Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue

Moral and Spiritual Change in Christian Perspective

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Thomas Crisp, Steven L. Porter, Gregg A. Ten Elshof
Christian Association for Psychological Studies Books
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , January
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume, Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue, is born out of a dialogue at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought (CCT) between theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers, educators, pastors, and psychologists. It is grounded in the belief that a person’s “transformation in Christ”—that is, spiritual formation—and psychological development are inseparable processes which must be examined jointly, if one seeks a holistic view of human development.

Part 1 of the volume deals with issues regarding the relationship between theology and psychology. For instance, John H. Coe (chapter 1) highlights the lack in Christian psychological literature of a deep understanding of “the dynamic processes of how the Spirit of God transforms the person” (18). He proposes the discipline traditionally called “spiritual theology” as a way of filling this lacuna by integrating biblical models of sanctification with an “empirical study” of the mechanisms and effects of the action of the Holy Spirit on the person. James M. Houston (chapter 2) points out another issue in the relationship between theology and psychology, namely, the inadequate anthropology guiding psychology and spiritual formation. For Houston, only a “theo-anthropology” (à la Karl Barth), which takes seriously the theological dimension of the person as well as the need for conversion, can soundly guide psycho-spiritual formation.

Parts 2 and 3 of the volume represent an “exchange of gifts” between theology and psychology, that is, ways for the two disciplines to enrich one another. Bruce Hindmarsh (chapter3) makes a contribution towards Christian psychology by highlighting the importance of a teleological view of the human person as essentially spiritual. He argues that spirituality is not a layer added onto the person but one’s core identity and ultimate end. Consequently, spiritual development and human flourishing are coextensive.

This volume does not contain an elaborate examination or uniform definition of spirituality, but C. Steven Evans (chapter 4) gets credit for laying clear theoretical grounds for his essay. He brings Kierkegaardian philosophy to bear on spiritual formation by proposing a relational understanding of spirituality. Nevertheless, he does not clarify how his proposal can directly benefit Christian psychology. The contribution to psychology is more obvious in Siang-Yang Tan’s essay (chapter 5) that offers a fresh perspective on resilience and posttraumatic growth (commonplaces in positive psychology literature). Based on a biblical understanding of suffering as a source of spiritual blessings, he highlights the crucial role of “sanctified or redemptive suffering” in forming the person in the image of Christ. Similarly, Ellen T. Charry (chapter 6) examines, as she does elsewhere, theology’s impact on human psyche and well-being. In this instance, her analysis aims at enriching the psychological literature on revenge and forgiveness. She sees in Psalm 35—where the psalmist implores God to exact retributive justice on his enemies—a therapeutic attempt at “directing negative emotions in God-ward way (132).

The gifts of psychology to theology are the object of the third, and final, part. Earl D. Bland (chapter 7) focuses on the issue of interpersonal judgmentalism to which Matt 7:1-5 alludes (i.e., “seeing the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the plank in one’s eye”). For Bland, judgmental condemnation of others, especially those who are different, is a relational issue which can only be addressed in a relational context, such as in a psychotherapeutic relationship. For readers interested in virtue formation, Robert A. Emmons (chapter 8), a long-time researcher in the field of gratitude, distills some of his findings on the topic. He argues that developing gratitude is a sign of spiritual growth and a marker of human flourishing. His essay, mostly concerned with the mechanism of, and issues surrounding, the cultivation of gratitude, can be a useful tool for spiritual formators.

Steven J. Sandage, David R. Paine, and Jonathan Morgan (chapter 9) show that spiritual formation ought to cultivate adaptive ways of relating to otherness (what they term “alterity”) by fostering intercultural competence and social justice commitment. Offering the perspective of positive psychology, Everett L. Worthington Jr., Brandon J. Griffin, and Caroline R. Lavelock (chapter 10) emphasize the relational and social aspect of both, spiritual formation and virtue development. Marie T. Hoffman (chapter 11) combines insights from Calvinist anthropology and psychoanalysis to offer a relational view of spirituality, suffering, and well-being. Based on this model, healing, transformation, and even redemption occur only within loving relationships with others and with God. Finally, Justin L. Barrett (chapter 12) draws attention to the developmental aspect of spiritual formation: the latter must adapt its tools and goals to the age and developmental stage of the person in formation.

As in most edited volumes, the reader should not expect a systematic presentation, or a manual of instructions, on spiritual formation and psychology. Nevertheless, the volume is rich with diverse perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches. Even on the intradisciplinary level, one finds diversity within theology (with figures such as John Calvin, Barth, and Howard Thurman), psychology (e.g., psychoanalysis and positive psychology), and philosophy (e.g., Søren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, and Paul Ricoeur). The uniting thread which runs through all the essays, however, is the social/relational view of spirituality and psychological development: no individual can grow psycho-emotionally or spiritually in isolation from others. This book may be of interest to several populations. Some essays (chapters 1, 2, 3) make for a useful read for psychology or theology undergraduates, while others (chapters 4, 7, 8, 10) may more directly benefit seminary rectors and spiritual formators, and others (chapters 5, 6, 11, 12) for Christian psychotherapists. One of the sources untapped in this volume, and which may enrich it, is the early ascetic literature (e.g., Evagrius, Cassian) which saw the “therapy of emotions” as integral to Christian spiritual formation. The modern discussion on psychology and spiritual formation could greatly benefit from the insights of the monks and nuns of early Christianity.          

About the Reviewer(s): 

Fr. Rodrigue Constantin is a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

Date of Review: 
March 17, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas M. Crisp is Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.

Steven L. Porter is Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University.

Gregg Ten Elshof is Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.



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