A Word from Bob: Today’s post continues something of a “mini-series” on biblical counseling. For the first post, visit Biblical Preaching and Biblical Counseling: What Makes Them Biblical? For the second post, visit Martin Luther, Pastoral Counseling, Sola Scriptura & the Sufficiency of Scripture. I’ve excerpted today’s post from Chapter 2 of Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives.
The Bible and Science
The first two posts explored how the Bible is sufficient for develop a theory/theology of biblical counseling and for the practice/methodology of biblical counseling. But, what about scientific research, neuroscience, the complex mind/body connection, and issues of medication? What about the latest descriptive research about life struggles?
Where do biblical counselors stand on these issues? Is biblical counseling, “Bible only” counseling? No.
As Abraham Kuyper explained:
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”
Kuyper echoes Genesis 1:26-28 and what some have called the “Creation Mandate” or the “Cultural Mandate.”
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:26-28).
I define the Creation Mandate as:
The God-given, repeated command that image bearers subdue and rule the earth as God’s vice-regents, under-shepherds, and under-scientists.
We are to love God with all our being, including our physical brain and body, thus exalting God by exploring, enjoying, and expanding the physical realm. The scientist analyzing rocks can glorify God just as much as the preacher preaching about the Rock of Ages or the song writer writing Rock of Ages.
God created us in His image with the capacities necessary to relate and rule as He relates and rules. When God commanded us to subdue and rule the earth, He was encouraging us to exercise our under-sovereignty over the entire physical universe. We are to be co-creators who tread and knead what God has created—advancing civilization, regulating natural forces, and exploring natural resources. The Creation Mandate is our calling, our vocation, to work like God works—in His power for His glory.
God created and ordered the material universe. Science investigates the material universe and affirms that order. Logically, then, as Christians we should embrace science, research, and medicine as disciplines that examine God’s creation in obedience to the Creation Mandate. As Steve Viars states:
“…those ministering the Word through counseling should be friends of good science and desire to promote the research and development of hard data in every area of human existence.”
Studying and treating the complex mind/body connection is part of the Creation Mandate. Neurological psychology, rightly undertaken, involves the scientific study of the physical brain, its normal functioning, abnormal functioning, and physical cures leading to a restoration of normal functioning. Such scientific research done in submission to the Creation Mandate has great potential for addressing these complex mind/body issues.
The Biblical Counseling Coalition’s Confessional Statement nuances the complex mind-body issue as follows:
“We believe that biblical counseling should focus on the full range of human nature created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). A comprehensive biblical understanding sees human beings as relational (spiritual and social), rational, volitional, emotional, and physical. Wise counseling takes the whole person seriously in his or her whole life context. It helps people to embrace all of life face-to-face with Christ so they become more like Christ in their relationships, thoughts, motivations, behaviors, and emotions.”
“We recognize the complexity of the relationship between the body and soul (Genesis 2:7). Because of this, we seek to remain sensitive to physical factors and organic issues that affect people’s lives. In our desire to help people comprehensively, we seek to apply God’s Word to people’s lives amid bodily strengths and weaknesses. We encourage a thorough assessment and sound treatment for any suspected physical problems.”
A biblically-based, holistic approach to counseling respects all dimensions of personhood created by God in the full context of the Bible’s grand narrative. It is naïve and potentially harmful to treat people as one-dimensional beings. While this means that we must take into account possible physiological contributions to life struggles, it also means that we should never view psychotropic interventions as the sole solution for life issues. Sadly, in a fallen world fallen scientists tend to see us simply as material beings, soulless machines. Thus, what could be part of the curative process can be used as justification to ignore the inner life issues that may well be connected to various emotional and mental struggles.
In addition to legitimate concern with a materialistic worldview, it is also wise to acknowledge that psychotropic medication is still in its infancy. We would be naïve not to take into account their side effects and the low current success rate in actually helping troubled people. Still, as part of the Creation Mandate, psychotropic medication and neurological psychology as part of a comprehensive, whole-person approach has biblical legitimacy.
