Many within the sphere of biblical counseling wrestle with the value and place of psychology. Some say there is no value or place for it. Others oppose such a rigid stance. They believe there is both value and a place for psychology when it is properly defined, clarified, and qualified. The authors of this article are among those who take such a position. This article attempts to accomplish the three aforementioned objectives as a means to help believers understand the proper alignment of psychology with the practice of biblical counseling.
One of the reasons there is so much division on this topic has to do with the fact that there are a number of different definitions of psychology with which biblical counselors are interacting today. Some adhere to more of a traditional Christian definition, which defines psychology as “the doctrine of the soul.”1 This definition limits the Christian counselor’s focus to the realm of special revelation (Scripture) and rightly understands that the soul is the spiritual component of man’s being. The only place wherein a comprehensive doctrine of the soul can be derived is the Bible. It is hoped that anyone who counsels under the heading of “biblical counselor” would agree with this basic precept.2 Any approach to counseling that fails to acknowledge the primacy of Scripture, even if it is based on otherwise Christian tenets, cannot properly be described as biblical counseling.
It is critically important that biblical counselors have not only a biblical understanding of the human soul, but also how the Fall has affected it. The primary aspect of this doctrine relevant to this discussion is that our first parents’ fall into sin ushered in spiritual death to all of mankind. Every person born since the Fall, Christ excepted, is conceived and born spiritually dead, and therefore must be born again (John 3:6–7).3 The process of regeneration (new birth) performed by the Holy Spirit is directly connected to the gospel. Counseling solidly grounded in Scripture views the gospel as the only solution to man’s problems, in association with the chief end for which he was created—glorifying God and enjoying him.4 Every biblical counselor who truly believes the gospel is the ultimate solution to man’s problems in this vein, believes there is value in possessing an understanding of the “doctrine of the soul”; thus, such a counselor sees the value of psychology from the standpoint by which psychology has been traditionally defined.
When most people speak about psychology today, however, the traditional Christian definition is not what they are thinking about. Theirs is more along the lines of viewing psychology as an academic discipline, which includes the study of various topics including—but not limited to—states of consciousness, motivation and learning, intelligence and personality assessment, styles of emotional and interpersonal expressiveness, human development across the span of life, coping and adjustment, mental illness and physical health, and organizational and human factors in work settings, to name a few.5 In truth, this list of topics largely circumscribes what most people would call modern secular psychology. All biblical counselors should rightly be concerned about the field of secular psychology, mainly because God is left out of its philosophies in favor of a purely naturalistic and materialistic view of humanity.
Concerns with Secular Psychology
In its purely naturalistic and materialistic model, secular psychology does not view human beings as creatures with a body and a soul. The body alone, and particularly the brain, is the focal point of modern psychology. The brain in secular psychology’s philosophical model is the system which receives, coordinates, integrates, and influences all the activity of all the parts of the body. Such a model might have the potential of being a sound one if man were an animal—but he is not. As an image bearer of God,6 who is a spiritual being, man possesses both a body and a soul. In the secular model, the brain is not correctly viewed as the bodily organ which mediates between the soul and body. This model is, therefore, severely deficient relative to a biblical understanding of psychology.
Despite this deficiency, we can gain important insights from the field of secular psychology when it employs valid scientific methods to approach a given question about the brain the mind/brain and its function. Note here that the validity of science as an approach to problem-solving is based on the premise that there are numerous physical laws revealed by God in the creation that are universally binding and remain constant in the time frames we are able to observe. This premise holds true, for example, when the same experimental procedure is performed many times (optimally by different people) and yields the same results. This property—known as reproducibility—is a key hallmark of valid science. Biblical counselors should not be “science deniers” by default. As Christians, we may accept the results of valid, reproducible science when it is performed ethically with the goal of uncovering correct facts about the creation. The data of valid science are not to be denied out of hand.
But simply obtaining data is not the end of the scientific process of research, because interpretation of the results must be done by the authors of any study. This is primarily where secular psychology (and many other sciences) will naturally diverge from biblical counseling. This is because interpretation is always done in the context of a broader worldview. If one’s worldview is purely naturalistic and materialistic, then interpretations of the data from a study of the brain or behavior will not include any concept of a soul. In contrast, if one operates from a biblically Christian worldview, then interpretations of data from the same study of brain or behavior must include a notion of the soul because they are conceived in concordance with the authority of Scripture. To state this another way: human experimentation and observation of the creation is insufficient to provide a complete understanding of God’s general revelation if it is not corrected by the authority of special revelation.7 In fact, a proper understanding of the Fall and its effects on the human mind indicates that the natural propensity of unregenerate humanity is to suppress the truth when it points to God.8 This is a potential problem in any field of science where interpretations of the data may conflict with the account of Scripture.
