Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: The Importance of Thoughts (Part 3 of 4)

The following is the third in a series of four guest posts from Father Alexis Trader, a priestmonk and spiritual father of Karakallou Monastery on the Holy Mountain, and author of In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: An Orthodox Interpretation of the Gifts of the Spirit (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2002). Fr Alexis has recently released a new book, and it is about this new book that he writes below. (The first, second, and fourth posts either have been or will be posted elsewhere; please see the posting schedule at the end of this post.)


The Importance of the Thoughts: Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron
Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

So, what’s the book about? In a word, thoughts. The New Testament and the Church Fathers both recognize that a person’s spiritual state is a reflection of the thoughts harbored in the heart. Research in cognitive therapy has verified that psychological states of depression, anxiety, and anger are largely a function of the evaluative thoughts that individuals have about their current situation. Obviously, there is something very similar and something very different going on here. What are the similarities? What are the differences? And what does all this mean?

To tease out these issues, I decided to approach the subject in two ways or through two lenses, one panoramic and the other close-up. First, I looked at the Christian conception of the world as the foundation from which Christian views on the thoughts make sense and the scientific worldview as the basis for cognitive therapeutic positions on the mental life. Of course, huge differences surfaced rather quickly in this examination, but what is far more interesting is the existence of perhaps unexpected similarities with patristic approaches in certain philosophical currents at the heart of the scientific method and intrinsic to cognitive therapy. The details can be found in Chapter Two: “Worlds Apart: Myth, Method, and Metaphysics.” Originally, the table of contents listed the subheadings. I’ll list them now to give the reader a bird’s eye view of what is covered in that section:

1. Beholding the World in the Light of the Christian Narrative

A. The World in the Beginning: Creation ex nihilo and the in Image of God

B. A Fallen Humanity and a Fallen World: the Ancestral Sin

C. The World’s Salvation: Christ’s Wondrous Work

D. Divine Revelation to the World and the Orthodox Christian Worldview

2. Explicit Method and Implicit Metaphysics: Underpinnings of the Worldview of Modern Science

A. Novum Organum: Empiricism, Rationalism, and Atomism

B. Metaphysics Concealed: Naturalism, Positivism, and Materialism

C. Method or Metaphysics? Evolutionary Theory and Related Philosophies

D. A Pragmatic Postscript: As Long as it Works

3. Seeking a Common World Between Divergent Worldviews

4. Slaying the Serpent to Rescue the Remedy

I would say more, but this post is not intended to be a spoiler.

Second, I decided to look at how Aaron Beck’s cognitive theory defines thought, emotion, behavior, and their relationship to one another in normal human functioning, in psychopathology, and in recovery. That’s a fascinating subject in its own right, but I wanted to go further. I wanted to see how the Church Fathers would look at these psychological subjects. At times, the Fathers speak quite directly to issues raised by cognitive therapy. At other times, their responses are more indirect. But the Fathers are always relevant! This exploration, which makes up the second third of the book, brings a lot of fascinating issues to the fore. In this post, I’ll just note four major themes. First of all, patristic and cognitive views on how our emotions are affected by the way we interpret our situation converge in the following passage by Epictetus that is cited with approval by both Church Fathers and cognitive therapists: “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things…. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never blame anyone but ourselves, that means our own judgments.” Second, cognitive theory refers to deeper beliefs about danger, pain, helplessness, and lovability that are primitive in terms of being developed during childhood or similar to the reactions of animals under threat. These deeper beliefs seem to be related to the patristic notion of the passions that the Fathers see as both childish and brutish. That explains the subheading: “Of Beasts and Babes” in Chapter Three. Third, cognitive thinking errors such as making a mountain out of a molehill and the patristic bad thoughts such as gluttony are related in intriguing ways that suggest how cognitive therapy can be useful for pastors asked to explain why a bad thought is bad from a psychological perspective and for therapists looking for some moral direction when giving advice to Christian patients. Finally, I explore the deceptively similar issues of selfishness and egocentricity, which are so crucial in matters concerning sin and psychopathology. Knowledge of when a person is acting for selfish motives verses egocentric reasons turns out to be quite important for spiritual fathers and therapists, so they can determine whether a given problem with which they are dealing is primarily psychological, spiritual or both. In the next blog post, I will write a bit about the themes in the third half of the book in which I consider what cognitive theory looks like in practice, what goes on in a therapy session, and what techniques are used to modify thought, behavior, and emotion.


