Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Five

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

WE LEARNED IN THE previous installments of this series that psychology is a discipline with a rich history. Plato and Aristotle, for example, created elaborate theories that attempted to account for a myriad of developmental issues: memory, perception, learning. Initial philosophers and theorists took an eclectic approach, exploring matters such as determinism, responsibility, mind versus body, empiricism, harmony, rationalism, and self identity. This tended to pull early theorists in many directions. When psychology emerged as a separate discipline, the initial impact tore in two the early influences of philosophy and religion. Today, psychology consists of a number of disciplines and concentrations. For the Christian, psychology must be infused with theological beliefs about our place in God’s world. Many evangelicals and other denominational Christians see no place for psychology or secular counseling in the church. In this installment, I will discuss free will and the personality. In the final installment, I will present the concept of “religious” or “Christian” counseling.

Free Will

Free will has been considered countless times by theologians such as Augustine, Martin Luther, Alvin Plantinga, C.S. Lewis, and Wayne Grudem. Admittedly, it is the concept of free will that muddies the water most when discussing religious faith and psychology. Christianity teaches that man has the freedom to choose or reject God. Everyone is free to choose A or not-A. This designation is different than choosing A or B. If you’re offered a choice of A or B, then you are being given a choice between, Do you want an apple or an orange with your lunch? In this scenario you cannot choose something other than an apple or an orange. You are not free to pick anything you want, but rather to make your selection from the choices offered. If you’re just offered A, then it’s still a choice. In the example of A or not-A you must choose God or not God.

Augustine’s definition of free will is built on Plato’s “seeking of the good principle.” Augustine addresses man’s choice between good and evil (right and wrong). He said we are also free to accept or reject the love and grace of God. Luther said, “God… foresees, purposes and does all things according to His immutable, eternal and infallible will” (1). When asked why we perform evil deeds, Luther replied, “The human will is like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes whence God wills. If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills” (2). This is not the same as believing a benevolent God rides us to do good, while an evil devil rides us to do evil. We choose whom to allow in the saddle, so to speak. Plantinga writes, “…belief in God is not the same thing as belief that God exists, or that there is such a thing as “god” (3).

The drive of philosophy to get the “big picture” has heavily influenced the understandings of Christian theology. Consider the problem of evil in a world created by a loving and caring God. Atheists and skeptics claim this dichotomy either proves God does not exist, or He does exist and is unable or unwilling to abolish evil. Plantinga puts the argument of skeptics this way: “If God is benevolent as Christian theists claim, He must be just as appalled as we are at all this evil [in the world]. But if He is also as powerful as they claim, then presumably He is in a position to do something about it. So why does He permit it?” (4). Plantinga cites the free will defense, which claims we are free with respect to an action. He explains, “If a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain from performing it” (5).

A world containing individuals who are capable of both good and evil simply indicates such individuals are free to choose how they will behave. God created man with free will; He cannot cause them to do only what is right. Plantinga reminds us that what God created “went wrong” when our First Parents exercised their free will to disobey God. It might sound as though this contradicts man’s freedom to choose, but it does not. We are free to obey or disobey, but we are not free to choose the consequences of our decision. Frankly, free will must involve moral agency.

Theories of Personality

Questions regarding mind versus body, nativism versus empiricism, nature versus nurture, and genetic components of behavior have been examined over the decades in hope of understanding the human personality. The goal has been to arrive at a unifying theory of human nature. For example, are we inherently aggressive? Freud said yes; humanists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow said no. Sigmund Freud believed aggression and emotional traps are rooted in a person’s early childhood experience—especially the dynamics of one’s relationship with a parent or primary care giver. B.F. Skinner described a form of learning in which a voluntary response is strengthened or weakened depending on its association with either positive or negative consequences. The strengthening of a response occurs through reinforcement. Skinner called this theory “operant conditioning.”

