There are many models of Christian counseling that vie for the consideration of the church. One variety that has more recently garnered attention is Transformational Psychology (TP). I first found out about TP when I read Dr. John Coe’s ETS paper: “Why Biblical Counseling Is Unbiblical.” As I consider myself a biblical counselor, I was struck by his assessment and decided to learn more. Coe co-authored a book with Todd Hall titled, Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology. I read this book with much interest, trying to understand what was distinctive about their approach.
Though there are many helpful insights shared in that book, there is a significant point of disagreement concerning biblical counseling. Coe’s basic thesis is that Proverbs teaches that the moral wisdom embedded in creation can (even should) inform our counseling. And because biblical counselors do not seek this extra-biblical wisdom, but rather exhibit what Coe calls an over-reliance on Scripture, they are unbiblical, and, presumably, their counseling is unwise. As this critique comes from a respected and careful theologian, it is worth exploring in more detail.
So, are biblical counselors unbiblical? Is Coe right? Is the Bible teaching us that there are sources of wisdom outside Scripture, which wise counselors ought to diligently pursue? Are biblical counselors unbiblical?
I will evaluate Coe’s argument from different angles. First, I’ll summarize the TP model. Second, I’ll engage in an exegetical evaluation of passages in Proverbs cited by Coe, followed by a consideration of Proverbs in general. Third, having done this, we’ll be in a position to identify weaknesses of TP. Fourth, we’ll consider Coe and Hall’s pastoral motivation and find out how similar our aims are. I’ll conclude by responding to their invitation to join them in developing a truly biblical psychology.
What Is Transformational Psychology?
TP is a (relatively) new approach to doing psychology, aiming to develop an inherently Christian approach to understanding the person. Coe and Hall’s Psychology in the Spirit is their proposal for this new approach, and it sketches some of the major contours for doing “transformational psychology.” The following is their description of TP:
Our transformational model is not primarily about how to take the fruits of science and integrate them with Christianity, but to develop a holistic approach to doing psychology and science that is inherently Christian, grounded in the transformed psychologist studying God’s world in God.1John H. Coe and Todd W. Hall, Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 134.
Notice that last phrase, “in God.” Coe and Hall emphasize in this book how the character of the psychologist is vital to the process of doing psychology. They argue that only spiritually healthy people can develop and practice TP. The heart of the methodology of their transformational psychology is described in chapter 7, which is titled: “An Old Testament Model for a Transformational Science and Psychology.” This chapter contains their foundational thesis. Therefore, I will seek to engage with the assertions made in that chapter specifically.
In the seventh chapter, Coe argues that there are two sources of wisdom: propositional (Scripture) and non-propositional (Creation). In other words, he argues that God reveals wisdom in his Word and in his world. Wisdom is inherent in the dynamic structures of creation. Coe contends that this is something the Bible teaches, and models in the book of Proverbs. He claims that this non-propositional wisdom is “embedded and evident within the patterns and dynamic structures of both the inorganic and organic world…the OT sage identifies this ordering structure with Cosmic Wisdom or the Wisdom of God embedded within the structures of the cosmos.”2John H. Coe, “Why Biblical Counseling Is Unbiblical,” 1991. Coe contends that, through studying natural phenomena, the sage “discovers the moral knowledge and skill necessary for living well in all areas of life.”3IBIC
The biblical texts he believes warrant this approach are based on the parable/story of the sluggard in Proverbs 24:30-34, and reference the relationship between wisdom and creation in Proverbs 3:19-20 and 8:22-36. We’ll explore each of these texts below, but—for now—it’s important to recognize the critique he makes of biblical counselors, which is an “over-reliance upon the Scriptures for all wisdom.4”Coe and Hall, Psychology in the Spirit, 62. God has provided two sources of wisdom, Coe argues, and therefore the task of the psychologist-sage is to acquire wisdom from both sources. “The sage and our transformational model of psychology appeal to Scripture and creation as sources of wisdom, inasmuch as both inform us on how to live well.5”Ibid., 154. See figure 7.4 on this page for a helpful visual summary of the argument.
