Competent to Counsel?

11 January 2009

Within the evangelical, Bible-believing, American church in the last four decades, an awful lot of things have happened which I fervently hope my grandchildren will have a hard time believing.  But among a truly embarrassing heap of incongruous strangenesses, there are a few that really stand out, and I’d like to talk about one of those.

Starting in the late sixties, our counselors — those specialists in explaining to us how people in disagreement can sit down and have a peaceable discussion like grown-ups — divided into two camps that were, for the most part, utterly incapable of peaceable dialogue.

Let me say that again: Our conflict resolution specialists could barely speak to one another, let alone resolve their intramural conflicts.

And these are the people who are supposed to help us get along with our in-laws.  “Tell it not in Gath…”

David Powlison unfolds half of the sad tale in Competent to Counsel? The History of a Conservative Protestant Biblical Counseling Movement.  As the title indicates, Powlison is writing a history of the biblical counseling movement, not a history of the debate between it and the evangelical psychotherapists. As far as the debate goes, this is hardly the whole story.  But thus far, it is the only serious, scholarly attempt to chronicle the biblical counseling movement — which is valuable in itself, and addresses the conflict from one side in any case.

Why does it matter?

Because if we want to avoid similar decades-long battles in other areas — like, say, over the exact content that one must believe to be saved — then it is helpful to see what our brothers have done wrong (and what they have done right) in past conflicts.

Just one example:  When Jay Adams began writing and speaking about counseling, he almost completely bypassed the evangelical psychotherapists and went straight for their constituents.  His message was “The Bible has the answers for problems in living; seek the answers there.  Don’t listen to these guys; they’re not basing their responses on the Bible, and in any case they are an illegitimate secular pastorate and their function needs to be returned to the church.”  (My paraphrase, but he was at least that blunt.)

Now, the response was predictable as sunrise: the psychotherapists fought back tooth and nail, or ignored him.

Adams had to know that was going to happen.  He seems to have made a decision that he was unlikely to win them over in any case, so he would take his argument to the broader church as fast as possible, using deliberately inflammatory rhetoric to make friends quickly where people agreed with him — at the cost of making enemies quickly among the psychotherapists.

Now, I think Adams had an important message, and the wider church needed to be brought into the discussion.  But the biblical standard for engaging fellow believers is “Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds….”  Instead, Adams chose a course of action practically guaranteed to maximize animosity and bad deeds among the evangelical psychotherapists, with predictable results that largely persist today.  While there are pockets of biblical counseling here and there, the evangelical world as a whole has weighed it and found it wanting.  The reasons for that state of affairs would fill a book, but it surely hasn’t helped that while bringing much biblical content to bear on problems in living, the movement simultaneously behaved unbiblically toward one group of fellow believers.

For those of you conversant with the present gospel spat, this ought to sound familiar.  Think we can learn anything from history?

If You Can’t Base Doctrine On Experience…

20 December 2008

It is a truism universally acknowledged — at least in my incestuously small circles — that you can’t make doctrine from experience.  We often say it exactly like that: “You can’t make doctrine from experience.”  Or in the disclaimer form: “I realize you can’t make doctrine from experience, but I’ll tell you, I’ve found that…”

Of course this position is perfectly understandable.

I think of a man and a woman, both married to other people, who were committing adultery together.  (By the way, this is a true story.)  They justified their adultery on the grounds that they always knelt by the bed first and prayed together that if them coming together was not God’s will, He would step in and prevent it.  He never did.  On the strength of God’s non-intervention, they concluded He must approve, that their ‘love’ for each other must have somehow sanctified their illicit relationship.

See?  You can’t make doctrine from experience.

Countless abuses, errors and rank sillinesses are being avoided, at this very moment, by people who are having strange experiences, but who, on the strength of this dictum, will not try to make doctrine out of it.  This is a Good Thing.


…is it true?  Is it really as simple as “You can’t make doctrine out of experience”?

I submit the following example for consideration:

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.  How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith….

For those of you who haven’t recognized it, that’s Romans 4:9-13.  Paul is arguing that an uncircumcised person — i.e., a Gentile — can be found righteous on the basis of his faith.  How does he prove his point?  Note the portion in bold. Paul argues on the basis of Abraham’s experience.  We use the word “history” instead, but that just means it’s really old experience.

The comeback, of course, is that Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write Romans as Scripture; not being similarly inspired, we can’t interpret experience in the same way that he could — and anyway, he’s interpreting Old Testament Scripture, not his own personal experience.  I think there are good responses to both objections, but let’s bypass them for the moment and look at another example:

If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.

That’s Jesus speaking in John 10:37-38.  He challenges his hearers that if they don’t find His words convincing, then they ought to believe His works — i.e., His miracles.  But these are events which they have seen and heard themselves, that is, personal experiences.  From these personal experiences, Jesus’ readers should derive a christological conclusion.  That is once again getting doctrine from experience.

