The Sufficiency of Scripture for Counseling

by Derek Brown

Among Christians there is an ongoing debate over the place that Scripture should have in the counseling task. While it is possible to create a five-fold taxonomy of the various views of how Christianity and psychology should interact (see Eric Johnson’s Five Views of Psychology and Christianity), it is the claim that the Scripture is sufficient for counseling that distinguishes the biblical counseling methodology from every other approach. Put simply, the difference is whether one believes that Scripture provides all the material resources we need to effectively counsel others, or whether psychological insights are necessary for the counseling endeavor. The difference, then, is between biblical counseling and some form of integrationism.

Challenging the Sufficiency of Scripture for Counseling
The claim for the sufficiency of Scripture in counseling is routinely challenged, but not as often is it accurately understood. Opponents are guilty of creating straw men of the biblical counseling position and then proceeding to leverage theological and rhetorical weight to smash the alleged argument. Sadly, this approach to the debate hinders dialog and genuine progress in knowledge. Stanton Jones, a well-known integrationist and former professor of psychology at Wheaton College, is guilty of stating the biblical counseling position in a way that obscures the actual argument.

…though the Bible is an essential foundation for a Christian approach to psychotherapy, it is not an all-sufficient guide for the discipline of counseling. The Bible is inspired and precious, but it is a revelation of limited scope, the main concern of which is its presentation of God’s redemptive plan for his people and the great doctrines of the faith. The Bible doesn’t claim to reveal everything that human beings might want to know.[1]

Stanton L. Jones and Ricahrd E. Butnam, Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal (Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity, 2012), 49.

I am thankful for Jones’ candor in the straightforward admission that he does not believe Scripture is sufficient for the counseling task. He is not downplaying his position for the sake of pseudo-unity with biblical counselors. May we all be as forthright with our views. But I am less thankful for the way he presents the biblical counseling position. First, he sets the “limited scope” of Scripture against the biblical counseling position as though the great spiritual realities included in “God’s redemptive plan for his people and the great doctrines of the faith” do not have universal bearing, at some level, on every single problem people might face in this fallen world. Biblical counselors believe they do, drawing not only from passages like Psalm 19:7-11 and 2 Tim 3:16-17, but from the whole of Scripture as it speaks to our nature, our relation to God, our problems, and our maturity in Christ. This is one reason Paul was confident that Christians could effectively counsel other Christians (Rom 15:14).   

Scripture’s “Limited Scope”
It is here that I think opponents of the biblical counseling methodology have failed to offer satisfactory reasons for why Christians should look outside of Scripture for help in counseling. I have yet to read an integrationist who has, in the development of their own theology of counseling, first exhausted what the Scripture teaches about counseling through an examination of explicit texts and broader theological truths that have bearing on the counseling task. It seems reasonable to me that if one is going to claim that Scripture isn’t sufficient for counseling, they should first provide a thorough theology of counseling from the Scriptures themselves. Instead, it seems that integrationists proceed on the assumption that Scripture only speaks to a relatively narrow set of issues that have limited relevance to the serious psychological challenges facing suffering people today.  

Scripture focuses on redemptive truths, that is obvious, but it does not follow from this limitation that these truths do not speak to every problem that people face and thus require the supplementation of psychological insights. Actually, it is Scripture’s limited scope that should shape one’s methodology for counseling and compel the Christian counselor to prioritize his or her pursuit of knowledge according to biblical categories. Jeremy Pierre helpfully comments,

…it is precisely because Scripture does not contain everything God could say that we must pay careful attention to what He has said—it reveals what He intends to be the priorities of our knowledge…In short, sufficiency is not just a matter of the specific information contained in the Bible (encyclopedic), but of how those divine words demand a priority of perspective on information not contained in the Bible (emphatic).

Jeremy Pierre, “Scripture is Sufficient, But To Do What?” in Scripture and Counseling: God’s Word for Life in a Broken World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 97-98.

Pierre’s point is that the content of Scripture, though intentionally limited, teaches us implicitly by that limitation what we should be most concerned about when it comes to people and their problems and how we should handle knowledge from outside of Scripture. Scripture’s narrow focus is not a weakness: it helpfully delimits our curiosities by giving us the most important knowledge when it comes to issues related to our soul, our psyche.   

Everything We Want to Know?
But there is another misstep in Stanton’s characterization of the biblical counseling position. You can see it in the last sentence in the above paragraph: “The Bible doesn’t claim to reveal everything that human beings might want to know.” Now, there may be some biblical counselors that state their case in a way that sounds a little like this, but it is simply not the biblical counseling position, nor is it how the best representatives of the biblical counseling methodology state their position on the sufficiency of Scripture. It should be noted that this quote is from the 2012 edition of his book, Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal which is virtually the same as the volume in its 1991 version. The fact that Jones and Butman did not correct their inadequate presentation of the biblical counseling position after twenty years is discouraging because it is patently not representative of the best proponents of the biblical counseling methodology.

