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Ernie Baker’s Biblical Counseling and the Psychologies 

Book review

This book teaches one how to discern through different counseling approaches and portrays how the Bible truly is sufficient in counseling.

Mar 21, 2024

As biblical counselors, we frequently encounter different counseling methods and systems—many making use of Scripture and biblical language—but how can we know if they are truly biblical? While some may think formal study of secular psychology and counseling theories is necessary, every biblical counselor regardless of education level or experience can learn to distinguish truth from error. In Biblical Counseling and the Psychologies, Ernie Baker offers a powerful crash course in discernment regarding different counseling approaches that would benefit counselors of any experience level. 

In Biblical Counseling and the Psychologies, Baker sets out to show the need for discernment with “biblical eyeglasses” and to provide a paradigm that can be applied to any counseling system. He does this throughout three chapters: “A History of Biblical Eyeglasses,” “Understanding Two Secular Approaches,” and “A Biblical Approach.” Baker covers the historical need for discernment, evaluates cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and trauma-informed counseling with the “Seven S’s” framework, and uses the same framework to present a truly biblical approach to counseling. One of the key lessons of this book is that not every counseling system that uses scientific or biblical terminology can be trusted at face value as being sound or accurately representing God’s Word.  

As a pastor and biblical counselor with over four decades of experience, a professor of biblical counseling, and a student of David Powlison, Baker is uniquely well-positioned to speak to the issue of discernment within the biblical counseling movement. He corrects some misconceptions regarding Jay Adams and David Powlison’s stances and treatments of secular psychology, explaining that “Adams bluntly raised an alarm and Powlison cordially but clearly taught us to see discerningly” (29). Both Adams and Powlison opposed utilizing secular psychology for the care of souls because these systems have anti-biblical presuppositions (the foundational beliefs that shape how they see people and their problems).  

The core strength of Baker’s book is that he helps any counselor identify and evaluate those presuppositions by introducing Powlison’s “Six S’s paradigm”: source of authority, sin, salvation, sanctification, support systems, and sparring (apologetics). Baker also adds his own S: servants of the system. To help readers put this paradigm into practice, Baker examines CBT and trauma-informing counseling in chapter 2, warning of their unbiblical presuppositions regarding sources of authority, views of humans and their problems, and ways of helping people. He explains that the methodologies are not neutral: “Understand that the methodologies that are developed are the working out of a model of counseling, a view of people, and why they have problems. Using Powlison’s terminology—the methodologies have secular DNA. Scripture warns us repeatedly about mixing truth with error. (See Psalm 1)” (61).   

Baker also addresses the issue of scientific and psychological research and the misconception that biblical counselors are anti-science. While there is value to proven and replicable scientific findings, he explains that much of what is promoted by approaches like trauma-informed counseling as “scientific fact” are overly simplified and often inaccurate according to quality scientific research and experts. Moreover, Baker emphasizes throughout the book that true scientific data is still filtered through secular eyeglasses by counseling systems. He writes, “A presuppositional biblical counselor will need to keep in mind that all research (especially in the ‘soft’ sciences) has biases, and that worldview impacts even the way studies are designed” (63). Secular psychologists may observe true facts, but how those facts are interpreted and pieced together will be very different than someone with biblical eyeglasses.  

Along with these warnings against the undiscerning adoption of science, Baker argues that ultimately even accurate scientific knowledge is not necessary for biblical counselors. He asks, “Do we really need to know about the amygdala in order to help a counselee live a God-glorifying life as he processes horrific circumstances?” (59).  Baker’s use of the case study of Larry helps readers see that the answer to the above question is no. Understanding how Larry’s brain works in light of past abuse and alcoholism may be interesting and helpful in a limited way—perhaps it will prompt the counselor to be more patient and compassionate towards him, for instance—but that knowledge will not help counselor guide Larry to live and respond in a God-honoring way. Not only is the Bible sufficient for counseling, it is the only thing that is necessary to understand people, their problems, and give them true and lasting hope found only in Christ. Baker puts it this way: “As you begin to see that we have all the ingredients that are considered part of a counseling system, you will see that we have a complete belief system. The end result will be that you will understand that there is no need to incorporate the beliefs of other systems” (36).  

There is one section that I would ask counselors to pay close attention while reading. In discussing how Adams and Powlison helped him develop biblical eyeglasses, Baker states, “Just to be clear, I have personally benefited from the study of psychology. I am intrigued by the research on humans and have even benefited from reading about various counseling approaches” (29). The examples he gives are asking better questions after studying CBT and becoming more compassionate after studying trauma-informed counseling. He continues, “This does not mean that I am going to incorporate their theory-laden methodologies into my counseling. I am much more interested in exploring the depths of Scripture and mining its riches for helping people” (30).  

It is true that we as biblical counselors can benefit from the study of the psychologies. Studying other systems can help raise questions we hadn’t considered before or perhaps expose some of our personal deficiency. But there is a world of difference between “I benefit from learning about opposing views and relying on Scripture to refine my counseling” and “I benefit from integrating secular psychological theories and methods into my counseling.” Unfortunately, there are those who claim to be biblical counselors who have adopted the second posture towards secular psychology. This makes Baker’s book so timely.  

Many of today’s conversations within the biblical counseling movement deal with this question of our relationship with secular psychologies and counseling approaches. Having a framework for evaluating counseling approaches, like the one presented in this book, is a prerequisite to answering that question. Counselors must seek to understand counseling systems with biblical eyeglasses before seeking to adopt any ideas or practices. I commend Baker for continuing the work of Powlison by his commitment to teach the next generation of biblical counselors how to be discerning and remain faithful to God’s Word.   

Key quotes: 

  1. “It is pragmatism and a highly questionable compromise to use these methodologies if you accept that the psychologies that developed these methodologies are philosophical belief systems that have a different view of humans than the Bible.” – 60  
  1. “Adams showed me the consistency between what I was learning in theology class about the inerrancy of Scripture, and biblical counseling taking that doctrine seriously. Powlison taught me to think deeply about what sin has done to humans and, in particular, the biblical “heart.” He also taught me to think biblically about counseling systems using biblical presuppositions.” – Page 32. 
  1. “As stated before, every counseling system has goals it is endeavoring to attain with counselees. CBT has helped drug addicts. CBT has taught the Larrys of the world how to think differently about life. But CBT will not teach Larry a proper perspective of self. In fact, a core problem with humans is self because of the fall. CBT will only reinforce the core problem as he is taught not to think of himself as the problem but as the solution. He will become his own savior.” – Page 52.  
  1. “Because there is enough in the Bible to develop a complete counseling system, we should ask, how would the Bible want us to respond when we are about to have a panic attack or we are struggling with flashbacks of a horrible memory? And do we need to use secular therapies to provide real help or to work out the details of biblical principles? I believe the answer to this last question is no.” Page 59.  
  1. “You now have a paradigm to discern what is being taught in both secular theories and even evangelical biblical counseling. I also hope that you are more confident that Scripture provides a complete counseling system to help the Larrys of the world, and that there is no need to syncretize with other systems.” – Page 87.