ON THIS PAGE
Part One.. Laying a Foundation for Discernment
Part Two.. The "Biblical Counseling" Alternative
Part Three.. Can Psychotherapy Be Integrated with Christianity?
Part Four.. The High Cost of Biblical Compassion and Commitment
Part One Laying a Foundation for Discernment
Few topics spawn more debate and confusion among Christians as does psychology. While some accept it wholesale and others reject it entirely, most struggle to determine which aspects of it to accept and which to reject. Is it possible to put this knotty subject into clear biblical perspective? Bob and Gretchen Passantino answer yes, and are prepared to show us how.
Psychology, specifically psychotherapy, is one of the most controversial issues in the church today. Some Christians argue that psychology is a rival religion, others that inclusion of psychological principles into biblical counseling is essential, others that neither extreme is accurate. Psychology has adopted the scientific method, but that method cannot be consistently applied to its field of study. The theories that have developed from psychological research have given rise to three major schools and literally hundreds of psychotherapies (which are often unscientifically mixed in practice). Many Christians believe they have been abandoned by the church and consequently turn to psychology.
What are we to do when the problems of daily life seem insurmountable and no one seems to care enough to listen or suggest solutions? For millions of Americans — including many Christians — "professional" mental health workers are the expensive answer.
In 1988 Americans spent an estimated $273.3 billion on mental health services.1 To handle this growth market, between 1959 and 1989 the number of practicing professional clinical psychologists increased by a factor of 16, from 2,500 to 40,000.2 Additional kinds of mental health workers have proliferated, including licensed social workers, clinical workers, lay counselors, pastoral counselors, peer counselors, support group leaders, and other assorted caregivers. Nearly every American will at some time seek out — or be exposed to — mental health practices, whether through job application personality assessments, school evaluations, crisis counseling, or several of the literally hundreds of forms of mental health practices prevalent in American society.
Churches, Bible colleges and seminaries, Christian speakers, and Christian publishers across the country are promoting mental health programs to help Christians solve their personal problems and find personal fulfillment. Many Christian educational institutions have added psychology classes and majors, and some even have Masters and Ph.D. programs in psychology. Twelve Step programs patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have been adapted by churches to address almost any kind of persistent personal problem, from obesity to "spiritual" addictions. Some churches offer a personality evaluation with membership forms to ensure that new members have their emotional and mental health needs met in addition to their spiritual needs. There are even study Bibles designed especially for people "in recovery." Indeed, some Christians argue that inclusion of psychological principles and teachings into a biblical counseling setting is the only way to provide competent mental health care to Christians.
A perusal of Christian publishers’ catalogs reveals that for most publishers, books on self-help, recovery, addiction, personal emotional or mental health and growth, and relationships form the bulk of their best-selling new titles. Bible study and biblical reference books appear to be almost an afterthought at the back of most catalogs.
At the same time, there are those Christians who completely reject any psychological theories or therapies, denouncing psychology as a rival religion and substitute for the atoning and cleansing work of Christ. Authors such as Martin and Deidre Bobgan, Dave Hunt, and Jay Adams clearly demarcate between "the psychological way" and "the spiritual way." Some Christians not only condemn psychology as ungodly and reflective of fallen man, but also warn of spiritual deception and demonic attack as possible consequences of involvement in "secular psychology."
THE COMPLEXITY OF THE PROBLEM
Many Christians are not prepared to embrace either of the above points of view. They see the issues as much more complex than total acceptance or total rejection, and have genuine concern about how best to resolve not only their own personal problems, but also problems for those they love and to whom they minister.
One of our Christian friends, who spent years as a drug and alcohol abuser, explained to us why he continued supportive involvement in AA, even though he also pursued a strong biblical counseling practice: "I know of very few churches where a fallen alcoholic can show up on Sunday morning, contrite but hung over, and be accepted in forgiveness and love, despite his sour breath and dirty clothes. Why do we wonder when Christians who abuse alcohol go to secular programs when they are not welcome in their own churches?" 3
Another Christian friend, frustrated because his many attempts to help his wayward son failed, explained why his disillusionment hadn’t caused him to dismiss psychology altogether:
My son was in the in-patient treatment program for less than two weeks, and it cost us more than $10,000. They claimed it was a Christian program, and they claimed to understand him and his problems. But not only did I think their evaluation was dead wrong, my son did, too.
Even though he didn’t really want to change, my son laughed at their futile attempts at accurate diagnosis, and I think his ridicule of them spilled over into his opinion of me, too. What kind of a fool was I for sending him to such a foolish place?
At the same time, if I dismiss all psychology because it didn’t work with my son, does that mean I must dismiss the Bible because biblical counseling didn’t work either? I don’t believe that the end justifies the means, so I can’t really reject psychology until I know more about it and how it’s supposed to work. To me, it seems like a bunch of guesswork fueled by personal biases and masked by scientific jargon, but I don’t know. Maybe there’s something to it after all.
A third friend is a mental health professional, and well respected in his field. Although he has several graduate degrees in psychology, he rejects much psychological theory and practice as worthless. Most of his counseling principles are consistent with biblical ethics and biblical truths, and his success rate with clients is impressive. He says his greatest reward as a professional is that many of his patients no longer need him. This friend came from a Christian family, was educated at Christian schools, and even completed graduate degrees and did intern counseling at Christian institutions. He hesitates to identify himself as a Christian, however, because his experiences in Christian environments were so painful and damaging to him:
You wouldn’t believe the hypocrisy, the cruelty, the spiritual manipulation that was rampant through most of my Christian experiences. Blatantly unbiblical practices were condoned or covered up by supposedly mature Christian leaders who tried to justify sin as "normal" or who denied there were any problems. Give me an honest nonbeliever any day. At least I know who I’m dealing with, I have no false illusions, and I don’t get that sick feeling that I’ve learned to associate with "God’s people." If I judged Jesus and the Bible on the basis of most of His people I’ve known, I’d reject Him and His Word in a second. I’m afraid to reject my faith totally, but how can I believe the Bible has all the answers for fulfilled personal living when people who "swear by it" are so messed up?
Each of these people represent thousands of Christians who have a wide variety of genuine concerns both about biblical counseling and psychology. Indeed, psychology is one of the most controversial and divisive issues in the church today. This is partly because it is a complex subject and the lines must be drawn carefully to produce a responsible and balanced evaluation of it.
A proper biblical consideration of the relationship between psychology and the church — the goal of this four-part series — cannot be attempted without a good understanding of several larger issues. This first installment will therefore lay a foundation for discussion by surveying the history and complexity of American psychology, and by searching out the parameters of a biblical counseling world view. Part Two will focus specifically on biblical counseling and will explore why some Christians turn from the Bible to psychology. Part Three will identify serious inadequacies in American psychology, both historically and as it is practiced today. Part Four will then attempt to sort out those psychological perspectives that may be compatible with biblical counseling and those that are not, concluding with a perspective on the future of psychology and the church.
THE SCOPE OF PSYCHOLOGY
The word psychology derives from two Greek terms meaning "the study of persons." Some argue that since the Greek root from which we get psych means "spirit" or "soul," psychology is religious in nature and involves the study of the spirit or soul. However, one must realize that because of the evolving nature of language, word origin or etymology does not necessarily point to what the word means in contemporary usage. Those who use the term psychology today do not generally mean to make any religious statements about the human spirit or soul, but instead are referring to the non tangible personal aspects of human beings.
Christians call this aspect "soul" or "spirit," and certainly the Bible affirms the reality of the immaterial human nature as "soul" or "spirit." Even biblically speaking, however, a significant function of this immaterial aspect involves reasoning, communicating, emotions, memory, and social interaction, all of which can be studied — to at least some extent — without full consideration of how these aspects relate to one’s relationship with God. This is the focus of psychology.
Psychology is defined in a leading Christian textbook as "the scientific study of the behavior and thinking of organisms....the study of how living creatures interact with their environment and each other, and how they cope (successfully or unsuccessfully) with that environment." 4 This relatively simple definition represents a broad field that encompasses far more than simply psychotherapy (the direct interchange between counselor and counselee). It includes theories of personality, mind/body relationships, education, behavior, and socialization. It includes scientific testing and data gathering for each of these areas. It also includes theories of change in each of these areas, including the application of these theories in counseling situations.
Most of these categories of theorizing, testing, learning, and knowing are conducted at educational institutions and/or research facilities, and most people have little direct contact with such programs. However, psychotherapy — the application of these theories in counseling situations — not only accounts for the greatest number of practitioners and the greatest expenditure of funds, but also interacts directly with more people than all the rest of the processes combined. Because of this disproportion of interaction, our focus in these articles will be on (though not limited to) psychotherapy.
THE ORIGINS OF PSYCHOLOGY
Psychology is among the youngest sciences. Physiologist Wilhelm Wundt founded a psychological testing center (or laboratory) in Leipzig, Germany. He is generally credited with first according psychology the status of being an independent scientific, academic discipline in 1879. "While his predecessors emphasized either the philosophy of the mind or the physiology of the brain, Wundt used both emphases to develop an experimental approach to understanding human behavior."5 Wundt attempted to understand the components of consciousness.
Following Wundt were other scientists and philosophers who built on his experiments and theories, and developed their own schools. In 1890 William James wrote the first general textbook of psychology, The Principles of Psychology. James focused on how consciousness functions.
By the 1920s a third focus emerged from American psychologist John B. Watson, whose work reflected his commitment to understanding behavior. The most famous behaviorist was B. F. Skinner, whose generalizations and developed theories today characterize the psychological school of behaviorism.
European developments in psychological theories became dominated by Sigmund Freud’s convictions about unconsciousness and early childhood experiences. His system came to be called psychoanalysis. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, had some significant differences with Freud (especially in his theories of the collective unconscious), but his theories also focused on the inner workings of the mind as affected by experience.
A fifth system of thought in psychology has developed over the past thirty years and is concerned with combining biological factors with personal responsibility and decision-making. This school, the cognitive, is one of the fastest growing schools in modern psychology.
