Science in Christian Perspective



"Christian" Psychology. Implications from Philosophy of Science
Charlotte Rosenak
2348 Murphy Dr., Apt. I I
Lawrence, Kansas 66044


From: JASA 35 (March 1983): 44-46.

Two Perspectives

Christian psychologists continue to wrestle with the issue of a "Christian" psychology. If it exists, how is it different from the rest of psychology? While there are several approaches to the integration of psychology and Christianity (Carter & Narramore, 1979), there are two basic answers to this question: "Christian psychology is unique," or "Christian psychologists do the same work as nonChristian psychologists." Two schools of thought have emerged in support of these differing responses. The first school believes that Christian counseling/ psychology is totally different because it is based on a Christian world view. This world view supposedly can guide research and practice to unique conclusions and techniques (Collins, 1977; Crabb, 1977: Kotesky, 1980). The second school's thought is derived from the view that since all truth belongs to God, and because truth is one, any system of psychotherapy can be used effectively. Therefore, Chnistians might not differ in research and practice from non-Christians (Tournier, 1968; Jeeves, 1976). Because both views seem to accurately reflect a part of reality, to answer the "Christian" psychology question with a simple affirmative or negative reply is problematic. Intuitively, the Christian counselor senses that what he/she does differs from "secular" counseling because of an openly-held biblically-based value system and because of frequent use oi spiritual resources. Yet Christians also realize that the secular-sacred split is a false dichotomy (Bonhoeffer, 1955). The Christian researcher-practitioner sees that what he/she does in many respects is not different from what is being done by his/her non-Christian colleague.

The Real Issue

The resolution of this contradiction can be attempted only by examining how Christianity relates to the whole of science. In principle, the integration of psychology and Christianity need not differ substantially from how other sciences integrate Christian thought and belief. In other words, is there such a thing as a Christian science vs. a non-Christian science' In contemplating this question, we find ourselves making basic inquiries into the nature of truth, creation, and discovery. What is truth and how do we obtain it? What kinds of truth exist? Is Christian truth different from other types of truth? What is the nature of reality: of the Creator and of the creation? Is reality describable?

It is interesting to observe that Christians do not always agree upon whether, from a biblical point of view, scientific truth is "transient or enduring" (Wonderly, 1981). Perhaps these points of view arc not mutually exclusive, but they do raise our awareness of the complexity of the basic question: is there a Christian science/ psychology?

  Proposed Model

A system/model is needed whereby scientists can adequately describe reality, truth and the nature of reality-truth discovery. Such a model outlines the activities of science, and hence the activities of psychology. Only then can we ask how and where Christian psychology may or may not be unique. This model sketches answers to previously raised questions about truth, reality and discovery.

In Figure I the outermost ring of the circle is made to represent all truth, truth being defined as an accurate description of what is real. Truth is the object of our search, whether we are researching phenomena, helping a client towards resolution of a complex problem, or trying to understand and know God.

Note, however, that we are dealing with two categories of reality: the reality of the creator and the reality of creation. The innermost ring of the circle, God, represents reality that is not in flux. Jesus Christ (who is God) is "the same yesterday, today and forever" (Heb. 13:8). God said, "I am what I am" (Ex. 3:14) not "I am what I may become" or "I am what you think I am."

The second ring of the circle includes all of God's creation, a reality much of which is dynamic and in flux. While stable laws may be in operation, the substance of reality or the way we choose to view reality can be totally dynamic and changing or fairly static. The more dynamic the part of creation we choose to study, the harder truth in any absolute sense is to obtain. This aspect of reality makes psychology an especially challenging science. Likewise, physicists experience descriptions of atomic realities as problematic. Bohr (1934) continually makes comparisons between psychology and physics and their shared problems concerning accurate descriptions of reality.

Philosophical Positions and Presuppositions

This system and model calls for a moderate position on many philosophical continua. Reality is not totally dependent upon the knower because this leads to an undesirable subjectivism. Yet neither is it totally dependent upon the known because the knower is a part of reality. Reality is therefore personal as well as impersonal. While sensory data are not totally authoritative, neither are they totally unreliable. Science must deal not only with empirical data, but also with value systems. Both induction and deduction are valuable ways to discovery. The ultimate goal of science is to describe, to understand, and to explain reality, in addition to making predictions about it (Shontz, 1982).

An underlying presupposition of this scientific model is that absolute truth exists as it originates from God, who does not change. Other truths exist that are not absolute but are nevertheless true in their given contexts. This belief is posited because of a faith in Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be the Son of God by virtue of His physical and historical resurrection, who said that truth exists. Secondly, the existence of an absolute brings meaning and sense to our world, a meaning that is noticeably absent with a totally relativistic framework.