Coe argues that the Old Testament sage shows us how human observations can lead to a discovery of the dynamic law-like structures of nature (including human psychological dynamics). Discovering these dynamic structures embedded in creation enables people to then develop an understanding of what leads to healthy versus unhealthy living: “The Old Testament sage is convinced that one can discover facts about values from facts about nature, particularly from facts about human behavioral, interpersonal and intrapsychic phenomena.”6Ibid., 134.
How does Coe understand the book of Proverbs specifically? He appears to see Proverbs as an early example (or precursor) of psychological literature. He argues that the Old Testament sage is a model for a transformational approach to doing science in general, and psychology in particular. He thus sees Proverbs “as representing the Old Testament sage’s science of values.”7Ibid., 148. Coe is not exactly arguing that Proverbs is an ancient equivalent to a modern psychological textbook. But he does see it as a record of the sage’s scientific and educational literature (footnote 17, page 149). Proverbs provides a scientific model for modern psychospiritual sages to replicate in their own time and place. In short, “the Old Testament sage is our biblical model.”8 Ibid, 134. Of course, Coe also recognizes that Proverbs is divinely inspired by God and thus unique in that sense. Nevertheless, the sage does act as our biblical model. In his review of the book, Bob Kellemen summarizes Coe’s view of the book of Proverbs: “Proverbs illustrates what the Christian psychologist should be and do.”9http://thegospelcoalition.org/bookreviews/review/psychology_in_the_spirit_contours_of_a_transformational_psychology/. Accessed 2014-04-12. This is an excellent review and well-worth reading. For another insightful review, but from a Christian psychology perspective, read Scott Holman and Eric Johnson’s review of Psychology in the Spirit, which is available for purchase at http://journals.biola.edu/sfj/volumes/4/issues/2/articles/279.
As a result Coe argues that Proverbs is a model project of psychology, in which the psychologist discovers (through observation and reflection) values from creation. Since moral truths are embedded in nature, scientific psychological study of the created order will bring the discovery of moral knowledge that one would not have known apart from such observation. Coe does not provide an example of how this might work out practically in chapter 7, but Hall does so in chapter 12. Co-author Todd Hall introduces readers to the concepts of Human Attachment and Relationality in chapter 12. (These concepts, I assume Hall would argue, have come to us through the psychological study of the created order—in this case, through a synthesis of recent developments in multiple fields.) Hall then proceeds to give a counseling example of Fred and Bonnie (a couple experiencing marital problems), illustrating how the concepts of Human Attachment and Relationality enable him to deeply understand and effectively care for them. By inference, the message is that the Transformational Psychologist, through studying creation, has a greater wisdom than does the biblical counselor because his scientific studies have yielded additional valuable information regarding human behavioral, interpersonal, and intrapsychic phenomena.
The bottom line of the argument Coe makes in chapter 7 is that it is the Bible’s own testimony that Scripture is not the only source of wisdom. “As a social scientist with a moral stripe, [the sage’s] goal is to translate his observations and reflections of the human ordering structure into principles for living well in all areas of life under God. The Proverbs in particular represent his attempt at mapping out the quasi-causal laws of sow and reap that regulate human phenomena.”10Coe and Hall, Psychology in the Spirit, 145.
The sage, Coe argues, is our biblical model, showing us how to pursue a distinctively Christian approach to psychology (and thus counseling). The sage does this by gleaning wisdom from his study of creation and applying that wisdom to human life.
Coe’s critique of the biblical counseling position is that “it fails to adequately account for the wisdom that God has for us to discover by observation and reflection on human beings…[biblical counselors have an] over-reliance upon the Scriptures for all wisdom.”11Ibid., 62. Biblical counselors are ignoring the mandate to discover the extra-biblical wisdom God has embedded in creation and are therefore less likely to offer wise soul care. To rightly evaluate Coe’s assertion, we must explore whether he properly understands the teaching of Proverbs. It is to that examination that we shall now turn.