The Bible and Descriptive Research Psychology
What then of descriptive research or what we might call research psychology? Consider a working definition of research psychology done under the Creation Mandate:
Research psychology is the empirical exploration that describes how people typically tend to respond to life events. It examines how things are, not how things were meant to be. It describes observable trends, categorizes clusters of responses, and organizes clusters of symptoms. It does not interpret reasons or causes. It does not prescribe cure or care. It avoids theoretical models, problem diagnosis, and treatment plans.
The Christian research psychologist would explore God’s world with a confidence that though chaos exists, God has given us the tools to discover order and explore disorder in the physical realm. The Christian research psychologist would humbly and respectfully remain within the expertise of her field. She would practice descriptively, describing what she finds. She would not practice interpretatively. She turns to the Scriptures when she wants to ponder the question of why we are the way we are. She will not practice prescriptively regarding matters of the soul. While she might recommend physical interventions, she would return to the Scriptures to prescribe soul cures.
In my book, God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, I examined the descriptive research done by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others on the stages of grief. I saw those five stages as one way of categorizing how people in a fallen world typically journey through their grief process. However, such descriptive research cannot assess whether that typical journey is a healthy one. Nor can it assess, simply through research, whether these responses correspond to God’s process for hurting (grieving) and hoping (growing). I used the descriptive pattern as a catalyst to take me back to the Scriptures to explore interpretive and prescriptive issues and then developed a biblically-based process for journeying through grief to growth.
In my booklet, Anxiety: Anatomy and Cure, I address a comprehensive approach to anxiety, fear, worry, panic, and phobias. Part of that comprehensive approach includes understanding descriptive research and neuroscience regarding mind/body issues like how exercise, diet, sleep, and relaxation rewire the physical brain, especially the amygdala.
The Biblical Counseling Coalition’s Confessional Statement provides a helpful summary of the role of descriptive research in a comprehensive biblical approach.
“When we say that Scripture is comprehensive in wisdom, we mean that the Bible makes sense of all things, not that it contains all the information people could ever know about all topics. God’s common grace brings many good things to human life. However, common grace cannot save us from our struggles with sin or from the troubles that beset us. Common grace cannot sanctify or cure the soul of all that ails the human condition. We affirm that numerous sources (such as scientific research, organized observations about human behavior, those we counsel, reflection on our own life experience, literature, film, and history) can contribute to our knowledge of people, and many sources can contribute some relief for the troubles of life. However, none can constitute a comprehensive system of counseling principles and practices. When systems of thought and practice claim to prescribe a cure for the human condition, they compete with Christ (Colossians 2:1-15). Scripture alone teaches a perspective and way of looking at life by which we can think biblically about and critically evaluate information and actions from any source (Colossians 2:2-10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).”
Join the Conversation
In your approach to counseling, what role would neuroscience and descriptive psychological research play?
James Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper, 488.
Steve Viars, “’Brian’” and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” in Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert, eds., Counseling the Hard Cases, 65.
See chapters 6-7 of Gospel-Centered Counseling.
These concerns are not limited to the biblical counseling world. Psychiatrists such as Allen Frances and Edward Shorter believe that the right medication prescribed in the right dosage at the right time can save a life. However, we’ve convinced ourselves that a variety of merely human experience—temporary bouts of sadness or excitement or distraction—are in fact pathologies that need to be blasted at with drugs. See, Allen Frances, Saving Normal and Edward Shorter, How Everyone Became Depressed.
For a nuanced perspective on the state of psychotropic interventions, see Charles Hodges, Good Mood Bad Mood.
For a comprehensive approach to understanding biblical counseling, medication, and the complex mind/body issues, see Laura Hendrickson, “The Complex Mind/Body Connection” in Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling, 409-422.
Robert Kellemen, God’s Healing for Life’s Losses.