Psychology as a Tool to Interpret the Text

by Robin Scroggs

Dr. Scroggs is professor of New Testament at Chicago Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century March 24, 1982, p. 335. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There are at least three questions to ask those who would use psychological models to interpret the biblical text: What is wrong with the old ways? How can psychology add to our insights? Why are some people so resistant to such attempts?

The attempt to find new approaches to any field is usually caused by a sense of malaise, of dissatisfaction with the old ways. But woe to the person who tries something new that is not yet in fashion! Several years ago I made my first foray into the use of psychoanalytic models for interpretation of the New Testament before a group of scholarly peers. The response was, to use an already overworked neologism, underwhelming. As one sympathetic friend put it afterward: “The general reaction was that what was true was not new and what was new was not true.”

A few years later I was sitting in the home of one of the great elder statesmen of German New Testament scholarship, attempting to describe to him my efforts to relate Freud and Paul (however much I knew it would be in vain). He bristled slightly, drew back in his chair, and ended the conversation with the fiat: “Bultmann taught us years ago to be suspicious of psychology.”

Thus there are at least three questions to ask those who would use psychological models to interpret the biblical text: What is wrong with the old ways? How can psychology add to our insights? Why are some people so resistant to such attempts? I can, of course, offer only my own answers.

First, what is wrong with the old ways? The answer here is surely: Nothing. The methodologies of textual, literary, historical and theological explorations have yielded impressive results during the past two centuries. No one who accepts critical scholarship at all would gainsay that judgment. For some of us, however, there is a growing sense that wheels are spinning, that books and articles are being turned out with diminishing results. Scholarly fads change; irresolvable issues continue to be argued; old positions are again defended. But not much that is new and insightful emerges anymore. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Walter Wink’s now famous one-liner, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt” (The Bible in Human Transformation [Fortress, 1973]), may be overstated, but there is some truth in it. The ranks of the secularists and the evangelicals, both of whom ignore biblical scholarship for opposite reasons, are growing. Part of the malaise here is the suspicion that traditional scholarly methodologies do not make adequate connection with how people in today’s Western world actually think and feel. The biblical text cannot transform unless it can be related in powerful ways to the concrete joys and anxieties of us folk in the tag-end of this century. Is there, then, some alternative method which can make it once more possible for that biblical text to speak, to become again a transformative agent?

Modern westerners are psychological beings. We think psychologically; we evaluate our feelings psychologically. We are not aware of the specific content of the deep and hidden dimensions of our psyches, because we know that they are most often repressed and inaccessible to our consciousness; but we are aware that such dimensions exist and that they control our lives and actions more than do our conscious egos. Biblical authors were not, of course, psychological beings. They did not possess the information we do today. Yet as people they had (it must be assumed) the same deep dimensions we do, however unaware they were of psychological realities.

This means, on the one hand, that they had no intention to speak psychologically. At the surface level of the texts they have bequeathed to us, we search in vain for psychological insights or any attempts to correlate theological or ethical assertions with human realities which we label psychological. However, these texts are open to questions raised from the standpoint of psychological models, just as surely as are folk texts such as fairy tales, modern texts such as short stories, and personal “texts” such as dreams. Just as a dream both conceals and reveals more than its “author” knows, so the biblical text may reveal and conceal more than its author knew. That is, the text can be interpreted as text with regard to its potential depth-psychological value, without having regard for the intention -- self-consciousness -- of its author.

But what kind of “psychological value” do we seek? Does the Bible now become merely a mysterious system of interlocking symbolizations which can be illumined and made meaningful by the work of a

Freud or a Jung? By no means, as Paul would say. To see (in addition to the theological or ethical values being expressed) the depth world of human beings coming to the surface is in no way to replace the one by the other, or to set the one over against the other. The Bible speaks about the transformation of selves by the acts of God: thus the psychological realities coming to expression in the biblical texts may be either descriptions of the imprisonment of the self needing release, or those of the liberated, transformed person. God’s acts of salvation, insofar as they lead to transformation, happen not outside ourselves or to us, but primarily within us. Salvation means changes, changes in how we think, in how we feel, in how we act. And that means, or so it seems to me, that psychological intuitions and, perhaps, even explicitly psychological models and terminology can give us insight into what these changes are in ourselves and others.