Maslow created a visual, which he termed the “hierarchy of needs.” This pyramid depicts various levels of physical and psychological needs that a person progresses through during their lifetime (6). Frustration at any level of “actualization” makes it nearly impossible to move to the next level. For example, if a child’s physiological needs are not met, developing a sense of safety and security is difficult to achieve. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory states that virtually all forms of behavior can be learned (good traits and bad) simply through observational learning. Although he did not believe man precisely mimics those whom he or she observes, he believed man makes a deliberate, conscious decision to behave in the same way. This is crucial for understanding why violent men often come from a violent home (7).

Personality is one of man’s most important assets. It shapes our experiences from birth and will do so as we get older. It impacts our accomplishments, expectations, health, options, and behavior. For example, someone with a terrific personality is affable, pleasant, nice to be around, easy to get along with. Someone with a terrible personality may be aloof, hostile, aggressive, unfriendly, dominating, difficult to get along with. Many forces and factors shape personality during childhood and young adulthood. After that, our personalities stay pretty much the same throughout our lives. A new study shows a correlation between personality traits observed in children (as young as first graders) and adult behavior. Does the child share? Is he or she aggressive or demure; sociable or shy? Christopher Nave says, “We remain recognizably the same person” (8).

I believe it is unwise to resign people to “fate,” especially through such a glib and simplified approach as above. Personality is complex and changeable in different situations and with different people. I find myself vacillating at times depending on the social setting. I might drop an f-bomb in certain circles, but it is not likely I will do so while in church or while interacting with fellow believers or church leaders. I was often told during active addiction that I was a “Jekyll and Hyde.” Take a moment to consider how we hold many traits. Try writing down as many adjectives as you can think to describe what you are really like. If you do not hold yourself in high regard, whatever the reason, your list may present a dark and unhappy personality. The opposite will be true if you think well of yourself. Our personality is a collage of feelings we’ve adapted over the years in response to our environment—forces and factors that shape who we are. Personality refers to enduring characteristics, but these may change over time in response to new and forceful stimuli and circumstances.

Personality and Religion

Religion teaches that individuals are responsible for their actions, and identifies bad behavior as transgression. Schnikter and Emmons believe religion is overlooked and marginalized in personality psychology, despite the fact that religion was of great interest to the founding theorists of the field. Schnikter, et al. write, “Because of the recent surge in empirical research on religion from a personological perspective this claim is no longer convincing. One of the hallmarks of personality psychology that distinguishes it from other fields is its focus on a comprehensive understanding of the person. Accordingly, personality psychology should have a distinctive relationship with the psychology of religion” (9). Because religion and spirituality are concerned with our transcendent self, Schnikter and Emmons believe personality psychology is a worthy study subject.

René Descartes viewed human personality as the product of an interaction between divine and primal forces. Jean-Paul Sartre theorized that personality traits are developed through the projects we choose in life, and because we can choose what we devote our lives to we can change our character traits. Webber writes, “An individual’s character is that person’s collection of character traits, and these can be defined as relatively stable dispositions to think, feel, and behave in certain ways in certain situations. Two traditional examples are bravery and cowardice, the dispositions to think, feel, and behave in a brave or cowardly manner in the face of real or apparent danger” (10). Consider, then, the generous man or woman. He or she frequently offers aid to neighbors, has several favorite non-profit organizations or charities, and tithes unselfishly at church. And there’s the alcoholic or drug addict who comes to know Jesus and experiences a radical change in character. He stops abusing alcohol or drugs and joins a church. Through his transformation, he begins to give generously to the church and volunteers his time for groups and programs. He passes the message of transformation along to newcomers.

When a person visits a psychologist or a psychiatrist, that person’s problems or concerns are being understood and addressed through the lens of the practitioner, also known as his or her theory of personality. Most psychological theories deny spirituality or downplay it at best. Secular counseling typically denies the spiritual dimension of humanity. Many of today’s personality theories have roots in the Enlightenment philosophy begun by Descartes. While these theories give us helpful insight and understanding, their philosophical foundations tend to be rationalistic, materialistic, and evolutionary in nature. Enlightenment theory lends itself to doubt and skepticism, limiting what they assign to a belief in God, a created world, and the concept of right versus wrong.