In summary, our model encompasses the belief that scientists can know truly, but not exhaustively (Schaeffer, 1968; Bube, 197 1).

Difficulties Examined

The third ring of the circle describes problems that exist for any searcher of truths, for any scientist. All of these categories support the belief that we cannot know exhaustively. The "hermeneutic problem" involves presuppositions that individuals make to organize the data they observe as well as interpretations they subsequently make about that data. Truth is difficult to agree upon when logical evidence exists for two opposing presuppositions, or when hermeneutic principles lead to different understandings of the same "hard" data. The "error problem" involves more than just correctable errors. A chosen methodology may be limited and improper and lead to an incorrect conclusion that is not easily detected. Human deception and dishonesty is a form of "error" all science has been plagued with since its beginning! One must also realize that sensory data are not totally reliable-yet another source of error. Finally, the search for truths is complicated by the "limited application" problem. This involves the incomplete nature of many of our discoveries, as well as the relative nature or limited scope of some "truths."

In addition to the various roadblocks to truth as outlined in the third ring, another complicating factor is the nature of creation. Not all of creation is stable and unchanging reality. Psychological truths depend upon a psychic reality that is extremely dynamic and subject to continual change. Many other aspects of creation are not static. Therefore, even though the Christian scientist believes in the existence of truth and in God as the source of truth, there are factors which tend to cloud the search and make it a complex task.

Is There a "Christian" Psychology?

The problems discussed in the previous section exist for Christians and non-Christians alike. This realization sheds light on the dilemma of "Christian" psychology. Insofar as hermeneutical guidelines and biblical presuppositions may guide Christians to "givens" that may be contrary to the "givens" of the non-Christian, a "Christian" psychology may lay claim to uniqueness. Yet this is not always the case. Anytime similar presuppositions and values are maintained, Christian psychologists/researchers operate similarly to non,Christian colleagues. Theories often overlap because all are looking at the same creation. Even behavioristic psychologists often offer solutions that are remarkably close to Christian principles. (For example, shaping the behavior of a child with positive and negative reinforcements.)

Interestingly, Christian psychologists often disagree with one another in the same way that non-Christians disagree. For instance, Christians may start with the premise that the Bible contains special revelation from God and then make different interpretations of this special revelation. Different conclusions may be drawn by all those who search and research because no one can escape the problems of the third ring and a reality that is often in flux.

These problems are not new to science. They need not be considered problems unique to the formulation of a "Christian" psychology. The answer to our posed quesion is that sometimes

"Christian" Psychology will be different from "secular" psychology and sometimes it will not, depending upon the presuppositions involved in the current search or issue.

The biblical presuppositions that deal with human nature arc indeed often at odds with the presuppositions of non-Christians. Yet psychology as a science seems totally divided on almost every basic issue: free will vs. determinism, reductionism vs. holism, naturalism vs. supernaturalism. The nature of man, the mind-body problem and the problem of induction are live issues in current psychology (Royce, 1982): not all non-Christian psychologists are deterministic, reductionistic, and naturalistic in their presuppositions. A major problem of many conservative evangelical writers who evaluate psychology is a tendency to presume all non-Christian psychologists hold world views exclusively opposite to biblical positions. This overgeneralization is not an accurate assessment of psychology today.

Problems with the Inner Ring

While all psychologists/scientists look at the same creation (whether they see it as dynamic or stable), not all accept the existence of the innermost ring. Some reject both the notion of God and of an ultimate reality that is stable and unchanging. When this is the case, the possibility of knowing truth truly is also in question. Kuhn (1970, p. 170) in his discussion of scientific revolutions avers that "we may ... have to relinquish the notion ... that changes of paradigms carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth." Many scientists, whether they believe in God or not, yet maintain that an inner ring of absolute truth does exist. When the inner ring is intact, science continues to progress toward a goal. Removal of the inner ring means the removal of an absolute that philosophically must lead to either nihilistic lack of meaning or to existentially "created" meanings. If science removes the inner ring, it converges upon a shared illusion rather than upon anything that can be described as true.


Because of the complex nature of reality and because of the difficulties encountered in trying to describe it, Christians probably will not develop a psychology that is any more unified than "secular" psychology. Christian psychologists sometimes will differ from their non-Christian colleagues, and sometimes they will not. This is also true for science in general.

Yet this situation hardly need be framed as one of despair. Such a model for science (and for "Christian" psychology) calls on Christians to make more room for exploration and for each other. It calls Christians in science to be open-minded and flexible and to concentrate on understanding before judging, although not at the expense of laxity in identifying and evaluating presuppositions. Scientists and psychologists should not give up in the search for ultimate truth and other truths. We have faith that truth exists, based on reasonable evidences and on Jesus who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).


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