Biblical Counseling v. Psychology


By: Prof. Greg Gifford, Professor of Biblical Counseling at TMU


Why biblical counseling and not psychology? 

This is an important question that warrants answering in each generation. Just to be clear, though, it is not that The Master’s University (TMU) is committed to biblical counseling per se: it is the superiority of Scripture over human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:20–21), the sufficiency of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:17), and the sufficiency we have in Christ that we are committed to at TMU (Col. 2:3). 

The Master’s University affirms biblical counseling because we are committed to the Word of God as being authoritative Truth; because the only means of authentic change begins with faith in Jesus; and because the ultimate jurisdiction of counseling falls within the church.   Our commitment to biblical counseling is an out-working of our commitment to these stated truths.

When we refer to biblical counseling at TMU, we are referring to simply “the private ministry of the Word of God, tailored specifically to the individuals involved” (Street, Counseling: How to Counsel Biblically). 

That’s it.

Although there are important nuances to biblical counseling — like the qualifications to counsel, or methods of counseling — biblical counseling is simply the private ministry of the sufficient Word of God tailored to people. It is interesting because biblical counseling is a psychology in the sense that it is a “study of the soul” or “science of mind and behavior” (Powlison, Counseling: How to Counsel Biblically). Like psychology, biblical counseling cares much about the soul and human behavior ( The American Psychological Association’s). Of great significance, though, biblical counseling is committed to the fact that in order to engage in psychology, one must be committed to the authority of God’s Word to articulate the nature of the soul and human behavior! This is where the psychology of biblical counseling differs from secular psychology.

Scripture as Authoritative Truth

It must be said that all psychologies have an epistemology: they have some theory of knowledge and how we know what is true. The question is not in regards to the existence of an epistemology, but in regards to the existence of a biblical epistemology. The reason this is significant is because one cannot make authoritative claims of right and wrong; claims about changing human motivation and the purpose of life; or what behavior should look like without having some implicit commitment to knowledge and truth. Biblical counseling sees the Scripture as being the final authority of truth and how we know truth (John 17:17). Scripture is the lens through which we view the world — including human behavior. This means that we are committed to God’s articulation of the soul, human motivation, and human behavior as being authoritative over any form of competing truth claims about these issues. We cannot espouse to another seemingly authoritative truth over human behavior and believe that in so doing, we elevate the wisdom of man to the truth of God (1 Cor. 1:20–21) (Powlison). When we are asked, “why biblical counseling and not psychology?” it is because: 

 . . . the Scripture is an authoritative truth over the soul, human motivation, and behavior.

Centrality of Jesus Christ in Authentic Change

Another reason we affirm biblical counseling is because we affirm the centrality of Jesus Christ in any authentic change in human motivation or human behavior. It is true that “when the problems of a person and situation are conceived vis-à-vis God, then Christ as the Bible presents him offers the only sufficient and logical solution. Understand the specifics of the human condition rightly, and the specifics of the person and work of Jesus are the only key that fits the lock” (Lambert, “95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Committment to Counseling). Secular psychology is intimately concerned with change and propagating various goals and methods for change. Gerald Corey, a secular psychologist, illustrates this by saying, “Psychotherapy is a process of engagement between two persons, both of whom are bound to change through the therapeutic venture. … Therapists are not in the business to change clients, to give them quick advice or solve their problems for them. Therapists heal through a process of genuine dialogue with their clients [emphasis added]” (Johnson and Jones, “Psychology and Christianity). Whether we call it “change” or “healing,” secular psychologists are offering goals and methods for change.

The difficulty that we have with this statement and statements like these is that authentic change can only come through the work of Jesus Christ in a person’s life. We see Scripture teach that not only are we incapable of change on our own, but that we are dead in our sins until Christ makes us alive (Eph. 2:1–5). To tell a dead man to change apart from Christ brings with it impossible expectations, nonetheless hinders the change process by leaving out the very Centerpiece to change! Faith in Jesus is the beginning of all authentic change therefore, to speak of change one must speak of Jesus Christ and his centrality in all authentic change (John 15:5).

Jurisdiction of the Care of Souls

Finally, we affirm biblical counseling because of jurisdiction. Secular psychology has encroached upon the jurisdiction of soul care(Corey, Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy). Ed Welch lectured to PhD students in clinical psychology and said this:

 > “All psychology practitioners are dispensing a world view, a set of fundamental beliefs about the nature of people. Your theories are heavy with assumptions about who we are, why we do the things we do, and where we are going. This is clergy turf [emphasis added].” 

Welch is right. The jurisdiction of counseling is and has historically been a work of the church, primarily of pastors (Welch). Secular psychology is rapidly encroaching on this domain. 

Secular psychology . . .

 “is simply the attempt to do face-to-face pastoral work in service to different gods, different ideals, different diagnoses, a different gospel. Secular psychotherapy is ‘pastoral work’ done by ‘secular pastoral workers … ”(Gifford, “Introduction, Purpose, and Overview”)

However, biblical counseling recognizes this to only occur within the jurisdictional domain of the church.

One of the reasons this is true is because “true soul study cannot be done by unbelievers” (Johnson and Jones). How can a person who does not believe in Jesus, the soul, or the goal of change help another person authentically change? How can those who are blinded to spiritual realities help others with spiritual realities (2 Cor. 4:4)? Secular psychologies have encroached upon the jurisdictional domain of the church by offering counter philosophies to that of the gospel (Col. 2:8–9) and usurping pastoral authority (Heb. 13:17) (MacArthur). The true domain of counseling will always be within the jurisdiction of the church, despite the encroachment of other theories and methodologies upon this jurisdiction.

Final Thoughts

I began the article by stating that we do not affirm biblical counseling per se. We affirm the biblical care of people as represented in the counseling system known as biblical counseling. Our commitment to biblical counseling is undergirded by our commitment to the authoritative Word of God, faith in Jesus to authentically change, and the jurisdiction of the church. Thus, we cannot espouse any counseling system that would denigrate the authority of the Word of God, faith in Jesus to change, or the importance of the church. We do believe, as stated by Dr. MacArthur, “Biblical counseling is the only valid kind of counseling there is” (“Question and Answer”).

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