A Response to “The Integration of Christianity and Psychology: A Guest Post by Sarah Rainer”

October 27, 2014

A Response to The Integration of Christianity and Psychology - A Guest Post by Sarah Rainer
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A Response to The Integration of Christianity and Psychology - A Guest Post by Sarah Rainer

BCC Staff Note: On September 25, 2014, at Ed Stetzer’s Christianity Today blog site, The Exchange, Ed ran a guest post by Sarah Rainer. The post was entitled, The Integration of Christianity and Psychology. You can find the post here. Because this is an important post, we ask one of our Council Board members, Jeff Forrey, to share his reflections on it. For a much fuller understanding of the Biblical Counseling Coalition’s perspective on Christianity and Psychology, consider our latest BCC collaborative book project, Scripture and Counseling: God’s Word for Life in a Broken World.

Considering the Foundations of Secular Psychology

In reading Dr. Rainer’s comments, I assume that she had to write within certain space limitations that did not allow for her to develop her reasoning fully. Therefore, it seems unwise to critique her point of view as such. Instead, I sought to raise questions prompted by what she wrote. My comments mostly follow the order of comments she made in her post. First, Dr. Rainer wrote:

“Secular psychologists operate on a biopsychosocial model of human development and behavior. This model proposes humans develop and operate according to biological, psychological, and social influences.”

“In more recent years, psychologists have begun recognizing that our spirituality impacts our lives, but have yet to say it is imperative for life. While the traditional psychological theories and models that are based upon naturalism are insufficient from a Christian worldview, not all of secular psychology is wrong.”

Dr. Rainer is right to say that traditional psychological theories are based on naturalism, because they seek to understand human nature and experiences without reference to God and His Word. They operate, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, “under the sun.” For the naturalist living “under the sun,” God is viewed as optional, if not downright intrusive.

With regards to secular psychology, the question that needs to be addressed by Christians is: To what extent does this naturalism influence the enterprise of mainstream psychology[1]? She hints later that secular psychological research should be approached cautiously, which is true. But it is unclear what she means. What elements of the secular psychological enterprise might be tainted by the presupposition of naturalism?

In principle, we cannot assume any of it will be free of this influence, because the determinative orientation of the non-Christian’s thinking, commitments, and values is one of rebellion against the Lord (e.g., Psalm 14:1-3; Matthew 12:30; Romans 1:18-21). Consequently, the definitions of psychological constructs, the creation of research questions, the interpretations of collected research data, and the applications of study conclusions are all aspects of research that must be evaluated from the perspective of a biblical, God-centered point of view.

Take, for example, her observation that recently secular psychologists have been acknowledging the role of “spirituality” in human experience. This can be well attested by the books addressing spirituality published in recent years by the APA. However, we must ask, What is “spirituality”? How does the use of this term by mainstream psychologists correspond to the relevant terminology used in the New Testament?

Often “spirituality” is differentiated from “religion” in the secular literature. How does this distinction map onto the teaching of the New Testament regarding the expression of one’s faith commitments? Certainly, Jesus chastises the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees; their presumptions about their relationship with God did not match reality. Is Jesus’ evaluation of their practices equivalent to the modern distinction between inner “spirituality” and outward, institutionalized “religion”?

Pondering a Comprehensive Biblical Understanding of Image Bearers

Later, Dr. Rainer writes:

“I propose that Christian mental health professionals operate on a middle ground, the bio/psycho/social/spiritual model, which considers both our dignity and depravity as humans.”

This comment raises questions about how these components of the person relate to one another. Though it is reasonable to assume “body” as a legitimate category of the biblical view of people, one wonders, what are the definitions and possible interactions of the “psycho/social/spiritual” categories?

Dr. Rainer is correct about the need for discernment, but it must be clarified that biblical discernment involves starting with biblical presuppositions. This makes it difficult to know what is meant by her comment: “not all of secular psychology is wrong. Indeed, there are many helpful and positive aspects of psychology to consider, which is why there is a need for integration.”

It is true that not everything a secular psychologist says is necessarily wrong (i.e., inconsistent with the Bible), because in God’s common grace He suppresses non-believers’ suppression of the truth, which in turn, allows them to make some valid claims about what goes on in His world.

Yet, if the secular claims are valid—as judged by a biblical perspective—then we must acknowledge that the naturalistic assumptions of the secular researcher did not contribute to their validity. Thus, we must turn to the biblical worldview as our starting point. Why, then, is there a “need” for integration?

Perhaps, instead, we could say there is a need for reinterpretation as Christians consider the claims made by mainstream psychologists. And these two processes are different. “Integration” assumes a continuity between secular and biblical worldview presuppositions that cannot be assumed to exist. “Reinterpretation” assumes a discontinuity between the two worldviews that requires a different way of understanding concepts or theories in relationship to what the Bible teaches.

Examining Worldviews

Dr. Rainer affirms that:

“For Christian psychologists, our worldview must be determined by Scripture.”

Then she incorporates the construct “mental illness” into that worldview. How is “mental illness” derived from what the Bible says about human nature and experience? Although it is not mandatory that Christians only use terms derived from the wording of Scripture, when extra-biblical terms are suggested, it should be clear how they are defined so that their correspondence with biblical teaching is evident.

