Science in Christian Perspective


Theologizing Psychology
John Brown University Siloam Springs, Arkansas 72761

From: JASA 26 (September 1974): 102-105.

Contemporary psychology contains many viewpoints. It is dynamic and thus subject to change. Many psychological ideas are not directly related to theology and conversely. While psychology and theology have many disparate interests, some topics are of common concern to both disciplines. This article discusses three subjects (man's nature, psychotherapy, religion and psychology) which elicit attention from both psychologists and theologians. It illustrates the lack of agreement among psychologists in relationship to these issues. Thus, psychologists are like theologians in at least one respect. They speak with no unity on many topics. This means that psychologists are not unanimously aligned against biblical ideas.

What Is Psychology?

Psychology had its inception as a science in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychological laboratory. Controversy has been the warp and woof of psychology ever since. The answer to the most basic question which can be asked about psychology, i.e., what it is, has never been completely agreed upon.

In its historical development, psychology has fostered the emergence of divergent views on its subject matter. The structuralist, functionalist, behaviorist, Gestaltist, and psychoanalyst each had a unique way of looking at psychology.
William James defined psychology as "the science of mental life." J. B. Watson argued that psychology was the study of overt behavior. Sigmund Freud believed that psychology should be concerned with man's covert behavior, E. B. Tichener concluded that it was impossible to define the subject matter of psychology. Today most psychologists agree that psychology is the study of both covert and overt behavior.

Contemporary Psychology

Contemporary psychology contains many viewpoints. It is not an impregnable, monolithic, closed system. It does not offer terminal truth but only tentative conclusions. It is dynamic and subject to revision. Merle Turner observed that we are amused to learn of Newton retiring early from his scientific career because he thought the important discoveries had been made. Turner wrote: "We are much too sensitive to the fragility of our theories and alas, of our convictions to invest much faith in enduring scientific conceptions."1

Many psychological topics are unrelated to theology. This is because psychology and theology largely address themselves to separate domains of inquiry. James A. Oakland, then professor at the University of Washington, held that "there is no relationship between the Bible and much of psychology, "2 Gary R. Collins, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has written:

Much of the subject matter of science and many of the truths of Scripture are so far removed from each other that they never come into conflict. The psychological study of animal learning, for example, and Biblical statements about salvation, are in separate and largely unrelated domains.3

Floyd L. Finch is the author of a best-selling textbook on general psychology. Early in the book he delineates the field of psychology and dissociates it from religious, metaphysical concepts:

Since psychology limits itself to the study of observable phenomena, it cannot concern itself with problems of the soul and its immortality. On the other hand, psychology does not pretend so deny the existence of the soul. It merely leaves this important inquiry to religion.4

In summary, many of the topics in theology are of no immediate concern to psychology. Conversely, many of the subjects in psychology are not touched on directly in Scripture and therefore tend to elicit little interest among theologians. Ultimately all truth is God's truth, it might be argued, but at short range psychophysics and propitiation seem unrelated.

Harmonizing Psychology and Theology?

Students taking introductory psychology in a Christian college often expect the course to be an exercise in harmonizing psychology and theology.5 It is necessay to disengage their minds from this attitude for two reasons: (1) a perfunctory examination of the table of contents of any current general psychology textbook, and there are scores available, will reveal how few topics lend themselves to theological input; and (2) psychology is a discipline in its own right, like math or biology. A proper development of its content requires that little time be spent theologizing, a maneuver more appropriate on the graduate level.

However, to say that psychology and theology have, for the most part, separate interests, does not rule out the fact that some psychological issues readily interweave with theological perspectives. Twenty years ago Hildreth Cross wrote a book which took an evangelical approach to general psychology and sought to bring out the interaction between theology and psychology. It is still in print and has sold about 10,000 copies. Cross believes that "all psychological truth can he screened through the Word of God ..........6

While some of the topics dealt with by Cross seem rather remote from contemporary psychology7 there are some appropriate analyses. There are psychological issues with definite theological overtones. The following discussion will deal with a few psychological issues which have theological import. It will become obvious that psychologists are like theologians in at least one respect: they speak with no unity. This means that psychologists are not unanimously aligned against biblical ideas.

