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A Response to Recent Criticisms of Dr. Heath Lambert’s 95 Theses

Editors Note: ACBC has received requests and submissions from leaders in the biblical counseling movement to offer a response to recent criticisms of Dr. Heath Lambert’s 95 Theses. Today on the blog we are releasing a response by a church member (not certified with ACBC) who has articulated her concerns with Brad Hambrick’s blog series. On Friday, ACBC will release another critique from two seminary professors (ACBC certified) offering their evaluation of the same series.

 

As a person with a great passion for biblical counseling and as one who has a degree in it, I was quite interested by a series of blog posts written recently by Brad Hambrick in response to Heath Lambert’s 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling. After reading those posts, it became apparent that there was much more going on than one biblical counselor’s critique of another. It is clear that Brad Hambrick is setting forth a different definition and trajectory of biblical counseling; not just as Heath Lambert would define it, but as the biblical counseling movement at large has defined it. Hambrick’s engagement of Lambert’s 95 Theses is a platform for profoundly unhelpful changes to the direction and definition of biblical counseling.

At the conclusion of Hambrick’s first post he says that he will continue in the series as long as he thinks it is edifying to the church. For reasons I will outline here, it does not seem that the church has been edified by Hambrick’s engagement of Lambert’s 95 Theses. After reading Hambrick’s series I knew I needed to respond, but I want to be clear that my response is not intended to tear down a brother in Christ. I am thankful that Hambrick is giving thought and attention to important issues in biblical counseling.

My gratitude for this thoughtfulness, however, does not negate several serious concerns with what Hambrick wrote. In fact, if Hambrick’s criticisms go unanswered I believe it will bode poorly for the future of all of us who desire a more biblical approach to counseling to prevail in the future. Hambrick certainly makes many helpful observations, but the points he makes that are most commendable are not novel and are currently found throughout the biblical counseling movement at large. The points that are most unhelpful I have sought to address in this post. In short, I am concerned that Hambrick demonstrates a lack of willingness to align with the conviction that the Scriptures are sufficient for counseling, and with the impropriety of integrating secular therapy with biblical principles for change. I contend that Hambrick’s understanding of biblical counseling is in error and that his commentary on the changes necessary to the biblical counseling movement should be disregarded.

Brad Hambrick’s Claim to be a Biblical Counselor

As someone who claims to be a biblical counselor, Brad Hambrick’s arguments seem to fall short of the term. In his first post under the heading, “My Voice in the Conversation” he addresses the fact that certain persons who Lambert has called to repentance are not biblical counselors.

“They do not identify as biblical counselors, and I do not consider them to be biblical counselors. I consider them to be friendly counseling neighbors within the larger Evangelical Christian counseling efforts whose work is complementary to my own. There are places where I disagree with them (at least prioritizing things differently), as I am sure they would do the same with me.”

There are two main issues here. First, the people Hambrick references are not biblical counselors, as he asserts. Rather they practice an integrated form of counseling, which has been the concern of biblical counselors for two generations. This issue of integrated counseling is something that Hambrick has skirted around completely. Just because the people he lists do not claim to be biblical counselors, does not mean they get a free pass on whether or not they bring Christ into the counseling conversation. It is interesting, then, that Hambrick would describe these counselors’ work as complementary to his own and helpful to the church while he spends eight blog posts splitting hairs with someone who has devoted his life to helping the church through biblical counseling. Hambrick is pointing to people whose expertise he may need every now and then while he critiques someone who is engaged in the bread and butter of what biblical counseling is.

Second, the caveat made about “at least prioritizing things differently” is cause for genuine concern. In his 95 Theses, Lambert makes the fundamentally Christian claim that believers in Jesus Christ ought to share that faith with those they counsel. This should not be controversial. The issues at stake with those who refuse to do this are not a matter of priority, rather they are matters of the essence and foundation of counseling care.

The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture

Towards the end of his first post, Hambrick spends a great deal of time on his definition of biblical counseling. On the whole, I’m thankful for the commitments he makes to the gospel, the church, Scripture, and sin and suffering. However, each of his points of definition are already clearly outlined in the 95 Theses. It is unfair misrepresentation of Lambert’s 95 Theses for Hambrick to underline his own commitment to these principles without pointing out that Lambert shares the same commitment.