Nevertheless, when biblical counselors claim that Scripture is sufficient for counseling, they are not the arguing that Scripture reveals everything human beings “might want to know” about a given topic. Honestly, I don’t know of one biblical counselor who has ever said this. Stanton makes similar remarks in his contribution to Five Views on Psychology and Christianity:

Christians believe that we find revealed in the Bible everything necessary to a full life in Christ, because the Scriptures direct us truthfully to him who is the source of all goodness and mercy. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Pet 1:3). But this does not mean that everything we want to know can be found in the Bible, including everything we want to know about child development, human personality, schizophrenia or depression.[3]

Stanton Jones, “An Integration View,” in Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, ed. Eric L. Jones (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), 110. 

The primary problem with Stanton’s characterization of the biblical counseling position—the claim that Scripture presents us with everything we want to know—is not only that it is not what biblical counselors teach, but also the fact that it grounds the sufficiency of Scripture in the subjective desire of the counselor. Stanton obviously wants to know things about child development, human personality, schizophrenia and depression. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these desires as such. But just because Scripture doesn’t speak directly to these issues (according to Stanton), it does not follow that Scripture is therefore insufficient for the counseling task. I will speak to this question of the Bible speaking “directly” to something in a moment. For now, perhaps an illustration will illumine the problem in Stanton’s argument.

Camaros and Counseling
Say someone wants to repair the engine on their 1973 Chevy Camaro. He locates a mechanic who’s been working on Camaros for the last thirty years, and the mechanic tells the car owner, “Here’s the repair manual and a set of tools. In terms of instruction and resources, this is all you will need to repair the engine on that car.” The car owner packs the tools into his truck, drives home, and begins to read the manual. A week later he comes back and says, “This manual is not sufficient because it doesn’t tell me about the new theories that engineers have recently developed about spark plug design and efficiency. I also want to know about the performance of this vehicle when it is put against its rival, the Dodge Challenger. This manual also doesn’t tell me this car’s 0-60 time or its ¼ mile time. I really want to know those things.” “Yes,” the mechanic says. “Those are fine things to know and are certainly interesting. But they will not aid you in repairing the engine. In terms of instruction and guidance, all you need to repair the engine is this book and these tools. What you want to know is irrelevant. What matters is what you need to know to repair the engine.”

In the case of the 1973 Chevy Camaro, the desire to know more information about issues related to this muscle car had no bearing on whether the repair manual and the tools provided by the mechanic were sufficient to repair the car’s engine. Similarly, a subjective desire to know about certain areas of human inquiry is irrelevant to the question of whether Scripture is sufficient for counseling. In Scripture, God has given us what we need for Christians to effectively counsel other Christians; what I want to know about other areas of study has no bearing on the purpose for which God gave the Scripture: namely, our obedience (Deut 29:29), spiritual growth (2 Pet 1:3-11), and ministry productivity (2 Tim 3:16-17).  

Furthermore, by using the subjective standard of his personal desire for knowledge, Stanton mentions psychological categories like child development, human personality, schizophrenia, and depression in a way that makes it appear as though Scripture doesn’t speak authoritatively and insightfully to issues. But Stanton is assuming that the modern-day psychological categories and nomenclature are classifying novel diagnoses that have been heretofore undiscovered. In fact, biblical counselors have done a good deal of work exposing the naturalistic assumptions that undergird most psychological diagnoses while demonstrating that these classifications, when defined according to biblical terminology and categories, open themselves to the remedies that Christ provides in his Person and Word.

Finally, Stanton’s confession that Christians “find revealed in the Bible everything necessary for a full life in Christ,” makes me wonder what he means by a “full life in Christ.” Apparently, that full life in Christ for which the Scripture is sufficient (by Stanton’s own admission) still needs supplementation from psychological insight and discovery. What meaning does the phrase “fullness in Christ” really have in Stanton’s system if that fullness must be augmented by something outside of God’s Word? Stanton seems to assume that this “fullness” should be defined in a narrow, private-devotion-and-worship way that doesn’t expand out to the whole person. But this is an artificially constrained definition of “fullness in Christ” that is not supported in Scripture.  

Again, this is where I believe integrationists have failed to give careful enough attention to what Scripture does teach about counseling. In Stanton’s case, he does not reckon with what true maturity in Christ entails and therefore assumes that spiritual growth only affects a part of the person, while the “psychological” portion requires the attention and insights of those trained in this area of human study.  

In response to these assumptions, in the next article in this series we will examine how Scripture answers the problems for which people are seeking remedy through redemption and sanctification in Christ.     

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