Secular Psychology, Christian Psychology, and Christian Counseling

July 27, 2011


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Secular Psychology, Christian Psychology, and Christian Counseling: Pedagogical priorities for teaching distinctively Christian Counseling

Differences regarding how to teach Christian Counseling came home to me about 1 year ago during a meeting with the chief counseling professor in an educational institution in which I had been teaching as an adjunctive professor.  Leadership of this institution had changed hands and while I previously had carte blanche about what and how to teach, the new regime handed me a protocol, kind of a combination of curriculum and syllabus, from which they hoped I would teach.  My initial reaction was a bit hurt, but still non-defensive and hopeful about being able to accommodate their approach. 

After this initial meeting however, I found myself getting a little defensive and thinking, who on earth do they think they are? And, who do they think I am? I’ve been counseling for nearly 30 years, for 20 of those years as a clinical psychologist and now teaching for 8 years and – I was miffed and frustrated.

After a few days of reflection, however, and also significant time in conversation with a close friend and with God, I realized the issue at hand was a legitimate issue. 

How do we go about teaching Christian Counseling?  What should the curriculum and syllabi look like?  How much time, if any, should be devoted to biblical and theological training, to training in the secular psychologies, if any, and to practical nuts and bolts instruction and to discussion and supervision of real cases and real counseling?

And how much training in each of these domains is sufficient?  Within each domain, what should be taught?  What should the biblical/theological portion of the curriculum look like?  Is systematics enough, or do they need OT and NT also.  Do they need hermeneutics, so they can interpret and apply scripture in a systematic and intellectually defensible manner?  How about Greek and Hebrew – are the original languages important?  And then of course what about Christian ethics, church history, evangelism and missions? 

Are these relevant and important in assuring that the graduate in Christian Counseling has attained sufficient training and scholarship in those things distinctively Christian?

And then with respect to training in counseling or psychology, in a proper and maybe more accurately, secular sense?  Do they need to study the metapsychologists – Freud, Jung, Rogers, Skinner, Beck, and Ellis?  If so, how much?  Is an overview sufficient, or should it be more extensive?  Do they need to learn the theories and methods of various psychotherapies?  How about research design and stats and experimental psychology, and developmental, and physiological or neuropsychological – how much of this do they need?

How do we provide practical hands-on training so that students complete our programs and are competent to care for souls?  What is the best way to move from theory to practice, from the propositional to the personal?  How do our students make the transition from case presentations to case wisdom? How do we teach students this particular form of Christian love that we call counseling?

How we proceed pedagogically however depends on where we are – the current state of affairs in Christian Counseling.  Here is my brief assessment and critique: 

Up to this point, much of Christian counseling has been characterized by modernism, correlationism, pragmatism, and fractiousness. 

  • Modern, in that it has granted science (esp. the empirical and secular, logically positivistic version) epistemic and functional parity with theistic revelation.  Eric Johnson issued a wake up call in his new book, Foundations for Soul Care (2007) “whether entirely aware of it or not, the Christian psychological community is in the midst of something of an epistemological and soul-care crisis, given the fact that the vast majority of the best psychology literature of the last 125 years has been composed by secularists who do psychology from within a decidedly different disciplinary matrix and edification framework.”
  • Correlationist, in that secular questions and categories have set the stage and provided the main cues for our recent development and as a result there has been much parroting of secular methodologies (junior versions of their counseling models and psychotherapies) and secular institutions (training programs and licensing/certifying procedures). 
  • Pragmatic, in that our attention to the practical elements in counseling has superseded our theoretical and conceptual development.  At the street level in CC there is a good deal of naïve integration-ism (no model or method, except that the practitioner and professor simply does what is right in their own eyes; a kind of epistemic/methodological anarchy); and naïve nouthetic counseling (in that common/creation grace has been at least neglected and at worst denigrated).   Caveat: this does not mean that good Christian hearts and real help have been  absent in these circles.
  • Fractiousness/party spirit, in that the counseling wars within the Kingdom were, for a couple of decades anyway, quite distracting and surely polarizing.  While there has been some iron sharpening, at this point my perception is that the warriors have become tired of the battle and that we, maybe even more than those who have watched the battle from the sidelines, would be glad if we never heard again the old battle cries: “All Truth Is God’s Truth!” or “Scripture is Sufficient!”

