The role of Christianity within modern psychology 


Science and faith have always been warring ideas. The biblical explanation of human creation begins with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but according to science, humans evolved from apes. Christianity teaches heaven and hell, but science makes no room for these concepts. One of the greatest manifestations of these contradictory ideologies is psychology – the study of the human mind and behaviors.

This psychoanalytic science and Christian theology both involve the study of human mental processes and behaviors, which suggests that there are indeed many potential areas of dialogue. Christian psychology is a testament to that. This area of study merges theology and psychology into a single program. A Christian psychology degree from an institution such as Central Christian College of Kansas provides a connecting framework, explaining the human mind and behavior using the Bible as a reference point.

Why Christianity may have influenced modern psychology

Christianity has influenced psychological ideologies throughout history. Sigmund Freud is largely considered the founder of modern psychology, but his theories were influenced by previous works of Christian philosophers and theologians like Descartes and Kierkegaard. Christian beliefs that were difficult to comprehend were often the reason behind the findings and theories of philosophers. Controversies surrounding areas of psychology that were contradictory to Christian teachings were first recorded during the 17th century. During this time, such conflicting theories often attracted punishment.

Before the 18th century, there were no distinctions between physicians for physical and mental illnesses. Training received by healthcare providers combined Greek and Roman medical texts as well as contemporary scientific and humanities courses influenced by Christian theological teachings. The first mention of a distinct class of physicians catering to psychotherapy was in the 18th century, when secular views were being diffused in European and American settings. At this point, more groundbreaking ideas challenging the Catholic Church teachings were introduced. This is the period famously known as the Age of Enlightenment.

Although many scientific theories against religion were radical ideas, not all were rejected. By the 20th century, the secular approach to mental health had taken a foothold, leaving conservative Christian therapists disgruntled at teachings that they believed were hostile to all faiths and religious ideas. This would eventually lead to the formation of organizations like the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC).

Significant philosophers

Here are some of the early Christian scholars whose theories influenced modern psychology:

  • Juan Luis Vives (1493 – 1540)

Vives was a Spanish Christian scholar often referred to as the father of modern psychology. He was the first scholar whose works directly analyzed the human psyche, even before Sigmund Freud. He was admired by Saint Thomas More and Erasmus. Some of his most relevant theories include thoughts on the soul and insight into early medical practice, memory, learning, emotions and the body.

  • René Descartes (1596 – 1650)

Descartes was a Catholic philosopher and French scholar responsible for some of the controversial ideas against church teachings in the 17th century. He reinforced an Aristotelian concept that explained the idea of a soul and compared animals to machines that did not have a soul. While his beliefs did not expressly state that humans are soulless beings, it was cause for controversy since humans were thought to be similar to animals. Descartes has had a strong influence on modern philosophy and science.

  • John Locke (1632 – 1704)

Locke is considered the father of liberalism, and his theory of mind makes him one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. The English philosopher and physician was the first to define ‘self’ through a continuity of consciousness. His work involved seeking consistency and meaning and discussed how humans should respond to their desires, especially their own faith. According to his beliefs, ‘reason’ is “the last judge and guide in everything,” including religious matters.

  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716)

Leibniz was a Lutheran philosopher and one of the representatives of rationalism and idealism in the 17th century. Leibniz gave more credit to religious ideologies than his counterparts. The Lutheran professor believed that there are indeed religious beliefs that are irrefutable. As such, much of his philosophical ideas were not considered controversial to Christian-based beliefs in Europe. He was one of the first to analyze the distinction between conscious and unconscious states.

  • Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian and philosopher. His theological work focused on Christian ethics and the comparisons between objective proofs of Christianity and man’s subjective relationship with God. He contributed significantly to the field of psychology with his description of the nature of personhood, sin, anxiety, the unconscious, subjectivity, human development and spiritual development from a Christian perspective. Many consider Kierkegaard the father of therapeutic psychology and the real founder of psychoanalysis.

