Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Five

Steven Barto, B.S., Psy, M.A. Theology

WE LEARNED IN THE previous installments of this series that psychology is a discipline with a rich history. Plato and Aristotle, for example, created elaborate theories that attempted to account for a myriad of developmental issues: memory, perception, learning. Initial philosophers and theorists took an eclectic approach, exploring matters such as determinism, responsibility, mind versus body, empiricism, harmony, rationalism, and self identity. This tended to pull early theorists in many directions. When psychology emerged as a separate discipline, the initial impact tore in two the early influences of philosophy and religion. Today, psychology consists of a number of disciplines and concentrations. For the Christian, psychology must be infused with theological beliefs about our place in God’s world. Many evangelicals and other denominational Christians see no place for psychology or secular counseling in the church. In this installment, I will discuss free will and the personality. In the final installment, I will present the concept of “religious” or “Christian” counseling.

Free Will

Free will has been considered countless times by theologians such as Augustine, Martin Luther, Alvin Plantinga, C.S. Lewis, and Wayne Grudem. Admittedly, it is the concept of free will that muddies the water most when discussing religious faith and psychology. Christianity teaches that man has the freedom to choose or reject God. Everyone is free to choose A or not-A. This designation is different than choosing A or B. If you’re offered a choice of A or B, then you are being given a choice between, Do you want an apple or an orange with your lunch? In this scenario you cannot choose something other than an apple or an orange. You are not free to pick anything you want, but rather to make your selection from the choices offered. If you’re just offered A, then it’s still a choice. In the example of A or not-A you must choose God or not God.

Augustine’s definition of free will is built on Plato’s “seeking of the good principle.” Augustine addresses man’s choice between good and evil (right and wrong). He said we are also free to accept or reject the love and grace of God. Luther said, “God… foresees, purposes and does all things according to His immutable, eternal and infallible will” (1). When asked why we perform evil deeds, Luther replied, “The human will is like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes whence God wills. If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills” (2). This is not the same as believing a benevolent God rides us to do good, while an evil devil rides us to do evil. We choose whom to allow in the saddle, so to speak. Plantinga writes, “…belief in God is not the same thing as belief that God exists, or that there is such a thing as “god” (3).

The drive of philosophy to get the “big picture” has heavily influenced the understandings of Christian theology. Consider the problem of evil in a world created by a loving and caring God. Atheists and skeptics claim this dichotomy either proves God does not exist, or He does exist and is unable or unwilling to abolish evil. Plantinga puts the argument of skeptics this way: “If God is benevolent as Christian theists claim, He must be just as appalled as we are at all this evil [in the world]. But if He is also as powerful as they claim, then presumably He is in a position to do something about it. So why does He permit it?” (4). Plantinga cites the free will defense, which claims we are free with respect to an action. He explains, “If a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain from performing it” (5).

A world containing individuals who are capable of both good and evil simply indicates such individuals are free to choose how they will behave. God created man with free will; He cannot cause them to do only what is right. Plantinga reminds us that what God created “went wrong” when our First Parents exercised their free will to disobey God. It might sound as though this contradicts man’s freedom to choose, but it does not. We are free to obey or disobey, but we are not free to choose the consequences of our decision. Frankly, free will must involve moral agency.

Theories of Personality

Questions regarding mind versus body, nativism versus empiricism, nature versus nurture, and genetic components of behavior have been examined over the decades in hope of understanding the human personality. The goal has been to arrive at a unifying theory of human nature. For example, are we inherently aggressive? Freud said yes; humanists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow said no. Sigmund Freud believed aggression and emotional traps are rooted in a person’s early childhood experience—especially the dynamics of one’s relationship with a parent or primary care giver. B.F. Skinner described a form of learning in which a voluntary response is strengthened or weakened depending on its association with either positive or negative consequences. The strengthening of a response occurs through reinforcement. Skinner called this theory “operant conditioning.”

Maslow created a visual, which he termed the “hierarchy of needs.” This pyramid depicts various levels of physical and psychological needs that a person progresses through during their lifetime (6). Frustration at any level of “actualization” makes it nearly impossible to move to the next level. For example, if a child’s physiological needs are not met, developing a sense of safety and security is difficult to achieve. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory states that virtually all forms of behavior can be learned (good traits and bad) simply through observational learning. Although he did not believe man precisely mimics those whom he or she observes, he believed man makes a deliberate, conscious decision to behave in the same way. This is crucial for understanding why violent men often come from a violent home (7).