In fact, Hambrick’s point about, “The Necessity of the Gospel,” is amply addressed by Lambert in the following Theses:

Theses 14. The Bible teaches that the person and work of Jesus Christ provide God’s sufficient power to solve every problem of humanity so, according to Scripture, he is the ultimate subject of every counseling conversation (Col 2:2-3).

Theses 15. Counselors require a standard to know what changes must be pursued in the lives of the troubled people they wish to help and, because the Bible portrays Jesus Christ as that perfect standard for human living, it is impossible to accomplish authentically Christian counseling without reference to him (1 John 2:5-6).

Theses 16. The fact that the Bible authoritatively and sufficiently describes who Jesus is, what he has done and currently does, and how his work applies to our problems proves Scripture’s authority and sufficiency as a counseling resource.

Theses 17. Because the Bible perfectly explains how Jesus has made provision for people to live every aspect of their lives, any statement that imposes limitations on Scripture in addressing the counseling problems individuals face is an implicit attack on the person and work of Jesus (Col 3:16).

Hambrick’s second point, “The Centrality of the Church,” is clearly substantiated in the following Theses:

Theses 76. God commands every Christian to the kinds of conversations that our culture calls counseling (Rom 15:14).

Theses 77. Christians should not function as though the task of counseling is reserved for only a special class of professionals.

Theses 78. Each local congregation must have a commitment to being a place of counseling care at both the lay and pastoral levels.

Theses 79. Pastors, in particular, must be committed to increasing their counseling skills, and to equipping congregations with knowledge of how to do counseling (Eph 4:11-16).

Hambrick’s third point, “The Primacy and Finality of Scripture” where he affirms the “ultimate authority, relevance, and transformative power of Scripture”, is demonstrated in Lambert’s Theses 6-29.

But the way Hambrick addresses this last point raises a serious concern. He says,

3. The Primacy and Finality of Scripture. The Bible should have the first and last word on anything it addresses. It may stand out that I did not use the word “sufficiency.” But that term is so central to Dr. Lambert’s development of the 95 Theses, that if I use it here, I would be implicitly accepting all of the implications that come with his presentation. That would not be much of a conversation. So here I choose to use the terms “primacy and finality” to allow room to tease out important distinctions while still honoring the ultimate authority, relevance, and transformative power of Scripture.

Sufficiency has been around much longer than Lambert’s use of it. To abandon the use of the term sufficiency for the sake of personal clarity and fear of aligning with someone you say you agree with makes for an unwise and unclear engagement on these issues. The decades of theological study of the sufficiency of Scripture would surely be a rich resource to pull from in Hambrick’s formulation of differences found between his idea of the implications of it as compared to Lambert’s. Instead, he has disregarded the term altogether. You cannot call yourself a biblical counselor while refusing to use and engage with the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture that has characterized biblical counseling for decades.

Then there is Hambrick’s emphasis on suffering in the counseling enterprise. This is well and fine, but again, overlooks that these issues have been repeatedly addressed by Lambert in other places — like, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams (Pg. 49) — and, more to the point, is unpacked by Lambert in his 95 Theses:

Thesis 94. Counseling ministry must be committed to addressing suffering and must tenderly comfort those experiencing pain in a fallen world (2 Cor 1:3-7).

Thesis 95. Counseling ministry must be committed to helping the weak and to matching words of counseling wisdom with practical and specific care (Jas 2:14-17).

The main problem with Hambrick’s four tenets of biblical counseling is that he does not discuss how and to what extent they are currently found in the biblical counseling movement. (I would argue that they are. See titles such as Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul David Tripp, Speaking Truth in Love by David Powlison, A Theology of Biblical Counseling by Heath Lambert, and Counseling by John MacArthur just to name a few.) When the reader is finished reading his definitions, he is left to the conclusion that Hambrick’s definitions differ from what is espoused in the general biblical counseling movement, but not how. This is one of the reasons Hambrick’s post is unhelpful to the body of Christ. If he is implying that his definition is somehow better than what is being offered, then he needs to say so. If he is implying that Lambert’s articulation of these matters falls outside the mainstream of what biblical counseling has argued, then he needs to say so. If he is implying that much of what he is saying is already found in the biblical counseling movement in general, and by Lambert in particular, then honesty and fairness demand that he give credit where it is due.