Christianity and psychology – Things they share in common

The church often denies clinical psychological theories, and psychologists undermine teachings and beliefs instilled by the Christian faith. It may be difficult to reconcile Christian beliefs to the tenants of psychology, but both agree that human actions are the product of inner processes. The ideologies diverge from here on out, but this common fundamental aspect indicates a connection between Christianity and psychology.

  • Both Christian theology and psychology recognize the complexity of the mind. They seek to understand and improve mental and emotional problems.
  • Both recognize the intrinsic value and worth of the human race – Christianity relates this to our likeness to God.
  • Both agree that human beings are innately relational. Community is an integral part of the church, while psychologists use the therapeutic relationship as a means of healing.
  • Both agree that human beings are rational with a capacity for good and an understanding of right and wrong. Both also recognize the inherent destructive physical and mental behaviors in humans.
  • Both psychology and theology aim to bring people from unconscious to conscious awareness in the process of healing orientation and growth (spiritual or therapeutic).

The similarities we’ve considered are taken on a broad spectrum. While both may work towards healing the mind through an underlying focus on what we are (meta psychic) and how we should be (ethic), they take opposite approaches. Psychology, which stems from the Greek word psyche, meaning ‘soul,’ completely ignores the spirit realm, which is the fulcrum of Christian teachings.

How psychology informs biblical narratives

Anti-psychology Christians and early psychologists like Freud would disagree, but psychology and spirituality aren’t necessarily withdrawn from each other. From this viewpoint, you could say that while theological views are on a psycho-spiritual plane, psychology is merely tied to the cognitive mind.

Psychological observations illuminate our understanding of human cognition and emotionality, and psychology provides us with tools to implement the Bible’s instructions.

For instance, Rom 6:11 says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Narrative therapy is a branch of therapy that suggests separating a person from their problem. It encourages relying on one’s own skills to solve problems. This is what Paul is saying in this verse, separating oneself from sin or telling a different story where a person is neither victim nor flawed.

In another illustration, 2 Cor. 10:5 says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Taking every thought captive cannot be taken in a literal sense. Instead, it can be interpreted to mean gaining awareness of these opinions of the mind. Cognitive therapy is a verbal therapy designed to help people manage problems by changing their thought and behavioral patterns. This treatment provides therapeutic tools to identify cognitive distortions and reevaluate them, counteract negative thought patterns and develop new coping strategies.

The onset of Christian psychology

Freud’s psychoanalysis clinical method is the basis of secular psychology. However, Christian psychology usually leans towards contributions from Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal and Kierkegaard.

However, Christian psychology is not removed from the modern field of psychological study. The goal isn’t to create something different but to contribute to the field from a biblical approach. The approach of Christian psychology is to look to the Bible to understand human nature, sin and salvation. It also focuses on the relationship between virtuous living and well-being. Some of the fundamental questions it asks are, how do virtues develop? How can we help those who lack them? How does life differ without them?

Becoming a Christian psychologist

Christian psychologists in the US receive the same training as other psychologists. To attain a license, it is necessary to have completed a degree in psychology at an accredited academic institution. Students can attend a secular university where the program is offered or a Christian university.

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum academic requirement to practice this profession, but students can pursue further coursework and get a master’s or doctorate. Most states require new psychologists to carry out one year of work under the supervision of another licensed professional. The license application process will also require graduates to pass an examination that tests their knowledge.

Professional roles for Christian psychologists

A degree in Christian psychology is an excellent program for Christian faithful with an interest in psychology or other areas of psychotherapy. Becoming a Christian psychologist opens doors for both faith-based and secular career opportunities. There are currently many career paths available, including:

  • Psychologist

The first and probably the most obvious career is becoming a psychologist. A Christian psychology program integrates religious morals and principles but fundamentally teaches the foundations of cognitive, emotional and social processes and behavior that are the basis of psychology.

Christian psychologists can work in churches, schools, hospitals, etc. The position requires observing individuals, diagnosing psychological, emotional or behavioral issues, proffering treatment options and following up on patients’ recovery.

