Science in Christian Perspective



Behavioral Psychology: What Does It Have to Offer the Christian Church?


Department of Psychology
Spring Arbor College
Spring Arbor, MI 49283

From: JASA 37 (June 1985): 79-85.
Presented May, 1984 at the annual convention for the Christian Association for Psychological Studies in Dallas, Texas.

Skinner's brand of radical behaviorism has had a strong impact on American psychology, the social sciences in general, and consequently, on our culture. In addition, behavior modification techniques have been found to be effective tools and are now being used extensively by Christians in psychiatric, educational, and other applied settings. Despite this fact, Christian psychologists and academicians have, for the most part, disagreed with the philosophical implications of a behavioral view of man. The basis for the apparent tension between behavioral theories and traditional Christian views of man's behavior is discussed and evaluated. It is concluded that Christians need to seriously consider that the scientific approach, as exemplified in behavioral psychology, may provide a meaningful understanding of human behavior.

Behavior Modification: An Inconsistency Among Christian Professionals

At a recent conference I attended on Christian approaches to learning theory, the theories of B.F. Skinner became the focus of discussion following one of the paper presentations. It was clear from the tone of the discussion that most of the participants did not feel that a Skinnerian approach to human behavior was especially compatible with a Christian view of man. While the discussion was going on, the person sitting next to me, a chairman of the Education Department of a small Christian liberal arts college, commented matter-of-factly that he found the discussion amusing. He noted that despite some of the negative views towards Skinner's theories, the behavior modification techniques derived from them were presently being included in the teacher training of every Christian college that he was aware of. According to this educator, behavior modification had been found to be an indispensible tool in the classroom because it worked, unlike many other techniques that have been derived from other psychological viewpoints regarding man. 

As I thought about his comments, I was also impressed by the apparent inconsistency of many Christian educators and psychologists. Many of these professionals freely use behavior modification techniques in the classroom or on the psychiatric ward because they find these techniques to be helpful tools. At the same time, though, they often reject the behavioral theories and philosophical assumptions regarding the nature of man from which those techniques have been derived, because of the supposed incompatibility of those views with a biblical view of man. Such dissonance between traditional Christian beliefs regarding the nature of man and the implications of behavioral techniques, must be addressed by the Christian psychological community.

It has been my experience when teaching the principles of conditioning and learning in the classroom that the students often begin with a traditional Christian view regarding the nature of man. As a result of the review of laboratory and case studies, the students note numerous examples of human and animal behavior that can be effectively understood in terms of lawful environmental relationships. Students soon find themselves concluding on the basis of sound empirical research and case studies that many behavior modification techniques are effective. Yet they sense a tension between the implications of these findings and a traditional Christian view which they have derived from the day to day context in which human behavior is discussed in the church. If the techniques are effective, it is appropriate for Christians to consider the philosophical implications derived from the theories from which the techniques have been developed. Why are these techniques effective? What insights can we glean about the nature of man from the effectiveness of these techniques? It is my intention to more fully consider the philosophical implications derived from the effectiveness of behavior modification techniques, and to discuss why these implications are frequently in tension with what Christians suppose is a biblically derived view of human behavior.

Christianity and the Nature of Mind

In dealing with therapeutic or educational applications, behavior modification techniques focus on observable behavior changes and the structuring of environmental events in order to arrive at those changes. Such notions as mind, soul, values, beliefs, volition, and other such mentalistic constructs, are typically ignored. If behavior modification techniques can successfully change behavior without invoking such intermediators; as mind or will, the implication is that perhaps such mentalistic constructs are not important in determining at least some of the things that people do.

