Musings on the Integration of Psychology and Theology: Part 4, I Don't Think Calvinists Can Be Therapists

There has been tons written about the intersection between faith and science. Psychology, as a social science, is no different.

A lot of this literature, unsurprisingly, is about the tensions between the empirical and reductionistic methods of science and the metaphysics of Christian belief. In psychology these beliefs have to do with topics related to the mind/soul/spirit, human nature, and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Can there be a science of things like the soul? Or of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?

Again, a lot has been written about these sorts of topics. For my part, I find discussions about things like the soul to be a bit intractable. I just don't think that's a nut that is going to get cracked. Basically, there's always going to be a disjoint between the empirical methodology of psychological science and the dualistic anthropology that many Christian psychologists are working with.

But beyond the nature and existence of the soul, there is one issue in this area that I am interested in. It has to do with theologies of human nature and their relationship to behavior change and psychotherapy.

One of the problems with modern psychotherapy, from certain Christian perspectives, is its optimistic view of human agency. Simply put, in modern psychotherapy humans are capable--with commitment and grit and aided by the science of behavior change--of improving their overall well-being. This is why you go to therapy after all. There isn't a magic wand or pill. But there is the expectation that you, with the help and support of the therapist, can make yourself happier and healthier.

That optimistic vision of human agency and capability doesn't sit well with certain theological anthropologies, Calvinism in particular. The optimistic and humanistic vision of modern psychotherapy crashes pretty hard into the doctrine of total depravity.

And it raises all sorts of interesting questions. For example, just how emotionally well-adjusted can a totally depraved person be? Can the elect get clinically depressed? And so on.

A part of the problem here for a Calvinistic anthropology is its notion that any spiritual improvement can't be the product of human initiative, choice or agency. In a Calvinistic anthropology we are so broken that we are incapable of helping ourselves. That view seems to doom the prospect of therapy right out of the gate. So it's not surprising that many Calvinistic Christians have a dim view of therapy. Therapy, in their view, is blasphemous as it suggests that we can help and even save ourselves. That's stated a bit strongly, but you get the basic idea. There is a clash of anthropologies between modern psychotherapy (high view of human agency) and Calvinism (low view of human agency).

One way, perhaps, to get around all this is to split the human person into two parts. Our carnal nature and our spiritual nature. Our carnal nature might be helped by psychotherapy. Psychotherapy might help us become more "well adjusted," in some carnal, non-spiritual sense.

Some people do make this sort of argument, but I find it to be muddle-headed. If I have, say, an addiction I think that's both a "carnal" and a "spiritual" problem. Working on one part is working on the other part. Our spiritual and psychological lives are intimately associated, if not the same thing. Trying to tease apart the "carnal" versus "spiritual" aspects of our psychological experience seems, to my mind, completely ridiculous.

And if that's the case, we come back to the problem of Calvinism and psychotherapy. If you are a therapist with a Calvinistic anthropology what, exactly, can you expect from your client? That is, if humans can't of their own initiative improve their emotional and spiritual well-being, if they must wait upon the grace of God, then what are you doing in the therapy room? 

Basically, I don't know if a Calvinist can be a therapist.

By contrast, I do think an Arminian Christian is much better positioned in this regard. Arminians make room for human agency. They assume some human initiative. The will is free rather than depraved or in bondage.

This isn't to say that there aren't other sorts of questions to be asked here. (I've raised my fair share of questions about free will.) It's simply to say that an Arminian anthropology is better positioned relative to a Calvinistic anthropology in theologically supporting the prospect of Christian psychotherapy. An Arminian therapist expects to call forth from the client decisions and commitments that can move toward grace and well-being. Something is initiated by the agency of the client. More, Arminian therapists expect this from every client, Christian and non-Christian. This capactity to make choices is not limited to the elect but is, rather, available to all. Of course, we often refuse to make good choices, but a basic capacity exists, a capacity at the heart of the therapeutic project and process.

But a Calvinistic anthropology precludes all this as it denies this basic capacity. The will is depraved and in bondage and, here's the key point, there is nothing the client or the therapist can do about it. This is the conclusion that, as best I can tell, undermines the entire therapeutic enterprise.

