Winter  2001
Volume 5 Number 2

by Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger

How to relate the normative claims of theology and faith to the truths of other disciplines is a difficult question that faces pastor and professor alike. In their preaching and teaching, and perhaps especially in their counseling, pastors are constantly faced with the question of whether to adopt or to challenge certain prevailing cultural attitudes. In theDeborah van Deusen Hunsinger therapeutic culture in which we live, pastors find that, for many in their congregations, the distinctively theological perceptions of our Reformed heritage have been greatly eclipsed. Shuttling back and forth from one assumptive world to the other can be disorienting. Historic teachings of the church are often challenged in light of contemporary understandings of what is psychologically helpful. “Doesn’t a Christian concept of sin teach our children to be ashamed of themselves? Doesn’t it actually lower self-esteem?” Or, “Would a Christian understanding of self-sacrifice inevitably lead women toward masochism and even abuse? Isn’t it psychologically unhealthy (especially for women in our culture) to accord any redemptive power to suffering undertaken freely for the sake of another?” Or, “Shouldn’t we undertake a discipline of prayer for the sake of its psychological and physiological benefits?” In each case, distinctively theological concepts are juxtaposed with an assumptive world shaped by perceptions of what is commonly considered psychologically healthy in our culture. 

In the academic disciplines of the seminary, each department has its own approach to how theology might be related to various auxiliary fields of inquiry. In the field of pastoral theology, the essential interdisciplinary question becomes, “How are we to relate distinctively theological claims to those of psychology?” Since the field’s very identity is interdisciplinary, the question of how its core disciplines (theology and psychology) are related to each other becomes central. Charles Gerkin, a contemporary pastoral theologian, considers it the “root question” facing the pastoral counseling movement. He asks, “How can pastoral counseling be at the same time an authentically theological and a scientifically psychological discipline?”1 It is a question that baffled me enough to propel me into doctoral study in order to answer it to my own satisfaction. My book Theology and Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach (Eerdmans, 1995) is the fruit of my reflection on the question. 

In my academic and clinical training to become a pastoral counselor (which I practiced for nearly fifteen years), I was taught a variety of psychotherapeutic approaches to human distress. I studied Freud and Jung, Rogers and Maslow, Erikson, Winnicott, and Klein, family systems and group process, but nowhere was I given guidance into how these conceptual schemes might be related to a theological framework. During M. Div. study, I had been especially influenced by the theology of Karl Barth. Barth’s theology, to say the least, could not be neatly fit into a psychological frame of reference. His rejection of liberal theology as reductive, his understanding of revelation as the only legitimate point of departure for theological inquiry, and his insistence on the Reformation principle of sola scriptura as the necessary and sufficient source and norm for genuine knowledge of God called into question any hermeneutical circle that would begin and end with human experience. Following Feuerbach, Barth had convinced me that theologies based on human experience are nothing but disguised anthropology. Barth writes: 

It could so easily be an empty movement of thought, that is to say, if, in the movement which regards the knowledge of God, we are really alone and not occupied with God at all but only with ourselves, absolutizing our own nature and being, projecting it onto the infinite, setting up a reflection of our own glory. Carried through in this way, the movement of thought is empty because it is without object. It is a mere game. As far as concerns the knowledge of God it is pure self-deception.2

Of related interest:

Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Theology and Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1995.

Frank Lake, Clinical Theology (London: Darton, Longman and Todd), 1966.

Dorothy W. Martyn, The Man in the Yellow Hat: Theology and Psychoanalysis in Child Therapy (Atlanta: Scholars Press), 1992. See also, “A Child and Adam: A Parable of the Two Ages,” Journal of Religion and Health 16 (1977): pp. 275-287.

David Augsburger, Helping People Forgive (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press), 1996.

With Barth as my principal theological teacher and guide, I came to see that theological and psychological concepts could not be unified into a single conceptual framework, at least not if revelation were one’s point of departure. Yet how were theological and psychological understandings properly to be related? And how could intellectual coherence be achieved if one could not integrate them into a single conceptual whole? Illumination eventually came from a passing comment of Hans Frei’s in writing on the relationship between theology and culture. Nontheological disciplines (such as psychology) and theology were to be understood as “logically diverse even when they are existentially connected, that is to say, even when they reside within the same breast. In that case one could not systematically correlate the two.”3 Intuitively, that seemed right to me. I was clear about their existential connection for I had long interpreted my life story with the conceptual categories of faith at the same time that I understood it from a variety of psychological perspectives. But just what was at stake in saying that they were logically diverse was not at all clear to me.

© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary
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In This Issue


All Things Bright and Beautiful
One of Scheide’s New Tenants: PTS’s Director of Student Counseling
To Be Boring or to Be Bored: That Is the Question
The Master Key: Unlocking the Relationship of Theology and Psychology


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