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New Horizons

Counseling and Secular Psychology

Daniel F. Patterson and Alan D. Strange

Does secular psychology have any valid role in Christian counseling? Can the Christian possibly learn anything from the secular psychologist? These questions are hotly debated in Christian circles today, and Christians have taken sides.

On the one side are those who claim that since psychology is a discipline that seeks to explain the problems of man apart from God, it should not be utilized within the Christian counseling community. They stress that there has been an antithesis, an antagonism, between belief and unbelief since the Fall. Because unbelievers reject God's Word, they argue, a secularized psychology can make no proper contribution to our knowledge of man. The Bible, according to this view, is the sole and sufficient authority for the Christian counselor in his quest to understand those he counsels.

On the other side are those Christians who, while generally agreeing that the basic foundations of modern psychology are antitheistic, believe that God allows the non-Christian to grasp truth in his observation of God's creation. They believe that Christians have access to this truth, and that it would be a rejection of the image of God in mankind if we did not use it. However, this approach runs the risk of downplaying the antithesis while overemphasizing common grace, arguing that common grace ameliorates the effects of the Fall so that we can profitably employ the work of unbelievers in the field of psychology. In addition, this viewpoint runs the risk of minimizing or even denying the noetic effects of sin.

The former group is usually referred to as biblical or "nouthetic" (from the Greek word for "confrontation") counselors, while the latter have been called integrationists. These labels, of course, are not hard and fast, and admit of some fluidity. This article seeks to offer a third way, appreciating both those who stress the antithesis and those who stress common grace. We contend that integrationists have too often emphasized common grace to the detriment of a right understanding of the antithesis. Similarly, we believe that many biblical counselors have too often stressed the antithesis in a way that tends, functionally, to downplay or deny common grace. Our approach accounts for both common grace and the antithesis.

What are the implications of the antithesis and common grace for counseling? Cornelius Van Til notes that, because of the antithesis, unbelievers can neither know nor do anything rightly in principle. Common grace, however, reminds us that unbelievers are not as bad in practice as they are in principle. They do not consistently adhere to their sinful worldview. If they did, it would mean not only the ruin of their souls but also the destruction of their ability to account for or know anything at all. God, therefore, in his common grace, both restrains sin in the unbeliever and permits him, at least in a measure, to exercise the natural gifts with which God has endowed him. Believers, on the other hand, while enjoying particular grace, are not as good in practice as they are in principle because of remaining sin, which is part of the expression of the antithesis even in the regenerate.

If we receive any good, then, from a secularized psychology, we do so because of God's common grace. But we must be discerning. There are many troubling aspects to secularized psychology. One of the greatest concerns, as in all the secularized sciences, is the myth of neutrality. The biblical counselor rightly refuses to believe that there is anything that can be neutral in psychology. Even the secular psychologist can never look at the world as an unbiased observer. All his theories, all his techniques, and all his beliefs about man are value laden. They are, at their core, a reflection of his relationship to the Creator, and thus neutrality is impossible. The biblical counselor, in fact, maintains that the claim of neutrality in any area of life is antitheistic.

The question that faces us at this point, then, is whether the biblical counselor's critique of secular psychology can be supported by their epistemology, in which they confess that God has revealed himself in special and general revelation. In other words, can the biblical counselor really claim that because the unbelieving psychologist does not savingly know God, he cannot arrive at truth? Cannot the observations of the unregenerate provide us, on some level, with insights into the human psyche? Writers such as Jay Adams (Competent to Counsel, 1970) say no and have stood strong in the face of much criticism as they have sought to make the Scriptures the sole resource for counseling methodology.

However, it seems that even Van Til, the man on whose work many biblical counselors base their epistemology, would take issue with their rigid stance against secular psychology. He would agree that much of psychology is corrupt, but he would not say that it is devoid of truth. Consider this quote (A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 1969, p. 22, emphasis added):

As far as the principle of interpretation is concerned, the natural man makes himself the final point of reference. So far then, as he carries through this principle, he interprets all things without God. In principle he is hostile to God. But he cannot carry through his principle completely. He is restrained by God from doing so. Being restrained by God from doing so, he is enabled to make contributions to the edifice of human knowledge. The forces of creative power implanted in him are to some extent released by God's common grace. He therefore makes positive contributions to science in spite of his principles and because both he and the universe are the exact opposite of what he, by his principles thinks they are.

Similarly, John Calvin makes a strong case for the doctrine of common grace in his Institutes (Beveridge ed.), 2.2.15–16:

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears.... If the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it.

What Van Til and Calvin are essentially saying is that although man, at his core, is in rebellion, God by his common grace allows the unbeliever to discover truth. But again, discernment is needed. The Christian counselor must be aware that common grace does not grant everything that saving grace does. Saving grace not only redeems the soul, but renews the mind. And such renewal is necessary for right reasoning. Integrationists tend to minimize the reality that man in his unregenerate condition does not rightly reason, particularly about ultimate questions.

The third approach would involve Christians in making careful use of insightful research done by secular psychologists, as well as in developing what could be called "Christian psychology." While Van Til rightly criticized Abraham Kuyper in some respects for his two-pronged view of Christian and non-Christian science, we would argue that in an area like psychology—the study of the inner person in relation to the outer—the Scriptures are most clearly applicable, more than they would be in the so-called hard sciences. Developing something like a Christian psychology that takes into account the whole person, the effects of the Fall with respect to the inner and outer man, and the wide range of remedies for such, including medication when appropriate, could prove a significant step forward. Eric Johnson, for example, is doing pioneering work in this area (see his Foundations for Soul Care, IVP, 2007) and hopes to see something akin to a Christian version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the future.

The Christian counselor must remember that the fall of man means that the whole of our person is tainted with sin. We would reject the Christian Scientist or faith healer who rejects any recourse to modern medicine; similarly, we should be wary of those who would argue that while medicine may be used for physical maladies, it can never be used for psychological ones—particularly when we believe that we are properly treating men and women as whole beings, soul and body. In some hands, Christian counseling has devolved into a sort of behaviorism based on an atomistic approach to Scripture that does not yield a healthy biblical and systematic theology and is not sufficient to address the complexities of the human person both as fallen and as redeemed.

Sometimes well meaning, but misguided counselors have been little more than Job's friends, who possessed torah without hoekma (law without wisdom). We should use the best insights of psychology—those that comport with Scripture—so that we may experience healing at deep levels. Christ wants us to learn ever more deeply what it means to rest our heavy burdens on him and to take his light yoke upon us (Matt. 11:28–30). Good preaching always involves an element of soul work, or counseling. Pastoral counseling, as an extension of the pulpit ministry, must take into account all the complexities that beset us during our time of humiliation.

Rev. Patterson is pastor of Second Parish OPC in Portland, Maine; Rev. Strange teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2010.

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