Christianity and Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want  to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are. There are really very few Christian sources I can find on this topic for reasons which seem to be inherent to the study itself. Frankly, humanity went a few millennia without this (and many other social sciences) being a field of study.  Developmental psychology arises in the 1800s as a by-product of certain other scientific theories, evolution being a key one.

On the one hand, I do think that all truth is God’s truth and that secular scholars can find truth and that we should not discount their work. On the other, this field in particular has its basis in some very non-Christian presuppositions so we need to be very careful how we approach it.

A friend pointed me to an article from Christian Education Journal which discusses just this issue. In “Reading the Social Sciences Theologically (Part 1): Approaching and Qualifying Models of Human Development” [1], John Trentham discusses the problems in the social sciences, how Christians might approach them, and how they should. I will say from the start that though I found Trentham’s language harder than it needs to be, he appears to be not just Christian but reformed and I like his overall take on things.

Trentham starts by outlining the problem: as Christians we approach the social sciences with a very different framework than secular scholars. “The social sciences are, essentially, a modern secularist enterprise” (p. 462). They are materialistic in their assumptions. What can be known in the social sciences is only what can be observed. There is nothing of the transcendent, either in man’s nature or outside it. While it is not inherently wrong to study child development, the very discipline seems to rest on the idea that children are yet another species to be studied and that the same methods and assumptions that are applied to studying other animals will work here.

As Christians, science is not the enemy.  Indeed, true scientific thought is not possible without the assumptions that Christianity brings to the table — that the universe is knowable and makes sense. Science is part of God’s general revelation. If and when general revelation comes into conflict with special revelation (i.e. the Scriptures) we must give preference to the latter. Because developmental psychology looks at the child, including his nature and our goals for him, it is going to touch on “religious” topics. Scripture has something to say about these issues. Yet there are still things that can be known through general revelation. Our task then is to discern between the two: when is secular science giving us helpful insight and when are its presuppositions skewing its outlook? In the words of Trentham:

“Nonbelievers (i.e. those not ‘rightly related to [their] Creator’) will not lack insight into the existence and condition of humanity, but they will lack the redemptively postured interpretive capacity of corresponding their observations and analysis to the ultimate patterns and aim of God’s purpose for humanity.” (p. 469)

In other words, they may have valuable insights but they fail to see the big picture.

As we approach developmental psychology in the coming weeks, then, we must be on the alert for two stumbling blocks in particular. False presuppositions often lead one to ask the wrong questions and to draw bad conclusions. And whatever good scholarship one might do, a wrong framework which fails to see the big picture, and in particular fails to account for the transcendental, spiritual side of both man and the universe, will misinterpret even good observations. Trentham speaks of temporal conclusions (p. 470) and I think this is key — secular scholars may have good insights into temporal things but at the point where they begin to touch on the eternal, they go astray. Their understanding may at once be accurate but inverted (p. 472). “Social science models of human development are typically oriented into counter-biblical ideals, even while they may describe modes and means of growth that reflect authentic patterns of personal maturity” (p. 474). Which is to say, they may be right on the small scale but tend to be wrong on the large scale. I think of it a bit like theories of evolution (to raise another controversial topic). Microevolution can be demonstrated — we see the changes within a given species when their environment changes. But when we try to scale that to the big picture, macroevolution, we end up with something undemonstrable which depends more on our presuppositions, on what we expect to find, than on the science.

In the coming weeks we will begin to look at some of the main thinkers in the field of child development, keeping in mind these cautions — that they all come to the subject from a secular perspective and that while they may have some good insights, especially as regards temporal concerns, they often start from a wrong place and do not see the larger context as we would.


[1] Unfortunately, I only have access to part one of this article.

5 responses to this post.

  1. […] do we reject secular theories of child development because they do not account for such things? (Inthis post I discussed the very un-Christian basis of much of the social sciences and how we should approach […]


  2. […] Last time we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide is with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. […]


  3. […] long ago we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic […]


  4. […] the first post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with […]


  5. […] How as Christians we should think about the social sciences […]


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