Psychology and Christian Theology

I WANT TO REVISIT a subject I’ve spoken about several times over the years. Can psychology and Christian theology be integrated into a meaningful, powerful, and comprehensive form of counseling. Mark R. McMinn, Ph.D., writes, “The healing motif woven throughout the narrative of human history reflects a common pattern to healing and health.”1 Psychology is one of several disciplines that seek to understand human behavior. Much of its roots are in philosophy. Remarkably, psychology is infused with theological beliefs about who we are in God’s universe. Christianity—more than religion or theology—is an encounter with Christ that redeems and restores lives. Yet, many people keep faith carefully segregated from the rest of their lives.

Although modern psychology is largely secular, Christian interest in psychology has exploded over the last several decades. Eric L. Johnson explains by writing, “…older psychology relied much more on the philosophical and theological reflections of Christian thinkers and ministers… this was genuine psychological work and it pervades the history of Christianity.”2 Johnson notes that after the New Testament era, the Bible and the intellectual contributions of the Greeks both helped establish early psychological theorizing among Christians for the next fourteen hundred years. For example, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) believed memory is the single most important aspect of the mind because it forms the very rubric of psychological functioning.

Martyn Shuttleworth believes Augustine had difficulty reconciling paradise and the eternal spiritual riches promised by God with the intense suffering he saw in Western Europe as the Roman Empire fell. The entire region was devistated by barbarian raids, war, famine, and widespread disease. Shuttleworth said, “…this provided the spark for [Augustine’s] interest in psychology as he tried to reconcile his new, Christian beliefs with the world around him.”3 In many ways, Augustine was the first philosopher to propose that humans had an ‘inner self,’ and that a healthy person had inner unity. Inner disunity caused malady. In this regard, dis-ease impacts the mind, body, and spirit. Augustine saw the human mind as the interface between God and earth, which he addressed in his treatise, Confessions. His desire to explicitly engage in working out the differences between Christian and pagan thought led to his comparing and contrasting the (temporal) city of man and the (eternal) city of God.

An Integration View

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries defines integration as “the act or process of combining two or more things so that they work together.” The origin of this word is from the early 17th century, from Latin integratio(n-), from the verb integrare, and from the noun integer, meaning “whole,” further influenced by the root of tangere, meaning “to touch.”4 This expresses the notion of “renewal, restoration to wholeness.” Because of the truth that man exists on three distinct yet interconnected levels (body, mind, and spirit), counseling is best served by “holistic” modalities. Counselors who support integration believe it brings a “value-added” contribution to their counseling practice and their Christian communities. I believe integration of scientific methodology, biblical revelation, biblical morality, and Christian theology is critical to addressing mental health and existential crises at hand.

To that end, for several decades students and professionals have been exploring the best approach for the integration of psychology and Christianity. Stanton L. Jones, in order to understand the relationship between these disciplines, believes we must hold the basic tenet that both fields seek to answer such formidable questions as origin, purpose, and destiny.5 As free moral agents with a capacity for reason and wonder, humans cannot ignore their quest for answers to these wonderments. Existentialism, one of the major schools of philosophical thought, attempts to understand several key elements: (i) anxiety and authenticity; (ii) freedom; (iii) situatedness; (iv) existence; (v) irrationality/absurdity; and (vi) crowd or society. Application of scientific method and liberal thought to the study of humans and their ills continued to fuel the secularization that pushed “religion” into the realm of private beliefs.

I find it useful to consider the integration of psychology and religion as a kind of cross-pollination. In biology, cross-pollination is when pollen from one plant variety fertilizes flowers of another variety, usually within the same species. In the same manner, psychology, theology, and philosophy can be considered “kindred” species or endeavors of human thought. Indeed, as I discussed above, early psychology relied on philosophical and theological reflections. The 5 Great Questions every civilization asks of itself—Where did we come from? Who are we? What is the purpose of our existence? How can we determine morality? Where are we going when we die?—are at the very heart of Existentialism. Unless we somewhat successfully answer these great questions, life becomes what Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) calls a tormenting contradiction borne out of “…a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”6

Grace-Based Counseling

Given that each one of us is a sojourner, on a life-long trek to understanding and enlightenment (small-e), it is paramount to always remember the plank in our own eye before pointing to the speck in the eye of another sojourner. Yes, it is admirable to want to help, advise, counsel, or mentor. No one is a stranger to suffering. It is also natural for us to focus (sometimes far too extensively) on the sorrows of others in order to distract ourselves from the pain that festers within us. If we are to understand the pathos of our lives, we must have an exemplar for comparison. How are supposed to live? Who among us can be the perfect example of grace and humility? Or, of spiritual and emotional maturity? Man’s heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who even begins to understand it?” (Jer. 17:9-10). John Calvin called the heart a manufacturer of idols. It is a place of hidden agendas. In fact, God knows whenever we spread out our hands to a strange god” (Psa. 44:20-21).

Eric Scalise, a senior vice president for Hope For the Heart and former department chair of counseling at Regent University, writes, “…grace is not new to people of faith [but] incorporating this critically important dynamic and essential ‘change agent’ into the therapeutic process is long past due.”7 It should come as no surprise that grace-based counseling begins with the counselor. In this regard, Fowler and Ford write, “If the counselor is not experiencing God’s grace in their daily life, he or she cannot be a conduit of God’s grace to the one who is hurting.”8 Grace is always undeserved. Regardless, it never cancels one’s personal responsibility or the consequences of sin. Paul was adamant about this. He wrote, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means” (Rom. 6:1-2). Grace is “God’s unlimited kindness toward his people regardless of what they might deserve.”9

A man or woman who wishes to summit Mount Everest would never think of hiring a sherpa who has never been to the mountaintop. Nor can a counselor who does not possess the proper orientation toward God’s grace be a guide for others who seek Him. It is no small coincidence that “grace” implies a proper orientation. It is characteristic of God to show us grace because of His omnibenevolence and mercy. He is good to send pastors and teachers and mentors and counselors into this sin-scarred world, mature in spirit and driven by grace to redeem and restore mankind to his Creator. God prepares the hearts of those He calls in order that they might move with “Christ-like” compassion and mercy in the counseling session. James N. Sells, Ph.D. writes, “…grace becomes the basis of counseling because of the work of Christ. That is where it starts.”10 We have been called to copy divine grace in human form.

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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references herein are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The NRSV, completed in 1989, follows a formal-equivalence principle that its translators identify with the words “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.” It is considered the best now available in English, especially for in-depth study (exegesis).


1 Mark R. McMinn, Ph.D., Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 40.
2 Eric L. Johnson, “A Brief History of Christians in Psychology,” in Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 11.
3 Martyn Shuttleworth, “Psychology in the Middle Ages,”, Oct. 9, 2011, retrieved Feb. 12, 2023,
4 Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, accessed Feb. 13, 2023,
5 Stanton L. Jones, “An Integration View,” in Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, Ibid., 101.
6 Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1989), 43.
7 Eric Scalise, in “Praise for Grace-Based Counseling: An Effective New Biblical Model,” inside cover (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishing), 2021.
8 Richard A. Fowler and Natalie Ford, Grace-Based Counseling, Ibid., 18.
9 K.L. Johnson, “Grace,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2017), 357.
10 James N. Sells, Ph.D., in the Forward to Grace-Based Counseling, Ibid., 10.

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