblical counselors are not common experiences for me. I think our sense of calling and purpose are pretty far apart. I don’t see our worlds overlapping all that much. I suspect that all of us in that room (and in the broader movements represented by biblical counselors, integrationists, and others) may have good, honorable goals for the work we are doing, for the sense of calling we have, but we are likely to speak past one another because of where and how we serve.


On Being a Christian Scholar

With the start of a new academic year, it seems fitting to reflect a little more on integration. The Emerging Scholar’s Blog recently posted a talk Nicholas Wolterstorff gave titled “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars.” He gave the original address at the Veritas Forum in 2009. It is worth reading in its entirety, so check it out here.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to take the last  class Wolterstorff taught at Calvin College before he accepted the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Chair at Yale. A funny memory: he described our class as “pesky.” Until that moment, I had not considered “pesky” a compliment; now I do. (Actually, I tried to describe a cohort in our program this way a few years ago, and they did not take it as a compliment – must be the difference between philosophy and psychology students!)

Wolterstorff has good words that can be applied to Christian scholars in the field of psychology. We certainly see many fads come and go, and we do well to avoid a bandwagon approach, as well as the additive approach (to the exclusion of other considerations). Navigating the various pulls toward these approaches is a challenge in and of itself and worthy of an extended discussion, but let’s press on.

This is what it means to be a Christian scholar, according to Wolterstorff:

To put it in a nutshell, I think the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.

I want to come back to the issue of “voice” in one’s discipline, but first let me note that Wolterstorff briefly reflects on the nature of the disciplines. It is interesting to think of a discipline as not having an essence but rather being a social practice that has traditions. I think this is more readily apparent in some fields, and I suspect most folks in psychology (at least applied psychology) can see it right away.

Ok, back to voice. Let me swap out “sociology” for “psychology” in his explanation:

the mode of the Christian’s participation in these on-going, ever-changing, social practices is to think with a Christian mind and to speak with a Christian voice. When engaging in, say, [psychology] with a Christian mind, one will sometimes find oneself critical of what is going on in some part of [psychology]: one will find the assumptions being made about human nature mistaken, one will find the emphasis skewed, one will find the issues discussed unimportant, and so forth. One will then find oneself launching a critique of this part of [psychology], and beyond that, trying to do it differently and better. At other times, when thinking with a Christian mind one will find what is going on in some part of one’s discipline quite OK. Being a Christian scholar requires this sort of discernment.

Wolterstorff identifies a Christian voice as a voice of charity. I agree with this and wish more Christian scholars were able and willing to demonstrate charity in how they engage with others around controversial topics.

Also, he suggests we demonstrate patience, know our discipline, cultivate a Christian mind (through an understanding of Scripture, Christian tradition, and Christian thought reflected in your field), and “nourish” our learning through corporate worship. I love that Wolterstorff would add this last consideration. So often scholarship is thought of as removed from the experience of worship, let alone corporate worship. We do well to heed his advice lest our learning “becomes dry and brittle, easily susceptible to skepticism.”

These are good words for Christian scholars heading into the start of another academic year. Let’s think with a Christian mind and speak with a Christian voice.

What is Integration?

A reader of the blog asked me the following question:

I don’t understand why we need an integration of psychology and Christianity. Can’t a Christian psychologist help non-Christians? Can’t a non-Christian psychologist help Christians? Are you talking about the necessity of a psychologist to be Christian to understand Christians? Then are you advocating that psychologist should only work with patients that match his/her religious background? What about other background characteristics, like wealth, race, gender, etc?

Here was my reply:

I agree with you that a Christian psychologist can help a nonChristian. I hope I’ve done that several times over the years. And, yes, nonChristian psychologists can help Christians. In fact, I recommend competence (in providing mental health services) over religious identification every time. But I do think that Christians in the field of psychology (beyond clinical psychology, but also including clinical/applied) ask different questions than do nonChristians. In other words, they have concerns that come out of being a part of the Christian community that might not be the same concerns that nonChristians have. So a benefit to having Christians in the field of psychology is that they might conduct research on topics that are important to that community. A good example might be research on forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of those key Christian concepts. It is central to Christianity, although nonChristians can certainly appreciate it, research it, and benefit from it in their own lives. But even if no one else was interested in forgiveness (or grace or humility or patience), the Christian psychologist might be interested in it anyway, by virtue of how central it is to Christianity, and how potentially helpful it could be in clinical practice.

