Of Psychology and Christianity: A Review of The Person in Psychology and Christianity

October 18, 2022
Author: Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe
Publisher: IVP Academic
Publishing Date: April 26, 2022
Pages: 256 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0830828722

I am a professor of Psychology at a Christian liberal arts university. In my work, it can be challenging to find material that addresses the Christian faith and human development—specifically social development—within the broader discipline of psychology, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this new title: The Person in Psychology and Christianity: A Faith-Based Critique of Five Theories of Social Development

Author Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe describes the reason for writing this book as an attempt to “examine the intersection of Christian theology and theories of social development proposed by Erik Erikson, John Bowlby, B.F. Skinner, Albert Bandura, and Evolutionary Psychology.”1 The book is divided into two parts, with Part One examining the person through the lens of theology and Part Two through the lens of the five developmental theories.

“In my work, it can be challenging to find material that addresses the Christian faith and human development.”

Gunnoe’s four organizing themes in Part I are central to her examination and discussion five theories, which include (1) Essence—what are the characteristics that are indispensable to personhood? (2) Purpose—what are humans supposed to do? (3) Moral-ethical tendencies—are humans inclined toward good or evil? and (4) Agency and accountability—whether human behavior is volitional or determined? She provides a biography of each theorist and a summary of their key contributions to human social development, along with applying the four themes to each theory.

An aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed was the biography of each theorist, which provided a historical context of various aspects of their theory derived from their individual life experience. For example, Erik Erikson was told as a child that his biological father was Theodor Homberger, when in fact his biological father was an unnamed Dane with whom his mother had an affair.2 This story from Erikson’s childhood, along with many from each of the other theorists, is a strength of Gunnoe’s book to give the reader a helpful lens into their personal and family stories. These biographical sections would be useful to my psychology students as they come to understand the theoretical underpinnings and I look forward to implementing Gunnoe’s book into several of my courses, most notably Personality Theories and Lifespan Development.

I’m curious as to how Gunnoe arrived at selecting the five theorists to examine. The ones she chose are certainly recognizable and worthy of attention, but I would have expected to see others like Freud, Watson, Titchener, or Wundt under consideration as well. I imagine there was a pragmatic reason for not expanding the inquiry beyond five theories.

What I found interesting from chapter 5 was Erik Erikson’s ‘family secret’, which was that their fourth child Neil was born with Down Syndrome. Rather than disclose his genetic disability, they reported him as dying at birth. This response to their son’s Down Syndrome was relatively common in the 1940’s and 1950’s,3 although our current cultural norms would find this abhorrent. When Erikson’s older children learned that their brother Neil was still alive, this undermined the children’s basic trust of their parents. Ironically, Erikson would later incorporate the notions of ‘trust’ and ‘mistrust’ into his eight-stage model of social development, and his experiences with Neil and his other children certainly played a significant part in his social development theory.

What I found helpful from chapter 6 was Bowlby’s notion of ‘internal working models’ (IWM’s) or our internal expectations of how relationships work, which begins with the mother-child relationship and continues into our childhood and adult relationships. Gunnoe asserts the reason IWM’s are “resistant to changes is that they are learned by the body and thus partially unconscious.”4 She uses an analogy of driving a car and becoming accustomed to braking with the left pedal and accelerating with the right pedal. If for some reason the pedal functions were reversed, our IWM’s would make it very difficult for us to stop pressing the left pedal to brake. Our attachment patterns of interaction become “mechanistic and involuntary”,5 and we carry these patterns with us as we grow and develop.

“Our attachment patterns of interaction become ‘mechanistic and involuntary’, and we carry those patterns with us as we grow and develop.”

The most interesting part of chapter 7 was Gunnoe’s description of how Skinner viewed “humans as neither inherently good or bad and our moral tendencies are learned.”6 As we would expect from a classic Behaviorism view, Skinner sees the majority of our behavior as determined, yet we have much control over our environment and ourselves. As Gunnoe points out in his biography, Skinner was familiar with theology, yet rejected the Christian assertion of our sinful nature. The closest Skinner would come to acknowledging our evil tendencies is the belief that humans have “strong moral feelings, but believed that these, too, were products of reinforcement.”7

Chapter 8 focused on Albert Bandura and his notion of ‘triadic reciprocal determinism’, with the three factors being personal, behavioral, and environmental. Within this seemingly deterministic model, Bandura also leaves room for humans having “some measure of freedom.”8 In this assertion, Bandura is rejecting Skinner’s view of humans as being completely subject to external forces—wherein we are “at least partial architects of our own destiny.”9 Even though Bandura was not a proponent of autonomy and free will early in his career, his last book Moral Disengagement (2015) was “an explicit call for those with greater freedom to behave better, and for the general public to hold them accountable when they do not.”10

What I found helpful from chapter 9 was Evolutionary Psychology’s (EP’s) emphasis on humans being designed by natural selection without existential purpose. Gunnoe notes regarding EP that “humans are not only not progressing towards a particular goal (e.g., human thriving), but some of our Stone Age adaptions are actually working against this.”11 In essence, humans have no teleological end other than survival. This certainly is antithetical to the biblical notion of God’s saving grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which gives us hope and a reason to reflect God’s love to others.

While the book is clearly aimed at Christian developmentalists, I believe it can and does speak to a broader audience of Christian parents, counselors, social workers, and anyone who has an interest in human development. Overall, Gunnoe’s book is honest in its effort to “identify the seeming incompatibilities between our faith and our academic discipline” and seeks to “construct a psychologically informed, faith-compatible view of self and others.”12 I believe she accomplished both goals in her examination of the five theories of social development, and I look forward to seeing how other professors at Christian universities will utilize her book in their teaching and scholarship. 

About the Author

  1. pg. 3  

  2. pg. 44  

  3. pg. 47  

  4. pg. 91  

  5. pg. 92  

  6. pg. 126  

  7. pg. 128  

  8. Bandura, 1977, pg. 7  

  9. Bandura, 1977, pg. 8  

  10. pg. 159  

  11. pg. 190  

  12. pg. 4  

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