Examining Coe’s Exegesis
Does Proverbs teach that wisdom is found in creation? To answer this question, let’s first consider the key passages Coe cites in support of his view that Proverbs teaches a non-propositional source of wisdom. The first is Proverbs 3:19–20.
“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.”
Coe says about these verses:
“God’s wisdom is responsible for the ordered structure, mechanics and causal laws that ontologically ground the natural sciences. This cosmic ordering structure provides the objective data that makes nature comprehensible.”12Ibid., 138.
That is a true and helpful insight and worth unpacking a bit. By looking at the context of Proverbs, we recognize these verses are part of a larger treatise, praising the value of wisdom, and they particularly highlight the value of wisdom to the Lord in his creating and sustaining of the earth. In other words, God used wisdom in creation (3:19-20a: “by wisdom founded the earth,” and “by understanding he established the heavens”), and continues to employ wisdom in sustaining the earth (3:20b: “by his knowledge…the clouds drop down the dew”). Through wisdom, God created the world. This connects with the focus of Proverbs 1-9, in which Solomon seeks to highlight the value of wisdom for his readers. Wisdom is beautiful, majestic, and attractive—something God utilized in creation and so something that we ought to seek.
But here’s the important point about Proverbs 3:19-20—the world does not contain God’s wisdom; it was created by God’s wisdom. Commenting on verse 3:19, John Kitchen helpfully notices this nuance: “God employed His wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (v. 20) in bringing forth all of creation (Pss. 104:24; 136:5; Jer. 10:12; 51:15). Wisdom predates all creation.”13John A. Kitchen, Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary, Mentor Commentaries (Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 2006), 86. For this reason, these verses do not teach us that the ordered structure contains God’s wisdom. Rather, these verses teach us that the ordered structure was created and is sustained by God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom was used in creation, but that does not mean that creation contains God’s wisdom. To give a word picture: wisdom is not like a mineral that needs to be mined out of a mountainside. Instead, the whole mountain testifies to the wisdom of its Creator. The mountain does not contain wisdom; it was created by wisdom. The mountain reveals (but does not contain) the wisdom of its maker.14Thanks to my friend Joshua Clutterham for this word picture.
Let’s consider another key text that Coe cites in this passage. In this passage, Lady Wisdom is speaking in Proverbs 8:22-31.
The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth…. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth…. When he established the heavens, I was there… when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.
Commenting on these verses, Coe writes,
“God’s wisdom not only creates but is itself imprinted upon and embedded within nature as its pattern, way and dynamic law-like structure of things (Cosmic Wisdom)” [italics mine]15.Coe and Hall, Psychology in the Spirit, 140.
Crucially, Coe here identifies Cosmic (Lady) Wisdom as the cause-and-effect order of things in creation. Commenting on Proverbs 8:30-36, Coe writes, “In the same way that Cosmic Wisdom represents the causal laws that govern nonhuman natural phenomena, she also represents the quasi-causal laws of sow-and-reap that govern human agents. Thus, according to the Old Testament sage, Cosmic Wisdom implores persons to listen to her inasmuch as she governs all human behavioural, interpersonal and intrapsychic phenomena.”16Ibid., 142.Coe therefore argues that Lady Wisdom, or Cosmic Wisdom, refers to the ordering structure embedded within creation. This means, Coe argues, that the sage studies creation to better know Lady Wisdom.
The problem with this contention is the lack of clear exegetical support. No verses explicitly identify Lady Wisdom as being embedded within creation. None. A decisive issue in this discussion is identifying Lady Wisdom, because she implores us to listen to her. If Lady Wisdom refers to the ordering structure of creation, then surely Coe and Hall are correct – she beckons us to listen to her by studying creation. But which verses identify Lady Wisdom as the ordered structure of creation? We’ll revisit this question in more detail below.
Here is the final significant passage Coe cites, from Proverbs 24:30-34.
I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.
