How does the marriage of clinical psychology and the Christian belief work?

A peer reviewed response by

Charles A. Jennings, M.C., LPC    

    This question, submitted by a web site visitor, has been asked in various forms for many years. Verbs such as "integrate" and "blend" are most frequently used, but our inquirer chose the word "marriage" which, to date, is the strongest descriptor I have heard in this context. Over the years I have reviewed essays on the subject ranging in length from one page to hours of laborious reading, and attended seminars devoted entirely to the subject. Many contained good points, and most at least noteworthy and sometimes clever anecdotes. What they all had in common was their struggle to demystify and devilify the view of psychology held by some Christians.

    With time I began to suspect that the question, as posed, might not be accurately representing the concern. When face to face with someone asking this question, I have noticed that they appear to be dismayed, threatened, and/or angered by the prospect that the two could in any way be compatible. Therefore, I have concluded that their root concern is a fear based on the belief that psychology contradicts, or tries to explain away the need for, Christian beliefs. So why would a Christian counselor have anything to do with it? The following response addresses how I have dealt with this concern in my own practice, what role I give each when working with clients, and a little history of the process that brought me to my current position.

Historical perspective

    Before becoming a Christian, I was heavily involved in the study of the sciences and mathematics. I knew that the sciences had historically been plagued by error so, when I became a Christian, it bothered me little when from time to time science seemed to disprove or disagree with the Bible. My position was simply to wait it out because the past had demonstrated science to have ever changing conclusions and sooner or later would get it right. A classic illustration from my own life occurred at the age of ten while in a science class. Our instructor was drilling into our little noggins the fact that matter could be neither created nor destroyed. That was an absolute truth he said we could rely on and our textbook presented several scientific experiments illustrating that axiom. He was telling us this just eleven years after the development of the atomic bomb, a weapon which works because matter can be converted to energy. Our text book was out of date, as was the instructor.

    The study of nature, using the somewhat rigid and demanding scientific method, is centuries old and continues to be refined. As one spokesperson after another in the various fields of study rises up to offer new explanations, treatments, or hoped for closure for the unanswered questions, his or her work is critiqued by peers and what is valid stands the test while what fails becomes the material for ridicule. When medical doctors were first required to wash their hands between obstetric examinations, the death rate of women patients in that hospital dropped dramatically. But the action was mocked and, for awhile, discontinued, resulting in many more women suffering life long injury or death. Today, we think nothing of training our children to wash their hands before eating and are aghast at the thought of a doctor examining us with unwashed hands. And the once popular practice of "blood letting" as a viable treatment is now material for standup comedians. Yet despite this checkered past, most of us still seek a medical doctor for our child when the symptoms of an ailment frighten us. And you can be sure that today’s promotion of copper bracelets and magnets as aids to pain reduction will go through the same scrutiny and risk becoming the butt of jokes or the headlines in a medical journal.

    But science is not the only field guilty of error. While science has had an uphill battle with ignorance, superstition, and dogmatism, it also was resisted by well meaning leaders of the church. Centuries ago, the church cited several Bible references in support of a flat earth, one that was at the center of the universe. Today, we cite other references in support of a round earth that is not at the center of the universe. What changed? Certainly the Bible did not change. What changed was our belief in response to the evidence brought to light by science. I find it amusing how quickly we explain away that use of the Bible to support an error and how slow we are to thank the men and women whose study and exploration of nature revealed the error. I not only depend on my own studies of the Bible for understanding, I also rely heavily on those who make it their profession to learn and teach biblical material, and those who publish biblical resources. But just listen to or read from the same teacher, author, or organization for some years and you will be amazed at how their positions change, sometimes radically. The reformation of the church in Luther’s time is a clear example. Did truth suddenly change in that decade, or was it rediscovered?

    We are all learning, or at least most of us are. There is no way one person can be an authority on every matter as it is nearly impossible to be an authority on one. It takes a lifetime to accomplish, and those who you think are in that position are likely to tell you how humble they have become as a result of having been in error many times in their life.  So, to be fair about it, not only have scientists had to bite the bullet and admit they were wrong, Christians have had their own humble pie to eat.

    Over the years I have watched the Christian community become less fearful and hostile toward science as popular spokesman, such as Carl Sagan, come and go with their unfounded conclusions and assaults on biblical teachings. Time continues to confound those who think they have a case against Scripture as more evidence comes to light to disprove their positions, or the evidence they seek continues to elude them. Geology, biology, and botany continue to support the order of creation as outlined in Genesis, and archaeology continues to unearth support for the existence of minor government leaders and cities referred to in the Bible but thought to have never existed. There is one area of science, however, that continues to be ardently resisted by some Christians – the study of human behavior and the working of the mind.

    Maybe it is because we are intimately aware of human behavior every minute of every day that prompts us to think we are as much of an authority on it as anyone else, be they our next door neighbors or the men and women dedicated to studying it in a scientific manner. Or maybe we think everything is adequately explained by stating that sin is the problem and we need not ask further questions. I suspect, however, that what is going on is the very same thing that has been, and to some degree continues to be, going on with all sciences, except now our energy is focused on the new kid on the psychological block.

