During the last two decades the Christian community’s struggle to understand the relationship of biblical counseling to psychological counseling appears to have intensified without clear resolution. For some Christians, the insights of psychology are a great ally for the church as it carries out its mission. Yet other Christians reject psychology as an implicit threat to the church and to the authority of Scripture. Many other Christians have mixed feelings about the development of psychology within their Christian community.
Anyone concerned about the human condition and facilitating individual change for the temporal as well as eternal condition will be caught up in the struggle of understanding the relationship between theology and psychology. This struggle has been thoroughly addressed by books, scholarly journals, and, more recently, integration seminars in Christian graduate schools.
At the heart of most efforts to understand this relationship is the essential theological and philosophical foundation, the unity of truth. This is often expressed as “all truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found.” Whether we are working with special revelation or general revelation, both are from God, and the truth of both must be congruent. Although the unity of truth has been affirmed since the time of the early Christian church, this specific relationship has been classically applied to psychology.
Some argue that the Bible and psychology are competing truth systems, that their sources of knowledge are different, and that their resulting understandings cannot be compatible. They conclude that an integration of psychology and theology is not only unnecessary, it is, more importantly, impossible.
If God is the author of all truth, however, we are not dealing with ultimately different sources of truth. In fact, if we accept that God is the author of all truth, we need not be afraid of exploring apparent competing truth claims. For it is only our understanding of that truth, not the truth itself that is in conflict.
In order to approach a proper understanding of the relationship between theology and psychology, essential distinctions must be made. For psychology, the basic distinction between fact and theory must be maintained. For theology, the distinction between biblical revelation and biblical interpretation must be maintained.
Because God is the source of all truth, it is consistent that there is no inherent conflict between the facts of psychology and the truth of biblical revelation.
The classic example given to illustrate these important distinctions goes back nearly 400 years. In 1615, Galileo was called before the Inquisition at Rome because he championed the Copernican theory that the earth rotates on its axis daily and that it revolves around the sun. The church rejected the Copernican theory; the theologians of Galileo’s day believed that the theory diminished the uniqueness and significance of man and God’s creative order. However, it was not the truth of biblical revelation that was at stake, but merely man’s theological interpretation.
Today, nearly 400 years later, the Copernican theory has been supported by many other scientific evidences, and the truth of Scripture remains without conflict. Theologians reject the idea of the earth as the center of the universe. They affirm that the Bible has never tied our significance to space and time, and that our significance is found in the fact that we are created in the image of God and that human life is brief and physically insignificant apart from God.
A more recent example of the interfacing of theology and psychology may be demonstrated with our unfolding understanding of schizophrenia. The mystery and exoticism of schizophrenia have been portrayed and exaggerated in the movies and on television. In the severe, chronic form, schizophrenia affects at least one percent of the population. Obviously, our churches are not excluded from this general population distribution.
During the psychotic phase of the illness, people may experience bizarre symptoms. They may have delusions, involving the conviction that actions or thoughts are controlled by outside forces. They may have auditory or visual hallucinations. Thinking and communication are typically incoherent or illogical. Additionally, social withdrawal, peculiar behavior, poor hygiene, and peculiar emotional responses often characterize this condition.
When such symptoms begin to characterize a member of our church, there is great potential to inappropriately spiritualize the problem. Many Christians feel terribly guilty and ashamed if a family member becomes schizophrenic, believing they must have done something wrong or that this is the result of demonic activity.
The advancement of medical technology has demonstrated that genetics, brain chemistry, and brain injury are all important links to schizophrenia. Medications have made tremendous progress in helping people think more clearly, control negative symptoms, and live more normal lives.
While completing my clinical psychology internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, I was amazed how many people were admitted with a presenting problem of “demonology” that were radically “exorcised” by secular psychiatrists and medication. We could conclude that demons just don’t like certain medications, or we could conclude that there may not be a demon under every symptom.
With all of this being said, a priority of special revelation or “revealed truth” over general revelation or “discovered truth” must be maintained. Priority must be given to “revealed truth” to determine the truthfulness of “discovered truth.” If the truthfulness of “discovered truth” prevails, apparent conflicts with “revealed truth” may be reevaluated due to a (mis)interpretation of biblical truth.
Also, even “true discovered truth” arrived at through theoretical reasoning or empirical scientific study cannot match the depth of “revealed truth” from God Almighty, the source of all. “Discovered truth” will always remain limited by imperfect reason and empirical methodology.
The truth of the Bible offers a better psychology than what any psychology apart from biblical truth can offer. Although the “true discovered truths” of psychology may greatly supplement our understanding of the human condition, they will never compare to the deeper biblical truth of the real meaning and purpose of our lives as people are truly understood in right relation to God.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:33–36) . i
Answered by Dr. Gary Barnes, Director of Counseling Services and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministries