How Biblical is Biblical Counseling?

How would you like to write an article on the weaknesses of your family? That’s how I feel in responding to this request to write an article on the weaknesses of biblical counseling. I am a biblical counselor, and biblical counselors are my family. I know and love many of them; I read their books; I listen to their lectures; I value their counsel; and I rejoice at how God is working in them and through them for the benefit of his church.

Like all families, the biblical counseling family has strengths and weaknesses, but how do I identify particular weaknesses without naming particular people on the one hand, or being too general and lumping everyone together on the other hand? Both will result in family uproar, and maybe a homeless orphan too!

So let me first prove my familial love, by highlighting what I value about my biblical counseling family:

(1) I appreciate my family’s emphasis on counseling presuppositions. Biblical counselors have exposed the dangerously unbiblical presuppositions behind much secular counseling today (and some Christian), and have re-built biblical counseling on biblical presuppositions resulting in more biblical aims and methods.

(2) I honor my family’s courage in boldly re-claiming pastoral care, so much of which has been usurped by secular counseling in our day.

(3) I value my family’s emphasis on the power and suitability of God’s Word in addressing people’s problems. They have inspired and trained many Christians to use the Bible to diagnose the roots of problems and to prescribe lasting solutions.

(4) I admire the way my family has restored the biblical vocabulary of personal sin and personal responsibility, giving huge hope of forgiveness and change.

(5) I’m stunned at the quality of the theological and practical resources my family has provided for the church to address a vast range of life problems.

(6) I welcome my family’s stress on the necessity of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and the Christian community to effect long-term transformation.

(7) Above all, I love my family’s compassion for people and the multiple hours they invest in repairing broken lives.

It’s a great family, and I’d encourage many more to join it. However, we’re still quite a young family, and as such we’re not perfect. We still have much to learn from one another and from those outside our family. Biblical counselors still need biblical counseling!

Change the Name

So what counsel would I give to my biblical counseling family? I want to give only one piece of very simple yet very radical counsel: let’s change our name. Actually, to put it more accurately, let’s change the understanding of our name, especially of our first name, “biblical.” Many of our family’s internal squabbles, and some of our confrontations with other families, could be solved by clarifying this meaning.

For some in our family, “biblical” means “Bible only.” For them, biblical counseling could be more accurately renamed “Bible counseling.” In principle, it means they use only the Bible in counseling people; nothing else is helpful, and anything else is compromise. That, however, is not how “biblical” has historically been understood. In the past it has meant that something is either contained in the Bible or consistent with the Bible. That’s based on the belief that God has revealed truth in two places: in his Word and in his world. We therefore discover God’s truth by reading God’s Word and by reading God’s world through the lens of God’s Word.

Take, for example, “biblical preaching.” “Biblical” here does not mean we only use the Bible in sermons. Biblical preaching expounds the Bible, but it also draws from non-biblical sources—some of them authored by unbelievers—such as syntactical, grammatical, lexical, and textual guides and commentaries. We often incorporate historical, geographical, sociological, and cultural research. We regularly draw from current scientific findings and the modern media to teach, explain, or illustrate a point. Even the form and communication style of most modern sermons has been derived largely from ancient and modern philosophical and political speech forms.

However, although some of the content and form of biblical preaching is drawn from outside the Bible, we believe that God has provided a Bible that is up to the task of filtering out the false and admitting the truth of God that he has graciously placed in the world. Similarly, “biblical education” does not mean an education that only teaches the Bible. It teaches the Bible, for sure; but it also teaches other subjects like history, geography, science, math, and English, and it does so in a way that is consistent with Scripture.

The unfortunate narrowing of “biblical” in “biblical counseling” results from a limited view of the sufficiency of Scripture; it takes the sufficiency of Scripture to mean that Scripture is all we use in counseling and that to include any other resource introduces unmanageable danger.

Of course, we approach extra-biblical data and research with caution, recognizing that the authors are often unbelievers. And we do not make extra-biblical sources foundational, primary, or authoritative. But neither do we run away from knowledge outside the Bible that God has given to the human race and unintentionally imply that the Bible is insufficient to guide us away from error and towards His truth.

This broader definition of “biblical” is especially important in areas that God has not addressed directly or extensively in his Word. God’s Word-based revelation includes truth about spiritual problems such as sin that we could never have discovered any other way. However, we can discover other aspects of humanity by diligent research. In these areas, God invites us to work and struggle towards his perfect and comprehensive knowledge of human beings through thinking, hypothesis, experimentation, logical analysis, peer-review, and so on, along with scriptural exegesis.