From a Christian perspective, Ladd (11) outlines three ways in which scholars have interpreted what can be called the anthropology of Paul:

Scholars of an older generation understood 1 Thessalonians 5:23—where Paul prays for the preservation of the spirit, soul, and body—to be a psychological statement and understood Paul in terms of trichotomy… spirit, soul, and body are three separable parts of man. Other scholars have seen a dichotomy of soul and body. Recent scholarship has recognized that such terms as body, soul, and spirit are not different, separable faculties of man but different ways of viewing the whole man.

Generally, psychology says man cannot change his personality. Christianity agrees in part. When an individual accepts the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and identifies with His death, burial, and resurrection, his or her character begins to change. Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul further tells us to put off our old self, which belongs to our former manner of life, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, putting on the new self (see Eph. 4:22-24). Henry speaks of this transformation: “By the new man, is meant the new nature, the new creature, directed by a new principle, even regenerating grace, enabling a man to lead a new life of righteousness and holiness” (12) (italics added). This is what Paul meant by “all things.”

Isaiah said we must forget “the former things” and instead “do a new thing” (see Isa. 43:18-19). We should walk in a manner worthy of our calling in Christ (see Eph. 4:1). Yet, we are not left to our own (human) devices. Paul provides us with the necessary spiritual guidance. In the Book of Romans, he presents perhaps the closest thing in the New Testament to systematic theology. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 present the core of Christian doctrine, and as such is one of my favorite sections of Scripture. Paul changes the focus of his teaching in Romans 12 from theological to practical. Now, we are instructed to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice,” which is considered reasonable (do this at the very least) given the cost of our redemption. Practically speaking, our service requires a reorientation of our thinking: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (see Rom. 12:2). Henry writes, “Conversion and sanctification are the renewing of the mind; a change, not of the substance, but of the qualities of the soul” (13).

Concluding Remarks

For millennia religion and psychology stood in staunch opposition. The early theorists of psychology, however, were theists and philosophers. They remarkably shared a similar quest to understand the whole man: body, mind, spirit. It is not surprising that this centuries-old search passed through stages such as determinism, empiricism, rationalism, good versus evil, and self identity. In order to grasp the existence and attributes of God, we must move from knowing about God to knowing God. This is how we come to grips with who we are in Him, and who we are without Him. In so doing, we are in a better position to accept His forgiveness, grace, mercy, and salvation. It is through accepting that we become “a new creature.” However, we do not loose our personality; nor are we magically rendered immune to “being human.” Instead, transformation begins in the heart (spiritual) and proceeds through the mind (renewal of thoughts). The “old us” that dies with Christ is our unregenerate sinful self. The “new us” is our regenerate self that rises with Him in righteousness. Through spiritual growth, we move from “spiritual” to “practical” change—newness of character. Transformation, regardless of its impetus, necessarily requires a belief (faith) in the potential for change, and must be followed by action steps (practical) that allow us to begin “walking the new walk.”


(1) Hergenhahn and Henley, An Introduction to the History of Psychology, 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Publishing, 2014), 97.
(2) E.F. Winter, Erasmus & Luther: Discourse on Free Will (New York, NY: Continuum, 2005), 97.
(3) Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 1.
(4) Ibid., 9.
(5) Ibid., 29.
(6) Duane P. Schultz and Sydney Ellen Schultz, Theories of Personality, 11th ed. (Boston, MA: Centage, 2017), 250-251.
(7) Schultz, Ibid., 343-350.
(8) Christopher Nave, “Personality Set For Life by First Grade,” Live Science (Aug. 6, 2010). URL:
(9) Sarah H. Schnikter and Robert A. Emmons, “Personality and Religion” in Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, O. P. John & R. W. Robins, ed. (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2021), 707–723.
(10) Jonathan Webber, “Sartre’s Theory of Character,” European Journal of Philosophy (2006), 94-116.
(11) George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1974.
(12) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1150.
(13) Henry, Ibid., 1087.

