Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition
by Thomas C. Oden


Before we ask "Gregory Who?" or "Why him?" it is first necessary to look candidly at the contemporary situation of pastoral care to ask why it needs ancient pastoral wisdom. Otherwise, we might give the skewed impression that we are merely reviewing Gregory as a historical exercise only, with no direct relevance to the pressing dilemmas of current pastoral care. To avoid this misunderstanding, we will take several careful steps to introduce ourselves properly to the issues that lie ahead.

We will first set forth a fundamental principle of theological dialogue with psychotherapy: The empathic acceptance that is implicitly presupposed in effective psychotherapy is made explicit in the Christian witness to revelation. This hypothesis, which we first stated over two decades ago, remains a key premise of the ensuing discussion.

It is appropriate to explain how I have journeyed from that preliminary hypothesis to the more vexing problems of this book. The argument could have been stated without any window at all into my own personal history. Yet it may be useful to show how and why I have now come full circle to a fundamentally revised set of questions and how they mesh with the present dilemmas of pastoral care. Every time I tell something of my personal story, I find to my amazement that others mention with great feeling that they too have experienced something analogous and that my story has helped them see what has happened to them.

From this autobiographical beginning point it becomes meaningful to take on the major technical issue of this chapter, asking whether pastoral counseling has a definable historic identity? Can we textually and historically define the central tradition of classical Christian pastoral care? A descriptive answer to this question will allow us better to ask about the ironic fate of that identity in our own time: How has historic pastoral care been remembered by us? Have we lost or misplaced that treasure in our modern broken vessels? Only then will our constructive question emerge with power: Can we recover that treasure? And if so, what is the promise of an enriched synthesis between classical and contemporary pastoral care? By the conclusion of the first chapter we will begin to wonder aloud whether we may have happened upon a decisive "moment of truth" for pastoral theology in our time.


Theological foundations must be laid carefully. How is psychotherapeutic empathy analogous to the Christian good news of God’s love? Empathy is the process of placing oneself in the frame of reference of another, perceiving the world as the other perceives it, sharing his or her world imaginatively. Incarnation means that God assumes our frame of reference, entering into our human situation of finitude and estrangement, sharing our human condition even unto death.

When the troubled person finds himself or herself under the care of someone with accurate empathy, someone who seems able to enter another’s perceptual framework, he or she experiences a profoundly liberating feeling of being known, being understood. Empathy is the precondition of all therapeutic effectiveness.

Christian worship celebrates the God who has chosen to enter our human frame of reference, to participate in our troubled condition, and to affirm human existence by sharing in its contingency, suffering, and death. Just as the counselor enters the frame of reference of a troubled person and, without being neurotic, significantly participates in that person’s neurosis, so God, according to Christian witness, participates concretely in our human estrangement without himself being estranged.

When the Apostles’ Creed confesses trust in the one who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, it expresses a penetrating affirmation of God’s determination to share fully in our human condition. This stands against the docetic view that Christ was never really born. The early church witnessed to the infinite scope of God’s unconditional empathetic love. Analogously, the therapeutic process may be seen as a certain sort of descent into hell. The therapist engages in the depths of the inner conflict of the neighbor, descending into that hell with the other person. This may in turn free the neighbor to experience the hell of his or her own feelings, looking toward a renewal of faith and courage.

In all effective psychotherapy there is hidden an implicit assumption that is made explicit in the Christian proclamation. The therapist accepts the troubled neighbor in the midst of neurotic guilt feelings and compulsions, not on the narrow assumption that the neighbor is just privately acceptable by the therapist as a friendly human being, but on the much more basic assumption that every person, as human being, is accepted by being itself. Effective empathy assumes a cosmic permission to get in touch with one’s own deepest experiencing. Persons who are offered this empathic gift tend to grow toward more appropriate self-acceptance and self-understanding. The counselor is not the source of such acceptance. The counselor only points to an acceptance that has its source beyond himself. The unspoken assumption is that acceptance is already there, despite all human rejection, and that the person who is neurotically guilty, anxious, and depressed does not have proper self-knowledge. The assumption that the individual is acceptable is a more profound ontological assumption than is ordinarily acknowledged by the therapist, who does not arrive at this assumption, but begins with it.

This implicit assumption is precisely what is made explicit and revealed by God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. The Christian proclamation seeks to state clearly and decisively that in Christ God has made himself known to us as one who loves us so unconditionally that his love calls for radical behavior change on our part. The Source of life is for us. This Word is declared not as a speculative idea but in and through an event. The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is the originative event that calls forth the witness of the church to this Word from on high.

