The Bible and Psychology, Sociology, Science, and Business principles

Pastor Dave Bovenmyer, Ames, Iowa

© Great Commission Churches, 1999, 2007, Used by permission

As Christians, we wholeheartedly believe that the Bible is the Word of God and is the source of truth. But this leads to a number of questions: “What role do the sciences play in us understanding truth? How much can we learn from those who have studied psychology and sociology? What about applying business principles in the church?” These and other questions are addressed by Dave Bovenmyer in the following article.

1. Does the Bible give us all we need to know for the care and growth of the individual and of the church, or are there things we can or must learn from the careful observation of nature or of people?

The Bible teaches that God has revealed himself in two ways—through direct revelation and through creation.  God has spoken directly to mankind through his Word (2 Timothy 3:16), which theologians call special revelation, and He has revealed Himself through creation (Romans 1:20, Psalm 19:1), which theologians call general revelation.

The Bible does not contain all wisdom and knowledge that can be known or that is necessary or useful for men.  For example, it doesn’t tell us which substances are poison, or how to do calculus, how to build a bridge, or how to repair a car.  Generally, we don’t go to a pastor asking him to perform brain surgery or to design a computer program or to give us a new prescription for our eye glasses.  It seems almost too obvious to have to mention that the wisdom that we need in so many areas of life is found, not by studying the Bible, but by studying God’s creation.

The wisdom that can be learned from general revelation—from a careful observation of nature, whether through the study of medicine or physics or biology or chemistry or music—although not a direct spoken revelation from God, is none-the-less true wisdom.  Such wisdom is no less true and trustworthy than what we learn from the special revelation of the Bible.  As the saying goes, “All truth is God’s truth,” no matter how we discover it.

King Solomon is a man who gained tremendous wisdom from studying God’s “general” revelation.  Apparently, God directly “appeared” (special revelation) to Solomon only twice (1 Kings 11:9).  And yet he was the wisest man on the face of the earth.  Most of his wisdom evidently came from his study of creation—wisdom about “plant life…animals, birds, reptiles and fish” (1 Kings 4:33).  And yet, even though he gained this wisdom through the study of general revelation, it was still a special gift granted to him from God (1 Kings 4:29).

Over the years, mankind has developed guiding principles to encourage honesty and accuracy in our attempts to understand God’s revelation.  The principles that help guide us in understanding special revelation are called “hermeneutics” or the principles of interpretation.  The principles that help guide us in rightly understanding general revelation are called the scientific method.  Both are useful in overcoming the preconceptions and biases that can so easily affect our understanding.

2. But what about wisdom relating to the soul and mind?  Is there anything we can or must learn from general revelation, or is what we have in the scripture sufficient for the affairs of the soul?

The Bible is much more extensive in what it has to say about matters of the human mind and soul than what it has to say about the physical sciences.  Yet, even here, the Bible is not the sole source of God’s revelation and of knowledge.  General revelation can teach us things about human motivation and behavior that either complement or supplement the Bible’s teaching.[1]

In fact, in many cases, special revelation requires a knowledge of general revelation in order to be applied.  For example, we are commanded to preach the gospel to all creation.  This demands a study of the language and the culture of those we preach to in order to be able to communicate with them and not offend them by violating cultural taboos.  Obedience to special revelation (preach the gospel) demands a study of general revelation (the language and culture of those we are seeking to reach).

In Ephesians 4:29, we are commanded to avoid “unwholesome talk,” and to speak “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.”  But these are fairly abstract terms.  Ephesians doesn’t give us a manual on how to do this.  We are given no list of “unwholesome” words or of “helpful” words.  There is no instruction concerning proper body language or tone of voice or specific approaches to various needs.  To know how to “build others up according to their needs, we must study those we are interacting with.  We must have a knowledge of their language, customs, things that are offensive, fears, desires, and needs.  All this knowledge that we gain from observing people is necessary in order to successfully obey the command to build up others.

Solomon, in writing proverbs, indicates that the proverbs he wrote were “the sayings and riddles of the wise.”  Apparently  the Proverbs, rather than being directly revealed to Solomon by God, were sayings that Solomon gathered from “the wise”—from the wisdom literature of his day.  Ecclesiastes 12:9-11 tells us that Solomon “pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs” (NIV).  It appears that he selected, from the wise sayings of his day and through the inspiration of God, those proverbs that God desired to be in the scripture.  Yet prior to this, the truths taught by these proverbs had evidently already been discovered by the “wise” through a careful observation of human nature.

The Bible describes a wisdom that belongs to the “aged” (Job 12:12, 15:9-10, 32:9, Psalm 119:100).  If we are open to learn from the experiences of life, through the years we can learn much about people and their motivations, desires, needs, and fears.  The Scripture is essential for us to rightly interpret our observations of people, and yet our life experience can illustrate and confirm to us the truth of the Word as well as help us apply the Word to people’s needs.

