The question before us is simple, but the answer is not:
"How does the Bible function in Christian counseling?"
Others have phrased the question in a slightly different form:
"Is the Bible sufficient for Christian counseling?"
However the question is stated, the practical side of the issue reduces to this:
"Does the Bible address every problem and every issue Christians face?"
If by the word "address" one means "the Bible explicitly identifies every human problem and explicitly provides a solution," most would answer "No." However, a few insist the answer is "Yes." If the Bible does not contain an answer, so they say, you have asked an illegitimate question. In other words, if the Bible does not answer your question about life, your question does not need to be asked.
To suggest that there are legitimate problems or questions the Bible does not explicitly address is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture. According to this view, the Bible functions like an owner's manual for a VCR.
The manual tells you precisely how the VCR is made, identifies all its component parts, describes how they operate, provides instructions on how to program the machine to play and record, and contains detailed information on how to repair the VCR should it break down.
If the question you are asking isn't addressed in the manual, it is because the problem is with something other than the VCR. Perhaps it isn't plugged in. There may be an electrical failure in the wall plug. Maybe you didn't read the manual carefully enough in the first place. The TV itself may be the source of the glitch. Or perhaps the video tape is defective. But if the manual doesn't identify the problem and supply a remedy, the question is irrelevant to the VCR itself.
If the VCR has, in fact, failed in some capacity, you may rest assured that if you will but look long and hard enough, the manual will provide the answer. You don't need to call for a repairman or the advice of a neighbor. Their input is not only unnecessary; it may well prove damaging to your machine.
Although my analogy is not perfect (no analogy is), it does illustrate how some people conceive of the Bible in relation to human needs and struggles and problems. An example may prove helpful.
Consider the case of a man who struggles with the temptation to dress in women's clothing. He confides in his pastor who directs his attention to Deut. 22:5 ("A woman shall not wear man's clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman's clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God").
It is clearly sinful to yield to such urges. The Word of God has spoken. The man is counseled to repent of his perverted behavior and never do it again.
He tries, but fails. The temptation is overwhelming.
His pastor reminds him that "No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able" (1 Cor. 10:13).
The man agrees. He knows he is in sin. He is broken and ashamed. But his failure persists. He wants answers to questions like: "Why do I feel urges that other men don't?" "Are his perverted desires related to other issues in his heart of which he may not be totally aware at this time?" "Is there any possibility his relationship with his earthly father might have contributed to his problem?"
Larry Crabb, from whose book, Understanding People (55-56), I have adapted this example, says that according to the view of biblical sufficiency we are considering,
"these questions are illegitimate and should not be asked because no passage literally exegeted directly responds to them. I grant that questions concerning the reasons for transvestite desires do not need to be answered before obedience to God's orders becomes a moral obligation. But perhaps a clear understanding of transvestism would open the door to repenting of subtle sinfulness energizing those desires. As he understood more of what was involved in his problem, maybe the cross-dresser would learn to rejoice more in God's grace and enablement. The chains of sexual slavery are strong. Breaking them may require more than holy determination. Questions that go beyond the morality of transvestite behavior may, I submit, be legitimate -- even though not directly answered in the text" (56).
Crabb summarizes his point again:
"When the range of permissible questions is narrowed, our understanding of complicated problems tends to become simplistic. A commitment to biblical sufficiency has sometimes resulted in shallow explanations of complex disorders. And shallow explanations promote the unchallenged acceptance of superficial solutions" (57).
Why, then, do a growing number of Christians persist in denouncing any appeal to any source of knowledge or insight outside of Scripture itself? Jones and Butman (Modern Psychotherapies) identify four reasons.
1) "The assertion that the Bible declares itself (in passages such as 2 Tim. 3:16-17 and 2 Pet. 1:4; 3:14-18) to be sufficient to meet all human needs. Thus to argue that one could or should study anything other than the Bible (such as psychology) in order to better meet human needs is tantamount to declaring the Holy Scriptures to be inadequate to equip the servant of God and also to rejecting God's own claims for his revelation" (25).
Question: Does the Bible, in fact, claim to speak explicitly or exhaustively on every issue confronting humanity? Do these texts cited above say what the advocates of this view insist they say?
2) "The belief that there are two sources of counsel in this world, God and Satan. . . . Thus to decide to listen to and learn from a non-Christian in an area where God has revealed his will (i.e., in psychology) is to 'walk in the counsel of the wicked' (Ps. 1:1)" (25-26).
Question: Whereas it is true that there are ultimately only two sources of counsel in the world, God and Satan, does it necessarily follow that the only source of God's counsel is the Bible?
