Why we should read the history of psychology and christianity

Am reading Bryan Maier’s (my new colleague) recent dissertation-turned-book, The Separation of Psychology and Theology at Princeton, 1868-1903: The Intellectual Achievement of James McCosh and James Mark Baldwin. Don’t get put off by the long title (we like those in academic treatises because they really tell us what the book will be about). 

In short, McCosh, the President of Princeton (1868-1888), was a man caught between the two worlds of science and evangelical faith. He held to the authority of Scripture and that the only way to have saving faith was the work of the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures. He also believed that inductive reasoning could uncover the nature and faculties of the human mind, apart from leaning on the Scriptures. In fact, he resisted appealing to Scripture as he felt (a) that he couldn’t rely on human interpretations of what God meant (too much possibility of distorting it for own purposes) and, (b) that he needed to use the philosophies of the day (materialism, realism, positivism) to have his views regarding metaphysics accepted by other scholars (but he failed to note the lack of objectivity within these forms of scientific inquiry). Maier’s conclusion is that McCosh, despite his evangelical faith, played a role in exiling God from psychology when he emphasized the powers of logical positivism to “find” facts over against the rigorous study of Scripture. By prioritizing scientific inquiry and marginalizing biblical theology, it was impossible for a true integration of psychology and faith—a problem he sees that has continued today in the integration movement. 

Why you and I should care? McCosh was sure that he could walk the line of maintaining his faith and yet still interact with the findings of the day (lots of work was being done in understanding the mind/brain at the neural/local level). In his mind, he wedded Kant and Locke (experience and introspection) and was utterly convinced that in the end, no conflict would arise between Scripture and Science. Today, we have the same challenge in building a Christian psychology. How do we communicate our understanding of human behavior that we get from the Bible while interacting with advances in scientific studies at the level of neurons? How do we do so in a world less influenced by positivism and more influenced by postmodern philosophies of science? 

If I take anything away from McCosh, I take NOT that we should be wary of scientific and philosophical models. Rather, I can see how my biases and blind spots have way more effect on me that I would like to admit. McCosh was sure that he was thoroughly Scriptural in his work, and yet at the end of his life he wondered whether he had neglected the study of Scripture (and he a minister!). In McCosh’s writing, Maier points out how very little he alludes to Scripture to develop his arguments. I have seen how the adherence to any model can make us blind, whether to the model of biblical counseling, the Westminster Confession of Faith, or clinical psychology. None of us are free from derailing over our well-intended models. A large dose of humility and self-criticism is necessary (along with a willingness to listen to our opponents)!


Filed under History of Psychology

6 responses to “Why we should read the history of psychology and christianity

  1. You make a good point. While we may be errant in our interpretations of Scripture, we may also be errant in how we understand and apply psychology. It does take a humble spirit to navigate the two. It seems at times that we are guaranteed to fail but if that is the case then when the time comes that we recognize it, we can repent and begin again. I know that at times I have been too close minded to see that the other side is making some good points (in and amongst others that I still disagree with). I’m a clinical psych student and I’d love for you to check out my blog and add some comments. Cheers!

  2. Nice blog. Keep up the good work. Your point is right in line with mine. Social Psychology has long emphasized the common biases that we live and lead with. From a biblical perspective, we are self-deceivers who often listen more to ourselves than to the wise around us. Interestingly, modernistic philosophies (logical positivism) infected all scholars, theologians and psychologists. We can thank Descartes, Locke, and many other believers for starting us down the road of inductionism and the belief that we could achieve objective knowledge on our own–free from all bias. In my circles of psychology and theology, I find the emerging/missional theologians much more willing to acknowledge their biases than I do the psychologists. Seems we still want to prove that we are a science just like medicine.

  3. While studying the major theorists of psychology, I was amazed at how many of them devised a theory that addressed their own problems. The theory was just an outworking of how they viewed themselves- quite subjectively.
    Theologians can have the same problem, unless they are constantly going back to Scripture to make sure they are not twisting their reality. God used Luther’s subjective issues to recapture a long-lost truth.

  4. Exactly right. Take a look at some of the “great men” such as Carl Rogers (raised in
    dark calvinism) and how he came up with his unconditional positive regard. Or Watson and Skinners views on human behavior. Part of what we do in our History of Counseling & Psych class is do some Vantilian apologetics and look at how presuppositions frame both the questions and the answers. They do indeed see what is there but through the lens of their experiences. We could do the same with some of the emerging/missional theologians of our day. We could also do the same with some of the early Fundamentalists at the turn of the century (after they left/got booted from academic positions in the the US).

  5. Angela

    Phil, these issues are exactly the ones I’ve been struggling with. I think you’re right on about humility and self-criticism being essential to at least beginning to arrive at a wider understanding. Of course, I’m bereft with no Grand Theory or Framework to hang my hat on–even my understanding of Scripture is tainted by my own subjectivity. I’m looking back at where we’ve come from, and I’m looking forward to where we’re going with “fear and trembling,” trying to work out my own grasp of things.

    What are your thoughts about the direction that psychology, in general, and Christian pscyhology, in particular, (and, just as importantly for that matter, the direction of Christianity and the Church) will be taking as more and more of us come to realize the painful limitations of our inevitable biases–what I’ve come to refer to as the “dark glass” of incarnation? How can we use this truer picture of our fallibility for good and not for evil (smile) ?


  6. Angela, don’t forget that you can take confidence in much about Scripture and Christian tradition. Yes, we can and do screw things up. But, because of the Spirit, we can see much unity in interpretation of the Word, its Christocentric nature, and the spirit correcting nature of the Church. Really, you are not on your own. Keep reading both within and without your tradition.

    Regarding Christianity and Psychology. I’m more hopeful that the church will recognize its limits before psychology will recognize its (that is before the APA recognizes its serious biases). As Christian psychology is less apologetic for its christocentrism, we will be able to stop trying to be accepted and more available to listen well and even learn from others who are quite different from us. That was McCosh’s problem. He was so busy trying to be mainstream, he lost a part of his faith.

    I like your last line. how do we use it for good and not evil. I have seen some use their fallibility to say that there is no truth. This would not be a good outcome.

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