3. Does special revelation take precedence over general revelation?  Is the revelation we find in the Bible more authoritative than what we discover in creation?

Since special revelation has come to us in the form of language—with words that are plain, clear, and precise—our reliance upon our understanding of special revelation should take precedence over our reliance upon our understanding of general revelation.

Yet in a technical sense, neither form of revelation is more authoritative than the other, since truth is truth no matter how it is discovered.  Both are equally true, if rightly interpreted.  But that is the hitch.  Both the Bible and creation can be wrongly understood, and quite easily so, especially given our predisposition to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

So, when discrepancies occur between what we think we understand from theology and what we think we understand from creation, we ought to re-examine both sets of conclusions.

Sometimes our study of creation can and should change our understanding of the Bible.  For example, there was a time when both theologians and scientists believed in a geocentric universe.  Yet observation of the planets and stars forced scientists to the conclusion that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.  And this discovery eventually forced theologians to reinterpret their understanding of certain verses that seemed to teach that the sun revolved around the earth.  What the Bible was saying didn’t change.  However, our understanding of what the Bible says became more accurate as a result of observation of the world around us.

Yet when discrepancies occur between our Biblical understanding and our observation of creation or “science,” I would strongly argue that we must put more confidence in our understanding of the Bible than in our understanding derived from the study of creation.

Larry Crabb, in his book Understanding PeopleDeep Longing for Relationship, gives four reasons in support of this point, especially when it comes to the social sciences—the study of human nature and behavior.  I would like to summarize them here:

1)  We have the explicit promise of the Holy Spirit’s help in interpreting the Bible when we approach it with an attitude of teachable humility.  Scientists have no such promise in their study.

2)  The Bible is pure, whereas creation is fallen.  In fact, creation can only be rightly understood in view of the Bible’s teaching.  If we were to follow certain examples in nature, we might prey on the weak, sleep all winter, or copulate at will.  Nature is out of whack and won’t be restored to perfection until our Lord returns (Isaiah 11:6-9).

3)  The Bible is written in propositional form and is a more clear and direct revelation than God’s revelation through creation.  The Bible is written in plain and clear words and is direct and precise in a way that creation was never intended to be.

4)  God’s purpose in revealing Himself in the Bible is to teach us how to think, speak and act and to help us find Life.  The Bible is forthrightly prescriptive in how men should think and behave. His purpose in revealing Himself in creation is different—to teach us of His existence, power and divine nature, not so much how we ought to live.  So especially in any study of the human psyche, thoughts, or behavior, we ought to put more confidence in special revelation than in general revelation.

4. What about 2 Timothy 3:16-17, doesn’t this passage  show that the Bible is sufficient to equip the man of God for every good work?

Second Timothy 3:16-17 says,  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV).

Certainly, the Bible is sufficient to teach us all we need to know in our age concerning moral and spiritual truth.  It contains the body of truth that God has chosen to reveal to our age concerning the nature of God, salvation, justification, sanctification, etc.  In its context, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 seems to have this type of truth in mind.  But the passage does not specifically state that no other knowledge is necessary for doing good works.  Certainly knowledge in the areas of geography, medicine, dietetics, linguistics, auto mechanics, mathematics, etc. is helpful and even necessary for some good works that God calls us to do.

Neither is the passage stating that God’s word is sufficient in and of itself to bring us to Christ-likeness.  Other verses tell us that we also need trials to make us “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4).  And we need the church as well.  We grow to become like Christ as “each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16).  We need gifted leaders to set an example for us and “prepare us for works of service” (Ephesians 4:11-12) so that we can grow to maturity.  God does not want his truth to be simply spoken and believed, but also lived.  He wants His message to be incarnational, written on hearts of flesh, not tablets of stone.  Through the church, God wants to give us living examples to demonstrate to us the truth of God and to inspire us to Christ-likeness.

So it appears that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is simply stating that the scriptures give us sufficient moral and spiritual truth for us to be used by God in every good work.  Other types of truth may also be helpful or necessary and other experiences are also necessary to bring us to Christ-likeness.

5. Can unbelievers discover genuine truth that we can learn from or that we can use to illustrate or support Biblical truth?

Some Christians would reject, out of hand, a book or tape or seminar presented by an unbeliever, or research done by an unbeliever, simply because the person is a Mormon or a Hindu or an atheist.

Yet, in the Physical sciences, it is undeniable that unbelievers have gained wisdom from their study of creation.  Scientific discoveries are by no means limited to Christians.  The same would seem true in many other areas of knowledge as well.  Unbelievers have certainly gained political, medical, economic, artistic, business and financial wisdom.  Even in the social sciences, unbelievers can and do learn from their observations of human nature.