We would do well to heed Francis Schaeffer’s admonition to “beware the habits we learn in controversy.” p. 157 (The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, 2nd ed. Vol. 4, 1985)

Fortunately the shrill sloganeering and bumper sticker conversations (using the term very loosely!) do seem to be losing steam.  The current conversation is characterized by more charitable voices: David Powlison, Eric Johnson, Ed Welch, Larry Crabb, and hopefully you and I. 

As a result of these factors and surely several others, the presumed distinctiveness of Christian counseling is still in need of much development, and that won’t happen without an understanding not just of what CP (Christian Psychology) and CC (Christian Counseling) are, but also how to go about teaching it. 

I fear that in this domain our curricula and emphases are not as distinctively Christian as they could be.  Our role as educators is one with great impact and not to be taken lightly, as we are reminded in James 3.1.

What I’d like to do is give you a proposal for moving us further forward, that grows out of epistemological and methodological considerations but is fleshed out in pedagogical priorities for teaching distinctively Christian counseling.

My presuppositions:

1) It should be obvious that I believe there is a distinctively Chr. form/model of counseling and that it is much more than simply a Christian who counsels or who agrees to a particular creed or confession; it is in fact more also than simply a counselor who prays or reads the scriptures or evangelizes during their sessions. 

I am for all of these things, of course…but they do not a Christian counselor make.

2) Psychology is not necessarily equal to the modern/contemporary “science of human behavior”, although a Christian Psychology would critically interact with and be informed by this and other non-christian psychologies.  As Alvin Plantinga reminded us last year in Chatanooga, Christian Psychology is to be understood as the combination, not necessarily of faith and secular psychology, but of the faith and Christian scholarship. (Alvin Plantinga, SCP address in Chatanooga, 2006)

3) CP and its application CC, is distinctive because of Christ, the one whose name it bears.  This Christ should surely be the Lord of this Christian Psychology.  Christian Counseling would bear the unique imprint of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and would be situated properly in relationship to the body of Christ.

4) This psychology has been carried out by faithful Christians seeking to understand the human psyche; it is the psychology implicitly found in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, the writings of St. Paul, Augustine, Acquinas, Edwards, Calvin, and more recently in the writings of D. Powlison, E. Johnson, E. Welch, P. Tripp, R. Roberts, E. Charry and others.

What I am proposing are the following pedagogical priorities:

(See Powlison, JBC, Vol. 25, No. 7, Spring 2007, p.5-36)

#1  Positive program

This priority should be the dominant theme in the teaching of Christian counseling.  There is a developing consensus in Christian soul care that the time for a recovery of our own identity as distinctively Christian soul-care givers is well overdue (Robert C. Roberts, Eric Johnson, Larry Crabb, Tim Sizemore, and David Powlison). 

According to Eric Johnson (2007) a Christian psychology must be shaped primarily by the Christian Scriptures, as well as Christianity’s intellectual and ecclesial traditions. 

I take this to mean that we must recognize the radicality and the relevance of the Bible, the hope and life changing power of the Gospel, and the unique relevance of the Church.

If this pedagogical priority is to be primary, our counseling model/edification framework would be the product of a disciplinary matrix that grants a uniquely constitutive role to Scripture, Christ, and the Church.

1. Scripture:

We must teach our students that the simple truths of Scripture speak with great depth to the problems that people face.  Scripture may not say everything that could and should be said, but it says the most important things, and therefore plays both a normative and a transformative role in CP and CC.  In fact, we could contemplate a whole variety of roles for the Bible in counseling. The critical issue here is how to properly read and understand and then apply Scripture to the stuff of counseling. 

The hermeneutical question is crucial, and this includes not just how we understand Scripture but also how we apply Scripture at all levels, from the conceptual to the practical, in counseling.  It is not enough to simply proclaim the Scripture as a foundation or the inerrancy or sufficiency of Scripture, with a couple of proof texts.  We must explore and explain how and in what way Scripture operates in counseling.  Precisely how does Scripture function as the norming norm for CP and the living active Word which transforms lives in counseling?

