The Intellectual Context of Modern Psychology

All around us, voices are crying out from the ruins of a crumbling society. Victims are everywhere. Even in the churches, among second- and third-generation Christians as well as the newly saved, there are many suffering people. Distraught by broken relationships, unsettled emotions, or uncertain goals, they naturally seek professional counsel, and such counsel is easily found. Within reach are pastors, lay counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and others. Of these, who is best able to help?

It is a common misconception that a professional counselor, like a mechanic or doctor, diagnoses a specific problem and applies the single appropriate remedy. In truth, no two counselors are alike, and the advice they give may go in diametrically opposite directions. The remedy or program of treatment proposed by a professional will depend on his philosophical orientation. The only valid orientation, of course, is Biblical. But from any ground of truth there are many ways to go wrong. Thus, in counseling there are many invalid orientations, most of them linked to the various "isms" of psychology.

In the large context of intellectual history, psychology must be understood as one of several systems of thought springing from eighteenth-century rationalism and taking definite shape in the hands of nineteenth- and twentieth-century workmen, esteemed by the world as godlike geniuses. From such men as Marx, Darwin, and Freud have come elaborate theories that make up the modern world view. Conceived in hatred for God, each theory is a doubly useful device for attacking Biblical truth. First, each undermines key evidence of the true gospel, and, second, each shores up the promises of a counterfeit gospel that attempts to give meaning and direction to life. Darwinism, for example, explains away the wonder of creation and provides an evolutionary foundation for the gospel of human progress. Marxism explains away the institution of the church and urges political agitation and violence to spread the gospel of social equality. Psychology (including several "isms" besides Freudianism) explains away the spiritual dimensions of individual experience by tracing them to natural causes in the mind or in the environment and, by offering to liberate self from anxiety and similar burdens, promotes the gospel of personal happiness. So, in basic conception, psychology is connected to a wrong disbelief and a false faith.

Since there is some wisdom in the extensive literature of psychology, a counselor should not be shunned because he calls himself a psychologist or says he uses psychology. The test is whether he embraces falsehood. If his thinking is tainted by error, this will push its way into his advice and pronouncements. The source of error is usually one of the three dominant viewpoints in modern psychology.


Freudian, or psychoanalytic, theory has been abandoned by most psychologists today, but since a few of its concepts still linger in the background of much psychological thinking, Christians should be informed about their meaning and tendency. In essence, these concepts are an attempt to translate the inescapable truth about man into jargon acceptable to materialistic philosophy. For example, it is evident that man has a complex nature, which the Bible partitions into body, soul, and spirit. Rather than acknowledge the metaphysical parts of man, Freud regarded the mind as a product of the physical brain. In his model of the mind he assigned the mental functions of body, soul, and spirit to three structures within the brain called the id, ego, and superego. Obviously, he had one eye on the Biblical picture of tripartite man when he fashioned his own theory. Although this theory has fallen into disfavor, modern psychology agrees with Freud that all the subtleties of the mind are the mere sum of biological events. But it is most unreasonable to suppose that mindless proteins can be combined in such a way as to produce consciousness, rationality, and moral perception.

Another truth about man is that he is prone to many kinds of mental disorder. Freud explained these by locating the cause in family relationships during infancy or early childhood. But it is now widely understood that mental disorder usually arises from multiple factors, and the most critical factor may not be early experience, but rather later experience, organic dysfunction, or even heredity. Also, it is wrong to suppose that people are passive victims of circumstance. Rather, they are sinners who complicate their problems through deliberate wrongdoing.

A further truth about man is that he has a penchant for evil. According to Christian doctrine, the explanation is original sin. According to Freudian doctrine, immoral sex and violence are simply an outworking of natural instincts unchecked by realistic self-control. Among these instincts are some directed toward life and some directed toward death. Freud virtually equated the life instincts with sexuality, which he grotesquely portrayed as the engineer of all human love, even between parent and child. He supposed that the death forces express a natural tendency of life to destroy itself and achieve reunion with the primeval dust from which it evolved. The sinister hypothesis that life seeks its own death is not appealing to psychologists today, but Freud's view that sexuality is the hidden dynamic behind much ordinary behavior is still popular, and his further view that too much repression of erotic longings will produce neurotic unhappiness has become a leading rationale for sexual freedom. Many psychologists and nonpsychologists influenced by Freud have become advocates of unrestrained sexuality—the result, of course, being licentiousness.