Clarity About Terms

Hambrick’s third post on “Psychology and Secular Therapy” is one of the most troublesome. It is puzzling that Hambrick took the time to be specific about the theses he agrees with (post 2, entitled “Agreement”), while he turns to generalities in his disagreement. One main critique he leverages is in regards to Lambert’s use of the terms “psychology” and “secular therapy”:

A document as significant as Dr. Lambert intends for his 95 Theses to be should have more precision and clarity on key terms like “psychology” and “secular therapy.” Based upon the level of repetition that exists between many of his other Theses, space for this precision could have been created by eliminating redundancy.

This is genuinely baffling. I have read Lambert’s 95 Theses multiple times and have not found any lack of clarity or precision. Hambrick argues that Lambert should have been more clear in his use of terms like psychology. While expressing concern over Lambert’s document he points to one written by David Powlison that he is not concerned about. I share Hambrick’s thankfulness for Powlison’s six distinctions concerning psychology. And yet it is unfair to critique someone for failing to write what someone else has already written.

Lambert used a helpful and simplified method of terminology. I was able, as a biblical counseling layperson, to read and understand the language in Lambert’s theses without any of the difficulty that Hambrick had. In the 95 Theses, “Psychology” always refers to the science of human behavior, while “secular therapy” always refers to the practice of secular counseling. So when you see the term “psychology” you can think science, and when you see the term “secular therapy” you can think practice. Lambert does a faithful job of using these terms specifically and not interchangeably. I think the reader will find that it is not unclear what is being referred to, nor does he use them imprecisely(1). It is therefore, ironic, that Hambrick is actually guilty of the kind of imprecision of which he accuses Lambert. He accuses Lambert of imprecision without demonstrating precisely where that happens. If Lambert’s only crime is failing to write what another already wrote, then Hambrick’s criticism falls flat.

Counseling and Sharing the Gospel

A second critique that Hambrick makes comes in the form of a comparison:

I do not believe that Dr. Lambert’s Thesis 73 takes into account the number of redemptive benefits that believers serving in various licensure roles allow. It is as if the only reason a Christian should move to a closed country is to be a church planter. The business-as-missions movement is built upon the premise that believers living missionally in closed contexts can have so many benefits that it is to be highly encouraged, not cautiously permitted. I believe there are numerous parallels to Christians serving in the world of licensed counseling. The restrictions are real and concerning, but the opportunities are significant and worthwhile.

This comparison is oversimplified and misses a major point. Business as mission missionaries, in general, go to live life with people and build relationships with them for the sake of evangelism. Counseling is entering into people’s lives during a vulnerable time, and the counselors is immediately faced with what kind of care to offer. Will you point them to the person and work of Christ, or will you offer them a form of help that is not gospel-centered? The crux of the issue is not whether people need to be ministered to, rather how you will minister to them in their time of need.

Can Hambrick not agree that troubled people in need of counseling ought to hear about the gracious comfort that comes through Christ alone? If he can agree, can he not also agree that Christians who fail to offer that grace ought to be encouraged to do so?

Is There Really a Problem with Evidence?

In his fourth post, Hambrick engages Lambert’s use of the terms “evidence” and “proof”.

My point is not to argue with Dr. Lambert’s conclusions, but to point out the logical fallacy of appealing to evidence or proof for something that is either unquantifiable or for which the author would not accept the nature of evidence that could be given.

Historically, traditional biblical counseling has been in opposition to trying to empirically verify its results based on the premise that the greater goal of counseling is to glorify God more than alleviate symptoms. The logic is that the interaction of counseling is more like hearing from a preacher (the private ministry parallel to the public ministry of the Word) than consulting with a physician (seeking relief from one or more life struggles).