But maybe I'm wrong about all this. I'm curious to know what you think. But I've always felt that being a Calvinistic therapist was a pretty weird thing to be, if not an outright oxymoron, due to Calvinism's very dim view of human nature.

By contrast, it seems to me that Arminians are much better situated to be therapists. Arminian therapists assume the raw material of human agency that is the prerequisite for the therapeutic process. The client has the capacity to make choices, most critically the capacity to choose to move toward God.

All that to say, while there has been a lot of ink split in Christian psychology about the reductionistic methods of the social sciences intersecting with Christian anthropology (e.g., the nature and existence of the soul), there has been less written about the rival anthropologies within the Christian tradition and which of these may or may not align with the theory and practice of psychotherapy.

Because here's my assessment of the situation. The problem many Christian psychologists think is the problem really isn't the problem. The problem, many think, is the reductionistic methods of science. Thus all this work to reconcile psychological science with Christian psychology. But as I assess the situation the problem isn't with science. The problem is with theology, specifically with a particular theological anthropology. The Calvinistic anthropology is a round peg and psychotherapy is a square hole. And the two don't fit. But that's not a problem with science. Because there are alternative anthropolgies within the Christian tradition that make for a better fit. Basically, I think all practicing Christian psychologists should be Arminian and their graduate coursework should educate them about Arminian theology.

Because even if Christian therapists are not confessing Arminians, they are functionally Arminian the minute they step into the therapy room.

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44 thoughts on “Musings on the Integration of Psychology and Theology: Part 4, I Don't Think Calvinists Can Be Therapists”

  1. Got my disqus to work! This is interesting and very timely for me as I am applying for admission to a Masters program in a Wesleyan (Arminian, right?) University. I do wonder about how the very serious issues of shame and abandonment/fear of abandonment, and the resulting codependency, can be related to the Calvinistic worldview. Our parents were our first gods and they shaped much of how we view God now as adults. If you are the adult child of addicts, abusers or any major dysfunction, then your view of God is likely to reflect that of your parents when you were young, usually merciless, abusive, harsh, not caring for you, ignoring, neglectful, judgmental, and most importantly, narcissistic. I don't mean to offend any Calvinist here but is this not strikingly similar to the image of God painted by the most hard-line five point Calvinist theology? It seems very much like a form of religious abuse, with such heavy doses of shame (total depravity, hopelessness of the human condition) and abandonment (chances of not being elect, totally unrelated to your own personal behavior and morality).

    Also I would have to wonder, when counseling someone who seems "beyond hope," at what point does a Calvinist therapist write them off as likely "unelect"? Won't that concern always be there?

    I also must grant that hard line Arminian theology also can have its traps, with the burden of being SO responsible for the outcome of your life (causing hyper responsibility and major control issues, leading to great anxiety and self-criticism). But the Arminian seems to trust a God of such love and acceptance, meeting us basket-case addicts, codependents, prostitutes and tax collectors where we are in life and embracing us despite our "depravity," with grace and mercy instead of anger and arbitrary judgement.

  2. Lutherans share the bondage of the will anthropology. And in pastoral practice you have people come to the pastor assuming some type of therapy. Yet as I try and teach what the pastor can do is listen real close, empathize with the situation whatever that is, and share the gospel. The start of any repair is confession and absolution. Proclamation of the law and gospel from outside ourselves to which the Spirit in us might respond with faith. Until the person recognizes the effect of the law in our lives that path to improvement is blocked. Now you might switch riders on the horse trading one bondage for another, but still in bondage to sin. So, essentially I agree, if you are going to be a therapist in the modern sense, you better have an Arminian theology. But what has been my concern in these areas is the confusion of pastoral practice and the therapist. (This is one of the reasons AA and 12 steps are so interesting because they really start with as secular a form of confession and absolution as you can get.)

  3. How about a Christian therapist who is also a universalist? I received my MA in Counseling and Psychotherapy from a seminary and ran into other counseling students who were Calvinist, and I came to many of the same conclusions that you talk about here. During this time, I had also been studying Christian universalism for several years (including reading many of your blogs on the issue) and found that with a universalist approach, therapy makes even more sense. Both the client's initiative and God's power go to work in the therapeutic setting. I believe that with Arminianism, the ultimate power of God is somewhat diminished for the sake of human agency, but with universalism, it doesn't have to be either/or and actually affirms both.