    Psychology is at its core a study of brain development and function – how we learn, perceive, respond, and change. Recently it has employed the scientific method in its attempt to bring understanding and evidence to support or refute current theories of behavior. Its research has contributed a wealth of data about gender differences; learning styles; how personality characteristics influence perception, learning, and decision making; the influence of birth order; the short and long term effects of trauma; the process of addiction; and a plethora of issues regarding the relationship of child rearing and childhood experiences with adult behavior. One outcome of the research has been the identification of clusters of related influences and their resultant behaviors so that we can better relate the factors involved in the process of becoming the particular way we are. This information promotes effective treatment when someone wants to change the way they respond in a given situation.

    None of the above is, by itself, a threat to Christian doctrine, the authority or nature of God, the destiny of man, or any other biblical precept I am aware of at this time. What has been a threat (but it really was not) were those few who, for a time, championed conclusions that presented immediate discomfort to believers having weak personal foundations. Given time, these highly touted yet unsubstantiated conclusions failed the critique of peers in the field. But in the meantime, some Christians resorted to attacking what they did not understand, set up their own "straw man," then took delight in burning it while spreading misinformation and misrepresentations which their naive followers readily accepted as truth.

Personal perspective

    What I appreciate most about science is how it contributes to my understanding of the Bible and the awesomeness of God. Psalm 139:14 tells me that "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." The Bible, not pretending to be a book on physiology, tells me little about just how fearfully or wonderfully I am made, but medical science blows my mind with the details. Whenever I watch a PBS special, or read an article on the human body, whether it be the development of a human from a single fertilized cell or the functioning of the eye or brain, I stand in total awe at just how fearfully and wonderfully we are made. Consider King David’s opening verse in Psalm 19: "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands." I know about their expanse but David had to stop there because the telescope would not be invented for centuries, the radio telescope centuries later, and satellite photography only recently. None of these would have changed his belief, only given him awe inspiring evidence of a truth he had to take on faith and limited observation. How much more rich with descriptive terms do you think David’s lyrics might have been had he had access to what we now have? And if we could have offered David the opportunity to glimpse what we now take for granted, do you think he would have declined because it was evidence coming from outside the Bible? Could he benefit from what he saw? Would he be able to do so without also supporting any anti-Christian philosophical leanings of the scientists who made the discoveries? And how much more error would we be susceptible to were it not for archaeology and anthropology enlightening us on the cultural context in which Scripture was written?

    So then, with both science and Christian teaching having a track record of error and correction, can they be married to form a new entity more effective than either alone? I submit that the question of "marrying," or "integrating," or "blending" psychology and Christianity is moot. Would we ask the same question of astronomy or botany? I doubt it. Rather than a marriage, I contend that, like the other sciences, psychology will prove to be a useful adjunct to our understanding and appreciation of the biblical truths of which we are aware, and could open our eyes to some which we might not yet be aware until brought to light by research findings.

    What this new "science" has already provided, and continues to provide, is insight into how seriously and pervasively sin has infected the human soul, why it presents differently in different people, some of the mechanisms involved, and how we as counselors might better direct our clients to recognize the working of sin in their lives and accurately apply biblical truth to alter persistent behaviors and/or perceptions along with their consequent emotional states. The Christian system of belief directs me toward how we should and can become, while the role of psychology is to enlighten and aid me regarding the process of change. I know that I am to be slow to anger, and if psychology can show me how I can slow down the process that is at work when I am quick to anger, I will be grateful for that help.

    If there is any "blending" of Christian belief and psychology, it is within the therapist. My purpose, function, and character are determined by my allegiance to Christ. My insight into the core of human nature and behavior is given to me by Scripture. The goals I help a client reach in counseling are prescribed by Scripture, and the goals I will not help a client achieve are proscribed by Scripture. And frequently the process or technique I choose to use is either suggested by psychology, or is enhanced by psychology.

    To reduce the risk of error, I maintain a discerning attitude toward new theories and research findings in my field, and I do the same with the teaching of every Bible expositor with whom I consult. When reviewing such matters, I look for what is good, useful, and does not violate scripture, all the while feeling absolutely no compulsion to adopt or support a particular treatise in its entirety. I treat psychology as I would a hired consultant – listening to what it has to offer for anything of benefit, dismissing that which does not benefit, and setting aside that which I do not understand for further study and consideration. I do not always hit it right either, but time and continued searching for truth seem to prevail. Sometimes I must drop something I considered trustworthy, and sometimes I have to go back to the trash bin and pull out something I dismissed in ignorance, be it a biblical or a psychological matter. For years I cited the work of an internationally known Christian psychologist until I decided to test it because of some growing doubts. I found that what I had been espousing for years was unsupportable and I had to change my practice. And for many years I bought into a certain popular church teaching (which had substantial impact on how I counseled) only to find upon re-examination that the teaching was in error. That re-examination took place after I allowed myself to consider an opposing viewpoint.

    I believe we can benefit from all the light we can get in our attempt to understand all there is to understand about God’s creation, man, and His written word. I contend that we need men and women of excellence in every field of study to do their best to contribute to our understanding of God's creative work, just as we need language and history scholars to provide us with the accurate rendering of His Word. I join with those who admonish us to respect Christian professionals in all fields, carefully considering what they offer us, and trusting that the same Holy Spirit is at work in their life as in ours, and not treat them as though they have been duped into some scheme to destroy our faith. We ought to defer to them the task of critiquing their own specialty just as they ought to defer to us as the critics of ours. And all needs to be done with a charitable heart, knowing in advance, that even the most diligent and sincere in any field of study will make mistakes that will be, for a time, promulgated as truth.