Winter  2001
Volume 5 Number 2


Happily (one might also say providentially), I was married to Barth scholar George Hunsinger. Like many academic couples, we read and listened to one another’s work. One summer at a conference in St. Paul, I was riveted to his every word as I began to perceive that the relationship between theology and politics, which he was setting forth, could be applied at the formal level to questions in my own field. In particular, it occurred to me that what he identified as a “Chalcedonian pattern of thought”4 in Barth’s theology was at the very heart of my question about how to relate theology and psychology in pastoral counseling.

“Chalcedonian” refers to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A. D. in which the church pondered the mystery of the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ as one who was at once fully God, yet also fully human. In its original historical context, the church fathers gathered “not to define the faith of the church in any comprehensive or exhaustive sense, but rather to demarcate clear boundaries for orthodox teaching…. The Chalcedonian definition of how properly to understand the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ became the basis for thinking about how properly to conceive of the relationship between the disciplines of theology and psychology in the work of pastoral counseling.”5 In the Chalcedonian definition, we read that Jesus Christ is “at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly human… one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”6 When I applied these formal elements to my own sphere of inquiry, I began to play with the idea that the disciplines of theology and psychology should be neither separated from one another, nor confused with one another, two mistakes that were often made. 

Proponents of conceptual integration seemed to confuse theological with psychological concepts in a way that often meant some kind of reduction to a lowest common denominator, such that the distinctions between them virtually disappeared. Thus, the Christian concept of salvation came to mean little more than emotional healing, and sin was more or less equated with neurosis or psychological dysfunction. Theological description became a kind of symbolic language used to depict essentially psychological realities. What the New Testament described as demon possession, for instance, came to be understood as a form of multiple personality disorder or perhaps schizophrenia. The Book of Job became little more than a poetic way to describe severe depression. 

But an equal and opposite danger also existed among those who would separate or divide theological concepts from psychological ones. While they clearly must be differentiated from each other (in terms of their aims, subject matters, methods, and linguistic conventions), they should not become so separate that their overlapping areas of inquiry are denied. Any theological interpretation of a human life necessarily includes the psychological functioning of the person, just as it also includes reflection on race, economic class, gender, and political persuasion. Even basic physiological realities must be taken into consideration.7 Our “spirituality” does not function in a sphere that is divorced from our bodily and emotional lives. We are fully incarnated beings, “besouled bodies” and “embodied souls,” as Karl Barth put it.8 Those who seek a “spiritual realm” separate from the concrete details of a person’s particular lived history would also fail properly to relate the truths of both disciplines.

In his reflection on Chalcedon, Barth added a third formal category, that which he called the “indestructible order.”9 Based on the ordering of the words that Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully human (and on the internal logic of that ordering), Barth emphasized the logical priority of Christ’s divine over his human nature. In the Incarnation, the eternal Word of God who was with God from before the foundation of the world was joined to the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually I came to see that the pattern of asymmetrical ordering (in the Incarnation between Jesus’ deity and humanity; in pastoral counseling between theology and psychology) was the answer to my question of what it might mean to say that the two disciplines are “logically diverse.” 

Even though our psyche is integral to any experience we understand as spiritual, when we seek to define or interpret that experience we use the theoretical tools of disciplines that function on conceptually different levels. Michael Polanyi’s notion of a “stratified hierarchy” among various bodies of knowledge helps to clarify the idea of the asymmetrical relation between theology and psychology. In a vivid example, Polanyi writes:

Take the art of making bricks. It relies on its raw materials placed on a level below it. But above the brickmaker there operates the architect, relying on the brickmaker’s work, and the architect in his turn has to serve the town planner. To these four successive levels there correspond four successive levels of rules. The laws of physics and chemistry govern the raw material of bricks; technology prescribes the art of brickmaking; architecture teaches the builders; and the rules of town planning control the town planners.10