Thus, for problems that are not purely spiritual, where other factors contribute (such as genetics, biology, physiology, nutrition, chemistry, sociology, and psychology), we should not expect the Bible to supply the non-spiritual information that can be helpful in dealing with certain problems. Rather, we should expect the Bible to be a sufficient lens to read the information supplied by these disciplines, enabling us to find and use only what is consistent with Scripture.

‘Biblical’ Benefits

If my biblical counseling family would return to this broader and more biblical sense of “biblical,” seven major benefits would follow:

(1) It will restore a more comprehensive understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. Rather than using a truncated (and unreformational) view of the sufficiency of Scripture that might legitimate our ignoring of contemporary science, we should use the concept as a divinely provided and effective weapon enabling us to plunder the knowledge that God has made available in his world through his common (or creation) grace.

(2) It will make us more honest. In practice (as evidenced in some writings), even “Bible-only” counselors sometimes use extra-biblical help and resources. However, we should have the integrity to consistently admit that fact in our presuppositions and public statements as well.

(3) It will help avoid misrepresentation of our position. If we spend much of our time creating an unbiblical dualism between the Word and the world, decrying all worldly sources of knowledge in principle, and then in small print, or in vague language, whisper, “Actually there is some helpful information outside the Bible,” we shouldn’t be surprised or offended when people misunderstand us.

(4) It will help us avoid simplistic diagnosis and prescriptions. If we stick to Bible-only approaches, we will only deal with the spiritual side of problems. That’s fine if the problem is purely spiritual, if it’s 100 percent related to personal sin. But if the problem is more complex, perhaps involving body issues such as genetics or biology, or social issues such as one’s environment or family upbringing, or psychological issues such as child development or habitual thought-patterns, then a simplistic approach will have limited benefits. It’s like trying to rebuild a broken down house by employing only a plumber.

(5) It will help us to avoid approaching our counselees as if they were merely souls. They are persons—whole persons in their whole life. Instead of seeing people just as souls with sinful hearts, we will also see them as people with bodies, histories, relations, and suffering.

(6) It will keep us from writing off and misrepresenting other caring professionals just because they do not use only the Bible. Instead we could manifest a more humble appreciation for the contributions of others in the caring process. It will help prevent us from over-reaching , and give us the confidence to involve other professions in our work with people when advisable (e.g., dealing with someone having a psychotic episode).

(7) It will enable us to welcome research that God has graciously provided for us to help care for people in a holistic way.

Overall, correcting this misunderstanding of “biblical counseling” will improve our family’s relations with one another, with others outside our family, and above all with God as we honor him in using all the resources he has provided to care for his sinning and suffering creatures.

  • Sacredtrail

    I think that the general premise of what you have shared is good, but it is vague enough that it is hard to know whether it is safe to agree. What secular resources are safe? Looking at biological and chemical research, how do we discern what is usable for a Biblical counciling situation? While I agree that it appears that there are biological and chemical things going on with some cases of depression, I think there are a lot of people who are popping pills for depression to fix issues that come from sin or lack of discipleship. I think before I agree with your thoughts I’d like a better understanding of the framework of discerning what resources outside of Scripture are useful for the Biblical counselor.

    • David Murray

      I agree with your caution. And I agree that the decisions are difficult. However I think more difficulties are caused by a desire for over-simplification. We need to view the whole world through the Word and believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit, His Word is sufficient to keep us on His path and in His will. See chapter 7 of Eric Johnsons Foundations of Soul Care for a good guide to how we use non-biblical texts.

  • Steve Martin

    Hard to generalize, here. So many different situations.

    I think we ought use our God given gifts and sense to steer people in the best direction for them.

  • Frederick Heddinger

    This seems like a secondary consideration, even though it may be a valid one. The primary issue, I think, is to define the goal of counselling properly. Is it to normalize behavior to acceptable worldly standards, or to lead the person being counseled to the cross.

    • David Murray

      I doubt any Christian would find that a difficult question to answer.

  • Jordan

    I think the commenter above is correct: your article, though helpful, is far too vague to affirm. The key problem is that I cannot see an expositional attempt at counseling advocated here. The Biblical counseling professors I have suggest using the term expository counseling and view it as the prviate ministry of the word to parallel the public ministry (Preaching). Although external sources are used in expository sermons they serve one purpose: to better understand the Scriptures. The commentaries, grammars, etc help the preacher understand the meaning of the text and the illustrations help him communicate that meaning. Strictly speaking, the pastor should only be teaching the Bible. If he were to include some recent philosophical writers as the source of a sermon there would be great problem and error. Likewise with counseling. Secondary sources should only be employed to the point they allow either the counselor or the counselee to understand a text and to apply it. This does leave a place for the hard sciences, but a secondary and limited one.

