The Psychology of Christianity: Part 13, The Good Book

This will be the final installment in the "The Psychology of Christianity" series, a thirteen part summary of a chapter coming out where I was tasked with reviewing the empirical psychological literature related to the Christian faith.

Throughout these posts (and in my chapter) we've been using the Apostles' Creed as a theological "outline" of the Christian faith. At the start of each of the three (Trinitarian) sections with the Creed there is the refrain, "I believe." Given that refrain we might ask, where do Christians get these beliefs?

The Bible, of course. Consequently, any review of the psychology of the Christian faith will have to grapple with the Christian experience related to "The Good Book."

Let's start with the basics and assume you know very little about the Christian faith (the assumption I was told to work with in writing the chapter).

Christianity, similar to the other Abrahamic faiths, is a religion of “the book,” a divinely inspired and sacred text that sits at the heart of the faith. For Jews the book is the Tanakh (what Christians refer to as the “Old Testament”), for Muslims it is the Koran, and for Christians it is the 27 “books” of the New Testament. (Note: Some Christian communities also recognize a variety of “Deuterocanonical books” written in the interlude between the composition of the Old and New Testaments.)

The New Testament consists of four—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—“gospels” (narrative accounts concerning the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus), one narrative account of the early church (The Acts of the Apostles), twenty one “epistles” (letters from Christians leaders to early Christian communities), and a concluding work of apocalyptic literature (The Revelation of John). Christians also consider the 39 books of the Jewish Tanakh to be a part of their scriptures and generally call these books the “Old Testament.” The "Old" and "New" Testaments, combined, make up what Christians call "The Bible." Although Christians do not consider the Old Testament to be authoritative, they consider the Old Testament to be crucial to understanding the human predicament, the nature of God, the role of Jesus, and the mission of the church in salvation history.

Christians do, however, consider the New Testament to be normative for their life and practice. Although exegetical and hermeneutical disagreements abound, Christians believe that the New Testament specifies the core theological commitments of the faith, articulates the moral vision of the Christian life, and offers guidance on the formation, organization, common life, and shared mission of the Christian ecclesia (“assembly”), the basic unit of Christian community (most often called “the church”).

Despite general agreement on the centrality and authority of the Bible, Christians are sharply divided on its exact meaning and interpretation. For a psychological survey such as this, these exegetical and hermeneutical debates need not occupy us. However, psychologists have investigated some of the social and psychological correlates involved in an individual’s general hermeneutical orientation toward the Biblical text (i.e., how they typically extract meaning from the Bible).

One of the most investigated relationships in the psychological literature in this regard has been the relationship between Biblical literalism and what is known as “fundamentalism.” As a general hermeneutical strategy Biblical literalists adopt a "plain sense" or "literal" reading of the Bible. That is, the supernatural and miraculous events recounted in the Bible are treated as literal, historical facts. As you might expect, this hermeneutical strategy can create sharp conflicts between “the Bible” and “Science.” The debates over a literal reading of the book of Genesis and Darwinian evolution are just one example of this conflict. For many Christians of the liberal (or post-liberal) bent, this conflict is only illusory, the blinkered outcome of a misguided hermeneutical strategy. But for those committed to Biblical literalism the conflict is real and acute.

On the surface, Biblical literalism and Biblical fundamentalism are similar constructs, and many people use the terms interchangeably. This use is justified as measures of Christian fundamentalism are highly correlated with measures of Biblical literalism. These associations are unsurprising as Christian fundamentalism began in the early 1900s as a movement in America to defend “The Fundamentals” of the Christian faith against the forces of modernity and secularism within Biblical scholarship (much of it coming from Germany). These “Fundamentals” were, essentially, literal readings of both the Bible and the early Christian creeds. Thus, it is not surprising that Christian fundamentalists are also Biblical literalists.

However, despite these associations, fundamentalism is not reducible to nor should it be equated with Biblical literalism (or creedal orthodoxy generally). As operationalized by psychologists, fundamentalism is a broader and richer construct. Summarizing this literature, the relevant contrast is this: Fundamentalism has less to do with the contents of belief than the way the believer holds those beliefs. For example, fundamentalism is strongly associated with dogmatism, the degree to which beliefs (whatever they are) are considered to be unassailable and held with fervent, unjustified certainty. This certainty is often associated with religious zeal and the proselytizing of outsiders. More, fundamentalism has also been associated with authoritarianism and ethnocentrism (i.e., fundamentalism has a strong "us versus them" dynamic). For example, positive correlations have been observed between fundamentalism, anti-homosexual sentiment, and racist attitudes.