With respect to the problems addressed by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, clearly the brain can be diseased or injured, and such conditions will affect the person’s experiences in life. But, also clearly, not all problems brought under the umbrella term “mental illness” can be matched to pathological processes in the nervous (or other organ) system. That is not to say the brain is uninvolved in those experiences, because the brain is active in everything we experience in this life. But without pinpointing a pathological process in the nervous system, we are left with attributing “psychological disorders” to the “mind.” Therefore, what are the dynamics of illness in the mind? Even if used as a metaphor, what assistance does “mental illness” give us in knowing how to help troubled people? In other words, what does it mean to “utilize Scripture to heal our clients and glorify Jesus”?

“I appreciate the biopsychosocial model of human nature. Learning about the complexities of humanity provides me with a better framework for understanding and helping my clients. The intricacies of the human brain, the environmental influences on our personality, and the social and culture impact on our lives remind me that pathology cannot simply be reduced to issues of morality or sin.”

Based on her later comments, it would seem Dr. Rainer’s appreciation of this model assumes it is good “as far as it goes,” but it does not go far enough. Furthermore, her use of “pathology” is ambiguous. As we’ve said, the brain can be subjected to illness. “Environmental influences” in this comment seems to refer to non-relational aspects of one’s surroundings affecting a person’s development and experience of daily life. Finances, educational opportunities, etc., do influence how we mature. Both the micro- and macrocultures in which we live affect our personality development. Each of these points can be substantiated biblically.

But when Dr. Rainer says “pathology” cannot be reduced to morality or sin, she seems to be assuming that environmental influences and relational or cultural influences can be morally neutral. However, none of these influences on personality can be viewed as “morally neutral.” This is because their influence is subject to the condition or contents of what the Bible calls the “heart.” The “heart,” basically, is the moral & motivational control center of the person. All of life—speech, behavior, attitudes, emotions, and thoughts—is shaped by the “heart.” Moreover, the “heart” always functions with respect to God. Therefore, whatever pressures might be exerted by one’s finances, family experiences, friendships, etc., will all be filtered through the “heart,” producing lifestyle patterns that eventually will reveal the person’s stance before God (cf. Proverbs 20:11; Luke 6:45; Ephesians 4:17-19). Because the “heart” is not neutral, neither will responses to any of these external influences.

Dr. Rainer also writes:

“Research and personal testimonies reveal that secular interventions are successful in the abatement of symptoms. However, the independent use of these secular techniques falls short because they simply produce a ‘symptom free’ individual. The end result does not provide dependence on the Lord, salvation, or sanctification. The result is nothing more than freedom from current symptoms, yet there is continued bondage to sin.”

Each of these statements is true. Yet, one does need to question: What is the relationship between the secular interventions and the necessity of a gospel-based intervention, which she also endorses? How do their differing starting points affect their utility with Christians, given the explicit goal that Christians should “grow in Christ” (e.g., 2 Peter 3:18) or “glorify God in everything” (1 Corinthians 10:31)?

“Helping a child with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder organize … school supplies, explaining and modeling the appropriate use of time-out to parents, challenging negative thoughts, and teaching diaphragmatic breathing, are some examples of secular techniques that do not challenge Scripture-based psychology.”

Dr. Rainer is correct that none of these tactics necessarily violates scriptural teaching, but in order to insure they do not, we again need to have biblical starting points. In this example, anything that can help the child be more successful in dealing with the physical manifestations of stress, such as diaphragmatic breathing, might be helpful, because the Scriptures do not discount somatic interventions in dealing with problems in the body.

Hyperventilation disrupts optimal gas exchange between the lungs and the bloodstream, resulting in potentially frightening physical sensations. Diaphragmatic breathing can counter these sensations. Organizing supplies helps the child process his or her resources for accomplishing tasks. Our brains work more efficiently with such organization; it is a function of God’s design. Time-out procedures might also afford a child better opportunities to deal with numerous simultaneous stimuli in the environment, as long as they are structured in the light of the child’s unique set of abilities and limitations and as long as they help direct the child’s attention toward biblical goals.

The degree of the child’s attention might be understood as tied brain function, but the objects of attention are tied to the values of the “heart.” Challenging negative thoughts is, of course, directly tied to the condition or contents of the “heart.” Therefore, how it is done must be derived from the Scriptures.

Dr. Rainer ends with a laudable call for believers to make an impact on the broader culture for the sake of Christ. We must show people how the gospel transforms people—from the inside out—in order that they might fulfill their Creator’s design. However, we will not be as effective in this task if we only use the Scriptures as a “filter,” which practically speaking, often means the secularists have set the agenda for discussion to which Christians merely react. Instead we should use the biblical worldview as our starting point, for only then we are in a far better position to be “salt and light.”

Join the Conversations

What are your reflections on Dr. Rainer’s article on The Integration of Christianity and Psychology?

What are your thoughts on Dr. Forrey’s response?

[1]“Mainstream psychology” refers to the psychological theories and research generally taught in the majority of universities and colleges. It is endorsed by most psychologists, including many Christians trained in these institutions of higher learning.

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