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Theologians Call Things What They Are
A Response to Samuel James
NB: While putting the finishing touches on this response, I just saw Mike Cosper’s Killing Moral Clarity While Trying to Save it. I commend it, as I make similar points, and hope my response makes some helpful additions to the discussion. Another caveat: while I read a pre-publication copy of Chuck DeGroat’s book in 2019, and read it again in 2021, I don’t presently have a copy with me (being separated from library in connection to recent spiritual abuse). While this creates some real limitations, since I’m left with only the quotes from DeGroat that James provides, I remember enough of the book to be confident about by assessment of James’ critique.
“A theologian says what a thing is.” So said Martin Luther.1 But who gets to decide “what a thing is”, and how do we decide, especially when that decision can determine the fate of a pastor, the fate of a church, the fate of the sheep? On the same day that Samuel James critiqued Chuck DeGroat’s book on narcissism and spiritual abuse, I started a new section of my Substack devoted to what I’m calling apologetics for the abused. I started it because of firsthand encounters with Christians who balked at naming behavior as spiritual abuse. I started it because my own family’s experience of spiritual abuse went unnamed and swept under the rug, including an attempt at a coercive NDA (which we didn’t sign, and which is why I’m separated from my library and don’t have a copy of DeGroat’s book on hand). So when I read James’ critique, I had some pretty strong feelings. Misnaming sin is a legitimate concern which James and I share. It is a biblical concern: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
The potential results of misnaming can be severe. James says that DeGroat’s approach “could split churches right in half and end ministries.” In my experience as a professional counselor, James’ approach could lead to spiritual despair, suicide, and eternal lostness. There is real life-threatening risk in minimizing a sufferer’s feelings for the sake of upholding a well-intended but ultimately misguided biblicist rationalism.2
I’m with James in seeing spiritual abuse as psychological, moral, and yes, spiritual/theological. We do have many biblical words, concepts and categories to make sense of it, identify it, and address it. Spiritual abuse must be addressed with reference to God and in submission to Christ ruling by his Word and Spirit.
James says DeGroat’s psychological words “aren’t enough.” If DeGroat really does “abandon” biblical language (which I’m not convinced he does, more on that below), in critiquing that limitation James imports some pretty consequential presuppositions that creates the need for further critique. In this response I am less concerned with James’ major thesis (the supremacy of biblical categories) then I am with his minor thesis that gets emphasized throughout, namely, the inadequacy of feelings. But I feel the need to examine James’ main critique of When Narcissism Comes to Church, that “This approach merely exchanges one set of heresies for another.” We won’t make progress in addressing spiritual abuse with overreactions that equate wisdom with heresy.
Main Thesis: Biblical categories are superior to psychological categories, and psychological categories are harmful/heretical.
There is definitely a need for robust biblical and theological discourse about spiritual abuse, and there are some helpful developments being made on that front. I’ll discuss that toward the end with reference to Eric Johnson, but for now I want draw attention to inconsistencies in James’ critique of Chuck DeGroat.
If DeGroat does not use biblical language, why he does so remains a fact open to interpretation. At least if we are to be consistent and charitable, as James rightfully wants to be towards those alleged to be narcissistic and abusive, it seems wiser to simply raise a question than make a determinative statement.
DeGroat assessed a man’s behavior as “spiritual bypassing” (p. 58), and James objects that “While of course it is possible that Travis’ search for goodness in this trial could be self-centered, it is certainly not automatically true.” Similarly, is it “automatically true” that DeGroat “abandoned” theological language? Not using it might be a deficiency, but not automatically an abandonment. Did DeGroat “explicitly reject” the connection between narcissism and “the biblical problem of inflated self-regard”?
For that matter, does the Bible even use the phrase “self-regard”? I agree it’s a biblical concept “derived from good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6). There is a distinction between words and concepts, and it seems to me that James muddies the waters by equating them.
As best I can tell, James believes the explicit rejection of the “inflated self-regard” concept is proved by DeGroat’s chosen description of “entitlement, his lack of empathy, his pattern of grandiosity.” Choosing one concept over another is not an “explicit rejection”. Such a judgment is really a non sequitur. As a counselor I could be equally happy with describing someone’s behavior as “inflated self-regard” or “entitlement”; while perhaps not synonymous, they are both sinful and close enough in meaning that choosing one would never equal rejecting the other. At least not in the sense that James means.
If James has evidence from other writing by DeGroat we could look for an overall pattern of not using biblical language and concepts. As a quick search proved, DeGroat is quite comfortable and adept at using biblical language and concepts (and it’s possible there is evidence within his book itself, but without the book I sadly can’t confirm that). Absent an overall pattern of language use, judging DeGroat’s book in this manner is really no different than rushing to judgment about a person’s character on the basis of limited information with which James is so uncomfortable.
Just like it would be unwise to hastily judge behavior to be narcissistic or spiritual abuse, it seems unwise to so judge DeGroat’s use of concepts. There are other explanations.
