A moving testimony to biblical sufficiency in action
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 12, 2013
There is significant disagreement among evangelicals over both the nature of the problems which people face, and the source and authority of the resources necessary to counsel them (2). Is a young woman a victim of the disease of bulimia? Or is she embracing the sins of gluttony and vanity? And is psychology the most useful and authoritative source for the definition and solution of such problems, or the Bible? Counseling the Hard Cases stakes out a clear position, being written "to highlight the resources in Scripture" (305). Editors Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert, motivated by pastoral concern (301-302), adamantly affirm the Bible's sufficiency to define human problems and their solutions (1, 10, 22-23).
Before evaluating Counseling the Hard Cases, one must understand its primary goal. Its distinct structure must not be lost in the reams of counseling details. The book's heart is its fourfold argument for biblical sufficiency: First, biblical texts such as 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and 2 Peter 1:3-4 point to the Bible's sufficiency for sanctification (10-15), which includes restoration from debilitating problems. Second, the Bible's diverse literary forms enable it to address people intellectually and emotionally (18). Third, without denying the value of observation, biblical terminology most accurately describes human problems, making sense of both behavior and the heart in relation to God (19). Finally, the Bible is comprehensive, not exhaustive; it is the "glasses" which bring the whole counseling process into focus (21).
The rest of the book consists of accounts by highly educated counselors (309-310), including a former psychologist (171), of the successful practice of biblical counseling¬ in real-life situations involving some of the most difficult problems (1-2). For example, Martha Peace relates the transformation of an anorexic girl on the brink of death under the power of God's word (141). Thus, the majority of the book is real-life illustrations for the initial theological argument, which attest to biblical sufficiency for the hardest cases (23-24).
Moreover, the intended audience is Christians who counsel Christians. The book aims to encourage pastors and students of biblical counseling in their conviction that the Bible is sufficient. It also aims to commend the Bible as a sufficient resource to Christians who do not hold this view (xii). The book does not aim to persuade non-Christians. Moreover, it does not intend to articulate a methodology (xiv). The cases serve an illustrative function; it is not a how-to manual on counseling, nor will it train the reader in skilled biblical counseling. The authors rather aim to remove obstacles to accepting biblical sufficiency for real life--that is, they aim to illustrate that biblical "glasses" are the right fit.
The authors labor to approach the subject with balance. For example, they recognize that just memorizing Bible verses is not going to fix people, as if passages could be given out like "Tylenol" (118). Instead, they address the unique dynamics of each heart (xiv). They are careful not to interfere with the expertise of medical doctors (120), and physical factors are not neglected, like sleep deprivation (95). They recognize both individual sins and the wounds of innocent suffering (46). While rejecting secular psychology's interpretations, they acknowledge the value of their observations (61), affirming that biblical counselors can learn from science (9). For example, although critiqued, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is cited for its usefulness (61-62).
The contributors provide ten real-life cases to illustrate biblical sufficiency. Now, ten anecdotes obviously do not prove biblical sufficiency. Nor would ten successful treatments by secular psychology prove its sufficiency. However, as indicated above, the argument for sufficiency does not rely on these cases; rather, they illustrate the argument. And surely none would claim that any method is perfectly effective.
What then is the value of the anecdotes? The book is written from a defensive posture, as most do not share its convictions (2). In such circumstances, anecdotes are quite powerful. By addressing even one instance of a serious issue, like bipolar disorder (171), with a biblical approach, they have shown that in principle it cannot be said that the Bible's resources are inadequate or de facto insufficient to tackle the hardest cases. This is different than proving adequacy, but no method can prove this deductively. Moreover, the anecdotes are witnesses, testifying to biblical sufficiency. In this respect, the book accomplishes its purpose.
Whether the book will persuade Christians who accept the integration of secular methods remains to be seen. As noted, it removes some obstacles to accepting biblical counseling, and provides a strong testimony. But it depends, at this point, on acceptance of a biblical anthropology, which the authors rightly argue (cf. Gen 1:26-27) is fundamentally different than secular psychology, as it considers the human being as a physical and spiritual being before God (7-8). This is really the crux of the issue, as the proper approach depends on which anthropology is correct--mere restoration to worldly high function is a far cry from proper relation to God (e.g. those rebuked in James 4). Now the authors do respond to arguments against their biblical understanding (13). For example, they point out that biblical "salvation" is holistic and includes the realm of counseling (22). But fundamentally, convictions about anthropology will color how one receives this book.
On the one hand, biblical sufficiency and a biblical anthropology are convictions which one must share to find the cases convincing. On the other hand, Counseling the Hard Cases successfully shows that the Bible is not de facto deficient to transform the most troubled individuals. Thus it accomplishes its main objective, as its careful approach raises the bar for objections to biblical counseling, and it will surely encourage those who practice it. While it is unlikely to persuade those who are unwilling to reconsider their theological position, I found the book's stories to be an encouragement in my own convictions, and it provided many avenues for further study. Anyone engaging in the conversation over counseling must not ignore this book.
M.Div student, Biblical and Theological Studies, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
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