Seen in this way, psychology and religion are not in conflict but are, rather, complementary. Furthermore, the search for the psychological dimension in the biblical text is not in any sense “reductionistic” -- that pejorative term so often used to raise suspicions about innovative modes of interpretation.

I have implied a distinction between the dimension of the unconscious and self-conscious intentionality. This needs to be emphasized. What is important is the reality of transformation, not a person’s awareness of that transformation or the precise language used to bring that change to expression. We are all aware that inevitably there is a difference between who we really are and who we think we are. We may be better or worse, more or less healthy persons than we think. Psychoanalysis and the biblical witness are agreed on this point. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9, RSV). Both theology and psychology wish to describe dimensions of human reality of which persons may not be aware. Just as the text says more than its author knows, so its author may be living Out of that reality to which the text points.

Equally so, that text may speak to our depths and may act as transforming agent, without our being aware of just what happened or how. Psychological interpretations of the text foster our awareness of just what is going on in God’s transforming activity with his people. As with any model, these interpretations do not substitute for God’s acts; but they do help us to see more clearly the incredible beauty and caring complexity of the divine involvement with each unique daughter and son. The psychological interpretation of the biblical text can best be seen as a handmaiden to a better understanding of God’s acts of salvation: the servant of, not the substitute for, theology.

There are many reasons why the use of psychological models in biblical scholarship has met with resistance in some quarters. Psychological means have often been used to “psychoanalyze” Jesus or Paul, to turn them into undesirable or even psychotic personalities. Albert Schweitzer long ago correctly suggested that this was an improper and impossible procedure. The approach I have outlined above interprets texts and theologies; it never makes any value judgment psychologically on the authors of these texts.

Also, to be adequate in this approach requires that a researcher be a master of two extremely difficult and subtle fields. It is no secret that in the past some attempts have been very badly executed. Psychologists and psychoanalysts can prove abysmally ignorant of biblical scholarship; biblical scholars may dabble in psychology but fail to master the complexities of the major systems. Occasionally, in my judgment, there have been authors who were deficient in both fields.

Still a third barrier is raised by our modern penod’s penchant for psychologizing everything. Motivations, feelings and hidden meanings are the dynamics out of which we operate, and if they are not obvious in a text, we tend to import them. The biblical narrative, however, is in general supremely indifferent to such subjectivity and simply does not report it. Narratives remain on the “objective” plane, and it is indeed precarious to read into them what we think the characters in the narrative might have been thinking or feeling. Early scholarship often was guilty of such eisegesis and gave the union of psychology and biblical interpretation a bad name. At its best, however, current psychological interpretation of the biblical text remains free from this danger. It is no more interested in interpreting the subjectivity of the author than it is concerned with interpreting the subjectivity of the characters in the texts.

A further difficulty may lie in the availability of so many different models of psychology and psychoanalysis. Is Freud or Jung better for biblical interpretation? Can behavioral modification be blended with biblical ethical admonitions? A person could well reject a particular psychological interpretation of some biblical text not so much in theory but because the model chosen is felt to be unacceptable.

Finally, all of us need to acknowledge the capacity we have for avoiding threats to our firmly established repressions, our Pandora’s boxes which we do not wish opened. It is my experience, and perhaps that of all of us, that it is all too easy to block the message of a book which threatens the comfort of our ease in Zion. Resistance to a psychological reading of the text may be due to our desire not to be forced to see those transformative challenges from God, signals that we are on the wrong track, intimations that if we really dared to trust the divine caring, our lives would be fuller, richer and more truly human, if also fearfully shaken loose from the self-image to which we cling so desperately.

