Transformational psychology describes a Christian approach to psychology with a heavy spiritual formation focus. Authors John Coe and Todd Hall describe it as “an attempt to both rediscover and redesign our traditional way of thinking of psychology in relation to Christianity, as well as rethinking the very nature of science itself. The bottom line will be that doing science, and in this case, psychology is ultimately an act of love” (“An Integration View” Psychology & Christianity: Five Views, 2nd ed., IVP Academic, 2010, p. 199). The authors speak of doing psychology both within the tradition of psychology and “anew in the Spirit.” A transformational psychology approach emphasizes the centrality of the person doing psychology (i.e., a counselor, a researcher, a student).
Transformational psychology views modern science as unnecessarily limiting avenues of knowledge. Transformational psychology seeks to build on all legitimate ways of knowing, grounded first in faith. This means that spiritual realities are important in psychological work. A transformational psychologist is encouraged to “be willing to observe and reflect on whatever is relevant from (1) Scripture, (2) creation, particularly the study of persons, and (3) preexisting psychological/scientific/theological reflections and theories” (ibid., p. 207–208). Coe and Hall describe their approach as not so much a combining of two distinct fields—psychology and theology or the natural and the spiritual—but “a single, unified—though complex—science and psychology of reality” (ibid., p. 207).
Transformational psychology views psychology as both descriptive and prescriptive—describing human nature as well as informing how to live. While a transformational psychology approach relies on the psychologist’s faith and spiritual formation, it is open to dialogue with unbelievers. This has to do with general revelation. A transformational psychologist sees the wisdom of God reflected in nature. Unbelievers should be able to observe and learn from that wisdom as well, and thus have helpful contributions. “Of course, their wisdom will be truncated in part, for only the believer has the possibility to know and live out these principles as one ought in relation to God” (ibid., p. 211).
Because the person studying psychology or performing counseling is viewed as central to the process, much of the emphasis of transformational psychology is given to personal spiritual growth. Coe and Hall write, “Doing science or psychology . . . is a means to the goal of love through union with the Holy Spirit, by which one loves God and neighbor and glorifies God” (ibid., p. 212). A competent psychologist would be one who is increasingly Christlike by the filling of the Holy Spirit, observing and reflecting correctly on reality, and producing corresponding knowledge and wisdom that benefits others as well as leads to his or her own continued transformation (ibid., p. 212). The transformational psychology approach argues that the goal of the Christian life is relational (loving God and others) and that doing psychology, being relational, is a means to relationship and to personal transformation (ibid.,, p. 213). Beyond the methodology of study and formulation of theories, transformational psychology, in practice, would look like soul care or spiritual direction.
Coe and Hall call attention to Christians who “are looking into more holistic, relational and experiential models for relating psychology to faith” (ibid., p. 220) in areas like neuroscience, attachment theory, historical Christian traditions, and spiritual formation. “We believe this movement toward a more holistic, embodied, existential model is a predictor for the next stage in developing a distinct transformational model for doing psychology in the Spirit that specifically addresses how the personal-spiritual informs the conceptual and the very process of doing psychology” (ibid., p. 220). In short, the transformational psychology view does not see science and faith as separate. It seeks a unified vision in which psychology is done in faith with the end goal of love. It recognizes the person doing psychology as central and thus challenges current training models, emphasizing “spiritual and relational growth” as the foundation (ibid., p. 225).