Let me elaborate on the question about integration. Part of my reply was to clarify why we benefit from having Christians in psychology. I reached this conclusion over many years but was personally deeply influenced by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantiga, who had written about Christian philosophy in the following manner:

Christian philosophers … are the philosophers of the Christian community; and it is part of their task as Christian philosophers to serve the Christian community. But the Christian community has its own questions, its own concerns, its own topics for investigation, its own agenda and its own research programs. (p. 6)

What I did in my page on integration is substitute “psychologist” for “philosopher” and we have the following:

Christian [psychologists] … are the [psychologists] of the Christian community; and it is part of their task as Christian [psychologists] to serve the Christian community. But the Christian community has its own questions, its own concerns, its own topics for investigation, its own agenda and its own research programs. (p. 6)

By substituting psychologist for philosopher, I want to make the point that Christians in the field of psychology often have our own research interests that may not be shared by the broader field, just as other groups may have their own research agendas. You can think about this by nearly any other demographic characteristic: age, gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, and so on.

Those who are disabled, for instance, will think about research questions (and design, methods, interpretation of data, etc.) in ways that are not identical to the way those who are not disabled will think about these things. We benefit from having psychologists with disabilities insofar as they help the field think about ability/disability in ways we would not if we did not glean from their experience. I think the same is true for race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

So… I am a Christian. What I read in the quote from Plantinga is that Christians will have their own questions to ask. Of course, most Christians in the field of psychology are interested in a lot of the same issues nonChristians are interested in. They research cognitive science, motivation, affect, parenting, and so on. But there will be other areas that might be of particular interest to the Christian but not that interesting to nonChristians. I gave the example of the construct of forgiveness. That might be of interest to both Christians and nonChristians, sure, but it is especially relevant to the Christian community as it is a central construct within the Christian religion. Other key constructs included grace, love, joy, peace, faithfulness, humility, and so on.

Of course, a psychologist can have more than one relevant demographic variable as a central part of their identity. An African-American Christian psychologist, for example, or a gay Jewish psychologist. A biblical feminist psychologist; an older adult psychologist with a disability. The multiple aspects of diversity are sometimes referred to as intersectionality, a concept that might be interesting to blog about at some point in the future.

For now, let me write more about being a Christian in psychology. Not only are their key constructs, such as forgiveness or grace to consider. But there are also key topics. For example, my primary research area has been sexual identity. I tend to study how sexual identity develops and synthesizes over time, particularly in the lives of Christians who experience same-sex attractions. In a cultural setting in which the primary script for making meaning out of same-sex sexuality is to form an identity around attractions (e.g., “I am gay”), I am interested in studying the process by which some people form a gay identity while others do not.

I don’t think many of my peers in the mainstream LGBT community of psychologists are particularly interested in studying those who do not form a gay identity. I could be wrong about that, but that is my impression so far. Most are interested in protecting and advancing the interests of the LGBT community.

I can understand that. I feel similarly when I think about the Christian community. But in the overlap between the LGBT community and the religious community, we see the potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication, particularly if you study something of interest to the religious community, such as whether a person can ever experience change in his or her sexual orientation, that might be experienced as threatening to the LGBT community. This, too, is a good topic for a future blog post. Remind me to get back to it.

In the meantime, I hope this elaboration on the question about integration provides some insight into what integration means and has meant to me as a Christian (in general), and as a Christian who conducts research on sexual identity (in particular).