There are two issues to address here. The first issue is that Hambrick starts addressing “evidence” as empirical evidence. That’s quite a jump, since “evidence” is not exactly the same thing as empirical proof. Hambrick’s argument is, therefore, flawed because Hambrick imposes an understanding of evidence that is different than what Lambert uses in his 95 Theses. To begin engaging Lambert’s use of “evidence” as a misuse of the practice of empirical evidence is simply unfair. Take Thesis 37 as an example, like Hambrick did:

Thesis 37. One evidence for the authority and sufficiency of Scripture is that Christians in the modern West with access to secular therapy have been powerfully helped and transformed by biblical resources far more than by therapeutic ones.

Empirical research can be one way to establish a fact or evidence, but it is not the only way. Evidence, as Lambert uses it, has to do with whether something is a fact. It is the work of the gospel through sanctification to powerfully transform believers. This transformation is factually evident with or without any empirical evidence to establish it.

Later in his blog post, Hambrick gives six reasons as to why he thinks there is “hope” that the biblical counseling movement can compare favorably with therapeutic practices. In summation of these six reasons, Hambrick writes:

These factors are huge advantages that, if our theory and practice are as strong as I believe they can be, should mean that our effectiveness outcomes would be quite high compared to our therapeutic neighbors. But to date, we cannot make this argument because we have not done the hard work to provide the data to back it up.

This statement is dangerous. It comes far too close to saying that our effectiveness is dependent upon data that proves it, appealing to an authority for effectiveness other than Scripture. This means that Hambrick is no longer talking about the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling, but the authority of Scripture over empirical evidence. Biblical counselors reject the worldview of empiricism which requires external validation before a principle of Scripture can be established. This means that there is not a standard for effectiveness that can be used across the board to validate biblical counseling and secular therapy. These are competing visions of care with competing systems of authority. Either intentionally or inadvertently, Hambrick is advocating a change to the essence of what biblical counseling is so that the basis of our authority is the same structure of authority as secular empiricism. This change is unacceptable for anyone committed to biblical authority, not just biblical counseling.

Hambrick proposes several areas that need to be “refined” in biblical counseling to produce the kind of comparisons he thinks need to be made against therapeutic counseling. His first three are:

  1. We would need to be more willing to define and identify levels of competency and training. In order to do empirical research we would have to operationally define what it meant to be a biblical counselor. Is a “biblical counselor” a mature lay person, someone with a biblical counseling certificate, or someone with a seminary degree? How much and what type of experience is required to be a “biblical counselor”?
  2. We would need to be more skilled in assessing the nature and severity of an individual’s or couple’s life struggle.
  3. The purpose of these first two points would be to define a refutable research hypothesis – for instance, “A biblical counselor with ‘x’ training and experience is ‘y’ percent more effective than non-treatment with individuals who experience ‘z’ struggle.”

 

In reference to points one and two, all that can be said is that the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors exists to accomplish these things and answer these questions. (Minus the empirical research reference in point one.) Perhaps most unhelpfully, point number three places the burden of proof on the outcome of the counseling session, not the faithfulness of the counselor. We are called to be faithful to the Word of God, but we cannot guarantee an outcome. We don’t use this as a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to empirical evidence, rather we acknowledge that our burden of proof is being stored up for judgment day as we are held accountable for the faithfulness in which we helped our brothers and sisters in Christ or shared the gospel with those in need.

Sufficiency and Competency

Hambrick’s sixth post raises the issue of counselor competency as it relates to the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. Hambrick writes:

The way I would frame the question would be, “Does the fact that the Bible is authoritative and sufficient mean that every well-meaning believer with a Bible is competent for counseling? If so, why do we offer counselor training? That would seem unnecessary. What does training add to an already-competent individual? If not, how do we account for the limitations of the human counselor when we advocate for the quality of the Bible as a counseling resource?”

In response to his series of questions here, it must be noted that Lambert’s document was not meant to address the entirety of this issue, even though he devotes several theses to the competency of the counselor (See Theses 79, 80, and 92). The issue Hambrick is raising places the burden of effectiveness on the person doing the counseling. The purpose of Lambert’s document is straightforwardly to place the burden of effectiveness on the model of counseling you use (biblical or secular). It is beyond Lambert’s intention to split hairs on who is better trained in either of those fields. The point is that biblical counseling is superior to secular therapy because of the authority being used in the counseling room.