Academic or research psychologists generally subscribe to one of these five schools of thought. However, most mental health counselors6 do not subscribe completely to any one of them, but instead pragmatically choose what they like or think will work from any of the three major branches of psychotherapy that have developed from these schools (see below). This they do with little consideration to the rational underpinnings of a particular theory or technique of therapy. While this is neither scientific nor consistent, when clients get better, therapists assume it is because of the complex therapies applied in the particular case.
This eclectic approach gives mental health counselors flexibility in their counseling approaches, but it also often confuses important issues, since some of the schools’ basic principles are mutually exclusive. For example, a strict behaviorist understands human behavior in terms of genetic, environmental, and experiential causes that determine an individual’s subsequent behavior and/or mental state. A cognitivist, on the other hand, is convinced that humans are morally and mentally responsible beings who can choose against their backgrounds and experiences.
PSYCHOLOGY AND THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
There are many ways of knowing. The branch of philosophy that concerns knowledge is called epistemology (the "theory of knowledge"). One can know through intuition, rational processes, revelation, direct experience, inferential experience (history and testimony), experimentation, and so forth. Different means of knowing are useful for different kinds of knowledge.7
Since science focuses on the material world, experimentation is the core of the scientific knowledge process. Of course, experimentation is not isolated from all other kinds of knowing. An experiment cannot be planned, conducted, and evaluated without using rational processes as well. However, experimentation has become so associated with science that it is often referred to as "the scientific method." The scientific method necessarily involves the threefold process of hypothesis, testing (experimentation), and evaluation. Encompassed within this threefold process are additional factors, such as observation, calculation, statistically significant repetition, elimination of other factors and/or causes, compensation for unavoidable biases, and critical review.
When psychology moved from the field of philosophy to the field of science, the scientific method was incorporated into psychological theory, research, and application. However, consistent, comprehensive application of the scientific method is impossible in psychology because of certain unique features.
For example, while replication of the experiment with consistent results is foundational to proper scientific methodology, such replication is frequently impossible in psychology. If a research psychologist wants to study the effect of violent kidnapping on a child’s emotional stability and sense of security, social ethics preclude him or her from designing experiments where target children are violently kidnapped in large number to provide a large database for evaluation. The researcher is limited to working with data accumulated from actual kidnapping cases, which introduces other variables. No two actual kidnapping cases occur in the exact same framework, with the exact same kinds of violence, perpetrated by the exact same kinds of people who relate to their victims in exactly the same way.
Another reason why the scientific method is compromised when applied in psychology pertains to the intangible nature of the subject matter. While the scientific method is the tool of choice for learning about material reality, it is far less useful for learning about immaterial reality. "Love," for example, is an intangible attribute and is difficult to test empirically, although a love letter or bouquet of roses might give some indication.
Because much of psychology relates to intangibles such as trust, decision-making, responsibility, moral values, and the like, the scientific method is limited in what it can discover. A research psychologist can study the tangible effects of intangibles — such as incidents of honesty as an effect of commitment to moral values — but he or she cannot study the intangible commitment to moral values itself.
This intangibility also makes it much more difficult to prove the causes of behavior empirically and univocally (i.e., to prove that only one explanation of the behavior is plausible). To return to our love-demonstrated-by-love-letters-and-flowers example, one cannot prove that these actions come from a love commitment. Perhaps the letter-writing flower buyer is actually tricking the object of his attention into believing she is loved so that the schemer can marry her and gain access to her sizable fortune. Or perhaps the letter-writing flower buyer is consumed by feelings of inadequacy and is incapable of a true love relationship, but he so craves the love and attention of another that he will go to great lengths to persuade someone to love him. The hypothetical causes of these actions are multiple, and the best scientific method will still have problems identifying a genuine intangible cause.
The third (and perhaps most significant) factor that inhibits the scientific method from yielding consistently valid results in psychology is the variable of human decision-making. When psychology studies human behavior as a scientific endeavor, it assumes the applicability of natural scientific laws that govern the material world, such as cause and effect. Most of these presuppositions, however, are not valid within a random or nondetermined setting.
We expect 1,000 experiments dropping nickels to affirm the law of gravity because we presuppose the invariant nature of the law of gravity and we presuppose that nickels do not have the inherent power to resist gravity. However, when we conduct 1,000 experiments exposing people to a chance to steal money, our results will not be uniform because people make moral choices. Some may steal because they can get away with it, while others may not steal even if they would get away with it because they believe it is wrong to steal.
Laws of cause and effect would be expected to predict accurately the actions of people from similar backgrounds, with similar abilities, in similar situations. The reality is, however, that while statistical patterns may develop, human decision-making precludes any of these patterns from revealing invariant natural laws. It may be statistically true that urban poverty-stricken minority children from broken homes tend to grow up to be gangbangers, but personal decision-making commitments can also produce, out of the same social situation, a Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Other problems with applying the scientific method in psychology are common to other kinds of scientific inquiry, such as inability to control all other factors or variables, biases in subject selection, placebo effects, experimenter bias, and so forth. It is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate these more comprehensively, but we will return to this subject in Part Three.
Because of the varied, significant problems with applying the scientific method uniformly in psychology, some argue that psychology should not be considered a scientific discipline. Paul Meier and his co-authors summarize Christian author and former professor of psychology Mary Stewart VanLeeuwen’s cautions concerning the narrow materialistic paradigm assumptions of psychology:
VanLeeuwen doubts whether the approach used by physicists and biologists is appropriate for the study of human behavior and thinking. If the paradigm is faulty, the methods of research and theories that are produced by that paradigm are then also suspect....
VanLeeuwen questions the strict cause-and-effect assumptions of natural scientists, and instead favors recognition of the freedom of choice people exercise. She notes the presence of reflexivity — the tendency of participants in experiments to think about the experiment and thus change their behavior from what it would be otherwise.8
Psychotherapy is the area of psychology people are the most likely to encounter and/or experience, involves the greatest number of participants, interacts more with the public, consumes a greater number of consumer and government dollars, and consequently is what most people think of when the topic of psychology comes up. In 1987, 15 million Americans made 120 million visits to psychotherapists.9 The numbers have increased dramatically since then.
The term psychotherapy — informally known as "the talking cure" — encompasses a variety of approaches to helping people identify, understand, and cope with the dynamics of their mental and emotional states, individually and in social interaction. Richie Hernick, editor of The Psychotherapy Handbook, defines psychotherapy as "an umbrella term for all activities involving one or more patients or clients and one or more therapists, which are intended to improve a patient’s or client’s feelings of psychological well-being."10 Even this broad definition is somewhat inadequate, since it does not define "psychological well-being" and it promotes the subjective goal of improving one’s "feelings." Some psychotherapies, especially some of the cognitive ones (and certainly we would hope ones practiced by Christians), intend to improve not simply one’s feelings, but also one’s abilities to act individually and socially in reality. Stanton Jones and Richard Butman define psychotherapy more descriptively: "We would describe individual counseling or psychotherapy as a dyadic (two-way) interaction between a client who is distressed, and perhaps confused and frightened, and a professional helper whose helping skills are recognized and accepted by the client."11
There are literally hundreds of different psychotherapies. As we’ve already noted, most counselors do not limit themselves to a single therapy but instead use in their practices a variety of techniques from a variety of different psychological "schools." Not only this, but their techniques can vary from patient to patient as well. One editor identified more than 350 different psychotherapies in his research, noting that "depending on how wide the net is cast, there may be said to be as many psychotherapies as there are therapists (or perhaps even as many as there are patients!)."12 He narrowed the number to 250 for inclusion in The Psychotherapy Handbook.
The primary explanation for this wide variation and inconsistency in psychotherapeutic practice is that most counselors use what appears to work at various times with various patients, without strict regard to the foundational schools from which the techniques developed, and without the scientific objectivity and testing one would expect from a practitioner of a science. Jones and Butman explain:
The varied theories and techniques are derived, for the most part, from clinical experience and reflection rather than systematic empirical research. This [inconsistency] helps to explain the unique experiences of the type of people he or she has seen for counseling, the types of problems they manifest, the cultural context of the therapist, his or her assumptions about how people change, and the core beliefs that shape the therapist’s life philosophy.13
The benefit of such diversity is that counselors can acknowledge their clients’ unique problems, emotional and mental states, and abilities to make changes in their own lives. Daniel Goleman, in the Foreword to The Psychotherapy Handbook, observes, "one force behind the vastness of the array of therapies may be the equally large spread of human suffering. Each therapy, as the entries here make clear, has its most appropriate domain. Each is a tool for a unique psychological job. The ecological niche each new therapy must find is the particular variety of mental anguish it best soothes."14 This is the ideal.
This diversity, however, also exposes a serious weakness in the attempt to scientifically validate psychotherapy. If it is classified as a science, it must be judged as a science; but if it is subjective and inconsistent, it is not good science. The ideal of tailor-made counseling is all too often replaced by a mishmash of inconsistent, ineffective, and even destructive counseling. The confusion of therapeutic techniques — validated only through subjective, anecdotal experience — masks the reality that all too often the therapist has no reliable way to predict who will get better (or not), and when improvement will take place, if it does at all. Sometimes the counseling itself causes additional problems, even though the counselor has great faith in the therapy. Sadly, some counseling does worse than no good at all; it actually harms the clients.15
The many varied psychotherapies can be grouped under three primary categories developed from the schools of thought described earlier in this article. These three categories are behaviorism, analysis, and client-centered or humanistic psychotherapy. These categories provide the framework for the hundreds of different psychotherapeutic techniques ranging from Active Analytic Therapy to the Zaraleya Psychoenergetic Technique.16 Some of the most popular forms of psychotherapy include Adlerian therapy, aversion therapy, biofeedback, co-dependency, cognitive therapy, crisis intervention, hypnotherapy, kinetic therapy, Neuro Linguistic Programming, past-life regression, psychoanalysis, reality therapy, and recovered memory therapy. (The most important groupings of the myriad of therapies will be examined closely in Part Three of this series.)