One of the reasons that Christians are uncomfortable with this implication is that the notion of mind and will have traditionally been considered to be important concepts within a biblical view of man. These notions are typically invoked as explanatory concepts when dealing with the "why" of human behavior. Though many Christians assume that the notion of mind is biblical, it is in fact more the result of our dualistic Western culture than of any biblical exegesis as such. Platonic dualism was incorporated into Christian, and therefore Western, thought by virtue of the early church fathers who were strongly influenced by some of the classical Greek philosophers. St. Augustine was perhaps the person most responsible for the adaptation of Platonic dualism into medieval theology. Augustine's dualistic notion of the soul/body was then adopted -.-, French philosopher/mathematician Rene esc 7 who began using the term soul almost interZngte7, with mind. As the British empiricists and associations: of the 18tb century acquired a strong philosophical  foothold in Western thought, the medieval function, and abilities of the soul became the functions arc abilities of the mind. Even today, there exists some

Though many Christians assume that the notion of mind is biblical, it is in fact more the result of our dualistic Western culture than of any biblical exegesis as such.

confusion among Christians as to precisely what are functions and abilities of the soul, and what are tht functions and abilities of the mind. Soul is considered to be that faculty which allows us to exist and function as distinct personalities for eternity. Yet when discussion those very same faculties in the living person, they are said to embody the mind.

A Hebraic Model of Human Behavior

Had the early church and subsequent Western culture embraced a Hebraic view of man rather than a classical Greek view, a behavioral disregard for the importance of mind might not be so threatening to the Christian church. Old Testament Hebrew culture tended to place a greater emphasis on the physical dimensions of existence. Soul was viewed as a biologically living entity, the living body if you will, within a more wholistic approach to man.

One of the Old Testament words for man that is most analogous to the Greek homo is the Hebrew I adam. which means he who has been brought forth from the I adamah or earth. This characterizes the traditional Hebraic view of man, which emphasizes the ephemeral and physical nature of man. Edmond Jacob, in his Theology of the Old Testament, writes:

Opposition between body and soul is not to be found in the Old Testament nor even a trichotomy (body, soul, and spirit). Man is a psycho-physical being and physical functions are bound so closely to his physical nature that they are all localized in bodily organs which themselves only draw their life from the vital force that animates them. (p. 157)

As opposed to the contemporary American Christian emphasis on the spiritualized individual mind/soul who engages in choice and is responsible in an existentialist manner, a Hebraic anthropology has a very different emphasis. Here, the individual is viewed within the context of the family, tribe, or race; with a recognition of the importance of the group in defining and influencing the individual, behaviorally and otherwise.

In the Old Testament, man is distinguished from God in that he is but flesh. Yet here, the distinction is not in terms of matter-spirit dualism but of a contrast between strength and weakness. Edmond Jacob develops this point when interpreting the passage.

God (Yahweh Elohim) formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh chayyah). (Gen. 2:7)

Here the term nephesh chayyah, which is applied to man and animals (Gen. 2:19), characterizes man as the final physical result of divinely inspired creative activism, not as an ethereal soul deposited into a body.

Even in the New Testament, when dealing with resurrection life, of which Jesus Christ is our first model, we see a physical body which has found completion and perfection in its divinely inspired design (Luke 24:36-43).

As it presently stands, however, mind/soul is a widely used explanatory concept; and it is only as the Christian church begins to better understand the cultural basis, as opposed to the biblical basis of the construct, that its importance in a biblical view of man can really be assessed.

Christianity and the Nature of Will

The notion of will is another important explanatory concept for the Christian when dealing with human behavior. A person's will, which is usually said to be "free," is one of those nebulous concepts, the effects of which are usually only apparent in a person's choices (i.e. behavior). When asked where the will resides,
however, it is usually considered to be a faculty of the soul or mind, and thus an eternal aspect of the person. Behavioral psychology of course, does not appeal to the will as causal in human behavior. It prefers instead to deal with environmental determinants, either immediate or within the learning history of the person. The effects of these environmental influences are mediated through the physiology of the individual, which is largely of genetic origin.

Skinner, in his book entitled About Behaviorism, states that,

Operant theory moved the purpose which seemed to be displayed by human action from antecedent intention or plan to subsequent selection by contingencies of reinforcement. A person disposed to act because he has been reinforced for acting may feel the condition of his body at such a time and call it "felt purpose," but what behaviorism rejects is the causal efficacy of the feeling. (p. 246)

Possibly more forceful illustrations of this point are occasions when we behave in direct opposition to our stated or felt purpose. The apostle Paul, for example, noted that "For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate," (Romans 7:15, NAS). He then goes on to ascribe these tendencies to the sin that dwells within him (v. 20).

