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Considering Personality Typologies

Truth in Love 305

It is the Holy Spirit who unveils and helps us to see the type of people that we are.

Apr 5, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I am delighted to have with us Dr. Rhenn Cherry. Rhenn actually serves here at ACBC on staff; he’s our Director of Finances and Donor Relations. He’s also an Adjunct Professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, teaching in biblical counseling. He’s married to Terry, he has two grown children, Jack and Carly. Rhenn and his family served as missionaries for five years, and that was added to some of his ministerial experience as well, as he served as an Associate Pastor for five years. We love having the Cherry’s here in Kansas City with us. They are like family to the Johnsons and they are the fun aunt and uncle to the Johnson kids and we love them dearly.

But I can’t wait for us to talk today about a very serious subject, I think, in Christendom right now. It’s a subject that we need to consider very carefully. Rhenn just finished his doctoral degree, his PhD. And he wrote on this very important subject, the Enneagram. With his writing and research, he learned a lot about different personality typologies. I want to challenge him today. I almost feel like we should request that everyone pay tuition. It’s going to be a wonderful lesson that we learn through through the podcast today. And I think a very interesting and very relevant subject as we talk about personality typologies and also, specifically, the Enneagram. We’re going to do a series of these podcasts talking about the Enneagram. I want you to hang with us through this series; it’ll be three or four that we work through here to introduce you to some of the ideas about the Enneagram. We’re going to give a deep background, a consideration theologically, of what it is and how it’s used so that we can consider these things biblically. 

Rhenn, I’m so grateful that you’re here. I’m so delighted that you’re serving with us. I get to see you on a daily basis and it’s a delight certainly for our family that you’re here. I love the way that you serve ACBC and this research, I think, is going to be very valuable to our Christian community. 

Rhenn Cherry: Well, thank you, brother, for having me on Truth in Love. I am thankful for your leadership and your service to the staff here at ACBC, to your own family, and to me as your brother in the Lord. I’m also thankful for your willingness to address this topic of the Enneagram. It’s a hot topic for sure, and many of our members and listeners have uncertainty or confusion about this very issue.

Dale Johnson: Now, Rhenn, this issue is critical. as you mentioned. You’ve recently written a doctoral dissertation on this subject and as a part of his doctoral research, he is transitioning that into a more popular book that will be coming out in the summer or the fall of 2021, we pray, it’s called Enneagram Theology: Is It Christian? I am looking forward to this book. I think it’s going to be a great contribution to our Christian community and to churches as they sort through and think biblically about these personality types that are flourishing everywhere. 

First, what I want to do, Rhenn, if we can, is we acknowledge very clearly that every single process of discipleship or counseling system is a philosophy. It is a worldview that’s intended to be employed together. It’s a way of thinking about life. It’s how to how to understand people, how to understand their problems, and how we change as people. We’re not saying that those who claim to use this Enneagram have faulty motives, that they desire wrong things—I think they want to help people. I think that’s their goal. But we have to be careful in how we approach the change of people and how we understand people from a specific worldview and a system. I would say most people that counsel others have a desire to help people. I say that often. They want people to change, but we have to find a system that is consistent with the Scriptures in order to flesh that out properly. Sometimes what happens when people feel inadequate, they begin to turn to other systems. In this case people are turning to personality typologies and personality testings to give language and expression to what people are experiencing.

You spent the last several years researching the Enneagram. Tell us how you became interested in this very popular system. 

Rhenn Cherry: Well, many years ago in a land far, far away, I was part of a Christian organization that relied heavily on personality testing and typing for both hiring decisions and personal conflict management—mainly in a team environment. I found that the benefits associated with personality typologies to be lacking, practically speaking. Years later, when I began studying biblical counseling formally, I became more aware of the influences of secular philosophies and therapies in churches and Christian institutions. I began to question whether or not these philosophies had an appropriate place in the Evangelical community. I started reading on the topic of personality typology. At one point, I thought I would even research and write on the Myers-Briggs type indicator. Specifically about Carl Jung’s influence on Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers. I had a personal interest in Myers-Briggs because it was a system embraced by the Christian organization where my family and I served. I had a unique interest based on my own personal experience with that particular system, but then something really interesting happened. 

Dale Johnson: Okay, what was that interesting thing? And I think I remember being a part of some of this discussion when this interesting thing happened, so tell us a little bit more about that.