Despite the proliferation of psychotherapies, in varying degrees certain common elements are reflected in most psychotherapeutic techniques: "(1) offering reassurance and support, (2) desensitizing the client to distress, (3) encouraging adaptive functioning and (4) offering understanding and insight...."17 These seem to be good goals, compatible with a more complete system of biblical counseling. It is no wonder, then, that psychotherapy is so attractive to Christians and non-Christians alike. Terence W. Campbell documents this enormous influence, noting that "in 1987, approximately fifteen million people in the United States made 120 million visits to psychotherapists. This is more than double the number of visits made to physicians specializing in internal medicine....In the 1950s it is estimated that only one person in eight involved themselves in psychotherapy....That number is now one American in three."18
Within our culture psychotherapy increasingly functions in the place of pastoral guidance, spousal support, friendship, applied Bible study, and parenting. Goleman explains:
No doubt for many the therapist has replaced or supplements the clergyman as the place to turn to for counsel in times of distress. A case can be made that therapies are the current cultural response to a perennial human need, one served in former times by the shaman or the priest — even the physician, the family, or the good friend. Now that each of these supports has to some degree collapsed, modern doctrine has it that salvation is to be found in therapy.19
This may seem like welcome news to those who believe Christianity has failed to meet their personal needs, but it should alarm Christians who believe the Bible’s promises that all our needs are met through Christ.
Christians who recognize this problem often focus their criticism on psychotherapy and exhort Christians to return to God’s Word for the solutions to their problems. This approach has merit, but it is not only an inaccurate generalization, it also is inadequate. We believe that a far more critical concern is the cause of this turn away from God’s Word to psychotherapy. When the church fails to minister in a complete and biblical way, people’s needs go unmet and they turn to other sources for solutions to those needs. The ministry of the church should include support and nurture for its members, including biblical counseling.
The term "biblical counseling" is used in different ways by different authors. Some use it to refer to the preaching of God’s Word apart from application. Some use it to refer to a counseling approach that "affirms the Bible as its sole source for authority concerning human nature, values and prescriptions for healthy living."20 Some use the term to refer to counseling that uses the Bible as its foundation and standard, but also borrows compatible and testable information and principles from other sources, such as laboratory experimentation, statistical surveys, clinical experience, and so forth. In this series of articles we use the term in this latter way.
Our presupposition is that God works authoritatively and infallibly in His written Word, but also dynamically in the world and among people. While we look to God’s Word as the standard by which to judge all things (1 Thess. 5:21-22), we recognize that the same God who preserved His Word also gave the world order and consistency, created natural laws, created humans with the ability to use logic and reasoning processes to apply biblical principles to new situations and to understand new experiences, and gave us the ability to develop testing tools to help us understand ourselves and the world around us.
For example, we don’t expect to find a Bible verse specifically addressing the morality of Beavis and Butthead (popular MTV cartoon characters), but we do expect to be able to use the biblical principles of avoiding vain and profane speech, ideas, and activities, and of focusing on spiritually meaningful, good, and godly speech and activity. When we use the principles of God’s Word as our standard (2 Tim. 2:16), and we understand how to evaluate claims (2 Tim. 4:2), we can confidently test the truth or falsity of a claim.
Biblical counseling seeks to help people worship and serve God to the best of their abilities with confidence and love toward God. The initial focus of biblical interpersonal intervention is, of course, the preaching of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The apostle Paul identifies the gospel as "the power of God for salvation" (Rom. 1:16), and assures Christians that when they have been saved the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit frees them from the worst sort of personal inadequacy — the bondage of their sinful natures (Rom. 8:1-9). Human suffering is explained and placed in the context of God’s transforming work (Rom. 5:1-5; 8:35-39).
Christians are instructed to learn God’s Word as the path to personal fulfillment and holiness (2 Tim. 3:15-17). The focus of a Christian’s thoughts should be that which comes from God and reflects His perfect character and nature (Phil. 4:8).
God’s Word gives us instructions regarding decision-making in the course of daily living (Pss. 19:7-8; 119:105). And when we have difficulty making a decision we can seek counsel from others. Biblical counselors are described and commended in the Bible (Prov. 11:14; 15:22).
In Part Two we will focus on biblical counseling and explore in greater detail the biblical wisdom that helps us cope with our inner, interpersonal, and social difficulties. Each of the biblical principles mentioned above — and those to be discussed more fully in the next article — is part of a comprehensive biblical pattern of spiritual, emotional, and mental growth by which the Christian can find fulfillment as a child of God. The result of using godly wisdom is described by Solomon:
Keep sound wisdom and discretion; so they will be life to your soul and grace to your neck. Then you will walk safely in your way, and your foot will not stumble. When you lie down, you will not be afraid; Yes, you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden terror, nor of trouble from the wicked when it comes; For the Lord will be your confidence, and will keep your foot from being caught. (Prov. 3:21-26)
When the church fulfills its responsibilities for biblical community, nurture, and support, then Christians will not feel the need to turn to secular psychotherapy. By contrast, as the stories opening this article illustrate, when the church does not embrace the repentant alcoholic, the parent with the troubled teen, or those emotionally bruised by sinful behavior, then the hurting and needy will look elsewhere for help.
It is our contention that psychotherapy has become enormously popular among Christians primarily because the church has failed to fulfill its biblical obligation to nurture, protect, admonish, and mature its members. Should we have to pay $100 per hour for a friend? Of course not. And yet, if as Christians we turn our backs on those with problems, shun those who wrestle with sin, and denigrate those who struggle to follow Christ, why should we be surprised that hurting people turn to psychotherapy for answers? Even though the answers of secular psychotherapy pale in comparison to biblical wisdom — and at best borrow from biblical principles — if psychotherapy offers some help while the local church does not, can we blame those who turn to it for relief?
The popularity of psychotherapy in the church should not consume our critical attention: It is but a symptom of fundamental problems in contemporary American Christianity. In the next three installments we will describe and evaluate biblical counseling and psychotherapy, and then consider a scriptural agenda for restoring biblical counseling as part of a healthy church. When the genuine is available, people will no longer be attracted to the imitation.
1D. P. Rice, S. Kelman, L. S. Miller, and S. Dunmeyer, The Economic Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse and Mental Illness (San Francisco: Institute for Health and Aging, University of California, 1990), 81.
2Robyn M. Dawes, House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1994), 12.
3These friends’ stories are meant as illustrations of the complexity of the issue. They are not presented here as proof or documentation for any position. Consequently, their privacy can be protected by not naming them and changing insignificant details of their stories.
4Paul Meier, Frank B. Minirth, Frank B. Wichern, and Donald E. Ratcliff, Introduction to Psychology and Counseling, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 17.
6We apply the terms "counselor," "counsel," and "counseling" to not only lay or paraprofessional mental health work, but also to professional psychotherapy. Some differentiate between the two, but we have found in our research that the lines between "professional" and "lay," and between "psychotherapy" and "counseling," have become so blurred as to make the terms almost interchangeable. Jones and Butman follow this same pattern, noting,
Although some authors still prefer to make a distinction between counseling and psychotherapy, we have chosen to use the terms interchangeably in this text for two main reasons. The first is that clinical and counseling psychology, which were once substantially different disciplines and arose out of different historical roots, have grown closer together over the last several decades. The distinctions between the two subdisciplines are hard to make out today....Perhaps more importantly, we will not make the distinctions here because the very same theories are utilized as guides for the change process by psychotherapists and counselors. (Jones and Butman, 14).
To this we add that little difference is made from the perspective of most people who have been recommended for, or have received, professional counseling. In an informal survey we conducted of a dozen people who had received professional counseling, several were unable to tell us what kind of a counselor they had seen (psychologists; Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor [MFCC]; licensed social worker [LSW]; and so forth), and none could define for us the differences among the different professional counselor titles.
7For basic information about epistemology, see Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg’s Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 83-163. For cogent discussion of the nature of scientific inquiry and the limits of scientific paradigms, see J. P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 185-224, and his Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 196-202.
8Meier, et. al., 24.
9Terence W. Campbell, Beware the Talking Cure (Boca Raton, FL: Upton Books, 1994), 7.
10Richie Herink, The Psychotherapy Handbook (New York: New American Library, 1980), 15.
11Stanton L. Jones and Richard E. Butman, Modern Psycho-Therapies: A Comprehensive Christian Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 12.
13Jones and Butman, 11.
15This problem is explored in depth and documented in Part Three of this series, forthcoming.
16Herink, x, xiii.
17Jones and Butman, 12.
18Campbell, 7. Parts Three and Four in this series will comprehensively examine and critique psychotherapy.
20John H. Coe, "Educating the Church for Wisdom’s Sake," presented at the 1991 International Christian Association for Psychological Studies.
Part Two The "Biblical Counseling" Alternative
This second of four articles on "Psychology and the Church" focuses on what is called the "Biblical Counseling movement" (BCM). This is a popular evangelical approach to counseling that not only promotes its own program for resolving personal problems within a strict Bible-based foundation, but also asserts that "psychology" — or more specifically, "psychotherapy" — is completely incompatible with its approach. This article defines the Bible Counseling movement, reviews its common criticisms of psychology, summarizes its foundations, commends its many positive contributions, and notes some of its inadequacies.
The Bible’s teaching on God’s boundless mercy and love for His children assures the Christian that there is no problem too difficult, no situation too desperate, and no condition too bleak that He and His Word cannot bring comfort, courage, and the power to overcome adversity and sin. Jesus promised, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30, NIV).
THE BIBLICAL COUNSELING MOVEMENT (BCM)
These and other biblical promises form the basis for the argument many Christians use to reject psychotherapy specifically and psychology generally as "a religious wolf in pseudoscientific clothing."1 This rejection of psychology has a strong following among many conservative evangelicals. Frequently this approach is referred to as "biblical counseling" in distinction from "psychological counseling." While many Christian therapists consider their counseling biblical in its approach, the "biblical counseling movement" (BCM) proponents reject any attempt to integrate psychology and a biblical approach. For them, "true spirituality has nothing to do with psychology (1 Cor. 2:11), a fake science based primarily on man’s rationalizations; i.e., self-deceptions."2
Psychology3 is severely criticized not only by BCM advocates, but even by some psychologists and psychiatrists such as William Glasser, O. Hobart Mowrer, Thomas S. Szasz, William Kirk Kilpatrick, Terence W. Campbell, Robyn M. Dawes, and Paul C. Vitz. These criticisms will be reviewed in the third installment of this series.
