Paul's Impact on Multiple Aspects of Psychology
by Sara Simms

  • Introduction
  • Gestalt Theory, Psychoanalytic Theory, Behavior Modeling
  • Backus: Telling The Truth
  • Paul and Self-Evaluation
  • Bibliography

  • Introduction back to top

    Among the names often credited as having been influential in the professional field of psychology, one usually hears of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, B.F Skinner, Abraham Maslow, and many others who have come up with their own theory about studying the self. But long before the days when psychology began moving towards becoming its own profession, there existed biblical ideas that remain extremely influential in the field today. The apostle Paul's teachings on the self may be seen in both the theories about and in the treatments of many disorders and psychological problems seen in both secular and Christian counseling centers every day. His influential writings on some of the many aspects of psychology are the focus of this discussion.

    Paul's teachings have been enormously influential on the psychological treatment of those dealing with guilt and suffering. A major part of therapy includes aiding the client in the restructuring of their self-image. Christian therapists use Paul's teachings to reach this goal, helping the client to see that "no one is any longer committed definitively to the flesh; the spirit dwells in every Christian. A positive self-image is thus maintained against the empirical reality of guilt and suffering" (Theissen, 397).


    Gestalt Theory, Psychoanalytic Theory, Behavior Modeling back to top

    One can see evidence of Pauline influence in Gestalt theory. In the terms put forth by Gestalt theory, restructuring one's life may be looked at as a change in ground and background. By examining the text of 1 Corinthian 2:6-16, author Gerd Theissen concludes that "What otherwise is the hardly perceived or denied background of the everyday life-world emerges in religious experience as decisive reality. Foolishness appears as wisdom, weakness as power, a defeat as victory" (Theissen, 392). As Paul teaches, for the Christian reality may now be regarded in a different light, meaning freedom for the individual.

    Paul's influence on Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, one of the first psychological theories ever formulated, and Carl Jung's analytic theory become evident by studying 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:6. The goal of psychoanalysis is to allow the client to tap into their unconscious, thereby accessing the memories stored there and bringing them into the conscious. The aforementioned section by Paul "itself suggests a view 'from within'." Theissen suggests that the veil discussed in 3:15 is representative of the boundary which separates the conscious from the unconscious, and Paul discusses how this veil may be eliminated in Christ. The author demonstrates this when he contrasts 2 Corinthians 3:13-15 ("the veil of Moses appears not only over the reading of the law but also over the hearts of the listeners") with 2 Corinthians 3:18 ("But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord" (Theissen, 143).

    Psychologists often teach their clients that their negative behavior can be reformed by choosing a behavior model. That is, the client will focus on the positive behavior exhibited by a certain individual, attempting to re-shape their own behavior by modeling this individual. Paul discusses this idea by teaching his followers to imitate him just as he in turn imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Various psychological themes such as Carl Jung's theory have emphasized the restructuring of "inner man." After studying 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 one can conclude, "Christ is the cause of a radical restructuring of the internal and external world" (Theissen, 386).


    Backus: Telling the Truth back to top

    Author William Backus, in his book entitled Telling the Truth to Troubled People, uses Philippians 4:11-13 to describe the Pauline influence on truth therapy ("the practice of counseling based on the Christian belief that the truth can make you free") (Backus, 23). As Paul taught throughout all of his writings, an important goal for Christians needs to be that they recognize what sins they struggle with, and thus an important goal for counselors is to aid others in experiencing freedom from their sins (Backus, 65). "The man or woman who would set others free must first experience freedom" (Backus, 68). One can see evidence of this in Paul's life through his conversion on the road to Damascus. In order to convey the truth of the gospel to others, he had to first experience the truth of the Messiah for himself. This idea is prominent in the field of psychology today. A counselor who knows nothing about the true reasons why many people suffer from eating disorders and insists that those who struggle with bingeing simply need to be placed on a diet will be of no use to the individual who comes to them for help (indeed, he will inflict more damage upon his client). In order to provide adequate help, the counselor must know the truth about what lies behind the many disorders plaguing society today.

    Oftentimes when a client takes the step of coming to a psychologist for help, that individual is seeking repentance. "Repentance means, literally, 'getting a new mind.'" This can only take place by the work of the Holy Spirit, who works by "renewing and changing your old sinful, angry, unforgiving mind, and replacing it with a new mind like the mind of Christ." Paul's writings in Philippians 2 provides an explanation of a new mind in Christ. One of the steps involved in repentance, according to Backus, comes directly from Paul's letter to the Romans in chapter six. In therapy, the Christian psychologist often teaches the client to "Believe and tell yourself that the sin habit or root within you has no further power over you. Visualize it being nailed to the cross with Jesus. Reckon yourself dead to it" (Backus, 83, 84).