Psychology & Christianity Integration

anthology This summer I will be teaching the Integration Capstone course. This is a final course for fourth-year students in our program. Historically, the instructor has selected maybe two current integration books for the class to read and discuss over the length of the course (5 weeks). I was thinking that it would be unfortunate if students left without having read some of the key articles that have been written on integration over the years. So I got to thinking about the recent edited book titled, Psychology & Christianity Integration: Seminal Works that Shaped the Movement. The articles were suggested by a core group of people involved in integration – key readings that they found particularly helpful in their own understanding of integration. Authors of the seminal works include Nicholas Wolterstorff, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Stanton L. Jones, Peter C. Hill, C. Stephen Evans, and a host of others. It covers the relationship between science and religion, types of integration, models of integration, integration in research, and applied or clinical integration. So there should be something for everyone.

Adoption in the Family of God

From On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family by Ray Anderson and Dennis Guernsey:


The church as the new family of God, however, is not formed by mere conssensuality between its members. Through spiritual rebirth, we each become a brother or sister of Jesus Christ through adoption into the family of God. Consequently, we are brother or sister to each other. This new criterion of worth has a transcendent source and thus a permanent status. Husbands and wives are first of all brother and sister in Jesus Christ before they are husband and wife. Sons and daughters are also brother or sister to their father and mother before they are sons and daughters. This precedence, of course, is logical, not always chronological. Nevertheless, because it is theological, it does constitute a real precedence in each relationship. (p. 147)


This quote was our opening reflection in Family Therapy this week. Students shared some of their experiences with these concepts, particularly the idea of a husband and wife being “first of all brother and sister in Jesus Christ before they are husband and wife.” It seemed to resonate as true theologically but as a concept that is seldom considered. Several students discussed the implications for how spouses think about one another’s spiritual well-being.

Ethics and Psychotherapy – 10


We are in the home stretch with Tjeltveit, and in Chapter 11 (“Profession and Professional Ethics”) he describes how psychotherapists are professionals, by which he means: 



When psychotherapists assert that they are professionals, they announce, they profess, they make public testimony that they possess specialized knowledge and technical skills that help people with psychological problems. (p. 255) 



More is expected of psychotherapists. This includes beneficence, because the work of the therapist is characterized by concern and service, as well as client welfare and social responsibility. It is in this chapter that Tjeltveit talks about an ethic for “moral strangers” (p. 262). He recognizes that psychotherapists work with moral strangers. Further, that psychotherapists are part of “ethical communities” that (drawing on Doherty and Cushman here) “encourage clients to consider their progressive political agendas, as do feminist therapists and therapists from particular religious communities” (p. 262). Tjeltveit says it is “appropriate only when client autonomy is preserved, clinical sensitivity employed, and informed consent obtained” (p. 262).  




Tjeltveit also points out a few weaknesses pointed out by others in various professional codes of ethics – as being too cautious or not validated or for failing to articulate their ethical foundations. He believes most psychotherapists draw upon even deeper ethical sources in the process of providing psychotherapy rather than rely on the minimal standards often articulated in codes of ethics.


For reflection: Do you agree that psychotherapists are part of ethical communities that have ethical claims that may be relevent to their clinical work? Is this best handled with sensitivity and informed consent? Should codes go “deeper” as an ethical source or is their current depth sufficient?

Social Contract or Covenant Love?

In Family Therapy this spring we are reading theological reflections on the family drawn from On Being Family: A Social Theology of Family by Ray Anderson and Dennis Guernsey. Here is a quote:
Is marriage, then, a social contract that can be broken when one or both of the contracting parties violate the contract, or is it a covenant partnership that, once entered into, can never be dissolved? Well, it is both. While a social contract based upon mutual conditions of good will and reciprocity does not contain within it the quintessential aspect of covenant love, covenant love can come to expression through a social contract. It is our opinion that all humans can express a dimension of covenant love because they are created in the divine image and likeness. But God is the source of covenant love, which he expressed through his actions of bonding with Israel and then with all humanity through Jesus Christ. From the human perspective, the essence of a marriage is the social contract explicitly grounded in a relation of human sexuality, male and female, which in finds its implicit source of covenant love in God’s own commandmenat and gift of love. (p. 90)