Monday, July 9, 2012

Psychopannychia and the Person in Psychotherapy

The term Psychopannychia triggers our imaginations. We might think of some type of psychiatric disorder, perhaps an anxiety related disorder. Psychopannychia (the soul active all night long) is actually the name of a published work. It was John Calvin’s first written work in which he intended to speak as a theologian (Tavard, 2000, p. 4). He was addressing a 16th century controversy regarding the soul falling asleep at death and waking up at the final resurrection.  Calvin “…considered it his duty to take up the pen in defense of the true doctrine, namely that the soul neither sleeps nor dies at bodily death, but remains fully alive as it is taken up in the Lord” (Tavard, 2000, p. 1). The term “soul” is actually referring to the person remaining fully alive at bodily death. Could this discussion of the issue be relevant to clarifying how we should regard persons in this life, as we work with them in psychotherapy?

According to Beveridge, Psychopannychia was published in 1534, when Calvin was 25 years old - two years earlier than the Institutes first known edition of 1536 (Calvin, 1852). “Now the Temporal nearness of Psychopannychia and the first Institutio as they were composed and published hints at a hidden connection between the theme of the first – the soul and its immortality – and the starting point of Calvin’s systematic theology: God-knowledge and self-knowledge” (Tavard, 2000, p. 4). Perhaps you have at some time referenced this quote: “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Calvin, 1995, p. 37). Calvin’s statements in the Institutes, about the knowledge of our selves, can be interpreted within the context of his statements about the soul in Psychopannychia.

Calvin approached the issue of the immortality of the soul in a way that was “profoundly revolutionary” for this time period (Tavard, 2000, p. 31). “He chose to confront the thesis of the death of the soul on the sole grounds of Scripture and of the testimonies of the early Church. In this perspective he had to rely on revelation and theology, for it is the revealed knowledge of God that is key to real self-knowledge” (Tavard, p. 31). In other words, he was not relying on autonomous reasoning for his view of the soul, but rather allowed his view of the soul to be informed by Scripture.

Autonomous human reasoning has not gotten us very far toward settling the debate about human nature and consciousness. Yet, how can we believe we know how to help a person in psychotherapy, if we don’t have a clear understanding of human nature and consciousness - of personhood?

Let’s consider a comparison between an autonomously reasoned understanding of personhood and a data-mined understanding of a computer user. Psychology has theorized about the person on the basis of observation, and hypotheses have been reasoned and researched. A wealth of information about human functioning and probable personality structures has resulted. However, this process of discovery is similar to that of data mining for information in the cyber world.

Data mining is knowledge discovery in databases. When I go to my email, I find banners that relate to websites I’ve visited recently and purchases I’ve made online. The information on my computer habits has been mined. Much can actually be known about me by mining my computer behavior. However, this will never add up to knowing my person or identifying the real me. My person is not what has been done by me through my computer or even what is stored on my computer hard drive. Likewise, one’s person is not the same as the data that psychological methods of understanding reveal. We cannot data-mine psychologically and believe we have found the real person.

For Calvin, the Scriptural perspective was that “The body, which decays, weighs down the soul, and confining it within an earthly habitation, greatly limits its perceptions” (Calvin, 1851). Further, “…when we put off the load of the body, the war between the spirit and the flesh ceases” (Calvin, 1851). This soul, for Calvin, “…possesses reason, intellect, and will – qualities that are not annexed to the body” (Calvin, 1851). These were not the words of someone who was just ignorant of psychological functioning, but rather the perspective of one who has allowed the Scriptures to inform him of the composition of the human person. Though profitable for much understanding of human psychological functioning, autonomous reasoning cannot discover that which only the Scriptures can reveal about the person.

If we align ourselves with this Scriptural view of the person as being the soul who inhabits a human body, but is a functioning person even apart from the body, then our approach to forming an alliance with the person in psychotherapy will need to correspond. According to Duncan (2010, p. 37) the therapeutic relationship is one of the largest contributors to outcome. The amount of change attributable to the alliance is “…five to seven times greater than that of specific models or techniques” (Duncan, 2010, p.37). This working alliance is the “…bond between the therapist and client as well as the agreement about the tasks and goals of therapy” (Duncan, 2010, p. 68). In other words, there needs to be a good connection that the therapist makes with the client, in order for psychotherapy to have a positive outcome. 

Though not specified, I believe that the therapist’s view of human nature, in general, and the client’s personhood, in particular, plays a major part in the therapist being able to build a working alliance.  Consider this, how would you be impacted by a therapist who believed you to be no more than a bundle of psychological and biological processes? By contrast, how would you feel to know that your therapist was coming along side of and affirming your person and together the two of you would tackle the changes needed to psychological processes. Isn’t this already how we functionally provide psychotherapy. An understanding of the soul, such as Calvin’s, provides a Scriptural paradigm of the person out of which there can develop more congruence between our actual work with the person and our psychological models of theory and treatment.


Calvin, J. (Henry Beveridge, trans. 1851). Psychopannychia.

Calvin, J. (1995). Institutes of the Christian religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D., Wampold, B. E., & Hubble, M. A. (Eds.). (2010). The heart & soul of change (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Tavard, G. H. (2000). The starting point of Calvin’s theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans.

Dennis Morgan PsyD, MATS
Columbia International University

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