Absolute Truth and the Hearts of Men

“Psychologism”—that is the name of an ever treacherous pitfall referred to in our previous article. When we slip into this pitfall, we lose truth in the maze of human experience. This pitfall can be avoided only by insisting upon the absolute, sovereign character of God-given truth. Only in this way can we hold before troubled mankind a hope and reality that is not caught in the subtle entanglements of human feeling and emotion.

In all pastoral dealings with men, this insistence upon the sovereignty of truth is of first importance. God’s glorious and changeless truth is of the greatest practical value to men when the high position of the truth above the practical needs of men is recognized and honored.

However, this recognition of the high position of truth does not yet settle this whole problem. There is another side to this question of the relationship between absolute truth and the hearts of men. The case of the Rev. Paul B. Bright will help us to see this other side.

Unsuccessful Pastor

The Rev. Paul B. Bright is a good thinker. He is known as an unfailingly logical theologian. And by all standards he is definitely a soundly orthodox preacher. To those with some training, or at least some real interest in theology, it is a genuine pleasure to listen to his well-constructed and theologically true sermons. His writings, too, always hew unfalteringly to a clean doctrinal line.

For these reasons Mr. Bright should be held in high esteem, especially in a day when preachers with a sound sense of theological exactness are almost as scarce as statesmen in Washington, D.C. Yet, Mr. Bright has not been a successful pastor. This is not said because he failed to receive calls to the largest churches in the denomination. Rather, his lack of success is apparent from conversations with people who have had him as their pastor. His clear thinking was always appreciated, especially by those who did some reading and studying. But there seemed to be a gap between his sound preaching and the hearts of the people. Unfortunately, some people got the notion that doctrinally exact preaching is always distant and abstract. This unfortunate and wholly unwarranted notion made his ministry difficult at times. But it was a fact that for some reason his preaching failed to g:et under the skin of his hearers. He just didn’t seem to be sensitive to the manner in which his preaching and pastoral work should enrich the lives of his people.

Was there possibly something in Mr. Bright’s own personality that made it impossible for him to have vital contact (rapport) with the inner lives of his people? Did some deep-seated social maladjustment cause him to seek asylum and prestige in logical perfection, just as a maladjusted student may sometimes seek asylum and prestige in academic perfection as a. substitute for social effectiveness?

Psychologist C.G. Jung tells of sending a questionnaire to a number of European clergymen concerning the relationship between theology and the mental health of the people. One reply struck lung. It said, “Theology has nothing to do with the treatment of human beings.”

The Rev. Mr. Bright would no doubt have subscribed to that statement. And in a sense he would be right. As we have tried to point out in the previous article, truth must not be considered first of all in relation to man’s needs and feelings.



This point deserves to be made quite plain. To see it d early we can well look at a practice among clergymen that has become quite prevalent. Many ministers have preached on a series of themes like the following: “The Conquest of Fear,” “The Secret of Inner Strength,” “The Key to Inner Peace,” “The Truly Integrated Personality,” “How to Find Happiness,” and similar themes. Men who preach on themes such as these deserve credit for trying to make the Word of God pertinent and vital. But there is a real danger in such preaching. A sermon may not become a psychological discourse. The sermon may not subtly suggest that the Word of God exists primarily to give man psychological poise and stability. Such an impression would violate the important principle developed in the previous article. What is more, such an impression plays close to the egocentricity and self-centeredness that is of the very nature of twisted states of mind.

In other words, true preaching will always dwell on the solid foundation of truth on which an orderly psychological house must be built. For instance, a clear and live sermon on the providence of God will generally do more solid good toward building inner supports against fear than will a sermon on the subject “The Conquest of Fear.” To be sure, this is only a general observation and is subject to exception. But we must insist that preaching and pastoral work which concentrate overmuch on the states of mind of the creature will often fail to give the creature just that which he needs to make him strong. Man’s strength lies in God. Let God and his glorious perfections and works be preached and ever held before men. Let those who ceaselessly clamor for more “practical” sermons bear this very practical point in mind. And let this point also stick with that minister who has become enamored of the newer psychological emphasis in pastoral work.