From the perspective of actual psychological knowledge, it is quite absurd to say that all affiliative or loving behavior derives ultimately from sexuality. From a Christian perspective, it is clear that Freudianism is much too limited in its view of motivation. Desires arise independently from each part of man, who is a complex being comprising body, soul, and spirit. Besides sexual motives, the motives of the flesh are multifarious, including every kind of craving with a strong physiological component. When turned awry, they produce a long list of sinful works (Gal. 5:19-21). Yet the body is not the only part of man that carries the inherited stigma of the Fall. We infer from 1 John 2:16 that the body is inclined to carnality ("lust of the flesh"), the soul is subject to enchantment by the world of appearances ("lust of the eyes") and the spirit is prone to devilish grasping for equality with God ("pride of life").


The foundational assumption of behaviorism is that everything a man says and does is conditioned behavior. That is, his behavior seeks to maximize positive reinforcers (food, sex, feelings of self-worth) and to minimize negative reinforcers (pain, discomfort, feelings of self-worthlessness), and he relies on past experience when judging which course will likely lead to a desired outcome. So, a man's behavior is strictly determined by his needs and environment, for these together shape his past experience.

In viewing man's will as essentially helpless to function independently of internal and external forces, behaviorism is deterministic. It regards the mind as a biological mechanism operating in a predictable fashion under the control of measurable causes. So, behaviorism fails to understand that man is a free moral agent. He can transcend all pressures upon his will and act freely as he sees fit. He has a true power of choice because he was created in the image of God. Thus, through the exercise of his essential freedom, a man reared in the most debasing of circumstances can become good, and a man reared in the most ennobling of circumstances can become bad.

The worst effect of behaviorism has been to promote the idea that a man is not responsible for his actions. Today, as a result of indoctrination by psychology and sociology, people are willing to accept all manner of lame apologies for wrongdoing. A child becomes a delinquent, and the experts say that he is the victim of poverty or neglect. A man develops emotional problems, and a therapist tells him that his mother or his repressive religious training is at fault. Another man commits cold-blooded murder, and a jury finds him not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity. Blame-shifting has become one of the most ridiculous spectacles of our time.

The most extreme brand of behaviorism is championed by B. F. Skinner and his followers, a significant force in psychology. They say that all causes of a man's outward behavior lie in his environment and in his submental physiological drives. Therefore, to understand and predict his behavior, it is unnecessary to consider his inner thoughts. The mental life of man is of no scientific interest, in their opinion. They see man as no more than an animal, to be studied like an animal with no attention to his thought or language. Indeed, the Skinnerians go further and assert that people, like animals, should be trained to be of maximum utility to society. Skinner himself, in his curious utopian work entitled Walden Two, proposed subjecting the masses to conditioning procedures that would eliminate undesirable behaviors and foster desirable ones. Since his program could not be implemented except by unbridled state power, it is evident that he and his followers are apostles of a new kind of totalitarianism. Their simplistic ideas, reducing man to a mere beast that can be easily ruled by superior force, align them with the Beast who is yet to come.

The behavioristic form of psychotherapy is known as behavior modification. This seeks to treat human problems with methods similar to the conditioning procedures that readily modify the behavior of animals in a psychological laboratory. In the attempt to correct a difficult child, for example, a practitioner of behavior modification places him under a regimen of rewards for good behavior and punishments for bad behavior. Such methods, touted as the discovery of psychology, are really a twisted borrowing from age-old Biblical wisdom, which also recognizes the value of rewards and punishments. In Biblical childrearing, a parent applauds the child when he is good and chastens him when he is bad. Behavior has consequences. Yet these consequences occur in the setting of a loving relationship between parent and child, and they are accompanied by oral instruction (Eph. 5:4). In behavior modification, the patient is treated only as a physical organism to be manipulated by reinforcement that is essentially impersonal, although it may take the form of smiles and commendatory words. There is no attempt to deal with the patient's full humanity, encompassing a mind to be instructed, a soul to be loved, and a spirit to be renewed in the image of Christ.

In the absence of loving instruction, behavior modification has limited value. If the patient opposes the goal of therapy, he may be unmovable even if the methods are coercive to the degree of brainwashing. As a being who is partly spirit, man is not wholly manipulable by material rewards and punishments.