To illustrate the diversity of viewpoints held by psychologists on biblically related topics, three questions will be discussed:

    (1) Is man "good" or "bad"?
    (2) Is secular psychotherapy helpful to disturbed people?
    (3) Is religion compatible with psychology?

Is Man "Good" or "Bad"?

Humanistic psychology has had more to say about marts nature than experimental psychology. This is due to the vagueness of an expression like "human nature," and the resultant difficulty of reducing it to an experimentally required operational definition. Most psychological theories take a neutral view of human nature and do not state whether man is "good" or "bad."

For those psychologists who have committed themselves on this topic, there are two discernible opinions. To some psychologists man is basically good and trustworthy; to other psychologists man is intrinsically evil or bad and his nature poses a threat to himself and society.

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, is the most famous spokesman for the latter view." Cofer and Appley, in their widely used book on motivation, summarize Freud's view of man's nature:

Freud's theory is based on the implicit assumption that the irrational and evil character of human nature is basic . . . it is clear that Freud personally held no great belief in human goodness and was not very optimistic as to the course of human destiny.9

In one of his letters, Freud expressed his negative attitude about man when he wrote: "In the depths of my heart I can't help being convinced that my dear fellow men, with a few exceptions, are worthless." 

pessimism about man is developed more fully in The Future of an Illusion.10

Freudian psychoanalysis and Calvinism have much in common.11 This led C. Macfie Campbell to say that "psychoanalysis is Calvinism in Bermuda shorts."12 There appears to be much in common between Freud's and Calvin's concepts of sin. Paul Tournier points out this similarity:

The inner conflict of which Freud speaks is none other than what the Bible calls the conflict of sin . . . This is what makes Freud, paradoxically enough, in many respects an ally of Christianity I claim that Freud confirms Christian teaching, since he shows that all psychological conflicts suffered by man stem from violation of Christ's commands.13

Freud is not alone in his negative assessment of man's nature. Christian psychologists, at least those with a Calvinistic slant, regard man as corrupted by the Fall and see his nature, in its distilled essence, as untrustworthy and evil.
There are psychologists who disagree with Freudian psychoanalytic pessimism and the religious idea of original sin.14 They take a more benign view of man; they believe that healthy human nature is constructive and trustworthy. Illustrative of this position are the three psychologists quoted below:

Man is born without sin, aspiring to goodness, and capable of perfection; human evil is exogenous, the betrayal of man's nature by cruel circumstances. 15
The idea that certain people are bad or wicked springs from the ancient theological doctrine of free will, which assumes that every person has the freedom to act "rightly" or wrongly .,, This doctrine has no scientific foundation . . .16
To he fair, here are my prejudices: I was trained in quantum physics, and I am an indeterminist; I believe in free will; I am an agnostic; I think man is essentially good; I doubt the existence of ESP, and I don't like stupid questions.17

In addition to the psychologists quoted above, self-actualizing psychologists Gordon Allport, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers adhere to the view that man is basically good.

Before psychologists can come to a consensus about man's nature, more basic questions must he answered.
For example, what is meant by "man's nature"? What is "good" or "bad"? What data are to be received as binding in settling the dispute? How can the biblical concept of "man's nature" be correlated with psychological experimentation?

Is Secular Psychotherapy Helpful to Disturbed People?

The greatest menace to health in this country is mental illness. Half of all hospital beds are occupied by mentally disturbed patients. Psychotherapy involves the psychological methods used by psychologists (and other psychotherapists) to help such patients.

