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Jung and the Bible

There would be little challenge to the proposition that Carl Jung (1875–1961) paid more attention to the Bible than any other psychoanalytic thinker or that his views of the Bible provoked more commentary from his followers and other religious scholars than those of any comparable figure. All of Jung's discussions of biblical texts bear the unique mark of his psychological views and his theories of symbolic meaning. As is so often the case, Jung's immersion in the Bible reflects aspects of his personality and life experience.

Early Development.

Jung's familiarity with the Bible came at an early age. He was born in Keswill on Lake Constance in Switzerland in 1875. His father was a minister and pastor of the Lutheran church there, but within six months moved to Laufen, where Jung spent his early years. Of this early experience, Jung wrote, “In my mother's family there were six parsons, and on my father's side not only was my father a parson but two of my uncles also. Thus I heard many religious conversations, theological discussions, and sermons.”

Jung's relationship with his pastor father was not the happiest. The pastor was a pious and conservative man of God, but for all his religiosity he was unable to help his son with the childhood terrors and emotional turmoil, the severe nightmares and choking fits, that made life in the parsonage all but unbearable. Theological issues became a sticking point between them. Jung's curiosity and inquisitive mind led him to question his father's traditional beliefs, to which the older Jung would reply that one should not bother about thinking in religious matters, but should devote oneself to believing. Jung's early religious doubts seem to have centered around his conflicts toward his father and his deep‐seated ambivalence, both toward his father and his father's religious views. For the son the religion of the father was a doctrine about God and had little to do with the living experience of God. In Jung's view, his father “had taken the Bible's commandments as his guide; he believed in God as the Bible prescribed and as his forefathers had taught him” but without any sense of “the immediate living God who stands, omnipotent and free above His Bible and His Church, who calls upon man to partake of His freedom.” Much of Jung's later writing about religion reflects his underlying ambivalence toward his father and his constant effort to contest approaches to religion and the Bible that resulted in no more than stale doctrines and scientific facts and did not foster the life of the spirit and the enrichment of psychic life to which Jung devoted his life.

If Jung's religiously conservative father became the object of Jung's ambivalent conflicts, his mother played an important if opposite role. Her religious views were less rigid and little concerned with conventional piety. She introduced her son to works from other religious traditions and gave him a copy of Goethe's Faust when he was a university student. She also seems to have encouraged Jung's interest in spiritualism and parapsychological phenomena.

Jung's Approach.

One cannot help but be impressed by the extent to which Jung was steeped in biblical lore. In none of his writings is he ever very far from the discussion of biblical themes or from the use of scriptural references to make his point. In the preface of Answer to Job, he stated, “I do not write as a biblical scholar (which I am not), but as a layman and physician who has been privileged to see deeply into the psychic life of many people.” He was not interested in the usual questions of biblical research—the meaning, origins, cultural background, and history behind biblical texts. He sought to find that meaning of the texts that would speak to modern men and women in their present historical and cultural experience. He was less concerned with the origins of the texts than with their effects on the lives of contemporary readers.

His familiarity with the Bible is impressive. References can be found from all but thirteen of the sixty‐six books in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The gospel of John was his favorite—he cited it more than 120 times. He was well acquainted with the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, quoting from the books of Enoch, 1 Esdras, Tobit, and the Wisdom of Solomon. He also made references to the New Testament apocryphal writings, quoting from the Gospel of the Egyptians, the book of the Apostle Bartholomew, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of John, the Gospel of Philip, and the Acts of Thomas. References to biblical figures and biblical phrases flowed easily from his pen. Further testimony to the significance of holy writ in Jung's life are the inscriptions on the family tomb in Küsnacht. The first reads Vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit (“Summoned or not, God will be here”)—the same words were inscribed on Jung's bookplate and over the entrance to his home. The second is Primus homo terrenus de terra; secundus homo coelestis de coelo (“The first man was earthly, from the earth; the second man was heavenly, from heaven”; 1 Cor. 15.47). In explaining the first inscription over his doorway, he said, “I have put the inscription there to remind my patients and myself: timor dei initium sapientiae [‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’]. Here another not less important road begins, not the approach to Christianity, but to God himself and this seems to be the ultimate question.”

