In our modern, individualized, psychologized world in America and the larger West, we have a distinct predilection to think about knowledge about or social, relational, and personal realities in terms of psychological laws. Are you depressed? Then a) get medication, b) see a counselor/therapist, and c) do certain activities and you will treat your depression. Or are you angry? Then you need to deal with some inner issues that provoke such an anger. This psychological understand of social, relational, and personal realities is in part a testament to the success of science when it comes to the study of individual people. It has produced many remarkable insights into the human condition, to treat many ailments and struggles that had previously been untreatable and left explaining to some invisible or uncontrollable forces, such as demons. There are reasons that modern psychology has gathered influence: it has had a greater explanatory power to enable people to address specific conditions that our past understandings about social, relational, and personal realities were unable to understand and address. AS a result of the success, psychological understandings permeate our culture, influence our we interpret everything when it involves people, including the Bible.
But greater explanatory power doesn’t mean infallible or exhaustive. For instance, there has been in recent years the crisis of replication in psychology, where many of the experimental findings that served as the bedrock for important psychological theories and insights have not been able to be reproduced with similar results. Many of the insights from psychology are not as sure or valid as we might be tempted to think.
Furthermore, there is a certain oversimplification that exists with popular and folk views of psychology that influences our hermeneutics of daily life that is less prevalent in more academic and scientific forms of psychology; there is a bias to think everything we observe under a certain label, such as all types of depression, experiences of anger, etc. are all caused by the same factors. This leads to an oversimplification about everything we observe in life, as if there are some simple, clear, iron-clad laws that explains everything we see and observe. But this is not the case. In the philosophy of mind, there is a phenomenon of multiple realizability, which is used to explain that for every mental state, there are many different physical states that can cause that mental state. I would apply this concept similarly to our explanation of social, relational, and personal realities: there are many different possible causes for every observation we make about people. For instance, one person’s anger may be due to victimization as a child, another’s due to personality disorders without any clear victimization, and another due to difficult circumstances they are facing. You can not simply assume any single explanation for any single fact or observation about people.
As a consequence of the crisis of replication and the multiple realizability of psychological facts, our culture’s hermeneutical style of interpreting the world, including the Bible and even God, through the lens of psychology leaves us in risk of making many deep errors in interpretation. While I have my own intuitions about how this (oversimplified) psychological hermeneutic can negatively impact our understanding of other areas of life if we are not careful, I will address the Bible specifically.
The psychological hermeneutic operates under a few basic assumptions: 1) we can have simple, laws about people that are true all of the time and 2) having the right understanding allows us to control our experiences so that we get the results we want. In other words, psychological hermeneutics have a tendency towards assumptions of control and comprehension. As a consequence, preachers and teachers of the Bible will commonly pull out some set of principles or ideas that will make your life better if you just conform your life to them. The assumption is that the Bible conveys knowledge that gives us clear comprehension and control over our own lives. These two assumptions are undergirded by a third assumption, that the Bible is about either a) human experience or b) or myself. And so, we have a tendency to read the Bible to make sense of the human person’s in the narratives to make sense of them. Furthermore, the more we treat the Bible as something pertaining to my own experience, we have a predilection to identify with certain person’s in the Bible, as if their experiences speaks directly to my own experience. So the modern psychological hermeneutic of the Bible conforms our interpretations of the Bible to provide “knowledge” that provides clear comprehension and effective control for myself and other people.
But what if the Bible is principally about God, who is “holy, holy, holy” and thus can not be understood as thinking, feeling, willing, and acting in the ways that we are inclined to think, feel, will, and act? And what if, because of God’s utter holiness, the Bible isn’t about giving us a set of principles to give us perfect comprehension of the dynamics of our own psychology and spiritual lives, but rather provide testimony to the sparks of revelatory insight into the otherwise unfathomable will of God, including most notably in Jesus Christ? What if the Bible isn’t about telling us how to control our lives to be a good Christian, but rather in teaching us how to let our lives come to be formed into the image of the holy God who is at work in us through His Holy Spirit?