    Pauline influences on the treatment of anger may also be studied. Not only does Paul teach us that self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and is something that then should be strived for, he provides advice on what to do when a person does experience anger at another by stating that it should be dealt with immediately as to avoid bitterness; "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil" (Ephesians 4:26,27; Backus, 157). Paul also influenced the treatment of persistent anger by discussing the principle of thought practice: "repeatedly thinking the new thoughts you desire to install in place of others" (Backus, 165). Paul discusses thought practice in Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

    A specific problem which Paul speaks to involves a common personality characteristic of those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Often these individuals will have an extremely difficult time in making decisions, and will pressure their psychologist or others to literally make up their mind for them. Because these individuals often feel that they must come up with the perfect solution to everything, they will go back and forth in their decision-making process. "The apostle Paul specifically rejected this wavering stance toward decisions as one that is not appropriate for Christians to hang onto" (Backus, 191,192). This rejection may be found in Paul's writings in 2 Corinthians 1:17-20, "When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, "Yes, yes" and "No, no"? But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not "Yes" and "No." For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and SilasB and Timothy, was not "Yes" and "No," but in him it has always been "Yes." For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God."

    Even those individuals whose hearts are closed to the word of God usually have a conscience, as Paul teaches in Romans 2:15. Sociopaths, however, seem to be absent of any conscience. As Backus states in his discussion on sociopathic personalities, sociopaths, if they manage to live until middle-age, often "settle down with a more conventional but burned-out pattern of behavior....these people seem to live by the maxim that Paul rejects in 1 Corinthians 15, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'" (Backus, 231).


    Paul and Self-Evaluation back to top

    An important concept that a therapist must remember while counseling others, is that he must realize what his own sinful desires are, instead of deceiving himself into thinking that he is somehow above having lustful thoughts because he is a Christian (Backus, 237). This idea originates from Paul's teachings in Romans 8:18: "I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing." "The idea of trusting one's own organismic responsiveness, later to be taken as a primary indicator of psychological full-functioning, was clearly anticipated by ancient Christian writers who spoke of the journey of the soul and self-acquaintance with one's own soul" (Oden, 139,139). Pauline influence on the treatment of sexual deviations may be seen in his writings on the "lusts of the flesh" in Galatians 5:17-20, and in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Empathy, as defined by Thomas C. Oden, is "a willingness to participate attentively and accurately with what another is experiencing here and now" (Oden, 138). Empathy is a necessary quality for a good psychologist to possess. Paul discusses empathy in Romans 12:15 when he states "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." Although resources on Pauline aspects in the field of psychology are few, there is no denying the apostle's tremendous influence upon the study of the self. This discussion has focused on only a few of the many ways in which Paul has influenced psychology in one form or another. Self-knowledge is related to the knowledge of God, for we were created in His image, thus Paul speaks on this matter abundantly.


    Bibliography back to top

    Works Cited

    • Backus, William. Telling the Truth to Troubled People. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985.
    • Oden, Thomas C. "The Historic Pastoral Care Tradition: A Resource for Christian Psychologists," Journal of Psychology and Theology, 20: 137-146, 1992.
    • Theissen, Gerd. Psychological aspects of Pauline Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

    Other Sources Discussing Pauline Influence on Psychology

    • Adams, Jay E. Competent to Counsel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970. -- In his book, Competent to Counsel , Jay Adams draws from the writings of the Apostle Paul and other Biblical references to help pastors, students, lay persons and Christian counselors develop an approach to Christian counseling.
    • Adams, Jay E. How to Help People Change. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986. -- How to Help People Change deals with the main goal for many people who are seeking counseling: changing undesirable behavior or thoughts. Readers are taught how scripture, including many of Paul's writings, can help people to attain this goal.
    • Adams, Jay E. Solving Marriage Problems: Biblical Solutions for Christian Counselors. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983. -- Solving Marriage Problems teaches pastors and counselors about how Paul and other biblical writers addressed and offered solutions to marital problems, one of the most common issues dealt with by psychologists today.
    • Allender, Dan B. The Wounded Heart. Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1995. -- The Wounded Heart by Dr. Dan Allender offers encouragement to victims of sexual abuse. Allender alludes to the teachings of the Apostle Paul to offer hope to the abused.
    • Crabb, Larry. Inside Out. Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1988. -- Larry Crabb asserts in his book Inside Out that Christians need to face their past pain and disappointments and allow God's word to meet them where they are. Crabb cites Paul's teachings throughout his book to support his position.
    • Moorehead, Bob. Counsel Yourself and Others From the Bible. Sisters: Multnomah Books, 1994. -- Counsel Yourself and Others From the Bible teaches readers to consult the Bible first when going through trials and tribulations. He points out that God's wisdom is often neglected, and includes many of Paul's teachings to illustrate how psychology and counseling can be applied to everyday life.
    • Sande, Ken. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991. -- The Peacemaker uses many of Paul's teachings and other biblical references to teach others about how to deal with conflict resolution, a common problem for which many people seek counsel today.