This post was adapted from an article by Dr. Jeff Black, chair of graduate counseling, which was published in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of Cairn magazine.
When students consider studying counseling at Cairn, I always know there is a question coming: “How do you understand the relationship between the Bible and psychology?” It’s a difficult question; I am always reluctant to give a brief answer because my thoughts on this topic cannot be reduced to a few pithy sound bites, and I am afraid the longer answer will just confuse them. Instead, my response is to tell them I teach an entire course devoted to the topic of Christianity and psychology, and by the end of that course, they might have their question answered.
Still, it’s an important question that deserves a satisfying answer.
There are four things to think about when it comes to the Bible and psychology:
1. It’s complicated.
The relationship between psychology and the Bible is complicated. It is not as simple and straightforward as some people would like to believe. Many of my students have previously been promised simple answers, but those don’t seem to stand up to close scrutiny.
Understanding the complexity of this relationship creates a culture of critical thinking, not criticism, as our students begin to integrate the truth they find in the Bible with the concepts they find in the textbook.
2. The phrase “All truth is God’s truth” needs more explanation.
The maxim “All truth is God’s truth” is not the weight-bearing expression of our program. The message behind this maxim is that psychological truths carry the same truth-value as biblical truths because God reveals both. But God does not always reveal both. Biblical truths are authoritative in ways that psychological concepts can never be. By believing that Scripture speaks to the heart of people’s trouble, we know that God has much to say about people’s problems, including their psychological disorders.
Scripture is rich in description, explanations, and prescriptions. Psychology as an academic discipline does generate useful data and explanations about human behavior. But even the concepts that I think are useful and laden with truth still bear some imprint of a secular worldview. A counselor’s biblical framework for thinking and counseling must be deeply and firmly rooted in the truths of Scripture while well-informed by psychology.
3. Always consider the worldview.
The impact of a secular worldview does not distort all psychological concepts in the same way or to the same extent. When discussing the relationship between the Bible and psychology, worldview is a key term. Christians differ significantly on this issue.
One common view is to start with the assumption that Scripture only serves to make up the rules of engagement but offers no potentially competing models of explanation. From this perspective, a Christian worldview only serves as a set of limiting “control beliefs,” like the sidelines on a football or soccer field. They do not tell you where to run or how to run, but only where you cannot run. As long as you are running between the lines, you can pretty much do what you want.
In contrast to this view, an integrated biblical approach to psychology lets you contribute to the playbook. At Cairn, we hold the perspective that the influence of a biblical worldview on the validity of a psychological concept depends on the extent to which the concept itself is directly connected to a worldview assumption.
Here’s an example: I teach a course in psychopharmacology—the study of the effects of drugs on the mind and behavior. I begin the course by considering how a biblical view of the nature of personhood dictates my understanding of the mind-body problem. Here, specific biblical doctrines play a constitutive role in determining a Christian counselor’s view on the prescription and use of medications. On the other hand, worldview is not a central focus when we shift to a discussion of the role of different medications in the production, synthesis, distribution, or reuptake of neurotransmitters. Every counseling course is designed to consider the impact of a biblical worldview in this way.
4. Scripture portrays human nature comprehensively.
We believe Scripture provides a conceptually comprehensive analysis of the human condition, complete with important concepts about personhood, problems of living, and mechanisms of change. We begin with the assumption that Scripture provides a sufficient resource for counseling. Students spend two semesters working out a biblical-theological model of counseling. For many of our students, this is the hardest curriculum to master. Many Christians begin with the belief that Scripture can be devotional, exhortational, and behavioral, but not diagnostic and explanatory—as psychology would be. While the study of psychology is a worthy pursuit, we ultimately believe that Scripture is the sufficient and final authority for addressing people’s complex issues. If you want to understand humans, the Bible does so most fully.
How should Christians interact with psychology? They should integrate the two in a biblically faithful manner. Deep integration of a biblical approach and psychology does not occur overnight. Ultimately, it requires discipline and a desire to serve the Lord to the best of our ability.
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