Can Christian proclamation of this unmerited divine grace be made consistent with humanistic-Socratic counseling which seeks the achievement of insight? A clearer conception of the self-disclosure of the accepting reality may help us hold together both sides of a seemingly paradoxical answer: The Christian good news is that God is with us and for us, which is the implicit basis of effective therapeutic empathy. That implicit awareness becomes explicitly announced in Christian preaching.

When the empathic pastor works effectively as a counselor, faith is becoming active in love. Here proclamation and therapy support one another in an integral ministry of witness and mission. The love of God to which the pastor overtly witnesses in preaching is recapitulated in a nonverbal way in the active empathy of counseling.

But why even preach, if the same accepting reality is fully present in so-called secular relationships? What is the point of talking about Jesus as the Christ if the love that he manifests openly is hiddenly present in all of life and perhaps uniquely and dramatically in secular psychotherapy?

This same basic issue is to be found already in the New Testament. Paul declares that "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him" (Rom. 10:12, RSV). Yet if God is already present, why announce his presence? Paul explains that the purpose of proclamation is to call persons to an awareness of the reality of the situation in which they already exist, the reality of God’s occurring love; not to introduce God to the world as if God were not already there, but to introduce persons to themselves as those who are always already claimed by God. Paul asks how are we to rely upon the accepting reality if we have never known ourselves to be encountered by it (Rom. 10:14)? And how are persons to "believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" In sum: "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Rom. 10:17, RSV). Here is the necessity of overt, clear, decisive proclamation, which announces the accepting reality present in therapy as a reality that has chosen to make itself bodily known once for all in history.

Suppose we pursue the other side of the issue. If proclamation of the revealed Word of God is necessary in order to identify the ground of acceptance, why should it not therefore become imperative that the therapist always be a preacher, an overt proclaimer of the self-disclosure of the accepting reality? The nub of this issue is whether divine acceptance must be mediated verbally or whether it can be adequately mediated nonverbally through an interpersonal relationship. Our argument hinges on the premise that liberating divine acceptance can be mediated concretely through concrete interpersonal relationships without overt witness to its ground and source, although it is also seeking constantly to clarify through language its inner source and ground.


It was in an attempt to spell out the intriguing consequences of these embryonic insights and hunches of the late l950s that I set my feet on the path that has preoccupied me ever since — the attempt to reengage the then atrophied dialogue between theology and the many approaches to psychotherapy.

A summary glance over the road I have thus far taken will show more clearly where I am coming from. I want to speak autobiographically of the circuitous course of my own dialogue with psychotherapy, its challenges and limitations, and of the ways I am now coming to see the incompleteness of my own pilgrimage. I hope you will recognize that the surprising place in which I now find myself in this dialogue is an organic extension of the basic concern that first drew me into it. Otherwise, my present classicist trajectory might, on superficial glance, seem to be an unexplained reversal of the previous direction.

My clinical beginning point in the l950s, later surpassed, was client-centered therapy. I myself was a recipient of the accurate empathy and unconditional positive regard of an extraordinarily congruent person, Robert Elliott. So I speak of these relational qualities as one who experienced them as profoundly important at a particular juncture of my life, 1955-56. By the close of the fifties I was seeking as a young teacher to effect a workable integration of a therapy of personal self-disclosure with a theology of divine self-disclosure (more particularly of Carl Rogers and Karl Barth).1

In the mid-sixties I was in Germany doing clinical work at the Psychiatrische und Neurologishe Klinik of Heidelberg, enthusiastic especially about existential psychotherapy, asking whether the tradition of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Binswanger, Karl Jaspers, Medard Boss, J. H. van den Berg, Igor Caruso, and Viktor von Weizsacker could be integrated into the secularization theologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rudolf Bultmann, to which I was then deeply committed.2

In the "freaked-out" late sixties I was eagerly investing myself in almost every available brand of intensive group process from T-groups and growth groups to microlabs and marathons with a strong emphasis on psychodrama and Gestalt awareness training. I did more clinical work in the psychiatric ward of a VA hospital, and taught Clinical Pastoral Education chaplain trainees at the Institute of Religion of the Texas Medical Center. I looked for some connection between contemporary group process and the Jewish-Christian tradition of small group confession and mutual pastoral care, especially as manifested in Jewish hasidic and Christian pietistic groups of the 18th century.3 But even at that point I began to recognize the potential self-deception of my own antinomian temptations. Like most liberal Protestants of that period, I had deep-seated tendencies to anarchic politics and messianic expectations about social experimentation, which (under the tutelage of my inimitable friend, Will Herberg) eventually revealed themselves as hollow. This work with experimental groups extended into a more chastened critical study of transactional analysis in relation to Pauline-Augustinian understandings of human bondage and freedom.4

