Counseling and Christianity

Stephen P. Greggo and Timothy A. Sisemore, eds. Counseling and Christianity: Five Approaches. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 256 pp. $22.00.

About two years ago Eric Johnson edited the book Psychology and Christianity: Five Views. He invited leaders from five different perspectives to submit chapters on their respective views of the relationship between, as the title suggests, psychology and Christianity. Levels-of-Explanation, Integration, Christian Psychology, Transformational, and Biblical Counseling all contributed a voice.

The book addressed questions such as: Where should the Christian go to gain knowledge about people—empirical research, Scripture, philosophy, classic Christian works? How should Christians interact with the discipline of modern psychology—critically, cautiously, open-mindedly, gratefully? Where does the Bible fit into our understanding of the human condition and how that condition can be transformed?

The current work, Counseling and Christianity: Five Approaches, edited by Stephen Greggo, professor of counseling at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago, and Timothy Sisemore, professor of psychology and counseling at Richmont Graduate University in Chattanooga and Atlanta, tries to bring the discussion onto the ground floor and into the nitty-gritty of counseling ministry. Practitioners from those five counseling camps—Thomas Plante (Levels-of-Explanation), Mark McMinn (Integration), Diane Langberg (Christian Psychology), Gary Moon (Transformational), and Stuart Scott (Biblical Counseling)—each submitted their approaches to counseling Jake, a 22-year-old college student seeking help with an assortment of personal struggles and areas of suffering. Each chapter packs in a lot of material, and since I couldn’t possibly review it comprehensively, I’ll try to restrict my comments to a few major points.

Good Case Study

For starters, I loved the basic idea of this book. Let’s see and hear these views worked out in face-to-face encounters. What does the integrationist notice and ask when Jake walks in the door? What does a biblical counselor say and do in conversation with Jake? How would a levels-of-explanation practitioner think through and respond to this young man living under his particular circumstances? The real convictions and practices of every counselor emerge from the details of a good case study.

Each author claims to operate within the boundaries of Christian theology and practice. Their approaches look similar at some moments (they all gather information, listen carefully, ask questions, show concern for Jake’s safety, express compassion for his hardships) and vastly different at others (explaining Jake’s life, objectives for counseling, application of Scripture, role of the Holy Spirit, appropriation of the gospel). Readers will quickly realize how starkly one approach stands apart from the others.

Stuart Scott’s presentation of biblical counseling represents a paradigm of its own when compared to the other four approaches—namely, an entire worldview of God, man, suffering, sin, and transformation that arises from the Scripture and moves into counseling ministry with Jake assuming the means of change Scripture affords. Scott references Scripture about 225 times, whereas the levels-of-explanation position doesn’t mention any Scripture, and the other three approaches make around 15 direct references to Scripture combined (and sadly you’ll sometimes wish they didn’t). This is why I say Scott offers a unique paradigm; his categories for counseling originate in God’s Word. His biblical counseling approach looks far more carefully at the condition of Jake’s inner person, or heart, and treats his heart as the wellspring of life (Prov. 4:23; Luke 6:43-45). Scott considers the many physical, social, and historical factors affecting Jake’s life but treats those factors as mediating and influential rather than causal or determinative.

Scott devoted far more time and space to Jake’s sinful condition than he did to Jake’s past and present suffering. More emphasis was placed on the need for Jake’s obedience and effort, and he was heavier on teaching and admonishment. For these reasons I would agree with the editors that “Scott’s approach is more strictly Nouthetic” in its focus, tone, and methods (191).

Worth Mention

It should be noted that Scott was the only practitioner who mentioned the gospel. Further, he centralized the task of helping Jake understand the gospel and connect its promises and directives to his daily life. None of the other approaches seemed to think the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ practically mattered in Jake’s situation—at least, not enough to bring up these events.

In the words of Gary Moon, proponent of the transformational approach: “I am doubtful such lofty language would be very helpful to Jake during the initial sessions. Other pathologies are practically defined by the DSM-IV [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition]. . . . The first priority for Jake’s counselor will be the examination of his health and pathology from this reference point” (143). In other words, to speak of life with God and what it means to depend on his presence and power moment-by-moment is lofty. Scripture itself, then, is lofty as well. The DSM-IV, on the other hand, is down-to-earth and therefore should serve as our reference point. 

While definite differences exist among these four approaches, each in its own way moving toward a biblical worldview from time to time, their consistent starting point is secular psychology. Their understanding of human trouble flows from taxonomies of the psychiatric community (DSM-IV), and their methodologies arise from a creative mix of psychological theory, research findings, theological concepts, and nondescript spiritual disciplines. The levels-of-explanation approach occupies a fully secular paradigm. The other three authors incorporate Christian concepts into their preferred systems of modern psychotherapy. These authors may not acknoweldge it explicitly, but they reveal it in their approaches. Readers should be ready, then, to wander at times in the wilderness of contradiction.

For example, Langberg writes from the Christian psychology approach: “We have, in the study of Christ, a rich picture of a whole and healthy person. We have a study of humans as they are meant to be in this world” (111). This conviction, however, doesn’t seem to shape the way she counsels Jake, for she writes, “It is sometimes better, once the work of therapy has been done, to do more focused work in the area of faith and nurture a healthy relationship with God, grounded in the Scriptures” (122, emphasis added). What Langberg means by “focused work” of “faith,” “relationship with God,” and “grounded in the Scriptures” isn’t explained, but it’s plain she believes these ideas follow or stand outside—rather than compose—the work of therapy.

Who's Right?

Counseling and Christianity raises a big question: who’s right? Which approach comes closest to the revealed will of God for understanding people and helping them change? It seems the editors want readers to receive each of these approaches as trustworthy and helpful, since they say, “Jake’s counselor will be in very capable hands no matter which of our authors is supervising” (184). While I appreciate the consideration the editors grant each author, I disagree with their conclusion. I’m sure many counselors from any of these approaches would do their absolute best to help Jake, but I don’t think that’s enough.

If I were Jake’s pastor or friend, Id have trouble commending Jake to a kind of counseling that founds itself upon the claims and categories of secular psychology, shows minimal commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and, in the editors’ own words, “could be utilized in a strictly secular setting, and even by a non-Christian counselor” (referring to the levels-of-explanation approach, 188).

The editors seem to give the impression that true humility means valuing these approaches equally: “Epistemic humility and modesty about what one has come to know will maintain the requisite eagerness to earnestly refine and expand knowledge” (211). Many such calls to humility are made throughout the book, and I wholeheartedly agree with the need to be humble. We must, however, also make sure humility, to use G. K. Chesterton’s words, settles on the proper organ:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.Much more could be said about how each approach illustrated in the book relates to the Holy Spirit, the church, secular institutions, assessment tools, and ethical codes. Read the book, but exercise discernment. Which approach would you want operating in your church?