A Theology of Biblical Counseling: Some Questions and Clarifications

I offer these questions and clarifications in the spirit of iron sharpening iron

Question #1: “Is there any revelation outside of the Bible?” Take for example, the topic of obesity, one of the greatest sin-problems in America; has God revealed any truth about this topic outside of the Bible? Is there any truth we can discover outside of the Bible about what foods cause cravings, how certain foods exacerbate the problem, and how others can diminish appetite? Do nutritionists have no truth to help us counsel an obese person? If so, is it still accurate to say “When we pay careful attention to every relevant passage in the Bible on a topic, we should know what God has revealed to us about that topic”?

 

While preparing lectures recently for my Fall semester course, “Foundations of Biblical Counseling,” what arrived in the mail from Zondervan, but a complimentary copy of A Theology of Biblical Counseling, The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry, by Heath Lambert. Perfect timing, I thought. As Heath says, it’s a much-needed book, which aims to gather together in one place a systematized theology of biblical counseling (33). It’s possible to piece such a theology together from numerous other biblical counseling books, but there really was a desperate need for an up-to-date book that would present such material in a careful, clear, and comprehensive way. That’s what I was looking for anyway. I was also hoping that it would demonstrate how the biblical counseling movement has matured in its thinking over the years, showing how it has developed and qualified its presuppositions in response to further prayerful Bible study and constructive critique.

And who better to write such a book than Heath Lambert, Executive Director of The Association of Biblical Counselors, and author of a couple of well-received counseling books, including The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams, and Finally Free, the first book I usually recommend to anyone struggling with pornography.

When I turned to the book’s table of contents, I immediately saw that it met the aim of comprehensiveness, with chapters relating biblical counseling to Scripture, Common Grace, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Humanity, Sin, Suffering, Salvation, and the Church. I’m very much looking forward to diving into these chapters and bringing back theological treasure to share with my students.

When I finished the first chapter, however, Counseling and Theology: A Crucial Introduction, I felt confused. Instead of clarifying, it raised a number of questions in my mind; and instead of demonstrating progress in the movement, I felt like I was reading some of the less nuanced statements of the early Biblical Counseling Movement. As I not only want to use this book in my classes, but also want it to succeed, I’ve written out my questions and suggested clarifications (numbered for ease of reply) in the hope that responses will not only help me but help others who read the book too. I’ll examine the first part of chapter one today and the second part tomorrow.

THEOLOGY INFORMS COUNSELING

In order to demonstrate that theology informs counseling, Heath begins by answering three questions  (1) What is theology? (2) What is counseling? (3) What does counseling require?

(1) The Nature of Theology

“Theology,” writes Heath, “is what the whole Bible teaches us today about any given topic” (12). Therefore, “when we pay careful attention to every relevant passage in the Bible on a topic, we should know what God has revealed to us about that topic” (13). Which provokes my first question?

Question #1: “Is there any revelation outside of the Bible?”

Take for example, the topic of obesity, one of the greatest sin-problems in America; has God revealed any truth about this topic outside of the Bible? Is there any truth we can discover outside of the Bible about what foods cause cravings, how certain foods exacerbate the problem, and how others can diminish appetite? Do nutritionists have no truth to help us counsel an obese person? If so, is it still accurate to say “When we pay careful attention to every relevant passage in the Bible on a topic, we should know what God has revealed to us about that topic”?

Other examples might be autism or fetal alcohol syndrome. Has God revealed any truth about these topics outside of the Bible? Would it perhaps be more accurate to say:

Suggested Clarification #1: “When we pay careful attention to every relevant passage in the Bible on a topic, we should know what special revelation (or “spiritual truth”) God has given us about a topic”?

Without the qualification of “special” revelation (or spiritual truth), I think we risk being understood as saying that there is no general revelation, no truth, outside of Scripture on any topic.

I’m hopeful that Heath will go on to add such qualifications in subsequent chapters, but it’s unqualified generalizations like these that confuse people and have created justifiable resistance to the biblical counseling movement over the years. With just a couple of extra words, the potential confusion is avoided and understandable reasons to resist are removed.

(2) The Nature of Counseling

I like Heath’s definition of counseling: “Counseling is a conversation where one party with questions, problems, and trouble seeks assistance from someone who they believe has answers, solutions and help” (13). As he says, that’s sufficiently broad to include all kinds of counseling — biblical, Christian, secular, lay, professional, paid, voluntary, etc.

He goes on to give numerous examples of counseling, including “what happens when a boss calls an employee into the office to discuss a problem with job performance” and “decisions about where to go to school” (14). Question one is relevant in these instances too.

(3) What Counseling Requires.

This heading, especially the word “requires,” led me to think that I was going to read about the requirements of good counseling, what is needed for counseling to take place. Having read this section a number of times and failed to make sense of it with that definition of “requires,” I realized that “requires” is not the best word. “Necessitates” would be better.

Heath is not saying, “This is what is needed in counseling,” but “This is what counseling necessitates,” or, “This is always present when counseling takes place,” or, “Wherever counseling happens, this is always present.” That ever-present reality is a worldview, which Heath helpfully defines as “a vision of life that includes who we are, what is wrong with us, what should be right with us, and what it would take to fix the problem.”

Like the best biblical counselors, Heath highlights the impossibility of counseling without being influenced by our fundamental presuppositions.

COUNSELING IS THEOLOGICAL

In the next major section of chapter one, Heath advances his argument to say “if counseling requires some vision of life, some worldview, then counseling is always theological” (17). This precedes another confusing generalization which again raises questions for me: “God knows what is wrong with us and diagnoses the problem in the Bible. God prescribes a solution to our problems – faith in Christ — and reveals him to us in the Scriptures” (17).

And my questions are:

Q2. Does “problems” here mean all problems (such as autism, or those Heath mentioned earlier — employment problems or choosing a college).

Q3. Is God’s prescribed solution (singular) to our problems (plural) always simply “faith in Christ”?

Q4. Is this the only solution to all our problems?

It would appear to be, because a following sentence says: “There is no other solution to our problem and no process of change other than the one God has provided” (17).

Again, I’m hopeful that Heath will qualify this in later chapters (although it’s difficult to see how it can be done without contradicting this sentence), but it would be so easy, so helpful, and so clarifying if a couple of extra words were added in this foundational introductory chapter. For example, would this be more accurate, clear, and comprehensive?

Suggested Clarification #2: “God knows what is primarily wrong with us — sin — and that the solution to our sin problems is repentance and faith in Christ.”

HOPES

I offer these questions and clarifications in the spirit of iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17), and in the hope that my biblical counseling colleagues will see the need for much greater clarity, carefulness, and consistency, if we are to have a hope of building the credibility of our discipline and expanding the availability and usefulness of biblical counseling throughout the world. I’m looking forward to learning from any responses to the questions, further questions to me, and hopefully clearer and more consistent definitions at the foundational level. If I have misunderstood or misrepresented anything, please let me know as this was not my intention.

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.