When Adam sinned, it is true that he and his descendants fell and became depraved in every aspect of their being—physically, emotionally, and mentally.  And yet fallen man is not utterly depraved; men are not as wicked as they might be.   There is an image of God that remains in man, although a shattered image.  And God is still acting in grace, even to those who are in rebellion.  His judgment has not yet come in full upon the unbeliever.  Men are able to work and live in the orchard and yet spit in the face of the owner.  Even in their rebellion, they are able to function in God’s creation and even prosper in various ways.  They build cities, grow crops, perform music—and do these things brilliantly at times.  They are ruling, even after the fall.  They are gaining, in a limited sense, wisdom.

The book of Daniel refers to men of Babylon who were “wise men” (Daniel 2:48).  Solomon’s wisdom was greater than “all the wisdom of Egypt”  (1 Kings 4:30).  There was wisdom in Egypt, but Solomon’s was even greater.  Clearly, the Bible teaches that unbelievers can be “wise” in a limited sense.

Therefore, we should not reject, out-of-hand, the work that unbelievers do in trying to understand our world in order to rule over it.  And it would not necessarily be inappropriate for a believer to refer to the findings of unbelievers to illustrate or support a point or to support the truth of the message of God.

There is a large body of wisdom out there that can help us efficiently organize a business or effectively manage people.  There is wisdom that can help us plan effectively, set goals realistically, and manage our time diligently. There is wisdom concerning how to learn a language quickly or how to speak persuasively or how to sing skillfully.  Whether this wisdom originated from believers or unbelievers would probably be impossible to discern, and would probably be irrelevant.  Certainly, much of the wisdom in western culture has arisen from a general foundation of the Judeo-Christian world-view.  And yet unbelievers have contributed and still contribute to this body of wisdom.

6. What are some examples of the types of things unbelievers have discovered about human nature and behavior?

Iris Chang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who survived the Japanese rape and slaughter of 300,000 captive Chinese men, women, and children in Nangking, China in December 1937 and the early months of 1938. In her book, The Rape of Nangking, Chang describes the atrocities that occurred.  She describes how 14,700 Chinese soldiers, who had surrendered, were tied up and mowed down with machine guns. Some ponds were so full of the corpses of massacred men, women and children that the ponds totally disappeared.  Japanese officers complained that there were not enough ditches to throw the bodies into.  Thousands of bodies were dumped into the Yangtze river until it ran red with blood.  Japanese soldiers herded civilians onto the roofs of buildings that were then burned down; they half-buried people to then be killed by ravenous dogs.  But “women suffered most,” recalled one Japanese soldier.  “No matter how young or old, they could not escape the fate of being raped.” When the raping was over, those women still able to, tried to flee. “Then we would—bang—shoot them in the back.”

After describing the atrocities, Chang comes to the conclusion: “Civilization itself is tissue thin…Some quirk in human nature allows even the most unspeakable acts of evil to become banal (common place) within minutes, provided that they occur far enough away to pose no personal threat.” [2]

I don’t know if Chang is a believer or not.  But the point I want to make is that she came to this conclusion about human nature, not from reading the Bible, but from the study of modern history.  Her conclusion agrees with what the Bible has to say about human nature and parallels similar brutalities that are described in the pages of Scripture.  Yet the truth about the depravity of man can be found, not only in the pages of Scripture, but also by studying the pages of history or by observing those around us.

Another example is found in John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.  As far as I know Gray is not an evangelical Christian and yet in his book he is able to fairly accurately describe the general social and psychological differences between men and women.  Numerous Christian authors have done the same thing, using perhaps some of the same sources of research.  These general differences between men and women certainly exist and can be discovered by anyone who wishes to carefully study them, whether a believer or an unbeliever.  The Bible certainly offers us a basis for believing that men and women are different in more ways than just the obvious physical differences and even refers to some of the differences; yet these differences can be discovered more fully and specifically by studying men and women than they can by searching the pages of scripture.

A third example comes from a recent interview of George Lucas on PBS.  Lucas was asked if he already had in his mind how he planned in his next two films to turn such a sweet, angelic child like Anakin Skywalker into the incredibly evil Darth Vader.  The interviewer wondered what Hitler or Stalin had been like as little children.  Lucas commented that many really sweet children have turned into evil men and that there is something in the heart of man that can be drawn to commit incredible evil.  When asked how this can happen, all he could say is, “I don’t know.”

Throughout the interview I was impressed with some of Lucas’ insights into human nature, even though he is evidently not a believer in the God of the Bible and apparently has the goal of amalgamating all the world’s religions together.  Yet it is obvious, even from watching the films themselves, that Lucas understands much about human motives and desires and the fierce struggle between good and evil that we all have within us.