Certainly Jung's use of the Bible was idiosyncratic. For him it was a primary source of material that could be translated into terms of his psychological system—with particular emphasis on the symbolic dimension of scriptural references and events that he was able to connect with aspects of his own views about the role of myths and symbols in human psychic functioning and their connection with the collective unconscious and archetypal symbols. Myths were not mere words or stories but living truths and psychic realities that exercise their power on the human soul by their use of symbolic language. Symbols thus served as the vehicles of psychic transformation that extended beyond the communication of meaning to the level of psychic integration and spiritual revitalization.

His effort was consistently directed to viewing scripture in such a way as to make it relevant to psychic concerns. He argued that the religious propositions in the Bible had their origin in the human psyche and that their meaning was in some sense determined by psychic roots, whether conscious or unconscious. They are in effect psychic facts and relevant to psychic truths that are concerned with the illumination of the soul. Their aim and purpose is not to provide information but to bring about psychic change. Jung endorsed the view that “all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3.16). Insofar as religious statements are “psychic confessions” deriving from the unconscious, they are like dreams that enter consciousness to inspire new insight and illumination. Thus, the prophets spoke of being seized by the word or spirit of God. The psyche becomes the place where the divine and human interact—transcendence is replaced by immanence. The scripture becomes the vehicle and means of God's presence and action in the soul. Behind and in the words there is the Word.

Christ as Archetype of the Self.

A good example of this usage is Jung's development of Christ as the symbol for the integrated self. The Self in Jung's psychology represents the unity and wholeness of the personality, embracing all psychic phenomena. It stands for the goal of integration of the total personality and individuality. This archetypal image is expressed in mandalas and in the heroes of myth and legend but above all in the image of Christ who “exemplifies the archetype of the Self.” As he comments in Answer to Job, “Christ would never have made the impression he did on his followers if he had not expressed something that was alive and at work in their unconscious. Christianity itself would never have spread through the pagan world with such astonishing rapidity had its ideas not found an analogous psychic readiness to receive them.”

He makes use of the Johannine theme of Christ as the way, the truth, and the light. Christ thus comes to symbolize the way of love (John 13.35), service (Mark 10.43), the life of the Spirit (Gal. 5.19–22), salvation, and reconciliation. Christ thus becomes the archetype of the Self—the Christ‐event not only speaks to the soul but acts within it to awaken, revive, cleanse, and save. In psychological terms, the Christ‐event means that to become true Selves we must acquire a broader consciousness that connects the sense of identity and wholeness with love of the neighbor. Love is the mark of the Christian. Jung observes: “The men of that age were ripe for identification with the word made flesh, for the founding of a community united by an idea, in the name of which they could love one another and call each other brothers. The old idea of … a mediator in whose name new ways of love would be opened, became a fact, and with that human society took and immense stride forward.”

In this fashion Jung strove to bring the scripture closer to vital interests and make it a force for psychic enrichment and integration—far different from his father's stale reverence for the words of scripture rather than the relation of the Bible to real life and the God of life. As he put it, “The Bible is not the words of God, but the Word of God.” As the archetype of the Self, Christ becomes a real event in the life of the soul. Christ acts in the soul to draw out real effects and changes. The Christ symbol brings with it a power through grace to become what one could not become on one's own.

Answer to Job.

Despite his frequent allusions to scripture, the Answer, written in 1952, was his only work based exclusively on a scriptural text. It was meant to be his interpretation of the Old Testament God‐image of Judaism and its transformation into the Christian God. His portrayal of God in this work was controversial and provocative, challenging the traditional Christian view of God by its theory of the “dark side” of God. Jung's God, from one perspective, is like a reflection of gnostic dualism, ruling the world by the forces of good, embodied in the figure of Christ, and evil, embodied in the figure of Satan. The dualism of good and evil is integrated in the unified image of God.

