Introduction: A New Book, An Old Controversy
Last week Zondervan released my new book, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry. The overall point of the book is to demonstrate that the kind of discussions that our culture calls counseling, are conversations that are necessarily theological in nature. I argue that because these conversations are theological, Christians must ensure that they are informed by good theology, rather than bad theology.
Because it is true that counseling is informed by theological concerns, I spend a considerable amount of time proving that the Bible is a sufficient resource to inform these counseling conversations. Christians do not need the resources of secular wisdom to inform our counseling. We need Scripture.
On the very first page of my book I admit that this is controversial. In fact, it is the controversy. For decades those in the biblical counseling movement have contended for the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. They have believed that the Scriptures sufficiently inform counseling conversations in such a way that other sources of wisdom are at least unnecessary, and often harmful.
The charge from our critics is always the same whether it comes from Larry Crabb and Stan Jones against Jay Adams or from James Beck and David Myers against David Powlison. Critics raise questions—sometimes in very hostile and alarmist ways—asking things like:
Are you telling me that true information only comes from the Bible? Do you mean to say that information from psychology is completely useless? Are you suggesting that there is no benefit from medical knowledge or that we should reject physical treatments for organic problems?
In my book I address the truthfulness of information outside of Scripture and how it is relevant for counseling in no fewer than five chapters. In just one footnote I provide a partial list of 20 resources by numerous biblical counselors where they address these issues. I have also written about this in other books, and have written numerous blog posts about the issue (here, here, here, here, here, here). As an organization, ACBC has been clear about the answers to these questions in our guiding documents including our membership covenant and our Standards of Doctrine.
A Simple Summary of the Biblical Counseling View
Here is an attempt to briefly state the view that biblical counselors have labored with great care to communicate:
Counseling conversations are focused on the goal of sharing wisdom with people about how to respond to the challenges of living life when problems abound. The Bible is a sufficient source of wisdom to inform these conversations such that the resources of secular psychology are completely unnecessary to those who wish to accomplish counseling success. This does not mean that secular psychologists never say anything true or helpful. It means that their findings are not necessary for counseling faithfulness, and that, when their findings oppose the Christian worldview, they are often at odds with counseling faithfulness. This also does not mean that biblical counselors reject medical science since many problems that human beings face are physical in nature, and so fall outside the bounds of the subject matter of Scripture and the competency of biblical counselors.
This statement has been controversial, but is not contradictory, confusing, or complicated. This position has been carefully explained over decades by all of us committed to biblical counseling. These explanations have come in countless places. I unpack it in thousands of words in my recent book.
And yet, misunderstanding persists. It is easy to wonder why such a straightforward claim has been so consistently misunderstood by intelligent Christians who desire to embrace the authority of Scripture, but who reject the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling.
I have spent a great deal of time interacting with brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with the biblical counseling position I articulated above. Over the years I have found that all of these good people have one or more of the following factors in common.
The Nature of Counseling
First, their criticisms import misunderstandings about the nature of counseling. As I show in A Theology of Biblical Counseling, Christian people who object to the position of biblical counseling argue for the insufficiency of Scripture for counseling by pointing out highly technical information not found in the pages of Scripture. They point to information contained in neuroscience, for example, and argue that since the Bible does not include information about things like neurons that it cannot be sufficient for counseling.
But this is a category mistake. Neurons, like the mating habits of honey bees, belong in that category of things which are true, but are not relevant for counseling. It is essential for a neurologist to know about neurons. It is unnecessary for a counselor to know about these things in the wisdom-exchange that is counseling. No grieving parent or husband enslaved by abusive anger ever turned the corner because they found out how neurons function in the brain. Counseling simply is not about such things so the Bible’s lack of attention to them is not evidence that Scripture is insufficient as a counseling resource.
The Practicality of Scripture
Second, our brothers committed to other positions misunderstand the profound practicality of Scripture for addressing counseling needs. Christians who object to the biblical counseling view on sufficiency are concerned that when biblical counselors reject secular counseling interventions they will separate troubled people from helpful counseling techniques found outside Scripture.
Consider an example like breathing techniques. Such techniques have been used by secular counselors to help anxious persons calm down in the midst of panic. Those outside the biblical counseling movement are concerned that those of us committed to the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling will stand in the way of practical care like this for troubled people who need it.
But this misses the important point that God has revealed truth in Scripture that is far more beneficial to anxious people than breathing exercises. Here is just one example from just one verse in Scripture. It is found in Hebrews 4:16, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Biblical counselors do not need to rely on breathing exercises, not because we reject that they could ever be used in helpful ways. We do not rely on them because we believe God has given us something far better to help anxious people. Why would Christians ever settle for a kind of help that teaches people how to rhythmically breathe in and out when we can teach them to approach a throne of grace and find infinite mercy for every care that concerns them?
Biblical counselors are as earnest about providing practical care as those committed to different counseling approaches. The difference is that biblical counselors do not believe God asks Christians to go as far as secular psychology to find these helpful techniques. We believe God has placed them right in the pages of his Word, and that they are better than anything the world has to offer.
Finally, when Christians refuse to acknowledge the biblical counseling argument I have noticed that many of them have a personal narrative that makes it hard to appreciate the careful arguments of biblical counselors. I know so many outside the biblical counseling movement who have horrible stories to tell. They or someone they love has a very difficult problem that has been resistant to change. They or someone they love had an encounter with someone who claimed to be committed to Scripture and offered easy answers, the quick fix, or a harsh and dangerous word.
I feel terrible about this. I hate that it has happened. What is the biblical counseling movement to do in response to experiences like this from our critics?
We must continue to insist that the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling does not mean that there is no such thing as hard problems. We live in a fallen world with problems that are difficult to understand and highly resistant to change. We need growing skill as we apply the resources of Scripture to the profound difficulties of troubled people.
We also need to insist that when people try to offer the easy answer, the quick fix, or harsh and dangerous words that they are operating outside the confines of the biblical counseling movement, rather than within it. That is why it is so important to have organizations like ACBC, which enforce standards of care in counseling practice.
These observations that I have made about many should encourage biblical counselors to keep moving forward, patiently encouraging those who have yet to give us a fair hearing. We can be encouraged that the group of those committed to biblical counseling is growing. The Word of God is living and active and Christians know it.
As we seek to persuade more and more that our position is biblical, the one thing we need to do as often as possible is be specific.
The convictions of biblical counselors, which I summarized at the beginning of this post, while clear, also come in the abstract. I think it easier, both for biblical counselors and our critics, to see how it is fleshed out in specifics. I do this in my book on theology with several examples. Others have done it in their own work.
In my next post, which will release on Friday, I want to do it again. I will try to show how biblical counselors process extra-biblical information, psychological science, and secular counseling care while using the Scriptures as their authority throughout.