Many more examples could be given.  Clearly, there are many things that can be learned about human nature through the study of men and women.  It should not surprise us therefore that unbelievers can discover truth through personal experience or through the study of history or through sociological or psychological research.  In fact, no truth that is accurately discovered through the observation of mankind will ever undermine or contradict the Bible and no Biblical truth that is accurately interpreted will ever contradict what we find to be true in the world around us.

7. But don’t unbelievers hold to a totally different world-view and aren’t their conclusions tainted by their world view?

Yes, unbelievers do hold to a false world view.  False world views vary from person to person and from culture to culture.  And some world views, although false, are closer to reality than others. The world view and presuppositions that we adopt will almost inevitably affect our approaches and sway our conclusions.  For this reason, although we understand that unbelievers can discover aspects of truth and “wisdom,” we must be careful to critically examine the work of unbelievers before accepting their conclusions, no matter how “unbiased” or “scientific” they claim to be.

Those who are in rebellion to God are often not trustworthy.  They have a conscious or unconscious bias and agenda against God and His truth that frequently distorts their conclusions (Romans 1:18).  As our society becomes increasingly secular and hostile to God, it is losing its moral underpinnings.  Instances of outright dishonesty, fraud, greed and blatant self-promotion seem to be increasing in the scientific community.  Sadly, many of our technical journals and societies are becoming highly politicized.  Research is often no longer published because it is good science, but because it is politically correct.

How often has a “scientific discovery” hit the papers purporting to have discovered something that contradicts the scriptures, and then a few months or years later additional research shows it to have been either poor or even fraudulent science.  Whether it is a study announcing the discovery of a “gay gene” or purporting to show that adulterous people are happier than monogamous people, or announcing the discovery of a “Mars rock,” just give it time and more thorough research will reveal the biases and mistakes that originally produced it (although the refutations don’t always get a lot of coverage in the media).

And even when the scientific facts are gathered honestly and correctly, faulty presuppositions often result in incorrect conclusions or improper applications.  In Colossians 2:8 Paul writes: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (NIV).

Our presuppositions and the assumptions we make as we seek wisdom (whether seeking it from special or general revelation) are all-important.  Paul warns that our “basic principles” must come from Christ, not from the philosophies and traditions of men.  Indeed, in the person of Christ we have the clearest revelation of all.  We must base our view of God, of ourselves, of the world, of our problems, and of their solutions not on the “hollow” ideas of men, but on what we see revealed in the Gospel and in the person of Christ.

An anti-God, anti-supernatural bias has become entrenched in many of the “sciences.” Evolutionary “theory”[3] has become widely accepted as fact, not only in the biological sciences, but in every branch of study, including the social sciences. Evolution, secular materialism, humanism, and other faulty presuppositions have crept into the “sciences,” making them increasingly adversarial toward Christian truth.

The fields of psychology and sociology, since their goal is the study of human motivation and behavior, are especially affected by our prior assumptions concerning the nature, goals and purposes of mankind.  In 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, Paul says that those who do not have the Spirit of God do not accept and cannot understand spiritual things.  Unbelievers are not able to answer the really and truly vital questions of life, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” or even “what are my root problems?”  Neither do they have an adequate basis for determining what is right or wrong, good or bad, beneficial or harmful.

Solomon summarized the issue so well when he said, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10 NIV).  Unbelievers are able to discover truth by observing the world around them, yet they have missed the whole foundation of truth that everything in life hinges upon.  So even though we can learn from the work of unbelievers, we must carefully evaluate their work, knowing that it may very well be tainted by false assumptions.

8. What about psychology in particular?  The evangelical church seems to be wholeheartedly embracing psychological concepts and approaches.  Why is this happening?

In the world at large, psychologists have become the respected experts in personal and family problems, assuming a role that once largely belonged to pastors. The mental health professions have became the new “secular priesthood” of our culture.

And even within the evangelical church, psychology has gained a prominent place. Consider the following, taken from an essay entitled Integration or Inundation? by David Powlison, in the book Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?:

1)  Many respected evangelical Bible schools and seminaries have established degrees or graduate schools in psychology and continue to expand and attract increasing numbers of students.  “Christian psychologist” is an increasingly viable role for those who want to “go into ministry,” but who do not want to become pastors, teachers, or missionaries.

2)  A number of psychologists—for example Gary Collins, Bruce Narramore, James Dobson, Larry Crabb, Gary Smalley—have gained respected mass pulpits.  Through books, articles, seminars, videotapes, and radio broadcasts they have become the evangelical authorities for solving problems in living.

3)  A growing number of evangelical psychotherapists have set up practices and established referral networks with local churches.  In most larger cities pastors can now refer troubled members to Christians trained in psychology.

4)  A network of Christian in-patient clinics has sprung up nationwide.

5)  Almost every major evangelical book publisher has featured titles dealing with recovery, dysfunctional families, adult children, and the healing of psychological pain.

6)  The best-selling self-help books in Christian bookstores are psychologically flavored (e.g. David Seamands, Larry Crabb, Minirth and Meier, et al.).