About 1971, however, there was a major turn in my pilgrimage as I gradually became painfully aware of the so-called outcome studies reporting the dubious effectiveness of average psychotherapy, whose cure rates barely match spontaneous remission, coupled with the frightening spectre of client deterioration (i.e., patients finding their condition worsening under the care of professional psychotherapists). The sobering implications of these controlled studies for pastoral care elicited a substantial shift of direction for me toward the kind of critique of pychotherapeutic assumptions that was already being developed by Thomas Szasz, O. H. Mowrer, Hans Eysenck, and William Schofield.5

My work with experimental group psychotherapy and interpersonal analysis essentially came to an end in 1976. I had been attempting to solve some of the problems strewn in the path of transactional analysis. I thought the TA simplisms needed a basic corrective. So I developed the Collusion Spectrum as a more accurate descriptive means of sorting out human interactions, relying heavily on the empirical data of several social psychologists, mostly of a behaviorist orientation (George Homans, J. Thibaut, H. Kelley, the early Timothy Leary, Robert Carson, and Harold Rausch). I sought to correlate these data with the medieval doctrines of virtue and interpersonal justice.6

The crisis intervention therapists (Eric Lindemann, Gerald Caplan, Robert Carkhuff, David Switzer, and Edgar Jackson) then became important to me in the mid-seventies as I dealt with the more sober moral dilemmas involved in pastoral care for the dying.7

Although I had been teaching Kierkegaard seminars for many years and had lived in constant companionship with his authorship, the perennial Kierkegaardian side of my work did not bear visible fruit until I completed a work on Kierkegaard’s parables, which was fully two decades in the making.8 No twentieth century psychologist has influenced my psychology as deeply as Kierkegaard, and I still doubt that the analytical powers and psychological insights of Freud and the post-Freudians have equaled those of Kierkegaard.

This circuitous account of my pilgrimage is crucial to the rest of what I will be saying. For it forms the background of the work I am currently trying to do in the recovery of the classical pastoral traditions. By 1979 a very different theological project was undertaken — the attempt to recover classical ecumenical orthodoxy amid postmodern cultural consciousness. That effort represented a joyful decision on my part to turn again toward the classical Christian pastoral tradition, especially as expressed by the ecumenical consensus of Christianity’s first millennium of experience in caring for souls. It was coupled with a critique of modernity, which I define as the overarching ideology of the modern period characterized by the three key terms describing larger patterns familiar to modern psychotherapy — autonomous individualism, naturalistic reductionism, and narcissistic hedonism. Modern chauvinism has assumed that all recent modes of knowing the truth are vastly superior to all older ways, a view that has recently presided over the precipitous deterioration of social structures and processes in the third quarter of the twentieth century. My frank goal has been to help free persons from feeling intimidated by modernity, which while it often seems awesome is rapidly losing its moral power, and to grasp the emerging vision of a postmodern classical Christianity.9

This is a rough aerial map of the rocky ground I have covered in trying thus far to relate therapeutic counseling to the Christian message. As I now return to the early Christian pastoral tradition, however, I do not wish to negate the learning of this earlier journey of psychological discovery, nor do I want to disown my own work except for a few brief excessive passages in which I harshly inveighed against a deliberately religious orientation in counseling. But I now see more clearly than before some of the deficits that prevented the previous dialogue from deepening and maturing. So this is where I am coming from — but where am I headed?



1. This theme eventually became the core of the argument of my Kerygma and Counseling (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978). 1 sought at that time to show how the same hypothesis could be related to Freudian, Adlerian, and Gestalt approaches to psychotherapy. At the time I was teaching pastoral counseling and theology, and guiding a general hospital pastoral education program.

2. For the results of this period of research, see my Contemporary Theology and Psychotherapy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), and The Structure of Awareness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969).

3. See my The Intensive Group Experience (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972).

4. See my Game Free. The Meaning of Intimacy (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

5. This shift was first publicly expressed in After Therapy What? 1972 Finch Lectures, Fuller School of Psychology, with responses by N. Warren, K. Mulholland, C. Schoonhoven, C. Kraft, and W. Walker (Springfield, Ill: Charles C. Thomas, 1974).

6. See my TAG: The Transactional Awareness Game (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

7. See my Should Treatment Be Terminated? (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1976).

8. See Soren Kierkegaard, Parables of Kierkegaard, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

9. See my Agenda for Theology: Recovering Christian Roots (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979).