  4. There are many varied expressions of Calvinism. The basic Calvinist understanding that mankind was utterly helpless to reconcile themselves to God is scriptural. However, the pervasive and negative twist to this idea into total depravity, the corrupt nature of man, bondage of the will, determinism, election, etc. is puzzling.

    Calvinist belief begins correctly in placing the responsibility for reconciliation completely with God. Yet it seems that there should then be a distinction between our dependence for reconciliation and our participation and agency in the ongoing process of salvation and transformation. From my limited interaction with Calvinists, this seems to be an either/or proposition.

    I agree with Cameron that there are theological traps with Arminian theology, particularly in regard to choice being the mechanism of reconciliation. An understanding of universal reconciliation as an already finished work in Christ ideally should provide a theological foundation of assurance and inherent worthiness, which seems would be fundamental to emotional and spiritual well-being.

  5. You've touched a nerve. I'm a Presbyterian minister and feel totally misunderstood by what you've written. You speak of Calvinism and the reformed tradition as if Jesus Christ is absent in our understanding of humanity and of agency. I do not view my congregation or the people that sit in my office with broken lives as if they are deprived of choices. Rather, if I am understanding the New Testament correctly, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are always present and active. What you refer to as the "basic capacity" is a part of our theological anthropology.

    Also, it appears you assume that Karl Barth has had little to no impact on present iterations of reformed theology. Where he is able to keep creation and christology together, your post has rent them apart. When you council people, do you really believe that Jesus Christ is not doing anything at all? Is God dead in psychological science (or merely waiting outside the office)? Does the reality of worship get suspended anytime at all in this life? You are right to mention that the problem is with theology, but incorrect to locate the problem solely in anthropology. Most certainly the problem is whether Christian psychologists understand what sort of God is involved. The cross and resurrection leave no neutral place for independent human agency as we have all been determined by Jesus Christ--in short, the New Testament testifies that there is no raw material. It is one thing to understand choices in a process of becoming or actualizing. It is another thing to understand choices as catching up with the reality of God--of being who we truly are. There is no theological anthropology apart from Jesus Christ.

    One more thing, is worldview something that happens to God? You seem to argue that theology is vindicated by its "fit" with science, as if weltanschauung is the ultimate, immovable authority. But worldviews by their very nature are provisional. This is not to deny science, but just to recognize the reality of flux. The Word of God most certainly inhabits worldviews (God doesn't seem to mind that the creation narratives are relayed via a Babylonian take on the universe), but it does not require them. But the logic of your post seems to run the other direction: the science of Christian psychology requires a certain understanding of human agency, and thus the understanding of human agency dictates how God is involved. Hence the Word of God is patterned to the theology of Arminius. The people whose secrets I carry deserve a better method. Yes, you did touch a nerve.

  6. When I was a Calvinist, I tried to solve my cognitive dissonance here by saying that the Calvinist ideas were true, right, biblical, and so on, but that I should act is if they weren't. Basically, theoretically "believe" like a Calvinist, but act like an Arminian. And, if anything good happened, it was all God's grace anyway. The problem with such cognitive dissonance is that, for most people, eventually, it leads to other problems.

  7. The problem, you write, is rooted in the fact that for the Calvinist "any spiritual improvement can't be the product of human initiative, choice or agency." Well, first, before you have an argument I think you need to get quite a bit more clear about what you mean by "initiative, choice, or agency." I'd like to know, too, how one can be a counselor and believe in libertarian free will. If free choices are ultimately uncaused--on the simple picture of libertarian free will--then counseling can only change in a person by violating their free will. In any case though, that your description of Calvinism is simply false. There can be plenty of spiritual improvement via one's own choice. What the Calvinist denies is that there is salvific spritual improvement. You can counsel individuals to be more compassionate, break habits, etc. You can't counsel them to a belief and trust in Christ.

