Is secular psychology able to offer true & helpful information about the human condition?
A question I hear discussed frequently goes something like "what do Christian counselors think of drugs and secular psychology? Are they helpful?" I respond to that question below, but first, an understanding of the limitations of common grace and an understanding of special grace will prove beneficial.
Generally speaking, common grace is the reality that the world retains traces of the good in which it was created (Genesis 1:31). Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones defined common grace as “the term applied to those general blessings (James 1:17) which God imparts to all men and women indiscriminately as He pleases, not only to His own people, but to all men and women, according to His own will.”1 For example, God gives the earth the sun, which enables humans to grow food and eat. The sun “commonly” benefits all people, both those in the family of God and those outside of the family of God. Common grace, however, does not resolve sin and the life problems it causes (Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6).
Special grace is God’s “voluntary, unrestrained, unmerited favor toward guilty sinners”2 God grants special grace through special revelation (His Word). In contrast to common grace, special grace is able to save a person’s soul and alleviate sin and the life problems it causes.
Treating Psychological Problems
Knowledge ascertained by secular psychologists can be helpful. Applying this knowledge gained through God’s common grace, secular psychologists can indeed pull out the top part of the weed at times and offer temporary “fixes”. But gardeners know that if you don’t pull out the root of a weed, the weed will grow back.
For example, medication and therapies can be helpful to treat someone with manic depression. God, through His common grace, has given us medication and other therapies as good and precious gifts (James 1:17). However, ultimate, systemic, lasting healing comes only through salvation in Jesus Christ and the washing of water by the Holy Spirit through the Word (Ephesians 5:26). Dr. David Powlison provides a helpful response to the question "can medication help a person deal with depression?" (see the video at the end of this post)
The forces of creative power granted by God to the secular psychologist "are to some extent released by God's common grace. He [the secular psychologist] therefore, makes positive contributions to science in spite of his principles”. The secular psychologist unwittingly leverages common grace (and does so often with great vigor) to arrive at truthful conclusions. God, through His common grace, enables secular psychologists to locate truth so that mankind is aware of Him (Romans 1:20). This is similar to an astronomer who gathers factual, helpful information about the cosmos (Psalm 19:1), or a medical researcher who gathers helpful facts and builds wisdom about the nature of the human body. While they may be opposed to God and His will, they still perform His bidding (Genesis 50:20). For example, when a secular psychologist helps someone with self-reflection, sin ("weaknesses") may be exposed to the counselee (see #4).
Answering Life’s Ultimate Questions
In addition, while the secular psychologist is able to locate truth because of God’s common grace, when it comes to life’s ultimate questions (e.g., Who am I? Why am I here? What is wrong with the world? and How can what is wrong be made right?), secular psychologists will lack the ability to reason properly because they lack the Holy Spirit and the Word. The effects of sin have corrupted their minds (John 17:17, John 16:13):
“After sin has entered the world, no one of himself knows nature aright, and no one knows the souls of man aright. How then could man reason from nature to nature’s God and get anything but a distorted notion of God?”3
A distorted notion of God results in a distorted view of man's purpose and existence.
In the video below, Dr. Powlison referenced the Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) as saying “our drugs can sometimes alleviate symptoms, but we can’t give people what they need. People need meaning and relationship...what are you living for, and how are you living?” 4
It is only on the foundation of a right relationship with the triune God that lasting joy, meaning and fulfilling relationship (John 15:1-17) can be obtained, enabling the human heart to spring forth with godly life (Proverbs 4:23).
- David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God the Holy Spirit (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 24.
- Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), 22.
- Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Theology, Volume One (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1947), p. 69.