There are many ideas as to how psychotherapy should be conducted. "A small sample of the myriad theories that have been propounded" are described in Theories of Psychopathology.18 After discussing psychotherapies in Systems of Psychotherapy, the authors express a "discomforting sense of incompleteness of current theories about human behavior."19

The diversity of approaches to psychotherapy indicates that no one approach is completely satisfactory. However, the authors of Sources of Gain in Counselling and Psychotherapy argue that the results of psychotherapy are largely unrelated to therapeutic cults, schools, and disciplines of therapy.20

While some therapies claim a higher cure rate than others, Shaffer and Sloben suggest, after reviewing the literature, that psychotherapy is successful about twothirds of the time .21 This sounds like a fairly high success rate until critics like H. J. Eysenck point out that psychotherapy is no more effective in the cure of personality disorders than the mere passage of time.22

The issue involved is whether psychotherapy in its present secular form can help disturbed people. Mowrer suggests that Alcoholics Anonymous and the Salvation Army have achieved better results than psychotherapy. He believes that a patient would be better off giving his money to some good cause than paying a so-called therapist a generous fee.23 In particular Mowrer finds fault with psychoanalysis, a therapy which he himself experienced but did not profit from.24

The tendency to refer disturbed people to secular psychotherapists is being challenged. Mowrer advocates that the clergy take a more active role in helping disturbed individuals rather than defaulting to the "professionals." He believes that neurosis is a medical euphemism for 'a state of sin" and believes that defeat and despair can be vanquished when psychology and religion join forces.25

While Mowrer does not adopt an evangelical position, his Integrity Therapy is more compatible with Christianity than is Freudian psychoanalysis. His call for the clergy to become active in helping the mentally ill is reinforced by a book entitled Competent to Counsel.26 Written by a Westminster Seminary professor, it encourages pastors to help disturbed people rather than refer them to humanistic psychotherapists. He believes that trained pastors are more competent than psychiatrists to counsel.

Both Carl Jung and Viktor Frankl27 lend support to the idea that a minister may he helpful in counseling. They contend that the difficulty with many, if not most, people is a lack of meaning in life. This being the case, a minister is often in a better position than a secular psychotherapist to meet that problem. Jung believed that help is provided to the patient by a religious orientation which provides hope for the future:

Among all my patients in the second half of life there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religions outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill largely because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them have been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.28

Beginning with Sir Francis Calton (1822-1911), originator of the study of individual differences and cousin of Charles Darwin, a viewpoint has developed within psychology which imputes a messianic role to that science and excludes religion. Galton advocated a belief in evolutionary progress and rejected the prevalent religious dogma of his day. He "held up as the goal of human effort, not heaven, but the superman."29

This panacea view of psychology holds little room for religion. Even in a popular psychology text now in use this statement appears: "Psychology does not seek divine revelations."30 In some cases it is actually adverse to them. Cross observed in the preface to his evangelical introductory psychology book:

It is too true that this study is represented by the vast majority of professors in such a way as to question, if
not to oppose openly, those tenets of our faith that we as Christians hold dearer than life itself.31

There is a stereotype in some places that the religiously oriented psychologists lacks competence. Roberts said, "A psychologist who is suspected of being religious is at once under the suspicion of scientific incompetence. "32 As a matter of fact, many psychologists are religious and scientifically competent although many psychologists have no religious beliefs.33

0. H. Mowrer accused psychologists of bias which may account for their jaundiced view of religious scientists: "Psychologists, despite pretentions of openmindedness and scientific objectivity, have in certain"34 respects been an arrogant and bigoted lot It may be that those psychologists who themselves lack competence project this deficiency onto others.

Of course, not all psychologists attribute excessive importance to their vocation. Some are critical of the idea that psychology has all the answers. Nicolas Charney, editor of Psychology Today, said: "My first bias is against those who think psychology is a panacea for the world's ills."35 Mowrer expressed a similar view when he said that the future had not yielded to psychology's manipulations as readily as had been expected.36

Theologians have generally held that the solutions to man's basic problems are found within the arena of religion. While other disciplines may contribute to making a better world, ultimately man's crisis is one of the spirit and must be solved by a proper vertical relationship with his Creator.