If we were to more concretely define sinful nature at this point, a reasonable definition might be that it consists of that aspect of man which mediates environmental influences in deterministic and behaviorally destructive ways. It is that aspect which, for example, allows such things as nicotine, alcohol, food, sexual stimulation, and physical aggression to influence the behavior of many in a potentially abusive way; oftentimes in direct opposition to that which they would 11 will" to do. It is perhaps the most tragic of all aspects of the fallen human condition that people are so amenable to such potentially destructive and enslaving influences.

Professor Boivin completed his M.A. in 1978 and his Ph.D. in 1980 in the Experimental Analysis of Behavior program at Western Michigan University. He has been teaching full-time for Spring Arbor College since 1980, and also teaches at the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, Michigan. He has presented research in the area of complex measures of choice as well as the therapeutic effects of pets with the elderly. At present, Professor Boivin is attempting to develop theoretical perspectives which would allow Christian scholars to better integrate contemporary psycho-neurological findings with a Biblical model of human function and nature. Professor Boivin, his lovely wife Grace, and their two children, Monique and Daniel, presently reside in Jackson, Michigan.

Christ himself recognized this aspect of the human condition, and suggested the following, "If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away ... and if your eye causes you to sin,. pluck it out and throw it away," (Matthew 18:8-9, RSV). His suggestion here is an interesting one, for it can easily be interpreted to mean that we must take drastic action against such potentially hazardous influences in our life because of their strongly deterministic nature. If a certain situation occasions inappropriate or sinful habits, avoid those situations entirely. Don't consider yourself impervious to such environmental influences simply through your "strength of will."

Solomon, as well, recognized the deterministic influences of our social environment in particular. "He who walks with wise men shall become wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm," (Proverbs 13:20, RSV). From this as well as numerous other passages in the book of Proverbs, we must conclude that Solomon recognized the important effects of social modeling and observational learning, something that is well documented within behavioral psychology. Responsible Christian living, therefore, involves responsible environmental structuring and a healthy appreciation for its effects on the Christian's behavior.

Unfortunately, people have frequently been counselled within the church to deal with behavior problems within their lives by "willing" to change, without the help of responsible environmental structuring or behavior management. Though these individuals may very much want to change, they lack the personal and therapeutic resources to do so; and subsequently find themselves reverting back into destructive behavior patterns despite the fact that they have "willed" otherwise. When this happens, these individuals are said to lack willpower; the implication being that if only they could get more of it, their problems would be solved. The problem is that it is never really made clear where one can get more willpower; and any concrete suggestions strongly resemble a proposed behavior modification program.

Take, for example, the suggestions made by Aubrey Andelin in his book, Man of Steel and Velvet. According to Dr. Andelin, one of the characteristics of a man of God is that he acquires self-mastery through three disciplines: prayer, fasting, and training of the will. He goes on to explain that one trains the will by continual effort in small steps with respect to one's behavior. This is accomplished by such behavior techniques as structuring the day according to a rigid schedule, depriving oneself of certain reinforcers, and engaging in certain behaviors one normally doesn't want to do in order to 11 strengthen the will." Such endeavors, he suggests, will eventually fortify the will, and lead to enduring change.

What Dr. Andelin is doing is taking a popular cultural notion, that of will, positing it as causal n volitional behavior, and then suggesting a host
of behavior change strategies in order to change the causal construct of will. In this sense, "will" is nothing more than the capacity to achieve desired behavior change.

Responsible Christian living therefore, involves responsible environmental structuring and a healthy appreciation for its effects or the Christian's behavior.

In fact, Dr. Andelin's man of steel and velvet could probably "fortify his will" a bit more effectively if he were to deprive himself of some pleasantries in order that they might be used to reinforce desired behavior changes such as adhering to the schedule for that day. Such reinforcers might also be systematically presented  contingent upon the person engaging in the mort aversive, yet necessary activities. These tangible positive reinforcements would probably lead to more effectively "strengthening the will" than the cognitive incentive of saying to oneself, "I will deliberately overcome the pull of the flesh," that Dr. Andelin suggests. Cognitive incentives work fine for the self-disciplined who have learned to respond to such verbal cues, but they usually aren't helpful for those very individuals who most need help in achieving desired behavior change.