DeGroat is himself very cautious and wisely tentative. At least that is my experience based on consulting with him personally about a case of alleged narcissistic spiritual abuse. He recognizes that all people can identify with some aspects of narcissism. As far as I can recall, his book doesn’t suggest or recommend quick determinations. Quite the opposite. If his illustrations are based on real people he has worked with, I’m sure he took deliberate care and time before deciding there was narcissism in the picture. It seems to me that James sacrificed such charitable caution for the sake of punchy rhetoric. Sure, it’s tweetable, which is one of my reasons for this response. Someone like a Justin Taylor retweeting and implicitly commending this careless critique is a travesty when people’s souls are at stake. We need much more careful assessment.
Second Thesis: Biblical categories allow us to come to true and accurate judgments, whereas experiences and feelings do not.
I feel a bit hesitant about this restatement, because I do not want to critique a straw man. I would love to be corrected if I am not putting this fairly. But that’s how I understand statements like this:
“the story simply describes DeGroat’s feeling marginalized because the speaker did not pay him the attention he had hoped.”
“the primary mechanism for identifying narcissism is how people feel toward those who may be narcissistic.”
“By abandoning the theological language of sin, idolatry, and failure to love others, and by porting in their place the language of therapy culture, DeGroat has left the reader with the near impossible task of resisting spiritual abuse with nothing more than impressions. The only way to follow DeGroat’s framework to its consistent conclusions would be to only and ever center the felt experiences of some people, and to rebuke and correct everyone else.”
“It won’t do to respond to spiritually toxic environments by centering experiences and feelings at the cost of biblical categories and the discovery of truth. This approach merely exchanges one set of heresies for another.”
James critiques DeGroat for not using biblical language and concepts, but he swaps one supposed either/or system for another: either biblical categories or experiences and feelings. This signals an overreliance upon left-brain reasoning devoid of any right-brain intuitive sense and calls to mind Pascal’s words about intuition:
“Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.”3
In describing these modes of knowledge Pascal says “there are different kinds of right understanding”.4 Intuition, which draws on embodied feeling, is a valid way of knowing, distinct from and complementary to reason. We shouldn’t have to choose between intuition and reason, cognition and emotion. Rather, they have an ordered relationship, as Iain McGilchrist persuasively argues in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The work of the right and left hemispheres complement each other when the intuitive right brain takes the lead and integrates the rational work of the left hemisphere. Intuition and experience, far from being inferior and untrustworthy, are the ground of all knowledge.
Jonathon Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind makes a similar case that “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” Michael Polanyi’s work on personal knowledge is also relevant here. I won’t go into detail about his concepts of subsidiary and focal attention, but this quote about diagnosis is a good illustration:
“Textbooks of diagnostics teach the medical student the several symptoms of different diseases, but this knowledge is useless, unless the student has learnt to apply it at the bedside. The identification of the species to which an animal or plant belongs, resembles the task of diagnosing a disease; it too can be learnt only by practicing it under a teacher’s guidance. A medical practicioner’s diagnostic ability continues to develop by further practical experience; and a taxonomist can become an expert, e.g., for classing new specimens of insects (of which 800,000 are known), only after many years of professional practice. Thus, both the medical diagnostician and the taxonomist acquire much diagnostic knowledge that they could not learn from books.”5
What Polanyi is getting at is recognition of patterns, the ability to focus on particulars while having an intuitive awareness of the whole to which they belong. This is how my graduate school psychopathology professor explained the diagnostic process. I balked the first time I read a diagnosis out of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM is mechanistic, reductionistic, and frustrating as long as it remains a textbook to which a complex human being must conform in robotic fashion. My professor wisely pointed out that the diagnoses are more like recipes in a cookbook: you can follow the recipe to the letter, and you can also make personalized changes, additions, and subtractions and still end up with the intended dish. But the ability to personalize a recipe cannot be learned from the textbook; it requires skill that comes from practice, skill that is highly intuitive and embodied. Similarly, after working with hundreds of clients, I can meet someone for a few sessions and find myself saying, “this feels like _______ which I have encountered in other clients before.”
That “feels like” is precisely what occurs for victims of abuse. In more cases than I care to count, individuals who have been abused by church leaders were previously abused earlier in either childhood and/or adulthood. Those who prey upon others through narcissistic tactics are able to spot people who are more vulnerable to manipulation because of prior abuse and trauma. The victim’s ability to recognize present experiences as abusive, even if just a feeling of “something’s not right,” is often based on their having properly named earlier abuse. Far from clouding their judgment, as is often grossly alleged, it is usually people who haven’t named past abuse that struggle to recognize present abuse. But if someone gives them language for what happened to them in the past (or if they already know it themselves), and they are able to name and grieve and lament and heal, then their intuitive and emotional responses to present experiences become more reliable.
