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Seminary Adopts ‘Biblical’ Counseling

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is changing the way it will train ministers to deal with the needs of hurting parishioners.

After decades of integrating secular psychology and biblical training in a course of study known as “pastoral care,” the seminary in Louisville, Ky., announced a “wholesale change” of emphasis built on the idea that the Bible alone is sufficient to answer “the deepest needs of the human heart.”

The “biblical counseling movement” is a popular evangelical approach to counseling that promotes resolving personal problems through a strict Bible-based foundation, while rejecting psychology, and especially psychotherapy, as a “pseudoscience” that is incompatible with biblical truth.

“Our churches need pastors and leaders who understand depravity and the Fall to the degree that they are able to see the ways in which fallen human self-interest often masquerades as objective ‘science’—especially when this ‘science’ seeks to explain and prescribe a cure for the fallen condition of humanity,” Russell Moore, dean of Southern’s School of Theology, said in a seminary news story.

Seminary President Albert Mohler said the new program would focus on teaching pastors and other church leaders to apply the truths of Scripture comprehensively to the concerns and crises of everyday life.

“In this psycho-therapeutic age, it is really important that we think as Christians,” Mohler said, “that we employ authentically Christian thinking, biblical thinking, to human life, and that we do this in a way that, without apology, confronts and critiques the wisdom of the age and seeks the wisdom that can come only from God and God’s Word.”

The shift, described by Moore as a “course correction,” signals a major reversal for the seminary, which pioneered the study of pastoral care among Southern Baptists by bringing Professor Wayne Oates onto the faculty in 1947.

Oates, who died in 1999, coined the word “workaholic” in a 1971 book. In all he wrote 58 books, including The Christian Pastor and The Bible in Pastoral Care. He influenced dozens of students who went on to write and teach at seminaries and many more who minister in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy settings.

“Calling what they want to do ‘new’ is a lot like announcing they have just invented electricity at SBTS,” Daniel Bagby, a former student of Oates who now teaches pastoral care at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, wrote in a letter to the editor in the Religious Herald. “Biblical counseling was around Louisville a long time before the current regime.”

Critics of the new trend toward biblical counseling say that by elevating the Bible as the sole source of God’s revelation, the movement fails to acknowledge that there are other sources of truth, such as science, reason and conscience.

Vicki Hollon, executive director of the Wayne E. Oates Institute, which has reissued a number of Oates’ books that had gone out of print, accused seminary administrators of “creating a false dichotomy by implying that pastoral care and counseling is not and has not been biblical.”

“No informed person could ever accuse Wayne E. Oates of not relying on the Bible as his ultimate source of wisdom in the pastoral care and counseling relationship,” Hollon said.

Hollon said the move away from science by the seminary suggests “a lack of faith or at least a fear that somehow science is outside the realm of God’s creation and domain.”

But Moore said the seminary should maintain the same commitment to “Scripture alone” in its counseling courses that it uses in biblical studies, theology and evangelism departments.

He called the new vision “historic and groundbreaking” and predicted its impact would “be felt in congregations throughout the Southern Baptist Convention and the evangelical world.”

Rather than preparing therapists for licensure by the state, Moore said the seminary would equip pastors in local churches to recover true “pastoral care” as defined by the Bible.

Moore said the Bible claims to be authoritative and sufficient in “all things that pertain to life and godliness” and that through the power of the Word “the man of God is competent, equipped for every good work.”

As part of the change, the seminary will change the name of emphases in master’s degrees from “pastoral counseling” to “biblical counseling.”

The program will work with pastors as well as church- and parachurch-based biblical counselors, Moore said. It also will emphasize the role described in Titus 2 of women counseling other women, recruiting women as well as men for counseling roles in the church.

Robert McGee, a professional counselor and founder of Rapha, a Christian healthcare organization providing in-hospital and outpatient care for adults and adolescents suffering from psychiatric and substance-abuse problems, told EthicsDaily.com he highly approves of the idea “that God has provided his children the truth they need to deal with life.”

“While I am aware that we can get ourselves into a condition where medical attention is necessary, there are no medicines that can undo what believing contrary to God’s revealed Word presents,” he said in an e-mail.

“The effectiveness of any such program will be in the ability of the counselor to understand how specifically God has provided for the person they are seeing,” McGee said. “Unfortunately, today we live in a climate where people know a great number of biblical terms but really do not know how these truths can be applied to their lives.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.