BCM CRITICISM OF PSYCHOLOGY
BCM proponents are vociferous in their denouncements of psychology (especially, but not exclusively, psychotherapy) and of Christians who value psychological principles, discoveries, and/or applications.4 Gary Almy and Carol Tharp Almy, Christian medical doctors, state: "Psychology is a false gospel. Its teachers are nothing less than false prophets. They fill people with false hope and lead them into false peace."5 Sometimes Martin and Deidre Bobgan are even broader in their denunciation of psychology as anti-Christian, as when they say, "Because psychology, which gives rise to psychotherapy, is not science and has not proven itself in either research or reality, and because it has unnecessarily replaced religious cures, it would be appropriate to label it ‘psychoquackery’ and to regard it as psychoheresy. Psychoquackery becomes psychoheresy when it is combined with Christian verbiage. Psychotherapy and its philosophical and practical implications and influence could very well be intrinsic to the great seduction in preparation for the antichrist."6
It is not simply psychology in isolation from biblical principles that BCM proponents reject. They are at least as vociferous in their denunciations of "Christian psychology" as they are of "secular psychology." For example, popular author Dave Hunt declares,
"Christian psychology" represents the most deadly and at the same time the most appealing and popular form of modernism ever to confront the church....
Then what is meant by this term? What is so-called Christian psychology? It is simply one form or another of secular psychology developed by godless humanists hostile to the Bible and now dressed up in Christian language....
Psychotherapy is, in fact, a rival religion that cannot be integrated with Christianity. Having nothing of value to offer to anyone, much less Christians, it is both deceptive and destructive.7
While most BCM advocates dismiss all psychotherapy and much of the broader field of psychology, most allow for certain interventive actions that can correct a physically based problem that may manifest in conjunction with personal problems. For example, the spiritually based problem of depression may also be accompanied by a metabolic problem that can physically enhance the depression. The Almys note, "Certainly, a counselor’s first priority may be to meet a crisis: getting a client out of a dangerous, life-threatening situation. As Jay Adams says, ‘If you see a naked man running down the street with a meat cleaver, don’t call your pastor.’ There are times when the police or physicians must be called. Some need hospitalization for disabling symptoms. Suicidal people may need to be restrained by police."8
The BCM has drawn the parameter. Any personal problem that is not physiological in nature is spiritual, and must be addressed biblically.
THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE BCM
The BCM advocates do not simply criticize psychology and Christian psychology. They also promote an alternative way of helping hurting people, most commonly referred to as "biblical counseling" as distinct from psychology. Various other names are given for this approach, including Jay Adams’s "nouthetic counseling" and the Bobgans’ "spiritual way." According to the BCM, biblical counseling is the only biblically acceptable way to help people solve their personal problems.
The BCM includes four foundational premises. The first maintains that every principle for personal fulfillment is contained in the Bible. When BCM advocates declare that the Bible is the source for counseling principles, they generally make this an absolute, complete, and exclusivistic statement. The Bobgans make this clear, stating that "the Bible gives the only accurate understanding of why man is the way he is and how he is to change,"9 and that "any counseling which uses philosophies and methods other than Scripture will not nourish and build a believer’s relationship with God."10 The Almys encourage their readers to ask a prospective counselor "if he sees Scripture as sufficient for every problem."11 Jay Adams, considered by many to be the "father" of the BCM, places his exclusive focus within the wider context of the Holy Spirit’s ministry, saying, "since the Holy Spirit employs his Word as the principal means by which Christians may grow in sanctification, counseling cannot be effective (in any biblical sense of that term) apart from the use of the Scriptures."12
Second, BCM assumes that all personal problems (if they are not organic, biological, and/or physical in nature) are spiritual problems. Although BCM proponents sometimes distinguish among emotional, mental, and spiritual problems,13 most also assume that anything that is not physically based must be spiritually based:
The psyche or soul and all of its concerns are spiritual matters.14
Problems of living are spiritual problems which require spiritual solutions.15
The majority of BCM advocates believe that "most psychotherapeutic systems either reject or ignore the spiritual relationship between man and his creator."16 They further hold that biblical counseling is the only approach to personal problems based on the fundamental idea that personal problems (mental or emotional) are rooted in spiritual problems: "Spiritual solutions are not merely operative upon the spirit, for the Word of God applies to every aspect of daily life, including mental attitudes and interpersonal relationships."17
Third, the BCM frequently equates the resolution of personal problems with the experience of personal salvation and subsequent sanctification. To the prospective client whose goal is to overcome fear of the dark, the biblical counselor preaches that Jesus is the "Light" (John 1:4-9) and that coming to Him in repentance to be saved opens the door to freedom from the fear of darkness. This element of the BCM is closely related to the second, that personal problems are spiritual problems. The Bobgans summarize this: "A true spiritual counselor does not place his confidence in any of the thousands of psychotherapeutic techniques, nor in the ideologies of determinism or humanism behind the personality theories. His confidence is in the truth set forth in the Bible, the way of salvation and sanctification, which includes forgiveness, new life, walking in the Spirit, putting off the old man and putting on the new....according to God’s wisdom, understanding, knowledge, compassion, forgiveness, truth, nurture, guidance, comfort, strength, and very presence."18
The fourth foundational principle of the BCM is that the goal of counseling is a saved individual who lives in obedience to God’s Word. The direct goals are not conscientious work habits, consistent parenting, harmonious marriages, stress-free habits, or personal joy. Rather, the successive direct goals are, first, salvation and, second, obedience to God’s Word. As a consequence, salvation and sanctification will produce good employees, parents, spouses, and individuals. Jay Adams affirms positively, "God wants us to ‘lose’ ourselves in this world by throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into the service and love of Christ and His empire."19 Adams also identifies personal satisfaction as a product of obedience: "Satisfaction, like peace and joy, comes not when one pursues it, but unexpectedly and always as a by-product of faithful, fruitful Christian living."20 T. A. McMahon clearly states, "As a Christian, true spirituality is a product only of our submission and obedience by His grace to His Word."21
POSITIVE ASPECTS OF THE BCM
The BCM promotes several important concepts that challenge assumptions held by many psychology advocates. (Many psychology advocates, including many Christian therapists, recognize these principles as well and apply them against what they consider to be invalid psychological principles.)
First, the BCM recognizes that value-neutral or value-free counseling is impossible. Many secular therapists (even some Christian ones) say it is inappropriate to impose or assume any values regarding a client’s actions or attitudes. For example, a therapist, instead of telling a client, "Adultery is wrong," might instead ask the client, "Are the benefits you perceive from your adultery (excitement, positive emotions, sexual indulgence, and hope for future well-being) worth you risking the negative consequences of your adultery (exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, incurring the anger of your spouse, conflicting emotions, etc.)?" These approaches, however, are not value-free at all. They assume the value that all values are equal in value. This, of course, is completely contrary to the biblical principle that "there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Prov. 14:12).
Second, the BCM recognizes the ambiguity in the claim that "psychology is science." While some aspects of psychology deal with empirical (that which can be tested with the senses) data and evaluation, and would fit an empiricist theory of science, much of psychology (and most psychotherapy) deals with philosophies, values, emotions, and other intangibles that are not empirically governed. The BCM also recognizes that "psychology as science" becomes a convenient label that can be used or discarded seemingly arbitrarily. An empiricist psychologist can avoid commenting about God or the gospel by claiming "religion is not empirically testable," but the same psychologist can make a vague appeal to science as "validating" even those assumptions about psychology that are beyond empiricism.
Third, the BCM emphasizes personal responsibility and accountability for behavior. While some forms of psychotherapy (such as Mowrer’s "Moral Model" or Glasser’s "Reality Therapy") also emphasize personal accountability, the BCM applies personal accountability in a strictly biblical context. The BCM proponent would counsel in the same way Jesus did, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31–32). The BCM focus on personal accountability is especially refreshing in the current "victimization" climate of our contemporary society, where everyone is a victim of something or someone and no one is responsible for anything negative in his or her own life.22
Fourth, the BCM focuses on biblical principles of godly living. While psychotherapy frequently focuses on subjective feelings of emotional "wellness" or contentment, the BCM focuses on self-denial, commitment to studying God’s Word, worship of God, prayer, service to others, and development of what Paul calls "the fruit of the Spirit" — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22).
Fifth, the BCM emphasizes goal-oriented, usually short-term counseling. This gives the client almost immediate positive feedback, encouragement that the problem can be resolved quickly, and a manageably simple course of action. While some psychotherapies anticipate that many clients will need years (if not lifetimes) of therapy, most biblical counseling considers a client’s problem resolved when he or she has recognized the problem from a biblical standpoint, confessed and repented of his or her own sin in the matter, and begun practicing biblical obedience in the specific matter.23
Sixth, the BCM correctly understands that human-to-God and God-to-human relationships must be reconciled to ensure fulfilled and soundly functioning human-to-human relationships. The BCM recognizes that humans are basically sinful, not basically good, and that true and complete human fulfillment can only occur if one is regenerated through the power of the Holy Spirit by means of Christ’s redemption for us on the cross. Interpersonal or social "redemption" is only fully possible among redeemed individuals. Thus BCM counseling stresses human sinfulness and the need for redemption as root causes of personal distress. It also provides a standard of absolute ethics by which all actions can be judged, both good and bad.
Seventh, the BCM recognizes human needs as they are defined or at least given in principle in Scripture. This objective standard of need is far shorter than most subjective assessments of human "need," which tend to focus on personal pleasure rather than the minimum requirements for humans to worship and serve God. To the typical BCM counselor, God "owes" humans nothing, because all have sinned and deserve only eternal punishment. Through the grace of God, both generally in His sustaining power in the world toward all and specially in salvation to those who believe, people enjoy the blessings of God. To the client who complains to his BCM counselor that he doesn’t have good self-esteem, the response is likely to be something like Jay Adams’s response to the self-esteem movement based on two secular psychologists, Adler and Maslow, and articulated by Christian psychologist Larry Crabb: "There is absolutely no biblical basis for any such statement. Indeed, following the Adler-Maslow line too closely here leads Crabb to contradict Jesus’ words: ‘There is only one real need’ (Luke 10:42). The real need of which He spoke was not the ‘need’ for a sense of personal worth or for the acceptance of oneself as a whole, real person. It was the need for Himself and His Word."24
In summary, the BCM has made seven positive contributions: (1) recognition that value-free counseling is impossible; (2) recognition of psychology’s ambivalence toward empirical science; (3) emphasis on personal accountability; (4) emphasis on biblical principles of godly living; (5) short-term counseling; (6) focus on the relationship between God and humans; and (7) emphasis on contentment in God’s will. These contributions have equipped many pastors and other Christian workers to work much more effectively with troubled Christians.
