Integrative Perspectives on Psychology and Christian Counseling

IN THE PAST, Evangelical church leaders have notoriously denounced psychology, choosing to rely only on Christian doctrine and biblical principles when counseling individuals. Lately, there is an effort in play to integrate psychological principles and therapies with Christian theology. As a Christian, I remain committed to the spiritual truths of original sin, man’s sin nature, and the need for redemption from a fallen position—the root cause of man’s troubles. Therefore, it is necessary to turn to God’s Word for guidance in all matters. Yet, I believe psychology and religion have more in common than evangelicals seem ready to admit. But is integration (Latin adjective integer, meaning “whole” or “entire”) the best approach to psychology in the Christian church?

Robert C. Roberts of Baylor University writes, “Christianity and psychology are not necessarily two things in quite the way the integration model suggests” (1). Christian psychology recognizes an “antecedent presence” of psychological truth and insight in Christian tradition and in the Bible. We understand that Christianity defines “soul” as mind, will, and emotions. In addition, man has a physical body and a spirit.

Origins of Psychology

It has long been difficult to define psychology as a hard science in the traditional sense given that experimenters cannot “observe” the workings of the mind or “measure” emotions. Many early practitioners considered psychology to be a specialized branch of philosophy. They based their conclusions on several factors. First, they had a difficult time accepting subjective reports as evidence. Second, they doubted that unconscious inference is a coherent and measurable concept. Rene Descartes gave us the concept that mind and body are in some categorical way separate from each other; that mental properties are non-physical in nature. This concept, called dualism, plays at least a part in the idea of nature versus nurture. Descartes believed the mind influences the body, and the body influences the mind.

Clearly, psychology did not initially emerge as science. This presents a challenge when researching the origins of psychology. Ancient civilizations studied one another to determine who was reliable and trustworthy, and evidence suggests they likely recorded and interpreted dreams, mental illness, and emotions. Was this an early form of psychology? Or did psychology begin with systematic explanations of human cognitive experience, which can be traced back to the early Greeks? Plato and Aristotle, for example, established elaborate theories that attempted to account for memory, perception, and learning. Maybe this was the starting point? Because of these dubious beginnings, the church relegated psychology to a branch of humanistic philosophy that allowed no room for spirituality or religious belief. The respective realms of psychology and religion were deemed diametrically opposed.

In his book God’s Psychiatry, Charles L. Allen notes that the word psychiatry comes from two Greek words: psyche and iatreia. The word psyche really means “the person,” and is translated as “breath,” “soul,” “mind,” “reason,” and the like. The word iatreia means “treatment,” “healing,” “restoration,” and so on. Putting these two words together, we get “the healing of the mind,” or, perhaps more specific to Allen’s interpretation, “the restoring of the soul.” Treatment can mean medical care per se, or it can refer to ministering to the soul (2). Allen writes, “The minister is concerned with man’s soul; he believes that if his soul is sick the man is sick, indeed. And only God can heal the soul. So, the first and most important psychiatry must be God’s psychiatry” (3).

Toward an Integration

The term integration predates its recent popularity, having first emerged in the 60s and 70s. The gist of integration is bringing together the fields of psychology and Christian theology, which have typically been considered polemical. Recent degree and training programs in psychology and counseling are at the epicenter of the “integration movement.” The hope is to familiarize psychologists with the Christian worldview of mental dis-ease. David Entwistle said, “I have become convinced that we can strive to make intentional and productive links between Christian faith and all aspects of life” (4). As noted above, Roberts prefers a different approach, stating, “We do not think that integration is either impossible or necessarily a bad thing. But I have come to think it is more difficult to do well, and more dangerous to do badly, than most of its advocates suppose” (5). His primary concern is psychology tends to bring on narcissism, individualism, consumerism, egoism, emotivism, instrumentalism, victimism, irresponsiblism, and (at times) atheism. Secular counseling tends to look for “reasons” or “causes” regarding mental illness and bad behavior, which has the potential to stymie personal growth.

Psychology is already infused with theological beliefs about our place in God’s world. In this regard, integration is about seeking all of God’s truth, recognizing His sovereignty over all that we do, and proclaiming our praise and gratitude for the wonders of His creation (6). I believe we can obtain a more complete view of what it means to be human in God’s world through a combination of Christian theology and contemporary psychology. This is reasonable because psychology describes us as we are, and Christian theology describes us as we are intended to be—questions of ultimate concern such as purpose and destiny. Christianity teaches us that original sin and man’s fall from grace are at the root of the troubles we face in everyday life. Counseling and discipling efforts must therefore speak to our brokenness. It must consider the rupture in relationships between God and humanity, between people, and between humanity and creation.

“Where the truth is, insofar as it is truth, there God is.” — Cervantes

Many individuals focus on Christianity as a religious belief and psychology as a profession, without much credence for overlap. Christians see life itself as sacramental, as it should be. Accordingly, our vocation should be seen as a calling in which we serve God. A Christian worldview requires that we apply our God-given abilities and talents toward a caring and restoring ministry. The central purpose of Christianity is to share the saving grace of God through His Son, and to love and serve others; to shape our livelihoods, relationships, and lifestyles in accordance with the example of Christ. No aspect of life is outside the scope of God’s sovereignty. Kelly Kapic says, “Growing in our knowledge of God changes our view of everything else. It is not that we lose sight of all except God, but rather that we view everything in light of God and through the story of his creation and redemption” (7).

