Counseling and Christianity: Five Approaches
Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Fred Gingrich
Stephen P. Greggo & Timothy Sisemore (Eds.). Counseling and Christianity: Five Approaches. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2012. 256 pp. ISBN 978-0-8308-3978-0. Paperback, $22.00.
I always find edited books harder to read but richer to digest. This is particularly true of IVPs series of “multiple views books” offering contrasting perspectives and approaches on a variety of ethical, theological, and world view topics. As such, this book presents five chapters written by representatives of five Christian counseling approaches with another five chapters of introduction and reflection by the editors. This book parallels and extends into the counseling office the five views of relating psychology and theology proposed in the book edited by Johnson (2009), Psychology and Christianity: Five Views (2nd ed.).
While the Johnson book is more theoretical in nature, reflecting on categories such as world-views, epistemology, and hermeneutics, the Greggo and Sisemore book focuses on the application of the particular approaches to a common case study. In this sense it is much less theoretical and much more concerned with the application of the five approaches to counseling practice. The case considered by each author is the client, Jake. A thorough description of Jake’s history and concerns provides a complex, multi-problem, client scenario which is not intended to be an impossible case but to reflect the complicated reality of many people’s lives who come for counseling. The author of each approach was asked to write from the perspective of a consultant or supervisor of Jake’s counselor, and to write as a representative of the Christian counseling model originally presented in the Five Views book. Hence, with the combination of the two books we have a glimpse into how two proponents of each approach conceptualizes the model and its application to a client in counseling.
In my opinion, of even more value than reading the particular nuances of how five Christian counselors would approach the case, are the introduction chapters and the summary chapters written by the editors (chapters 1-2, and 8-10). In the first chapter the editors provide a succinct, well-written history of the Christian counseling movement and the emergence of the five models which allows the reader to situate each approach in the broader world of Christian counseling. Chapter two outlines the challenges of a distinctly Christian counseling approach, and the motivations, values and personal passions involved in the process. Of particular benefit are the ten application questions (pp. 40-41) upon which every Christian counselor needs to reflect. This chapter also introduces the client Jake. The last three chapters provide a valuable presentation of the significant parallels and divergences of the five approaches presented. The editors offer an exceptionally fair and unbiased assessment of the range of perspectives. Overall, the book is well-written and edited and will be a valuable addition to the Integration of Counseling and Theology course that is the foundation of the Denver Seminary counseling program.
The five chapters which apply the five approaches are not as well articulated as I would have hoped. Having immersed myself in the original works of the authors representing the various Christian counseling approaches, I was hoping for a more distinct sense of what counseling would look like from each perspective. I fear that when it comes right down to Jake’s experience in the counseling office there would be few tangible differences in his experience of the counseling process, and in my opinion, there would be much more similarity than there would be differences between these Christian approaches and various secular approaches. Perhaps this is how it should be; it would be nice to think that there is at least a basic consensus regarding what makes counseling Christian. My concern, however, is that the amount being published and the energy being put into differentiating Christian counseling models, including the explicit attacks that appear in print (not from these authors), suggest that we are perhaps spending too much time on distinguishing our models and not enough time helping people.
To be fair, the editors frequently remind us, that the five approaches are not discrete models and that considerable continuity exists between them, including the basic faith commitments of the authors. The models are better thought of as existing on a continuum, and perhaps even multiple continuums, and that each approach presents the particular author’s perspective rather than being completely representative of the authors of the original five views. In this sense the intent is collaboration in the service of Kingdom and not “silo building.”
I cannot delve into the details of the five counseling approaches but will briefly define each and make a few comments about each. The first approach by Thomas Plante, presents the “A Levels-of-Explanation Approach” which was originally proposed by the highly regarded Christian social psychologist David Myers. The subtitle describes it well: “a biopsychosocialspiritual and evidence-based model.” This approach honors science as a legitimate level of explanation, just as theology is an equally legitimate but different perspective. Good science and good theology will ultimately be consistent. Plante suggests an approach that in many ways appears similar to secular models since the current emphasis in the field and in society is to be able to empirically justify one’s approach and interventions. Along with careful assessment and diagnosis, in addition to well-defined and supported treatment planning, he includes a significant segment of the treatment plan focused on spiritual interventions (e.g., prayer, meditation, purpose and calling in life, acceptance of self and others, ethical values and behaviors, forgiveness, gratitude, love, kindness and compassion, volunteerism, community support, spiritual models, explicitly Christian bibliotherapy, and sacredness of life. These are all supported by evidence in his other writings.
However, for some Christians, this approach appears to diminish the authoritative role of Scripture in the Christian’s life and elevates science in our understanding and the decision-making aspect of counseling. Thus the second approach, “An Integration Approach,” represented by Mark McMinn, while taking very seriously mainstream secular society, begins with an affirmation of the authority of Scripture. This perspective is the one that probably best characterizes Denver Seminary’s counseling program under the formative influences of Dr. Vernon Grounds and Dr. James Beck. On a personal note, McMinn is an excellent choice of representative for this model because his publications have wrestled significantly with the tensions between psychology and theology, as seen in his long list of publications including Psychology, Theology and Spirituality (1996), Why Sin Matters (2004), Sin and Grace in Christian Counseling (2008). McMinn is also the guest therapist on the American Psychological Association’s DVD entitled Christian Counseling (which in itself is amazing, i.e., APA publishing a demonstration of Christian counseling!).