INADEQUACIES OF THE BCM
As helpful as the BCM is, and however much it more closely follows an exclusively biblical framework, we believe it has some serious inadequacies as well. These are certainly not inadequacies in God, or in God’s Word, but they are inadequacies in a human attempt to understand and apply God’s revelation to human experience.
First, the BCM generally fails to recognize that some of what we learn about God, ourselves, our relationship to God, and our relationships to others comes from what are called natural theology (understanding God and His relationship with the universe by means of rational reflection) and general revelation (that which can be known about God generally — especially through the created world — on a universal basis).25 God speaks not only specially (in the Bible, through prophets, and in His Son — see Hebrews 1:1–2), but also through reason, the material universe, social history, and conscience.
Revelation through reason is assumed in several Bible passages, such as when the apostle Paul says in Romans 8:18 that he "considers" (literally, "has come to a reasoned conclusion") that "our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us," and in the same passage, "I am convinced" that nothing can separate believers from the love of God (Rom. 8:38–39).
Revelation through the created world is assumed throughout Scripture, such as in Psalm 19:1–4, which proclaims: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world." The apostle Paul echoes this in Romans 1:19–20: "What may be known about God is plain to [the wicked], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."
Social history is appealed to by many Scripture writers as evidence of God’s will, such as when the writer of Hebrews points to the examples of previous "people of faith" (Heb. 11:4–40), when the apostle Peter refers to the judgment that came on the wicked of Noah’s day (1 Pet. 3:19–21), and when Paul affirms the value of good role models, exhorting, "Join with others in following my example brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you" (Phil. 3:17).
Conscience is an important source of general revelation, and the apostle Paul declares that it can provide a moral standard by which one’s actions can be judged according to God’s truth: "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them" (Rom. 2:14–15).
Believers as well as nonbelievers can observe God’s standards through general and natural theology. This "practical wisdom" is congruent to the broad principles laid down in the Bible, but can go beyond the specific prescriptions of Scripture. John Coe, assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Rosemead Graduate School of Psychology (part of the evangelical Biola University), notes that
the Scriptures recognize a non-propositional source of wisdom embedded and evident within the patterns and dynamic structures of both the inorganic and organic world. God Himself through the prophet Jeremiah expresses His loyalty to His covenant and laws in written Torah by likening it with His loyalty towards His covenant and laws evident in nature. Moreover, the OT sage appeals to this natural law or cosmic order as the data base and source for both his natural and social science not only in terms of theoretical, practical and technological knowledge but also wisdom and moral knowledge.26
Second, since the BCM fails to recognize varieties of God’s communication to humans in natural theology and general revelation, it also establishes a false standard of comprehensive exclusivity regarding the Bible. The BCM wrongly assumes that the Bible is the sole source of all values and prescriptions, when in reality God is, and the Bible is one of the ways God communicates the values and prescriptions He has ordained for human behavior. God communicates most clearly and extensively, but not exclusively, in the Bible. (This article doesn’t have the space to discuss a related, ongoing BCM problem: how do counselees know that the interpretation and/or application of Scripture given them by their BCM counselor is accurate?)
God uses other people, personal observation, rational discourse, experience, and, as we have already seen, natural and general revelation as well as the Bible. This pattern is encouraged even within the pages of Scripture,27 especially in the Book of Proverbs. Godly parental influence is acknowledged even without restricting that godly counsel only to repetition of the words of Scripture: "Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching" (Prov. 1:8). Industriousness can be learned even from insects in the natural world: "Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest" (Prov. 6:6–8).
In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly uses examples from the natural world as sources for practical wisdom, as when He says, "Look at the birds of the air..." (Matt. 6:26), or when He compares the power of His words to a house’s strong foundation (Matt. 7:24–25).
To reduce God’s communicative power of His infinite principles of godly living to the exclusive domain of the Bible is to ignore the comprehensive nature of His governance and nurture of a world that reflects His nature. As we have seen, the Bible itself confirms this point.
The third fundamental inadequacy of the BCM is that it presents a falsely restrictive and dichotomized view of science and faith, and, consequently, of human nature and of the parameters of psychology as science. Philosopher J. P. Moreland argues convincingly in Christianity and the Nature of Science that it is not possible to separate science from other disciplines simply by declaring it so. Science occurs in a philosophical, historical, linguistic, and social milieu that integrally affects its nature and practice.28 The BCM view of science is adopted from a non-Christian Enlightenment philosophy of science that wrongly divorced material realities from immaterial realities and wrongly affirmed empiricism (knowledge gained through sense verification) in isolation from other tools of knowing.29 It is the secular humanist who needs to dichotomize between empirical and nonempirical means of knowledge and between the material and the nonmaterial realms. In this way he can safely exclude God (a nonmaterial Being) from the world around him (which is material) and from the entire field of relevant knowledge.
John Coe explains why Christians should reject such a philosophy:
Until the Enlightenment, reality was seen as a unified whole (material and nonmaterial), subject to God’s design, creation, sustaining power, and governance. One expected to see evidence of the invisible God’s existence and power in the material universe because He created and sustained that universe. One could use reason and logic to understand empirical observations because one presupposed that God had given humans reason and logic as tools to help them understand reality. No one strictly separated "science" from "faith," or "daily living" from "spiritual living." This view of reality is straight from the principles of Scripture, which affirms that God is Lord of all, not simply Lord of spiritual realities.30
The BCM advocates, in their zeal to preserve the supremacy of the Bible as God’s sole revelation, have actually limited God’s supremacy by agreeing with the secular humanists that one can "know" material reality apart from God. The thoughtful Christian, however, recognizes that one cannot divorce God’s presence from any successful pursuit of truth because God’s sovereignty extends throughout all reality, material and immaterial.
"Science," when restricted to its supposed value-less empiricist bare bones by secularists and BCM advocates, becomes merely a meaningless jumble of incomprehensible observations. For science to truly be science one must presuppose truths inherent in God’s creative and sustaining power, such as the laws of logic; the purposefulness of creation; order and predictability in nature; the possibility of knowing; the human mind’s ability to be self-cognizant, reflective, and rationally critical in its observations of reality; and the capacity for rational discourse.
"Science" is never "safe" if it is divorced from philosophy (and the only true philosophy is wisdom from God). When BCM counselors approve a godless medical doctor but not a godless psychologist, they are promoting the same "scientism" that has excluded God from science. They are saying that empirical science can safely make judgments about physical conditions, but not about nonmaterial or spiritual ones. The Christian should understand that humans are not essentially physical nor essentially spiritual, but instead are both physical and spiritual, the two natures creatively knit together in one rational person created in the image of God.
The BCM counselor should recognize that all truth flows from God’s nature, whatever its communicative medium and to whomever it is communicated. God’s truth can be communicated in Scripture, in prophecy, in wisdom, in experience, and so forth. It can be communicated to nonbelievers as well as believers. Armed also with the full complement of God’s special revelation and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the believer is in the best position possible to test, discover, and apply truth in any course of study, including science, history, and human relations.
When one applies a comprehensive philosophy of science, one is then able to use the full range of God’s revelatory tools to discover truth. Observation can be extended not only to laboratory experiments, but also to human behavior. Predictive assumptions can be used not only to observe the law of gravity, but also to observe general principles of godly behavior producing human contentment. Godly counseling coupled with godly science can both distinguish between sin and immaturity (such as the difference between laziness and nail biting), and also prescribe appropriate corrective action (such as confession and repentance for laziness and foul-tasting nail polish for nail biting). But to divorce "science" from "faith" is to destroy true science and also true faith.
Finally, because the BCM wrongly limits godly wisdom to the Bible alone, it easily can neglect to nurture client-specific effective communication and application of godly principles.31 The BCM counselor who truly held Scripture as the exclusive source of godly wisdom would merely repeat Scriptures without personal intervention or interpretation. In actuality, however, even the most Bible-focused BCM counselors talk with their counselees, share their experiences or observations, and suggest ways of implementing the scriptural admonitions. By their actions they go beyond the strict limits of Scripture even as they preach "the Bible alone." Biblical counseling ought to be within the same kind of context as any other activity by godly people: We preach original sermons based on and reflecting godly principles, we develop personal relationships based on and reflecting godly principles, and we conduct our lives based on and reflecting godly principles — we are not merely walking Bible automatons, and neither should we counsel as though we were.
The BCM has brought some important perspectives to the study and practice of human living. It has much to offer and has made some important criticisms of ungodly counsel. However, its inadequacies, especially in the area of wrongly isolating God’s sovereignty from some fields of study and practice, should encourage modification of current biblical counseling approaches toward a more comprehensive godly counseling movement.
1T. A. McMahon, "The Psychospiritual Approach," The Berean Call, April 1994, 1.
3"Psychology" and "psychotherapy" are frequently synonymous for most laypeople. This is the common practice in the BCM, as the Bobgans note in Psychoheresy (Santa Barbara, CA: Eastgate Publishers, 1987), 4.