7)  The words of psychology have become popular and epidemic within the church. Words such as self-esteem, dysfunctional family, codependency, support, unconditional love, needs, damaged emotions, and victimization have, by and large, become the language for discussing personal problems and struggles.

8)  Psychologists, not pastors or theologians, now seem to maintain cultural authority in the evangelical church with respect to people and their problems.

Powlison suggests that the reason psychology has so easily infiltrated the church, and indeed society at large, is that the church has been weak in dealing with people’s personal and interpersonal problems.  There has been a vacuum into which secular psychology has exploded.  Over the last two centuries, evangelical churches and theologians have typically not adequately grappled with many of the internal problems and struggles that Christian people have.

The Church has seemed to concentrate on the superficial and external.  It has tended to call people to moral uprightness, assent to doctrinal essentials, acts of will-power, and commitment. The hands-on and case-wise feel for the outworkings of many doctrines that had existed in earlier generations of Christians has been lost.

Powlison points to the Puritans as an example of a generation of Christians who were not afraid to dig in and grapple with the internal struggles and motivations of the heart.[4] The Puritans had developed

“a massive and profound literature on a wide range of personal and pastoral problems.  They wrote numerous case studies.  They had a sophisticated diagnostic system that penetrated motives…They carefully addressed what the twentieth century would term addictions to sex, food, and alcohol; the gamut of problems in marriage and family relationships; depression, anxiety, and anger; perfectionism and the drive to please other people; interpersonal conflict; priorities and the management of time and money; unbelief and deviant values systems.”[5]

And these were based solidly on the foundation of a thoroughly Christian world view.

But over the years, this pastoral wisdom was lost.  Into the resulting societal vacuum, Freud introduced the theory of psychodynamics.  He proposed that people’s problems are often actually symptoms of underlying dynamic processes in the psyche.  His goal, which became the goal of psychotherapy, was to probe beneath present concerns to expose an unconscious network of defenses, anxiety, and unacceptable or painful feelings which together generate the visible problem.

And in much of this, Freud was right.  The Bible describes our hearts as deceitful and desperately sick, so much so that we regularly are not aware of our own motives (Jeremiah 17:9).  Our Lord reserved His most stinging rebuke for people who dealt scrupulously with visible, external concerns while refusing to take a hard look inside where the real problems lay (Matthew 23:23-28).

And the church, largely stressing external doctrines and duties, and having lost the pastoral wisdom of earlier years, has been fascinated by psychology’s look beneath the surface.  Psychology was first embraced, at the beginning of the century, by the liberal churches, and now, at the end of the century, by much of the evangelical church.

9. How should psychology and theology properly relate and interact with one another?

The movement of the Evangelical church toward psychology in the last twenty years could be summarized by the word integration.  Theoretically, psychology and theology were to mutually stimulate one another.  The special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of psychology were to complement and supplement each other.  Evangelical psychologists have sought to interact with psychology in a sophisticated way and weed out the tares of error from the wheat of truth.  Unfortunately, much of this “integration” has been biblically and theologically anemic. The Christian integrationist movement has been too weak in specific biblical thinking to successfully challenge many of the faulty paradigms and presuppositions of secular psychology. Powlison suggests that a better word to describe what has happened is “inundation” rather than” integration

Reacting to this “inundation,” other voices have pendulum swung in the other direction and have rejected anything that has to do with psychology or with the subconscious.  Some have gone so far as to claim that when it comes to the affairs  of the soul, we need not learn anything from general revelation, but that the Bible is absolutely all we need.[6] One danger in such an over-reaction is that it may reinforce the weakness that the church has had in tending to emphasize the externals only.

What the church needs is not an “integration” of psychology and theology but a thorough application of the truths of the scripture to the problems of humans, including deeply hidden inner motives and fears.  Although there may be truth that has been discovered by psychology, the world-view and presuppositions that modern psychology starts with are not Biblical and are often hostile to Christian truth. Rather than “integrate” psychology and theology, we must start from a thoroughly Christian world view and seek to apply it to all areas of human experience.

What does the Bible have to say to an anorexic or a bulimic?  What about those with “addictions” to sex or alcohol or food?  Does it have more to say than “try harder,”  “respect your body,” or “love your neighbor.”  Are there keys in the Scripture that can root out the hidden motivations and unconscious fears that result in compulsive behavior, enslaving people to the very things they abhor doing?

It is usually not enough to say to an anorexic or bulimic, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, so you should take care of it.”  It is usually not enough to say to a depressed or suicidal person, “God has given you gifts, you have a lot to offer.”  In cases like these there are hidden sins of the heart that must be exposed and repented of.   Perhaps sins of the fear of man, or of self-righteousness.