The Other Side of the Coin

Boys used to refer to the two sides of a coin as “heads” and “tails.” Possibly they still do. Our problem of the relation between sovereign truth and psychological states of men is like a coin. What we have stressed so far is the “heads” side of the coin. It is the more important side. He who works with the souls of men must recognize and love the truth of God in all of its transcendent purity and richness of meaning.

But there is another side to this coin. And just as the two sides of a coin are inseparable, so this second side of our question is inseparable from the first side. This absolute truth that must be recognized for what it is in all of its beauty and meaning is administered in preaching and pastoral work to living beings who are image-bearers of God. Can this Word of God be effectively administered without some knowledge of these living beings and of the manner in which that Word enters into their inward parts?

By our question we mean to indicate that in all pastoral work there should be some very real understanding of the psychological processes of men. The Word is not administered to stones and trees. It is administered to dynamic beings—men, women, and children. Every personality to whom the Word of life is applied is a lively community of attitudes, prejudices, longings, regrets, heartaches, joys, sorrows, complexes, emotional and intellectual and cultural patterns, laughter and tears. Some of these elements that make up the personality are common to all men. Others are highly individual. In a sense all people are alike. All have the marks of sinful creatures. Yet, in another very real sense, then:. are no two people alike. They are as finely dissimilar as the well-known snowflakes.

The “heads” of our coin says, “Preach the Word.” The “tails” of our coin says, “Know the hearts of your people.” The God-ordained shepherd of souls must not first of all concern himself with the psychological states of men: At the same time, he cannot avoid concerning himself with the inner states of the souls of men if he would be a true shepherd of the souls or men.

Yes, it may be said that any use of the Word of God in preaching or pastoral work that ignores the hearts of the hearers is defective. Why do we say that? We say that for several reasons.

First of all, there are many passages in Scripture that point to the wellbeing of the inner man as a very real part of God’s work with men. We shall quote just a few of these passages.

Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Isaiah 26:3, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.”

Philippians 4:6–7, “Be careful (anxious, R.V.) for nothing; but In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

II Timothy 1:7, “For God hatJl not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (discipline, R.V.).

The Sound Theologian

In the second place, a theologian who ignores the states of mind of men is really not a good theologian. Why do we say that? We make that statement for this reason. The theologian is concerned with truth. Truth is a matter of God’s revelation. God’s revelation to man has two inter-related aspects. God has revealed himself to man by his special revelation. That is his Word, his written Word as given to prophets and apostles, and Jesus Christ the living Word. God also reveals himself to man by a general revelation.

And where is this general revelation found? General revelation, says Professor Louis Berkhof, “consists in an embodiment of the divine thought in the phenomena of nature, and in the general constitution of the human mind, and in the facts of experience and history.”1 Professor Berkhof further makes clear that general and special revelation are necessary to each other if either is to be properly understood.

If this solid theologian is correct here (and the writer has no doubt that he is). then he is simply saying that the Word of God cannot be truly understood apart from an understanding of the psychological processes of men. A theology that ignores the Facts of man’s inner being and of the experience and history of that being is an unsound theology. Any preaching of the Word that ignores these things is an unsound preaching of the gospel. Pastoral work that seeks to apply the Word of life without some understanding of the dynamic being to whom it is applied is poor pastoral work. Indeed, it is seriously defective pastoral work though not as defective as a psychological approach without theology.

Mind and Heart

A third reason why it is so necessary for him who esteems the sovereign truth of God to give due consideration to the psychological processes of men lies in a proper understanding of what we call the “mind” of man. Altogether too commonly the mind is conceived of as some kind of separate place where truth enters and abides without interference from any outside source. The mind is thought of as a kind of clean and polished receptacle, and all that has to be done is to place neat packages of truth into it.

If this notion were correct, then our only concern would be to make out statements of truth as logically correct as we possibly can, and the waiting mind will receive them. In that case, mental hospitals would be for the care of people with a poor sense of logic and for heretics.

Even a little reflection on life tells us that such is not the case. The mind is not a receptacle separate from the rest of the personality. All the feelings, yearnings, prejudices, attitudes, and deeper needs of the person affect the mind. It is doubtful, for instance, that there is a mind that is free from the strong need for security which characterizes the personality of man. The personality of man is a unity. It has no separable parts or sections or functions. For this reason, even the most refined intellectual operations of men are influenced by their deeper feelings. For this reason, too, the soul or spirit of man as he is in this world cannot be thought of apart from the bodily functions of the personality.

