This is the third post in a series through the 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling by Heath Lambert. Previous posts are indexed here (bottom of the post).

In this post, having already explored areas of agreement, I will begin to assess areas of perceived weakness in how Dr. Lambert developed his 95 Theses. For a frame a reference, in this post I am generally keying off of Thesis 2, but will reference many of Dr. Lambert’s Theses throughout.

A persistent point of confusion is how Dr. Lambert uses terms like “secular therapy” and “psychology” as if these concepts each represent one, unified thing.

A term like “psychology” is best understood as having the same range of meaning as the word “dog;” which can mean everything from poodle (e.g., cats that bark) to Great Dane (e.g., horses that people allow to live in their homes). Just because someone says “dog,” doesn’t indicate we have a precise idea of what they are referencing. Unless you ask more questions, you are more likely projecting your experience onto their word.

Critique: A document as significant as Dr. Lambert intends for his 95 Theses to be should have more precision and clarity on key terms like “psychology” and “secular therapy.” Based upon the level of repetition that exists between many of his other Theses, space for this precision could have been created by eliminating redundancy.

Impact: When a term is used poorly (without clarity, consistency, or precision) in a formal argument with a strong call to action – such as these 95 Theses – the audience is unclear about how they should respond. They realize they are being called to respond definitely and decisively, but they are not clear as to when or how this response is appropriate or necessary.

The result is either an all-or-nothing response or to ignore the message. This is my concern for the impact of the unclear language in Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses. Either the church will resort to a truncated all-or-nothing thinking about psychology and secular therapy or, due to lack of clarity, eventually ignore the important subject altogether.

Potential Remedy: David Powlison – with whom Dr. Lambert is familiar and would value his writing – has identified at least six distinct uses of the term “psychology.” I examine these six usages from a different perspective in “Should We Be For or Against Psychology” that might be a helpful supplement for readers trying to familiarize themselves with the subject matter (which can seem a bit technical at first).

In this post I will consider Powlison’s six-fold deconstruction of the term psychology (bold text below) as each relates to the various points Dr. Lambert makes in his 95 Theses.

