Sam Harris, one of the main pillars of new atheism, has said that the success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma or theology and vice versa. The quote above is a manifestation of the essence of the age of enlightenment, an age which held the supremacy or rational ability and human autonomy. With the advancements in technology and science, people tend to regard theology as obsolete, narrow-minded and only useful when discussing spirituality. This dualistic point of view assumes that theology and science should be well separated. Why? Because science delves into the natural while theology explores the supernatural. As a result of this way of thinking, many people deny the impact of religion and theology on the various the fields of science, an example among these is the area of psychological counselling. To many secular counsellors, psychology – that which is based on ratio and scientific evidence – seems to be the only acceptable basis in the practice of counselling. Meanwhile, some Christian counsellors believe that there is some benefit in knowing the science of psychology, and that the integration of psychological science and theology can be used for the wellbeing of clients. So how must theology, psychology and medical science relate to each other in counselling? Is there a place for theology in the realm of counselling? Or is it simply not needed? This piece will examine two prevalent views of this, secular counselling and biblical counselling.
The first view we will look at is secular counselling, with an approach based on a belief of atheism, rational supremacy and empiricism. There are of course many branches of secular counselling, each with a different emphasis. But in its core, secular counselling rejects the view that God had created man and in addition the authority of the Scriptures in all aspects of human life, including counselling. Their philosophy revolves around man’s ability to change for the better without grace from God, enough simply by relying on the strength and capability of oneself. The many figures that have developed this field include those such as Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, B.F. Skinners among many others, we will discuss briefly two of them which have established a basis for which either modern psychology or counselling rests upon, which are Wilhelm Wundt and Sigmund Freud.
In the eighteenth century, a psychologist of German descent, Wilhelm Wundt pioneered the development of modern psychology after he created the first psychological laboratory. In addition, Wundt also introduced a new concept in psychology which is physiological psychology. To Wundt, all psychological processes coming from humans are always based upon the arrangement and composition of each individual’s biology. This type of thinking is what has become the standard of physiological psychology, that all our thoughts and actions are controlled by the activity of the brain. Brain activity, including the construction or deconstruction neural pathways and the secretion of enzymes, are what have been thought to be the main reason of human behaviour. Heath Lambert (2012) in his book ‘The Biblical Counselling Movement after Adams’, argues that Wundt’s work integrated psychology to be a part of science which further decreased the influence of theology in counselling. Wundt’s way of thinking was not uncommon during his time. His perspective influence over the age include the increase of trials that acknowledge and dismisses crimes on the basis of the criminal’s mental illness or brain damage, thus could not be blamed upon the perpetrator.
The bible clearly introduces the concept of total depravity. This doctrine realises that the crimes of this world are caused by mankind’s fall into sin (Genesis 6:5-7; Psalms 51:7; Romans 3:23). Aside from that, sin also corrupts mankind’s status as the image of God so that the orientations of their hearts become that which opposes God and all of His commandments. Proverbs 4:23 states how important it is to keep one’s heart clean and sacred as it is there from which life flows or manifests, this includes our actions. The same matter is addressed by Christ in the New Testament, that it is not what comes into the mouth that defiles, but rather what comes out of it. From these few passages, it is clear that the problems and evils of humanity come from the nature of humanity itself which has already fallen into sin. Which means that the problem does not lie merely in the human brain but human nature as a whole, which the Bible refers to as the heart.
Aside from Wilhelm Wundt, another influential figure in psychology as well as counselling which would probably be more familiar to the general public is Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis in counselling. Freud (1907) in his work, ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’ writes that religion shares many similarities to a type of neurosis that causes individuals to be obsessed with religious rituals, which are done repeatedly. Not only that, Freud also considers God to only be an imaginative concept and that religion becomes a sort of “leash” which restrains humans from becoming barbaric.
