Past literature on the relationship between psychology and theology vary on if the two complement one another, can tolerate one another, and are separate, or do not belong in the same room. “Psychology of Religion” started back in the 19th century using psychology in theology. [i] Though, Freud thought this was rubbish because he had, according to Livingstone and Cross, a “…critical and reductionist views of religion which he repeatedly expressed no longer command assent either among psychologists or among theologians.”[ii] Others disagreed with Freud though that there was no use for psychology and theology to co-mingle as Cornelius Van Till writes, “There is, for instance, a good deal of discussion in the field of psychology about teleology. McDougal’s teleological psychology is frequently mentioned by apologists who seek to find a similarity between Christianity and recent scientific thought.” [iii] All in all, since the science of psychology has immerged, the debate continues. Today, we still ask questions like what is the relevance of psychology to religion. Can we learn anything from psychology that might help solve theological conundrums? Can psychology use theology without compromising the scientific method? The debate continues in current literature.
Eric Johnson comments on current times when it comes to psychology and theology writing:
Christian interest in psychology has exploded over the last fifty years. Countless books have been written by Christians that describe our personalities, our boundaries, our dysfunctional development, our relationships and their problems, how our children should be raised, and so on.[iv]
Some have embraced this explosion to one degree, while others argue that psychology taints Christian truths as Hindson and Eyrich writes:
The psychologizing of modern culture is now a reality. As a result, the victim motif is so entrenched in our national thinking that the most blatant crimes are often excused by blaming the bad behavior on the failure of the parents, friends, society, and even religion to meet the perpetrator’s inner personal needs. Individual behavior is viewed as incidental. Society is asked to focus on the consequences rather than the causes of its ills. Welfare has replaced human responsibility…But we dare not raise the “politically incorrect” cry for repentance, abstinence, or morality.[v]
Others throw out psychology because understanding the human person is beyond the discipline of psychology as Ed Bulkley writes, “A dozen psychoanalysts listening to the same material are likely to formulate a dozen different estimations of its unconscious meaning.”[vi]
Still others contend that there is a place for psychology within theology when properly applied.[vii] Also, theology (spiritual disciplines) has a place in psychological research.[viii] Even Freudian concepts, though not straight from the Bible, do have biblical tenets imbedded in them.[ix]
There are 4-5 theories that attempt to solve the tension between psychology and theology that will not be analyzed here.[x] What is clear though from what has been covered is that there is a tension between the two in past and current literature. Part of the tension is presuppositions as William T. Kirwan writes, “All counseling theories have philosophical presuppositions at their core.”[xi] Though, there are filters for presuppositions to run through in the debate between psychology and theology to come to more objective conclusions, but are we open to agreeing on what those filters might be?
A plausible solution can be made that we can know something about certain truths in psychology despite the complexity of the human person. Doctors Meier, Minirth, Wichern, and Ratcliff argue psychology is a discipline derived from philosophy writing:
Before psychology was recognized as a distinct discipline, it was considered to be a branch of philosophy. A basic issue that philosophers have considered over the centuries is epistemology, or the question of how people know. The scientific method, upon which psychology is based, is but one way of forming conclusions. [xii]
If psychology has its roots in philosophy then psychology has at least a corroborative role to theology. As Philosopher and Theologian William Lane Craig writes:
The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. Only the ministerial use of reason can be allowed. Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology. Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding[xiii]
If psychology then can play a ministerial or corroborative role to theology, we must consider it’s use carefully when dealing with eternal truths.
[i] Psychology of religion is defined as, “A field of study, dating from the late 19th cent., in which the concepts and methods of psychology are applied to religious experience and behavior.” F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1355.
[ii] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1355.
[iii] Cornelius Van Til, Christian-Theistic Evidences. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1978), 129.
[iv] Eric L. Johnson. Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (Spectrum Series) (p. 9). Kindle Edition.
[v] Edward E. Hindson and Howard Eyrich, Totally Sufficient (Eugene, Or.: Harvest House Publishers, 1997), 15.
[vi] Ed Bulkley, Why Christians Can't Trust Psychology (Eugene, Or.: Harvest House, 1993), 57.
[vii]Kirwan writes, “Biblical Christianity and psychology, when rightly understood, do not conflict but represent functionally cooperative positions. By taking both spheres into account, a mental-health professional can help Christians avoid the inevitable results of violating psychological laws structured into human personality by God.” William T. Kirwan, Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling : A Case for Integrating Psychology and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 21.
[viii] Todd Hall and John Coe write, “Here again there will be a kind of learning spiral involved in the doing of psychology and the spiritual disciplines. While the doing of spiritual disciplines protects the doing of psychology, we also gain insight from psychology about the nature and manner of doing spiritual disciplines well or poorly. One can only imagine what it would be like to study at a school of psychology that was consciously committed to growth in psychological insight as well as in the life of prayer and the spiritual disciplines; personal growth as well as growth in greater union with God by the Spirit.” John Coe; Todd W. Hall. Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology (pp. 91-92). Kindle Edition.
[ix] John Coe writes answering the question is psychology biblical? He writes, “Obviously the psychological reflections of Sigmund Freud … are unbiblical in the sense that their musings are not included in the Bible. However, whether their views are biblical in the sense of being consistent with or reflected in the Bible is a more complex matter. For example, we can find correlation between Freud’s view of the “unconscious” and “repression” and the biblical understanding of the “hidden heart” that insists there is always more going on deep within a person than on the surface (Pr 14:13), often due to the heart’s deceptive nature (Jr 17:9; Rm 1:18).” Ted Cabal, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen et al., The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 430.
[x] For an extensive look at the different views see Eric L. Johnson. Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (Spectrum Series; The personal endorse the Transformational Psychology view which Todd Hall and John Coe cover in the book just cited and also in John Coe; Todd W. Hall. Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology.
[xi] William T. Kirwan, Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling: A Case for Integrating Psychology and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 22.
[xii] Paul D. Meier, M.D., Frank B. Minirth, M.D., Frank B. Wichern, Ph.D. and Donald E. Ratcliff, Ph.D., Introduction to Psychology and Counseling: Christian Perspectives and Applications, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1991), 19.
[xiii] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Rev. ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994), 36.