Sunday, October 02, 2016

Book Review: “A Theology of Biblical Counseling: the Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry,” by Heath Lambert

The Biblical Counseling movement is an outgrowth of the nouthetic counseling movement begun by Jay Adams roughly half a century ago. The movement is maturing and growing more prominent, particularly (though not exclusively) among evangelicals of a reformed bent. In “A Theology of Biblical Counseling,” Heath Lambert, who is the Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, has furthered that maturation by providing book demonstrating the doctrinal basis for the movement.

The expanding role of the biblical counseling movement has not occurred without controversy. The movement’s distinguishing characteristic is its belief that the Bible provides a fully sufficient resource for counseling. Thus, Scripture should be used in “counseling conversations,” and biblical doctrines should have practical relevance to a counselee’s needs. This not only sets it in opposition to secular psychology -- which biblical counselors acknowledge sometimes provides correct, but unnecessary, insights – but also sets it apart from Christian counseling, which typically emphasizes an integration of Christianity and modern psychology. The early chapters of the book, which set forth a doctrine of Scripture emphasizing the Bible’s sufficiency, largely represent an apologetic in behalf of biblical counseling in opposition to Christian counseling.

While I did not find myself in entire agreement with Lambert on that issue, I am somewhat sympathetic. Certainly, much Christian counseling – and even much of the evangelical church – has followed the larger culture into understanding life through the framework of therapeutic categories often at odds with scriptural understandings of human nature, sin, and grace. Self-proclaimed integration often devolves into the inundation of a facile Christian understanding with unbiblical ideas. I would consider my own seminary training in counseling at an evangelical seminary to be deficient in that regard. As such, the biblical counseling movement – and this book –offer a helpful corrective that would benefit many of us even as we wrestle with some of its broad claims.

Though confrontational on that issue, much of the rest of the work is irenic in tone. While it is a work of theology, its focus is practical. Doctrine is not explained and defended in exhaustive fashion, but is summarized and focused on theology that can be related to the needs of people in counseling interventions. Thus, each of the doctrinal categories (God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, humanity, sin, etc.) is expounded in chapters describing a variety of counseling encounters dealing with real life problems ranging from being victimized by a long period of sexual abuse and cutting to marital difficulties in the wake of personal tragedy to anxiety. I found these descriptions of how Scripture and scriptural categories can aid people experiencing these kinds of issues to be extremely useful.

That said, the book suffers from the writer’s painting with overly broad strokes. Most grating is his insistence that acceptance or rejection of the biblical counseling approach comes down to a matter of belief in the sufficiency of Scripture. Many evangelicals outside the movement would want to emphasize that they fully believe in Scripture’s sufficiency in all that it addresses, but they differ with a use of the Bible that seems to view it as a counseling manual. Reliance on vague terms in arguing that the Bible is sufficient for “life” and “problems” really didn’t help Lambert’s argument. Additionally, he often minimizes the value of secular psychology due to noetic effects of the Fall. Fair enough. However, he doesn’t seem to recognize that the noetic effects of the Fall continue to impact Christians engaged in biblical counseling, even though he acknowledges that sanctification is progressive and incomplete in this life.  Thus, the question of truth and error in counseling falls more along a spectrum than perhaps Lambert seems to appreciate. The sufficiency of Scripture does not guarantee the sufficiency of a not yet glorified believing counselor.

I also found highly unconvincing Lambert’s arguments that women should not counsel men because “Paul’s prohibition against women teaching doctrine to men applies equally to counseling and preaching. Counseling is ministry of the Word of God, just as preaching is.” Really? This is particularly questionable in light of Lambert’s broad definition of counseling that takes in informal as well as formal conversations and relationships. This would seem to lead to the notion that spouses and friends need to truncate conversations for fear that a woman might end up teaching a man doctrine, a premise that is both stifling and unhelpful. I doubt that Lambert intends that result, but his broad definition of counseling together with this claim would seem to lead to that conclusion. Nonetheless, Paul’s prohibition is better understood as relating to church office, not to all teaching that could include teaching doctrine.

On the other hand, I agreed with Lambert’s warnings about men engaging women alone in long term counseling relationships. While some would view that as hopelessly old fashioned, I would simply point to the unfortunate number of good men and women who have fallen into sin after bonds developed in counseling. One should not ignore the emotional connection that can develop through counseling situations.

In spite of some criticisms, I hope that this book obtains a wide reading. Those convinced by the biblical counseling arguments will be enriched by it. Those not fully on board will be helped by interacting with its arguments. Surely, all pastors should believe that Scripture and scriptural categories, wisely deployed, are necessary and helpful to those that come to us looking for solutions to life’s problems.

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