4Some BCM advocates are more sweeping and vociferous than others. Some admit the validity of some branches of psychology that they perceive to be more "scientific," such as educational testing. Some admit that some psychotherapies can even echo (however imperfectly) some important biblical principles. What adds confusion to the situation is that some even make contradictory statements. For example, Martin and Deidre Bobgan universally describe psychotherapy negatively in their book Psychoheresy in such statements as, "The theories of psychological counseling poison the soul" (7); "Psychological theories and methods continue to subvert Christianity" (23); "The research results [in this book] also call for an elimination of the cure of minds (psychological counseling) in all of its forms, no matter where it exists in the church and no matter how popular and talented the psychologizers" (56); and "Psychotherapy intrudes upon some of the most important themes of Scripture....To dress these [theories and techniques] up in biblical terminology and call them Christian is to compound the evil" (120). However, in a subsequent book, Prophets of Psychoheresy II (Santa Barbara, CA: Eastgate Publishers, 1990), the Bobgans accused us (the Passantinos) of misrepresentation for referring to Martin as "representing the position that all psychotherapy is evil and unbiblical" (274). They protested, "We have never made such a statement! It was contrived by the Passantinos, attributed to us, and is a misrepresentation" (274). Regardless of some BCM proponents’ inconsistent and scattered exceptions to their condemnations, the BCM as a whole rejects all psychotherapy and usually rejects most general psychology as well.
5Gary Almy and Carol Tharp Almy, Addicted to Recovery (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1994), 222.
6Bobgan and Bobgan, Psychoheresy, 129.
7Dave Hunt, Christian Information Bureau Bulletin, July 1986, 1.
8Almy and Almy, 238.
9Bobgan and Bobgan, Psychoheresy, 10.
11Almy and Almy, 239.
12Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), 23–24.
13Martin Bobgan and Deidre Bobgan, The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1979), 27–42.
14Bobgan and Bobgan, Psychoheresy, 120.
16Bobgan and Bobgan, The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way, 145.
19Jay Adams, The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1986), 108.
22See also Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
23This is carefully developed in Jay Adams’s classic Competent to Counsel (44–49) and has been adopted and/or adapted by most BCM counselors since.
24Jay Adams, The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1986), 45.
25For further information see "Revelation" and "Natural Theology" in The New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
26John Coe, "Educating the Church for Wisdom’s Sake or Why Biblical Counseling Is Unbiblical," paper delivered at the 1991 international Christian Association for Psychological Studies conference, 12–13.
27We are not saying that the following examples are themselves outside of Scripture, but that they assume the learning principle that one can gain godly wisdom from observing the natural world and human behavior.
28J. P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 57.
29A comprehensive examination of the philosophy of science is contained in J. P. Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science.
30Personal interview, February 22, 1995.
31Article three reviews some of the natural and general wisdom God gives outside Scripture which is included in the positive aspects of psychotherapy
Part Three Can Psychotherapy Be Integrated with Christianity?
An examination of the foundations of psychotherapy raises concerns about whether Christianity can be compatible with a system based on naturalistic, nontheistic, secular humanism. While most psychotherapeutic techniques are rooted in one of three main categories of psychotherapy, most psychotherapists are eclectic, using anything that appears to work — regardless of the techniques’ compatibility with their primary psychotherapeutic philosophy. This allows for Christians to reject techniques incompatible with a Christian world view and to use techniques they can reconcile to a Christian world view, but it does not promote a unified, coherent philosophy of therapy. Studies show that, at best, psychotherapy is "moderately" helpful, and that most people get better without any professional counseling at all. For Christian "therapy" (counseling) to be truly helpful and biblically based, it must start from the firm biblical foundation of a Christian world view, with each technique part of a coherent biblical paradigm.
Like a carnival sideshow lane, the garish booths stretched almost as far as we could see under the harsh arena lights. Neuro-linguistic programming, dance therapy, past-life regression, hypnotically enhanced eating disorder programs, Horneyian therapy, multiple impact therapy, multiple personality disorder therapies, and multiple multiples of other therapies all clamored for attention as we strolled the national professional psychotherapy convention. We’d come to indulge our own proclivity for academic research reports and scholarly philosophizing, but we also came to some interesting and sometimes surprising conclusions.
First, almost everyone we talked to had a genuine concern for people with problems and an earnest desire to devote their lives to helping others. Second, there were more therapies, theories, and techniques than there were therapists. Third, the practicing therapists approached their "science" very differently than did their academic and research counterparts, basing many of their convictions on subjective experience rather than rigorous testing or critical evaluation. Fourth, while the range of therapies and therapists touched almost every conceivable extreme, some therapies and therapists reflected well-reasoned, carefully explored, comprehensive theories of personal dynamics. Fifth (most surprising to us), we discovered that even most of the Christian therapists and therapies focused more on a collection of practices and theories isolated from a comprehensive world view than on that world view. And sixth, we learned firsthand that anyone who pronounces a universal blessing or a universal condemnation on psychotherapy has failed to understand its complexity and diversity.
Unless we define terms adequately, understand the history and foundations of psychotherapy, and carefully evaluate its theories and assumptions, misrepresentation is almost certain. The present article cannot address this vast subject comprehensively, but it will illuminate some of the broad patterns of contemporary psychology, highlight some of the foundational concerns Christians should have concerning psychotherapy, and view some of the ways Christian therapists have attempted to relate contemporary psychotherapy with a biblical world view. Many secular psychologists have strong criticisms of various aspects of contemporary psychology,1 but since this series is narrowly focused on psychology and the church, we will limit our citations primarily to Christian authors.2
PSYCHOLOGY AND PSYCHOTHERAPY
Because psychotherapy is much more visible and directly touches many more lives than do other aspects of psychology (such as educational testing), for many people "psychology" is equivalent to "psychotherapy." The word psychology derives from two Greek terms meaning "the study of persons." Some argue that since the Greek root from which we get psych means "spirit" or "soul," psychology is religious in nature and involves the study of the spirit or soul. However, one must realize that because of the evolving nature of language, word origin or etymology does not necessarily point to what the word means in contemporary usage. Those who use the term psychology today do not generally mean to make any religious statements about the human spirit or soul, but instead are referring to the nontangible personal aspects of human beings, whether they conceive of these aspects as byproducts of the brain or actual nonmaterial "mind" states.
Christians call this aspect "soul" or "spirit," and certainly the Bible affirms the reality of the immaterial human nature as "soul" or "spirit." Even biblically speaking, however, a significant function of this immaterial aspect involves reasoning, communicating, experiencing emotions, memory, and social interaction, all of which can be studied to some degree without focus on one’s relationship with God.
Psychology is defined in a leading Christian textbook as "the scientific study of the behavior and thinking of organisms....the study of how living creatures interact with their environment and each other, and how they cope (successfully or unsuccessfully) with that environment."3 Given this broad definition, and recognizing that many people use the term interchangeably with psychotherapy, we will focus on psychotherapy in this article, rather than exploring the wide scope of general psychology.4
Psychotherapy focuses on the use of psychology to help people "cope" with their problems. Stanton Jones and Richard Butman, in Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal, give a good broad definition focusing on technique rather than type: "The common techniques all psychotherapists seem to use (though with differing frequencies) include (1) offering reassurance and support, (2) desensitizing the client to distress, (3) encouraging adaptive functioning and (4) offering understanding and insight."5
Some observers distinguish between "psychotherapy" and "counseling."6 However, such distinctions have blurred over the years, are not recognized by most people who seek psychotherapy, and serve no useful purpose in our present survey. Here we will operate from the commonly held assumption that psychotherapy and counseling are fairly synonymous unless specifically distinguished in a particular circumstance. 7
HISTORY OF PSYCHOTHERAPY
It may be helpful to consider the history of psychotherapy8 with the analogy of nesting dolls. Just as a large wooden Russian folk doll can be opened to reveal a smaller one, which is opened to reveal an even smaller doll, and so on, so can the history of psycho-therapy be viewed. The largest doll would represent the post-Reformation philosophy of science, with the next smaller doll representing psychology, and the smallest doll representing psychotherapy.
This article merely mentions the larger "dolls" while it focuses on the smallest.9 After the Reformation, during the rise of secular "enlightenment," world views were developed and articulated that did not include any idea of theism or Christian theology.
Post-Reformation, nontheistic world views abandoned theism as the foundation for expecting orderliness in nature, and for expecting that the tools of reason could be used to understand what was observed empirically (i.e., by the senses, by physical observation or testing). For the first time science was divorced from philosophy and became an academic governing system itself. Science in the main did not support those assumptions with a foundation of belief in an infinite, personal, benevolent Creator-God. Instead, it promoted naturalism (i.e., there is no supernatural realm) concerning the real world; empiricism concerning methods for discovering truth; physicalism concerning human nature (i.e., humans are fundamentally material beings with mental aspects as part of, or produced by, the brain); and secular humanism concerning human personal, interpersonal, and social aspects (i.e., personal and social ethics or values are subjective and human-generated, not absolute and given by God).
As we described in Part One, psychology shifted orientation from philosophy to science toward the end of the nineteenth century. This occurred when Wilhelm Wundt founded a psychological testing center or laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, and brought psychology to the status of an independent scientific, academic discipline in 1879. While psychology was developing its scientific foundation, some of its assumptions and principles began to be used in therapeutic settings, most notably by the "father" of modern psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud.
Contemporary psychotherapies developed afterward either from, or in contrast to, Freud’s grand theories of psychoanalysis. One of the most significant features of Freud’s system — mirrored in almost all subsequent psychotherapies — is its amalgamation of the "science" of psychology with the therapist’s presuppositions, the accumulated "common sense" of therapist/client interaction, and the pragmatism of subjectively successful client therapy. This frequently inconsistent process of amalgamation distinguishes most psychotherapy from the empirical focus of contemporary science, although, as we discussed in Part Two, a strict empiricism is inadequate as a comprehensive philosophy of science.
Two frustrating problems psychotherapy advocates face should be mentioned before we examine the foundations of contemporary psychotherapies. The first problem involves success rates. Despite its acceptance as a scientific discipline, more than a century of psychologizing, its blatant promotion as a "wonder drug," and public confidence in its curative powers, most of the comprehensive data available on the effectiveness of psychotherapy shows that its success is much more modest than most people have assumed.
The most oft-cited study asserting the ineffectiveness of psychotherapy was published in 1952 by H. J. Eysenck. He used insurance company files as a research base from which he concluded that almost three-quarters of those diagnosed as "psychoneurotic" improved over a two-year period regardless of whether or not they received professional psychological intervention. This conclusion flatly contradicted the common assumptions of the day, since "at the time a 60–70% success rate was being reported by most well-known psychology clinics."10 This study is still cited by many critics of psychotherapy, even though many studies done since then have concluded otherwise, and several serious flaws were discovered in Eysenck’s study.
