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Ethics and Religion Talk: Does Theology Need Philosophy and Psychology?

"Dino" asks, "How can practical theology be practiced without psychology and philosophy?"

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I can’t imagine how it can. I don’t even know how theology can exist without acknowledgement that psychology and philosophy are inherent in it. One may deny that, but it would be foolish. Those who composed the great scriptures of the world clearly understood how to impact generations upon generations by an intuitional grasp of both psychology and ​philosophy. Now, we normally define “practical theology” as how religious leaders exercise their institutional leadership for the good of the congregation. I would expand that a bit to include all of us who navigate in the world with a sense of divine mission.

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

I don’t think it’s possible to practice theology without psychology and philosophy, being an intrinsic part of it. Theology means the study of God. Psychology means the study of the human, psyche. Philosophy is the study of knowledge, reality, and existence. And God is extremely involved and interested in all three of them. He’s interested in the psyche of humans, because they are his creation; he’s also interested in the teaching of theology because he wants us to know him and philosophy provides the medium par excellence that allows its application and understanding. And all three of them allow for the adequate and effective application of theology.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

If by philosophy you mean thinking about how we think, then its proper place is at the beginning of all theology, which is thinking about God’s being, works, and words to mankind. Sound reasoning is essential to the theologian’s task, which involves accurate reading and understanding of what the Scriptures say, and how that knowledge should be applied to our life and work as Christians. Right practice depends on right understanding of God’s Word. “Receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:21, 22).

In the past, psychology was simply one aspect of theology. It denoted the study of the human soul and its experience of the wrath and curse of God, and how His grace and mercy are received and enjoyed in Christ. In that sense psychology is part and parcel of all practical theology. But in modern usage, psychology is a discipline largely isolated from theology, having to do with understanding why people do what they do. 

As a science, modern psychology draws it conclusions only from what can be observed or measured in human experience. Church members should know that their pastors are usually not trained in this discipline, and should not be expected or encouraged to stand in for licensed psychologists. The insights of psychology may be helpful, but are not essential to practical theology.

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

Psychology is the study of mind and behavior. I find the study of psychology to be in its adolescence. As such, psychology is helpful but not critical to the practice of theology. When I was new to priestly ministry, I received a visit from a man who was not Catholic who came to me because I was a Catholic priest who would honor confidentiality and described horrible sexual abuse perpetrated on him by an adult when he was a child. I knew I could not assist him with the psychological work he needed was outside my ability, and it still is. I listened to the man and then advised him to seek the necessary professional help from his psychologist and psychiatrist to begin his healing process. The basics of psychology helped me advise the man accordingly.

Philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Loving wisdom is essential to developing one’s sense of practical theology. Studying the various schools of philosophical thought can help a minister or priest understand what is said to him, identify the individual’s thoughts, and address any concerns. Loving wisdom is only the beginning of understanding and knowledge. Is there ever a reason not to grow, develop, and learn about God and humanity?

My response:

I am a simple congregational rabbi. I am not a philosopher, I am not a theologian,  I am not an academic. To me, theology describes a way to speak about God and God’s relationship with the world. Philosophy might help me find the words to describe a theology, but if by “practical theology,” you mean the kind of theology that we use in sermons or in one-to-one pastoral situations, for the most part we are not talking to academically trained students of philosophy. We are talking to people who sincerely want to understand their relationship with God and the world around them. Knowing some psychology can help, but here, too, we are not doing therapy and we are not talking only to the intellectual elite. For practical purposes, speaking simply from the heart is the best kind of theology.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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