Sometimes, Christians are encouraged not to attempt to change their own behavior but to instead rely on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to supernaturally accomplish the change. Praying for divine interventon in the hope of resolving behavioral problems, as well a., medical problems, is scriptural (James 1:5, 5:14) and should be the initial course of action for the Christian Relying exclusively on divine intervention, however, to the exclusion of other available treatments, is perhaps as unwise behaviorally as it is medically. Surely the healing power of God can work through the scientifically-based techniques of the physician or therapist a-, well as through more supernatural ways.

Will and Moral Responsibility

Despite the fact that reliance upon will for effective behavior change can often lead to failure, guilt and discouragement, many in the Christian community maintain that free will is a critical concept for a Christian view of the person. When pressed, as to why it is such an important concept, it is usually suggested that unless man has a free will, he cannot be held morally accountable for his sinful behavior before a just and sovereign God. If, for example, a person is to suffer eternal damnation for not having chosen Christ as his personal savior, we somehow feel that God is not being as harsh or inhumane if the person can be accused of willfully choosing his terrible fate. Either critical aspects of a person's moral behavior, including their choice for or against Christ, are the result of non-deterministic environmental influences, or else God will judge people for that which they cannot help but do, which intuitively seems unfair. Most Christians, it seems, have opted for the former view, advocating the notion of "free will" as a biblically-based view of man. In fact, though, we find this view a philosophical necessity in light of the biblical notions of divine judgement.

This dilemma is also apparent in a related issue, that of biblical predestination. There are various scriptures which indicate that God is aware of what the eternal fate of individuals will be (Romans 8:29, 11:2-5; 1 Peter 1:2; Isaiah 49:1, 5). Furthermore, there is the implication that God is directly responsible for creating some vessels unto honor, and some unto dishonor (Romans 9:21-23). When dealing with this very issue in his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul noted "Has the potter no right over the clay?," (Romans 9:21, RSV). We must conclude that indeed He does, and perhaps it is better in developing a biblical view of man to leave such issues unresolved than to invent or adhere to explanatory psychological constructs out of seemingly moral or philosophical necessity.

Behavior Modification and the Distinctives of Man

Some Christians resist a behavioral view of man because they feel that it dehumanizes man; that it is reductionistic and thereby destroys man qua man, In responding to this objection, Skinner adapts a quotation by the French philosopher George Sorel to illustrate a point. In the following quotation, the subject of the passage has been changed by Skinner from man to lion.

The lion at his best, that is, at his most leonine, seeks to fulfill himself, individually and with those close to him, in spontaneous, unended, creative activity, in work that consists of the imposition of his leoninity on a recalcitrant environment.... He acts and is not acted upon. He chooses and is not chosen for.... He resists every force that seeks to reduce his energy, to rob him of his independence and his dignity, to kill the will, to crush everything in him that struggles for unique self-expression and reduces him to uniformity, unleoninity, monotony, and, ultimately, extinction. (About Behaviorism, p. 262)

Were the above passage applied to humans, many humanists and Christians alike would agree that the description provides a romantic glimpse into what it means to be a person. When the stirring language is applied to lions, however, it becomes obvious that such romantic notions really don't describe anything that is uniquely or characteristically human. Such lofty and romantic ideals of the human endeavor sound good, but do not accurately reflect the nature of our daily lives or behavior.

Though our behavioral abilities are more sophisticated and complex than animals, we have no basis for concluding that they are qualitatively different. Only our relationship and responsibility to God makes us qualitatively different from animals. That distinction began when God walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden, a privilege granted to no other creature in the garden; it has ever since been the one critical fact that distinguishes us from all other forms of organic life. A supposed free will, mind, and language is not necessary to distinguish man from animals as many suppose, but rather that he can know God in a way not possible for animals. In fact, attempts to define the humanity of man according to traits or abilities which he uniquely possesses could be simply limited to those traits which he must possess to have an awareness of and interaction with God and his fellow man.