Some Concluding Biblical/Theological Categories
So far I have argued philosophically, drawing on a few recognized sages who testify to my simple claim that emotions and intuition are valid sources of knowledge. Not infallible. Not inerrant. But neither are they completely unreliable and unimportant. Rather, they become more reliable, trustworthy and accurate through practice. Pascal and Polanyi speak to this dynamic. Actually, God revealed this dynamic first:
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14, ESV)
The ESV translation “powers of discernment” is just one word in Greek, αἰσθητήρια. Other translations render it as “senses” (KJV, ASV, NASB) and “perceptions” (NET), and it is where we get our English word aesthetics. “Senses” is a bodily metaphor, pointing to a similarity between physical and spiritual perception. Just like I can look out my window and perceive that the sky is blue, intuitively and without rational discursive thought, this Scripture teaches that discerning the difference between good and evil is an intuitive ability of perception. Furthermore, this bodily metaphor is couched within a larger context of a physical metaphor about food. If we take biblical anthropology seriously and understand humans as embodied souls and ensouled bodies, this spiritual aesthetic sense has an embodied aspect. How do we practice but with both body and soul? Likewise, how do we distinguish good from evil but with both body and soul? Not that intuition is purely physical, but neuroscience has demonstrated time and time again that it is the intuitive right-hemisphere of the brain, rather than the analytical left, that uses more and stronger connections to our body.
How does that connect to this discussion? Survivors of abuse have been forced to practice recognizing abusive, narcissistic behavior. In an analogous sense, their “powers of discernment” have been trained by experience (Hebrews 5:14). For those who have not themselves “encountered narcissism’s ugly bite”, as DeGroat puts it, discernment is often (I won’t say always) minimal through immaturity and lack of practice. And it is that degree of practice which should provide a more charitable reading of DeGroat’s case illustrations. On the basis of practice in distinguishing good from evil in his decades of assessing and counseling church leaders and ministry candidates, I’d wager that someone like Chuck DeGroat has a greater level of discernment than most with respect to narcissism.
People’s entire lives are being blown up because Christians are unskilled, inexperienced and untrained in discerning narcissism and abuse. That’s what happened to my wife. She shared experiences and feelings about narcissistic behavior with leaders in our church which were discounted as biased gut feelings in favor of biblical language that was deemed more clear. This, despite the fact that the church consulted an expert in abuse, someone with professional training in biblical counseling and countless hours of practice distinguishing good from evil, and this expert supported my wife’s perception. But because the church favored “the Bible’s moral language” without the necessary experiential aesthetic training, they failed to rightly discern the evil in their midst.
Having quoted Pascal already, I close with being convicted by Pascal’s admonishment about how to point out another’s error:
“When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”6
I commend James for upholding the supremacy of Scripture. On that side of the matter, he is right to be concerned. I’m all for the norming norm of Scripture. God’s word must rule.
But on the side of the matter on which he focuses, namely, psychologically informed experience, he does not see correctly. We do not need to dichotomize in order to avoid a slippery slope where we “only and ever center the felt experiences of some people, and to rebuke and correct everyone else.” Perhaps I myself am only seeing a portion of this conversation, but what I do see is a perception that DeGroat swung the pendulum to secular psychology, and thus the need to swing the pendulum back toward a simplistic championing of biblicist language, which now needs further correction back toward a more robust biblical theology and Christian psychology.
The tradition of Christian psychology admits and employs a wide library of terms, concepts, metaphors, and discourse. Eric Johnson offers a much better way forward using the metaphor of translation. In Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal Johnson writes about the need to transpose biopsychosocial realities into the higher orders of the ethical and spiritual. I believe that is really what James is advocating, but transposition provides a better metaphor than an overworked antithesis:
“In transposition, in order to understand the lower order [e.g. biological, psychological] properly and more comprehensively, the knower interprets the dynamic structures of lower orders from within a higher order of meaning…This process is a hierarchical transposition, by which the meaningfulness of the lower order is redesignated, so that the higher order gives the lower-order information a new depth and significance.”7
This comprehensive perspective, or what Johnson terms “complex theocentrism”, contrasts “simple theocentrism” and “religious dualism”:
“Religious dualists focus on the highest order of human life—the spiritual—and see it as so much more important than the other orders of the creation that the latter are neglected or seen as unworthy of serious attention, or, in the most extreme versions, are interpreted as being antithetical to the spiritual realm…Christian models of counseling that focus exclusively on God and sin and downplay reference to biological and psychosocial influences may have fallen under a gnostic spell.”8
Johnson calls for “a more profoundly theocentric approach” than dualism:
“Upon greater reflection and in light of Scripture, all the created aspects of human life are recognized as important because they are made by God. Therefore, for God’s glory every aspect must be “given its due,” corresponding to its particular significance in relation to God…Contrary to religious dualism, a more thoroughgoing theocentrism understands that God is honored by an appropriate regard for all that he has done and made, including those created strata of lesser significance.”9
For the sake of the honor of Christ, the mission of the gospel, and protecting the sheep, I hope we continue clarifying how to properly name healthy and sinful shepherding. That, according to Luther, is the mark of a theologian: calling a thing what it is.
See thesis 21 of his Heidelberg Disputation. I get the wording from Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.
Just a few public examples, to which I could add more from personal and professional experience: https://ministrywatch.com/spiritual-abuse-a-common-complaint-for-ywam-students/
Eric L Johnson. Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal. IVP Academic, 2007, p. 366, emphasis original.
Ibid., p. 357.
Ibid., p. 359.