“I’m Not Who I Wanna Be!”

The greatest revolution in our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives. —William James

Girl in Meadow Sunset Contemplating

KNOWING YOURSELF IS ONE OF the greatest feelings. It has a deep meaning. Frankly, it’s how you enable yourself to move forward. When you are able to clearly and honestly see who you are deep down, you are better equipped to begin working on personal growth. There simply is no growth without honesty. I learned this lesson the hard way—which is an understatement. It took me over four decades to discover who I had become, who Jesus sees me to be, and what to do about it.

Too many Christians today suffer from an identity crisis. Whenever we forget who we are in Christ, we create a void in our spirit that nothing can satisfy, although not for lack of trying—overeating, sex, booze, drugs, gambling, excess shopping, pornography, working eighteen hours a day, whatever. Of course, what’s critical is this: How we see ourselves is our identity. Identity is strongly linked to self-image and self-esteem.


Culture tries to create us as they see fit. Enculturation begins with our first primary caregivers and continues through academia and religious or other “life-defining” practices. Culture influences identity. We are both individuals and members of the human family. Clyde Kluckhohn (1954) wrote “culture is to society what memory is to individuals.” Webster’s dictionary defines culture as “…the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” It also includes values and beliefs of a particular group. Because we’re social beings—according to Genesis 2:18, God believed man should not be alone—the cultural influences we’re subjected to play a large role in the development of our identity.

Culture provides a lens through which we view and interpret the world. This is typically called a worldview. It’s been said that culture suggests the way a group of people may appear to an anthropologist; worldview suggests how the universe appears to the group. Accordingly, worldview helps generate our specific experiences. Everyone has a worldview—a window through which he or she views the world, framed by the assumptions and beliefs that color what he or she sees. The basic role of a worldview is to present the relationship of the human mind to the riddle of the world and life. Nietzsche viewed every worldview as a product of time, place, and culture.

Identity is not determined by biology; rather, it is informed by social and environmental influences. For example, language is a large part of who we are—including how and what we speak—is determined from birth by environment and social culture. It is further influenced by academics. Somewhere, in the mix of all this, culture gives us a label for the group to which we each belong. We all “see” the same world, but it will be understood differently. Our “glasses” (worldview) do not shape reality, nor do they ensure a correct perception, but they do determine how we interpret and explain life and the world.



Identity is largely concerned with the question Who am I? Identity relates to our basic values that dictate the choices we make (e.g., relationships, career, academic interests). These choices reflect who we are and what we value. Some believe identity may be acquired—at least in part—indirectly from parents, peers, and other role models. Children come to define themselves in terms of how they think their parents see them. If their mother or father sees them as worthless, they will come to define themselves as worthless. People who perceive themselves as likable probably heard more positive than negative statements.

Standard elements of the word personality include:

  • the state of being a person
  • the characteristics and qualities that form a person’s distinctive character
  • the sum of all the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of a person

Essentially, personality is everything about us that makes us what we are—a unique individual who is different, in large and small ways, from everybody else. Our personality is one of our most important assets. It helps shape our experiences. Personality type can limit or expand our options and choices in life, and can even prevent us from sharing certain experiences or keep us from taking full advantage of them. Accordingly, sometimes personality can vary with the situation. Psychologists and sociologists assume that identity formation is a matter of “finding oneself” by matching one’s talents and potential with available social roles.



According to Ephesians 1, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing; we have been chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, grace-lavished, and unconditionally loved and accepted. We are pure, blameless and forgiven. We have received the hope of spending eternity with God. When we are in Christ, these aspects of our identity can never be altered by what we do.