  8. Provocative and interesting as always, but I think you missed with this one for a couple reasons.

    #1 Yes, a Calvinist anthropology is more pessimistic than an Arminian one, but Calvin wrote quite a bit on ethics which would be pretty pointless if he thought humans had literally zero capacity for moral behavior. In fact, Calvinism is known for rather strict moralism. The point of the bound will is not that we are zombies without will, but that our will is impure and self-centered. We CAN will good, but never perfectly. Actually, I think a Calvinist anthropology is highly compatible with the weak-volitional model I've heard you espouse on other occasions. In a therapeutic situation - how many therapists would say we can will ourselves to complete health? Wouldn't most say that it is pretty much a never-ending process? That no matter how long we work on ourselves it will always be partial and fraught with complications? More, aren't our motives for self-improvement always a little bit suspect? Can't we go to therapy for the wrong reasons?

    #2 Yes, Calvin would say that we are dependent on God's intervention, but he then would say that God always intervenes. Yes we need the Holy Spirit for sanctification, but the Holy Spirit dependably sanctifies. Basically, I think this aspect of Calvinist theology is a wash. It amounts to praise language. Doxology crediting God for all good things. It works in therapy just as well as anywhere else. You achieved a little more self-mastery and integration? Not you, but God in you! Amen.

    Often I think Calvinists and Arminians are caricaturing each other and failing to recognize how close they are to agreement. The caricature of calvinists is that they are hopeless pessimists who believe people have zero capacity for sanctification. The caricature of arminians is that they are starry-eyed optimists who believe people can all achieve total perfection through force of will alone. But Calvinists and Arminians would agree that we're imperfect, we don't always will the good, even when we do we often have selfish motivations and other internal obstacles that prevent us from fully acting out our goodwill. Both would agree that we need the Holy Spirit for sanctification. The disagreement is probably a matter of degree.

  9. Universalism is more about eschatology than anthropology. That is, a variety of anthropologies would work within a universalist paradigm (for example, both Arminian and Calvinism would work). Thought I do agree with your overall point about universalism being being very consistent with a therapeutic perspective. In fact, I see universalism as a sort of therapy/healing.

  10. I might be paraphrasing what others have already said much more eloquently (at the very least there is some overlap), but my first thought is that you seem to be dealing with a bit of a straw man regarding Calvinism. The major distinction I would make between this straw man and, at least, the stream of Calvinism I'm familiar with is that all this "inability" stuff is in regards to salvation. I may be so broken that I am incapable of helping myself in as much as none of my efforts towards improving myself gain me the slightest salvific merit before God. Nothing I was exposed to would prima facie rule out self-improvement in any form short of self-justification. So it may render such self-improvement meaningless for the unelect in the big picture (i.e. gaining the whole world and losing one's soul), but not at all impossible.

    For the record, I no longer consider myself a Calvinist, but perhaps a Calvinistic Universalist wouldn't be entirely incorrect. I, too, have a very high view of both God's sovereignty and his desire to save and I'm not willing to compromise on either point.

  11. Hello everyone. Thanks so much for the feedback and especially the pushback. As a head's up I have a follow up post on this appearing on Monday. I that post I try to be more precise as to where I think a Calvinistic anthropology creates problems for the prospect of Christian psychotherapy. I doubt this post on Monday will address all of the concerns raised in this thread, but it will, I think, address some. If nothing else, in trying to be more precise critical feedback will be able to more clearly and quickly point out where I'm mistaken or where I've significantly mischaracterized Calvinsim. In short, I'm going to hold off a bit in responding to all the comments here as I'd rather wait for the response to Monday. So please don't take my lack of response today as avoidance. I'm reading everything very closely and you've got me thinking.

  12. I hope no one thinks that I think Calvinsim assumes we are deterministic zombies without a will.

    The issue, as I will try to nail down on Monday, has less to do with the depravity of the will than something else: the role of grace in psychological well-being. If being in state of grace with God is critical to well-being and is, in fact, the foundation and ground of it, then we have to wonder if the interventions of a therapist can bring about that state of grace. That is, can the therapist call forth from the client a choice that is determinative in moving toward God and, thus, into a state of grace? Maybe I am mischaracterizing, but I do think Calvinists and Arminians differ in how they might answer that question. And if so, my point is that the entire premise of psychotherapy as therapy (and not supernatural healing) hangs in the balance.