Coe argues that this observation of the sluggard reveals the epistemological method of the sage. As the sage “saw and considered,” he “received instruction.” This is the way Coe exegetes this passage on laziness:
This is the only passage I am aware of in the Proverbs in which the sage draws back the curtain and exposes his modus operandi in apprehending wisdom and moral knowledge…though the sage elsewhere acknowledges the Scriptures as a source of wisdom (Proverbs 29:18), here he informs us that his own reflections and observations were sufficient to discover this piece of practical and moral wisdom…thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that the sage’s peculiar task in contrast to the priest and prophet involves keenness in observation and reflection for interpreting natural, particularly human, phenomena.17Ibid., 146.
This is the crux of his argument. He asserts that the sage’s “reflections and observations were sufficient to discover …moral wisdom.” But this claim that engaging with creation leads to new moral knowledge lacks warrant. The text of Proverbs never actually makes the claim that facts about values can be gleaned from facts regarding creation. At best, this is an argument from silence.
A clear and specific verse explaining or illustrating a non-propositional source of wisdom cannot be located. Proverbs 24:30-34 itself appears unclear on this: Is the sage discovering new moral knowledge, or merely being reminded by way of illustration of an earlier truth that he previously articulated (cf. Prov. 6:9-11, which includes the same refrain, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man”)? Or, is this merely a parable or riddle (which Proverbs 1:6 suggests it might be), illustrating a truth already known to the sage? To be sure, the sage most certainly reflects upon what he sees. Most scholars would not deny that the sage keenly observes the world he inhabits—he does! The sage is a keen observer of his surroundings, as we should be today. Kitchen exegetes this passage well when he writes:
“Whether or not this reflects an actual event or is a moral story manufactured for purposes of instruction is beside the point. What should not be lost, however, is how much can be learned if one simply keeps his eyes open.”18 Kitchen, Proverbs, 557.
We should keep our eyes open! Biblical counselors, pastors, and all Christians would do well to keenly observe the world we inhabit. Biblical counseling is not, and has never been, opposed to scientific investigation and thoughtful reflection upon the world we inhabit. But the crucial exegetical question for Coe to consider is if this parable is giving us a methodology in science of values. Although it is wise for us to value scientific endeavors, this passage is simply not teaching us that the OT sage discovered moral wisdom through scientific observation. The parable/story does not reveal the sage’s epistemological modus operandi.
Perhaps, in response, Coe would contend that Proverbs 24:32 (“Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction”) specifically teaches that moral wisdom can be gleaned from scientific study. But Proverbs 24:32 is surely too unclear to be one’s primary text in supporting this epistemological framework, particularly when the clear and consistent message of Proverbs is that wisdom comes from God’s Word (cf. Prov. 2:1-11; 4:1-19; 19:27). While Coe quotes various passages from Proverbs generally, he makes no strong exegetical argument from specific verses persuasively demonstrating that Cosmic Wisdom is embedded in creation.19In fact, such passages as Job 28 (which highlights the hiddenness of wisdom) seem to indicate the opposite. In fact, arguing that wisdom comes from studying creation is almost contrary to the message that the book of Proverbs is seeking to communicate, which is that wisdom comes through the Word of God (Prov. 1:1-7). While the sage certainly observed and reflected on what he saw, his divinely inspired and subsequently recorded observations were performed through the lens of orthodoxy.
Hebrew scholar Bruce K. Waltke points out,
“The authors of Proverbs drew inspiration through keen observations and cogent reflections on creation, but they brought to their task Israel’s world-and-life view and used the creation to confirm it” (italics mine).20Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004), 82.
Yes, the sages certainly reflected on nature and human phenomena (and so should we!), but they reflected through the lens of biblical faith. They saw illustrations and confirmations, rather than discovering authoritative new moral truths in what they observed. This is what all Christians do; this is what preachers do; and this is also what counselors do—reflect upon creation through the lens of biblical faith. Indeed, it is important and valuable that we do this. Science is an ally to the Christian person, and biblical counselors are positive pertaining to scientific investigation. As the scholars we’ve quoted from articulated, the sage of Proverbs certainly observed and reflected upon creation. Thoughtful biblical counselors have done the same—yet without claiming that they were studying Lady Wisdom when they were observing and reflecting.
