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). 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.
A Theological Debate
Regardless of the motivations for disagreement, we need to be clear that this disagreement is a theological one. I take great pains in my book to explain the debate is at the crossroads of three biblical realities, namely, the doctrines of Scripture, common grace, and the noetic effects of sin.
Biblical counselors believe that the Bible is sufficient for counseling conversations because we are convinced the Bible teaches it. Biblical counselors also believe in accurate information from unbelievers outside Scripture because the Bible teaches this reality in the doctrine of common grace. But biblical counselors stop short of embracing everything from unbelievers because the Bible’s doctrine of the noetic effects of sin teaches that sin works a corrosive effect on the minds of people that can only begin to change through God’s special grace in salvation.
This position makes imminent sense and is consistent with faithful Christian theology. Because some are confused by it, or deny that the position exists, it is helpful to see it worked out in specific examples.
A Case Study: The Proliferation of Pornography
I want to show how this works with a practical example that has been getting a great deal of attention in our culture over the last few weeks. It has to do with a cover story in Time that Christians have paid a lot of attention. It is written by Belinda Luscombe and is entitled “Porn: Why Young Men Who Grew Up with Internet Porn Are Becoming Advocates for Turning it Off.”
The article reports a great deal of observational information about the proliferation of internet pornography. Here is one example,
One independent web-tracking company clocked 58 million monthly U.S. visitors to adult sites in February 2006. Ten years later the number was 107 million.1Belinda Luscombe, “Porn: Why Young Men Who Grew Up with Internet Porn Are Becoming Advocates for Turning it Off” Time, 43. April 11, 2016.
This is an astounding bit of reporting. It shows that the consumption of Internet porn has nearly doubled in ten years. This is information that I—a person who argues strenuously for the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling—found from reading sources outside Scripture. In fact, I could never have discovered that information within Scripture because it reports data not included in the biblical text. The fact that I discovered this information apart from Scripture does not make me suspicious that it is untrue. There might be problems with the data (Time doesn’t tell us who the “independent web-tracking company” is, and we are not told how they collect their information) but there is no reason to assume the information is untrustworthy. I accept the information as true. I can’t imagine that any other Christian would come to a different conclusion whether or not they are committed to biblical counseling.
Such extra-biblical information is important and constitutes a call to action for all believers to be salt and light in the midst of a culture overrun with the darkness and decay of pornography. I am thankful for this information, and for the summons it offers to faithful ministry in this sinful age.
But such observational information is not the only kind reported by Luscombe in Time. The larger portion of the article is not a mere reporting of facts, but is an effort to advance a theory—a particular interpretation of the facts.
Time reports information that seeks to interpret the data about the expansion of porn in very negative terms. They describe the work of a man named Noah Church, an unbeliever who has begun to work very hard to get young men and women to consume less porn.Time reports,
Church came to believe that his adolescent Internet indulgence had somehow caused . . . problems and that he had what some are calling porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED). A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic—more prone to permanent change—than in later life.
Time reports that Church, and many others like him, interpret the expansion of porn in very harmful ways. They argue that it has damaged their ability to engage in normal sexual functioning.
That is a fascinating interpretation, that only gets more fascinating when you consider that it is not the only interpretation of the facts that Time reports. Here is another interpretation that Luscombe writes about in her article,
Other researchers are dismissive of any link between porn and erectile dysfunction. “In the absence of supporting scientific data, the strength of [these young men’s] belief that porn causes ED is not evidence for the validity of their belief,” says David J. Ley, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, “The overwhelming majority of porn users report no ill effects. A very, very small minority are reporting these concerns about ED.”2Ibid., 44
There are several such conflicting claims throughout the article. One group understands the proliferation of porn to be harmful. Another group understands it to be harmless.
Which side is right?
This highlights a very real difficulty that Christians must confront when we engage information that comes to us outside Scripture. All Christians believe that true information exists outside Scripture. The problem comes when you realize that not all information is true, and not all interpretations of the true information are proper.
To speak in terms of the theological categories I introduced at the beginning of this post we could pose the dilemma another way. One side’s interpretation of the evidence is highlighted by a great degree of common grace (the kindness of God in allowing unbelievers to know true things), and another side is marked by a greater degree of the noetic effects of sin (the damaging impact of sin on our ability to think and know the truth). How can Christians, who want to embrace all truth wherever it is found, know the difference?