Along with being concerned about modern psychology from a theological point of view, Reformed biblical counselors should also be concerned about it from a scientific standpoint. Recent studies indicate that the reproducibility factor in the fields of secular psychology and sociology are shockingly poor.9 It is difficult to know precisely why this is the case, except to say that these fields tend to rely more on subjective answers to questions and observable behavior rather than objective measurements of physical quantities. While not necessarily invalid as an approach to science, these subjective methods are far more prone to being influenced by investigators’ worldviews, personal biases, and agendas. When these opportunities for error are added to cases of outright scientific fraud (falsifying data, statistical manipulation, data suppression), an entire field of study can become undermined with false premises and incorrect assumptions.
Poor science ultimately factors into the therapeutic practices utilized in modern clinical psychology. When descriptions of various mental conditions and/or therapeutic interventions are built upon error instead of true knowledge, the effects of sin and the Fall are amplified, not minimized, in patients. Note that much of the failure of modern psychology to correctly diagnose and treat maladies of the mind stems from a failure to acknowledge the existence of a Spiritual Domain and effects of sin. In its attempt to redefine and treat all mental, emotional, or psychological problems in their connection to the Mental, Bodily, or Social Domains alone,10 many of these problems are exacerbated, not alleviated. While not denying that some mental, emotional, or psychological problems have their origin within the mental and bodily domains, biblical counselors must never exclude the possibility of dysfunction in the Spiritual Domain, regardless of whether it is the primary or secondary source of distress. Furthermore, there is always a spiritual component to all counseling-related problems that must be addressed, regardless of the domain in which they originate.
At a bare minimum, we should expect professional organizations of secular psychology to hold their participant investigators and clinicians accountable to doing valid science. Inasmuch that organizations such as the Association of Psychological Science (APS) are striving to do that, we can be thankful for the information provided by studies they support. But we ought never to accept these studies without a critical and skeptical eye to the study design, statistical evaluation, and interpretation. Reformed biblical counselors are encouraged to read some of the journals sponsored by APS to check their scientific validity, as well as to keep up with what is happening in the field of psychology. Extreme caution and discernment are advised as one interacts with these works, in recognition of the subtlety and craftiness of Satan, who is an expert at distorting and twisting true knowledge in whichever realm it is revealed or context wherein it is discussed.
The Place and Usefulness of Psychology Clarified
While there are some who desire to limit the knowledge they use in their practice of counseling to that revealed in the realm of special revelation, there are others who believe there is great value in some of the “counseling-related” knowledge God allows mankind to discover in the realm of nature via science.11 The temptation to retreat from the counseling-related sciences (medicine, psychology, sociology) and focus our attention only on the soul in our practice of counseling is great, especially in light of the large number of errors being propagated within them. But retreating is problematic for a couple of reasons.
First, as Reformed believers we are at pains to stress that God’s sovereignty embraces every aspect of human existence. God is sovereign not only over the work of his elect children but also over the work of those who labor to deny his glory with all their might. We lay hold of the convictions of our Reformed forefathers who maintained that God can and does use the efforts of ungodly men and women to discover true knowledge revealed in the realm of general revelation:
In the reading of profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to Him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. . . . If the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it.12
We can and must avail ourselves of the knowledge God has allowed both believer and unbeliever to discover in nature. Placed in its proper context with a view to God’s glory, this knowledge has benefits we would be foolish to reject if we rightly understand his providential hand guiding the efforts of man.
Second, when we retreat from the broader world and spend all of our time in our holy huddles, we fail to have the effect of salt and light in the world which God gave us to possess.13 To be sure, we must maintain clear boundaries as we take our places within the field and interact with the sciences, never allowing ourselves to mix God’s truth with worldly philosophies lest we lose our saltiness. We are not, however, to fashion our lives after hermits who were known for withdrawing from society. We are to be in the world, but not of it, in every sense—including efforts in the sciences.
