The Development of a Reformed Psychology

(Editor’s Note: This is the transcript of a lecture delivered about a year ago at the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland; Colorado. It is published by request.)


I think that all of us are aware of the fact that in modern times, the days in which we live, the whole subject of psychology is one that is of considerable interest. You read about it, you hear about it; perhaps sometimes you are not even aware of the fact that you are dealing with the field of psychology; but yet you are. I am sure that almost all of us read Ann Landers or Dear Abby in the daily papers; I know I do, and rarely miss an opportunity for a good laugh. But even if that is the extent of your reading, you cannot help coming into contact with this whole affair that is called psychology: Ann Landers is forever telling somebody to go to see either a clergyman or a psychiatrist. But what is it all about, really? What is this psychology about which we hear so much? What is to be our evaluation and opinion of the matter? About that subject I would like to say a few words tonight.

By way of introduction we should notice, first of all, that the word psychology literally means the “doctrine of the soul.” That is somewhat of a misnomer from more than one point of view, as we hope to point out more in detail later on. Modern psychology almost in its entirety denies the existence of the soul. But however that may be, psychology certainly includes much more than the soul. When we speak concerning psychology, we speak concerning man in his entirety: man as he stands in relation, first of all, to his God; and, secondly, man as he stands in his surroundings, in his relationship to the world about him. And we note, too, that we speak concerning the Christian man, the saint.

But how do we learn anything at all concerning man? That is the question. I think we may say that there are two sources of information. One is, of course, from man himself. Man is, after all, the object of our study. But that has its limitations, too. Since the soul is invisible and spiritual, we cannot know the soul itself, but only its manifestations. That stands to reason. Moreover, since the heart and soul of man are deceitful, we cannot depend upon them and know them properly. It was the prophet Jeremiah who understood that very clearly centuries ago when he said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Therefore, in the second place, the Scriptures as the objective standard of truth are also necessary as a source of information.

But we must limit ourselves in this discussion. We cannot, in the nature of the case, deal with specifics. Such questions, for instance, as: “What is the heart of man? What is his soul? What is his mind? What is his spirit? What are his emotions? What are the vast and intricate relationships between those various aspects of man?” With these we cannot deal, nor is that our purpose. Such subjects are simply too involved and complicated to be treated in one brief lecture. Rather, our purpose is to take a general view of a Reformed psychology. Not, you understand, as a completely independent branch of study, but as a study of that which fits in with our Reformed faith. We hope, therefore, to lay down some guidelines which must necessarily hold true whenever we deal with the subject of man and his relationships to God and his fellow creatures. What I have to say is not complete, nor is it the last word on the subject. But, nevertheless, I purpose to lay down some guidelines and truths which we must follow. I speak to you on THE DEVELOPMENT OF A REFORMED PSYCHOLOGY. I would like to ask and answer three questions in that connection. In the first place what is the necessity of a Reformed psychology? Why do we have to speak about a Reformed psychology? In the second place, what is its character? And, in the third place, on the basis of its character, how do we attain to a Reformed psychology, how do we achieve that goal? 


As far as the necessity of a Reformed psychology is concerned, we should notice that there is first what might be called a negative necessity. That necessity lies in the fact that all worldly, modern psychology today is anti-Christian. It is anti-Christian basically because all of psychology as we know it today, be it with modifications, comes from a man by the name of Sigmund Freud. Freud is acknowledged by all to be the originator of modern psychology. He became interested in the study of the human being considerably over 100 years ago; he studied man in great detail, and wrote voluminously. His writings are the basis for all development subsequent to his time. Others have come along and have modified his system: there are, for example, the schools of Jung and Adler, who were his disciples; and in more modern times, many different schools have originated; there is a school which is called the neurological school, which includes behavioral and functional psychology; there is the so-called Gestalt school, and the purposivistic school, and many others besides. But the point of this is simply that all of them, without exception, operate on the principles which were posited and developed by Freud. That is even true today. Even though modern psychologists would. have you believe that all of that Freudian stuff is outdated, yet they themselves, perhaps unwittingly, assume Freud. Though it is true that modern psychology emphasizes less and less what the personality is, and though it emphasizes more and more how the person fits in with his environment, yet it operates on Freudian presuppositions.

