dialog 38:4 (Fall 1999) 302f.
BIBLICAL PSYCHOLOGY AND GARY PENCE
Having written a thesis on "biblical psychology," I take great interest in what Gary Pence has expressed in his article, "Sin: An Abusive Doctrine?" My response to Pence is from the perspective of biblical psychology.
While the term itself may suggest something new, biblical psychology is as old as church history. In the nineteenth century, Franz Delitzsch traced its beginning to the works of the second-century Christians Melitus of Sardis and Tertullian.1 Moreover, the very word "psychology" was coined by the Lutheran Reformer Philip Melanchthon.2 We can therefore state correctly that psychology existed as a theological discipline long before it became fully secularized‐since Wilhelm Wundt in 1879‐as a science of the mind.
Applications of biblical psychology in church pastoral concerns are far superior to those of any secular psychology. This is true because of biblical psychology's legacy as a historic discipline grounded in sound theological practice. Secondly, it is also true because, as I have developed it, it absorbs from secular psychology whatever is scripture-compatible, forming a unified discipline of historic theological practice and current psychological learning. Obviously, it is impossible for any secular psychology to match this.
From his own biographical account, Pence makes it clear that he was traumatized by traditional biblical teachings on sin to which he was exposed from the time he was a boy. It appears that his studies in secular psychology and experiences as a counselor eventually led him to reject these teachings.
In my opinion, Pence did right in rejecting the harmful shame heaped on worshipers as a result of misguided emphases on sin. But in rejecting what he did, Pence also committed the proverbial act of "throwing the baby out with the bath water." Pence went wrong when he overreacted and reached the simplistic conclusion that biblical teachings on sin are absurd because, in his opinion, they intrinsically and necessarily lead to shame. In reality, all Scripture-based doctrine is intended to build up, not destroy (2 Tim 3:15-17).
Moreover, Pence's uncritical embracing of evolutionary moral theory as an alternative, and his assertion that this represents "the evangelical core" of biblical tradition, is horrendously mistaken. Biblical tradition can in no way be twisted to make it compatible with the concept of human moral evolution. This is an Enlightenment and Darwinian doctrine which was exploded by the grand disillusionments of two murderous World Wars.
Pence clings to a discredited doctrine to assert that humans are not sinful by nature, but "works-in-progress" being determined by an "evolutionary legacy of millions of years." This is not biblical tradition. Nor for that matter is it reality. In all the millennia humans have existed, there has not been a human moral evolution for the better. Humans are just as perverse and sinful as they ever were. If anything, moral corruption has increased both in sophistication and intensity with the advance of technology and narcissism in culture.3 In his book, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society, Ted Peters has made a compelling case substantiating the preponderance of moral evil in our time.
For Pence, immoral acts are not sin, they are "limitations and flaws." In his mind, the only sin we can commit is believing that God expects us to be perfect, that we are condemned for failing, and that the world is no damn good. But the Bible relates immoral acts‐not just beliefs‐as sins against a Holy God (e.g., Pss 41:4, 51:1-4). To Pence, this wrongfully depicts God as a God of wrath denying his true character of compassion and delight over humans‐imperfect as they are. In support, he points to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). But he fails to note that even the prodigal son confessed that his moral imperfections were sins "against heaven" (vv. 18, 21 ).
Pence is correct in rejecting self-condemnation‐I call it shame‐stemming from the knowledge of our moral imperfections. Christ himself does not condemn us (or the world) on account of sin (John 3:17; 8:11; Rom 8:1). But if Pence seeks a biblical solution to the dilemma of shame, he errs when he denies that immoral acts as sins against God is a biblical reality. He also errs when he conceives of God strictly in terms of his compassion and not of his holiness as well. The father of the prodigal son was compassionate and loved and delighted in his son. He also allowed him the freedom to sin without fear of condemnation. But because the father was also an upright and holy person, his son had to do his sinning away from the father's home‐in a "distant country" (Luke 15:13) .
In conclusion, because God himself will not condemn us for sin, we should reject feeling shame for it. We are free to sin and be sinners (i.e., imperfect people) without fearing God's wrath. However, sin itself can condemn us all in harmful and deadly ways. Moreover, sin in psychological language is dysfunction. Healthy change begins when we learn and carry with us a proper sense of grief over sin's intractable persistence in us. Paradoxically, such grief builds up and never leads to despair since it is one mingled with joy and gratefulness at the thought‐born of faith‐that our heavenly Father will not hold our offenses (or imperfections) against us (Ps 103:8-14). As the father of the prodigal son, God will graciously embrace us‐in the midst of our griefcontinually nullifying our offenses through the atoning power of the blood of Christ (1 John 1:7).
1Franz Delitzsch, A Systern of Biblical Psychology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966) 3.
2Henryk Misiak and Virginia Staudt Sexton, History of Psychology: An Overview (New York Grune & Stratton, 1966) 2.
3Donald Capps, The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993) 11-69; Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978) xv-xviii.
John C. Garrison attends the Wildwood Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida, and pursues research in "Biblical Psychology."