Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 19 (June 1967):

Theories of behavior provide important guidelines for both research and applied psychologists. This paper argues that Christian psychologists should produce explicitly stated personality theories that are consistent with Biblical teachings. Some basic requirements for such theories are suggested.

During the winter months, it is one of my responsibilities to teach a course entitled "personality theory." Starting with Freud, who is probably the best known and the most influential of the personality theorists, we go on to discuss Jung's analytical system; Adler's "Individual Psychology;" the neo-Freudian theorists such as Horney, Sullivan, Rank, and Fromm; the perceptual theorists such as Combs and Syngg; the constitutional theorists as represented by Sheldon and Kretschmer; the learning theorists including Mowrer, Sears, Dollard and Miller; the existentially oriented theorists such as Frankl; and a number of others including Lewin, Allport, Murray, Murphy, Goldstein, and Angyal. These people (and they, of course, are only the better known of many personality theorists) have all attempted to take what knowledge we have about human behavior and pull this together into some kind of a unifying conceptual framework. In facing this challenging task, their approaches have differed con-

* Gary R. Collins is Associate Professor of Psychology at Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota. Paper presented at the 20th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation at The King's College, Briarcliff Manor, New York, August, 1965.

siderably. Some have emphasized the biological determinants of behavior. Some have stressed the importance of social influences. Others have emphasized man's uniqueness and individuality. Some have attempted to relate all behavior to one's underlying life goal, or to one's self perceptions, or to an individual's personality characteristics, or to one's past learning. As there have been different approaches to personality theory, so have there been different suggestions regarding the ways in which we can change behavior through education, psychotherapy, or other forms of manipulation. Most of these personality theories have been built on a foundation of careful observation of behavior and a detailed familiarization with the findings of empirical research. Many of these theories have suggested hypotheses which have led to further pertinent experimental investigations.

In view of all this theorizing, those of us who are both Christians and psychologists should perhaps be asking two questions: first, is personality theory really necessary?; and second, do we need a Christian theory of personality? The second question presupposes an affirmative answer to the first. The first question has been debated by a number of psychologists whose conclusions are worthy of consideration.

In this paper, I would like to consider each of these two questions in turn and then suggest some requirements that would be necessary for an adequate Christian theory of personality. Before attempting to discuss these issues, however, it might be well for me to pause and indicate what I mean by a "theory of personality."

What is a Theory of Personality?

  Perhaps most psychologists would agree with Combs and Snygg who state that a theory is "an organzation of data, or a way of looking at data, to make them meaningful".1 The scientist strives to make pre cise and accurate observations. But these observations by themselves have little meaning. They must be com bined into some kind of organized framework before they can contribute to our understanding or be useful in the solution of problems. Combs and Snygg2 suggest an illustration from the field of meteorology. At weath er stations all over the country, observers collect pre cise and frequent information regarding wind direction and velocity, cloud formations, amount of precipitation, temperature, and barometric pressure. When re ported to a central weather bureau, these varied and isolated facts have little meaning. Even when plotted all together on a large map of North America, these
facts still are of little significance. It is not until the facts are brought together into a theory of weather changes that they become meaningful and useful in making predictions. Similarly in all areas of scientificinvestigation, scientists formulate theories in order to give meaning to empirical data.

In this paper, I plan to define theory as an organ ized set of hypotheses and laws set forth for the pur pose of explaining and predicting the relationship be tween variables.3 An hypothesis is a tentative but unconfirmed presupposition concerning the relationship between variables. It is a good guess which might be arrived at in a very arbitrary manner. A law, in this definition, refers to a tentative supposition concerning the relationship between variables (i.e. an hypothesis) which has been tested and has received a relatively high
degree of confirmation.4 In less formal language, we could say that from the psychologist's point of view, a
theory is a logical way of explaining empirical data.