Personality is one of man’s most important assets. It shapes our experiences from birth and will do so as we get older. It impacts our accomplishments, expectations, health, options, and behavior. For example, someone with a terrific personality is affable, pleasant, nice to be around, easy to get along with. Someone with a terrible personality may be aloof, hostile, aggressive, unfriendly, dominating, difficult to get along with. Many forces and factors shape personality during childhood and young adulthood. After that, our personalities stay pretty much the same throughout our lives. A new study shows a correlation between personality traits observed in children (as young as first graders) and adult behavior. Does the child share? Is he or she aggressive or demure; sociable or shy? Christopher Nave says, “We remain recognizably the same person” (8).

I believe it is unwise to resign people to “fate,” especially through such a glib and simplified approach as above. Personality is complex and changeable in different situations and with different people. I find myself vacillating at times depending on the social setting. I might drop an f-bomb in certain circles, but it is not likely I will do so while in church or while interacting with fellow believers or church leaders. I was often told during active addiction that I was a “Jekyll and Hyde.” Take a moment to consider how we hold many traits. Try writing down as many adjectives as you can think to describe what you are really like. If you do not hold yourself in high regard, whatever the reason, your list may present a dark and unhappy personality. The opposite will be true if you think well of yourself. Our personality is a collage of feelings we’ve adapted over the years in response to our environment—forces and factors that shape who we are. Personality refers to enduring characteristics, but these may change over time in response to new and forceful stimuli and circumstances.

Personality and Religion

Religion teaches that individuals are responsible for their actions, and identifies bad behavior as transgression. Schnikter and Emmons believe religion is overlooked and marginalized in personality psychology, despite the fact that religion was of great interest to the founding theorists of the field. Schnikter, et al. write, “Because of the recent surge in empirical research on religion from a personological perspective this claim is no longer convincing. One of the hallmarks of personality psychology that distinguishes it from other fields is its focus on a comprehensive understanding of the person. Accordingly, personality psychology should have a distinctive relationship with the psychology of religion” (9). Because religion and spirituality are concerned with our transcendent self, Schnikter and Emmons believe personality psychology is a worthy study subject.

René Descartes viewed human personality as the product of an interaction between divine and primal forces. Jean-Paul Sartre theorized that personality traits are developed through the projects we choose in life, and because we can choose what we devote our lives to we can change our character traits. Webber writes, “An individual’s character is that person’s collection of character traits, and these can be defined as relatively stable dispositions to think, feel, and behave in certain ways in certain situations. Two traditional examples are bravery and cowardice, the dispositions to think, feel, and behave in a brave or cowardly manner in the face of real or apparent danger” (10). Consider, then, the generous man or woman. He or she frequently offers aid to neighbors, has several favorite non-profit organizations or charities, and tithes unselfishly at church. And there’s the alcoholic or drug addict who comes to know Jesus and experiences a radical change in character. He stops abusing alcohol or drugs and joins a church. Through his transformation, he begins to give generously to the church and volunteers his time for groups and programs. He passes the message of transformation along to newcomers.

When a person visits a psychologist or a psychiatrist, that person’s problems or concerns are being understood and addressed through the lens of the practitioner, also known as his or her theory of personality. Most psychological theories deny spirituality or downplay it at best. Secular counseling typically denies the spiritual dimension of humanity. Many of today’s personality theories have roots in the Enlightenment philosophy begun by Descartes. While these theories give us helpful insight and understanding, their philosophical foundations tend to be rationalistic, materialistic, and evolutionary in nature. Enlightenment theory lends itself to doubt and skepticism, limiting what they assign to a belief in God, a created world, and the concept of right versus wrong.

From a Christian perspective, Ladd (11) outlines three ways in which scholars have interpreted what can be called the anthropology of Paul:

Scholars of an older generation understood 1 Thessalonians 5:23—where Paul prays for the preservation of the spirit, soul, and body—to be a psychological statement and understood Paul in terms of trichotomy… spirit, soul, and body are three separable parts of man. Other scholars have seen a dichotomy of soul and body. Recent scholarship has recognized that such terms as body, soul, and spirit are not different, separable faculties of man but different ways of viewing the whole man.