* The doctrine of General Revelation
* The doctrine of Common Grace
3) "The argument that psychology is bad science. If we are to accept truth from any quarter, surely (it is argued) it should only be on the assurance that we are accepting true truth, real truth. Surely the vain speculations and philosophies of mere humans (2 Cor. 10:5) do not merit a place in our beliefs alongside God's Word" (26).
Question: Does the fact that psychology can be bad science mean that it always must be bad science?
4) "The argument that integration is amalgamation or syncretism. This argument of the anti-integrationists, simply put, is that 'combining Christianity and psychotherapy is joining two or more religious systems'" (26). In other words, the point is that it is impossible to integrate any extra-biblical insight with biblical truth without distorting or denying the latter. Integration will always yield a hybrid that compromises the essential truths of Scripture.
Support for this argument is often found in the appeal to an undeniable shift that has occurred in three arenas of Christian life.
First of all, there has come about a transformation in our Christian vocabulary. Psychological terms and categories have increasingly come to dominate our conversation as well as the sermons we hear and the books we read.
Biblical terminology such as sin, righteousness, repentance, forgiveness, justification, grace, obedience, and rebellion is less frequently heard than such terms as self-esteem, dysfunctional family, co-dependency, needs, victimization, damaged emotions, personality theory, forgiving oneself, etc.
Second, there is a noticeable shift in the focus of Christian gatherings and church activities. The traditional Bible-study, discipleship group, and prayer meeting have evolved into support groups, 12-step groups, or other meetings designed to facilitate "recovery" in some sense of the term.
Third, as David Powlison explains,
"The seminar and conference circuit, both in person and on video, finds psychologists filling roles once filled by Bible expositors, prophecy teachers, and victorious life preachers. Pastors still fill local pulpits, but many of the new mass pulpits are filled by psychologists. Psychologists, not pastors or theologians, maintain cultural authority in the evangelical church with respect to people and their problems. They are the experts, with the authority to define what is right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, constructive and destructive" ("Integration or Inundation," in Power Religion ).
These shifts, so goes the argument, reflect a change in the very concept of Christianity and how we relate both to God and to one another. It is a change that is the fruit of integration and a failure to affirm and apply the sufficiency of Scripture.
Question: As long as we are careful and diligent to evaluate all truth-claims by the standard of the infallible revelation in Scripture, is there a reason why we cannot retain the purity of the latter while benefiting from the former?
I want to affirm the absolute authority, finality, and sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. But in doing so, I do not believe we are required to ignore or label as demonic all extra-biblical information or insight into the human condition. Crabb explains:
"Where the Bible speaks, it speaks with authority. When it doesn't speak, we may look to other sources of information for help.
Studying the thinking of other people, whether Christian or not, can be legitimately provocative. The data and theories of psychology can serve as catalysts, stimulating us to consider new directions in our thinking. Both our power of reasoning and our intuition must be permitted a role in our efforts to build a counseling model. But in all that we do, the Bible must provide the framework within which we work and the premises from which we draw our conclusions" (44).
To put it yet another way,
"The data and theories of psychology may serve a useful function, not only in helping us deal with such things as learning disabilities or medication for psychotics, but also in stimulating us to ask provocative questions about what is going on with people and how to respond more adequately. But . . . the Bible alone is sufficient in providing authoritative answers and categories for thought in determining how life should and can be lived" (215).
Crabb's definition of the sufficiency of Scripture is one that I heartily embrace:
The Bible is sufficient "because it provides either direct information or authoritative categories for answering all questions about how life should be lived on this earth and about how it can be lived according to an effective pattern. Whenever the Bible is not explicit about a given concern, biblical categories provide a framework for thinking through an adequate response to that concern" (47; emphasis mine).
The "Bible is sufficient to answer every question about life, but not because it directly responds to every legitimate question. The idea of biblical sufficiency for counseling rests on the assumption that biblical data support doctrinal categories which have implications that comprehensively deal with every relational issue of life" (63; emphasis mine).
Finally, "the task of the Bible student is to think about life within the categories that the Scriptures provide. If we can demonstrate that our conclusions reflect reasonable implications of biblical categories, then we can rightfully claim that our ideas are biblical. The authority for our thinking depends on the degree to which it necessarily emerges from clearly taught biblical categories." (70).
This understanding of the role of the Bible in counseling forms the basis for three assumptions that govern Crabb's (and my) approach to helping people with their problems:
"1. If properly approached, the Bible is sufficient to provide a framework for thinking through every question a counselor needs to ask;
2. Relationship with Christ provides resources that are utterly indispensable in substantially resolving every psychological (i.e., nonorganically caused) problem;
3. The community of God's people functioning together in biblical relationship is the intended context for understanding and living out God's answers to life's problems" (21).