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Issues in Biblical Counseling

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

What does it mean to be a biblical counselor?

Nov 17, 2017

The field of biblical counseling has been the beneficiary of significant growth over the past 30 years. There has been dramatic increase in the number of organizations that in some way support biblical counseling, the number of colleges and seminaries offering degrees in biblical counseling, and the number of individuals and counseling centers certified by organizations such as the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.

While there have been many blessings, challenges have also come as a result of this growth. We would argue that for a number of years there has been an elephant in the room in the field of biblical counseling. There has been hesitancy to address the elephant, but some discussion is beginning to occur. The elephant we refer to is the question of what it means to be a biblical counselor. Professions and various organizations protect the identity of their movements by defining criteria that one must meet to be considered a part of that profession or organization.  We believe that the historical distinctions that have marked biblical counseling are under attack.

Since Jay Adams first published his book Competent to Counsel in 1970 and the contemporary biblical counseling movement began, several core distinctions have marked biblical counseling. We suggest that those core distinctions include the sufficiency and superiority of Scripture, the importance of speaking the truth in love, comforting the suffering, the necessity of calling people to repentance when sin is present, and the reality behind a God-centered anthropology that recognizes personal responsibility for sinful behaviors, words, and thoughts.  Recently biblical counseling has been besieged by many voices that minimize or even attempt to redefine these historical distinctions.  We suggest it is time to return to basics.

Heath Lambert, currently the Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), has sought to actively engage those within the field with the goal of re-emphasizing the basics of biblical counseling. If you are not familiar with Lambert’s recent teachings, his “95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling” would provide a good starting point for your consideration.  We heartily affirm and support Lambert’s “95 Theses” as well as his plenary session at the 2017 ACBC Annual Conference and his recent Facebook Live presentation. Lambert has spoken and written on topics that urgently need to be addressed and that will help strengthen and further clarify biblical counseling as a movement. In this context, Brad Hambrick has written a series of blog articles largely criticizing Lambert’s conclusions. We believe Hambrick is representative of a number of other counselors who fail to uphold the historical basic principles and core distinctions of biblical counseling. The remainder of this article will address some of Hambrick’s criticisms.

Hambrick is a current example of one who desires to expand the definition and boundaries of biblical counseling; however, this broadening of the definition is not new. There was an article published on the Biblical Counseling Coalition (BCC) website on September 10, 2011 entitled, “The BCC Weekend Interview Series: Defining Biblical Counseling.” This series interviewed a number of biblical counseling leaders who presented their definitions of biblical counseling. The above referenced article collated these definitions of biblical counseling. Some of the people who wrote these definitions are our friends and many of them are committed to the sufficiency of Scripture and the necessity of repentance. We respect their ministries and are grateful for them.

When we first read the article in 2011 we had a concern even then about what was not mentioned. Not one of the definitions mentioned specifically the sufficiency of Scripture. Not one of the definitions mentioned the importance of biblical counselors calling counselees to repentance. These definitions came as part of interviews about biblical counseling and do not represent the interviewees complete thoughts, convictions, or definition of biblical counseling. That said, the lack of specific mention of the sufficiency of Scripture and the importance of calling people to repentance when appropriate, which have historically been foundations of biblical counseling, is worth noting. It is at least possible that in our desire to be less divisive, we are at risk of losing, and perhaps have already lost, some of the fundamental distinctions that have rightly distinguished biblical counseling from other forms of counseling. These distinctions are not arbitrary, but rather are convictions derived from Scripture and are what draw many to embrace biblical counseling in the first place.

Correction with Scripture

This article is not merely a defense of Heath Lambert. He is just as fallible as the rest of us. It is, rather, a defense of several key tenets of biblical counseling which we believe were compromised by Hambrick in his articles. One of the most notable problems is the scarcity of Scripture used in his critiques against Lambert’s theses. Correction that is harnessed by human wisdom is useless to the advancing of the conversation and only adds to confusion. As Spurgeon once stated during the Downgrade Controversy, “Our own words are mere paper pellets compared with the rifle shot of the Word. The Scripture is the conclusion of the whole matter.”1C.H. Spurgeon, The Greatest Fight in the World: The Final Manifesto. Scotland, United Kingdom: Christian Focus Publications, 64. The prevailing theme in Hambrick’s posts is not a defense of Scripture against Lambert’s claims, but a defense of sources of wisdom that are found outside of Scripture. If Lambert is in need of correction, by all means make haste to do so on any perceived problems with biblical exegesis, representation of God’s character, understanding of the redemptive work of Jesus, or his view on the duty of the Holy Spirit in comfort, teaching, and convicting man. However, none of this was done by the Word. The basis of Hambrick’s approach is concerning, since the Word of God warns that our discussion becomes vain as we raise unsure speculations and myths (1 Timothy 1:4-5). The goal of biblical counseling is to promote the name of Jesus so that we will be a people zealous for His name and boast in His peace, comfort, mercy, and redemption. The weeping of the prophets and the brokenness of God’s people was due primarily to the neglect of the Word of the Lord. May that not be said of any who call themselves biblical counselors.

