What is Love

In the 1990’s when I was in high school, What is Love, was a song by Haddaway, but today I’m thinking about the definition I just read from psychologist Sue Johnson’s book Created for Connection. She writes on page 22:

We now know that love is, in actuality, the most compelling survival mechanism of the human species….because love drives us to boondoggled emotionally with a precious few others who offer us safe haven from the storms of life. Love is our bulwark, designed to provide emotional protection so we can cope with the ups and downs of existence. As Mozart noted, “Love guards the heart from the abyss.” We are relational beings. God created us for relationship with Himself and with others. We are created for connection. This drive to emotionally attach – to find someone to whom we can turn and say “Hold me tight” – is write into our mind, sou, and spirit. It is as basic to life, health, and happiness as the drives for food, shelter, and sex.”

I really like that explanation of what is love. I would go so far as to say that I think that Attachment theory, which is what Sue is talking about, is as close to being a “good and necessary inference deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6) from the realm of psychology as I think of. As a Reformed Christian, that’s where my mind went as I read Sue’s description of love; I kept thinking of how the Biblical text describes love in a very complementary way. I’m going to process this some more and hopefully write more thoughts soon about love from these two perspectives.

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Common Grace Order

I just finished reading Lee Irons article outlining Meredith G. Kline’s biblical argument about Scripture’s cultural mandate in our post-fall era. It is amazing and so encouraging to me. I think what I’m most excited about as I write this post is that Kline and Irons lay out very clear reasons why it is a wonderful thing for me (or most anyone in most any job) to invest in my work. They do so in a way that theologically legitimizes what we do and also protects us from unrealistic expectations about the spiritual impact of any cultural work we may do. I think anyone can do with encouragement in that area.

If you’re not familiar with the Reformed Theology discussion about common grace vs special grace, two kingdoms vs one kingdom views I highly recommend you check out Irons article. It lays out clear biblical reasoning and is eminently practical in its application. Here’s a link: Meredith Kline’s View of the Cultural Mandate.

Image of God and Attachment

I recently picked up Sue Johnson’s couples therapy book for Christians. It’s called Created for Connection. In the introduction Sue makes an interesting statement about the purpose of romantic love that reminded me of what I’ve been reading in various systematic theologies of the meaning of the phrase “image of God” or in latin “imago dei.” She writes:

“Emotional bonding is a wired-in survival code designed to keep loved ones close so that they will be there when we are in need. In order to truly thrive, we all need someone to depend on, a loved one who can offer reliable emotional connection and comfort. This partnership is the natural antidote to humanity’s greatest pain: being alone in the face of the uncertainty of life.”

Sue Johnson, (p. 6)

I see a striking similarity between how attachment theorists describe the core of both human identity and survival strategies as interpersonal in nature and how Michael Horton describes being “made in the image of God” according to Genesis 1:26 in his book Pilgrim Theology. He writes:

“God created us as covenant servants, and we will see the close connection between covenant and the ‘image of God’ below….The image of God (imago dei) is not something in us that is semi divine but something between us and God that constitutes a covenantal relationship. ‘The whole being, the whole human person and not just ‘something’ in us is the image of God,’ notes Bavinck. ‘Thus, a human being does not bear or have the image of God but is the image of God.'”

Michael Horton, (p.123)

Horton goes on to focus on the interpersonal aspect of image bearing that makes humans different from all other creatures. For Horton, “What defines human personhood, on this account, is not so much what happens within the self (i.e. the relation and ranking of faculties), or in the cycles of nature, but what happens between persons (God and human beings) in history” (p. 124). I like this focus because it seems to parallel what attachment theories are also getting at, that a primary thing about humans is their nature as relational beings. It is not a perfect comparison, and I definitely see that. The imago dei also includes much more than defining humans as relational, but it is not less than that. Horton concludes his explanation of the interpersonal aspect of the imago dei by saying, “This covenantal relationship is not something added to human nature, but is essential to it. To exist as human beings is not to be a ‘thinking thing,’ a disembodied and unrelated ego, but is already to be enmeshed in a web of relationships: a society” (p.124).

The other aspect of the imago dei that Horton and another favorite theologian of mine, R.C. Sproul, point out is the consequence of being created as a covenantal creature of God. They both point out that being made in God image also means we were intended to represent God as his vice-regents on earth to the rest of creation. Sproul puts it this way in his systematic theology Everyone’s a Theologian:

“Of all the creatures in the world, human beings are given a unique responsibility, and wit that responsibility is a corresponding ability. Part of the uniqueness of the human race is the mission we have received from God to be His representatives to the rest of creation, to reflect the very character of God….I am convinced that what we find in the image is a unique ability to mirror the character of God such that the rest o the world should be able to look at humans and say, ‘That gives us an idea of what God is like.'”

R. C. Sproul, (p.103)

I find it helpful to be reminded of God’s intention with mankind, even if our fallenness through Adam’s rebellion and sin has corrupted our imaging nature. In a society so confused about issues of identity and personhood, returning to the imago dei for guidance is so important. It reminds me of how Sue Johnson described a letter she received from a Catholic priest she met while in college. She writes how Father Storey responded to her work on attachment theory by writing her a letter ” describing his bond with God and how his closeness to Christ was his home and safe haven. He urged me to remember that Christians have always referred to God as an attachment figure, as the ‘Heavenly Father'” (p.7).

Justification and a Secure Base?