In other words, the truth which must be clearly understood and clearly presented must be applied to men, that is, to the totality of their experience. Everything that enters into man’s life, everything that makes him what he is, affects the response to truth, yes, enters into the very character of that response. This is just another way of saying that the truth which expresses the mind of God is for the hearts of men, the image-bearers of God. The response to God’s sovereign truth is not a merely intellectual operation. It is a response of the heart. All elements of man’s being center here. The heart is intimately connected with the reins. Man’s “thoughts and intents” are of the heart. Out of the heart are the issues of life.

This makes the matter of response to God’s Word a far more complex matter than it would be if this response were simply a matter of giving assent to good logic. Man’s heart-life is one. Everything that has played a significant part in an individual’s life affects the heart-life. If the heart-life has been marked by serious emotional injuries and deep loneliness from youngest years, that fact will have important bearing on the response of such a person to the presentation of the Word of God. Presentation of the Word of God and of the claims of Christ in such an instance must be governed by care that the gospel shall not become a temporary emotional prop rather than the tremendous spiritual reality by which “all things become new.”

The writer of this article has had dealings with several profoundly distraught people who had “accepted Christ” in response to presentations of the gospel that were not governed as we have here pointed out such presentations should be governed. The sequel to such a response often is that after a ·period of great spiritual elation at having found a wonderfully simple answer to life’s crying needs, the “saved” individual lapses into a deeper distress than he had before this experience. Because the evangelistic answer to his heart’s cry had promised so much so easily, and because the “decision” to “accept Christ” did not actually touch the deeper recesses of his personality, the loss of what he had superficially thought was so wonderfully real leaves him with a deeper disillusionment than he ever suffered before. For this and kindred reasons the writer of this article is vigorously opposed to the type of psychological pressures often employed in evangelistic meetings today. Such pressures often constitute a betrayal of deeply troubled and sincerely, searching hearts.

Two Final Thrusts

This whole important subject is so fascinating that there is reluctance to leave it. There are so many facets deserving of careful study. But we must leave this large matter with just two final observations.

In the first place, we would point out that there is no little danger that our line of argument will be misunderstood or forgotten in one detail. A possible reaction to this article is the feeling that we have minimized the need for careful thinking in preaching and in all pastoral work. The reader must not forget the “heads” of our coin. A clear understanding of the truth of God is of first importance in all work with the souls of men. It is very doubtful, for instance, whether the “winning of souls” to peace in Christ by messages that show little theological or logical discernment is the legitimate or telling way to bring men into the Kingdom. From the start, our plea has been that in all work with the souls of men we be intelligently and relentlessly theological.

In the second place, we would point out our belief that new and grand possibilities for the effectual preaching and application of the gospel lie before those who are committed to sound theology. In some respects those committed to this sound theology have not been sound enough. They have not integrated special with general revelation in the manner that Professor Berkhof suggests. Let men preach the Word with all intelligence and faithfulness and in harmony with its grandeur. But let them preach and apply it in awareness of the inner forces at work in those to whom it is administered. Why should the devil’s emissaries be allowed to exploit the area of general revelation to the enslavement of men?2 Why should not the messengers of light and peace and freedom exploit this area for the glory of God and for the benefaction of men?

This calls for no trimming of our doctrine. This calls for no sermons reduced to essays in psychology or for pastoral work reduced to psycho-religious quackery. On the contrary, an administration of the changeless truth of God, taught and guided by a penetrating understanding of the deeper characters of men, will bring greater glory to the truth and greater luster and power to its presentation. Then there will be no “cloudy doctrinal” sermons. Then there will be no mechanical prayers or routine Scripture readings with the sick and the distressed and anguished of heart. Then the Word of life will be fresh and vivid—because God’s Word is integrated with the wondrous and fascinating totality of throbbing life and experience. Such lustrous, dynamic, and doctrinally sound ministry of the Word is always the need of the hour.

1. Manual of Reformed Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1933), pp. 26ff.

2. See article entitles “Psychological Aspects of Political Systems” by Harry B. Friedgood in the American Scientist of July 1951, pp. 432–440.