Will you forgive me a short foray into my particular field of study? You see, my undergraduate degree is in psychology, and I currently teach biblical counseling. So you would be sympathetic if I were to say that counseling, the care of the individual, and an understanding of the human person is immensely interesting to me. I trust you would also see the practical and personal application that the field has to all of us, right? Therefore, if we were to discuss the cause of depression for a moment, then, you’d appreciate the importance and relevance, wouldn’t you? I ask all of these rhetorical questions because I’m about to launch into a discussion about a major paper that was published in the field of psychology/psychiatry just last week (July 20, 2022) and I don’t want your eyes to glaze over—at least not right away—so stay with me!
In a landmark systematic review released last week in the journal of Molecular Psychiatry, researchers concluded that the “chemical imbalance” view of depression has no evidence to support the alleged cause of depression. Here is where you might be asking “so what?”, and perhaps your eyes are already hazy. Well, if you have been attentive to psychological medication advertisements and commercials, at least since the 90s, you’ve likely heard of “the chemical imbalance” theory of depression. Or, if you know someone who is taking psychological medications, you’ve likely heard them reference “a chemical imbalance in their brain” a time or two if you’ve discussed the topic with them. Or if you yourself have sat down with your doctor about psychological medication, you likely heard him explain about the chemicals in your brain and why you feel the way that you do. That is because this notion of depression originating in the brain has been dominant in the western world for the past 30+ years (and has at least been around for the past 60). In fact, 80% of surveyed adults believe depression is caused by a chemical imbalance.¹ But last week’s conclusive study marks the end of such a theory (or at least should mark the end). The paper decisively concludes by saying that it is time to acknowledge that this particular theory of depression has no empirical evidence to support it!²
So why do these findings matter, and what do they mean for us? Better yet, how is this even relevant for a Gentle Reformation post?! On the whole, the church has long bought into the notion that our bodies, our brains, are the major cause of our depression. We have drunk deeply from the font of wisdom from the world, so far as a biological theory of depression is concerned, and we have deviated from a more comprehensive view of the human person. While the rest of the western world has moved well beyond a modernist or materialist understanding of the human being (that the person is primarily material or physical), the church in America, unfortunately has not—at least not practically speaking on the depression question. We are functionally still modernists, while our culture raced headlong into postmodernism and even post-postmodernism! We think of people as more biology than spiritual.
The scriptures present a much more comprehensive view of man—we are both bodies and souls—and those bodies interact with our souls and our souls interact with our bodies. We are body-soul unities. You can’t have one without the other (except when our bodies rest in the grave waiting for the resurrection, while our souls are with the Lord), and you can’t experience something with the one without it affecting the other. God knows this and has revealed it to us in his word. It is why when David is unrepentant in his sin, his body groaned—he felt it in his bones (Psalm 32:3). And when Job was severely afflicted physically, his spiritual wrestlings were unfathomably deep (Job 14:13).
But here’s the rub. Since the 1990s, I’ve heard the church speak as though brain chemistry causes depression—that in a sense, it can’t be helped since it is physical. Such an understanding of the human person has justified all kinds of treatment and practice. It has even undergirded an immensely popular work in the field (Christians Get Depressed Too by David Murray). Even our children buy into this same concept! Just last week I was teaching at a high school gathering, where juniors from around the country travel to my denomination’s seminary to sit under professors’ teaching for 3 weeks. One of the students responded to my brief treatment on depression with: “but isn’t depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain?” Friends, it’s endemic!
The church has bought into a physical understanding of struggling with depression because it is the lie the world has been telling us for decades. The world is beginning to speak more consistently with reality in this recent report, and for that I’m thankful. But it is nigh-time that the church begins thinking more comprehensively about the human person.
We are not mere bodies. And in like manner, we are not mere souls. So if you hear me calling for a simplistic and reductionistic response, that depression is only ever sin or only ever a spiritual problem, you misunderstand me entirely. I’m saying we must stop thinking that depression is merely physical in origin and cure. It’s not. It never was. We are bodies and souls, and we must care for both bodies and souls comprehensively and well. The church sometimes pendulum-swings too far the other way and says depression is exclusively a spiritual issue. It’s not. It never was. Our bodies affect our souls. Our souls affect our bodies. We are whole persons—body and soul—and thank the Lord that he cares for our whole person. But now that the world is talking about more than just brain chemistry, hopefully the western church can at least catch up with where the world presently is—and hopefully we can do far better than simply chasing after the world.
- Moncrieff, J., Cooper, R.E., Stockmann, T. et al. The serotonin theory of depression: a systematic umbrella review of the evidence. Molecular Psychiatry (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-022-01661-0