Some counselors may not appreciate McMinn’s Cognitive-Behavioral bent. However, it is a responsible use of an empirically validated secular approach which has been modified to incorporate substantial reflection on the imago Dei, brokenness and sin, spiritual formation, and spiritual disciplines. The approach is more fully detailed in his co-authored book Integrative Psychotherapy (2007).
In response to what some Christian counselors have considered a weak view of Scripture and theology in the Integration approach, the next chapter presents “A Christian Psychology Approach.” This model emerged in the past decade with the goal of providing a thoroughly Christian model of the person, mental health, pathology and intervention rooted in Scripture and the Christian tradition, not in secular psychology. Eric Johnson is the most noteworthy proponent of this model in his 2007 book Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal. The chapter representing this approach is written by an excellent clinician Diane Langberg. Langberg is well-known as the Chair of the Executive Board of the American Association of Christian Counseling. Langberg approaches the case through the lens of trauma, so her counseling interventions fit well with much of the current secular literature on dealing with PSTD and other stress-related disorders. The problem with this chapter is that it does not provide a helpful description of Christian Psychology, as conceptualized by Johnson and the journal, Edification: The Journal of the Society of Christian Psychology. In many respects she is providing another example, along with McMinn’s, of an integrative approach to Christian counseling. Hence one is left with an unclear practical application of this model.
The fourth model, “A Transformational Approach,” is written by Gary Moon. This is the newest model to appear on the integration landscape and is best represented by Coe and Hall’s Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology (2009). Moon admits that in some ways he does not completely represent this emerging model but I think he does an excellent job of outlining an approach to treatment that integrates significantly from the classic models of spiritual direction and current writing in spiritual formation and spiritual direction (e.g., Dallas Willard). While we must, for the sake of ethical integrity, define for our clients which role we are taking, we cannot simply and artificially separate counseling and spiritual direction when there is so much overlap in practice. He states that the “distinctions between counseling and spiritual direction are more about training and turf (i.e., professional boundary claims) than about the person” (p. 144).
The last, but not least of the models, is “A Biblical Counseling Approach,” written by Stuart Scott. This model was initially popularized by Jay Adams and exists in a variety of strands that have more or less followed Adams’ path as seen in the Biblical Counseling Coalition (www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org). David Powlison (Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) is a primary spokesperson for the movement and is an articulate, thoughtful and assertive proponent. This chapter is representative of the broader model and is characterized by an exclusive application of Scripture to any and all personal problems. The use of diagnostic categories, medication and secular approaches to helping people are rejected as harmful, or at least not helpful, in resolving the core problem, alienation from God due to sin. Thus the solution for problems is for the counselor to be “relentless in helping Jake to see the multifaceted benefits and obligations of the gospel” (p. 170). Clients must personalize to their own situation realities such as: forgiveness through the cross, union with Christ, security in Christ, power through Christ, abiding in Christ, denying self like Christ, and loving others like Christ. In terms of “wrong or God-void thinking,” clients must “learn how to take thoughts captive and renew them with truth on the spot” (p. 169). In brief, the approach is to “address wrong motivations, thinking and theology” (p. 176). How this applies to counseling non-Christians is not addressed.
As with all multiple view books this is a thought-provoking, challenging, and at times disturbing book. It challenged my assumptions about my own approach, and my biases about differing approaches. It helped me to think through the core issues that lie beneath the differences. And it is in this regard that I find myself drawing two overall conclusions about the book:
- The differences between the Levels-of-Explanation and the Biblical Counseling approaches are significant and do represent genuinely different and at points contrary approaches to Christian counseling. However, the other three models are not significantly different and allow for such latitude in application that they do not represent discrete approaches. A difference in emphasis does not make a distinct model.
- For me the core issue I use to determine how I want to approach my counseling as a Christian is represented by the phrase “care and counsel as mission.” As Mark Young, Denver Seminary’s president, passionately and repeatedly reminds us, the criterion by which our efforts in ministry and in life should be evaluated is how well do they represent Christ and communicate to a lost world the central redeeming message of the gospel. Therefore, how each of these approaches impacts clients toward or away from Christ is paramount. For example, two of the approaches raise significant concerns in my mind regarding how they communicate to a post-Christian world:
- My critique article in Edification of the Christian Psychology model discusses the limitations implicit in a desire to construct a Christian Psychology. When so many in the world do not accept the assumptions of a thoroughly Christian model it tends to shut down, not open up, meaningful dialogue.
- The Biblical counseling approach that more or less requires the client to adopt Christian faith in order to be helped, does not take Jesus’ mandate about a cup of cold water very seriously.
For more information regarding about my emerging thinking about care and counsel as mission, www.careandcounselasmission.org is a preliminary resource.
Fred Gingrich, D.Min.
Professor of Counseling
Chair, Counseling Division