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Christian Psychology

Although the term is not widely used at the present, Christian Psychology refers to a movement within psychology which seeks to integrate the evangelical understanding of biblical doctrine with scientific and applied aspects of psychology. The critical focus of the movement is to reconceptualize psychology in such a way as to be consistent with the tenets of an orthodox, Protestant cosmology and anthropology. However, the general purpose is broader than purely cognitive conceptualization; theological and psychological insights are applied to bolster one's personal faith.


The past century of psychology has witnessed the gradual but complete secularization of concepts about human personality which had theological origins (Robacks, 1952). During the first half of the 20th century, psychologists were more disposed to discuss sexual matters than religion. In spite of recent antipathy between psychologists and theologians there is a close historical link between them. The latin term persona, from which the english term personality developed, denoted both the masked use to indicate a particular theatrical role and the real self or after. Persona suggested that the inner nature may be split from outward action. But the Latin word religion meant a binding or fastening, especially in the form of reverence for fear of a more powerful being. Thus the person had internal integrity because of their religious nature or personality (Oats, 1973).


Christian Psychology originates from a drive to construct a more adequate psychology by reconnecting the severed relationships with theology; the drive embodies a desire to adopt the best of science and faith. The goals is to integrate faith and reason by linking theology and science. The assertion of biblical orthodoxy as a basis of one science is a reaction to modern psychology's endorsement of the religion of secular humanism (Collings, 1977; Vitz, 1977). Although the relationship between theology and psychology has been strained in one of mutual suspicion and denigration, this need not be the case (Ellison, 1972).

The attempt to integrate psychology and theology strives for "the unity of truth". The task of integration involves an explicit relating of truth gleaned from general or nature revelation to that derived from special or biblical revelation, of interrelating knowledge gained from the world and knowledge gained from the word. Of critical importance are the issues regarding the nature of reality (metaphysics) and the nature of knowledge (epistemology). The conflict between science (eg. psychology) and theology at this point stems from variations in original assumptions. The naturalistic, objective and inductive biases of scientists are juxtaposed to be supernaturalistic, subjective, and deductive premises of the theologian. The integration movement offers a reapproachment by proposing the adoption of two premises: 1. God is the source of all truth no matter where it is found. 2. God is the source of all truth not matter how it is found (Timpe, 1980). (Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology - Benner)


A basic description of counseling is one person relating to another through listening and responding in such a way as to affect change as the one seeking help. Such an interpersonal relationship is intentionally designed to facilitate the growth of the other.

The New Testament church leaders developed a pattern of ministry which is designed to facilitate the spiritual growth and maturity of new believers in Christ. Since these new believers came from a pagan culture, it was necessary that their lifestyle and values be modified to come into line with the values and lifestyle that were consistent with their new found faith in Christ. The implications of this new found faith needed to be worked out over a period of time. It was to this issue that the church leaders addressed themselves in developing a pattern of ministry. The pattern of ministry evolved in the book of Acts, with the pattern appearing to take on more consistency in the epistles. It provides some guidance for interpersonal functioning in the growth-facilitating ministry of counseling.

Understanding the way in which the New Testament leaders described their ministry does provide us with a doorway to understanding their philosophy, approach, and intention in ministry. Even the choice of terms will reflect both their attitude toward ministry and their attitudes towards those they ministered. Deducing a face to face pattern of relating from a form of relating such as pastoral letters does require some care. Counsel by letter will be somewhat letter from counseling in a person-to-person model. Nevertheless, we do have from these descriptive references to pastoral relationship some patterns that may together indicate a model of the helping relationship as it evolved in the New Testament.

In the epistles another important concept emphasizing the community context in ministry is that of the mutual responsibility of each believer to others in that community of faith. Related to this is the body imagery developed in 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4. each member of the body needs the others. Each contributes to the well-being and maturity in Christ of the others. No one stands alone.

At the end of Eph. 4, Paul summarizes the qualities that are to characterize relationships within the community - mutual kindness, tender heartedness, and forgiveness. The good news is that God desires us to live by the power of the spirit, and the training ground is the community of faith. The community of faith is to provide the context of love and acceptance where we can grow to the demonstration of such qualities of relationship. Our communications within the community must be such as to invite one another to life and growth in Christ. Their appropriateness will be measured by their effect as well as their truthfulness. Love is the undergirding quality, and that love is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The behavior of believers to one another is to be the incarnation of grace. Our demonstration of forgiveness and love may be only a shadow of God's love and forgiveness, but in essence it is one with his because it is of him and through him.


Few professional services are as difficult to define as counseling and psychotherapy. But both terms have been used to mean a wide variety of things, from the giving of legal advise to the administration of anti-psychotic medications. Except for the vague sense that psychotherapy is somehow a more serious and perhaps professionally respectable service than counseling, few people -including mental health professionals - could summon up clear and non-overlapping definitions of the two. Even these professionals if presses, might fall back on some kind of distinction grounded in credentials: therapy is what doctors do and counseling is what every other psychological helper does. Alternately, a distinction might be drawn on the basis of frequency and duration of sessions: therapy is a long-drawn-out endeavor, sometimes involving several sessions per week, while counseling is a brief and less intense process. Yet another distinction that might be made is that therapy is what sick people get, whereas counseling is for normal people.