The reality is that we cannot tell the difference without Scripture. When we pay careful attention to Scripture we discover that sexual sin will lead to painful consequences including death (Proverbs 5:5, 22-23; 6:29, 23-27; 9:17-18). When Christians approach the data offered by Time we will interpret it using our biblically-informed worldview and will agree that a higher degree of common grace is on the side of those who argue for the harmful consequences of porn. We will believe that those who argue that negative side-effects do not exist are plagued with relatively more of the noetic effects of sin.
All Christians are happy to receive truth outside Scripture, but we need Scripture to help us know how to make sense of that information.
There is one more example of information in the Time article that is even more relevant to a discussion about Scripture in counseling. It has to do with how Luscombe reports on the work of the unbelievers who want to see porn occupy a lesser place in the lives of young men. She describes the work of a man named Gabe Deem who started an online effort to get men to stop looking at porn, and relates in very candid terms why Deem wanted to quit looking at pornography, “‘The reason I quit watching porn is to have more sex,’ says Deem.”3Ibid., 43
Luscombe also reports on a man with a similar story named Alexander Rhodes on how he helps men to quit looking at pornography,
Rhodes, meanwhile, tries to help guys get their mojo back by arranging “challenges,” during which young people try to abstain from [porn] for a certain span of time. There are different levels of abstinence: the most extreme . . . is keeping away from any sexual activity, and the least extreme is having all the sexual encounters that present themselves, including those that occur alone, but without visual aids.4Ibid., 46
This information is different from the observations we saw in the first example, and is also different from the interpretations of the observations we saw in the second example. Here Time reports on the motivation these unbelievers have for change and the methods they use for that change.
Their motivation for change is entirely carnal. Deem wants to quit looking at pornography so that he can engage in other acts of sexual immorality that he finds preferable. This motivation has absolutely nothing to do with the motivation for change that we learn in the Scriptures that teach us to pursue holiness out of love and devotion to the Lord and a desire to show care to others who would be harmed by our sin (Matthew 22:34-40; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8)
Their method for change is also unsatisfactory. They seek to wean people off their sin by degrees (“challenges” that last a certain period of time, but which allow for certain kinds of sexual immorality during the challenge and after it is over) instead of following the biblical command to kill any vestige of sin, cutting off all potential sources of temptation (Matthew 5:27-30; Colossians 3:5)
Scripture’s Light Illumines All Information
So biblical counselors (indeed, all Christians!) would look at all of these kinds of information and be grateful and suspicious. We would evaluate each strand of extra-biblical information differently because all of the information reported is not created equal. We are grateful for the reporting of observational information about a problem that all Christians care about. We are also grateful for the common grace that allows even unbelievers to see that Internet pornography is a scourge that must be addressed.
On the other hand, we lament that the noetic effects of sin are so powerful that even very intelligent unbelievers are blinded to the obvious consequences of heinous sin. We also regret that men who have tasted the bitterness of sin and desire to change, seek to pursue that change in a way that does not reflect the commands and motivations of King Jesus.
We are not surprised that unbelievers who have the common grace to see a problem lack the ability to see the fullness of Christ’s method for change. That is what we would expect from unbelievers who are separated from Jesus’ grace to change at a profound level of depth.
We also should not deny that such faulty interventions have been effective in helping some to achieve a certain measure of change, which are grounded in the flesh. We do deny that the work of incredibly experienced unbelievers is necessary or even helpful for Christians to utilize. We affirm that God’s Word offers a much wiser and more effective path for those who are devoted to Christ. We can do better than the World because the resources in the Word are superior.
That is an example of how all Christians should process such information. We treat observations one way, interpretations of those observations a bit differently, and efforts at change in still a different way. Because all information is not created equal, and because the Bible is the authority for our evaluation of all kinds of information, Christians can say at the same time that we are thankful for the information of unbelievers, but we do not need it to help people change.
The reason we can say such things is because we have submitted our evaluation to Scripture which shows us how to expose all information to God’s wisdom.