The exegetical arguments made by Coe are based on texts that do not teach what he asserts. Lady Wisdom (Cosmic Wisdom is a term Coe employs) does not represent the causal laws that govern nonhuman natural phenomena; the OT sage does not affirm a moral science. It does raise the question of what Lady Wisdom does represent, though, and what the nature of the wisdom in Proverbs is. It is to these important questions that we now turn.
Identifying Lady Wisdom and Defining the Nature of Wisdom in Proverbs
Waltke writes that the book of Proverbs is the intermediary of God’s wisdom.21Ibid., 80. In other words, God gave us the Proverbs, so that we might become wise. Despite the important direction given to us by the introductory verses (cf. Prov. 1:1-7), Waltke laments how many biblical scholars have defined wisdom as being located in an impersonal created order. This fundamentally misunderstands what Proverbs is teaching: wisdom is revealed in the Word of the Lord, and not upon a person’s recognition of the world’s ordered structure.
Waltke explicitly opposes the exegetical error that underpins Coe’s argument:
This fundamental hermeneutical blunder of substituting the search for a self-revelatory cosmic order has been highly influential, misleading many…[and] thereby setting up the book to teach trust in human research rather than in God, who guarantees the truth of his revelation.22Ibid., 81.
When this interpretive error is made, the entire purpose of Proverbs is misunderstood; indeed, it is inverted! Proverbs is not promoting the value of human reasoning, nor the value of human scientific-moralistic endeavor, nor the importance of natural law, but the value of receiving and depending upon God’s revealed, inscripturated, wisdom: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5).
The emphasis in Proverbs is that wisdom is gained not through discovering wisdom in the world, but receiving wisdom through the Word (Prov. 2:6-10). Amongst many other texts, we could cite those in which we see the parents imploring their child to receive their words (Prov. 1:8; 2:1; 3:1, 11-12, 21-22; 4:1, 10, etc.). Realizing that wisdom in Proverbs is connected to knowing and obeying God’s Word also helps us understand why “teaching and education are the major means of acquiring wisdom (Prov 1:1–6).”23T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000). Because it is as someone teaches me Proverbs that I hear God’s voice, and as I hear and heed what God says, I grow in wisdom (Prov. 4:1: “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight”).
Again, with particular relevance to the verses cited by Coe (Prov. 3:19-20 and 8:22-31), Waltke provides clarity regarding the nature of wisdom in Proverbs:
To be sure, biblical texts outside Proverbs speak of God’s revelation of himself as Creator and/or Judge through his creation … but Proverbs does not identify this revelation as the source of its wisdom. Prov. 3:19-20 says that God used wisdom as an instrument to create the world, not as an instrument to reveal wisdom. The primary feature of the poem in 8:22-31 on the role of wisdom in creation is its strong emphasis on the cosmic range and authority of wisdom…the poem does certainly not identify wisdom as existing within the creation (italics mine).24 Waltke, Proverbs, 81.
Proverbs nowhere teaches us that wisdom can be found outside God’s revelation, nor does it encourage us to seek wisdom that way. In other words, Proverbs does not teach us about a non-propositional source of wisdom. It reveals a primal source of wisdom—revealed in propositions. To claim otherwise not only lacks clear exegetical support, it contradicts clear exegetical support that asserts the very opposite! This does not mean that we shouldn’t study nature or embark on scientific investigations, but it does mean that Proverbs is simply not teaching us how to discover moral wisdom from scientific inquiry. The message of Proverbs is that Lady Wisdom is received through embracing the inspired words of the book, and embracing the Lord whose Spirit wrote the book. Identifying Lady Wisdom correctly is the critical issue, or the crucial error Coe makes, and so let’s seek to rightly identify her.