Generally, psychology says man cannot change his personality. Christianity agrees in part. When an individual accepts the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and identifies with His death, burial, and resurrection, his or her character begins to change. Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul further tells us to put off our old self, which belongs to our former manner of life, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, putting on the new self (see Eph. 4:22-24). Henry speaks of this transformation: “By the new man, is meant the new nature, the new creature, directed by a new principle, even regenerating grace, enabling a man to lead a new life of righteousness and holiness” (12) (italics added). This is what Paul meant by “all things.”

Isaiah said we must forget “the former things” and instead “do a new thing” (see Isa. 43:18-19). We should walk in a manner worthy of our calling in Christ (see Eph. 4:1). Yet, we are not left to our own (human) devices. Paul provides us with the necessary spiritual guidance. In the Book of Romans, he presents perhaps the closest thing in the New Testament to systematic theology. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 present the core of Christian doctrine, and as such is one of my favorite sections of Scripture. Paul changes the focus of his teaching in Romans 12 from theological to practical. Now, we are instructed to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice,” which is considered reasonable (do this at the very least) given the cost of our redemption. Practically speaking, our service requires a reorientation of our thinking: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (see Rom. 12:2). Henry writes, “Conversion and sanctification are the renewing of the mind; a change, not of the substance, but of the qualities of the soul” (13).

Concluding Remarks

For millennia religion and psychology stood in staunch opposition. The early theorists of psychology, however, were theists and philosophers. They remarkably shared a similar quest to understand the whole man: body, mind, spirit. It is not surprising that this centuries-old search passed through stages such as determinism, empiricism, rationalism, good versus evil, and self identity. In order to grasp the existence and attributes of God, we must move from knowing about God to knowing God. This is how we come to grips with who we are in Him, and who we are without Him. In so doing, we are in a better position to accept His forgiveness, grace, mercy, and salvation. It is through accepting that we become “a new creature.” However, we do not loose our personality; nor are we magically rendered immune to “being human.” Instead, transformation begins in the heart (spiritual) and proceeds through the mind (renewal of thoughts). The “old us” that dies with Christ is our unregenerate sinful self. The “new us” is our regenerate self that rises with Him in righteousness. Through spiritual growth, we move from “spiritual” to “practical” change—newness of character. Transformation, regardless of its impetus, necessarily requires a belief (faith) in the potential for change, and must be followed by action steps (practical) that allow us to begin “walking the new walk.”


(1) Hergenhahn and Henley, An Introduction to the History of Psychology, 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Publishing, 2014), 97.
(2) E.F. Winter, Erasmus & Luther: Discourse on Free Will (New York, NY: Continuum, 2005), 97.
(3) Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 1.
(4) Ibid., 9.
(5) Ibid., 29.
(6) Duane P. Schultz and Sydney Ellen Schultz, Theories of Personality, 11th ed. (Boston, MA: Centage, 2017), 250-251.
(7) Schultz, Ibid., 343-350.
(8) Christopher Nave, “Personality Set For Life by First Grade,” Live Science (Aug. 6, 2010). URL:
(9) Sarah H. Schnikter and Robert A. Emmons, “Personality and Religion” in Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, O. P. John & R. W. Robins, ed. (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2021), 707–723.
(10) Jonathan Webber, “Sartre’s Theory of Character,” European Journal of Philosophy (2006), 94-116.
(11) George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1974.
(12) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1150.
(13) Henry, Ibid., 1087.

One Reply to “Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Five”

  1. some brilliant authors like Dallas Willard and Peter Scazzero (Sounds like you might be familiar with them already) are going back into earlier contemplative Christian Tradition to explore the importance of being transformed into Christ’s image through personal interaction with God. Many authors in that formation stream are also finding ways to unite psychology and Christian Mysticism to cultivate a more integrated way of living the Christian journey.
    Personally, I am very excited to see more of this in theological academia, and to see that flowing into our mainstream thought in church. Away from the more fundamentalist ways of viewing psychology and theology at odds with each other.
    I love that as an academic, you are also able to separate ‘knowing God’ from ‘knowing about God’.


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