It follows, of course, that as further data are acquired, the theories must be revised. No theory is right or true or complete. A scientific theory is simply the "best formulation of which we are capable at a given point in time"5 and thus we can expect that constant revision will be necessary. Popper has stressed the transient nature of scientific theory by defining theories as "genuine conjectures" or "highly informative guesses" which can be tested but never completely verified.6

To adequately define a theory of personality we must consider not only the meaning of theory but also the meaning of personality. "Personality", however, is one of the vaguest and most poorly defined terms in psychology. As every psychologist knows, in 1937 Gordon Allport reviewed nearly fifty definitions of this term before adding his own.7 Since that time, many more definitions have been added to the stockpile. The remarks which follow in the remainder of this paper could probably apply to any definition of personality and so I will indicate what I mean by the term and them move on to other matters, recognizing that my definition could be challenged. Personality refers to an individual's habitual or characteristic behavior (includ
ing, thinking, learning, and emotional reactions). A theory of personality, therefore, can be defined as an organized set of hypotheses and laws set forth for the  purpose of describing, explaining, and predicting an individual's habitual or characteristic behavior. With  this definition in mind, we can now turn to the first of our two questions.

  Is Personality Theory Necessary?

Probably the best known critic of phychological  theory has been B. F. Skinner. Although his famous  presidential address to the Midwestern Psychological Association in 1949 questioned the value of learning
theorie, his argument s mi ght well br  applied to theories of personality (or to any scientific theory). Skinner suggests that while theories are "fun," they are also convenient ways for avoiding experimental studies.

We are likely to . . . use the theory to give us answers in place of the answers we might find through further study. It might be argued that the principal function of learning theory to date has been, not to suggest appropriate research, but to create a false sense of security, an unwarranted satisfaction with the status quo.

Research designed with respect to theory is also likely to be wasteful. That a theory generates research does not prove its value unless the research is valuable. Much useless experimentation results from theories, and much energy and skill are absorbed by them. Most theories are eventually overthrown, and the greater part of the associated research is discarded. This could be justified if it were true that productive research required a theory, as is, of course, often claimed. It is argued that research would be aimless and disorganized without a theory to guide it. This view is supported by psychological texts that take their cue from the logicians rather than empirical science and describe thinking as necessarily involving stages of hypothesis, deduction, experimental test, and confirmation. But this is not the way most scientists actually work. It is possible to design significant experiments for other reasons and the possibility . . . is that such research will lead more directly to the kind of information that a science usually accumulates.

. . . By hastening the accumulation of data, we speed the departure of theories. If the theories have played no part in the design of our experiments, we need not be sorry to see them go.8

The opposite view is expressed by several writers who have listed a number of positive functions of a theory.9 I will mention only three of these functions. First, theories enable us to summarize and integrate existing knowledge. Secondly, theories suggest problems and guide in the formulation of hypotheses for empirical investigation. If we do not have the guiding influence of theory, Angyal has suggested, our empirical studies "are likely to result in an utterly chaotic and incoherent mass of data".10 Thirdly, theories permit us to make predictions about behavior.

These functions of a theory apply to clinical practitioners as well as to the researcher. Both must summarize and integrate existing knowledge whether this knowledge comes from the counselee, from the research literature, or from both. The psychologist's theoretical framework will guide the way in which he pulls this knowledge together. Both the clinician and the researcher are involved in formulating and testing hypotheses about their subject matter, whether the subject is a white rat or a confused college freshman. In both cases, one's theoretical framework guides in the hypothesis formulation. As an example, we would expect a Freudian, a Rogerian, and a Skinnerian to approach a counselee or a research problem in very different ways. Finally, a clinician and a researcher might make very different predictions about an individual's behavior in a given situation. These differences in prediction would stem from differences in theoretical viewpoint.

