Review: Counseling – How to Counsel Biblically (2005)

MacArthur, John. Counseling: How to Counsel Biblically. The John MacArthur Pastor’s Library. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2005.

In Counseling: How to Counsel Biblically, John MacArthur, Wayne Mack, and other prominent evangelical counselors come together to compile a working textbook on the concept of “biblical counseling,” to which the authors hold over against secular psychology and integrative counseling. Biblical counseling, the authors contend, is the only legitimate model of counseling within the church, because any other model necessarily entails that the churchman give up some authority that rightfully belongs to Scripture. The authors believe that one cannot deviate from the biblical counseling model and simultaneously maintain fidelity to Scripture.

In the preface, MacArthur and Mack outline the purposes for which they wrote Counseling.[1] They begin with presuppositions concerning the foundational nature of Scripture; the essential role of counseling in disciple-making; and the practical necessity of training Christians to counsel well. The authors intend to effect a counseling reformation in the church at-large, by equipping church members and leaders with the tools to counsel in a manner consistent with Scripture. The authors list eleven specific objectives for the book. However, the first succinctly summarizes the thrust of Counseling:

[Our objective is to] enlarge and reinforce the confidence of God’s people in the sufficiency, superiority, and practicality of Scripture for dealing with all of the issues of life, and to convince Christians that the resources we have in Christ and His Word are not only sufficient for handling and solving all of the personal and interpersonal problems of life but are superior to the resources that are found in the world.”[2]

 

One sees the main themes of the book at play in this statement—chiefly, that Scripture is both practical and sufficient to help people resolve the conflicts of life.

The authors begin the main body of the book with an historical overview of counseling in the church. In these first chapters, the authors already set biblical counseling apart from the other two primary models:  secular psychology and integrative counseling. Whereas biblical counseling has been the practice of the church since its New Testament inception, secular psychology has only been in vogue since Freud.

In fact, the source of these two approaches could not be more distinct, according to MacArthur. He writes, “The secular discipline of psychology is based on godless assumptions and evolutionary foundations and is capable of dealing with people only superficially and only on a temporal level.”[3] Secular psychology is comprised of “fundamentally antibiblical” and “a myriad of conflicting” theories.[4] Because of this, the authors find integrative psychology to be equally damaging to the church, because integrative psychology borrows capital from such a bankrupted institution.

Having dismissed the two alternatives to biblical counseling, the authors proceed to outline the proper theory and practice of counseling. Beginning with an essentially reformed perspective, MacArthur and the authors point to the Godward focus of counseling, the scripturally based foundation, and the within-the-church realm of proper counseling. According to the authors, counseling is a ministry of the church, and all members should be trained in its practice. To that end, the authors provide practical consideration throughout the book, as well as two chapters devoted specifically to the art of data collection.

Insofar as the authors intended to outline the theoretical principles beneath biblical counseling, they succeeded. The book clearly articulates the motivations and presuppositions of biblical counseling. One must understand that the book was written from a Reformed perspective, which, while unproblematic to some, may render the work less than acceptable to others. However, as long as the reader approaches the book sharing at least some of MacArthur’s perspective, she should find the work illuminating.

Nevertheless, one does not leave the book with an enhanced grasp on the practice of biblical counseling as such. Besides the two chapters on data collection, the practical unit does not sufficiently extend the theoretical considerations outlined earlier in the book. An experienced interpreter of Scripture and practitioner of ministry will find the practical issues outlined to be a retreading of old ground. Such elementary review is necessary at times, but one may find it disappointing in this work.

It is difficult to believe that Counseling would prove persuasive to an individual who was not already convinced of its presuppositions. Although the authors contend that the book is not “reactive or polemic[al]”,[5] the authors often take opportunity to portray the advocates of other models of counseling in a disappointing manner.[6] The authors fail to read the opposition in a charitable manner. The motivation for this is no secret:  the authors hold a serious pastoral concern in articulating proper counseling methods. Nevertheless, the rhetorical overreach pushes individuals, who are on the fence concerning biblical counseling, away from the model, because it would seem that its proponents have not seriously considered the other side. It clearly reaffirms evangelical, reformed positions, but this author does not see that it would be persuasive to one who holds another position.

In terms of content, the book covers much of the theoretical concerns of biblical counseling, and an ample amount of its practice. One could reference the book easily for either topic. Additionally, the authors clearly endeavor to treat Scripture with integrity. Although the reformed bias is clear, unless one is predisposed against it, this bias is a strength—especially concerning its doctrine of Scripture.

The authors’ bias against secular psychology as such seems warranted enough, however weak the argument that psychology is useless because there are different theories. However, one weakness of MacArthur’s conception of biblical counseling is a weak view of the effects of sin on the biological structure of the mind. The belief that Scripture is the preeminent tool for soul-doctoring and the belief that sin has harmed all of creation—especially including the biology of the whole man—should not be held in contradiction.

In short, Counseling is a helpful handbook for those convinced of an evangelical, reformed view of the Church and Scripture. Although there are some argumentative weaknesses in MacArthur’s project, the book itself offers a reasonable conception of biblical counseling for the church. For those who would like to institute biblical counseling as a ministry of the local church, Counseling would be an invaluable tool to that end.

However, many will find this work to be unnecessarily abrasive. The authors fail to address delicately the legitimate concerns of those who see integrative counseling as an appropriate form of counseling. Instead, they steamroll through any model of counseling that does not rely solely on Scripture.

[1]vii – ix.

[2]vii.

[3]7.

[4]Ibid.

[5]vii.

[6]See MacArthur’s comments on integrative psychology. Particularly, “There may be no more serious threat to the life of the church today than the stampede to embrace the doctrines of secular psychology.” One must wonder whether he has considered “the most segregated hour of the country” on Sunday mornings. 9ff.

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