Critics of integration claim that the term suggests “mixing together” or combining two things that belong to distinct realms. But the result of integration is not meant to create a hybrid, such as “psychotheology.” Stanton Jones of of Wheaton College writes, “What matters ultimately is not the word, but what the term summarizes—the complex understandings and commitments to living out our faith with integrity… call it anything you like; at stake is not the term, but one’s fundamental stance as a Christian as one engages the entire world of learning and action” (8). Jones believes if we succeed in justifying how and why Christianity can interact with the science of psychology, we will have also established the basis for how it must also interact with the profession of psychology.

A Biblical Counseling View

Jones said, “I am neither an advocate of ‘Christian psychology’ nor of ‘biblical counseling’ as formulated… there is room for well-meaning Christians to disagree on the application of biblical teaching to psychological study” (9). David Powlison writes, “Christian faith is psychology. A coherent, comprehensive understanding of how people work is intrinsic to thinking Christianly” (10). P.T. Forsyth says, “Theology is faith thinking.” Building on this, Trevor Hart said, “Theology is the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (11). Kapic writes, “Whether we view God as distant or near, as gracious or capricious, as concerned or apathetic, the conclusions we reach—whether the result of careful reflection or negligent assumptions—guide our lives” (12). It is appropriate for our Christian beliefs to impact all aspects of our daily lives. Accordingly, Powlison also believes Christian ministry is psychotherapy—intentional, constructive conversation indispensable to practicing Christianly.

True theology is inevitably lived theology. J.J. Packer said, “If our theology does not quicken the conscience and soften the heart, it actually hardens both.” We must integrate Christian belief into our larger picture of the world and our place in it. In terms of the community of believers, it is important that each level of engagement be based on biblical principles. Hart writes, “Faith—when it is truly faith rather than a mere intellectual assent to some proposition or other—will always seek to enter into a fuller and deeper knowledge and understanding of that which matters most to it” (13).

Theological detachment produces a divide between spirituality and theology, between life and thought, between faith and agency.

Stanton Jones met Jay Adams, the founder of Biblical Counseling theory, years ago on a college campus. Adams told Jones to withdraw from university studies in psychology because “…so much damage [is] being done to the cause of Christ by psychology.” Jones did not take Adams’ advice, but he thought Adams’ concerns were not completely without merit (14). Jones believes being committed fully to Jesus Christ as Lord means being committed to anchoring our approach to all of life in God’s inspired Word. However, Jones expresses the following concerns regarding psychological therapies in the church:

  • we often insufficiently mine the riches of Scripture and Christian tradition on a secular understanding of people and their problems;
  • we are often insufficiently critical of secular or humanistic assumptions and values embedded in the psychologies we embrace;
  • the value of certain approaches to psychology is often vastly oversold;
  • the damage done by the psychologizing of our culture and of the church is real.

Concluding Remarks

Eric L. Johnson, editor of Psychology and Christianity: Five Views (2010) says modern psychology has become quite influential in Western culture and the Christian church. Typically, psychology has been silent on religion, and at times has taken a rather hostile approach. Church leaders often want nothing to do with psychology, while others embrace it with enthusiasm. Most churchgoers fall somewhere in the middle. We cannot be naive in thinking psychology is “perfectly harmless” in its approach to human ills. Interestingly, older psychology is rooted in the theological and philosophical reflections of Christian thinkers and ministers. Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus explored topics regarding memory, reason, sensation, appetite, motivation, virtues, vices, and human maturation. After the New Testament era, biblical principles and Greek intellectualism contributed to psychological theories for the next fourteen hundred years.

As Entwistle noted, people often see Christianity as a religious belief and psychology as a profession, believing the two have very little in common. He suggests that we begin with a Christian worldview from which we engage in the discipline of psychology. This approach allows for the use of many psychological insights contained within Christian theology, and enables us to engage in modern research and clinical treatment from a Christian viewpoint. Therefore, I agree with Entwistle and others that integration of psychology and Christian theology is a worthwhile proposition. After all, the two fields share a rich historical relationship. To ignore this beneficial connection is to deny Christianity as the backdrop to virtually all scientific discussion in the formative stages of science.

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.A. Theology

References
(1) Robert C. Roberts, “A Christian Psychology Response to Integration,” Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress, 2010), 132.
(2) Charles L. Allen, God’s Psychiatry: Healing for Your Troubled Heart (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2015, 1953), 11.
(3) Allen, Ibid., 12.
(4) David N. Entwistle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), ix.
(5) Roberts, Ibid., 133.
(6) Entwistle, Ibid., 5.
(7) Kelly M Kapic, A Little Book For New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress, 2012), 26.
(8) Stanton L. Jones, “In Integration View,” Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, Ibid., 102.
(9) Jones, Ibid., 112.
(10) David Powlison, “A Biblical Counseling View,” Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, Ibid., 245.
(11) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1995), 1.
(12) Kapic, Ibid., 26.
(13) Hart, Ibid., 3.
(14) Jones, Ibid., 276.

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