The time has come in our correspondence to turn our discussions to some general principles of psychology which underlie the work of the pastor in the congregation in which God has called him to labor.
Before we begin this discussion, there are some general remarks which ought to be made.
In the first place, it will not do to enter into a detailed and lengthy discussion of all the principles of psychology. As important as this may be, it would defeat our present purpose in this discussion. Nevertheless, there are some broad lines which we ought to have clearly before our minds before we proceed. We cannot, after all, do our work properly unless we have some understanding of what Scripture has to say on this subject.
You notice that I say, “Scripture.” We are interested particularly in what the Scriptures have to say. There are, of course, questions which arise in this connection. Are the Scriptures of such a kind that they are able to give us such principles of psychology? Are the Scriptures a textbook of psychology? Are the Scriptures the only source of information in this area? Is it possible, in other words, to glean also from the study of man himself some principles which belong to psychology?
To answer some of these questions, I want to quote rather at length from Dr. H. Bavinck’s book, “Biblical and Religious Psychology.” The quote is rather interesting and sheds light on the broader question of the relation between the Scriptures and other subjects which might be taught in any school, as well as the relation between Scripture and psychology. The translation is mine.
But just as soon as we begin to think of that subject which bears the name of Biblical Psychology, we face a great difficulty, a difficulty which is repeatedly felt and discussed and which has given rise to different opinions. The question is asked whether such a subject actually exists and can lay claim to the right of existence. There are those who give, without hesitation, an affirmative answer to this question and marvel somewhat concerning the question itself. How would the Bible, which from beginning to end deals not only with God, but also with man, his origin, fall, redemption, destination—how would it not also contain all those data which are necessary for the construction of a psychology? The assert then that the Scriptures present to us all the material for a complete and systematic psychology; that this psychology, when built upon the Scriptures, has by far the preference over that scientific psychology which is constructed by man himself from the investigation of human nature.
But there have been serious arguments raised against this opinion. The Bible, it is said, is certainly not given for the purpose that we should be able to derive from it a complete psychology. Because it is a book of the revelation of God and, yet further, of redemption in Christ, we must use it for that end and not for all sorts of scientific pottering. It is only authoritative for us in those truths which lie on the religious-ethical level and which concern the mutual relation of God and man; but it may not apply to US as a source of knowledge for all kinds of science. If the Bible gives us a scientific psychology, one could with equal right assert that a scientific cosmology, geography, astronomy, physics, general history, logic, philosophy, etc., ought to be constructed from the Bible; and where then is the independence and freedom of all these sciences? We would return to those times in which theology, and in particular, dogmatics, arrogated itself to be the only and complete science, and it alone knew how to give an answer to all possible and impossible questions. Just as then, so also now again, all science would be swallowed up by theology; or at least would be deprived of the right of independence and free investigation. Why, e.g., still search nature and man, heaven and earth, if the Bible gives us infallible and perfect information concerning all these things? We would then have nothing more to do for scientific development than to study the Scriptures. It would be the principle, the sufficient knowledge-source of all our wisdom, and it would make all further study superfluous.
One feels the weight of these criticisms. They are not really without foundation, because now and then one meets with such a view in the Church. Is not Scripture a lamp before the feet and a light on our path? What do we have to do with all that worldly wisdom which is nothing else but idle philosophy? . . .
The question, if there exists such a subject as biblical psychology, is reduced to a principle of very general application. Applied in another form and to other subjects, it comes to our attention again and again in the practice of life as well as in the world of thought. Whenever we circumscribe that principle in the abstract, it comes down to the question: In what relation does Scripture stand to nature, particularly to general revelation; the person of Christ to the works of His Father in creation and providence?
Does special revelation take up in itself everything which lies before us in nature and history? so that we, in order to come to know everything with regard to nature and history, need to do nothing other than to investigate the Scriptures? There are indeed those that reason this way theoretically, but they then, at the same time, contradict the practice in their own life. . . .
But now on the other side: are the Scriptures related so loosely to nature that they never in any way concern themselves with, never speak concerning, and shed absolutely no light on, nature? Is Scripture only a light on the path to heaven, and is it in no respect a lamp for our feet as we walk in the paths of this earth? But this is in conflict with reality because Scripture by no means limits itself only to purely religious-ethical and heavenly things; but each moment it also deals with those matters which concern earthly life.
There is here a rather lengthy digression; but Bavinck goes on to say:
The significance which Biblical psychology has for our study appears, in the first place, from this that Scripture speaks of the same man who still exists, lives and thinks, feels, wills, and acts. It is really the Scripture itself which can give us knowledge of this weighty truth because it deliberately teaches the joint origin of the whole human race and the unity and unchangeableness of human nature. It testifies that man, in spite of differences in race, language, nation, civilization, notwithstanding the fact that he has become a sinner and also that he has been delivered and renewed from sin, remains always the same according to his being, with the same soul, the same needs, the same inspirations and aspirations. . . .
Also in this area, particular revelation adapts itself to man who exists by virtue of creation and providence, and who, though remaining essentially the same, is still the object of our investigation. But it adapts itself to him only insofar as it has need of it for its own purpose. It thus furnishes no popular or scientific psychology any more than it hands us an outline of history, geography, astronomy, husbandry, etc. To this extent it is completely accurate to say that the Bible does not teach us how the stars move, but how we go to heaven.
. . . Holy Scripture never makes use of abstract, philosophical ideas, but always speaks the rich language of life. Thus there is a need of good exegesis to understand its correct sense, and to translate its meaning into the words of this time. It is not suitable for nor intended to be a textbook or a scientific handbook.
But if we investigate it according to its own principle and nature, it yields a threefold benefit for us for our psychology. In the first place, it teaches us to know man as he is and as he shall always remain, in his origin, essence, and destiny. . . . It follows, in the second place, that the study of Holy Scripture introduces us to man’s soul life in a way in which no other book does or can do. It describes for us what changes in that man, who remains the same according to his essence, are and are produced through sin and grace. It follows that man through these changes, until, in the deepest hiding places of his heart, it brings to light what happens in secret, and manifests itself also in this sense to be a Word of God which is living and powerful and penetrates to the dividing of soul and spirit. And finally, it never does all this in abstract conceptions, but it makes us see everything in the full reality of life. It puts persons on the stage for us, which are worthy of each one’s considerations, and who together form a gallery which can never be seen anywhere else. And among them, or better, high above them, Christ stands, the unique One among men, full of grace and truth.
It is clear from the quote from Bavinck that he considers the Scriptures to be determinative in any psychology. He does not deny the fact that there may indeed be certain truths learned concerning man, even from a psychological viewpoint, from a study of man himself. But he nevertheless gives to Scripture such a prominent place that all that we learn concerning man from observation and study must be understood and interpreted in the light of the Scriptures. With this we agree wholeheartedly. Although the Scriptures give us the principles on the basis of which we must develop a Christian viewpoint to history, geography, and all the natural sciences, this is more than ever true of psychology. And this is so because the Scriptures deal with man. Scripture is the revelation of Jehovah God in the face of Jesus Christ as the God Who saves His people through Christ. It stands to reason, therefore, that Scripture will be full of what must constitute a genuine Christian psychology.
We agree, of course, as any one is bound to agree, that the Scriptures are no textbook on psychology. But this does not alter the fact that here we find who man is, how God created him, what is the nature of his life as a man, what is the nature of his life as a sinner, what is the nature of his life as a regenerated child of God.
To the Scriptures then we must turn above all else.
And with this we must end our discussion for the present.
Fraternally in Christ,