    The article may not actually be suggesting integrating secular psychology into counseling, although since it is vague and lacking concreteness one certainly couldn’t say it doesn’t advocate that.

    • David Murray

      As I said in my article, “we do not make extra-biblical sources foundational, primary, or authoritative.” In other words, the Bible is foundational, primary, and authoritative. I think that’s what you would say too. But with that in place, there are a number of resources outside of the Bible that we can use to help people live lives that are more glorifying to Him. For example, when preaching on redeeming the time, we can get lots of helpful ways to do that from outside of the Bible. Same on glorifying God with our bodies. Same with being swift to hear (listening skills).

  • Andy Barlow

    Excellent article.

    This is precisely the critique Eric Johnson levels against the BC movement in Foundations for Soul Care. The irony of the way the BC movement has huffed and puffed about the sufficiency of scripture over the years is that their view actually minimizes the sufficiency of scripture and leaves Christians scared to engage with the world (see the first commenter’s fear of using “unsafe” sources). And it has led the movement, unfortunately, to be marginalized, proud, and often less than helpful.

    I totally agree that a reformational worldview should free people to take the first principles of scripture and think Christianly about all of life.

    Thanks for the well-articulated thoughts.

    • Mary Moser

      You said exactly what I think.

    • Rob

      Agree with Andy – great article and a very thoughtful balanced position on true biblical counseling versus Bible only counseling. As God is the owner of all things … the giver of all good gifts, then let us take captive that which he has in His providence and common grace provided to us.

    • Terry Hatmaker

      I agree!

  • Jeremy Tuinstra

    A critical statement in this article is being overlooked, so let me highlight it: “by reading God’s world through the lens of God’s Word.” Our use of resources outside of God’s word is always UNDER God’s word. So, as Andy mentioned above, God’s word empowers us to “think Christianly about all of life.”

  • Jack Miller

    Thanks. An interesting and thought provoking article. I, too, found myself unclear as to what is being affirmed apart from good general principles. As they say, the devil is in the details.

    Biblical as a descriptor is big enough to drive any number of theological trucks through. That’s one reason why I’m inclined to use that term within a confessional framework. Understanding the Bible, not through my own powers alone or an eclectic mix of theological sources, but through the lens of the wisdom and teaching found in a church confession. Safer… surer as a guide.

    As a Biblical counselor, one question to ask is what is the purpose of Scripture? In a word, to reveal Christ, i.e. God’s redemptive plan for sinful man. It’s not presented as a book to help man find solutions to his many problems and struggles. It’s a proclamation in 66 books of how God solves the problem of sin in order to save sinners.

    And yet taught within its pages also is helpful truth, much of it the very same wisdom and knowledge common to all humans, albeit clearer and unclouded by the fallen intellect. My point is that much of what is helpful, when counseling a person, is that very common grace wisdom, the knowledge of right and wrong and generally how life works best. Knowing that sin touches every thought, word, and deed the counselor who avails himself of Scripture indeed has the perfect source to govern himself in order to better understand that common wisdom and how it bears on a presenting problem in a counseling situation. And yes, how the power of Christ’s forgiveness and redemption can transform and comfort hurting individuals in the midst of ongoing, persistent struggles!

    This topic gets my grey matter stirred up…

  • Tabitha

    Point 4 makes it sound as though the author is advocating a somewhat compartmentalized view of the Bible. Yes, the Bible is primarily interested in spiritual issues, but because we are holistic beings, the spiritual is interwoven with other dimensions – physical, sociological, family-related, etc. It’s not as if we determine that a person’s problem is “primarily” biological and therefore we focus solely on the medical or scientific research with reference to the problem. Obviously these sources should be consulted, but we also need to remember that the person dealing with this mostly biological issue is also a spiritual being with thoughts and emotions and behaviors that he or she will have in response to the situation. And I think the Bible has a lot to say about that.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that there will always be a spiritual dimension to a person’s problems, no matter what the nature of the problem may be. As someone trained in biblical counseling, I want to make wise and discerning use of resources outside of the Bible, because I don’t think the Bible is exhaustive in its treatment of every subject (that’s not really its aim or purpose), but I also want to remember that the Bible does have something to say about every problem, in the sense that a person’s heart is always active, no matter what situation they are facing. And because of that, the Gospel will always be relevant to counseling, not only to “primarily spiritual” problems. Essentially, I think people always need to be reminded to look to Christ, and to be reminded of God’s care for them, regardless of the situation.

