Psychology and Theology: Part 3

In the last two posts, I showed the problems that exist in trying to relate theology and Psychology. Today I want to ask, what is the solution to relating the two. Let me start off by saying that in order to do this both the theologian and the psychologist need to act against their better instincts which suit them so well within their disciplines; the psychologist must be willing to say this is how people work, this is what they are, and the theologian must be willing to say, “the study of human experiences does yield valuable information that does deserve the hard work of integration with Scripture.

The problems I mentioned before was that 1)Psychologists are reluctant to make objective claims,  2) theologians are unwilling to go into the weeds of subjective data 3) we have disciplinary asymmetry. So, what options do we have with these disciplines?

There are today solutions that have become calcified communities bent on standing against each other. Most famously seen between the so-called biblical counsellors and the integrationists. It’s necessary however to address an initial theological idea, an idea that serves normally as a trip-rope for this conversation when in fact it is a red herring, this idea is the sufficiency of Scripture. We need to put to bed the idea that relating theology and psychology in any way compromises the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, it does not. A theologian can subscribe to the Reformation doctrines of the sufficiency of Scripture and with integrity hold to any of the following solutions mentioned in this post.

Now there are those in the Biblical counselling movement that will say that any alleged contribution of psychology to the problems people face compromises the sufficiency of Scripture. They argue that Scripture is all we need to answer the problems that psychology seeks to address. But this is not the reformed doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. When the reformers formed the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture they meant something entirely different than what the Biblical counselling movement means. The reformers were guarding against the notion that we need a 67th book in the canon, they were guarding against the notion that we need a pope in order to properly instruct us about Salvation. The sufficiency of Scripture really has to do with the book in the canon, not how to relate the books in the canon to the general information that humans can acquire. In summary the relationship of the protestant canon to psychology does not come close to the suggestion of adding a gnostic gospel or a pope. And unfortunately, this lack of care for definitional and categorical precision is characteristic of the biblical counselling movement, though I am very sympathetic with their project, and spent most of my short pastorate thus far staunchly within this fold.

A more relevant attribute of Scripture would be the authority of Scripture, because in what ways Scripture speaks authoritatively about human psychology is in fact the very issue at hand, but the sufficiency of Scripture often serves in these conversations to distract from this attribute and thus to obscure from the real path of Biblically relating psychology and theology.

So, lets take a brief summary of each view and then analyse them:

  1. Nouthetic counselling: Nouthetic coming from the Greek word “to instruct, admonish’. Nouthetic counselling proposes that our actions are predicated on our beliefs about the world. Essentially, if you want to modify your behaviour you need to modify your theological beliefs. More than that Nouthetic counselling insists on the practise of counselling exclusively from the Bible because they take for granted that notion of sufficiency that we discussed earlier. This model is ironically formally identical to what’s come to be called cognitive behaviour therapy in the secular world.

Two initial problems:

  1. Humans are not computers. We are not a collection of mental syllogisms. We act irrationally. And even then we don’t have a perfect script of ideas to compel our action.  Even we are not aware of everything we believe or the nature of our thought or the reasons why we act the way we do.
    1. It insists on working from the Bible as often as possible in the counselling room, and cultivating a strong scepticism toward secular psychology and their insights. If you speak with nouthetic counsellors, you will find they often try to minimize the profundity of psychological insights as though they were obvious and already part of the Christian tradition. My rejection of this comes from a desire to grow and learn in my understanding of a human person. I also do not understand this idea of rejecting the many conflicting insights of psychology because for me as a theologian, there just doesn’t seem to be any ground for it
  2. Biblical counseling

David Pawson is who I have in mind with this solution. The primary distinction he made is the distinction between compin and vitex. Compin-vitex distinction helps us put a finger on two paths of relating psychology and theology

  1. Vitex methods of relating the disciplines are those which are vitally dependant on external sources for understanding the human person and treating problems they face. Your understanding of the person is vitally dependent on external psychology sources
  2. Compin methods of relating the disciplines says that the Bible comprehensively and internally contains the resources to understand the human person and treat problems, comprehensively and internally

This distinction allows Biblical counsellors a bit more bandwidth to learn from secular psychology than the nouthetic approach. Biblical counsellors obviously champion the compin methods of relating psychology and theology and they reject the vitex methods, because they are saying if your system is dependent on external psychological theories then you are compromising the sufficiency of Scripture.

If you believe in the Biblical counselling view that the Bible comprehensively and internally contains resources to understand the human person and treat their problems then you are free to use the insights of secular psychology so long as they don’t become vital. And for those insights that you do glean from secular psychology as a biblical counsellor they need to go through a translation process which baptises those ideas to the point where you can demonstrate how that idea is actually a teaching of Scripture in the first place. Essentially the psychological ideas become a prompt for exegesis (let me go find where I can make this idea come from in the Bible).