Thus each higher level in the hierarchy depends on the knowledge achieved in the successive lower levels. At the same time, the laws that govern the lower levels cannot account for the operations needed at the higher levels.11 When these principles are applied to pastoral counseling, one would say that theology depends on psychology to operate competently in its own sphere, to give us reliable knowledge of human psychological functioning. However, a knowledge of psychology, no matter how profound, cannot provide us with what we believe about God and the world and our place in it. What we believe about the deep purposes of human life, and the particular human life it is ours to live, can only be addressed from the standpoint of faith. This may be why Calvin wrote that our knowledge of God must precede a true knowledge of ourselves. As Calvin noted, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are mutually conditioned and interconnected in such a way that the knowledge of God must precede the knowledge of ourselves. (Institutes I.1.2–3) Precedence here does not mean temporal precedence but rather the logical precedence of theology over any anthropological discipline, particularly as we seek to understand human beings from the standpoint of faith.

How might such an interdisciplinary approach to pastoral counseling be helpful to the pastor? For one thing, it provides theoretical tools for sorting through all kinds of conceptual confusions that seem to be rampant in our culture. The question with which we began, for example,—whether teaching our children to confess their sins to God would effectively diminish their sense of self-esteem—seems to be an instance of confusing theological and psychological concepts. If confession of sin is understood in an adequate theological context, it would lead not to lowered self-esteem, but rather quite the opposite. When one is led to confess one’s sin before God, it is always in the context of the gospel, namely with a foreknowledge of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. If one’s relationship with God is the context of confession, one cannot despise or scorn oneself, for God lifts one up, welcoming one with open, loving, joyful arms. To be loved and forgiven by such a Father is hardly to perpetuate low self-esteem. Similarly, the question about prayer contains underlying assumptions that give psychological norms a place of precedence over the norms of faith. Whenever prayer is encouraged for the sake of mental health or better physiological functioning (e.g. slower heart rate, lowered blood pressure, mental calm and alertness) as it is in numerous popular books today, the proper asymmetrical relationship between the disciplines has been reversed. In such a case, the normative framework for supposedly healthy functioning is setting the overarching context, rather than faithful obedience to a loving God. All such psychological norms and values are properly relativized, however, when our relationship with God is placed at the center of our lives.

Several years after my book came out, I received surprising corroboration of my basic argument from unexpected quarters. A colleague wrote that having just finished reading my book, he finally understood a letter that he had received years earlier from Karl Barth’s son, Marcus. My colleague very kindly sent me a copy of the letter in which Marcus Barth had written, “Most surprising for me was, however, the fact that you… did not use the references to the Chalcedonensian Creed, even its formulations on the interrelation of Christ’s two natures, as the only or supreme passe-partout for depicting and applying to contemporary issues the Christology of my father.” When I hastened to my French/English dictionary I was thrilled to see the meaning of the word “passe-partout.” It read “master key.” 

1 Charles V. Gerkin, The Living Human Document: Re-Visioning Pastoral Counseling in a Hermeneutical Mode (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), p. 11.

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), p. 71, (rev.) as quoted in Hunsinger, Theology and Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 117. For the relation of Barth to Feuerbach’s argument of theology becoming anthropology, see pages 114–121.

3 Hans W. Frei, “An Afterword to Eberhard Busch’s Biography of Barth,” Karl Barth in Re-view, ed. H. Martin Rumscheidt (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1981), p. 103.

4 “It is probably safe to say that no one in the history of theology ever possessed a more deeply imbued Chalcedonian imagination.” George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 85. 

5 Cf. Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, “The Chalcedonian Pattern,” in Tjeu van Knippenberg (ed.), Between Two Languages: Spiritual Guidance and Communication of Christian Faith, (The Netherlands: Tilburg University Press, 1998), p. 27.

6 Ibid.

7 See, for example, David Keck’s theological reflections on his mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease in Forgetting Whose We Are: Alzheimer’s Disease and the Love of God (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996). The physiological, psychological, and social dimensions of the illness have significant theological implications, which he draws out in a moving way. 

8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), p. 327.

9 Ibid., p. 437.

10 Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 35.

11 Ibid.

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In This Issue


All Things Bright and Beautiful
One of Scheide’s New Tenants: PTS’s Director of Student Counseling
To Be Boring or to Be Bored: That Is the Question
The Master Key: Unlocking the Relationship of Theology and Psychology


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