A High View of Scripture

As Christians have considered the best way to care for people with mental health concerns, there has been a divide between those who believe that Scripture is sufficient for the purposes of counseling those with these concerns and those who integrate a Christian worldview with the contemporary fields of psychology and counseling. These two positions (and many others along a continuum of sorts) have been discussed now for many, many years. Not too many people in my day to day world really debate this, so I was surprised to be invited into a discussion about all of this recently.

I was invited, I suppose, because I represent what some people would refer to as an “integration” or “integrationist” position because I pursue the integration of Christian theology and worldview with the field of psychology. As I shared in a recent colloquium of biblical counselors, this is not a position I have argued for or defended, as others have. I have written textbooks from that perspective, but I don’t really spend a great deal of time justifying the position itself to critics. I think our worlds are sufficiently different and our approaches are sufficiently different that I have not engaged in that debate. My sense is that we would likely speak past one another. In any case, I think others have done a good job explaining the rationale for an integration perspective on this and there are other things I have been led to focus on in my work.

In any case, I was recently interviewed by a leading figure in the biblical counseling movement about all of this. He asked me what biblical counselors get wrong about integrationists. What I said was that I think biblical counselors view someone like me as having a low view of Scripture. The contrast, as I see it, is that biblical counselors often see themselves as having a high view of Scripture because they assert that the sufficiency of Scripture entails deriving treatment protocols from Scripture for various mental health concerns. In contrast to that position, I would think they would assume I then have a low view of Scripture. The opposite is actually true from my perspective. That is, I would say I have  high view of Scripture, and that it is precisely because I have a high view of Scripture that I do not derive treatment protocols from the Bible for panic disorder, eating disorders, sexual dysfunctions, and so on.

In that same venue I also discussed role integration, which is another distinction between the groups. In the work I’ve done with a colleague at Regent University, Bill Hathaway, we have discussed different types of integration (i.e., worldview, theoretical, applied, personal, and role integration). Role integration refers to times when a Christian serves in a role that entails serving the public good in some capacity. This might be simply being licensed to practice as a psychologist or counselor, as it involves being under the board of psychology or board of counseling in a given state. It could entail serving on a task force with the American Psychological Association or being a consultant to the National Institute of Corrections. That is, you are serving the public and not just providing services to the church or to a Christian.

It was interesting to me that many of the biblical counselors I was speaking to were pastors. I also serve the Body of Christ in a related capacity. I am an elder in my church. In that capacity, I have a different role in the lives of people who are members of our church, as they place themselves under the spiritual oversight of the pastoral staff and elders. But when I function as a licensed clinical psychologist, I enter into a role as I enter into the fiduciary space of public trust that is broader than what one might take on when providing spiritual direction to a congregant. I consult with the National Institute of Corrections, for instance, to serve all incarcerated people, not just Christians.

Are there tensions in role integration? Absolutely. There are potentially many tensions as a Christian psychologist considers his or her responsibilities in serving the public and in bringing honor to God. I won’t elaborate on those tensions here, but you see me write about them or speak about them often. But I think these tensions have been good for me in some ways. They have certainly kept me in prayer!

As I mentioned above, these exchanges with biblical counselors are not common experiences for me. I think our sense of calling and purpose are pretty far apart. I don’t see our worlds overlapping all that much. I suspect that all of us in that room (and in the broader movements represented by biblical counselors, integrationists, and others) may have good, honorable goals for the work we are doing, for the sense of calling we have, but we are likely to speak past one another because of where and how we serve.

 

5 Comments

  1. Mark,

    I teach a course on Biblical counseling at Grove City College. I distinguish between Christian and Biblical counseling as groups of methodologies, with distinctives related to each group. Just as there are more than one secular counseling system, there are multiple Biblical counseling approaches. And just as no one creed or denomination can lay claim to being THE system of biblical truth, neither can a system of Biblical counseling lay claim to be THE authoritative system for Biblical counseling. What follows is the way I distinguish between them in class.

    Three Distinctives of Biblical Counseling

    The Starting Point for the Person and the Problem
    Biblical counseling seeks to think God’s thoughts after Him with regard to understanding the counselee, conceptualizing the problem, and envisioning the counselee’s growth. Scripture is thus more than just the context for understanding what we learn about humanity, it both whispers and shouts about who and what we are and what we should do with our life. It is the starting point for our thinking in any and all areas related to counseling change: anthropology; behavior (what we put off and put on); and how we relate to others (love your neighbor as yourself) and God (love the Lord God with your whole heart).

    The Counseling Method
    Biblical counseling sees Scripture as a necessary and fundamentally sufficient guide to the method of counseling. It is not an exhaustive manual for counseling technique or theory, but Scripture alone declares what is and is not “good” about a technique or theory; what is and is not “good” about the personality or behavior of a person.