In Scripture, an array of images is used to portray the actual real life, real time function of the Word of God: light, fire, sword, rock, bread, seed, water/rain/stream, wine, milk, rich food, etc., so I’d like to outline a few metaphors that help us to apprehend the multivariate role of Scripture in counseling.

There are of course, metaphors that do not well illustrate the role of Scripture in counseling.  For example, Scripture as an encyclopedia of human problems and 12 divine steps for recovery.

P. Tripp, “we forget that the Bible is not an encyclopedia, but a story of God’s plan to rescue hopeless and helpless humanity…We cannot treat the Bible as a collection of therapeutic insights.  To do so distorts its message and will not lead to lasting change.” (Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, p. 9)

Or, Scripture is a counseling manual (exhaustive and detailed) or counseling textbook.

The Bible is no more a counseling manual than it is a preaching manual. 

The Bible is not a counseling manual…it is more than that, but it is not that.  That is not the form in which Scripture is delivered to us.  Its form, just like its words, is inspired however and just what God believed we needed most.  We must treat the Bible, not just its words but also its form, with the respect it demands.

These are a few metaphors that do help us to understand its multiple roles:

  • Foundation – epistemologically and conceptually.
  • Plumbline/standard – control beliefs; essential presuppositions from which we critically interact with other psychologies.
  • Filter/Screen – to protect from error, inconsistencies, and contradictions.
  • Lens; a gaze (D. Powlison) –  “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (C.S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry? 1962)
  • Living water from the eternal stream that flows from the mind and heart of God.
  • DNA – active role, generative, pervasive. “The Word of God is living and active.”  It is creative and transformative.
  • Story/Mega-narrative – According to Paul Tripp (2004, Lost in the Middle) The Bible is more like a novel, a true one with annotated explanations and application principles and even detailed examples, or if you will, case studies. NT Wright (1996), “Stories thus provide a vital framework for experiencing the world.  They also provide a means by which views of the world may be challenged…Stories can embody or reinforce, or perhaps modify, the worldviews to which they relate.  Stories are peculiarly good at modifying or subverting other stories and their worldviews…tell someone to do something and you change their life – for a day.  Tell someone a story and you change their life…Worldviews and the stories which characterize them are in principle normative: they claim to make sense of the whole of reality.”  (The NT and the People of God, p. 39-41)
  • Theodrama (K. Van Hoozer) = the words and deeds of God on the stage of world history that climax in Jesus Christ.

Contemplate for a moment how different you might expect a psychology to be wherein the guiding meta-narrative:

1. Claims that the human psyche was originally created to be ruled and loved by a Good King with unlimited power who in his perfect wisdom also created and governs everything else in the universe.

2. Claims that the Good King created these embodied souls for life in His Kingdom, to worship and serve and to love and follow Him and that He even made them like himself so that they could do this meaningfully and freely.

3. Claims that these souls which were designed for love and loyalty to their King, instead betrayed and rebelled against Him. This brazen rebelliousness was contagious and became a family trait, so that every person since suffers from this contrarian disease, a soul sickness whose pathology is so virulent that it makes schizophrenia look like a common cold.

4. Asserts that the only lasting cure for this epidemic comes from the Good King himself, who for love and glory sent His Son to live with the diseased on their terms, and then transferred the deadly virus to him. The Good King’s son, after appearing to have been terminated by the disease, rises from death and reigns, inaugurating a process by which He actually reverses and eventually cures the disease.

5. That then proclaims this cure is available, free of charge, to “whosoever will” simply acknowledge that they are in fact hopelessly sick and then trust and follow the Good King.

This peculiarly Christian narrative is by its very nature both messianic and missional and therefore is characterized more by subversion and redemption than integration as it interacts with secular models.  This strange narrative confronts the defensive denial of spiritual realities, so prominent in the regnant psychotherapies with both a divine diagnosis (of both their systems and their patients) and a Christian cure for souls. 