  • Marriage and family therapist (MFT)

Marriage and family therapists are professionals in mental health. They are trained in psychotherapy and family systems and are licensed to diagnose and treat interpersonal issues that arise within the context of marriage, couples and family systems. These could be mental or psychological distress, but the treatment focuses not just on the person or persons being interviewed but on the set of relationships in which they exist.

MFTs work to improve communication and strengthen relationships and may provide premarital counseling, relationship counseling, child counseling and separation and divorce counseling, among others. Christian psychology professionals in this career path will generally approach counseling using faith-based values and references to Christian and biblical beliefs.

  • Social worker

Social work is one of the more selfless professions in the care industry, and Christian psychologists will find it compatible with their religious dispositions. Social workers promote social change, development and empowerment of people and communities. This is a practice-based profession that involves identifying issues people and communities face and offering solutions, therapy and expert advice to enhance well-being.

There are different areas of social work, and Christian psychology professionals can choose to work as clinical social workers in religious institutions. A social worker with a background in psychology and the relevant licensing can diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders.

  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselor

In this position, Christian psychologists can advise individuals suffering from drug and alcohol addiction or behavioral conditions like eating disorders. This role requires building trust with patients and offering judgment-free guidance.

Working in religious institutions and Christian rehab centers, these counselors can provide treatment for clergy members with some form of addictive behavior. They can offer immediate medical intervention for crisis issues and support for long-term addiction management and recovery.

  • School and career counselor and advisor

A school counselor is a professional who advises and assists students with educational guidance services. They provide crisis intervention for students and regularly confer with parents and teachers to discuss progress and resolve behavioral and academic issues. School counselors also identify cases of domestic abuse and proffer solutions.

As a career counselor, the goal is to help students and other individuals in choosing a path to employment. This often involves helping them develop skills, explore an occupation or choose an educational program that will lead to a career. These professionals also help laid-off workers transition into new job roles or careers. A Christian school counselor may focus on guiding students into faith-based careers.

Why study psychology at a Christian university?

As mentioned earlier, it’s possible to pursue your training in Christian psychology at a secular university. However, studying this program in a Christian institution has significantly more benefits. Some of these include:

  • Similar-minded environment

Psychological and scientific principles are often contradictory to Christian beliefs. This tension becomes significantly evident when studying at a secular university. On the contrary, a Christian college offers a different atmosphere. Most students and faculty members are likely to share similar religious beliefs. This comfort zone makes it easier to interact, connect and learn optimally.

  • Holistic learning

Christianity is holistic by nature, and since religion largely influences Christian colleges, they tend to provide holistic learning by addressing academic as well as emotional, social and ethical needs. This is sometimes integrated into the learning format. It can also be applied in the form of student counseling and other group activities with strict regulations on behavior as opposed to the leniency, sometimes nonchalance, of secular institutions.

  • Intimate learning environment

Christian colleges can provide holistic learning because they are relatively smaller. Classes have fewer students, so it’s easier for instructors to focus on individual students. This intimate environment allows greater student participation and allows room for inclusive discussions. While there are advantages to attending larger universities, there are also several benefits of studying at a smaller institution.

  • Career opportunities

Christian universities and colleges have similar training methods as secular institutions, but the difference is that religious schools tend to instill more robust moral values and ethics. These are essential traits that many employers look for.

A Christian university is an excellent place to network if you’re interested in pursuing a career in a Christian-based environment. Your academic achievements may earn you job offers from affiliated religious institutions even before you graduate.

  • Affordable tuition

Many religious organizations are non-profit, and even though Christian universities charge fees, they are often more affordable. These colleges also receive regular donations from wealthy individuals and businesses as a form of charity. It’s not uncommon for Christian schools to be affiliated with a church, from which operational funds can also be allocated. Tuition is one of the primary drawbacks of getting a higher education, so lower fees make these institutions accessible to more people.