Theologian Myron Augsburger counters the idea that science is the answer. He wrote ". . . we've made a god of scientific achievement. But even now we are recognizing that it takes more than technology to provide men with meaning and values."37

While psychology is a growing and important science, Christian psychologists would agree with Augsburger that ultimately man's problems will not be solved by a psychological perspective divorced from a biblical one. Religion need not be incompatible with psychology when religion is based on the Bible and psychology adheres to a strictly objective and unbiased view.


1Merle B. Turner, Philosophy and the Science of Behavior (New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts, 1967), p. 170.
2James A. Oakland, "The Bible and Science," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, volume 21, number 4 (December, 1969), 122.
3Gary R. Collins, "The Bible and Science," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, volume 21, number 4 (December, 1969), 107.
4Floyd L. Ruch, Psychology and Life (Dallas: Scott, Foresman, 1963), p. 11.
51n surveys taken in the author's classes, about fifty percent of the students have this expectation.
6Hildreth Cross, An Introduction to Psychology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1952), p. 9.
7For example, Chapter XIV. The Dynamic Christian Person
8According to a survey of members of the American Psychological Association, Sigmund Freud is the most influential psychologist of all time. Psychology Today, July, 1971, p. 29.
9G. N. Cofer and M. H. Appley, Motivation: Theory and Research (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1964), p. 666.
10Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (London: Liverright, 1927). Also New York: Doubleday (Anchor paperback).
11James A Knight, "Calvinism and Psychoanalysis: A Comparative Study," Pastoral Psychology, (December, 1963).
12lbid., p. 10.
13Paul Tournier, The Healing of Persons (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 230.
14"! find myself disagreeing with the religious dogma dealing with original sin. Dugald S. Arhuckle, Counseling and
Psychotherapy: An Overview
(New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 74; ". . . the basic nature of the human being, when functioning fully, is constructive and trustworthy." C. R. Rogers. "The Concept of the Fully Functioning Person," Psychotherapy, 1963, volume 1, pp. 1726.
15J. Adelson, "On Man's Goodness," Contemporary Psychology, 1956, volume 1, p. 68.
16Albert Ellis, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1967), pp. 65, 66.
17A psychology professor quoted by Nicolas Charney, "Editorial," Psychology Today, (May, 1967), p. 5.
18Theudure Millon, Theories of Psychopathology (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1967), p. ix.
19D. H. Ford and H. B. Urban, Systems of Psychotherapy (New York: John Wiley and Suns, Inc., 1965), p. v.
20C. Berenson and R. R. Carkhuff (editors), Sources of Gain in Counseling and Psychotherapy (New York: Holt,
Rinehart, Winston, 1967), p. 440.
21 F. Shaffer and E. J. Shoben, The Psychology of Adjustment (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1956), p. 545.
22J. Eysenck, "The Effects of Psychotherapy: An Evaluation,"Journal of Consulting Psychology, 1952, volume 16, pp. 319-324.
230. Hobart Muwrer, The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion (New Turk: D. Van Nostrand Company, inc., 1961), p. 140.
24" . . psychoanalysis is not messianic but demonic, not salvation, but slavery and bondage of the worst kind." Ibid.,
p. 163; see also Mowrer's autobiographical account Abnormal Reactions or Actions (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Cu., 1966).
25Ibid p. 129.
26Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970).
27Viktor Frankl, Men's Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1963).
28CarI C. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950), p. 264.
29E. G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (New York: Meredith Corporation, 1950), p. 483.
30feromc Kagan, Psychology: An Introduction New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), p. 20.
31Cross, op. cit., p. 10.
32W. H. Roberts, "Psychologists Are Getting Religion," The Dalhousie Review, volume 35, pp. 14-27.
33Malcolm G. Scully, "Faculty Members, Liberal on Polities, Found Conservative on Academic Issues," The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 6, 1970.
34Mowrer, op. cit., p. 28.
35Charney, op. cit.
36Mowrer, op. cit.
37Myron Augsburger, Faith for a Secular World (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1968), pp. 14, 15.