Stepping back, these are the characteristics of fundamentalism—dogmatism, zealotry, proselytizing, authoritarianism, and ethnocentrism—that have allowed the term “fundamentalist” to be pulled out of its original Christian context and be applied to any belief system or ideology demonstrating these attributes (e.g., Christian fundamentalist, Islamic fundamentalist, etc.)

Given the negative associations related to fundamentalism, dogmatism and authoritarianism, attempts have been made in the psychological literature to describe and study Christian believers who hold their beliefs more lightly and tentatively. The most influential attempt in this direction has been Daniel Batson’s construct of religion as “quest." As operationalized by Batson, religious believers high on Quest view religious doubt as healthy and are open to changing their beliefs in the face of life experience. Given this, it is not surprising that ratings of Quest are negatively associated with religious fundamentalism. Interestingly, in contrast to the associations between fundamentalism and ethnocentrism, Quest appears to be correlated with a variety of pro-social motivations and behaviors.

To conclude, this brief review of the literature concerning Biblical fundamentalism and Quest should make it clear that the Christian experience with the Bible is complex and heterogeneous. Christians display great diversity in how they interpret the Bible. More, beyond the content of the beliefs themselves, Christians are idiosyncratic in how they hold and deploy their beliefs. Christians, like persons in all religious groups, can be either tentative or dogmatic in regards to their core doctrinal commitments. And they can display an almost bewildering diversity in how they hermeneutically handle the sacred text of their faith, with predictable effects upon how they see and approach outgroup members.

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11 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 13, The Good Book”

  1. Not that this comment will have much to do with the purpose of your post...but nonetheless...

    Earlier in the spring or summer, you posted an excerpt from George MacDonald. One of his statements was about arrogance coming from the "worship of the letter" which rang a very loud bell in my mind since I grew up in the Stone-Campbell tradition.

    The point is that I appreciate your posts and look forward to reading them as you post. This site is where a lot of "rubber meets the road" in terms of thinking through Scripture and the world we live in. NT Wright has a real gift for seeing the bigger picture as well. Sometimes it seems we miss the destination for the road.

  2. This post has been one of the most cogent displays of a basic Christian landscape that I've come across; nicely done! in such a small space to boot!

    For me, I didn't grow up churched, but when I found faith in Christ, I was naturally drawn to the Evangelical culture for its innate appetite for an authentic experience of Christ's life, and Trueness.

    Yet today, thirty years later, instead of describing myself as an Evangelical Christian, I'm considering seriously, calling myself an:

    Un-Christian Christ Follower and Scientist in Spirit.

    My original drive for authenticity and trueness hasn't waned; I don't feel my self as a "liberal" the way Evangelicals used to label luke warm Christianity. On the contrary, I feel every bit as fervent for the Way of Christ as I ever did. It's just that I've come to recognize that God created a universe that evolves and learns into existence. And this dynamic shows up most essentially in the compact existence of Human Being.

    I would hold that the first century experience of the Christ-Event is entirely valid for the original church and for anyone today who wants to participate through the first century sense of the Christ-Event.

    Equally, I would hold that for we in the twenty first century, though we missed out on the immediate interaction our first century brethren had with Christ, we have a chance to understand more of what God did in the Christ-Event, because we have learned more of how Reality is constituted.

    For instance, all of our documented Revelation is received by people who understood the universe to be constructed in three layers and can occur instantaneously at will. And the second layer, the layer of our occupation, is a fallen version of the first layer which was viewed as the layer of perfection. But now we know that the universe is infinite and not tri-layered, and, creation doesn't occur instantaneously; as far as we can see, the universe we occupy is 13.7 billion years old.

    So for those of us who are willing, I think we need to see the Christ-Event in a world that evolves and explore how Christ's meaning deepens as we shift our interpretative context from first century cosmology, to the cosmology that's always existed: God's.

    I think what Jesus's Parable of the Talents bares out, is that we who decide to intently follow Christ, are called to Quest rather than conserve.

  3. I just realized that I should clarify what I'm trying to communicate by naming myself an un-Christian follower of Christ.

    I don't want to organize my life around maintaining an institution. Rather, I want to organize my life around Reality, whether it is discerned through God's Revelation, or through God's Creation. And most likely, it's an interaction of both.

    Today, the name Christian has come to identify an institutionalized set of beliefs, rather than a way of being and becoming fully human. And at the same time the name Christian, at least in western culture, has come to stand for Conserving rather than Questing. If Jesus Conserved instead of the Questing He lived, we'd still be Pharisees.