But perhaps someone will say, “That’s all well and good for the people who see supernatural events like the miracles Jesus is talking about there, but you can’t make doctrine out of the events of ordinary life.”  Really?  Let’s look at a third example:

You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.  And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.

This is from Deuteronomy 14:22-26, but particularly note the clause in bold.  It’s an instruction on the conduct of the festival year, and the disposition of the ‘party tithe.’  At the appointed time, they are to gather up 10% of the previous year’s income, go up to the place God designates, and throw a party.  They are to do this every year.  No miracles, no supernatural events — just the ordinary rhythms of life, like a Thanksgiving dinner, the Super Bowl, and watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve.

They are to throw this party, Moses tells them, so that they will learn to fear God always.

This rings strangely to our ears for a number of reasons that I’ll pass over here.  We should notice, however, that the theological conclusion comes in the doing of it, that is, in experience.  Again, it is precisely in experience that they are to learn their doctrine.

Does this mean that we can have a strange experience and use it to justify any theological nonsense we want?  Of course not.  There are controls — interpreting experience by what God has said — but that’s a discussion for another post.  For the time being, note: our modern dictum that “you can’t get doctrine from experience” would ring very strangely in the ears of the men who wrote the Bible.  They plainly did not believe any such thing.

Neither should we.

If You Confess Your Sins, You Should Pick Up Litter, Too

7 December 2008

One of the enjoyable sidelines I’ve tried to develop here at Full Contact Christianity is a ferocious intolerance for theological inconsistencies.  It’s one thing to just be wrong; it’s quite another, much more irresponsible thing to believe (1) A, and (2) Not-A — and loudly declaim on both topics.  Granted, the two proclamations don’t usually take place at the same time.

I’d like to address a doozy this week — the idea that one can be so taken with “spiritual” matters like relationship with God or sharing the gospel with the lost that one simply has no time for “peripheral” concerns like caring for the world we live in.  After all, it’s all going up in flames anyhow, and then God recreates it, so why worry about it?  Where’s the contradiction, you ask?  Just watch.  Much as I would enjoy an opportunity to do some first-hand mocking,  N. T. Wright said it better than ever I could, so with no further ado, here he is:

I’ve spoken about God’s ultimate intention, that through the renewed human beings in Christ, the cosmos itself would be renewed.  This strikes very hard at those of us who grew up within some kind or other of a pietistic tradition which actually had a low social concern because it said that was just oiling the wheels of a machine which was going to go over the cliff:  What’s the point in tinkering with the structures of society?  What’s the point in worrying about global warming, or whatever it is, because we know that the world is going to be jettisoned, and that we the saved will go off to be with God elsewhere.

Romans 8 ought long ago to have given the lie to any such idea.  God loves the world that He’s made and wants to renew it.  He sees it groaning in travail, and the answer to something groaning in travail is that the new is going to be born out of the womb of the old, not that the groaning person or world is going to be left to groan forever until it dies — No!

Where does that then leave us at the moment?  There are many people who will see this picture and then will say “That’s great; we’re going to get that renewal one day when the Messiah comes back.  When God renews everything then it’ll happen, but there’s nothing we can do about it at the moment.”

Now listen, many of you are pastors – probably the majority of you are pastors, that’s why you’re here.  [Suppose] somebody came to you and said, “I’m having a real trouble with holiness, with this sin problem.  I just find I sin all the time, and I see well there is this thing called holiness, but there’s really no point in me trying very hard after it, because after all, one day, God will raise me from the dead and give me a beautiful new life in which I will never sin again.  That’s going to happen, so why should I worry about it now?”

I hope that if somebody came to you like that, you would hit them with a fairly heavy dose of inaugurated eschatology.  You mightn’t express it quite like that, but what you would say is, “God wants you right now in the present, to live as nearly as you can in the power of the spirit to that lovely fully human creature that you’re going to be one day.  Of course you will constantly be saying ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’  But He has given you His Spirit so that you can anticipate in the present what you should be in the future.  “

Now, should we not say the same about our responsibility for creation, for the world which God made and which He loves so much?  Of course we should.  And if we get our soteriology right, we can go to that task without any of those snide remarks that this is a derogation from our gospel duty.  It is part of our gospel duty.”

(This is from Session 6 of the 2005 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, available for $1.99 here, at about the 57:30 mark.)

An additional note for those of you who are interested in (or furious about) Wright’s position vis-a-vis the New Perspective on Paul.  In this particular conference, Wright is addressing an audience entirely conservative, and mainly composed, from what I gather, of Presbyterian pastors.  If you’ve read some of the caterwauling about how Wright is striking at the vitals of the Christian religion, this is a good place to see what he has to say for himself to a group of people who will share your concerns.  He delivers five lectures (Richard Gaffin does the other five) and participates in three Q&A/discussion sessions, so there’s quite a bit of material, and some good interaction as well.