A Theology of Biblical Counseling: Questions and Clarifications (2)

Comparing biblical counseling with secular counseling, and then biblical counseling with “Christian counseling”

Suggested Clarification #3: Although both biblical and Christian counselors may accept insights of secular sources, they differ in (1) the degree to which they do this, (2) the priority they give to secular sources, (3) the significance they attach to secular sources, and (4) the filter they use to read secular sources. Each of these points would need to be further expanded, but would this state the difference more accurately than just saying one accepts secular sources whereas the other never does?

 

The last post raised some questions and suggested some clarifications about the first part of chapter one in A Theology of Biblical Counseling.Today’s post looks at the second part of chapter one which compares biblical counseling with secular counseling, and then biblical counseling with “Christian counseling” (there is a difference, I’ll get to that). 

BIBLICAL COUNSELING COMPARED WITH SECULAR COUNSELING

Heath supplies two examples that demonstrate secular counseling. The first is plainly and painfully unbiblical. The second describes David’s Burns’ popular secular version of Cognitive-Behavior-Therapy, which Heath rightly says is “a collage of faithful and unfaithful theological commitments. He has unwittingly embraced some counseling realities that God reveals in the Bible. He has rejected many others” (22).

Heath concedes that “Burns is on to something with his triple-column technique. The basic idea behind it is to create intentionality in the thinking of a counselee.” What follows is a balanced critique of secular CBT, recognizing areas of overlap and similarity with biblical methods of counseling but also highlighting theological errors which have practical consequences. However successful CBT often appears to be, Heath highlights where it falls short of the biblical measure of success and concludes:

“Although partial commitment to an accurate theological vision of reality can lead to partial change and the appearance of success, real change that honors Christ requires total commitment to a fully orbed theological vision of reality” (25).

BIBLICAL COUNSELING COMPARED WITH CHRISTIAN COUNSELING

What’s the difference between “biblical counseling” and “Christian counseling”? Here’s Heath’s answer:

“The twentieth century…was also marked by the embrace of secular counseling principles by conservative Christians. Christians who rely – to one degree or another – on the counseling insights of secular people have been called integrationists, Christian counselors, and Christian psychologists” (25).

Note, the key distinguishing characteristic of Christian counselors is that they “rely – to one degree or another – on the counseling insights of secular people.”

There then follows a helpfully irenic section in which Heath lists five areas where Biblical and Christian counselors agree

FIVE AREAS WHERE BIBLICAL AND CHRISTIAN COUNSELORS AGREE  

Agreement 1: Both have been marked by theological conservatism.

Agreement 2: Both care for hurting people in need of help.

Agreement 3: Both agree that psychologists make true observations that are often helpful.

Agreement 4: Biblical and Christian counselors agree that secular psychology gets things wrong.

Agreement 5: We agree that not all problems are counseling problems (meaning some are physical).

I want to examine what Heath says under Agreement number three as it left me confused.

Agreement 3. Both agree that psychologists make true observations that are often helpful.

Although it may surprise some people, Heath asserts that “a belief in the helpful nature of  psychological observations goes back as far as the foundational ministry of Jay Adams” (26-27). He then quotes Jay Adams from his groundbreaking book, Competent to Counsel:

“I do not wish to disregard science, but rather I welcome it as a useful adjunct for the purposes of illustrating, filling in generalizations with specifics, and challenging wrong human interpretations of Scripture, thereby forcing the student to restudy the Scriptures. However, in the area of psychiatry, science largely has given way to humanistic philosophy and gross speculation” (27).

Here’s where I get confused. Let me try to explain the reasoning that leads to my confusion, in the hope that one of my steps can be shown to be untrue or illogical.

Step 1: Christian counselors “rely – to one degree or another – on the counseling insights of secular people” (25).

Step 2: Therefore biblical counselors do not rely to any degree on the counseling insights of secular people.

Step 3: Yet biblical counselors, going back to Jay Adams, believe “in the helpful nature of psychological observations” (27).