For Paul, union with Jesus is summed up in the short phrase he uses over 200 times in his epistles: in Christ (and other variations of same). This wording is said to have originated with Paul. C.K. Barrett, British biblical scholar and Methodist minister known for such books as The Gospel of Saint John and A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, believed we cannot define the term “in Christ” exactly because Paul does not elucidate or explain the how—i.e. the mechanism—of such a union suggested by the phrase. So, what does the phrase mean?

One of the richest passages about identity in the Bible is found in Ephesians 1:3-14. In this passage, Paul addresses the church in Ephesus, explaining the new identity given to a person when they are in Christ. Unfortunately, often a gap exists between intellectually knowing these truths about who God says we are and living them out. This can be hindered by how we see ourselves, our life experiences, and the ways we allow the world to define us. In order to live out the fullness of our new identity in Christ, we must determine what is hindering us from seeing ourselves as He sees us. Many times, a false belief has wedged itself between how God defines us and seeing ourselves in the same light.

Jesus With Open Arms

For example, the opposite of “pure and blameless” would be “impure, stained or guilty.” Perhaps a life experience has caused you to feel impure, so you believe God sees you this way. You then create and live out of an identity based on your beliefs, which are  contrary to how God sees you. In order to fight against these false beliefs, we must discover the exact belief we are allowing to form our identity.

When reflecting on Ephesians 1, I see some false beliefs we may live out:

  • rejected instead of accepted,
  • in bondage instead of redeemed,
  • under the law instead of covered by grace,
  • feeling orphaned instead of adopted

Instead, we need to focus on who we are and what we have in Christ:

  • spiritually blessed
  • redeemed
  • sealed
  • grace through faith
  • one in Christ
  • joint heirs with Christ
  • access to the Father
  • fellow citizens of heaven
  • boldness
  • new life
  • access to the whole armor of God

Just saying “I’m in Christ” does not make it so. What must come first is the means by which we can be one with the Messiah. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV) [italics mine]. The mechanism is right there. Christ had to become sin for us, thereby washing us white as snow, before we could become the righteousness of God and be one with Jesus. Paul tells us in Romans 3:22-24, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV) [italics mine].

Romans 6:11 says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (NIV) [italics mine]. Further, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:2). Paul addresses our identity in Christ in his Epistle to the Ephesians. In 1:12, he writes, “…in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory” (NIV). Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:6 that He raised us up together with Him by our virtue of being in Christ. Ultimately, we press on to win the prize to which God the Father is calling us heavenward in Christ (Philippians 3:14). John says, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (NKJV).


God says we are valuable. We are created in His image (Genesis 2:7) and tasked with carrying that image like a torch to light the world. We are woven into the tapestry of all He has created. We’re crowned with His glory and honor as the pinnacle and last act of the six days of Creation.

Perhaps the best way God sees us is redeemed. The truth we have to remind ourselves every day is the fight has already been won. We don’t need to try to fix ourselves. No self-effort will ever save us. We cannot make up for past struggles and efforts. We must remember that grace is already ours. When we die to our old self, we live with Christ in God. The Father no longer sees our sins. When He looks at us, he sees the righteousness of Christ.

We have all this through Jesus Christ.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25, NIV).


I Don’t Want To Be Demure or Respectable

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Whenever possible, I will provide a link to more poetry by the featured poet.

Today’s poem is one of my favorite by Mary Oliver

I don’t want to be demure or respectable.
I was that way, asleep, for years.
That way, you forget too many important things.
How the little stones, even if you can’t hear them,
are singing.
How the river can’t wait to get to the ocean and
the sky, it’s been there before.
What traveling is that!
It is a joy to imagine such distances.
I could skip sleep for the next hundred years.
There is a fire in the lashes of my eyes.
It doesn’t matter where I am, it could be a small room.
The glimmer of gold Böhme saw on the kitchen pot
was missed by everyone else in the house.

Maybe the fire in my lashes is a reflection of that.
Who do I have so many thoughts, they are driving me
Why am I always going anywhere, instead of
Listen to me or not, it hardly matters.
I’m not trying to be wise, that would be foolish.
I’m just chattering.