Five Paths to Reconcile Christianity and Psychology

Five Paths to Reconcile Christianity and Psychology May 15, 2023

Credit: Joel Furches

In a previous article, I explained the long history of conflict that had existed between psychology and religion. Around the turn of the century, research emerged which suggested that one’s religion may well have mental health benefits for the religious person, and it became common practice in therapy to encourage religious involvement if the person was part of a religious community.

This concession to religion appears to have been a temporary affair, as in recent years a great deal of study and emphasis has been given to “religious trauma syndrome,” leading to a reversal of attitudes in therapy, suggesting that religion is, on balance, bad for mental health. This, however, will be the topic of another article. For now I am going to examine five different views which have been developed by psychologists who are, themselves, Christian describing how they integrate their religious beliefs with their psychological practice.

In his book Psychology & Christianity Five Views (2010), editor Eric L. Johnson has collected a series of essays outlining five possible approaches which would allow a Christian to remain true to his or her religious beliefs while practicing psychological research and/or therapy. This article is intended to summarize those views and provide an analysis thereof.

Levels of Explanation View

An interesting concept shared by both psychology and physics is the concept of a “field.” In physics, the “field” represents the various fundamental forces, states of matter, and basic building blocks of the material universe, each of which is said to represent its own “field” (Sutton, 2020). Similarly, in psychology, a “field” represents a layer of influence the composite of which represents the “life space” through which a person moves (Britannica, 2016).

The “Levels of Explanation” (LOE) view represents a similar philosophy. Under LOE, each area of rational inquiry ought to operate within its own space without deference to the other fields except insofar as one would need to draw from another field as part of the research (for instance, psychology might borrow from neurology or anthropology in order to conduct specific research).

As it relates to the correlation of psychology and Christianity, the LOE view suggests that one does not impose the Bible upon psychology, nor psychology upon the Bible in terms of research or practice. A scientist who operates under LOE will go to church on Sunday and teach a class in which he or she affirms that humans are tainted by sin and in need of redemption through Christ, then return to the laboratory on Monday and observe that one might be able to eliminate a child’s aggression through a regimen of extinction and reinforcement.

LOE does not see any of these “fields” to be in conflict. In his essay on LOE, Myers states that, “In God’s world, all truth is one” (Johnson, 2010, p. 46). Presumably, much like Field Theory, once each of the Levels of Explanation have been mapped out independently, one could overlay them and the result would be a comprehensive map of reality – as ultimately orchestrated and governed by a Creator God. However, a proponent of LOE would be skeptical that any one of these levels would benefit if the study thereof was governed by the ideals of a different level. Problems such as confirmation bias and belief perseverance would arise if one imposes one’s values on research before the research is even conducted (Johnson, 2010, 49).

The contributor for Levels of Explanation (Myers) states that “Disciplined, rigorous inquiry – checking our theories against reality – is part of what it means to love God with our minds.” (Johnson, 2010, p. 47). Myers states that one must check reality against presuppositions, and modify presuppositions accordingly.

Integration View

In his chapter on Integration, Jones begins by suggesting that the universal framework under which all fields of inquiry (and psychology in particular) ought to be considered are the questions of where do we (humans) come from, why are we here, and where are we going (Johnson, 2010, p. 97).

In this respect, the Integration view pursues a universal understanding. Meaning that psychology is just one field of inquiry in many, the ultimate correlation of which is to establish the truth of reality as guided by the light of scripture. (Johnson, 2010, p. 31)

The Integration View of psychology takes it as a given that human beings are a special creation of God, a relationship described and expounded upon in scripture (Genesis 1:27). However, Integration also sees the study of psychology as helpful and enlightening as regards how humans think and behave, given that the Bible does not provide a comprehensive study of human thought and behavior, especially as such thought and behavior changes and responds to the advances and changes that time and culture brings.

An integrationist sees value in the study of psychology, but that such studies ought to be guided and applied in terms of Biblical principles. The Bible, for instance, establishes clear boundaries which govern human morality and right thought. One may use such boundaries and standards in order to form a spectrum of behaviors which reflect healthy and unhealthy thought. Since the goal of the practice of psychology is to employ the research in such a way as to improve human thought and behavior, then under the guiding principles of scripture, one ought to be able to recognize those types of behaviors which represent optimal human development versus those which represent sub-optimal development.

The Integration View takes as a given that the Bible serves as the solid foundation of metaphysical truth after which all other pursuits ought to be framed. In this respect, the Integration approach is ultimately trusting of scripture. As such, this view maintains a skepticism toward conclusions drawn from psychology which do not comport with scriptural views, and attempts to frame those data in terms compatible with scripture.

The Integration view seeks to take the truths found in scripture and the data found in psychology and bring them together for a whole picture of the human person as a behaving being on the one hand, and a special creation of God on the other. As a result, the sources of knowledge include both the study of scripture and the science of psychology with the one being used to guide the other. (Johnson, 2010, p. 31)

The Christian Psychology View

Like the integrationist view, the Christian Psychology View places high value on scripture and Christian principles. But unlike the Integrationist view, the Christian Psychology view asserts that psychology ought to be a field maintained and expanded by Christians specifically.

