Defining Psychology

February 13, 2010 — 1 Comment

[This post is part of the Adventures in Psychology series]

“Psychology” can be a sticky term to define. We tend to unfortunately use the word as if psychology itself were a monolithic discipline. This is unfortunately not the case at all, and as we shall see, “psychology” even in the broad sense has two radically different meanings.

Much of the debate about how psychology and theology should be integrated is exacerbated by inattention to terminology, for generally speaking, proponents of each side tend to have a different conception in mind when using the term “psychology.” Moreover, when a debate is generated, both sides it seems misconstrue what the other side is referring to when using the term “psychology.”

But we all to some degree are also guilty of this, especially with such broad terms as “psychology.” The issue is similar to one I’ve previously outlined about “philosophy” and the different senses that one can attribute to that term (see here for that discussion). In general though, “psychology” as a term can be broken out in similar ways that “philosophy” was.

In the broad sense, psychology refers to the scientific discipline that is devoted to the study of the human soul or mind (you could figure this out etymologically knowing that psyche is Greek for soul/mind). Unfortunately though for the field of psychology there is no grand unifying theory with respect to the human mind soul, so psychology as a discipline tends have multiple sub-branches. In terms of where the overlap into the field of counseling occurs, which is our primary emphasis here, there are six general philosophies of psychology that tend to dominate:

  • The Biological Model
  • The Psychodynamic Model (Freudian psychology)
  • The Behavioral Model
  • The Cognitive Model
  • The Humanistic-Existential Model
  • The Sociocultural Model

We may return to these later, but for now, the important point is that any one of these may claim to be “psychology” in the broad sense. This breakout is from my Abnormal Psychology textbook and represents the different approaches to resolving abnormalities. As you might suspect, they sometimes conflict with each other radically, and in large measure, none of these can be completely correct in their conception of the human soul. What is worse though, one cannot simply treat them as multiple perspectives on the soul, that when added together give you the full picture. Each of them, in their own way, purports to give the definitive account of the human soul, and while they may acknowledge the validity of some insights from other perspectives, they each in their own way seek to reduce the human soul to their point of view. Some inroads have been made between them, but as we will see below, even if they are all redacted (woven) together into a single theory, it would still be problematic for the Christian seeking to integrate.

Interestingly, when defined broadly as the study of the soul, all of these models in their own way are treading on the subject matter of the Bible. The Bible of course has very much to say about the human soul and mind, including its origins and purpose, and its nature and functioning. It even approaches the soul in some ways reminiscent of each of the above perspectives at times. We might return to this point in a later point (if someone reminds me) but for now, even a causal perusal of the Biblical text on the soul should reveal a multi-faceted picture.

At its base then, psychology, when broadly defined from a non-Biblical perspective, is a parallel story to the one we find in Scripture. The question then becomes whether or not it is a strictly parallel story, or is actually a divergent alternative story. Is psychology just the scientific account of what we already find in the Scriptures? Since all truth is God’s truth, should the stories we receive from scientifically validated studies comport with the story we receive from Scripture?

This at least is the way the question is framed in Biblical Counseling 101 here at DTS. The class though should probably bear the subtitle: The case for integration. The general assumption is that since all truth is God’s truth (which is certainly true), then whatever psychology discovers to be true, that will not conflict with what one finds in the Scriptures and should be integrated in order for one to be able to fully engage in counseling.

This is unfortunately not entirely the case for at least two reasons:

  1. Most mainstream psychological research starts with different presuppositions than what one finds in the Bible
  2. Scientific research cannot validate truth in the same way that Bible does

In other words, there seems to be naivety afoot with respect to the underlying epistemology of psychology as well as with respect to the certainty that scientific truth can obtain. The assumption seems to be that an empirically validated study in psychology is just as true (because it is science) as the truth we arrived at in careful study of God’s word. One is a lower case “t” while the other is an upper case “T” but both are equally valid forms of truth. The reason that this is probably not the case, stems from the first observation above.

While divergent in their outcomes, there is one unifying presupposition in the above models of psychology that were listed. It is that each of them is in agreement that the Triune God of the Bible does not exist, therefore did not create man, nor did He have any meaningful say so in man’s purpose or destiny. More subtly they each are in agreement that the impersonal is more fundamental than the personal. In other words, impersonal matter gives rise to personal states such as thoughts and emotions. This many times is the presupposition that slips into Christian thinking about psychological matters unaware. The idea that chemical imbalances can be determinative (in a primary sense) in psychological difficulties reflects this assumption.

The Bible presents a very different view of man. In the Scriptures, the personal is more fundamental than the impersonal and in fact gave rise to it. A God who is absolute personality created a world that has other personalities as well as impersonal forces. Further, this God who exists Triunely crafted the human soul and revealed in His word its origins, purposes, and destines. Since the Bible has already defined the end goal of the development of the human soul, it likewise has counsel for how to correct abnormalities. The Bible then, already has its own “psychology” so to speak.

Further, only the Bible is inspired and inerrant. Our interpretations may not be infallible but to the extent that we are interpreting accurately we are finding truth. What passes as scientific knowledge on the other hand is in and of itself errant and fallible. Added to that is the same interpretive difficulties that one encounters in the Bible, namely that of fallible interpretation of data. Coupled with the other issues in scientific reasoning (seen here) this makes for the findings of science, especially with respect to the soul, to be less sure than that of the Biblical witness. There is more to be said here, but it like many other things touched on in this post, needs its own spot to be fleshed out.

In the end, there are really two different definitions of “psychology,” even in the broad sense. One is distinctively Christian and derived from the Scriptures, the other is distinctively pagan and is derived from non-Christian reflection on the matter. Problems then tend to arise when a Christian unknowingly accepts the non-Christian definition of psychology and then seeks to integrate that into Christian theology. When one starts with a definition of psychology that is derived from the Scriptures, only then can one fruitfully integrate ideas from psychology and even then only tentatively, given the lack certainty that empirical studies are capable of achieving.

The reason for the two-fold definition of psychology (and a point to be returned to later) is that there is always a formal similarity between Christian and non-Christian thought. However, there are large conceptual discrepancies lurking in the background. A Christian and a non-Christian cannot arrive at a mutually satisfactory definition and purpose of psychology without one of them compromising their background beliefs. That is of course unless it is sufficiently vague enough to not actually be informative. To say psychology is the study of the soul might satisfy both sides, but any movement beyond that initial definition will involve one side or the other to make concessions, and for the Christian, that is not an option.

So to wrap up, when we speak of psychology as I did in the initial quote, I am referring to the non-Christian conception of psychology, and it is that understanding of psychology that I am rejecting as inadequate and unhelpful. Hopefully in some ways, this post has raised more questions for you, and hopefully too in coming posts, those questions can be addressed an answered.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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