Redeeming Psychology means learning how to better use the Bible in psychological work
Redeeming Psychology means learning how to better use the Bible in psychological work

Redeeming Psychology means learning how to better use the Bible in psychological work

It is crucial that Christians think theologically about psychological data, theories, practices and professions.

June 1 st 2009
Appears in Summer 2009

The Bible's rich portrayal of human experience is one of its many charms. For example, Psalm 31 expresses astonishing emotional and phenomenological complexity. We hear David's lucid awareness of personal need, both situational and psychological. We hear his outcry for help, his utter trust, fierce hatred, joyous gratitude, grievous distress, sense of abandonment, sheer helplessness, bone-weary sorrow, justified aggression, immediate terror, intimate sensitivity to enfolding safety, claustrophobic awareness of threat, hearty courage, confident call to others—all this in under 300 words in the Hebrew original (500 in our wordier English). It seems impossible that so much humanity could inhabit such a small space. But the psalm works; it's psychologically plausible. In fact, the candor and coherence of this psalm is so compelling that these very words gave voice to Jesus' experience of betrayal and torture a thousand years later. And this same coherent candor can give voice to your experience and mine, even when our experiences are merely difficult.

This one example barely cracks the door into Scripture's portrayal of intra- and inter-personal processes. Time would fail me to tell of Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Hannah, Saul, Esther, Haman, Jeremiah, Peter . . . The vividness of phenomenological and relational experience comes as no surprise, given that the divine author animating the Bible authors is the only person who actually sees into the depths of any human heart, the only person who fully comprehends the significance of every human interaction. This God made us, understands us, weighs us; he has chosen to enter, speak and act into our condition. One of his purposes is to teach us how he perceives and acts with respect to our psycho-socio-somatic complexity.

But the purposes driving the Bible's portrayal of psychological riches are neither scientific (like those of a research psychologist), nor theoretical (like those of the great personality theorists), nor psychotherapeutic (like, for example, an Irving Yalom), nor literary (like a Dostoevsky). We might say that the psychological riches revealed are "by the way," a secondary spin-off from primary purposes. By revealing the true God in relation to his creatures, the Bible primarily intends to give us a transformed orientation and transformed intentions: ways of making sense of whatever we encounter, experience, or learn, as well as ways of proceeding wisely and lovingly. These twin purposes have huge implications for how Christian faith engages and redeems the modern psychologies. I will briefly discuss one overarching implication.

It is crucial that Christians think theologically about psychological data, theories, practices, and professions. As we do so, we come to realize that our faith has systematic effects on our understanding of human psychology. As a comprehensive gaze and practice, "the faith's psychology" stands beside the psychodynamic psychologies or scientific psychology or cognitive behavioural psychology as a unique point of view. This does not mean that Scripture is a storehouse of all facts, or that our faith generates all facts. No psychology does that. Psychologies interpret facts, and Christian faith generates a transformative perspective on all facts. It does not supply all the information; it teaches a way of organizing and weighing information.

Every generation of Christians has fresh work to do. Historically, this task is called practical theology, the application of Christian faith to contemporary issues. One such contemporary issue is the explosion of information in psychological research.

The enterprise of psychological research is nearing its 150th anniversary. Research is the part of psychology that intuitively seems the most objective, the most neutral and the most scientific. Many of the more contested activities in the diverse field of psychology (for example, personality theories and psychotherapies) seek to legitimize themselves by positioning themselves as scientific. There is no doubt that scientific methods have reaped an incalculable store of facts, findings, information and correlations.

But information always comes to us organized by some kind of interpretive framework. Facts never come spewing out in random disarray, like confetti out of a confetti cannon. Brute facts would be meaningless—nothing more than word salad, irrelevant and uninformative. It is interpretation that makes any fact informative and relevant. And interpretations are inherently problematic, open to debate.

For example, the great question defining research psychology is how to explain human behaviour: "Why do people do what they do?" The most persistent issue animating the enterprise of research has been to assess the relative contributions of biology and experience. The answer that has emerged is this: "People are the way they are because of a complex interplay between nature and nurture."

In weighing the significance of nature and nurture factors, Christian theology has much to say about this particular answer. Historically, the church discussed the relative influence of these factors under the headings "material cause" (physiology) and "efficient cause" (social experience), but wisely located "final cause" elsewhere—in the interplay between God and identifiable factors internal to the person.

Our theology thus brings into focus the most complex and significant aspect of causality: "What is the actual contribution of the person to what he or she does?" This tends to be the lacuna in research psychology. The unconstrained, indeterminate element within every human choice is a wild card that eludes scientific method, analysis and explanation.

Christian faith is uniquely strong regarding this most profound issue. The human factor is a decisive element in the complex of final causation. The thoughts and intentions of the heart continually interact with him with whom we have to do (see Hebrews 4:12ff). Nature and nurture significantly influence and constrain, but they don't finally explain. In an essential way, why you do what you do always comes down to you.

We redeem psychology as we think theologically, weighing all information within a comprehensive explanation of why people do what they do (and remaining appropriately agnostic and curious). We redeem psychology as we demythologize the implicit or explicit hard causalities of other gazes, bringing to light blind spots regarding the person, articulating more balanced answers to the question of causality. We redeem psychology as we learn how the Bible works in psychological work.

David Powlison
David Powlison

Dr. David Powlison is a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, and has been the editor of The Journal of Biblical Counseling. He holds a Ph.D. in History of Science and Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. David has been counseling for over thirty years. He has written many books and articles on biblical counseling and the relationship between faith and psychology, including: Speaking Truth in Love; Seeing with New Eyes; Power Encounters; and Competent to Counsel?: the History of a Conservative Protestant Biblical Counseling Movement. David is an adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and has taught across the U.S.A. and internationally, including Korea, India, Brazil, Europe, United Kingdom and Sri Lanka.


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