Perhaps we should not ask if personality theory is necessary. Perhaps instead, we should be asking whether we need theory that is conscious instead of unconscious, explicit instead of implicit. I agree with Maslow that everyone, even he who is as positivistic and anti-theoretical as Skinner, has a theory of human nature which "guides his reactions far more than does his laboriously acquired experimental knowledge"." A personality theory is necessary if we are to function efficiently in psychology or in any other area of our lives. For most people, including many psychologists, their theory or conception of how people will behave is vague, inconsistent, loosely organized, and at a low level of awareness. As psychologists, and especially as Christian psychologists, we must bring our theories into sharper focus and raise them to a clearer level of awareness. We must make our theories more specific and more precise. Already, I think, I have made a good start on answering my second basic question.

Do We Need a Christian Theory of Personality? 

Regardless of bow much he might like to keep his Christianity and his psychology separated into different, non-interacting compartments of his mind, the sincere Christian who is a psychologist must certainly view behavior from a perspective that is different from that of his non-Christian professional colleagues. For example, the Christian psychologist believes in a life after death and lives with an awareness of a coming eternity with Christ. This surely leads to a view of life and its problems which is different from the viewpoint of psychologists who disbelieve or rarely consider the possibility of eternal life. The problem of sin and guilt is likely to be viewed differently by the Christian as opposed to the non-Christian, and so is the issue of determinism, Most psychologists accept determinism as a basic assumption in their laboratories but reject it in their everyday behavior. This "determinism-freedom" controversy has been the subject for two recent and very fine articles in the Anterican Psychologist12 but neither of these mentions the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs. The Christian psychologist would most likely have difficulty in discussing determinism without God. Two additional areas of potential disagreement between the Christian psychologist and the non-Christian psychologist concern the question of values and the issue of the nature of man, I would like to discuss these two topics in greater detail in an attempt to support the position that a Christian theory of personality is necessary.

Values. In a paper which she presented a few years ago, one of my former professors (who influenced me more than I realized during my years as a graduate student) suggested that "if a person interacts in any way with another person, he is going to disseminate values. So we might as well be explicit about it, admit it, and think about it".13 Within recent years, many of us have come to realize that one cannot be a clinical psychologist and still maintain a complete value neutrality. This was demonstrated empirically by Greenspoon's famous studies of verbal conditioning14 which showed that a therapist could manipulate the behavior of a counselee by a simple head nod or a few "uh-huh" responses. Even when he tries to be neutral a counselor's casual headnods subtly communicate his own value system. Subsequent studies have supported this initial finding and demonstrated other ways in which values can be disseminated during in interview.15 Williamson16 has suggested that we do not act without revealing, implicitly or explicitly, our subjectively chosen values. "Good adjustment ... .. freedom from anxiety," "ability to get along with people," - these are all terms which express some of the value judgments of counselors. Complete therapist neutrality is a myth.

But values also enter into our research. Even the most rigorously disciplined scientist - even Skinner - cannot function independently of his value system.17 The hypotheses which we formulate, the techniques which we use, the honesty with which we evaluate our data, ways in which we disseminate our findings - all of these represent and are dependent upon one's value system. In a picturesque fashion, Lowe18 has suggested that to do research without intending it to serve a particular value orientation is like building a high speed automobile without any steering wheel.

In spite of the importance of values in our work, however, I suspect that many psychologists have a very vague and inconsistent value system. They go forth to work with troubled people assuming that they can remain aloof, but failing to realize that even their fuzzy moral beliefs will be influential.19 Some writers are suggesting that the time has come for us to be explicit about our values and to openly express them in counseling.20 "As psychologists familiarize themselves with the value orientation under which they operate," Lowe has written, they should "confess their philosophic biases and then turn those biases to fullest advantage by being of professional assistance to the special interest groups with which their values coincide".21

Several years ago, when I was working in a counseling center at a state university, I found that many students were searching for a system of values and a purpose in life. On several occasions, rather than attempting to remain neutral, I shared with these students the value system which was meaningful to me as a Christian. In my opinion this was not "pushing religion." It was an overt sharing of the value system which sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly guides all of my counseling. It seems to me that the Christian psychologist must be explicit in his value orientation and I submit that as Christians we need a theory (or theories) of personality which shows consistency with Biblical values.