Though Christians would be the first to admit that unregenerate man is not a god, or even an angel, he is still far more than a simple machine as behavioral psychology would make him out to be. This criticism though, is based on a misunderstanding of how contemporary behavioral psychologists in fact view man. Skinner, for example, admits that the mechanical model is useful in conceptualizing certain basic reflexes. Human behavior in its fullest complexity, however, is the sum and product of numerous genetic, historical, and immediate environmental influences which impact on the individual in lawful and probabilistic ways, not according to the rigid, deterministic Newtonian model of causality. When the Christian rejects Behaviorism because it makes man nothing more than a machine, he is rejecting a straw dog which contemporary behaviorists would discard as well.

Christians and the Science of Human Behavior

At this point, the Christian psychologist must ask the question, "If man has an eternal soul, what role does it play in behavior?" Christian thought has traditionally viewed the soul as a homunculus, an inner man that houses the essential ingredients of humanity. During the medieval period, this soul was viewed as being responsible for virtually every aspect of our consciousness, sensory experience, and behavior. The body was basically nothing more than a shell to house the soul.

Beginning with Descartes' notion of "undulatia reflexa" (the human action not mediated by mind but automatic) however, the functions for which the soul is responsible have gradually dwindled, until today with the advent of neuroscience research, we understand the important mediating influence of the brain and nervous system in virtually all aspects of our conscious, perceptual, and cognitive experience. Behavioral psychology now stands at the door as well, suggesting that even human choice and will be removed from the domain of the soul and understood as well on the basis of physical laws and natural processes.

Many Christians have resisted the attempts of a scientific psychology to understand human behavior within a lawful and scientific context. Scientific methodology is all well and good as long as it stays safely tucked away in the domain of chemistry, biology, or medicine. Once it invades the sacred domain of the soul, however, it is to be viewed with distrust and disdain. What these Christians fail to realize however, is that the scientific Methodology which allowed alchemy to become chemistry, vitalism to become biology, and astrology to become astronomy, is the very same scientific methodology which will allow psychologists to develop an accurate and effective understanding of those processes at work in our behavior.

Allow me to further illustrate my point with an example. Probably the scientific theory which has caused the greatest furor within the Christian community in the past one hundred years is the theory of evolution. Why is that? My own view is that this theory first marked the intrusion by biology into a realm-tbe realm of origins-that had traditionally belonged to the church. The proposal of a naturalistic explanation was interpreted by some parts of the church as an outright refusal to recognize the role that God played in the origin of man and the universe. Likewise, a naturalistic account of human behavior is interpreted as an outright refusal to recognize the role that certain theological concepts such as sin, soul, and moral responsibility, play in human behavior and in the human condition in general. The church again feels that a sacred domain has been violated. First secular philosophers equated soul with mind and attempted to describe lawful processes for memory, consciousness, and knowledge. Then secular neuroscientists reduced mind to corresponding neurological processes and events. Finally, behavioral psychologists have arrived and have reduced the basis of human and animal behavior to lawful environmental processes. I do not believe, however, that the intrusion of the scientific method and its accompanying theories into yet another sacred domain must be viewed as a threat. Regarding scientific models of human behavior, some aspects of this approach will doubtless provide a useful supplement to biblical insights regarding the nature of man. Others will nor The church should not though, reject such an approach out-of-hand because it appears to be threatening somt of the traditional assumptions within the churcih regarding why people do what they do. It is time to quidivorcing the area of human behavior from the natural physical order in which man's other biological prccesses appear to exist. It is time to explore what really are the unique and essential ingredients of humanity, in

A supposed free will, mind, and language is not necessary to distinguish man from animals as many suppose, but rather that he can know God in a way not possible for animals.

part by understanding that which can be lawfully accounted for. Such an approach, if carried out witi integrity, honesty, and objectivity, can only provide c helpful addition to the biblical insights already available to us. It will also help us better understand those aspects of our theology regarding human behavio, which are not accurate, or are of a primarily cultural basis.