    • David Murray

      I agree with everything you say here. There will always be a spiritual dimension to a person’s problems. That’s different to saying that a person’s particular sin is always the primary cause of a their problem.

    • David Murray

      I was trying to argue for a more holistic and less compartmentalized view of people with problems.

      I agree with everything you say in your second para. There will always be a spiritual dimension to a person’s problems. That’s different to saying that a person’s particular sin is always the primary cause of a their problem.

  • Mel

    What I find scary is that the same kind of people that are attracted to practicing “biblical counseling” are those that are attracted to secular counseling.
    There is nothing worse than getting counseling from someone that has control issues and has made it their profession to “fix” people’s problems.
    Doesn’t the bible say that we should go to more than one person for wise counsel? Wouldn’t this be putting trust in one person without knowing if what they are telling us adds up?

  • Wes Phillips

    Thank You for this article! The old categories of Biblical/Nouthetic vs. Integration don’t work. They are simplistic, misrepresentative, misleading, and contribute to division based on ignorance of the complex and nuanced nature of the topic.

  • Shaun

    Great post David. As a philosophy student my area of interest is the integration of theology and __________ (fill in the blank: science, psychology, politics/government.) It is really important that we learn to integrate all sources of knowledge. The Protestant scholastics were not afraid of knowledge outside of scripture. The harm from “bible-only” proponents is not limited to counseling only, but has made us unprepared to deal with new scientific discovery and has actually pitted us against the scientific community in laughable and credibility damaging ways. That said, I believe that there is a great opportunity for us to reclaim our place as leaders in exploring and understanding God’s creation (ourselves included.) Alvin Plantinga has a great article called “Methodological Naturalism,” where he advocates for something called Augustinian Science. The premise is that the greatest defect in natural science and evolutionary psychology has been that only natural causes can explain effects in generating theories. Augustinian science would remove this constraint and allow for all sources of information, namely theistic assumptions and revelation, to determine which phenomena requires natural explanation and which don’t. I believe that this will likely allow for a whole new approach to cosmology, in which our assumptions are allowed to look for God as cause, but also to make unique novel predictions about nature that will move physics past its current stalemate. In personal conversation with Plantinga he believes that psychology is the paradigmatic example of a discipline that could benefit from this methodology. I just wanted to share that as I agree with him wholeheartedly.

    • David Murray

      Shaun, I’ll look out for the Plantinga article.

  • MIke

    I have read a number of arguments for “why” we should integrate with secular psychology, but they all fall short when it comes to “what” exactly they want BC to integrate into. For example, what exactly is going to be said in counseling by integrating? What exactly are you taking from psychology to inform your conclusions?

    I would love to see an integrationist provide a comprehensive list showing “Benefits of psychology” on one side, and “what we are integrating” on the other. Until this can be provided, the topic will just keep chasing its own tail.

    • David Murray

      There’s a big difference between what’s usually understood by integration and what I’m advocating here.

  • Jack

    Your article reminded me of Keith Mathison’s articles on sola scriptura vs. solo scriptura.

  • Alan Bonjour

    Very nice. Good reveal of how we can assimilate to specific group culture think, even as well meaning counselors (which I am just a “lay” affiliate).

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  • James Cuénod

    Thanks David, I really appreciated the refreshing grace with which you handled this topic. Much appreciated.

    I have two comments:
    1. I think that your exhortation to “let’s change the understanding of our name” is dead on (particularly in light of your explanation) but I think many in our family would dislike/disagree with your suggestion.
    2. I would also suggest that “simplistic approach” under your fourth point would better read “purely spiritual approach” (since we are in agreement that the problem is a blinkered response and I’m sure you don’t mean to say that spiritual problems are simplistic)

    • David Murray

      James, I agree with your comments in #2. I suppose I’m not really wanting a change of name – more a change of understanding of our name.

  • David Lipsy

    Dear David,

    As a friend and fellow “family-member” of the Biblical Counseling movement, I very much appreciate the sensitivity with which you approach this subject and especially the kind and true comments you make about the strength of the approach. Candidly, I do believe some of those who have commented somewhat negatively to your post are, in my view, reading into it far too much. But that’s often what happens when a person doesn’t have opportunity to present an extended discussion about a subject like this.

    Not to denigrate our family any further, I do believe the BC movement does have a few other areas of weakness that I consider quite substantial, but perhaps I’ll reserve that for another day. Besides, I don’t have nearly the same name-recognition you do!

