Is Biblical Psychology An Oxymoron?
by Dennis Michelson
James 1:8 - A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.
The term translated as double minded is the Greek word dipsuchos. It means a "two-souled" man. This person is divided between faith and the world. One could say he is bi-polar to some degree. I have extensive training in theology and psychology.
There are some today who seek a reconciliation between these two disciplines. As Spurgeon said long ago, "reconciliation is needed between enemies, not friends." Is reconciliation needed between theology and psychology or can they just get along?
1. The Loss of Biblical Psychology
Many believers are unaware of the fact that there existed a biblical psychology long before modern psychology came on the scene. As with many things today, our ignorance of the historical roots for something leads some to remove a fence before they find out why it was erected in the first place.
Pastors have always been in ministry of the "cure of souls." The study of the soul is not something a believer should avoid. Psychology is the study of the soul. Read Richard Baxter's Christian Directory (1664) where he writes concerning the "Sum of practical theology, and cases of conscience, directing Christians on how to use their knowledge and faith."
If that is too much then try Jonathan Edwards (1754) who said "the soul always wills that which, in the present view of the mind, appears most agreeable." It is for certain Edwards never received any royalties for his early insights into Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy!
If that is too deep, then plunge into Delitzsch who wrote an entire volume (1855) aptly entitled Biblical Psychology. In the middle of the 19th century he wrote "Biblical psychology is no science of yesterday, it is one of the oldest sciences of the Church."
Read B.B. Warfield in 1911 on faith and its psychological aspects - "Some minds will respond to weak evidence with full consent; others will resist very strong evidence." If you have never read any of these four men (or even heard of them) then perhaps you should turn off Dr. Phil and pick up a nice thick book. We let the world take biblical psychology out of the Church and slip in a cheap substitute.
2. The Limits of Human Psychology
If one is going to study modern psychology then he must be aware of these four basic defects in the product:
(1) It has a defective view of Anthropology - they are willing to call man sick but refrain from "labeling" him as sinful. The biblical concept of the total depravity of man is utterly foreign to the world - and sadly, has become very unpopular in the Church.
(2) It has a defective view of Harmartiology - Not only is the state of man as a sinner rejected but his actions (behaviors) are not seen as offensive to an infinite personal Creator. Sin is a transgression of the law. Who gave the law? They try to remove Him too.
(3) It has a defective view of Bibliology - There is an almost total emphasis on studying the book of Nature but not the book of Scripture. This leads to some conclusions which ultimately deny both books.
(4) It has a defective view of Soteriology - Man cannot be "recovered"; he can only settle for "recovering." Salvation and Self-Actualization are not the same thing.
3. The Learning from Modern Psychology
What, if anything can we learn from modern psychology?
(1) It does identify pathology (without theology) See Proverbs 23:29-35. Solomon diagnosed addiction long before the Betty Ford clinic even thought about it.
(2) It recognizes cognitive impairment. Romans 12:2 calls it the "renewing of the mind." Classic biblical psychology emphasized the intellectual (NOTITIA), emotional (ASSENSUS), and volitional (FIDUCIA). Psychology can help with the first, is confused as to the second, and in the dark on the third.
(3) It is expert at ruling out the physiological. Unless your church has an on-site PET scanner you may want to refer someone for testing. The recent advances surrounding the biological basis of some mental disorders is impressive. Sadly, many psychologists make no clear distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders.
Some people may be "depressed" but many are "depressing." They don't need to change their brain - they need to change their behavior. For those who do need to supplement their thinker (brain) so they can change their thinking (behavior) then a good scientific medical evaluation may be just what the doctor ordered.
(4) Sadly, modern psychology can give a great description of how worldly believers live. In many cases, it can be observed that relationship problems in the lives of believers may be traced to their utter neglect of practicing biblical principles.
Psychology can pinpoint negative feedback loops, irrational thoughts, schemas, and most believers will utterly reject the concept but then go home and practice it. Worldliness can lead to denial and strong delusion.
4. The Lessons for Believers
(1) Do not forsake the Cross for the Couch.
(2) Do not excuse sin by re-naming it sickness (I John 1:9)
(3) The book of Nature and the book of Scripture were both written by the same author. Study both.
(4) Biblical psychology is not an oxymoron. There is nothing wrong with the scientific study of Scripture and application to man as it relates to creation, redemption, and the effects of sin.
(5) Lasting change begins on the inside and moves outward. Superficial change (symptoms) begins on the outside and rarely reaches the core of the person. God wants to produce more than mere "symptom reduction" in your life.
(6) This was written in 1857 - "Only he to whom it is given to apprehend the highest mysteries of revealed religion in full subjective faith, will be able to understand the phenomena of the life of the soul."
In case you missed that last quote - it means - the most helpful person in your life might be someone who is a genuine Bible-believing Christian with strong theological grounding and psychological insight.
Stated conversely, the most dangerous person might be someone who has a strong psychological grounding but little or no theologcial insight. It's not psychology you need to avoid - just some psychologists!