Biblical Counseling and a Theology of Scripture (2)

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts reading through A Theology of Biblical Counseling, The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry by Heath Lambert (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Yesterday we examined Heath’s explanation of the sufficiency of Scripture, although we noted that the language was not clear enough nor consistent enough to know whether he was asserting that Scripture always has something to say or that Scripture always has everything to say.

Perhaps it will become clearer now in pages 38 and following, where Heath begins to examine critiques of biblical counseling, especially the critique offered by his own Southern Seminary colleague, Dr. Eric Johnson.

Eric Johnson’s Position

Heath states Dr. Johnson’s position on page 39ff:

1. “Johnson…does not believe that the Bible is sufficient for the work of counseling”

2. “He argues that the Bible is sufficient only for salvation and doctrine.”

3. “His point is that it is a serious error to argue that Scripture provides sufficient resources for the work that counselors do.”

4. Johnson believes “Protestant Christian theologians have argued for Scripture’s sufficiency only in the categories of salvation and doctrine.”

Heath explains that Dr. Johnson bases his views upon a certain understanding of Reformation history. Dr. Johnson says that Catholics and Protestants debated the source of Christian authority, with the Roman church arguing that its own teaching and tradition was essential to understanding the Scriptures, whereas the Protestants believed that Scripture alone was sufficient to interpret the Scriptures.

High Stakes

In taking on Dr. Johnson’s view, Heath leaves us under no illusions about how high the stakes are:

“Johnson’s critique goes to the heart of the biblical counseling movement. The faithfulness – even the existence – of the movement is at stake in a critique like this” (40).

Heath commends the Reformers for the courageous way in which they defended the sufficiency of Scripture in their day, but warns,

“Threats against God’s truth did not end at the Reformation…The greatest threat today to the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture from attack by those who believe the Bible is not a sufficient resource to help when life’s challenges confront a person” (40-41).

Heath does accept Dr. Johnson’s argument that the the debate today is somewhat different to that of the Reformation:

“The Reformation debates were primarily about the sufficiency of Scripture in relation to the doctrinal debates with Catholics. Today the counseling debates about the sufficiency of Scripture relate to whether it is appropriate or necessary to use secular systems of thought in counseling” (40).

However, Heath argues that although the issues are different, the underlying principles are the same. He insists that today’s debates about the sufficiency of Scripture in counseling have been addressed in the past in that confessional statements have not only addressed the sufficiency of Scripture for doctrine, but the sufficiency of Scripture for living the Christian life.

Confessional Support

Heath then quotes the Second Helvetic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith on the sufficiency of Scripture and concludes that they not only teach the sufficiency of Scripture for doctrine but also that the Bible was “equally sufficient for the matters of life, which would include the types of issues addressed in counseling today” [emphasis mine] (42).

Five Debatable Areas

This produces five areas of debate:

1. What are “the types of issues addressed in counseling today”?

2. Is the “sufficiency” language of the Protestant reformation and its confessions applicable in the same way to the sufficiency debate in counseling?

3. Is the Bible equally sufficient for doctrine and the types of issues addressed in counseling today?

4. Has Heath stated Eric Johnson’s position with sufficient accuracy and comprehensiveness?

5. Is what Heath says here consistent with earlier statements about secular sources like psychology being sometimes “true,” “helpful,” and “welcome” for various counseling purposes (26, 27, 30)?

I’d like to answer these questions over the coming days as we continue to read through the book, but let me address the first one today.

Debatable Area 1: What are “the types of issues addressed in counseling today”?

I think it would be helpful for us to know exactly what are the types of counseling issues that Heath has in view here. A few pages back, he said that the sufficiency of Scripture was under “attack by those who believe the Bible is not a sufficient resource to help when life’s challenges confront a person” (40). So, I’m assuming that the “types of issues addressed in counseling today” are “life’s challenges.” Which leads me to my tenth question:

Question 10: Is Scripture a sufficient resource for a life-challenge like, say, autism, or developmental delay, or bi-polar disorder? Or, to put it another way, is it “equally sufficient” for these matters of life as it is for doctrine?