  13. I'm not very theologically literate. But would it be correct to label Bath as a Calvinist? Reformed, yes. But I've never heard him described as a Calvinist. And if he isn't, sure, there are many sophisticated views in the Reformed tradition that I have no problem with.

  14. Maybe I've mischaraterized Calvinism. So, in your opinion, any unregenerate person can, right now and at any moment, and without God's prior election, make a choice to accept God's offer of salvation?

  15. Ah. Yes that is probably more of a problem than the depravity of the will. I will say this - I flat disagree with calvinism on the effects of being in a state of grace. I don't think god providentially cares for the elect, in other words. Or to put it another way: Looking at who is doing well and who is suffering in the world, either many people who are not Christian and not moral by most standards are elect and many who are both Christian and moral are doomed, OR there is no connection whatsoever between salvation and well-being. Based on the suffering of Christ, and that he actually calls us into suffering, and the evidence of many saints who suffered and were unwell I prefer the latter answer: grace & salvation do not correlate meaningfully to health and well-being.

    So I would answer your question: No a therapist cannot call forth a choice from the client that moves them into a state of grace per se. This is in no way an obstacle to a therapist calling forth a choice from the client which is determinative in moving toward health and well-being.

  16. I have a whole other set of issues with Arminian theology. This post didn't get much into them. My main point is simply that the Arminian view of human agency is more consistent with the assumptions of modern psychotherapy than the Calvinistic view. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but it seems obvious to my eye. Arminianism has always been dinged for being too humanistic and therapy is pretty humanistic.

    As to the point you make--"The basic Calvinist understanding that mankind was utterly helpless to reconcile themselves to God is scriptural"--to me that's the main point. I'm not saying people are deterministic automatons. I'm saying that if reconciliation with God is integral to psychological well-being (a working assumption of Christian psychotherapy) and this reconciliation cannot be achieved because we are "helpless," then the prospect of therapy is dead in the water or dramatically circumscribed. At least for the un-elect going to Christian therapy.

  17. I don't think a strawman is involved. Your observation--"the stream of Calvinism I'm familiar with is that all this 'inability' stuff is in regards to salvation"--goes to the heart of the matter. A basic contention in Christian psychotherapy is that a right relation with God (i.e, salvation) is critical if not foundational to well-being. But if there is a fundamental "inability" in this regard than the key component to achieving emotional well-being than a key part, the essential part, is shut off from both the therapist and client. They are "unable" to do anything about this critical/foundational piece of well-being.

  18. Barth is certainly a Calvinist, but perhaps not in the sense you're using it. You seem to be using a rather narrow definition of Calvinism which, unfortunately, has been touted as the only form of Calvinism by a lot of folks (Piper, Driscoll, Mohler, etc.). Total Depravity is key for these guys, but for more traditional Calvinists it's an unfortunate phrase (coined well after Calvin's time) because it implies that there is no good whatsoever in any of us. Some Calvinists do believe that, but it's not part of the definition. Thoroughgoing Depravity might be a better choice of words. It means that no part of us is untouched by sin, but those corrupted parts still contain some (even quite a bit of) good. A robust view of the Holy Spirit is also an absolutely integral part of any decent formulation of Calvinism, and this post didn't really touch on that at all.

    I also found it surprising to hear this criticism from a weak volitionist. Isn't your view of free will closer to Calvinism than Arminianism?

  19. You take a fairly low few of Calvinists , I encourage you to read Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics 2.2. His doctrine of Election may sit well with your universalism

  20. Yes, I'm speaking more about hard-core, five-point Calvinism. When I'm talking about the broader intellectual tradition, which includes Lutherans, I tend to say "Reformed."

    Regarding your last question. I level criticisms at everything. Just because I like something or am sympathetic to it doesn't mean I won't criticism it. :-)

    But to answer your question. I am very sympathetic to the weak volitional aspect of Calvinism. But at the end of the day, I'm still looking at things with a synergistic (rather than monergist) frame. Given that I reject the doctrine of election--or, rather, believe in universal election--but have a weak volitionalist anthropology my ideas about universalism see the grace of God working over time. With enough time even a weak volition moves us forward.

