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Developmental Theories from a Christian Perspective

Written by David Steltz

Posted on September 21st, 2012

Last Edited on June 27th, 2017

There are many legendary scientists and theories that provide insights invaluable to modern research, and which broke both hardened and uncharted grounds in their day. However, Christians have a crucial element to add to any perspective, and it can have a significant impact on how we use our predecessors’ findings and conclusions. I see the five grand theories as valid (if not true) explanations for different facets of the infinitely complex diamond that is human development. In fact, the major tenets of all five seem fairly compatible with each other when the weight of influence is distributed, if not evenly, across every aspect of the perspectives.

Christian worldview is especially pertinent to psychological disciplines. In a field that focuses entirely on humanity, we can not ignore that humans are an image of God, subject to his sovereignty, and living in his grace. Being engineered by God, we can understand more about ourselves if we understand more about Him. Not to mention that God is the source and provider of all knowledge, we acknowledge that He is responsible for our genetics, our soul, and much of the world around us. Though humans and the devil have been allowed to achieve many of their own desires upon the earth, God’s influence has not been absent. The implications of all this is personally the most significant contribution Christianity has on psychology.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory observes human nature’s tendency to produce conflicting desires and the constant struggle against innate impulses. Scripture describes this as the flesh, or worldly nature. Of course, not everyone has been reborn with a new, godly nature to put up a worthwhile fight. However, everyone has a knowledge of good and evil, with a God-given conscience that will conflict with sinful desires. Freud’s observations had the added factor of modern culture’s confused and twisted state which further complicates human duality. His own experiences and witness of others’ led to conclusions that are in most ways accurate, though not universally applicable.

Erikson’s psychosocial analysis and focus on major crises is similarly derived from the fallen state of man. He observed the truth that everyone goes through crises, and realized how great an impact they have on a person. Indeed, such events undeniably serve to shape a person, though they do not entirely define a person. Alongside physical crises we have decisions, accomplishments, relationships, and spiritual journeys that define us.

Behaviorism and cognitive theory are the ones I have seen get the most attention in recent years. They are extremely applicable in practical situations. Understanding the use of stimuli and reinforcement enables more effective behavioral conditioning, both for humans and animals. Seeing-eye dogs, police dogs, and other such trained animals are a product of such understanding. Behaviorism also observes the effect one’s physical environment has on a person’s development, which aids in the optimization of such environments when possible.

Cognitive theory, the way I see it, explains why behaviorism works, especially within the context of human input. Stimulus/response conditioning is effective because of the way brains remember and analyze experiences. In this, the correlation between nature and nurture are evident and, in my opinion, the two are inseparable.

Knowing that God defines truth and logic leads me to believe that our brains have the capability, through cognitive development, to analyze our world with logic and form concepts that ultimately lead us to understand God more thoroughly, allowing a more intimate relationship with him. Furthermore, wielding the tools of behavioral adjustment gives us a responsibility for the actions of those whom we train. Children, namely, are very much a product of behavioral conditioning, and those who raise them are accountable to God (and in some cases society) for the results of their choices.

Sociocultural theory also relates directly to the previous two. Apprenticeship-type learning is largely cognitive in nature, and part of such training includes behaviorism techniques, even if subconsciously employed. This theory is an overall view of how behaviorism and cognitive development play out in natural situations, as well as the impact it has on culture in general, with the omission of non-human environmental factors.

The remaining grand theory, universal perspective, has been reflected in many movies and other such entertainment. The overall struggle of mankind to survive as a species has been depicted in battles against natural disasters, alien invasion, evolution (planet of the apes!), and even self-destructive acts of mass destruction. Self preservation is undeniably a powerful innate motivation. However, universal preservation is more conceptual, less observable, and relies somewhat on the theory of evolution. Whether self preservation would win out over species preservation is a topic I have seen discussed in varied contexts.

On the other hand, selflessness and elements of humanism are crucial elements of Christ’s teaching. Consequently, whether or not species preservation is a human impulse, it should be a conscious consideration. Understanding how humans are driven by needs, interests, and patterns can help to be more effective in humanist ventures.

Though long-winded, I know, I hope to have communicated the general position I hold. In short, I believe the grand theories are compatible, and through the lens of Christianity can provide remarkable insight, direction, and understanding. God is, after all, inseparable from psychology. Christians must therefore be careful to never attempt separation of God from psychological endeavors, or from science in general. Let none of us ever be guilty of such irresponsibility!

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Developmental Theories from a Christian Perspective