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The Relationship of Behaviorism, Neo-Behaviorism and Cognitivism to an Evangelical Bibliology

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Survey of the Problem

There are many learning theories or models competing for prominence among educators these days. Depending on the educator's view of man and the learning process a different model is constructed. However, one would expect that these models would reach some kind of a consensus, but as Thompson says, these "learning theories . . . expose different and sometimes conflicting, explanations of behavior" (p. 9, [italics mine]).

As a Christian, I can appreciate the research being done by educators. This is not an easy task. But, on the other hand, I feel there are some major points of disagreement between the presuppositions and conclusions of the secular educator and those of the Scripture.

Purpose of the Paper

The purpose of this paper is to two-fold: 1) to define various models of learning behavior within the Psychological school of thought; 2) to interact with these models on the basis of an evangelical bibliology.1

Method of the Paper

In order to interact with these 'learning theories' from a bibliological grid, the paper will first define an evangelical bibliology, including the major categories and presuppositions. Then the learning theories will be defined and interacted with on the level of presuppositions, methods and conclusions.

An Evangelical Bibliology

Statement of the Doctrine of Bibliology

The following section gives a brief statement that exposes the heart of an evangelical bibliology, as well as the major categories for consideration in an evangelical bibliology.

    The Essence of an Evangelical Bibliology2

In 1978, the International Conference on Biblical Inerrancy made the following statement as regards bibliology:

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all it's teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about it's own literary origins under God, than in it's witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.3

This statement reflects a synthesis of the following categories or areas of thought usually considered under bibliology

    Major Categories in Bibliology

The following is a brief review of the essential categories of bibliology, necessary for interacting with learning theories.4


Revelation is the process whereby God made His thoughts known in or to the mind of a person (e.g. a prophet, apostle, etc.).


The term inspiration refers to the original manuscripts of the scripture as "breathed out by God." They are therefore, ultimately a divine product, though they bear the personalities, styles, etc. of the human author.


As a result of the superintending process of inspiration, the scriptures are free from error in all that they affirm or teach.


Canonicity is the process whereby the church, using certain criteria, determined which books were inspired of God (and therefore authoritative for faith and life) and which were not.


There are no original manuscripts of scripture remaining today. Composition refers to the process of textual criticism in order to determine the precise wording of the extant manuscripts.


Illumination is the process whereby God quickens or enlightens a persons mind to receive, understand and obey the truth of scripture.


Interpretation is the process of investigating God's word, using sound principles, in order to arrive at a consistent understanding of the Scripture.

All of the above categories presuppose certain truths which will now be discussed. We will see that it is at the level of presuppositions where the greatest conflict occurs with secular learning theories.

Major Presuppositions in an Evangelical Bibliology

The following section is a brief statement concerning the essential presuppositions involved in defining bibliology from a scriptural perspective. The fact that God is, that He speaks, that there is therefore a final or terminal reality and that man has a problem will be considered here.

    God Is and He Has Spoken

Our bibliology, as discussed and defined above, presupposes the existence of a personal, communicative God. We cannot have revelation, etc. if God does not exist. In line with the truth that He exists is the fact that He has not been silent, but has indeed made Himself known in creation and more specifically in a collection of writings over many years (i.e. the Bible). Hundreds of times in scripture we read, "Thus says the Lord..." or it's equivalent (~3800x).

    A Final Authority

Our bibliology presupposes the fact that there is no reality outside of God and that there is such a thing as absolute truth (i.e. truth not dependant upon anything except God). That is, nothing lies beyond Him or is greater than He is. Therefore, whatever He has said in the Scripture is binding and final in it's authority. It may not speak directly to every issue, but it is reasonable to conclude that every issue known to man is touched by the scripture or can be approached from a scriptural world-view.

    An Inherent Problem in Man

The fact that man needs a revelation from God concerning first truths (i.e. that God is Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer) precludes some problem within man, in that He is not able to apprehend and value the obvious. Our bibliology presupposes something about the inability of man to know both God and himself.

    The Bottom Line of Bibliology

The essential question that our doctrine of bibliology dogmatically answers is the question of authority . The Bible recognizes the validity of research into various fields of inquiry (i.e. learning theories), but reserves the right to pass ultimate judgment as to the interpretation and meaning of the data gathered. Therefore, since we are saying that the Bible is the final authority, we are also saying by implication that final authority lies outside of man, that it is trans-generational and trans-cultural.

Let us turn now to an analysis of Psychological school of learning theory (and it's sub-categories) using an evangelical bibliology.

Psychological Learning Theories
Analyzed in the Light of an Evangelical Bibliology

The purpose of this section is to define and interact (using our bibliology) with three schools of thought within Psychological Learning Theory. First, we will consider the Behaviorist school of thought, then the Neo-behaviorist and finally the Cognitivist school.

Behaviorism and an Evangelical Bibliology

First we will define behaviorism, then interact with it at the level of presuppositions, methods and conclusions.

    Brief Definition

Behaviorism is the study of man from a purely stimulus/response scenario, with no attention given to internal matters (i.e. mind or heart of the learner). It focuses on external, observable realities, arriving at conclusions about learning theory from this data. The writings of B. F. Skinner endorse this view.