Rhenn Cherry: Well, yeah, you and I had a conversation. I remember it vividly. You brought to my attention that Myers-Briggs was now somewhat passé and not as popular as it used to be. Because Myers-Briggs was not as in vogue as it used to be, any research and writing that I might have done would probably have some type of limited benefit to the academic field. You suggested that I research the Enneagram and it’s growing popularity among Evangelical Christians. Now, just as a side note, personality typologies have notorious patterns of being fashionable or trendy for a limited amount of time only. In other words, they tend to have a limited shelf life. That is, they tend to be replaced by the next new system that comes along.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s true. If we look back at history, we can see the ebb and flow of these different typologies. As we think about the ebb and flow of these typologies and their popularity, is this a new phenomenon of the ebb and flow?

Rhenn Cherry: Well, man’s desire to have some “objective” means to explain himself to himself—it’s not new at all. Over the last 150 to 200 years, in Western culture in particular, there’s been a lot of emphasis placed on developing personality tests. These tests are really man’s attempt to reduce himself from a complex changing—sometimes even conflicting—person into a neat category. Personality tests typically produce results in the forms of labeling and grouping of individuals. Each test usually has its own unique vocabulary for describing who people are according to that particular system. 

Dale Johnson: What you’re saying is that the Enneagram is certainly not the first of its kind, and it fits categorically into this broader body of personality typologies, and understanding personalities, and that sort of thing. What are some of the examples of previously popular personality tests or or indicator types? And how have these things changed in your mind?

Rhenn Cherry: Well, let’s say that you and I lived 150 years or so ago. We would have been on the cutting edge of personality testing “science,” as it was labeled, if we’d had our heads read by phrenologist. 

Dale Johnson: Okay, timeout, timeout. Help our listeners understand: What in the world is phrenology? What in the world is a phrenologist? And what in the world does it mean to have your head read? 

Rhenn Cherry: Okay, so for phrenology, at the time (mid-1850s), was labeled the science of the mind. The theory held that the shape and the size of a person’s cranium—literally their skull—was an indicator of their character or mental ability. According to the “science” of phrenology when certain parts of the brain were well-used, they expanded and pushed up the skull and produced a noticeable bulge in your skull. A trained, expert phrenologist would feel a person’s head bumps and rate them on a scale of 1 to 7. I think they had 37 different character personality areas. Phrenology, like other personality typing systems that would follow, also developed its own vocabulary for describing these supposed personality traits. As early as the mid-1800s, we see potential employers begin to require written phrenology reports from job candidates. The thinking was that these reports themselves were presented as being more impartial and reliable, but they effectively took the place of personal recommendations. 

Now, the poet and novelist Walt Whitman, he was a big proponent of phrenology and even two US presidents during the 1800s had their heads read. You can see that while it was quite popular, it required a trained expert to read the bumps on your head. A person could not do it to themselves. 

Dale Johnson: This is really interesting. I love looking back at history, and this is one of the things that I’ve enjoyed to study. Phrenology was very impactful in the mental health asylum system. I don’t often recommend movies, and I don’t necessarily recommend this one, but it’s an interesting movie called The Professor and the Madman, where you can actually see in the asylum, the mad doctor is doing this phenology-type testing on one of the patients. It was an accurate description and picture of what happened in using this personality type, but that’s sort of old and it’s been recognized as being pseudoscience, at best, even more that it was just a mythology. What are some more modern types of tests that we may know a little bit more about?

Rhenn Cherry: By the early 1930s, another personality test that became very popular in America was Rorschach inkblots. They were formed by a folding paper where ink drops had been placed. The Rorschach utilized trained experts—again, usually psychologists or psychiatrists—to present inkblot cards. They would record how the client describes what he sees. The Rorschach—and is still used today—focuses not so much on what someone saw, but on how they saw what they saw. The ink blot tests were popular at notable universities like Columbia and Cornell. They are still quite popular in schools, really prisons, even the military, to delineate general personality characteristics. Again, it required a trained expert to interpret the results. This is significant. 

There’s another couple of personality typologies worth noting. There’s one called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) developed also in the 1930s, somewhat in reaction to Rorschach inkblots. It was developed at the University of Minnesota Mental Hospital—its current form today has well over 500 questions. We start to see a shift away from artistic interpretation to a more scientific approach—what you would label scientism, and I would too. It’s developed somewhat in response to that. The MMPI moved quite intentionally away from being considered “a test,” and we see this language of “indicator” start to be adopted. Even though it was originally designed to classify mental patients, the MMPI is still currently used to screen potential hires. Again, it requires a trained expert.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, to understand it. And anybody who has taken an Intro to Psychology class has probably heard of these personality typologies. They understand a little bit about where these things came from. You do see the morphing—the ebbing and flowing—of these things. But that’s not all, there are a couple of others. You mentioned earlier the Myers-Briggs and that one would be a good one to talk about as well. 

