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New Horizons

The Therapy of the Word

Carl R. Trueman

Over the last decade, one of the growth industries within the church has been that of counseling. Various models of counseling are on offer out there in the theological marketplace, some obviously laced through with secular psychology, others more self-consciously based upon biblical principles. I have neither the time nor space nor interest to offer critiques and assessments of the material content of these various approaches; what interests me at this point is the phenomenon of such counseling.

The origins of biblical counseling arguably lie in the seventeenth century, when Catholic and Protestant theologians produced books of cases of conscience, that is, books which took specific moral questions ("Should I gamble?" "Is it legitimate to be in business with a non-Christian partner?" "Can I lend money at interest?" etc.) and provided biblically grounded answers to them. In other words, they took general biblical principles and tried to apply them to specific situations.

That is the basic principle which holds today. Although many of the specific questions have changed ("Should I sharpen my sword on a Sunday?" is not a pressing concern for most Christians today), the basic idea is the same: individual Christians have specific problems; counseling seeks to address those problems by applying biblical principles. So far, so good.

What intrigues me, however, is the veritable explosion in interest in the area over recent years, an interest that sparks two questions in my mind: is this current Christian fascination with counseling simply the priorities of the world around dressed up in a Christian idiom? And what does this say about the nature of church?

I have not time to address the former question here; suffice to say that I suspect it is not susceptible to a simple answer. It is also intimately connected to the way one answers the second. What is interesting is that Scripture says very little about the kind of one-to-one application of the Word which biblical counseling represents; rather, the focus in the New Testament (and, indeed, in the Old) is upon the Word of God coming to the people as a whole and impacting the community of believers as a whole. When Paul preaches in Acts, he speaks in specific contexts; but he does not engage in micro-applications to every one of his hearers, or even, on the whole, to obvious subsets within the crowds who listen to him. The same can be said of his letters, although here there are frequent applications towards the end to specific groups (widows, young men, etc.) and even on occasion to specific people (Euodia and Syntyche, etc.). But the burden of his ministry and the vast majority of sentences in his letters are devoted to expounding the Word of God in the most general and glorious terms. He seems confident that the Word will find its own application as it is preached, and that is because what he proclaims is not simply information, but the very speech of God, which transforms that with which it comes into contact. Thus he does not need to overload on specific instances of how the Word should be applied to specific people or situations. This is also one of the reasons why what he says is of perennial relevance: it does not become dated or fade away as the generation to whom it was originally addressed dies out.

All of this leads me to ask the obvious question: does the rise in biblical counseling, and the growth in the number of biblical counselors, signal a crisis in confidence, not simply in the pulpit, but in the Word of God to achieve its purpose? Now, do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that counseling has no place, nor small group; but surely, if the biblical pattern is representative of healthy church life, then 95 percent of the problems addressed by counseling should actually be addressed and solved by simply proclaiming the perennial Word of God. Is it perhaps the case that fewer people would need counseling if more people actually listened prayerfully to what their pastors were telling them from the pulpit every Sunday morning?

Next time you find yourself in need of counseling, ask yourself: is this the result of exceptional and unforeseen circumstances that require peculiar wisdom and sensitivity which can only be found in one-to-one discussion with another Christian? Or have I screwed up because I haven't been paying attention to what the pastor has been preaching these many months?

First published in the Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, May 2009. The author teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2010.

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