  • My problem with the compin-vitex system is that it is dishonest. Every single Christian idea is vitally dependent on external knowledge basis. The alphabet is a secular knowledge base as is geometry, integers and the faculty of special awareness. Secular is just Latin for the world; it’s just referring to the common ideas between Christian and none Christian.
  • I will concede to Pawson that psychology is far more permeated with quasi-religious precommitments compared with geometry. But the compin-vitex distinction is a way of slicing the pie that is not true to the relationship between Psychology and Theology because there is no clear line showing what can be accepted or rejected from psychology. What parts of psychology would Biblical counsellors take for granted? For example they take memory psychology for granted: when you counsel a person you take for granted that they remember some things, and the mechanics of that memory are the very realties memory psychology goes to great lengths to explain, and it does so very often accurately to the extend that it provides us with a reliable account of how and why human beings remember and forget. The Bible commands us to remember but it does not give us a mechanist account of memory which is what Psychology does.

The Biblical counselling model is vitally dependent on that external secular psychology whether they admit it or not.

This points to another problem with the Biblical Counselling movement; it formally distinguishes itself from secular psychology in principle without any concern for the material claims of secular psychology itself.

For example, what if every member of the a psychological association become a Christian, or more than that what if they conceded that all of their findings were only made possible by the God of the Bible, and that the Bible was an epistemological authority on our personal problems. Most of the material in psychology would not change if that happened. Because the Biblical counselling movement rejects the idea of secular psychology in principle it undercuts the credibility of the material claims of secular psychology which would remain unmodified even if the  secular psychologist become a proponent of Biblical counselling.

  • Christian psychology view: There is a plain of knowledge that allows us to speak with secular psychologists about human experience on common terms. That plain of human knowledge that allows us to speak on common terms with secular psychologists about human experience, that plain is the horizontal axis of human understanding.

We can call this horizontal domain observed truth. And alongside the plain is the vertical axis or domain of knowledge which is the theological dimension which we call revealed truth. As Christians we are free to learn from all fields of truth because all truth is God’s truth.

Additionally, we trust in faith that all truth has a theological dimension because all truth is God’s truth. Therefore, when we make claims about psychology we are making claims about singular realities with multiple dimensions, one dimension observed, one dimension revealed. In my view this solves the problem of disciplinary asymmetry because the psychological and theological are taken out of competition with each other and instead become complementary fields of knowledge. So in some areas theology may give us more information, thus we have license to reject psychological claims that go against revealed truth. On the other hand we have the license to accept truth as we see it and trust that it coheres with Scripture even if we haven’t done the cognitive work of figuring out how. This enables the Christian psychologist to go further, faster compared with the Biblical counsellor or nouthetic counsellor because he doesn’t have to do that gymnastic work of conceptually baptising everything he observes in the world with Scripture before he can accept it as truth.

In addition the Christian Psychology view really operates from a more rich and biblical theology of creation. The one clincher that is compelling, is that it insists is psychology giving deference to theology. In other words, we must begin our inquiry into the relationship between theology and psychology as Christians first, not as scientists. And more than that, it is only because of revealed truth that observed truth is what it is.

Two other solutions I won’t go into are the “levels of explanation view” and the “Integrationist view”, thought they both have their merits and weaknesses.

Let me end with one practical not.  Psychologists are reluctant to give an objective account of human problems and nature and that is wrong, they should see what is revealed and allow the Bible to have epistemic authority over their field, On the other hand Theologians/pastors from the pulpit are willing to commit a single fallacy and hold mental health hostage to Christian theology or to over promise on the psychological results theology can give. Want to overcome trauma, anxiety or depression come to Jesus and it can happen for you… this is a psychological prosperity gospel. It is no different than a nouthetic Benny Hinn. People in the world overcome addiction all the time, they successfully grieve and get over trauma all the time, they grow and find joy in life without Christ in huge numbers on  daily basis, they develop self-discipline and move their lives in positive directions for the good of those around them and themselves. The opposite is also true, which shows that the gospel can’t make such a guarantee, and to make such guarantee’s is harmful and simply not true.

Can Christ heal trauma and help with depression and deal with anxiety? Can spiritual enlivenment and awakening cause and aid psychological well-being and mental health progress? Can it break through log jams and make huge strides forward in your life? Yes, of course it can.  The problem is with making guarantees. You cannot unless you come to Jesus or if you come to Jesus it is guaranteed. Those might preach and tweet well, but it hurts people and ruins Christians in many cases.

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