Despite all the attendant dangers and reservations, a few biblical scholars are now seeking the illumination which psychological models bring to the text and the lives of believers. I can only point to a few representative efforts: there is no space here to describe them in any detail, or to evaluate, although in some instances I do have reservations. Given the fact that psychological models have been a prominent part of many other enterprises in theology, it may seem surprising that in the biblical field efforts are disparate and scattered. At the moment, I do not see any kind of consensus emerging; I am not even sure that these efforts have the stature of a separate mode of inquiry. Perhaps the best that can be said is that they carry intimations of something more momentous and more coherent for the future. At least the reader can see what some of the possibilities are.

While one would think that scholars would have given up their attempts to psychoanalyze biblical personages, the experiment is still occasionally made. A journal from the evangelical wing of Christianity, the Journal of Psychology and Theology, frequently includes papers on the relevance of modern psychological models to biblical materials, not the least of which is the correlation between biblical ethical and eschatological statements and behavioral modification. One scholar, Richard A. Batey, has tried to relate biblical theology to transactional analysis in Thank God I’m OK: The Gospel According to T. A. (Abingdon, 1976).

Most recent interpretations, as far as I have been able to survey the literature, lean on more specifically psychoanalytic models. The reason for this emphasis, I believe, lies in the interest of such scholars in interpreting text rather than author, in exploring the expression of the text rather than the intentionality of the author. Not surprisingly, scholars have begun to mine the parables of Jesus for psychoanalytic insights.

Since the parable of the prodigal son is the obvious first choice for such interpretations, an example of the conclusions of one recent interpreter, Mary Ann Tolbert, may be helpful. Working from a Freudian model, Tolbert thinks it possible to interpret the parable as one would a dream: “All the characters in the dream represent various aspects, characteristics, or desires of the dreamer” (Perspectives on the Parables: An Approach to Multiple Interpretations [Fortress, 1978]). Looked at from this perspective, the parable is speaking of the efforts of the father to accept both of the sons, to integrate his family into wholeness once again. Thus “the parable of the Prodigal Son expresses a basic human desire for unity and wholeness in life.” Tolbert does not in any way claim that this is the only legitimate interpretation of the parable. Indeed, for her, as for an increasing number of scholars, the text is open to various valid interpretations.

A basically Jungian. approach is followed in a fascinating work by Joan Chamberlain Engelsman, The Feminine Dimension of the Divine (Westminster, 1979). She has researched biblical traditions for traces of feminine characteristics of divinity, which she interprets according to the Jungian category of the female archetype. In comparison with Egyptian and Hellenistic divine archetypes such as Isis and Demeter, the biblical traditions cannot be expected to yield much fruit. Yet she does see in the figure of Sophia (Wisdom) an appearance of the divine feminine archetype in the Judeo-Christian tradition. She traces the history of Sophia in postbiblical Judaism and early Christianity, only to discover that the feminine is repressed in both religious cultures in favor of the masculine. She does conclude, however, that in Christianity there were certain traces of the “return of the repressed.”

Similarly Jungian is the approach of Walter Wink, as exemplified by his moving analysis of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. The point of this story is the struggle for wholeness through becoming further wounded. “What dark aspect of God is this, that wounds as it heals, that threatens to draw us into the abyss unless we grapple in desperation, buffeted by blows, till the break of day?” (“On Wrestling with God: Using Psychological Insights in Biblical Study,” Religion in Life, XLVII [1978]). More than any other interpreter, Wink is dedicated to the explicit use of the biblical narrative as a transformative agent. Not surprisingly, his methods here also depend, in part, on Jungian approaches.