From the perspective of our definitive narrative, the secular psychotherapies are in need of both repentance and redemption, not because they are all wrong but because they are fundamentally wrong about the most important things.

Christian Counseling begins, not with advice and guidance, but with an announcement and an invitation.  This is the Missio Dei, the mission of our God.  This God has written to his world in a text that makes universal claims about people, problems and change, and desires that his subjects proclaim this good news to everybody everywhere.

Christian counseling is therefore incorrigibly missional and messianic, aiming to bring God’s Word to the world created by God and which only God can redeem and renew. 

Our goal should not be simply to obtain a seat at the psychological table, but instead to invite those who dine in the Mental Health Café to a banquet dinner with fare beyond their wildest dreams: a chef that offers living bread and living water and even life beyond this one. 

Thus, our peculiarly Christian worldview and mega-narrative subverts the foundational narratives and metaphysical, epistemological, and anthropological presuppositions of the secular psychologies, rather than offering up junior versions of their systems. 

2. Christ-centered:

Teachers of counseling must realize that Carl Rogers was not the originator of Person-centered counseling, God is. 

The Bible is a collection of books and letters to persons, by persons, from a Person, about a Person.  And, as Christians we believe that lives are transformed, not by principles but by a Person. 

Christian Counseling is Messianic – We believe that a power/person greater than ourselves has come and can restore us to sanity.  The redemptive power of the Gospel of God should be central to the process of change and counsel.

As P. Tripp says, “We do not offer people a system of redemption, a set of insights and principles.  We offer people a Redeemer.” (Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, p. 8)

John Piper, “All counseling issues involve the exaltation or the denigration of Jesus Christ. Either our attitudes and feelings and behaviors are making much or making little of Christ. We were created to make much of Christ.  There is no true success in counseling if a person becomes socially [or morally] functional without conscious dependence on and delight in Jesus Christ. This is the means and goal of all health.”

Christ-ian counseling must, if it is to be worthy of the name of Christ, keep the main thing, the main thing.  It should major on what the Bible and our faith majors on: Christ and him crucified and risen, and someday ruling and reigning.

CS Lewis, in a discussion about Christian apologetics once said, “Let the Lion out of the Cage.”   We must do the same thing in Christian Psychology and counseling.

This lion will shock the mental health world, not only because of his power, but also because of his grace.  He is not safe, but he is good and he is gracious.

There must be a recovery of the Gospel instinct in counseling, which is more than sharing the 4 laws or leading somebody down the Roman road (not less).

How does the Gospel b/c an instinct, a style, an ever present vector in our counsel?

How do we b/c conduits, channels, means of grace? 

Christian counseling must begin to think through the implications of the Gospel for any and every person with all types of problems.  If all of God’s promises are Yes in Jesus Christ then in what way does the Gospel meet this person at the point of their deepest need?

3. Institutional considerations: Our students must be taught to think through the following questions.

What is best context for change and who are the experts and change agents?

Clinics or churches? 

Mental health professionals or pastors? 

Therapeutic or biblical communities?

Where are souls best cared for?

How can the spiritual authority of the church be properly respected when so much of what is called counseling and psychotherapy is spiritual formation?

The 1:1 arrangement of counseling may unwittingly contribute to an over-focus on the individual – on me, my problems, my needs, my agenda, even my salvation and my Jesus.  Inherent within the very form and structure of counseling is a risk of elevating the individual to the neglect of the communal and social.  Change is personal and change is communal.  Christian spiritual formation requires a community of believers. 

Christian Psychology refuses to perpetuate the 20th C. myth of American individualism that renders people functionally autistic. 

We must conscientiously and intentionally work against this trend (torrent?), realizing that we live in a sub-biblical culture that declares the individual radically autonomous and even sovereign over the community. 

Apart from the body of Christ, lasting and meaningful change is short-circuited and Christian maturity is impossible.  Christian growth, spiritual formation and flourishing are a community project.

Scripture leaves no doubt that the church is to be our first-family, not second or third in our list of loyalties.  Early Christians were aware that a decision to follow Christ meant in addition a decision to make the church the center of their social world, at any cost, even “mother, father, sister, brother.” 