Third, as Reformed believers we confess, as did Abraham Kuyper, that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, Who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”14 As part of the inheritance given to Adam at the beginning of time, the sciences now rightfully belong to Christ, who is the second Adam and eternal representative Head of creation. In him are found all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). A Reformed understanding of Christ’s lordship also implies that members of Christ’s body ought to be working in fields of science wherein knowledge is being actively suppressed when it points to a conclusion that is not convenient for the secular worldview. Their active discovery and articulation of knowledge from these fields ministers truth to redeemed believers, and serves as a witness to those who remain lost in sin. Now is not the time for Christians to retreat! It is time for them to continue serving as instruments that God can use to instruct and develop sound lines of inquiry, which will efficiently and effectively guide research and—by God’s grace—yield profitable results.
May we never be accused of suppressing the truth of Scripture or the knowledge discovered via science out of a fear of man, regardless of whether such people are unbelievers or professing Christians. To be sure, we will likely be mocked, scorned, and misrepresented by the former, and perhaps misunderstood by the latter as we seek to effectively apply God’s glorious knowledge revealed in both realms of revelation to his suffering children in our counseling. Let us, however, not shrink back. Instead, let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, seeking to please him by patiently and charitably enduring reproaches of others for God’s glory and the good of his suffering children.………………………………………………………
1. Psychology. noun [Gr. soul, and discourse.] A discourse or treatise on the human soul; or the doctrine of the nature and properties of the soul. American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828, online edition.
2. The term “precept” as used in this article should be understood as a general rule intended to regulate thinking and one’s associated counseling practice.
3. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (New King James Version).
4. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 1.
5. The topics listed are among those cited by R. E. Butman in an entry entitled “Psychology and Christianity,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 965ff.
6. The doctrine of the “image of God” (imago Dei) is one of the most intensely debated concepts in Christian theology. For the purpose of this article we take a traditionally Reformed view of this doctrine, which states that man, as a creature, was created with the capacities of soul and body to live in intimate communion with a holy and righteous God. This is to say that he, as a creature, was endowed with unique spiritual, mental, emotional, social, and physical capacities to most fully communicate with God and to reflect his care for the creation and love for his chosen people. These capacities (sometimes called the “wider image”) allow regenerated people to reflect God by formally bearing his image (sometimes called the “narrow image”), which the apostle Paul defines as true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
7. “Orthodox Christianity utilizes the theological term ‘General Revelation’ when speaking of natural revelation. It refers to God making Himself known in creation, providentially orchestrated history, and conscience” (i.e., in conjunction with God’s moral law). Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 154.
8. The effect of the Fall on the human mind is often referred to as the noetic effects of the Fall. The classic reference to the truth that the totally depraved human mind will actively suppress truth found in creation is Romans 1:18–23.
9. Recent studies where attempts were made to estimate the reproducibility of psychological science indicated that as many as 68 percent of all published studies with “statistically significant” effects could not be reproduced in another setting. See John Bohannon, “Many Psychology Papers Fail Replication Test,” Science (August 28, 2015), vol. 349, issue 6251, 910–11, aac4716. doi: 10.1126/science.aac4716; https://science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6251/910.
10. These domains are part of the Internal Dominant Domains (IDD) in IRBC’s philosophical model of counseling. “The IDD’s are the permanent, inseparable components of a human being. They are the Spiritual, Mental, Emotional, Social, and Bodily Domains[.” Jeff Doll, The DPTM I: V.R. 2 (Grand Rapids: IRBC, 2019), 32.
11. By using the term “nature” we refer to the physical creation, which is the realm in which God is pleased to reveal himself by general revelation.
12. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1846).
13. “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:13–16, English Standard Version).
14. Quote from Kuyper’s inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University, in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.………………………………………………………
Dr. Jeff Doll is the Director of the Institute for Reformed Biblical Counseling and the Shepherd’s Way Reformed Biblical Counseling Center’s west branch, with satellites in Hudsonville and Holland, Michigan. He also serves as an independent Reformed biblical counselor in connection with his role as Pastor of Biblical Counseling for the Cornerstone United Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan, of which he and his family are members.
Dr. Brendan Looyenga formerly served as a university professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry. He has also served as a Research Scientist in the Lab of Systems Biology at the Van Andel Research Institute (2010-2014). He and his wife were members of the 2018-19 IRBC counseling class. They and their family are members of the Zion Protestant Reformed Church of Jenison, Michigan, where he serves as an elder.