One of Freud’s most renowned ideas is the concept that the human mind is divided into three parts, the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious. Freud believed that all human activity and experience are influenced by the unconscious, which is shaped in an individual’s past, these influences can be either positive or negative. Furthermore, he believed the problems experienced by his clients are a manifestation of unresolved conflicts in the past and are hidden in their unconscious. Because of this, it is the counsellor’s duty to probe into the unconscious and reveal that conflict to the client so that the problem can be resolved.
At a glance, Freud’s words do not seem to entirely clash with the Bible. Does the Bible not speak of the significance of good teaching during childhood to avoid bad influences? While this is indeed found in the Bible, the Word goes much deeper, exposing that the root of humanity’s every problem is in its sinful nature. This sinfulness is what causes man to become more corrupted as he lives. So in reality, even children are not exempt from the ill effects of sin’s existence. One’s childhood is not a blank piece of paper, it is not good or even neutral in its nature. It is not a clean slate that is then only tainted by bad influences or bad experiences which will affect that person’s future. It is no surprise then, that many studying psychoanalysis or the public in general tend to focus more on the education and wellbeing of children instead of addressing their sinful nature. Children are protected in such a way that they live a sort of “heaven on earth”, while none focus their efforts to expose them to the Word of God and a Christian worldview as early as possible.
In summary, where psychoanalysis uses various techniques to encourage human autonomy so that patients are able to control themselves (through their past experiences, from the past and for the future), the Bible actually reveals to us that humanity must depend on God because He is the ruler of human life. When people depend on God, they can again see hope for their lives that are haunted by damage done in the past. Christian faith believes in the complete restorative power of Christ’s blood. Isaiah 43:18-19 speaks of how God will redeem and restore the Israelites, even though they are full of evil and sin.
The second view that we will look at is Biblical Counselling, which is an antithesis to secular counselling. Biblical counselling aims to build a system and approach in counselling based on Christian values. The Biblical Counselling movement was started by Jay E. Adams, a Christian counsellor believing in reformed theology who longs for the field of counselling to be submitted under Biblical authority. There are a few presuppositions that serve as a basis for the approach of Biblical Counselling.
The first presupposition is that God created man as a creature whose existence is dependent on God (Acts 17:28; Revelations 4:11). As mankind’s creator, it is natural that God has complete knowledge of all human life, including their mental wellbeing. Therefore, it is not possible for man to become autonomous and to find solutions for all the problems they face outside of God, the creator. Cornelius Van Til, a reformed theologian and apologist has devised this concept in what he calls the Creator-Creature distinction. Van Til said that God being the creator would not be a part of creation, there is a qualitative difference between God and His creation, which include humans (Isaiah 40:12-31). On the other hand, man as a creation means that he must totally lean and depend on God in all aspects of his life. Aside from that, God as the creator means that He is the source of all things for all things are made through Him. Through this basis, then all types of knowledge come from God and without God’s revelation, it is not possible for man to attain knowledge. Not only that, but all the meaning and purpose of human life, even its existence comes from God. So only God has authority to value the lives of each human (Romans 11:36).
