A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Taylor Wright
A Theology of Biblical Counseling begins with the book’s most controversial five words – “Counseling is a theological discipline.” Heath Lambert’s insistence on placing counseling within the realm of theology rather than psychology drives the distinctive nature of this book’s claims. Lambert’s aim is twofold. First, he intends to prove those first five controversial words. Second, he provides a template of how theology and counseling intersect through exploring several prominent theological topics and their relevance to counseling.
Lambert defines counseling as “a conversation where one party with questions, problems, and trouble seeks assistance from someone they believe has answers, solutions, and help” (13). This definition moves counseling away from the realm of the professional psychologist, instead, defining counseling as advice-based human communication. Notably, his definition does not restrict counseling to the Biblical Counseling movement as Jay Adams’s definition did. This change means a counselor’s worldview is of chief importance to analyzing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the counseling being offered, as one’s advice is always going to be sourced from one’s worldview. Because of this, secular psychology, which does not recognize Christian truth, proves to be an unhelpful guide for man’s life and problems due to its divergence from a biblical worldview. Attempts to integrate biblical teaching with secular theories likewise prove to be an unsuitable match, as they are the attempted union of differing approaches to understanding human life.
The bulk of Lambert’s book is devoted to connecting ten important theological loci to the practice of counseling. Lambert uses case studies to demonstrate how particular doctrines provide answers for people’s troubles. Each chapter demonstrates Lambert’s generally Reformed approach to doctrine, emphasizing the sovereignty of God, the sufficiency of Scripture, and the need for confession and redemption in transformation.
The books’ first three chapters contain substantial arguments regarding the nature of counseling and the role of the Scriptures. Lambert defends a “biblical counseling” approach to counseling against the views of Eric Johnson, a prominent Christian psychologist. Writing on biblical sufficiency, Johnson argues that biblical counselors have extracted sufficiency from its historical debate between the Reformation and Roman Catholics and therefore misuse sufficiency in their claims. Lambert responds by conceding the historical context but arguing doctrine is not static in application since new circumstances and challenges arise against Scripture’s truth. He highlights how creeds and confessions declare Scriptures’ sufficiency for Christian living, godliness, and sanctification (e.g., WCF 1.6 “faith and life”), and therefore also counseling. He supplies further arguments for the sufficiency of Scripture, namely the role of wisdom versus technical information; Scripture’s material sufficiency; and the compassion of the Word.
Lambert’s chapter on common grace further clarifies his understanding of the nature of biblical sufficiency. Here he establishes the difference between common grace and general revelation, which he argues integrationists and Christian psychologists have often confused. The noetic effects of the fall of man extend to every observation and interpretation man has about himself, and therefore psychology is an unstable ground to build theories of change upon. Data and observations are the least prone to error, as humanity’s moral brokenness is less engaged in observation than interpretation and subsequent interventions, which necessarily flow from worldviews. Interpretations and interventions that exclude God, the revelation of Jesus Christ, sin, etc. will ultimately fail, as they are missing essential pieces of what it means to be a human.
Lambert demonstrates that biblical counselors take common grace seriously and should not be considered anti-science or anti-common grace. Such detractions are misrepresentations. Biblical counseling appreciates common grace, while recognizing that true help for man’s problems, big and small, is found in the Scriptures. Further, common grace in counseling cannot establish “the standard for what is true” (84). While Lambert acknowledges the helpfulness of psychological studies and data, he rejects empiricism as necessary for good counseling; in fact, integrationists hurt their counseling by prioritizing empiricism above biblical wisdom. Biblical ministry is about faithfulness to God’s Word, not guaranteed empirical outcomes. Arguing to the contrary undermines biblical authority since unbelievers do not accept the truth.
Rather than being simplistic, Lambert views biblical counseling as being far more holistic than any other approach to counseling. For all its complex theories, secular psychology is reductionistic because of its materialistic monism. Its ignorance regarding the existence of the heart/soul, man’s responsibility before God as a covenant being, the existence of God, and a whole host of other truths demonstrates how paltry secular psychology is when compared to the robustness of biblical wisdom.
The fourth chapter turns from Lambert’s apologetic for biblical counseling to a discussion of theology proper through God’s attributes. Lambert categorizes God’s attributes under attributes of strength (aseity, infinity, omnipresence, omniscience, omnisapience, omnipotence) and of care (holiness; faithfulness; goodness; love; mercy, grace, and patience; wrath). Each attribute demonstrates particular needs people have (e.g., his infinity points to man’s need to trust God’s inexhaustible perfections). God’s attributes prove that God is essential to counseling.