Yet rather than resist a therapeutic program with goals opposed to his own wants, a man is more likely to yield under the pressure of reinforcement so long as it is maintained. When it is removed, he will return to his old ways. An overeater paid for eating less may show restraint as long as he is receiving money, but he will probably return to gluttony as soon as self-restraint is no longer profitable. Reinforcement may achieve lasting results if the patient believes that he will always face the same outcomes (a condition that can rarely be met except with children and institutionalized adults). Then he may do adaptive soul-searching to find reasons to justify his compliance. He may gravitate from disliking the required behavior to the belief that it is really good and sensible. By maintaining a consistency between belief and action, he protects the integrity of self. Yet, someone who bows to the demands of reinforcement cannot necessarily be expected to console and justify himself with reasons that will sustain the same action after the reinforcement is removed. The only way to assure lasting results is through instruction, pointing out the advantages in socially acceptable behavior. Even better is instruction founded on a close relationship between therapist and patient, for such a relationship fosters like-mindedness.

Yet far better than behavior modification is Biblical counseling. Of the problems that come to therapists, most cannot be solved unless the patient himself assertively undertakes a course of right action. If, in the past, he has scorned or avoided such action, his problem is overlaid with sin, and repentance must be part of the remedy. In other words, the sinner himself must decide to change, to initiate and sustain the right action leading to victory over sin. Without repentance, no technique of counseling or therapy is likely to be of permanent help (Prov. 27:22). To achieve repentance, a counselor should use the Biblical tool of exhortation, which may of itself produce the desired result. But he will not necessarily shun behavioral modification as an adjunct to counseling. The techniques known as desensitization may sometimes be useful in diminishing anxiety, since they are basically an extension of the Biblical principle, "Encourage the fainthearted" (1 Thess. 5:14, NASB).


Carl Rogers is the leading figure in a school of psychotherapy committed to the humanistic tenets that man is inherently good and that he will evolve toward perfection when loosed from the anachronistic constraints imposed by present systems of authority. Rogerian therapy is called nondirective, or client-centered, because the counselor refrains from telling the patient what to do. Rather, he gives encouragement and head-nodding approval to the autonomous direction of the patient. That is, he allows the patient to puzzle out his own solutions. Presumably, the patient will heal himself. To a Christian viewing Rogerian therapy, it appears that many patients simply talk themselves into a lifestyle or life-changing decision that had been opposed by conscience. A good study of this therapeutic approach is Paul C. Vitz's, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship.

Marks of Untrustworthy Counsel

A psychologist cannot be evaluated just by asking whether he takes one of the viewpoints we have described. Most psychologists are pragmatic and eclectic, suiting their ideas to the occasion and drawing them from any convenient source with little regard for systematic coherence. Yet if a psychologist is not thoroughly Biblical, he undoubtedly subscribes to the false world view that is fundamental to modern psychology. In some degree, he discounts the supernatural and favors liberated self-fulfillment. His bent thinking will bear fruit in the following ways.