A variety of organizations – including private research organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research and its alternative, Biologos, and also Christian Universities – have been established which conduct research done by Christians within a Christian organization and published in Christian publications. Given that the research produced by these efforts are operated exclusively in the Christian context, the Christian Psychology View proposes that these must be taken as the alternative to secular research.

This view maintains an attitude of suspicion toward non-Christian research. Among the arguments for this approach is the evident manner in which publications, institutions, and government organizations tend to be selective in the research they endorse, presumably because of public pressure to advance certain ideals or causes. The Christian Psychology approach points out that bias exists within research of any kind, and that research properly done would be done under the umbrella of the truth as understood from the Bible.

With Christians operating the research, specifically Christian values may be addressed – such as family and Christian education – values which would otherwise go under-addressed outside of Christian Psychology.

Transformational Psychology View

The Transformational View shares in common some principles with the Integration view, insofar as it suggests that psychological research ought to be reconciled with Christian principles and understandings. However, the Transformational View argues that human beings ought to be understood as spiritual beings, and that the purpose of counseling, therapy, and psychological treatment ought to be to minister to and maintain the health of the human soul.

In their chapter on Transformational Psychology, Coe and Hall say “[this approach] takes the spiritual-emotional transformation of psychology as the foundation [for this approach].” (Johnson, 2010, p. 190). They go on to say that the understanding and methodology gathered from psychology is applied in such a way as of doing psychology “in the Spirit,” indicating that a general theology is used as the guiding principle of this approach.

The primary allegiance of Transformational Psychology is scripture, and specifically scripture applied to the spiritual needs of humans. Since academic psychology rarely approaches human beings as spiritual creatures, Transformational Psychology draws its views of humans and their fundamental nature from scripture.


Biblical Counseling View

The primary thesis of the Biblical Counseling View is that problems faced by human beings are the result of sin, and that the solutions to those problems come from obtaining and maintaining a relationship with God through Christ. Consequently, this view proposes that one must draw one’s understanding of human nature not from psychological research, but rather from scripture. In his essay on Biblical Counseling in Psychology & Christianity Five Views, Powlison quotes Augustine in saying “Believe that you may understand.” (Johnson, 2010, p. 234) Powlison then goes on to state that to disbelieve is to forfeit any benefit Biblical Counseling might otherwise offer, and that pastors should be the ones in charge of counseling (Johnson, 2010, p. 29).

Powlison begins his segment by stating that “Christian faith is psychology.” (Johnson, 2010, p 233). With this understanding in mind, it is the goal of psychology to create a right mind and a right understanding within the individual by bringing the person to a place of repentance and trust in Christ. Powlison states, “God reveals a distinct image of human flourishing toward which counseling aspires” (Johnson, 2010, p. 233)




It seems to me that psychology as a field consists of three parts: data gathering, data interpretation, and data application. The gathering and interpretation reside in the field of research, and the application resides in the area of the clinic, the counselor, and the therapist.

In this respect, I would suggest a synthesis of these views. To illustrate this, I would like to cite a 2005 study conducted by Robert A. Emmons and Teresa T. Kneezel of the University of California (Emmons, & McCullough, 2003). The summary of the study is this: 199 people with neuromuscular diseases were tested to rate their spirituality. They were then tested to rate their levels of gratitude. The result of the study was that the correlation between spirituality and gratitude are statistically significant.

These are the raw data speaking of a correlation between two self-reported features. Before drawing any conclusions, one must do one’s due diligence and determine if the correlation could be a result of some third factor, or if there is potentially some causal relationship between the two.

One need not import any spiritual, religious, or biblical views onto the methodology of the study. These results are very suggestive, but if done under the umbrella of a Christian organization and published exclusively in a Christian journal, the study may not have the influence one might hope within the larger academic world.

The reasonable application of these data would be to approach religious individuals with the knowledge that their spiritual practices might have some mental health benefits. At the very least to not discourage these practices, and perhaps go so far as encouraging them.

In terms of methodology for data gathering, it seems reasonable to practice under the Levels of Explanation view. The reason for this is that the raw data upon which one can report is gathered in such a manner as to reduce objections from the academic community. This demonstrates some scientific integrity to allow science to be the open and self-correcting institution it ought to be.

However, when it comes to the data interpretation, it seems best to approach this from an Integrationist view. With the knowledge that the data were gathered in the most unbiased and intellectually honest method possible, those data may now be considered in the context of a universe governed by a rational mind which imparts value to human life, and weight to human actions. It seems not unreasonable to examine religious beliefs and behavior in light of what we know about belief and behavior from research, and alternatively, to identify any sort of values which might have been imported on the methodology of that research that might insert views contrary to what we know to be true of the world by way of science.



Johnson, E. L. (2010). Psychology & Christianity Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.


Sutton, C. (2020, February 28). Unified field theoryEncyclopedia Britannica.


Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2016, May 3). Field theoryEncyclopedia Britannica.


Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.

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