Larry Crabb suggests that every pastor and Christian counselor must be on a life-long quest, first of all to understand the Scripture, secondly, to come to conclusions about what the scripture teaches on the whole of a subject, thirdly, to apply these conclusions to the whole gamut of problems that people experience, and finally to find words and images to powerfully communicate the answers to people’s problems.[7] The following chart illustrates Crabb’s approach to addressing the entire range of human problems without abandoning a Scriptural foundation.

A Model for Finding Biblical Answers to a Counselor’s Questions

Exegesis CONTENT What does each passage mean?
Theology CATEGORIES Looking at all the scripture says on a subject, what conclusions about God, man, and life can we make?
Reflection IMPLICATIONS What implications and applications do these truths have on meeting people’s needs? How can I explain people’s lives using biblical categories?
Communication IMAGES How can I make known the path of life in powerful ways?

A process such as this, that is deeply rooted in the Scripture as a firm foundation and then seeks to apply the truths of the Scripture and the implications of these truths to all human experience is more likely to remain true to the Scripture than a process that tries to “integrate” the Scripture with the concepts and approaches of modern psychology.

10. What is an example of the types of tensions and contradictions that occur between psychology and the Biblical world view.

Psychotherapy, although addressing a need to sometimes look beneath the surface at the motivations and hidden things of the heart, does not have an adequate view of the human problem or of the solution offered in the gospel.  And not surprisingly, psychotherapy has failed miserably in bringing about lasting change in the majority of those who have sought it.[8]

I’d like to summarize for you an intriguing example, taken from Powlison’s article Integration or Inundation.[9] This example illustrates the differences between how psychology and a more Biblical approach might address the area of low self-esteem

For many Christian psychologists, the low self-esteem concept is the core of their explanatory system.  And there is no doubt that low self esteem accurately describes a common problem that people have.  There are people who are depressed, lack self-confidence, deprecate themselves, feel hopeless, etc.

But is low self esteem the root problem or simply a symptom of a deeper problem?  Powlison argues that a sense of low self-esteem is only a symptom.  If we address it as the core problem, we fail to wrestle with what really is going on within the person.  He identifies three deeper roots or “idols of the heart.”[10]

The first is “I haven’t met the standard, expectation, and desires of others.”  That is a form of the fear of man.  It is placing significant others in the place of God and looking to them as our source of affirmation or stigma.  A failure to meet up to their perceived standards results in a loss of “self esteem.”

How do many psychologists treat the problem?  The counselor offers unconditional positive regard and often the support of a group of fellow sufferers.  These new significant others are full of affirmation and acceptance.  And the person may gain a more healthy self-esteem, living now to please more pleaseable others. But the idol of the fear of man is never dealt with.  Those who are significant simply become easier to please.

The second “idol of the heart” often found in people who have low self-esteem is “I haven’t met my own standards, expectations, and desires.”  This is a form of pride and the drive toward self-righteousness that we all have within us.

Psychologists speak of “false guilt” and attempt to help the person set more realistic standards for personal accomplishment and self image.  As this succeeds, people gain a more healthy self-esteem and self confidence.  But the sin of pride and self-righteousness is never dealt with and called to repentance.  The standard has simply been lowered.

Only Jesus’ dying on the cross meets our true need for mercy, hope and acceptance.  Great esteem for Christ results.  Jesus never meets a supposed self-esteem need.  The cross of Christ actually shatters human self-esteem.

The third “idol of the heart” that Powlison addresses is: “Other people and God Himself have failed to meet my standards, expectations, and desires.”  Low self-esteem is almost invariably accompanied by a low esteem for God and others.  This is simply pride and demandingness.  Yet the victim identity that sufferers of low self-esteem are often given by psychology only tends to reinforce this sense of pride and ungratefulness.

In summary, psychology sees rebuilding self-esteem and self-love as the primary need, where a more Biblical approach would see repentance from the fear of man, from self-righteousness, and from self-centeredness and ingratitude as the primary need.  Low self-esteem is only a symptom of these deeper sins or “idols of the heart.”[11]

Low self-esteem is only one example of how popular psychology’s diagnoses often miss the root problems, treating symptoms as problems and problems as symptoms.  A similar analysis could be done with many popular approaches to various needs—co-dependency,[12] victims of abuse,[13] homosexuality, alcohol abuse and various other addictions.

Romans 1:16 says that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.  The gospel, rightly understood and believed, meets all the deepest needs of the human heart.  It is the power of God for salvation, not only from the wrath of God, but also from the enslavement of sin.

Indeed, it is not sufficient for us to simply deal with external behavior.  God wants to make us holy not only on the outside—obeying while gritting our teeth—but He wants to make us holy on the inside as well—with an obedience that flows from a joyful and eager heart.  And developing holiness on the inside often requires a deep and painful look within at the sinful motivations of our hearts.