But what was that system on which all subsequent psychology is built? That system of Freud is divided into three parts or aspects; Freud spoke of three different parts in man. When those three parts acted in harmony with one another and their environment, a man was what Freud would call normal. When those systems did not act properly, Freud said that a person was mentally ill. He spoke of the id, the ego, and the super ego. Perhaps you are familiar with some of those terms; we cannot go into them in detail, but in order to understand our subject must say just a few words about these three systems.

The id, according to Freud, has its source in man’s animal ancestry; it can be traced back through various stages of evolution. The basic function of that id is to avoid pain and seek pleasure in any way possible. In the second place, there is the ego. Freud called that the executive branch of the personality; it corresponds roughly to the power of reason in man. The basic function of the ego is to seek the best way possible to achieve that pleasure which the id desires, and to avoid the pain that the id seeks to avoid. Moreover, there is finally, the super-ego, which is the moral, judicial branch of the personality. It roughly corresponds to what we might conceive of as the conscience. Its basic function is to find ways of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain which are acceptable to society.

Now Freud spoke of many, many more things in connection with his concept of man. He spoke of instincts, he spoke of the relationships among those systems of personality, he spoke of anxieties, of repressions, of depressions, and many more. They are much too complicated to explain now, but the basic picture of Freudian psychology is, I think, clear.

We must bear in mind that all psychology since that time, as we know it in the world, is based upon that system of Freud. Modified, changed, disagreed with, developed, indeed; but it is still Freudian. Therefore we must criticize not only Freud, but modern psychology as well.

First of all, it is a fact that all modern psychology denies the existence of the soul. All modern psychology is based upon some form of evolution, and any spiritual substance in man is completely ruled out. Psychology undoubtedly comes into conflict with us in that regard. Man’s personality is, merely chemical or electrical impulses in some kind of complex interplay. In other words, man is a mechanism; that is all he is. And as long as all the parts of that machine which is man stay well-oiled, man functions smoothly. But when something breaks down or wears out, there is trouble. Of course, modem psychology denies that the image of God in man was a part of creation; that that image was lost through sin; and that that image of God is regained by the believer in Christ. They deny even that man stands in some kind of relationship to God. Rather, we must enjoy life. There is no existence after death; we do not have to worry about a God who will take vengeance upon us; eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Our business here below is to contribute to man’s upward climb on the ladder of evolution.

In the second place, all modem psychology denies the existence of sin. That is a dirty word to psychology. Because man is a product of evolution, sin therefore does not exist. What is good or bad is what the majority wants; what is good or bad is based upon the happiness of the greatest number of people. Good and evil are therefore relative things; there is no objective standard of right and wrong. Of course, modem psychology must also face the problem of aberrations, i.e., abnormalities. They would have us believe that aberrations or abnormalities are the remnants of our evolutionary heritage. Or, to put it very simply, somewhere along the line the machine that we call man breaks down; there is arrested growth and development; there are cultural or environmental pressures. You are undoubtedly familiar with the tactics of modern psychology. When a person has psychological problems, psychology can blame everyone but the person himself. Sometimes it is so ridiculous it makes you laugh. Psychologists can attribute abnormalities to a deprived childhood, to lack of opportunities, to this or to that; perhaps to a beating that your father gave you when you stole candy you shouldn’t have—all sorts of ridiculous things. But never a word concerning sin. Never a word concerning punishment of that sm. What we have to do is rehabilitate, not punish.