Now, to clarify, if these the answer to all these questions is yes, it doens’t entail that abolition of understanding, the absolute rejection of any sense of control, or even that the Bible has nothing to say about human experience. The Bible isn’t about the negation of human will and power. We as humans are not abolished in the Biblical narrative. Rather, it is simply to state that our clear understanding, direct control, and immediate human experience isn’t the focus on the Bible; they are minor issues that place a part of a larger, narrative that is majorly concerned about God’s redemption of the world through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. While we in our social, relational, and psychology experiences aren’t abolished in the Bible, that does mean the Bible is a textbook about my own experience or human experience in general; it doesn’t provide a set of laws and rules that will get us to our desired futures.
For many years, I struggled with the relationship between Scripture and psychology. I saw Scripture get twisted into psychological narratives of human experience, with people thinking they had some clear rubric of understanding about the experience of themselves and others because they connected to Scripture, or to theology. I also saw psychological insights get malformed and misused in the name of the Bible. Then I saw how the reverse of how people treated SCriptures and psychology as mutually exclusive and often times in antagonistic manners: either psychology has explained away what the Scriptures speak about in some form of modern, scientific triumphalism of religion or psychology will lead you astray from the pure truth of the Scriptures in some hostile view of anything that isn’t explicitly and solely derived from Scripture.
But if we see the principal concerns of Scripture and psychology as neither directly addressing the same thing but neither being mutually exclusive in either terms of being contradictory nor of opposing moral values, the relationship between Scripture and psychology can suggest the following: they give different answers to different questions and these answers take on different forms.
The primary questions Scripture answers is about the nature of God’s will, purpose, and character: What is God doing? What are God’s purposes? How is God accomplish His purposes? The answers to these questions pertain about a God who is by default a mystery unless He makes Himself known. As a consequence, we never know God in a confident way, nor do we have direct control over God’s ways, wills, or the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Thus, our knowledge of God is not about our control of God or our relationship with God, nor does it provide clear, lawlike knowledge about how God’s will works; nor does it provide an exhaustive understanding of human experience and how we pursue our goals, including psychological knowledge. Insofar as it does address our experiences as human beings, as people together in a corporate body, or individual persons, the different books of the Bible are not concerned with drawing a systematic understanding of ourselves that is either clear or useful for control.
Psychology address different questions and purposes, such as the cause-effect relationships that explain our thoughts, feelings, desires, and behaviors or the ways we can change our action to accomplish our desires for goals. Because of the absolute complexity of psychological reality and the limitations of scientific and folk understanding, we will never reach a reliable and yet simply understanding of persons. But it can provide some demystifying insights into ourselves and it can provide us understanding in how to effectively control the realization of our goals. However, our experiences, goals, and control to direct our experiences and realize these goals are not the primary purview of Scriptures. Therefore, insofar as we try to read the Bible through the common psychological hermeneutic we employ in the West, we will be lead astray in both understanding the primary content of the Scriptures and the form of this content as it pertains to issues clarity and control will be inappropriate.
In other words, the Bible is not a textbook on psychology. It isn’t a how-to guidebook of your spiritual experiences. We can try to use it that way, but much as when the Jewish religious leaders tried to read the Scriptures for something they could possess and control in the form of eternal life as Jesus mentioned in a critical tone in John 5:39, we will be amiss as to what, or actually Who, the Scriptures primarily testify to.
The best analogy I can think of is how we engage people in relationship and conversation: when we talk to others, are we focused principally on what we think, feel, and want from the other and want it immediately, or are we deeply engaged in wanting to understand the other, which can be a difficult task, fraught with the occasional misunderstandings and confusion, and can not truly be accomplished unless we are willing to let other be different from what we immediately want them to be. The former objectifies the objects of our understanding into what we are familiar with, the latter subjectifies them, drawing us out from our zones of familiar expectations into the realm of the novel, unique, and even potentially mysterious. The modern psychological hermeneutic has a distinct tendency to do the former, including when reading the Scriptures, and thus leading us to objectify others and even God, making them subservient to our own desires and whims, unconcerned about what God or others think our what we want or think about things that we ourselves are not even concerned about.