Personally, I believe that Scripture is a sufficient resource for the spiritual dimensions of life-challenges like that. The question is really asking if the biblical counseling movement is asserting more than that.

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Biblical Counseling and a Theology of Scripture (1)

Following the previous two posts (here and here) about chapter one of A Theology of Biblical Counseling, The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry by Heath Lambert, we now move into chapter two on the doctrine of Scripture as it relates to biblical counseling.

This chapter is framed around a beautiful and encouraging story about Heath’s successful counseling of a young woman, Trenyan, who was cutting herself. His aim with this story is to answer the question “whether the Bible has anything to say, or enough to say, to address problems like this” (36). But then in an important sentence he says:

“In this chapter I want to look at the Christian doctrine of Scripture and show that the Bible is relevant and useful in addressing the kinds of difficult counseling issues that Trenyan’s story exemplifies” (36).

That’s a significant shift in language. We’ve gone from Scripture being “enough” to Scripture being “relevant” and “useful.” There’s certainly debate about whether in a situation like this Scripture is enough, claims to be enough, and in what ways it claims to be enough. But surely there’s no Christian who debates that the Bible is relevant and useful in addressing counseling issues like these. Perhaps a further clarifying question will provide an answer that will help us understand what the disagreement is.

Question 8: What is the issue of debate here? Scripture’s usefulness and relevance or Scripture’s enoughness?

I think it’s the latter that Heath intends, but then why not frame it like that rather than in words that no one disagrees with?


In the next section, Heath says that the most important characteristics of Scripture are its authority, clarity, necessity, and sufficiency. It’s the latter that he seeks to unpack in this chapter because it has been the most debated in the recent history of the biblical counseling movement.

Going back to Trenyan, he describes the sacred moment when a counselor begins to speak into a person’s life and says:

These moments are very telling because what we say in them reveals where our trust is. Whatever we say demonstrates a reliance on some source of authority…the words that fill the silence show what counseling resources you believe to be the most informative, helpful, and trustworthy. The “wisdom” that comes out of your mouth demonstrates where your trust is – whether it is the “wisdom” of the world, the “wisdom” of secular psychology, your own personal brand of “wisdom,” or the wisdom of God in the Bible (38).

I agree with Heath that our words in this moment prove “what counseling resources [we] believe to be the most informative, helpful, and trustworthy.” That’s a healthy challenge that I hope every counselor who professes Christ takes to heart to ensure that it’s the Scriptures that take this place. However, I note that Heath is here describing a relative contrast (most informative, etc.) which seems to allow a secondary place for resources other than Scripture that may be informative, helpful, and trustworthy to some degree.

Unfortunately, as you perhaps noticed, the next sentence slides into an absolute contrast. The wisdom of the world is contrasted with the wisdom of secular psychology. One is right, the other is wrong. This takes us back to the first part of chapter one again, where the Bible was the only source of knowledge and truth on any given topic (13), rather than in the second part of chapter one where secular sources like psychology were described as sometimes “true,” “helpful,” and “welcome” for various purposes (26, 27, 30).

The relative/absolute slide is repeated in the next paragraph.

“The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is a promise that God himself will give you something from him to say in those sacred moments” (38).

Again, I don’t know of anyone who disagrees with this. Yes, God will give us something to say. That’s not up for debate. It’s whether he gives us everything to say or whether that everything will be only from the Bible.

The debate is stated much more clearly in the next sentence where Heath returns to an absolute contrast between biblical and secular counseling.

It is a great comfort to me to know that I do not have to make up my own “wisdom” and I do not have to rip off the “wisdom” of secular therapy. I can go to the Scripture and find something to say to people like Trenyan, and that will be God’s sufficient word for them” (38).

Heath seems to be saying that we only need Scripture for helping self-harmers like Trenyan, an exclusivity which seems to contradict what Heath wrote earlier, and therefore raises another clarifying question:

Question 9: Is the debate about whether Scripture has something to say or whether the Scriptures have everything to say?

Tomorrow we will look at what Heath says is the greatest threat to the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture today, a threat that he says comes from one of his colleagues in Southern Seminary.

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

Yesterday’s 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). 


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).


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


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 not necessary. 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 of secondary 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 a sufficient 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.

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