Psychology and Biblical Studies


Psychological Hermeneutics of the Bible

J. Harold Ellens is one of the founding members of the Psychology and Biblical Studies Section, has served many years on the Steering Committee, and has contibuted significantly to publication of work in the field. He notes, "Lately I have been working on epitomizing my approach to the psychological hermeneutics of biblical themes and texts." The results are below.

We invite your responses to Dr. Ellens' approach. Send responses or comments to, and we will add them here. (See comments)

Psychological Hermeneutics of The Bible
J. Harold Ellens

My approach to the Psychological Hermeneutics of biblical themes and texts has always been from the operationally applied side to the conceptual models.  I have been reflecting lately on how I can epitomize both the content and method of my work in psychological hermeneutics of scripture. I think I have been able to conceptualize it articulately.

I operate, like Isaac Newton, with three basic laws that I think must reign in the field of biblical interpretation if one is to get at the essential biblical truth. They are as follows:

  1. Ellens' first law of biblical hermeneutics: It is necessary to separate the garbage from the gospel in the Bible in order to discern what is the word of God in the biblical narratives. The garbage is the cultural-historical matrix in which the essential message is conveyed. The gospel is the clear word of grace which is conveyed, wherever it breaks out and can be discerned clearly and cogently in the biblical text.
  2. Ellens' second law of biblical hermeneutics: That which, in the Bible, is psychospiritually destructive for the Living Human Document is not the divine word. That which is psychospiritually constructive for the Living Human Document is the divine word of God. That word will always be a word about grace.
  3. Ellens' third law of biblical hermeneutics: Use of the psychological lens is essential for determining what in the biblical narratives is psychospiritually constructive and destructive for the Living Human Document. The warrant for divine truth in anything is that it is psychospiritually healing for the Living Human Document. Whether a word is psychologically sound and constructive is the criterion for divine truth.


  1. That the word of God is always the word of grace is not arguable. It is simply the claim I make and its warrant is that only it heals and enhances the Living Human Document.
  2. In my model, God is, by definition, a God of thoroughly unconditional, radical, and universal grace. Any God that is not a God of such grace, is, by definition, not God, but is a monster. Any idea any human conjures up of God as not, by definition, a God of grace is corrupt, monstrous, and confused, because it demonstrably damages rather than heals the Living Human Document.
  3. God is subtle and not obvious in the world and in human experience. So we must take a psychological lens and look at the subtle intimations of God’s presence and nature in history, life, and our personal experience. These subtle intimations include a) the mindfulness of creation, b) the benevolence of providence, c) the natural urge in all things toward beauty, d) the fact that unconditional acceptance and forgiveness is the only ultimate healing force in life, e) the fact that this kind of service of grace is precisely tailored to our central need for healing that sets us free for growth.
  4. The warrant for what is real and true is what works. Only the equation of grace works in the ultimate healing, growth, maturation, and wholeness for which the Living Human Document has the potential and therefore is inherently destined.
  5. Therefore, we must conclude that by definition God is a God of grace. The fact that only this definition of God works for our healing, growth, maturation, and wholeness confirms that it is the only rational and psychospiritually authentic way to conceptualize God. All other conceptualizations are deficient, destructive, and hence, monstrous.

Comments and Responses



It is always a great relief and gratification when a fellow scholar really grasps a major point one makes, particularly when it is the main point by which ones worldview hangs. In your response to my statement on Psychological Hermeneutics of the Bible you express youself in such a way as to make clear that "you really get it!" That encourages me. On the question as to why we engage in scholarly biblical studies, a very good question I think, let me just make the following five remarks.

First, I think that most people who are biblical scholars and stay at it through their adult and professional years started out in relatively conservative faith traditions in which the Bible was highly revered as the source of genuine knowledge about God and our relationship to God. Those who started out in more liberal traditions do not seem to have had the intense energy to keep at this particular quest.

Second, as we mature in our scholarly and personal spiritual engagement with the Bible, we tend to move rather far from the perspectives on the Bible that our early traditions set for us but we continue to seek in the Bible the useful testimony regarding the nature of God that has historically impressed those who have continued to cultivate a well informed interest in the biblical message(s).

Third, the Bible is the single most powerful influence in shaping, for good and ill, the entire nature of our culture: its philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, psychology, expectations, hope, ideals and idealism, and sense of meaning. Biblical scholars are concerned to understand the dynamics that are at play in that shaping of the culture in all those ways, and deliver the culture from the destructive biblical influences while enhancing the world with a clear understanding of what the Bible offers that has a potentially constructive shaping influence upon the Living Human Document, the community of biblical or secular faith, and our culture.

Fourth, scholarly study of the Bible is highly enjoyable in the way that a deep analysis of any great liturature, such as the Shakespearean Corpus, or the works of Mallory, Poe, Boethius, Beowulf, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or Aeshcylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are delightfully exciting. This delight arises from the deep appreciation of the language, style, poetry, content, methaphors and other figures of speech, aesthetics, and unique and tantalizing colloaquialisms and idiomatic expressions of the ancient cultures, that reveal their human way of living life and expressing thought.

Fifth, for me the study of the Bible has the additional dimension of intrigue that arises out of my interest in applying a psychological lens to this marvelous literary treasure-trove and noting how living human beings thought, felt, responded, related, and found meaning in their own wrestling with the signal issues that any authentic and earnest quest for truth and meaning gives rise to.

I am sure there are many other reasons to spend one's life studying the Bible. The fruit of such a quest is not merely a gratifying intellectual collections of facts and insights, but also the experience of pleasure in discerning how the insights of thoughtful people on this earnest quest in ancient times, ring true to the vision in the community of faith over the centuries, and to my own spiritual maturation in search of the meaning of life before the face of God.

J. Harold Ellens


Harold, I love the way your work begins with the certainty of an omni-benevolent God. To proceed from any other angle leads down a murky road which encourages a flow of neurosis to neurosis from author to reader; as opposed to a stream of grace which effects healing and transformation. This raises an interesting question; why do we engage in biblical studies? Is it merely for historical interest, or by-in-large do we hope to glean the workings of God in the world so we can use that ‘living word’ to help people grow?

I can summarise your work as thus:

  1. Sorting for the truth, which is grace
  2. Grace is psycho-spiritually constructive for the ‘living human document’
  3. Psychology allows us to identify grace at work in the ‘living human document’.

Thereby, I believe you have proved, psychological investigation of the Bible is both necessary and responsible. Bravo, dear scholar!  

Virginia Ingram