The Double Cure: Addictions and God's Grace

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Nov/Dec 2001

Nature or Nurture?

Famous (or infamous) Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner sharply contrasts traditional views of human nature with modern ones. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), the founder of "behaviorism" writes,

In what we may call the prescientific view…a person's behavior is at least to some extent his own achievement. He is free to deliberate, decide, and act, possibly in original ways, and he is to be given credit for his successes and blamed for his failures. In the scientific view…a person's behavior is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species and by the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed.

Skinner allows that neither view can be proved, but quickly adds, "It is in the nature of scientific inquiry that the evidence should shift in favor of the second." He thinks of the human being as a machine, determined by an environment. "The measures we use are those of physical and biological technology, but we use them in special ways to affect behavior."

There is no doubt that the "scientific" (i.e., materialist) doctrine is widely embraced by scientists, with some geneticists even wondering out loud if there might be a "gay gene" or an "alcoholic gene." To the extent that the medical establishment defines addictions as sickness or as a genetic encoding, human behavior is reduced to animal instinct. Ironically, setting out to raise "autonomous man" to the summit of power and authority, modern thinkers like Skinner have succeeded only in reducing human beings to passive agents almost helplessly determined by factors that are virtually beyond their control.

Although the crude form of Skinner's project may not be as dominant today, the perspective certainly seems to be firmly in place. The rule of thumb in business management applies here: no responsibility without authority and vice versa. If we expect middle-management employees to execute their senior staff's plans, we cannot keep them up at night worrying about problems if we do not give them the authority to fix them. But Skinner's outlook is the ideal recipe for children of a willful and self-indulgent age: Human beings can escape their responsibility while retaining their authority.

All of this has been observed already by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. There we are told that sinners have suppressed all awareness of God despite the obvious hand of God in creation and providence (Rom. 1:19). They "became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man" (21-22). Particularly singled out here as an example of this rejection of responsibility is homosexual behavior. It is not that this is the unforgivable sin but that it is a prime example of how far we go to justify ourselves and rationalize our abandonment of God. Nothing can be more obvious, even from the crudest anatomical analysis, than that such people "exchanged the natural use for what is against nature" (26).

Like Adam and Eve in the garden, human beings-as described here by Paul-are proficient at playing the blame game: Adam blames his transgression on Eve (and ultimately God: "the woman you gave me"); Eve blames the serpent. Nobody wants to take responsibility, so ultimately God is to blame, or perhaps we can reduce human behavior to either one's environment (nurture) or genes (nature). Similarly passive moments occur to us when we say, for instance, "I'm only human." From the biblical perspective being human is precisely what holds us to the highest possible standard. Human beings were not created ethically weak, much less sinful. Being human, created as God's image-bearers, entails a far greater degree of personal responsibility for our lives, not less.

In our "scientific" culture, then, behavior has no real relation to God. David's confession to God after his adulterous and murderous relationship with Bathsheba, "against you and you alone have I sinned," is far from our minds today. Wicked habits we now euphemistically label "addictions." Alcoholism is a sickness, like any other debilitating disease. Having lost our sense of sinning against God, we are often too little disturbed even by offending other people. The real victim is always ourselves, and sin-if such a thing exists-is largely something that I do to myself (not living up to my potential, not living a fulfilling life, etc.-approaches that are often applied in our churches as well).

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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