Theology and Psychology: Brief Consideration

We get questions at times with regards to the relationship between the Christian faith and Psychology when it comes to counseling. Between various schools of thought, some of whom appear to be at war with each other, it can be quite difficult to know what is what, to say nothing about what is right. We are not going to try to explain all of the differences. A good place to start would be “Psychology & Christianity: Five Views” edited by Eric L. Johnson, with contributors from five schools David G. Myers, Stanton L. Jones, Robert C. Roberts, P. J. Watson, John H. Coe, Todd W. Hall, David A. Powlison. The five “schools” are:Psychology and Theology
Levels of Explanation
      -Transformational Psychology
      -Christian Psychology/Counseling
      -Biblical Counseling

Transformational Psychology on first glance at least seems to simply be a type of Christian Psychology. Because of lack of detailed knowledge of Transformational Psychology, and because our counseling center tends to work mostly within the Pastoral Care movement, the diagram shows Pastoral Care instead.

If the X-axis shows the focus of the counseling. The farther to the right, the greater the emphasis on theology. The farther to the left, the greater the emphasis on (secular) psychology. Near the origin on the X-axis is a more balanced approach. The Y-axis shows the philosophy of the counseling. The farther positive (“up”) the greater the philosophy towards integration of theology and psychology. The farther negative (“down”) the greater the philosophy of separation, or reducing dialogue between theology and psychology in treatment.

It is important to note that the X-axis has on the positive side “theology” not “Bible.” There is a couple of reasons for this. For one, while Bilbical Counseling describes its basis as the Bible, not everyone would agree that its principles are Biblical. Rather, it is safer to say that that Biblical Counseling is based on a theological understanding of the role of the Bible in counseling. A second reason for using the term “theological” is that the Pastoral Care movement takes very seriously the integration of faith/theology and psychology, but some practitioners utilize theologies that do not have the Bible as its base.

Looking at the four quadrants, the five views covered produce a continuous (and overlapping) curve. At one extreme in the lower left is the “Levels of Explanation” view. It tends to focus on Psychology and separates human problems into categories (levels of explanation)… some that are the domain of psychology, and some that are the domains of other specialties. In the upper left are the Integrationists. While all in the upper quadrants could be described as integrational, here the term tends to be used by those that focus more on psychology than on theology. Those that are more integrationist (strong) see a greater role for theology. Those that are less integrationist (weak) see a lesser role for theology.

In the upper right quadrant are two groups. One is Christian Counseling and the other is Pastoral Care. Arguably, these two greatly overlap. Both place a strong role for theology but seek to be effectively informed by findings in secular psychology that have been found useful. Since both Christian Counseling and Pastoral Care overlap, they could easily be seen as one school. They are often kept separate for two reasons. First, they developed differently. Christian Counseling came as a reaction to integrationists on one side and Biblical counseling on the other, in the 1980s. Its underlying theology tends to be relatively conservative. Pastoral Care is older coming from the Clinical Pastoral Training movement in the 1920s and beyond. While it does not, strictly speaking, have only one underlying theological perspective, the average pastoral care practitioner would be seen as more theologically liberal than the average Christian counselor. In the lower right quadrant is Biblical Counseling. It was a reaction to the left quadrant practitioners in the early 1970s. Originally known as Nouthetic Counseling. It takes a more negative view of psychological principles and methods that are seen as not coming from the Bible. As such there is a strong separation between counseling they feel is consistent with the Bible, and counseling based on sources outside the Bible. Recent movements in Biblical Counseling have sought to find more integration, but separation still dominates the movement.

Perhaps it is best not to focus on “Who is right” and focus on what each has to offer. Biblical Counseling tends to focus on sin and behavioral changes. In some cases that is the care needed. For serious psychoemotional problems such as personality disorders and psychoses, the integrationists and levels of explanation practitioners are better prepared to assist recovery. For problems such as conflicts, being “sinned against,” self-esteem, and such, perhaps Christian counseling and Pastoral Care have more tools to help.

When it comes to treatment, one size may NOT fit all.


One thought on “Theology and Psychology: Brief Consideration

  1. Reblogged this on MMM — Munson Mission Musings and commented:
    I wrote this article/post for our Counseling Center website. I suppose it is not, strictly speaking, missional. However, in missions we need to deal with human problems (including psychoemotional and psychospiritual). It is important to know what we believe regarding psychology and theology, focus and philosophy. My personal training is primarily in Pastoral Care and (strong) Integrationist. I still have a lot to learn.


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