Behavior Modification and the Involvement of God

What then, does behavioral psychology have to offer the Christian church? As mentioned at the beginning this paper, the techniques of behavior modification have already been of use to Christian practitioners in ~. variety of settings. A volume entitled the Handbook Qf Behavior Modification and Behavior Therapy, edited by Harold Leitenberg, contains a rather comprehensive review of the various therapeutic applications of behavior modification presently in wide use. The treatment of alcoholism, overeating, learned control of physiological disease and function, neuroses, depression, marital counselling, juvenile delinquency, sexual disorder, and classroom disorder, have all been successfully addresse6 using behavior modification techniques.

Beyond these practical techniques, though, what does behavioral psychology have to offer the Christiar church in the way of its theological understanding regarding the nature of man? The apparently lawfu~ interaction between human behavior and the social or physical environment which the efficacy of these techniques suggest simply cannot be ignored. How can they be effectively integrated, though, into a Christian view of man?

For those who adhere to the Christian faith, there can be no denial that God is involved in the affairs of men, and that the behavior of man is influenced by Him. The question is, however, in what capacity is God involved? Was God simply the originator of various natural laws that determine the configuration of the physical order of which man and his behavior is a part? Or does God play a more direct and immediate role in the course of human events and behavior; intervening to change the hearts of Christians, for example, in ways not subject to scientific investigation?

To go a step further, is man's behavior the result of natural processes which allow us to effectively adapt to the environment without the direct participation of a transcendent and divinely inspired mind? Or is it the direct result of a process that transcends the natural order? I would like to suggest the following possibility. God the creator has set in motion lawful processes within the natural order, of which man's behavior is a part. Typically, the physical order operates according to those lawful and observable processes. On occasion, however, God intervenes directly into that lawful order to initiate rather remarkable physical change. In the Bible, these are referred to as miracles. Likewise, the Holy Spirit, who mediates such divine intervention does so within the life of those individuals who are born again. The Holy Spirit dwells continually within the individual, changing how that person responds to the environmental influences to which he is subjected. The social and physical environment still impact upon that individual to cause lawful behavioral change, but the behavioral outcome of such processes is different, simply because that individual is different (physically and otherwise) by virtue of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Perhaps in this sense, Christians are the only individuals who can be somewhat free from a total behavioral dependence on exclusively environmental determinants, in that the Holy Spirit changes the physiological mediators of those environmental processes. "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed," (John 8:36, RSV). Free from what? From our sinful nature (Romans 6:16), an aspect of this nature being the extent to which this fallen world (environment) interacts with certain aspects of our fallen state (physiologically based tendencies to respond) to produce sinful (personally and socially destructive) behavior. We are set free from the cycle of sin and death in the sense that the lawful processes in our behavior no longer necessarily interact with environmental events in ways which are ultimately destructive to the individual. Furthermore, a seed (the Holy Spirit in the Believer; Matthew 13:3133; 11 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 4:30) is sown which will blossom forth into the physical resurrection of the Christian and of the rest of God's creation (Luke 24:39-43; Isaiah 11:6-9). This resurrection is when the transformation of man, physiologically, environmentally, and therefore behaviorally, is fully completed.


The insights regarding the lawful determinants of certain aspects of man's behavior can be helpful in more fully understanding important biblical concepts regarding the nature of man. Since the Bible does not provide an exhaustive and detailed account of the underlying processes of God's natural order, the church has incorporated culturally-based explanatory concepts, such as the popular notion of mind, in order to provide a theoretical framework for understanding the actions of people. A scientific approach can provide a more accurate account of the underlying processes, and has been largely accepted as the primary means of providing information regarding the underlying processes of God's natural order in virtually every area of His creation except human behavior. It is time for Christians to seriously consider the scientific approach, as exemplified in behavioral psychology, as a means of better understanding human behavior as well. A more accurate understanding of the theories of behavioral psychology, as well as the cultural basis of the popular notion of mind, will reveal that the tensions between a behavioral and biblical view of man are not as great as is commonly supposed.

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