Of all published studies in recent years, perhaps the most provocative remains that of Richard Rubenstein in My Brother Paul (Harper & Row, 1972). This author applies Freud, as interpreted by Norman O. Brown, to the study of Paul’s theology. Whether Rubenstein is ultimately right or wrong seems to me not the issue, but, rather whether he has provided some new avenues for interpretation. Freud saw Paul as an agent in the “return of the repressed,” and Rubenstein pushes further in this direction. The apostle understood the Pharisaic “system” as an attempt to justify oneself before the Father. But this means, in psychoanalytic terms, that persons must be righteous before the Father who threatens otherwise to kill. At the heart of Paul’s theology is, therefore, an attempt to find a way of escape from death.

Paul resolves the dilemma by interpreting Christ as the elder brother who has paid the price of the Father’s anger and with whom the believer can identify, in part through the sacraments. Through this participation the believer is safe from infanticide. Salvation is participation in the Last Adam and ultimately a return to the primal scene, the garden of Eden. It is the end of repression and the reality principle, a return to primary narcissism and the womb.

Almost two thousand years before the depth psychology that his religious imagination helped to make possible, Paul of Tarsus gave expression to mankind’s yearning for a new and flawless beginning that could finally end the cycle of anxiety, repression, desire, and craving -- the inevitable concomitants of the human pilgrimage. Paul made of that yearning a force for the spiritual unification of the majority of men in the western world [p. 173].

Finally I would like to share with the reader my own concern for a possible Freudian perspective applied to Paul’s theology. I am also decisively informed by Norman O. Brown, yet I end in a place somewhat different from Rubenstein’s, primarily because I see Paul’s theology of justification by grace to be the central focus of what the apostle has to say, whereas Rubenstein works more with the symbols of Paul’s so-called “Christ mysticism.”

Paul has spoken to me for a long time, and I have been able to understand him through his own language-system. For many people in the modern world this has not been possible, even though they have been searching for just the message of liberation I have heard Paul teaching. For them Paul is an ideological mystagogue, who mouths strange, long-lost symbols and outdated myths. For these people Paul simply cannot be heard. Perhaps if one can see the close analogy between a psychoanalytic interpretation of society and Paul’s theology of culture, a new way toward an understanding of the message of the apostle may emerge.

This is a massive task I have not yet completed and have only hinted at in my book Paul for a New Day (Fortress, 1977). I can only hint here as well. Paul’s thought is oriented toward an interpretation of the two civilizations of death and sin, and life and grace. The world of death is the world of the performance principle (justification by works); it is the world of repression dominated by the superego. God’s act of justification by grace enables persons to switch worlds, to leave that culture of death and to enter a world always intended by God for people (the new creation), founded on the total and entirely free gift from God (justification by grace). This transformation does not involve “trying harder,” which would be a return to the performance principle; rather it is the giving up of effort, the acceptance of life as total gift. Expressed in Freudian terms, it is the way back behind the processes of sexual organization, not toward the womb but rather toward a transformed narcissism culminating in joyful and loving unification with others. For Brown (as distinct from Freud), such a movement is possible once persons have integrated death with life, because repression can then come to an end. For Paul the movement is, of course, based on the transcendent act of God. But the description of the two worlds and their fundamental dynamics is strikingly analogous.

This does not mean that Paul’s theology is reduced to psychoanalytic realities. It does mean -- and I would insist on this -- that divine transformative acts can be described in psychoanalytic terms as well as theological ones. If this terminology makes it possible for some modern persons better to understand Paul, why not? God needs, in this secular and troubled generation, all the help she can get.

And here, in conclusion, is my own apology for the use of psychology in the study of the biblical text. What we are interpreting in religious discourse is never the discourse itself, but those acts of divine power which lie behind and which, indeed, create that discourse. Any language, including the explicitly theological, is thus penultimate. Theological language is never the “queen of the sciences” nor is it the only language useful in describing the acts of God. Since psychological language aims at revealing the depths of human transformation, and since this is the goal of theological language as well, there is no reason the two cannot walk together in the search for truth.