  1. Psychology Per Se (we are beings with minds and souls) – the reality that we are psychological beings means we have souls/minds that determine our choices and influence our emotions. In this sense, psychology is a noun (persons) that can be observed and studied.
    • This form of psychology is not something to be rejected, but is the very thing that biblical counseling, and all other forms of counseling, is seeking to understand and shape.
  2. Psychology as Knowledge about Human Functioning (how minds and souls functions can be observed and studied) – the systematic study of human behavior and acknowledgement that certain qualities or patterns about people can be factually known. At this level, psychology is not a noun to be studied, but probabilities and frequencies to predict or influence.
    • As an example, this form of psychology would be the answer to the question, “What forms of confrontation are most successful in getting someone caught in addiction to acknowledge their need for help? And what best-practices set up this confrontation to be profitably received?”
      • Biblically we know that a confrontation by loved one’s is the right thing to do (Matthew 18:15-20). In our culture this has been called an intervention. We can honor Scripture by following Matthew 18 AND learn from those who have done many interventions how to be more effective in our obedience to Scripture. Further, we can also learn from techniques, such as “rolling with resistance,” how to frame our message in a more receivable way when our friend is predisposed to reject our concern. At this level, we can follow Scripture closely and benefit from the tested experience of our counseling peers.
    • This type of secular psychology has greater epistemological weight than the next four (meaning, we can have a degree of trust in what they discover through common grace means; see page 4 of this resource from David Powlison on mental disorders for support for this idea from a prominent biblical counselor).
    • The value of this form of psychology, even from secular or Christian Psychology sources, is what Dr. Lambert affirms in Thesis 41. But then, in my opinion, he gives very little weight to it in the rest of his theses. It is my assessment that it is the intellectual assent to Thesis 41, but practical absence of its utilization, in biblical counseling education and practice that creates concern from our evangelical Christian counseling peers. Biblical counselors say we affirm the practice in print, but our counseling neighbors say they don’t hear it in our writings, teachings, or practice. Winston Smith makes a comparable critique of biblical counseling in his review of Counseling After Adams by Heath Lambert in this edition of The Journal of Biblical Counseling (apologies that no free, PDF version of this article could be found).
  3. Psychology as Competing Philosophies of Life and Theories of Personality – these are the theories you studied in your college “Introduction to Psychology” class. New counseling theories emerge every year.
    • Here we need to use the term “psychologies” rather than “psychology” because the various theories and philosophies compete and disagree with one another.
    • It is about these psychologies that Christians should be most cautious when trying to glean helpful information because these are alternative narratives for hope and healing. It is these theories that the Christian will most often feel compelled to refute as being in contradiction and competition with Christian teaching.
    • Not all of these theories are in opposition to the gospel message; some align – to greater or lesser degrees – with aspects of Christianity. In these instances these theories may help us cultivate new insights into the timeless truths of our faith. But if we look for practical insights from these theories we must be careful not to become more enamored by the modern application than the timeless truth (Thesis 54).
  4. Psychology as Psychotherapy or Practice of Counseling – these are the various attempts at helpful conversations that occur between a counselor and counselee.
    • Theories aren’t scripts. They must be translated into conversations.
    • Some people who provide secular counseling are ineffective; others are excellent. Just as some biblical counselors are unskillful; and others are highly skilled (see Lambert Theses 27 and 28). It is important for pastors in communities to get to know the counseling resources in their community as they equip their church to be a counseling resource for their community.
    • As I read Dr. Lambert’s cautions regarding Christian Psychologists, it seems his experiences with these individuals have been much more troubling than my own.
      • I will take the dangerous step of guessing at a possible explanation (acknowledging I may be incorrect) – my assumption is that it is because I make these referrals for a more targeted and specific role within the overall soul care of an individual. I view the counselors to whom I refer as specialists who are tasked with a specific role within someone’s overall soul care. It is my impression that traditional biblical counseling views soul care more holistically (less able to be compartmentalized) and, therefore, is less willing to appeal to outside specialists (other than medical doctors for clear illnesses) to lead counseling efforts in a specific-targeted area of struggle where licensed counselors have more training and experience.
      • This is my best guess and most charitable assessment as to why I would highly value the work of individuals like Diane Langberg, Mark Yarhouse, and Eric Johnson; while Dr. Lambert believes they are in such egregious error that they merit being called out for public repentance.
  1. Psychology as System of Institutional Arrangements – these are the accreditation and licensure programs that govern vocational counseling and educational bodies.
    • There are real concerns about how much longer distinctively Christian counselors will be able to practice in good conscience under existing ethical codes issued by the state. I share these concerns. But, in my opinion, to abdicate influence in these sectors is a mistake. As a pastoral counselor – that is a non-licensed, ministry-based counselor – I am grateful for those like Eric Johnson, Mark Yarhouse, and Diane Langberg who represent evangelicals well in these circles to preserve as much Christian liberty as possible in these fields, which greatly serves the church.
    • However, some of the tension that traditional biblical counselors feel in this area is, in my opinion, due to a lack of clarity between pastoral counseling ethics and formal counseling ethics. Both can be done to the glory of God, but the roles are different. As a biblical counselor who has served in the local church and parachurch, I have served in both capacities. We should not take a position against a particular mode of counseling simply because the parameters of that mode (professional counseling) do not suit our setting well (pastoral, local church counseling).
    • On this point, I do not believe that Dr. Lambert’s Thesis 73 takes into account the number of redemptive benefits that believers serving in various licensure roles allow. It is as if the only reason a Christian should move to a closed country is to be a church planter. The business-as-missions movement is built upon the premise that believers living missionally in closed contexts can have so many benefits that it is to be highly encouraged, not cautiously permitted. I believe there are numerous parallels to Christians serving in the world of licensed counseling. The restrictions are real and concerning, but the opportunities are significant and worthwhile.
  2. Psychology as Mass Ethos – these are the common assumptions that are collectively believed to be true or helpful within a given culture.
    • The number of “therapeutic urban legends” are bountiful in any culture; not only are they numerous, they are also powerful. It is the things we assume, instead of vet, that often lead to our various forms of dysfunction.
    • Both secular and sacred counseling aims to tear down these dysfunctional myths. Each does so in its own way: secular counseling through empirical testing, biblical counseling through expository texting (attempt at word play).
    • For some individuals they will initially be more convinced by empirical evidence – hence pastors are prone to use statistics in sermons – and then come to see the relevance of God’s Word as their inaccurate assumptions are deconstructed, creating a void that needs to be filled with something more reliable. An example of trying to use this approach is modeled here using sociological findings to contradict mass ethos wisdom about cohabitation.

Summary: One significant weakness in Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses is his unclear and imprecise use of words like psychology and secular therapy. The result is either unhelpful all-or-nothing adherence from his most ardent supporters or a version of dismissal and “zoning out” from those who oppose his position or don’t care deeply about counseling debates. If we are going to beneficially influence the church at large about counseling, we will have to be clearer and more consistent in our use of terms like “psychology” and “secular therapy.”