The only way to adequately do this is through the Word of God.  Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV).  Jeremiah said that our hearts are deceitful and desperately sick.  But God’s Word can see right to the core of our being and expose the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The Lord Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31 NIV).  Whenever we have a persistent problem that binds us, whenever we are not living in free and joyful obedience to our Lord, it is because in some area we are not believing the truth.  We are captivated and enslaved by a lie.  It is Jesus’ teaching that will set us free.

And yet, I have known people who have regularly read the Bible, sometimes for years, but have not been freed from their slavery to depression or anxiety or homosexual urges or addictions.  But notice that the verse does not say that if we “read” His teachings we will be set free.  It says if you “hold to” His teaching we will be set free.  Reading is a start, but is not enough.  We must hold to it, believe it, and apply it before we will find freedom.

Reading the Bible is not a magical solution.  We must believe and apply what we read, and especially we must seek to discover the truth that applies to our particular area of need.  It does little good for someone struggling with homosexual urges to meditate on truth about the deity of Christ or the personality of the Holy Spirit or the borders of the land that God allotted to each of the tribes of Israel.  If we want freedom, we must discover and accept what God specifically has to say about the areas in which we find ourselves in bondage. What hidden sinful motivations are at work in my heart right  now?  What specific way of escape has God provided for the temptation that is facing me right now?

This is the challenge for the pastor, both in counseling and in the pulpit—to help people find the specific truth or truths in God’s Word that will set them free.  Pastors must help people uncover the lies that they are trusting in that keep them in bondage.  We must not resort to simply flinging verses at people who are in bondage, verses that deal with the externals of behavior and yet don’t uncover the secret sins of the heart.  Neither should we turn to the myths and incorrect diagnoses of popular psychology, which neither understands the true nature of man or the nature of our problems. Rather, we must diligently study the Word that is able to “thoroughly equip us for every good work,” and find in it the insight and wisdom to expose and root out the lies and the hidden idols of the heart that keep people in bondage.

11. What are some of the benefits we can gain by being informed about empirical findings or business principles?

1)  We can learn things that can help us in our life and ministry, things that help us apply Biblical principles and commands in a way that more adequately intersects with our culture and world.  Studies that have been done on the differences between men and women can help us obey 1 Peter 3:7, which tells us to “live with our wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel” (NIV).  Studies on health and nutrition can help us better obey God’s command to take care of temple of our body (I Corinthians 3:16-17).  Studies about cultural trends can help us minister to people more effectively and avoid needless offense (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).  Studies about the typical struggles of teen-agers can help us be better prepared as parents (Ephesians 6:4).  The list could go on and on.

2)  We can learn things that support and illustrate the truth of Scripture.  Creationist literature is overwhelming in its evidence debunking evolution and proving the necessity for an intelligent creator and the historical fact of a world-wide flood. Business principles support and illustrate what the Bible says about diligence, planning, integrity, character, etc.  Studies about human nature or the study of history can illustrate the depravity of man or the devious nature of the human heart.

3)  When we are generally aware of the theories and ideas that are being talked about in the scientific and business communities, people see that we are not anti-intellectual and that Christianity is a rational faith that is more than capable of addressing the intellectual issues of our day.

12. What can a pastor do to guard against the false philosophies and influences that come to us through psychology, sociology, science, business seminars, and other sources?

First of all, let me say that this is no idol threat.  I have known pastors who have been totally swept off their feet by worldly philosophy or false doctrine, whether from psychology, business, or other sources.  Some were very close friends.  Some had been my personal mentors.  Some of my greatest grief in life is that I and my fellow leaders were not able to guard them more adequately.  I’ve learned that no one is immune to falling into error.  We must be vigilant to guard our own minds and guard our fellow leaders as well.  Paul admonished the Ephesian elders to keep watch, first over themselves, and then over all the flock (Acts 20:28).

It would seem to be much easier if we could just say, “Don’t listen to anything that anyone says out there, just stick to the Bible only.”  Yet, we have already seen that there is wisdom from God in general revelation and that if we fail to learn from it we may not be able to rightly apply the commands of the scripture.  Also we will be cutting ourselves off from sources of knowledge that can be very helpful in illustrating or supplementing the scripture.  Although it may be more difficult, I believe that God has called us to be aware of and interacting with the “wisdom” of our culture and yet, through the power of the Spirit, to discern what is in line with truth and what is in error.

Here are some approaches that can help guard us from error.

1)  Spend lots of time in God’s Word.  We must “abide” in His Word which gives freedom, not only for ourselves, but for those who hear us (John 8:31,  1 Timothy 4:15).

2)  Spend time in prayer.  Ask God for wisdom.  Claim James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (NIV).  Too often we quickly resort to a book or tape when an hour in prayer might give us far more insight than we could possibly get any other place.