In the third place, in close connection with the above, all modem psychology denies the existence of total depravity. The world in general (and psychology is no exception) views man as inherently good. And because of this natural goodness, a man must be allowed to develop naturally and must be protected from harmful influences. Man must be conditioned to act in socially accepted ways, perhaps; but whatever may be the case, the point is that man is basically good. The whole theory of education, for instance, is based upon that very idea. Psychology, after all, covers much more ground than mere mental illness or something of that sort; it covers also the whole field of education, which is why it is especially important to have covenant Christian education in this day and age. Education, to the world, is merely that which aids the child in his natural development; that which acquaints the child with society’s norms and goals. Happiness is to be found, therefore, in conformation to society. A child must also have a proper sense of responsibility toward his environment and toward others. The goal of his education must be to inspire him to make a contribution to man’s upward climb on the ladder of evolution. That, basically, is modem psychology and the criticism of it.

Modern psychology, therefore, is worthless to the Reformed Christian. That is, we may undoubtedly learn much from worldly psychology in the sense that we may learn facts. There are certain facts which even the world can discover, you know; God allows that, God gives them the ability to do that. And many times they are indeed facts which cannot be contradicted. But certainly we cannot and may not accept modern psychology’s interpretations and conclusions which are based upon these facts. Therefore, for the treatment of psychological and spiritual problems, we may not go to the world. We will have more to say about that presently, but let us understand that clearly right from the start. Do not forget that the psychology of the world is not simply non-Christian; it is that. But is also anti-Christian and anti-Scriptural. How in the world, then, can the wicked world help one whose life-principle is the life of Christ? That is impossible.

We then confront a situation in which we have also a positive necessity for a Reformed psychology. What we are saying is simply this: we cannot accept that which the world has to offer. Therefore we must replace it with something that is true and Scriptural. In that connection we must mention a couple of points.

As far as the positive necessity of a Reformed psychology is concerned, it lies, in the first place, in our necessity to harmonize doctrine and life. We may posit many doctrines, and we do. We posit on the basis of Scripture the doctrine of God’s sovereignty; we posit the doctrine of man, the doctrine of the antithesis, the doctrine of the covenant, the doctrine of salvation, and many, many more, far too numerous to mention. All of these doctrines are good because they are Scriptural; they are true doctrines, worthwhile doctrines, good things to know, necessary things to know for our salvation. The point is that our practice must be in harmony with our doctrine. It is often said, and perhaps you have heard it said that practice without doctrine is worthless and vice versa; and that is completely true. Our practice, therefore, with respect to spiritual-psychological problems (and with respect to psychology in the general sense) must be in harmony with our doctrinal-position. We must develop a practice of a Reformed psychology which is completely in harmony with our whole doctrinal world-and-life view.

And that leads us to speak of the other aspect of this positive necessity, which is the necessity to develop a comprehensive world-and-life view. It is our calling, as you are undoubtedly aware, to be antithetical; to stand positively for the thesis, and to stand antithetically against all that which opposes that thesis. We as a Reformed people and as a Reformed church have fulfilled that calling; I am convinced of that. Oh, very often we hear that accusation thrown at us: “Don’t be so miserably negative all the time!” Very often we hear that. But it is our calling, after all, to be that way. It is not true that we are only negative, though certainly we are that. But it is our calling also to be positive. You cannot be only negative. You must be also positive. Therefore it is our calling to stand for a Scriptural life principle in whatever area of our existence that may include. We must develop our view of life, a Reformed Scriptural view of life in all of its aspects. And the area of spiritual, mental, psychological problems is one of them, along with the whole area which may be included in that term psychology. In many other areas of life we have undoubtedly fulfilled that calling. I may point to one perhaps, and that is the doctrine of the covenant; we have that doctrine as no one else has it, and it has been our privilege under the guidance of God to have developed the practice of that doctrine in the history of our churches. Also we have fulfilled that calling to some degree in this field of psychology, as we will point out later. But there is still room for development, as we also hope to point out presently. But the point is clear: we must have a Scriptural, antithetical, Reformed world-and-life view with respect to psychology.