Sufficiency and Competency

In Hambrick’s sixth post he raises the question, “Does Sufficiency Necessitate Competency?” In our reading of this post there is an attempt to dilute the sufficiency of Scripture by calling into question the frailty of humanity. Hambrick seems to build a false dichotomy that suggests the only option for those who are not competent to counsel is to turn away from the sufficiency of Scripture and turn toward integrationists, psychologies, or personal experience to fill up what is lacking in competence. The implication behind this suggestion is that the “incompetent” counselor should seek help from an insufficient authority. An insufficient source, however, will not breed competence. The preferred option is to seek competence by learning to rightly divide the sufficient word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). This position has not changed from the very beginning of the biblical counseling movement, as Adams understood Romans 15:14 as a basis of competency. We strive, in our incompetence, to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ to learn to deal with the hurts of human suffering and effects of sin. Humility toward God is not turning from his revelation to a human source for competence, but readily admitting our weaknesses and depending on Christ to fill up all that is lacking in us (2 Corinthians 3:4-6).

Hambrick’s suggestion of the, “possibility that a non-biblical counselor who is more skilled with a lesser tool may be more effective for some individuals than an unskilled biblical counselor with a superior tool” has worrisome implications. He uses an analogy in an attempt to clarify:

My premise, then, is this – acknowledging the limitations of the craftsman is no insult to the tool. This is what I teach every one of my little league baseball players when they slam their bat after they swing-and-miss at strike three: “Don’t blame the tool. Let’s work on your swing.”

Hambrick is not teaching his young ball players to hit with something other than their baseball bat. But, we wouldn’t send the little leaguer to a PGA professional to fix his baseball swing either. No one will disagree that we all need to become more competent in our grasp of various areas of sin and suffering. The disagreement is centered on whether we need to rely on insufficient tools to make us more competent. In our estimation this appeal to experience as the source of competency and sufficiency, as demonstrated by his reference to Diane Langberg, is deeply troubling. This type of philosophic pragmatism defeats his stated position of the Bible as sufficient. In utilizing a different “tool,” which is assumed to be, at minimum, equally sufficient to Scripture to help the counselor gain competence, is to imply that Scripture is insufficient; not in stated confession but in actual practice, which erodes our confession over time. It seems that we are forgetting that it is only the Spirit of God that makes any man truly competent. We do not have anything that we did not receive (1 Corinthians 4:7). Part of the danger in acquiescing to experience as an equal, or better, authority is that we boast in the wisdom of man for deliverance and not in the glory of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). The pursuit of truth is not better than the truth itself (2 Timothy 2:7). One lesson from Eden is that God’s Word is intended to protect human hearts from self-destruction.

Dangers of Nuancing

We would also like to express concerns with the third and fifth posts in Hambrick’s series. In his third post, Hambrick approaches the all-encompassing concept of psychology as if only subtle distinctions exist between various uses of the word. The endless nuancing of the word psychology leads to words becoming functionally meaningless. Psychology does not have a mere subtle distinction in meaning. Lambert communicated the common understanding and philosophy behind the word psychology. In the fifth post Hambrick also uses the common meaning of psychology. Since Wilhelm Wundt, the term has carried baggage consistent with Darwinian anthropology. Wundt did not believe psychology, in its understanding prior to the 1870’s, could properly observe the human soul in any empirically verifiable way, so he simply altered the definition and approach of psychology to the scientific study of human experience. Wundt believed studying the “psyche” could not produce results; therefore, he set out “to mark a new domain of science.”2Paolo Lionni, The Leipzig Connection (Sheridan, Oregon; Heron Books, 1993), 4. He changed the study of psychology to fit his philosophical narrative devoid of the spiritual to now exclusively focus on the physical and an individual’s personal experiences.

Anthropology became re-categorized with the advent of the new definition. The system of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) was born out of this definition and philosophy of psychology. The problems of man became categorized through the lens of Darwinian anthropology. It was, as Hambrick said, the psychologists’ “technical jargon and attempt to be scientific,” that allowed them to win the day. What is missing, however, is that the clergy were enamored with the new scientism of man. Clergy were not passive, but active in pursuing competence in the new language and jargon of science which eclipsed the language of Scripture for biblical anthropology in the care of souls.3E. Brooks Holifield, A History of Pastoral Care of America: From Salvation to Self-Realization (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1983); Philip Rieff, Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006); T. Dale Johnson, “Professionalization of Pastoral Care within the Southern Baptist Convention: Gaines Dobbins and the Psychology of Religion” Ph.D. dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2014. Hambrick suggests that we should be “skilled and conversant” in that technical jargon or we will also lose the day. Our fear is that we will repeat history in succumbing to the lofty language of scientism’s categories. Scripture’s nosology of human problems will not appease the ears of popular or scientific opinion because God’s wisdom is folly to those of this world (1 Corinthians 1:21-25). Thus we should stop trying to force God’s categories into their system. This is to begin with an improper authority because we feel the pressure to appease those from the outside. We agree with Hambrick, that “when we provide the quality of care that we claim the Bible contains, there will be no need to argue.” But we are not going to find that quality of care in the systems of the world, especially in a term, such as psychology, that promotes an anthropology deficient in spiritual expression.

It seems as though walls are being erected in the wrong place in order to protect biblical counseling. It is odd that Hambrick has placed so much effort in critiquing Lambert while offering little distinction between he and Eric Johnson, Diane Langberg, or Mark Yarhouse. Instead of attempting to erect walls of distinction which further clarify and protect the integrity of biblical counseling, Hambrick builds bridges which eventually will dilute distinctions and invite confusion and ambiguity. Historically, the danger, from our perspective, is that it doesn’t take many generations before practice based upon alternative authority erodes confessional orthodoxy. We do not believe that Hambrick’s intent is evil or his heart impure, but certainly there are reasons for concern.

Editors Note: On Wednesday, Renee Hoskins (not ACBC certified) wrote a blog post expressing her concerns about recent criticisms of the 95 Theses. Today’s blog post offers a follow up from two seminary professors who are ACBC certified.