The book, published by Peter Lang, is readily available for purchase from Amazon. Those unfamiliar with academic presses that cater to the “library market” will doubtless find the book rather expensive; yet the publisher has suggested that if the hardcover copies sell well in the immediate future, a less expensive paperback may well be on its way. I would therefore fervently encourage those who wish to read the book, but presently find it outside their budget, to approach their local college or public library about the possibility of purchasing it. Also, perhaps groups of five people could agree to purchase a copy as a donation for their parish library, or even as a gift for their pastor.

For the rest of this series of blog posts, follow the links below:

Post #1 – March 22nd at John Sanidopulos’ Mystagogy
Post #2 – March 25th at Fr Jonathan Tobias’ Second Terrace
Post #4 – March 31st at Kevin Edgecomb’s Biblicalia

Also, extended excerpts from the book are available at the following locations:


Chapter 9

7 responses to “Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: The Importance of Thoughts (Part 3 of 4)

  1. This was a very interesting set of posts. Thanks for participating, otherwise I would have missed them all. Personally, I am a great fan of bibliotherapy in all its forms.

    2 Corinthians 10:5

    Philippians 4:8-9 (New Living Translation)

    8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. 9 Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.


  2. What’s really striking about bibliotherapy is that it is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Saint John Chrysostom’s thoughts about the importance of frequently reading the psalter immediately comes to mind. Of course, precisely what is read makes all the difference.


  3. Is your book still available Fr Alexis? Amazon seems to have no more supplies? Is there a likelihood of a paperback version?


  4. Yes, it is still available. A new batch has come in from Switzerland, although I am not sure how much longer it will be in print. A second printing will hopefully by forth coming.

    Also there is a new review of Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy by Archbishop Chrysostomos appearing in Orthodox Tradition and available on line at:


  5. Thanks to those who have commented on this post, and especially to Fr Alexis for taking the time to reply to various inquiries. I regret that for a number of reasons this blog has been in hiatus for several months, and that in spite of my best intentions I couldn’t find an opportunity to start posting once again, or even to comment on existing posts. It is my hope to reverse that state of affairs starting today.

    Fr Alexis, I must admit that I am not conversant with bibliotherapy, but Nancy’s comment and your reply have certainly piqued my interest. Would you care to elaborate on the intersection of modern bibliotherapy and the biblical and patristic charge to “keep this Book of the Law always on your lips, [and] meditate on it day and night,” with particular reference to the Gospel and the Psalter? In fact, if the matter interests you sufficiently and you wish to write a guest post (or posts!) on the subject, it would be my distinct privilege to host it here at The Voice of Stefan.

    I should also like to thank you for your book In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord, which I read shortly after its publication in 2002, and which I have since treasured as a sterling example of a reading of Scripture thoroughly informed by the ascetical and mystical experience of the Church. As I have said elsewhere, it is regrettable that the book is now out of print.

    Regarding the review by Archbishop Chrysostomos, I have read it with great delight and expect to link to it in a follow up post within the next few days.

    (And no, I have not yet been able to purchase Ancient Christian Wisdom, but my birthday is coming up at the end of August!)


  6. Thanks to both Aaron and Esteban for your kind words. I have been quite remiss about checking on follow up comments on my posts, but I am glad I happened to do so today!

    The intersection of modern bibliotherapy and the ancient rumination on the Law, the Psalter, and the Gospels is found most sharply in one of the main purposes behind both approaches, namely increasing awareness to principles that can be used to navigate one’s way through the many difficulties we encounter in life and that hinder us in our attempt to reach important goals, be they normal functioning in one’s environment (psychology) or union with God (in Holy Orthodoxy). Of course, sacred books can act as conveyors of grace that affect the soul at a qualitatively different level than clinical works about various disorders, but on the plane of psychological functioning there is some overlap. Furthermore, there are similarities in the way both the fathers and modern psychologists suggest that one should read. Outside of the patristic admonition to read with prayer, humility, the fear of God, and piety (which are all extremely important), they also suggest reading carefully and attentively. These last two suggestions are also a point of overlap. From these brief comments, I think you can see that the overlap is on a very basic human level, but that human level directly affects our life. The way we use our volition at that level can have an important impact on those matters of ultimate significance.

    I hope this is helpful. Again, forgive me for replying after so long a passage of time. There are to date about 40 copies left. There are some copies on amazon that are 11% off the list price now. There is also a new review by Dr. Foltz posted at that gives a good idea about what the book’s about.


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