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Sola or Solo and Biblical Counseling

God intends the Bible to be understood and interpreted for the purpose of changing people.

Nov 30, 2017

The debates concerning the sufficiency of Scripture and biblical counseling bring up a good question.  “When you ‘biblical counselors’ talk about sufficiency it sounds more like solo Scriptura than it does sola Scriptura.”  Some have asserted that biblical counselors have deviated a bit from the Reformed and historic doctrine of sufficiency.  Such observations are indeed helpful and compel biblical counselors to re-examine their position.

When one uses the term solo Scriptura, he is trying to describe a position that says, “We need nothing more than what’s contained in the Bible.  It’s the only knowledge worth having and the only knowledge you need in the world.”  By sola Scriptura one means, “The Holy Scripture is the all-sufficient, certain and infallible rule or standard of the knowledge, faith and obedience that constitute salvation.”1A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, Rewritten in Modern English (Liverpool: Carey Publications Ltd., 5th ed., 1986), Article 1.1, p. 15.

All the biblical counselors that I know would affirm sola Scriptura.  No higher authority exists by which all belief and practices must be judged.  They would agree that sola Scriptura means that Scripture stands at the epistemological gates and weeds out all error but allows us to accept what is true from other sources of knowledge.  “All truth is God’s truth.”  They would agree with other Christian counselors that, as a consequence, all counseling systems must submit to the authority of Scripture when judging whether they are biblical (enough) or not.  Sola Scriptura, although not the same doctrine as sufficiency, lays the groundwork for a proper understanding of sufficiency.

All the biblical counselors that I know would deny solo Scriptura.  I believe most (if not all) would say, “We need more than what’s contained in the Bible to understand this world and to live in this world.”  If we’re going to understand the world, we need to know the history of the world, most of which is not contained in the Scriptures.  If you only think that the history narrated in Scripture is all that you need, then you’ll only have a tiny slice of history and you won’t understand how Europe became secularized and resistant to the gospel.  The Bible does not give us the knowledge necessary for the heart ablation I need or for fixing my Honda nor does it give warnings about the noxious fumes that might be released from the stain I use to paint the garage (is latex or oil-based stain the best?).  Biblical counselors have always affirmed that there is much knowledge outside of the Bible that is necessary to live in this world. Solo Scriptura is indeed a deviation from the historic doctrine of sufficiency.  In fact, biblical counselors could heartily affirm the definition of sufficiency that John Frame gives in The Doctrine of the Word of God:

“Certainly, Scripture contains more specific information relevant to theology than to dentistry.  But sufficiency in the present context is not sufficiency of specific information, but sufficiency of divine words.  Scripture contains divine words sufficient for all of life.  It has all the divine words that the plumber needs, and all the divine words that the theologian needs.  So it is just as sufficient for plumbing as it for theology.  And in that sense it is sufficient for science and ethics as well.”2John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (A Theology of Lordship), p. 221, cited in Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), p. 49.

Well, then, whence the charge that the biblical counseling movement strays from the doctrine of sufficiency?  It no doubt comes from the (correct) idea that the Bible is sufficient, not in specific information, but in divine words.  Now it has more specific information for the theologian, than for the plumber, but it is sufficient for both.  So the plumber has all that he needs to glorify God as a plumber, but he certainly needs extra-biblical information to plumb correctly!  But the charge of solo Scriptura comes from a hidden assumption: “The Scripture contains more specific information for the theologian than for the counselor, so the counselor needs more information in counseling.”  You see, it is sufficient for theology, but not for counseling.  But is that assumption true?  Biblical counselors believe that assumption is wrong for “Counseling is a theological discipline.”3Lambert, Ibid., p. 11.  If that assertion is true, then counseling needs no other extra-biblical information for helping people.4Biblical counselors do not deny that other sources, such as psychological observations, may be helpful, but they deny that such sources are necessary.

The Scripture is the sufficient, divine, counseling textbook.  No matter where you are on the counseling spectrum, from the most atheistic counselor to the most fundamentalist, you can agree that counseling is all about change; change brought about through a transformation of attitudes, values, interpretations, motivations, desires, behavior, etc.  But isn’t that what the Bible is all about?  Isn’t that the very heart of the Scriptures?  The Bible is about Jesus and such knowledge mediates power for change (2 Peter 1.3); all of Scripture is about loving God entirely and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22.34-40), a great summary of all counseling problems; and isn’t Scripture useful for the purpose of converting and changing you (2 Timothy 3.14-17)?  Many Christians say, “If I want information on open heart surgery, I don’t go to the Bible.”  Why not?  “Because it is not a textbook on medicine.”  Absolutely right!  They say, “If I want help with my deep personal problems, I don’t go to the Bible.”  Why not?  “Because the Bible is not a textbook on counseling.”   But that’s exactly what it is!  It is intended to be understood for the purposes of change.  God intends the Bible to be understood and interpreted for the purpose of changing people.5This writer is not asserting that the Bible is ONLY a counseling textbook! It is more than that, but it is at least that.