    The Counseling Process
    The process of Biblical counseling is nouthetic; meaning it seeks to effect personality and behavioral change in the individual for the glory of God. This definition of the counseling process draws upon Jay Adams in chapter 4 of Competent to Counsel, “What is Nouthetic Counseling.” The application of the inspired Scriptures for teaching, reproof, correction and training (2 Tim. 3:16) is a nouthetic process of change; and the Holy Spirit is an essential part of the change process. In effect, if change takes place within the individual that dramatically decreases their distress, but ultimately does not lead to a deeper understanding of who God is and what He requires, then Biblical change hasn’t truly occurred. The person has just become a more effective sinner.

    Three Distinctives of Christian Counseling

    The Starting Point for the Person and the Problem
    • The claims of Christian truth should fundamentally transform they ways we conceptualize and understand the person and the problem.
    • There should be “certain core convictions” (not Scripture as a whole) that characterize attempts to speak grace and truth into the lives of hurting persons.

    The Counseling Method
    • There are many options open to Christian counselors.
    • A Christian psychotherapist may use various therapeutic techniques when such approaches are “suitably criticized and modified” to conform to the central tenets of the Christian faith.
    The choice of counseling methodologies is not limited to just those that see Scripture as a necessary and fundamentally sufficient guide to counseling. The fundamental metaphors of Scripture are not typically used to understand and interpret the person or their problem.
    There will be certain counseling methods off limits to Christian counselors, say using a sex surrogate to help someone overcome past sexual trauma. I’m guessing that Jones and Butman left a discussion of Jungian analysis out of the 2nd edition of Modern Psychotherapies, because of its “deeply flawed understanding of our religious nature and the most fundamental religious truths.”

    The Counseling Process
    • The claims of Christian truth should fundamentally transform they ways we conceptualize and understand the goals and processes of change.
    • The process should include: a depth of character in the therapist and an obvious presence of compassion.
    • The counseling processes are of such a nature that they must be thoroughly reconceptualized from a biblical foundation to be “Christian.”
    • This should be done in the context of communities of worship, fellowship and service.

    There seems to be a series of “common factors” that characterize effective therapy, regardless of the method used by the therapist. Jones and Butman pointed to a discussion in Integrative Psychotherapy by McMinn and Campbell that suggested 15% of the change was due to specific psychotherapeutic techniques; 15% from expectancy effects (the degree of hopefulness and optimism); 30% from relationship factors between the counselor and client; and 40% from contextual or situational variables. This has been supported by research into counseling effectiveness.

    The counseling process in Christian counseling is not necessarily nouthetic; it does not require the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual. It could utilize “core convictions” and a methodology compatible with Scripture. But the change process will fall short of what is possible in Christ if the client does not have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

    It is necessary for a person to be “born again” to truly do Biblical counseling. The Holy Spirit, working within the person’s heart, is the true counselor applying the truths of Scripture to the individual’s situation. A system of Biblical counseling applied to a nonChristian could not be nouthetic.

    A system of Christian counseling, as I’ve defined it, could indeed generate nouthetic change in an individual who is “born again.” And it could be used with nonChristians to effect change in their lives; perhaps even bringing them to a saving knowledge of Christ by the outward witness of the Spirit to the person’s heart in the process of counseling. From a Reformed theological perspective, an awakening to the fact that the sovereign God has written their name in the book of life. If the change that occurs is just a common grace change in a person’s life, without an awakening to their need for Christ, then you end up with a changed sinner, more comfortable in their perceived autonomy from God.

    A long post, but it lays out how I distinguish between what I see as Christian and Biblical counseling. I also believe that a Christian can legitimately work within either group of methodologies, but needs to be aware of the strengths and limitations of each general approach.

  2. Mark – I practice as a biblical counselor and appreciate your distinction between the different worlds in which we work. I was both intrigued by your comment that a high view of Scripture leads you to other methodologies and also discouraged by the tone the biblical counseling world has sounded in this matter. That’s a serious charge to be levied against you, that you don’t think highly enough of Scripture and that is why you practice how you do. As I consider that in light of some of the Christian counselors I know and their zeal for Scripture that seems off putting. But I must confess that I wish you had said more about how that plays out for you. How is it that a high view of Scripture sends you elsewhere to begin to understand a panic disorder?

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kristin. I’m not sure what else I can add to the conversation. As I mentioned, it’s not something I put much time and energy into today. I’ll offer this: I think it has to do with valuing Scripture as it directs my relationship with God and with others, but recognizing that it was not intended to offer the specificity for intervening with specific health concerns. So, for example, I wouldn’t turn to Scripture for a protocol for treating common sexual dysfunctions, despite the fact that I think Scripture has important themes that inform our understanding of sexuality. I think I would be detracting from the value I place on Scripture if I were to attempt to derive a specific protocol for intervention for various complex health concerns. I also think that God wants us to pursue information through natural revelation and that we serve God when we do good research and provide good clinical practice in a specific area.

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