  21. I do take a low view of Calvinists. As I mentioned in this thread, I tend to use the label "Calvinist" to point to 5-point Calvinists. I use the label "Reformed" for the broader tradition, which includes Barth and Lutherans.

  22. I suspect that others have said versions of this, but I think your account of Calvinism here is accurate as regards the popular level or perhaps the recent strand of neo-Calvinists in the U.S., but not all or even the majority strands in their best representations. All you have to believe is that God is universally and always active, providentially as well as in unique events of the Spirit, including and especially in and through the mediation of creaturely agents (whether they intend it or not)—a very Calvinist position!—and forms of therapy would seem to work just fine, since there can be no doubting God's role in bringing one to the self-knowledge of needing help, in leading one to therapy, in the mundane tasks of the therapist him/herself, in the time-taking choices and learning and changed habits that result from said therapy, etc.

    There's no denying that always thinking on God's side of things, so to speak, can trap a Christian into passivity or inactivity, and, consequently, therapy comes to seem incoherent on both the therapist's and the patient's side; but one needn't do that, and there are versions of Calvinism that avoid the temptation.

  23. I did mention a few times in the comment thread that I tend to reserve the word "Reformed" for the broader tradition and "Calvinism" for five-point Calvinism.

    This bit that you say--"All you have to believe is that God is universally and always active,
    providentially as well as in unique events of the Spirit, including and
    especially in and through the mediation of creaturely agents (whether
    they intend it or not)"--is curious to me as it seems to include just about every theological view. Arminians, Calvinists, the Reformed, the Orthodox, Anglicans, and Catholics would agree with it. And if that view is all we are talking about then, sure, I've no quibble. But my post was about the distinctive theologies of Calvinism and Arminianism--a legitimate distinction, no strawman--and how the two align with and support the working assumptions of modern psychotherapy.

  24. Ah , okay. But I still Command you to read Church Dogmatics 2/2. I'm reading it right now , it is very profound theology. He talks about ethics too.. I know you like that ;)

  25. I know I need to read Barth. But the size of The Dogmatics scares the hell out of me. Can you just pick up 2/2 and have it make sense?

  26. Where mankind was helpless to save themselves, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Cor.5:19). The reconciliation of mankind is a statement of what God has done and is not dependent upon or negated by an individual's rejection or acceptance. This "state of grace" has been given to all.

    Unlike Calvinists, I also believe in universal election rather than limited election; and unlike Arminians, I believe in universal reconciliation rather than potential reconciliation.

    From the perspective of accomplished reconciliation, salvation is the ongoing process of participation in the life of God. Rather than a one-time decision, movement to God is a choice always available, moment by moment. The journey to wholeness is deeper understanding, awareness, and embrace of the reality of our reconciliation and union with God.

  27. One of the views underlying Luther's rejection of R.C. was that grace perfects rather than destroys nature. I've not read The Institutes, but have always assumed that Calvin assumed Luther's stance on that. If so, it follows that for Luther/Calvin God is like a dentist who drills out the cavity and replaces the decay healthy replacement, while the R.C. view the protestants reacted against allowed for a model of healing where action from the creation-side of the question--a Dr. or therapist--could help move a patient toward healing: take an aspirin and call me in the morning.

  28. I do agree that people rarely think through the implications of their beliefs.

    As you your observations, the issue for me has more to do with the role of grace in supporting emotional well-being. According to most Christian therapists being in a right relation with God is the foundation of well-being. And for a Calvinist this right relation cannot be a human work, the product of human agency. Thus, getting this critical foundation of well-being in place is taken out of the hands of both therapist and client. They must wait upon the action/election of God. For Arminians there is no waiting. God is universally accessible and can be approached through free human choice. That's the difference that makes Arminianism a better fit with modern psychotherapy.

  29. Apologies if each of us commenters in turn said the same thing without reading the other comments! In all seriousness, it would probably be helpful if there were a well-known taxonomy or continuum of "Calvinisms" that we could refer to.

    Regarding my line about God's activity, what I meant was this: Since all kinds of Calvinists believe that, the anthropological decision about whether or not the "true" or "ultimate" initiative lies with the human will or the divine will, the human will invariably *goes about willing* in circumstances like therapy and personal change. And since human beings' agency is limited to their own will (apart from petitioning the divine—maybe that's the rub?), Calvinist therapy would seem to be less of a problem.

