A Critical Assessment of James Fowler’s Faith Development Theory

The study of human development is an area which has inspired much interest from theorists and researchers seeking to explain a wide range of human functions. Among some of the most well-known developmental models are Piaget’s four-stage cognitive model, Erikson’s eight-stage psychosocial model and Kohlberg’s moral development model. James Fowler (2000) contributed to this area of study by devising a seven-stage faith development model which draws heavily on these previous developmental models. The faith development model has been widely used in a range of applied settings and has inspired a substantial number of related studies. However, the model has also attracted heavy criticism including questions over its use of a structural approach, Fowler’s definition of “faith”, claims of gender and process bias, neglect of the “self” and inadequate response to postmodern challenges. This essay will present Fowler’s faith development model and critically discuss its contributions and limitations. It is argued that the model has serious flaws when used as a psychosocial and cognitive explanation of religious faith.

Fowler’s Faith Development Model

Fowler’s faith development model has seven stages based on the developmental models of Piaget, Erikson and Kohlberg and other theorists (see Fowler, 1991; Fowler, 2000; Fowler, 2001; Fowler, 2004). One of the most important characteristics of the model is Fowler’s definition of “faith”. Fowler (1991: 31) defines faith as “universal quality of human meaning making”. Faith describes the underlying meaning-making process used by all people regardless of their beliefs (Coyle, 2011). Faith occurs as individuals place personal trust and loyalty in one or more “centre of value” such as religion, family, money, power and so on (Fowler, 1991). The faith development model conceptualises this psychological process of meaning-making (“faith”) in seven stages and suggests that this structure is the same regardless of whether individuals are aligned to a religious or non-religious centre of value.

Consequently, the faith development model focuses on the “psychological factors that facilitate the operation of faith” and does not address any specific content of faith (i.e. the specific faith values and beliefs of a particular religion) (Jardine & Viljoen, 1992: 75). According to the model, the underlying psychological processes of ‘faith’ are underpinned by a person’s form of logic, role-taking, formal moral judgement, social awareness, locus of authority, form of world coherence and symbolic functioning (Fowler, 1991). These operational functions are integrated into Fowler’s seven stages following a structural approach which views faith development as universal, hierarchical and sequential (Day, 2001). In other words, the stages are applicable to everyone and one must complete the preceding stage before advancing to the next stage. This will be evident in the following summary of each stage as outlined in Fowler & Dell’s (2005) recent description of the model.

The first stage of primal faith emerges in the very first months of life. This is a pre-language faith in which the infant forms a rudimentary faith based on the infant’s relationship with his or her parents. This “faith” is a trust in the parents for care and mutuality of regard which offsets separation anxiety in infant development. In the second stage of intuitive-projection in early childhood, the child acquires language and engages in a high level of imagination and fantasy. Not yet controlled by logical thinking, the child has little capacity to separate fantasy from fact (Einstein, 1978). Representations of God begin to form based on experiences with parents and other adults who were significant in their childhood. In the third stage of mythical-literal development, the child begins to think logically (concrete-operational thinking) and is able to discern fact from fantasy. Children in this stage begin to take on the content of faith from a wider range of authority figures than previously, including their parents, significant adults, teachers and religious leaders (Einstein, 1978).

The fourth stage of synthetic-conventional typically emerges in early adolescence and signifies the beginning of the ability to use abstract ideas and concepts to understand the world around them (formal operational thinking). The individual’s “faith” becomes susceptible to the shaping influence of societal norms and accepted groups or structures (Einstein, 1978). The adolescent also develop interpersonal multi-perspective cognitions and begin to desire a personal relationship with God in which they feel loved in a deep and comprehensive way (Fowler & Dell, 2005). The fifth stage of individuative-reflective development typically occurs in a person’s early twenties, thirties and forties and requires a significant critical analysis of one’s values and beliefs. Prior to this stage, the individual may have had an uncritical acceptance of others’ beliefs as the basis of their own beliefs. In this stage, the individual utilises logical reasoning, abstract thinking and problem solving (full formal operational thinking) and assumes responsibility for their own beliefs and values.