Understanding of the Creator-Creature distinction has large implications in the field of counselling. When we realise that all things come from God, including the knowledge of man, then the only way for us to give a form of counselling that glorifies God is to seek His wisdom in His Word. That is how important for Christian counsellors to study and understand the Word and to also live in it. For without understanding and knowing the Bible, how can we attain true wisdom? Yet, it must be noted that Biblical Counselling does not deny the existence of common grace, that God Himself has granted upon man some knowledge, both for believers and non-believers alike. Heath Lambert (2012) explains that Christian counsellors do not reject information gained from outside the Bible such as from science, but that we can use it in everyday practice. But it must be noted that all of such information must be interpreted and understood in the light of the Word of God. Jay Adams (1979) in his book ‘A Theology of Christian Counselling’ says that, “God does, of course, restrain sin, allow people to discover facts about His creation, etc., in common grace, but God never set up rival systems competitive to the Bible” (p. 8). As an example, one of the major principles of counselling is feeling empathy towards the client. The concept of empathy was developed by Carl Rogers using the client-centered approach that prioritised human autonomy. We are asked to empathise with other people to understand and feel how they feel so we can help them to overcome their problems correctly. This way of thinking assumes that humans have the ability to understand each other correctly and completely, while also assuming that humans are able to help each other. The Bible teaches us firstly, that our help comes from God alone, who created heaven and earth. Our lives are held by the sovereign care of His hand to this day, meaning that He is the one that made our lives what they are today. So, only from Him do we seek our motives, methods and goals of our lives, so that we know why we live, and why did God lead us where we are today and how through our consequences we can glorify His name (Romans 11:36). Secondly, empathy towards fellow men and women are a part of our nature that has been redeemed as one body of Christ. Empathy becomes a sign of being the body of Christ, as a hand will reflexively help a wounded part of the body, and even pain is shared across the whole body. This is the life of a Christian who sees that He has already been redeemed by Christ and has become a part of His body. So empathy becomes a statement of love towards a fellow body part in Christ that expresses and has witnessed how God’s love has worked in us. Not only towards other parts of the body of Christ, but also to other humans. In the same way, manifestation of Christ’s love is realised through the witness of His body to bring the world to see the love of the Creator to His creation. This is the sign of love for us, God’s children (1 John 4:7-8)
The second presupposition concerns the centrality and authority of the Bible in the practice of counselling. 2 Timothy 3:16 states that the Word of God is profitable for teaching, for reproof and to bring change in one’s actions. Paul also states also in a similar fashion in Colossians 1:28. In these verses, Paul is teaching that the Word of God has authority and power to bring out true change in all man. Heath Lambert (2012) wrote an interesting point about the centrality and authority of Scripture in counselling. He states that the Bible is a promise from God that He will give His wisdom when counselling through the Word of God. So, through the Bible we can find numerous principles of truth that can lead and bring people in trouble towards a resolve for their problems. But unfortunately, many Christians believe that the Bible is only useful in matters of life after death and how one will get to heaven. This false and reduced understanding has already been objected by the Second Helvetic Confession as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith which states that the Word of God speaks of a good, healthy and pious life. The Bible is the word of God that will always bring care and assurance to humanity for them to live better in His presence.
While it has been said to be so, many still question whether the Bible really provide detailed answers on every topic in the field of counselling. John Frame (2010) in his book, ‘The Doctrine of the Word of God’ stated that the Bible is not a guide book providing step-by-step information, rather it is a book containing God’s revelation to mankind so they can glorify Him in every field. This principle can also be applied to the area of counselling. The Bible does not contain every type of information on every medical and/or mental problems as well as the medications required. Yet, the Bible does explain the principles of counselling needed for a counsellor that glorifies God, for example principles about the source of true change in human life, the root of the problem and its solution, man’s identity, and so on. Answers for these topics have been sought out by secular theories for hundreds of years without realising that the Bible has already given the answer far before. Furthermore, the fact that humans have fallen into sin states the importance of God’s Word in everyday lives. Sin has entered and corrupted all that God has created. Sin has affected every aspect of human life, from motivations, emotions, the mind, the body and in our relations with other people. The only way for mankind to rid itself from the bondage of sin and to experience true change is when Christ’s blood has cleansed everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. The only true release for humanity from its sin is from the redemption of Christ accounted in the Bible. From this basis, counselling efforts to bring positive change which is both healthy and thorough becomes impossible when not dine with the Word of God that leads to Christ. For from Him only can true change be given!
This brief piece on secular counselling and biblical counselling are to encourage each reader to together learn to know His truth which He has given to His people to live a life that glorifies Him according to His will. And with so, we are submitting every field of our lives to the supremacy of the Holy Word as a basis, as glasses from which we see the world, and as a true guide. (KH)
Frame, J. M. (2010). The doctrine of the Word of God: PetR Publishing.
Lambert, H. (2016). A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry: Zondervan.