Science in Christian Perspective


Christian Authority: 
A Detriment to Psychological Theory?

Department of Psychology, Gordon College
Wenbam, Massachusetts

From: JASA 27 (June 1975): 66-68.

The charge of "authoritarianism" that may be leveled against the Christian behavioral scientist is evaluated within the context of three different models for relating Christian. faith to psychological theory: the apologetic, the correlational and the radical. The radical model is recommended not only as an adequate Christian response to the critics' charge but as an affirmative basis for the continuing development of a Christian contribution within the discipline of psychology.

"Science is an empirical enterprise, whereas Christianity is confined to an authoritarian structure." To Evangelicals, this allegation is all too familiar, sometimes stated explicitly, although more often covertly implied. Such a statement, if acknowledged, leads the Christian behavioral scientist at best to a resolution of disjunctive accommodation (i.e., there is a material reality and there is a separate spiritual reality, and the Christian while practicing science must restrict himself to the former). It leads him at worst to a kind of bashful, embarrassed acknowledgement that his Christian faith is not relevant to his scholarly discipline. Each of these alternatives is equally unacceptable and both are unnecessary.
It must he recognized that many psychologists in this country consider the "break away" of psychology from philosophy and theology in the last century to have been a decisive victory from the bondage of traditional mentalistie speculation to the liberty of independent scholarship. From this point of view, why then return to the shackles?

To be sure, liberty is essential to the advance of scholarship. We cannot expect our non-Christian colleagues to understand the meaning of the freedom that we have in Christ. Yet, we must in honesty admit some historical justification for the reasonable fears of sensible men that dogma can be misused to suppress the continuing search for truth. As we seek to relate our faith to our discipline, we must at all cost avoid the pretentiousness of self-proclaimed, "encapsulated, final truth."

There is irony here, however. Many who are shouting the loudest for liberty from traditional conceptions are themselves very evidently guilty of attempting to impose their paradigms on others (e.g., Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity1. Such inconsistency should not surprise us, but should be expected. Few if any serious thinkers today hold to the optimism of the naive realism of an earlier era that scholarship should, indeed can, be value-free. One's "pretheoretical" value orientation is a major determinant of one's systematic theory: from the decision as to what phenomena will be viewed, to what problem (s) will be explored, to what means of investigation will he employed, to the manner in which the evidence will be interpreted, to how the findings will be utilized. On these issues, there is no neutrality, and intolerance is a danger no matter what one's chosen theoretical base; many contemporary material-monists are at least as guilty of bigotry as the "conservative" opponents that they decry.

The Apologetic Response

How should Christians respond to the accusation of "authoritarianism"? One trend among Evangelicals has been to react to critics' charges by an almost total retreat to "special revelation," or a Biblical justification for positions being advocated. This apologetic frame of reference has as its principle goal the defense of Christian truth, The understanding of psychological processes is itself relatively unimportant in this context, but secondarily useful insofar as psychological discoveries support ones faith-system. This motif requires absolute reliance upon certain propositional truths and an unwavering defense of those "truths" against the onslaught of would-be destroyers. On the face of it this might seem to be quite proper. After all, the authority of the Word of Cod is the normative source of the Christian's total life, and consequently the necessary foundation for any sincere Christian scholar.

However, there is no unanimous agreement among Christian psychologists as to the most appropriate model for relating Biblical faith with psychology as a discipline. Although "propositional truths" are at times discernible within the special revelation of Scripture, it would he antithetical to scientific inquiry and to Biblical revelation to claim that absolute propositional truths are attainable within the natural pursuit of psychological investigation. Under these circumstances, it is hardly reasonable to use the less reliable data of natural revelation to support the more reliable data of Scriptural revelation2. Furthermore, the discipline of psychology may he conceived as principally important in its own right, not merely as a defensive reaction to heresy but as an affirmative search for truth. Admittedly, natural revelation is more difficult to perceive (one's interpretation is more subject to error) than the major doctrines within the special revelation of Scripture, but it is not on that account less important in the Kingdom of God. Our Father has not chosen to reveal all truth in the Bible, but has given us the privilege to explore His creation by natural means; this activity is itself pleasing to Him (cf. Genesis 1:26 ff., Psalm 8).

The Correlational Response

Other Evangelical psychologists follow a predominantly correlational frame of reference. In this approach an endeavor is made to delineate one's Biblical faith on the one hand, one's psychological principles on the other hand, and then to relate elements from the one domain to the other. The implication is that where a positive "fit" is welded, "integration' is achieved, and where no "fit' is possible, "integration" is unrealized. With reference to this strategy, it cannot be overlooked that at times Biblical revelation may shed light on psychological theory (e.g., the nature of 

The discipline of psychology may be conceived as principally important in its own right, not merely as a defensive reaction to heresy but as an affirmative search for truth.

guilt) and at other times psychological theory may shed light on one's understanding of the Bible (e.g., relationship with one's earthly father may influence one's conception of God the Father).