Rhenn Cherry: Around the same time as Rorschach inkblots were being developed, as well as MMPI, a lady named Katherine Briggs in the early 1930s was converted literally to Carl Jung’s psychology. She set her efforts to bring Jung’s theories to the masses. She developed a tool for people to categorize themselves into 1 of 16 personality types. Her daughter Isabel Myers would eventually standardize this version of self-discovery with the questionnaire that became the current Myers-Briggs type indicator. Now, let me ask you, Dale, who answers these questions on a Myers-Briggs questionnaire?

Dale Johnson: Now, this is an interesting turn, Rhenn. I think that we shouldn’t just brush over this. I think it’s important that we we note that this is self-reporting. It is us describing how we feel. The lack of objectivity often on how we feel. Especially when the Bible describes that our hearts are deceitfully wicked —”Who can know it?” We struggle to know our own hearts, what we’re feeling at a given moment, or why something is happening, or why we explain things the way we do, or why we interpret something the way we interpret it, or why we had this experience, or why we had that experience. Oh my goodness, if we’re just honest with ourselves for a moment, how flawed often our interpretations of our experiences are. Then we’re trying to self report on some of these things and then describe it as if it’s some sort of objective science. I think that starts to dip our toe in the water of things that are dangerous, and would certainly be less than what we would consider appropriate true, legitimate science. 

Rhenn Cherry: This is a significant point. We see in Myers-Briggs a shift in control from the trained experts of phrenology and the MMPI, to the person who wants to know who he is. We begin to see, for lack of a better word, the brilliance of personality typologies like Myers-Briggs are the Enneagram, because to some degree these systems give people what they want. They give them the ability to “understand themselves on their own terms,” that is to say to a large degree—you can be whoever you want to be because you are the one answering the questions about you. This is an important distinction of systems like the Enneagram. 

Whether you are asking questions on an online test and answering them, reading a book, or attending a workshop about the Enneagram, you are the arbiter of which label and group gets applied to you. 

Dale Johnson: We’ve got to discuss this because this is important. These are the types of things, folks, when you’re paying attention to what’s being popular and vogue at the time, you have to begin to see and compare these things biblically. Biblically what we see is that the only way we understand the type of person that we are is not by our own judgments, not by asking the wisdom of the culture, or wisdom that comes from below (as the Scripture describes). The Bible makes very clear that it is the Holy Spirit who unveils and helps us to see the type of person that we are. He illuminates the heart (2 Corinthians 3). We also see in James 1:25 that it’s when we look into the perfect law of liberty that we see the type of person that we really are. The Bible tells us if we walk away from that, if we’re not a doer of the Word, we really don’t even at that point understand who we are. It takes us looking, gazing, allowing the Word of Christ dwell in us richly. That’s what exposes us. That’s what helps us to see who we are—not some personal assessment. I think that’s a part of your point here, Rhenn. You’re helping us to see that this transition was not a small transition. Now, this shifts into more of a psychodynamic, humanistic style of psychological approach and really services the person to become the person that they want to be or to describe the person that they wish they were or some sort of evaluation. That’s a really key and critical point. 

Rhenn Cherry: I want to add to that, Dale, in the end personality typing and testing makes swift judgments about people. The trained experts, or the tests themselves, serve as the authority that assigns people a label and a group. These labels and these groups are often welcomed by the people who take the test. In other words, most people feel some type of relief by being labeled and grouped. Let me just submit here that there’s a danger in believing that because you have labeled a person, you therefore understand that person (including yourself). Or even more scary is the illusion that self-mastery comes from self-knowledge according to a man-made system. I think we can all agree that the Enneagram is currently the most popular self-knowledge tool among Christians, but an evaluation of Enneagram theology face-to-face with an orthodox Evangelical theology, really calls into question whether or not the Enneagram is appropriate for use in Christian churches and institutions. 

Dale Johnson: I hope today’s been helpful, and I hate to do this to you all, but we’re going to have to do this. We’re going to have to wait until next week to understand a little bit more, specifically about the Enneagram. What I want you to do is come back next week because we’re out of time today. I want us to talk about this issue of the Enneagram. What I want you to do is come back and visit us next week on the podcast, Rhenn, and we’re going to talk specifically about the origins of the Enneagram. We’re going to talk about exactly what it is. A lot of people are familiar with it to some degree, some have heard of it and they may know a little bit about it, but maybe not. We’re going to dive a little bit deeper into that next week in a way that I think will be very helpful to our listeners. So join us again next week.