The sixth stage of conjunctive development is not commonly reached by individuals and is rarely seen before the age 30 (Fowler & Dell, 2005). The individual in this stage no longer relies on others for authority on faith values and beliefs but has fully internalised their own faith (Einstein, 1978). The individual is able to embrace and integrate opposites and polarities in life and has a deeper appreciation for symbols, stories, metaphors and myths from their own faith tradition and that from others (Fowler & Dell, 2005). The seventh stage of universalising is rarely attained. The individual sees the world as one universal inclusive community regardless of nationality, social class, age, gender and other divisive characteristics (Fowler & Dell, 2005). The individual seeks to transform the world by changing adverse social conditions including violence, division and oppression stemming from a complete identification with the perspective of God’s love and justice. Examples of ‘universalising’ individuals include Ghandi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr.

A Critical Assessment of Fowler’s Faith Development Model

Fowler’s faith development model has been widely used in religious education, Christian pastoral care and other applied settings (e.g. Avery, 1990; Fox, 1995; Green & Hoffman, 1989; Streib, 2004; Streib, 2005, Tamminen, 1994). Various instruments have been devised to measure faith development including the faith development interview (FDI), faith styles scales (FSS) and faith development scale (FDS) (Parker, 2006). One of the benefits of Fowler’s model is its coverage over the whole lifespan which exceeds previous religious development models which only focused on childhood and adolescence (Coyle, 2011). Additionally, the broad definition of “faith” enables the application of the model to a wide range of religious and non-religious domains. For example, Neuman (2011) suggested the use of Fowler’s model to help paediatric nurses and paediatric practitioners address the spiritual needs of children and adolescents in their care. Other studies have applied the model as a framework to explain the faith development of specific individuals (e.g. study of Thomas Merton by Raab, 1999) and certain groups (e.g. study of Catholic teachers by Barnes, Doyle & Johnson, 1989; science and religion students by Gathman & Nessan, 1997).

Although the model is widely used, there are serious criticisms over many of its aspects. Among the harsher critics is the view that faith development model has irreconcilable flaws and consequently is a “paradigm reaching the end of its life” (Heywood, 2008: 270). The most common concerns regarding the model include the organisation of the stages using a structural approach, Fowler’s definition of “faith”, potential gender bias, neglect of the “self” and inadequate response to postmodern challenges. Each of these criticisms will be discussed and it is argued that these represent serious flaws in the faith development model.

Fowler’s use of a structural approach to organise the faith developmental stages and his definition of “faith” are problematic in several ways. As a structural theory, it is assumed that faith development unfolds in a uniform way across universal, hierarchical and irreversible stages (Day, 2001).  Psychological research suggests that development involves much more fluidity and a rigid stage-like theory is limited in its ability to capture the richness and diversity of religious development (Coyle, 2011; Heywood, 2008). Additionally, critics disagree with the rationale behind Fowler’s exclusion of religious content from the faith development model. The separation was based on the idea that “faith” involves loyalty and trust to centre of value and does not require intellectual agreement to any specific assertions. Jones (2004: 352) argues that Christianity involves loyalty and trust in Jesus Christ as a centre of value but is also a “content-requisite faith” which depends on acceptance of certain beliefs such as ‘God exists’, ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’ and ‘Jesus is the Messiah’. Acceptance of other beliefs and content apart from Christian tenets is seen from the Christian viewpoint as idolatry (Avery, 1990). The problem with Fowler’s definition of “faith” as a universal construct separate from religious content is that it is incompatible with the definition of faith of “content-requisite” religious groups.

Critics have also highlighted the incompatibility of Fowler’s structural approach with the Christian concept of divine grace. The structural approach suggests that faith development is a human achievement which is greatly influenced by the individual’s cognitive and psychological abilities (Avery, 1990). From a Christian perspective, faith is a divine gift from God and a human response to God’s grace rather human striving for self-actualisation (Coyle, 2011). If faith is a reflection of a cognitive and psychological achievement, this suggests limitations on the power of God to assist individuals. “If one is permanently caught in a deficient faith stance because of genetic factors, then the power of grace to ‘uplift’ or ‘redeem’ an individual… would be largely ineffectual” (Jardine & Viljoen, 1992: 84). Critics also suggest that the faith developmental model reduces faith to a cognitive and psychological process without acknowledging that God may work in ways that cannot be observed or analysed by psychoanalytic procedures (McDargh, 2001).

There is also concern that Fowler’s model favours men over women due to the model’s heavy emphasis on viewing faith development as cognitive progression. Specifically, the seven stages are based on cognitive operational functions (i.e. form of logic, role-taking, formal moral judgement, social awareness, locus of authority, form of world coherence and symbolic functioning) and heavily reflect Piaget’s four-stage cognitive development model (Ford-Grabowsky, 1987). Coyle (2011) noted that women tend to score lower when assessed using the model and tended to proceed to later stages at a later age than men. This lack of attention to affect and emotional development as part of faith development is likely to disadvantage women whose patterns of faith tend to be more relationally focused than cognitively based (Gardin, 1997).