  30. We do need some better language. I should just say "Five Point Calvinists" or something.

    see your point and I agree on that particular issue. My deeper question
    has to do with how that willingness is believed to come about. Can it
    come about through human agency? Is it universally accessible to all
    clients? That's the premise of therapy. That the human agent has this
    fundamental capacity and that this capacity is universally present and a
    potential in every client. Because if this capacity
    is in anyway restricted (to the elect) then the
    therapeutic assumptions are drastically undermined or circumscribed.

    Arminians don't restrict this potentially. Anyone, at any moment, can make a choice to move toward God ,a movement that undergrids emotional well-being in Christian therapy.

  31. I wonder if what is missing in this conversation is the Arminian view of "previnient grace." Most Evangelical Arminians (see Roger Olson) believe in Total Depravity! And therefore are different from semi-pelagians/pelagians. However they also believe in previniant grace which enables the sinner to do good and draws the sinner toward God/salvation. So In Arminianism God is still the initiator of any Good and of our salvation. However, unlike the Calvinist notion of Irresistible grace, previnient grace can be resisted. Previniant Grace is crucial because it allows for human agency without placing so much weight on our free will and this view is consistent with historic christian orthodoxy!

  32. Richard, I think most of the push back is coming from a difference in your notion of "salvation" or "salvific work" and its relationship to behavior and ethics from the neo-Calvanist's view. Generally speaking, neo-Calvanists tend to completely separate the two due to their transactional view of salvation. That is to say, a NC generally believes one can change their behavior and improve their mortal life, but that has nothing to do with their state of salvation and where they are going to spend eternity. Transactionally speaking, counseling can improve your behavior and lead to positive changes in your life, but no matter how many positive and behavioral changes you make, it will never balance the ledger if you're not one of the elect. On that note, because of their transactional view of salvation, a NC would never agree that "salvation is a move toward God." It just doesn't fit. NC reasoning requires a robust capacity to bifurcate spiritual well-being from physical-well being. I just can't see you going there.

  33. " NC reasoning requires a robust capacity to bifurcate spiritual well-being from physical-well being." Right. I talked a bit about how they try that split in the post:

    One way, perhaps, to get around all this is to split the human person into two parts. Our carnal nature and our spiritual nature. Our carnal nature might be helped by psychotherapy. Psychotherapy might help us become more "well adjusted," in some carnal, non-spiritual sense.

    Some people do make this sort of argument, but I find it to be muddle-headed. If I have, say, an addiction I think that's both a "carnal" and a "spiritual" problem. Working on one part is working on the other part. Our spiritual and psychological lives are intimately associated, if not the same thing. Trying to tease apart the "carnal" versus "spiritual" aspects of our psychological experience seems, to my mind, completely ridiculous.

    So here's my point. I get how a RC person might puzzle it out this way, but this sort of bifurcation is an exceedingly strange assumption to be working with as a psychotherapist.

  34. The key part for me in the doctrine of previnient grace is that grace is available to everyone at every moment. It's this universal potentiality that fits with the assumptions of modern psychotherapy. Conversely, if this universal potentiality is denied, as it is in the Calvinisim I'm critiquing (e.g., doctrine of limited atonement, double predestination), it undermines the working assumptions of psychotherapy.

  35. Okay, that makes more sense given the premise that there is no (or severely limited) well-being outside of salvation. The premise, however, does seem to be a bit more of an unspoken one that I've seen just as much outside of Calvinism. It seems to me more of an American Evangelical construction then anything (and I could easily be wrong about this). It's funny, because I'd be willing to bet that most Christians, when pressed, would readily admit that there are "universal principles" that, when applied, produce greater well-being regardless of their salvation status (think Proverbs, sowing and reaping, etc.). In my mind the issue comes down to how much time I want to spend on "improving someone's life" without addressing their potential eternal damnation. At the very least, I could see how this dilemma would produce some cognitive dissonance for the professional psychologist. I think we just need more Universalist psychologists :-).

  36. Here's another way to think about it (I keep trying to think of better ways to make my point than my first attempt recorded in the post).

