Hermeneutics of The Soul

February 21, 2010 — 2 Comments

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

While it was promised the next post would deal with the myth of objectivity in psychology and other realms of knowledge, this may serve as a short buffer to clarify how it is that psychology is essentially just hermeneutics. To see how it is that one can easily conceive of a psychologist as someone who “exegetes” people might prove helpful.

Before moving forward in this analogy, I should probably clarify some terms. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. In reference to the Bible it is the principles of exegesis. Exegesis is defined as a critical explanation or interpretation of a text or a portion of a text. Usually it is used in reference to biblical interpretation. Eisegesis on the other hand is an interpretation that expresses the interpreters own ideas or bias rather than the text’s intrinsic meaning.

Now, all scientists practice hermeneutics to some extent. They all have a specific text (the human mind, the human body, the stars, etc.) and there are principles of interpretation inherent to each discipline. However, when thinking of the over-arching practice that unites all branches of both science and scholarship in general, it would be the act of interpreting and offering a critical explanation of some field of data.

It just so happens for the psychologist that this data field is the man and his mind and its functions and malfunctions. Psychology then amounts to the various types of “hermeneutics of the soul.” The problem is that all psychologists, Christian or non, are guilty of eisegesis. Non-Christian psychologists are mired in eisegesis, while the Christian still commits it in spite of himself because he is fallible just like everyone else. I say this not as a slam against the insights that non-Christian psychologists might have, for even those that eisegete make valid and true points. Rather, I am simply pointing out that because of the issue mentioned in the first post on hermeneutics, they interpret the soul out of context. I guess an example might make it a bit clearer.

Suppose you were given the task of interpreting a particular passage of Scripture. Let’s say in doing so, you do diagrammatical analysis, maybe even in the original language, you clarify exactly what the passage is getting at and follow the argument tightly. Your finished product would probably reflect considerable insight about that specific passage. You would probably pick up on things that someone who just casually reads through it would miss. But what is is that you yourself have missed?

Background context was largely ignored. There was no question of genre, or of historical time/place. No attention was given to who the author (and Author) was and who he was writing to and for what purpose. Attention might have been given to general context, such as the letter or specific book of the Bible as a whole, and maybe even some cultural context, but not the context regarding the who, what, and why of this particular text.

Similarly, psychologists proceed with a wrong assumption about the author of the text they are studying. Anybody or anything other than the Triune God can be the author. The various sub-disciplines of psychology will each emphasize a different “author” but few if any will actually treat as person as an author-less text.

Having gotten the Author of the text (person) wrong (the who question), there is little to no hope that the psychologist working from a non-Christian perspective will clarify the other contextual issues with any accuracy at all. There is no discernment of the authorial intent that is embedded in the text (the why question), and so the purpose will be “eisegeted” into the text since the non-Christian is not working with Christian conceptions of humanity’s ultimate goals and purposes. The genre of the text (the what question) will be assumed to be something outside of a Biblical framework (the person is certainly not a sinner in need of grace), and there is no standard with which to compare any given text to look for ways to correct it if needed (Christ is not paradigmatic as the Text).

At this point, it is helpful to look at what I am not saying, translated back into more psychological language, and draw the analogy the other way. What I am not saying is that non-Christian psychologists are stupid and can in no way interpret man and the mind correctly. Read that again, just so there is no misunderstanding. Also, I am not saying that since Christians have the correct starting point that they will always make correct and astute psychological observations. That is something that is very easily proved.

What I am saying is that by not approaching psychology from a Christian framework, the non-Christian psychologist is handicapped in a way that no amount of astute insight will overcome. His ultimate interpretations of the data will always be slightly off or skewed because he has not taken God as Creator and Lord into account and he has not studied man as he truly is, a sinner in constant need of divine grace. He might understand the general context of the person (the person’s story, and possibly surrounding culture), but he won’t see the person as a creature who is responsible to a Creator. This is the correlation to taking a passage out of its overall context and just interpreting the grammatical data in isolation (although as I said, maybe the larger grammar of the rest of the book is taken into account).

There is however something that the Christian can glean from this. In the same way that many non-Christians can write very astute commentaries of the Bible, many psychologists can have very astute “grammatical” observations about humanity. They will always need to be redemptively re-interpreted and placed into proper perspective, but they are not a priori wholly without merit.

At the same time, many Christians, while understanding the ultimate context very well, fail at interpreting the more “grammatical” aspects of the person (and the text too for that matter!) and so offer overly simplistic solutions or just do not take the time to make careful observations and analysis before proceeding to treatment. As hinted at above, this is also a problem in Bible interpretation as well. We tend to want to breeze through the hard work of wrestling through the grammar and just jump to application. The sins we commit in the study too often find their way into the counseling session.

Hopefully this can be illuminating on the issue of how psychologists can make valid insights, but still ultimately be off in their assessments. We need to be as careful in interpreting the text of Scripture as some of these non-Christian psychologists are in their interpretation of people. And again, conversely, we then need to be careful in not only understanding the context of the people we minister to, but the actual people themselves.

This still though leaves open the issue of objectivity, although much of what has said may have helped to de-construct the idea of there actually being a way to conduct scientific investigation “obejectively.” Even if such a thing could be done, it is not an option for the Christian. To be objective in the way the term is normally used is simply shorthand for following the non-Christian in his way of doing things. And to see why that is, we’ll have to wait for another post.


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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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