In college, I double-majored in psychology and Christian studies. I learned very quickly from my psychology professors that some Christians—even highly educated academic theologians and pastors—harbor great distrust toward psychology in particular and the social sciences in general.
Thankfully, this was not the case within my university. The Bible and theology professors—at least those under whom I studied—generally were quite trusting and respectful of their colleagues’ expertise in the social sciences.
Sadly, this mutual trust and respect is not universal. For example, evangelical pastor John MacArthur has said psychology “is based on godless assumptions and evolutionary foundations. … Christian psychology is an attempt to harmonize two inherently contradictory systems of thought. Modern psychology and the Bible cannot be blended without serious compromise to or utter abandonment of the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency.”
This distrust is echoed by certain other evangelical leaders. Consider Albert Mohler, who famously purged the Carver School of Social Work from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1990s.
The sufficiency of Scripture?
Much of this skepticism toward the social sciences can be explained simply by remembering the difficult relationship between Christianity and mainstream science. The social sciences are the scientific study of human behavior. So, for Christians who harbor deep skepticism toward science in general, the social sciences are suspect by default.
One subject frequently appearing in these discussions is the “sufficiency of Scripture.” Many Christians consider Scripture sufficient in that it teaches us “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3 NASB). If Scripture gives us everything necessary for life and godliness, why would we need the social sciences? Note the above quote from John MacArthur, who flatly states modern psychology is a threat to “Scripture’s sufficiency.”
This is, however, an overly simplistic understanding of the Bible’s sufficiency. We must remember our cultural context in the United States of the 21st century is radically different than that of, for example, Galilee or Corinth in the first century. We must be able to bridge this cultural gap in order to interpret and apply the Scriptures faithfully for our modern context.
Bridging this gap requires careful study and understanding, not only of Scripture’s original contexts, but also of our own contemporary context. The social sciences are invaluable and indispensable for studying and understanding the culture and social dynamics of our contemporary world.
Some friends in undergrad were studying chemistry, biology and medicine, among other things. A few of them occasionally questioned my choice of major, asking if psychology could even be considered a “real science.”
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This is an understandable question, given that psychology and the rest of the social sciences are a relatively new academic field. But what many people do not realize is significant empirical research undergirds social science. While there are important differences between sociology and physics, for example, both are legitimate sciences.
A licensed counselor may not work in a lab, but the methods a counselor is trained to use are derived from legitimate scientific research of the brain, human behavior, etc.
Psychology isn’t just sitting on a couch and “talking about your feelings.” Just read some journal articles in psychology—or any social science—and you’ll see the proof.
Another criticism some Christians level against the social sciences is the claim they are “subversive.” That is, the social sciences open the door for people to compromise on or reject biblical truth. For example, advocates of so-called “biblical counseling” argue that mainstream psychology and mental health care downplay or deny the reality of sin.
It is true a person does not need to be a Christian to be a licensed counselor or psychologist. However, it is considered unethical for a mental health professional to impose his or her religious beliefs—Christian or otherwise—on a client. So, naturally, many counselors and psychologists do not ordinarily talk about sin.
However, there is an important flip side to this reality. First, licensed counselors are mandated to honor their clients’ religious beliefs. Just as a Christian counselor may not force Jesus on an agnostic client, an agnostic counselor cannot ignore or dismiss a Christian client’s Christian convictions. Second, many counselors are, in fact, confessing Christians.
True, there are some challenges when one of the parties involved is not a Christian. But this is true in every relationship, not just in the counselor-client relationship. We do not demand medical doctors, dentists or optometrists be Christians for us to trust them. Why hold social scientists to a different standard?
Competition or cooperation?
The social sciences and theology are not in competition with one another. Rather, they serve to inform and strengthen each other mutually.
The social sciences provide invaluable insights that help us interpret and apply Scripture more carefully. We should trust licensed mental health professionals just as we trust the medical doctors and nurses who care for our bodies. We should trust sociologists and criminologists just as we trust the engineers who design the cars we drive. The social scientist is the pastor’s and theologian’s friend.
Many local churches have members who are well-trained in the social sciences. Pastors would do well to consult these members and seek their expertise. Many pastors already do.
The same is true of theologians who work in higher education. Many of my undergraduate and seminary professors regularly collaborated with their colleagues in the social sciences.
Augustine of Hippo once said, “All truth is God’s truth.”
The knowledge we glean from psychology, sociology, criminology and many other fields of study is valuable and incredibly helpful “for life and godliness.” Christians should pursue such study with enthusiasm, just as we should with the study of Scripture and theology.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.