So, Christian counselors in training must develop a loyalty to the church and a humble recognition of their own limitations.  The biblical plan for change is bigger and broader than the secular model, which sees change either as a personal self-help project or as just you and me meeting in my office for 1-2 hours per week.  The full incarnational reality of the body of Christ cannot be experienced in your own home or in a counselor’s office. 

One of the edifying functions of the church is to be God’s community mental health center – an edification framework of sorts – an authentic and genuine family in which humility about who we really are and courage in facing life and self and sin and suffering are central virtues. 

Christian counselors would be trained to see themselves as servants of Christ and His Church, as one part of the body of Christ.  They would realize they are team players, continually aware that they are only one player on a larger team. 

There are a couple of legitimate options here in fleshing this out.  The first would be that counseling may be Church-based.  It would function as one of the ministries within local bodies of believers.  There can be little doubt that authentic and compassionate communities of Christians are the ideal center for lifechange.  We are seeing a rising wave of counselors and psychologists who believe that counseling should be centered in the church. 

The second option would be that counseling must, at least, be church-connected.   

Most of us do not believe that it should be sequestered in the church.  The church should also function as a sender of godly counsel into the world.  But, we must ask, what would a proper relationship to the church look like for those who are in private practices or clinics or mental health centers or hospitals or hospices or correctional facilities?

So, the first and dominant priority in training is positive.  It is the apprehension and application of our distinctive Text, and our particular Lord, and His particular institution, to the understanding and cure of the human soul.

#2  Polemical program

This teaching priority is secondary, following the first, but more important than our third priority.

David Fitch (2005) in The Great Giveaway

“Christian counseling is finally accepted in the church.  Ironically, all this takes place amidst devastating postmodern critiques upon modern psychotherapy.  Amidst the evangelical and American acceptance of psychology’s legitimacy,  postmodern thinkers question its authority, challenge the kind of character it produces, chastise its alignment with individualist, self-centered culture, uncover the nonscientific interpretive nature of its enterprise, and assail it for its complicity with certain power interests of society.  In short, the purveyors of postmodern hermeneutics shake the foundations of psychology as practiced in the modern world.  And they reveal just how much we evangelicals are married to modernity in the ways we collaborate with therapy as an extension of the church…these postmodern critiques awaken us to the possibility that the church may be ‘giving away’ the spiritual formation of her people to the modern therapists…

psychology is an interpretive enterprise that shapes the very way we make sense out of our lives and see the world…It is a structure for the interpretation and understanding of self-identity…schools of psychology have as much interpretation in them as any religious history or other system of knowledge…

As German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has detailed, the therapist sits in a position of power over me imposing this pre-structured story line upon how I am recounting my life.  The patient is virtually submitting his or her life to be analyzed and re-narrated according to a particular brand of psychology. 

As postmodern thinker Michel Foucault enumerated, the psychologist is one of modernity’s pervasive means of structuring the self, what Foucault labels as the ‘technology of the self’…Psychotherapy therefore is a powerful form of spiritual formation…Christianity and psychology do not necessarily lead to the same truth and experience.  Instead, they are two different ways of interpreting our reality, producing two different ways of experiencing and living in the world.  Indeed, it is possible that psychology and Christianity may diametrically oppose one another…Psychology and Christ therefore form two different kinds of people.  We can no longer naively say psychology is true because it is science and ‘all truth is God’s truth’.  Now the all important question for the Christian entering therapy becomes, out of what story will I allow my life to be formed, Jung (or some other theorist) or Christ?”

How should we teach our students to interact with the secular psychologies, alternative models of psychotherapy, non-Christian edification frameworks?

How do we, and how do we teach our students to discern truth…how can they become virtuous knowers, thinking critically and Christianly?

How does one learn to read the texts of other traditions outside one’s own?

In order to pursue this goal, we must reckon with three correlated factors which affect human knowledge and should affect our reading of any text:

1. We need to recognize and restore the antithesis which distinguishes God’s thoughts from Man’s, and somehow respect the epistemic primacy of the Word of God in Holy Scripture.  How do we trust the Lord and not lean on our own understanding and pursue Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge?