Michelangelo – Creation of Adam

Chapter 13 of Michael Horton’s systematic theology Pilgrim Theology starts by comparing the Roman Catholic and evangelical understandings of justification. In the appendix Horton defines justification as the Christian doctrine where the elect are “declared righteous even while they are in themselves unrighteous. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to them.” So basically, justification is the legal means by which sinful people who are rescued by God gain a status as righteous instead of what we’re born with, which is the status of condemned. Protestants and Catholics disagree about how one is made righteous, or justified before God (In fact, that a main reason behind the reformation).

Horton writes, “Whereas Rome maintains that God’s justifying verdict is a future reward for our faithful cooperation, evangelical faith teaches that this verdict is the present gift that motivates our faithful response. We do not work for a secure future, but from a secure present” (p.303).

As I read this, I immediately had to stop because it reminded me so strongly of how attachment theorists describe the innate human need to find security and safe haven in relationships. According to attachment theorists, when humans cannot find that they become dis-regulated and develop what are commonly called mental disorders.

Susan Johnson describes three of the 10 core tenants of attachment theory and science this way:

“Predictable physical and/or emotional connection with an attachment figure, often a parent, sibling, longtime close friend, mate, or spiritual figure, calms the nervous system and shapes a physical and mental sense of a safe haven where comfort and reassurance can be reliably obtained and emotional balance can be restored or enhanced. The responsiveness of others, especially when we are young, tunes the nervous system to be less sensitive to threat and creates expectations of a relatively safe and manageable world….

This emotional balance promotes the development of a grounded, positive, and integrated sense of self and the ability or organize inner experience into a coherent whole….

A felt sense of being able to depend on a loved one creates a secure base – a platform from which to move out into the world, take risks, and explore and develop a sense of competence and autonomy. Thise effective dependency is a source of strength and resilience, while the denial of attachment needs and pseudo self-sufficiency are liabilities.”

Susan Johnson, Attachment Theory in Practice (p.7)

It strikes me as quite interesting to think about the way our nervous system functions, as needing a secure base and safe haven in order to function well in this challenging world. Another way to put it is how St. Augustine did in his autobiography Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

I think Horton is reminding me that when we talk about justification and sanctification, for the Christian, we are talking about a status change before God (justification) and the experience of that status in our lives (sanctification) as a secure base and safe haven for life. I think much of attachment theory is a common grace secular way of talking about temporal need that all humans have because we are image bearers of God. Attachment science can help us understand how our biology is designed to help us respond best to our fallen world by clinging to the eternal truth in scripture of certain security for those who belong to God, those who cling to Christ by faith.

Belgic Confession Article II

“We know God by two means: First, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity.”

Belgic Confession, article II

I love this part of the Belgic Confession, especially after finishing J. V. Fesko‘s book Reforming Apologetics. To think of all creatures, great and small, as things that make us ponder God has increasingly become a foundation for how I understand the role attachment theory in clinical psychology can play in pointing people to the existence of God. Perhaps that is why studies show that therapy models based on attachment seem to work with anyone, regardless of culture.

I don’t pretend to believe that any secular theory will convey God’s undeserved mercy toward sinners through Christ, but I do now understand how a Christian of the Reformed tradition can defend the use of common knowledge to serve humanity in this era of common grace as well as combine this common knowledge (the book of nature” as theologians call it) with the only means by which anyone comes to faith in Jesus – hearing the gospel in Scripture.

I look forward to post more about this in more detail in the future.

Why Reflect Theologically as a Therapist

Theology is part of our work because we are Christians who counsel. According to Grenz and Olson, we step into theological arenas whenever we discuss questions of ultimacy. This includes questions about God, ultimate meaning and life’s purpose. While few clients seek out licensed professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, social workers, or psychologists to discuss their questions about God (pastoral counselors may see this more often), many clients’ concerns revolve around issues of meaning and purpose.

Virginia Todd Holeman in Theology for Better Counseling

I most definitely am a Christian who counsels. In the quote above Virginia Holeman is referring to theologians Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson in their book Who Needs Theology? I think Holeman has a very good point. Theological reflection and competence as a clinician better prepares one to assist any client who is working through issues about meaning and purpose. Anyone who’s ever worked with a grieving client knows that theology is everywhere in the office as we heal from loss. But even beyond grief, I find the client existential concerns often demand that I return to Rollo May or Irvin Yalom for direction in the therapeutic task. For a Christian, I think such work is clearly theological and now I am finding good reason to seek direction from Reformed natural theology as well.

I’m beginning to think that the theological reflection of classic Reformed Theologians on what are called “common notions” in natural theology is where I will find more help in serving my clients who are working with me to address concerns of meaning and purpose. (If I really thought about it, meaning and purpose is common among most of my clients, ever). When a Reformed theologian like J. V. Fesko or Francis Turretin speak of common notions, they are talking about the innate natural knowledge of God that all people possess. This knowledge fleshes itself out in general morality, restraining of sin and God’s creation as proving his divine existence and eternal power (Rom. 1:20). If common notions were a realm, I think much of modern psychology lives and operates in it as a discipline dedicated to helping people adjust better to the challenges and struggles of life.

At this point in my study of natural theology and its common notions, I think that my theological reflection will include remind myself that scripture itself encourages followers of Christ to engage with their community about issues addressing common notions. Everyone is dealing with the consequences of sin, moral violation and the desire for safety and security.

In a future post I hope to dive more deeply into the two primary scriptural texts that Reformed theologians reference when defending the use of common notions, Romans 1:19-20 and Romans 2:14-15.