By carefully studying Proverbs 4:1-9, we see that Lady Wisdom is linked explicitly to the sage’s words/commands (rather than creation). In Proverbs 4:4-6, Solomon quotes his father, David, who said to him, ”Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you” (italics mine). Notice, in the Hebrew parallelism, how Lady Wisdom is there, linked explicitly to King David’s wise teaching. “David had urged young Solomon to obey his words wholeheartedly (with all your heart; cf. Prov. 3:5) so that he would live (cf. 3:1–2)…. Wisdom was to be pursued (three times Solomon said “get”; Prov. 4:5 [twice], 7) and valued (love her; cf. 8:17, 21) because she (wisdom is again personified as a woman) protects (cf. 2:7–8, 11; 3:21–23) and guards.”25Sid S. Buzzell, “Proverbs,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 913. Lady Wisdom is embraced as Solomon’s words are obeyed. Another scholar comments on these verses: “The words of my mouth represent as it were the means by which wisdom may be purchased.”26H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., Proverbs, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 86. Wisdom comes from studying God’s Word, rather than from studying God’s world, because Lady Wisdom is embedded in God’s Word, instead of God’s world.
Proverbs 4:13 makes this same point: “Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.” Notice again how instruction is subsequently referred to by the feminine pronoun her. Lady Wisdom is embedded in God’s Word, rather than in God’s world, as articulated by scholars Reyburn and Fry:
The sense of this command is for the learner to attach himself to understanding, to keep it always near him, that is, as the guide to his life. “She is your life” equates instruction or “education” with life.27William David Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Proverbs, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 2000), 105–106.
Life, and living life well, is found by obtaining (and then remaining devoted to) the truths and instructions found in God’s Word. Proverbs, therefore, does not teach us that Cosmic/Lady Wisdom is embedded in creation. Lady Wisdom is, instead, a poetic figure who represents the wisdom of God and is obtained by internalizing the many truths of Proverbs.
This is particularly important because Coe’s major exegetical mistake is to wrongly identify Lady Wisdom (or Cosmic Wisdom). And this misunderstanding of Cosmic/Lady Wisdom that leads him to make this thoroughly unbiblical conclusion about the sage’s prime directive as Israel’s counselor: “to discern and follow [the] ordering structure within nature itself…in order to live life well under God.28”Coe, Unbiblical. His conclusion is that the sage-psychologist-counselor’s primary directive is discerning moral knowledge from observing nature to help God’s people live well. But this is not the message of Proverbs, nor consequently the prime directive of the sage. Indeed, as I have briefly argued, Proverb’s message is exactly the opposite: these inspired wise words have been given to us that our trust may be in the Lord (cf. Prov. 22:17-19). Waltke summarizes: “The basis for the book of Proverbs’ epistemology and theological reflections is not natural theology, but special revelation through inspired spokespersons (see 30:5-6).”29Waltke, Proverbs, 82.
Two Weaknesses of Transformational Psychology
By this point, it is clear that Coe’s argument for his view of Proverbs is exegetically unsound. Proverbs is not showing us how to engage in a psychology of values. Proverbs is rooted in special revelation. God’s very wisdom is contained in Proverbs; these inspired sayings have come from his mouth (cf. Prov. 2:6). The sage of Proverbs, rather than being primarily our example, wants to be primarily our teacher.30Of course, it’s true to say that the sage of Proverbs is a good example for us of someone who fears the Lord, who observes created phenomena keenly, and who counsels wisely. For more about this, see The Proverbs and the Art of Persuasion, by George M. Schwab, Sr., The Journal of Biblical Counseling 14:1 (1995).
Professor James Hamilton helpfully notes that, rather than modeling a scientific methodology, Proverbs “results from Solomon’s obedience to Deuteronomy 6, filtered through his obedience to Deuteronomy 17, as he creatively teaches the Torah to his son.”31James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 290; quoted in Dan Phillips, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs (Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2011), 3. Proverbs concerns the transmission of wisdom through inspired words – from Solomon, to his sons, and on to us. Transformational Psychology misunderstands Proverbs, and so rests on an exegetically faulty foundation.