Ford-Grabowsky (1987) also argues that Fowler’s model overemphasises the ego, consciousness and positivity and negates the influence of the self, unconsciousness and negativity leading to an incomplete assessment of the whole person. Incorporating characteristics of the Jungian concept of self such as unifying conflicting polarities and addressing the repressed negative aspects (‘shadow’) and masculine/feminine elements (anima/animus) of the personality is one way of addressing the imbalance. Ford-Grabowsky (1987) also draws on the work of Hildegard of Bingen (a German mystical theologian) who differentiated between the “inner person” who is able to experience faith and the “outer person” who is unable to experience faith. By neglecting important parts of the self, Fowler focuses exclusively on the outer person and is consequently “studying some other phenomenon than faith and mistakenly naming it as ‘faith’” (Ford-Grabowsky, 1987:84).

Lastly, critics claim that Fowler’s model of faith development inadequately addresses the challenges of postmodern thinking. Postmodern thinking represents a “movement from objectivity and metanarratives to a socially constructed world of plural realities and local narratives” (Coyle, 2011: 292). Postmodern thinking contends that knowledge is personally constructed from shared meaning-making within a community context rather than through objective and empirical deduction (Heywood, 2008). This contrasts the modernist qualities of Fowler’s faith development model including the separation of structure from content, aspirations for universalism, sequential staging and the grounding in empirical evidence. Additionally, Fowler’s narrow definition of “good faith” as one which is highly inclusive, positive and community building limits the possibilities of other definitions of “good faith”. A postmodern perspective of “good faith” is one that acknowledges the limitations of one’s constructed view of God and is open to others’ views as a source of additional insight which may further refine one’s own view of God (Heywood, 2008).

It is argued that Fowler’s faith development model is seriously flawed due to these issues. The definition of faith by Fowler as a universal meaning-making quality which is separate from religious content is highly contentious. Many religious groups (e.g. Christian, Muslim, Jewish) would describe a person’s meaning-making according to the model as ‘idolatry’ rather than ‘faith’ if the meaning-making was not based on something other than the religion’s particular tenets. Christian critics also object to the structural aspect of the model which suggests self actualisation and leaves little room for the operation of divine grace. Additionally, the emphasis on cognitive progression may encourage a gender bias and the neglect of unconscious negative aspects of the self may result in an incomplete (or potentially obsolete) assessment of faith development. Lastly, Fowler’s faith development model has many modernist characteristics which are at variance with growing acceptance of postmodern concerns for contextually-based meaning making.


This essay has addressed the contributions of Fowler’s faith development model and has critically examined its limitations. The faith development model furthers previous religious development models with its lifespan coverage and its broad definition of faith has enabled the model to be utilised in a wide range of applied settings. However, the model has some serious flaws including limitations of a structural approach, problems arising from Fowler’s definition of “faith”, potential gender bias, neglect of the “self” and inability to adapt to postmodern challenges. Despite its limitations, Fowler’s faith development model should be applauded for pioneering a systematic psychological assessment of religious faith development. Future studies may be able to address the limitations of Fowler’s model and present an improved method for assessing one of humanity’s most intriguing inclinations.



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4 thoughts on “James Fowler’s Faith Development Theory

  1. “Fowler’s faith development model has many modernist characteristics which are at variance with growing acceptance of postmodern concerns for contextually-based meaning making.” If some Christians are moving away content specific faith i.e. that of doctrines and text quoting-then they are acting in the way Fowler ascribes to level six. They are going beyond A religion. The criticism of not acknowledging the requisite content and the criticism of not being post modernist enough, do not sit well together. I would suggest they are almost contradictory.

    • Ian, I was thinking the same thing, having difficulty reconciling the two thoughts. Overall I believe that the critical analysis of the theory is quite excellent! Thank you.

  2. When we are at conventional faith, it is difficult to critique a theory that steps beyond conventions of “grace,” “salvation,” and other theological definitions.
    The need to fit the theory into our conventions of faith may seem a laudable pursuit. Yet wrestling with the apparent contradictions demonstrates the need to move beyond them. But that would require a step out of the conventional. Few really move beyond that, especially the more churched we are.

    We become the Pharisees. Blind to our own limited views, but convinced of their value and universal importance.


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