Chapters five and six works through Christology and pneumatology. Much of the fifth chapter is spent discussing the hypostatic union, penal substitutionary atonement, and union with Christ. These truths mean true counseling cannot happen unless Christ is central to counseling. In the sixth chapter, he revisits the doctrine of Scripture, stating the Word of God is not sufficient apart from the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit and His sovereignty explain why some people change and others don’t in counseling. Indeed, “there are no hard problems in counseling, only hard people” (168). Further, the Spirit works through the Word to glorify Christ, thus compassionate counseling must glorify Christ and use the Scriptures.
Chapter seven turns to anthropology. Lambert surveys the importance of the body and affirms an Augustinian view of the heart, in which the heart is the source of man’s cognition, affection, and volition. He similarly affirms dichotomy against trichotomy. Unlike other biblical counseling discussions of man, he presents a fourth function of the heart to be conscience, or morality. He argues the soul initiates moral behavior and the body mediates such behavior. Man’s body is the reason biblical counselors must work with medical doctors. Lastly, he writes on sex and gender in counseling, arguing for complementarianism and biblical sexuality. He rejects Mark Yarhouse’s teaching, an integrationist who has affirmed sex reassignment for treating transgenderism in some cases.
In his eighth and ninth chapters, Lambert turns to sin and suffering. He covers federal theology, original sin, and sin’s manifold effects (e.g., noetic effects of sin, total depravity). Lambert defends biblical counseling from the charge that it only focuses on personal sin by walking through the three traditional categories of sin that contact human beings – living in a fallen world, personal sin, and being sinned against. These three contexts of sin are interrelated and seldom separated. Solutions to these three contexts are found in the grace of Jesus Christ and the need for conversion and repentance (for personal sins); forgiveness and what it means to forgive (for being sinned against); and trusting in God’s asymmetrical sovereignty, or his active and passive wills, and his goodness that leads to Christians’ benefit and His glory (for suffering). Because biblical counseling alone understands sin in this way, other forms of counseling are simplistic for failing to discuss them and thus deficient in the resources necessary for holistic care.
The tenth chapter walks through the Reformed doctrine of salvation. The ordo salutis provides the biblical counselor with a bountiful resource as salvation has everything to do with issues like anxiety and worry. The doctrine provides far more help than “the entire corpus of secular knowledge about worry” (300). At this point, Lambert turns to a significant intramural discussion within biblical counseling – whether biblical counselors can “counsel” non-Christians. Jay Adams called such interactions “evangelistic pre-counseling” (301) in an attempt to draw a distinction between counseling regenerate and unregenerate individuals. Lambert arrives at a different destination, arguing that counseling unbelievers is legitimate, as we do not truly know a man’s state of salvation. This counsel will often look similar (e.g., biblical wisdom, faith in Christ), but the natural man must experience conversion to truly benefit from such counsel. Hopefully, that occurs through the conversations that naturally arise from the counseling relationship.
In his eleventh chapter, Lambert discusses the local church, her officers, and the necessity of church elders doing biblical counseling (a type of teaching, “the private ministry of the Word”). The congregation must engage in less formal counseling (e.g., fellowship). The church is uniquely positioned to help and counsel because the church has more resources than secular counseling offices, offered at the low, low price of free. Lambert endorses para-church counseling ministries, though encourages them to be closely allied with friendly churches in mutual care for struggling individuals.
Lambert concludes by returning to his main theme. Counseling is theological, and theology, rightly done, is inherently transformational. In his understanding, we study theology to know God in Christ and to live out the implications of that relationship, and we study theology for ministry, to give benefit to others, and to point people to Christ. One’s view of counseling expresses one’s commitments in theology, “whether one’s theology is faithful or faithless,” and biblical counseling has “a theology for the church that honors Jesus and is grounded in the Word” (319).
Taylor Wright is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary Charlotte pursuing his Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Counseling degrees. He serves as a youth director in the PCA, and he is certified with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. He lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife Sarah and two children.
Buy the books
A THEOLOGY OF BIBLICAL COUNSELING: THE DOCTRINAL FOUNDATIONS OF COUNSELING MINISTRY, by Heath Lambert