The following is an exploration of the so-called “transformational” view of Christian psychology as explicated by John H. Coe and Todd W. Hall. They describe their approach as “an attempt to both rediscover and redesign our traditional way of thinking of psychology in relation to Christianity, as well as rethinking the very nature of science itself.” They see both science and psychology, in this vein, as acts of love. While this approach may seem strange to us, they argue that it is in radical continuity with the mentality of the Desert Fathers as well as the thinker-scientists of 13th century monasteries.
They lament our failure to take monks seriously as scientists or psychologists. They argue “for a spiritual formation approach to psychology and Christianity, which takes the spiritual-emotional transformation of the psychologist as the foundation for understanding, developing and preserving the (1) process, (2) methodology and (3) product of doing psychology in the Spirit, which will all, in turn, open a new horizon into the doing of science in general and psychology in particular.”
They enumerate the various respects in which they believe psychology should be transformed from within the Christian worldview. First, they emphasize the importance of engaging in transformational psychology within a distinct tradition. They emphasize that this is true of all science, and that Christians should avoid a purely “naturalistic” way of doing psychology and emphasize that Christian psychology only makes sense insofar as it is an act of faith and love. In any case, they explain what they mean when they speak of scientific inquiry being done in a particular historical tradition when they emphasize the
“context of others who have done science before them; current scientific inquiry is not an activity cut off from a past consensus of what has been insightful. Doing psychology within a tradition does not mean there is no epistemological basis for truth, that truth is merely what those within a tradition agree on to be true or that truth and rationality are tradition-dependent…Rather, we do science open to the truth but tin a way that is mindful of the history of relevant truth claims, though not in such a way that it dominates the present doing of science.”
Ultimately, this tradition-oriented approach should be secondary to the more primary way of doing psychology “in the Spirit.” This is because historical tradition can blind us rather than offer us insight, if we do not take seriously the Bible as our sole source of epistemology. They continue to describe how this plays out:
“The goal here is to learn and discover, to set off on our own course (as an individual and in community) to reexperience and redesign the process of doing psychology and its end product. In this process, we strive to be open to study ourselves, God, others and reality, as well as to the traditions that we have become familiar with and the mentors who have led us. The goal, then, is for each generation in the Spirit to allow reality and faith to shape this endeavor, to do the work of psychology in faith and then, as a secondary task, reintegrate its findings with those truths and traditions within which it finds itself.”
Indeed, they emphasize the importance of suspending our secondary reliance on historical traditions, whether they be from Christian thinkers such as Aquinas or Calvin, or non-Christian thinkers such as Bowlby, Freud, Rogers, Ellis or Winnicott, and attempting to discern simply what it means to do psychology in the Spirit. They warn against looking “too intently at prior theories” because the believer may develop “a patchwork quilt in which some theorist…is artificially stitched together with certain fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.” This does not mean that these thinkers do not have anything to teach us, of course, but we are all influenced, sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively, by our historical traditions and must filter out what might not be helpful or biblical.
They emphasize the importance of the precedent ontology has over epistemology. It is in this sense that they use the word “discover,” because “reality dictates the doing of psychology and scientific methodology in general; a particular scientific or psychological methodology does not dictate reality. To say the same thing differently, ontology determines epistemology and not the reverse, as in the case of modern science. That is, we do not begin with some universal method of quantification or measurement as the universal method of science, which is true of modernity’s view of science. Rather, according to the premodern view of science, the object of study and the psychologist’s (or scientist’s) acquaintance with reality determines the best way to study an object, which is an important distinction from the methods of modern science as well as postmodern tendencies.”
But in what way is the premodern view distinct from the modern view? Well, the Christian should not adopt methodological naturalism the way modernists do. We accept the existence of a transcendent God and an immaterial spirit. These realities are a prior excluded by modernist scientists who take a secular approach to the world. However, for the Christian, these are a priori realities which constitute essential components of reality. We do not prioritize epistemology in such a way that only what we can empirically verify counts as science. Instead, the premodern Christian is upfront about their theological presuppositions and holds certain a priori truths that are founded in scripture. These realities are “not a priori ruled out of science, as is the case with the unwarranted prejudice of a naturalistic methodology. Our transformationalpsychology does not relegate what is known by faith as being outside “science” (as defined by modern science), nor does our psychology relegate a piece of theology as something to be integrated with science.”
Here are some of the key realities whose existence the Christian ought to take for granted in the construction of a distinctly Christian psychology:
“(1) that God exists (Heb 11:1-2); (2) that we are created in the image of God to rule, understand stand and properly relate to creation as fundamentally relational beings (Gen 1:26; 2:18); (3) that we are sinners saved by grace through the finished work of Christ on the cross (Rom 5:6-10); (4) that we are now a new creature “in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17); (5) so that being fundamentally relational, our ultimate end or purpose in life in Christ is loving neighbor and God, glorifying him forever “so that God will be all in all” (1 Cor 10:31; 15:28 NASB); (6) that this is only accomplished by being transformed into the image of Christ by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who in union with our spirits desires to fill us with the fullness of his presence (Eph 3:17-19; 5:18) so that all of life is for the sake of his glory and ends; and (7) that God has taken special care to reveal these truths in Scripture and, in part, in the believer’s experience. These tenets frame and inform our existence and the entire framework of science, of knowing and being rightly related to reality.”
We know these realities, and start out with them, because epistemically we are gifted with
“(a) the ministry of the Holy Spirit in illuminating and bearing witness to the human spirit regarding the truth of these claims and realities, and (b) in harmony with the canons of knowing and rationality as well as appropriate warranting procedures as in all truth claims. However, ever, our task in this short piece is not to provide the deep epistemology and apologetic to support these claims or defend our knowledge of these Christian beliefs.”