The Nature of Man. According to Gordon Allport of Harvard, "today people are asking more than ever before what sort of creature is man?".22 As Christians, we must bring our perspectives to the rising debate in psychology about the nature of man.

Of course, within psychology (and without) there are many existing viewpoints about man's nature. These have been discussed elsewhere23 and perhaps need only be summarized here. The naturalistic or mechanistic view sees man as a physiological or physical being which reacts to external stimulation with observable and measureable behavior. Watson, Skinner, Dollard and Miller hold this viewpoint as do apparently most American psychologists.24 Such a view permits precise experimentation but it also leads to an array of miniscule or "itty bitty" facts, to quote Allport,25 instead of a view of the human as a whole person. The culturalistic view pictures man as a social being who must learn to conform to the norms of his culture. Behavior is viewed primarily as an attempt to adjust, adapt, or relate to other people and the man who does not or cannot conform is considered to be pathological. Adler, Homey, Rank, Sullivan, and more recently Shoben are personality theorists who have held this view. Critics have pointed out, however, that if we accept the culturalistic position we must agree with cultural relativism and be willing to give up our individuality in an attempt to fit the rapidly changing and frequently vague social mold. From the humanistic viewpoint, man is considered to be basically' good, rational, self-sufficient, able to control his own destiny, to solve his own problems, and to realize his unique potentialities. This view of man is held by Fromm, Rogers, and most of the psychologists and theologians who embrace the non-directive or "client-centered" approach to counseling. But is man as rational and capable as the humanists would have us believe? Many psychologists, including those with an evangelical Christian orientation would answer in the negative. The existentialist viewpoint in psychology makes little attempt to describe man's nature but it recognizes that man is restless, anxious, alienated, and searching for meaning. This approach, held by Frankl and Rollo May, has attracted many adherents but others have been critical because the viewpoint will not accept the mechanistic scientific methods of studying man. Carl Jung might exemplify those who accept a theistic view of man. Dependence upon God and religion is the basic tenet of this position. Man is not self-sufficient. He is made in the image of God and until he has "found God" man can have no meaning or completeness in life. Some have criticized this view because it encourages infantile dependence, creates more anxiety and guilt than it relieves, or is beyond the techniques of scientific investigation. In a recent book Tweedie26 suggests that the Christian view of man is the only perspective which adequately delineates man's nature. Apparently this viewpoint accepts the authority of scripture and attempts to make use of Biblical concepts which refer specifically to man and his functions. It is difficult (although probably not impossible) to clearly delineate the Christian or Biblical view of man, however, because the Bible uses terms such as "heart," "soul," or "spirit." These terms are psychologically meaningless and must be rephrased somehow into more specific scientific language if we are to come up with a clear Christian theory of personality.27

The Christian psychologist must consider the issue of man's nature and must recognize that the non-Christian psychologist is likely to have a different viewpoint. As Christians we need to advance a theory of personality which is consistent with a Biblical view of man's nature. Such a theory will have to recognize man's original sinful state, the changes that follow when he commits his life to Christ and experiences the "new birth," and the influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Such a view will have to consider whether man is a unity, a dichotomy (having a body and mind) or a trichotomy (having a body, soul, and mind). Christian personality theory will have to account for individual differences. It will have to consider the problem of conscience. It will have to say something about the unconscious and it will have to decide whether and to what extent naturalism, culturalism, humanism, existentialism, theism, or any other view of man is consistent with Biblical teaching.

Requirements for a Christian Theory of Personality  

Let us assume that theories of personality are necessary and that we need a Christian theory of personality. With these assumptions perhaps it would be wise for us to turn to a brief consideration of some requirements that would be essential for the construction of an adequate Christian theory of personality. At this relatively early point in my thinking at least four basic requirements would seem to be important.