    It's a working assumption in most Christian psychotherapy that a grounding belief of psychological wholeness and healing is to know yourself to be a beloved child of God. Everything in our psychological and emotional lives gets better when we rest into that conviction.

    Arminians believe that to be the case. Atonement is universal, not particular/limited. God loves and wants to save everyone. EVERYONE. Everyone is a beloved child of God. And so the Arminian therapist--given the universality of their view--can bring this truth into the therapy session. They can say, with 100% confidence, to the client: "You are beloved by God. Know that truth. And build your life upon it."

    So here's my question. Can a (five point) Calvinist therapists say the same, with 100% confidence, to every client? Theologically, no. Therapeutically, yes. And that's my final point in the post. Even if a therapist is a Calvinist on Sunday morning, when he steps into the therapy room on Monday morning he will practice as an Arminian. The therapist will look every client in the eye and say: "You are beloved by God. Know that truth. And build your life upon it."

    There is no doctrine of election in the therapy room.

  37. Hmmm...There is something missing here. I wish I could articulate it. I'll have to think more. But I do want to say that my Presbyterian pastor claims to be a Calvinist and I have never ever met anyone else is better at just standing with me in the darkness of my story. He doesn't try to correct me or tell me my experience is wrong. He has never once made me feel shame for my story. He knows how to ask all the right questions to get me to let go of fear and choose connection instead. When I am ready we will collaborate together to come up with ideas to try to get past some of the damage from my story, but he is never arrogant. He never assumes that he has the right answer, just ideas. If you're right, then my pastor is the worst Calvinist ever and I say that as the highest compliment I could give. =) But maybe instead there is something about Calvinism that levels the playing field. He doesn't see himself as better than me or higher than me so he can just stand with me. He doesn't feel like it's his job to save me, so he's not afraid or urgent. I don't know. I've never read anything by Calvin or Arminius. And I tend to see ugly things and beautiful things come from both camps.

  38. I think that in that case Dr C-T would have to rely on the notion that since they cannot know who God is calling/choosing/helping they must assume that God is calling/choosing/helping whoever they are presented with, until proven otherwise. I think this is generally the view that Calvinism takes for evangelism anyway, and this would be a similar situation in regards to not knowing the state of grace of the other person involved. They would perhaps find it important to pray a lot for God to intervene in the situation, which isn't a bad thing.

    If Dr C-T met a non-Christian whom they were trying to bring closer to God, they would presumably have to take this view - that they should pray, trust God, and go for it despite not knowing if they are 'elect' or not. It would be dangerous territory, after all, to assume that they could tell who God had chosen. I think that this same attitude would apply to therapy with a non-Christian client - alongside the ideas of God intervening more generally in the world, and that there can be imperfect improvement despite the effects of sin.

    This is of course clouded by what they would deem "spiritual", which probably sidelines us into "what is the soul?" etc.

  39. I think a few calvinists slip in as addiction counselors. Or maybe they get to that point after many moons of court ordered DUI's.

  40. I like the initial concept, but I do feel I have to comment that Calvinists and Arminians aren't the only options. Lutherans and Catholics aren't either, and in my experience, make excellent therapists.

  41. Exactly, Linda. Reconciliation has been accomplished by God in Christ. Our task is to progressively live into that reality.
    A major problem I see with both Arminianism and Calvinism is that both begin with the wrong idea; that we are seperated from God and that antagonism continues until we make a move or acknowlege some truth statement.

  42. I think your very question mis-characterizes Calvinism's theory of causation. Imagine that an uber-Hindu asks you, "But, Richard, do you believe that right now and at any moment, without using your brain, you can make a choice to be more spiritual?" You would answer: "Of course I can make a choice, but it doesn't make any sense to make a choice without using my brain."

    Well, a Calvinist would say, "Certainly any unregenerate person can, right now and at moment, make a choice to accept God's offer of salvation. But to speak of making that choice without God's election, is rather like speaking about making that choice without a brain. It makes no sense."

    So is it only important for a therapist to believe that any client, at any moment, can choose to respond to God's grace? If so, Calvinists can be therapists. Or is it important for a therapist to ALSO believe that, when the client responds to God's grace, there was no prior election involved? In that case the Calvinist can't be a therapist.

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