What Exactly is a “Biblical” Counselor?

Part One of a series

A Baptist and a Presbyterian walk into a bar—a coffee bar, of course. Both men are local pastors who meet regularly to encourage each other, pray, and discuss theology. As they are exchanging views on some abstruse point of Calvinism, they spot another local pastor across the room and motion for him to join them. As he takes a seat at the table, the Presbyterian explains that they have been discussing Calvinism.

“Oh,” the third pastor responds, “I wouldn’t know anything about that. You see, I don’t follow any man-made system of theology. I am a Biblicist—I just believe my Bible.”

Now, after reading the first sentence of my little story, you may have expected it to end with a punch line. While I did not intend for it to be a joke, perhaps you did chuckle a bit because you recognize it as a common conversation. You probably know a Pastor number three.

Pastor three’s response has several advantages. First, he can use it with the satisfaction that amid the controversy and back and forth of the conversation, his view is correct. It is unassailable.

Second, he does not risk offending anyone. Every party to the conversation wants the same thing—to be biblical.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it saves him the hard work of thinking deeply about important theological issues and wrestling his conclusions about what the Bible teaches into a coherent theological system.

Currently, many in the biblical counseling movement are having a similar discussion about the term “biblical.” Every conservative Christian who is involved in counseling wants to be biblical, and each believes what he is doing and what he believes about counseling IS biblical—otherwise he would not be doing it. Across the entire spectrum, from the most aggressive integrationist to the hard shell fundamentalist, all are convinced his approach is biblical. So, like the pastor in my little scenario, counselors who use the term “biblical” to define the kind of counseling they do, end up just being nebulous.

Several months ago Heath Lambert published a document he entitled 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling. While his focus was not on the term “biblical”, he addressed the core problem using the phrase “authentically Christian” instead. Obviously, from the title, you can see it was an attempt to capitalize on the 500 year anniversary of Luther’s famous document. To demonstrate how obtuse I can be, after a quick perusal of Lambert’s article I set it aside thinking it contained nothing controversial. There was nothing a biblical counselor would disagree with here, I concluded.

I was wrong. A number of bloggers took Lambert to task over several of his “theses.” ACBC, the organization Lambert leads, published several responses to Lambert’s critics. Lambert even hosted a live podcast in which he responded to some of his critics. Rehearsing and analyzing those issues is not the point of my blog today. Only that Lambert’s article, and the blowback from it, demonstrates there is no consensus in Christian counseling circles as to what it means to be “biblical” (or as Lambert put it, “authentically Christian”).

Our friends, John Babler and Dale Johnson who teach at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, wrote one of those articles published by ACBC. Their title was Issues in Biblical Counseling: Addressing the Elephant in the Room.

We would argue that for a number of years there has been an elephant in the room in the field of biblical counseling. There has been hesitancy to address the elephant, but some discussion is beginning to occur. The elephant we refer to is the question of what it means to be a biblical counselor. Professions and various organizations protect the identity of their movements by defining criteria that one must meet to be considered a part of that profession or organization.  We believe that the historical distinctions that have marked biblical counseling are under attack.

Since Jay Adams first published his book Competent to Counsel in 1970 and the contemporary biblical counseling movement began, several core distinctions have marked biblical counseling. We suggest that those core distinctions include the sufficiency and superiority of Scripture, the importance of speaking the truth in love, comforting the suffering, the necessity of calling people to repentance when sin is present, and the reality behind a God-centered anthropology that recognizes personal responsibility for sinful behaviors, words, and thoughts.  Recently biblical counseling has been besieged by many voices that minimize or even attempt to redefine these historical distinctions.  We suggest it is time to return to basics.

Babler and Johnson are exactly correct and their article is must reading for everyone interested in this discussion.

Recently, the biblical counseling faculty at The Master’s University launched a new Journal they have entitled The Journal of Biblical Soul Care. If their journal lives up to the goals they have set out for it, it will be an important addition to the literature of the biblical counseling movement. In the introductory article, Greg Gifford, the Journal’s Managing Editor, pointed out the “ambiguity of the term Biblical Counseling.”

The current climate of biblical counseling leaves the term biblical counseling somewhat ambiguous. There is inevitable ambiguity as to what one actually means when they use the term, especially in light of the rapid growth of the biblical counseling movement and increasing world-wide participation in biblical counseling. It is important to note that the editors affirm and employ the term biblical counseling in our ministry of teaching but that —like any term —we also recognize the natural limitations that this term possesses. Limitations like what exactly is the scope of the Bible in the counseling process; how is the Bible employed in the counseling process; or what is the approach one takes to the Bible when counseling from it. In a very real sense we can be a biblical counselor and integrate secular psychologies if by biblical counselor we mean that we incorporate the Bible into our counseling. This ambiguity necessitates greater clarity and we, the editorial team, sense that.

While Gifford has correctly identified the problem, I am not sure he has found a solution by substituting the equally nebulous term “Soul Care.”[1]

“OK Arms,” you may be thinking, “anyone can identify problems. Do you have any solutions to offer?”

Ah, indeed I do, but you are probably not going to like it. You see, we already have a way to describe exactly the kind of counseling that Lambert, Babler and Johnson, and Gifford describe in their articles. It is an unambiguous term that, while at the same time describing what truly biblical counseling looks like, is a term every integrationist will reject. That term is NOUTHETIC.

No wait; do not dismiss me out of hand. I know I may have just lost some readers. Eyes are being rolled, patronizing sighs are being heaved. Stay with me. The term “nouthetic” has boarders—there are fences around it. It is not elastic or malleable. When one identifies as a nouthetic counselor there is no ambiguity about what he is.

“But come on Arms, the organization Adams founded 40 years ago recently rejected the term ‘nouthetic’ in favor of the term ‘biblical’ because ‘nouthetic’ was deemed to be confusing while ‘biblical’ brought clarity.”

Ah, but does the term “clarity” describe what we have today? Would we be publishing articles, blogs, and podcasts explaining what we mean by the term “biblical” if we had achieved “clarity” with the name change? Do not let the irony of our current situation escape you. Listen to what one especially prescient and insightful blogger wrote four years ago when this name change was proposed:

Regardless of how heavy a lift it may seem for some to explain positively what we mean by “nouthetic” counseling, it is a far lighter load than explaining negatively what we are NOT when we use the term “biblical.” With this change, it will become necessary to clarify that we are NOT like the scores of others who use the term “biblical” promiscuously. That will be true, of course, only if we really are different and want to be seen as different.

“Alright Arms, while I am not ready yet to embrace your solution, you may have a point. But still, you have not sufficiently made your case. How does the term “nouthetic” solve anything? What exactly does it mean and how does it bring more clarity than other terms?”

Thanks for asking. If you will promise to check back, we will seek to make our case in the next exciting episode of our little blog.

 

[1] Integrationists have used the term “Soul Care” for many years. Eric Johnson employs it in the title of his two mammoth, yet murky, volumes explaining his approach to counseling.

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