Why have Christians gone to other sources for help?  One reason is that Scripture has not been interpreted with its intended purpose in mind.  This writer believes that when we approach Scripture we should have a “pastoral hermeneutic” in hand because the Word was not written in a vacuum and not as a theological treatise.  Every passage addresses some issue that its recipients faced.  But because we’ve made it merely a source for our theology, we’ve missed its riches in helping people with their problems.

We’ve gone to other sources because Scriptural categories and terminology has been abandoned when trying to understand people and their problems.  Look at 1 Corinthians 10.6-14.  Here are sophisticated, educated, urban dwellers.  Paul points them back to the historical accounts of the nomadic Israelites some 1000+ years previous because both peoples face the same problems!  The problems people face today are no different.  The language you use will determine the solution you propose.  “Panic attacks,” “Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder,” “Bi-Polar Disorder,” “Sexual Addiction” all point away from personal responsibility and biblical solutions.  Problems since biblical days have not changed, but the language to describe them has!  If that is true, then OCD is not something new and the answers have always been in the Scriptures.

The Scripture is sufficient to explain people and what “makes them tick.”  In fact, since it is revelation from God on the human heart, it is vastly superior to all the psychologies out there for it reveals and explains what is beyond the reach of empiricism.  It provides rich, robust and deep explanations of the heart’s allegiances, affections, desires, values, and thoughts.  And God says that the heart is the source of all behavior (see Mark 7.14-23; Jeremiah 17.5-8).  Do we want to say that one (or more) of the psychologies does a better job of understanding human motivations than Scripture?  The Bible interprets counselees better than anything that exists (Hebrews 4.12).  It describes unregenerate people and what their problems are (see e.g., Romans 1.18-32; Ephesians 4.17-19) and regenerate people and what they face (James 1.13-15; 4.1-3).  It describes the goal of change (Romans 8.28-29; Matthew 5.16), prescribes the method of change (Ephesians 4.20-24; Colossians 3.1-14), and is the only book that can adequately explains man’s environment and how he should respond to it (e.g. Genesis 3.1-19; Hebrews 12.5-11; Romans 3.3-5).

The Scripture is sufficient because of its inherent power.  Biblical counseling works with something that no one else possesses – the very power of God working through the Word of God (Psalm 19.7ff.; Jeremiah 1.9-10); a power that changes people in the worst conditions (see 1 Corinthians 6.9-11; Galatians 5.22-23).  Biblical counseling believes what God says about his Word.

The Scripture is sufficient because it mediates the power of a great Redeemer.  Colossae faced a heresy whose teachers essentially said “Jesus is a good, even necessary foundation to live the right kind of life.  But you need more than Jesus and we have that necessary knowledge which, by the way, is not accessible to most folks.  Come to us and we’ll initiate you into that fuller knowledge.”  Frankly, this sounds much like the Christianity espoused in much of Christian counseling.  The “experts” have advanced necessary knowledge that goes beyond the foundation of Christ.  But the Apostle repeatedly declares that the proclamation of Jesus is all that you need to be complete (1.28); that all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge for a complete life can be found in Jesus alone (2.3); that the world, with all its sophistication, offers nothing more than kindergarten answers when compared to the fuller, deeper riches we have in Christ Jesus (2.8).  We have a powerful Redeemer who can change people at the deepest levels and in the most profound ways, and he does it without the “power” of more “advanced” knowledge.  Is it possible, that one needs some sort of help from non-biblical sources before he can get to the place of obeying the Lord Jesus?  Is it possible that people can really change by tapping into the “gems” of common grace without the special grace of Jesus?

So, while admitting that biblical counselors look to the Bible alone as sufficient to help people with their deepest problems, they are not guilty of solo Scriptura.  They do, in fact, uphold sola Scriptura for they believe that their counseling actually promotes what their spiritual fathers said is the “faith and obedience that constitute salvation.”