    Of course, the big question that I think you left hanging is… change the name to what? Changing OUR understanding of the name will help – in house. But how shall we communicate the broader vision you outline? I wonder sometimes if “Biblical Counseling” is not “Christian Counseling” because others have beat us to the use of that expression or we perhaps fear being associated too closely with others who have used that label but whose approach to counseling we might not necessarily agree with.

    Finally, knowing you as I do, I do not fear that you are trying to wheel a psychological (or other) “Trojan Horse” up to the gate of the Biblical Counseling movement. Our calling as Christians is to view, with discernment, all of life through the lens of God’s Word.

    • David Murray

      Thanks David. You’re right, this is not an extended discussion, more of a discussion starter. I’d be happy to stick with Biblical Counseling, but I’d like it to be more clearly understood what we mean by that.

  • William

    I really liked the point of this article, that “biblical” should be defined as “consistent with the Bible.”

    A few months ago I talked with a Biblical Counselor about analogies. She said she would never use an analogy or an example or a story in counseling unless it was straight out of the Bible.

    I thought this was very sad, because analogies and examples and stories can be so helpful in helping people understand things in concrete terms rather than in abstract terms. I thought of how helpful examples and stories and analogies in books and sermons have been in helping me understand biblical concepts.

    So because of that previous conversation, I strongly agree that some counselors would benefit from seeing “biblical” as being more than just “Bible only.” And the more their counselees understand the biblical concepts being presented in counseling, the more those concepts will benefit them as well.

  • Edward

    Am I right to say that Dr. Murray does not so much take issue with the name Biblical Counseling, but with the prevailing philosophy of the mainstream biblical counseling movement? I read Christians Get Depressed Too and perceived an effort to significantly distance himself from Adams, Welch, Powlison, etc. Furthermore, I would not characterize the philosophy which I perceived at work in the book as gospel-driven biblical counseling. So it seems the real argument is for a particular philosophy not a particular name.

    On a sidenote, may I suggest a logical fallacy at work in the post? Using textual sources (by unbelievers) to explain Scripture in the exercise of biblical preaching is not equivalent to using psychological sources (by unbelievers) to explain life in the exercise of biblical counseling. By their natures, the former employs an observational tool and the latter employs an interpretive lens. The argument from biblical preaching appears as a straw man and is left begging the question.

    Please help me understand where I’ve gone right and wrong…

    • MIke

      You nailed it, this is about a philosophy not a particular name. Mr. Murray’s post seems like a backdoor approach attempting to take a stab at BC without trying to come out directly against BC, and poorly mixes categories.

    • Rob

      Edward, I think where your wrong is your categorization (2nd paragraph) of the disciplines being equivalent. They are not equivalent but analogous.

      And I believe the analogy holds as both are using observational tools and tested observations of a subject (one to a text, one to a psyche) to better assess, interpret and apply the texts or bring help and healing in Christ to the person.

      Murray is clear that all sources and tools must be viewed/interpreted through a biblical lens. So your assertion that he would employ secular psychology as an “interpretive lens” contradicts Murray’s exact words.

      I don’t think Murray is taking a stab at BC, but seeking a holistic, biblically grounded, Christ-centered means of ministering to the whole person – mind, body, emotions, spirit and soul.

      Bravo Dr. Murray.

      • David Murray

        Thanks Rob. You’ve saved me from having to draft a comment. I’m in 95% agreement with the CCEF men whom I highly admire, refer to respectfully in my book, and whose resources I use constantly in my counseling work and teaching. I would say our area of disagreement is more in the area of consistency. I agree with most of the presuppositions/philosophy I read in their books. Sometimes a few presuppositions/practices appear that seem to contradict others. These are the ones I disagree with.

  • Mike

    Yo Rob,
    Just an observation, do you realize your statement is simultaneously saying the bible is not “holistic” enough for the care of souls? You have me wondering, what counsel are you integrating to make up for the inadequacy of Scripture?

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  • Josh Anderson

    Could anyone point me to resources that David is talking about (or alluding to) about biblical presuppositions in biblical counseling? I would like to learn more.

    Thanks, josh

    • Mark@DR

      Josh, a number of good books present the biblical presuppositions of biblical counseling.

      The most expansive and comprehensive is Robert Kellemen’s Soul Physicians.

      The following are also helpful:

      Counsel from the Cross by Elyse Fitzpatrick & Dennis E. Johnson
      Counsel One Another: A Theology of Personal Discipleship by Paul Tautges
      CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet by Michael Emlet
      Seeing with New Eyes by David Powlison

      I hope this serves you.