2. The noetic effects of sin upon our efforts to know, especially ourselves.

3. The fallibility and situated-ness of all human knowing. 

In light of these three factors, students would be trained in the reading of other texts, in charitable but critical apologetic interaction with alternative approaches.  They should learn how to compare and contrast the primary alternative psychotherapeutic approaches and also to understand and explain the differences that result from uniquely Christian worldview/presuppositional commitments. 

A worldview based critical analysis would be based first on adequately comprehending the external text (which of course requires some prior training, i.e., in statistics, experimental design, neurology, etc.) and then an assessment of the following factors:

1) Ontology/metaphysics: how does this author apprehend the nature of reality?  Natural vs. supernatural, closed vs. open system, atheistic vs. theistic, mindless and heartless evolution vs. intelligent and loving designer? 

2) Epistemology: How are truth claims adjudicated and justified?  Epistemic priorities?

3) Anthropology: Ontological and ethical nature of humanity?

4) Human Motivation:  Why do people do what they do?  How is the course of a human life explained?  How do we explain suffering?  What is the fundamental problem of humanity?  How are situational, contextual factors explained and balanced with personal responsibility? Free vs. determined (a spectrum)? 

5) Ethical Teleology:  What is the purpose of life? What constitutes a meaningful life?  What is a truly good and beautiful life?  What kinds of changes are most meaningful and worth working toward in counseling? 

I am haste to note that the capacity to read and critically analyze any external text is contingent upon the extent to which one’s mind and heart that have been formed by our distinctive text of Scripture and the Spirit of Christ.  A distinctively Christian reading of the texts of psychology is not possible where a Christian disciplinary matrix or edification framework is poorly developed.  “The first prerequisite for a Christian translator of modern psychology texts is a thorough knowledge of Christianity’s own discourse of human nature.” p. 229 (Johnson, 2007)  Johnson (2007) further notes that a Christian reading of modern psychology texts is particularly difficult for the naïve reader because secular texts are not typically explicit in their denial of Christian truths.  Instead there is a far more subtle and deceptive omission of spiritual and moral realities, and these sins of omission are much less visible to the untrained eye.

We have somehow got hold of the idea that error is only that which is outrageously wrong; and we do not seem to understand that the most dangerous person of all is the one who does not emphasize the right things.”

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  (1960) The Sermon on the Mount, 2:244

#3  Redemptive/Reinterpretive/Translative/Integrative program

This priority for training is funded by recognition of the utility and relevance of common grace in Christian soul care.  We must learn to read texts external to our own canon first with a hermeneutic of suspicion but then with a hermeneutic of trust.  While there is an epistemological and eschatological priority for reading external texts polemically and critically, thus “restoring the antithesis,” we cannot denigrate the glory of God’s common grace that is manifested outside of our own specially graced canon.  We can consent to that which is true and good and beautiful, wherever it appears, since God is the ultimate source.  And, as Johnson (2007) has noted, if we do not give glory to God for these rays of light nobody will, since the secularists surely will not.

We can learn from everything around us.  The Bible freely co-opts surrounding cultures as one aspect of God’s redemptive, transformative working.  God’s servants interact with what is around them linguistically, politically, religiously, economically, artistically, educationally, agriculturally, militarily…God often uses perceptive error to reprove his people and to make us get to work to refine our understanding of his truth.  God’s redemptive revelation is constitutive, but counterbiblical theories may be provocative.  And extrabiblical knowledge – of ourselves and our world – is the grist with which biblical truth works continually to extend the range and depth of understanding.  We learn, critique, reinterpret, convert, apply…  This is God’s world, so everything, even if it intends to efface God, bears witness to God – if it is viewed through biblical eyeglasses…

Where the living, speaking, seeing, acting God rules, his servants move freely into the culture of their time and place.  The Bible gives no warrant for Christians to be intellectual isolationists, biblicistic, cut off from culture and speaking a private language to our own kind.  Fallen though it is, this world is God’s stage of redemption.