However, as a modus operandi, the correlational viewpoint has severe limitations. It is analogous in some ways to sewing a patchwork quilt with a variety of non-matching leftover fabrics - the patterns do riot necessarily match, and you can't sew on the pieces that are left over. But, since those who follow this model are working toward perfect symmetry, they are inevitably disappointed with the quilt that is obtained. Even if symmetry were attained, it would not last, because the nature of psychological investigation is dynamic and ever-changing; the instant one claims to have arrived at final synthesis one is no longer a searching scholar but a pretentious saint.

The Radical Response

If we pause to evaluate the apologetic and the correlational models within the framework of the critics' charge of "authoritarianism," it seems to me that the former leads to unwarranted defensiveness and the latter to unnecessary restrictiveness. I would suggest that the radical model is the most adequate formal conceptual base for a Christian theoretical development. It recognizes no distinction between sacred scholarship and secular scholarship. The theologians are not more sacred because of their unique subject matter, and the statisticians and physiological psychologists are not more secular because of their's. The experimental psychologist who devotes his life to investigation of basic research questions with rats is neither more nor less sacred in his endeavors than the clinical psychologist who commits his life to the alleviation of mental suffering. If a psychologist chooses to explore an area remote from the possibility of direct Biblical input (e.g., mathematical models of learning), his labors are no less sacred than the psychologist who investigates more Biblically related concepts (e.g., the uniqueness of man as "image of God"). Truth, whenever and wherever it is found, is always God's truth, whether "spiritual' or earthy, whether abstract or applied; and the pursuit of truth, any truth, is glorifying to God.

The radical motif does not demand propositional certainty, but simply intellectual honesty and personal integrity. The radical frame of reference is not as easily described and categorized as the apologetic or the correlational, since it claims no exclusive paradigm but is characterized by creative activity - careful, dedicated scholarship that by its very nature cannot be easily "packaged."

The idea being advanced for radical Christian contribution to theoretical advancement is not new, of course. There is evident within the Evangelical tradition a history of dedicated men of God who confessed their faith by advancing their scientific disciplines3. Rhodes observes that:

The radical model recognizes no distinction between sacred and secular scholarship.

... it was the philosophy, theology, and outlook of a whole Christian civilization that provided the cradle of modern science the majority of the individual leaders of early scientific thought were men of deep Christian conviction, who saw in their pursuit of science the opportunity to glorify God4.

What, you may ask, distinguishes the radical conceptual model of relating faith and discipline from any extant non-Christian system? The answer is primarily in this much too often taken-for-granted fact: the essence and substance of a Christian's life is always a Biblical faith commitment to the Lord, Jesus Christ, Certainly, this involves attitude hut it is more. It is living for the One who is Truth. That makes the dramatic difference. How, then, can we judge the uniqueness of our contribution as Christian scholars? Not necessarily by the glaring distinction of our theoretical constructs as opposed to non-Christians' constructs (although at times this will be the case). Rather, the more adequate criterion of our Christian contribution is our faithfulness: Are we working toward the ultimate purpose of exalting Cod with a redemptive ethic of active care-taking of our Father's creation?

  Although Christian scholarship must be rooted in theory (as, indeed, must any worthwhile scholarship), mere abstract symbolism is in itself incomplete. Young people are increasingly asking, "What is the relationship of this theory to reality out in the world?" Of course, some people's world-views are too restricted, and they need to learn to expand their phenomenological fields (perhaps for the value of basic research, etc.). But the question is quite legitimate: a good theory should he capable of being tested in the external world; and a genuine Christian commitment should be evidenced by one's life.

It is at this very point that Christian psychologists have an opportunity and a responsibility to assume more leadership among their professional colleagues. Currently, both within the behavioral sciences and without, major attention is being focused upon moral and ethical concerns, particularly with the influence of technology upon the meaning of human life. It is becoming increasingly clear that in the formulation of research problems and in the applications of the resultant findings, one is strongly influenced by one's metaphysical faith. For example, the present dilemma of technological enslavement is due at least in part to the influence of a material monist philosophy that leads inevitably to an incomplete view of reality as consisting merely of matter. What, then, should be the influence of the faith of the Evangelical behavioral scientist on his psychological discipline? It is the strong recommendation of this author that we cease to be apologetic and/or restrictive in our thinking and begin to exert our influence in an affirmative manner precisely on the basis of our faith:

Consequently, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, at all times abounding in the Lord's service, aware that your labor in the Lord is not futile In Him we enjoy redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses to the measure of the wealth of His grace . . . for we are His handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God previously prepared for us so that we should live in them5.


1B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
2In fact, this very argument against the use of the method is commonly advanced by some apologists themselves on those occasions where the less reliable data do not support their own hypothesis; such selective application of the apologetic model, only when it supports one's position, smacks of dishonesty.
3See H. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800 (New York: Bell, 1962); R. Huoykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972); A. F. Smethurst, Modern Science and Christian Beliefs (London: Nisbet, 1955); A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Mentor Books, 1949).
4Fraok H. T. Rhodes, "Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe," in D. L. MacKay, ed., Christianity in a Mechanistic
(Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1965), p. 19.
5The references, taken from the New Berkeley Version of the Bible, are quoted as follows, in order: I Corinthians 15: 58; Ephesians 1:7, and Ephesians 2:11).