There is a second weakness in TP. Seeking wisdom from two sources compromises doctrinal accuracy, and thereby makes counseling less effective because general revelation, or insights from psychology, cannot foster virtue in one’s soul. This difference in spiritual impact between general revelation and special revelation is highlighted in Psalm 19:1-11. The first six verses discuss general revelation (the created order), and make no mention of man discovering moral knowledge that enables him to live well spiritually.32This does not mean that general revelation reveals nothing important – it does reveal God’s glory and character to us, as taught in Psalm 19:1-6 teaches. Verses 7-11 however, teach us that special revelation is “needed to change the heart of man and make him wise.”33Joshua Clutterham, “Understanding Biblical Counseling,” in Men Counseling Men, ed. John Street (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2013), 37. If we want individuals to grow through counseling, and if we want counselees to become wise, we must necessarily employ the Scriptures in dependence upon the Spirit. Wisdom comes by the Spirit of God, through the Word of God. In other words, the Lord transforms us (and our counselees) by his Spirit, through his Word.
These two weaknesses are significant. The exegetical mistake means that TP rests on an erroneous foundation. The second mistake may well mean that, in actual counseling scenarios, Transformational Psychologists may not implement the Scriptures as much as they should (and the case studies that Todd Hall shares in chapter 14 seem to bear this out). This means that TP will be less effective in achieving spiritual growth in counselees. These two significant weaknesses are enough for us to seriously question the validity of TP.
Are Biblical Counselors Unbiblical?
We have made a careful assessment of TP’s exegetical underpinnings and found them to be flawed. This brings me back to the original question asked in the opening section: “Are biblical counselors unbiblical?” Has Coe made his case? The answer is clearly “no.”
However, it is worth emphasizing that, even though biblical counselors rely on the Scriptures in counseling, the biblical counseling approach is not at all opposed to scientific investigation. As we saw when considering Proverbs 24:30-34, the sage keenly observes and reflects upon what he sees—he keeps his eyes open, and we should, too! Biblical counselors can learn from sources other than Scripture, because numerous sources (from scientific research to literature, and more) contribute toward our knowledge of people. And academic developments in a variety of disciplines will always be of interest to those who practice biblical counseling—although the biblical approach to how that knowledge is viewed and used would be different from the TP model. The TP model may overly exalt such knowledge, considering it to be a non-propositional source of wisdom. The Transformational Psychologist is potentially in danger of calling human knowledge God’s wisdom. In contrast, the biblical counseling model recognizes academic developments positively—yet views them as potentially helpful sources of knowledge, rather than as new authoritative moral truths. Advances in knowledge can be helpful and enthusiastically welcomed, but a thoughtful biblical counselor would not equate those academic advances with God’s wisdom.
Proverbs is teaching us that wisdom comes to us through God’s Word (Prov 1:1-7). Rather than perceiving the sage as an example of a social scientist, Proverbs emphasizes the sage’s role as an inspired teacher of divine wisdom. Our role is becoming perennial students, always growing wiser as we more deeply understand, embrace, and apply the truths contained in Proverbs. The words of the book of Proverbs should be written on our hearts and applied to our lives. Of course, other sources of knowledge can help us grow as counselors—we affirm that gladly. But the primary directive for us who seek to help alleviate the soul troubles of others must be to relationally share the wisdom of God, as it is revealed in the Word of God. In fact, by the wisdom attained in places like Proverbs, the biblical counselor can appropriately assess and utilize information from other sources like history, poetry or psychological literature. Of course, biblical counselors—like all Christian counselors—will always have an ongoing need to grow in wisdom. Wonderfully, despite our weaknesses and perennial need for wisdom, Proverbs teaches us that wisdom is available to us through God’s Word.
A Shared Motivation
While I disagree with Coe’s exegesis, the TP model, and his opinions about biblical counseling, I admire and share his motivation. Both John Coe and Todd Hall want to develop a truly biblical psychology for the sake of transforming the church and the world. Their desire to serve and aid others is right, laudable, and encouraging. Coe and Hall end their thought-provoking book with a humble invitation: to join them in seeking to develop a spiritually transformative psychology. As biblical counselors, we should respond to that invitation by doing our best in developing a biblical psychology, based on a thorough exegesis of biblical texts. May God help all those whom He has called to counsel; may we learn how to wisely minister his Word to those in need of help and hope.