What is most striking about later research regarding the effectiveness of psychotherapy, however, is that it shows almost uniformly that psychotherapy is, at best, moderately helpful. Furthermore, none of the research presents an unambiguous, generally accepted description of what constitutes "helpful" and how much change toward what ends constitutes "progress." The values and assumptions of the therapists, clients, and researchers all color this assessment.
For example, a Christian might encourage a fearful friend to "trust in the Lord" while a secular therapist might discourage dependence on some "mythological father-god figure" to overcome fear in favor of affirming one’s own autonomy. Which case represents "helpful change for the better"?
Additionally, the research has not been based on test groups isolated from all other possible influences (clergy, relatives, friends, books, etc.). We shouldn’t wonder at this, since so much of psychotherapy, especially Christian psychotherapy, also involves common sense, experience, clarification, friendship, understanding, and support — all factors present in varying degrees in almost all ongoing interpersonal relationships
So, there is no evidence that psychotherapy is the solution to everyone’s problems, and no way to tell how many "helpful" psychotherapy techniques are simply the tools of ordinary wholesome relationships and how many are unique to psychotherapy. Psychologist and critic of psychology Dr. Paul Vitz summarizes: "Psychology overpromised and underproduced; that is, everybody thought that if they studied psychology or saw a therapist, they’d be happy ever after — but that didn’t happen."11
The second frustration is that research has been unable to support the superiority of one school of therapy over another. In other words, almost any nondestructive kind of therapy will produce this statistic of moderate success. Limited research support is available that certain broad kinds of therapy seem to be more effective for certain kinds of problems than others.12 One of the problems with this kind of research is that many therapists are "eclectic" — that is, they use techniques and hold assumptions from a variety of psychotherapy sources, and their treatment varies not only from one client to the next, but often even with the same client over a period of time. Pragmatism ("Do whatever works!") seems to be the standard for determining the technique or approach for any client at any given time.
A Christian who attempts to use psychology within a framework of biblical principles for personal counseling faces unique challenges and a myriad of pitfalls: he (or she) must discern what complements, illustrates, applies, and adds knowledge to biblical principles and what rivals or contradicts them. It is entirely insufficient to assume, as so many Christian therapists do, that a good education in psychology and a born-again experience is all it takes to produce a sound Christian therapy practice. Such a Christian must be better prepared in theology, biblical interpretation, and principles of Christian discipleship than he is in psychology. In addition, he must be well-versed in critical thinking methods and have a well-rounded, comprehensive Christian world view by which he can judge everything he learns and experiences, including what he learns and experiences in psychology. Jones and Butman urge, "What we need in evaluating models of counseling and psychotherapy is clear thinking about our presuppositions, our views of humanity, and our moral standards and how to apply these to real situations. While we must be careful about being overly dogmatic and rigid, good evaluation is brutally honest about the realities of the human condition in all their tragic complexities. We need guidelines on how to think clearly, critically and courageously."13
FOUNDATIONS OF CONTEMPORARY PSYCHOTHERAPIES
Three main branches of psychotherapy have provided the foundation for the myriad of contemporary psychotherapeutic techniques, theories, and assumptions: dynamic psychologies, behavioral psychologies, and humanistic psychologies.14 Additionally, many psychotherapists seem to pick and choose varieties of elements from any or all three foundational systems without regard to their sometimes mutually exclusive or inconsistent aspects.
Sigmund Freud, a late nineteenth-century neurologist-psychiatrist, developed a system of clinical practice called psychoanalysis that focused on introspection — by the therapist concerning himself, and then in a clinical setting by the client with the aid of a therapist, called an analyst. Freud’s theory of personality included the idea of two mental states, the conscious and the unconscious; and the specialized personal aspects of ego, superego, and id. He attributed adult psychopathology (mental problems) to early childhood disruption of psychosexual development. Two of Freud’s disciples, Alfred Adler (see below) and Carl Jung, developed their own systems.
Jung was a mystical philosopher and occult practitioner, a contemporary of Freud. He had been conducting his own studies and experiments in treating "hysteria" and "nerves" when he learned of Freud’s work and began a correspondence and eventual partnership with him. However, fundamental differences in psychoanalytic theory later caused the partnership to dissolve. Today Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis are considered quite distinct, although they also share many assumptions in common. Distinctives of Jung’s psychoanalysis include assumptions about the "collective unconscious" and "archetypes."
Jung divided the human psyche into three parts: consciousness, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious Jung defined as the "top layer" of unconsciousness, "bound up with the personal characteristics of an individual." 15 The collective unconscious, a controversial concept rejected by many psychologists, was postulated by Jung as the unifying unconsciousness of humanity. This "deeper" layer of unconsciousness contains the archetypes — the intrinsic idea-forms common to all humanity and reflective of the unity or "soul" of mankind. Myths, for example, are conscious manifestations of the collective unconscious and its archetypes.
Psychodynamic psychologies take the basic psychoanalytical models and add to them a focus on "cognitive [thought] and interpersonal processes."16 In other words, they first add to the fundamental assumptions of psychoanalysis ideas concerning the effect of early childhood interpersonal relationships on personality development. They proceed to suggest that personality dysfunction can be resolved through repairing, reexperiencing, and/or reinterpreting early childhood interpersonal experiences. Psychodynamic psychologies place a much more dynamic responsibility on the therapist, who is not Freud’s "blank canvas," but instead is the font of wisdom and healthful personal interaction that the client needs to restructure his or her personality, recovering from the traumas of unhealthy early childhood relationships.
Most psychodynamic therapies last a long time (such as twice-weekly 50- minute sessions for three to five years), the goal being to use the healthy relationship between the mature therapist and the dysfunctional client as the basis for the client to experience personal growth and change. This is one of the most popular forms of therapy today, and can be extremely dangerous in the hands of an inadequate therapist. The client can be like putty in the hands of the therapist:
A healthy therapist will judge the maturity of the patient’s behavior with reasonable effectiveness and accuracy. He can monitor the countertransference and separate much of what is his internal interpretation of reality from that of the patient. An immature therapist, however, can model a distorted sense of maturity and influence the client to develop according to the therapist’s faulty perspective. Little possibility exists, in this theoretical framework, for the therapist leading the patient to a greater level of maturity than the therapist has personally attained.17
Some of the worst horror stories of therapeutically induced or enhanced psychopathologies have come from therapists incorporating or assuming some sort of psychodynamic approach in their therapy. Alien abduction therapy, past-life regression therapy, recovered memory therapy, and other kinds of irresponsible therapy fit a psychodynamic model well.
An entire article could be devoted to a critique of the dynamic psychologies, but four fundamental problems that especially concern Christian evaluators address our survey purposes here. First, the dynamic psychologies assume that most behavior arises from instinctive, nonmoral urges rather than from personal, morally responsible willfulness.
Second, most of these psychologies presuppose a deterministic naturalism that allows no justification for absolute ethics, responsible decision making, the existence of God, or people’s spiritual natures. This makes dynamic psychologies prone to misuse by dysfunctional therapists, who can enhance a client’s subjective feelings of victimization, and can fail to encourage clients to assume personal responsibility and moral commitment. Because of the close association between therapist and client, and the assumption that the client is a victim of early childhood trauma who cannot rise above it on his or her own, the client is almost literally at the mercy of the therapist.
Third, many types of dynamic psychology reflect the anti-Christian, anti-religious, and/or unorthodox biases of their founders, such as atheist Sigmund Freud and occult mystic Carl Jung. Therapists whose therapies are compatible with these systems are likely to reject biblical Christianity, its world view, and its values as well. Even dynamic therapists who are Christians or who are sympathetic to Christian clients tend without biblical warrant to apply certain antireligious assumptions from these systems selectively against religious ideas they don’t like. "Therapy is never value free and...all therapists either implicitly or explicitly communicate their values and personal religion. Therefore, the question is not whether the therapist has certain personal values or goals but how these influence the therapy process."18
Finally, strict psychoanalytic theories are ultimately self-contradictory, because if everything in human experience is shaped by early childhood traumas, then perhaps one’s acceptance of psychoanalysis is shaped by an early childhood experience. In other words, we have no way of knowing if it’s true or not, only if we think it’s true because we’ve been shaped to think it’s true. Jones and Butman explain this self-stultification of psychoanalysis in relationship to religion: "If atheism can be explained in as facile and convincing a fashion as religion, then there is no ultimate hope of ever knowing anything truly....Such an all-encompassing ‘psychologizing’ of our capacity to know is repugnant to Christians, who believe that we are capable of knowing truly, at least at some level."19
The second building block of contemporary psychotherapy was the development of behaviorism, first by Freud’s disciple Alfred Adler, and then under academic psychologist John Watson. The most popular behaviorist, B. F. Skinner, started with a strict (and, to some, artificial) behaviorism and developed his system to such a complexity that many believe his clearly demarcated behaviorism spurred the leap to humanistic psychology.
Adler’s system20 focused on "helping the individual clarify constructive life goals and plans, develop proper social interest (concern for others), and better understand his or her life style and how this relates to psychological development." 21 Watson’s most influential work was published in the first 20 years of this century. He approached psychotherapy from an academic rather than a clinical perspective. Additionally, he was the first to focus on the study of observable behavior rather than subjective introspection. This is one of the most important distinctives between analysis or dynamic psychology and behavioral psychology. Although behaviorism and psychoanalysis both assume naturalism and that early experiences are determinative of adult mental states, behaviorism applies different principles of psychotherapy. While psychoanalysis focuses on introspection, behaviorism focuses on observable behavior. Many people, including Christians, are attracted to behaviorism because of this emphasis on "the scientific method."
B. F. Skinner’s "operant conditioning" theory is perhaps the aspect of his behaviorism most pervasive in contemporary society. His theory is assumed and used in education, business, job training, and correctional incentives. Skinner was "committed to the propositions that human nature can be completely understood through the methods of natural science; that human behavior is determined by the environment; and that the psychological control of human behavior is the only hope for the immense problems facing mankind." 22
The two basic assumptions of behaviorism are naturalism and empiricism. In other words, matter is the only reality and reality can only be tested through the senses.