There is an important difference between counseling and psychotherapy, but it relates to only tangentially to the above distinctions. Counseling and therapy are actually opposite points on a continuum. Any particular helping relationship may move all over this continuum as the needs of the client change from moment to moment and session to session.

Psychotherapy is, at root, the process of increasing a person's emotional capacity and self-sufficiency. This implies a more or less permanent change in the personality. Such change often takes considerable time, but it can occur within a matter of minutes - eg. in response to a life challenge or a catastrophe. Thus, shear duration of treatment or frequency of visits does not ensure that any real therapy has taken place.

During the process of providing psychotherapy to a person, troubling practical problems may arise in the client's life. At such times the therapist may, without even thinking much about it, offer advise about how to respond to these problems. Some therapists fluidly move in out of giving the client advise about decisions with respect to money matters, in-law troubles, job difficulties, and the like. Others of a more psycho-analytic persuasion believe that the giving of any advise about how to deal with concrete problems only fosters neurotic dependence and thus undermines the long-term goals of therapy. These therapists tend not to give such advice, even in the face of potential disaster for the client. All therapists probably  engage in some advise giving, and it may well be that the best therapists are those who know when to "do therapy" and when to "give counsel".

Setting aside for the moment the distinctions we have drawn between counseling and therapy, it may be useful to highlight some of the ways in which different people benefit from psychological services.

Actions - As a result of professional services people may learn to behave in new ways, or learn not to behave in old, dysfunctional ways. For example, a shy person who perhaps tends to feel worse and worse during the course of a party may learn to speak up early and thereby interrupt a self-defeating pattern of mounting withdrawal. Or a child may learn to inhibit aggressive behavior such as hitting other children.

Feelings - As a result of psychological assistance, people can develop new emotional reactions or learn better ways of handling already existing feelings. For example, a person may begin to feel tenderness towards others that he or she has never felt before. Or a person may learn to express anger that previously had expressed itself only in unconscious anguish.

Perceptions - Some individuals, as a direct result of help, gradually see things in the new light. For example, a client may decide that the world is, after all, not a hostile place, "out to get you". Or a person may decide that her mother or father is not such a bad person after all.

Physiology - Many persons respond to psychological help with an improvement in physiological functioning. A business executive may be less troubled by ulvcerative stomach pain after consulting a clinical counseling. Or a client's blood pressure may go down.

Thoughts - In response to psychological services persons often undergo changes in how they think. Instead of telling themselves all sorts of terrible things - eg., "I'm no good" - they may come to think of themselves as worthwhile. Or a person may change from thinking in a confused, anxiety-ridden manner to thinking in a clear, relaxed way.

Values - Some people, as a result of psychological interventions, undergo a change in values. They may come to care more deeply about other people and less intensely about occupational success. Or they may esteem certain feelings in a way they never did before.


Because psychoanalysis has been such a strong influence on psychiatry and psychology for so many decades, it has spawned numerous offshoots and innovations. Thus, in addition to classical psychoanalysis we find direct psychoanalysis object relations therapy, ego psychology, and a number of other variations. Still, common to virtually all analytic therapies is an emphasis on the therapeutic benefits of "insight". Psychoanalysists have traditionally defined insight as a coming into consciousness of that which had previously been unconscious. Good analysts understand that for insight to be more than intellectualization (ie., it has to have emotional impact). And into what is the analys and seeking insight? His or her psychodynamics - those subtle mental processes, typically characterized by conflict, which creates symptoms. An example of a psychodynamically symptom is the soldier who, fearing to be called (and, perhaps more importantly, to call himself) a coward, but fearing even more that he might be killed, develops hysterical blindness (a true inability to see without any organic reason for this inability). The classic analytic position is that by allowing the nature of his conflict into conscious awareness, the soldier will be cured of his visual impairment.


Responsible Christian professionals acknowledge a necessary relationship between the art of Christian living and that of psychotherapy and counseling. They recognize that behind those applied arts is an essential interaction between the science of theology and the science of psychology, each science forming and informing the other.

Since Christians acknowledge that all truth is God's truth, no matter who finds it or where it is found, the information derived from both psychology and theology is taken with equal seriousness. God's message in the special revelation in scripture and God's general revelation in the created world are both sought diligently to ensure the maximum constructive interaction between theology and psychology. The concern in this is not to integrate the two sciences, but to acknowledge that each, as science has its own domain and data base and must be done in the light from the perspective of the other. In this perspectival model (Ellens 1982) which acknowledges that the science of biblical theology examine special revelation and the science of psychology examines general revelation, the development of sound personality and psychotherapy theory requires a careful attention to the cardinal themes of both psychology and theology. In the art of counseling and psychotherapy those theological themes have clear-cut and palpable import.