3)  Keep your life wholly devoted to God.  Make sure you are obeying all that God has shown you to do.  My experience has been that more often than not, people are led astray into false doctrine as a means of justifying their sinful behavior.

4)  Don’t form your convictions in a vacuum.  Don’t be independently minded in your search for truth.  Wrestle with your questions together with other leaders that you respect.  Right from the start, interact with others about the convictions you are developing and listen to their feedback. Seek out people who disagree with the opinions you are forming and who will be strong enough to challenge them.

5)  Be open to new ideas that challenge your present convictions.  It can be almost as dangerous to box ourselves in with unchallengeable dogmas as it is to be too open-minded and swayed by every new and intriguing teaching.  Jesus’ strongest rebukes were leveled at those who were so tightly bound to their traditional thinking that they could entertain no notion of re-examining their convictions.  Don’t just automatically dismiss everything that challenges your thinking.  Perhaps God wants to change your thinking, or perhaps He wants your convictions to remain the same but to be deepened as they withstand another challenge.

6)  When reading a book, listening to a tape, or learning about a new “scientific” discovery, seek to understand the world-view of the author, speaker, or scientist and how it might affect his understandings.

7)  When you read or hear something that changes your thinking in a fairly major way, stew on it for a while before fully accepting the new idea as truth.  Changes in theological convictions often take weeks or months or even years to confirm as we view them from different angles, get the advice of others, and pore over the scripture concerning them.

8)  When learning from a personal management book or a business management book, realize that the author will, most likely, not have fully defined what is important in life or have placed things in their proper priorities.  For example Stephen Covey writes about Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Yet I would not say that these seven principles would be the seven key principles of life.  What about faith in God or diligence in the spiritual disciplines of the Word and prayer?  Surely these are far more important than the seven he mentions.  Many of his principles may be helpful and important, but others he doesn’t mention are even more vital.

May God grant us grace to discover all the wisdom He has for us, whether through His Word or through creation, whether through believers or through unbelievers, without being led astray by false and deceptive philosophies and world views.


[1] For a more thorough discussion about what we can learn about human personality from the study of general revelation as well as a discussion of what unbelievers can learn from general revelation, see “Spring Lecture Series” by James Hurley, a series of four tapes from Reformed Theological Seminary.

[2] The Woman who Wouldn’t Forget, Reader’s Digest, September, 1998, p. 109.

[3] I put the word “theory” in quotes, because I not only don’t believe macro evolution to be a fact, but I don’t even regard it to be a true scientific theory, since it is outside the realm of testable science.

[4] Powlison refers to an article by Timothy Keller, “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling,” The Journal of Pastoral Practice 9, no 3 (1998), pp. 11-44.

[5] “Integration or Inundation?” by     David Powlison, Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?, edited by Michael Scott Horton, Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, p. 201

[6] Martin and Deidre Bobgan, in their book The End of “Christian Psychology,” advocate that “The Bible is sufficient to deal with all (non-organic) problems of living” p. 2.  Similarly in Four Temperaments, Astrology and Personality Testing, they argue that any extra-biblical categories or personality groupings are unnecessary and harmful.

[7] Understanding People—Deep Longings for Relationship, by Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr.,  Zondervan, Grand Rapids, p. 63.

[8] See John MacArther’s Our Sufficiency in Christ pp. 62-72 for a summary of the often self-acknowledged failures of psychotherapy.

[9] Powlison, in Power Religion, pp. 208-214

[10]For more information on Powlison’s understanding of “idolatry of the heart” and its relationship to human behavioral problems, see “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair,’” Premise, June 30, 1997, http://capo.org/premise/97/june/p970611.html.

[11] In his book, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-worship, (Eerdmans) Paul C. Vitz contrasts the self-oriented, idolatrous focus of popular psychology with the God-oriented, humility-producing focus of Christianity.

[12] For a critique of the codependency movement, see Edward Welch’s articleCodependency and the Cult of Self” in Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?, edited by Michael Scott Horton, Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, pp. 219-243.

[13] For an analysis of the common effects of childhood sexual abuse and the root sins often present, see The Wounded Heart, Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Dan B. Allender, NavPress, Colorado Springs.

Advertisements

3 Responses

  1. Pastor Bovenmyer, I have printed off this blog and I intend to

    share it with some of my ministerial associates. I so

    wholeheartedly agree with everything written here,especially

    what you said about the Church allowing psychology to usurp

    it’s place. I’m currently involved in establishing a

    community Christian counseling center, what I’ve read here is

    partly revelation, partly confirmation, but ALL truth in my

    estimation. I’ve added you to my blogroll, I hope you’ll check

    out my blog as well! Thank You for sharing this wisdom! Jeff

  2. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

  3. […] I have written a paper that is used in Great Commission Church’s leadership training entitled The Bible and Psychology, Sociology, Science, and Business Principles which states my views on the integration of the Bible and other disciplines. This paper does not […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: