It’s Complicated: Psychology’s Relationship Status with the Bible

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When students who are interested in Cairn University’s counseling program come to an open house, they invariably ask me two questions. The first question is, “What can I do with this degree when I graduate?” In other words, “Can I get a job in the counseling profession if I go to Cairn?” The answer, by the way, is yes.

The second question is, “What is the department’s position on the relationship between the Bible and psychology?” I know this question is coming, but I am always reluctant to give a brief answer because my thoughts on this topic cannot be reduced to a few pithy sound bites, and I am afraid the longer answer will just confuse them. My response, therefore, is to say that I teach an entire course devoted to this topic. Of course, I am hoping that they will apply to the program, take the course, and have their question answered. However, I realize that this is not an entirely satisfactory answer to this important question.

So I tell them four things:

First, the relationship between psychology and the Bible is complicated. It is not as simple and straightforward as some people would like to believe. Often, prospective students seem relieved to hear someone say this because they have frequently heard otherwise. The simple answers they have been promised have not been forthcoming or do not seem to stand up to close scrutiny. Coming to understand the complexity of this relationship creates a culture of critical thinking, not criticism, as our students begin to integrate the truth they find in their Bible with the concepts and studies they find in their textbook.

Second, the maxim “All truth is God’s truth” is not the weight-bearing expression of our program. The message behind this maxim is that psychological truths carry the same truth-value as biblical truths because God reveals both. The problem with this is that God does not always reveal both. Biblical truths are authoritative in ways that psychological concepts can never be. By believing that Scripture speaks to the heart of people’s trouble, we know that God has much to say about people’s problems, including psychological disorders. Scripture is rich in description, explanations, and prescriptions. Psychology as an academic discipline does generate useful data and explanations about human behavior, but even the concepts that I think are useful and laden with truth bear some imprint of a secular worldview. A counselor’s biblical framework for thinking and counseling must be deeply and firmly rooted in the truths of Scripture while well-informed by psychology.

Third, the impact of a secular worldview does not distort all psychological concepts in the same way or to the same extent. Worldview is a key term that is often used when discussing the relationship between the Bible and psychology. Christians interested in this topic differ significantly
on their views of the role of worldview.

One common view is to start with the assumption that Scripture only serves to make up the rules of engagement, but offers no potentially competing models of explanation of the same phenomena. From this perspective, a Christian worldview only serves as a set of limiting “control beliefs.” Control beliefs are like the sidelines on a football or soccer field. They do not tell you where to run or how to run, but only where you cannot. As long as you are running between the lines, you can pretty much do what you want.

In contrast to this view, an integrated biblical approach to psychology lets you contribute to the playbook. At Cairn we hold the perspective that the influence of a biblical worldview on the validity of a psychological concept depends on the extent to which the concept itself is directly connected to a worldview assumption.

For example, I teach a course in psychopharmacology—a branch of psychology that studies the effects of drugs on the mind and behavior—and begin the course by considering how a biblical view of the nature of personhood dictates my understanding of the mind-body problem. Here, specific biblical doctrines play a constitutive role in determining a Christian counselor’s view on the prescription and use of medications. On the other hand, worldview is not a central focus when we shift to a discussion of the role of different medications in the production, synthesis, distribution, or reuptake of neurotransmitters. Every counseling course is designed to consider the impact of a biblical worldview in this way.

The fourth thing I tell prospective students is that we believe Scripture provides a conceptually comprehensive analysis of the human condition, complete with important concepts about personhood, problems of living, and procedures or mechanisms of change or transformation. Students spend two semesters working out a biblical-theological model of counseling. In short, we begin with the assumption that Scripture provides a sufficient resource for counseling. For many of our students, this is the hardest curriculum to master since many begin the program with the belief that Scripture can be devotional, exhortational, and behavioral, but not diagnostic and explanatory. While the study of psychology is a worthy pursuit, we ultimately believe that Scripture is the sufficient and final authority for addressing people’s complex issues.

As we all know, the University’s mission is to educate students to be biblically minded men and women who know how to integrate their profession with their faith. For counseling students, reaching this goal requires looking deeply and thoughtfully into their chosen discipline. When I converse with prospective students, I emphasize that this type of deep integration does not occur overnight. It requires discipline and a desire to serve the Lord to the best of their ability. But I also tell them that if they do come study in our counseling program, our goal is for them to become counselors who faithfully serve Christ with biblically integrated counseling practices in the church, society, and the world.

Dr. Jeff Black is a licenced psychologist, chair of Department of Counseling & Psychology, and director of Counseling Services at Oasis Counseling Center. He can be reached at