Friday, 18 January 2013

Theology and Psychology

Teaching a set of A level Psychology tutorials recently left me thinking about the relationship between Psychology and Theology. I have now also finished preparing and teaching the first year of the All Nations Applied Theology course. A milestone! More on that later.

It has been argued by sociologists such as Comte, that modern science is a pinnacle of human evolution and achievement, a development that has outgrown theology and philosophy. In his book, ‘The God delusion’, Richard Dawkins also mentions Thomas Jefferson’s idea of removing Theology professorships. Despite this, they remain! On the other hand I have often heard theologians being a little dismissive of Psychology, as though their own knowledge of God means they don’t have psychological challenges! So what is the relationship between Theology and Psychology?

This is not an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but a short historical overview, which takes the idea of Psychology being a science seriously, as well as the historic contribution of Theology to knowledge and society. In fact Theology originally provided a framework for modern science, including Psychology and rightly understood still does. Modern science, as an independent structure and a development of philosophical science is really dependent on the development of empiricism in philosophy, the idea that we do not innately know, but need to test out theories through observation and analysis. Of course this rests on the idea that the data out there is reliable and consistent.

The above is an underlying assumption of science, but every scientist will know that although many scientific discoveries can be established as fact, theories need to be stretched, tested and reassessed to confirm, strengthen and extend existing knowledge. To the theologian God is a stable presence that remains to undergird and sustain reality as the Creator. This is reflected by the fact, that although man’s knowledge and thought processes have developed, the essential object of study remains constant – God and his creation. This is understood through faith in God’s guiding hand through history. A guidance, which modern science does not overturn, but helps us to understand. As Anselm of Canterbury put  it, ‘Faith seeking understanding’. Such understanding can come through science, but faith in God is still the final object.

In the Bible, especially in the Old Testament God is a Saviour, who travels with his people through their history. Through time God adapts to their circumstances, as a loving Father might adapt to the stages of childhood. However, this picture would be inadequate by itself, since it would it would deny the holiness of God. Being of heaven he is undisturbed by events upon the earth. He loves those who dwell there, and longs 
to save them, yet he is completely other than them, and in no way manipulated by them in any of his loving, kind and gracious acts towards them. God will disturb and even disrupt human history if his love as a Father is disregarded. In surveying history, and the development of thought, we must remember this crucial personal distinction. Otherwise, God will become subject to a human process- a situation that severely undermines his identity, and with it the future of those who are thoroughly dependent upon who he is. Historical evaluation of modern ideas is entirely necessary in Theology.

Augustine and the beginnings of western psychology

Augustine was the first to develop a clear notion of the Trinity in the western world. Augustine, although he had no knowledge of the Greek language, developed aspects of Plato’s thought to explain human psychology in relation to God. Perhaps his intention was to set limits on Greek philosophy through modelling humanity on the filoque in the Godhead. This formulation of the Trinity notes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, whereas the Greek idea is more centred on the individual hypostases in the Godhead. It could be argued that the bond of love, as an emphasis, rather than that of knowledge, between the persons of the Godhead was an important source of his psychological insights. Yet it should be stressed than this can only be regarded positively as an emphasis.

Augustine used the following three aspects of life to describe human psychology and education. Love. object and knowledge. His view was that these three needed to be in proportion to one another. If knowledge outgrew love, it would be going beyond it’s limits as an expression of humanity. Was Augustine concerned about a disproportionate knowledge that objectifies another, without loving them as a person? One needs to know about human beings in order to know them, and so objective knowledge is necessary. The problem identified by Augustine it seems is that objective knowledge may well objectify people. We therefore need to consider what kind of objective knowledge we mean. In a modern scientific context Augustine does make sense here. Although, it may be that Augustine was only talking about proportion rather than kind, the distinction between a qualitative and quantitative knowledge is touched on. Excessive quantitative analysis objectifies people, leaving society without a quality of love that uses knowledge as a discipline, rather than using other people as things. Psychology should be seen as a discipline that does have objective knowledge of people, but does not objectify them, in the sense of not recognising the distinct qualities of individuals. Modern Psychology has advanced our objective knowledge, but this is not the kind of knowledge that inspires people to pour their lives out in service to others. Instead we are left with a science that gives us helpful insights into human nature, but has as its foundations the assumptions of material science leaving God and the Holy Spirit out of the picture.

The Reformation

brought the beginnings of the revelation that life is to be ordered by the word of God, rather than by the  ‘natural’ authority of  the church. A key difference between Augustine and Luther has important psychological implications for western individuality in relation to body and mind. Discipline in the Medieval era tended to be very harsh, in keeping with the idea that sin was something to be physically expunged. There was not so much of the clear concept of Jesus’ teaching that sin is first of all a problem of the human heart, meaning that it begins in the thoughts of a person, and cannot simply be dealt with by treating the body harshly. Perhaps the most important doctrinal difference between Luther and Augustine centres around the Latin phrase ‘simul justus et peccat’. This phrase means that Christians are both sinful and righteous at the same instant. It was a phrase that was quoted by both Luther and Augustine, but crucially they meant very different things by it. Augustine meant that in his body he was both sinful and righteous, whereas Luther meant that he was extrinsically righteous and intrinsically sinful. In other words by faith he psychologically perceived that God had justified him, whilst he still recognised that he did sin. This was a liberating truth enabling the Christian to proceed on the basis of God’s love and provision for human sin, rather than psychologically cramped by the guilt of one’s own failings.

Modern science through the reformation presented a larger picture of God, through the emphasis on personal knowledge of him through faith. This gave rise to a general confidence about reality, increasing the individual’s consciousness of God’s love and grace and the light that this shone on the human soul. Faith is a controlling influence on consciousness, helping a person to be guided by the core issues. . The knowledge of who we are, not only the dogmas of the church, is intimately related to how we understand God. Theology has a Psychology. Calvin, notes at the beginning of his Institutes, that this is a key issue to address. Given the vast scope of his influence, we may note this increased self-awareness as a staging post. The church’s understanding of reality needed to be substantially corrected by the word of God, and this ought to include some careful self-examination. This was Calvin’s major contribution to the western mind. Calvin worked out the reformed church’s faith systematically in relation to Scripture. This led to the structural institution of Christianity, strongly influencing the mind-set of the western world.

There are many further developments that could be explored, but for the last five centuries this mind set has remained generally fixed for reformed Christianity.


This has been written from memory, but I am aware of the following references and influences:

Comte, Augustus
Dawkins, R. ‘The God delusion’
McGrath, A. ‘Iustitia Dei, A history of the doctrine of justification by faith’
AQA A level text books in Psychology and Sociology

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