Strict behaviorism totally rejects any idea of God or the immaterial aspect of humankind. There is no ultimate, eternal, infinite, personal God by whom we are created and to whom we are responsible. In fact, "we" are not persons, minds, or spiritual beings with bodies — we are merely brains in bodies. The mind is mere electrical functionings, or a "byproduct" of the electrical processes of the brain. Consequently, everything human is explainable by natural law.
If only the material world is real, and the material world is subject to natural law, then it is not surprising that all the tools for discovering, observing, understanding, and changing things about the mind are physically based as well. Humans are understandable, behaviorists say, only from an empiricist perspective. In other words, human behavior is shaped by physical forces and is observed through physical means. An assumption of strict behaviorism also implies determinism, that one’s actions are explainable by external, empirical (sensory) causes.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy progresses through several stages: education about the relationship between thoughts and personal well-being, training in assessing one’s thoughts and comparing them to external reality, training in how to modify one’s thoughts to accurately reflect reality, and, in some applications of cognitive-behavioral therapy, an additional time of learning to translate one’s new thought patterns into both a comprehensive world view and correspondingly healthy actions.23
Several features or goals of some behavioral therapies have been used by Christians in a Christian world view setting, such as assumptions about rational apprehension of reality, changing behavior to correspond to truth,24 and so forth. Jones and Butman explain one kind of behavioral therapy, rational emotive therapy, that attracts Christians: "The highly rational and didactic nature of [rational emotive therapy] as a counseling method fits with the instincts of many conservative Christian believers who tend to be comfortable with rational discourse about belief and are primed to believe that belief has a formative impact on behavior and quality of life." 25 However, the core of behaviorism (including rational emotive therapy), with its assumptions of strict naturalism, determinism, and physicalism, is completely incompatible with Christianity.
Humanistic psychology built on the beginnings of psychoanalysis and behaviorism with the ideals of Abraham Maslow, and was developed further by Carl Rogers. Calling itself the "Third Force," it rejected the "dehumanizing" determinism in both psychoanalysis and behaviorism (in which human behavior is predetermined either internally or externally) in favor of an emphasis on human autonomy and potentiality.
Fundamental to humanistic psychologies is the idea that human behavior, and change in human behavior, is caused by internal, personal perceptions, experiences, and reactions to those experiences, all focused on the basic human need for personal fulfillment or "self-actualization." Sometimes humanistic psychologies credit behaviorism, especially the strict kind of behaviorism advocated by Skinner, for their development, because they developed in reaction against the "dehumanizing" aspects of behaviorism, rather than as a further development of behaviorism.
Humanistic psychology acknowledges the value of introspection, and tests many of its ideas through observable behavior, but its orientation is on conscious subjectivity. It is commonly called "client-centered" or "person-centered" therapy — an approach developed by Rogers in the 1940s. Jones and Butman summarize: "Person-centered therapy emphasizes the primacy of the individual and is often criticized for contributing to modern narcissism and the erosion of any shared sense of meaning or value in contemporary society." 26
Transactional Analysis (TA), developed by Eric Berne, is one of the most popular forms of humanistic psychology. It is from TA that we get the common psychotherapeutic concepts of the inner tripersons — the Parent, the Adult, and the Child.
At the core of the humanistic psychologies is the fundamental assumption that "man is the measure of all things," as the ancient humanist slogan put it; or "I must find myself!" as the person-centered client is likely to lament. In other words, personal fulfillment and happiness is the goal of individual human living, and therapy is the attempt to obtain professional assistance to reach that goal through personal transformation.
Beginning with the premise that their goal is to help relatively well-adjusted people achieve greater self-actualization (as opposed to the dynamic and behavioral psychologies, which focus on psychological deviations), the humanistic psychologies start with the self, work on the self, reward the self, and fulfill the self. It is no wonder that humanistic psychologies also tend to be intensely subjective — truth and reality are relative to the individual (the client) experiencing them. Jones and Butman describe the view: "What we are and what we do is a reflection of our subjective experience of the world and ourselves. External reality can only be known through the inner reality of personal experience."27 Commonly, one hears a humanistic psychologist say something like, "It’s not for me to determine whether or not my client is telling me the truth. What matters is what my client experiences as the truth." This approach is compatible with many of the more bizarre therapy trends such as alien abductions, where the reality of extraterrestrials (or other-dimensional beings) is irrelevant: what matters is that the client believes in alien abductions.
We experienced another example when we talked with the mother of two youngsters who had allegedly been ritually abused by Satanists in a child-care situation. We asked the mother if she ever had doubts about the reality of their abuse since years of investigation had turned up no corroborative evidence that her children had been abused. "No," she replied, "I can’t have any doubts. Frankly, whether or not they were, I believe they were and they believe they were, and the success of their therapy depends on our beliefs, not on the reality."
Some Christians who encounter humanistic psychologies in the therapy room first are drawn to their emphasis on personal human responsibility, encouragement to reach one’s potential, assistance in developing a system of ethics, and focus on each person’s unique value. However, these attributes of humanistic psychologies have developed on a foundation that is thoroughly non-Christian; that is, humans must assume personal responsibility because they are accountable to no one but themselves — there is no God to answer to.
Reaching one’s potential has been substituted for seeking God’s will as the highest goal of humankind. The self-actualization focus is on personal, subjective well-being and social functioning rather than on reconciliation with God. While Christians certainly need to learn how to be content with their lives, to reach their "potential," and to adequately socialize, none of their "coping" has eternal significance. Only Christ’s death on the cross can transfer the significance of the eternal to humans who otherwise are temporal and undeserving: "Our biggest problem, then, is not depression, anxiety, or anger. It’s not our past history, difficult and ugly as that may be. Nor is it sickness, an accident, loss or affliction. Our greatest problem is not even the sins we commit. It is the deep crevice that wants to open in your soul and mine separating us from the love, joy, and peace of a life lived in the closest possible union with our Creator." 28
The humanistic system of ethics is subjectively based and relative rather than coming from God’s holy nature as an absolute standard of conduct for all humankind. As Dr. Paul Vitz notes, "The idea that each person creates their own values is the most extreme form of relativism that exists," and "anyone who worships himself worships a fool." 29
In the humanistic psychologies personal unique value rests upon subjective self-centricism, not on the fact that each person is created lovingly by God. Such preoccupation with self — such narcissism — is reflective of "a cultural context frequently closed to the transcendent," a cultural context that values life "only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being [and] suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which one must be freed at all costs," 30 rather than as an opportunity to "not only believe on [Christ], but also to suffer for him" (Phil. 1:29).
"Seat-of-the-Pants" or Pragmatic Psychotherapy
Despite the clear developmental trends in this history of psychotherapy and the orientations of the major psychologies, most contemporary American therapists do not practice any one psychotherapy exclusively and consistently. Instead (as we’ve stressed several times in this series), most therapists have some sort of basic orientation in one of the three major psychologies but then they pick and choose from hundreds of different systems, techniques, methods, schools, and ideas, applying "what works" in individual cases with different people with different problems. The typical therapist system is derived from clinical experience, intuition, common sense, and reflection without any coherent paradigm or framework to reconcile everything into a cohesive therapeutic world view. 31
This eclecticism is generally unpredictable, frequently unhelpful, and usually inconsistent. Without a coherent world view, the therapist is unable to adequately or objectively test new theories or techniques. Not only is this not helpful from a therapeutic standpoint, it can be therapeutically harmful and spiritually harmful when it promotes unbiblical (and sometimes occultic) concepts. Even Christian therapists can cause severe physical, mental, and spiritual harm without a rigorous, consistent, biblical therapeutic approach. This has been made abundantly clear in the practice of some poor psychotherapies such as repressed memory therapy 32 or in failure to ensure appropriate therapist/client relationships such as when sexual relationships occur between therapist and client.
Ideally, one should first develop a consistent, comprehensive, and coherent philosophical framework or methodology, including an understanding of personality, human nature, abnormality, and mental/emotional/personal soundness. Then one can judge the different therapies, techniques, and approaches by how they correspond to this basic model: "In fact, whatever else Christian counseling is, surely it must be based on and informed by these biblical perspectives on human nature. Three biblical themes seem particularly relevant: the unity of personality, creation in the image of God, and the reality of sin." 33
Disappointingly, most Christian therapists do not carefully and thoughtfully construct a biblical paradigm of counseling by which they judge all theories, schools, techniques, and ideas. Instead, they focus almost always on clinical experiences rather than comprehensive data built into a coherent framework — although some Christian psychologists have attempted to develop a good system in their "integration" discussions.34 This makes the evaluation of Christian psychology confusing, and the difficulty is increased because many Christian psychologists also use terms common to secular psychology, such as "self esteem," "self-actualization," "inner child," and so forth, but assign new, Christian definitions to those terms without clearly stating so.
The most popular contemporary Christian psychologists, such as James Dobson, Gary Collins, Frank Minirth, Paul Meier, Fred Gross, and William Backus, come under particular scrutiny in these areas. Each criticism does not apply to each therapist, nor always to the same degree. Nonetheless, too frequently they do not explain what underlying, comprehensive biblical world view they may possess; they promote techniques and/or ideas for which they do not demonstrate a clear biblical compatibility; and they fail to explain that they have redefined common terminology to fit their world views.
Eclecticism is not completely useless, especially for the Christian who can build from other systems a quasi-system that more or less reflects the broad approach of the Bible to personal development. Jones and Butman explain:
Almost any form of counseling interaction in the Bible can find its counterpart in the practice of secular psychotherapy. It is interesting, though, that each major school of psychotherapy tends to build its identity around a rather limited number of styles of therapist-client interactions — so that cognitive therapists are teachers, person-centered therapists are accepting, psychoanalytic therapists are distant and interpretive, and so forth. No counseling model we know of embodies the diversity of interaction styles that seem to be recommended in Scripture. So, as the Christian therapist moves beyond a secular theory, one needed area of growth is an expanded vision of technique that incorporates the eclecticism found in Scripture. 35