    Major Presuppositions & Their Relation to Bibliology

The first presupposition in Skinner's model (or any behavioral model) is that man has a problem of some sort. It is at this point that we agree. Every learning theory seems to me to be an attempt to understand man and curb his behavior in some way--try to make him better in some way. Thus they assume man to have some internal problem whereby he cannot perform as he should. As we mentioned in our presuppositions of an evangelical bibliology we also believe man has a problem, for the giving of scripture precludes this fact. Scripture, of course, gives us an authority for understanding the problem.5

The second premise in the behaviorist approach to learning is that there is no need for God. All one needs to do is observe the actions or behavior of an individual and one can understand that individual. Granted, some information can be gathered and an understanding of certain behavior patterns realized, but to try and build an entire theory of how man learns, apart from God, is contrary to an evangelical bibliology which presupposes that God is and therefore He must be addressed.

The third presupposition overlaps with the second. Our bibliology states that God is and has spoken in a book. Therefore, that book must be consulted. Skinner's learning theory, by the way it is conducted (without reference to or acknowledgement of Scripture) denies this and is therefore going to be less than adequate as a learning theory model. His theory would not allow for the Scriptures the paramount place they deserve.

The final presupposition has to do with authority. Again the behaviorist model implicitly teaches that the locus for authority in the development of a learning theory is man himself (i.e. the researcher). There is no need to consult an outside authority, i.e. the Scripture. Our bibliology will not accept this. Scripture is the final judge of truth.

Neo-Behaviorism and an Evangelical Bibliology

The purpose of this section is to briefly define Neo-behaviorism and then interact with it on the level of presuppositions, methods and conclusions.

    Brief Definition

Neo-behaviorism is basically the same as Behaviorism except that it gives some weight to issues in the heart/mind of the learner. It seeks, not only to understand the stimulus/response pattern, but also to understand the mediating factors between the stimulus and response.

    Major Presuppositions & Their Relation to Bibliology

This theory denies the need for God and His revelation and therefore, the locus of authority is again in man himself. Man can speak authoritatively and definitively without God. Our bibliology will not permit this premise to stand as true. It is false.

Having stated the problems with their presuppositions, there are nonetheless some interesting points of similarity between some of the methods of learning and the Scripture as Divine revelation.

D. O. Hebb sees the need for adult learners to "capitalize on previous experiences to teach new tasks." Our bibliology validates this truth in as much as the Bible is a recording of previous experiences so that people might learn how to handle new learning situations (cf. the frequent references to what God has done in the past as a basis for learning and action in the present). Thus the scripture itself uses this method.

Bandura also emphasizes the need for models and observational learning. This is precisely why God incorporated so many models into the scripture and on one level even Christ functioned in this way (cf. Jn. 13:15).

Cognitivism and an Evangelical Bibliology

The purpose of this section is to define and interact with Cognitivism on the level of presuppositions, methods and conclusions.

    Brief Definition

Cognitivism is the theory of learning that believes that man is essentially a rule former, developing a-posteriori categories as he experiences life, using what he has developed to make decisions in life.

    Major Presuppositions & Their Relation to Bibliology

This theory, as a Psychological learning theory, operating out of a similar world view to Behaviorism and Neo-behaviorism, denies the need for God and His revelation. Therefore, the locus of authority is in man himself. Man can speak authoritatively and definitively without God. Again we would say that this is definitely untrue.

However, we may again see areas of similarity at the method level between the Scriptures and Cognitivism. The Scriptures as revelation, contain huge portions of material directed primarily (or at least firstly) at the mind (cf. Romans 1-11; Eph. 1-3; primarily didactic and aimed at the mind). Since we comprehend God primarily at the idea level, the scriptures stress concepts and ideas about Him. These ideas and concepts are revealed in an organized fashion. This is similar to Ausubel and his ideas of an expository approach to learning in order to inculcate cognitive structure in the mind of the learner. But, this method does fall short of Scriptural revelation in that the Scriptures reveal God in more ways than just through concepts or cognitive structure.

Cognitivism, as espoused by Bruner, places emphasis upon discovery learning. Our bibliology assumes discovery learning to be important. God took the time to write His thoughts down and He invites people to read His revelation and learn from it individually (as well as corporately).6


The psychological theories of learning addressed above ultimately undermine and stand opposed to an evangelical bibliology. They deny that God is, that He has spoken and that authority rests in His word, not in man.

This being true though, there are certain points of similarity between some of the methods arising from psychological learning theories and some of the methods as found in Scripture.

1 Note: Systematic theology (of which bibliology is a part) is a unified whole--hopefully. Therefore, it is difficult to talk about one area of theology without bringing in the other areas (i.e. Trinitarianism, Christology, etc.) at various points along the way. I have consciously tried not to move into anthropology and hamartiology in this paper. Obviously they contribute significantly to a critique of these learning theories, but my paper will try to deal with the issues from a bibliological perspective.

2 It goes without saying that there are so called evangelicals who hold positions slightly and even substantially different than what is presented, but I feel that this represents where most evangelicals are.

3 Norman L. Geisler ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p.494.

4 This material comes from the following sources: Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), pp.153-176. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology Abr.Ed. ed. John F. Walvoord & others. (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1988), 1:47-108.

5 Here, we could go into sin, etc. but it only needs to mentioned that our bibliology assumes some problem in man (or else why do we need the scripture) as does their learning theory.

6 Again, it must be stated that these theories are woefully erroneous and inadequate from a biblical anthropological point of view, but this was not the point of this paper. The point of this paper is to look at them through the lense of an evangelical bibliology.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Teaching the Bible, Cultural Issues

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