Teaching the Temperaments?
by Fred G. Zaspel
Published by Word of Life Baptist Church
The investigation into man's psychological make-up is nothing new. For centuries man has wondered what it is that makes us "tic." And the question has found many answers.
The ancient idea was that each man is a result of the influence of spirits upon him. Later came the idea to blame it all on the stars, attributing man's every action to fate. A popular answer, especially in the last century, was to say that race is the determining factor. Heredity and environment also bid for the solution.
An additional answer to the question of man's make-up is the "temperaments." Proponents of this theory declare that man is comprised of four temperaments, each having its own special characteristic. A brief review and evaluation of the theory follows.
The ancient Greeks were deeply involved in the study of medicine and the human body. In some respects they were far ahead of their time; in other respects their conclusions were complete folly.
Hippocrates (5th century BC) was the first to put forth the view that there are four liquids in the human body which determine a person's health. This, of course, was before any knowledge of germs and their relation to disease. His theory was that a man's physical health is determined by the balance of these four fluids. Illness is a result of their imbalance. The four liquids (called "humors") are: 1) blood, 2) phlegm, 3) chole (yellow bile), and 4) melanchole (black bile). It was believed that during certain seasons of the year fluid imbalance occurred. It was corrected by medication: a spring tonic, broth of lizard, goat eye, or whatever. Although this general theory survived until the present century, it is obviously complete medical folly and has long-since been outdated.
Galen of Pergamum 2nd Century AD was a Roman physician who had a large medical practice in Rome. His reputation was renown. His services were even provided to three Roman Emperors. Twenty- one volumes of his works survive containing a stupendous treatment of biology and medicine. They have been translated into Latin, Syrian, and Arabic. During the Middle Ages, thought and practice were dominated by these writings.
Galen added to the Hippocratic idea the theory that imbalance of liquids also affected the personality. He gave definitions to a personality affected by this imbalance, using Latin terms for each fluid: 1) sanguine (blood), 2) phlegmatic (phlegm, mucus), 3) choleric (yellow bile), and 4) melancholy (black bile). The sanguine (too much blood) was supposed to be the warm, lively type, cheerful, excited, and optimistic. The phlegmatic (too much phlegm) was the calm, unemotional type, sluggish or slow. The choleric (too much yellow bile) was the often angry, quick-tempered, and strong-willed extrovert. Melancholy (too much black bile) was gloomy, depressed, and probably introverted.
Another view of man's personality and actions was given by the astrologers. They proposed that the position of the stars at the time of birth determined a person's personality, actions, and fate. This system of thought, with its zodiac symbols, is well known.
In medieval times these two views (zodiac and four humors) were combined. The twelve signs of the zodiac were combined with the four humors (three zodiac symbols for each "temperament") ) the combination seemed too obvious to overlook. By the late medieval period the idea was common even in the arts. A seventeenth century playwright named Ben Johnson wrote plays with characters stereotyping the temperaments. The common understanding was that everyone is one of the four temperaments.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this idea had reached absurd levels. For example, Psychology in the Schoolroom, a textbook written in 1905 by T. F. Dexter and A. H. Garlick, was a standard handbook for teachers to understand their pupils. This handbook gave detailed instruction to the teacher concerning how to identify, understand, and deal with each type of student. A person's temperament was identified even by physical characteristics, such as red hair = choleric. The theory enjoyed prestige until its demise with the increased understanding of human biology, behavior and related sciences.
In recent years, however, the theory has been resurrected and given a Christian slant. The old pagan/zodiac part of the system is ignored. Christian writers are advising pastors and counsellors to be well acquainted with the teaching of the temperaments in order, so they think, to better understand people's problems and to advise them more effectively.
In this type of teaching an entirely new approach to counselling has developed. The particular short comings and failures of an individual are seen as merely the result of a certain weakness of temperament. Christians are also advised to decide whom they should marry, how they should serve in the church, and which spiritual gift they possess based upon temperament strengths and/or weaknesses. The ramifications of this psychoanalysis coming into the religious realm seem to be endless.
Time To Rethink
In the light of all this, it seems wisest to rethink the entire scheme, not only in view of its less than commendable history but also in view of the Scripture's requirements concerning the solution to man's problems and his responsibilities.
So far as man's responsibilities and failures are concerned, the Bible deals with man on the basis of right and wrong, obedience and sin. This is the focus. The counsellor should exercise caution to place the emphasis where Scripture does and nowhere else. When a man is argumentative, obstinate, and just plain hard to get along with, the problem is self-centeredness and pride (Proverbs 13:10), not too much yellow bile. Having his pride singled out as his problem not only gives him the Scriptural viewpoint, but it also removes any excusing of his sin and enables him to deal with the problem more effectively. Dealing with causes is so much more helpful than dealing with symptoms!
If a man does not properly fulfill his given and accepted and needed responsibilities in the church, his problem is not a personality weakness or anything of the like; it is unfaithfulness, irresponsibility, or disobedience. Viewed in this (Scriptural) way the individual is placed in a position to serve God more effectively. Ad mittedly, this may sometimes seem harsh, but to be helpful the counsellor must deal with real causes and real issues.
The Christian counsellor's responsibility is to point the counselee to Divine Revelation. Nothing less. Nothing else. This is true in all areas of Christian counselling, teaching, and preaching. Holding not only to the authority but also to the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, the responsibilities of both the preacher / counsellor and the counselee are clear. May God grant that we see it — to God's glory and the church's health.