Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible
For several years I’ve been working on a psychologically-based approach to biblical interpretation. A mixture of old and new, it draws on the traditional philosophical-allegorical method of biblical interpretation developed by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC–c. 50 AD), and applied by later Christian writers like Origen, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, whence it became a staple (if little-known today) method of Christian exegesis. This traditional approach is combined with principles of modern personality theory and depth psychology. (However readers leery of modern psychological reductionism may be relieved to know it is orthodox in all respects.)
The method can be easily explained in terms of five basic principles, given below.
1. Psychological Salvation
The aim of the Bible is to promote our salvation, understood in an all-embracing sense that includes both spiritual and psychological aspects. These two aspects are inseparable, one necessary for the other. Our direct interest here, however, is psychological salvation. This is understood as an overall transformation that affects moral life, intellect, will, desire, emotion, social life, and orientation to the physical environment. It is epitomized by the statement, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) The result of this transformation is attainment of a new psychological condition referred to in the Gospels as the Kingdom of Heaven.
(a) This condition is characterized by many features which the psychologist Abraham Maslow associated with Being perception and Being cognition and plateau experience. Sensory perceptions are clearer, more vivid, more beautiful, unified, sacred. The world may be experienced as transfigured. Experience and activity are ends in themselves, not means to ends (Being rather than Becoming);
(b) Inwardly the state is characterized by greater mental clarity (insight, serenity, recollection, peace, joy, happiness, creativity, inspiration) and by absence of negative emotions and thoughts (anxiety, cynicism, pessimism, anger, depression, etc.);
(c) In this condition a person may experience a union of the individual will and God’s will; egoism and those characteristic problems that attend it are reduced. One experiences a sense of flow, spontaneity, effortlessness, enjoyment, and delight.
(d) It corresponds to what various writers have termed unitive, transcendental, and integrated mental states. At a physiological level, it is potentially associated with better-than-usual integration of left- and right-brain activity.
(e) One does not so much attain this as an immediate and permanent psychological condition, as experience it temporarily with greater frequency and duration.
(f) This form of psychological salvation does not replace the concept of spiritual salvation, understood as attainment of eternal life in the traditional religious sense; but the former promotes and is possibly a stage in the attainment of the latter.
2. Scriptural Consistency
All parts of the Bible aim to promote spiritual and psychological salvation. Each passage should be understood in relation to this greater purpose; one should not interpret a verse or passage out of context or without reference to this overarching meaning.
3. Psychological Correspondence
This is the key interpretative principle: that every character, situation, and event portrayed in Scripture has a counterpart in the psychic life of the individual.
(a) This principle dovetails with the large (but largely unappreciated) psychological literature concerning ego plurality (e.g., Rowan, 1990; Schwartz, 1995). This body of work sees human personality in terms of not a single ego, but many (dozens, perhaps hundreds) of sub-egos, part-egos or subpersonalities, each associated with a different interest, appetite, and social role. The ‘ordinary’ state of affairs is that these personalities conflict. A major task of psychological salvation is to harmonize them, producing an integrated and self-realized person (cf. the Jungian approach to Old Testament exegesis of Edinger 1986, 2000, 2004).
(b) The principle of psychological correspondence is a routine feature in the modern interpretation of dreams (i.e. each character in a dream reflects some aspect of the dreamer’s personality or psyche).
(c) This principle is also found in modern psychological interpretation of myths and literature (e.g., the Odyssey, Plato’s Republic).
(d) It is also the basis of Philo’s system of biblical interpretation (i.e., each character in the Bible corresponds to some mental ‘disposition’).
(e) This does not preclude there also being other levels of meaning in a verse or passage of Scripture, i.e., literal, historical, moral, etc.
4. Agreement with Doctrine and Tradition
The Christian Church was founded by Jesus Christ with the aim of promoting human salvation, and the Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout its history. Psychological meanings ‘discovered’ in the Bible must be tested against sound Christian doctrine and tradition; what is at variance with these is likely an idiosyncratic interpretation, untrue.
To adequately understand the psychological meaning of Scripture requires inspiration and grace, and in order that these may be obtained, prayer.
Edinger, Edward F. The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament. Toronto, 1986.
Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Self: The Old Testament Prophets From Isaiah to Malachi. Ed. J. Gary Sparks. Toronto, 2000.
Edinger, Edward F. The Sacred Psyche: A Psychological Approach to the Psalms. Ed. Joan Dexter Blackmer. Toronto, 2004.
Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. 2nd ed. Van Nostrand, 1968. (1st ed., Van Nostrand, 1962; 3rd ed., Foreword and Preface by Richard Lowry, Wiley, 1999).
Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971 (republished: Arkana, 1993).
Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013).
Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).
Uebersax, John S. On the Psychological Meaning of Psalm 1. 2008.
Uebersax, John S. The ‘Strange Woman’ of Proverbs. 2009.
Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. El Camino Real. 2012.
Uebersax, John S. Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis. <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. November, 2013.
Uebersax, John S. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. <satyagraha.wordpress.com>. September, 2014.
Uebersax, John S. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. <satyagraha.wordpress.com>. December, 2014.
Uebersax, John S. Why do the Heathen Rage?: A Psychological Investigation of Psalm 2. (article in preparation).
First version: March 2014 (rev. November 2015, June 2016)