Powlison, D. (2001). Questions at the crossroads. In M. McMinn & T. Phillips (Eds.) Care for the soul: Exploring the intersection of theology and psychology p.35-36

A Christian psychology will be critically informed by other relevant sources of psychological truth, learning from the psychological work of other traditions, philosophy, human experience, and the other human sciences. 

As we have noted in priority #2, students should be taught how to read, a hermeneutic of sorts to translate the plethora of secular texts in psychology.  Students would learn that which is relevant to and useful in the practice of counseling from the various subspecialties in psychology (clinical, developmental, neuropsychological, educational, experimental, etc), sociology, philosophy, and neurology.

Eric Johnson (2007), points out that Kuyper and other reformed theologians argued that “it is God’s intention that creation grace serve redemptive grace and the church. 

Taking into account the redemptive goals of Scripture, these authors suggest that the development of culture and social stability due to creation grace can contribute to the spread of the gospel and the flourishing of the church.” (emphases mine)

Christian psychology will not differ noticeably in every respect from modern or postmodern psychology. Some real integration is possible…where noetic sin is less influential.  There may be instances wherein it is possible to detach particular descriptions (i.e., DSM-IV diagnoses) and methods (i.e., cognitive/behavioral techniques) from their less than Christian presuppositions.

The differences will be most prominent where the psychological feature is worldview dependent and where the effects of noetic sin are greatest.

i.e., Less worldview dependent: neuropsychology, physiological psychology, psych of memory, psych of perception, some aspects of learning theory and cognitive theory, some aspects of developmental psychology, intelligence and achievement testing.

More worldview dependent: personality, motivation, psychopathology, counseling processes and methods, theories about change, counseling and psychotherapy, where values, humanity, existential aspects are more prominent.

In summary and conclusion, and back to my opening story, the conversation with the department head forced me to sort out my own pedagogical priorities.  What should be taught first and emphasized most?  How should we interact with alternative and secular disciplinary matrices and non-Christian models for counseling?  As I presented these to the department head, he reversed his position and in fact thanked me as he had never conscientiously and systematically examined his own pedagogical priorities with respect to the teaching of distinctively Christian counseling.  In fact, he said he had come to the realization that his priorities and emphases were inverted, as a result of his own failure to on the one hand perform an epistemological triage of the sort we have done here and on the other hand a tendency to over-accommodate to secular accrediting standards and academic pressures rooted in a modern and less than Christian worldview.



This presentation proposes that our peculiarly Christian mega-narrative subverts the foundational narratives and metaphysical, epistemological, and anthropological presuppositions of the secular psychologies, rather than offering up junior versions of their systems.  This presentation will propose three pedagogical/methodological priorities for teaching distinctively Christian counseling.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Clarify the distinctiveness of Christian counseling and establish its relationship to secular psychology, Christian psychology, and historic orthodox Christianity.
  2. Understand the importance of pedagogical priorities in the teaching of distinctively Christian counseling and interact with the presenter’s proposal of three pedagogical/methodological priorities.
  3. Identify some of the most essential distinguishing characteristics of distinctively Christian counseling.

Sam R. Williams, Ph.D.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary  Wake Forest, NC
Society for Christian Psychology, Nashville
April, 17, 2007

a. Epistemology: a method based on a revelational/theistic epistemology, acknowledging the primacy and finality of Scripture;

no naïve relationship among faith and secular psychology, philosophy, and the human sciences.

b. Conceptual components: biblical anthropology and human nature;

Body and soul

Dignity and depravity

human motivation and psychodynamics;

biblical understanding of contextual and situational influences;

sin, suffering and psychopathology.

c. Practical components and counseling methods:

What is counseling?  Define counseling? Rather than privileging the 21st C. Western perspective, it would root the counseling relationship in the eternal relationships of our Trinitarian God.

What does it look like to love a person in such a way that they change inside and out, in a way that is pleasing to God and a blessing to themselves and others?

role of counselee and counselor in change;

characteristics of effective counseling and counselors;

How do people change?  What is the process of change in counseling (progressive sanctification – repentance, faith, and obedience); most common and most important counseling methods and techniques.