1. The theory should have a clear and explicit language. Hall and Lindzey28 suggest that most personality theories lack explicitness. The theorist who is not explicit, will not communicate effectively and will be unable to contribute much to a Christian theory of personality. We must be aware of a tendency among Christians to use terminology which is meaningful to the "in-group" but jibberish to the non-believer. Rotter's29 criteria for an ideal psychological language are good guidelines for the Christian personality theorist. Our terms, he suggests, should be reliable (that is, having the same meaning to all psychologists), have minimal overlap, be minimum in number,30 and serve some useful predictive purpose. Precise and clearly defined terminology should be a guiding goal if our theory is to be useful in describing, explaining, and predicting behavior, and in suggesting research hypotheses.

At the risk of contradicting myself, it may be wise at this point for me to emphasize that precision isn't always possible, and sometimes it isn't even desirable. As Hebb3l has noted, sometimes it is better to be temporarily naive and productive than to be sophisticated, hypercritical, and sterile. We should aim to be as explicit as we can, however, without becoming involved in intensely detailed elaboration.

2. The theory should give a description and explanation of human behavior. Earlier it was suggested that a theory summarizes and integrates empirical data. The Christian theory of personality should enable us to better understand, whenever possible, the relationships between empirical findings. Although I recognize that this is an ideal and perhaps unattainable goal, we should strive to present explanations which are logical, complete, and consistent both with the Biblical view of man and with the findings of contemporary psychological research in such areas as perception, learning, emotion, motivation, abnormal behavior, development, thinking, physiology, and social behavior. Here we will have to decide whether or not to have a broad molar theory which attempts to account for many aspects of behavior (and most personality theories are of this type) or a more molecular theory which deals with behavior in some limited aspect. At some place, I suspect, we might have to attempt explanations of such questions as why Christians become psychotic, why teenagers rebel against the church, or why college students doubt.

3. The theory should give practical techniques for the guidance of researchers and practitioners. I am inclined to agree with Hall and Lindzey that the basic question which "overrides and actually makes trivial all questions of formal adequacy is the matter of . . . what empirical research is generated by the tbeory."32 If a theory stimulates no research and if it gives no guidelines for the psychological practitioner, then the theory is useless and should be altered or discarded altogether.

In our considerations of technique, however, we inust decide whether the current tools of our science provide the only or even the best ways for the Christian psychologist to explain, describe, and understand behavior. We must ask if the therapeutic or educational techniques that are based on current research findings, are the only or the best ways for the Christian psychologist to deal with others. Within the past five years, several reputable psychologists have begun to wonder if psychology is becoming too technique bound. Sanford, for example, thinks that psychology is "fragmented, overspecialized, method centered, and dull * " This is primarily because psychologists now find their problems in professional journals and largely confine their investigations to issues for which psychological techniques are available. There has developed a "psycbology-witbout-a-person" which avoids involvement with the problems of life. The Christian personality theorist must recognize that the current tools of science may not be the only sources of knowledge about man. Certainly the Bible, while not a scientific textbook and while saying very little about the subject matter of modem psychology, nevertheless does reveal some characteristics of man which are beyond the techniques of empirical science. A practical methodology must be a crucial requirement for any Christian personality theory.

4. The theory should be able to make predictions about human behavior. We have already defined a scientific law as a relationship between variables which has been tested and received a relatively high degree of confirmation. Given certain antecedent conditions, a subsequent event can be expected to regularly follow.

Undoubtedly, such prediction is less possible in psychology than in the natural or physical sciences. In the first place, there are relatively few established laws in psychology and secondly, the mutiplicity and complexity of variables in psychology make prediction very difficult. Fincher13 has compared the current scientific status of psychology with that of meteorology. Both the psychologist and the weatherman make predictions about future events. Both predict with a high degree of accuracy but because "their predictions must be based on contingencies beyond the control of the predictor" they are sometimes wrong. Unfortunately, their errors are highly visible and likely to be remembered by the general public. But even the weather predictor has an easier job than the psychologist. The weather is uninfluenced by the predictions that have been made, but the psychologist can never be sure about the influence of his predictions on subsequent behavior.