Step 4: And Jay Adams said “I do not disregard science, but rather welcome it” for the following purposes:

  • Illustrating
  • Filling in generalizations with specifics
  • Challenging wrong human interpretations of Scripture
  • Forcing us to restudy the Scriptures (27)

Step 5: Furthermore as agreement #3 says, “biblical and Christian counselors agree that psychologists make true observations that are often helpful” (26). Following on from my four questions yesterday, my fifth question would be:

Question 5: How do Steps #1&2 square with #3-5? To put it another way, if biblical counselors do not rely to any degree on the counseling insights of secular people how can steps #3-5 be true?

If integration is accepting to any degree the insights of secular counseling, and if biblical counselors accept Steps #3-5, then it would appear that both biblical and Christian counselors accept integration to one degree or another. Would the distinction therefore be better stated as something like this:

Suggested Clarification #3: Although both biblical and Christian counselors may accept insights of secular sources, they differ in (1) the degree to which they do this, (2) the priority they give to secular sources, (3) the significance they attach to secular sources, and (4) the filter they use to read secular sources.

Each of these points would need to be further expanded, but would this state the difference more accurately than just saying one accepts secular sources whereas the other never does?

Areas Where Biblical and Christian Counselors Disagree

Heath then moves on to talk about two areas of disagreement between biblical and Christian counselors.

Disagreement 1: They disagree on whether it is necessary to use secular counseling techniques to help people in the counseling relationships.

McMinn a leading Christian counselor refers to the two information sources of psychology and Christian faith and says “caring for people’s souls is best done by bringing together truth from both sources” (30).

Heath contrasts this with leading biblical counselor David Powlison who wrote:

“Do secular disciplines have anything to offer to the methodology of biblical counseling? The answer is a flat no. Scripture provides the system for biblical counseling. Other disciplines – history, anthropology, literature, sociology, psychology, biology, business, political science – may be useful in a variety of secondary ways to the pastor and the biblical counselor, but such disciplines can never provide a system for understanding and counseling people” (30).

Question 6: How does what McMinn says here differ from what biblical counselors believe in Steps #3-5 above?

Question 7: How does what Powlison says here square with what biblical counselors are said to believe in Steps #3-5 above.

Maybe the answer to question 6 is found in that Powlison is speaking about the “methodology” or “system” of biblical counseling and is refusing to accept any non-biblical input at the foundational presuppositional level (Heath excludes “secular counseling techniques” as well). However, once that foundation is laid, Powlison admits information from a wide range of secular disciplines and says they “may be useful in a variety of secondary ways.”

However, if this is the right way to read Powlison, it’s still impossible to square with Step #2 above which seems to rule out any input from secular sources.

Unless, what is being said is that secular sources are helpful but notnecessary. Or to use Adams’s words, “we welcome science as a useful adjunct” but we don’t need to use it.  Or to use Powlison’s words, they are not to be used at the primary level, but they “may be useful in a variety ofsecondary ways.” Or to use Heath’s words, although “the discipline of psychology makes true observations (…God has given grace to all people — believers and unbelievers alike — to understand true things” 31), yet we don’t need the truth that God has given them.

That would seem to be confirmed by Heath’s use of necessary in the way he states disagreement #1, and in his comments following the second area of disagreement below.

Disagreement #2: They disagree on the question of whether the Bible is asufficient counseling resource.

“Christian counselors” says Heath, “believe that secular counseling strategies are a necessary adjunct to the Bible. They do not believe that that the Scriptures are a sufficient counseling resource…Because the Bible lacks information Christian counselors believe to be pertinent to counseling, they move toward psychology, expecting it to fill in the gaps” (31).

If the emphasis in this section is not on the use of secular sources or not, but rather on whether they are necessary, perhaps I can offer a further clarification. 

Suggested Clarification #4: The distinction between biblical and Christian counseling is that the latter see secular insights as helpful and necessary, whereas the former sees them as helpful but unnecessary.

I sincerely hope that this series will help me and my biblical counseling colleagues to continue to refine our beliefs and communications so that we can all be of greater benefit to one another and to the wider church and world.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.