The last point to engage here is Hambrick’s assessment that the preparation of the counselor is lacking in the 95 Theses.

This is one significant element I find missing in Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses and much of biblical counseling’s development of the concept of sufficiency. We talk about the quality of the Bible for counseling more than the preparation of the counselor.

There are a couple of items to discuss here. First of all, Lambert is the Executive Director of an organization that seeks to prepare counselors to rightly handle the Word of Truth through extensive training and study, and he authored his Theses in that capacity. Secondly, if you continue reading Hambrick’s post, you realize that his definition of “preparation” is different than Lambert’s. Hambrick places the bulk of his discourse about preparation on the topic of trauma, while Lambert’s 95 Theses place the bulk of discourse about preparation on the topic of rightly interpreting and applying Scripture. Finally, Lambert arranged his Theses so that the entire last section is about performing biblical counseling with skill and competency, so that it is not possible to read Lambert and believe he is concerned only about one’s source of authority, and not about competency.

A Fair Reading

As far as I can tell, Hambrick’s seventh post is about his doubt as to whether or not the people reading the 95 Theses will be able to rightly understand and apply Thesis 85:

Thesis 85. Because many counseling problems occur at the intersection of physical and spiritual issues, counselors must exert humility and avoid unduly dogmatic assumptions about the source of some problems in living.

Hambrick basically reduces this to a pastoral assessment that goes “If I don’t know how to counsel this issue according to the Bible, then it must be a medical issue.” His fear here is that biblical counselors are not prepared to handle cases of trauma (a rape or abuse victim for example). The solutions Hambrick poses are:

  • Biblical counseling certificate and graduate programs should have a portion of their training be given to assessing the role of volitional, environmental, and physiological contributions of a life struggle (admittedly, the link provided is very rudimentary).
  • When churches start lay counseling ministries, there should be a willingness to seek consultation from other local counselors who have more experience in areas where their lay counselors have less experience.
  • As a movement, we need to be more humble about how effectively we can translate what we believe into our actual practice. There are many things our counseling theory permits that, based on the level of training our average practitioner has, we cannot assume translates at the level of the average biblical counseling conversation.

 

Point number one is a conundrum. I have graduated with an undergraduate degree in biblical counseling and learned to assess situations in the manner that Hambrick describes in his linked post, but without the terminology provided. I am also familiar with the ACBC certification process, including the training, and can only say that nothing in the post linked by Hambrick is original. These ideas and tenets already exist in the biblical counseling movement. Not by the titles he suggests, but by the methodology it represents. I would suggest that Hambrick familiarize himself with the certification process (specifically the training involved) and degree requirements at other institutions for biblical counseling.

I agree with point number two, in so far as the lay counseling ministry is not seeking the experience of integrated or secular counselors.

As to point number three, it is important to note the training that the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors provides. ACBC seeks to train and equip biblical counselors with the Word of God that smoothly translates into effective care in the counseling room.

In light of these three points—as well as the other observations I have made here—the issue of a fair reading must be called into question. It seems that Hambrick has not done the work of finding out what is currently being taught in the biblical counseling movement. If he is familiar, then his points are all the more confusing. If he isn’t familiar, then it doesn’t seem that he has given Lambert’s 95 Theses a fair reading because he is lacking the context in which to place them.

In conclusion, I would express profound concern about Hambrick’s reading of Lambert’s 95 Theses, his understanding of the teaching of the larger biblical counseling movement, and his commitment to the authority of Scripture that has characterized the entirety of the biblical counseling movement.

 

Footnote:

1.) These terms are used in theses 2, 31, 34, 36, 37, 41, 42, 44, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 59, 60, 72, and 75.

 

Renee Hoskins

Renee graduated from Boyce College with a degree in biblical counseling. She works for Crossings Ministries as an event planner and lives in Louisville, KY with her husband Coty. They attend Carlisle Avenue Baptist Church and are expecting their first born son this Christmas.

Renee Hoskins

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