We must agree with William James that psychology will never be able to write biographies in advance. As scientists, however, psychologists must make predictions about their subject matter. This must be true in the laboratory, the psychological clinic, the industrial consulting rooms, and wherever psychologists work. Indeed, if we are to function efficiently as human beings we must be able to make accurate predictions about the behavior of others. Behavior prediction cannot be eliminated from an adequate Christian theory of personality.


In this paper, I have suggested that theories of personality are necessary in psychology and that Christian psychologists should attempt to make explicit their own Christian theory of personality. I have suggested some requirements for such a theory and would like to conclude with a warning which perhaps is self-evident, but which should be emphasized nevertheless.

We must not fall into the trap of thinking that there can be only one Christian theory of personality which is in itself unchangeable and "true." It would be relatively easy, I suspect, for a Christian who believes in the unchanging and infallible Word of God to devise and then tenaciously cling to a personality theory that appears to be consistent with scripture. But there can be more than one Christian personality theory. Tweedie34 has been a pioneer in this area by suggesting one approach based on the logotherapy system of Frankl. in contrast, Mecberikoff and Walker35 have at least implicitly adopted a different and more behavioristic theoretical position in an article in the fournal of the American Scientific Affiliation. Finch36 appears to be one Christian who is moving along with the recent "third force" movement in psychology which has risen as a reaction against the behavioristic and psychoanalytic orientations that have guided the course of our science for so many years.37

The importance of formulating a Christian theory of personality has been discussed before.38 It is time, however, for Christian psychologists to become active in making our theoretical assumptions explicit. We must become involved in the application of our own unique Christian perspectives to the problems of understanding and predicting human behavior. There will be times, of course, when apparent contradictions will appear between God's revealed Word and God's world. We must seek to resolve these discrepencies but if this is not possible, we will have to put them temporarily aside until more evidence is available and perhaps until we reach glory.39 Let us recognize that we will have differences of opinion concerning our theories, but let us be flexible and willing to alter our theories in the light of further evidence. It is then that our Christian theories of personality will serve their greatest usefulness.


1. Snygg and Combs, 1959, p. 7.
2. Ibid.
3. Ruch, 1963.
4. Tinker and Russell, 1958.
5. Hobbs, 1959, p. 217.
6. Leith, 1965.
7. Allport, 1937.
8. Skinner, 1950, pp. 194-5, 210.
9. Andreas, 1960; Combs and Snygg, 1959; Fincher, 1964; Hebb, 1951; Marx and Hillix, 1962; and Rotter, 1954. 
10. Combs and Snygg, 1959, p. 8.
11.Maslow, 1965, p. 23.
12. Goodwin, 1965; and Immergluck, 1964.
13. Weisskopf-joelson, 1959.
14. Greenspoon, 1962.
15. Matarazzo, 1965.
16. Williamson, 1958.
17. Ibid.
18. Lowe,1959.
19. Watson, 1958.
20. Lowe, 1959; Tweedie, 1963; and Williamson, 1958.
21. Lowe, 1959, p. 692.
22. Allport, 1965.
23. For a more detailed discussion of the different views of man, the reader is referred to Allport (1965), Lowe (1959), and Tweedie (1963).
24. Coleman, 1965.
25. Allport, 1965.
26. Tweedie, 1963.
27. Tweedie ( 1963) and the writers of the symposium What, then, is man? ( 1958) have done much to elaborate the Christian viewpoint.
28. Hall and Lindzey, 1957.
29. Rotter, 1954.
30. According to Rotter, "the ideal scientific language has as many terms as are necessary for reaching any given level of prediction and no more" (1954, p. 48).
31. Hebb, 1954.
32. Hall and Lindzey, 1957, p. 20.
33. Fincher, 1964.
34. Tweedie, 1963.
35. Mecherikoff and Walker, 1965.
36. Finch, 1965.
37. Bugental, 1963; Koch, 1961; and Severin, 1965.
38. Christian Association for Psychological Studies, 1958.
39. What, then, is man?, 1958.
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