  4. I never really thought about fundamentalism and literalism. I've been calling myself a fundamentalist all these years because they seem to be the only ones who aren't embarrassed to be called literalists. I guess I can just call myself a literalist now, and refer people to your blog!

  5. A pastor friend of mine said, "They take the Bible as the Fourth member of the Trinity." I laughed, considering the irony that the same express great fear and chagrin against the power of the Fourth Estate (the press/media).

  6. > (e.g., Christian fundamentalist, Islamic fundamentalist, etc.)

    Since "Christian fundamentalist" is redundant in this context, I suggest you replace it with "Atheist fundamentalist". For a variety of reasons.

  7. Some of us would have begun, with the Bible rather than the Creed.

    It is useful to note, as someone has, that the classical creeds do not mention the Bible, not least because their authors hope to replace the Bible with their handiwork. More recent, "Evangelical" creeds always begin with the Bible -- "inerrant in the original autographs" (which, of course, are not available) -- and get to "God" in their second or third clauses. The Bible doesn't mention the Creed either -- and, of course, it doesn't need to.

    Some years ago when i was presented with one of those "Evangelical" creeds to sign as a condition of employment, a wise old brother in the Church said to me, "The Devil could sign this, and never look back." That brother put his finger on the flaw of holding people hostage to creedal prescriptions: The apathetic and the devious have no problem with the Creed; the conscientious are excluded by its prescriptions.

    God's Peace to you.


  8. The thing with the creeds is this: the contents are from the is simply scripture combined and restated to articulate what we believe. The only thing in the Apostle's creed that raises a question to me is this statement (regarding Jesus) "He descended into hell." I take this to mean that He entered Sheol.
    It's not as if this creed articulates some concept that is against scripture. Growing up in a Stone-Campbell church, when creeds were taught against, people forgot to mention that everything in the Nicene or Apostles creeds were things we all actually believed anyway and were from scripture. Interesting.

  9. I wish I could find just 10 pastors/teachers who would successfully corroborate on what EXACTLY it takes to become "saved" AND "stay saved". We're not talking about pre vs. mid vs. post-trib, tongues / no tongues, sprinkles to full immersion, etc.- we're talking about one's eternal destination. But getting even a few genuinely dedicated Bible teachers (scholars) to agree on such seems impossible.

    From what I've read, there seems to be somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 evangelical christian denominations. But even within one given denominational system, and the same physical church, I've witnessed variations amongst that pastoral staff over ... salvation.
    errr .. ugh ... I thought there was only ONE HOLY SPIRIT to teach us and guide us. I guess a lot more of us (than we'd like to admit) are reading Scripture in "natural man" mode. Of course all parties involved will declare (to their grave) that everything they stand on is rooted in ... "Scripture".

    Gary Y

  10. But, it isn't about taking a vote. So, whether you can find 10 or 100 won't solve the problem. I think your statement about 'natural man mode' is certainly large part of the answer. Sin takes care of the rest.

    As to what does it take; the answer is really clear in lots of places in Scripture to the UN-natural man. For example, how many ways can one read John 1:12-13, "But to all who have received him - those who believe in his name - he has given the right to become God's children - children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband's decision, but by God."

    God saves when and if He chooses. It isn't about me or my pastor or my church or whatever . . . Bummer!

  11. Hi Gary,
    It seems to me that many of these churches don't even agree on what it is we need to be saved from. For instance, with many evangelicals, the whole objective is to be saved from hell after death, hell being the consequence of sin in life. A get-out-of-hell-free card with "I believe A,B,C, and D," but who cares about anything or anyone else, except as earning brownie points with God for converting others in recruitment churchianity. Others seem to have as objective salvation from poverty and illness with health-and-wealth/name-it/claim-it jazz. And you're exactly right -- they all claim the Scripture backs up their particular angle. The Southern Baptists went so far as to rewrite their Baptist Faith and Message (the equivalent of a creed, but they insist they are creedless) just a few years ago to emphasize their own angles, and immediately forced all 2,000 or so foreign missionaries associated with them to sign the new draft or be fired. I think they fired about 42 missionaries in that power play. The irony is that the denomination was originally founded on the freedom to dissent.

    I personally lean more with MacDonald, "Christ died to save us, not from suffering, but from ourselves; not from injustice, far less from justice, but from being unjust. ... He was called Jesus because He should save His people from their sins."

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