  1. Failure to acknowledge Satan and his angels. Few psychologically oriented counselors recognize the workings of evil spirits. Just because they can see some of the causes of emotional disturbance, they think that they can see all of them. But demonic activity is also a significant cause in some cases, especially if the victim has been involved in a form of occult worship. There have been many well-documented cases of actual demon possession (see John L. Nevius, Demon Possession). Yet the form of demonic activity that a counselor normally encounters is not outright possession, but quiet influence. Satan and his hosts are masters at manipulating people through whisperings and mind games.
  2. Failure to exalt the power of God. There is a tendency even among Christian counselors to regard prayer and Scriptural exhortation as nice but irrelevant. Yet, emotional problems are tremendously complex and resistant to solution. It is well known in psychology that the curative power of the various talking psychotherapies is questionable. Any success they can claim is not achieved through application of special psychological knowledge; that is, knowledge beyond the reach of common sense (see Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Psychotherapy, and E. Fuller Torrey, The Death of Psychiatry). Rather, it is achieved through the patient's faith in the competence of the therapist and through the therapist's skill in affirming values conducive to less mental anguish in the patient. As we will show, a secular therapist ordinarily subdues anguish (at least temporarily) with the help of values contrary to Scripture. Thus, the last state of anyone he treats is likely to be worse than before. The only counselor who can offer real hope to a troubled person is one who draws upon the wisdom and power of God. When evaluating a counselor, a prospective counselee should find out whether he is a man of prayer, whether he leans upon the Word of God, and whether he points to God as the only source of true healing. If he is God's man, he will faithfully testify to the illimitable grace available through the Holy Spirit.
  3. Openness to excuses. A psychotherapist regards guilt as a psychic encumbrance to be eliminated. If the sin behind guilt does obvious, unjustifiable harm, his strategy will be to shift blame from the offender to someone or something else (mother, society, etc.). He will encourage the offender to avoid a guilt trip by perceiving himself as a victim, and he will give a sympathetic ear to all manner of excuses. So any counselor who offers unconditional acceptance of self-justification should be avoided.
  4. Indifference to sin. If the harmful effects of sin are not obvious, psychological faith requires that it be redefined as non-sin. Lusts, resentful attitudes, lapses in religious duties, and other failures in the realm of personal holiness are the easiest for a psychologist to paint as morally neutral, for the world joins him in regarding excellence in this realm as somewhat fanatical.
  5. Applause for the expression of negative feelings. Rather than deal with resentful attitudes as sin, a psychologist may smooth the way for their expression. He may say that it is OK to noise anger and other negative feelings. He may even encourage their expression. His approval of evil speaking is part of his general policy of encouraging the self to throw off restraints.
  6. Belittlement of achievement. If the client's problem is that he feels like a failure in some sense, one solution is to raise his performance to the level required for success. But becoming a success is not always easy. Therefore, the psychologist may encourage him to deny failure and redefine success as any outcome pleasing to self. He may tell the client that if performance standards set by parents, school, career and conventional role pictures (housewife, breadwinner, etc.) are unattainable or displeasing to self, he should cast them aside. Living for self is a key tenet of psychological faith, implicitly affirmed whenever a psychologist minimizes the importance of achievement or questions someone's obligation to an external standard. Of course, as Christians we are primarily accountable not to human standards, whether imposed by others or chosen by self, but rather to the standards revealed in God's Word.
  7. Support for rebellion. A psychologist dedicated to liberation will allow clients to murmur and rebel against authority. When addressing authority figures such as parents and teachers, he will advise them against being a strong controlling force in the lives of their children. With the weapon of his own degree-studded expertise, he will slash away at punitive discipline, jab and thrust at the aggressive imposition of parental values and beliefs upon young children, and cut down continuing parental direction of older children. All these forms of parenting can be overdone, of course, but they are not to be abandoned in favor of permissive incompetence.
  8. A preference for escapist solutions. If self is sovereign, there is no reason for it to remain in bondage to unhappy commitments. In dealing with a client dissatisfied with his marriage, job, or lifestyle, a psychologist may therefore give him the green light to break away and explore alternatives. The number of divorces openly or tacitly authorized by a psychologist must be huge. Among psychologists themselves, the divorce rate is staggering. Yet to sever commitments and to defy morality carries the risk of guilt. Blatant disregard for sound values must somehow be justified. Today, glib rationales for callous misconduct are offered by the various "rights" or "liberation" movements: women's rights, gay rights, sexual liberation, etc. In essence, these counsel the self that its own preservation, pleasure, and advancement rank above all other objectives. These urge the self to trample down as unjust any inconvenient restrictions whether from common decencies, social ties, or limited opportunities. So instead of remaining content in a first marriage or persevering in one's natural station, as Scripture recommends (1 Cor. 7:20), the self runs through one episode of escape after another in search of elusive fulfillment.
  9. A hedonistic philosophy of life. The final push of psychological ideas reaches a philosophy of life that exalts pleasure in the present moment. Living for self becomes living for the sake of fleeting gratifications. Even if a psychologically oriented counselor does not promote a thoroughgoing hedonism, he is nevertheless prone to offer greater ease as the proper solution for many problems. He says, "Relax. Take time to smell the flowers. Enjoy yourself." The push of Scripture is exactly the opposite. The Preacher says, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest" (Eccles. 9:10). We will soon die, and then work for Christ will no longer be possible. In the context of describing his own strenuous labors, Paul urges us not to grow weary of well-doing (2 Thess. 3:8-13). We are soldiers who must avoid civilian affairs (2 Tim. 2:4). Indeed, like athletes, we enslave our bodies, driving them to their utmost limit (1 Cor. 9:24-27). We sometimes step aside for rest, but whether by building or expending strength we aim always for the single objective of winning the battle and finishing the race.

When a runner on the life course has lost direction, he should stop and ask advice from people who know the way. "Without counsel purposes are disappointed; but in the multitude of counsellors they are established" (Prov. 15:22). But the man overcome by uncertainty will be worse off than before if he accepts advice that is incompetent and misleading. According to James 3:15, there is a wisdom that "descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish." What he needs is the very wisdom of God. But near at hand, in the costume of truth, stands the wisdom of the world. He must have a clear eye who would rightly choose between them.