The first theological principle for counseling in psychotherapy is that Godliness or Christian authenticity requires thorough responsibility. To be a Christian counselor or therapist means first to be the best therapist it is possible to be. The second principle is that Christian and professional authenticity requires incarnation in the person of the therapist of that grace-shaped redemptive quality which reflects how God is disposed to humans and how God designed humans to be disposed towards each other. To be a Christian counselor or therapist means to be God's incarnation for the patient or client, as Jesus Christ is for all of us in everything necessary to our redemption.


Psychological treatments are inextricably connected with moral and ethical issues. Virtually all forms of verbal psychotherapy, for example, embody some conception of the good life or of how one ought ideally to think, feel, and act. Moreover, Frank (1961) has argued with considerable force that psychotherapy is, at root, persuasion. The client/patient comes in demoralized, and the therapist assists the patient to a new way of viewing his or her life and assessing what is and is not desirable. Szasz (1961) argues that even defined mental health is a subjective if not arbitrary enterprise.


It is important to understand that moral-ethical questions can not, in principle, be answered by science. Such questions are by nature speculative, meaning that there are no universally accepted standards, no laboratory observations that will certify which answers are correct. Science cannot address such questions as, "should I put my mother in a nursing home?" or "should I leave my husband?" However, such questions are frequently encountered in psychotherapy and the therapist must realize that all these points he or she leaves the realm of science and enters but is here being called the realm of clinical philosophy.

One might argue that the Bible tells us what is right and wrong, and therefore that its prescriptions and postscriptions are scientific. Such an argument amounts to little more than an expression of one's confidence in the Bible itself, since the word scientific is being used here in an unconventional way. Whatever else it may mean in this context, scientific cannot mean demonstrable or provable as is required by the cannons of 20th century physical science.

Questions of ethics and personal morality are by nature philosophical. If one is a Christian, much of one's philosophy is conditioned by one's understanding of, and level of commitment to Christ. Thus, for the Christian, most if not all of the philosophical questions that touch on ethical issues are also in some way theological questions; they concern the nature of God and the cosmos, including his ways with us and his desires regarding our ways with each other.


Almost everything that positively effects human thoughts, feelings, or actions can be held to be a psychological treatment. Drugs, hospitalization, conditioning, talking, reading and even ordinary education may be including. Note that within this framework of understanding, the defining characteristic of a treatment is its psychological effects.

When important ethical issue in any psychological treatment relates to the presence of coercion. Seldom is coercion as overt as a threat of harm for non-compliance. However, in a great many subtle but powerful ways therapists can act corrosively. When, if ever, is such coercive action ethical? Who decides that coercion is appropriate? When should the client be required to provide informed consent? How much comprehension of risks and benefits must the consentor have in order for the consent to be valid? When, if ever, ought society override the will of the individual to obtain or refuse a treatment? These are only a few of the complex ethical questions involved.

To the degree that a treatment is not coercive, a partially overlapping set of issues emerge. There are still the complexities of informed consent. A more important issue, however, involves the kinds of potentially persuasive "advises" that a therapist ought and ought not give as well as the manner in which such advice should be given. Therapists seem to have more than an ordinary amount of influence over their clients. How is this power to be used?

Finally, it should be noted that the issue of coercion in treatment is non synonymous with that of the voluntary or involuntary status of the client. Voluntary clients may be persuaded to undergo a certain treatment without full awareness of the alternatives or the advantages or disadvantages of this particular treatment. Many of these ethical issues are examined in ethical principles of psychologists (APA 1981). Similar standards exist for other mental professionals. Ethical standards in involuntary treatment are usually established by legislation.


God, we believe, desires that we do right. God, if he is who we believe he is, also desires that we be psychologically healthy. If the cosmos is both orderly and benevolent, it seems reasonable to conclude that all the Creator's intentions are interlocking - that there is, therefore, an intimate connection between goodness and health. God's laws cannot be arbitrary unless we are the victims of a cruel joke. Whatever he commands must on the whole be in our best interests. Striving to live morally must have positive psychological consequences. And striving for true psychological well-being has to lead us in the direction of a higher morality.

However, sometimes what seems to promote our health flies in the face of Christian teaching. Similarly, obeying God's will as we understand it sometimes appears to hurt us psychologically. Just as there is 'pleasure in sin for a season", there seems at times to be health in sin for at least a while.

Few human experiences share in this issue's ambiguities into such sharp relief as a psychotherapeutic encounter. When persons come for psychological help, they are typically in turmoil and pain. "Should I get a divorce?" "Should I have an affair?" "Why am I so discouraged?" "What does life mean?" "Why did my 14 year old son die in that awful car accident?" These are the sorts of questions that bring people to therapists and not one of them is devoid of theological and therefore moral implication. On the other side of the health-morality connection there is also a complex and often subtle inter penetration of sin and sickness. While it is possible to be seriously disturbed without being particularly bad morally and while it seems possible to be immoral without being psychologically disordered in any conventional sense, psychopathology and baseness are sometimes closely related. Thus, a therapist who attempts to ameliorate psychological disorders sometimes seems to end up affecting the moral character of the person as well.