From another point of view, he saw God and the Trinity in terms of a symbolic dynamic pertaining to the individual soul and the whole of Judeo‐Christian culture. In the first stage God is Yahweh of the Old Testament; in the second stage the image of the Son and behind him the loving Father dominates the New Testament and its historical developments; and finally, with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit we enter the post–New Testament era of Christian history and development. We can hear the echoes of Joachim di Fiore and his preaching of the final and consummate age of the Holy Spirit that stirred millennial visions in the twelfth century. In Jung's eyes the trinitarian doctrine was rooted in archetypal symbols that characterize the collective unconscious of humanity. Despite his disclaimer that he was only addressing the image of God as a psychological construct and not as a reality outside the mind, Jung's treatment of the subject often seems to forget or ignore his own qualifications.

To recapitulate the story of Answer to Job: the adversary of God, Satan, casts doubt on the faithfulness of God's mortal servant Job. Jung puzzles as to why Yahweh accepts the testimony of the father of lies and seems not to know Job's true character. Why should God believe Satan rather than his own omniscience? In any event, God turns Job over to the torments of the devil in order to win the wager with Satan. All Job's possessions and even his children are destroyed before his face, yet he still cries out in his grief, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1.21). Satan ups the ante, and Job is subjected to further torments and afflictions. In his misery Job turns to his friends for solace, but they are helpless to explain his poor fortune, appealing to conventional wisdom which proves inadequate.

Yahweh answers Job's appeals for mercy not by rejecting the deceptions of Satan but by majestic declarations of his omnipotence (Job 38–40). But, asks Jung, what of the missing omniscience? The compensatory outpouring of rich gifts, the thousands of head of cattle, camels, oxen, and so on, even the blessings of new sons and daughters, hardly measure up to the loss of the others whom Job had loved and cherished. This God, says Jung, has no feeling, so lost in his own omnipotence is he.

The drama progresses as the figure of Sophia, a feminine figure representing Wisdom as found in the wisdom literature, enters. If Yahweh had consulted her rather than Satan, he would have known Job's faithfulness. Her task is to help undo the damage caused by God's omnipotence. Under her influence, Yahweh wishes to become human in order to make recompense for the torments he inflicted on Job, to restore the moral balance, and particularly to avoid the consequence of becoming a discredited and disregarded god. Most of all, he wishes to save himself from his own terrible and heartless indifference to human fate and sufferings. He can become human only through the help of Sophia, the prototype of Mary. Sophia helps him see that his first creation went awry because of the devices of Satan in the guise of the serpent. To avoid the taint of Satan's influence, God would have to be born of a virgin by an immaculate conception.

Answer to Job was essentially Jung's culminating effort to join his conflictual struggle with God and at another remove his father. His view of God was transmuted into a cultural crisis of modernity. He commented: “Later generations could afford to ignore the dark side of the Apocalypse, because the specifically Christian achievement was something that was not to be frivolously endangered. But for modern man the case is quite otherwise. We have experienced things so unheard of and so staggering that the question of whether such things are in any way reconcilable with the idea of a good God has become burningly topical.”

Thus, Jung argues, the insistence on the concept of God as all good has lost its meaning for contemporary men and women and has led to the abandonment of God. The result is a mechanistic view of the universe, a decline of spiritual values, and a sense of the meaninglessness of human existence. The presence of evil in the world creates a crisis for Christian consciousness: If God is omnipotent and all good, why does evil exist? Jung's answer is that God is not all good, but that he encompasses both good and evil. We can see the reflection of Jung's father's face in the face of the God he portrays in the Answer. It is a face compounded of good and evil that presents itself as a mystery and an enigma, just as his own father's difficult character had been for Jung as a child.


The Bible was for Jung not just another book to be read critically and skeptically, as Freud might have done. It was a book of faith, of hope, of inspiration, in which Jung found the words and images that carried him along his fevered search for meaning, psychological truth, and wholeness in his own and in his contemporaries' psychic lives. His concerns were far removed from the more scientific objectives of biblical hermeneutics and exegesis. He sought what was for him a psychological cause, a lifelong crusade, to translate the God of his father into a living God of Jung's own making. The success of his effort and the validity of his accomplishment remain enigmatic.

William W. Meissner, S.J.

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